Demand for Free Money Continues to Grow

The demand for rail transit “is strong all across the country,” says a new report from Reconnecting America. How do they know? They simply added up all the “planned and proposed fixed-guideway transit projects” they could find.

They found a total of 643 projects (1-mb Excel spreadsheet) in about 80 urban areas whose total costs were estimated to be $233 billion. Of these, 43 are under construction, 95 are in the engineering phase, 108 are doing an alternatives analysis, 358 are “future plans,” and 39 are “stalled.” If all of these projects were built, the group promises, they “would connect 3.5 million more jobs to transit, an increase of 25 percent.”

Wowee! Spending more than a quarter of a trillion dollars (plus cost overruns) would connect transit to 2.5 percent of all jobs in the country. At that price, it would cost a mere $8.2 trillion to connect the remaining 82.5 percent of jobs to transit. That makes perfect sense in a Bizarro world considering Congress just killed President Obama’s high-speed rail plan to supposedly connect 80 percent of Americans for a mere half a trillion dollars.

Sadly, says the report, federal transit funds aren’t “sufficient to meet the demand.” As a result, it may take decades to develop this wondrous system, by which time continued decentralization makes it likely that an even smaller percentage of the nation’s jobs will be “connected to transit”–which the group will no doubt interpret to mean we should have spent even more.

According to page 7 of the report, a mere 14.1 million jobs–10 percent of the nation’s current total–are connected to transit today. This refers to “fixed-guideway transit” only; for some reason, the group seems to think that jobs along bus lines are not “connected to transit.” It is a rather pathetic testament to the failure of the nation’s transit policies that, despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars on rail projects in the last 40 years, rail transit reaches just 10 percent of jobs.

Reconnecting America is the parent of Transportation for America and the Center for Transit-Oriented Development. According to its 2008 tax return, it received at least a third of its $3 million budget from government agencies, which means it uses government money to argue for more government spending. Membership dues, meanwhile, were all of about $16,500, which doesn’t suggest that the general public is enthusiastically “demanding” more spending on rail transit fantasies.

The Antiplanner won’t bother to quibble with the group’s use of the term “demand.” But it is interesting that Reconnecting America views the goal of government as “connecting jobs to transit” by building expensive rail projects and then relocating jobs into transit-oriented developments along those rail lines. It seems likely that, if we killed all subsidies to transit, transit operators would quickly realize that their jobs is to connect transit to jobs, not the other way around, and that the most efficient way to do this is to use buses, vanpools, and other small-box, rubber-tired vehicles, not trains.

The report’s reference to the “transit space race” is also amusing, as if there is some kind of “sputnik moment” urging us to build late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century transportation systems in our cities. Just who are we racing against: Europe?

At latest count, about 30 American urban areas have rail transit (not counting vintage trolleys and other trivial systems), and the average American travels just 90 miles a year by rail transit. More than 130 European urban areas have rail transit, yet the average European rides rail transit less than 110 miles per year–and less than 100 miles per year in the EU-15, meaning most of Western Europe (see p. 108). This is the kind of “space race” we want to lose.

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14 thoughts on “Demand for Free Money Continues to Grow

  1. metrosucks

    How do they know? They simply added up all the “planned and proposed fixed-guideway transit projects” they could find.

    Wow! Now we know how Dan, msetty & Highwayman and the other leftists understand statistics. Just make it up!

    On a more serious note, this sort of stupidity exemplifies the uphill battle we face in convincing the public about the waste of transit, and the all the backroom deals designed to spend billions of our transportation dollars.

  2. the highwayman

    Though Metrosucks, your objective along with O’Toole, Cox & Koch. Is to sell more oil, asphalt & cars.

    So I’m not surprised that you see improving public transit as a threat to your vested business interests.

  3. C. P. Zilliacus

    Reconnecting America asserted (with emphasis added):

    Reconnecting America’s catalog and analysis of planned and proposed transit projects found the projects in the construction and final engineering stages alone would connect 3.5 million more jobs to transit, an increase of 25 percent, and nearly 4 million households would gain enhanced transit access, with almost half of those being lower-income households.

    It’s important to note that Reconnecting America talks about “connecting” jobs, not that the holders of those jobs would actually ride the rail transit projects being touted.

  4. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote (as the title to this post):

    Demand for Free Money Continues to Grow

    Randal, it’s not just about “free” money – it’s about spending taxpayer dollars to build projects that then lead directly to unending transit operating deficits (which must in turn funded by state, county and municipal taxpayers, frequently in the form of highway user fees like motor fuel taxes, tolls, parking space fees and taxes and sales taxes and other transfer payments).

  5. metrosucks

    That’s a very good point, C.P. Once they build such a boondoggle, operating it for perpetuity is the only option on the table. That’s why these wasteful projects must be stopped at the drawing board, and preferably before they even get there.

  6. Andrew

    CPZ:

    The problem with “connecting” jobs is that if job holders are assumed to live in relatively equal densities in all direction from a job location, a linear transportation route (transit or highway), can only serve the percentage of job holders whose residence it goes near.

    So if the line serves 20% of jobs by going downtown, but only serves 10% of residents, its real service is to 2% of workers.

    This is why if a system is to be constructed, it needs to be a comprehensive plan for a whole region providing a regional mobility alternative, not one or two lines favoring certain communities over others. A system serving 75% of residents and 40% of jobs gives an option to 28% of workers.

  7. Andrew

    Antiplanner:

    One reason these numbers look bad is that many jobs are already connected to transit by rail, but the line only serves a small number of residents. If a new line serves the same jobs but more residents, it looks like few additional jobs are being made accessible, but the reality is that the jobs already being served are being made more accesisble to the new residents being served.

    Its surprising that these advocates would miss such a basic point and leave themselves open to looking foolish in the ways you point out.

  8. The Antiplanner Post author

    CPZ said, “it’s about spending taxpayer dollars to build projects that then lead directly to unending transit operating deficits.”

    It’s also about subsidizing rail lines in order to justify further subsidies to transit-oriented development — which is how “Reconnecting America” connects “Transportation for America” to the “Center for Transit-Oriented Development.”

  9. The Antiplanner Post author

    Andrew said new lines could also serve more residents and “Its surprising that these advocates would miss such a basic point.” Actually, they didn’t. They say the same $233 billion that would connect rail transit to 3.5 million jobs would also “enhance transit access” for “nearly 4 million households.” That’s still a pathetic number considering there are more than 113 million households in the country.

  10. metrosucks

    That’s still a pathetic number considering there are more than 113 million households in the country.

    And it’s anyone’s guess as to how many of those 4 million households will actually utilize transit. My guess: not very many. So you’re really spending $233 billion to serve a very small subset of the population.

  11. msetty

    As usual, The Antiplanner leaves out a lot of relevant information. His interpretation of the Reconnecting America report is no exception.

    If you bother to look at the spreadsheet, you’ll find that the vast majority of projects listed DO NOT have population and employment estimates attached to them. The 3.5 million jobs figure is the minimum for those projects that have advanced far enough in the process so the information is known. So the total could be significantly higher, but no one can be sure.

  12. FrancisKing

    Antiplanner wrote:

    “At latest count, about 30 American urban areas have rail transit (not counting vintage trolleys and other trivial systems), and the average American travels just 90 miles a year by rail transit. More than 130 European urban areas have rail transit, yet the average European rides rail transit less than 110 miles per year–and less than 100 miles per year in the EU-15, meaning most of Western Europe (see p. 108). This is the kind of “space race” we want to lose.”

    Yes, if you have a sequence of stations or stops, then each will not move many people, and the system will be slow and less attractive than a car. Can we concentrate the public better, creating a more effective service, without subsidy?

    Fixing the public transport in an area will be like Columbus’ Egg. Easy, once you’ve seen it done.

  13. Unowho

    They need to add two categories: “dead” and “pink ponies.”

    Just looking at NYC metro:

    Lower Manhattan JFK link – dead

    Union County LR – R.I.P.

    Staten Island North Shore Light Rail – pink pony

    West of Hudson Regional Access – Unfortunately a very pink pony, although the planners should figure out what this is in a hurry, as it will be desperately needed after the Tappan Zee Bridge falls into the river.

    7 line extension – $2.1 billion for one additional stop to 34th St. and 11th Avenue, “paid” for with TIF. The living dead?

    34th Street Transitway – the initial 2-block study plan was just withdrawn.

    2nd Ave Subway Phase 1 – should just be called the “Second Avenue Subway.” The MTA has a $10 billion hole in its capital budget (FY 2010-2015), so a 2-track 4-stop local (assuming even that gets built) is all there is ever going to be until Mayor Chelsea Mezvinsky breaks ground again in 2031.

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