The real answer is: they don’t. They just hate subsidies, at least if they are fiscal conservatives (as opposed to social conservatives like the late Paul Weyrich).
Case in point: San Francisco’s Central Subway, which, as the Wall Street Journal points out, is going to cost at least $1.6 billion for 1.7 miles of rail that (as the Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Tom Rubin, points out) will actually be slower than the buses it replaces (because it will require people to make more transfers). If you don’t have a Wall Street Journal subscription, which I don’t, you can read about it here, here, and here, among other places.
Something I haven’t seen in any of these recent reports is that, back in 2003 when the project was first being planned, it was supposed to cost only $763.9 million. That means it has more than doubled in cost in just eight years. Of course, even $764 million is outrageously expensive, but it is one more reason not to trust anything rail transit advocates say.
The Central Subway project is so bad that even many Bay Area transit advocates oppose it, just as they oppose BART to San Jose. But these projects aren’t about transit; they are about pork barrel. If San Francisco Bay Area transit ridership is considerably lower today than it was 20 years ago because the region has focused on expensive rail lines instead of maintaining its bus systems, that’s just too bad for transit riders.
Then there is the report that Amtrak is spending $4.5 million for every second it is saving for the Acela between Trenton and New Brunswick, NJ ($450 million to save 1 minute and 40 seconds). In Amtrak’s defense, that is 1 minute and 40 seconds for every Acela passenger, and there are about 3 million of those per year (though not all of them ride that stretch of track).
Still, the article goes on to say that the Amtrak project will “create 12,000 jobs.” Now, there’s a lie. As I’ve noted before, these claims of jobs created by transit and intercity trains are highly exaggerated: first, by calling a job that employes someone for ten year ten different jobs and second by using inappropriate multipliers for secondary jobs.
Then there is this report from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser about how the city of Honolulu lied to people to gain support for that city’s ridiculous $5.3 billion (as of now, but the real cost will probably be much more) 21-mile elevated rail line. As the report notes, an early analysis by Parsons Brinckerhoff compared bus-rapid transit and rail and concluded the former would work just as well at a far lower cost. When asked to do the analysis again, and knowing it stood to earn hundreds of millions of dollars helping to build rail, Parsons Brinckerhoff mysteriously deleted the bus alternative. (Actually, not so mysterious: it was probably told to do so by the pro-rail mayor.)
Honolulu has one of the highest per-capita transit ridership records in the country, not to mention the highest rate of transit commuting after the “big six” transit regions (NY, SF, DC, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia), all with a bus-only system. Building rail will probably force Honolulu to cannibalize its bus system as so many other cities have done.
Then there is the good news from Norfolk: that city’s light-rail line cost $20 million less than the project’s revised budget. Of course, that’s still $108 million more than the project’s original budget. Norfolk’s train was involved in a traffic accident even before it opened–of course, it is always the auto driver’s fault, not the fault of the planner who put a 100,000-pound vehicle in the same street as 3,000-pound cars. Not to worry: planners expect to have a rash of accidents when it opens, so since it was expected, it should be okay.
Finally, Chicago’s rail system is on the verge of collapse, so the city is considering a bus-rapid transit network. This is an excellent idea, and the city should really go further and talk about replacing its decrepit elevated rail lines with buses.
Of course, some train nut comments that, “LRT has lower operating costs, and if you amortize the construction costs over, say, a 50-year period, it can come out as the more affordable option.” Yes, that might be true if the initial cost of constructing LRT is something under $20 million a mile rather than the $50 million to $200 million cities are spending today and you pretend that you won’t have to rehabilitate the rail lines when they wear out after 30 years. Washington DC is pretending it doesn’t have to rehab its MetroRail system and it is getting more rickety every day.
The rail nut goes on to say that LRT “is also better at encouraging TOD.” Okay, first of all, why encourage TOD? It is not as if Chicago doesn’t already have enough dense housing. Second, rail is “better” at encouraging it only in the sense that, if you don’t build rail, you’ll have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars subsidizing TODs, whereas if you build rail, you’ll still have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars subsidizing TODs but you will have an easier time justifying it (“we need to support the rail system”).
Instead of asking why conservatives hate trains, maybe writers should ask what it is about trains that so mesmerizes people that they lose all their analytical skills? Sadly, the answer might be that many people lack analytical skills so they are just too easily mesmerized.