Friday, July 30, 2010

Opinon: Beware Where Policy-makers Go With Transit

The drumbeat for more public transportation by planners and policy-makers rises in inverse proportion to the public's enthusiasm. The reality of the steady decline in Americans' use of public transportation fades into the background, overwhelmed by transit-oriented hype.

It started with "smart growth" and "new urbanism." Now this elitist focus on public transit as the solution to congestion now has a frightening hold on the U.S. Department of Transportation. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who has long cited his preference for "livability" instead of mobility, this month announced a $293 million "investment" so that "residents in dozens of communities nationwide will soon enjoy major transit improvements, including new streetcars, buses and transit facilities." It would "boost economic development and recovery, and further reduce our dependence on oil.”

Free-market think tanks and policy analysts around the nation who oppose this approach are maligned as "anti-transit." Not so. Transit is a necessary tool in the transportation policy toolbox to accommodate the needy, those unwilling and unable to drive and a growing elderly population. What's at issue is (a) what type of transit to choose and (b) who should manage it.

Why are these issues? First, the numbers of transit users are low and declining. Demographer Wendell Cox reports that in 1955, transit's market share was more than 10 percent; by 2005, it was at 1.5 percent. By 2008, amid high fuel prices, transit market share climbed – to 1.6 percent. It is also high cost. The farebox covers around 25 percent of operations. It requires massive subsidies from already-struggling taxpayers.

Unfortunately, planners are opting for trolleys, street cars and rail. President Obama's $8 billion in grants for "high-speed" rail have over-excited states. And Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff says, “Streetcars are making a comeback because cities across America are recognizing that they can restore economic development downtown. ...These streetcar and bus livability projects will not only create construction jobs now, they will aid our recovery by creating communities that are more prosperous and less congested.”

Atlanta's Beltline greenbelt project proposes using light rail, estimated at $25 million to $50 million per mile and the costliest of three options. Cobb County also is looking at light rail. Planners maintain it encourages economic development.

Which leads to management: With taxpayer funds materializing from the federal government to cover up to 90 percent of the cost of the projects they support, policy-makers inflate requests with expensive, ambitious projects that have little relevance to consumer demand. LaHood's streetcar initiative will fund up to 80 percent of projects. The profit motive of a private-sector investor can encourage efficiencies and protect taxpayers.

The feds do appear to be rethinking their generosity. Rogoff said recently it is time to "put down the glossy brochures. ... At times like these, it's more important than ever to have the courage to ask a hard question: If you can't afford to operate the system you have, why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion? ... [A]re we at risk of just helping communities dig a deeper hole for our children and our grandchildren?"

This is especially not the time to commit funds to fixed transit as a solution. An Atlanta Regional Commission "snapshot" of congested corridors resembles the can of worms it is. Regional planners are considering delaying needed maintenance to fund new projects. The region needs a stunning $56 billion through 2040 just for repairs and maintenance, and $113 billion more to build, operate and maintain "all additional identified needs in the region."

The good news is that even in automobile-oriented Georgia, where land is cheap so lots are large and business centers dispersed, there are less costly transit options. The law enabling regional referenda on a transportation sales tax also creates a commission to investigate combining regional transit entities into one, and another to encourage transit cost-sharing by various agencies.

Then, too, the proposed high-occupancy toll (HOT) lane network proposed for the metro region could provide a seamless, congestion-free transit network for express buses and bus rapid transit (BRT). For reference, the Beltline's estimates for BRT are $15 million to $25 million a mile.

Nobody's taking the train. Georgians must demand that social engineers stop trying to get them on board. Georgians want mobility: freeing their cars from congestion, not moving them out of their cars. As transportation policy advances, focus the finite dollars on practical plans that advance regional mobility, not on modes from which Americans have long moved on.

Read the Foundation's proposals for transportation policy in Georgia at http://www.gppf.org/pub/agenda2011/transportationagenda.pdf

By Benita M. Dodd 
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