Commentary

Costs Will Outweigh Benefits

To understand the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority’s proposal for a Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line, you need to know only one thing: Rail transit is really, really expensive.

The Regional Transit Authority wants to spend $200 million of your tax dollars to start up service, plus $6.3 million per year subsidizing rail operations. For that, RTA says it will run 14 round trips per day, carrying 6,700 people per weekday. Since most commuters travel round trip, the rail line will serve just 3,350 people per day, less than 0.5% of the region’s commuters.

Is it worth spending $200 million or more just so 3,350 lucky people can take a heavily subsidized train to work? Remember, these are your transportation dollars, mostly paid out of your gas taxes. They could be used to improve bus service, coordinate traffic signals so you don’t have to stop at every light or replace old bridges.

But RTA wants to spend them on 3,350 commuters.

The $200 million start-up cost is just an estimate. On average, rail projects end up costing 40% more than their original estimates. And the costs don’t stop then: Rail systems must be totally rehabilitated every 30 years or so. Chicago needs $16 billion in new taxes to keep its trains running.

Fourteen round trips carrying 6,700 people is about 240 passengers per train. That’s about five busloads. So why not use buses? Buses have these advantages:

  • Buses easily can go as fast or faster than RTA’s commuter trains, which will average just 38 mph.
  • Nationwide, commuter trains kill twice as many people, per passenger mile carried, as buses - mostly in grade-crossing accidents.
  • Buses can serve multiple destinations, be quickly rerouted if popular destinations change and drive around accidents. Trains can only go where there are tracks and, in the event of an accident, are pretty much out of service.
  • Intercity buses are just as comfortable as the smoothest-riding trains.

The only thing trains do better than buses is spend lots of your tax dollars on engineering, construction and rail cars, all of which may produce contributions to political campaigns. Pork barrel, not transportation, is the main reason so many cities have built rail transit.

Is it worth spending $200 million or more just so 3,350 lucky people can take a heavily subsidized train to work?”

RTA claims rail transit stimulates economic development. The Federal Transit Administration asked two pro-transit planners, Robert Cervero of the University of California-Berkeley and Samuel Seskin of Parsons Brinckerhoff, if this is true.

“Urban rail transit investments rarely create new growth,” they found, “but more typically redistribute growth that would have taken place without the investment.” That redistribution, Cervero and Seskin added, mainly goes to major downtowns. Everyone pays so that a few property owners benefit while others lose.

Not surprisingly, downtown property owners support the proposed rail line.

Cities like my old hometown of Portland, Ore., claim rail transit generated billions in economic development. The truth is that redevelopment along Portland rail lines began only after the city dedicated billions of dollars of additional subsidies to those developments. Many if not most rail-related developments in Denver, Minneapolis and other cities also are subsidized.

Outside of New York City and possibly Chicago, rail transit is no more a part of a “balanced transportation system” than stagecoaches or horses and buggies.

Southeastern Wisconsin does not need to spend $200 million of your tax dollars to take 3,350 people to work.