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Friday, July 30, 2010

Colo. transit flunks out

Last year saw a government failure of spectacular proportion: “Cash-For-Clunkers.” The program subsidized sales for the auto companies in the very short term at a staggering cost of $3 billion, while reducing the number of cheap used cars available for younger and lower income people.

Independence Institute Senior Fellow Randall O’Toole has been studying another epic failure for nearly a decade: public transportation. His latest study, “Colorado Transit: A Costly Failure” explains how, like “Cash-For-Clunkers,” transit has failed at every measure. But unlike “Cash-for-Clunkers,” it didn’t go away after one month.

O’Toole’s latest analysis explains that public transportation costs more, wastes more, and pollutes more than driving. Transit costs four times more per mile and is subsidized 40 times more than passenger driving. In 2008, the national average for public transit was 90 cents per passenger mile, 70 cents of which is subsidized by non-transit users. Colorado is even higher: 1 dollar per passenger mile, with 84 cents subsidized. Driving, however, only costs an average of 23 cents per passenger mile, and only two cents of that is subsidized.

Transit users cover only a small percent of the operating costs for Colorado transit agencies. Colorado transit collected $97 million in fares in 2008, but spent $419 million just on operating costs. These costs don’t include the costs of capital purchases such as buses and trains. After averaging the capital costs over the last 17 years and accounting for depreciation, O’Toole found that capital expenditures added $181 million to the cost. Taxpayers are on the hook for $503 million per year for transit systems in seven Colorado cities.

The extra costs are worth it, though, if we can save the planet and have clean air though, right? Colorado transit fails here as well.

Most transit systems in Colorado use more energy and pollute more than driving. The most energy efficient form of public transit is vanpools which, as O’Toole points out, is the closest form to actual cars. If one looks at the per passenger mile emissions of public transit versus an average light truck or car, it would appear that light rail is slightly more efficient than light trucks, but not as efficient as cars. However, this doesn’t take into account the huge amount of energy required to build a light rail system.

Much of the energy waste is a result of an inability to fill seats. The average bus operates around one-sixth capacity, and the light-rail system fills an average of 22 percent of its seats.

Colorado obviously isn’t alone in its transit failure. Reason Magazine recently reported that California spent $8 billion on a public light rail project. However, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority is now carrying fewer passengers than it did 20 years ago when it started the project.

As O’Toole concludes, “Many people think that a major goal for transit is to persuade people to get out of their cars and drive less. Considering that the transit systems we know today are more expensive, less convenient, and have greater environmental impacts than driving, this goal is self-defeating.”

So you can go ahead and keep driving your car guilt free and enjoy the view of the mostly empty buses and trains that you will be heavily subsidizing for years to come.

This Op-Ed Appeared in the Denver Daily News on July 30, 2010.

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