Linear thinking. It’s a euphemism used to describe an inability to grasp either the wider implications of a policy, or the complexity of a situation. I also happen to think it points to how a 19th-century mode of travel came to the Queen City in A.D. 2007. I’m talking about Charlotte’s fixation with light rail. It’s supposed to take cars off of congested streets, be greener, and turn a town into a “world class city.” These seem like good things on the face. But at what cost?
First, virtually nobody who’ll ride light rail could afford it if they had to pay the full cost. That’s right: people in rural Tennessee are paying for Charlotte to have a gilded trolley. Not only did the federal government have to kick in hundreds-of-millions of dollars for the project to have a chance of getting built, but everyone in town had to pay more for many of the things they bought. Even the state chipped in.
This is a phenomenon known as “concentrated benefits and dispersed costs” in which politicians and special interests collude to bring expensive goodies to an area in exchange for their votes, and then stick everyone else with the bill. (Thank you, Mr. Mayor.) We’ll pass over the basic unfairness of such a system. After all, light rail conserves energy and reduces CO2 emissions, right?
Not exactly. According to Cato’s urban planning expert Randall O’Toole, the “majority of light-rail systems consume more energy per passenger mile than the average passenger car.” And things get worse when one factors buses out of the system, worse still when one factors in the energy used to construct a line. (There’s a parallel story about comparative CO2 emissions.)
Speaking of buses, did you know that (according to a 2004 study by the Reason Foundation’s Ted Balaker), the next least expensive alternative to light rail, bus rapid transit (BRT) would be nine times cheaper than light rail? Nine times. And that’s from a 2004 estimate. We’ve seen how the cost projections have ballooned with each passing year. But when Balaker considers the costs by per-unit-of-congestion-relief, that’s when the picture becomes stark: “Cost per vehicle trip reduced? $43,725. Cost per vehicle mile reduced? $9,578. Cost per vehicle hour reduced? $384,537.” Staggering. That’s money we’ll never get back.
To achieve the same effect as light rail, you could offer BRT (but then you could use the rest to retire carbon credits, plant trees, or – gasp – fund anti-congestion measures like the conversion of HOV lanes to HOT lanes). Yes buses. But therein lies the rub.
Many people simply fancy themselves as too good to ride a bus. While BRT is better for the environment, far less expensive, more flexible, and arguably just as comfortable, a pervasive mentality one might describe as elitist makes people abandon their ‘smart growth’ sensibilities rather quickly. This mentality was captured well in this quote taken from a transplant to Charlotte by the Charlotte Observer:
"‘I am never going to get on a bus in my entire life, but I used trains every day when I lived in Baltimore and Washington,’ said [Ruth] Henry, who works at an investment firm in University City. ‘I am totally on board for using tax dollars to build trains.’”
Most of us are not so bourgeois as to require non-cost-effective commuter lines to get to work. We drive our cars. And cars are supposed to be adding to the problem. If we have light rail, we’ll decrease congestion and pollution won’t we? UNC-Charlotte transportation expert David Hartgen estimates Charlotte will reduce traffic congestion by three percent at most – but only for about a year. Is that worth a half-billion (with-a-B) dollars and rising?
And while we’re treated to horror stories about air pollution almost daily during the summer months, air pollution due to cars has gone down on nearly every single metric since the 1960s – and it keeps going down – even with three times the number of cars on the road. Violations of EPA ozone standards still occur, but then again, EPA lowers the standards perennially so they can keep their jobs. And what would be the effect on pollution of a three percent decrease in auto use (a charitable estimate)? Doesn’t light rail give off pollution?
Politicians don’t really want or have to answer tough questions about costs and benefits, because they use a different currency than the rest of us. And that’s why it’s up to us to rein them in and not let them hide behind environmental moralisms. But first we have to gain some of our own perspective about how we’re affecting other people when we allow ourselves to be seduced by sustainability fetishes. A couple of rules of thumb might be: if it’s too expensive to exist without subsidy, it’s probably not sustainable. And if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
(Note: Charlotte’s vote on the transit tax – which partially funds light rail – is on November 6th, 2007.)