The AZ Republic, long-time cheerleader for our current light rail project, writes another ode to commuter rail. Today's love note is on the Albuquerque commuter rails system.
Sharon Hedrich heads out a little before 7 each morning for the 20-mile
trip to the law office where she works in downtown Albuquerque. She
used to leave home earlier for the dreaded crawl down the city's
Driving to work could take 40 minutes or
more, depending on the number of emergencies stalling traffic. Now, she
boards a commuter train, settles into a plush red seat and spends the
half-hour ride reading a novel.
She says the train saves her aggravation - and money.
"I put 7 miles a day on my car instead of 50," Hedrich said recently as
the train zipped toward Albuquerque, New Mexico's largest city. "It's
50 bucks a month for me to ride this. I couldn't even get two tanks of
gas for that."
I am just all aglow for Sharon. But does the project make sense for the taxpayers of the city and the state (and probably nation) that funded it? Well, we don't know. Because the AZ Republic writes 56 paragraphs lauding the system without once telling us anything about the system performance. Does it cover its costs? Are city roads visibly less congested? Is there a net energy savings? Is there measurably less pollution? We don't know. All we know is that three people, Geronimo Trujillo, Briana Duran, and Sharon, like it.
Well, let's see if we can do the analysis that the Republic couldn't manage. We are told it has 3000 presumably round-trip riders a day, and the fare for these riders is $50 per month. That's $150,000 of revenue a month or $1.8 million a year. How much does it take to operate? Well, we are not told by the Republic and the Albuquerque authority ties itself in pretzels avoiding the question in this FAQ (question 1) comparing apples to oranges and lemons and bananas and any other fruit that might divert our attention. But I can absolutely guarantee that it costs a hell of a lot more than $1.8 million. I am not sure that covers the fuel bill, but it certainly does not cover wages, fuel, maintenance and whatever the state is paying the private owner of the rails for trackage rights.
Let's see if we can find an analog that does disclose its costs to the public. The commuter rail system in Northern Virginia called the VRE is about twice as long and carries about twice the passengers as the Albuquerque system. Its costs are $55.4 million per year, so we can conservatively assume that the Albuquerque system is costing perhaps $20 million a year, a figure that exceeds its revenues by a factor of 11x. That equates to a taxpayer subsidy of $6,000 per rider per year, which is not atypical for these systems.
And this ignores the capital cost. Unbelievably, the article does actually mention the capital cost in the 36th paragraph, which is $135 million. That is $45,000 per rider, or enough to buy two Prius's for each rider.
So Sharon Hedrich is happy? Of course she is freaking happy. The taxpayers paid $45,000 up front costs and $6,000 per year so she can save 43 miles of driving a day. Assuming she has a 20 mpg car, pays $3 a gallon for gas, and rides the train to work 250 days a year, taxpayers are paying $6,000 a year to save Sharon $1,612.50 a year in gas. If we want to consider gas plus wear and tear on her car at 45 cents per mile, taxpayers are paying $6,000 a year to save Sharon $4,837.50 per year. The taxpayers would have been better off -- by a LOT -- buying her a Prius and paying her expenses to drive than buying and operating a train for her. This is consistent with my past number crunching on other urban rail systems here and here.
Does the Republic mention these problems? Sort of:
The system endured the typical raps against a big public-works project:
It fell behind schedule, an anti-tax foundation called it a bad idea
and there were some startup problems.
Dang those tax foundation guys - always getting in the way of progress! Thank god such a great idea as subsidizing Sharon "endured" these Luddites.
By the way, I am a long-time train watcher and model railroader. I love trains. And, all things being equal and if everything was free in the world, I would love to have more commuter rail trains. Unfortunately, all things are not free. And in most cases, particularly low-density cities outside the northeast, rail tends to be the most expensive possible option. As a libertarian, I would rather the government just not appropriate this money in the first place. But given that they are insisting on spending $135 million plus $20 million a year on transportation, nearly any other conceiveable project would have gotten more bang for the buck.
Update: Below is a picture of Brianna Duran riding in an empty rail car. It's good Albuquerque is keeping all those empty seats off the highway.
Update 2: Here is the predictable response to the empty seat snark: Well, it's the people's fault for not choosing such an obviously superior mode of transport. Wrong. Its the government's fault for not taking people's preferences into account when spending all that taxpayer money. A government that adjusts itself to the citizens is a Democracy. A government that demands citizens adjust themselves to the government is fascism.
Update #3: I am getting email about the government subsidy of highways. In theory, this is not supposed to be a subsidy. The large gasoline prices we pay at the pump are supposed to be for highway funds. This is actually a pretty intelligent way to pay for roads, because it does a decent job at matching use to fees, with a bit of a penalty thrown in for low mpg cars. To the extent that gas taxes do not match road costs, I am all for eliminating any subsidy and making them match with the right gas tax. But I know whatever subsidy there is is not as high as for this rail. Using the numbers for this example, applied to 100 million US commuters, would imply a capital cost of $4.5 trillion and a yearly operating subsidy of $600 billion. And this would only cover commuting. Remember, the people in the story can't give up their cars - rail lines only run a few places. These costs would be to allow commuters to give up their cars part of the time -- about the same number of roads and cars would still be necessary.