The Anti-Planner has a series of posts of late on light rail that in total point to a perverse moral hazard in public transportation funding that helps to explain why states and cities are building so many rail projects, when the numbers almost never make any sense (as I blogged for LA, Phoenix, and Albuquerque). Though the Anti-Planner does not state these rules, from his recent posts I have inferred three rules:
- A city can get capital construction dollars from the feds, but you can almost never get maintenance or operations money (similar story in recreation)
- The feds will fund big, expensive, sexy rail projects. They will not fund purchases of buses and are unlikely to fund something so prosaic as a bus stop or terminal (general rule of thumb: federally funded projects must be large enough to justify being named at some future point after the local Congressman or Senator who earmarked the project.)
- It is very easy to de-fund bus systems -- you just don't replace aging buses and cut routes over time. It is hard to de-fund, or, god forbid, abandon a rail line, since the thing sits out there so visibly. Sunk costs can also be a political issue if rail lines were to be closed.
For most public transportation goals, particularly in spread out western and southern cities, buses are a cheaper and higher service solution than rail. They can carry the same passenger traffic for far less total dollars (capital plus operating costs) and they can cover far more routes. In fact, one can argue that rail lines are inherently regressive, as they tend to serve commuting corridors of the middle and upper classes rather than the typical routes of the poor, for whom the systems are nominally built.
So what can one expect by the application of these three rules? Well, we would expect local authorities to favor large, expensive capital rail projects rather than refurbishment or expansion of bus systems. As operating costs rise for the trains, we would expect bus service to be cut back to pay for the rail operating deficit.
Which is exactly what happens. In fact, rail tends not to increase total ridership at all, at best shifting ridership from inexpensive buses to expensive trains, and at worst decreasing total ridership as rail lines with just a few stations and routes replace more extensive webs of bus transport. And, in twenty years, when these rails systems need extensive capital overhauls, we find cities with huge albatrosses on their hands that they are unable to maintain or update.