Faith-Based Government Investment

The Tampa Rail blog has responded to my post criticizing Phoenix light rail (which the Tampa folks used as a glowing example of rail success).  Remember I wrote, in part:

Look, I don't think I have ever argued that Phoenix Light Rail was run poorly or didn't have pretty trains.   And I don't know if moving 18,000 round trip riders a day in a metropolitan area of 4.3 million people is a lot or a little (though 0.4% looks small to me, that is probably just my "pre-web" thinking, whatever the hell that is).The problem is that it is freaking expensive, so it is a beautiful toy as long as one is not paying for it.  Specifically, it's capital costs are $75,000 per daily round trip rider, and every proposed addition is slated to be worse on this metric (meaning the law of diminishing returns dominates network effects, which is not surprising in this least dense of all American cities).

Already, like in Portland and San Francisco, the inflexibility of servicing this capital cost (it never goes away, even in recessions) is causing the city to give up bus service, the exact effect that caused rail to reduce rather than increase transit's total share of commuters in that wet dream of all rail planners, Portland.  Soon, we will have figures for net operating loss and energy use, but expect them to be disappointing, as they have in every other city (and early returns were that fares were covering less than 25% of operating costs).

Of course, as with all government issues, the ultimate argument is that I am some sort of Luddite for actually demanding definable results for billion dollar government spending

Sorry Coyote, save for the topic matter I'm afraid I'm just not going to be much fodder for you. We're years past 'it's an expensive tax thing'.

We know that. We know rail like any capital project is expensive to execute and expensive to maintain - in dollars. But anyone who raises the math to me will wind up with the same big 'so what'. Community investment doesn't bother everyone the same way and different people see different value. There's no way you or I cold supernaturally understand the net benefit for or against light rail. We must simply choose to believe and pick our sides.

If you believe that just because rail is expensive they aren't worthwhile, you need to explain every public vote that has gone for implementing and expanding rail systems around the world even though most operations are publicly subsidized.

Gotta run'em well, and, over time, integrate with a city, but LR is a carefree mobility solution in areas where people choose to support and pay for it.

See, they are well past my neolithic argument, into their little post-modernist world where aesthetics and political correctness trump any actual need to demonstrate money is being used well.  Though it is interesting to see him resorting to faith as a justification.

I have two words for this person -- "opportunity cost."  On one hand, the money for this project must be taken out of private hands to build the rail line -- even leaving out the substantial individual liberties questions here, there is still some obligation to demonstrate the money is better used than it would have been in the private hands from which it is taken.  Ditto, by the way, for the stimulus bill.   On the other hand, to the extent that one wishes to spend government money to move people from A to B, one needs to demonstrate that this method is better than others.  I would argue high speed rail fails both tests.

Update: Joel Epstein and I have a go around the same issues in the Huffpo comments.

  • CMJDad

    "But anyone who raises the math to me will wind up with the same big ’so what’. Community investment doesn’t bother everyone the same way and different people see different value. There’s no way you or I cold supernaturally understand the net benefit for or against light rail. We must simply choose to believe and pick our sides."

    Typical. There isn't a problem in the world that good 'ol Big Government (BG) can't solve. Here's an idea for this guy: Move to France! I'm sure he would love it there.

  • http://mjb.biglaughs.org m

    What a contradictory perspective these lefties have. On the one hand, we need to take care of the poor and the middle class. On the other hand, we should steal more money from them to pay for massively expensive, net-loss projects.

    Is there a lefty out there who can explain this to me?

  • Highway

    What a complete jerk. Does he realize that he and his light rail enamored buddies aren't shouldering the whole cost of the system?

    Gotta run’em well, and, over time, integrate with a city, but LR is a carefree mobility solution in areas where people choose to support and pay for it.

    What about the not-insignificant portion of taxpayers who *don't* choose to support and pay for it. Oh that's right, their money was taken from them by force, but the government magically waved its hands over the loot and it becomes 'government money', free to be spent on whatever the lifer bureaucrats in the local Transit Administration want to spend it on. Never mind that they're not elected, don't get turned out when administrations change, and make disingenuous arguments for the pretty projects.

    Why does 'Tampa Rail Blog' have any more say over tax money than 'Coyote Blog'?

  • LoneSnark

    So it is the case. Light Rail is not viewed as a good mode of transportation, it is a symbol of civic pride such as a clock tower, sports stadium, opera house, or occupying Iraq. The functionality is not important, what is important is that it is pretty and we all sacrificed for it.

    People please, this is not hard. You just need to talk like them. Don't talk about what the private citizens might have done had the money not been taken from them, you will just fill their head with images of flat-screen televisions and pickup trucks.

    No, talk of opportunity costs, but things they do care about. Such as bus service for the poor. Sports stadiums. Giant spire with rotating restaurant like in Seattle. The point is not to save the money for better uses, remember the use does not matter to them, what we need to do is distract them with an arc de triumph or anything else with a high up-front cost, looks very pretty, but has very low operating costs. That way, they can punch the hole they want in the budget without actually bankrupting necessary city services.

  • Allen

    If you're looking for other interesting transit claims, there's one here :
    http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2010/02/01/when-doomsday-no-longer-feels-so-dramatic/

    yes, toward the end they seem to claim that other countries have found a magical funding source that doesn't result in decreased revenue for transit agencies. They also seem to be claiming that tax cuts during the recesion are to blame.

  • ArtD0dger

    Were it that all leftists were so unguarded with their true thoughts.

  • Tampa Putz Rail

    Facts?

    FACTS?

    FACTS!?!?!?

    Weeeeeee don' neeeed no steeeenkin' FACTS!!

  • http://grouchyconservativepundits.com Mike C.

    "Gotta run’em well, and, over time, integrate with a city, but LR is a carefree mobility solution in areas where people choose to support and pay for it."

    If people in FL want to support and pay for a new rail system, more power to them. But that's not what they want, is it ? If just FL taxpayers had to pay for it, or, even better, if just the users had to pay for it, this discussion wouldn't be occuring. No - they want ME to pay for it, even though I've only been to FL twice in 60 years.

  • DMac

    I wonder if HuffPo would be so enamoured if the rail line was running from Denver to Dallas, instead. It's nice to have someone help pay for your shiny new toy, but not so nice to pay for someone else's. I've had the argument about getting back fewer Fed tax dollars than get sent to DC with friends in CA, but to me the solution is to send less to the Federal goverment, and keep more locally.

  • dr kill

    No thought to lightening killing the poor domestics waiting in the open for the late bus?

  • Bearster

    The problem isn't "political correctness" per se. The problem is that morality always trumps practicality. Coyote, your argument about costs to benefits is a practical argument. And your PS about opportunity cost is also a practical argument. To live life here on earth, one must choose between alternative uses for resources. Good choices produce wealth, and poor choices destroy wealth.

    But this guy is looking at (what he considers) the moral side. In the face of morality, mere practicality, cost-benefit analysis, etc. does not rise to the level of being relevant. As you said in another post, if it turned out to be cheaper to just let the cops incarcerate anyone they felt like, you would still opposite it. The issue is justice, not cost per se.

    My point is that the root of the problem is that this leftist writer who wants light rail in Tampa thinks that morality consists of looting every productive man in the world, and it is moral to give this loot away to highly visible monuments such as light rail systems. He won't hear any cost-benefit analysis argument because the moral trumps the mere practical.

    P.S. I don't think you can persuade him that looting productive people is immoral any more than you can persuade him that using force to reduce people's wealth is immoral, but at least that gets to the crux of the issue.

  • Jeff

    "The problem with Socialism is eventually you run out of other people's money."

    - Margaret Thatcher

    These "smart growth", central planner types are all the same. They have lots of wonderful ideas for how to spend other people's money.

    As a city, state, or country, if you consistently make bad decisions with tax money, eventually people will vote with their feet. Just look at Michigan or California.

  • Flatland

    His comments seem a bit too condescending. It's not worth your time to comment there, but good for you for trying.

  • CTD

    Oh, sweet smoking jesus.

    Upon reading his response, I am reminded of the Borg queen.

    "You think so... three dimensionally."

    LoneSnark is right though, it's pointless throwing numbers at these people. That's not what it's about to them. They literally don't care how much it costs. It's a Great Work, and it must be done. I increasingly get the same feeling from health care "reformers". Every time I start tossing out numbers to my more "progressive" friends, they eventually concede that, yeah, this endeavor will be monstrously expensive, but we should go ahead and do it anyway. The notion of a cost-benefit analysis or opportunity cost never enters their heads. Because of the children. At this point, it's become a National Greatness thing.

  • BCM

    Huff Po comments appear to be erased...

  • smurfy

    "If you believe that just because rail is expensive they aren’t worthwhile, you need to explain every public vote that has gone for implementing and expanding rail systems around the world"

    -Suburban guilt? And then you combine it with low-ball cost projections to make it look like a close enough call.

    "different people see different value"

    Very true, and I count myself as one who places a high value on the experience of riding light rail and Amtrak, but not so much on the buss. But it bothers me that although different people see different value, everyone pays according to his ability. It also bothers me that people are forced to balance needs vs wants in their own personal financing but then completely dismiss this as invalid when it comes to their government.

  • smurfy

    One possible advantage of a Tampa to Orlando line: Rental cars are hideously expensive at the Orlando airport. Maybe I could just hop a train to Tampa, rent a cheap car for the week and then drive it back to Orlando. We're talking a couple of hundred dollar premium to rent out of Orlando so I might be able to justify the trip on a cost.

  • Mesa Econoguy

    Hilarious, and disturbing:

    We’re years past ‘it’s an expensive tax thing’. We know that. We know rail like any capital project is expensive to execute and expensive to maintain – in dollars. But anyone who raises the math to me will wind up with the same big ’so what’.

    Read: your numbers are meaningless, because we can't understand them. We reject your fact-based reality, and substitute our own. We like shiny new things, so get out of our way, and fork over the cash.

    It's time to thin the herd...

  • Highway

    I thought of the perfect explanation for all those 'votes' where people supposedly supported rail systems:

    Most people are dupes.

    Monorail! Monorail!

  • Mesa Econoguy
  • DrTorch

    The Tampa Rail blogger, and his ilk, ought to be able to express their desire for community investment in a tangible, meaningful way. So how about this:

    They get together, pool their own money and start their preferred Community Investement Project. They can recruit funds from others, maybe by promising to 'share' in the interest of this project. They are free to convince any and all people how important this is, and how beyond math it is.

    Any curmudgeon who sits back and doesn't want to give can just live with his conscience...and his full bank account.

    In the end, if they can get the dollars to pull it off, more power to them.

    How's that for a clear path forward for TRB?

  • MJ

    The Tampa Rail blogger may not be swayed by technical analysis showing how cost-ineffective light rail systems are, but I would argue with his case on another ground.

    He repeatedly refers to "community investment", as if there were such a thing. The term "community" refers to groups that share similar beliefs and values. This blog might be considered a community, considering the similar viewpoints expressed by many of the frequent posters. On the other hand, the average large, American city (say, Tampa or Phoenix) can hardly be considered a community, since they are typically too large and heterogeneous to meet the definition. The term is used loosely in news media, and often interchangeably with "city" or to refer to some other political jurisdiction.

    The fact that the supporters of a project are able to convince a plurality of voters, usually a small minority of the overall population, to tax themselves (and others) to support it is hardly a convincing argument. Usually it is more of an indication of a slick marketing message (perhaps deceptive) that was able to sway a group ill-informed voters. Even if people cared enough to read the literature that is distributed about these projects, they are in most cases unequipped to evaluate the assumptions behind the numbers that are made public.

  • http://harqueb.us Harquebus

    I threw a comment over on Joel's article.