In the 2012 budget, the DOT will spend about $59.4 billion on highways and $30.2 billion on transit and rail (source). Highways are getting a smaller and smaller portion of what we think of as the Federal highway budget, with transit and rail spending almost 50% the size of highway spending. For what results?
Despite huge efforts to get people out of single-occupancy vehicles, nearly 8 million more people drove alone to work in 2010 than in 2000, according to data released by the Census Bureau. Wendell Cox’s review of the data show that the other big gainer was “worked at home,” which grew by nearly 2 million over the decade.
Transit gained less than a million, but transit numbers were so small in 2000 that its share grew from 4.6 percent to 4.9 percent of total workers. While drive alone grew from 75.6 percent to 76.5 percent, the big loser was carpooling, which declined by more than 2 million workers. As a result, driving’s share as a whole declined from 87.9 percent to 86.2 percent.
Though they get less money in absolute dollars, transit and rail have for years gotten wildly disproportionate amounts of money compared to their ridership. This is not an accident of timing -- rail and mass transit costs per passenger mile are simply way higher than for cars in all but a few very specific high-density urban areas.
Much of this Federal spending is a huge waste of money, made worse by the fact that local authorities who get this money have little incentive to use it wisely. Its time for the Feds to get out of the transit funding business. If LA wants more subways, let them pay for it.
Several times in the past I have posited that folks in power simply hate buses. How else to explain light rail and high speed rail projects that are both substantially more expensive and substantially less flexible than buses. Some of the reasons for this include:
- Politicians like rail better because it is sexier. Period. They are trying to spend taxpayer money to support their own re-election talking points.
- Unions and city workers like rail because it is more expensive. More money gets spent, either creating more union jobs or giving transit leaders bigger budgets which translate into higher salaries and more prestige for themselves. And the lack of flexibility is good for them because it makes their job immune to budget cutting. Just too many sunk costs.
- Middle and upper-middle class folks in the public have a deep disdain for buses, which they associate with poverty and blue collar labor. Riding buses hurts their self image, even if the service is no worse than trains. Rail is the Louis Vuitton handbag of transit.
In Phoenix, light rail requires a subsidy of $3.82 center per mile (that is the government spending above and beyond the fare), which is nearly 10x what we spend on buses. And light rail uses more energy per passenger mile here than driving.
Anyway, this story from Iowa seems to support my point -- the government is proposing to spend tens of millions of dollars to create a rail service that is slower and more costly than existing private bus service.
The latest in lunacy in high-speed rail lunacy: at Joel Kotkin’s newgeography.com Wendell Cox reports that the U.S. Transportation Department is dangling money before the government of Iowa seeking matching funds from the state for a high-speed rail line from Iowa City to Chicago. The “high-speed” trains would average 45 miles per hour and take five hours to reach Chicago from Iowa City. One might wonder how big the market for this service is, since Iowa City and Johnson County have only 130,882 people; add in adjoining Linn County (Cedar Rapids) and you’re only up to 342,108—not really enough, one would think, to supply enough riders to cover operating costs much less construction costs.
Oh, one other thing. Cox reports that there is already luxury bus service, with plus for laptops and wireless Internet, from Iowa City to Chicago. It’s part of a larger trend for private companies to offer convenient and inexpensive bus service. A one-way ticket on the bus costs $18, compared to a likely train fare of more than $50. And the bus takes only three hours and 50 minutes to get from Iowa City to Chicago. That’s one hour and 10 minutes faster than the “high-speed” train.