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Symbolism in Action

I really should just dedicate this site to illustrating the insanity that I “rant” about from time to time. Here is Warren Meyer (who’ll be visiting us in Rochester next month) on quite possibly the Worst American Rail Project Ever:

The Rail Runner collects about $3.2 million a year in fares and has an annual operating budget of about $23.6 million. That does not include about $41.7 million a year in debt service on the bonds — a figure that include eventual balloon payments.

At the end of the day, riders are paying $3.2 million of the total $65.3 million annual cost. Again, I repeat my reaction from four years ago to hearing that riders really loved the train.  Of course they do — taxpayers (read: non-riders) are subsidizing 95.1% of the service they get.  I wonder if they paid the full cost of the train ride — ie if their ticket prices were increased 20x — how they would feel about the service?

Of course, the Railrunner folks are right on the case.  They have just raised prices, which “could” generate $600,000 in extra revenue, assuming there is no loss in ridership from the fare increases (meaning assuming the laws of supply and demand do no operate correctly).  If this fare increase is as successful as planned, they will have boldly reduced the public subsidy to just 94.2% of the cost of each trip.

… The line carries around 2000 round-trip passengers (ie number of boarding divided by two) a day.  It is simply incredible that a state can directly lavish $60 million  a year in taxpayer money on just 2000 mostly middle class citizens.  That equates to a subsidy of $30,000 per rider per year, enough to buy every daily round trip rider a new Prius and the gas to run it every single year.

One thing I had not realized, the trip from Albuquerque to Santa Fe that I did in my rental car in 60 minutes takes 90 minutes by “high-speed rail”.

Trains – is there anything more symbolic than this? And of course, what Warren should have added in his piece is not just that taxpayers are subsidizing a few middle-income people to the tune of $30,000 per person per year, but that people die because of this. Just because those people are not easily seen does not make it less true. But don’t let that distract you. This project surely kills more people than all GM foods in human history combined may have killed, to name one dramatic example.

10 Responses to “Symbolism in Action”

  1. Harry says:

    Careful, Wintercow, referring to passenger railroads and Roundup-Ready soybeans in the same paragraph.

    I especially liked the part about not counting $47 million.

  2. Andrew says:

    I do believe the burden of the trains is put too heavily on the non-riders, however, I think a more complete analysis would include the positive externalities associated with a portion of the population taking the train. With a bulk of people using public transportation, roads are cleared allowing non-riders to get to their destination quicker. This may seem small, but looking at how many people utilize the subway system in NYC, it would be interesting to see the data. If we were to compare the “value” of the time saved to the amount each taxpayer forgoes to fund this project, it seems almost intuitive that the time saved is heavily out-shadowed by the tax. However, in economics, intuition does not trump data. Therefore, I would have liked to see this added to the analysis.

  3. Harry says:

    I would like to get in on the $30,000 per person per year thing. Capitalize that cash flow (wintercow will do it with his HP scientific calculator).

  4. Harry says:

    Warren Meyer is one smart guy, and I hope that Wintercow’s students soak up everything, thinking. You all are lucky to have Mike Rizzo, who schedules his office hours.

  5. chuck martel says:

    Andrew, there’s really no comparison between Manhattan, a small, densely populated island with celestial real estate prices and a huge commuter work force, and northcentral New Mexico, a vast area with a small fraction of the population and few traffic problems.

    Construction of a light-rail connection between the downtown areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul is underway now, where it will occupy the center of what has always been the busiest arterial street in the area. See this: http://nailheadtom.blogspot.com/2011/12/twin-city-light-rail-update.html

  6. chuck martel says:

    In Minneapolis, there has been a perfect storm for the transportation Luddites. A bicycle bridge that spans a light rail line has had a suspension cable failure and traffic on the bridge and under it has come to a stop. Light rail passengers are being routed around the problem by bus.

    From KSTP, St. Paul:

    Traffic Around Troubled Minneapolis Bridge May Resume Soon

    The City of Minneapolis says the Sabo Bridge now has enough structure under it to possibly allow traffic around it to resume. But when the bridge itself will reopen to bicycles and pedestrians is still very much up in the air.

    A cable connection broke loose and two suspension cables failed Monday morning. That led to the closure of Hiawatha Avenue between East 26th Street and Lake Street. The Hiawatha Light Rail line was also closed where it runs under the bridge. Light Rail riders are being bused around the closure.

    On Thursday, the city says a crew completed installation of support structures under the bridge. Workers were also able to release tension from the failed cables.

    The city says inspectors are now able to analyze the rest of the bridge’s cables and connectors as well as measure loads on support structures. They’re also taking a look at the bridge deck to check for signs of cracking or bowing.

    “After all the necessary inspections are completed, the bridge recovery team, along with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Metro Transit, will determine when Hiawatha Avenue can reopen and light rail service can resume,” said spokesperson Matt Lindstrom. “The Sabo Bridge itself will remain closed until repair work is completed.”

    Any guesses on the financial ramifications of this event?

  7. Joe says:

    I didn’t realize, until a friend loaned me “The Myth of the Robber Barons” that calling something “The worst rail project in American history” is a very, very powerful statement.

  8. Harry says:

    The next project is the Buffalo-Rochester Light Rail Tunnel, with a special HOV lane for electric cars next to the Niagra generators. This actually might make some sense, assuming there would be passengers who paid for the ride to watch the Bills.

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