One conservative’s approach to mass transit: Control costs

A conservative mass-transit advocate — your eyes deceive you not; such creatures exist — came to Atlanta recently to tell liberals how to sell public transportation to tea partyers.

Briefly: It’s about the money.

Money already was on the minds of those in William Lind’s audiences: They want transit to get a big chunk of the $8 billion that a new 1-cent sales tax could generate in 10 years. And they know that, to get any money, they’ll need a lot of conservatives to vote “yes” in a referendum next year to establish the tax in 10 metro Atlanta counties.

If they listened closely to Lind, director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, they won’t get stuck on tactics, such as using words like “conservation” or “stewardship” — instead of “environmentalism” — to talk up transit. Changing up the vocabulary won’t Jedi-mind-trick conservatives into voting yea.

Instead, they’ll have taken to heart this message, as Lind put it to me in an interview: “If it’s done right, it should be able to be done cheap. … Cheap doesn’t mean worse.”

Money may be on local transit advocates’ minds, but saving money — being cheap — isn’t. At least, not on the evidence.

Unlike many conservative or libertarian transportation experts, Lind favors trains, from streetcars to light rail to commuter rail. (Heavy rail, like MARTA subways, “essentially priced itself out of the market” for future projects, he told me.)

But, unlike many liberal transit advocates, he has strict standards about how much such projects should cost — not counting highly variable land-acquisition costs. For streetcars, $10 million per mile. For light rail, $20 million per mile.

In comparison, here’s a handy list of estimated costs for the transit projects that metro Atlanta planners want to put before the electorate. Some of these cost estimates haven’t been updated in some time, and the revised figures will almost certainly go up. But even with some potential underestimation, here’s what voters may be asked to swallow (where possible, I’ve zeroed in on actual construction and equipment costs):

  • For four streetcar segments of Atlanta’s Beltline, prices per mile of $45 million, $70 million, $54 million and $45 million.
  • For a five-phase light rail line parallel to I-85, from Doraville to the Gwinnett Arena: $70 million per mile.
  • For a combination heavy- and light-rail line from the Lindbergh MARTA station to Emory University, $92 million per mile.
  • Some kind of “fixed guideway” transit — light rail or possibly bus rapid transit — from Doraville across the top end of I-285 to the Cobb Galleria area, at $67 million per mile.

Just one project, a light-rail line plus streetcar circulators from the Arts Center MARTA station up I-75 and U.S. 41 all the way to Acworth, comes in close to Lind’s targets. That two-phase project is listed at an average of $23 million per mile. The bad news: A new study by the state ranked that project among the region’s worst options as far as being completed within a decade.

Local transit officials say Lind’s numbers are unrealistic, though I note the huge gulf between his idea of realistic and theirs. Lind hit smack dab on what I see as transit’s biggest problem in our area: “Without any constituency for cost control,” costs rise out of control.

Between (mostly liberal) transit advocates afraid of hurting their cause by scrutinizing costs and (mostly conservative) transit skeptics who think cost-effective transit is impossible, we have no such constituency. Anyone, on the left or right, who values Lind’s advice for solving our transportation problems will get to work building one.

– By Kyle Wingfield

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152 comments Add your comment

I Report (-: You Whine )-: Thee Magnificent!!! mmm, mmmm, mmmmm! Just sayin...

June 10th, 2011
8:12 pm

Teach people how to drive instead of just giving them a license when they show up for one, problem solved.

Pocket the four hundred million.

News Ablaze! » Blog Archive » marta

June 10th, 2011
9:05 pm

[...] athlete Marta [4] Atlanta’s Proposed Transit Fare Hike Will Hit Poor and Blacks Hardest [5] One conservative’s approach to mass transit: Control costs [6] Silva Zamora named Golfweek Player Of The [...]

Conservative for mass transit

June 10th, 2011
9:39 pm

If they had light rail from anywhere in West Cobb to downtown, I’d use it every day I didn’t have to go outside the city.

Nomobama

June 10th, 2011
10:11 pm

You want rail, pay off the national debt first, then I will consider it.

Really

June 10th, 2011
10:24 pm

You show prices for street cars and light rail. The projects you list are 99% more likely to be heavy rail, way to skew the facts.

People need to give up the me first/keeping up with the jones attitudes they have and realize funding transit type projects (I am not arguing for any one project in particular). Quit trying to throw Marta under the “train”. They are handcuffed by what the legislature allows them to work with. I will be the first to admit that Marta leaves A LOT to be desired, however, that combined with CCT and GCT stil doesn’t leave a lot of options.

If people (i.e. the legislature) realized how much the lack of a sound transit/transportation infrastructure has cost the state things would be better. Unfortunately transit is equated to socialism so there is no way actually make things better.

elroy jetson

June 10th, 2011
10:25 pm

interconnected moving sidewalks across the galaxy, or at least betwixt buford and bogart, problem solved….

Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.....

June 10th, 2011
10:54 pm

“Unlike many conservative or libertarian transportation experts, Lind favors trains, from streetcars to light rail to commuter rail. (Heavy rail, like MARTA subways, “essentially priced itself out of the market” for future projects, he told me.)”

Additional heavy rail doesn’t really have to be a major part of the equation when talking about future passenger rail projects in the Atlanta Region as the existing MARTA heavy rail lines make an excellent backbone of any future regional mass transit system, when fully functional and competently run, of course, which is clearly NOT the case at present.

BW

June 10th, 2011
11:15 pm

I was wondering if there was a person out there of conservative background that actually recognized that more than additional highways are needed to reduce congestion. I think it is relatively easy to find watchdog groups to oversee the project costs. However, the question remains whether one group of people will allow “those people” to potentially have access to their slice of town….you know because they will rob your house and then get back on the train with your stuff. We’ll see but I think everyone recognizes that the status quo isn’t going to get it done.

The Art of the Shady Land Deal

June 10th, 2011
11:16 pm

Local transit officials say Lind’s numbers are unrealistic, though I note the huge gulf between his idea of realistic and theirs. Lind hit smack dab on what I see as transit’s biggest problem in our area: “Without any constituency for cost control,” costs rise out of control.

Between (mostly liberal) transit advocates afraid of hurting their cause by scrutinizing costs and (mostly conservative) transit skeptics who think cost-effective transit is impossible, we have no such constituency. Anyone, on the left or right, who values Lind’s advice for solving our transportation problems will get to work building one.

You mean a cost control constituency like the very powerful land developer and land spectulator lobbies and the up-and-coming rail construction lobby? Yeah, I’m sure that these groups will be oh-so-eager to see per-mile costs of land acquisition and construction kept as low as possible. Why I even think that all of these politically powerful groups are down at the Gold Dome as we speak demanding that our state legislators keep land and construction costs at rockbottom and even offering to donate their services to the state at a substantial loss with them the model citizens and good samaritans they are and all….

tjatl

June 10th, 2011
11:16 pm

These blanket dollar figures are silly. It fails to take into account the area the proposed transit intends to serve and the resulting benefits. In the case of the Beltline, there are tremendous potential business benefits. Transportation is infrastructure – much like electricity. The relative cost to deliver varies wildly according to the area served. Electrical service is more expensive per customer in rural areas. Should service not be provided to these areas according to some pre-determined dollar equation? Don’t get me started on the subsidies that were provided to power companies for electrical services to be extended to rural areas…and they still get them, even when they don’t need them.

Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.....

June 10th, 2011
11:30 pm

BW
June 10th, 2011
11:15 pm

“I was wondering if there was a person out there of conservative background that actually recognized that more than additional highways are needed to reduce congestion.”

You mean other than the conservative political and bureaucratic leaders that we have now that have built nary a new state road or highway in Georgia since the completion of Highway 400 through Buckhead almost 20 years ago? If these so-called roadbuilding advocates were so enthusiastic about building new highways then I sure wish that would have at least built some new ones since 1993 in a time period in which the population of Metro Atlanta grew by about 2.5 million.

“I think it is relatively easy to find watchdog groups to oversee the project costs. However, the question remains whether one group of people will allow “those people” to potentially have access to their slice of town….you know because they will rob your house and then get back on the train with your stuff. We’ll see but I think everyone recognizes that the status quo isn’t going to get it done.”

“Those people” will rob your house, but why should they use trains when you drive across the street or just simply walk next door as “those people” are pretty found in abundance in every one of the 10 counties due to vote for the transportation tax in 2012?

look at costs

June 10th, 2011
11:32 pm

Really – $20,000,000 a mile for heavy rail? Not including land? Even that is insane. Why is it $20,000,000 or more, or actually close to $50,000,000? Because the companies selling know the buyers (GovCo) could care less about costs.

Assume $52,080,000 per mile. That is $10,000 per FOOT. Madness unless the tracks are made of Gold.

Michael H. Smith

June 10th, 2011
11:54 pm

Geez, now why would anyone equated public mass transit to socialism?

1) Could it possibly have something to do with the inequity between fares and costs?

2) Maybe it is the government ownership thereof?

3) Then again, it might be reasons 1 and 2?

Kyle my friend you have a long way to go in conservatively re-farming a liberal argument.

So far you haven’t convinced me: The liberal picture isn’t complimenting the conservative frame. Try working on re-painting the picture to better suit the beauty of the frame – one that doesn’t have a pig with lipstick?

tjatl

June 10th, 2011
11:59 pm

Hmmm, Michael H. Smith: who owns the roads you drive on? Maybe the government? And want to talk about tax expenditures and costs when it comes to road construction? No one demands that fares (tolls) from roads pay for them. Why is transit held to a different standard?

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
12:06 am

tjatl, there is a great deal of difference in the standards, taxpayer/consumer expenditures to the costs of roads have a better equity.

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
12:18 am

C’mon Kyle, you gotta do better on making the ugly picture look attractive if it’s gonna compliment the beauty of the frame?

There is are solutions you know, you just gotta use a bit of “conservative ingenuity”.

tjatl

June 11th, 2011
12:23 am

You’re going to have to do better than that. How do you arrive at that conclusion?

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
12:27 am

Can you arrive at giving the costs difference between laying down rails as opposed to paving roads?

That ought to be a good starting point.

tjatl

June 11th, 2011
12:28 am

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
12:29 am

tjatl

June 11th, 2011
12:30 am

Good! Lay it out.

roger

June 11th, 2011
12:30 am

Look at the areas that MARTA serves and compare them to before MARTA . Do you see why people are not thrilled about mass transit coming their way. Look at the way MARTA is managed.
Add up all the money that MARTA cost the taxpayers and you could have bought each rider a cadillac . We are too close to a depression to start creating another jobs program that will drain the taxpayers from now on. When we pay off the national debt, we could consider a project such as this. Until then, we are already taxed beyond our ability to pay.

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
12:32 am

Do your own homework, tjatl.

tjatl

June 11th, 2011
12:34 am

This is too easy. What revenues do the roads generate?

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
12:35 am

roger, as the adage goes: Government is the problem, or more problem than answer.

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
12:41 am

Too easy for who?
Roads generate a great deal of revenue, next time you are beside an eighteen wheeler take a good look at the revenue that goes to government just from that one rig. The freight that truck is carrying in addition generates tax revenue when those goods reach the retail point of sale which are paid by we the consumers, not to mention the fuel taxes and all the other taxes paid by that one tractor-trailer.

tjatl

June 11th, 2011
12:51 am

Now you’re talking about the *indirect* benefits – those that transit advocates tout but detractors dismiss. Detractors focus on revenues (fares) vs. expenditures as a self-contained equation, whereas they are unwilling to apply the same test to roads.

tjatl

June 11th, 2011
12:58 am

And those 18 wheelers don’t generate “revenue” unless the goods are delivered here. And often not even then, depending on where and how the sale transaction occurred. Fuel taxes? Ours are among the lowest in the country. The fact is that roads are a near total net expenditure – which is what makes them essentially a public utility. Something we fund “in the public interest”.

tjatl

June 11th, 2011
1:00 am

“In the public interest” — how socialist is that?

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
1:00 am

*indirect* benefits? :lol:

Nah, those taxes mentioned are real time costs being paid directly to government to pursue commerce for the right to use government roads.

Detractors can’t give answers so they put up shallow defenses by claiming costs are being conflated, when they are not.

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
1:04 am

Goods are delivered and the taxes are paid regularly as are the sale of those goods. Roads serve dual function something we fund in the public interest and more importantly “in the interest of commerce” which pay for the majority of the actual costs of our roads.

Claude

June 11th, 2011
1:05 am

The best conservative argument for mass transit is that it’s good to have transportation choices. People who want 31 flavors at the ice cream store shouldn’t want to be in a situation where their car is only way to travel.

tjatl

June 11th, 2011
1:08 am

So only the delivery of goods quantifies as revenue? What about the consumers who receive transport to the point of sale (or more to the point, consumption – which includes everything from sale of goods to entertainment, meals, and recreaqtion)?

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
1:12 am

If mass transit interest the public to the extent apparently being claimed then why is it that mass transit has been rejected by the American public to the extent that it has?

how socialist is that? :) Later, perhaps I’ll answer that one but suffice it to say, anytime worth is taken from the abilities of one to simply reward the needs of another that is centeral of Marxist dogma.

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
1:12 am

“central” (SP)

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
1:15 am

So only the delivery of goods quantifies as revenue?

Nope! Individuals who own cars and drive them on government roads pay exclusive taxes for those privileges as well.

tjatl

June 11th, 2011
1:19 am

“anytime worth is taken from the abilities of one to simply reward the needs of another that is centeral of Marxist dogma”
What on earth does this mean? And how does it apply to this discussion?
On that note, I’m going to bed.

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
1:21 am

For the benefit of those like tjatl who don’t like doing their own homework the answer to the question (according a the documentary on mass transit going back several years): Can you arrive at giving the costs difference between laying down rails as opposed to paving roads?

The costs (mile for mile) are three times greater for rail than for paving roads.

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
1:22 am

What on earth does this mean? And how does it apply to this discussion?
On that note, I’m going to bed.

Are we playing dodge-ball now? Don’t be silly.

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
1:36 am

Just wondering how many MARTA riders absolutely depend on mass transit as their only means of transportation because: 1) they can’t afford a car 2) just don’t want to spend their own money to buy an individual means of transportation 3) or they are members of the so-called less fortunate or under-privileged?

Who pays the difference between the MARTA fare they pay and the actual costs of their rides?

From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.
~ Marx

When the actual fares being paid by the riders are equal to the actual costs or at least a lot closer to equal to the actual costs than they are presently, then mass transit might lose the stigma of socialism.

tjatl

June 11th, 2011
1:37 am

OK – before I go to bed:
I turn your Marxist theory right back on you.
And “cost per mile” does not factor in the density of passengers carried. Transit carries far more passengers per mile than highways.
There will always be a need for roads, but we’ve become focused on bigger, wider roads at the expense of surface street connectivity and alternative modes. People are so interested in spewing ideological tautologies that a reasonable discussion is nearly impossible.

DawgDad

June 11th, 2011
1:37 am

I would like to sincerely thank the AJC staff for devoting enormous amounts of time, energy, and prime print space to educate me on a daily basis why I should not vote for this transportation tax. Your team is doing an outstanding job.

The advocates are trying to convince me to pay enormous sums (forever, essentially – re: SPLOST) for something I don’t want and don’t need and won’t use. Good Luck!!!

When they do touch on a topic close to home, adding a lane to I-575, they can’t just “add a lane to I-575″. No, they are only interested if they can rub their social engineering noses in our face by adding HOV lanes or toll lanes.

They have proven so far they are not the least bit interested in my support and they are not about to get it. I’ve been paying the going rate in taxes for years and expect that money to be spent wisely on operations, maintenance, AND new infrastructure. Balance the books, manage the spending and money you already have wisely,

Addendum: I am a knowledge worker. I realize many people have to physically show up for work every day and need effective transportation infrastructure, but I am witness to an ever increasing willingness of business to virtualize operations and collaboration. I go into work only when necessary, and we travel now far, far less than in the past, only when essential. My employer helps ensure we have the tools we need to work from home, and they willingly manage by results. I feel like I’m doing my part by staying off the local roads and highways to the extent possible, conserving fuel in the process. Gas prices and taxes are ensuring this trend will continue to evolve.

tjatl

June 11th, 2011
1:39 am

Losing sleep here — I take MARTA by choice. We have two cars. Often MARTA is the most convenient way.

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
1:43 am

And “cost per mile” does not factor in the density of passengers carried.

And that is what can only be seen as spewing ideological tautologies.

It doesn’t have to met your requirement, because it is a false one that ignores the exclusive taxes being paid for roads.

This is not merely about moving density efficiently.

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
1:46 am

Losing sleep here — I take MARTA by choice. We have two cars. Often MARTA is the most convenient way.

Completely ignores the actual question. Another evasive tactic from confronting the issue when losing an argument.

Michael H. Smith

June 11th, 2011
1:57 am

DawgDad, wish I could do the same but I’m not going to let liberal socialism get another piece of what should be at the very least held within the public-private sector instead of the BIG GUB’MENT sector.

And, I’m all for redesigning “Workfare”, as Bill Clinton knew it.

Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.....

June 11th, 2011
5:01 am

Michael H. Smith, it’s not about socialism, it’s about BUREAUCRACY and entitlement, which I guess you could say are two close cousins of socialism.

When it comes to funding mass transit projects why is it that transit advocates, planners, politicians, bureaucrats and basically all parties involved seem to think that sales taxes are the ABSOLUTE ONLY way to fund the operation and expansion of mass transit?

Also, why do roadbuilding advocates seem to think likewise about sales taxes and gas taxes being the absolute only way of funding the building of new roads?

A sales tax is a great BASE of funding, but by NO means should it be the only revenue stream.

It is not uncommon in other places with more comprehensive mass transit networks to fund bus, rail and road transportation with other creative means like through fees on parking spaces and parking tickets, fees on speeding tickets, DUI citations, higher more adequate transit fares and taxes on transit itself that transit riders may pay in addition to the actual base fare.

It is also not that uncommon in other states to more commonly use tolls to finance the construction, operation and maintenance of new expressways, specifically in Texas and Florida, which are two of are main and most direct economic competitors amongst the other 49 states.

Taxes are NOT the one and only way to fund critically-needed improvements to our transportation network. The dependency solely upon tax revenues to fund transportation comes from the staleness of bureaucracy and a feeling of entitlement in government agencies that SOMEONE ELSE should pay for it. There is just no explainable logic for sitting around waiting for someone else (the Feds, the state, the taxpayers, aliens from outer space, the mysterious “they” as in when are “they” going to build it?, etc) to magically appear and fund infrastructure improvements.

New and critically-needed infrastructure in the form of roads, trains, rail lines, buses, streetcars, libraries, schools, reservoirs, etc are NOT going to pay for themselves as this stuff just doesn’t magically fall out of the sky. The people who use this infrastructure are going to have to pay for it themselves in the form of USER FEES and stop sitting around for the state legislature to turn Georgia into the next Illinois, California or New York by taxing the living daylights out of the entire populace.

BOB FROM ACCOUNT TEMPS

June 11th, 2011
5:34 am

THE GOV WILL JUMP INTO BED WITH THE PRIVATE SECTOR FOR TOLL ROADS, WHY DON’T THEY DO SO FOR RAIL SERVICE?? THE COST PER MILE WILL BE LOWER BECAUSE THE PRIVATE SECTOR WILL HAVE A STAKE IN THE PROFITS.

Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.....

June 11th, 2011
5:43 am

DawgDad

June 11th, 2011
1:37 am

“When they do touch on a topic close to home, adding a lane to I-575, they can’t just “add a lane to I-575″. No, they are only interested if they can rub their social engineering noses in our face by adding HOV lanes or toll lanes.”

Oh, do you mean the High Occupancy Toll lanes (HOT lane or “Lexus Lanes”) that GDOT keeps trying to build, but that they can never seem to get up off the ground because GDOT’s own cost analysis and research tells them that they won’t be able to recoup enough revenue to even cover the cost of the construction of the lanes, much less the continued operation of the lanes?

GDOT keeps trying to find a private corporation so that they can set up the project as a public-private partnership, but every potential partner they find will only enter into a partnership if the contract restricts other parallel routes and modes of transportation in that I-75/I-575 corridor from being improved, meaning that there could be no more meaningful improvements made to Hwy 41/Cobb Parkway, Canton Road or Bells Ferry Road and there could be no light rail or commuter rail on the CSX and Georgia Northeastern rail lines for the entire life of the contract if the HOT lanes were to become operational in a public-private partnership unless there were a big payout from the state to end the contract.

California tried that same approach with a public-private partnership to build and operate HOT lanes years ago, a public-private partnership which turned into a public relations disaster for the state when the public found out after the contract was signed and the lanes were built that no meaningful improvements could be made to parallel routes in the area. When the public got steaming mad about that stipulation in the contract and demanded that parallel roads be able to receive transportation improvements, the state had no choice but to payout even more money than might have ever made to the private partnering corporation to break an unpopular contract, a payout that was even more unpopular and made the public even more hot steaming mad.

I sure hope that you’re not talking about GDOT, the same GDOT that recently found $430 million in unpaid invoices stuffed in a desk? The same GDOT that to even the knowledge of the old-timers hadn’t done an inventory on what it was building in recent (or distant) memory and had no idea, not even a clue of how many different projects it was supposed to be working on at any given time?

When an inventory was finally done on the GDOT books in 2008 for literally the first time in who knows when, there were so many projects on the books that they couldn’t count them and the agency had no idea how much it was spending. The only way that GDOT was prioritizing which projects were the most important was according to from whom they got the most political pressure from and according to how much public outrage there was over a certain project being neglected.

dcb

June 11th, 2011
5:50 am

Great point, Bob!