Sunday, December 05, 2004

READER RESPONSE -- The reality of light rail

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:52 PM |  

In his post "Da Train! Da Train!,” Dave Downing over at makes the connection between the perception of “success” of the Hiawatha Light Rail Line and its inevitable collision with reality. He writes --

The Met Council, the non-elected regional governmental body that operates it [Hiawatha Line], is getting good PR mileage out of touting ridership levels that exceed "projections." Big deal. They can project whatever they want. I'd be impressed if ridership levels exceeded what was projected to make the thing pay for itself, but that's not the case. (See my Aug. 19 post.)

But most of the taxpaying public are hardly that discerning. A couple days ago I had on a music station in the morning with the typical "happy talk" morning show hosts. When the train was mentioned in their very brief newscast, the hosts answered with, "I hear that's a big success! Yes, twice as many riders as they expected!" That "twice as many" exaggeration aside, it's scary to think that for many people, uninformed happy talk like that will make up the sum of their knowledge on the issue.
Dave is right on. Success has to be measured by viability and the only real measure of viability is that the line pays for itself -- or is it? Dave follows with another good point --

Here's one way to look at the impact of the train. Now, when a downtown Minneapolis company wants to send one of their employees out of town, they can send him or her off to the airport with a taxpayer-subsidized train ride. The company can save some money. Meanwhile, the cab driver who used to carry that business traveler and earn a fare to help support his family is out of luck.Government using our tax money to provide business with a service they previously were perfectly willing to pay for? Sounds like a scheme from those big business-loving Republicans. There's some irony for you, because the train is definitely the liberals' baby.
Dave has hit on a subject I love to harp on -- the economic theory of the seen verses the unseen. Proponents of light rail can point to all those happy riders and say “See what a success we have created.” The “unseen” consequences are the lost revenue for cab drivers, as Dave points out plus the myriad jobs and business expansions that never came into being because state tax dollars are flowing to light rail instead of being spent by individual taxpayers on things they might value more than light rail.

The problem is that the more “successful” the Hiawatha Line appears, the stronger the drive for more of it. If that “more of it” is state subsidized, then that also means more unseen jobs that never come into being. If we recognize that government subsidies to one industry to create very visible jobs and “economic development” must necessarily reduce jobs and economic development in many small ways, and that is what we want to do, we should also recognize that strategy puts us on a path to economic and ethical bankruptcy that inevitably merges with The Road to Serfdom.”