Wednesday, March 23, 2005

What Does Mass Transit Cost?
I'm still catching up with articles published while I was on vacation. P.J. O'Rourke's ironic blast at mass transit funding from last Wednesday's Wall St. Journal is funny but also raises serious questions. Presumably, every one of the mass-transit projects he cites was approved on the basis of favorable economic analysis, but slicing and dicing the same numbers differently suggests they are massively wasteful of taxpayer money. Who is right?

I periodically ride MetroNorth from Connecticut into Manhattan. I always try to avoid peak commute hours, when the trains are packed. Yet despite steadily rising fares and constant calls for new subsidies, this system cannot seem to afford even proper routine maintenance, let alone provide for the replacement of seriously aging rolling stock. If MetroNorth and operators like them had to account for their results on a replacement-cost basis, instead of riding a legacy asset into the ground, the result would be a public scandal on a similar scale to those that have rocked the business world in recent years.

However, there are two obvious problems with viewing mass transit in purely economic terms. First, the consideration and comparison of alternatives gets incredibly complicated. Do you compare one mass-transit mode to another, such as buses, or is the real alternative more highway miles or lanes, or merely more congestion on existing highways? If so, how do you reckon the logistical and environmental impact of putting all those folks in cars, factoring in "diamond lanes" and other car-pooling incentives? How do telecommuting and e-meetings affect the demand for physical transportation? None of this is beyond analyzing, but as with any economic analysis, the choices and assumptions you make up front largely determine the outcome.

The other problem may be O'Rourke's real point. On economics alone, mass transit has probably been a loser for decades, even with all conceivable externalities included. But mass transit is as much about social values and choices as it is dollars. Without mass transit, what do those who can't drive or can't afford cars do, and how does that change society? And after all, isn't sitting in a train reading the paper or listening to your iPod a lot more pleasant than being honked at by impatient motorists trying to merge into bumper-to-bumper traffic?

These systems ought to be as efficient and well-thought-out as possible, but they're not just about cost. I suspect that the only way to get this balance totally right would be to build new towns and cities from the ground up, the way they do in Singapore.

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