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Archive for July 28th, 2021

As a matter of sensible public policy (and well as fealty to the Constitution), the federal government should not be involved in transportation.

But since I don’t expect the current crowd in Washington has any interest in getting rid of the Department of Transportation, perhaps we should have a more modest goal of eliminating subsidies for mass transit.

After all, there’s no reason why taxpayers across the nation should be subsidizing the cost of railway, bus, and subway travel in a handful of cities.

Getting rid of these handouts would save a decent chunk of money. Here’s a chart from Downsizing Government, which shows the history of pre-pandemic spending by the Federal Transit Administration.

But that chart is now out of date since politicians have used the pandemic as an excuse to dramatically increase the burden of federal spending. Including big handouts for mass transit.

And now they want to raid taxpayers for more transit money as part of a spending spree on infrastructure.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized about this topic a couple of days ago.

Democrats are accusing Republicans of holding up the Senate infrastructure deal over funding for mass transit. Here’s what’s really going on: Republicans have bowed to most Democratic demands. But now Democrats are also insisting that they acquiesce to spending ever more to rescue broken rail and bus systems in big liberal cities. Mass transit typically receives $13 billion in federal funds each year, and Congress provided an additional $70 billion for urban transit last year in the myriad pandemic spending bills. That’s more than six times the normal transit budget and more than the annual operating and capital spending of every transit agency in the U.S. combined. …But most mass transit systems face a larger structural budget problem that pre-dated the pandemic: Ballooning operating costs from generous labor contracts and pension payments, which are siphoning off money from system improvements and repairs. Many systems have also been losing riders due to lousy service… So Democrats want Republicans to bail out those cities and their public unions. Republicans have agreed to a $48.5 billion supplemental appropriation for mass transit in the deal. But in addition Democrats are demanding that 20% of transportation spending from the highway trust fund—financed by gas tax revenues—go toward transit.

This is throwing good money after bad.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education back in 2019, Hans Bader explained that mass transit in an inefficient money pit.

Mass transit is largely a failure and continues to decline despite growing subsidies to many mass transit systems. Light rail systems are white elephants. …South Korea is abolishing its celebrated high-speed rail line from its capital, Seoul, to a nearby major city because it can’t cover even the marginal costs of keeping the trains running. Most people who ride trains don’t need maximum possible speed, and most of those who do will still take the plane to reach distant destinations. …most Japanese don’t take the bullet train either; they take buses because the bullet train is too expensive. Bullet trains do interfere with freight lines, so Japanese freight lines carry much less cargo than in the United States, where railroads—rather than trucks—carry most freight, thereby reducing pollution… California’s so-called bullet train is vastly behind schedule and over budget, and will likely never come close to covering its operating costs once it is built. …Just the first leg of this $77 billion project will cost billions more than budgeted. And the project is already at least 11 years behind schedule.

Government is a big reason why transit is so inefficient and expensive.

Industry expert Randal O’Toole wrote about the harmful impact of socialized systems back in 2018.

Public ownership of transit has significantly increased the cost of transit, creating another disadvantage for the transit industry relative to other modes of travel. Before 1964, transit systems in most American cities were private and profitable, albeit declining. In 1964, Congress gave cities and states incentives to take over transit systems, and within a decade nearly all had been municipalized …followed by a staggering decline in transit productivity. In the decade before 1964, transit systems carried an average of about 59,000 riders per operating employee. This plunged after 1964 and today averages fewer than 27,000 riders per employee… It is doubtful that any American industry has suffered a 54 percent decline in worker productivity over 30 years unless it was another industry taken over by the government and inflicted with all the inefficiencies associated with government control and management.

We’ll close with this chart from O’Toole’s study, which shows total taxpayer subsidies over time.

The bottom line is that government transit systems are a lot like government schools. More and more money gets spent over time with worse and worse results.

Except maybe mass transit is even worse because of absurd cost overruns.

P.S. Click here and here to learn more about the boondoggle of government-funded rail.

P.P.S. Click here to learn more about the boondoggle of government-funded subways.

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