Transit

If government created dinosaurs

WHEN PRIVATE businesses offer a service the public does not want, or persist in selling that service once technology or changing public demand has rendered it obsolete, the marketplace quietly and swiftly ends the venture, much as natural selection and changing conditions rendered dinosaurs extinct.

But when government provides a service no one would accept at its true cost, the costs are simply hidden or shifted to someone else, and the venture staggers on indefinitely, draining needed resources from better uses and pre-empting better choices.

Public transit is one such holdover, staggering on sickeningly, long after its usefulness ended, existing solely for the purpose of gathering matching federal funds, with no real purpose or value to the locality.

Public transit, even at heavily subsidized fares of $1.50 to $2, has low ridership. But were the true cost of those rides reflected in the fares charged, it would have no ridership at all. The cost of urban transit is about 85 cents per passenger mile, 14 cents paid in fares plus a whopping 61 cents per passenger mile in taxpayer subsidies. Travel by auto, by comparison, costs just over 23 cents per passenger mile, 22.5 cents paid by the user, including the tolls, fuel taxes and other user fees that pay for the bulk of road costs, plus less than 1 cent public subsidy from other tax sources. Economically, transit is clearly a dinosaur.

Advocates concede transit could not function without fares subsidized at an average of 80 percent but contend the cost shifting is justified to reduce pollution and congestion. However, studies by the U.S. Department of Transportation show that transit compares unfavorably to compact cars and other options on both scores. The reason is that while a commuter travels to his destination and parks his car until returning home, making one round trip, transit must operate all day long, generally near empty at non-peak hours and even making return trips nearly empty during peak hours.

Worse than merely subsidizing its failing buses and trains, government protects its monopoly by barring private transit on routes where demand would actually support buses at reasonable fares and with anti-competitive taxi regulations, limiting the number of taxicabs and setting minimum fares that preclude fee-for-ride carpooling. Carpooling to major destinations, like the Naval Base, might really catch on if sailors with minivans could charge five or six others the same $1.50 that transit charges for the ride. But doing so would be illegal.

If we really find it necessary to subsidize the travel of low- income citizens, we could more efficiently use the food stamp model and issue taxi vouchers equal to the current transit subsidy and let the private sector provide.

Clearly, public transit fails as an economically viable transportation solution, and as congestion relief and pollution reduction as well. Yet rather than dying as an unsuccessful private venture would, we are expanding it with light rail, at a cost of at least a half-billion dollars for a starter line for Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Light rail fares will never repay a dime of its construction cost, and it will operate at a loss of several million dollars a year every year it runs. The same public money we will spend on light rail could have added a tube to both the Downtown and Midtown tunnels, a far better way to reduce congestion and wasted fuel.

Privatizing transit, allowing the marketplace to determine where unsubsidized bus lines are viable and eliminating taxi regulations other than proper licensing and insurance requirements, would solve our need for low cost transportation for non-drivers at far less of a drain on our resources than public transit. Yet every year we go deeper into that rat hole.

I guess we should be thankful Tyrannosaurs were not a government project.

Guest columnist Don Tabor is a grandfather, Libertarian activist and proprietor of the Tidewater Liberty blog, TidewaterLiberty.com. He is a dentist living in Chesapeake and practicing in Norfolk and Hampton.

One Response to Transit

  1. David says:

    What a wonderful article, so full of facts that compare apples to oranges.
    The first is the assumption that one can draw always draw a comparison between private and public enterprizes, which is not the case. We can all name public ventures that we do not use and believe that if left to the “natural selection” process would be rendered obsolete. But, moral people realize these ventures are needed for the common good of all of society, not just a favored few.
    Using your own logic, why don’t we just let private enterprize determine which roads to build and let them charge for the use of those roads accordingly? If I don’t drive on a particular road, why should I subsidize that road by the use of my tax dollars? Or should we use schools as an example. I don’t have school age children, why should my tax dollars be used to pay for education? Or trash collection, I live in a community that pays for it to be collected, but yet my tax dollars goes to the city to provide such collections. Or the city recreation centers, while I might use them, I know the membership fee does not cover the cost of operating them, why does someone support them with there tax dollars?
    The truth is there are very few, if any, “public” operations that are fully funded by user fees. Everyone is paying for services that they don’t use or need, but that someone else depends on and public transportation is no different.

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