New Mexico is riding the wave of the future. Governor Bill Richardson (D-NM) felt that Albuquerque needed a commuter train to carry people to work and that they couldn’t wait the normal 10 to 20 years this process usually takes. So now 2,300 people a day ride the train to Albuquerque.
The problem? The state spends $20 million a year on the train. Thus, with 2,300 people using the train, the state is spending $33.44 per passenger per day, assuming 260 business days in the year. While one could argue public transit saves wear and tear on the roads, an individual driving to and from work would have to cause more than $8,000 in wear and tear for the cost of trains to make sense.
In my hometown of Boise, the city government is gearing up for the construction of a 2.6 mile street car loop, which will cover areas already serviced by our local buses — meaning any impact to air quality or traffic will be minimal. The cost of putting in the rail system will be $40-$65 million.
But don’t worry too much about us — half of that will be paid for by taxpayers in other states. The feds are picking up the tab.
There is a place for mass transit, particularly as cities grow. But these, and other big government transit projects, add up to the bridge to nowhere on wheels. The reason for these massive expenditures? Ideology that borders on religion.
In this new religion, taking the bus, riding a bike, or walking instead of driving are pious good works. And there is no surmounting the religion’s faith in solving transportation problems by addressing every mode of transit but what most people actually use to get from point A to point B.
During Idaho’s last legislative session, the legislature was presented with information that our existing highways and bridges were in disrepair. One State Senate Democrat focused on the “need” for bike lanes even in rural areas, where riding a bicycle is not an option for most because of the distance involved. Yes, I’m sure there are some people that ride their bicycles in Challis (pop: 909) but does it really make sense to spend the money?
It seems that part of the faith is that these options — even if barely used — are good in and of themselves.
Of course, empty bike lanes are a waste of money. Empty buses are a waste of money and fuel. In the private sector, a company whose service was as unpopular as mass transit would carefully evaluate the service and the marketing, and figure out why people don’t ride.
Not so much with the federal government. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood admitted at the National Press Club recently, regarding the administration’s policies: “It is a way to coerce people out of their cars.”
Building a light commuter rail is not going to get people to leave their cars. Portland’s light rail system has led to less people riding public transit for their daily commute, not more.
Government can make driving more expensive, however, and is doing that in big and small ways. Obama’s new CAFÉ standards will increase the price of a new car by $6,000 by 2016. On the other end of the equation, you have the price of gas, which has been steadily rising since it hit lows under $1.50 in most parts of the country. It will probably be a little while until we see the $4.00 and up of 2008, but that day is almost definitely coming with Obama dialing back the modest steps the Bush administration had taken towards allowing America to take advantage of its own resources. During the campaign, Obama said he would have preferred a gradual adjustment in gas prices rather than the sudden surge that happened last year. And as a local liberal blogger — who has the luxury of not having to stand for election — said, “The truth is, gasoline is not nearly expensive enough.”
While Secretary LaHood says that now is not the time to raise gas taxes, that “time” will come, as people driving less while forcing cars to have higher fuel standards will ultimately mean less gas tax revenue — which will exacerbate the shortfalls many states are already experiencing in highway funds. And many states are already trying to increase their state taxes with mixed success.
In some ways, the current efforts seem reminiscent of our nation’s tobacco policies that have had us trying to discourage people from smoking, while at the same time subsidizing tobacco farming and basing our long-term revenue projections on people continuing to smoke. Will the government’s equally muddled war on driving succeed?
The administration may find itself in for more than it bargained, as this coercion becomes a pestilence to the American people. High gas prices drove a smiling Democrat from office in the late 1970s. Obama’s offensive on driving is going to be a lot more difficult than taking on Big Tobacco or trans fats.
Unlike cigarettes or fatty foods, cars are essential to most Americans. A car allows parents to work in the city while maintaining a nice house nestled in the suburbs. More importantly, driving is about individual freedom.
Last month, my employer offered any employee who wanted one a free bus pass for the month. So I rode the bus several times. The bus became the master of my time, as my life had to match the whims of the schedule. And the bus was often late.
In a world where life is more hectic than ever, and our patience thinner than ever, time is a precious resource. Buses, on the other hand, are still about as reliable as they were in the days of Ralph Kramden. Commuter rail systems — such as the one in Portland that travels at breakneck speeds of 22 MPH — don’t really address this problem. That Secretary LaHood thinks the administration will have a great deal of success forcing the American people to live according to the dictates of others, like lab rats on treadmills, shows how little the administration understands the American people.
This issue could be bigger than health care. Most people only focus on that when dealing with illness. The daily commute, however, is an ever-present matter. If the administration’s policies chafe the average motorist too much, in 2012 voters may coerce Obama out of the White House.