If You Build It, They Still Won’t Come

Commentary — By on June 1, 2010 at 10:24 am

Justin Owen, director of policy at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, explains why the proposal by the Metropolitan Planning Organization for a mass transit system in Middle Tennessee will prove inefficient and costly.  This article originally appeared in Sunday’s Tennessean.

By Justin Owen

In 2006, Middle Tennessee’s Regional Transportation Authority spent $41 million to run a commuter train line between Lebanon and Nashville. They dubbed it the Music City Star, though a more fitting name would be the Debt Star. Despite proponents’ predictions that 1,500 people would ride the train daily, barely half that actually climb aboard.

As a result, the government spends $25,000 a year per commuter. Transportation expert Randal O’Toole notes that this is enough to buy each passenger a brand new Toyota Prius every single year for the next 30 years.

Now, the Metropolitan Planning Organization wants to expand the concept of the Star into a 10-county region around Nashville. They plan to spend $5 billion between now and 2035 to buy new trains and buses to haul people around.

Where will the $5 billion come from? According to the plan’s promoters, a mere 25 percent will come from the riders themselves, while the all other taxpayers will foot the bill for the remaining 75 percent through federal, state and local taxes.

The state legislature made this easier last year when it gave local governments the green light to enact new taxes to fund mass transit. They did this by authorizing “dedicated funding sources,” which is just a fancy way of saying new taxes. Now, not only will their federal and state tax dollars fund this expansion, citizens will inevitably see tax increases at the local level.

Try cheaper options

Throughout America, mass transit is a heavily subsidized machine, requiring billions of tax dollars to continue running. This is precisely because its advocates have a “build it and they will come” mentality.

Unlike the private sector — in which innovators see a demand and create a good or service to fill that demand — the government often attempts to falsely engineer demand by building the supply first. Rail transit is a prime example of this phenomenon.

While rail transit seems exciting, it’s just not all it is cracked up to be. Local leaders should instead look to solutions that will actually solve our transportation woes without draining taxpayers dry. For instance, they should convert rarely used HOV lanes into high-occupancy toll lanes, allowing solo drivers to pay a fee to drive in the faster lanes. The price could fluctuate based on traffic congestion, meaning the toll lanes and the regular lanes would always operate at peak efficiency, benefit­ing all drivers.

Further, for a city the size of Nashville, bus transit is more sensible and is less costly than rail transit. Unfortunately, as rail transit eats away at the region’s transportation funding, it will be the more efficient bus lines that fall victim.

Expanding rail transit will drive Middle Tennessee governments deep into debt with little to show for it, while more effective solutions are ignored. Look no further than every other American city or our own Music City Star for the proof.

Justin Owen is the director of policy and general counsel at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan public policy organization committed to achieving a freer, more prosperous Tennessee through the ideas of liberty.

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