NCPA: Transit costs ‘railroaded’

Aug. 13, 2012
Among the top tenets of social ecology—up there with “mankind is the cause of global warming” and “expensive oil can be easily replaced by ‘free’ solar power”—is the frequent claim mass transit is more “environment friendly” than the hustle and bustle of urban automobile traffic.

Among the top tenets of social ecology—up there with “mankind is the cause of global warming” and “expensive oil can be easily replaced by ‘free’ solar power”—is the frequent claim mass transit is more “environment friendly” than the hustle and bustle of urban automobile traffic. That generally accepted belief backed by a windfall of tax subsidies has helped bolster development of rail transportation in many US cities.

But a study the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA)—a conservative, nonprofit think-tank—recently reported commuting by rail is slow, inconvenient, expensive, and at best “not much more environmentally friendly than automobiles.”

NCPA’s report was authored by Randall O’Toole, a Cato Institute senior fellow who also wrote “The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.” So it’s no surprise he concluded that, counting government subsidies, rail transit “costs several times more per passenger mile than driving.”

O’Toole cited US Department of Energy data from 2009—the latest available—showing the average automobile consumed 3,500 btu of energy per passenger mile while the average light truck used 3,900 btu/passenger mile. DOE also indicated urban buses averaged more than 4,200 btu/passenger mile.

With the sole exception of “heavily trafficked New York City,” O’Toole said rail transit used far more energy—some 6,000 btu/passenger mile in Baltimore, 8,000 btu in Cleveland, 5,400 btu in Miami, and 11,000 btu in Pittsburgh. He said, “For electric-powered vehicles, emissions depend on the power source—coal or other fossil fuels—and therefore is often much less ‘green’ than driving.”

Because mass transit generally is slower and less convenient than driving, the study reported, its cost is much greater—“a fact that is disguised by the much larger subsidies given to transit.”

NCPA Senior Fellow H. Sterling Burnett said, “Cars today are producing only 1% of the pollution they emitted in the 1970s; buses and trains, by comparison, have made only slight improvements.”

By 2025 the average car will be greener than transit, the study said. Since passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act requiring automakers to add pollution-control equipment to new cars, such pollution has greatly been reduced.

The study said, “Many new cars today only pollute about 1% as much as cars made in 1970. As a result, even though Americans drive more than 2½ times as many miles today as in 1970, total automotive pollution emissions have declined by 80%. Since cars are getting cleaner every year, total pollution will soon be only about 5% of 1970’s auto emissions.”

Lower costs

The NCPA report said previous studies show transit project costs consistently run 40% over original projections. It said highway projects usually are funded from user fees and need less political support, while budget overruns average only 8%.

It cited a Bureau of Economic Analysis report US residents spent $943 billion buying, operating, maintaining, and insuring motor vehicles in 2010. To that, add annual highway subsidies primarily from local governments, it said, and the cost of driving totaled $975 billion that year.

US residents drove autos and light trucks more than 2.6 trillion miles in 2010. “That means the average cost of driving was about 37¢/mile. Surveys conducted by the US Department of Transportation indicate cars carry, on average, 1.67 passengers, so the cost of driving per passenger mile is about 22¢,” said NCPA officials.

“In 2010, American transit systems carried about 52.6 billion passenger miles and collected $12.2 billion in fares, for an average fare of 23¢/passenger mile, about the same as the cost of driving,” the report stated.

But fares cover less than 25% of transit costs. “Total subsidies to transit in 2010 were nearly $40 billion, which adds 75¢ to the average cost of each passenger mile. This means transit costs about four times as much as driving.

Even in the New York urban area where 40% of all transit rides take place, transit costs more than 80¢/passenger mile,” the report concluded.

About the Author

Sam Fletcher | Senior Writer

I'm third-generation blue-collar oil field worker, born in the great East Texas Field and completed high school in the Permian Basin of West Texas where I spent a couple of summers hustling jugs and loading shot holes on seismic crews. My family was oil field trash back when it was an insult instead of a brag on a bumper sticker. I enlisted in the US Army in 1961-1964 looking for a way out of a life of stoop-labor in the oil patch. I didn't succeed then, but a few years later when they passed a new GI Bill for Vietnam veterans, they backdated it to cover my period of enlistment and finally gave me the means to attend college. I'd wanted a career in journalism since my junior year in high school when I was editor of the school newspaper. I financed my college education with the GI bill, parttime work, and a few scholarships and earned a bachelor's degree and later a master's degree in mass communication at Texas Tech University. I worked some years on Texas daily newspapers and even taught journalism a couple of semesters at a junior college in San Antonio before joining the metropolitan Houston Post in 1973. In 1977 I became the energy reporter for the paper, primarily because I was the only writer who'd ever broke a sweat in sight of an oil rig. I covered the oil patch through its biggest boom in the 1970s, its worst depression in the 1980s, and its subsequent rise from the ashes as the industry reinvented itself yet again. When the Post folded in 1995, I made the switch to oil industry publications. At the start of the new century, I joined the Oil & Gas Journal, long the "Bible" of the oil industry. I've been writing about the oil and gas industry's successes and setbacks for a long time, and I've loved every minute of it.