Vanishing Automobile update #33

Madison Commuter Rail: Let the Taxpayers Beware!

5 January 2003

How would you feel if you bought a fancy new DVD player for Christmas, only to find the next day that the same store was selling another DVD player that was just as good -- but at one fourth the cost? If you complain, the salesman who never bothered to tell you about the lower-priced model might snicker and say, "Caveat emptor -- let the buyer beware!"

We expect shady salesmen to sometimes rip us off. But we don't expect that of public servants who are supposed to carefully manage our hard-earned tax dollars. Yet that is exactly what is happening with a recent proposal to start rail transit service in Madison, Wisconsin.

Madison is a modest city of 210,000 people centering on an urban area of 330,000 people, all of whom are located in Dane County. The home of the University of Wisconsin and capital of a state proud of its Progressive history, several members of its city council want to put Madison on the map by building a rail transit line.

Madison Metro Transit currently carries about 10 million unlinked trips and 35 million passenger miles per year. Madison roads and streets carry about 2.2 billion vehicle miles per year. At an average occupancy of 1.6 people per car, that represents 3.5 billion passenger miles. Transit therefore represents just 1 percent of the urban area's motorized passenger miles.

Miles of driving are growing at about 2.7 percent per year, but transit ridership has been stagnant for the past fourteen years. In the five years before that, it declined by a quarter. Despite being a liberal university town, Madison is not a transit town.

"Transport 2020," an intergovernmental group representing the state of Wisconsin, city of Madison, and Dane County, recently asked Parsons Brinkerhoff to evaluate "transportation alternatives for the Dane County/Greater Madison Metropolitan Area." Parsons Brinkerhoff, of course, has made millions planning, designing, and engineering light-rail lines in cities all over the country. The firm recently contributed $50,000 to the campaign for Cincinnati light rail.

To its credit, Parsons did a reasonable evaluation of several alternatives, including improved bus service, exclusive bus ways, light rail, two commuter rail lines, and four commuter rail lines. They found almost no differences in ridership between modes. Instead, ridership was more sensitive to frequencies: increasing frequencies from between 30 and 60 minutes to between 10 and 20 minutes (or even just between 20 and 30 minutes) led to much greater increases in ridership than changing bus to rail service.

Based on these alternatives, Parsons narrowed the selection down to two: 1) "enhanced and express bus services"; and 2) enhanced buses with two commuter rail lines. They compared these with a baseline alternative, called "no build." The relevant results are shown below. "Current" is for 2001; the other alternatives are for 2020.

Transportation Alternatives for Dane County/Madison

                                       Enhanced  Commuter
                    Current  No Build     Bus      Rail
Daily trips          31,550    37,250    55,500    56,650
Annual trips         10.3 m    12.4 m    18.5 m    18.8 m
Capital cost        $12.4 m   $20.0 m   $60.3 m  $242.0 m
Operating cost      $28.2 m   $31.7 m   $36.2 m   $39.5 m
Local annual cost   $10.1 m   $12.6 m   $15.6 m   $21.1 m

Source: "Transportation Alternatives Analysis for the Dane County/Greater Madison Metropolitan Area Final Report," Parsons Brinkerhoff, 2002, p. 10-22.

Both enhanced bus and commuter rail carry about 50 percent more riders than no build. But commuter rail costs four times as much as the enhanced bus alternative and carries only 2 percent more daily trips. The cost of each new ride carried by the enhanced bus alternative is $1.50. The cost of each additional ride carried by the commuter rail alternative is nearly $65. (Cost per new ride is calculated by summing the marginal operating and annualized capital costs and dividing by the new additional riders.)

Parsons delivered its highly quantitative, 200-page report to Transport 2020 in August, 2002. In turn, Transport 2020 distributed a 40-page summary report to the public in October, 2002, that declared commuter rail to be the "locally preferred alternative." The report was filled with pretty photos and charts but few numbers.

Also missing from the report were any data regarding the enhanced bus alternative. Using the exact same data as the Parsons report, the summary report compared current, no build, and commuter rail, but did not mention the "enhanced/express bus" alternative.

In short, Transport 2020 is telling unwary Madisonians that commuter rail is needed to increase transit ridership by 50 percent. In fact, all commuter rail does is unnecessarily spend $181 million to get less than 2 percent more riders. At a cost per new rider of $1.50, bus enhancements could capture that 2 percent for just $450,000.

Why did Transport 2020 leave the enhanced bus service alternative out of the Summary Report? Possibly because they did not want Dane County and Madison voters and public officials to know that buses can accomplish everything rails can do, at a far lower cost.

In fact, buses are superior to commuter rail in almost every way. It can take years to start up new rail service; bus services can be improved in a few weeks to a few months. Buses are safer, causing only 54 percent as many fatalities as commuter rail, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Express buses connecting various neighborhoods and communities with downtown and the university can provide most people with 30 mile per hour or faster transit service. Rails serve only the people in narrow corridors and, because of intervening stops, average little more than 20 miles per hour. Commuter rail will actually increase congestion, since the trains will stop traffic seven to thirteen times an hour at more than a dozen road crossings along the route.

Buses are inferior to rail in only one respect: They don't cost as much. Some people might spend four times as much on a DVD player to enjoy the status of owning the most expensive brand. You might think that is foolish, but it's their money and they can do what they want with it.

In the same way, transit agencies across the nation have become enthralled with rail service not because it is better but because it adds to their budgets and prestige. The difference is, it isn't their money.

Transport 2020 wants to needlessly spend hundreds of millions of dollars of my money, your money, and everyone else's money just so Madison can have the status of a commuter train. Taxpayers will have to pay more than $60 every time a former non-transit rider climbs aboard that train.

On January 21, 2003, the Madison Common Council will decide whether to spend another $2.5 million to plan the rail line. That same money could be used to immediately begin improving the bus system. It is time for Madisonians to say, "Caveat adsiduus -- let the taxpayer beware!"

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