Commuter trains in Utah

June 12, 2009 | 147 comments
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I just returned from a short presentation by Mike Ransom on the Utah commuter Frontrunner rail line.  It is a lesson in how to not spend money.

Right now, the rail line has about 100,000 one-way trips a month.  Split over about ~22 operating days this is somewhere over 4,000 trips a day.  Those are not round trip, so probably more like 2-3,000 people are riding the train each day.  The operating expenses are about 1.2 million/month.  Thus, based on operating expenses alone, the train’s societal cost is about $12/trip.  Or about $24 a round trip.  This is not the most efficient use of money.

Of course, the train construction project cost about 600 million dollars.  Taking in the cost of capital, then, the train is costing more like $5-6 million a month.  In which case we are paying, as taxpayers, about $50 to $60 per trip– over a $100 a round trip.  And don’t worry.  Alot of that capital money came from the feds, so even if you don’t live in Utah you get to help pay for it.

An alternate way to think about it is if we were to take that $5-6 million and use it to lease cars for each of the regular riders on the Frontrunner.  If we think those trip totals are largely composed of about 5-10,000 regular riders, we could spend about $500-$1000 a month leasing each of them a very very very nice car.  Or, here’s a thought, we could use the money in a way that would actually benefit more people.

Don’t worry, though.  They are going to expand the line down to Provo and beyond so that all can benefit from the wonders of commuter rail in the American West — where you can now get on a train to take you from where you don’t live, to where you don’t work.

147 Responses to Commuter trains in Utah

  1. Tim on June 12, 2009 at 5:47 am

    Any idea how much roads cost, per person? Is there a way to do an effective cost analysis there?
    How much are tickets? In other words, how much of the cost is offset by the riders, and how much by the public?
    I know a lot of people that commute daily from Provo to Salt Lake, or from Salt Lake to Provo; I think that line will get more riders. The rush hour buses from Provo to Salt Lake are always packed (or at least they were a couple of years ago, when I sometimes rode them).

  2. Peter LLC on June 12, 2009 at 5:54 am

    Once I spent a good 90 minutes travelling the 13 miles from American Fork to Provo because UDOT opted to to spend untold millions of federal transportation dollars to fix I-15 during morning “rush hour”* traffic.

    Your proposal to add another 3000 leased vehicles to the fray is certainly a modest one and effectively highlights the absurdity of building mass transportation for Wild Westerners who, for good reason, have placed their homes high up on the bench out of reach of not only the proletariat but outmoded 19th century rail technology as well.

    It is high time that Utah’s elected leaders catch the wave of the future and invest more in individual transportation solutions and leave mass transit to the Asians and Europeans where it rightly belongs.

    *It’s not like we’re talking LA here; just Utah Valley.

  3. Dan on June 12, 2009 at 6:04 am

    I hope they expand services. I don’t know how many of you have been to Europe (or Asia–though I’ve never been to Asia, but I know they have excellent trains in many areas), but there’s nothing like a good train ride to work in the morning. I highly doubt Utah’s service will be anywhere near as efficient as Switzerland, but wow what a joyride.

    If the train service is anywhere as close in quality and efficiency as that of Switzerland (which it can be; America is quite a productive place—we just need to put our minds to it), American businessmen will also take the train to work just like their counterparts in Switzerland.

  4. Carmen on June 12, 2009 at 7:27 am

    This is still a relatively new service. Moving to public transportation is a large lifestyle change, and one that may not occur to or be implemented by people all at once. I would be interested to know the history of Trax, was it as used as it is now when they first opened it? How about a year later? I still think it a good thing for Utah as the public transportation in the state I now live in is comparably abismal.

  5. Wilfried on June 12, 2009 at 7:39 am

    Something tells me you may not be counting everything, Frank. Such as

    1) the cost of time lost in traffic jams
    2) the cost of extra time lost in more traffic jams by “leasing each of them a very very very nice car”
    3) the cost of gas for all those cars
    4) the effect of added pollution (air quality in SL and Utah valleys?) and the related cost of health care
    5) the cost of human lives since cars kill many more people than trains

    But I’m just a naive European.

  6. Dan Ellsworth on June 12, 2009 at 7:43 am

    What is the growth rate of ridership? What is the projected population growth of the region over the next couple of decades, and is there transit-oriented development being developed to accommodate that growth? What would be all of the costs of not providing train service in the face of projected growth? Whatever the short-term costs of FrontRunner, what are the long-term costs of the various alternatives here?
    Economists offer similar criticisms of the DC metrorail system, which has a ridership of 944,400 people a day, but they conveniently avoid the question of what 944,400 more cars on the road would look like in the already-congested DC area.
    As is typical of most libertarian analysis of energy and transportation issues, this analysis of FrontRunner costs and benefits is very myopic and selective in what costs to depict. It’s as if road-building, pollution, and productive time lost in traffic have no measurable costs at all. Gotta love economics…

  7. Mark B. on June 12, 2009 at 7:58 am

    Now that the best economic minds in the country have solved the problems of downturns in the business cycle, ending forever the problems of recessions, depressions and unemployment, it’s nice to see those talents put to use in fixing the transportation mess.

    Whatever would we do without them?

  8. Jessica on June 12, 2009 at 8:03 am

    Yeah. I’m totally with you, Frank. This is exactly the thing I was complaining about:

    I heard that the Church built a new chapel in Layton recently. Do you have any idea how much that COST!!??? And if they put three wards in there, that chapel will only serve around 2000 people. So you divide that cost into 2000, and you find that, HEY! If the church could have bought PEWS for those people — really POSH pews — rather than spending all that money to buy a new building. (Pay no attention to the fact that there is no place to put those pews in the existing buildings. I am ignoring that on purpose because it makes my argument sound weaker.)

    But back to the point, there are how many millions of members in this church? And that chapel is holding only 2000 people? That’s the way of the Church here in the American West. You pay your tithing, and rather than spending the money on decorating existing chapels, they go and build a building most members will never even set foot into.

    Be outraged.

  9. Zack on June 12, 2009 at 8:35 am

    Hmm… If only they could find a way to make the servie more profitable over time…. If there were only SOME way for the train to get closer to more where more people live or get them to more destinations where they might want to go….

    But no! Silly liberals just insist on extending the train line which will almost certainly only increase the systems inefficiency.

    (And I’m glad to hear that you support a program where the government pays people’s car leases. Sounds like a nice program.)

  10. Kent Larsen on June 12, 2009 at 8:44 am

    Wow, Frank, 8 out of 9 comments disagree with you! I’m tempted to either defend you or challenge you to a competition to see who can get the highest percentage of critical comments!

    But, I can’t really agree with this post. I think that there is a long view that needs to apply somehow here. Let me put it this way: I’m glad every day that someone started building a subway system in New York City in 1904.

    Even if my tax dollars pay for 1/2 of every trip.

  11. Ardis E. Parshall on June 12, 2009 at 8:55 am

    Sorry, Frank, I’ve heard this before and I reject the “we could lease them all a car” argument that public transportation is a waste of money.

    I can’t drive no matter how many cars you lease for me. You couldn’t breathe much longer if all those commuters drove private cars every day, either.

    I never drive on your street, yet when I lived in Provo you expected me to help pave it, and plow the snow that fell there, and put up the stop sign at the corner, and pay the policeman who kept your neighbors from double parking and running down your kids on tricycles.

    Now it’s your turn to help provide one of the very few public services I can take advantage of.

  12. Dennis on June 12, 2009 at 9:00 am

    Frank,

    I think you’re underestimating the enormous number of people who will use the rail from Provo to SLC. Especially college students (but who cares about them?).

  13. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2009 at 9:04 am

    Albuquerque recently put in a commuter rail. My dad and I did a little research and figured out that for the capital costs alone we probably could have bought 20 or so buses, built a dedicated bus lane on the freeway, and created a substantial fund to pay for operating expenses. But buses aren’t sexy.

  14. Sam B. on June 12, 2009 at 9:06 am

    I have to say, the one time I used the light rail in Utah, I really liked it. (I should note that I don’t live anywhere near Utah, don’t have close family there, and therefore visit on only the rarest occasions, so it’s not like I used it and abandoned it.) The only significant problem I saw (other than under-utilization) was that it doesn’t have very broad coverage. But downtown Salt Lake is small enough that this isn’t a significant problem. And besides traffic problems, imagine the parking problems if every commuter instead was driving.

  15. Dan on June 12, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Kent,

    Let me put it this way: I’m glad every day that someone started building a subway system in New York City in 1904.

    Well said. Too bad they haven’t really updated the subways since the 1920s though. ;)

  16. Dan on June 12, 2009 at 9:15 am

    To add to Ardis’ comment…sheesh, what’s up with me, a stay at home dad with no car, having to have my taxes go to maintaining the roads of those who drive…what’s up with that.

  17. Dan on June 12, 2009 at 9:16 am

    Doh! just read that more carefully…a stay at home dad doesn’t pay any taxes. *Sheepish now*

  18. Peter LLC on June 12, 2009 at 9:16 am

    But buses aren’t sexy.

    Bingo. Only poor people ride buses.

  19. Dan on June 12, 2009 at 9:18 am

    yeah, who wants to help the poor…oh yeah…

  20. Peter LLC on June 12, 2009 at 9:26 am

    Actually, cities that do mass transit right know that commuter rail is only part of the solution and that there is a significant role for buses to fill. They get the reluctant commuter over the “there’s no convenient stop by my house (not that I’d want one because of all the riff-raff that use public transportation)” hurdle.

  21. Bill on June 12, 2009 at 9:30 am

    Dan, except for during the 1960s and 1970s, when the state dealt with economic difficulties by disinvesting in mass transit with the result of the system losing 17% of its riders, the subways have been under constant upgrading. Why do you think there are service changes every weekend. Brand new cars are on many lines, with the old redbird train cars (more than 1200) now serving as artificial reefs to promote marine life.

    According to the FTA:

    By economic yardsticks, the annual benefits that transit returns to the national economy easily outpace costs (by $26 billion in 1997). During the 1990s transit returned $23 billion per year in affordable mobility for households that prefer not to drive, cannot afford a car, or cannot drive due to age or disability; $19.4 billion per year in reduced congestion delays for rush-hour passengers and motorists; $10 billion per year in reduced auto ownership costs for residents of location efficient neighborhoods; up to $12 billion per year in reduced auto emissions; $2 billion savings per year in local human service agency budgets; and a 2 percent boost in property tax receipts from commercial real estate.

    http://www.fta.dot.gov/publications/reports/other_reports/publications_134.html

    P.S. I ride buses all the time. Just yesterday I had a delightful conversation with a fellow New Yorker, as one of the new hybrid vehicles whisked me home in comfort and style.

  22. Dan on June 12, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Bill,

    I know they upgrade the subways all the time. I’m just making a snark remark. :)

  23. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 9:53 am

    A few comments:

    1. The comment about leasing cars is not a serious one, it is to point out how idiotic the cost is of the Frontrunner. If you want public transportation, the current solution in the west is going to probably be express buses. They do not cost $100 a round trip and they go faster than the train. They still let you work on your own thing while someone else drives.

    2. It takes an hour on the frontrunner to get from Ogden to Salt Lake. That is in addition to the waiting time for the train to arrive. You can see that on the posted schedule. I am betting an express bus system could do you better.

    3. The projected ridership for frontrunner was 6000 trips. It currently is 4000. Neither is even close to enough to make it worthwhile.

    4. Commuter rail is _very_dependent on the specific environment you are in. Utah is not Europe or Japan. Nor is it the East Coast. Japan’s trains are run at a profit, because the density is enough to support them. You can spend all day and night talking about how those trains are wonderful, but they simply do not work here in the American West. If you want public transportation here, you are going to be looking at buses.

    5. $100 a round trip. Please tell me why anyone would think that is a good idea. For a tenth that price we could buy a whole heap of express buses and use existing infrastructure.

    6. One lane on a freeway has, as a rule of thumb, about a 2000 cars/hour capacity. Presumably less in buses. But put 80 people on an express bus and you can add the frontrunner capacity for something like 25 bus trips each way. Since each bus can make multiple trips, that means you would need probably less than 20 buses. Even if a bus cost a million dollars to buy, that would still be far cheaper than $600M for frontrunner. And 20 buses will have about zero marginal impact on congestion or traffic. Certainly not enough to justify the extra hundreds of millions of dollars.

    7. Train systems cause buses to be rerouted to take people to the train. This actually can make the bus system _less_ useful because it now takes two trips to get where you want to go. Thus, I would guess that they are a net loss for the poor who use the bus system.

  24. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 10:01 am

    I think I’ve responded to most of the substantive concerns in the above points. But if you think I ignored your point, or do not understand how it has been answered, feel free to point it out.

    The central point, though, is why should we spend $600M on this system, plus $15M a year, when we could get the same capacity from a couple dozen express buses which would cost vastly less and put almost no additional strain on the existing infrastructure (the I-15 carries many tens of thousands of cars a day– a few more buses is not going to matter, especially if they reduce the number of cars)?

  25. Kent Larsen on June 12, 2009 at 10:03 am

    Bill (21), I’m with you on the bus. When we first moved here to NYC, I couldn’t see why anyone would use the bus except for the disabled. I can walk to the subway just fine everywhere I go in the city, and its a lot faster than the bus, except for very short trips. But then I discovered that I can take the subway one leg of a trip, and take the bus back on the return trip, and get a transfer so it only costs $2 for the entire trip.

    I then discovered how nice the buses are! Often less crowded, generally comfortable, and my 6-year-old has something to look at during the trip (subway walls aren’t terribly interesting–the only good view is in the first or last care of the subway, and even that gets boring after a while).

    Peter (20) is right. Buses serve an important role in a transportation mix.

    But Adam (13) you are wrong to think that a fleet of buses can really replace a light rail line. The operating costs are higher for buses, and they are much more subject to traffic delays.

  26. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 10:08 am

    Kent,

    “The operating costs are higher for buses, and they are much more subject to traffic delays.”

    It takes about a half hour to drive from Ogden to SLC. It takes the train an hour. A bus could use an express lane and so could avoid a fair bit of standard traffic slowing. Thus it would, on average, pummel the frontrunner in terms of speed — though it would have higher variance.

    As for operating costs, please tell me you are kidding. Does it really cost millions of dollars a year to run a bus? i am, to say the least, skeptical.

  27. Dan Ellsworth on June 12, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Utah is not Europe or Japan.

    Currently, no. But what is the population density expected to be in 20 years? 30? And again, is there transit-oriented development going up along the routes of the frontrunner?
    If short-term self-interest and efficiency are the only relevant considerations, then yes, the original analysis holds up. Bringing Japan’s and Europe’s rail systems into the argument, what were their upfront capital costs? How long — and how deeply on a per-round trip basis — did they run in the red in their initial years of service?

  28. Dan on June 12, 2009 at 10:15 am

    We stopped investing in trains as transportation as soon as the car came around. This was a mistake. As you say Frank, it shouldn’t take a train one hour to go from Ogden to SLC. That should be done in 20 minutes at max on a train, if we had invested in the infrastructure over the years. Heck, over here on the east coast, the Amtrak train is still not as good as the Peter Pan buses, or even the Chinese bus from Boston to New York that costs $10 and does the trip in 4 hours.

    It’s too bad because there is a real cost in terms of pollution you don’t get from train travel. The reason to get back into investing in train travel is because it is safer, cleaner, and when you finally get good infrastructure FAR faster than a bus could ever be.

  29. John Mansfield on June 12, 2009 at 10:23 am

    Frank, your discussion of costs has focused on equipment. For the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority, which operates rail and buses, personnel costs are 70% of operating costs. (link)

  30. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 10:25 am

    Dan and Dan E.,

    We have the train tracks and we can preserve them. If, in 30 years, we have a population density where trains make sense, we can do it then. We are not getting anything from “investing” in them now because we already have the rails lines (from legacy freight) and nobody is using the existing trains.

    Furthermore, the technology of both cars and trains will only improve, and so waiting makes sense when feasible. Frontrunner is like buying a car for your unborn child because “someday they’ll need it”. There is no compelling case, in this instance, for doing it now.

    If you know of such a case, backed by numbers, I would be really interested in hearing it. But remember, the question is not “should there be trains somewhere”, but rather “was and is frontrunner a better idea than just using express buses?”

  31. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 10:32 am

    John Mansfield,

    Personnel costs are what I was thinking of in operating costs. 70% labor costs is about the norm in most production processes. But actually, that number you gave is very useful. I can bound the cost of a UTA driver as not being more than, say $100,000/year in total compensation. Thus capital costs apparently are less than $50,000/year. In which case, an express bus should cost less than $150,000/year. So I could fund at least 10 of them off the operating costs of the frontrunner. I could fund another 40 or so off the amortized capital costs of frontrunner– and this is being very lenient on the costs of labor. Thus I’d have 50 express buses going back and forth from ogden to SLC. Without breaking a sweat I could have one leave every 5 minutes during rush hour and still have plenty of buses left over for alternate express routes.

    Additional impact on the existing freeway would be inconsequential.

  32. Dan on June 12, 2009 at 10:37 am

    Frank,

    Having train tracks alone does not improve speed and quality. You’ve gotta make the train tracks inaccessible to the locals so that when a train goes by at 100 miles an hour, there’s not a chance that a boy playing around gets run over. There’s far more investment in infrastructure than mere tracks. You’ve gotta get the right electric fields and so on. America’s train infrastructure is simply not ready for high speed trains because we’ve stopped investing in trains back in the 1920s.

  33. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 10:40 am

    Dan,

    But we can do that later if it turns out to be a good idea. Tell me what is important that it be done now because it would be prohibitively expensive to do later, but comparatively cheap now.

    And Frontrunner’s top speed is 79 mph. It still takes an hour to get to SLC.

  34. Kent Larsen on June 12, 2009 at 10:41 am

    As far as your list in (23), Frank, I still don’t see you addressing the long term. I might be somewhat persuaded if I knew that the population along the Wasatch Front was going to stay stable. Somehow I suspect that the density will increase over time, and light rail will benefit from the efficiencies caused by the density.

    As for (26), the reason I believe that trains have lower operating costs than buses is simply the number of commuters per employee required. On a bus you have probably 30 people per driver, while the train transports potentially hundreds for a driver and a conductor and a station worker or two in each station.

    I suspect that the real reason for the high prices you are getting is the fact that the system is underutilized. Ramp it up from the 4,000 per day you show, to 25,000 per day, and then see what happens to the numbers. And compare that to what it would cost to ramp up an express bus system to handle the same traffic.

    BTW, I should note that the current expected cost of the new rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey is $8.7 Billion. The cost of a new subway line on the East Side is expected to be $16.8 Billion. Both of these are much shorter than the project there in Salt Lake. It seems to me that you want to do these projects sooner rather than later. It would have been nice if the East Side line had been done in the 1970s when it would have cost only a few hundred million dollars.

  35. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Kent,

    You are shifting the deck. You want to talk about buses with 30 people on them, and then look at potential capacity on trains. I ran the numbers for you above, You can get far more express buses, leaving far more often, than the once a half hour train schedule. And the extra labor cost is factored in.

    I don’t know what the maximum capacity is of frontrunner, but we already have the rail line for it, so it is not as if we need to tear down a bunch of stuff to put it in. Thus I am not sure why you think it will be more expensive later. And later, we might have better tech for putting in something better.

    Alternately, pull a Brigham Young move and build the space into your city growth, but without building the train now when you don’t need it. Just plan on having the space available. This keeps the cost from skyrocketing without requiring you to build something now that makes no sense. If, later, you end up using it for something better, well you’re still better off.

  36. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 10:59 am

    Frontrunner capacity is about 300 or so. Suppose buses carried 40 people. Then 7 buses could do what the frontrunner does, but they move faster, and they can leave more often. Thus, there will be more demand for them.

    If you want to increase demand for frontrunner, have it leave more often and get to the destination faster. Buses do both of those. Thus the way to increase utilization on frontrunner (the goal you mention above) is to turn it into a set of express buses. Which will then decrease congestion and pollution on the roads.

  37. Mark D. on June 12, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Commuter rail would be fine if UTA charged something close to the real cost to carry each passenger. The net subsidy for automobile commuters is much smaller.

    In Utah there is a 18.4 cent federal gasoline tax and a 24.5 cent state gasoline tax. The Utah Department of Transportation (which does not include public transit, which is domain of the Utah Transit Authority) will spend about $1.5 billion dollars this year, including federal highway funding. With a Utah population of about 2.7 million, that is about $560 dollars per capita per year for Utah state and federal highways.

    The Department of Transportation estimates that Utah state and federal highway miles driven for March 2009 was approximately 1.5 billion vehicle miles. Roughly 18 billion vehicle miles a year.

    The approximate Utah state/federal highway cost per mile driven is thus $1.5 billion / 18 billion vehicle miles = 8.3 cents per mile. For a typical commuting trip of 40 miles, of which 35 are on state and federal highways, the total unamortized highway construction and maintenance attributable to that trip is thus $2.90.

    A commuter in a typical 30 mpg car consumes 1.16 gallons on the highways for that trip, which means that he or she directly covers 42.9 cents * 1.16 gallons = $0.50 of the cost. The indirect federal and state subsidy to the commuter for that trip is $2.90 – $0.50 = $2.40. The commuter bears a total on-highway cost for the trip (based on 2009 IRS mileage rates) of 35 miles * $0.55 / mile = $19.25, implying a total on-highway cost for the trip of $21.65, or 62 cents a mile. That is much lower than the total Frontrunner cost of ~90 cents per passenger mile, as I will explain below.

  38. Mark D. on June 12, 2009 at 11:04 am

    The FrontRunner North capital cost is $542 million according to UTA. At a bonding cost of 5%/year, that is $35 million / year over thirty years. The baseline operating costs for Frontrunner according to the UTA are $29.9 million/year. Approximately 24% of the remaining UTA adminstration, overhead and support costs are attributable to Frontrunner, for a total of $40.7 million/year operating cost and $35 million capital cost, a total of $76 million per year amortized over thirty years.

    According to the UTA, average weekday ridership is 6549. Assuming an equivalent round trip on-rail trip length of 35 miles and granting non-weekday ridership of the same amount, that is 83.7 million passenger miles per year. The total cost per passenger mile is thus approximately ($76 million / 83.7 million passenger miles = $0.90 per passenger mile. The total cost of the 35 mile on-rail round trip is $31.50. Of that, the rail commuter pays $9.00, or $0.25 cents per passenger mile, yielding a net government subsidy of $22 per commuter trip (for the rail portion only), or $0.65 cent per mile net subsidy.

    By comparison, the total cost for the 35 mile on-highway round trip was $21.65, 62 cents per mile total, $2.40 or 8.3 cent per mile net subsidy. If we grant FrontRunner commuters the same $2.40 net subsidy we grant highway commuters (assuming no car pooling), the FrontRunner round trip ticket cost should be $31.50 – $2.40 = $29.10, not $4.50.

    There are two conclusions here – first it costs about 50% more per passenger mile for commuter rail than the total cost of driving a car on the freeway, probably worse since most people have to have a car regardless. The second is there is no reasonable economic basis for subsidizing commuter rail $0.65/passenger mile, while we subsidize automobile commuters $0.083/passenger mile, about an eighth of that amount.

    Commuter rail is a luxury service – if it is worth an additional $10 per trip to avoid the hassle of rush hour freeway traffic, then by all means let the rail passengers bear a $29 round trip ticket cost. Automobile drivers pay a total of $19 after a relatively small subsidy, and the reason is that automobile commuting (with only the driver in the car, counting all economic costs) is ~35% more efficient than commuter rail.

    As it is, commuter rail is essentially a $30 million/year gift to a relatively small number of riders, each trip subsidized over ten times as much as a comparable freeway commute.

  39. Kent Larsen on June 12, 2009 at 11:10 am

    Frank (35), I don’t see what you mean by “shifting the deck.” I’m simply adding additional arguments.

    As forgetting more express buses, yes, you are right. The buses would have to leave more often because they have lower capacity. There would also need to be more buses because of the lower capacity. That’s what leads to the higher costs of buses — more drivers on more buses.

    But, let me ask, why exactly is the train schedule every half hour? Isn’t that becaues the system isn’t getting as many riders as it could?

    As for already having the rail capacity, I agree with Dan on this one — having the tracks is only part of the equation. You need stations, electrical “third rails” (if you are running electric trains), access control, etc., etc., etc.

    For what its worth (and to open another argument about this), this is one reason why your contention that express buses are faster is wrong. The buses have to stop at least as often as the trains do. Even in an optimistic scenario, running the buses on I-15, you need to either have the buses exit the freeway to stop periodically to pick up and drop off passengers. The way buses are designed, this takes longer than a train takes for each stop, and each stop takes a big bite out of the time savings you are expecting. My experience here in New York is that even express buses running on freeways are usually slower than the train.

  40. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Thanks Mark, for those numbers. But I think you are forgetting that TRAINS ROCK!

  41. Mark D. on June 12, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Correction: “$29 rather than $9.00” for FrontRunner round trip tickets that is.

  42. Peter LLC on June 12, 2009 at 11:12 am

    As it is, commuter rail is essentially a $30 million/year gift to a relatively small number of riders, each trip subsidized over ten times as much as a comparable freeway commute.

    I always had a feeling deep within my gut that drivers are the true patriots, nay, backbone of any great nation. Now I’ve got the numbers to prove it. All those big city hipster do-gooders can put this in their pipes and smoke it!

    In all seriousness, what’s keeping Utah from going the bus route? Lobbies? Horse trading? Dumb public officials?

  43. Kent Larsen on June 12, 2009 at 11:17 am

    Mark D (37 & 38): What happens as ridership on the rail system increases. Your analysis assumes the current ridership.

  44. Mark B. on June 12, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Not only does every new car add to the congestion on the highways, it also
    • Requires that space be created/reserved for parking it, at home, at church, at the store, etc.
    • Requires space for driving it, not just on the highways but on local roads

    All the technical innovations made to cars will not reduce their size significantly, and American communities and businesses and individuals will still waste enormous amounts of space and energy simply to get from one place to another.

    The problem with Frontrunner isn’t that it’s too expensive, but that it’s too cheap. The trains should run on dedicated rights of way, where they can run at speeds over 100 mph. And there should be no grade crossings.

    In addition, the train should run from UVSC over to BYU and down University Avenue and south. If that means putting it underground, so be it. There’s no reason to spend a lot of money and put the train out where nobody can use it.

    As Kent says, it will never be less expensive than now.

  45. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Kent,

    1. The train probably leaves every half hour because it takes it an hour to get to SLC and an hour to get back. If you add more trains, you could leave more often, but you would then have even fewer riders per train. But then you are just trying to duplicate what the buses already do better — more trips with fewer riders.

    2. As I’ve noted above, express buses are far less expensive than this train, even including labor costs. So please retire the argument about the “higher cost” of the bus. It just is not true. They do have higher labor costs, but you have amortize the train capital costs in, at which point you’re toast.

    3. But see, Kent, with the 50 buses operating all day that you could get for the cost of the train, you would not have to stop the buses much at all. They could have dedicated routes. Which would further stimulate demand. In fact, you may even be able to dream of breaking even! At which point life gets really good. The train makes about 6 stops. You could put some trains in Ogden that go direct and some in Layton that go direct, and some in Ogden that make one stop, etc. etc. The closest stops could be served by the fewest buses, because the round trip would be very short. You could call it a shuttle.

    4. The question is not one of “do we need infrastructure” but rather, “what infrastructure is going to be particularly efficient to install early on and what can we just plan to install later”. Rail lines have to be there already or you need to chop down houses and buildings — which is very pricey. But if you already have the line, that issue is taken away.

    5. And Kent, I think we can agree that buses leaving more often is a clear good. It means more demand because the service becomes more valuable. If buses leave every 5 minutes, I think utilization would go up a fair bit.

  46. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Mark B.,

    You are complaining about cars, but I am talking about buses. What do you have against express buses?

  47. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 11:28 am

    Peter,

    “In all seriousness, what’s keeping Utah from going the bus route? Lobbies? Horse trading? Dumb public officials?”

    Probably some of all of that. But there are huge federal subsidies for building trains. Also, people romanticize trains because they work extremely well in other places. San Francisco’s population density, for example, is about 8 times that of Phoenix. New York That is not going to change anytime soon. It may change slowly, over decades and centuries, but by then we’ll all have personal space belts!

  48. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2009 at 11:32 am

    But Adam (13) you are wrong to think that a fleet of buses can really replace a light rail line. The operating costs are higher for buses, and they are much more subject to traffic delays.

    Kent, I sincerely doubt that the operating costs are all that much higher. The biggest expense is personnel and a normal New Mexico Railrunner train, of four cars, has a driver, a conductor, and two ticket-takers. You would need about 6 buses to get equivalent seating capacity so the personnel costs aren’t that much different, especially because the Railrunner uses regular rail lines so its subject to costly Federal Railroad Administration work rules. Also, note that for the published costs of the Railrunner, using very generous assumptions for bus costs (we assumed around $1 million, which is too high) and using NM state figures for freeway construction costs, we were able to come up with a $100 million or so endowment to pay for operating costs just out of the Railrunner capital budget.

    As for the delays — well, notice that the calculation my dad and I ran involved building a dedicated freeway lane just for express buses. Also, since the NM Railrunner uses regular rail lines, its often delayed by Amtrak or by BNSF trains. Also by fires in the Bosque.

    I don’t hate the Railrunner. In fact I ride it most days. I don’t mind suckling at the public teat, but I admit that’s what I’m doing.

  49. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 11:32 am

    Manhattan’s population density is apparently about 70,000/sq. mile. Phoenix is about 2700.

  50. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 11:34 am

    “but by then we’ll all have personal space belts!”

    like, you know, the Jetsons.

  51. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2009 at 11:36 am

    “In all seriousness, what’s keeping Utah from going the bus route? Lobbies? Horse trading? Dumb public officials?”

    Lobbies have something to do with it.

    Smart public officials also have something to do with it. Trains are visible and sexy in a way that buses aren’t, so since its not the politicians money anwyay, might as well do something that’s going to get a lot of coverage and good press.

    Also, in the West the vast majority of voters are drivers so they get excited about trains, which seem like they might make the roads less congested for them, and don’t get as excited about buses, which compete for space on the roads. Even if you’re talking about dedicated bus lanes, drivers are still going to see that as special privileges for vehicles just like them and as a potential source of delay and frustration during the construction. Trains are just a lot easier to sell to the public.

  52. Mark D. on June 12, 2009 at 11:40 am

    Kent (#43), That should improve the picture in about ten years or so. However, higher ridership will increase operating costs as well, plus more trains, etc. I agree that purchasing the right of way is a very good idea either way.

    Mark B. (#44), Frontrunner is on dedicated right of way that is parallel to the existing Union Pacific tracks. That is why it cost $540 million to build, not counting bonding costs. Of course UTA is about to spend the same amount extending Frontrunner into Utah county. Every city on the Wasatch Front would like bridges built over existing grade crossings. Kaysville just had one built at 200 North. It cost about $21 million. There are probably a half dozen more Frontrunner / UP mainline grade crossings in Davis County alone, and all will probably be converted over the next thirty years.

  53. Mark D. on June 12, 2009 at 11:51 am

    UTA is planning on building dedicated bus lanes along several Salt Lake County arteries. However, unless ridership is extremely high, it is hard to imagine how dedicated bus lanes will be particularly cost effective. On the freeways the express buses do use the HOV lanes, which helps a lot during high traffic periods.

  54. Ben Pratt on June 12, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    All figures from Wikipedia and demographia.com

    Wasatch Front population (2007): 2,051,330
    Wasatch Front approximate area (Ogden to Provo): 80 miles long x average of 5 miles wide = 400 square miles.
    Wasatch Front population density: 5,128 people per square miles

    Tokyo-Yokohama population: 33.2 million
    T-Y core metro area: 2700 square miles
    T-Y population density: 12,296 people per square mile

    Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto population: 16.4 million
    O-K-K core metro area: 990 square miles
    O-K-K population density: 16,565 people per square mile

    Huh. I anticipated a larger difference. Anyway, with further growth, real estate prices along the Wasatch Front will have to eventually rise, unless the urban sprawl continues into places like Eagle Mountain and “Wasatch Back” communities like Morgan, Heber, and Park City.

    At some point it will be economical to build upward, but I don’t think that day will come soon. Until then, I don’t see how the population density can approach the levels of areas like those that use bullet trains and subways.

  55. Mark B. on June 12, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Your OP talked about cars, Frank. And cars will continue to drive development patterns, so long as Mark D. is right that “most people have to have a car regardless.” And cars will drive development patterns in directions that make public transportation a less workable solution.

    That suggests that we should adopt a “build it and they will come” approach, and expect to see both residential and commercial density increase in the vicinity of train stations.

    In addition, Mark D.’s cost analyses are all about cars vs. trains. He ignores, of course, all the costs I describe in #44, and loses the match when he says that most people “have to have a car.” Individual ownership of cars is so 20th century–and it’s time all you poor folks who pay so much of your income just to park a ton of steel and plastic and rubber in the middle of 100 acres of asphalt were freed from the tyranny of automobile ownership.

  56. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Mark B,

    Thanks, I’ve already got a religion.

  57. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    That suggests that we should adopt a “build it and they will come” approach, and expect to see both residential and commercial density increase in the vicinity of train stations.

    To me it suggests that until you figure out some way of abolishing cars (good luck), your train economics don’t make sense in most places. If your figures rely on costs that are “going to happen anyway,” your figures don’t work. If your figures rely on forceably taking cars away from people, they’re totalitarian. If they rely on people doing it voluntarily, they’re utopian.

    Saying that cars are so ’20th century’ is meaningless. There’s no particular reason to think that any technology that got big in the 20th century (autos, for instance) will necessarily be displaced in the 21st century by 19th century technology like trains. A lot of the mass transit in the west arguments boil down to big city parochialism.

  58. Timer on June 12, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Frank: a train is an economic signal to developers and home buyers and city planners and corporations. It says, “You can invest a ton of money building high density housing near these tracks. You can organize entire communities based on the locations of the stations. You can buy or build a home based on the location of the train. You can locate your office and work infrastructure based on the location of the train. You can build shopping malls and restaurants and hotels specifically with the train in mind. These tracks cost the state a fortune and they’re not going anywhere.”

    This is what has happened in Europe, the east coast, and elsewhere where communities have evolved based on trains, not only based on freeways. It may take decades before infrastructure and communities are built up in such a way as to take full advantage of the tracks. Once that happens, the tracks can be cost effective. But until the state sends the signal, the process won’t begin. A bus route is not a signal. It’s here today; it could be gone tomorrow.

    Nobody invests billions based on a bus route.

    Well, there are exceptions: bus routes with dedicated lanes, dedicated tunnels, comfortable indoor stations and waiting areas, and other seriously permanent infrastructure. Think Boston’s Silver Line. But by the time you add this much infrastructure, you’re also spending more money. You might still have a case for buses but it won’t be so clear cut.

  59. Sam B. on June 12, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    I have to admit, actually, that, provided they get a dedicated lane, I’m indifferent between trains and buses. But when I lived in Virginia, I took a commuter bus in to DC to work, and I from that experience, I see three strikes against it: first, it went from Virginia to DC four times in the morning and from DC back to Virginia four times in the evening. It worked fine if your work schedule matched up with the bus’s hours (which mine did), but if you had an emergency in the middle of the day and had to get home, it didn’t work so well. But Frank has addressed that in recommending leaving up to every 5 minutes.

    The second problem was, there was no dedicated bus lane. So the commuter bus got caught in the same horrible DC metro-area traffic. Some days I could get to work or get home in 30 minutes. Some days it took 2 hours. But the dedicated lane would take care of that.

    Third, I heard a rumor that, a couple years before, the city had tried to shut down the bus route in a round of attempted cost-cutting. The outcry was big enough that they left the route, but this problem seems intuitively a little harder to deal with. A train may cut back its frequency, but, because the tracks are laid, I would guess that a city would be less likely just to shutter it. Buses, on the other hand, aren’t permanent and would seem to be easier to shut down if a city wants quick cost-savings. Even with a dedicated lane, the city could give that lane back to cars if it wanted.

    Still, a well-designed express bus route, while certainly less sexy than a train, would meet my needs just as well.

  60. bbell on June 12, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    I am of the opinion that pulic trans. is a good idea in real urban areas like Chicago where I spent years taking trains everywhere.

    Its simply not a good fit elsewhere in the country. The US is to sprawled out in most places to make $$ sense out of public transport everywhere including suburban Ogden, Davis, SL and Utah county

  61. bbell on June 12, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Sam B.

    Contrast your bus exp with my train exp in Chicago. The trains ran like every 10-15 minutes. It was very convenient and explained why the trains were normally packed to the gills with passengers all day long. But it required lots and lots of people to make it effective.

  62. Bruce on June 12, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Utah used to have a great interurban rail system that ran from Logan in the north to maybe Payson in the south. — I think. Unfortunately, the state sold out to cars and highways back in the 1950s and now it has to re-invent the wheel. I don’t know what the best solution is, but given Utah’s growth potential, it ain’t more highways and more cars.

  63. John Mansfield on June 12, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    A couple thoughts: A point in favor of rail is that after all the work of building a nice, flat, dedicated railbed is complete, when the usefulness of the rail line is past, it will make a great bike trail.

    Second, it’s not just image that makes rail more appealing than bus. Buses are a harsh, noisy ride not much removed from sitting in the bed of a pickup. Even driving a ’94 Civic feels luxurious in comparison.

  64. Sam B. on June 12, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    bbell,
    You’re wrong on that. It’s indispensable in urban areas, but would be immensely useful anywhere that has rush-hour traffic. Why? Because rush-hour traffic indicates that large portions of the population work one place and live in another. I’ve been north of Salt Lake maybe three times in my life, but I know that the traffic between Salt Lake and Provo can be horrible; if people could be convinced to leave their cars at home (or at a bus or train station) and take a bus or a train, well, that would work even better than carpooling.

    You are probably right that in deeply rural areas, public transportation is less useful, but most of populated America is neither super-urban nor super-rural, and all of that in-between could make use of well-designed public transportation.

  65. Sam B. on June 12, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    bbell,
    I live in New York City. I take a train to and from work every day; the trains run every 5 minutes or so. That’s not the point.

    In addition, the bus I took was crowded to capacity; by the time we hit the last two or three stops, it was standing room only. But without the dedicated lane, the bus’s capacity doesn’t help the traffic problems and, because there was nothing fixed (there may not have even been signs at the stops), there was little other than user outcry to keep the route from being closed.

  66. Kristine on June 12, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Has anyone ever done a cost-benefit analysis of having an econ. department at BYU? I get tired of my tithing dollars subsidizing the small fraction of members who benefit from Frank’s undoubtedly superb lectures.

  67. Dan Ellsworth on June 12, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    Frank (56),

    The rest of us already have a religion, too. But wouldn’t it be fantastic if the thinking of all the rest of us was as reliable in the real world and as capable of representing the complexities of human motives and values as is the foolproof, fact-based, irrefutable science of economics?

    bbell (60),

    It’s true that trains work well in some areas right now, and not so well in other areas right now. That is beside the point, which was articulated well by Timer (58). You can’t expect builders to build vertical, transit-oriented development on empty tracks by saying “Build here, and when the population density reaches critical mass, we’ll take 10-15 years and set up a rail commuting system.”
    In Chicago and other places where the economics of rail are better than frontrunner, which came first, the transit system, or vertical building of residential and corporate real estate with good proximity to the transit lines? How long did those transit systems operate on deep subsidies, and using those figures as a benchmark, is frontrunner a failure?

  68. Last Lemming on June 12, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    I can only speak to my own experience in DC, but the wonders of express buses are not at all obvious to me. I have three transit options from where I live:

    Drive to express bus lot, ride bus downtown, walk the rest of the way:
    time – 2 hours 15 minutes
    cost – $5.75 (assuming $1.00 for the driving portion)

    Drive to (much closer) bus lot, ride bus to Metro station, take Metro the rest of the way:
    time – 2 hours
    cost – $5.85 (assuming no driving cost)

    Drive to commuter rail lot, ride train downtown, walk the rest of the way:
    time – 1 hour 45 minutes
    cost – $6.32 (assuming $1.00 for the driving portion)

    Since my employer covers the non-driving portion of the cost (with pre-tax dollars, no less), the travel time is the deciding factor and I take the train.

    So one can talk about how express buses are more convenient in theory, but my experience with reality does not match the theory.

  69. Kristine on June 12, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Last Lemming, you’ve clearly forgotten the economist’s first step:

    Assume a world which matches my theory.

  70. Sean on June 12, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    Sam B. (64)-

    Trains might be immensely useful in Utah, as you have suggested. But are they the most efficient use of tax dollars? I think Frank’s point is that the FrontRunner is greatly useful for those who use it, but it’s not efficient to the population as a whole.

  71. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    Kristine,

    “Has anyone ever done a cost-benefit analysis of having an econ. department at BYU?”

    Unfortunately for BYU, the fact that economists are actually valuable in the private market substantially drives up the cost of said department. They should probably charge econ students extra tuition for the extra value. Of course, if we were as easily replaced by express buses as the frontrunner is, I would also favor getting rid of the econ department.

    Timer,

    There is no promise that the trains will be well-maintained and run on a timely schedule. Buses, on the other hand, are cheap enough and fit in well enough with the existing infrastructure that a developer could set up his own express bus line as part of the community. Especially if he is already spending the “billions” you envision. So no, I don’t think your argument works very well.

    Dan,

    This is hardly even economics. It’s almost just a matter of accounting.

  72. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    Last Lemming,

    The post is called “Commuter Rail in Utah” for a reason. With higher urban densities, trains and their ilk become a great deal.

  73. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    “Last Lemming, you’ve clearly forgotten the economist’s first step: Assume a world which matches my theory.”

    That is silly. There is practically no theory involved, it’s just numbers. I could not care less whether trains or buses are better on theoretical grounds.

    I am simply in favor of providing public services efficiently, rather than romantically.

  74. Jack on June 12, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    Kristine: “…you’ve clearly forgotten the economist’s first step: Assume a world which matches my theory.”

    Ahem, and how long have economists been saying that about climatologists? ;>)

  75. Dan Ellsworth on June 12, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Kristine (69),

    My favorite comment yet.

    Frank (71),

    One of the differences between accounting and economics is, accounting does not pretend to be an asset for those whose jobs require a great deal of foresight. Planning is all about foresight, and Utah is full of disturbing examples of lack of either planning or foresight (see Orem State Street).

  76. Kristine on June 12, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    “I am simply in favor of providing public services efficiently, rather than romantically.”

    Thank goodness God is no economist. Flowers, babies, music, temples are not at all efficient, but He seems to like them.

  77. Kristine on June 12, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    (Last I heard, he preferred clean air, too)

  78. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    Kristine,

    “Thank goodness God is no economist. Flowers, babies, music, temples are not at all efficient, but He seems to like them.”

    This is a basic misunderstanding but a crucial one.

    Those things you mention are all efficient, as the word is used by economists. Efficiency is about providing as much of some desired goal as possible given a resource constraint of some kind.

  79. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    (clean air can also be efficient)

  80. Dan Ellsworth on June 12, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    I would venture a guess that every one of the most successful commuter rail lines in the world started out very inefficiently, and became successful after builders of residential and commercial real estate decided to build near rail lines and market their proximity to them.

  81. Adam on June 12, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    I was in Utah for a wedding about a month ago (no surprise there) and I took the opportunity to take my 4 year old son on a train trip up to Ogden and back.

    A couple observations:
    1. FrontRunner is a very nice ride and would be comfortable for working during your commute or catching up on some sleep
    2. Cars on I-15 go faster than FrontRunner.
    3. FrontRunner is very slow when approaching SLC as the tracks twist and turn
    4. Too many at-grade crossings
    5. Too long to get from Ogden to SLC. For those that drive, the decision is easy.
    6. I couldn’t get over the irony of sitting in this brand new commuter rail train with 6 lanes of interstate on the east and 4 lanes of highway to the west (Legacy Parkway).

  82. Adam on June 12, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    #80 Agreed. That is why, though, that New Urbanism is accused of being a tool of developers.

    I say if it brings about good, tool away.

  83. Kristine on June 12, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    “This is a basic misunderstanding but a crucial one.”

    You condescend so charmingly…

    Nonetheless, economists’ special usage of the term “efficient” doesn’t let you off the hook on this one, I don’t think. God is profligate with his gifts, then asks us to care for them. That means that your calculus needs to include some price for the amount of garbage cars and buses spew into the air, and the opportunity costs in soccer games for kids sitting on the sidelines puffing inhalers and the lost productivity of mothers up all night in emergency rooms, and the lost beauty of the blue sky, which God values even if you don’t.

  84. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    Dan, feel free to go find some evidence of this.

  85. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Kristine,

    Yes, all of those are factored in. And going the bus route will appeal to more people, because it can leave more regularly, and so it will likely _reduce_ pollution more than a train nobody is riding. So now _you_ are “on the hook”– as spending the money on a train nobody rides means more cars on the road instead of having those people in express buses. Which means you filthy train lovers are sending kids to the hospital and making them puff inhalers. How can you be so callous?

    “and the lost beauty of the blue sky, which God values even if you don’t.”

    Where do you get this bizarre idea about what I value?

  86. Last Lemming on June 12, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    With higher urban densities, trains and their ilk become a great deal.

    Higher density is a good argument if the alternative were driving vs. transit, but express buses are nearly as dependent on high density as trains. And where I live is no more densely populated than a typical suburb on the Wasatch front. The employment density downtown is greater than in Salt Lake, but that doesn’t favor trains over express buses. (In fact, they seem to have worked out some informal local monopolies on destinations. The buses tend to serve portions of downtown that are not close to commuter rail stations.)

    On the subject of train stations being high density development magnets… Because they share rights of way with freight trains, the stations are necessarily located in areas considered undesirable for residential development. Even though the Utah system has a dedicated right of way, the fact that it is parallel to the UP tracks makes it development poison. That magnet effect is most observable near heavy rail transit stations, and even then is primarily nonresidential in nature. And if you compare the development around Metro stations in Prince Georges County (piddling) with that around Metro stations in Montgomery County (massive), it is hard to argue that the stations themselves are the magnet.

  87. Dan on June 12, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Frank,

    #33,

    But we can do that later if it turns out to be a good idea. Tell me what is important that it be done now because it would be prohibitively expensive to do later, but comparatively cheap now.

    Starting something up will ALWAYS be prohibitively expensive, no matter what the circumstances are. Better to have continued investing in trains back in the 20s, but now that we are behind, we need to catch up. Even if you wait until that magical day when it won’t cost as much, that magical day does not exist. No matter where you are, it will still cost a lot to get it going. Once going, though, man, that’s a sweet ride.

  88. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    LL,

    I think you are making a broader point that could well be generally true. I am just talking about frontrunner, in which case it would probably be faster for you to take the express bus.

    Dan,

    “Starting something up will ALWAYS be prohibitively expensive, no matter what the circumstances are.”

    Yes, but this is not an argument for starting now. Then you want to compare expected costs and benefits of starting now vs. deferring for twenty years. As of yet, I haven’t seen much that makes Frontrunner look like it is better to do it now rather than 20 or 50 years from now (or never if that is what our grandchildren decide). It appears to be about as sensible as a publicly funded sports stadium.

  89. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    LL– did I read that right? Your commute is 1:45 each way?

  90. Last Lemming on June 12, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    You read right.

    And one more thing. Romance can be efficient. (Holds nose)

  91. Mark B. on June 12, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Efficiency is about providing as much of some desired goal as possible given a resource constraint of some kind.

    But, economics doesn’t pretend to answer the question whether an economically “efficient” outcome should be desired–and it provides no tools whatsoever for even approaching that question.

  92. John Mansfield on June 12, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    The commuter lines of a century ago started as private businesses. Some of them went bankrupt, don’t it wouldn’t have been possible for them to even get off the ground and be as inefficient as federal transportation funding now makes possible. These decisions would be more rational and sustainable if they were made at a local or regional level. In a Michigan town where I lived, the city council chose to widen a minor local road, taking away a few feet of residents’ front yards, not because of traffic demands, but because a federal grant would cover 2/3 of the cost of repaving the road if it were wide enough to qualify for the grant. (link) The national interest in the width of Stark Road in Livonia, Michigan is a bit of a mystery. From the numbers presented above, Utah transit rail sounds like the same thing, 500 times bigger.

  93. Dan Ellsworth on June 12, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    As of yet, I haven’t seen much that makes Frontrunner look like it is better to do it now rather than 20 or 50 years from now

    And your discomfort with that fact is what makes you a good economist, and not a good planner. The only fair criticism of frontrunner can be that it is an unfortunate, anomalous economic failure in its mission, which cannot be determined fairly until probably at least 20 years from now.

  94. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Mark B.,

    For a given outcome, we should provide it efficiently, so we can get more of it or have more resources for providing other good outcomes.

    TRAINS! isn’t really the outcome of interest. It is a proposed input to the outcome of clear skies and happy living (etc.). An alternative input to the same end is buses. Thus we should pick the one that most efficiently provides clear skies and happy living (or whatever goal we settle on).

  95. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Dan E.,

    Just because somebody made a plan doesn’t mean it is a good one. How about some _evidence_ that it is more effective to do now than later? Evidence, for example, about how the costs might change (up or down). That would be better than simply proclaiming the importance of “PLANNING!”.

  96. Timer on June 12, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    Frank:

    “There is no promise that the trains will be well-maintained and run on a timely schedule. Buses, on the other hand, are cheap enough and fit in well enough with the existing infrastructure that a developer could set up his own express bus line as part of the community. Especially if he is already spending the “billions” you envision.”

    In practice, the quality of train service does not diminish that rapidly in time. People can and do make decisions based on an expectation of continuing service. Have you ever looked at real estate listings anywhere with a long-established functional train system (east coast, Europe, etc.)? Go to zillow.com and poke around. Compare, say, NJ communities with and without train access. Or take a look at craigslist housing or MLS postings in any major city with well established rail transit and see how many highlight train access as one of the two or three most desirable attributes of a property. You might even be inspired to do some serious research on the long term influence of train routes on development. Train access adds an enormous amount to the value of land. A shuttle set up by the developer, not so much. Calling it an “express bus” or even a “super-duper express super-bus” may be good marketing but it doesn’t really change anything.

    Ultimately, the Wasatch Front is going to end up either crowded and freeway based (like LA) or crowded and train-and-freeway based (like most of the east coast) or crowded and mostly train based (like much of Europe). It’s a matter of preference which sort of lifestyle you prefer. But it’s not a decision you can easily undo after everything is built. If you want to be train-based in fifty years, you have to build the trains now.

  97. Dan on June 12, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    Frank,

    I finally got through reading the rest of the comments (you’ve put up a great post here, lots of people chiming in), and I think it was Dan E. who asked which came first in Chicago, the rail or the sky rises: the whole Field of Dreams question, if you build it will they come? For the Wasatch Front, the community is projected to continue to grow in size, both from having lots of babies and from immigration. Getting better transportation just simply makes sense, whether the cost is prohibitive or not. The train will not be replacing the car, for sure. I rented a car over in Europe, for example and drove to Munich (on the autobahn which was totally rad!) in very heavy traffic (lots and lots of BMWs and Mercedes). Why so when Europe has such excellent trains? Because people still want to drive somewhere, including to work. But you need to find ways to lessen the amount of traffic on the roads down. There are enough people out there (like me) who prefer to sit comfortably, reading a book or listening to music, and relaxing while heading to work rather than being stuck in rush hour traffic getting stressed before even having to deal with work related stress. As others have indicated in terms of personal cost, when you drive to work each day, that actually costs more than you may think, and may actually equal the cost of taking the train.

    If you live 30 miles away from your work, and you have a vehicle that averages 30 miles a gallon, you burn through 2 gallons of gas a day. At $3.5 a gallon (that’s about what it is here in New York, not sure what it is in Utah these days), that’s $7 a gallon just in gasoline that you expend on a daily basis. If you multiply that by 5 that’s $35 a week, or $150 a month, just on gas to go to work. Add in the other costs, insurance, the vehicle itself if you have not completed paying off the bank, and EZ-Pass (or other toll costs), and you’re looking at quite a hefty sum of money per month just to get to work.

    Now, places out west haven’t understood that suburban sprawl is not very healthy, forcing people to constantly get in their cars to get places instead of walking around. There is no grocery store within walking distance in most locations out west, particularly in Utah (though, granted when I lived in Orem, I happened to have lived right behind one). Public transportation does not keep up with the sprawl, so people are essentially forced by the design of the cities and communities into cars.

    The argument for starting now is that having a strong rail system is healthy for a long term, robust community. That’s just my view, and don’t base that on any actual study.

  98. Dan on June 12, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    by the way, the LIRR (Long Island Rail Road), which is quite excellent in its service, has a monthly pass ranging between $135 and $356, depending on how far away from Manhattan you are. That’s a steal when compared with equal costs to drive into Manhattan.

  99. Dan Ellsworth on June 12, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    Frank (95),

    Just because somebody made a plan doesn’t mean it is a good one. How about some _evidence_ that it is more effective to do now than later? Evidence, for example, about how the costs might change (up or down). That would be better than simply proclaiming the importance of “PLANNING!”.

    You’re absolutely right- there is not evidence whatsoever that this plan will succeed, and many ambitious planning scenarios turn out to be terrible failures.

  100. Dan Ellsworth on June 12, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Addendum to #99: “A plan is a guess in a party dress…”

  101. John Mansfield on June 12, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    I linked the wrong Stark Road project. Here is the right one: “0.65 mi of hot mix asphalt pavement repair, hot mix asphalt resurfacing, curb and gutter, ditch enclosure and storm sewer replacement on Stark Road from Hines Drive to Plymouth Road in the city of Livonia, Wayne County.” Low bid $301,111.12. Source of funds: Federal Highway Administration Funds, 80.85%; City of Livonia, 19.15%.

    Eighty percent federal funding for repaving a two-lane neighborhood road that 90% of the people in the same county will never drive on.

  102. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    I hear comments about how we have to build them now, but not so much evidence that, given we already have the rails, this is actually true. If we needed rip out homes and businesses to put in rail lines I could see a strong argument to be made. But the rail lines in this case are already there. So I am stlll waiting to hear why costs will skyrocket in the future.

    Density matters. Trains may make sense at very high densities. But that is a long way coming for SLC.

    Timer, the NJ people are all headed into Manhattan. There is no such centralized work place on the Wasatch front. And the communities you mention– if they are also heavily subsidized then real estate values will be rising to reflect the subsidy — but that will not actually indicate that the goal is worthwhile– only that people know how to capture rents in housing prices.

    Will SLC end up like LA? Maybe so. But LA probably has 8-10 times the number of people. So we are talking many decades — possibly centuries away. Probably long after frontrunner has been replaced by something else. Right now, we have the highway capacity for buses. The train tracks aren’t going anywhere.

  103. gary on June 12, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    Dan: I think your last post nicely illustrates the fundamental problem here, when you say “Getting better transportation just simply makes sense, whether the cost is prohibitive or not.”.

    No, better transportation does not make sense if the cost is prohibitive. The problem I see in so many comments, is that the train supporters don’t seem to care much about costs and real financial analysis, because it is an article of faith with them that trains must be better. Costs do matter, and decisions should be based on a rigorous cost benefit analysis, not on our feelings that trains must be good because they seem to work in Europe. To suggest that better transportation just makes sense, regardless of the cost is a recipe for bankruptcy.

  104. Don on June 12, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    For another economist’s contrasting point of view, you would do well to read Vijay Mathur’s appraisal of FrontRunner’s worth at http://vijaykmathur.blogspot.com/

  105. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    But when I lived in Virginia, I took a commuter bus in to DC to work, and I from that experience, I see three strikes against it: first, it went from Virginia to DC four times in the morning and from DC back to Virginia four times in the evening. It worked fine if your work schedule matched up with the bus’s hours (which mine did), but if you had an emergency in the middle of the day and had to get home, it didn’t work so well.

    Trains here only run on the same morning/evening schedule as your buses. Operating costs are operating costs and if the ridership isn’t there in midday, it isn’t there. Now if the capital costs of trains and buses weren’t too dissimilar, and if its true that trains have somewhat lower operating costs, then you might have a tradespace where in some places running trains would be a good idea because you could run the routes more often. But the capital costs are dissimilar.

  106. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    If trains are justified solely because they provide a sense of permanence that leads to higher density development, then maybe we should just subsidize high density development directly.

  107. gary on June 12, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Don: The comments of Vijay Mathur do not come close to responding to the real issue raised by Frank. The issue here is not whether mass transit is a natural monopoly, or whether there are externalities that must be considered. We can all concede those points. We still have to ask the hard question whether the FrontRunner is the most efficient way to achieve our objectives. Mathur does not even pretend to offer any analysis in support of his conclusion.

  108. Frank McIntyre on June 12, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    Don, Gary is right. Mathur is basically pointing out that sometimes it is worth subsidizing natural monopolies — and that may well be true, but he does not consider the case of trains vs. buses or the exceptionally high cost of frontrunner.

    In fact, it does not look like he even tries to justify the Frontrunner based on an cost benefit analysis of estimated externalities or natural monopoly pricing. He simply seems to be pointing out that it might be efficient to subsidize a natural monopoly. I agree with him. That analysis is available in a principles of economics textbook. It does not, in and of itself, justify the frontrunner. It could be the prelude to evidence justifying the frontrunner, but such evidence is entirely absent.

  109. Mark D. on June 12, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    by the way, the LIRR (Long Island Rail Road), which is quite excellent in its service, has a monthly pass ranging between $135 and $356, depending on how far away from Manhattan you are. That’s a steal when compared with equal costs to drive into Manhattan.

    Frontrunner is a steal to the Utah ridership too. A monthly pass costs $162, where the true economic cost for 22 days of ridership is about $638.

    Thank goodness God is no economist. Flowers, babies, music, temples are not at all efficient, but He seems to like them.

    With regard to divine subsidy for flowers and the like – with the information we have now, we can’t be sure whether wildflowers require any net subsidy at all. The primary cost may be to the flower. On the other hand, the flower may not continue to exist as such without an ongoing divine subsidy. Either way we don’t really know whether a divine subsidy costs God anything at all. (I think so, but my position is not exactly orthodox on that point).

    I am not sure anyone knows how the plan of salvation can succeed without babies or temples. Anything is efficient when there is no alternative.

  110. Joel on June 12, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    I live in Vancouver, BC and we have a really great light rail system that has grown incrementally over the past twenty years. According to Wikipedia it now has over 270,000 riders each day. For all types of public transit it’s over 700,000 riders per day.

    I know population density is a factor here but it was much lower when the light rail system first went live twenty years ago. Many of the people I work with don’t even have cars now or if they do they just use the Skytrain or transit as it’s much easier each day. Some also have only one car where otherwise they’d have two.

    Perhaps the Utah system will grow over time as attitudes shift and perhaps as more people move into Utah from areas where public transit has greater adoption. Maybe that will mean less SUVs/trucks with one passenger in them clogging I-15 each day.

  111. gary on June 12, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    Why are so many willing to asssume that the Wasatch Front will someday have a population density similar to Europe, or to the East Coast, or even to L.A.? Growth of that magnitude is far from inevitable, (I think highly unlikely, but I am guessing like everybody else) and we should ask ourselves how much we are willing to pay today in real based on purely speculatively assumptions that one the population will justify the investment.

  112. Mark B. on June 12, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Gary may have a point. Long before density reaches that point, all the water will be gone, wasted on all those suburban lawns.

  113. Mark D. on June 12, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    Joel (#110), We have a light rail system known as TRAX here in Utah too – or Salt Lake County to be more specific. Weekday ridership is about 53,000.

    Although quite popular, the cost issues are germane for TRAX as well – a two mile light rail segment from downtown to the University of Utah cost $118 million to construct. $89 million more to extend that line 1.5 miles to the University Medical Center. Not counting the railroad cars, which are about $3.5 million each.

  114. Mark D. on June 12, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    Long before the water is gone, there won’t be any more suburban lawns. Of course that is going to happen in Las Vegas long before the Wasatch Front.

  115. John Mansfield on June 12, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    There is an interesting “elect a new people” aspect to many of the arguments supporting rail transit. “Maybe rail doesn’t serve the existing community so well at present, but it will serve the community that we wish will be there instead.”

  116. sscenter on June 12, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    I find this particular line of discussion very confusing and hard to follow. What would help would be four things:

    1. More numbers that no one can possibly validate or argue with.
    2. Passive aggressive insults toward people who disagree with you.
    3. Several statements about how poorly and inefficiently Utah is run. This is a situation completely unique to Utah, none of the other forty-nine states experience this, so it is well worth it to talk about it over and over again.
    4. Replace actual morality and doctrine with whatever pet political belief one has. Cars are evil because they cause pollution would be an excellent place to begin with.

    I think if a hundred and twenty or so statements could follow this pattern we could really shed some light on the subject. Then I would know whether trains or buses are the transportation that will haul my fat behind to the Celestial Kingdom.

  117. Mark D. on June 12, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    More numbers that no one can possibly validate or argue with

    Anyone could validate any of the numbers cited here in less than ten minutes. Where you do think I got them from? – the UTA, Utah state legislature, and Department of Transportation websites. Perhaps a couple news articles. Google is your friend.

  118. sscenter on June 12, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Honestly Mark, I think you did what the people who disagreed with you did. I think you cherry picked the numbers that you wanted to validate your point, since you asked and since you ignored the actual point of my post.

  119. dmort on June 12, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    #116, without resolving any of these issues, I can assure you that the means of transportation most likely to take you to the Celestial Kingdom is that bus you didn’t see coming.

  120. Mark D. on June 12, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    Sscenter (#19), I didn’t respond to the main point of your post because I thought it wasn’t worth responding to in a positive way.

    Also, if you think what I did was “cherry picking”, you might want to put an argument behind that. As it is it just makes you look ignorant, lazy, or both.

  121. sscenter on June 12, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    Mark I am sorry for offending you. I will note that you state in comment 38 that the transit described will be a 30 million dollar loss while in comment 21 Bill discusses how the same types of programs on a national scales save billions of dollars annually. Both of you cite sources that seem authoritative but in the end no one really cares. It is not important, it is not interesting. I do find it interesting that in a general comment about there being so many numbers they are hard to follow, you immediately felt so personally outraged that you had been attacked on some individual level. This type of narcissism is difficult to anticipate in a post that was obviously meant as sarcasm toward a topic that had about one hundred more posts than it deserved and the emotion attached to it was clearly disproportionate to the topic discussed. Again I am sorry for offending you.

  122. Mark D. on June 12, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    Sscenter (#121), Apology accepted. My impression from your first comment was you thought that we were all wasting our time and that is why I was irritated in the first place.

    You are right – if you get into estimates of externalities like time saved, quality of life issues, etc. the economics are far more controversial and much more difficult to validate unless you are an expert.

    I stuck to budgetary figures and traffic estimates straight out the pertinent government websites for a reason. They have unmatched credibility, describe baseline facts, and are virtually indisputable. Now someone might quibble with the arithmetic I did, but I seriously doubt it would make much of a difference either way. As Frank says, the argument here is more accounting than economics.

    Ultimately this is a political dispute heavily influenced by personal preferences based on a variety of different factors. If people really want trains, we will have trains. However that desire should be expressed in full knowledge of the real costs involved. Local governments in particular tend to treat federal funding like manna from heaven, which for all the attractions of the Santa Claus theory of economics, isn’t very realistic.

  123. Clair on June 12, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    We can directly compare the new train to the new Legacy Highway. They serve the same corridor. They cost about the same money to build.

    When the train started service, traffic on the adjacent I-15 dropped not at all.

    When the Legacy Highway opened five months later, traffic on I-15 dropped 20% and traffic speeds increased accordingly.

    http://www.standard.net/live/news/171018/

    I conclude that new traffic lanes are a better public investment than new rail lines.

  124. sscenter on June 12, 2009 at 10:57 pm

    Thank you Mark. I appreciated your responding like a gentleman to my semi-obnoxious retort.

    If I could be open for a moment, I am frustrated. The topic of this is a good example of why. I really feel that we have decided as a nation that the answer to every problem is to spend massive amounts of money that do not exist. It cannot be sustained, it is exactly the opposite of what any household or business that was struggling would consider good policy.

  125. Grimsby on June 12, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    Good article analyzing rail’s failures elsewhere it’s been tried (liberal utopias like Seattle and Portland) and rebutting most of the arguments in favor of rail:
    http://www.open-spaces.com/article-v3n2-bundy.php

  126. Zack on June 13, 2009 at 12:41 am

    Ultimately, diversification is and should be an important element in any long-sighted model for meeting transportation needs. You need buses and you need trains and you need good roads and you need sidewalks. etc. etc. etc… A plan to invest all resources in any single method of moving people from here to there is a plan to fail and go back to the drawing board and start all over again when your plan fails. I think this is the real problem with the original post and most of the ensuing contention that express buses offer a better solution. I feel pretty confident that taking away some element of my city(Philadelphia)’s transit infrastructure would be devastating even if replaced by some alternatives.

    And we could certainly use a heck of a lot more trolleys, subway/el lines, more buses [in numbers and routes], more commuter rail, and/or some form of light rail. Slapping another lane on lots of our freeways would be great too, but that’s pretty much impossible in most of the places where it’s really needed. And I’m speaking with reference to a city that’s had a declining population for decades (2 millionish from 1950-1970, 1.5 millionish today — the region’s population, due respect has climbed though certainly not on pace with greater Salt Lake City where I grew up). There are only so many lanes you can put on I-15 or the Legacy Highway or the next road they build parallel to them before you need to offer some different kind of infrastructure like a rail line or a turbocharged skilift/skyride or conveyor-belts.

  127. Mark D. on June 13, 2009 at 1:47 am

    If we want to keep people off the roads the very first thing we should do is raise the state / federal gasoline taxes so that automobile users bear the full cost of highway construction and maintenance. It is counterproductive to fund highways using taxes from any other source.

    If commuters bear the full cost of commuting, it becomes more economical for companies to build branch offices closer to where people actually live. Commuter subsidies artificially depress the number of people who can do part of their work from home offices, and artificially inflates the relative cost of them doing so. Truly high speed, low latency network connections would be more widely deployed if we didn’t artificially subsidize the alternative.

    Projects like UTOPIA have enormous potential in this area, but they are failing in part due to subsidies we give to physical commuters. They are also failing because the government doesn’t give the least encouragement to Internet backbone operators to keep local traffic local. After the next earthquake, if you can’t call your neighbor using your Voice-over-IP phone, that is probably because Internet traffic between local ISPs tends to be routed through seven western states. Such routing discourages use of the Internet for a variety of latency sensitive business applications as well.

    So if you want the government to do something of relatively low cost that would help keep people off the roads (and the trains, and the buses, etc.) a regulation requiring major ISPs to interconnect in every major metropolitan area they serve would go a long way to making telecommuting more practical at very little cost.

  128. Mark B. on June 13, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Ultimately this is a political dispute heavily influenced by personal preferences based on a variety of different factors. If people really want trains, we will have trains. However that desire should be expressed in full knowledge of the real costs involved. Local governments in particular tend to treat federal funding like manna from heaven, which for all the attractions of the Santa Claus theory of economics, isn’t very realistic.

    Two quick notes: “personal preferences” are influenced heavily by governmental intervention–on matters that don’t touch immediately on transportation. Zoning rules–density regulations, separation of residential from commercial uses, required off-street parking–are heavy thumbs on the scale in favor of automobile-dependent communities. It is obvious why virtually everybody in Utah “wants” to have a car, and every family “wants” to have at least two cars–because it is next to impossible to live out there without one–try getting to work, school, church, shopping, anywhere without a car.

    And, decent public transportation requires a complete, integrated system. Why take a bus or train to Provo from Salt Lake if you are dropped off miles from your actual destination with no way to get there?

    One cost that hasn’t been mentioned yet: the high rate of fatalities among teenaged drivers and their passengers. The New York City subway system transports millions of young people every week, but the total deaths (all ages) in the entire system in a recent year (2006) was 23, of which 8 were from natural causes and 5 suicides. In Utah in 2008 (a good year), by contrast, there were 273 traffic fatalities, of which about 20% were under 20 years of age.

    A December 2007 Deseret News story reported that:

    • A crash involving a teenage driver occurs every 36 minutes.

    • Approximately one out of every six fatal crashes involves a teenage driver.

    • Teenage drivers represent 7 percent of the licensed drivers in Utah, yet they were involved in 27 percent of all motor vehicle crashes.

    • In 2006, 86 young people were killed in car accidents and 109 were driving a car involved in a fatal accident.

    • On average, 58 teens are killed in motor vehicle crashes annually.

    Do you “personally prefer” to have your children driving?

  129. Frank McIntyre on June 13, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Normally we shut things down sometime after 100 comments. I’m not going to do that right now, because it is the weekend so I doubt it matters and everyone has been reasonably cordial. But we’ll probably shut comments down in the near future, just so you know and no one gets a surprise.

  130. Frank McIntyre on June 13, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Oh and thanks for all the very interesting comments and perspectives on this. I think it has been a very interesting conversation.

  131. Adam Greenwood on June 13, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    <i?There is an interesting “elect a new people” aspect to many of the arguments supporting rail transit. “Maybe rail doesn’t serve the existing community so well at present, but it will serve the community that we wish will be there instead.”

    Yep.

    “personal preferences” are influenced heavily by governmental intervention–on matters that don’t touch immediately on transportation. Zoning rules–density regulations, separation of residential from commercial uses, required off-street parking–are heavy thumbs on the scale in favor of automobile-dependent communities.

    So make the argument on the merits for changing or abolishing these. Throwing millions down a rathole doesn’t help. And, though you don’t say so, places with high density and with high use of public transportation are often that way because of “heavy thumbs on the scale” making new development difficult or driving up the cost of commuting. Let us avoid the fascist notion that we know better than people themselves what the really want and should force them to get it. Let us avoid the parochialism of thinking that because we happen to live in a high density area and like it, most folks must really want to live that way and are only being kept back by a broken system.

  132. Mike on June 13, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    I ride the Atlanta train (MARTA) to work every day and I am familiar with the Salt Lake Trax light rail system. I offer some personal observations.

    1. Riding the train for the past 12 years I figure has kept me from purchasing two automobiles. Being raised old order Utah Mormon I go for the cheap cars, so I saved maybe $600? For you more refined and cultured types, that might have been many tens of thousands of dollars.

    2. Other costs: I pay about $50 for a monthly train pass. That would buy no more than 25 gallons of gas each month. With a 25 mile commute and a tin can for a car getting 40 mg pg , that might get me 40 trips and I work a few more than 20 days a month. It almost evens out. Raise the price of gas above $2 a gallon or average less than 40 mpg in stop-and-go freeway traffic or actually pay the car insurance or have one major repair or just replace the tires when those little silver wire things start sticking out of them and the train is cheaper. No speculation here.

    3. The biggest public transportation mistake they made in Utah, beyond simple neglect, was not getting TRAX out of street traffic. The MARTA system in Atlanta runs either above or below the street traffic and so it is never slowed down by traffic congestion and there is the potential for it to follow a schedule strictly (it doesn’t but it is almost always better than the freeway). Horror stories abound of car commuters being 3 or 4 hours late for work. Try telling your wife why you were 4 hours late getting home, again. One Halloween I drove and left work early (2:00 pm) to go Trick or Treating with the kids and it took me 7 hours to get home. This would be a 20 minute trip in the middle of the night. Public transportation only has to beat private commute times to be attractive to consumers and it can not be sharing the same space with general traffic to do so.

    4. Salt Lake had electric trolley cars in the early to mid 20th century and the system worked for a time then went under. The mall at Trolley Square I believe is where they stabled the old electric street cars. The reasons why it worked and why it eventually failed might be instructive, if we have a historian familiar with this era. It has to do with factors beyond population density.

    5. When things get crazy; like during the Olympics, or 4th of July, or the Braves make it to the playoffs, you can stuff hundreds of people on a train car where normally only 40 people might ride sitting down. The train can expand capacity in a pinch in ways that to equal, you would have to stuff 40 people in every automobile.

    6. You meet some of the most colorful people on the train. Demented preachers using little cocaine packets to book mark their Bibles, nearly naked gorgeous street walkers, Black liberation theology pamphlets, every manifestation of insanity, exhibitionists, teenagers food fighting or making out, domestic quarrels, big mamas slapping the s#!t out of their brats, 800 pounders in triple wide power wheelchairs, etc. Some days it is better than anything on TV. To those of you who accuse me of exaggeration, I say: You haven’t ridden the train long enough.

    7. Did I mention safety? Who cares about safety especially out there in the wild west? The fact is that the single most common cause of death between age 1 and 50 years old (maybe even as high as about 70 years old for non-smoking Mormon Pioneer stock) is traffic collisions; that is at ages before heart attacks and cancer and dementia really kicks in. Avoid driving makes more sense in the Wof W than coffee and tea put together.

    8. Marta allows bicycles on the train. They take up quite a bit of luggage space and are dirty and a nuisance in many other ways. But you can ride a bike several miles and this opens up a larger customer base. I ride a bicycle 4 miles to the train station and a few blocks on the other side. This kind of a commute, involving exercise and book reading is fundamentally not compatible with modern business fashion and clothing expectations. You are going to get wet and sweaty. For me it works because I don’t often meet the public and I can change at work and I can’t read very well. I have a friend in Winnipeg who also rides a bike every day to work so don’t tell me about the cold and snow in Utah. It can be made to work with very little effort. Atlanta is a bike hostile place. My neighbor had his right arm amputated in a bike versus car collision and I have been hit twice by a car. The number of brave bicyclists on MARTA is few. In other cities with a more bike friendly attitude, this would be an even better idea.

    9. MARTA goes right into the Atlanta airport. It is not 150 feet from the last Delta luggage turn style and the train tracks. When we take the annual family trip to see the relatives, I drive the family and luggage 4 miles to the train station, drive my car home and lock it in my garage, then I jog the 4 miles back to the train station. Usually I catch up with the family while they are waiting in some line at the airport. If grandpa hadn’t burned that handcart up we could just load our luggage on it and walk the four miles to the train station as a family. I would hope that the Salt Lake Airport being a Delta hub might notice this little detail when they expand the train into the airport.

    10. I ride the north line. This line will never be extended any further because the property directly north of it is too expensive. It will always be cheaper to extend other lines if the system expands. This brings up the principle that it is better to build the infrastructure first, like roads and rail tracks and water pipes. Then the industries, homes, offices, schools, and churches can be placed in a way that makes the most economic sense. I think this is what Brigham Young did when he planned communities. To bring in a transportation system after the city has grown large is never going to work as well. It would be like planting your crops first and then trying to figure out where to put the irrigation system. It works better if you dig your canals, ditches and plan the distance between furrows first and then plant the crops in a way they can be watered easily.

    11. The street bus sucks. A bus stop is located half a block away from my house. The bus supposedly comes every twenty minutes and goes to the train station. It is often off schedule more than 40 minutes one way or another. It gets stuck in traffic, breaks down frequently and it stinks. Usually it is empty. You know there is a problem when they advertise that diesel mechanics ride for free. I tried it for a while and it added at least 30 to 60 minutes to my commute. You can sooner walk 4 miles. Express buses would work for the same reason the train works; if it made more frequent visits and had a direct unobstructed route that actually beat traffic and if enough people rode it to and from the same two points so that it didn’t have to go all over tarnation to pick up a few passengers.

    12. On the weekends, like today, there is not that much traffic on the freeway or in the neighborhood. The commute time drops to 20 minutes. The train only runs every 20 to 30 minutes. Often they are single tracking, running two trains in opposite directions on the same track (hopefully not at the same time) while doing maintenance. The train commute time goes from 1 hour to closer to 2 hours. And dang, it is hot and humid. Guess what? My threshold for driving goes down and unless the kids get out of bed in time, I take their car. When it comes to public transportation it seems that in Salt Lake City, it is Saturday afternoon in Atlanta all year

  133. Mike H. on June 13, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    “The biggest public transportation mistake they made in Utah, beyond simple neglect, was not getting TRAX out of street traffic.”

    Agreed, that what happened in Santa Clara County CA. Some parts of our light rail zip along around 60 mph, areas where they used freeway medians, but slow to 25 mph in downtown San Jose, and only get ups to around 35-40 mph in areas using street medians.

  134. Mark B. on June 13, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    Well, gee, I’m not sure if I should be pleased or insulted to be called a “parochial fascist” by Adam Greenwood.

    If I had my own blog, maybe I could run a poll and see what the sense of the community is.

    The argument for changing the zoning and land use rules that lead to automobile dependency is simple: Orem, Utah.

  135. Geoff B on June 13, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    Frank, I just joined this party, and found it pretty interesting. Count me in as somebody who agrees with your analysis. In short, commuter rail sounds great and very efficient in cities like Boston, Chicago, SF, Manhattan and DC. Not such a great idea in SLC.

  136. JamesM on June 13, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    I wish I had been able to get into this discussion earlier. Some may view this differently than I am about to express it, but to me the push for drivable communities and the infrastructure investments we needed to make that happen was an extension of market demand. We wanted drivable suburban communities, and we got ‘em (both for good and for ill).

    However, in our rush to adopt this model, we lost the ability to choose decent alternatives to the automobile lifestyle. This is a major problem for many, including the poor, young, elderly and disabled, who are effectively marginalized in a society that usually requires one car per driver to exist at an acceptable level of functionality (there are obviously exceptions). As a practical example, many of us have experienced this joy in trying to cart members of the aforementioned groups to and from church meetings. Major strain.

    Add to that the collective issues of lost time, costs of (multiple) car ownership, and pollution and what you have is a large segment of the market clamoring for an alternative. Anywhere between 30-50% of the market today would prefer to at least have the option to live in a walkable urban setting (and associated services such as transit) as opposed to a drivable suburban one. In most metro areas, the market is supplying MAYBE 10% of this demand. This imbalance is improving rapidly in many places, but on the whole, there is a major mismatch between the supply and demand for walkable urban development.

    The key to unlocking this demand is TRANSIT. There is no chicken/egg debate here. Transit drives development (also note, transportation is a derived demand, much like electricity. We generally only need it to fulfill other demands). As with the push for cars over the previous half-century, the market is again getting what it wants (and, as with the car probably for both good AND ill).

    As to your subject of bus rapid transit (BRT) versus fixed rail that you’ve brought out, Frank, it is true that BRT is significantly cheaper. However, BRT doesn’t hack it for two big reasons. First, the infrastructure commitment signaled by BRT is extremely weak. The transit/density relationship (a whole ‘nother discussion) has to exist, and buses can go away much easier than trains…all you have to do is pull out the bus stops and tell the bus drivers to go in another direction. No developer is going to take that extra risk in that situation (and by extension, no economic growth will occur). It would be like asking IKEA to build a store along the freeway with no promise of an interchange within 20 miles. Not gonna happen.

    Second, buses have an unfortunate stigma with enough people that it becomes a deal breaker. Buses are loud. Buses are smelly. Buses are dirty. Trains are smooth. Trains are cool. Trains are clean. Making bus transit your primary option is like only making Yugos available to commuters or something (ok, that analogy doesn’t completely hold up, but you get the idea). At the end of the day, the primary market segment producing the most significant types of economic growth (usually highly educated) are also demanding walkable urban development and high quality services in the form of fixed rail transit. This qualitative aspect can’t be captured by simply examining the cost per rider.

    In short, it’s crucial to to step back from the transit issue in isolation and look at the situation more broadly. Transit vs. cars is not an all or nothing issue. Cars aren’t going anywhere. We need more transit. If anything, transit investment alleviates traffic congestion and improves the situation for drivers as well.

    Shoot, I wish I could use this stuff for my sacrament meeting talk tomorrrow…it’s getting late!

  137. JimD on June 13, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    4. Salt Lake had electric trolley cars in the early to mid 20th century and the system worked for a time then went under. The mall at Trolley Square I believe is where they stabled the old electric street cars. The reasons why it worked and why it eventually failed might be instructive, if we have a historian familiar with this era. It has to do with factors beyond population density.

    I smell a Keepapitchinin post in the works.

  138. aloysiusmiller on June 14, 2009 at 6:09 am

    Since I am in permanent moderation I’ll say it: Finally a sane post on T&S and look at all the insane comments. Frank donchya think that T&S is a waste of time?

  139. Bill on June 14, 2009 at 6:55 am

    “Transit vs. cars is not an all or nothing issue. Cars aren’t going anywhere. We need more transit. If anything, transit investment alleviates traffic congestion and improves the situation for drivers as well.”

    True. As I mentioned before, the biggest mistake NYC made was when they stopped investing in their transit infrastructure in the 1960s and 70s. Luckily we have more enlightened leadership at the moment:

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/planyc2030/html/plan/transportation.shtml

    In New York, in addition to the subway, we have buses, express buses, commuter rail, taxis, pedicabs, ferries, bicyclists, and a few people who enjoy the hassles of waiting long periods to cross bridges and tunnels and then looking for parking. The investments in every part of the transportation infrastructure have more than paid for themselves in economic development.

    In comment 34, Kent mentioned the $8.7 million new rail tunnel to NJ (necessary because 9 of 10 new NY commuters come from west of the Hudson, and current NJ transit is at full capacity) as well as the Second avenue subway. These projects have already begun to stimulate the economy and will return benefits for years after their completion.

  140. Bill on June 14, 2009 at 6:57 am

    I noticed an article in today’s NYT magazine on high-speed rail in California that may be interesting to followers of this discussion:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/14/magazine/14Train-t.html

  141. Aaron Jolley on June 14, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    Here is a great article about the actual lack of “energy savings” found in mass transit options: http://www.caranddriver.com/features/columns/c_d_staff/patrick_bedard/save_energy_take_the_car_column It is true that mass transit takes the number of cars off the roads but the much touted fuel/energy savings doesn’t add up. I love the last sentence in this article…”Cars don’t run when nobody wants the trip.”

  142. ganzo on June 14, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    I want to preface my comments by saying that $50 per trip is ridiculous and cannot be defended. However, I find it difficult to fault the UTA for this because the federal capital investment is a sunk cost for them. The FTA (Federal Transit Administration) has a pool of money that is dedicated to funding new capital investments and cannot generally be used on a traditional bus system. If you have a beef with the Frontrunner, it should really be with federal policy regarding capital subsidies. The problem is that even the members of congress who are fiscally conservative turn a blind eye to this kind of stuff when it is coming to their home state. In other words, this gravy train is not stopping anytime soon. As such, it is hard to argue that UTA is not making the best use of their constituent’s resources by leveraging federal dollars to build a system that has superior quality.

    Could UTA build an express bus service that draws as many riders as the Frontrunner using only the state/local funds that have been dedicated to the system? I doubt it. There has been some argument in previous comments about whether an express bus might be faster than rail. This is easy enough to evaluate: There is currently a competing express bus (route 472) between Ogden and Salt Lake that basically parallels the commuter rail. During the peak hour it takes about 90 minutes to get from downtown Ogden to downtown Salt Lake, whereas it only takes 60 minutes by commuter rail. Even if the buses can take advantage of the carpool lanes on the highways, they still take a lot of time getting on and off of the freeway to pick up passengers (especially in rush hour). As discussed in previous comments, rail also provides more reliability, a more comfortable ride, and has a better image.

    Rail generally provides a superior, albeit more expensive, transit service than buses. The question is whether the better service draws enough extra riders to justify the additional expense. If someone else (i.e., the FTA) is covering your capital costs, this tilts things heavily in favor of rail. I guess you could reject the federal money on principle – like all those governors promised they would with the stimulus money.

  143. JamesM on June 14, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    “If you have a beef with the Frontrunner, it should really be with federal policy regarding capital subsidies.”

    Gonzo, this shows the skewed perception we have in this country of capital spending. To many, roads are an “investment” and transit it “subsidized.” Trust me, every time we drive on the roads, there are also massive “subsidies” enabling those trips to happen as well.

    We have a superior road network which must be maintained, it’s time to invest in “the other half of the system.”

  144. Cameron on June 14, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    I grew up near Portland, OR, with the MAX light rail commuter line. It’s cool and very convenient at times, but I don’t know that that justifies the expense.

    People need to realize that the U.S. is not Europe. Europhiles and pork-happy politicians shouldn’t be the ones driving transportation policy. The U.S. is big and relatively uncrowded. Commuter rail is rarely a worthwhile investment here, despite being a perfect fit for Europe. Every time I see a Smart Car on a Utah road with 12 feet wide lanes, I can’t help but laugh. It’s just ridiculous. Americans love their wide-open space, and because of the size of the country, we can afford to love that space for many years to come.

    That said, if someone finds a way to do commuter rail profitably in the US, I’m all for it. Just don’t find another way to waste my tax money and tell me it’s a good investment.

  145. Mark D. on June 15, 2009 at 2:58 am

    JamesM, The per-passenger mile subsidies for highway travel are much smaller than the ones for commuter rail travel, in areas like the Wasatch Front at any rate. Please refer to my comments #37 and #38.

    In short, automobile drivers pay nearly all of the cost of their travel (55 cents out of 62 cents per automobile mile), while commuter rail passengers pay only a fraction of theirs. FrontRunner passengers typically pay 25 cents out of a total cost of 90 cents per passenger mile.

    The government subsidy for commuter rail travel along the Wasatch Front is approximately 65 cents per mile, while the net subsidy for automobile highway travel is ~8 cents per mile. The target for the latter is zero – aside from the recent stimulus all federal highway funding comes from gasoline taxes. There is a net state subsidy in Utah at the moment because we are in a major road construction phase that is not likely to slow down anytime soon.

  146. Frank McIntyre on June 15, 2009 at 8:21 am

    ganzo,

    With the number of express buses you could buy for the rail line, you probably could have some that made one, two or zero stops. This would probably speed things up. Although it is possible that to really make it work would require a dedicated lane of some kind.

  147. gas safety london on June 19, 2009 at 4:14 am

    I noticed an article in today’s NYT magazine on high-speed rail in California that may be interesting to followers of this discussion:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/14/magazine/14Train-t.html