Anti-Anti-Light Rail: A Response to David Osmek

An op-ed is an op-ed, and I should know better than to respond to an anti-transit rural libertarian.* But the anti-light rail argument in the Star Tribune this week annoyed me all the same. It’s an argument that I’ve seen many many times, and no matter how many times you put it to bed, it’s a somnambulist. I’m far from the best person to respond to this kind of column, as I tend to shy away from economic arguments in general. But even if you take David Osmek at his word, the anti-transit argument doesn’t really hold up.

Here are three things that neither Osmek nor the Strib  mention about transportation funding:

1. Cost/benefit analyses are next to meaningless – Cost/benefit analyses are a staple of the planning profession, so this one might annoy a few engineers and planners. But cost/benefit analyses are notoriously malleable, and reveal more about the assumptions of the planning professions than they tell us about the future. This is particularly true for the benefits side of the equation (though often some “costs” are left out of the equation as well; see point #3, below.). Chuck Marohn of Strongtowns (and has really made this point well and often, analyzing how DOT’s tend to create “benefits” by placing a specific value on the time saved by each of the commuters. As Chuck states, this kind of financial benefit isn’t real money, and one of the things that happens when you build lots of new freeway infrastructure is that people just travel more, move farther way, and spend the exact same amount of time in their cars. Freeways create their own demand for traffic, which is why you can’t build your way out of congestion over the long term.

Another point to make is that these sorts of analyses are very conservative when it comes to forseeeing changes in economic or social trends. For example, it’s very difficult to predict changes in energy costs. Likewise, estimates for traffic are often based on previous patterns of development and rising VMT. This is one of the reasons why people designing transit systems are unable to project added TOD growth along the lines, and instead rely on current estimates of transit ridership. (That’s one of the reasons why transit ridership almost always exceeds expectations.) In my opinion, these kinds of ways of predicting growth tend to reinforce the status quo at the expense of potential alternatives. And in the US, that means reinforcing our expensive and harmful auto dependencies.

2. Tons of Externalities – Economists have a term for everything that can’t be captured by financial value systems: “externalities.” Well, our automobile dependent society has lots of these, things that will never show up on an accounting ledger. Examples include: the public health cost of an immobile society, all the damage to the environment caused by burning gasoline, the health effects of particulate pollution, and the 30,000+ people that die each year on the roads.

Not having any alternatives to the car means that people have to make terrible Hobson’s choices. For example, the recent story of a 92-year old driver running over and severly inuring two public works employees on I-94 is a tragedy for all involved. This is an externality that will never appear on Osmek’s balance sheet.

3. Hidden Auto Subsidies – Finally, you have to understand that gas taxes and license fees don’t even come close to paying the true cost of our auto and freeway system. There are all kinds of hidden subsidies, from the costs of parking lots to the costs of traffic enforcement, maintanence, and using our military to help us procure oil in the first place. Any calculation about the relative costs of cars and transit ought to include all this stuff, and it doesn’t.

We Need Vision, and that Isn’t Happening

The point of all this is that infrastructure is political. There’s no such thing as a “neutral” analysis of transportation needs and costs. You always have to make some assumptions based on implicit preferences. For the last 70 years, almost all of those assumptions in the US have been in favor of the automobile. Sure there’s a case to be made against light rail, but the debate should be between light rail and a well-funded bus system, not between light rail and remaining stuck in our cars.

I guess there’s no way to stop these kinds of op-eds from appearing in the paper. Unfortunately, this kind of argument does reflect wide-spread opinions. Almost every American spends a terribly long amount of time in the car each day, and while you’re in there you tend to internalize the experience.

But stop for a moment, and imagine a world where legitimate alternatives exist. After one of their reporters got run over while bicycling around the city, the Times of London recently launched a journalism campaign that is taking seriously the idea that our cities need to change. It’d be nice if the Star Tribune would follow suit. Re-thinking our cities is going to require a leap of imagination. Let’s start making that happen!


* After all, I used to be a page for the Minnesota House Transportation Committee back when Mary Liz Holberg was in charge of the state’s transportation budget. She basically opposed anything having anything to do with transit or cities, but was a really nice person (with an adorable dog) as long as you didn’t try to get into an argument with her about anything. 

14 thoughts on “Anti-Anti-Light Rail: A Response to David Osmek

  1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    From the economic efficiency perspective, the letter writer was largely correct. The B/C ratio on the Hiawatha (ex-ante) was 0.42 baseline, and still well below 1.0 with very favorable pro-transit assumptions. (Which did include pollution savings, and also included very favorable to transit crash assumptions considering the large number of Hiawatha deaths no-one is ever willing to talk about). Ex-post it would be slightly higher as the actual ridership was somewhat higher than predicted, but still well below 1.0.

    There might be some land use changes, but frankly I don't see much along the Hiawatha line nearly 8 years after it has opened. If I had $750 Million, I could think of a lot better transit investments to make than down the light rail hole, starting with improved bus service.

    From an equity perspective, the cost per trip on Hiawatha is arguably more expensive than the same trip on bus (after accounting for capital costs). It is not nearly as bad as Northstar, but bad none-the-less, meaning that bus-riders cross-subsidize rail-riders. We can argue until we are blue in the face about the amount of auto subsidies, but you could easily internalize them and make almost no change in auto usage. I think we should, but that won't make Hiawatha (Or Northstar) a good economic investment or alleviate the within-transit cross-subsidies.

    Btw, auto crash deaths in the US are much closer to 30000 than 40000 now (32708… ). Technology is making cars safer. It is still too many, but there is progress.

  2. Ian Bicking

    I think there are important criticisms, even for those of us who are basically pro-transit. If you look at the economics it's hard to imagine a dense and successful transit system in the Twin Cities based on this kind of development. We have a small number of lines we can still build on existing right-of-ways – Hiawatha and the other lines are the exception, not the rule, and things like the Central Corridor line are more what future lines will look like. If you look at the speed of the Central Corridor line, and its disruptiveness, I think things look worse; and there aren't any more downtowns to connect. Could we build a line like that between less dense and politically important areas? If you look at the Southwest LRT price concerns have turned it into strictly a commuter line.

    I find it interesting to consider: what would it look like if 50% of trips were on transit? It's pretty hard to imagine with LRT – the number of lines, the disruption those lines would cause (since they'd have to traverse many non-highway streets), the speed at which we could move around the area, and so on. Are we shooting for 4% transit share? All these big plans don't seem to go any further than that. *Really* ambitious plans maybe could get closer to 7% share. There's something wrong here, and I think LRT and other low-tech conservative transit modes are part of that.

    With respect to some of your specific concerns, it's not entirely fair to compare LRT to autos in general. For any two points, you can get between them in a car, and you can get there with a busload of kids, with people who can't walk, with cargo, and so on. A fair comparison is LRT against increased road capacity, not the road system as a whole.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      yeah, i didn't go into the real case against LRT. but Ian, you seem to make pretty good points that I can agree with. the debate about light rail in LA is a good example of the landscape of transit debates that I can get behind. in that case, the argument was about what kind of transit investments served which kinds of riders: should transit be primarily about real estate development, or serving those who need affordable mobility options?

      however, i'm not sure what the 'entirely fair' comparison might be between autos and transit. we need to think about the 50% mode share city. how do we get there? what would it look like? what kinds of measures might we use to evaluate it? the current system isn't working.

      1. Ian Bicking

        I have a hard time imagining a 50% mode share system using the transit systems we have now. A quick google gives me these numbers:… – the New York area has the highest share at 11%, and we're way down at 1.2%. Urban areas are hard, 50% of trips through the city itself would make me happy enough, but still we're so far off. And though cars have generally been pretty conservative in their changes, there also haven't been many pressures on them to change (besides stuff like reliability – which when challenged they've responded to). So we imagine pressures like traffic and energy, but we should expect at least a certain level of response to those pressures from cars as well. Transit has to compete not just with cars as they are now, but cars as they will be in the next few decades. For instance self-driving cars seemed absurd a decade ago, and now they seem inevitable (when I don't know, but eventually).

        Transit in comparison is improving only very slowly, and I find myself pained at how many transit advocates oppose any suggestion of technological improvement.

        As I start thinking about the pressures and the response to pressures, I only become more pessimistic. Roads are a kind of common carrier, a neutral ground that has certain rules but otherwise accepts many solutions. Vehicles can change and roads will accept that change. Transit doesn't allow technological improvement in the same way. It is controlled by many layers of bureaucracy, all of which have strong incentives to be conservative. Systems have large capital costs that determine operational techniques – there's not many interesting new things you can do with rail lines. Comfier seats in the train cars, perhaps, and new ways to collect fairs. Hardly exciting. And we're just going to make one more LRT system after the other, because that's the system we have.

        If we are going to do anything new, anything that has the potential to actually take us out of these transit doldrums, I'm starting to think that the roads are the only way. BRT would be one example, but it's not the only interesting road-based transit that is possible.

        There was a time when I thought Personal Rapid Transit held some potential. And though I think no less of the basic idea, I don't see a path from here to there, it would require the kind of imagination that I don't see anywhere in our public realm. We are capable of only the most incremental changes; and only the roadways support that process.

  3. Alex BaumanAlex

    Good response Bill. I agree that cost-benefit analyses are slight of hand – you need to use subjective values to quantify something that is inherently qualitative, so these are merely one person's point of view masquerading as mathematical fact.

    The Hiawatha CBA is an intentionally egregious example because it doesn't attempt to analyze the project on its own terms – as befitting an analysis conducted by an agency that prioritizes easy automobile travel, it mostly looks at Hiawatha in terms of its potential to free up lanes for more cars. Despite the fact that the project goal was to take a first step towards a balanced transportation system that would more effectively serve low-income Twin Citians, the CBA makes no effort to quantify or even discuss this benefit. It does look at environmental benefits but uses values from the FHWA, massively undervaluing them. For example it prices CO2 at $3.56/ton, while estimates average more than ten times that, around $43/ton. If you need another reason to ignore the CBA, note that its data is presented in comic sans. Here is a link to the CBA if you want to find more problems with it:

    On the flip side, I have to wonder what the C/B ratio of the first 10 miles of Interstate, completed in 1959 and running from Richfield to Burnsville, would have been. The project cost must have been higher than average for the time, since it included expensive elements like the MN river bridge and grading on the bluffs. Even if you ignore the difference between the costs of the sprawl development it fostered and the alternative of redeveloping more central locations at greater density, it's hard to imagine it would have compared well to a baseline alternative, improving the existing Cedar Ave route to handle more long-distance traffic.

  4. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

    Check out this recent satire about cost-benefit analysis, that Minnpost published as it if was real. (Is it? I highly doubt it.) To me this illustrates the absurdity of trying to quantify the benefits of something like a stadium (or a traffic jam).

    See this [quote follows]:

    The multiplier effect in action

    For example, you credit the stadium account with a quarter each time a fan says, “Hey, weren’t the Vikes great (terrible) yesterday? They’ll beat (lose to) Detroit this week.” This is difficult to measure, and you can use a dime or a dollar as you wish; the point is there is a benefit. We can assume that all of the people who watched the game on television shared the experience with someone else. So, if half of the state watched or listened to the game, and each of them made 10 mentions of the Vikings the next week, if we use the quarter, we have raised $100 million just from water-cooler chats during the season.

    University of Chicago Economist Allen Sanderson wrote about this [PDF]:

    … a local sports franchise may create external benefits for local residents who never attend games. Fans may follow the team in the newspaper and watch games on television, while never attending an event. A local team provides a topic for conversation around the water cooler at work. These benefits can be of value to many local residents and may provide broad political support for a public subsidy to a team.

    The psychic benefit of having the team here is very real. Let’s add $1 per person to our subsidy for that. We are now at $105 million in value per year. The psychic benefit is shown by what we wear, so for everyone who wears Vikings’ trademarked hats, jackets, T-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, jackets or pants, we can add another $5 million just for the billboard effect. My son wears all of these and has a flag on his car. So we have $110 million.

    [end quote]

    Maybe we'd be better off if we stopped making these kind of absurd cost-benefit arguments about issues that ought to be based on ethics.

  5. Faith

    Okay, so I went to the link CBA link Alex posted. Apparently, $123 out of the total $318 of benefits were from travel time savings. Here are my top three issues with the use of travel time savings:

    1. Chuck Marohn points out some of the absurdities of using travel time savings in a CBA on the Staples' bridge project, namely that saving time is a social benefit and not a fiscal benefit. Money is not going to show up from saving time, so why measure it as a "benefit?"

    2. By analyzing travel time savings, shorter trips count for less than longer trips if there is less time to reduce. This is the same problem that the CEOs for Cities found with TTI's Urban Mobility Report (UMR), as documented in their report, Driven Apart. "Focusing on trip distances and total travel times – two statistics not reported in the UMR – points to a broader and more powerful set of public policy options for dealing with urban transportation problems.

    3. The FTA is proposing to replace the current CEI that measures travel time savings. It sounds like the FTA has found that travel time savings is not the best measure for evaluating transit projects (maybe because it was borrowed from roads?).

    The short version of FTA's proposed rule changes:

    * The CEI is proposed as basically cost per rider instead of cost per hour of travel time saved, with extra weight given to transit dependents. Some betterments will be excluded from the cost equation so they won’t factor against a project.

    * The environmental benefits will be basically VMT reduction. In the future, public health changes associated with changes in development patterns will be included, once they figure out how to evaluate that.

    * Economic development will stay about the same (measuring current land uses and plans & policies for land use changes), although social equity will also be analyzed. Transit construction, design & operations jobs will be reported. Projects have the option to monetize environmental benefits from VMT reduction and add that in.

    The Hiawatha CBA would have been more reflective of the actual transit benefits had it aligned more closely with the FTA's proposed rules and less closely with traditional highway analysis as promulgated by TTI.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Wow, the details are even worse than the generalities. thanks for this interesting analysis Faith. The proposed changes are a good start.

      Incidentally, you just saved me almost 1.5 hours of time that I would have spent doing all this research on my own, which translates to about $49 dollars based on my current salary. The check is in the mail.

  6. Almin R

    Light Rail as much as it would (will) look great, give our cities metropolis status, economically is not very smart investment. I live in Hopkins, work in St. Paul, but I do not see myself ever (except occasional Sunday trip to Dntwn) using LRT mostly due to very high number of stops along the way. The average trip would be about 75+ min, which is longer than the express busses (60+ min), and much longer then my 21 min car drive. It would cost me approx. $6 per day, which is $1.50 more then with my car. If I include my car payment ($8.99 per day) and time lost (as you said $45/110min) the difference becomes enormous. My usual, after work, stop by the gym would be practically impossible, because I would not have trunk to store my gym stuff.

    Where the LRT could generate some ridership are the areas of the cities where bus ridership is big now, which is NW Minneapolis, and Brooklyn Center, but I do not see any plans for that route.

    1. Ian Bicking

      If you see the latest article, city staffers are recommending the next LRT route *skip* NW Minneapolis, so that it can get to the suburbs more cheaply and quickly. Very frustrating.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      i like to think of it as a long-term investment, that will generate more and more demand along the route until you (or the you equivalent in the year 2030) are no longer living in Hopkins, but living somewhere like St paul nearby to a gym with a 12 minutes transit commute and pleasant walk to your work and to your home. or something like that.

  7. Xan

    How much extra do I pay for stuff to subsidize the free parking for Osmek at Target™? Or wherever there is free parking?

    Turns out, in 2002, it was between $135 billion and $386 billion. Keeping in mind the national defense budget that year was $349 billion. (see "High Cost of Free Parking")

    And not to mention the tax revenue generated by auto-oriented development vs mixed use.

    "A typical acre of mixed-use downtown Asheville [NC] yields $360,000 more in tax revenue to city government than an acre of strip malls or big box stores." from The Smart Math of Mixed Use Development –

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