Some Real Numbers
Portland, Oregon’s TriMet released a memo on November 18 that offers some interesting numbers. Titled “October 2011 Monthly Performance Report,” it includes a table of figures for operating cost per boarding ride, divided by mode.
The mode with the highest cost, $29.11 per ride, was paratransit. Much of this is mandated by the federal Americans for Disabilities Act, which is the most inefficient mandate ever leveled on public transportation. Because it is required by federal law, it has top priority for funds. In cities where the economic downturn has cut transit budgets, a tiny number of disable riders (paratransit carried 21,261 people in Portland in October, out of a total transit ridership of 2,058,811) must be served at the expense of a much larger number of regular riders who lost their service.
The second highest service per ride was on commuter rail, at $12.51 per ride. This reflects the fact that Portland’s commuter rail system is new and small. As the network expands and ridership grows, the cost per ride should fall (and has- by 25% from the same time period in 2010). For comparison, the overall 2010 operating cost per ride on Chicago’s extensive METRA commuter rail system was $7.98.
Now it gets interesting. Libertarian transit critics denounce all rail transit, prescribing buses instead. At the same time, they point to transit’s high operating cost per passenger. But in Portland, the operating cost for buses was $2.66 per passenger ride, while that for light rail was only $1.65. That is a substantial difference in rail’s favor.
While the capital costs of rail transit are higher than bus, (and in most cases, higher than they need to be), operating costs are lower. Why? Because the biggest cost of any transit system is labor. Buses have a fixed ratio of seats per driver, but rail can add passenger seats by adding more cars to a train without hiring operators.
If libertarians were consistent, they would favor rail transit over buses for their lower operating cost. When you add the positive effects of rail has on economic development, something else libertarians favor, it should be a no-brainer. So why do they keep howling for buses? Because libertarianism is an ideology, and as in all ideologies, facts may not be allowed to get in the way of beliefs. And this from people who claim to value reason!