follow-up on BART to the airport

Topics: Transportation
29 Jul 2003

From: Ervan Darnell

In August 1997, when the BART extension to SFO (the airport) was being proposed, I criticized the proposal writing, in part, the following:

This line is only 6 miles and is estimated to cost $1.2G. That's only the estimate; they haven't even started yet. The goal is to carry 20K passengers daily [5]. Using the same arithmetic, that comes to a subsidy of $19/ride (compared to the $10 above, not the $16). [ It doesn't usefully serve most airport passengers. ]

The project was two years late and 17% ($200M) over budget [7]. At least that part is not too bad.

But, six years later, it's finally open and we learn how bad the original ridership fantasy was (at least at this moment in time):

Last Wednesday, for example, BART records show that just 3,126 passengers took the ride out to the airport -- or less than 50 percent of the 6,500 daily total expected in the opening weeks. [6]

Not only were their estimates off by 2X, the SF Chronicle doesn't even mention the original estimate was 3X the revised estimate on opening. That brings the subsidy to a whopping $120/ride. You could give every passenger a taxi ride, wherever they wanted (not just where BART stops), have them arrive sooner, have someone carry their bags, hand them $70 in cash, and still come out ahead over having built BART to the airport.

Let's hope it's not really that bad. Regardless, these aren't the numbers you ever here the advocates defend.

[5] 8/17/97 SF Chronicle
[6] 7/29/03 SF Chronicle
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From: Ervan Darnell
Subject: Re: [Ragnar] June LP newsletter: Is riding BART moral?
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At 08:50 AM 7/24/2004 , Vincent Kargatis wrote:
Talk of subsidies is meaningless without direct and specific comparison
of road subsidies. You mention "public roads financed mostly by fuel
taxes", [ pollution etc. ]

I didn't have space to explore every sub-issue in 300 words. As for external costs, like pollution (and many others), those should be internalized (or compensated) everywhere possible. I think we're in agreement on this.

Your main point, that highway subsidies must also be considered in my moral calculus, is a fair one. If both highways and BART were heavily subsidized, the moral argument would become weaker, but not go away. Then it would be a matter of which is more efficient, even if both were mostly subsidized. But, it turns out not to be the case.

Gas taxes do mostly pay for roads. With BART, fares don't even cover 10% of the cost. Taking the feds as an example, the gas tax is dedicated:

Under current law, an 18.4-cents-per-gallon excise tax is imposed on gasoline. In general, 18.3 cents per gallon of the gasoline excise tax is deposited in the Highway Trust Fund and 0.1 cent per gallon is deposited in the Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) Trust [1]

As of 2004, federal gas tax was about $50G [2] and the 2004 requested budget for the highway department is $57G [3]. So, there isn't much subsidy there.

The California situation was similar until recently when the vehicle license fee became a political football and because prop 98 (which mandates increases in school spending, no matter what) squeezed highway funding way below maintenance levels. I'm not sure where the dust will settle.

There are numerous costs and benefits on either side of the equation, merely identifying one of them is insufficient to make the broader case. I'm all for measuring those everywhere possible. As for pollution, I think this is overblown as a cost factor, for a couple of reasons:

1) BART has its own sort of pollution. While it doesn't create local nitrogen compounds, it adds more greenhouse gasses per commuter mile. No, I don't know that for fact, but I surmise it from the relatively low load it often carries (many unused passenger miles), the inefficiency of transporting the electricity great distances, the inefficiency of simply generating electricity to start with (versus directly burning gas in cars), and the indirectness of the routes create more net travel. Offset against this is obviously the mechanical efficiency of steel wheels on steel rail and less air drag as more people are behind the same fairing. If you can sort all of these factors out, let me know.

2) Pollution is not infinitely costly. The experiment I run is to ask people what they would pay to reduce local airborne pollution 70% (about what cars contribute). Honest answers range around $1K/year (for people with good jobs). Let's say for average wage earners that's more like $500/year. An average car goes 12K miles/year at $.30/mile cost. That's about $5K/year in real car cost. That means people value the pollution cost at only 10% of how much they value being able to have a car. Of course, at the margin the elasticity may be different that in total. But to first approximation considering pollution favors BART at most 10%, that's nowhere near enough to make it competitive (when it starts off by being 1000% worse).

3) It's likely far cheaper to attack air pollution with better combustion and scrubbing technology than mass transit diversions. [4]


[2] incidentally computed from:
$82 billion of the $131 billion increase in federal revenues over 10 years would be financed out of foregone or lower personal savings.
Congressman Don Young (R-AK) proposed an increase of the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon to 23.85 cents per gallon in the first year as part of the 2004 highway bill. While this twenty-nine percent tax increase has not generated major support,

I need a more solid reference, but this is what I could find. The highway trust fund is deceptive because it only gets part of the gas tax as revenue and only represents part of the spending on highways.



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Just yesterday (after having sent my piece on building more roads), I
heard an episode of a local talk radio show interviewing California
officials (from the highway department, Caltrans, and from BART). I
have another theory for why the roads are in such bad shape: only
anti-market bureaucrats are ever willing to take a government job and
the system is just blinded to any possibility that makes sense.

Building more roads was not among the solutions they offered. Some of
the things they did offer:

1) HOT lanes -- tolls for the carpool lane. In theory, this makes
sense. But their implementation of it was still to allow carpools to go
for free. In other words, there is no additional incentive to carpool
(versus now). Indeed there is less because the HOV lanes are already
congested, and this plan will make it worse. Nor will the toll money be
dedicated to buliding more roads. One problem with the current
HOV/carpool lanes is that *anyone*, including children beneath driving
age, count as a carpool, and there a variety of other exceptions for PC
causes. How about fixing that so the HOV lanes actually flow? While I
dread giving the government another tax to abuse, the better answer is
toll all of the lanes at the true maintenance cost + some reasonable
extra that is dedicated to building new roads. Or, at least split the
difference and toll the second-to-left lane.

2) Dedicated bus lanes on 4-lane (each way) highways -- In other words,
remove 1/4 of the total capacity in the interest of making things
better. This is classic government arrogance: change the laws to favor
its own service provider. In principle this might help if tolls were
adjusted accordingly, but absent that it's senseless.

3) Socialist housing planning -- force people to build new houses next
to BART. This is another example of the government bending the rules to
subsidize its own service provider. If BART is such a good deal,
people will live next to it naturally (and it is worth something). But
forcing people to live where they don't wish to is a funny way of
burying the costs (by putting people in bad neighborhoods, away from
good schools, further from family, whatever).

4) outlawing new single-family homes -- One of the guests said how good
urban growth boundaries in the Bay Area were solving traffic problems.
This is doubly wrong. First, those boundaries are typically on close-in
cities. Thus, they pushing housing further away by removing near
spaces, presumably a bad thing in the "planners" ' minds as it leads to
more miles driven. Second, it isn't clear at all what the relation is
between growth and congestion. If you do nothing but force more people
into less space, they'll still all drive and congestion will go up, not
down. Plus, growth means distributed shopping and entertainment venues,
which means less congestion, not more. The "planners" seem to have some
naive fantasy of everyone walking to work and having all of their
friends in the same building. And, of course, there is the biggie:
their solution to congestion is simply to ban housing, making it ever
more expensive. This will ultimately work, but only by raising the
misery index high enough that people leave. I wouldn't call that a
solution. If they really wanted to stop urban growth the answer is to
oppose zoning and remove Sacramento's power to grab property taxes. The
former prevents "mixed use" and high density, and raises the frictional
cost of paying off the city council for every development so high as to
discourage changes in land use. The property-tax screw-up makes it not
in cities' interest to build high-density housing. But they aren't
going to suggest either of things because they mean less government,
while the "planners" want more.


There was one interesting tidbit from the BART representative that
underscores my previous point: He said that the rise in gas prices did
not increase BART usage, but increasing congestion did. In other
words, people are time sensitive but not cost sensitive on their
commute. That almost surely means we are not spending enough on the roads.

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