Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Taking Us For a Ride

Here in The Great American Desert mass transit means a lot to us. Our Amtrak service is our lifeline to the civilized world, and it's hard to imagine life without it. Each day the train passes through Lincoln, once in each direction. There's the convenient 1 AM departure for Denver and the popular 4 AM Zephyr for Chicago. Kansas City to the south is easily reached, beginning with an 8 hr ride due East on the Chicago train, then 4 hrs more to the southwest. Without this vital link travelers would be forced to endure a 3 hr car ride to get to KC.

There's no doubt about it around here; that proposed $52 billion of federal spending is absolutely essential. Each year, literally dozens of Lincoln passengers climb aboard one of these trains for the ride of their lives, the kind of experience only a government-run enterprise can produce.

But what about local mass transit systems? Are they as valuable as Amtrak? For a politician bringing home the local bacon, a mass transit system is a sure winner. Like motherhood and apple pie, who could be against it? P. J. O'Rourke in an hilarious piece on OpinionJournal cuts through the fog of sloppy thinking:
"There are just two problems with mass transit. Nobody uses it, and it costs like hell. Only 4% of Americans take public transportation to work. Even in cities they don't do it. Less than 25% of commuters in the New York metropolitan area use public transportation. Elsewhere it's far less--9.5% in San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, 1.8% in Dallas-Fort Worth. As for total travel in urban parts of America--all the comings and goings for work, school, shopping, etc.--1.7 % of those trips are made on mass transit.

Then there is the cost, which is--obviously--$52 billion. Less obviously, there's all the money spent locally keeping local mass transit systems operating. The Heritage Foundation says, 'There isn't a single light rail transit system in America in which fares paid by the passengers cover the cost of their own rides.' Heritage cites the Minneapolis 'Hiawatha' light rail line, soon to be completed with $107 million from the transportation bill. Heritage estimates that the total expense for each ride on the Hiawatha will be $19. Commuting to work will cost $8,550 a year. If the commuter is earning minimum wage, this leaves about $1,000 a year for food, shelter and clothing. Or, if the city picks up the tab, it could have leased a BMW X-5 SUV for the commuter at about the same price.

We don't want minimum-wage workers driving BMW X-5s. That's unfair. They're already poor, and now they're enemies of the environment? So we must find a way to save mass transit--get people to ride it, be eager to pay for it, no matter what the cold-blooded free-market types at Heritage say. We must do it for the sake of future generations, for our children."
If you love O'Rourke's biting wit as much as we do, you'll want to read the rest.

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