Tied to the tracks

As I’ve mentioned here a couple of times I’ve been considering — and testing — the possibility of making use of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) Hiawatha Line for a part of my daily commute. I’ve ultimately decided to do this starting in August (more on that in a minute). On a micro-level (e.g., my checking account) it makes sense/cents because I can save about $80 bucks a month. I’ve had my doubts about the macro-savings, both in dollars and energy, of the current public transportation options, but haven’t taken the time to dig into it. Fortunately, Bike Bubba did so last week, referencing a report from the Cato Institute:

Metro’s buses [Note: St. Louis, MO area. NW] today consume more energy and emit more greenhouse gases, per passenger mile, than a typical sport utility vehicle. Its light-rail lines do better, but consume almost as much energy, and emit almost as much greenhouse gas, per passenger mile, as the average car.

Moreover, even where rail operations do save energy, this savings almost never makes up for the huge energy cost of rail construction. Highway construction also consumes energy, but because highways are more heavily used than rail lines, their energy cost per passenger mile is far lower.

If we ignore construction costs, many rail operations do consume less energy than the average auto — but almost none consume less than a Toyota Prius. As Lave suggested in 1979, to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is far more cost effective to encourage people to drive more fuel-efficient cars than to build rail transit lines.

Transit agencies that want to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions should focus on increasing bus loads or reducing the size of their buses. The average Metro bus has 39 seats, yet averages less than 10 passengers. Concentrating service in areas where loads are higher, and using smaller buses in areas or times of day where loads are lower, will do far more to save energy than building rail transit.

So if it’s more economically, environmentally and energy-efficient to get people to drive more fuel-efficient cars than it is to get them to build and ride rail transit, how do you “get” them to do so? If only there were some invisible hand that could get people’s attention and cause them to act in a more enlightened (or just self-serving) manner! Something like, you know, the marketplace!

While the cost of gas has been driven up due to the oil supply being deliberately restricted, it does create the motivation to look for alternatives. Even as math-averse as I am I can still do it (the math) when I have to, and spending $50 for a tank of gas will get me reaching for a calculator. I think most folks are capable of doing a basic cost/benefit analysis, which brings me to why I’m not going to start my full-time LRT commuting until August.

My parking contract at work requires a 30-day notice to terminate, and can only be given at the first of the month; even if I stop using the ramp I still have to pay for July. Now, if I could get the $39 a month Metropass through my employer it would still be about a push on the savings to pay both parking and transit fee; however I can’t get the pass from my employer until the parking comes off the books. I could buy a MTC “GO” pass (actually, recharge the one I’ve been using) but the rush hour commuting charges would add up to $80 for the month. That means the parking, gas and train fees don’t come out in favor of the transit, especially when you add in the extra time and hassle it takes as opposed to driving. So, it’s easier on my budget and simpler to drive another month while I satisfy the parking contract, regardless of whatever benefit I perhaps bestow upon the planet (especially dubious given Bike Bubba’s revelations). Similarly, in the future if the monetary savings of using transit diminish, or the inconveniences get too big, I reserve the right to change my mind again.

OK, so I guess that it’s all about the money for me when it comes to saving the planet. Of course, as Speed Gibson points out, the same goes for the Metropolitan Transit Commission as well.

You’ve probably heard that transit fares will be rising, probably about 25 cents, probably around October 1st. A number of public hearings are scheduled in July.

Most of us will be paying more for transit July 1, however, when the sales tax goes up 0.25% in Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, Dakota, and Washington Counties. Also starting July 1, you’ll be paying a $20 Transit Improvement Vehicle Excise Tax when you sell a vehicle registered in these Counties.

But that’s already figured into the projected $15 million shortfall in the fiscal year starting July 1. As I posted earlier, that amount is suspiciously similar to the Light Rail subsidy. Increased business for an enterprise with such high fixed costs should more than cover the rising fuel costs.

So what does Metro Transit do? Raise bus fares, which will reduce ridership by pushing some back into their cars or carpools. And not just this fall, and not just a quarter, mind you. The resolution also would grant authority for another increase of up to fifty cents in 2009.

What else can we do to discourage ridership? Let’s expand the morning rush hour to start at 5:30 AM, not 6:00 AM, so we can charge 50 cents more for these early birds. Isn’t the purpose of off-peak fares to encourage off-peak ridership?

Oh, and let’s make it complicated again, with the return of suburban fare zones to nickel and dime quarter and dollar us further.

All of this of course is just a double shuffle to secretly get more Light Rail subsidies. They’re going to need still more money to run the Central Corridor and the Metropolitan Council is willing to further degrade the bus service to get it.

Keep your calculators handy!

2 thoughts on “Tied to the tracks

  1. Thanks for the plug! Yup, it’s awful hard to beat the fuel efficiency of a car when your buses are empty 3/4 of the time (off peak hours and “the wrong way” during peak hours), especially when you consider how much a rail car has to weigh simply to stay on the tracks.

  2. They’re going to need still more money to run the Central Corridor and the Metropolitan Council is willing to further degrade the bus service to get it.

    Yep, that’s exactly correct, NW. And those smelly, nasty buses are the ones that could actually get some cars off the road. But the Met Council is going to do what it’s going to do regardless of what we think. So you might as well avail yourself of the services and save the money, good sir.

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