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Rail transit: bigger, dumber, slower, costlier

Opinion Editorial
April 14, 2002

By Jon Caldara

For the Boulder Daily Camera

In the age of condoms, you’d think rubber would get more respect, especially when it comes to transportation. The U.S. 36 corridor is served by one of the best regional mass transit lines in the country RTD’s Boulder-Denver bus route. But the lust for steel wheels could damn this corridor to a fate worse than T-REX.

Those of us who’ve depended on that line know why it rocks, although we might find it disappointing to learn it’s the rubber wheels that make it superior. The big selling point of any steel wheel contraption (heavy rail, light rail, roller coaster), beyond its looking real cool, is that it gets you out of and around the traffic jam.

Is track the best way to get around the traffic jam? No. It’s the worst. It’s a one-player-take-all, inflexible idea whose time came and went a hundred years ago. But it still looks really cool. Oh, and bond dealers make a butt-load of money off it.

What has been a natural progression building to an incredible bus/HOV facility from Denver to Boulder is being hijacked by insiders who demand a steel wheel system and a massive 67-percent RTD tax increase. These people are herein referred to as “trolley sluts.”

While the trolley sluts are busy pimping for steel wheels, they miss why the bus line is a screaming success. It does the things steel wheels can’t. It acts more like a car.

I pick up the Denver bus as it goes through town along Broadway. Now, trolley drivers are not allowed to drive their trolleys on asphalt roads, because their supervisors get mad. Bus drivers, however, actually can drive to where we live, pick us up, and without any forced transfers get us on the bus lane and zip us down to Denver.

I can choose an express service bus, so I don’t get slowed down as the bus pulls over on every exit along U.S. 36. Trolleys can’t do that unless they’re double tracked. Even then they can’t divert into the ‘burbs and get back on the tracks again that silly rule about keeping trolleys off the roads.

While trolleys can speed up to 55 miles per hour, they rarely do. The national average speed of light rail is less than 20 mph because of all the local stops. And trolley sluts call it rapid transit.

During peak hours we can launch a bus every 10 seconds if needed. But, the fastest headway (time between trains) for trolleys in Denver is 10 minutes. So, a three-car light rail train (RTD’s maximum) can carry about 500 people, or only 3,000 per hour. In other words it would take more than a full day to empty Invesco Field if we only used light rail.

I know it’s impolite to ask what things cost when planning a car-free utopia, but trolleys cost some serious coin. According to the latest study by the Government Accounting Office (and not those wack-jobs at the Independence Institute) the capital cost of light rail since 1980 is $34.79 million per mile, compared with $13.49 million for busways.

Car-haters would love to force us from our freedom-machines at gunpoint (of course, most work for gun control too). They can’t, so instead they work to take the remaining right-of-way that could be used for versatile asphalt lanes to put trolleys on them. Why? Trolley lines eliminate competition and block out consumer choice. It cements the government monopoly.

From cell phones to Palm Pilots, we seek the latest in innovation. Competition makes things smaller, smarter, faster and more versatile. The right transit infrastructure facilitates competition between private buses, jitneys, carpools, vans, school buses, and even RTD.

But trolley sluts want a Bolshevik mass transit system that’s bigger, slower and dumber. They give only lip service to free-market reforms of privatization, deregulation and variable toll pricing (letting single-occupant cars use the busway lane by paying a toll which changes with demand, as on California’s Highway 91).

What if that competition to RTD was finally made legal? What if RTD used its massive subsidy to give transit vouchers to the transit dependent, not to yuppies with gold cards, so they could use their choice of transportation, public or private? Well, we’d have a market in transit.

Buses, vans, jitneys, carpools, and variable-priced toll roads are treated like the Rodney Dangerfields of mass transit. What are trolley sluts so scared of? Success?

Jon Caldara is the President of the Independence Institute. His radio program can be heard Saturday at 9 pm and Sunday at 10 pm on 850 KOA. His TV program “Independent Thinking” airs Friday 8:30 pm on KBDI channel 12.