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Are we lying? Judge for yourself

Opinion Editorial
February 22, 2004

By Jon Caldara, for the Boulder Daily Camera

Trolleys kill.

It was fun to watch RTD go into anaphylactic shock this week when the Independence Institute released a study that merely publicized federal data. Unfortunately that data showed that Denver not only had the most deadly light-rail system in the nation, but the most energy-inefficient.

Randal O’Toole, who compiled the data for the report “Great Rail Disasters” (available at www.IndependenceInstitute.org) has an impressive record as an environmentalist. He has never commuted to work by car, but instead pedals or takes transit. He’s worked for green groups ranging from Sierra Club to Colorado Open Space, and has been largely credited for reducing the amount of national forest land that gets harvested for lumber by several-fold. But don’t hold that against him.

It has been his environmentalism that has brought him to crunch numbers on government-monopoly transit.

Nationwide, government transit systems have been having a hard time. No transit system carries more than 11 percent of travel. And outside of New York City, no system carries more than 5 percent of travel. RTD carries only around 2 percent. (And at rush hour over 4 percent, weeeee!)
As The Onion satirically reports, “98 percent of Americans support the use of mass transit by others.”

As RTD works for your permission to impose a 67-percent tax increase this fall, they fear light shining on the myths of rail. That’s the reason RTD called an immediate press conference after this report was released to call the Independence Institute “liars.” Not “wrong,” but “liars.”

The report, which was simultaneously released by 12 other think tanks around the country, details data for America’s two-dozen rail systems. Collectively, the transit systems with rail lost 33,000 transit commuters during the 1990s, according to the Census Bureau and the National Transit Data Base. By contrast, the two-dozen largest cities with bus-only systems gained 27,000 during the same time.

Let’s do a little myth-busting. Today, we’ll take on “light rail is safe,” and “light rail is energy-efficient,” since RTD is the worst at these. We’ll take on “it’s cost-effective, reduces traffic, solves air pollution, fast, good for the economy and land use, yada yada” as we get closer to tax-hike time.

Data show, by per-passenger mile, RTD’s rail is the most deadly. RTD immediately complained that a couple of those deaths were suicides (just like in the other cities that report data) and that they haven’t killed anyone lately. They claim they only kill people when they open a new rail line.

The problem is when an automobile hits another automobile, it’s a fair fight, but when a light rail hits a car, it’s like a scene from “Terminator.”

Turns out overall that buses are much, much safer than light rail, and cars even safer than buses.

Here are the boring stats for fatalities nationally, per billion passenger miles, from the National Transit Data Base: 3.9 for urban interstate highways, 4.3 for transit buses, 11.3 for commuter rail and 14.8 for light rail.

RTD’s light rail fatality rate is a startling 38.9 per billion passenger miles. If the suicides alleged by RTD aren’t included, then RTD’s rate is about 27, still double the national average. That’s nine times more than the national average for highways.

Rail is also energy inefficient because so few ride it. I know, I know, “I was on it once and it was packed.” But most of the time it runs nearly empty. The average ridership for RTD’s rail is only 15 people per car. The national average is a stellar 24.

Energy consumption is measured by BTUs (British Thermal Units) per passenger mile. Here are those boring stats nationally: 3,500 for passenger cars, 4,800 for buses and 4,100 for light rail. According to the numbers submitted to the Federal Transit Administration, RTD’s rail uses 9,886 BTU.
RTD now claims they reported the wrong numbers to the FTA.

The state Legislature will consider a bill requiring the state auditor to review RTD. I remember the state audit done a decade ago. RTD doesn’t strongly object to the idea, so long as the audit happens after their 67-percent tax increase vote this fall.

That’s kinda like buying a car and then looking at Consumer Reports.
In a post-Enron world, who could possibly object to an impartial outside state audit before a massive tax election? More important, what legislator wouldn’t demand one?

Don’t you want find out what else might have been reported wrong?