January 3, 1996
By Dennis Polhill, Stephen R. Mueller
The citizens and taxpayers of the Denver metropolitan region have shown their willingness to fund numerous imaginative public works and civic improvement projects over the past decade. Denver International Airport, at a cost of nearly five billion dollars, leads the list. But don’t forget the Colorado Convention Center, Coors Field, and Elitch’s. Then there’s the proposed new Ocean Journey aquarium and a new Broncos stadium. All of these imaginative projects were (and are being) sold to the public using questionable economic assumptions. Citizens were promised that by investing our tax dollars many economic benefits would accrue to the entire region.
For some of the projects, the promises may have come true. But for others, the promises were clearly lies from the very beginning. While the people making the promises may have been genuine in their beliefs that the projects would bring public benefit, they failed to recognize and publicly state the true and complete costs of the projects they were promoting.
Mass transit advocates are taking a different but no less imaginative route. For the past fifteen years the citizens of Denver have been told over and over again that mass transit will clean the air and alleviate traffic congestion. They know that when you continuously read, see, and hear the same information for a prolonged period of time that eventually you will start to believe it – even if it’s not true.
The Regional Transportation District has an annual advertising budget of nearly a million dollars per year. RTD buys newspaper ads, radio ads, and television ads. They sponsor community events. Do you know of any other governmental monopoly that spends that kind of money to promote itself? RTD is clearly trying to do more than simply inform the public about its services, it is trying to influence public opinion. Why? RTD wants light rail.
Do they want light rail because it will clean the air? No! RTD’s own numbers show that there will be less than 1/10th of 1% reduction in air pollution if we build a light rail system.
Do they want light rail because it will solve traffic congestion? No! RTD’s own numbers show that there will only be 1,600 new mass transit riders if they build the Southwest Corridor Light Rail. Considering that Denver’s two million people driver nearly forty million miles a day, removing 1,600 people from the roads won’t be noticed.
So why does RTD want to build light rail? The primary reason given in the recent Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) is that building light rail will ensure reliable transit times. Excuse us for asking, RTD, but are you really telling us that you want to spend nearly a quarter of a billion dollars for that? Have you forgotten about cost-benefit comparisons? If we’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, let’s at least do it for sensible reasons.
Could we offer another reason that RTD is supporting light rail? If light rail expanded to these other corridors, this agency’s budget will grow from $300 million dollars per year to almost a billion. Excuse us for being skeptical, but there are no other governmental agencies of that size in Colorado, except for the State itself.
The Independence Institute has gathered the numbers for the Southwest Corridor Light Rail line, and the numbers clearly show that it is a boondoggle of monumental proportions. Unfortunately for the taxpayers, the mass transit advocates are very imaginative. They are in the midst of “major investment studies” on three other corridors – and the word that we get is that these studies are being slanted to show the need for even more light rail.
A recent Forbes article told how the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Los Angeles has spent three billion dollars on rail, but had twenty percent decline in ridership since 1985. How much more money do Americans have to spend on light rail before they realize that the promises are false.
The proper role of government is to provide the things that citizens can’t provide themselves. The fact of the matter is that nearly all of us prefer the comfort, safety, and convenience of our own private automobiles – and we are willing to pay the costs associated with the automobile. While we agree that it is proper to fund public transportation services for those who are unable to access private modes, our generosity stops considerably short of the billion dollar per year level.
Instead of building light rail, why don’t we use this money to buy something that we can all use and enjoy – like open space and well-maintained highways.
Stephen R. Mueller, P.E. and Dennis Polhill, P.E. are Senior Fellows with the Independence Institute, a think-tank in Golden, Colorado.
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