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Opinion Editorial
January 21, 2004

By Randal O’Toole

What would Martin Luther King, Jr. say about RTD’s SlowTracks rail transit tax increase? Rail transit’s professed goal is to attract middle-class drivers who own one or more automobiles out of their cars and onto transit. Yet RTD’s plan is likely to reduce mobility for low-income people.

Low-income people face serious mobility problems. While nearly 95 percent of white families own at least one automobile, one out of four black families have no cars. Many planners want to create even more obstacles to mobility by increasing congestion in low-income neighborhoods that are already among the most congested parts of our cities.

When King was alive, black per-capita incomes were 57 percent of white’s. Shamefully, since then they have only risen to 59 percent of white’s. Cars are so important for job access that a recent University of California study found reducing the black-white car ownership gap would reduce nearly half of the black-white employment gap.

We can get some idea of King’s response to rail transit by the fact that forty African-American ministers opposed light rail in Houston. Or the fact that an African-American minister in Kansas City led a successful campaign to defeat light-rail transit there.

These ministers were familiar with the impact rail transit has had on minorities in Los Angeles, San Jose, and other cities that built rail lines. A recent article in the Journal of the American Planning Association found that U.S. rail transit projects go an average of 41 percent over budget. Transit agencies respond to these cost overruns by raising bus fares and cutting back on bus service.

In Los Angeles, bus service to black and Hispanic neighborhoods declined so severely that the NAACP took the transit agency to court for discrimination. The agency was forced to agree to restore bus service and buy hundreds of new buses; in order to pay for that, it had to practically halt new rail construction.

The heavy interest payments on rail transit construction bonds also make transit agencies more vulnerable to economic downturns. The recent recession forced the San Jose transit agency to severely cut back bus service to minority neighborhoods even as it continued to build expensive light-rail lines through white neighborhoods that it couldn’t afford to operate. Since the recession began, San Jose bus ridership dropped by 28 percent while light-rail ridership dropped by 44 percent, yet the agency made more severe cut backs to its bus service.

If the goal is to attract people out of their cars, rail transit doesn’t work. The 2000 census revealed that, during the 1990s, the two-dozen urban areas with rail transit collectively lost more than 33,000 transit commuters. Meanwhile, the two-dozen largest urban areas that don’t have rail transit collectively gained more than 27,000 transit commuters.

Despite its great subway, the Washington, DC, urban area alone lost more than 20,000 transit commuters. If that high-speed rail system can’t keep commuters, how can RTD’s 18-mile-per-hour light rail do the job? This slow speed is why I call RTD’s plan “SlowTracks.”

Rail doesn’t work because it is so costly and does nothing buses can’t do for less money. The General Accounting Office says bus-rapid transit — meaning buses run on faster, more frequent schedules — costs less to start, costs less to operate, and can get people to their destinations faster than light rail.

Yet rail advocates say we need to build rail lines even if buses can go faster at a lower cost. In an argument bordering on racism, they claim white, middle-class commuters will ride a train but won’t ride a bus because buses have so many, you know, poor people.

Instead of worrying about getting white, middle-class commuters out of their cars, we should use our limited resources to build the best transportation system possible. First, we should convert the underutilized carpool lanes on several Denver-area freeways to high-occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes, which high-occupancy vehicles would still use for free but low-occupancy vehicles could use by paying an electronic toll.

Second, we should use the toll revenues from HOT lanes to build a complete network of HOT lanes on every freeway in the Denver metro area. Third, RTD should stop talking about tax increases for expensive rail lines and run low-cost bus-rapid transit on all of the HOT lanes.

Without increasing taxes, these three steps would reduce congestion and increase mobility for both auto drivers and transit riders. When many people still lack the mobility to find jobs, I am sure Martin Luther King would be appalled that some people’s top transportation priority is to spend billions attracting a few wealthy commuters out of their cars.

Randal O’Toole (rot@i2i.org) is the author of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths and director of the Independence Institute’s Center for the American Dream.