December 1, 1999
By Dwight Filley
It has been a while since Political Correctness suffered death by ridicule, and not a moment too soon. Unfortunately, remnants of it still lurk in Denver’s current urban transportation debate: Light rail is PC. Busses are PC. Freeways are not PC.
How else to explain why voters sometimes are willing to spend vast sums on an outdated, inefficient, costly system for which there is almost no demand?
It’s weird: when people decide to take a trip in the city, they overwhelmingly choose to go by car, 98 out of every 100 times. Yet when confronted with a ballot issue, a majority will occasionally vote for more government transit. There are plenty of empty seats on existing transit, but hardly any of these voters take advantage of them. Yet they still vote for more.
PC at its worst.
Ridership on light rail has declined ever since its peak in 1945. At that time, about 50 percent of urban travelers took transit, but today, despite massive subsidies, barely two percent ride buses or trains. The percentage is still dropping….But somehow it’s politically correct to want more government transit, not so the voter can ride it, but so some other schmuck will ride and therefore get out of the voter’s way on the freeway.
Why not skip a step and just build more freeways? Because freeways are Politically Incorrect. And here we thought Political Correctness was dead.
People clearly vote with their steering wheels for freeways. That is why freeways are so crowded. People have shown by their choices that they love freeways. The only thing they don’t like about them is that freeways are too crowded during rush hour because everybody else loves freeways so much.
Somehow the notion has taken hold that to relieve this crowding, we need to revert to a failed nineteenth century technology. Light rail is only a trolley system, and trolleys died out a half a century ago.
Using the Regional Transportation District’s own numbers, a light rail trolley line down I-25 will serve less than half as many people as a single freeway lane. But, as we have learned, Political Correctness doesn’t have to make sense.
If freeway lanes will carry far more people, is there room to build more lanes along I-25? Again using RTD’s data, the present three lanes in each direction can be expanded to five. If Political Correctness forces us to reserve one lane for light rail, this permits one additional freeway lane in each direction.
Furthermore, according to a recent Issue Paper from the Independence Institute–the Golden think tank–there are only a few bottlenecks in the way of still another lane in each direction in the existing right of way. There could be two extra freeway lanes in each direction even if light rail is built, and three if it isn’t.
The opponents of freeways are correct in pointing out that as soon as a new freeway lane is built, it fills up with traffic. Even now, it can take four times longer to drive I-25 during rush hour than at other times, and it’s getting worse.
The solution, however, is not light rail. Light rail has not solved congestion in any of the 12 American cities where Political Correctness caused light rail to be built.
The solution is not to move backward to a failed concept, but to move forward, applying the power of the computer. Modern technology permits what are called HOT lanes–High Occupancy and Toll lanes–that permit carpoolers to ride for free, and charge single drivers a toll. Computers read a gizmo on the dashboard at 70 MPH and charge you for your use. The price charged varies with congestion, and is posted on a big sign a mile or so before the HOT lane begins. That way, drivers have time to decide whether to spend some money to save some time. The HOT lane never gets too full because the computer knows how many cars are on it and raises the price so as to avoid slowdowns.
Such a system is already up and running along eight miles of I-15 in San Diego, with tolls ranging from 50 cents to $4 per trip.
The Independence Institute has shown that light rail won’t even make a dent in future crowding on I-25, but HOT lanes will. HOT lanes may not be Politically Correct–but then, who cares?
Dwight Filley is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute, a think tank in Golden which studies transportation policy, https://i2i.org.
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