"Milwaukee County First" Wrong on Transit

Chris Liebenthal is at it again, using one of his websites to publish misguided recommendations for Milwaukee County.  "Milwaukee County First" is the newborn baby of Liebenthal, a liberal blogger who has a rather obvious hatred for Scott Walker.  Liebenthal, who has written over 200 articles about Walker since January alone, is now contriving a little non-profit scheme in order to acquire more legitimacy for his campaign of attacks. 

"Milwaukee County First" has created a petition site to help save the county's transit, parks, and EMS.  The idea is to make Scott Walker look as incompetent as possible.  However, just last week Walker stated he will grant funding for the Milwaukee County's EMS, which is already second in the nation for post-cardiac arrest resuscitation.  This is not too shabby for a system that needs saving by a no-name non-profit entity.  Unfortunate for Milwaukee County First, now one-third of their petition is obsolete.  Liebenthal, however, continues to plead for EMS funding in his petition below.   

 

Milwaukee County First's outdated petition  

 

In their newest piece, Liebenthal links to an article entitled "Buses and Beyond", which was published by a leftist environmentalist group that believes there is a "looming climate apocalypse."  In the article, it discusses "10 cities with great transit."

Here is the first paragraph of Liebenthal's piece,

"Here is an interesting article called 'Buses and Beyond: 10 Cities With Great Transit.'  No, Milwaukee is not included. These systems were all progressively designed and implemented. Their success comes from a few things, the most common is that all of these systems have multi-modal methods of transportation to help people commute."

 

(The bold emphasis is mine) First, Milwaukee is not mentioned in the article because Milwaukee doesn't have passenger rail.  All 10 cities included in the linked article have some kind of rail transit.  And second, by "progressively designed and implemented", Liebenthal means that 95% of taxpayers, who will never use passenger rail, will get the bill.  Isn't that nice.

Furthermore, Liebenthal says,

"The Cleveland story shows that the bike routes and sufficient routes can make a city healthier and more attractive to tourists and businesses alike. Slashing routes and increasing fares have just the opposite effect.

St. Louis shows that light rail actually increases new businesses and provides an improved economy. Their failure to vote for a dedicated funding source has caused it to make severe cuts, harming the growth that they were enjoying."

In Liebenthal's Cleveland example, he says that slashing routes and increasing fares isn't attractive to tourists and businesses.  However, in the St. Louis story (which Liebenthal doesn't talk about) the city had to do just that.  St. Louis slashed their routes and increased their fares as a way to pay for their pet project.  And despite increased fares and slashed routes, advocates still say that passenger rail attracted new jobs, more offices, and more hotels into the area.  What a nice little contradiction that Liebenthal just happens to leave out.

The issue here isn't that passenger rail will or will not attract some jobs in the area, but rather how cost effective it is for the taxpayer.  Amtrak, for instance, has lost about $500 million per year since its inception in 1971.  Even when Congress gave Amtrak an emergency $2.3 billion dollar transfusion in the late 90s, Amtrak is now in worse shape than it was in the 70s.  

Rail isn't just a cost effective nightmare in the U.S., but Japan and Europe are hemorrhaging from financial losses as well.  The Japanese National Railways, which delivered to us the famous "bullet trains" is in virtual bankruptcy.  This is a concept that just doesn't work.

The problem with rail isn't building or maintenance costs.  The problem with rail is limited capacity.  In other words, you can fit more consumers on a mile of a three lane highway than you can fit into a lengthy passenger train.  Currently, highways are paid for by gas taxes.  The more consumers that use the highways, the more revenue that is accumulated through gas taxes.  Highways, therefore, become cost effective due to sufficient consumption.  Rail, however, doesn't make it's money back.  And taxpayers are stuck with a hefty bill.

Patrick McIlheran, of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel concurs with the above assessment when he says,

"But freeways carry many more people. Even in the European Union, rife with 200-mph trains and $5-a-gallon gas, cars carry 76% of passenger travel, trains 5.8%. That's down from 8% since 1980, even as Europe built irresistible trains. Cars' share is up.

And freeways bring in paying customers. Cars pay more in fuel and other taxes than is spent on building and keeping highways. The feds reckoned in 2004 that for every 1,000 miles traveled, cars paid $1.79 more in taxes than their roads consumed in public money.

Passenger trains took in $210 of net subsidy for every 1,000 passenger miles, that report found. While air-travel taxes, other economists say, cover the costs of airports and traffic control, fares don't cover trains' operating costs, much less the cost of tracks.

That's why costly roads differ from costly rails. "The users of (roads) willingly pay the capital costs as well as the operating costs," said transportation scholar Bob Poole of the nonpartisan Reason Foundation. "That just makes them a different category."

Fundamentally, road and air infrastructure is funded by taxes on road and air travelers. Rail infrastructure is funded by taxes on road travelers. Non-users pay in a way they don't for roads."

(Again, the emphasis was mine)  The cost-effectiveness of rail is often an untold secret.  In 2000, Florida voters passed an amendment to the state's constitution forcing the construction of a high-speed rail system.  When Floridians discovered it would have cost them $27 million per mile of track, they repealed the measure.

People like Chris Liebenthal, who start non-profits to play politics, don't care much about higher taxes.   They don't care that less than 5% will use rail, but 95% will end up paying for it.  Cities with rail systems that are deemed successful use a very limited criteria for determining progress.  If they increase ridership on the trains and attract a few more jobs in the area, they hail it as a success.  They don't pay particular attention to the fact that buses, as a means of public transportation, are much more efficient and environmentally friendly than any type of rail.   

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