Vapid Transit

 

This week, Los Angeles is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its Metro Rail system. The whole thing cost $8 billion. Miles and miles of tunnels were dug. Gleaming new stations were built, complete with correct art — lots of smiling “indigenous” people, lots of murals, you get the picture — and the whole system is the kind of big-project, big-money undertaking city governments love: you get some money from the Feds, you get some money from the taxpayers, you build a monument to yourselves.

And nobody, really, is riding the damn thing. From the LA Times:

But although the region now has a gleaming system of subways and light-rail trains, some transportation experts say the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $8-billion effort — less operating costs — has done little to reduce traffic congestion or increase the use of mass transit much beyond the level in 1985, when planning for the Metro Blue Line began.

Typical, really. Big projects mean lots of money sloshing around, spilling and splashing into places and pockets it’s not supposed to go. Buses, which aren’t glamorous, would have been a better and more effective way to reduce traffic.

Is there any evidence to suggest that any other city — or state, for that matter — could spend $8 billion better? People keep talking about big projects like this — high-speed rail; major electrical grid upgrades — but is anyone confident that big government can handle big projects?

Look, I think we need government to undertake some big things. Hoover Dam-type things. Federal highway system-type things. But what happened between then and now to make that seem so fraught with failure, to make us (well, me, anyway) so pessimistic about the combination of your typical state or city government and $8 billion?

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @TheMugwump

    Same situation here in New Mexico, Rob. Governor Richardson decided we needed a high speed rail line between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Price tag was half a billion bucks, about the same as last year’s state budget deficit. Quite naturally not enough people use it to even pay for the cost of operation, so now it requires a taxpayer subsidy to keep the damn thing running. My salary as a teacher was axed 3% last year to help close the deficit which means my personal share in this boondoggle is a net $1200. I’ve taken the train once.

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  2. Profile Photo Member
    @TomJedrz

    I am seriously disappointed in the LA light rail initiative, for several reasons. When the first line (the Blue Line) opened I was a rider because I lived at one end and worked at the other. It was great!

    1. It was designed by committee, special interest, and NIMBYism. There are no stops at any of the airports, or with the exception of Staples Center / Nokia Theatre and Universal Studios, at any substantial “magnet” for people and traffic. No Hollywood Bowl, Dodger Stadium, LA Coliseum, Century City, Rose Bowl, Santa Monica Pier, beaches, Griffith Park, LA Zoo, etc.
    2. Popular, well used, effective bus routes have been cannibalized in a clear attempt to push riders onto light rail.
    3. It is mind-blowingly expensive, both on a per mile and per passenger basis.
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  3. Profile Photo Inactive
    @MorituriTe
    Rob Long [W]hat happened between then and now to make that seem so fraught with failure, to make us (well, me, anyway) so pessimistic about the combination of your typical state or city government and $8 billion? ·

    That is a really interesting question, Rob, and one I’ve never thought much about. What is the difference between the government that built the Hoover Dam and the Interstate Highway system, that put a man on the moon in just a few years; and the stupid, bloated, pointless mess we have today? I don’t have enough information to build a solid theory.

    I’ve spoken in another connection about the collapse of standards, about the idea that people used to do their jobs in the context of some larger set of values, which somehow mitigated the corrupting internal incentives of big media, or big government. Is that the case here? Or are there other things in the environment that have changed?

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  4. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Same business here in Columbus, OH, where the local paper broke the news yesterday that a bridge estimated at $19.5 million in 2002 has cost $60 million. But it’s artsy, so the mayor is explaining how the price will be no biggie in a couple years (rather than apologizing for bungling away $40 million).

    Yes, Mayor Coleman also loves light rail, just like Governor Strickland and Senator Brown and all the other clowns who would stand in front of a brand-new Parthenon with a union consultant and find some missing feature to spend our money on.

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  5. Profile Photo Editor
    @RobLong
    Daniel Frank

    What is the difference between the government that built the Hoover Dam and the Interstate Highway system, that put a man on the moon in just a few years; and the stupid, bloated, pointless mess we have today? I don’t have enough information to build a solid theory.

    I don’t understand it, either. Are we forgetting something? Was there cynicism and graft back then? Or sheer incompetence? Or, maybe, those things were amazing feats of engineering and daring, and that’s what made them so distinct. Today, nobody doubts that we can build a light rail system, or even a high-speed rail link from here to anywhere. Those are political challenges. And maybe that’s why they’re so easily turned into money circuses. But engineering challenges — an electrical grid for the future — maybe that’s what we’re all avoiding.

    I can’t help but think it’s part of a general dumbing down of the culture. To most people, when they even think about engineering feats, they think of them like they’re magic tricks. Poof! The Hoover Dam appears.

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  6. Profile Photo Member
    @cdor

    You might refer to a previous conversation right here at Ricochet:

    http://ricochet.com/conversations/Trains-Vs.-Monorails-Vs.-Alternative-Fuels

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  7. Profile Photo Contributor
    @GeorgeSavage
    Rob Long I don’t understand it, either. Are we forgetting something? Was there cynicism and graft back then? Or sheer incompetence? Or, maybe, those things were amazing feats of engineering and daring, and that’s what made them so distinct. Jul 26 at 5:25pm

    Consider the chart below depicting total US taxes as a percentage of gross domestic product. I think that early 20th century government was so much slimmer that it was much better equipped to act on the relatively few items, even big projects, on the agenda. Another benefit to a puny public sector was that most businessmen knew, absolutely knew that the route to riches was through satisfying private customers rather than politicians.

    usgs_line.png

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  8. Profile Photo Member
    @

    I don’t entirely understand it, but I can tell you what some of the factors are.

    1) Prevailing wage laws and public employee unions make this kind of project much more expensive now.

    2) We only remember the successful public infrastructure projects of the past, not the duds.

    3) Lots of people died building the Hoover Dam, the Panama Canal, the Golden Gate Bridge. Work safety rules are a lot more stringent now, and that’s a good thing, but it has costs.

    4) In Los Angeles, if you look at a subway map, you’ll see where influential rich people kept public transportation being built through their neighborhoods. The same thing happened in DC. The Metro doesn’t go to Georgetown. It’s much harder to build public transportation that makes sense after a city is built.

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  9. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Dietlbomb
    Daniel Frank

    What is the difference between the government that built the Hoover Dam and the Interstate Highway system, that put a man on the moon in just a few years; and the stupid, bloated, pointless mess we have today?

    This is a classic case of a government solution without a problem. When there is a clear goal, the government can get it done (if inefficiently). The moon shot had a really clear goal: get a man to the moon and back. The Hoover Dam’s goal: make a dam to power the southwest. It sounds like LA’s light rail’s purpose is to be a light rail.

    This reminds me of the stupid Fast Ferry they bought for trips between Rochester and Toronto. Any simple analysis would have shown (and did, but nobody listened) that the project was completely nonviable. There was no demand–the plan relied on Torontonians wanting to come to Rochester!–and no possibility for profit. The local panjandrums (Mayor Johnson, Hillary Clinton, Louise Slaughter) supported it because it seemed cool. Of course, now they support high speed rail across New York State, boondoggle with less demand than 100 gross self-sealing stem bolts.

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  10. Profile Photo Member
    @JohnBoyer

    As a frequent patron of public transport, I agree on the utility and importance of such services. And you’re right Rob that we need government for large scale projects like this–or at least this is my inclination.

    But the LA Metro Rail makes me think that the city built it not because it was necessary but because they wanted to be like New York City. They wanted to be a big city that has a subway just like the cool kids on the east coast and in Europe. Or even the BART up north. Does this seem right?

    Plus I bet there was a lot of union pressure.

    The only time I’ve ever seen the LA subway used was in season 6 of 24. And even then, it struck me as silly. LA was designed as the land of the automobile, as an area full of urban sprawl, not a tightly packed city which requires extensive transport lines be placed below ground.

    What a waste of tax payer money.

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  11. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Waynester

    Rob: “To most people, when they even think about engineering feats, they think of them like they’re magic tricks. Poof! The Hoover Dam appears.”

    (Sorry I don’t quite know how to quote text and Ricochet has no help section)

    There is a phrase often used by those who know how things work to explain to those who don’t: “It works by FM–effing magic!”

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