Questions of Transit Efficiency Need to Include Both Costs and Benefits
What is the most efficient means of getting people from the place they are to the place they want to be? Here, the term “efficient” encompasses a broad set of issues, including travel time, future flexibility, resources used, and external costs to society. One answer to this fundamental question, at least in part, is on the Nov. 4 ballot in Saint Louis County, and is referred to as Proposition M. Specifically, voters will choose whether to add a half-cent sales tax to fund MetroLink expansion and operations.
In a pair of op-eds posted on the Show-Me Institute’s website, authors Wendell Cox and Keith Womer offer arguments for and against Proposition M, respectively. To briefly recap, Cox provides a political economic history of sales tax increases, citing the difference between the promised expansion in light rail lines in St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Paris, and the actual outcomes. His lesson is clear: Expanding costs have historically meant that voters do not get what they were promised when tax initiatives were proposed. Correspondingly, Cox suggests that Proposition M would not be a wise use of tax funding.
Womer cites the myriad costs, both observable and unobservable, associated with different modes of travel. He contends that current conditions — including high gas prices and partial shutdown of the 64/40 artery — combined with the large external costs that exist for each additional mile of highway traffic, are sufficient reasons to favor the goals that Proposition M might further.
While I agree with the framework developed by Keith Womer, I find his conclusions to be more like a leap of faith than the logical result of compelling argument. I start with the premise that we do want a transportation system for our children and grandchildren. The difficulty, however, lies in assessing whether the transportation system we want is worth it. The notion of worth has two components: One entails how much society would enjoy the transportation system being proposed. The other involves accounting for the costs of building, operating, and maintaining it.
What can we say about the value of the MetroLink system? Womer cites a figure from a previous Show-Me Institute commentary, indicating that 2 million people rode Metro to special events. One problem with this evidence is that it measures demand only for the existing line, not the proposed future lines. In other words, ridership figures for existing lines cannot be used to measure the demand for new lines being developed. More importantly, this data measures only one side of the equation that voters will inevitably use in deciding whether to vote for or against Proposition M.
The other side of the equation is quantified by a variety of authors — most recently, Randal O’Toole. In studying the proposed development of the first light-rail lines in Kansas City, O’Toole measures the cost of this transportation infrastructure investment. He demonstrates that building light-rail lines is expensive. He measures costs broadly, including efforts to measure reduced pollution, savings to drivers from reduced congestion, and relative costs as compared to other mass transportation methods (such as bus service). He concludes that other types of infrastructure, including building new highways, offer higher returns to society than building light-rail lines.
The fundamental question, again, is this: Is the MetroLink expansion worth it? Only voters can ultimately decide. It is important to recognize that there are other transportation systems that would require lower costs to produce, thus getting people from where they are to where they want to be a lower cost, even when costs are measured broadly.
That said, there is one open rationale: If voters really like light-rail systems, they may justify voting yes on Proposition M regardless of the costs. It is important to understand that what they claim to like is actually a socially inefficient mechanism for transporting people. The Proposition M tax would result in every county taxpayer subsidizing the small percentage of people who regularly ride the MetroLink. And, finally, my own belief is that hovercrafts are more modern than light rail. Could the tax pay for a few hovercrafts instead?
Joseph Haslag is executive vice president of the Show-Me Institute and a professor in economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia.