By Mark Reutter
Reducing aid to Amtrak and regional rail-transit systems will undercut the most effective alternative to urban highway congestion, a UI expert says.
John F. Due, professor emeritus of economics and an authority on transportation finance, says decreasing rail-passenger service in the name of saving the taxpayer money will wind up adding to the cost of moving people.
Rail and rail rapid transit are the only modes of mass transportation that have shown absolute increases in ridership since 1980. Car pooling has dropped off dramatically 20 percent between 1980 and 1990 alone while urban bus ridership fell 12 percent in the same period.
Due gives three reasons for the growth of rail passenger traffic the intentional avoidance of jammed highways by some travelers, the greater comfort of rail transportation and the relative affluence of suburban rail users.
"The rise in rail traffic is even more significant than the overall percentage figures suggest," Due writes in a survey of metropolitan transportation. Because rail passenger service is used primarily during peak travel times, "trains relieve highways when congestion is at its greatest."
The cost of subsidizing rail-passenger service provided by Amtrak and regional transit authorities is considerably cheaper than building more highways. In Illinois, for example, 1 mile of urban expressway averages $140 million. In contrast, all state funding for Amtrak service is under $10 million a year.
"Highway congestion is basically attributable to underpricing road use particularly the failure to charge road users adequately for use during peak periods," Due writes. The underpricing of highways has a direct effect on public transport. "Use of public transport requires an immediate outlay of cash, whereas a large portion of own-vehicle transport is fixed cost; the out-of-pocket cost is a small portion of the total," Due writes.
Thus the economics of auto transportation encourages people to use cars heavily once they purchase them, while transit fare-box prices which have been increasing as a result of cutbacks in government aid discourage people from using mass transit.
In cities where "light-rail" lines have been established, transit ridership has increased, sometimes dramatically. Portland's light-rail Gresham line, opened in 1992, was predicted to carry between 10,000 and 12,000 passengers a day. Today it carries 28,000 people.
San Diego's light-rail system handles 55,000 riders a day and interconnects
with Amtrak trains to Oceanside, Anaheim and Los Angeles. Due calls the
San Diego system a model of rapid service and good management practices
that costs less to run than local buses.