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it’s my way or the (hopelessly congested) highway

By enelson
Monday, October 23rd, 2006 at 4:53 pm in Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), driving, Freeways, Funding, rail.

eb 580 - Kathleen Turley - staff.jpg

Government is evil.

There are people from all kinds of political persuasions who would agree with that. Berkeley-style liberals would point to our wars and restrictions on civil liberties. Tracy-style social conservatives might bring up legal abortions and public distribution of condoms and clean needles for addicts.

But both sides want goverment to do things they consider good. Some want to keep sex offenders under lock-and-key after they’ve served their sentences. Others want the government to provide universal healthcare.

But there are some who believe that nearly everything the government does is wrong, especially if it involves taxing people or forcing them to drive their SUVs slower than they care to.

Such folks are scheduled to descend on the Bay Area to highlight what they deem “local examples of wasteful state government spending.”

On Tuesday, they plan to protest in San Rafael against the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, which is the Bay Area’s next best hope of providing an alternative to sitting in stop-and-go freeway traffic. It’s not an optimal alternative, to be certain, but right now, taking a bus is the only other option residents of those northern counties have.

But Americans for Prosperity is calling it wasteful pork-barrel spending. Nobody will use it (that could be true, at first) and the real problem is not enough lanes on U.S. 101 (also true).

But many traffic experts will tell you that even if you could feed six extra lanes onto the Golden Gate Bridge without creating the mother-of-all-bottlenecks, we can fill up those lanes with cars much faster than we can build them.

Sure, the majority of commuters don’t want to mess with getting on and off trains and ferries and then get stuck at work with no car. But there comes a time when traffic, parking and gas prices (in that order) conspire to force people to try alternatives.

In the six months I’ve been riding Capitol Corridor trains, I’ve watched the seats fill up until that rail authority added more trips and it’s quickly filling up again. On top of that, they’re raising fares and we’re lining up to pay it.

Why? Because many of those riders have decided that spending the extra time fussing with train schedules, tickets and connections is worth it to cure the stress of avoiding fender-benders on I-80.

But we happy band of rail commuters are lucky. I’ve spent roughly 1,560 hours of quality time with Southern California commuters on The 405, The 110 and The 101, as they call them down there, and pined for the day when there’d be a viable alternative to sucking carbon monoxide and acid reflux.

Down there, however, there will need to be another half-century of suffering before the place is criss-crossed with transit that goes faster than traffic.

Here in the Bay Area, we are blessed with narrow corridors of civilization much better suited to providing these alternatives. Some of them, like the SMART corridor and e-BART right-of-way, already have old railbeds to work with.

Lots of people will stay in their cars, I’m certain of that. If some of us volunteer to stay off the freeway, why not give us a chance?

Staff photo of I-580 by Kathleen Turley

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7 Responses to “it’s my way or the (hopelessly congested) highway”

  1. South Bay Resident Says:

    Consider for a moment the economics of the Capitol Corridor:

    Total Capital investment:

    Daily Boardings (FY 04/05) 3450
    Current (published estimate) 4000

    Daily interest in capital investment at 5% yearly compounded rate: $103,466
    Capital subsidy per boarding EXCLUDING depreciation of assets (which is significant): $25.87
    Operating Subsidy per daily boarding: $16.62
    Total Subsidy (excluding depreciation of capital) per boarding: $42.49

    Total subsidy per round trip commute(excluding depreciation of capital): $84.98

    You’re reading right. That’s nearly $85 for EACH ROUND TRIP a commuter takes on the Capitol corridor! That’s $21,245 per year for a daily commuter if that’s what it costs to get people out of their cars, I don’t think we can afford it.

    California spends $77.57 per person per year, far below the national average, on the entire road system with most urban roads yielding more in gasoline taxes than they cost to build and maintain (rural roads and some residential streets don’t generate much in gas tax revenue but are expensive to maintain).

  2. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    This is not a comparison of equal statistics. There is no accounting for the capital investment in the road system. An organization I am part of recently bought land for parking, at a cost of over $30,000 per parking space. This is typical of land prices in urban areas within the state, and there are several parking spaces for every automobile. It would not be unreasonable to estimate that there is a capital investment of at least $250,000 per car just in parking. That is about 80 times investment per Capitol Corridor boarding.

    The houses cleared to build just the freeways in Oakland would be bringing in about property taxes than the gas tax generated by every car in the city, whether they use those freeways or not. The cost of capital to that would bring that up to about 5 times that amount.

    The fact of the matter is that it is difficult to compare various modes of transportation, largely because the powers that be do not want fair comparisons.

    On the other hand, the Capitol trains are expensive. Providing bus service every 10 to 15 minutes on the same route would have cost a lot less and would have been faster even if the buses were slower, because one would not have to wait so long for a bus. You may not have the amenities of the train, but with service that often, you could get off at a station, do whatever, and get on the next bus and still make good time.

    Marin and Sonoma would be much better off if they acquired the right-of-way and turned it into a busway with a lot of buses on it instead of a few trains. The capital investment would be much smaller, and the service would be much better, more reliable, and more flexible. The maintenance of the right of way would be cheaper, and other buses could use it between the express buses. It would be a better deal all around.

  3. david vartanoff Says:

    While I do not dispute your $ numbers, please provide figures for the CO2 per driver, the smog generated health costs, the lost value and potemtial revenues of land wasted on freeways and parking lots; when the ‘externalised’ costs are considered it will look very different.

  4. South Bay Resident Says:

    Bruce De Benedictis:

    First, you’re parking prices are pretty inflated at 30k per spot. Parking is only this costly in parking structures. $5000-10,000 would be a more typical price for a space in a bay area parking lot. Second, 4 parking spot per car is typical, so you have a capital cost of $20,000-$120,000 per car, much less than you suggest. Taking a middle value, of $70,000 this is a daily capital cost of $9.58. Much less than you suggest and far less than the capital subsidy of the Capitol Corridor trains.

    More importantly, this cost is primarily borne by the USERS of the system. I rent two parking spaces because I want to use the road system and am willing to pay the cost. Most of the road building and repair in CA is also paid for by user fees (the gas tax vehicle registration fees, etc.*). This is in stark contrast to the Capitol Corridor trains where the costs are paid by someone else.

    * The accounting for this is fairly difficult as some money is transfered from the gas tax to general government and some money is transfered from the rest of the government to the roads. When you look at aggregate spending levels at all levels of government on roads and the aggregate gas tax revenues, you get a very similar number.

    david vartanoff:

    While I don’t have numbers for the Capitol Corridor, I do have some national average data:

    Automobiles: 3581 BTU/pass-mi
    Light Trucks: 4057 BTU/pass-mi
    Intercity rail: 4830 BTU/pass-mi
    Commuter rail: 2714 BTU/pass-mi

    The capitols are pretty lightly loaded, so I would expect them to be close to the Intercity rail numbers I give you. Since the amount of energy you use is directly related to your CO2 emissions, I guess that the CO2 savings are pretty small or non-existent.

    As for smog forming emissions, locomotives have few emissions requirements that they must meet, so you’re probably worse off with the train, however, I don’t have sufficient data to say for certain.

    As for the land “wasted” on freeways and parking lots, I’ll account for that as soon as you account for the land that is made dramatically more valuable from being usable due to the road network.

  5. david vartanoff Says:

    “The capitols are pretty lightly loaded,” Erik has daily experience but AFAIK the rider stats have risen year on year.

    “locomotives have few emissions requirements that they must meet”
    Flat wrong! EPA has been tightening the regs, the builders have been doing their homework.

  6. South Bay Resident Says:

    Current Diesel locomotive regulations are very weak, the proposed tightening you talk about is happening in 2014, which is a way off. Right now, only the most basic emission control is required (which is a big improvement over none at all)

  7. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    Most of the money used to purchase, own, operate, and maintain the street and highway system comes from general taxation, not from any fees paid by users, and not from fees which reflect usage. People are forced to pay to support resources and services which can only be accessed by operating motor vehicles even if they are forbidden from operating motor vehicles. Here in Alameda County, half the money for maintaining streets comes from the sales tax, and that does not include all the operating expenses of them, most of which, such as police, courts, and emergency services, come from general tax funds. If operating the streets could be done profitably for what people pay to use them, they would be privately owned.

    As for the cost of parking spaces, we paid over $30,000 per space for the bare land. That is what land costs around here. Most people are taxed more for their own land that they use to park their cars on than they are taxed for their cars. I seriously doubt that you can rent private land to park a car for a year for the annual taxes paid to operate that car, and certainly not for $77.57.

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