L. Neil Smith's

Number 11, August 1996

Monorail Energy Savings, Congestion Relief all 'Costly Delusions'

By Vin Suprynowicz

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

         In Las Vegas, U.S. Highway 95 from the dreaded "Spaghetti Bowl" intersection west to Rainbow Boulevard -- the single most crucial artery for commuters between the casino-bedecked central city and the booming residential suburbs to the northwest -- is often a congested mess, and likely to get worse.
         The most traditional solution -- and possibly the cheapest -- would be to widen that five-mile, six-lane stretch of road to eight lanes or more, at a cost of perhaps $350 million.
         But the current highway runs through dense residential and commercial areas. A lot of private property owners would have to be muscled aside.
         Another option being considered by state highway planners is double-decking the freeway. But in addition to boosting the cost to $500 million, such a project would make congestion a lot worse while it was underway.
         So, at a public workshop July 22, state transportation officials unveiled a plan to extend the monorail now planned between the airport, major Strip resorts, and the downtown. Under the new design, the El would stretch much further northwest, toward the ritzy new suburbs of Summerlin and The Lakes.
         The plan is preliminary, and no one should be discouraged from crunching numbers on any plan -- no matter how far-fetched -- at this early stage.
         While they're still at such an early a stage, for instance, I hope the highway planners will seek the advice of those with hands-on experience building high-speed toll lanes in Los Angeles and elsewhere, before anyone accepts at face value the assertion of Lee Gibson, chief planner for the Regional Transportation Commission, that "(Mass) transit has to be part of the equation. And I mean more than just buses."
         Bruce Arkell, the state's project manager for the U.S. 95 study, also argued July 22 that a $1 billion monorail system would reduce automobile emissions while curing congestion.
         Why, when it's never worked anywhere else?
         A 1991 Cato Institute study by economic consultants Jean Love and Wendell Cox exploded the myths that expensive, modern mass transit in America in the '80s eased traffic congestion, or reduced air pollution, or saved energy.
         Although the federal government has plowed $50 billion into mass transit systems since 1965, ridership has actually dropped by 12 percent, nationwide. In Chicago, it's dropped by 25 percent. About as many people walk to work today as use mass transit.
         Ridership has turned out to be less than half the forecast level in 12 of 13 cities that built or expanded mass transit in the 1980s -- the only exception being Washington, D.C., where ridership rose closer to projections, all right ... after Congress waved its magic wand and declared all government employees now ride free, at our expense.
         Buffalo's $600 million subway attracted only one-third the ridership predicted. Miami's $1.1 billion Metrorail is used by fewer than 2 percent of county residents.
         But "Even if transit ridership were doubled and that came entirely from riders who left their cars" at home, wrote Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute in 1993, "the number of cars on the road would decline by less than 3 percent."
         When Portland, Ore. tried light rail, most riders merely switched over from buses, and traffic congestion was reduced "by a whopping one-half percent."
         Energy conservation? The Cato studies reveal that because of low mass transit ridership -- most buses run 80 percent empty -- energy consumption per passenger mile is actually higher on buses than with private cars. "Rail service is even more inefficient."
         A 1982 Congressional Budget Office study concluded that "Under typical conditions, rapid rail systems actually waste energy rather than save it."
         Finally, the Cato scholars discovered an incredible 75 percent of money poured into these tax-funded boondoggles never reaches the consumer, at all. "Most of the subsidies have enriched highly paid transit workers," Mr. Moore discovered, including drivers who don't need high school diplomas, but who often receive more in total compensation than four-year college graduates -- "65 percent more than the average production worker."
         Sen. Bill Proxmire, awarding his Golden Fleece Award to the Urban Mass Transit Administration some years back, called the agency's 20-year program "a spectacular flop."
         If Mr. Gibson, Mr. Arkell and others are convinced mass transit "has to be part of the equation," I look forward to their leaving the tax-feathered nest and testing their beliefs in the free market. If they're so sure it's a winner, let them form a private company, sell stock to raise construction money without tax dollars, and let ticket sales be the final arbiter of how a good an idea their billion-dollar monorail really was.

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/.

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