Mass transit: Profits and public good

CDOT MUAmerica’s interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and its dependence on foreign oil, is so apparent that it requires no witty opening sentence. Most attention is concentrated on transportation; a mixture of hybrid and fully-electric vehicles are supposed to solve the problem eventually. Developing new technologies is a good idea, but I am also an advocate of expanding mass transit. The only problem is money.

Everything costs something, but people need to get over that. Restoring an old railroad right of way for commuter service, or building a new light rail system in an urban center costs millions of dollars per project, plus millions more in yearly operating costs. Naysayers like to point out that affordable mass transit will have a hard time recouping these costs, which makes it economically dubious.

The idea that a transportation system should pay for all of its infrastructure, and be financially lucrative, to be successful seems peculiar to rails. Bus companies do not own the highways their vehicles travel on, and do not pay for their maintenance. The same is true of airlines and their massive, publicly-funded airports.

Historically, anything involving rails has been the exception to this rule. First, private railroad companies built tracks and ran passenger trains, with only fares as compensation. When the private companies had had enough of losing money, they turned their passenger operations over to Amtrak and various regional commuter agencies, like New York’s MTA and Boston’s MBTA. From then on, the government footed the bill.

The same is true of urban transportation systems, like streetcars and subways. New York’s subway system was built by three private companies, who ran the trains and maintained the tracks. When these companies went bust, the MTA took over operations.

Government agencies have been able to maintain acceptable levels of service, but expansion has been an uphill battle because of the money issue. It’s not just a lack of funds, it is an irrational unwillingness to support mass transit just because individual services cannot break even. Here’s an example: during the Bush Administration, the Republican-controlled Congress refused to approve Amtrak’s budget because the government-owned passenger train operator was not turning a profit.

The frank truth is that mass transit is not a money-making proposition. That’s why private companies abandoned their passenger-carrying operations decades ago, and why we don’t have a national airline or bus operator. It is important to remember that the government does not exist to make profits, it exists to serve the people. Yes, investing in mass transit will probably result in a loss, but there are other things to gain besides money.

Losing money sucks, but sometimes the public good is more important. Expanded rail services could reduce emissions and oil consumption by getting people out of their cars, not to mention alleviating traffic. Even if ticket sales don’t cover the costs of a given service, that seems like a worthwhile benefit.

Some people understand that. In Michigan and Illinois, upgrades to existing rail lines will increase intercity trains speeds and reduce travel times. In Wisconsin, the state is testing high speed Talgo trains for a new service linking major cities. It’s time for the rest of the country to get on board (no pun intended).

Mass transit services should try to recoup as much of the public’s investment as possible, but they should not be abandoned if they lose money. Commuter trains and light rail will probably never be profitable, but they will always be a benefit to the public. We may live in a capitalist society, but money is not the only thing that matters.


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  1. #1 by Ajay Kaul on May 30, 2012 - 5:25 am

    Mass transit can turn a profit – the Indian Railways is one such example. When the private companies were unwilling to invest in mass transit, the govt took it over and in the process ended up being one of the biggest employers in the world and turn around a profit. With the domestic airline industry ailing, the US has to invest in a high speed mass transit network.

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