Running The Numbers

First things first:  I’m a free market guy.

One of the arguments I’ve been having for years with my tax-hawk friends is over mass transit.  These friends – David Strom, among others – argue correctly that transit, especially light rail, is a money pit.  And as of the last time anyone checked, they were; a $2 fare on the Ventura Trolley covered about 1/3 of the cost of the ride (which is a relative bargain; Seattle’s new monorail system, after you divide the capital costs across all riders, would have a fair market value of $90 a ride!).  Our bus system wasn’t much better.

And yet…

The numbers that do exist for calculating the cost-effectiveness of transit were run back when gas was around $2 a gallon, and ridership was commensurately lower.  Which isn’t the case now, as a lot of people – being good capitalists in their home budgeting if not necessarily at the polls – start to run their own personal numbers.
John “With an H” Stewart at Night Rider has been crunching the numbers for his daily commute from a southeast ‘burb to downtown Minneapolis, calculating the same tradeoffs we all make…:

Total time to get to the lot: 15 minutes; distance 8 miles (compared to a 12-14 mile drive to downtown Minneapolis, depending on the route I take). The Park & Ride, however, may more accurately be described as a “Park & Walk” as I had about a quarter of a mile jaunt to the depot from my vehicle. I got to the station as a train was pulling up, but the credit card reader on the ticket machine wasn’t working. By the time I’d made a couple of attempts and finally resorted to sliding a fiver into the machine and getting my change (oh, so that’s what they’re doing with all those Sacajawea $1 coins) the train had pulled out. I waited 8 minutes for the next one and it took another 22 minutes to get to my stop downtown. From there I walked the four blocks to my office. Portal-to-portal, it took just under an hour. Driving to work in rush hour takes 40-45 minutes unless there’s bad weather or a traffic accident. The LRT also runs every 7 – 10 minutes during the “rush” hours (roughly 6 – 9 a.m. and 3 – 7 p.m.) so there’s not too much of a time penalty for “missing” a ride.

And time will help John, and anyone else, refine the approach; having a “swipe as you go” Metrocard helps bypass the notoriously balky credit card readers (the ones in New York are worse…); finding the right park and ride helps a lot, too.


How about mileage? Four miles one way isn’t much of a savings in distance, but that equals 8 miles a day. Since my truck gets 16 miles per gallon, that’s a gallon of gas every two days, or 2.5 gallons in a typical work week. At $4 gallon, that’s $10!

As for other costs, I pay just under $80 a month to park downtown, but this will be going up an as yet undetermined amount at the end of the year when my employer stops subsidizing the cost. I can get a Metropass through my employer for $39. So, that’s about a $40 a month savings for “infrastructure”, plus $10 a week on gas. The net result is that for an extra 30 minutes a day in total transit time I could save $80 a month.

I ran the same numbers almost two years ago, when after most of a decade and a half of commuting to jobs in the southwest and northwest ‘burbs, I managed to score a gig in Saint Paul proper.  The math broke down fairly easily; driving was no biggie (12 miles a day = 3-4 gallons a week – but downtown Saint Paul Parking within a distance that would make the combine drive and walk shorter than a bus ride was at least $100.  The bus that picks up on my corner drops me at my office’s back door – and I get the Metropass for $39 pre-tax dollars, which really means $26.  Biking saves me no money or time, but I love it, so who cares? Anyway, that’s about a $125/month savings; nothing to sneeze at.

Yeah, I know the LRT is heavily subsidized by the State, so the fares are not a true reflection of the actual cost to operate it, but since my tax dollars are already going to support the choo-choo, perhaps I can feel as if I’m getting a little of my money back.

That’s how I rationalize it as well.

Still, transit’s bad numbers might need to get re-jiggered:

  • Revenues have got to be up.
  • Of course, so are costs.
  • On the other hand, eventually the capital costs of the light rail lines will amortize, making the cost-per-ride a lot more manageable.
  • On the other other hand, the Central Corridor, which will run over a billion when it’s over (even assuming the ghastly planning flubs get worked around on the relative cheap) is going to take a long time to amortize.
  • The great rail wild-card is Commuter Rail – the North Star line from Big Lake to the Cities, and the long-proposed Red Rocks line from Hastings through Shorewood and then through the downtowns.  Either line is relatively cheap compared to the Ventura Trolley (to say nothing of the Central Corridor obscenity) since they use existing rail lines and right of way, leased from existing freight carriers.  I’ve seen calculations that show that, if the Met Council resists the temptation to spent a gajillion dollars on stations, and buys used rolling stock, either line could actually be self-supporting in a fairly short time.  On the one hand, the Met can withstand no such temptation; on the other, Northstar’s money pit status was calculated back when they figured 6,000 riders a day; I suspect the numbers of northwest-burbs-to-the-cities drivers will rise these days.


Other trade-offs: not as much opportunity to listen to my favorite radio programs, but more time to read; being perceived as an enviro-weenie when I’m really a rank capitalist;

That’s actually the fun part; realizing that while you silently mock the granola-chomping, perfume-eschewing greenies around you are doing it for pseudo-religious expiation, you’re totally in it for the money.

It’s why I still yell “You should be ashamed of yourselves, you gas-guzzling planet-killers” at Prius drivers.

As I pass them on the left.

3 thoughts on “Running The Numbers

  1. Actually, I’m the Rush Hour Rider and the Night Writer.

    Thanks for the link and the write-up. As I explained in the Comments of that post I’ve used the bus regularly in the past when it makes sense. People are generally smart enough to do their own cost-benefit analysis taking into account price, convenience and psychic pain factors, and when the model makes sense we act. Being told to take the bus/LRT simply because we ought to isn’t going to cut it; it’s like telling us we ought to watch soccer.

  2. Cost is a big issue with rail transit, but the bigger issue is that it runs on rails. You cannot alter the route. We need transit options that can adapt to changing conditions. Buses, for all their unpopularity, are a much better way to move people from place to place. The Central Corridor essentially duplicates the path of the existing 16 bus route. Except that it will be less convenient, because it will only stop at dedicated stations, while the 16 stops all along the route. Why would we want to do that?

    Then there’s the odious social engineering part of building trains. But since I don’t want to start acting like Peev, I’ll stop now.

  3. Mitch, you inveterate gas hog! You ought to do telecommuting like I do. (Well, I do it it most of the week anyway.)

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