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Combating the Brain-Dead Preference for Government over Private Sector

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In a triumph of bureaucratic innovation, Seattle officials tried to encourage the public to make use of a hugely expensive new transit system by banning all parking near the stations. In so doing, they provided a perfect example of government’s contemptuous, reckless and ubiquitous disregard for the people it’s supposed to serve and represent.

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The residents of the city tried to make sense of the puzzling and novel policy in July, 2009, after the long delayed completion of the most expensive light rail project in US history. The heralded debut of “Central Link,” following fourteen years of controversy, cost-overruns, false starts, embarrassing federal audits and back-to-the-drawing-board reconsiderations, left many locals deeply disturbed, even outraged, by the system’s bizarre attempt to prevent people from using their cars to connect with the trains. The much-ballyhooed boondoggle (just the first stage of a vast future system scheduled for construction over the next thirty years) cost $2.4 billion for a meager 14 mile line—an unprecedented public investment of $179 million per mile (or an astonishing $100,000 per yard). The thirteen gleaming new stations feature millions of dollars worth of eye-catching public art but not a single parking place, except for a few coveted slots at the Tukwila station currently marking the end of the line.

What’s more, the imperious executives at Sound Transit decreed strict limitations even for on-street parking anywhere within a quarter mile of the lavish new stations. Anyone who attempts to park a few blocks away from the light rail line and then to board a train to get to work downtown will face a fine of $44 and potential towing-- with additional charges, of course.

“Light rail was meant to be fed by people taking the bus, walking or biking,” sniffed Rick Sheridan, spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation. “It was not meant to be fed by cars.” He insisted that “Seattle planners” looked to light rail “with a long term eye.” Garages with hundreds of parking stalls “didn’t fit into the vision”, Sheridan told the Seattle Times. The grand-opening brochure for the system, festively titled “TRAVEL LIGHT!” featured the following arrogant explanation under the heading “Getting to the Stations”: “There is no parking. Our best advice is to take a bus, walk or ride your bike to the station… Riding your bike is a great way to get to the stations…We encourage you to bring a lock and park your bicycle at the staffed bicycle corrals at each station prior to boarding.”

Meanwhile, potential riders stewed over their inability to use the new system, despite a total cost for construction which amounted to more than $10,000 per city household. Jammie Hunter, a resident of south Seattle’s gentrifying Columbia City neighborhood, lives “about a mile away” from the nearest station, which she considers “a little more than walking distance.” She originally planned to drive to the nearby terminal, park on a neighborhood street, and then enjoy a breezy, high tech commute to downtown. But the parking restrictions (the city declared open war on “hide-and-riders”) made her plan impossible and left her clueless about getting to work, especially since the transit system cut back on existing bus service to try to force citizens to use the new light rail. “Why would you invest so much taxpayer money into public transit and take away parking?” Ms. Hunter asked the Seattle Times. “If they want to maximize ridership, that’s not the way to do it.”

Jerri White, another victim of the ill-conceived edicts of visionary planners, complained that her condition (arthritis and fibromyalgia) made it impossible for her to walk or bike the half mile to Rainier Beach station as Sound Transit suggested. As director of the popular social work agency Southeast Youth and Family Services, Ms. White, 53, said she’d probably begin taking her car to work since the new bus schedule left her old, convenient route suspended.

Apologists for the huge governmental investment (local, state and federal) in light rail, insisted that the inconvenience imposed on the likes of Ms. White mattered far less than the triumphal thrill of operating a spiffy new made-in-Japan train all the way from downtown to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEATAC), a route comprising the full 14 miles of the new line. By car, the trip from the airport to downtown was never a particular problem, demanding no more than half an hour even in moderately heavy traffic. The light rail system, on the other hand, will almost certainly take longer for most commuters: until its final segment is finished (with completion date optimistically projected for December, 2009), the line will stop well short of the airport terminal and travelers will need to trundle onto shuttle buses for the climactic leg of their adventure. In other words, a passenger hoping to get on a plane to New York or Chicago will need to take his or her luggage from home on his bicycle (or a bus), unload and board a Central Link train, ride the train for a few miles, then gather up the bags and board yet another bus, then unload again at curbside before schlepping your stuff up to the ticket counter to arrive in glorious discomfort.

No wonder the projections of ridership for this gold-plated new system remain distinctly modest: officials hope that within a year of the grand opening, they will welcome 26,000 passengers each day ---an insignificant blip in a Metropolitan Area of more than three million. Before the construction of light rail, only 3% of all Seattle-area commuters used buses or existing trains, and the other 97% traveled the congested freeways in cars. At best, planners claim that the new train system will raise the percentage of mass transit commuters to 4.5% -- and freely acknowledge that new light rail riders will include a large proportion of passengers who merely shift over from buses, providing no real reduction in the number of cars on the road. A major study by the Washington Policy Center in 2007 suggested that Sound Transit’s grand plans, featuring at least 40 miles of new track, would shift at most 0.4% of the cars off the highways by 2030. By that time, traffic delays in the region would more than double in any event, as population growth easily outpaced the very minor additional carrying capacity by the ambitious government program.

To adjust to these stark realities, the transit planners now regularly intone that they see the Central Link system and its already-planned successors as “an alternative to congestion, not a solution to congestion.” In other words, for the subsidized riders who hop aboard the shiny new trains, the system may save a few minutes a day but for the poor slobs stuck in gridlocked traffic (who aren’t willing or able to bike or walk to those gaudily decorated Central Link stations) the huge public investment does absolutely nothing.


In this regard, the Seattle experience follows the dreary and dreadful pattern established by the 20 new light rail systems constructed across the country since 1980. Analyzing the six of those systems already operating on the West Coast, the Washington Policy Center concluded flatly: “Light rail does not reduce traffic congestion. In 2005, light rail systems on the West Coast served only about 2 percent of the work force in their service areas. On average, these systems only remove between 0.39 percent and 1.1% of cars from the roadway.”

Statistics from every region of the United States, in fact, show no evidence whatever that even the most costly and elaborate new rail systems succeed in reducing traffic or trimming commute times. Every year the Texas Transportation Institute issues a “mobility report” measuring the typical travel delays, excess fuel consumption, and congestion cost for commuters in the nation’s major urban areas. Amazingly, all five of the most congested and traffic-plagued cities either invested in gigantic recent mass transit experiments designed to reduce that congestion (Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth) or else they boasted older, well-established, vast rail systems much-praised by urban planners (New York City, Chicago). The rankings in this mobility report don’t prove that mass transit causes gridlock, but they likewise give no indication that these projects do anything at all to solve the problem. Of the fifteen cities with the worst delays, every one of them has invested huge sums in rail mass transit, without visible improvement on the highways. Ironically, Seattle already enjoyed a favorable rating in terms of congestion (number fifteen on the list) even before the opening of the most-expensive-ever new light rail monstrosity.

Even after these systems go into operation, they continue to bleed money. Downtown Detroit’s infamous “People Mover” train was completed in 1987, with officially projected daily ridership of 67,700. In the first year of operation, the system drew only 11,000 daily riders and today the patronage has slipped even further: with only 7,500 lonely passengers, or a mere 2.5% of capacity. The People Mover, in other words, serves less than one-ninth of the projected passenger load, with no impact whatever on traffic (Detroit ranks as 10th worst in the country). Meanwhile, the bankrupt city spends at least $3.00 to transport each of the passengers who contribute a fare of only fifty cents. As the Washington Policy Center aptly concluded, “light rail is expensive and it requires significant public assistance. On average, West Coast light rail systems need taxpayer subsidies to pay for 73% of operations and 100 percent of capital improvements each year.” If these ill-conceived projects were injured horses, merciful owners would shoot them to stop the pain; if they were private businesses, they’d close down to end the limitless losses.

And speaking of losses, Seattle commuters on the Central Link system will pay between $1.75 and $2.50 per trip while drawing a subsidy from taxpayers that may amount to at least $10 per trip –even if the highly dubious, wildly optimistic predictions of ridership come true. As I suggested on my radio show, Sound Transit could have lured far more passengers onto buses (without spending $179 million a mile for new track) by offering passengers free lattes on every trip. They might have even followed the internationally publicized example of some local espresso stands that drew customers with “bikini baristas” serving their hot drinks. At far lower cost than building and operating Central Link (and the other planned lines), Sound Transit could have hired lovely and skimpily clad “ride attendants” to serve the free refreshments for every downtown bus trip. Even paying top dollar to hire the most cheerful and alluring young ladies would save big money – and draw more customers – than investing literally hundreds of millions in ripping up streets, building underground stations that resemble the Bat Cave, and commissioning fanciful public art (including Victoria Fuller’s “Global Garden Shovel,” a “35 foot blue spade covered with bronze vegetables.”)

Unlike private businesses trying to attract new customers, government agencies like Sound Transit would never even consider offering free drinks or sexy servers, not because it’s beneath their dignity (is anything really beneath the dignity of a career transit bureaucrat?) but because they don’t depend on patrons to pay their bills. As Detroit’s glittering triumph with the “People Mover” conclusively demonstrates, taxpayers continue to fork over the money to keep these projects going even when they draw only a tiny fraction of the projected usage. The taxpayers provide this funding not as a matter of generosity but as victims of compulsion, regularly disregarded and even reviled by officials who believe they serve the public best when they disregard is wishes.

In Seattle, voters turned down proposed rail systems four times since 1968, but advocates kept coming back with cunningly repackaged efforts to achieve their ends and finally succeed (by a razor thin margin of less than 2%) to win voter approval in a low turnout election in 1996. After construction finally began, even the resolutely pro-transit Seattle Rimes reported that “neighbors endured hardships, starting with power outages and runoff flooding in Rainier Valley. Screeching train wheels disturbed residents near the Duwamish River, and this month neighbors on the west slope of Beacon Hill said huge power lines marred their views. More than $15 million in government aid went to businesses that lost customers traffic, and some merchants folded or were ousted by land condemnations along martin Luther King Jr. Way South.” Parents groups complained bitterly about the risk to their kids caused by speeding rains at street level; Sound Transit shrugged at the problem, predicting at least 30 “serious” accidents in the course of every year. Had private enterprise attempted to impose this sort of discomfort and misery on a skeptical public, law suits and complaints to government agencies might have stopped, or at least altered, the grand plans. As it happened, however, legal and regulatory authorities proved reluctant to interfere with their fellow “public servants”; in this rigged game, the refs and one of the competing teams wore the same uniforms on the field.

Considering the nation’s recent experience with mass transit and other bureaucratic initiatives, it defies both experience and common sense that so many Americans maintain their touchingly naïve faith that the pure-souled and disinterested idealists in government will always serve the public more reliably than the greedy go-getters of the private sector. This widespread, childlike belief that an unselfish public effort always trumps profit-seeking in the free market gives traction to Obama administration efforts to swell the federal role in health care, as well as other initiatives at “reform.” One of the most pervasive and persistent big lies about American business maintains that private enterprise will generally prove less trustworthy than official planners in promoting progress, prosperity and humane values.

The question that these true believers never confront involves the obvious lack of real-world evidence that political leadership performs more effectively, or even more compassionately, than the private sector. When asked to identify a single arena in which bureaucracies function more efficiently than the free market, advocates for official expansion regularly mention the national military, police or fire departments, or other public undertakings with no real private competition. Since we actively discourage the emergence of local war lords, few private citizens will develop independent armies, and even though some gated communities may hire their own security firms, it’s obviously more efficient to rely on wide-ranging, city wide police services for the most serious matters of criminal apprehension and law enforcement. Moreover, most Americans recognize that those who devote their lives to our protection (as soldiers, fire fighters, or police officers) share a sense of sacrificial service and camaraderie not commonly found, say, among welfare case officers or tax department auditors.

In every field in which government operations compete directly with private alternatives, the American people seem to prefer the non-official option. The United States Postal Service offers only the most obvious example, suffering losses of nearly $2 billion in the last fiscal year and facing painful elimination of some 3,000 offices and perhaps ten thousand jobs. The rapid and regular increases in postal charges haven’t helped, nor has the emergence of the faster, cheaper, more reliable alternative of e-mail. Nevertheless, Federal Express and United Parcel Service continue to serve eager customers and draw massive revenues. In 2008, the two delivery companies combined for $89.4 billion in business, compared to $74.9 billion for the taxpayer -supported, sclerotic USPS.

By the same token, private schools outperform public schools almost everywhere, producing better results from their students at much lower costs. Even in the grittiest inner city neighborhoods, Catholic schools (throwing up their doors to non-Catholics) draw better test scores than the public alternatives, even when they draw student bodies of largely similar ethnic and socio-economic background. Though public universities have established themselves as some of the nation’s leading educational institutions (and I’m proud of our younger daughter at the University of Washington), the college rating gurus and the most ambitious students clearly prefer private alternatives (Yale, Harvard, and so on). The finest hospital facilities and research programs remain private and independent – like the Cleveland Clinic, the Fred Hutchinson Center in Seattle, and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, which took a courageous stand in the midst of the bitter health care debate against further government intrusion into our medical system.

Even the National Park Service, a sentimental favorite among government programs, fails to outperform private sector rivals. As a little boy, I visited dozens of National Parks with my camping-mad parents, and always felt thrilled and inspired when we drove past the big wooden welcome signs into the scenic federal territory. I loved the rangers with their distinctive uniforms and Smokey-the-Bear hats, the visitor center displays of stuffed animals, the campfire lectures and the sense of fellowship in the woods. Nevertheless, recent reports suggest big trouble in the natural paradise of Yosemite and Yellowstone and Mount Rainier. The most popular parks suffer from overcrowding, air pollution and other out-of-place urban ills, while subpar maintenance and pinched budgets have given many beloved facilities a shabby, run-down appearance. Lawless activity – including gang violence and the cultivation of illegal drugs – increasingly afflicts Park Service lands. Meanwhile, the public has responded to these challenges with sharply reduced attendance. Total visits to the park system peaked in 1987; despite dramatic growth in U.S. population, and the addition of several dozen new park facilities, fewer people visit these prize public possessions than did so twenty years ago.

A provocative 2006 paper at the University of Illinois asks the question: “Is love of nature in the US becoming love of electronic media? 16 year downtrend in national park visits explained by watching movies, playing video games, internet use, and oil prices.” Instead of concentrating on these intriguing explanations, the paper’s authors might have considered the sloppy, lackluster administration typical of all federal bureaucracies. If a chain of theme parks suffered declining attendance over the course of twenty years, the owners (in this case, all of us) might consider a change in both leadership and business strategies. In fact, it’s illuminating to compare the immaculate and efficient operation of a place like Disney World to the administration of any popular national park—despite the vastly larger crowds and more limited real estate at the “Happiest Place on Earth.” No one would suggest turning over the Great Smoky Mountains to the Disney Corporation (would the bears wear mouse ears?) but the notion makes clear that even the most entrenched federal bureaucracies could learn something about marketing their services and pleasing a fickle public from one of the enduring success stories in the private sector.

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