The Houston-area blogosphere currently is engaged in an interesting, frank discussion of mass transit and light rail in the city.
Tory Gattis got the latest round going with his post, A hypothesis on the deeper psychology of light rail:
For transit, it’s relatively cost efficient and maximizes federal funds. It will probably actually move a fair number of people. It connects most of the core attractions and job centers of our city with only two crossing lines. It’ll probably generate a fair amount of high-density new-urbanist development along the lines. With more bus-rail transfers/connections, it’s probably going to actually make a lot of trips more inconvenient for a lot of the transit dependent and reduce overall ridership (as it has already), but the more transit-dependent parts of town voted the most overwhelmingly for the plan, so it must be a tradeoff they’re willing to make. Sure, it’s a little bit of a splurge for the city, but haven’t you ever splurged on something nice for your house that wasn’t pure economic rationality?
Tom Kirkendall, who might well be described as the economist-rationalist blogger, responded today with The psychology of light rail:
Tory is clearly on to something in that there appears to be an element of a civic inferiority complex underlying some folks’ support for light rail. However, Tory’s point still does not explain why people who need mass transit the most — i.e., folks who cannot afford the cost of buying and maintaining a car — support light rail, which certainly does not improve their mobility and, by drawing resources away from mobility projects that would, probably harms it.
Meanwhile, the light rail interest groups garner support for light rail from the part of the electorate that actually needs mass transit by simultaneously limiting the mass transit choices and threatening that part of the electorate with loss of the governmental funds for mass transit if they fail to support light rail. Thus, a referendum on mass transit issues is never promoted with choices between alternatives such as a light rail system, one one hand, and a cheaper and more effective bus-based system system, on the other. It’s simply an “all or nothing” choice, and folks who need mass transit will understandably vote in favor of getting their share of public transportation funds even if it does not improve their mobility one iota. Indeed, given the cost of light rail systems, one wonders how those citizens who actually need mass transit would vote if the alternative were a light rail system, on one hand, and a new Toyota Prius for each such citizen, on the other? Frankly, the cost of the latter alternative would likely be cheaper than most any light rail plan.
So, at the end of the day, where does that leave us? Is it wrong that people who need mass transit vote in favor of something that does not really address their needs? No … but it troubles me when they are misled in doing so.
And Laurence Simon, a regular user of mass transit in Houston, notes one constituency that seems to be availing itself of the light rail:
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but there were at least two obvious bums on the Danger Train during my ride on Friday evening. As we like to say at work: “They reek like Dialup.”
“Got a buck… anyone got a buck, just one buck… all I need.”
It didn’t take long for the platforms to turn into bum-magnets. I rarely get to a platform without having to pass by at least one actively-soliciting beggar. But it’s not like there’s an organized flock of them… yet.
Look for the Houston-area blogosphere — unlike the local newspaper — to continue to foster a true debate over area mass-transit policy.