Friday, August 05, 2005

Damian Brooks on Public Transit

My esteemed colleague Damian Brooks of Babbling Brooks has a post discussing the York Region rapid transit system to be implemented. Damian, a Richmond Hill resident, is optimistic that it will be a great idea. Being a former Newmarket resident and somewhat familiar with the area, I am a bit more pessimistic on the matter.
Conceptually, things like this are a great idea for the GTA to improve transportation and commute times. However, my pessimism is based on the fact that:
  1. The government is running it, so it will be bloated, inefficient, and unreliable.
  2. It is financially questionable to throw a lot of government money into an endeavour that cannot recoup all its costs from fares. If it is like VIA Rail, the TTC and GO, then the question that arises from this is: (a) is this the optimal use of public funds, and (b) can't the private sector do a better job?

I guess my main concern is preserving value for the taxpayers, with my secondary concern being limiting the activities of government. As it stands, I'd rather see the money invested in improving the road system and providing tax breaks (in terms of lower property taxes especially) on railroads as an incentive for them to get into the commuter business.

Finally - who would have ever thought of a bunch of right-wing shills discussing public transit!?


Ginna said...


I spent the last while working for the transit industry, so I'll make a couple of comments.

Transit authorities are quasi-government entities. Some are bloated and inefficient, and some are great. (Skytrain, for example, is one of the best-run systems in the world.) The TTC isn't too bad.

There has been a movement over the last 10 years or so towards "P2P" or private-to-public enterprises, otherwise known in the industry as turnkey. The idea being, the funding agency (i.e. the goverment) gets a break on the capital costs (wayside and vehicles), by giving the agency certain amounts each year, assuming the operator meets various targets. Sounds great, right?

In practice, it's been a disaster. (Google "las vegas monorail problems" as an example. I have yet to hear of a single company making money off this scheme. So now, they are raising their prices substantially in order to make money, thus raising the price above what it would cost for the original agency (the one with actual experience) to run the system.

As to your second point, part of the problem with the first is that no transit system anywhere in the world, including Europe, recoups its costs.

Virtually all public transportation systems (roads, trains, ferries etc.) are subsidized. And if you're going to bring up the 407, I should point out that the 407 lost $86.7 million last year, a bigger loss than the year before.

Now, I'm pretty libertarian. I'd be all for actual cost recovery, but my point is that you're picking one variant (your car) over public transit, and insisting that that system recoup costs.

Whereas public transit wonks everywhere know that drivers are unlikely to take the bus when driving is "free".

Mitch said...


Thanks for your insights. This kind of covers another point about subsidies to drivers and not knowing the true 'costs' of the road system. It is a question that I don't really have an answer for - such as how much cost recovery should be expected for public transit - how can one increase local control over it so that users and taxpayers can figure out a balance that both parties are satisfied with.

This all started out with Harper's somewhat lame idea of tax deductibility of bus passes, so at least we're making a bit more progress.

lebowski said...

Look at Japan for a masterpiece of privately owned mass transit.

Clean trains. Always on time. Customer Friendly. Cheap as chips.

mostlyfree said...

I'm really disappointed to hear this plan coming from the CPC. Why reward people for not having/using a car? Why pump even more money into a failing industry? What about people on bikes? Why not reward them for not producing any emissions? What about people who walk? The whole thing is stupid.

I would much rather see some good health care policy or major tax cuts than this stuff.

Candace said...

re: "lame" transit tax cuts

Not near as lame as carbon taxes, not by a long shot. And there is an actual benefit to the environment when people choose transit over driving to work everyday, not to mention traffic.

Depending on where you live, the chances of recouping your investment in your vehicle are small to nonexistent. They depreciate the minute you drive them off the lot, whether new or used. Insurance can be brutal depending upon your driving record and/or what sort of weird rules your province has on insurance (AB sucks, although it's improved significantly over the past year or so). Tack on maintenance, etc and it's not necessarily cost effective.

Granted, transit is not always the best option, particularly when you've got outside activities or a family to juggle/taxi to various functions right after work. However, if you're within walking distance to a main bus or train system it can sometimes take the same or less time to get around.

A CA friend did a cost-effectiveness study for his personal situation (and there isn't a bigger cheapskate that I've met) and found it actually cheaper to use transit & taxis, significantly, than own a car. That was in the 70s with cheap gas & insurance. Convenience is a different picture.

I gave up my car a year ago (it was dying and I didn't feel like forking over stupid money for a car and doubling my insurance because of a newer model) and have missed it...maybe 5 times (when renting one wasn't appropriate, which is what I do for long weekends or vacations).

Regarding cyclists, why don't you fire off an email to the CPC with your suggestion? I sent them one on tax cuts for buying hybrids & it was forwarded to their environment critic for consideration. (Apparently Ontario has something in place for this, but no other provinces.)

Try being part of the solution...

Mitch said...

I believe that the idea of property tax relief for railways in order to spur private commuter services was broached on a tax policy committe I was briefly involved with by the Ontario Conservatives.

The premise of this is that trucks have a subsidy in terms of 'free' use of infrastructure and that railways pay for theirs directly.

Some food for though.