By Paul T. Mero
“It’s not difficult for light rail transit to look successful when Salt Lake City sets the bars so low.” This is the comment of Sam Staley, co-author of an insightful new book on transportation policy titled, The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think and What We Can Do About It.
Frankly, nearly everything Utahns have been told about light-rail transit as the savior of our congestion woes is false. The truth is that new funds should focus nearly exclusively on more roads and more rights-of-way if we are truly interested in solving the very real problem of growing congestion. TRAX expansion is the last thing we should do.
Here are some things to consider at the water cooler (and what TRAX advocates and their marketing firms hope you never learn):
Despite transit (light rail) funding increasing seven-fold since the 1960s, the percentage of people using it has fallen nationwide by 63 percent. Despite the broad misconception, only a quarter of New Yorkers use transit to get to work, only 11 percent in Chicago, and no other metro area even breaks double digits.
Americans use transit for only 1.5 percent of their trips; telecommuters actually outnumber people who use transit in over half of the nation’s largest metro areas. The rest of the world is no different; transit accounted for 25 percent of all European travel in 1970, while today it accounts for only 16 percent.
And the 800-pound gorilla in the room, light-rail transit, does not relieve congestion.
There are many conflated arguments within the “congestion” debate, and purposely so. Professional advocates of light rail and “experts” have the solution. Here is the simple truth:
Does the Salt Lake City metro area, running from Davis County down to Utah County, suffer from traffic congestion? Yes. Will expanding light-rail transit relieve this congestion? No. Will more roads relieve this congestion? Yes.
It’s that simple.
The problem with Utah’s transportation policy is that we don’t really have one. Mass transit, mostly bus service, was created and is still important as a means for poorer people to stay mobile. Sound transportation policy addresses broader community needs but appropriately specifies a government role in the case of Utah’s poor and needy. The mass-transit question is how do we give fuller mobility to our poorest and neediest of neighbors?
Mass transportation policy is social policy (i.e., how we provide more mobility to people without private or affordable access to it). Economic development policy is something else (i.e., how we create tax and regulatory environments to encourage new business development).
Transit advocates such as the Salt Lake Chamber and the UTA conflate a multitude of issues to muddy the debate. They rest their case not on helping our neighbors in need or economic development. They address an entirely different question: How do we relieve congestion? Worst of all, their answer is one totally without merit: light-rail expansion. So these champions of Utah commerce are not only asking the wrong questions, they are answering them incorrectly.
If traffic congestion is the real problem, then let’s be honest about real solutions. Light-rail transit does not relieve traffic congestion. More roads do. If economic development is the real problem, then cut taxes (especially repeal the corporate income tax), quit spending tax dollars like a drunken sailor and encourage flexible local planning. A needlessly expensive, endlessly subsidized, fixed and limited-use light rail is a totally impractical solution for any problem TRAX advocates claim we face.
Commuters want congestion relief in their cars, not from their cars. The new money should go to new roads. That’s what voters were saying.
* PAUL T. MERO is president of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank.
Follow-up letters to the editor
Transit preserves land (12/14/2006)
Bill Barton (Forum, Dec. 12) writes that, in view of limited resources, we should build more roads instead of investing in TRAX. This comment echoes the opinion of Paul T. Mero (Opinion, Dec. 3).
Here in Utah, especially in the Salt Lake Valley, we are limited on resources, including the resource of land area. I would like to know where Mr. Barton and Mr. Mero recommend we build these additional roads. Should we close down businesses? Or should we bulldoze homes? What is the purpose of roads if they lead nowhere except to more roads?
Let’s look at the situation rationally:
Roads do not spur or support economic growth. Neither does public transportation. What spurs economic growth are businesses and people. The land area we have needs to be used for homes, parks, schools and businesses. Public transportation, including TRAX, has the ability to move large numbers of people from point A to point Z (and all points in between) while still leaving land available for other uses.
Salt Lake City
Only 2 percent ride (12/11/2006)
There have been several letters in your paper responding to the Dec. 3 opinion column by Paul Mero on light rail.
Most people who have written have referred to the myth, which Mero debunks, that light rail reduces traffic congestion.
While it is true that TRAX works and is convenient for some people, the facts show that these people are a part of a group that is less than 2 percent of the commuters. How can anyone think that 2 percent can have any meaningful effect on reducing traffic congestion?
Mero is right in suggesting that funding should be spent where it will do the most good, especially when we are limited in resources.
That would mean our wisest investment would be on roads, which 98 percent of the commuters use.
West Valley City
TRAX used and supported (12/11/2006)
I see Paul Mero is back, providing cover for the Utah Legislature as they obstruct Salt Lake County priorities for funding mass transit (Tribune, Dec. 3).
It’s easy to see that Mr. Mero’s true agenda is building the Mountainview Corridor on the West side. The Legislature won’t fund its construction; instead they want to rob funds the voters approved for TRAX.
His seven-fold increase in funding is barely ahead of the Consumer Price Index for the same time (659 percent increase) as the population has grown by 100 million people. Census figures show virtually the same number of people using public transit, despite falling availability.
If Paul Mero really believes that congestion is not relieved by TRAX, let him count cars at the Sandy and Midvale stops. TRAX is used and supported by the people of Salt Lake and Utah counties.
With the LDS Church building a school, office space, apartments and downtown shopping, ridership will only increase.
Does Mr. Mero honestly think road congestion will decrease as we grow 30 percent with each census?
We can expand TRAX now, or sit in traffic 20 years from now, wondering where our open roads
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