Who is subsidizing who?

I was scanning through the Buffalo Issue Alerts digest email this morning and saw this post from Cynthia Van Ness:

So I was listening to WBFO this morning and heard a story about efforts to qualify the Grand Island bridge for federal aid in order to eliminate bridge tolls (but there was no link at their website just now or I’d post it).

If drivers are entitled to subsidized toll-free rides wherever possible, then transit users are similarly entitled to federally-subsidized fare-free rides wherever possible.

My response was this:

Your word byte, while sounding noble, has the economics of the situation all wrong. Across the country, light rail is the most heavily subsidized and most costly per mile to build and operate. Since it’s route is fixed, it’s also the least flexible. Transit receives 20% of federal surface transportation spending, yet accounts for less than 2% of usage (source). Thus, it’s the drivers who are subsidizing the transit takers, not the other way around.

Buses are far more flexible, can easily adapt their routes due to changes in demand, are far cheaper to “build” and operate, and use the same [road] network that vehicles do, thus improvements to that network benefit all commuters.

Buffalo, frankly, has little need for light rail. If you want to get commuters to stop driving from the suburbs, buses and well placed park & ride lots are a far better option. The lot on 20A near the 219 in Orchard Park is always full, but there’s little reason to extend light rail out that far. Make the lot a little bigger or add a second in a different location nearby and it would be easy to increase transit usage.

I used to buy into the whole “we need more light rail” idea too, but when you start looking at the costs and the lack of actual benefits (versus the frequently touted benefits) the picture changes dramatically.

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