Economics

Because Demanding $185 Million For a Monorail Would Just Not Be Credible…

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Let's say you're the mayor of a mid-sized city in the American heartland that's been facing a crap economy for roughly the past 40 years, complete with loss of population, jobs, dignity, you name it. What do you do to turn things around? If you're the top dog in the late neo-Nazi Reds owner Marge Schott's hometown, you bet it all on a transportation technology that went out of style about 60 or 70 years ago: 

Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory promised Wednesday night he'll fight for the controversial $185 million streetcar project, insisting naysayers must not prevail….

"The facts are clear," he said. "Streetcars must be a part of Cincinnati's future and we will fight to make it happen."

The proposal calls for streetcars to run from Downtown through Over-the-Rhine and to Uptown, the area around the University of Cincinnati and hospitals. City officials still are working on finding funding sources, including submitting a request for more than $60 million from President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package.

God bless the naysayers? No, god damn the naysayers! Why not just buy everybody sky flivvers or jetpacks? It's no more useless and probably less expensive, and would be neat in an insane sort of way. More on Cincy's bold march (or is that slow, constantly interrupted ride?) back to the future here.

This is the sort of local story that is playing out all over the country. Idiot officials fixated on proven money-losing and underfunded grand schemes that somehow manage to redefine make-work projects down. As the U.S. Conference of Mayors Moby-Dick-length listing of "shovel-ready" projects documented in more than 800 glorious pages, there is nothing too stupid to spend taxpayer dough on.

Cincinnati's general problems may well be intractable but if they are, the same holds true for many other U.S. cities of similar size and demographics. Wouldn't it be nice to hear some mayor somewhere just say, "Fuck it, we're cutting taxes, making it easier to do business, and letting parents and kids choose where they go to school." It's an urban renewal plan that has possibly never been tried but it's just crazy enough to work.

Read Peter Bagge's great 2005 piece: "My Very Own Monorail: One city's internal battle over the best way to get its cartoonists to and from a baseball game!"

NEXT: Philip Jose Farmer, RIP

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  1. What is with reason’s constant crusade against rail travel? You call this Ohio project “proven money-losing and underfunded grand schemes”… Okay, you are right, transit systems like trains require government subsidies. But how is that different than other modes of tranport, like roads and highways? Highway subsidies are, oh, 100 percent, right? Except on a few toll roads here and there, of course. Anyway, we have less freedoms as car owners than train riders, since we have to pay ridiculous registration taxes, carry required insurance, and worry about speed and red light cameras at any turn. The myth of freedom in the automobile is long over, idiots.

  2. “that somehow manage to redefine make-work projects down.”

    What language is that?

  3. Rail transportation is much more fuel efficient than road transportation. After the large capitol costs to build the system are recovered, it should be far more cost effective and profitable to operate than any other mode of transport.

  4. Also, the streetcar was killed mostly by intense lobbying from Detroit’s bus manufacturing industry, so instead of clean streetcars, we now have stinky diesel busses.

  5. Mmm, seems like we need to get the government out of the transportation business.

  6. What is with reason’s constant crusade against rail travel?

    Libertarians are against rail and any energy source but oil, coal and nuclear as a matter of principle.

  7. But we do support the buttsex.

    So we have that going for us.

  8. “There’ll be enough voltage coursing through that little frog brain to light up…Cincinnati.”

  9. Nick has been busting out some serious rants lately. It’s a beautiful thing. Go Nick!

  10. How on earth has this not been posted yet?

    Mark Mallory: Well, sir, there’s nothing on earth like a genuine, bona fide, electrified, six-car monorail! What’d I say?
    Ned Flanders: Monorail!
    Mark Mallory: What’s it called?
    Patty+Selma: Monorail!
    Mark Mallory: That’s right! Monorail!
    [crowd chants `Monorail’ softly and rhythmically]
    Miss Hoover: I hear those things are awfully loud…
    Mark Mallory: It glides as softly as a cloud.
    Apu: Is there a chance the track could bend?
    Mark Mallory: Not on your life, my Hindu friend.
    Barney: What about us brain-dead slobs?
    Mark Mallory: You’ll be given cushy jobs.
    Abe: Were you sent here by the devil?
    Mark Mallory: No, good sir, I’m on the level.
    Wiggum: The ring came off my pudding can.
    Mark Mallory: Take my pen knife, my good man. I swear it’s Cincy’s only choice… Throw up your hands and raise your voice!
    All: Monorail!
    Mark Mallory: What’s it called?
    All: Monorail!
    Mark Mallory: Once again…
    All: Monorail!
    Marge: But Main Street’s still all cracked and broken…
    Bart: Sorry, Mom, the mob has spoken!
    All: Monorail! Monorail! Monorail! [big finish] Monorail!
    Homer: Mono… D’oh!

  11. andrew, many railroad operators have admitted that no railroad in american history has ever made money on moving people. Freight is what generates income for the railroads.

    This is another reason to be against it (in it’s current form):

    http://www.templetons.com/brad/transit-myth.html

    Mass transit is horribly innefficient and polluting. Even if it’s an electric monorial (if it’s oil or coal providing the electricity). This is due to the fact that during peak ridership it is incredibly efficient, BUT the rest of the day and night you end up wasting all the energy you saved driving empty cars around.

    And regulations and laws will NEVER let a transit company only offer service during rush hour, or only between the high population neighborhoods. You’d have to serve everyone in the community or get sued for redlining or something.

    Of course by far the worst offenders are busses. And the truth is even if you change to electric vehicles the same problem persists – the engines have to be inefficient and high power at low rpm to start and stop with those heavy loads.

    Remember electricity doesn’t mean efficiency it just means the pollution is moved to where the electricity is generated. (which is still not bad for us in cities)

    It would be a lot more environmentally healthy to resupply every taxi out there with a hybrid vehicle, and just have more taxis.

  12. You call this Ohio project “proven money-losing and underfunded grand schemes”… Okay, you are right, transit systems like trains require government subsidies. But how is that different than other modes of tranport, like roads and highways?

    Okay, as we’re currently going through this yet again in Houston, I’ll give you some insight. Let’s skip over the piss-poor engineering decisions and the enabling legislation that allows Metro to eminent domain anything within 1000 feet of the rail line. Let’s just focus on the bottom line: nobody rides the damn train. Ridership levels have never risen to anywhere near the projections required to make our local train somewhat viable. Everybody thinks trains are a great idea, but nobody gets on the damn things.

    So we all paid an absurd amount of money to shuffle a few thousand people back and forth on a limited route. Yay! What an effective use of our limited transportation dollars! At least with highway construction, the state is taking gas taxes and registration fees from the people that buy gas and register cars.

    Trains are a boondoggle. They don’t ever get the ridership level to make it worthwhile.

  13. I know. All those cities with dedicated urban rail and street-level trams are, like, total failures. Wait, they’re not? Oh.

  14. Libertarians are against rail and any energy source but oil, coal and nuclear as a matter of principle.

    True, we can’t support trains or alternative energy because they are icky.

  15. in politics…new & shiny & expensive always trumps maintenance of existing projects

  16. The conversation that light rail pro- and anti- forces don’t like to engage in is the commonsensical suggestion that there is probably a population density point at which light rail makes sense. The pro- side makes the mistake at assuming cities with light rail are successful because they have light rail, not the opposite. The anti- side only looks at light rail failures, of which there are many.

  17. “The facts are clear,” he said. “Streetcars must be a part of Cincinnati’s future and we will fight to make it happen.”

    That’s cool. You bring Cincinnati and we’ll bring the rest of the US. Just name the place and time.

  18. Sean Healy,

    I was under the impression that they perpetually operated in the red.

  19. spending $1 Million on bicycles would reduce congestion as much… plus, you might actually have the money.

    Start learning to behave like Chinese consumers…

  20. Here’s a good article (linked to above too) about the costs and inefficiency of light rails.

    http://www.publicpurpose.com/ut-ieee.htm

  21. …plus reduce obesity…

  22. SF–We jjust had this fight in suburban DC with the Nurple (Purple) line. It was down between dedicated buses that would run along the existing surface streets and light rail, which will tear up the surface streets, lose a lane of traffic and cost millions of dollars per mile more.

    Guess which one won?

  23. JW,

    CHANGE?

  24. Ummm….isn’t the first and most important indicator of any public transit program’s success whether or not it takes people where they want to go?

    So many “light-rail”projects seem to ignore this.

    Also, why must everything be “light rail”? Where I live, there are plenty of railroad tracks in good condition, being used by freight trains. Why spend a gazillion dollars for light rail, when you could buy a couple of diesel engines, refurbish some used passenger cars, and try heavy rail to see if people would like to use it?

    IS there something inherently wrong with pilot projects in the transit sphere? Or is it just that it doesn’t give enough politicians enough clout over huge sums of money?

  25. It’s too bad that it hasn’t ever occured to anyone in the US that we don’t need transit access at every moment of every day, everywhere.

  26. JW,

    Blech. They are trying for streetcars here. You can walk from one end of downtown to the other in about 15 minutes. There are tons of empty parking lots and structures.

    Same logic: New York is successful. New York has The Statue of Liberty. Lexington needs a Statute of Liberty to be successful.

  27. I’m currently working in San Francisco, and one of the city’s charms is its street cars (not that I’d pay anything close to the market clearing price to have them there, but, ya know, they don’t listen to me).

    Adding to the charm is the fact that they use refurbished street cars from all over the world — St. Louis, Baltimore, and Milan come to mind, but there’s all kinds of other ones. So you have this living museum of urban transportation.

    But wait… if every city in the world (just about) is unloading these things so San Francisco can scoop them up… what does that say about their viability?

  28. Baby, if you’ve ever wondered. Wondered, whatever became of me?

  29. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear some mayor somewhere just say, “Fuck it, we’re cutting taxes, making it easier to do business, and letting parents and kids choose where they go to school.”

    Yes.

    Yes, it would, but I’m not holding my breath.

  30. I wonder what Ruthless has to say about this.

    I also wonder what percentage of those shovel-ready projects involve things like sewer reconstruction, water works upgrades, bridge reconstruction, etc, that are truly necessary but less glamorous and visible than light rail and rec centers.

  31. A town with money’s a lot like a mule with a spinning wheel: nobody knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it!

  32. spending $1 Million on bicycles would reduce congestion as much… plus, you might actually have the money.

    I like the Prius rule over at the Antiplanner website.

    If it costs more than it would to buy every single person projected to use the light rail a Prius of their own to drive, then it shouldn’t be approved.

    It’s usually cheaper to buy everyone a Prius. Surprise!

  33. JW,

    CHANGE?

    I’m only left with tattered shreds of hope now. A thin and bitter gruel of hope.

  34. Oh the coincidence! Next summer I’ll move to Wuppertal, who features the oldest monorail transport system in the world. It was built in 1900!

  35. Blech. They are trying for streetcars here. You can walk from one end of downtown to the other in about 15 minutes. There are tons of empty parking lots and structures.

    Well then, you can be assured that Lexington is on my vacation itinerary now. To Hell with going to Dollywood! Sorry kids!

  36. Mass transmit only comes close to making financial sense in dense urban environments.

    Adding a new above-ground mass transmit system in a dense urban environment means clearing buildings to make room for the transit system.

    Which a)increase costs and b) descreases the urban density.

  37. After the large capitol costs to build the system

    A sweet, sweet instance of RC’z Law.

  38. I warned the blue teamers I’d be saving this.

    On January 8, 2009 while explaining the causes of our economic woes, then President-elect Obama said

    Politicians spent taxpayer money without wisdom or discipline and too often focused on scoring political points instead of problems they were sent here to solve.

    I’d like to take a moment and thank the White House for including that quote on their website.

  39. How do you go about getting a new quote engraved on the National Capitol? Because J sub has a winner, there.

  40. Motown Monorail.

    Any questions or comments can be directed to –

    The Right People in Charge
    Shovel Ready Stimulus Projects, Mass Transit Division
    1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
    Washington, DC 20500

  41. To be fair, if all you had was rail, rail, rail, and then the government came along and built ONE magnificently expensive highway that runs from one place to another, and there’s no reasonable network of ways to get around once you get to your location…. would you use it?

  42. that is, no network of streets that you can drive on or anything

  43. The myth of freedom in the automobile is long over, idiots.

    It’s too bad that it hasn’t ever occured to anyone in the US that we don’t need transit access at every moment of every day, everywhere.

    First of all, andrew, which one is it? Do we have too much freedom or not enough?

    Second, want is the operative concept in economic viability, not your narrow conception of what people need.

  44. Thx for the econ lesson, Hugh. What I’m saying, is when it comes to transportation in this country, it’s the same shit sandwich cut different ways. Those who kid themselves about driving as somehow more free than trains are idiots. Why not just privatize every system… rail, roads, etc., and then we’ll see what people really want?

  45. Step one: Stop pretending this is an economic argument.

    No dollar value can be placed on the satisfaction these people get from being, or from seeing people other being, herded.

    And anyway, real libertarians, Yellow Liners, don’t even acknowledge any form of public transportation except waterslides.

  46. Why not just privatize every system… rail, roads, etc., and then we’ll see what people really want?

    Okay.

    problem solved.

    Nest.

  47. Waterslides should be privatized.

  48. Nest.

    WTF?

    Im not sure that is an RCz law example, but that is weird.

  49. If the government wants to build a monorail from the end of my street (I will walk the 2 blocks) to my office complex (no other stops, it needs to be an express), I will use it.

  50. Im not sure that is an RCz law example,

    I am.

    RC’z Law states that a typo is likely to be more illuminating/informative/amusing than what was intended. That definitely counts.

  51. You know robc, that’s a great idea…

  52. What the fuck is it with these goddamned streetcar projects? Cities abandoned them almost a century ago and yet, this is the future of transportation? Good god, these civic leaders are going full retard.

    We got our S.L.U.T. which is a rousing success because… wait for it, civic leaders only predicted 7.5% capacity, but they got 10% so it’s a rousing success.

  53. A waterslide would get me to town in grand style, but you’re also going to have to build a gondola to get me (and my groceries) back up the hill.

  54. You’re going to row your gondola up the waterslide? Seriously, dude, you should just walk up the hill.

  55. Not a Venetian canal boat gondola, silly; a gondola like this

  56. Nest.

    WTF?

    Im not sure that is an RCz law example, but that is weird.

    I assumed it was some geek speak version of “wash, rinse, repeat”

  57. What the fuck is it with these goddamned streetcar projects? Cities abandoned them almost a century ago and yet, this is the future of transportation? Good god, these civic leaders are going full retard.

    Streetcars are cute and charming. It’s all about the aesthetics, man. Just like organic food and “handmade” guatemalan handbags. They need to add it to Stuff White People Like.
    Stuff White People Like: Streetcars. (Trolleys for the less hip.)

    PS: I love your use of “going full retard” in a political context. I’m totally going to steal that.

  58. We got our S.L.U.T. which is a rousing success because… wait for it, civic leaders only predicted 7.5% capacity, but they got 10% so it’s a rousing success.

    Holy fuck! How lazy does one have to be to avoid walking 1.3 miles?

  59. Where the hell has Bagge been lately, anyway?

  60. andrew,

    Cars can go places that trains can’t. This is a contingent historical artifact of the development of cities, but it’s what we got.

    I think your original post mistakenly conflates the philosophical sense of free (do what thou wilt) with the economic sense (benefits with no costs). The problem with the latter being that it has no real-world referent.

    Yes we have to pay at least as much for roads as for rail transit. But we’re paying for a system with greater flexibility of routes, destinations and schedules. Except in dense urban areas, rail systems simply cannot compete with roads.

  61. The city of Lansing is now considering light rail. No word of this graced the newspapers BEFORE porkulus was born. Just recently, all of our local governments were supposed to be aggressively broke. Now, there’s this and a Detroit Free Press editorial writer all geeked up for a high-speed rail line between Chicago and Detroit.

    This reminds me of our 2006 race for governor. During a debate, the moderator asked what was the one most important thing needed to revive Detroit.

    The Republican challenger went first, and eagerly said “mass transit.”

    The Democratic incumbent retaliated and doubled-down the bet: “Clean, efficient, light rail.”

    It was like the “napalm” scene in Apocalypse Now, except it was the acrid smell of incinerated cash that filled my nostrils. (And it didn’t smell like victory.)

  62. I’m currently working in San Francisco, and one of the city’s charms is its street cars

    See! The mayor of Cincinatti has VISION. Put streetcars there and everyone will think it’s just like SF.

  63. Part of Broward County’s plan to spend the pork coming its way (which includes some needed improvements to I-595) is to reserve land next to the freeway for a future light rail project. Since a light rail line has a lower capacity than a single freeway lane, I don’t see the point of this.

  64. 80 years ago, this country had privately held passenger rail lines that served very small communities. Now, we’ve decided that letting the government build us giant roadways is a better solution. They choose where the roads run. The bridge to nowhere comes to mind as a good example of the keen eye the government has for any type of road planning.

  65. …a Detroit Free Press editorial writer all geeked up for a high-speed rail line between Chicago and Detroit…

    Make that Detroit and Birmingham, Alabama, and then we’re talkin’! That way, the auto workers can get to their next job QUICK.

    The last run can just pull up the rails as it goes, as people won’t want them cluttering the nature preserve that Detroit will become.

  66. Hey, it’s called “Reason” not “Reasonable”!

    The government has allowed over half of the rail network in the USA to be trashed, never mind that the road in front of your home doesn’t make any money.

  67. Paul wrote: “What the fuck is it with these goddamned streetcar projects? Cities abandoned them almost a century ago and yet, this is the future of transportation?”

    Buses can cost more to operate than streetcars. Streetcars were brought down in most places by politics, not economics.

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