The high-speed rail issue that never seems to go away also raises important but seldom asked questions about the actual purpose of public transit.
For example, is it public transit’s role to provide low-cost (i.e. taxpayer subsidized) transportation for citizens at the low end of the economic scale, therefore giving them an avenue by which to cheaply get to and from work until such time as they can move on to better paying jobs which allow them to fund the full cost of their transportation needs?
Or, do we view public transit as a broader tool of so-called “public good,” whereby individual transportation ownership and responsibility is looked down upon, and we therefore expect that any citizen who eschews private transport in favour of public is participating in a grand social exercise for which he or she should be rewarded with tax subsidized transit?
Or is public transit to be used as a symbol of our social progressivism and environmental stewardship? Is it something we draw like a gun to demonstrate that we’re a model society that’s willing to make great sacrifices to show our commitment to progressive thinking?
For example, the school of thought that forwards the idea of public transit being a tax subsidized avenue whereby we can help foment employment and job mobility is a fine ideal. Frankly, I have no problem with that.
Unfortunately, that’s not how we operate the system is it? In spite of the fact that our city bus system loses hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, anyone can buy a ticket and ride the bus. If you make $10 an hour, or $100, you pay the same price for a bus ticket.
Is that how the system is supposed to work?
For example, if two citizens make equal salaries of, say $60,000 per year, but one happens to have the rare luck of being able to capitalize on bus route vagaries, and the other doesn’t, should one citizen be expected to shoulder the subsidy of the bus route, while the other rides on the taxpayers’ dime?
After all, we often claw back other social benefits as incomes rise, so doesn’t it only seem proper that people who are earning a self-supporting income be expected to pay a higher transit fare than someone just entering the workforce?
Just as we wouldn’t expect that wealthy businessmen should live in subsidized housing, should wealthy businessmen ride subsidized buses?
Others will argue that buses and light rail ease congestion. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case by a long shot. In the daily chore of driving to and from work, I routinely find myself stuck in congestion that is the direct result of buses. Worse, it’s congestion created by virtually empty buses. In both Calgary and Edmonton, neighbourhoods around the large parking lots required to serve LRT customers are routinely plagued with traffic issues that are the direct result of their incredibly expensive LRT systems.
This is compounded by the fact that LRT’s can only effectively serve customers from a relatively narrow corridor. There are well defined limits to how far people will walk or drive to catch a train.
Then there is the cost factor.
You can count on a dog’s thumb the number of LRT systems that pay their own way. In our neighbouring cities, highly paid downtown office workers have the cost of their daily commute heavily subsidized by money drawn from taxes on fuel paid by those who are forced by circumstance to drive, and from property taxes paid by homeowners who have neither need nor access to the LRT for daily use.
When you figure in land acquisition, construction, and operating costs, Alberta’s LRTs lose about $3 for every dollar of operating revenue.
Is this truly the nature of serving the “greater good”?
Which brings us to the last hurdle. When all else fails, we’re told that building a high speed rail link between Calgary and Edmonton will somehow sell our abilities to the world.
Really? Is that the real point here? Are we so married to the myth of progressivism that the only feasible way that exists for Albertans to prove to some disapproving part of the world that we’re not just a bunch of hick, gap-toothed, ranchers, rig-workers, and welders that we have to build a $20 billion albino elephant, complete with a tunnel 50 metres under downtown Red Deer?
Is this the real deal? Are we actually willing to do something this colossally stupid so that some people will think we’re smart?
And people wonder why I loathe government.
Bill Greenwood is a Red Deer freelance writer.