Public Transportation – An Incomplete Defense

Four years ago, the biggest promise of the eventually winner of the Honolulu mayoral race appeared to be that he would fix potholes. In fact, after he was elected several publicity photos were released of him, with a shovel, fixing the potholes. This year, the biggest issue in the mayoral race is rail, despite the fact that Honolulu’s rail system is entirely under the control of an independent commission. The rail system in Honolulu is the largest public project works in its history. The project is now estimated to cost up to $10 billion dollars, when the original projected price was $5.16 billion dollars. I genuinely hate driving, I believe in dense development, and I think this is already shaping up to a disaster. But public work disasters aren’t new.

Public work disasters are frequently cited by the right as a reason not to invest in public transportation. Public works project are huge and by some accounts more expensive in the US than anywhere else in the world. Despite all of these, good public works has tremendous importance. Next week, I will be talking about some major public work disasters and lessons that we take from them. This week, let’s start with why we need to spend more in public transportation.

Public works is expensive in any format. Unlike other projects, infrastructure gets more expensive over time and not just for when adjusting for inflation. In fact, we see this in our houses all the time. It’s a lot easier to fix a leaky sink than a flooded kitchen. Washington Metro has been constantly plagued with delays because of track maintenance. Bay Area BART cannot run as a 24-hour transit system because the daily track maintenance needed. If a city’s public works budget is only put toward current maintenance, both developers and citizens will respond by working against the efforts of public investment. For example, choosing to live farther away from the public transportation because if the bus is always late and the train closes every Tuesday, why not just drive?

Not all children attend public school, but all children are able to. Despite the many problems of public schools, no one (to my knowledge) is suggesting that we need to make them more selective. Similarly everyone can take public transportation, but not necessarily everyone does. Continuing with this metaphor, society benefits as a whole when education does well and suffers accordingly when education does poorly. When public transportation runs well, people are given the opportunity to live their life better by being able to not spend money on taxis, cars and their assorted fees, getting to work more quickly, spend more time with their lives, and generally have one less worry in life.

circmetro2Short a miracle, the majority of blue-collar manufacturing jobs will not come back to America. Labor costs have simply risen too much and despite significant effort by cities to attract and kept labor, growth will not simply not exceed loss. That being said, public transport blue-collar construction cannot be sent overseas. You cannot build a rail line for Boston in Vietnam. Even if you could, the shipping costs would be enormous. Until we figure out what actually will fill the hole left by the manufacturing going overseas, infrastructure building is our best chance to keep blue-collar workers gainfully employed.

I was going to write a big thing about the environment – but here-let’s make this easy

  • more people on better transit = less people in cars
  • Less people riding by themselves in cars=less emissions.

Public transportation is one of the many services in our cities, but also it is one of the important tools we have to improve our cities. I hope you’ll join me next week!

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