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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

THE TRAIN

"the whole operation is careening toward disaster"

TriMet
I like trains, as I've noted before. I like the idea of mass transit and cities offering ways to get around without having to drive; not owning a car, that's useful to me in particular. However, as much as I like the idea, I also realize that this isn't exactly always the best idea.

Any aspect of a city or state which businesses are not interested in taking up usually is one that is not profitable and won't survive the business climate. Trains, for example, only make money when they ship freight. People movers require constant subsidies from taxpayers to continue their existence because you can't charge people enough money to make a profit and keep in business for commuter trains.

Europeans are fine with that idea; pay some more taxes and get cheap, high quality trains that go everywhere. They can do this largely because they have virtually no defense budget - the US covers that through NATO. Americans are less interested in trains, partly because we love our cars and partly because our country is much larger than Europe. A train ride from England to Germany is a matter of a few hours. You can't cross some states in that much time in America. The distances are too great, and people just don't want to take days to get where they can go in hours by plane for roughly the same price even with state subsidies.

So mass transit is a matter of tax support and isn't as popular in the US as in Europe, for example. Sure, the subway carries millions in New York City, but millions more don't take it. In Portland, Oregon, the TRI-MET train line goes all over but it isn't nearly as popular as driving despite the traffic congestion. Seattle has even worse traffic, because the city planners deliberately are making it so in an effort to force people to take mass transit.

TRI-MET is having serious problems financially, despite the entire state being forced to pay into it. Jack Bog writes at his blog that a recent audit revealed serious debt:
The most eye-popping revelation is that Tri-Met's unfunded liability for retiree health care benefits is now $816.5 million. That's up from $632.2 million a year ago. And hey, people, that's just to pay the retired employees' medical bills! It doesn't include the liability to pay them their pensions, which adds another $267.3 million in unfunded liabilities to the tally. Cha-ching! You math majors out there can see that the total unfunded pension and retiree health care liability is now approaching $1.1 billion.
The audit has an analysis which oddly presumes that liability and costs are going to somehow go down in the coming years, which is difficult to imagine.

And TRI-MET wants to expand, not to just more nearby cities but all the way down to Eugene in some schemes, over 100 miles away. Again I'd like that idea, and it would be very nice to have a cheap, easy way to zip up to Portland or down to Eugene for various reasons but at some point a state has to wonder if its really worth it.

Is there really not just a demand at any level but a need for this service? I can conceivably see this as falling under a state or city government's proper role, but not everything a government may do is something they must do.

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