No, Mayor Ballard, There Is No Such Thing as Mass Transit

December 19, 2011

This time of year, with children all over Indiana asking pointed questions about a man in a red suit and white beard, might be a good time to ask whether a beloved figment of our imagination is real — No, Mayor Ballard, there is no such thing as mass transit.

A stack of independent research predicts no “mass” and very little “transit” in a billion-dollar Indianapolis proposal slipped into the public square during the Christmas rush. It would be hard to find a worse place than car-happy Indiana to experiment with such “alternative” transportation or a way that a billion dollars could be more grossly mispent.

Mass transit’s true believers, though, are never discouraged by the facts. They imagine that citizens behave like the little figures in architectural mock-ups, gathering happily to take the morning tram, living in ecologically justified, high-rise concentration like cliff swallows.

Others, the “suits” in the offices of government, law firms and corporations, see themselves shooting back and forth between their metropolises in a luxury that befits their station in sleek cars riding high-speed rail. They are the “occupiers,” executives who wish Indiana could be more like somewhere else, somewhere more important-like.

These mass-transit visions —apparitions actually — were behind Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s announcement last week of a 10-year mass-transit plan. Among other things, it adds train service between that wide spot in a cornfield, Indianapolis, and trendy Noblesville. (There, as luck would have it, sits the district of the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.)

“If we are to succeed and be competitive as a city in the future,” Ballard enthused, practically throwing his arms to the heavens, “Indianapolis must have the amenities that attract creative, vibrant, entrepreneurial business talent.”

Is the mayor talking about the kind of talent that brings jobs and investment? If so, that is attracted not by amenities but by individual productivity and small government, the kind that doesn’t tax its citizenry billions for amenities. But let’s move on.

Pushing this bad puppy is a cast of bipartisan cronies right out of “Atlas Shrugged” —law firms, engineers, architects, politically connected real-estate dealers, contractors and union bosses, all of whom love a government project with a high-minded goal, however functionally absurd.

You will note that they keep fuzzy the number of average citizens who will benefit. There is a reason for that.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and an urban-affairs expert, testified five years ago on this topic before the Joint Study Committee on Mass Transit and Transportation Alternatives. He delivered the inconvenient fact that Indiana’s economy and lifestyle are based on automobile travel whether a ruling elite likes it or not. Mass transit constitutes less than one percent of all travel in Indiana and less than two percent of all travel in Indianapolis.

“Transit will not be a substitute for the automobile in a regional transportation network,” Dr. Staley flatly predicted.

He offered these conclusions and recommendations, none of which are realistically addressed by the mayor’s plan:

And if the plan is understood correctly, the proposed 22-mile old Nickel Plate rail line that would be converted for “high-speed” commuter train service would feature only one complete trip faster than by car — in effect a $1.3-billion demonstration project — or, depending on your point of view, a working museum piece.

“(A high-speed) train’s only advantage is for people going from downtown to downtown,” argued Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute in a paper for The Indiana Policy Review. “Who works downtown? Bankers, lawyers, government officials and other high-income people who hardly need subsidized transportation. Not only will you pay for someone else to ride the train, that someone probably earns more than you.”

Finally, high-speed rail isn’t even particularly good for the environment. O’Toole notes that the Department of Energy says that in intercity travel automobiles are as energy-efficient as Amtrak trains, and that boosting trains to higher speeds will make them less energy-efficient and more polluting than driving.

The mayor’s mass-transit plan would be outrageously bad in normal economic times. In this Great Recession, it amounts to malfeasance. And as a high GOP priority, it signals a collapse of representative government.


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