Opponents of FasTracks Offer Transportation Alternatives

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Opponents of FasTracks Offer Transportation Alternatives

by Ari Armstrong, October 21, 2004

Even if it passes, "FasTracks will fail to do what it has promised to do," predicted Jon Caldara, head of the Independence Institute and host of a September 30 forum on the subject held at Denver's History Museum.

Randal O'Toole explains the high-cost, low-benefit FasTracks plan.

Outgoing State Senator and Institute founder John Andrews called FasTracks a "huge piece of transit socialism." He said most supporters don't use tax-funded transit now. Instead, Andrews believes many people think, "I want that other person on the bus or the trolley, so I have more room for my car." But FasTracks won't help auto congestion anyway. Unfortunately, FasTracks will eat up resources that could be used for real transit improvements. Andrews called FasTracks a relic of 19th and 20th Century thinking. We need "21st Century alternatives."

Randal O'Toole, from the Institute-affiliated Center for the American Dream, said FasTracks is a product of urban planners rather than good engineering. O'Toole said engineers are motivated to move traffic as safely and quickly as possible. Meanwhile, urban planners often intentionally reduce traffic speed and try to get people out of their cars, whatever the cost. O'Toole said urban planners are motivated by an agenda other than quality transportation: "They don't like cars." Thus, rather than advocate the least-cost ways of improving transportation, they favor high-cost rail that does little to help most people get where they're going.

Randal O'Toole, Robert Poole, Alan Mole, John Aldridge, and John Charles discuss transportation.

O'Toole introduced an alternative "mobility plan for Denver." He described his philosophy as "least-cost transportation planning," the goal of which is to safely move people and goods as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, with FasTracks, "RTD picked the highest-cost, lowest-benefit alternative."

O'Toole favors coordinating traffic signals using better technology to increase traffic flow. So far, the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) has helped coordinate about a third of regional signals, O'Toole said, a move that has improved transportation and reduced pollution more than any FasTracks line would accomplish. O'Toole said coordinating the rest of the signals "should be top priority," yet under existing plans signals won't be fully updated for many years. Also, better use of one-way streets can improve safety and traffic flow, he said.

State Representative Shawn Mitchell chats with Jon Caldara.

Next, O'Toole argued a system of "express toll lanes" would be largely self-funding and enormously effective in speeding up traffic. The main idea is that people pay tolls -- collected electronically in a way that requires no slowing down -- to drive on interconnected lanes that provide consistently high speeds. The lanes do not replace the non-fee lanes, but run parallel to them. O'Toole believes that all segments of society will benefit by the availability of high-speed lanes. Further, he said people on the non-fee lanes would, collectively, save about twice as much time as the users of express toll lanes.

"Bus rapid transit" could take advantage of the new high-speed lanes. In almost every case, buses are less expensive, faster, and better able to meet transportation needs than rail, O'Toole argued. While RTD could operate an expanded bus rapid transit system, O'Toole noted the bus services that are contracted out to independent companies operate at lower costs. Thus, O'Toole would prefer all bus services be operated by independent companies.

O'Toole also discussed ways to build bike routes that are compatible with roads and ways to provide targeted assistance for low-income families.

O'Toole endorsed "jitneys," a concept explained by Alan Mole, a retired aerospace engineer. Mole said that, while in South America, he became familiar with jitney transportation, called "colectivos" there. Essentially, jitneys are like paying carpools or independent taxis. Why do jitneys exist in South America but not in the United States? Mole blamed "archaic and corrupt laws" supported by special-interest groups that outlaw jitneys. Mole described colectivos as spontaneous solutions to transportation needs that cost little and reduce the number of cars on the road. Mole said a jitney system could be legally limited to safe, non-criminal drivers with safe cars and appropriate insurance. Routes, fees, and passenger selection should not be regulated, he said, in order to get maximum benefit from the system.

Dennis Polhill discusses transit plans with Randal O'Toole and Robert Poole.

John Charles, from the Cascade Policy Institute in Portland, discussed the problems his city has had with rail projects. Though he initially supported rail, he later found it "humbling" to admit the system didn't work out the way he anticipated.

Charles criticized what he called the "religion" of planning: laws that encourage denser housing development. In fact, federal money is allotted for the specific purpose of funding projects that encourage density. The idea of dense planning is to reduce driving, increase tax-funded transportation, and reduce congestion. The reality of high-density development is quite different. Because people are packed together so tightly, they suffer a "massive increase in congestion" and drive in highly polluting and time-consuming stop-and-go traffic. When people get where they're going, parking is severely limited.

Charles explained that, while cities were highly congested around 1900, improved technology allowed for decentralization. Electricity, telephones, computers, and cars all helped people live roomier lives. Notably, infrastructure is usually cheaper in suburbs because tall buildings cost a lot more to build.

"Planners never seem to learn from the past," Charles said. While the packed Berlin of 1900 was relatively unpleasant, it has become the model for modern American planners. Indeed, Portland is known as the "best European city in America." Not surprisingly, cities with a "no-growth vision" falter economically, while cities designed for cars grow and expand economically.

What about the poor? Charles urged planners to "not provide them with gold-plated transit," but instead "help them get a private set of wheels." He noted the link between automobile ownership, income, and employment. The train just doesn't take people to where most jobs are, Charles said. He described car ownership as "a very progressive idea."

Charles showed slides of rail lines built to nowhere, stations that never opened, and "planned" developments that failed to attract tenants. "In Portland, zoning is actually used to ruin neighborhoods by promoting incompatible use," Charles said. He showed slides of legally-supported high-density apartments overtowering small homes.

Charles, too, liked the idea of moving away from monopoly government systems of transit. He described government transit setting policies with unions as "a monopoly negotiating with a cartel." "Incentives matter, institutions matter," Charles said, and with government-run transit "the incentives are to spend a bunch of money... [because] the revenue is unrelated to service."

Charles said, "Portland is right on the cutting edge -- of the 19th Century... I encourage you not to follow in our footsteps."

State Representative Shawn Mitchell argued eminent domain should not be used to "override someone's private choice" concerning their property. Mitchell sponsored legislation that limited the use of eminent domain to transfer land from one private party to another. Unfortunately, Mitchell's talk was cut short, as the fire alarm went off and staff required attendees to temporarily evacuate the building.

John Aldridge of Aldridge Transportation Consultants discussed "intelligent transportation systems." He explained how better traffic signals, improved use of lanes, and the removal of bottlenecks provide low-cost ways to impressively improve traffic flow. Matt Knoedler offered more detail on the latest bus systems.

Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation, expanded on the idea of express toll lanes. He said "congestion really is demand is greater than supply." There is always a solution to shortages (in this case, a shortage of roadway): market prices.

While gasoline taxes are close to a user's fee, they simply don't raise enough money to build a system of express lanes, Poole said. But such lanes can be build largely using the revenues from tolls. Poole described a system on which buses, high-occupancy vehicles, and toll-payers ride a fast-flowing, interconnected system of roadways. Rail, on the other hand, builds dedicated infrastructure that disallows diverse use.

One advantage of a high-occupancy toll system with electronic toll readers is that it doesn't rely on the police to look car-by-car for unqualified users, Poole said. Express lanes move more cars faster, and even those who rarely use the toll lanes have "congestion insurance" when they really need to get somewhere quickly, Poole said.

He added, "Whether [FasTracks] passes or fails, there are still these enormous problems... it'll be harder to solve them because [FasTracks] is going to suck up all the money."

But there may be a silver lining for those who favor markets. Because FasTracks will spend so much money for so little gain, if the plan passes the only alternative may be to build self-funding high-occupancy toll lanes to improve traffic in and around Denver.

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