Slaying rail transit shibboleths

Slaying rail transit shibboleths

There’s a great new book that should be required reading for every elected and appointed official responsible for mass transit planning in Southwestern Pennsylvania as the new year rolls out.

It’s Randal O’Toole’s “Romance of the Rails,” subtitled “Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need.”

It’s a beefy (nearly 400 pages with exquisite footnoting) but very accessible look at the nation’s rail services, from the Transcontinental Railroad to urban and regional transportation lines, old and contemporary — and how government invariably mucked up (and continues to muck up) the works.

In fact, O’Toole, a long-time lover of all things trains (hence, the book’s subtitle), exposes darn near every shibboleth about the economic and operational efficiencies of passenger rail – oxymorons promoted shamelessly for more than a century by government and those who long have profited at taxpayer expense and at the expense of sound public policy.

It is no hyperbole to say O’Toole eviscerates every government-promoted rationale for passenger rail, especially the kind of light-rail passenger service that repeatedly has been being foisted on Pittsburgh and Allegheny County residents.

Agree or disagree, but O’Toole says the next bona fide public transportation revolution is upon us with autonomous vehicles, in general, and autonomous ride-sharing vehicles, specifically.

From O’Toole’s book:

“Some transit agencies admit that human-operated ride-sharing services are responsible for low transit ridership numbers. Despite declining ridership, some people continue to support construction of new rail transit lines.

“Most of that support comes from contractors expecting to profit from construction and environmentalists who irrationally hate automobiles even though it is far easier to build a green auto than it is to persuade people to stop driving and start riding transit.”

Continues O’Toole, in perhaps the book’s boldest pronouncement:

“Once driverless ride-sharing is available, there will be little justification to continue subsidizing transit, and most rail transit lines outside of New York City will turn to streaks of rust. …

“In the end, the argument for subsidies to any form of transportation is weak. … (A)ll the subsidies do is create demand for more subsidies,” O’Toole reminds.

“Romance of the Rails” is a critically important book as public transportation in this country arrives at a critical crossroad. How sad that many, if not most, public officials will scoff at its well-argued points and insist on continuing to prosecute the same, and failed, public transit “solutions” that only pay homage to Luddites.

This exact kind of intellectual vapidity was on full display in the Post-Gazette’s year-end story on the Port Authority of Allegheny County. The headline? “Transit CEO brings new attitude in her first year.”

Oh, by gosh, by golly, we learn that in Katharine Eagan Kelleman’s first year on the job (with a base per annum of $230,000) the Port Authority passed out 3,000 flashlights to transit agency workers last March on National Employee Appreciation Day to, as the P-G reported, “show the way to improvements.”

And, good grief, we are told that 60, count ‘em, 60 employees marched in last year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade “with the agency’s first-in-recent memory St. Patrick’s Day-themed bus.”

Of course, there’s also mention of a pricey effort “to create a new brand for the agency.”

But, alas, there’s not one mention of the Port Authority’s out-of-whack cost structure and its chronic ancillary problems.

And hopes that the new year will bring a real new day to the agency appear to have been dashed.

From the email inbox, a reader reacted to the Allegheny Institute’s analysis (Policy Brief Vol. 18, No. 46) of the latest abysmal PSSA scores (edited for clarity):

“It was good to read your article about our Pa. public school assessments.

“Being one of the payers for life, to enable the less fortunate to receive an education, I, for the past 40 years-plus, have wondered what I’m paying for.

“I am now in my 80s, spent three years overseas in the military keeping the present-day students’ grandparents safe.

“Again, for too many years I see public school students being bused to and from the schools — must be bad to walk nowadays; I never was on a school bus when I went to school.

“These kids are now fed breakfast and lunch, most given at no cost. Then, when you tally up the time spent at the feed lot and playing games, very little time is spent in a true classroom learning something.

“Our education system must be revamped; it is now being run by teachers for teachers. The teachers now demand over-average wages and benefits, plus the outstanding pension plans plus medical benefits.

“I sit here pondering how to find the lowest price for my medicine so I can feed myself better — due to paying my property taxes.

“I’m fed up paying for this horrible system.”

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (