Editor’s Desk

On transit, county right to be cautious

March 28, 2014 

When it comes to commuter rail, Johnston County Commissioners sound like they want to have their cake and eat it too: They don’t want to commit money to rail transit, but they also want a seat at the regional planning table.

That stance likely amuses, or irks, leaders in Orange and Durham counties, where passenger rail has fans and taxpayer support. But because passenger rail is expensive to build and operate – and, invariably it seems, a money loser – Johnston leaders are right to be cautious while keeping a toe in the public transit planning waters.

Here are the inescapable facts: Even in densely populated regions, which Johnston County and the Triangle are not, passenger rail loses money. In New York City, which has more than 8 million people, the transit system loses 17 cents per passenger mile, according to one measurement in a paper by two professors at the University of California at Berkeley. In Chicago, which is much closer in size to the Triangle, the transit system loses 42 cents per passenger mile, according to the same paper.

In total dollars, the losses are staggering – as much as $1.7 billion annually in New York, according to one estimate; about $500 million in Chicago.

One problem is that public transit systems are reluctant, for whatever reason, to charge fares that come realistically close to covering expenses. In Charlotte, for example, fares cover just 17 percent of operating expenses, according to the UC-Berkeley paper. That helps explain why public transit in Charlotte loses about $20 million annually. In New York, fares cover 67 percent of operating expenses, but that still leaves 33 percent for taxpayers to pick up. Defenders of taxpayer subsidies for public transportation argue that they have to keep fares artificially low. My one-word question is, Why?

I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s commuter rail parade. Truth be told, I’d be the first to pay the fare if a train leaving Selma could deliver me within walking distance of Franklin Street in Chapel Hill or Five County Stadium in Zebulon.

But Johnston County at least is decades away from having the numbers to justify a substantial investment in passenger rail. For that reason, Johnston leaders are rightfully reluctant to start coughing up taxpayer dollars.

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