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The High Cost of Mass Transportation

Valley Regional Transit (VRT) is a “regional public transportation authority, responsible for the management of public bus transit” in the Treasure Valley area that includes fixed, intercounty, and on demand bus routes. Fares include a one way ride for $1.50, $2.50 for an all-day pass, and up to $282 for one year.

Elaine Clegg was just voted in as the VRT CEO this year, working with board members from across the valley. She recently stepped down from her position as a Boise City Council member.

Her history also includes being a board member of COMPASS and the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, member of the Idaho Safe Routes to School Advisory Committee, and Program Director for Idaho Smart Growth. So, she has been actively involved in transportation issues for some time and came into that position with a vision to expand mass transportation in Treasure Valley.

Ms. Clegg was recently queried by the Chairman of the Concerned Citizens of Canyon County Committee (5C), Ron Harriman, about her plans to expand VRT services. Below is her response.

She initially states there is no plan for light rail due to the high cost, but rather investing in bus system improvements, but then admits that there are plans “to pursue regional rail” by using “existing railways”. By prioritizing public transit, she believes people will use it. This is not supported by the data. According to Mr. Harriman the data shows that only 3.6% of riders going to and from work travel on public transit systems, and she is unwilling to use available data on the costs of her ideas.

While the 5C Committee supports an expansion of a bus system, it is believed that this system would run more efficiently if it were run by the private sector. Ms. Clegg disagrees and opposes a privatized transit system, playing the wealth disparity game, “a system that favors those with a lot of money and leaves everyone with less behind.” She also claims “80% support for improving bus service”. However, out of a catchment population area of 900,000, there were only 380 survey responses and 570 individual comments, less than 1,000 people. What she does not mention is that many of those who are disadvantaged qualify for rides through other means such as Medicaid recipients getting their rides from Medicaid transport systems. 

However, it is the potential pursuit of a regional rail, or a rail system in any form, that the committee objects to. Looking at similar systems in the northwest, there are considerable costs associated with rail systems. The extra costs to run these systems above what passenger fares bring in: Portland, Oregon is over one billion dollars; Salt Lake City $609,795,000; Denver $1,268,952,652; and Seattle $2,832,258,000. Also, “Whether public or private, many mass transportation services are subsidized because they cannot cover all their costs from fares charged to their riders.” COMPASS understands this, that there has to be a mix of funding on page 32. It is a money sucking system that has no profit-making ability let alone being cost neutral. Those extra costs are typically subsidized by property tax, sales tax, grants, and often borne out by non-users of the system.

Regarding travel time she skips over the amount of time it takes to wait for a bus, time spent with multiple stops, and the time it takes to get to the destination going to and after exiting the bus, merely stating travel time is “competitive”. Somehow this takes “19 cars off the road” and reduces travel time, but is she also basing this thought on the assumption there are no traffic jams or other congestion problems? COMPASS has studied travel times for different modes of mass transportation on page 28.

Ms. Clegg also notes the “value placed on transit by the federal government”. Of course they do, it means more federal interference into local jurisdictions, increasing the dependency on federal dollars and the associated strings that come with it, and it does have a plan to change transportation. 

Mr. Harriman reports as of February 2021, the cost to develop a transit system in the Treasure Valley has been estimated to exceed $2 Billion. Statistics show that commuter time is not saved because of pick up and stop waits. Workers going to and from work make up only 5% nationally and it does little to reduce air pollution because of advanced car technology. 

Mr. Harriman reports 96.7% of Idaho businesses are small businesses with less than 50 employees, prohibiting effective use of mass transit. Mass transit in the Treasure Valley would only benefit the retail locations and some of the businesses in the Boise area. Again, this is an issue COMPASS understands on page 26, by creating connecting routes to employment centers, major business districts, and residential centers that are most likely highly dense. This cost should be paid by those who benefit from such a system, not the taxpayer.

However, this map shows the COMPASS vision for 2050 that does include a rail system. Further investigation by COMPASS into a regional rail was justified by a survey with 11,706 responses, again out of 900,000, or about 1.31%.

As far as air pollution from car use, she maintains “vehicles are one of the largest contributors” and reducing car use “makes people healthier”. While she cites a UCLA study that claims “taking public transportation reduces CO2 emissions by 45%”, according to Mr. Harriman, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality identifies vehicle contribution to air pollution at 20%. If all of the projected 3.6% (national average) of job commuters did not drive it would only clean the air by 7 tenths of 1%.

Ms. Clegg claims public transit develops “stronger communities”, “higher economic output per capita”, “higher quality of life”, reduced chauffeuring of children, improved “business efficiency”, “better attraction of talent”, or even making “people healthier” are all vague terms not backed by any data. 

She does acknowledge that “Mass transit systems are not intended to be profitable” but cites that a Return on Investment (ROI) comes with moving “more people per square foot within the available space”, “increased ridership and increased access for everyone”…”especially the 30%+ of our population that don’t own or cannot drive a personal vehicle”. Is she saying 270,000 people in the Treasure Valley don’t own or can’t drive a car? Is she counting children in that 30% to manipulate the numbers? What about a one car family of five, how is that figured in her calculations?

Is she also saying that 270,00 would use public transportation if available? Not likely, Ms. Clegg.

Ms. Clegg also states “small businesses…are having the hardest time finding employees, in part because many employees find it cost prohibitive to travel too far for work” not citing where this data comes from. Mr. Harriman states small business employers make up 96.7% of all businesses in Idaho and that rail destinations would mostly be to schools, entertainment, and shopping areas. 

While Ms. Clegg clarifies that “rather than raising money for light rail”, money will be spent to expand the current system which 5C supports. Mr. Harriman notes that light rail construction costs $20,000,000 per mile for construction at the lowest cost and in the most convenient locations. He also reports in 2014 COMPASS estimated taxpayer cost for a light rail system to be $359 million to fund its 33 projects and $159 million a year, or an additional $730.00 tax burden to each household. It is clear that no matter the type of rail system, it will burden the taxpayer, including those who do not use it. That’s a lot of money to raise Ms. Clegg.

Given Ms. Clegg’s history with Idaho Smart Growth, she really is supporting the World Economic Forum (WEF) agenda to integrate “bus and rail services” and “improve accessibility” to transportation. Her objectives are also similar to the WEF plan, Accelerating Infrastructure Delivery

First, WEF recognizes “Private sector support for increased property assessments is usually procedurally (sic) and politically necessary, and this support often hinges on zoning changes that allow additional density”, page 28. This was recently accomplished by Boise Mayor McLean with upzoning that will create more density. Transit is identified as being key “to the reinvention of the area”, page 31. That is, Boise needs to be reinvented to accommodate the transit plans by using upzoning to create the needed density for justifying mass transit systems (pg 32). It is the common adage that the problem (high density) is being created for the solution (mass transit). WEF has other ideas on how to move the masses around in dense areas, Isn’t it funny how making progress by these folks also involves bringing back solutions from the past?

This expansion of mass transportation also meets Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goal target 11.2By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport”. Perhaps Ms. Clegg is working in concert with Mayor McLean to move forward with mass transit now that high density zoning has been put into place.

Ms. Clegg needs to be more realistic in her understanding of costs associated with a regional transit system. For her identified areas of benefit, air pollution, time saved, and benefit to the community, none of these are born out. Insignificant impact would be made to air quality, passenger time would not be saved due to travel delays at station stops and walking to destinations, and the costs would be passed onto riders who do not use the system.

The Concerned Citizens of Canyon County Committee is opposed to a transit system and light rail. More information on costs of mass transportation can be found at the 5C website here.

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One reply on “The High Cost of Mass Transportation”

Your words need to be sent to every City Council and P&Z Committee in the Treasure Valley. ““the problem (high density) is being created for the solution (mass transit).”

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