FrontFunner a flop? Then so is I-15

Today’s story on a BYU professor criticizing FrontRunner for being a financial flop is typical of the anti-mass transit genre for what it ignores, not what it says.

I need to look up numbers so I can do a dead tree column on this subject in more detail, but here are some initial thoughts. Feel free to chime in/add in/criticize. If anyone has any of those numbers laying around, send them along and save me the work.

– UTA is a government-run enterprise. No government-run enterprise ever makes money, nor is it intended to. Government is something we buy, not something we invest in. 

– Any time someone wants to get rid of something the government does they call the money spent on it a “subsidy.”  Items government does that those same people see as necessary are not.

The Mount Ogden Golf Course is “subsidized” by Ogden, for example, as is the Marshall White Center, but money the city spends to send Mayor Godfrey and the council on a trip to Europe to look at gondolas is “a wise investment.” Residents of Davis County won’t get any money back, directly, from the millions they spend on upgrading their fairgrounds, but I don’t hear anyone there saying it is a horrible “subsidy.”

– Prof. Michael Ransom compares the monthly cost of a ticket on FrontRunner to the total cost of setting up FrontRunner, including capital costs, and says that the excess over the monthly ticket cost is an unreasonable “subsidy.”

– Ranson cites the initual capitol costs of building FrontRunner, plus maintenance. At the same time, he ignores the vastly higher cost of the alternative.

Utah spends several billions of dollars a year maintaining roads, for example, not to mention the initial billions to build them. Not one of those roads is a toll road, so not one of those roads generates a cent in income.

Drivers on those roads have to spend $15,000 or more to buy their individual motorized steel boxes, plus spend hundreds of dollars a month on insurance, upkeep, fuel, road and fuel taxes, and so on.

– The fuel in those motorized individual steel boxes is also heavily subsidized. The $100 billion our nation spends every year in Iraq is directly related to maintaining access to oil (as is proven by the somewhat snarky but nevertheless appropriate question: Would we really be fighting for Iraq’s “freedom” if its chief export were broccoli?) We don’t pay that $100 billion at the gas pump, but we do pay it.

And so on.

As I said, I need to look up some numbers, but I think my thesis is sound.


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12 Responses to FrontFunner a flop? Then so is I-15

  1. S. Mackeral says:

    Great point, Trentelman. No one ever complains about paying for freeway subsidization. When freeways need to add carrying capacity, we subsidize the cost of building an additional lane (if space permits). When ridership demand dictates that commuter rail needs to add carrying capacity, another rail car is added to the train’s consist; thus, there is no need to spend money to construct additional elements of the commuter rail system. It’s really about a mindset shift for people here in Utah. Perhaps we’re reluctant to give up driving our Ford F-350s (sans passengers) to work. They make us look so tuff. I’m a truck.

  2. john lannefeld says:

    No doubt the taxpayers will have to continue to subsidize FrontRunner for the foreseeable future – that’s a no-brainer. It should be viewed as one more cog in the wheel of mass transportation, just as wind-generated electricity; coal and oil; and nuclear energy are a part of our energy solution. It is true that FrontRunner is not a particularly convenient mode of transportation from point A to point B if one lives at Point C, which is the case for a large segment of the population along the Wasatch Front, however, as the population grows and other means of transportation come on line – FrontRunner will continue to provide a viable alternative method of transportation.

  3. jeff bob says:

    Even countries that are seen to have successful commuter rail systems (ala European and Asian nations) are heavily subsidized. You are dead on, again, Charlie. The Y professor is very slanted. FrontRunner was and is a big investment, but it is worth it.

  4. Doug Gibson says:

    Charlie, I don’t doubt your thesis. I lived in Boston, which has an outstanding T subway system. You can traverse the city in a half hour, go to Harvard, dinner in Chinatown or to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox in a matter of minutes. Another big draw to the T is that driving in Boston proper is a horror. Without mass transit, the city would be even worse, a too-full parking lot. The trouble with FrontRunner is that it’s an afterthought, started as an alternative to a problem that hasn’t become critical yet. As long as your car can get you there quicker ….

  5. Public transit is a subsidy. Nobody ever pretends it’s anything but. We have to be building the infrastructure now to plan for the future when oil hits $150 per barrel again – or more. In another decade, we’ll likely have FR trains running between Brigham City and Utah County. There will be additional TRAX lines, too: to the airport, Mid-Jordan, West Valley and Draper. In Ogden, there will be a streetcar system between the Intermodal Hub and Weber State University/McKay-Dee Hospital. And people will be using the system, which will by then have cost taxpayers dearly. Still, most of us will be glad we have it.

  6. ctrentelman says:

    not just public transit — ALL transit is a subsidy, if you wish to use that word. I prefer to think that one of the reasons we have a government is so we have a medium for all of us to get together and agree to build things that make our lives easier — like ways to get around. Roads were one of the first things. Rail is just another type of road.

  7. flatlander100 says:

    And the “subsidy” animus seems particularly aimed at rail. The railroads have been complaining for years that Congress subsidizes the airlines and airfreight operations with hundreds of millions of dollars a year [air traffic control system, airport construction, etc.], and it subsidizes the trucking industry with billions in road construction, maintenance and repair. But those aren’t called subsidies. They’re called, as you note, “public investment in infrastructure.”

    As for Frontrunner itself, since it opened, I’ve driven to SLC once. That was on a Sunday. I’ve used FR and the bus shuttle to get to and from the airport, and will use all public transit for an upcoming trip to DC [since I'll leave and return on weekdays]. Beats hell out of paying seven bucks a day to park the car long term. Have driven to the SLC airport since FR opened only when I had to pick meet a plane and arriving or departing colleague, and once when my flight returned on a Sunday. Having to choose between driving on the interstate or even part way on the Legacy Highway [no trucks, which is nice] on the one hand, and being able to sit in comfort and read both ways instead without worrying about traffic or other drivers, well, that’s as they say a “no brainer.”

    UTA’s point in the story was a good one too, I thought. They’re building now a transit system that’s a convenience at the moment, but will be a necessity down the road.

  8. dan s. says:

    Without the FrontRunner, downtown Ogden wouldn’t have a future.

  9. Beekeeper says:

    Charles . . . does not the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints SUBSIDIZE BYU???? Does BYU make money??? Wow then by the professor’s measure, lets close BYU . . . it is a failure!

  10. Drew Chamberlain says:

    The bigger question is does FrontRunner work? By work I mean reduce congestion. UDOT keeps track of traffic counts. It is very easy for anyone to see if FrontRunner made a difference in traffic counts after it opened. Then shortly thereafter Legacy opened at about the same cost. What are the congestion results? Here is my study:

    In 2008 The Coalition for Accountable Government conducted a study of transportation comparisons in Davis County. Notably, whether tax money should be more wisely spent on Mass Transit or Highway construction. A unique opportunity presented itself as two distinctly different transit options were being constructed at the same time and at almost the same cost.
    FrontRunner was built by the Utah Transit Authority (UTA). FrontRunner is a diesel commuter rail line that runs along the side of I-15 from Salt Lake City to Pleasant View, Utah. At about 30 miles long it was designed to relieve congestion on I-15. The cost of the line before upgrades was 611 million dollars. FrontRunner opened for regular service on April 26th 2008.
    Legacy Parkway was built by The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT). Legacy is 14 miles long and originally designed at 300 million dollars. Construction was delayed 2 years by environmental lawsuits and the freeway turned into a slower parkway with 2 lanes in both directions. It parallels I-15 and ended up costing 680 million dollars. Legacy Parkway was designed to relieve congestion on I-15 and opened on September 13th 2008.
    Here are the congestion mitigation results:
    According to UDOT, on their website (see attached sheets or search UDOT then Traffic Statistics then Monthly Traffic Bulletins): in March of 2008 141,877 vehicles traveled I-15 in Davis County per day (counting location 0315). FrontRunner opened in April and the effect in May was 142,030 cars per day (an increase of 153 cars per day).
    Now let’s compare Legacy. In August of 2008 137,553 vehicles traveled I-15 in Davis county per day. Legacy Highway opened in September and the effect in October was 112,455 cars per day (a decrease of 25,098 cars per day).

    FrontRunner had NO impact on congestion and Legacy Highway solved the problem!

    So FrontRunner does not work. Now ridership is almost half of what it was. Long story short, if you want to spend money like water build trains. If you want to relieve congestion build freeways.

    Drew 801-913-4611

  11. ctrentelman says:

    what do you mean it doesn’t work? ever time I take the train to salt lake
    city that is, demonstrably, one fewer cars on I-15, one fewer cars seeking
    out a parking place, one fewer cars clogging city streets.

    100 people on the train equals one hundred fewer cars.

    Your comparisons aren’t valid because you also fail to take into account
    growth between before and after Frontrunner. With the admittedly smaller
    ridership on Frontrunner than I=15, it doesn’t take a lot of growth on I-15
    use to negate those like me who take the train. Still, take the train away,
    you add us back to the mix.

    It is also not really valid because Frontrunner isn’t necessarily meant to
    stop congestion, it is meant to give people a way around it. That is a key

    You are premature in declaring Legacy a success at doing away with
    congestion. Legacy may have caused a dip in traffic on I-15, but when Davis
    County hits buildout in another 30 years or so, and someone starts building
    subdivisions in Weber County again, people will be screaming again that I-15
    is too small, but there will be no place to expand it. Highway growth never,
    ever, keeps up with demand. Look at LA.

    Keep in mind that when they expanded I-15 in Salt Lake County for the
    olympics they added 20 percent of capacity, but it took them four years and
    many billions of dollars. At that time, demand on the same stretch of I-15
    was increasing at the rate of 5 percent a year.

    Four years, 20 percent increased traffic, so for our several billions of
    dollars we got right back where we started. You will see the same with
    traffic through the I-15 corridor in Davis County.

    That’s assuming, of course, anyone can afford gasoline. The projections for
    supply and demand on that particular commodity are rather scary.

    Thanks for writing.

  12. dan s. says:

    If freeways were the solution to congestion, L.A. would be a paradise of uncongested roads.

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