Brookings Economist Decries Transit Subsidies, Calls For Privatization

In his new book, Last Exit: Privatization and Deregulation of the U.S. Transportation System, Brookings Institution economist Clifford Winston contends that transit subsidies are largely the result of labor productivity losses, inefficient operations and counterproductive federal regulations.

Winston finds that transit service is so underutilized, that load factors were at 18 percent for rail and 14 percent for buses in the 1990s, before the Federal transit administration stopped requiring transit agencies to report that information.

Six Years Severance Pay: Winston cites the fact that dismissed transit employees may be eligible for up to six years severance pay, under requirements of federal law. For example, less costly services that could be provided under contract by private providers could result in the six-year severance payments if transit employees are laid off. No such benefit is available to other workers in the nation and an impediment that discourages cost-effective innovation.

Costly Rail Systems: The nation's urban rail systems, which have consumed so much of transit tax funding in recent decades, are the subject of considerable criticism.

Winston reminds readers of the considerable literature that shows that "the cost of building rail systems are notorious for exceeding expectations, while ridership levels tend to be much lower than anticipated" and that "continuing capital investments are swelling the deficit." At the same time Winston questions transits high subsidy levels for rail transit, for example, noting that the average income of rail transit riders is approximately double that of bus transit riders.

In particular, Winston criticizes the now under construction Dulles Airport rail line that will become a part of the Washington DC area transit system, noting that the route is not cost-effective. He characterizes cost overruns on the Dulles rail line and on the soon to be under construction Honolulu rail line as "inevitable." (This is despite the fact that both lines have already experienced substantial cost escalation.)

Indeed, Winston notes that among all of the US rail systems, the subsidies exceed the benefits on all systems except for San Francisco's BART.

Public Sector Mismanagement: Winston offers an ominous conclusion. He says that "social desirability is hardly a demanding standard for a public enterprise to meet" and indicates that is that it is rare to find a public service not meeting that standard. However, of transit Winston concludes that "the fact that transit's performance is questionable ... Is indicative of the extent that transit and bus rail services have been mismanaged in the public sector and been compromised by public policy. It is notable that over the quarter century since transit began receiving income from the federal gasoline tax that its share of urban travel has dropped one third.

Competition as an Answer: Last Exit indicates that transit can produce beneficial results, but makes a compelling case for reform. Winston suggests that transit could be improved by greater involvement of the private sector, following models such as the competitive tendering (competitive contracting) that now accounts for approximately one-half of Denver's bus system.

The international evidence, which Winston does not cite, is even more substantial. This includes the all of the world's largest bus transit system, in London, the entire Copenhagen bus system, and the entire subway, commuter rail and bus systems of Stockholm. However the ultimate in privatization is Tokyo, the world's largest urban area, where transit ridership is 1.5 times that of the entire United States. More than two-thirds of all transit ridership is carried by unsubsidized private rail and bus operators.

Photo: Competitively tendered bus in London (photo by author)