A Reporter Rode Denver’s Airport Light Rail–And You Won’t Believe What Happened Next


Here’s a heartwarming story of a man who rode Denver’s airport light rail once, and it worked for him, so now he wants everyone in his Virginia city to pay higher taxes to build light rail to the local airport in case he might want to ride it again someday. How thoughtful and touching.

Of course, there are a few problems with his story. First, what he rode wasn’t light rail, which averages about 20 miles per hour; instead, he rode a commuter train that averages 38 miles per hour. So if he manages to persuade people in Virginia to build light rail to his local airport, he will get something far inferior to what he rode in Denver.

Second, the writer is guilty of survivorship bias, which is an assumption that because something worked for him, it will work for everyone else. But the Denver airport train doesn’t work for everyone else, partly because it is unreliable and partly because transit is slow for anyone who isn’t near an airport line station.

In fact, it works for very few people. There are just 144 daily round trips between downtown Denver and the airport. Of course, people can get on the train in places other than downtown Denver, but the majority of people in the Denver area who want to go to the airport would have to first go downtown, presumably on a bus or another rail line.

Unfortunately, the Virginia writer never bothered to ask what share of air travelers take the train and Denver’s Regional Transit District hasn’t released that information. But we know that, in 2016, an average of 104,000 air travelers a day went to or from Denver International Airport. RTD says that an average of 10,256 people get on or off the train at the airport station each weekday, which is slightly less than 10 percent of air travelers. Based on the experience in other cities, a significant number of those are from the more than 30,000 airport employees. So the train probably carries between 5 and 10 percent of air travelers.

Third, the writer has no perspective on the huge cost of rail, especially since he only had to pay a tiny fraction of the cost of his ride. From downtown to the airport, Supershuttle costs $25 and Uber costs about $35. The airport train is $9, which sounds like a good deal. But Supershuttle and Uber drivers both pay gas taxes that covered virtually all of the costs of I-70 and the other highways to the airport, while train riders paid none of the $1.1 billion construction cost and only a fraction of the operating cost of the airport train.

Contrary to the above headline, you probably will believe that the Virginia writer made the same mistake that many Americans make when they ride trains in Europe. They see other people riding them and assume they are seeing a cross-section of the city or country they are visiting. They fail to find out about all the people who aren’t riding the trains and why the trains don’t work for those people. Nor do they ask who is paying for and who really benefits from all the subsidies to passenger rail transportation.

The reality is that the Denver airport line would have been a huge waste of money and should never have been built even if it hadn’t had an 89 percent cost overrun. With that overrun, Denver is basically bankrupting itself so a few people can take a train to the airport which the city nearly bankrupted itself building.

This piece first appeared on The Antiplanner.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute specializing in land use and transportation policy. He has written several books demonstrating the futility of government planning. Prior to working for Cato, he taught environmental economics at Yale, UC Berkeley, and Utah State University.

Photo by Jeffrey Beall (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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Cato Institute Logic

By this logic, we should build more highways, in order to maximize gas taxes.

Arguing that the roads are mostly paid for ignores (part of) the nature of gas taxes. In part, of course, gas taxes are simple user fees, like tolls. You pay at the fuel pump for the state to build the road that connects you to the next fuel pump. About half the tax, though, is a pigovian tax, that goes to pay for the external costs of gasoline.

Gasoline is cheaply-produced commodity compared to the total costs of usage. The cost to pump it out of the ground and separate out the heavy sludge is a little more than $1 per gallon. The cost of transportation and storage add a few more cents, and all the rest is taxes and profit. Oil companies don’t have to pay the cost of air pollution or climate change, and only rarely have to pay for cleanup costs of toxic spills. Those costs are borne by the public. Part of the reason we levy gas taxes is to help pay for those costs, or at least mitigate them.

Rather than simply slap a fine on fossil fuel companies to pay for droughts, heat waves, 100-year storms and wildfires, most states levy a relatively high fuel tax, and use the money to subsidize more fuel-efficient means of transportation. Ideally, this would take the form of public busses, but in many cities, those have a reputation for frustrating and unpredictable schedules. Trains, on the other hand, are fairly predictable: If you buy a condo next to a train station, you can be relatively sure that municipal budget cuts won’t cancel the route.

I can’t speak to the cost overruns of the Denver airport and the associated rail system, but I can tell you that highways frequently run over budget as well. Since 30,000 people work at the airport, then there is an argument to be made that the investment is paying for itself. There are only about 40,000 working at Chicago O’Hare, and it is a vital economic hub of a much larger city.

I can also tell you that it doesn’t matter (much) who pays the subsidy for a train system. Just like fossil fuels have external costs, train systems have external benefits. In addition to cutting back on road traffic and providing low cost transportation to workers, the total savings in energy will preserve the remaining oil for the rest of us for many decades. The average energy use for cars is about 4600 BTU per passenger mile. This has been coming down in recent years, but it is almost exactly double the same figure for commuter rail systems. So every two people you see riding a train are not only keeping the road clear for you, they are also halving the consumption of gasoline left over for you next year.

Finally, based on my own personal observation, that is two less people texting while they drive.