Clifton Hood, professor of history and the George E. Paulsen ’49 Professor of American History and Government, was quoted recently in an article about public transportation in the San Diego area. The Union Tribune article focuses on the temporary replacement of the region’s light rail system with express buses, indicating the early costs associated with the bus service make it seem a significantly more cost-effective option.
“Officials say there may be additional costs to the bus service, not yet quantified, but the exercise presents a case study in an ongoing national debate over the merits of buses and rail as transit options,” according to the article.
According to Hood, “When considering whether to build a rail line, transportation planners have to look “50 years down the road. You have to bank on future population growth and future traffic problems.”
Hood has been a member of the HWS faculty since 1992. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Washington University, as well as a master’s degree and doctorate from Columbia University. His main fields of study include elites, New York City, historical memory, and mass transit. Hood is the author of “722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York” and is currently completing his second book, “In Pursuit of Privilege: New York City’s Upper Class and the Making of the City, since 1754.” Courses taught regularly by Hood focus on American urban history, elites in America, U.S. environmental history and U.S. ethnicity and immigration. Hood served as a senior Fulbright Lecturer in Seoul National University in Korea.
The full article follows.
Union-Tribune San Diego
Bus Contract is Half Sprinter’s Monthly Cost
Brake problems have halted train, which some say is better investment in long term
Chris Nichols • March 16, 2013
With North County’s Sprinter light rail shut down over brake problems, a fleet of replacement express buses crisscrossed the roadways last week, ferrying some passengers to their destinations faster than the light rail system used to – and potentially for a lot less money.
The Sprinter was to cost $1.2 million a month to operate this year, according to the North County Transit District’s budget.
The agency’s contract for eight private replacement coaches is capped at $665,000 for 30 days, about half the monthly cost of the train.
Officials say there may be additional costs to the bus service, not yet quantified, but the exercise presents a case study in an ongoing national debate over the merits of buses and rail as transit options.
NCTD’s budget shows that the Sprinter costs $6.05 per rider, with $4.74 of that subsidized by government grants. The agency’s bus service, the Breeze, costs $5.11 per mile, with $3.70 of that subsidized.
The forced switch to a stopgap bus service started March 9 and could last months because brake parts have to be ordered from Europe.
Officials with the transit district, which owns the $477 million Sprinter line, said they fully intend to bring the trains back, to the delight of some passengers who complained of crowding and delays on the replacement buses.
Long-term or short
Mass transit experts from across the country say bus-only transit would be far cheaper for most suburban communities like North County, at least in the short run.
Decades from now, if high-density development and ridership blossom along the 22-mile Oceanside-to-Escondido rail corridor, the Sprinter could emerge as the smart, cost-effective choice, experts said.
David Brownstone, professor of economics at UC Irvine who studies transportation economics, said it’s nearly impossible to say the Sprinter is the frugal pick today.
Ridership has steadily increased on the train since it opened in March 2008 but is still thousands of daily passengers below initial projections.
The cost-effectiveness of a mass transit system, Brownstone said, is “a function of density and how many passengers you’re carrying.”
North County, with suburban neighborhoods scattered far from train stations, isn’t set up to offer strong rail ridership. And building rail lines is far more expensive than buying buses.
“For most areas with that kind of density, you’re better off with buses,” Brownstone added. “It’s usually cheaper to solve (transit demand) with dedicated buses.”
Seated on a faded white replacement bus at the Escondido Transit Center last week, Nicholas Hebert shrugged off the train shutdown as a minor inconvenience.
“I’ve done this before,” the 24-year-old Palomar College student said of taking the bus instead of the Sprinter.
The change isn’t so simple for Dennis Nelson, 52, also a Palomar College student.
Nelson, who said back and leg problems limit his mobility, said the Sprinter offered him a reliable ride, one that got him to the San Marcos college in time to make his slow walk to class.
When the replacement buses arrive late, sometimes because they’re stuck in traffic on North County’s notoriously gridlocked state Route 78, he has to make a painful and panicked dash to class, he said.
50 years from now
The comfort and reliability of rail can attract more riders in the long run, transportation experts said this week.
Trains, they said, can pack in far more riders than any bus; cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and spur development near rail stations, though to what degree, is hard to say.
They can also provide an alternative to ever-expanding car traffic on local freeways.
When considering whether to build a rail line, transportation planners have to look “50 years down the road,” said Clifton Hood, an expert on mass transportation and professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.
“You have to bank on future population growth and future traffic problems,” he added.
Of course, not everyone agrees the benefits rail provides are worth the cost.
Wendell Cox, who runs a conservative public policy firm near St. Louis and is a public transit critic, said paying hundreds of millions for a rail line in North San Diego County was “one of the worst public policy decisions I can conceive of.”
“One wonders how much additional bus service would have been created in North County had they done a bus expansion instead of the Sprinter,” Cox said.
He said if transit riders want the greater reliability and comfort of a train, they should pay more to cover rail’s high capital costs.
“I’d be more comfortable in a Mercedes than a Toyota. But I’d have to pay for it,” he added.
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