A conservative who’s for the Red Line
by Staff Writer
Real conservatives like commuter trains. Why? Because we ride them and we usually don’t ride buses. Chicago’s excellent Metra commuter train system provides examples. If we look at Lake County, Ill. a wealthy area served by Metra’s trains, we find 13 percent of commuters with incomes more than $75,000 took the train rather than drive to work. In fact, the mean earnings of rail commuters were more than $76,000; the figure for bus riders was less than $14,000. Here’s a real grabber: in Lake County, the mean earnings of rail commuters were more than double those of people who drove to work alone. Those demographics say a lot of people on Metra’s trains are political conservatives.
It’s easy to understand why conservatives ride commuter trains like Charlotte’s planned Red Line Regional Rail to Mooresville. On the train, we can work on our laptop, read, or get a nap. On the road, our attention has to go to the rear bumper of the car in front of us. If we drive, we see a lot of rear bumpers, because we waste many hours stuck in traffic. Commuter trains whistle past the traffic jams at 60 miles per hour.
Rail transit of all kinds, including commuter trains, serves other conservative goals. It promotes economic development and raises property values. Many of Chicago’s Metra stations have become densely-developed hubs that bring lots of real-estate tax revenues into town coffers. Rail transit offers suburbanites a way to get around when gas prices soar or events in the Middle East make gas unavailable at any price, as they did in 1973 and 1979. Households can save thousands of dollars a year because they no longer need a car for every person, since some now ride high-quality rail transit.
Whenever a city moves to build more rail transit, one of the anti-transit troubadours shows up armed with a lot of questionable numbers that purport to show it is a bad idea. One recently paid a visit to Cornelius to oppose the Red Line. They present themselves as conservatives, but they are not. They are libertarians, a very different sort of fish. While conservatives support some transit projects and oppose others, depending on the project’s merits, libertarians oppose all rail transit all the time. They also generally oppose all forms of planning for economic development and growth. They say things that are blatantly untrue such as “Highways pay for themselves while trains are subsidized.” In fact, according to the Federal Highway Administration, highways cover only 51 percent of their costs from user fees like tolls and the gas tax. Nationwide, rail transit covers 50 percent of its operating expenses out of the fare box. It’s a wash.
Because rail transit raises property values, it can also self-fund some of its construction costs. That is just what the Red Line plans to do, through what is known as value capture. In effect, some of the additional tax revenue the train will generate is made available up front to help build the line. Additionally, a special assessment district tax for adjacent property owners would only go into effect if approved by the majority vote of affected property owners. Conservatives like these because the people who will benefit pay and local governments need levy no new taxes.
For a commuter rail line to get conservative approval, it should meet some tests. The Red Line does. It will serve an upscale area whose residents can afford to take trains, which charge more than buses. The main highway connecting Mooresville with Charlotte is badly congested with traffic, so people want an alternative. The train will run fast enough to be time-competitive with driving (it will also offer predictable commuting times, something that disappears with severe congestion). The capital cost is reasonable at about $18 million per mile. That is less than what light rail would cost, because the Red Line will use an existing right-of-way and tracks.
If experience in other cities is a guide, conservatives in the towns and communities served by the Red Line will find it makes their lives better. It will ease their commutes, including the commutes of people who still drive because it will take cars off the road in rush hour. It will increase their property values, give their local governments more revenue without any tax hikes, and save some of them money because they won’t need as many cars.
Conservatives like things that work, and the Red Line promises to work well. It deserves conservative support.
William S. Lind is director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation and co-author, with the late Paul M. Weyrich, of “Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation.”