Atlanta Taxpayers Defeat Mass-Transit Tax Hike

For a host of weird reasons, liberals are obsessed with central economic planning. Even if they have not yet promoted a major central planning model for the entire U.S. economy, they take every chance they get to plan our lives at a lower level. Public education is a big example in terms of how much money is involved, but no other planning effort appeals emotionally to liberals like mass transit. Whenever they get their hands on a new mass transit project, they go in to it with absolutely no connection to the real world. This is why every mass transit project they take on ends up in deep budgetary trouble, such as the very burdensome transit system in Minneapolisthe sugar-coated light rail project in Cincinnati, the excessively costly metro expansion in suburban Virginia, the hilariously expensive commuter rail line in Nashville, or the grand mass transit plans in Atlanta.

The Atlanta project has been the subject of a major political battle over the past year. When I first wrote about it a year ago, no voters had yet had their say on whether or not to go ahead with the project. In October last year, as the debate in Atlanta was heating up, I noted that:

What guarantee do Atlanta taxpayers have that this project is not going to become a permanent burden on their shoulders? What guarantee has the crowd of backers issued that the new mass transit lines will pay their own operating costs? No such guarantees exist, of course, and so for a good reason: government-run infrastructure projects never pay for themselves.

In November voters in Macon, not far from Atlanta, approved the one-cent higher sales tax. But today the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that the rest of the voters allowed a say on this issue have determined that this sales tax hike was, after all, not a very good idea:

Distrustful of government and riven by differences, metro Atlanta voters on Tuesday rejected a $7.2 billion transportation plan that business leaders have called an essential bulwark against regional decline.  The defeat of the 10-year, 1 percent sales tax leaves the Atlanta region’s traffic congestion problem with no visible remedy. It marks failure not only for the tax but for the first attempt ever to unify the 10-county region’s disparate voters behind a plan of action. “Let this send a message,” said Debbie Dooley, a tea party leader who early on organized opposition to the T-SPLOST tax measure. “We the people, you have to earn our trust before asking for more money.”

Congratulations, Atlanta! It is refreshing to see that voters actually turn down tax increases, and it is particularly refreshing that people in and around Atlanta did not fall for the rhetoric that the world would come to an end if they did not approve of this tax hike. This, of course, does not stop local statists from pledging to tell the people that “wrong answer, try again”:

Kasim Reed, who fought years for the referendum as a legislator and as Atlanta mayor, rallied supporters gathered at a hotel in downtown Atlanta. “The voters have decided,” Reed said. “But tomorrow I’m going to wake up and work just as hard to change their minds.” … “It’s heartbreaking,” said Ashley Robbins, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit, one of dozens of organizations that worked for the referendum. She predicted a loss of valuable young workers to the region’s economy. “If Atlanta’s not the region that we want, the young energetic people that drove these campaigns are going to leave.”

Exactly. Behold all the thousands of 20-somethings in Atlanta now sitting at their neighborhood Starbucks, sipping their lattes, declaring with one voice that “if we don’t get to ride a light rail or a natural-gas powered bus to work, then we’re all packing up and moving to Seattle.”

Yeah, that’s very credible, Ms. Robbins.

Results were still pending Tuesday night in the state’s other 11 regions. The Transportation Investment Act of 2010, which set up the referendum, was touted to raise as much as $19 billion if approved district by district. Leaders with the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which pushed to create the referendum in the Legislature and then poured millions into a campaign to pass the tax, did not immediately return telephone calls. 

If the Chamber of Commerce in metropolitan Atlanta thinks this is such a good idea; if their member businesses are so desperate to build more mass transit; then why in God’s Green Georgia don’t they cough up the money and fund it themselves? If they think that all it takes is a one-percent charge on all sales-tax covered consumer spending in the region, then why not take the equivalent out of their own business revenues?

Shirley Tondee, a Brookhaven Republican, thinks the region must do something to solve constant transportation woes. But she voted against the T-SPLOST anyway. “I just don’t trust that government is going to take the money and do what they say they’re going to do,” the retired sales representative said outside her precinct. Robert Williams, a 59-year old electronic technician and a Decatur Democrat, is skeptical too. But in the end he voted yes. “It was a struggle,” he said. However, “we need to be able to grow. Traffic is one of the things that employers do take into consideration when they’re thinking about where to bring jobs.”

Let me, again, remind everyone of Cato Senior Fellow Randy O’Toole’s excellent research on the history of mass transit. He has firmly established that mass transit worked a lot better when it was in the hands of private businesses. It is time to return it there, to the hands of those who know how to make it work, how to make it profitable without tax funding and how to make commuters and other travelers happy.

Again, congratulations, Atlanta.

Dulles Airport Metro: Statist Logic Meets Reality

Today we are revisiting a story from this spring, a story that – like big government – refuses to go away. This one is about government-run mass transit, more specifically the fiscal disaster known as the Silver Line of the Washington, DC metro system. Here is what I wrote about it in April:

Are you ready for another government planning disaster? This time it’s the Dulles Rail project in suburban Virginia. It was carefully planned about a decade ago by the usual suspects of mass transit advocates and overconfident politicians. Since this is a government project, its costs have run amok and are now causing a bit of a political panic. The project is taking a toll – literally – on taxpayers. The Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority (WMAA) was given control over the Dulles Toll Road to raise part of the funds for the rail line. As a direct result, the WMAA has doubled the tolls on the Dulles Toll Road, an increase that of course was not part of the original plans for the project. To prevent a taxpayer uproar in an election year and a possible derailment of the entire project, Virginia Governor McDonnell has promised to write a $150 million check, courtesy of his taxpayers.

Before we move on, let me just remind everyone that mass transit was once a thriving, profitable private industry. This is a point worth keeping in mind when we delve in to today’s story in the Washington Examiner, which reports that this train wreck is still on the wrong track:

The price of a round-trip ride on the Dulles Toll Road could rise by $1 next year and go as high as $9 by 2015. The airports authority in charge of the Dulles Toll Road gave preliminary approval to toll increases Wednesday as part of its effort to fund Metro’s $6 billion Silver Line to Washington Dulles International Airport.

Stop and think about this for a moment. They are raising a highway toll to provide a steady stream of income for a rail line. This toll hike rests on the assumption that there will be no drop in traffic on the toll road as a result of the increase. This is the same type of assumption that motivates addiction taxes: governments tax, e.g., cigarettes because they want more money for their regular budgets, thus expecting smokers to not give up their addictive habit.

In other words, when government wants to use our taxes for something virtuous, they expect us to not respond negatively to the tax. When, on the other hand, government has a different purpose with the same tax, then it expects us to respond in the way that government intends for us to do. If, e.g., government raises the tobacco tax to discourage smoking, then the expectation is that smokers give up their cigarettes.

The toll road hike in Virginia works the same way. If the toll went up by $1 to discourage driving, then government would expect drivers to cut down on driving and start using the metro line instead. But that is not why the WMAA is raising the toll – they need drivers to not respond negatively to the toll.

You don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to realize how ridiculous it is to expect different responses depending on the motive behind the tax or toll hike.

Back to the Washington Examiner story:

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority signed off on a 50-cent increase for one-way tolls next year, up from $2.25 to $2.75. Tolls would rise to as much as $3.50 in 2014 and $4.50 in 2015 under the plan. An earlier estimate from the authority suggested tolls could rise to as much as $4.50 next year. But the increases will be less because Virginia agreed to contribute $150 million toward the project’s costs, offsetting the need for higher tolls, officials said. Authority members said the increases shouldn’t surprise drivers, though they still expect opposition. “People are aware … that tolls are going to have to go up,” said airports board member Bob Brown. But “I think we will get some static.”

It seems a bit superfluous to make this point, but if these politicians did not insist on using tolls to fund the expansion of the metro, then they would not have to raise the toll. What’s even better: if people stop driving on the Dulles Toll Road because they don’t think the higher tolls are worth it, there will be more people on the metro – which they can’t build because too many drivers have stopped using the toll road.

Only government can make this up…


Runaway Costs Nearly Derail Virginia Mass Transit Project

Are you ready for another government planning disaster? This time it’s the Dulles Rail project in suburban Virginia. It was carefully planned about a decade ago by the usual suspects of mass transit advocates and overconfident politicians. Since this is a government project, its costs have run amok and are now causing a bit of a political panic. The project is taking a toll – literally – on taxpayers. The Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority (WMAA) was given control over the Dulles Toll Road to raise part of the funds for the rail line. As a direct result, the WMAA has doubled the tolls on the Dulles Toll Road, an increase that of course was not part of the original plans for the project. To prevent a taxpayer uproar in an election year and a possible derailment of the entire project, Virginia Governor McDonnell has promised to write a $150 million check, courtesy of his taxpayers. From a recent editorial in the Washington Post:

A rising chorus is warning of crippling price increases on the Dulles Toll Road to finance construction of Metro’s Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County. Concerns about toll rates and the Silver Line’s prospects are legitimate. Scare tactics are not. Under a deal struck with Virginia five years ago, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees Dulles and Reagan National airports was put in charge of building the Silver Line and given control of the toll road in the bargain. The idea was that toll road proceeds would cover more than half the cost of the rail line, now pegged at $5.6 billion, with the remainder coming from the state, the feds, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, and the airports authority itself. The authority also got the power to set toll rates, thereby ensuring a revenue stream to maintain the road and build the extension. Predictably, rates have risen — in fact, they’ve nearly doubled since 2009 — and will rise more.

The original promise was to raise tolls by $.25, a promise that the WMAA quickly walked away from. But these chickens are coming home to roost. By jacking up the tolls on the Dulles Toll Road the WMAA is pricing commuters out of the road and on to mass transit. But the mass transit in the region does not have the capacity to absorb all the people who park their cars when the exorbitant tolls conspire with Virginia gas prices. And since toll revenues won’t meet the needs that the WMAA now has, they won’t be able to complete the metro expansion to meet the higher commuter volume.

This paradox is strong enough to derail the project. To get out of it and to keep the boondoggle train running, governments invested in this project have chosen the bad way out: they will continue to pump taxpayers’ money into it.

What about the good way out? Just one moment. First, let us note that even the pro-big government Washington Post has to admit that the WMAA is derailing the very project it is trying to complete:

Rates will rise, and some commuters will be priced off the road. … A consultant to the airports authority, CDM Smith, projects round-trip toll rates will rise next year by $1, which would cost a daily commuter $250 for the year. That’s a sharp increase, though less than it would be without the $150 million contribution that Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has pledged to the project this year.

Because of the runaway costs and the direct consequences it will have for commuters and other taxpayers, politicians and bureaucrats in charge of the project have scrambled to contain expenditures. But aside changing the location of one of the metro stations along the Dulles Rail line from under ground to over ground, the cost cutting is essentially done through government accounting trickery. As the Leesburg Today reports, some costs are simply moved from one government pocket to another, coupled with an almost token-level gesture of bringing in private funding:

The MOA included passing funding for the parking garages off to the counties where they are located, which will put Loudoun on the hook for the Rt. 606 and the Rt. 772 stations. If Loudoun cannot fund any or all of the stations’ garages, then the funding and costs would stay with the project. If Loudoun is able to find private funding for the parking garages, then the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority parking garage requirements will be waived, including the design criteria and parking fee structure.

Private funding is not a bad idea. In fact, that is the good way out of this cost mess. The entire project should have been in private hands from the get-go. More than anything, private funding at this point is almost like a panic-driven afterthought, motivated strictly by a political desire to keep the project palatable in taxpayers’ eyes in a voter year. Nevertheless, the best way to salvage this project, to prevent further cost eruptions and to guarantee passenger-friendly operation of the rail line, the WMAA should hand over the entire project to private funders and entrepreneurs.

As a playground for statists, mass transit is second only to health care. This helps explain why every mass transit project in the country becomes an out-of-control cost behemoth (from local projects to high-speed rail lines) and why taxpayers are always taken for a ride long before there is any train on the tracks.

As Randy O’Toole of the Cato Institute has explained so well: it is time to re-privatize mass transit.

Runaway Train: Obama’s Derailed High-Speed Dream

Central economic planning is among the most cherished elements of socialism. Ask any hard leftist with an advanced degree in economics, political science or even history, and he will give a long, passionate speech, voice trembling, eyes wet, about the endless virtues of central economic planning. Aside the obvious failures of the centrally planned countries within the Soviet sphere, as well as the notorious inability of Cuba and North Korea to feed its own population, anyone who wants to know what central planning is like can study examples of it here at home. Try mass transit, e.g., especially with focus on high-speed passenger trains. The latest chapter in that sordid story was recently chronicled by Brent Larkin, former editorial director at the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

A year ago, Gov.-elect John Kasich received a note in the mail from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It arrived a few days after Kasich told the Obama administration he didn’t want $400 million in federal money to build a so-called high-speed rail system in Ohio. The note from Schwarzenegger, written on thick, gold-embossed stationery, thanked Kasich for his decision and promised the redirected money — most of which went to California for its rail project — would be put to good use. … In a letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Schwarzenegger professed his “astonishment” that Kasich and other governors-elect didn’t want the rail money. Schwarzenegger should have saved California taxpayers the postage and tossed the letters in a drawer. It’s now abundantly clear Kasich’s decision was the right one. Across the country, high-speed rail projects are flying off the tracks, with states either pulling the plug on them or grappling with epic cost overruns.

It is not just high-speed trains that run amok, cost-wise. Mass transit projects are always open-ended commitments on behalf of taxpayers, something voters in the Atlanta region will soon find out the hard way.

And nowhere are those overruns worse than in California, where most of Ohio’s $400 million ended up. U.S. taxpayers have contributed $3.5 billion in federal stimulus to the initial, 178-mile leg of California’s 800-mile, high-speed rail project. And while not an inch of track has been laid, the cost overruns are already staggering. A state report issued last month estimated the cost of the project at $98 billion — nearly triple the original estimate of $33 billion. That’s more than $122 million a mile.

And that’s before they have even gotten started. Compare this to $20-$40 million per mile to build an interstate, which are documented costs from projects that have actually been completed. In other words, California could get 2,400 miles of congestion-easing, safe, fast and convenient interstate highways for the same money that, under the best possible conditions, might give them 800 miles of high-speed rail. And that’s before anyone has even started building the trains that are supposed to run on those tracks.

The completion date has been moved from 2020 to 2033. So gigantic are the overruns that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has held two hearings to examine how a project could go so wrong so soon. And three weeks ago, California’s legislative budget office said the overruns are now so great that it is “highly uncertain” the project will ever be built.

You know the cost overruns are bad when Congress – yes, the United States Congress , land of the free spending spree and home of the brave budget busters – finds it necessary to get involved.

With a couple of exceptions, newspaper editorial boards in the state have turned against the rail plan, as have some Democratic legislators who were once among its loudest cheerleaders. In November, a Washington Post editorial begged, “Somebody please stop this train.” There is now a move afoot to put the issue before California’s voters. If that happens, polls show it’s doomed. The California project is managed by the Parsons Brinckerhoff engineering firm. This is the same outfit the Strickland administration handed a $23 million no-bid contract to do planning and design work on the Ohio project that Kasich killed.

Talk about fast cash. You draw a few rail lines on a map, make a couple of nice-looking 3D images of high-speed trains on your computer and copy some scenes from TrainSimulator, and all of a sudden the government writes you a check for $23 million.

I’m obviously in the wrong business.

Ken Orski is a former administrator for the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration who for more than 22 years has published what the National Journal describes as “an influential and widely read transportation newsletter.” Orski told me the plan advocated by former Gov. Ted Strickland gave high-speed rail a bad name. “The Ohio idea was really just marginal improvement in Amtrak service,” he said. “There has to be a place in the transportation spectrum for high-speed rail, but the Ohio project was one of the poster children for how not to do this.” That’s what happens to a state’s reputation when it proposes spending $563 million in taxes on a train system that would move passengers from Cleveland to Cincinnati at a slower speed than the New York Central took them in 1935.

Government at its best. And central economic planning taking you for a ride on the road to nowhere.

Doesn’t it comfort you enormously to know that the people who can’t even plan and execute a train system on time and budget are soon going to be in charge of your health care?

Downbound Train: Indiana Statists Want Higher Taxes for Mass Transit

Voters in the Atlanta metropolitan area recently voted themselves a nice little tax increase and made themselves even more dependent on government spending by approving an infrastructure investment package. A major part of that package is an expansion of mass transit. The voters in the greater Atlanta area apparently ignored the well-established fiscal failure of infrastructure, and now another big city is moving in the same direction. From the Indianapolis Star:

Business leaders today will unveil an updated 10-year, $1.3 billion transit overhaul that would double IndyGo and add train service from Noblesville to Downtown Indianapolis. The plan is the latest in a decades-long push for mass transit. But the difference this time could be in the details, something opponents say previous plans have lacked. The Central Indiana Transit Task Force has proposed a plan with roughly 50 percent federal funding and a local portion centered on an income tax increase of three-tenths of 1 percent. The local funding is a change from a sales tax in the group’s initial plan last year. And rather than proposing service for the eight-county area, the plan has been scaled back to Marion and Hamilton counties, the two areas advocates say have the most infrastructure in place and willingness to move forward.

So the two counties are ready to add some $300 million to the federal debt (roughly 41 percent of half of the projected total cost). If this is such a profitable project, then why not seek private funding instead? Surely there must be private lenders just dying to put their money into such a belt-and-suspenders safe investment project that the Central Indiana Transit Task Force should be able to attract $650 million in private credit?

In January, the group will ask lawmakers to approve legislation for funding, and a transit governance structure. It also wants voters in each county to have the final say through referendums in November.

Both the voters and the legislators better think twice before they approve this plan. Raising taxes in Indiana is a bad idea. According to the Tax Foundation, taxes in The Hoosier State have been on an up-bound trajectory for quite some time. The state income tax rate is relatively low – a modified 3.4 percent of what you declare to pay federal taxes on – but the sum total of all state and local taxes is becoming a problem. In 2000 Indiana had the 42nd highest taxes in the country; in 2009 they had the 25th highest. The state and local tax burden has gone from 8.2 percent to 9.5 percent, a significant change for the worse.

Another problem with this project is, again, its dependency on federal funds. Technically Uncle Sam is only supposed to chip in toward the investment phase, but how likely is it that federal funds will not come into play as regular funding? Supporters of mass transit projects have yet to produce one example of a working mass transit system in America that does not take a dime of taxes toward its operations.

Bringing more federal funds in to Indiana is bad in part because it makes this particular project dependent on the federal government, whose fiscal recklessness has earned it world notoriety. It is also bad in part because Indiana has already dramatically increased its general dependency on federal funds. From 2008 to 2010 the inflow of federal money into the state coffers increased by almost one third. In-state sourced spending, by contrast, stayed virtually flat.

Higher taxes and more dependency on Congress to keep the state going. Is that a recipe for a thriving Indiana?

Atlanta Taxpayers Foolishly Vote to Fund Grand Projects

In the midst of our (increasingly regulated) free-market economy there are big islands of central economic planning. Those who wish to expand government control over our economy would be well advised to study those examples and learn from how dysfunctional they are. The notoriously perpetual failure of our public schools is an excellent example. Other examples are recreational facilities and mass transit. As I explained earlier this year in the Washington Examiner, for every rosy promise of how good a mass transit program is going to be, there is at least one fiscal debacle to point to. However, these facts, which are easily accessible to anyone who cares to look, does not seem to deter voters in the Atlanta region from voting themselves into a fiscal hole. In county after county, city after city, they are approving a local sales tax increase to pay for an expansion of mass transit in the Atlanta metropolitan area:

With elections for Macon city offices uncontested or in little doubt, the focus of Tuesday’s balloting was the special purpose local option sales tax. That’s what Macon Mayor Robert Reichert concentrated on, joining various business and political leaders at the Poplar Street office of Macon-Bibb Wins, a group that formed to promote the tax.The $190 million SPLOST referendum, which will increase Bibb’s sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent on April 1, 2012, drew strong support across Bibb County. … In the Macon-Bibb Wins office, attorney Calder Pinkston declared victory when only a handful of precincts were reporting, triggering an upbeat response from Reichert. “I think Macon and Bibb County have reached a turning point,” the mayor said. “I think this bodes extremely well for our future.” 

The tax is going to be used for a slew of projects, with infrastructure being a major part. Just like virtually every example of infrastructure projects in the country, it is a safe bet that the tax increase that pays for the investments will remain in place permanently, if for no other reason than to cover the balance when overly optimistic economic forecasts for the projects prove to be just that.
Randy O’Toole, infrastructure expert at the Cato Institute, explains in an excellent research paper that infrastructure is much better off in private hands than under government regime. But few politicians are willing to listen to good arguments. In the Atlanta region, they are in fact speeding in the opposite direction. Not only do they want to spend more of taxpayers’ money on infrastructure , but they also have a number of grand projects in mind once they get their hands on the money from the SPLOST, or the “special purpose local option sales tax”. And as always when government is involved, cost calculations are shapeless, optimistic and infested with political do-goodery:
“The numbers we put together are the best-guess estimates, basically from experience that we’ve had — some staff members, and other cities on what they’ve built,” said Parks and Recreation Director Dale “Doc” Dougherty. “Overall, we feel pretty confident as far as the numbers that are out there. Certainly we’re not just winging it, by any means.” The barrier to exactly what SPLOST money would buy is that detailed planning can often eat up 10 percent of a project’s cost, he said. And unless the SPLOST passes, there’s nowhere to get that planning money, agreed Steve Layson, chief administrative officer for Bibb County. So for now, there’s a general idea of what SPLOST money would buy, which could still change slightly despite the fairly detailed list Bibb County officials are handing out. “Those are the things that we’re going to try to achieve,” Layson said. Here’s a look at the projects:
Why on God’s Green Earth should government be doing these things?

Sub South Recreation Complex: $8.2 million The biggest item on the recreation list is also among the least defined. The idea is to build a major complex with multipurpose sports fields, tennis courts, a pool, playground and shelters. Altogether that complex might cover 40 acres, Dougherty said. The exact location of those 40 acres, however, is unknown, although officials are looking in the Hartley Bridge Road area.

So taxpayers are supposed to pay for a pool and tennis courts. Perhaps the voters in Bibb County, Ga., should take a look at what recently happened in Topeka, Kansas? The city had taken on so many spending commitments that it had to cut prosecution of domestic violence cases while spending many times more than those cuts on recreational facilities like a public pool.

Central City Park: $6 million The initial proposal for Central City Park called for an elaborate complex, including a duck pond with paddle boats, but that was scaled back by more than half. The approved funds are still expected to buy improvements to current parking and athletic fields, build a “destination playground,” a baseball complex and multipurpose fields.

How about letting private non-profits fund, manage and develop these facilities? It would make people a lot more involved and cut away government overhead.

New Rosa Jackson Center: $4.4 million All of the city’s eight recreation centers are slated to get some upgrades, but the SPLOST list proposes completely replacing only the Rosa Jackson Center. The current building has no room to expand, Dougherty said. The idea is to renovate the former Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School a few blocks away, turning it into a “mega-center” with more than just athletics and traditional programs, he said. Instead, the larger building would have rooms for a variety of arts, crafts and cultural functions. It would be big enough to serve all of east Macon and stand as a prototype for future mega-centers elsewhere in the city, Dougherty said.

Wilmington, Delaware has tried to combine running arts centers with running everything else that local governments want to do. It soon found itself in a situation where it had to plan for cuts in essential government services just to keep the arts center going. Priority school, anyone?

The list of projects goes on and on. Spendoholic politicians in Bibb County, Ga., are apparently oblivious to the serious budget consequences of such grand projects. In addition to the fiscal recklessness that characterizes this type of spending, one also has to ask where these politicians draw the line between government and the private sector. If governments can run pools, tennis courts and boat hiring facilities, then who is to say they won’t take over movie theaters and restaurants? If recreation and fun are legitimate government services, then what is not a legitimate government function?

Atlanta Mass-Transit Tax Debate Heating Up

Can someone – anyone – name mass transit project over the past 30 years that has been completed on time, stayed within the construction budget and has delivered all the tax revenues that its political backers promised? Yes, I know. That list is as short as the list over French military victories. But the fact that grand-scheme mass transit is still on the agenda in America today is a testimony to how detached from reality most of our elected officials are. The latest example is a mega-project in the Atlanta region. Back in June I pointed to the fiscal insanity of this project, partly in view of the failure of other mass transit projects. This has of course not stopped the advocates of this project from barging ahead: 

A multimillion-dollar campaign to woo voters into passing the biggest single infusion of infrastructure dollars in metro Atlanta in at least 40 years is under way. Expect a quiet launch against noisy opposition. Local governments last week approved a list of more than $6 billion worth of transportation projects across 10 counties. The list of projects, a mix of road projects and public transportation fixes, is aimed at reducing congestion and making commuting easier for more than 800,000 metro Atlantans. But voters know little to nothing about the high-stakes transportation sales tax that would pay for the projects, according to a poll commissioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. Nearly half said they are either undecided or against the proposal to add a 1-cent sales tax. … The approach [of the sponsors of the project] aims to build momentum going into the July 31 primary, when voters in metro Atlanta’s 10 core counties will be asked to approve the 10-year, 1-cent sales tax. … The Atlanta Tea Party has already pledged to focus on defeating the referendum, with the Georgia Tea Party assisting in other regions across the state deciding their own transportation referendums. A metro tea party task force launched efforts over the weekend, including a new website to get its message out. “We want this thing to be extremely balanced,” said Bob Frey, who is helping coordinate the task force. “We’re not against transportation. We’re not against taxes. We’re against being taxed for the wrong reasons.”

A one-cent sales tax sounds innocent enough, until one realizes that every big project that government comes up with requires just a tiny little extra in taxes. As we all know, many small creeks form a mighty river. This is especially important to keep in mind when we are dealing with investments in mass transit. In my June article in The Washington Examiner I gave several examples of mass transit investments that are abysmal failures from a fiscal viewpoint (the most notorious one being the commuter rail line in Tennessee that costs $26,000 per passenger per year to operate).

What guarantee do Atlanta taxpayers have that this project is not going to become a permanent burden on their shoulders? What guarantee has the crowd of backers issued that the new mass transit lines will pay their own operating costs? No such guarantees exist, of course, and so for a good reason: government-run infrastructure projects never pay for themselves.

It does not help to let these systems operate for some time and build ridership. Even the old ones fail to pay for themselves: every year the federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on the metropolitan transit agency in Washington, DC. In 2010 alone taxpayers had to throw in $729 million to keep the buses and subway trains rolling.

Let the private sector produce transportation services. It can turn a profit doing it, leaving taxpayers unharmed while avoiding reckless waste of money. The British bus company Stagecoach is an excellent example. It started when an unemployed man and his wife bought an old tourist bus and is now a major mass transit operator, even beyond Britain’s borders.