RT a drain on the county’s taxpayers

Despite its current financial woes and questionable ridership, Regional Transit is plunging ahead with an expensive plan to extend light rail north.

As other agencies rein in their budgets, RT is preparing to spend even more taxpayer money and expand a system that is already grossly overfunded, subsidized, underutilized and plagued by crime.

While ground was broken in October for the “Green Line” to the airport, RT estimates it will be 10 years before it is operational. The line will originate at the proposed regional transportation center and the downtown railyard, continue north along Seventh Street before reaching Township 9 – a future development of 3,000 residences, offices and retail. This line is expected to begin operating in November, according to RT.

RT general manager Mike Wiley has said, “Better to get these projects in place now. It will be more expensive later.”

Wiley’s comment suggests he has expertise in bureaucracy but not in basic economics.

Regional Transit has been mismanaged since the 1970s. That’s when a well-balanced board of directors – composed of private citizens and public representatives – was replaced with a board consisting solely of City Council members and county supervisors, leaving no citizen or business representation on the board.

While RT’s budget has exponentially increased since the 1970s, ridership has not. As the board began to change, politicians added mandatory social planning to public transit, creating mandatory government subsidies, eventually turning RT into a rolling welfare system for those who can’t and won’t pay for their ride.

And, since its inception in 1987, light rail has added to the financial drain on RT. To add to the problem, the number of RT employees has increased, without a comparable increase in ridership.

In 1975, RT claimed an annual ridership of 12.5 million, 418 employees and a $9.6 million budget. The region’s population stood at 850,000.

In 1990, RT claimed annual ridership of over 14 million, yet its number of employees had jumped to 652, and its budget had increased to $40.6 million.

In 2009, RT claims to have 32 million riders, 1,200 employees and an annual budget of $148.5 million. The Sacramento region’s population stands at about 2 million.

But the way RT counts ridership is highly questionable. They count not only riders on each bus or train; they recount the same riders on different legs of their journey, even if they have several stops to their destination.

For instance, a commuter who boarded a bus and had two bus transfers during one trip would be counted as three riders. If the commuter took the same trip home, RT’s method of counting would arrive at a grand total of six riders.

Nearly all RT riders have to make a transfer in their daily commutes, rendering the method of counting grossly flawed.

In spite of the statistics, Regional Transit has had many years of controversy, cost overruns, false starts, embarrassing run-ins with the feds and expensive “oops” moments with light rail.

Statistics from across the United States show no evidence that even the most costly and elaborate new rail systems succeed in reducing traffic or decreasing commute times.

The Texas Transportation Institute, a research organization affiliated with Texas A&M University, issues an annual mobility report that measures travel delays, excess fuel consumption and congestion costs in the nation’s major urban areas.

Their research found that five of the most congested and traffic-plagued cities – Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth – either invested in humongous mass-transit experiments designed to reduce congestion or boasted older, well-established, vast rail systems such as in New York or Chicago, which are much-praised by urban planners.

The rankings in this mobility report confirm that these projects do little or nothing to solve traffic congestion. Of the 15 cities with the worst delays, all have invested huge sums in rail mass transit, without experiencing improvement on the highways.

The Washington Policy Center, a Seattle-based think tank, recently detailed the costs and subsidies rail requires. On average, West Coast light-rail systems need taxpayer subsidies to pay for 73 percent of operations and 100 percent of capital improvements each year.

Sacramento County hands out free bus and light-rail passes to welfare recipients. Adding insult to injury, state, city and county employees receive 75 percent discounts on bus and light-rail service.

Crime is still rampant at stations, on buses and on light rail. Some employees have said RT discourages them from reporting incidents on trains and buses “unless there is blood.”

There is also a problem with employees abusing workers’ compensation benefits with questionable injuries. Yet salaries are being paid as if RT is running a privately held, profitable company. And, over the past year, Regional Transit has been forced to raise fares and shift funds to stay within its budget.

With all these problems, RT plans to spend more taxpayer money when the city and county are running the largest budget deficits in their respective histories.

Extending light rail to Folsom cost taxpayers $209 million – $19.1 million per mile. The south Sacramento extension cost taxpayers $222 million – $19.8 million per mile.

What will the line to Township 9 cost taxpayers? Can RT ever be reined in or will it continue to bleed money and riders while the RT board looks the other way?

Katy Grimes is a political analyst with Pacific Research Institute’s Cal Watchdog journalism center. She lives in Sacramento.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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