Buying cars a poor substitute for Proposition A

Kevin Lin | Op-Ed Submission

There have been a lot of concerns and misinformation going around about Prop A and the campaign to save Metro. The truth is that there are a lot of very good reasons to vote yes on Tuesday.

For instance, the Metro trains are much more sustainable than cars or even buses. Even if 100 percent of the energy required to power them was coal-generated, the efficiency of electric motors means there would be fewer emissions than an equivalent amount of drivers, even if they carpooled.

The most vibrant and successful cities in the U.S. and worldwide have well-funded public transit systems. Virtually none of these systems make a profit, yet all have an indirect but very positive financial impact on their communities. Even traditionally auto-centric cities like Los Angeles are building subways and rail lines. Citizens for Better Transit (CBT), an anti-Prop A group, doesn’t want public money to be spent on this infrastructure yet has no issue with the tons of money spent on roads and highways by the government. American cities are so car-dominated in comparison to most global cities because taxes have funded so many pork highway projects, often at the expense of public transit. CBT argues against the alleged corruption in the Metro, but there is also plenty of that in highway funding, with contracts often going to the highest (and most-connected) bidder. The fact is that improvements on road infrastructure are never profitable either—tolls hardly pay for the maintenance of America’s roads—but I doubt CBT would argue against using taxes for that purpose. Metro can’t reach its full potential if we keep on underfunding it. The state of Missouri gives a woefully low percentage of its funds to public transportation compared to Illinois, which is already well below the national average on funding for transit. CBT may say it supports buses, but the fact is Metro would otherwise cut bus routes without Prop A, and many of our buses are on loan from the federal government. If they take those buses away, it takes years to reapply for them.

Light-rail systems have helped revitalize downtowns and created healthier inner cities in places like Salt Lake City, Newark and, I would argue, St. Louis. Though they aren’t a panacea to urban problems, they can help to spur development and attract residents, especially growing numbers of young professionals eager for a car-free lifestyle. The denser, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods that light-rail stimulates are more successful over time than sprawled suburbs.

CBT’s leader, John Burns, once suggested that if we truly care about the plight of the poor who ride the Metro, then we should buy everyone who rides the Metro a car instead. Let’s say 50,000 people ride the Metro (it’s actually around 60,000 per day, but we can be conservative for the sake of argument). If we bought them used cars for $10,000 each (so they’re not clunkers), that’d be $500 million. This doesn’t take into account that the average lifespan of a car is roughly eight years or that the population of transit riders keeps growing. The Metro may have cost $464 million, but its maintenance costs are very low compared to the cost of buying cars for everyone in St. Louis. The New York transit system has some infrastructure that’s 100 years old. Many people also prefer not to have a car, even if they can afford it, since you don’t have to worry about being tired or inebriated on a train.

CBT says the poor don’t use or benefit from the Metro, but this is simply not true. If we assume a price of $10,000 for a car (from my friends’ experiences, ones cheaper than that break after about one or two years), plus rising gasoline and maintenance costs, Metro ticket prices and the sales tax seem a lot more reasonable.

I don’t appreciate how John Burns and CBT have characterized Wash. U. as an ivory tower of wealth. Many students are only here because of scholarships and can’t afford cars. I certainly can’t afford a car right now. A cut in MetroBus and train service would be devastating. The reason we pay less for U-Passes is because Wash. U. buys in bulk—there’s no conspiracy here. It is also certainly not selfish for Wash. U. to care about this matter, since 75 percent of our employees use the Metro. Metro detractors have called Prop A shameless, among other things, but somehow I think I’ll sleep very well after voting “yes.”

Kevin is a freshman in Arts & Sciences. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.