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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Priuses for all!

This is the second time this particular argument has cropped up, and I think it deserves debunking. The heart of the argument is that it would be cheaper to buy every single transit rider a new Prius every five years than to keep running transit.

But like snake-oil salesmen everywhere, Peter Shawn Taylor has elected not to mention some of the side-effects: Massive, massive congestion.

Take I-15, or example. The other day, I was driving I-15 with my brother, who remarked on how un-congested it was. "Thank TRAX" I told him. He protested, but I pointed out that I-15 carries about 150,000 cars every day, and that TRAX carries about 50,000 people every day, many of whom are destined for either downtown or the University. I asked him if he felt like adding another 50,000 cars to I-15, and he demurred.

You can compare the cost of a new rail line to the cost of Priuses, but it's not an apples to apples comparison. If you really wanted to make a comparison, you'd have to include the cost of right of way for the additional lanes, and the cost of 'stations'. Each car requires a cheap and easy to produce station called a 'parking space'. Each parking space needs about 175 square feet. That's about 200 acres, at downtown prices. So of course you don't just build surface parking, you build parking garages. Judging by the number of ones already built in downtown, that's probably a much cheaper way to do it. That runs about....$18,000 per stall, just for construction cost. That's about $900 million.

Now, assume a seven story parking garage is built, with about 7,000 stalls per floor. Including circulation for the cars to get in and out of the parking spaces, call it 200 square feet per car, or 700,000 square feet. That's about 16 acres, or about a one and a half Salt Lake City blocks.

Assume about $1 million per acre for the property, assuming the site is on the periphery of the CBD and no one minds that it's directly adjacent to the freeway.
So for the 'stations', it will cost you about $925 million

Now, add another lane to I-15. The I-15 core project, to widen I-15 through Utah County, was just let for bid, at a cost of 1.725 billion. Now, the distance is certainly greater, so almost twice as long, a billion dollars is probably a better estimate.

So, the additional cost not included in the 'Prius' solution? About 2 billion dollars. The Priuses themselves would run about $6,000 per driver, per year, and a new Prius costs about $21,000. Five years in, that's $51,000 per 50,000 drivers, for another 2.5 billion dollars.

Light Rail (like TRAX) runs $20-30 million per mile, and about $5 million a year to operate. Is public transit cheap? No. But it is far, far superior to the alternative.