– How should transit proposals be evaluated?

How your parents raised you had almost nil effect on you, according to Bryan Caplan, Professor of Economics at George Mason University. A fascinating presentation!

There’s an interesting debate in the latest issue of one of the academic journals about the application of benefit-cost analysis to urban rail transit projects in the US. The principal players are all from various campuses of the University of Southern California – Peter Gordon, Robert Cervero and Lisa Schweitzer. The journal is Public Works Management and Policy (PWMP), a “peer-reviewed journal for academics and practitioners in public works and the public and private infrastructure industries”.  The editor summarises the positions of the protagonists:

Peter Gordon and Paige Kolesar have written A Note on Rail Transit Cost-Benefit Analysis: Do Nonuser Benefits Make a Difference? which examines the rather poor performance of modern rail transit projects when measured in traditional benefit-cost terms. In counterpoint, Robert Cervero and Erick Guerra offer To t or not to t: A Ballpark Assessment of the Costs and Benefits of Urban Rail Transportation where they argue that the benefits of urban rail accumulate over long time horizons and to many who will never use the system. This is a new version of an old conversation and Lisa Schweitzer serves as a referee of sorts with Benefit-Cost Analysis of Rail Projects: A Commentary.

The full articles are gated but the links above provide the abstracts for the Gordon and the Cervero articles. There’s no abstract for Schweitzer’s commentary, however because it’s quite short (2½ pages in the journal), can be read independently and is very good, I’ve posted her piece here complete. She’s a smart, independent and sensible observer of transport issues and I agree with most of her comments in this paper. Like us, the US has some good transit projects, but there are also some that are highly questionable.

The debate in this issue of PWMP reflects a hardy perennial in the transportation community. With some consistency, rail transit fails to meet benefit–cost criteria or ridership forecasts. Planners and transit advocates—often these are the same—respond that benefit-cost analysis is only a partial measure of a project’s worthiness. How, they ask, do you monetize the benefits of something like a trolley that reinvigorates a slumping downtown? Some of the things we could never imagine living without—like the Brooklyn Bridge—would probably have failed a benefit–cost test back in 1866when the New York legislature authorized it. And now the bridge is an architectural icon in a region whose economic health has come to rely at least in part on the aesthetics of investments made more than a century ago. Read the rest of this entry »