Building It Doesn’t Make Them Come

Bruce Landis had an article in the Sunday Providence Journal with the telling title, “Few, but enthusiastic, riders.”  The “few” are people actually taking advantage of the new length of commuter rail to Wickford. The train goes on from Providence to Boston.

Data from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority show monthly rider- ship increasing from the time the station opened, April 23, 2012, to 6,000 that June. After that, the figures become uneven, plunging by a third from June to July and then shooting up, doubling from July to August. It isn’t clear why the figures were so irregular during the summer. The DOT said it couldn’t immediately explain them.

After August, the data show ridership flattening out, with between 5,000 and 6,000 people riding per month.

This is despite “vigorous” promotion by the state and free-ticket deals.  The accompanying table shows that “between 5,000 and 6,000” per month is actually a little generous.  The reality is more like a steady decline since August.

On one hand, that’s understandable, given that riders probably tend to walk from the station to their offices, and cold weather is a strong incentive to take a car and park nearer one’s destination. On the other hand, if the Rhode Island job market has really been booming, as government statistics suggest, one would expect that to show in commuter data.

Therein lies the critical point not mentioned in the article: For people to ride a commuter train, they have to have somewhere to go. Landis reports that the average day in December saw 151 passengers on the Wickford train.  If we assume they were all round trips, that’s actually 75 people.

Seventy-five people.

Judging roughly from the pictures in the newspaper, if all of them boarded the train at the same time, they wouldn’t need much more than a single car, if they needed that.

Take a look at this advertising video of testimonials:

Of the half-dozen or so people interviewed for the video, two indicate that they’re teachers or professors.  I recognize one as a State House librarian.  Landis’s article broadens the scope a bit, including folks who appear to have office jobs, albeit with a heavy weighting toward those who commute to Boston a few days per week.

The bottom line is that taxpayers are essentially financing an empty train to travel back and forth across the state because there aren’t enough people who have to get into the city.  The heaviest part of rush-hour traffic in Providence is about equivalent to the traffic that I’ve experienced ten miles outside of Boston and New York, when I’ve lived and worked in their vicinity.  Those cities have the sort of commutes that create real incentives to drive to a suburban train station and ride in.

The bottom line is that building infrastructure to accommodate an active economy doesn’t beget an active economy.  Lowering taxes and making it easier for people to create and operate businesses to which to go in the morning do that.

The micromanaging technocrats in Providence like taking credit for the first part of “if you build it, they will come.”  The reality should be more like, “if you let them come, they will need you to build it.”

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