Deconstructing Light Rail Psychology

Here’s an interesting blog post (with lots of links and comments) from a Houston blogger responding to the question, why does an insupportable idea like light rail have so many supporters?

Tory Gattis (Houston Strategies) recently authored this insightful post that explores the vexing question of why many people passionately support light rail in the face of the overwhelming economic arguments against it? Tory concludes that it has something to do with an unexpressed human psychological need to be liked — sort of like, “Here, check out and play with my light rail toy, and you will probably think better of me.” Tory is clearly on to something in that there appears to be an element of a civic inferiority complex underlying some folks’ support for light rail. However, Tory’s point still does not explain why people who need mass transit the most — i.e., folks who cannot afford the cost of buying and maintaining a car — support light rail, which certainly does not improve their mobility and, by drawing resources away from mobility projects that would, probably harms it. My sense is that that question lies somewhere between the human demand for entitlement and lack of viable choices. As previously noted on this blog, the true economic benefit of light rail is highly concentrated in only a few interest groups — political representatives of minority communities who tout the political accomplishment of shiny toy rail lines while ignoring their constituents need for more effective mass transit, environmental groups that are striving for political influence, construction-related firms that feed at the trough of light rail projects, and private real estate developers who enrich themselves through the increase in their property values along the rail line. Inasmuch as none of these reasons for mass transit appeal to the part of the electorate who actually need mass transit, this amalgamation of interest groups continues to disguise their true interests behind amorphus claims that the uneconomic rail lines reduce traffic congestion (they do not), curb air pollution (they do not), or improve the quality of life (at least debatable).

Ouch. Tory Gattis from Houston Strategies has a response here.