I want to knock down every single one of the numbers we’ve been using – because they’re all utterly wrong. Even the number Sound Transit uses, while it’s correct in ‘year of expenditure’ dollars that do matter when putting together a financial plan, it’s not a number that human beings living today can understand.

John explained a bit about why using year of expenditure dollars isn’t that meaningful, and I submit that it should never, ever be presented this way. I have one simple reason why: The one thing that people plan for as a long term cost – a mortgage – is not presented this way. When we get a mortgage, we understand that we’re paying about double the total cost of the house over the 30 years we’re paying for it. We also understand that there are costs of living in a house – like our electric bill, water, sewer, garbage, maybe internet service or TV. Those are not part of the cost of the house we’re buying (unless it’s poorly insulated, or something) – they’re part of the cost of living in *any* house.

Now, when we look at houses, we consider some of those costs. How much is our electric bill? Do we have to pay for gas? Fill an oil tank? These are important distinctions, and they exist in transportation systems as well – but our media is so caught up on utter horse poop numbers that they can’t even get to this discussion. There is a significantly lower cost attached to operating light rail than operating bus service, and even higher level than that, there’s a MUCH lower cost attached to operating light rail than those people on a car for the same trip.

When you buy a house, you consider this. You buy the house you can afford, and you buy the house you can afford to keep running. Now, here’s the interesting part. When we think about what kind of house we can afford, we’re basing that on what our monthly payment would be – we even base the price of the house we can afford on what our mortgage payment would cost and how much our bills would be (although the latter is just starting to become something people think about, now that the numbers are getting bigger). If we were to find a house for sale that had super energy efficient insulation and appliances, it would cost more, but it matters less to us how much the total cost is and more what the cost increase in our mortgage payment is – and often, that increase is offset by lower electric bills.

So, you’re sitting there reading, and hopefully you’re starting to see where I’m coming from. But if you’re not – if you’re going “more by this crazy fool?” – let me dig just a little deeper and see if I can bring you on board.

There’s a fantastic book from a linguist by the name of George Lakoff (you may have heard of him), from 1980, just before I was born. It’s called Metaphors We Live By. The point of this book is to show that most of the terminology we use in day to day life tends to come from physical, or even biological, roots. The terms we use for argument in conversation are the same we use for physical battle. The terms we use for measuring nearly every concept we have (time, value) have to do with forward and backward, up and down, bigger and smaller, because those are physical things our monkey brains can relate to. These numbers are meaningless to us as figures on a page – what matters to us, what creates the ‘that’s expensive’ or ‘that’s cheap’ reaction, is our connection of these figures to costs we already understand. Lakoff will tell you that’s the only way we understand anything.

In this regard, these huge numbers are useless until, as individuals, we find a metaphor to fit them into.

I reject absolutely year of expenditure dollars. Someone in 1930 told that minimum wage would be eight dollars an hour and someone today might make sixty thousand dollars a year – they would laugh, just as if I told you today that in 2050, you might make a million dollars a year. We can’t grok those numbers. They don’t make sense to us, and even though they’re right within some margin of error and with some confidence, they’re only useful for people who work in finance!

The opposition likes to create this fear that suddenly your taxes will go sky high, kablooie!, suddenly a bagel costs eighty bucks and you’re on the street. That’s the entire point of the big numbers – to create fear and uncertainty, just as so many leaders have done to push their people into poor decisions.

So: I know that even Sound Transit says it’s $17.9 billion, and frankly, that’s because our local media attacked Sound Transit so much last year that they figured it was the easy way out to just accept the Times and P-I’s attacks. Some of this is bus service we pay for now. Some of it is light rail construction we’ll start in a few years. A lot of our projects are paid for with a combination of savings and a bond issue. This would be a lot like advertising a $300,000 house as $600,000 on the sign because that includes operating costs for 20 years and your total mortgage payments over that time. Would you look at that house, or would you look at the one down the street that says $300,000 – for which you already understand there’s interest and upkeep? That’s the point – it makes these projects look more expensive than other projects, like highway projects, for which the Times and P-I report the capital cost today. That gives them something else to complain about, of course, because when we estimate a cost in 2005 and then build it in 2009, it inflates. Duh.

Now, there is an interesting point here. As we aren’t buying this house all at once today, its cost will inflate. We buy some light rail projects, and some Sounder projects, and some new transit centers, and all this comes at different times. So if we say something is five bucks today and don’t buy it until 2015, yeah, it might be eight bucks. In personal terms, we will make that much more money as well. In terms of Sound Transit, not only will we all make more money then, but there will also be more people we’re spreading the cost across! So in real, individual terms, it works out to be pretty constant – dollars are just worth less over time.

So frankly – good grief. There’s a real discussion to be had here about the cost of transit versus the automobile, but it’s completely coated in a thick slime of stupid debate about numbers that will all be different because they’re all calculated different ways. But there’s no way for us to understand the total, because it’s a mixture of dollars we do understand and dollars we don’t have any baseline for.

So I approach it this way. You know that when you go to the store, you pay some percentage in sales tax when you buy something. You’re used to that. So when I tell you how much Sound Transit 2 will cost you, the only measure which I think is meaningful is to tell you how much more you’ll pay next year if you vote yes. That number is a little different for everyone, but for most people, it’ll be around $69 a year.

To the opposition: Stop using numbers nobody understands as straw men. If you have a real argument, let’s hear it.

12 Replies to “These Costs Are All Voodoo. Light Rail Is A House.”

  1. Great post…the numbers are basically “useless” as 17.9 billion or whatever amount is a collective cost for several million people (and visitors to the region) over the course of several years. Anyone know how much WSDOT has spent on freeway projects in the past few years that have immediately filled up with more traffic? The 405 widening, aka the Kirkland Crawl, was probably 100 million or more and MAYBE its reduced drive time by a minute or two. Link will reduce travel times and adding capcaity is as easy as hooking another car on. Not to menchion, it is likely to reduce freeway congestion for those who have no choice but to drive.

    1. I think WSDOT currently has about 400 projects under way at a cost of about $15 billion (in today’s dollars, or even older dollars).

      The 405 projects all put together are around $11 billion, and some are unfunded.

  2. I think hammering home the $69 point is a good way to get people to understand their contribution.

    As far as “how will this help me?” goes, one can use the Bank Teller analogy: Imagine you’re at the end of a long line at a bank, only one teller is on staff. A second teller arrives. You can either stay in your line and let others choose the alternative or you can choose the alternative yourelf. Either way, you get to where you’re going faster.

    1. I love the bank teller analogy! I’d never heard that, but I like it a lot, and I’ll use it.

      1. I made it up myself and bounced it off some people at work and it went over really well so I use it a lot now.

  3. Excellent post Ben. I see this crap all over the country and right now Denver is getting attacked because of inflation that no one could have anticipated, even the anti-transit folks. But I will refer back to Lakeoff on another point that you’re missing. You keep using the word “cost”. Did you read Don’t Think of an Elephant also? You should if you haven’t. Excellent stuff. But the point that you make will be even better if you make people understand in basic terms that their houses are not “costs” but rather investments. The idea over time as you said is to keep your operations low so that it doesn’t blow up the bank. Take a look at San Diego where they have light rail separated from their bus system. The investment in light rail has allowed them to keep their passenger mile operating “cost” at around 25 cents, versus the current 55 cents for a car or more for buses (couldn’t get the number but it’s like 60 cents or something. APTA has all these stats)

    I do it all the time unfortunately but I’ve been trying to train myself to use the term investment because it gets to your point about the house. People make investments that they will get something out of. They invest in roads so they can drive on them and cars to they can ride in them. Why people always mention light rail is a “cost” is a disconnect that needs to be addressed.

    1. I have a couple of copies of Don’t Think of an Elephant, and you’re quite right. I don’t want to go back and edit this one now, but I’ll try to use ‘investment’ in the future. Thanks for noticing. :)

      I think here, it’s going to be something like 40c/passenger mile for Link versus 80c/pm for bus service.

  4. Amen and hooray! Now, if we could just condense this down and make it pithier.

    And if people’d understood this, we’d be riding that monorail today.

    The media love big numbers, because it sounds more like news. We need to call them to account every time they do.

    1. Well… the monorail was a very different story. It’s unlikely they could have paid off their bonds at all. Sound Transit is talking about paying about 2 times the total cost (like your mortgage) when using bonds. The monorail was talking about paying 5 times.

      Plus, the monorail was talking about sharing the West Seattle bridge, and running only a single track. They would not have been able to run service every three minutes with the design they had at the end, and they wouldn’t have been able to modify it later, either.

  5. Gotta go with the “condense it down and make it pithier” idea.

    Maybe best to lead with an explanation- “The sticker price will pretty much double over 30 years at 5%, but the investment also appreciates by about that same amount.”

    That’s why people invest in houses- sure, the price doubles because of the interest, but so does the value.

    And the investment nature of the investment needs to be front and center at all times.

    The people who oppose transit like to do an ‘October Surprise” show where they pretend they were for the project until THEY SUDDENLY REALIZED just how much it would cost. This plays into the American paranoia that ‘Mr. Big’ is going to swindle John Q Public. In South Lake Union, Paul Allen has been designated to be ‘Mr. Big’ and anything that happens there is described in terms of this dynamic, regardless of who actually is involved.

    Like a stock prospectus, the statement of out-of-pocket monthly costs must always have a disclaimer- several in fact- “In general terms the monthly cost is around $80, which of course would go up if inflation makes prices rise…

    These issues are the pith and core of the whole thing forever, so I would urge Ben to consider revising and contracting his remarks.

    If I were doing it I would start by outlining the original post to establish the points to be made, and then re-arranging considerably the order in which the points are made. Then one draft should be devoted simply to wringing the water out. Paragraphs can usually be reduced by half if you think of what is to be said and then make that into an opening sentence, a statement, and a closing sentence.

    Well! I guess that’s just about enough out of me!

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