Reason Foundation makes a hilarious claim about the Expo line

Does intellectual dishonesty make you mad? Then sit down and enjoy a hearty laugh instead, this* article is so bad it deserves nothing more than an extended chuckle.

*(that’s where the hyperlink would usually be)

The article starts with grand claims, claims that any reporter can latch onto quickly to create a firestorm. Make no mistake, the following paragraph was carefully written to create as much outrage as possible in one easily digestible scan.

Los Angeles’ brand new $930 million Exposition light rail line is carrying so few riders and bringing in so little revenue that it will, at best, take 65 years for the train to earn back its capital investment (not including ongoing operating costs). If the project completes its next phase and establishes an at-grade train that runs through heavy street traffic from Downtown L.A. to the city of Santa Monica, it will not pay for its construction for 170 years.

Shocking claims!

$930 million is an outrage!

The super expensive train is a failure!

No one is riding it! No revenue is coming in!

There is doubt (if) that phase 2 will happen!

The trains must compete with heavy street traffic!

One should expect transit to pay off its own costs directly!

170 years to be paid off!

Get the sirens ready!

So what cutting edge masterful research went into crafting the claims that it will take 170 years for the line to pay for its construction?

That’s the most optimistic figure Reason can come up with after two days of counting weekday riders on the Expo Line.

That’s right. They sent someone to count people on the first week of service.

That’s it. That’s the research. That’s the hard work that went into this scandalous claim. A dude with a clipboard counted heads at some unspecified time at some unspecified place during week one of service….a week in which two of the stations, including the freaking phase 1 terminus, aren’t even open yet.

So if you’re tempted to continue reading the article, stop. If you’re tempted to unleash a counter-argument, stop. If you yearn to just point out simple facts that rebuke every point made in the article, then stop.

Look, it’s easy to point out that ridership in week 1 of a transit line is meaningless.

For example, this excellent ridership chart of the Gold Line in LA shows that after opening an extension (which was almost like a brand new line), after 2 years ridership still has not stabilized and continues to increase as people become aware of the line and have time to adapt their patterns to take advantage of it.


Source, Rubbertoe on Transit Coalition

On the left of the red box, you’ll note that when the extension opened, ridership did increase….but that increase was just a fraction compared to the real growth.

If after 2 years ridership is still growing as people get exposed to the line, how on earth could you make 100+ year claims on 2 days of data on the first week of service?

….oh no, I’m doing it. I’ve wasted valuable seconds of my time trying to point out mistakes in the article. And I know that you, reader, are itching to point out that the foundation apparently demands that the train make money but has no such expectation for roads. Don’t do it.

That’s time wasted that would have been just as effectively been spent questioning the “all natural” claims on bottles of soda, or the ludicrous lies sent out by Pizza Hut when they say you can get ANY pizza with ANY crust for $10 (and then charge extra for stuffed crust).

Instead of wasting time on the article, it’s best to simply understand how something so ridiculous can be written.

It’s simple. The article is an ad by an oil company, and as such, should be held to the same standard as health claims on bottles of soda and the word “any” in fast food advertisements.

The Reason Foundation is primarily founded by the Koch brothers. They of course, are billionaires who became rich on oil. The foundation is also funded by a fun assortment of other oil companies, and foundations that itself are funded by the same companies.


Charles G. Koch Foundation $57,000
Claude R. Lambe Foundation $857,000
David H. Koch Foundation $1,522,212
Exxon Mobil $105,000

A list can be seen here.

Instead of wasting time on that article, use your time on this excellent piece by the The New Yorker from 2010.

Covert Operations
The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama.
by Jane Mayer August 30, 2010

Don’t let the title fool you, the article is an excellent exposé on how and why foundations like Reason exist, and why they jump at the opportunity to release crap articles that they know will be used by other people hoping to prove a misguided point.

As for the Reason article itself, you notice I didn’t link to it. Of course I will, but I prefer you didn’t follow the link, Why reward crap with page views? So here’s the link, if you must. But if you will reward them with a page view, reward yourself with a glance at the comment section. That’s what you get for clicking.

14 Replies to “Reason Foundation makes a hilarious claim about the Expo line”

  1. I also came across this article, and was stupefied by how little thought went into writing the article. I have heard they had 44,000 boardings on opening day, and during the first week about 9,000 boarding which I think is a pretty good start for an unfinished opening. Reason seems to have no reason. thanks – eric

  2. "That's right. They sent someone to count people on the first week of service.

    That's it. That's the research. That's the hard work that went into this scandalous claim."

    How else would you do it? Official ridership statistics won't be out for months. Treat it as what it is, anecdotal and early evidence instead of flipping out in a dramatic fashion ("Oh my God I just don't want to give them page views!").

    And it's the exact same way one of the top Expo supporters is analyzing ridership on the Transit Coalition Board you link to. He says he was the only passenger on one rail car in the morning.

    "If after 2 years ridership is still growing as people get exposed to the line, how on earth could you make 100+ year claims on 2 days of data on the first week of service?"

    And this analysis is rigorous compared to Reason? You make a good point and perhaps it's true, but all you did was look at a chart and come to a specious conclusion, just like Reason looked at a platform or a rail car and made a specious conclusion.

    Until you fire up STATA and run a multivariate regression on a model based on economic theory with a full complement of t-statistics and a measure of goodness of fit, you're on the same level as Reason. Bonus point if you estimate a system of equations including ridership demand and transit supply (Many studies of the factors that affect ridership fail to do this, but it doesn't make them invalid or unable to say anything useful).

    There is nothing wrong with being on the same level as Reason and there is nothing wrong with early, initial, speculative or anecdotal reports, but let's not pretend you did any better.

    1. Theres an enormous difference between what Reason did and what I'm doing, and what the supporter on the expo board is doing.

      Anecdotal evidence is just that, and can be interesting to talk about (hence the posts on a forum dedicated to discussing things like that). I once rode a red line train in Boston during rush hour….and I had the entire car to myself. I took a picture and talked about it because it was interesting. The thing is, I didn't tale that anecdotal evidence and write an article intended to support some point of view, such as "empty red line trains indicate shrinking urban population".

      Reason isn't just saying "hey guys, ridership is sort of lower than what we expected, stay tuned". They're saying "we studied ridership and with that study can make these claims about 100+ year payback periods". Take note of the article format. They started with the conclusion, not with a disclaimer on what the "study" was. They did that because it's bait they want people to take to advance their agenda.

      As for my claim based on that chart, yes, alone it doesn't mean much. But I could post 20+ charts of other transit projects and yes, even highways, showing that it takes at least a year for ridership to build to a level. But as I said in my post, why waste my time?

      Imagine if a highway was built, and after three days of service, Reason declared

      "Lack of congestion shows massive highway was way overbuilt, money wasted"

      Like transit, highways aren't 1 week projects. You don't build for ridership on week one.

      And one huge difference between Reason and me. Reason actually uses articles like this to lobby governors to cancel transit projects. That's their goal. Look into the reasons the HSR line was cancelled in Florida, it was due to faulty reporting done by reason and heritage.

    2. Reason has a point of view just as transit advocates do. Reason is going to approach any transit story with skepticism just as transit advocates will approach the same story with optimism.

      And even if transit ridership does take time to pick up, we still have to look at whether or not they reach projected ridership levels. Will Expo do that? I think it will. But let's not pretend there aren't projects around that country that bombed and bombed hard. We should look at bad projects with disdain just as much as Reason does, no matter their ideology or who funds them.

      And not every libertarian thinks the same way. There is a lot more disagreement within this ideology, I think, than within the traditional left vs. right paradigm. Plenty of libertarians will support tolls for highways, for example. I do.

      By the way, that Reason author probably thinks the Expo Line was a waste of money whether it reaches its ridership projections or not. He is opposed to the whole idea of subsidizing light rail operations. I don't agree completely with that, but I think our farebox recovery ratios are too low in this country.

    3. "That's their goal. Look into the reasons the HSR line was cancelled in Florida, it was due to faulty reporting done by reason and heritage."

      And I think you overstate the influence of Reason and Heritage. Their reports are universally panned for no other reason than they bum us out and are mean.

    4. The Reason article upset me because it was written in bad faith. It's made to appear that they are evaluating the light rail on its own merits, as if they said, "How about that new light rail line? Well gosh darn it, we looked at it carefully, and it turns out to be a bad idea."

      Another common annoying bad-faith Reason argument against light rail is to say "light rail takes money away from buses, which the poor use." As if they cared about how poor people got around town – they're just as opposed to public bus systems as they are to any other government transportation medium.

      In reality, they are opposed to it no matter how successful or failed it turns out to be. They can't just say "Light rail, like all government functions, is funded by theft at the point of a gun (i.e. taxation) and therefore it should be opposed." The article could be written by a script where you just substitute "light rail" with anything else the government does. But they can't just do that because who would bother reading the same article written over and over again?

    1. RE: High Speed Rail. I'm not overstating their influence at all.

      "TALLAHASSEE — Individual liberty, free markets, peace.

      That's the slogan of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

      It, along with the similarly aligned Reason Foundation and conservative Heritage Foundation, have helped shape Gov. Rick Scott's policies on everything from education to health care to transportation.

      The governor cited reports from Reason and Heritage that deemed high-speed rail a waste of taxpayer money when he decided to stop construction of a bullet train between Tampa and Orlando.

      One of his top policy advisers is Mary Anne Carter, who worked for the Heritage Foundation."

      He used the same kind of "report" they released about expo as a basis to cancel the project….which many months later was stated to have been fiscally prudent and profitable by other independent groups.


      And thank you, the delays should not be brushed off, someone whould be held accountable but no one ever is.

  3. Can i see the reports that claimed the rail lines reason killed were actually profitable.

    Also that that tampa bay news story you linked is quite crappy. Think tanks have views on many poolicy, and quite often they are ignored. Case in point in your own link CA last governor listened to reason on transportation issues…and he also campaigned for a bullet train that costs billions of dollars. He also had different views from reason on education reform(there was none). environmental policies, public unions, etc etc. Did he listen to Reason or not?

  4. They counted? Those unreasonable bastards! They should have just accepted that the shiny new trains were a stunning success and stop being members of the EVIL KOCHTOPUS.

    "Another common annoying bad-faith Reason argument against light rail is to say "light rail takes money away from buses, which the poor use." As if they cared about how poor people got around town – they're just as opposed to public bus systems as they are to any other government transportation medium."

    False. The Reason Foundation frequently tries to puzzle through publicly-funded transportation problems without injecting reflexive anarcho-libertarian ideology into it. Look it up.

    1. "Look it up."
      I've got a better idea, how about you back up your claims yourself rather than outsourcing it to me?

  5. I love how the far left loves to place themselves above the fray.

    You attack the funding sources of the Reason foundation, but do it in both misleading and hypocritical ways.

    You put out some donation figures, but leave out that these donations were made over a 15 year period.

    "Charles G. Koch Foundation $57,000
    Claude R. Lambe Foundation $857,000
    David H. Koch Foundation $1,522,212
    Exxon Mobil $105,000"

    You also seem to imply that the Kochs provide the majority of the funding for reason, and that's just clearly not the case. You show that the Kochs provided a little over $2.6 million (over 15 years), but Reason's 1997 budget alone was over $4 million. (

    But where does your information come from…

    Media Matters!

    That bastion of impartiality, Media Matters.

    And does Media Matters take any money from wealthy people with political axes to grind?

    It turns out… they do. A $1 million gift from George Soros (

    But taking money from billionaires is only bad when your opponents do it, right?

  6. The 3 stages of a Reason approach to a problem (where X is global warming, tobacco, obesity, transit infrastructure investment, environment issues in general…etc).

    "X isn't a problem at all; it's the market working as normal."

    "X doesn't seem to be a problem; most people don't see it as one anyway."

    "X might be a problem, most people agree, but scientists aren't in agreement as to the cause, so let's not get the government involved."

    "X *IS* a problem, most people agree, the scientists are right, but it's been the fault of government meddling all along."

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