So I was out with IEA today, on our weekly hike up Mt. Rubidoux, and somehow the topic of conversation turned to improvements we wanted to make to the city, and I mentioned my Magnolia Avenue Streetcar proposal. A gentleman in our organization proceeded to go on a tirade about how rail transportation was constantly "sold" on the premise that it would pay for itself, and that it consistently failed that metric. He then explained to all assembled that mass transit was obviously a bad idea, because if any private companies could make a profit doing it, they would already be doing so. Therefore, since only the government provides transit service these days, it must always be a losing proposition and should be abolished. (Mentioning the Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railway systems didn't have any effect upon him.)
Though people like this guy are probably rare even among the ranks of the right (considering he went on to rail against public education and the Army Corps of Engineers), this sort of thinking is VERY common in our auto-dependent society today. People think of the automobile as this bastion of free-enterprise, a shining beacon of capitalism trouncing those government-supported buses and trains on a daily basis. Our libertarian friend was absolutely outraged that Metrolink was subsidized at around 50% (and I'm glad he doesn't know that RTA is subsidized around 80%...), and yet the point he was missing was right there under his feet. Literally.
Roads, ladies and gentlemen, do not grow out of the ground. Roads of any sort are not a necessary consequence of human habitation, and good roads such as are found all across this nation are even less so. The bridges, tunnels, overpasses, underpasses, street lights, stop signs, and parking lots that make up our automobile infrastructure are not triumphs of free enterprise, but rather the ultimate achievement of a government dedicated to a particular plan of action. The Interstate Highway System is heralded as the greatest public works project in the history of mankind. A substantial portion of our tax dollars goes in to the asphalt and concrete that gird our cities (and not just gas taxes- don't let me catch you making the "user fee" argument), and our roadways are (like our police and fire services, our mail, our military and our courts) thoroughly socialized.
If we therefore accept that transportation is the necessary realm of government action, we must therefore ask- does it matter that our public transport services are subsidized? We don't decry freeway and road spending because they fail to pay for themselves. We barely ask what these improvements do to their surrounding communities. The only question we ask of roadways is- how many people do they move, and how quickly do they do it? Why should public transport projects be held to an arbitrary standard of cost-effectiveness? Why don't we simply ask of our rails and bus lines as to how effectively they serve their patrons?
By the way, the real kicker? This discussion, in which our libertarian friend wanted to privatize everything... it took place in a city park.