IMAGINE THIS SCENARIO: The CEO of a large corporation calls a
meeting of the board of directors to deal with a crisis: The
business is losing four dollars for every dollar earned, much of the
capacity goes unused, and the customer base, never large to begin
with, is eroding at an alarming rate. The board huddles and after a
lengthy session the solution emerges: Expand.
Hard as it is to imagine that any business would "solve" a
problem this way, the description accurately sums up the state of
rail transit in this country. In all but a handful of American
cities where it exists, transit ridership is flat or declining, cars
run half-empty, and the system hemorrhages money. Take
The city's heavy-rail subway carries 50,000 commuters per day,
half the 100,000 daily ridership originally envisioned. The
situation is even more discouraging when it comes to revenue.
Although mandated by law to recover 40 percent of operating costs
through the farebox, the subway took in just $10.3 million in 2001
while operating costs were $30.3 million.
taxpayers made up the difference.
rail, an above-ground trolley, is in even worse shape. The hastily
built, single-track system only garnered $8 million in revenue in
2001, while it cost state taxpayers $32.4 million. Its near empty
cars are the embarrassing legacy of former Governor William Donald
Schaefer, who built the line to shuttle baseball fans to and from
Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Since opening in 1992, the original
route has had other lines cobbled onto it, yet the entire system
still runs far under capacity, carrying only 30,000 daily riders.
None of these problems deters supporters, who see rail transit's
dismal performance not as proof of its failure, but as evidence that
still more needs to be built. The Baltimore Sun recently reported
Maryland state officials are aggressively seeking federal
funds for a project that would extend the city's subway from 43
miles of track to 109 miles at an initial cost of $12 billion.
Transportation officials believe this ambitious expansion will boost
ridership to the extent that the city's system will rival the heavy
rail Metro in Washington,
D.C., which carries 643,000 riders per day.
UNFORTUNATELY FOR TAXPAYERS,
is not unique. Other cities that have experienced the disappointing
results of rail transit are forging ahead with plans to build more.
Among them is Portland,
which has the nation's most aggressive "smart
Over two decades,
Portland has gotten hundreds of millions of dollars for
its two existing light rail lines only to see the share of commuters
using them drop 20 percent. As of 2000, just 80,000 of the 6 million
daily trips made in Portland were on rail transit--about 1.3
percent. And the city's traffic conditions are as bad as ever. The
Texas Transportation Institute reported that
third worst traffic congestion in the 1990s, behind
Los Angeles and
Washington. Still, a third line is scheduled to open in
The situation in San
Jose isn't much different. The city opened its first
light rail line in 1988. Although original estimates projected that
it would carry 40,000 riders per day, the high-water mark occurred
in 1998 with an average daily ridership of just 22,700. Today
San Jose's light
rail cars carry fewer than 15 people at any one time. By mid-year
the system is expected to fall a whopping $6 billion short of the
money it needs over the next 20 years. Yet in the 2000 election,
voters approved a referendum for two additional lines which are
scheduled to open in 2004.
But the problems are not confined to small cities. In
the city with the worst traffic congestion in the country, rail
transit's market share is 270,000 daily trips out of a total of 65
million, about 0.4 percent.
Miami is about the same: Of 15 million daily trips,
only 55,000 are on rail transit, about 0.4 percent. And in
$17.2 million of federal money was spent on three light rail
branches and a commuter line, just 0.25 percent of daily trips are
made on rail transit.
Still, almost two hundred other cities around the country have
requested federal money for rail transit. Demand has become so great
that sparsely populated places like Sioux City, Iowa, Harrisburg,
Pennsylvania, and Staunton, Virginia, want federal money
for their own systems. The twin cites of
one of the nation's least dense urban areas, have begun
construction on their Northstar Hiawatha light rail line. If the new
system were to pay for itself, commuters would have to fork over
$19.00 per trip or $8,550 per year--enough money to lease a luxury
WHY HAS RAIL TRANSIT been such a spectacular bust?
Experts cite a number of reasons,
one of which has to do with the way the systems are configured.
Most rail transit is built to serve the downtown business
districts in cities. But the days when downtowns functioned as the
primary centers of employment are long gone. Since about 1955, when
people and office equipment began taking up more space, most new
jobs have been created in industrial parks and small office
parks--areas outside of downtown. Now, less than 10 percent of the
nation's employment in metropolitan areas is located in the old
central business districts. So for more than 90 percent of
commuters, rail transit isn't an option.
Yet this fact is not an argument for extending rail transit into
the suburbs. Employment outside of downtown areas is spread too thin
to support rail transit. And any system serving the suburbs would
have to include an expansive shuttle network to ferry commuters from
transit stops to their homes or offices. So far, commuters have
shown little interest in such a system. As transportation expert
Wendell Cox puts it, "The problem has to do with the environment
transit tries to serve. There is not a transit situation that can be
superimposed on [a large city] that can get people to and from and
around the suburbs."
So is there a place for rail transit anywhere?
If it makes sense at all, rail transit only seems to do so in the
nation's largest cities like
New York and Chicago, where more than 30 percent of
commuters ride transit to work. But in other places the numbers
plunge. And where transit extends into suburban edge cities, like
Bethesda in suburban
Maryland, or Perimeter in Atlanta, the trip share of rail
transit is miniscule.
But there is an even more compelling reason rail transit will
never be a serious transportation alternative in more than a handful
of places: It can't match the convenience of cars. Most people
prefer to come and go on their own schedule, not one set by a mass
transportation authority. Plus, in cars they can travel privately in
much less time than a typical transit trip takes. Transportation
consultant Alan Pisarski estimates that in most situations the
average auto travel time is less than half that of rail transit.
What's more, people do a lot of "trip-chaining." That is, they
make side trips while they are out. A trip to the dry-cleaners might
include a side trip to the bank, to the pharmacy, and to the
day-care center. No transit system can replace the convenience of
cars for these kinds of needs.
BUT DOESN'T mass transit ease traffic as
supporters contend? The evidence shows otherwise. Between
1960 and 2000, 1,500 new miles of transit were built and 64 million
new jobs were created. During the same time frame, 71 million more
commuters drove to work and 1.7 million fewer rode mass transit. In
where the high ridership volume makes the subway somewhat of a
success (though not a profit maker), the
traffic is still the second worst in the country. "There
is no documented case of mass transit making a material traffic
reduction anywhere in the United States," Cox says.
If the average commuter--the one who keeps voting for rail
transit expansions--can be forgiven for not
knowing the facts, what about elected officials and their advisers?
Why do they consistently show such a
willful disregard for those same facts?
The answer has to do with several different groups which
support rail transit. There are those who despise cars, roads, and
SUVs, and want to limit them as much as possible--the "smart growth" types who would be
perfectly happy to see people living the way they did 100 years ago.
They subscribe to the "Field of Dreams" justification for transit,
the idea that if you build it they will come.
Then there are the civic boosters, whose desire for rail transit
stems from the same impulse that motivates politicians to fund
expensive stadiums to lure sports teams: The desire for status. As
with big-time sports, most cities believe that they are not "big
league" unless they have an extensive rail transit system. And
lacking justification for the massive amounts of money it involves,
rail supporters often appeal to civic pride as a way around economic
Mayor Martin O'Malley has come up with the novel justification that
"if we don't have any better mass transit 20 years from now than we
have today, we are going to be continually chasing our tail." But,
when it comes to rail transit, it's the taxpayers
who are chasing their tails. And they will continue to do so. That
until they demand a
reckoning of costs versus benefits and insist that elected officials
at all levels stop making decisions that would get any CEO and his
board of directors fired for incompetence.
Rachel DiCarlo is a staff assistant at The Weekly Standard.
Also $5 Billion for 20 miles of Light rail in
Hawaii being sued for an Alternative Analysis that is a "joke".
Five years since its opening and "Tren Urbano Rail" in "Puerto Rico" has
not reached 50% of its opening year forecast ridership! The same
where An ambitious, horrifically expensive effort to serve LA
with rail had been an unmitigated disaster.
Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority was under federal
court order to quit raising rail fares . It must put hundreds of
buses back into operation, improve service, and reduce bus
Capital expenditures on new rail systems often
drain resources from lower-cost but more effective alternatives. Nowhere has this
been more clear than in Los Angeles, where the damage to bus
ridership from the diversion of resources to rail far exceeds
any ultimate benefit expected to be derived from rail, a
situation that recently provoked a civil-rights lawsuit.
(The suit was brought on behalf of low-income and ethnic
minority citizens and bus drivers, represented by the NAACP
Legal Defense Fund. Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority
under federal court order
to quit beggaring service and raising
fares for low-income bus riders while lavishing resources on
up-scale train riders.
It must put hundreds of buses back into
operation, improve service, and reduce bus fares. The roughly 15% of LA MTA patrons on the
trains [average income $65,000] have been the beneficiaries of
45 percent of the subsidies, while the 85 percent on the buses [average income
less than $15,000] have received 55 percent-or roughly one-fifth
the level of per-ride transit subsidy.)
the percentage of those who use light rail is only
in single digits yet it represents about 50 percent of the region’s
overall transportation budget. Light rail generated $6.3 million in
fares in FY 1999, compared to operating costs of $17 million. Its
cost $20 to $30 million a mile. For that money per mile you could buy 60 to 90 buses, clean
fuel, low air pollution buses, that don’t have any infrastructure,
don’t have tracks to run on, have fairly low capital and operating
costs, and you can make them go wherever you want them to go. In Sacramento, “light rail is a huge
expenditure” which diverts 40 to 50 percent of all available
transportation funds into “a very limited system.” Estimated
costs for one six-mile stretch of light rail into south Sacramento
are $200 million, money that’s not now available for fixing roadway
problems and for more effective buses.
makes an annual loss of $4.3 mil. Covered by subsidies from San Joaquin, Alameda and Santa Clara
Transit Does Not Reduce Congestion
UTA predicts that, with the tax
increase, it can triple transit ridership by 2020. But it currently
carries less than two-thirds of a percent of all passenger miles in
the Ogden-Salt Lake region. Since auto driving is increasing even
more than the tripling in transit ridership, UTA would still carry
less than 1.3% of all passenger miles in the region. This is
far too small a share for UTA to have any significant effect on
The 1983 campaign in support of a one cent
sales tax to fund
DART, many promises were made to
Dallas taxpayers. DART advertisements
told Dallas taxpayers that light rail offered the best hope for
reducing traffic congestion, improving air quality, and revitalizing
downtown Dallas. Light rail has failed on all three counts.
Light rail has not improved air quality in
Dallas, because to do so would require reducing traffic
congestion, which DART has not done.
Antonio VIA Streetcar:
Cincinnati crazily spends
$148 million on a 3.6 mile , 5 train,
streetcar service ! For that money they
could have had 90 electric or hydrogen buses.
A flexible system , able to be relocated and cover far more than 3.6
miles if needed ! (motorists
can be ticketed or towed for driving on
some parts of the streetcar route).
2016 Santa Cruz
ballot measure will also provide funding for a comprehensive
Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to
analyze potential rail transit and
corridor transportation options.
taxpayers will vote on whether to fund an extension of a light-rail
line that no one rides.
2016 VTA Santa Clara
ridership on buses and
light-rail trains has dropped a staggering 23
percent since 2001, with Fares 10% of Operating Expense