Light Rail: Worse than Buses?

Real Clear Policy, 6th June 2014 - Michael Cipriano
"High-cost, low-capacity." That's how Randal O'Toole, a public-policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, describes the country's newest light-rail transportation systems in a new paper.

Is it really that bad? We recently took a few minutes to speak with O'Toole about his analysis. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity:


Cities around the world have built railroads as a remedy to traffic congestion. You pointed out there are two different types of rails: light rail and heavy rail. Can you explain the difference?

Light rails often travel on city streets at the ground level with cars and pedestrians. They actually end up often creating more traffic congestion. Heavy rails are completely separated from streets, either elevated or subterranean subways. So it potentially could relieve congestion, but only if ridership is very high. A lot of recent heavy-rail lines, such as ones in Baltimore, Miami, and Los Angeles, have very low ridership and have done nothing about congestion. All they have done is spend a lot of money.


Why are light rails appealing to cities? What are the drawbacks?

Light rails first became popular in the 1980s, when San Diego built a light-rail line that was really inexpensive. It cost less than $10 million a mile. And at that time, heavy-rail subways and elevateds were costing over $100 million a mile. Adjusted for inflation, the San Diego line was $17 million a mile in today's dollars. The problem is that since 1981 when the San Diego line was built -- because of federal requirements and because of general pork-barrel considerations – light-rail lines have become gold-plated. The average light-rail line today costs $110 million a mile. The least expensive one is $51 million a mile, three times as expensive as the San Diego line. There is even one line that is costing well over $600 million a mile for a three-mile line. And it won't be able to carry any more people than the $17 million-a-mile San Diego line. So we are spending a huge amount of money and getting very little capacity in exchange.


You say that U.S. cities like Seattle and Honolulu, and a number of foreign cities such as Mumbai, India; Fortaleza, Brazil; Panama City, Panama; and other Latin American and Asian cities, are building hybrid railroads that combine the worst aspects of the two rails. What do you mean by "the worst of both"?

Heavy rail –- subways and elevateds –- cost a lot more than light rail. But they are capable of carrying a lot more people, so you have to compare the advantages and disadvantages of each. What we are seeing, however, is that cities around the world, including Honolulu and Seattle in particular in the United States, are building lines that have heavy-rail costs yet light-rail capacities. In other words, they have high costs and low capacities, which is the worst of both. It would be nice to have a low-cost, high-capacity system, but these are high-cost, low-capacity systems. Buses actually have more capacity than any light-rail line, and they especially have more capacity than these high-cost systems. So why are these cities spending huge amounts of money to get a system that has no more capacity than a bus line?


Why have cities taken these measures?

In the United States, Congress has given transit agencies a fund to tap from to build rail transit. The fund essentially works like this: The cities that come there with the most expensive plans and get there first, get the most money. So the cities that have less expensive plans get less money. So transit agencies in cities that want a lot of federal dollars come up with really expensive plans. And since the demand for transit isn't very high in cities in the United States -- outside of New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. -- there is no need to build a high-capacity system, so you might as well build a low-capacity system. But since your goal is to spend as much money as possible, build a high-cost low-capacity system. And we just see this over and over again. Cities and transit agencies are trying to get as much money out of the federal government as possible, ignoring the fact that taxpayers are having to pay close to half the cost of construction and all the future maintenance costs and operating costs of these systems.


Double-decker buses have an average transit capacity of more than twice that of eleven-car New York City heavy-rail trains. You also mention they can transport more people more comfortably to their destination. Why do cities continue to insist on building railroads?

Buses have huge advantages. They can go anywhere the streets go, as rails can only go where we spend a lot of money building rail lines. Buses are safer than light rail. They have about the same safety record as heavy rail. On a full train, more than half the people are standing, whereas on a full bus, almost 80 percent of the people are comfortably seated. We can also put Wi-Fi, power ports, and other comforts in buses to make them even more attractive. And yet, buses are a commodity. It is like wheat. You buy flour and you don't really care whether it is Gold Medal flour, or generic brand flour, or King Arthur flour, or whatever. Buses are a commodity. Every single train is unique. Every single rail-transit line is one that requires huge amounts of spending on engineering, design, construction of railcars, almost all of which are unique to each system. So you end up spending lots and lots of money, enriching lots and lots of contractors who then take their riches and then make campaign contributions to lots and lots of politicians. So rail has this huge political advantage because it is expensive. Because it is all one-off rather than a commodity like buses.


Rail advocates tend to leave out the hidden costs of maintaining railroads over the years. Why are the maintenance costs so high?

Like anything, rails wear out. They have a lifespan of about 30 years. Not just the rails, but the stations, the power-supply systems, the overhead lines, the railcars. Everything wears out after about 30 years. People are familiar with the Washington, D.C., Metro system, which was such a beautiful system when it was first opened. Today, more than 30 years after it first opened, it is rapidly deteriorating. You have problems on an almost weekly basis when sometimes three lines are shut down. The reason is that about every 30 years you have to go back and completely rebuild everything at just about the same cost you spent building it in the first place.

And nobody ever budgets for this. The Washington Metro system has no money for it. The Boston T has no money to rehabilitate their system. The Chicago Transit Authority is on the verge of collapse. All of these systems -- systems that are more than 30 years old -- are having serious problems. Portland's system is just about 30 years old, and it is starting to have problems breaking down and having maintenance. The Federal Transit Administration says America's rail-transit systems have a $60 billion maintenance backlog, and it is growing because they are spending less money on maintenance than is needed to keep them in their current state of repair. When transit advocates say "Let's build a new rail line," they never mention this cost. In fact, they will sometimes even say, "Once you build a rail line, it is there forever, for 100 years or more," without mentioning that in 100 years you are going to have to rebuild it three times at an enormous cost. So it is just part of the big lie of rail transit being somehow more efficient despite the fact that it costs more.


Who are the winners and losers of the hybrid rail trend?

Well the big winners are consulting and design firms -- like Parsons Brinckerhoff and HDR -- that design these systems and sometimes get the contracts to build these systems. And then there are the construction companies such Kiewit Construction and the railcar manufacturers such as Siemens, which has been fined $1 billion for bribing governments around the world to buy their systems. They were fined by the German government. There are other railcar manufacturers like Bombardier, and Oregon Iron Works, which is manufacturing streetcars at twice the cost of their European competition so that we can buy American. All of these are winners.

Taxpayers are losers. Transit riders end up losing because unless you are lucky enough to be on one of the rail lines, probably they are going to cut your bus service in order to pay for the rail transit. Drivers end up losing because you end up having more congestion, either because the light rail is getting in your way, or because they spend a lot of money on a heavy rail line that nobody is riding instead of money that actually would have relieved congestion doing things like traffic signal synchronization.

So really, everybody loses except for the contractors who build the systems.

Michael Cipriano is a RealClearPolitics editorial intern.
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