The Public Purpose
Number 25 February 1999

New Urban Rail Not Justified


Reprinted from Engineering News- Record, November 16, 1998,
copyright The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

An invited Viewpoint column.

In 1980, I authored the funding mechanism that made rail in Los Angeles possible in the mistaken belief that rail transit would reduce traffic congestion. Today, the transit ridership is down 25% from the bus-only peak in 1985. Since then, more than $6 billion has been spent on the new rail lines. And since 1980, the population has increased by more than 10% and traffic volumes are up by a third. Two weeks ago, the county's voters outlawed local spending on new subway lines.

But transit advocates refuse to listen. From New York to Sioux City (231st largest metropolitan area), urban rail--especially light rail--is proposed as the solution to "grid-lock." Governments are spending millions of dollars on planning and billions on constructing new rail systems that have not made any difference in traffic congestion.

COSTLY Operating with virtually no public funding, several independent experts have tried to get the facts out. A publicly funded exception was Don Pickrell's seminal work in 1989 showing that rail systems tend to cost much more to build and operate, yet carry far fewer passengers than forecast. Indeed, costs have become so high that taxpayers could save money by paying some new riders to quit working and stay home.

But there is a more fundamental problem. Rail has urban areas. The test of rail's success is not the number of people on the train, but the number of cars removed from the road. In all U.S. urban areas except New York and Chicago, transit ridership is less than 3% of travel. This means that even significant increases in transit ridership (a rare occurrence) have little traffic impact. New rail systems have removed so few autos that the federal government's roadway congestion index would be unchanged in Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, Portland, St. Louis, Sacramento, San Diego and San Jose even if rail had not been built there.

Transit's greatest potential for reducing traffic congestion is through attracting peak-hour commuters out of their automobiles. This is largely a downtown affair. Federal data shows that downtown transit commuters have average incomes, while transit commuters to other locations have incomes approximately half the average. Outside of downtown, only those with no choice--no access to automobiles--use transit to get to work. This is because, outside of downtowns, bus and rail transit is unable to provide direct and speedy services that can compete with the automobile. And that will not change. Our urban areas are too dispersed.

Even Portland, Ore., with its mythical transit orientation, is nothing more than a sprawling metropolis barely half as dense as Los Angeles. Not an outcome of planning, Portland's tiny, densely developed central enclave is an accident of history (as is true of San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, New York and other remaining vibrant downtowns). But downtowns are not the same as urban areas and virtually all traffic growth is in the suburbs, where transit is unable to make a difference.

Other benefits are cited by rail proponents. Perhaps the most important is that rail can reduce automobile dependency by changing the city: the "new urbanism" argument. Invariably, the claimed development impacts are driven by subsidies. Portland grants 10-year tax abatements for developments built next to rail stations. Short of dismantling the suburbs and compelling people to resettle in central cities, there is no hope of reducing auto dependency. For transit to make a difference would require that U.S. urban areas cover one-fifth or less of their present areas.

Despite claims to the contrary, light rail is less safe than buses and autos, and more energy intensive. And commuting by rail is generally slower than by express bus or auto. So what is driving the rush to rail? The federal government has made billions of dollars available. Local and state governments have sought the money simply because it is there. The competition would be no less fierce if Congress had earmarked funding to build monoliths. And, like tax-supported stadiums and convention centers, rail is considered to be a prerequisite to world class city status--in Freudian terms, call it "infrastructure envy."

TAXING A problem is that federal funding requires a local match. Sooner or later, local tax increases are necessary. It might be immediate. Or officials may say new taxes are unnecessary, start to build, then break their promises and request new taxes, as has occurred twice in St. Louis and seems inevitable in Salt Lake City and Orlando.

Adherence to the ideology if not theology of rail precludes real solutions. The billions of dollars committed to dead-end rail strategies are not available for measures that would reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. Urban areas seeking to re-duce traffic congestion would do as well to increase the frequency of garbage collection or any other unrelated strategy. There is virtually no connection whatsoever between new urban rail and traffic congestion relief.

Wendell Cox, an economist, served from 1977 to 1985
on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission
and works today near St. Louis in Belleville, Ill. He operates
a consulting practice with one of the largest nongovernment
public-policy Websites

(c) 2001 --- Wendell Cox Consultancy --- Permission granted to use with attribution.
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