Light rail doesn’t work

Patrick Gibbons

*Light rail, clearing traffic congestion one accident at a time.

Randy O’Toole of the Cato Institute released a report titled “Defining Success: The Case Against Rail Transit,” which highlights the many reasons why public rail transit almost always fails. “Defining Success” serves as a good antidote (one of many, really) to the Sonoran Institute’s recent report on “smart” growth and urban planning. That report was sponsored by the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and the Sierra Club.

Their idea of managing growth in southern Nevada is simply to control human behavior. To accomplish this social engineering, they want to force people into more high-density, urban condos – like City Center. This is done so other urban projects – like public rail transit – are more likely to be sustainable. Essentitally, “smart growth” is nothing more than top-down micromanagement to redesign people around progressive ideals – rather than designing ideals around what the people want.

Fortunately, public rail transit fails so miserably – even in places already engaging in “smart growth” – that we know for certain such a system would fail in southern Nevada. In fact, the recently built $1.4 billion light rail system ($70 million per mile) in Phoenix is scheduled to lose $144 million over the first five years, and this doesn’t even include the money owed to repay the $1.4 billion in bonds.

From the executive summary of Cato’s report:

Over the past four decades, American cities have spent close to $100 billion constructing rail transit systems, and many billions more operating those systems. The agencies that spend taxpayer dollars building these lines almost invariably call them successful even when they go an average of 40 percent over budget and, in many cases, carry an insignificant number of riders. The people who rarely or never ride these lines but still have to pay for them should ask,”How do you define success?”

This Policy Analysis uses the latest government data on scores of rail transit systems to evaluate the systems’ value and usefulness to the public using six different tests:

  • Profitability: Do rail fares cover operating costs?
  • Ridership: Do new rail lines significantly increase transit ridership?
  • Cost-Effectiveness: Are new rail lines less expensive to operate than buses
    providing service at similar frequencies and speeds?
  • The “Cable Car” Test: Do rail lines perform as well as or better than cable
    cars, the oldest and most expensive form of mechanized land-based
  • The Economic Development Test: Do new rail lines truly stimulate economic
  • The Transportation Network Test: Do rail lines add to or place stresses upon
    existing transportation networks?

No system passes all of these tests, and in fact few of them pass any of the tests at all.

And one more good reason to avoid federal dollars to build public rail transit: The government imposes massive penalties for canceling rail projects once you take the money. In fact, it is cheaper to operate at a loss every year than to repay the federal government, which is why almost no public transit rail systems are shut down.