Take A Bus

6 May 2004

Seeing that the folks at SmartCity Radio are going to talk about promote light rail as a means of urban travel, I had to dig out some Cantoni wisdom.

Here’s the first tidbit, followed by the full rant:

Elvis Found Alive in Mesa Trailer Park
by Craig Cantoni

Many readers believe that the Arizona Republic did a great disservice to the public in its shameful coverage of light rail before Phoenix voted for the boondoggle. If it had covered the facts instead of unsubstantiated opinions in the news pages, the public would not have been convinced to waste a billion dollars. The costs and benefits are so overwhelmingly against light rail that those who tout light rail must also believe that Elvis is alive. Reporters claim that they were simply reporting both sides of the issue, but the fact is that the newspaper wouldn’t print this headline: ”Elvis found in Mesa trailer park.” However, it did publish equally ludicrous claims about light rail from proponents. That is not responsible journalism. It is lazy journalism. Anyway, pasted below my signature block are two factually-based policy papers on light rail, one by the Maryland Public Policy Institute on a proposed light rail line for the Washington D.C. area, and one by the Allegheny Institute on a proposed rail line for Pittsburgh. I’m sure that they are fighting an uphill battle in trying to blunt the unbalanced reporting on the issue in the Washington and Pittsburgh mainstream media, who also believe that Elvis is alive.


Craig J. Cantoni

Light Rail: The slowest and costliest way to move people
by Randal O’Toole
Maryland Public Policy Institute

As traffic congestion builds in Virginia urban areas, many people ask, ”Why not relieve congestion by building light-rail lines like those built in San Diego, Denver, and Portland, Oregon?” Before Virginians get too filled with light-rail envy, they should take a close look at the experiences of those other cities.

The most important lesson is that this nineteenth-century technology completely fails to meet the transportation needs of twenty-first-century cities. Costing as much to build as a four- to eight-lane freeway, the typical U.S. light-rail line carries fewer people than one-third of freeway lane – and most of those people would otherwise ride a bus. Thus, $100 spent on light rail does less to relieve congestion than $1 to $4 spent on buses or road improvements.

Does light rail reduce congestion? No, it increases congestion whenever the rail lines occupy former street space and also because it is such an ineffective use of transport dollars. The Texas Transportation Institute reports that U.S. urban congestion is growing fastest in Portland, the Twin Cities, San Diego, and Boston – all areas emphasizing rail over highway transport. Congestion grew slowest in Houston, Phoenix, and other regions that emphasized road improvements instead of rail.

Does light rail improve transit? No, most cities that built light rail experienced a decline in transit’s share of travel. This is partly because the expense of light rail forced transit agencies to increase fares and/or reduce bus services to areas not served by light rail. A Los Angeles bus rider’s union successfully sued the regional transit agency for spending billions building rail into white suburbs while it let bus service to transit-dependent minority areas deteriorate.

Is light rail more attractive to transit riders than buses? No, transit riders are sensitive to frequencies and speed, and buses can run more frequently and faster than light rail.

  • While most light-rail lines average just 20 miles per hour, many express bus routes average better than 30 miles per hour.
  • While safety demands that light-rail vehicles be spaced several minutes apart, buses can run just seconds apart.

When Portland voters rejected funding for more light rail, the local transit agency increased bus frequencies and speeds along the proposed rail route and increased ridership by 20 percent.

Does light rail revitalize neighborhoods? No. Ten years after Portland’s light-rail line opened, city officials were dismayed to find none of the redevelopment they expected along the line. They now offer millions of dollars of tax waivers and other subsidies to attract developers to the area. Los Angeles, San Diego, and other cities have had similar experiences.

Is light rail safe? Far from it. Because they are so heavy, light-rail vehicles kill 11 people – mostly pedestrians – per billion passenger miles, while buses and urban freeways kill only about 4 per billion passenger miles.

So why do so many cities want to build light rail? One word: pork. The federal government gives cities billions of dollars to build useless rail lines. This creates a powerful lobby of interest groups to promote rail construction.

  • If you hate automobiles and highways, you love light rail because every dollar spent on light rail is a dollar that can’t be spent actually relieving congestion. You hope that the increased congestion will lead people to stop driving – although there is no evidence that it does.
  • If you are the mayor of a big, slow-growing city, you love light rail because building light rail means spending federal transportation funds in your city instead of in the fast-growing suburbs where those funds are really needed.
  • If you are a downtown property owner, you love light rail because most light-rail lines go downtown rather than to the suburban office parks and shopping malls that compete against you.

In short, light rail is simply one more way to divert taxpayer dollars away from where they are needed to where they primarily benefit wealthy elites. In political campaigns where light rail has come before voters, the vast majority of contributions for light rail come from engineering firms, contractors, banks, and downtown business interests.

Subways and commuter rail transit work in cities with high-density urban cores, such as New York and Chicago. Yet even in dense regions light rail is not the answer: New Jersey’s new Bergen-Hudson light-rail line is one of the biggest failures in the country.

Building light-rail lines costs more than the federal and local dollars wasted on these boondoggles. It also reduces urban livability by increasing congestion, reducing pedestrian safety, and promoting more corporate welfare such as tax breaks for developments along the light-rail lines. Virginians who want to protect the livability of their communities should look for other solutions to transport problems.

Randal O’Toole (rot@ti.org) is the author of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths and a member of the Board of Scholars of the Virginia Institute for Public Policy, an education and research organization headquartered in Potomac Falls, Virginia. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

This piece was originally written on March 15, 2002.

  • * * * *

Mr. Cantoni is an author, columnist and founder of Honest Americans Against Legal Theft (HAALT). He can be reached at ccan2@aol.com

Filed under: