Last Stop on the Light-Rail Gravy Train

Transit ridership is declining nationwide, yet the mayors of Nashville and San Antonio want to build multi-billion-dollar light-rail projects, notes a commentary in the Wall Street Journal. It’s behind a paywall and I might have reprinted it here, but I signed a four-page agreement that the Journal would have exclusive rights to it for 30 days.

However, the article’s subheadline, which I didn’t write, sums it up perfectly: “Mayors want new lines that won’t be ready for a decade,” observed the headline writer. “Commuters will be in driverless cars by then.”

Within the 800 words allowed for an ordinary op-ed, there wasn’t room for a lot of other points:

  • the cost overruns;
  • the ridership overestimates;
  • the implicit racism in spending billions to attract a few white people out of their cars while cutting bus service to minority neighborhoods;
  • the way almost any transit that operates in or crosses streets adds more to congestion than it takes cars off the road;
  • the fact that most rail lines have been built mainly to get “free” federal money; and
  • the fact that Nashville’s only rail transit today, the Music City Star, still carries only about 550 daily round trips, and it would have been less expensive to give every one of those daily round-trip riders a new Toyota Prius every other year for as long as they operate the train.

After listening to the Antiplanner rant about light rail, someone recently asked what I thought about streetcars. “Streetcars are an intelligence test,” I said. “Anyone who thinks they are a good idea shouldn’t be allowed to set transportation policy for their city.” But the same can be said for all rail transit, a form of transportation that was already becoming obsolete a hundred years ago.


9 thoughts on “Last Stop on the Light-Rail Gravy Train

  1. Dave Brough

    @”the way almost any transit that operates in or crosses streets adds more to congestion than it takes cars off the road”.
    Not long ago I and my companion were the only riders on northern Utah’s magnificently-performing ‘Frontrunner” commuter rail line. But that didn’t stop it from inconveniencing dozens of vehicles at every intersection it controlled for the entire journey.
    @”ridership overestimates”. Who needs stinkin’ ridership estimates? Las Vegas, which wants to copy Salt Lake, Nashville and Phoenix et-al with light rail linking its airport with downtown even though only 1 percent potential riders surveyed said they’d use it. For good reason: who’d want to drag their luggage onto a streetcar, endure a dozen stops and then have to drag that luggage the last two blocks to their hotel. Who needs a stinkin’ streetcar? They do.

  2. Sandy Teal

    I wish the Antiplanner wouldn’t play the race card and call it “racism”. I doubt the advocates of the rail line really are intending to deliberately hurt black people.

    Although that is the generally accepted way to attack a political position in today’s politics.

  3. prk166

    The Music CIty line is a good example of how once these things are done, no one will shut them down regardless of how poorly they do. The last estimate for the population of the Nashville area was 1,865,298 yet the line only carries about 525 individuals ( @ 280,000 trips / yr; operates 5 days a week; assuming 90+% of trips round trip ;

    When it was built a decade ago for $41M ( $51M in 2017 dollars ), it was supposed to be carrying far, far, far more than that by now, more than 1,500 trips per weekday ( ). In a decade, despite the occasional article touting some increase in ridership, after a decade the line still carries 50% LESS than it was supposed to be carrying when it opened.

    Music City is a good example of how federal funding skews local decision making. $32.4 million of the $41.1 project cost from the Feds. Tennessee is pretty stingy when it comes to spending. It’s hard to see the state and local officials wanting to let along being able to make up that difference in funding.

    There are those with other ideologies who recognize the craziness of Nashville building rail

    In areas with adequate density and considerable existing transit ridership, tramways are indeed acceptable solutions to mobility problems. But in places like Nashville, their expense wouldn’t be justified: they will not produce the high ridership necessary to fill trains running on corridors that attract few to buses. Before high-capacity transit is going to work, sprawled regions like the Music City must first address underlying conditions of urban form resulting from decades of government promotion of highways and single-family homes.

  4. JOHN1000

    “I wish the Antiplanner wouldn’t play the race card and call it “racism”. I doubt the advocates of the rail line really are intending to deliberately hurt black people.”

    The reason it is important to get this out is because if you oppose mass transit in a city, you are generally immediately called a racist – and everyone is so conditioned by the news media, certain politicians and social justice circles, it is treated as true.

    The Antiplanner wants people to actually think about the consequences. And the consequences are definitely harmful to certain populations – and since the planners know the true results and do the bad things anyway, they are truly racist.

  5. The Antiplanner Post author

    Dave Brough,

    If I kill someone in a traffic accident, it might have been unintentional but I can still be convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The racism exhibited by transit agencies that cut service to blacks in order to boost service to whites might be unintentional, but it is completely voluntary.

    So I’d say the penalty should be proportionately worse than for involuntary manslaughter. That is, if the penalty for involuntary manslaughter is half that of first-degree murder, the penalty for voluntary but unintentional racism should be more than half that of intentional racism.

  6. prk166

    A bit of the piece is mentioned over at Crains

    An opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal that criticizes municipal investments in light rail and other means of public transit uses Cleveland as one of its data points.

    Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow with the free market-oriented Cato Institute and author of a new policy report “The Coming Transit Apocalypse,” writes that proposed new light rail investments in Nashville, San Antonio and Tampa “are questionable at best and reckless at worst, given that transit ridership—including bus and what little rail these regions have—is down in all three jurisdictions.

    From the piece:

  7. prk166

    Speaking of the Music City train in Nashville, note that it’s been around for a decade. Apparently with all of those young people who refuse to move someplace that doesn’t offer rail transit and walkable communities, they’re NOT moving in on the train. Davidson County, Nashville and the state are not handing out $ to the developers to build TODs. And – no t surprisingly – without the subsidies the developers are not building TODs. Not at Donelson, not at Hermitage, not at Mt. Juliet, nowhere.

    Yep, one of the fastest growing city’s in the country that’s been attracting all sorts of young people don’t have enough wanting to the train for someone to build some condos next to a station.

    That hasn’t stopped Mayor Barry from proposing a billion dollar light rail plan that assumes something like 22 TODs around stations. How exactly is it that the all the Music City Star stations haven’t gotten a TOD in 10 years that suddenly it will happen now?


    Or is Nashville planning on playing those developers to build fancy condos next to their train stations?

  8. metrosucks

    The criminality of the light rail mafia is on full display around the country. They will stop at nothing to cynically fill their pockets with local and federal boodle while repeating tired slogans about transit choice and having a transit system fit for your “world class city”. You see, for your modern, 21st century city to be “world class”, it needs to spend $54 billion (before debt servicing) on a slow, 19th century toy trolley, at 22nd century prices. All this while the transportation of choice for 90% of your citizens, cars, are stuck in crushing congestion for more than half the day.

    All transportation planners and urban planners should be lined up against the wall and shot. Or given the infamous Lubyanka breakfast.

  9. prk166

    No train for you!

    Twin Cities residents not attending the Super Bowl won’t have access to the Blue Line and stops along the Green Line from Stadium Village to U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

    Metro Transit will charge Super Bowl ticket holders $30 for a “gameday pass” to board the rail to U.S. Bank Stadium, while regular transit users will be directed to replacement buses operating along each light-rail line.

    “We had to try and figure out a way to best serve our riders that frankly didn’t need to be going to the game, and not have them be part of the lines, not have them … be part of the screening process,” said Howie Padilla, Metro Transit public relations manager.

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