Will Seattle Spend $10.8 Billion on 50 Miles of Light Rail?

Sound Transit, which is way overbudget in the construction of Seattle’s first light-rail line, now wants voters to approve a measure to build 50 more miles of light rail for the modest cost of $10.8 billion (in 2006 dollars). That’s a mere $216 million per mile, which is about four to five times the average cost of light-rail construction elsewhere.

I suspect this is going to be an uphill battle for the transit agency, if only because the Seattle Times article reporting this story emphasizes a much-higher figure of $23 billion (which includes projected inflation and some finance charges). Newspapers that want to promote light rail usually underplay the cost, but the Times feels burned by the last rail plan, which it supported, and which ended up costing far more than was projected.

Sound Transit, which wants to build 50 more miles of light rail, is also running commuter trains. Ridership proved so far below forecast levels that the agency ended up selling many of the commuter cars it had purchased for the operation.
Flickr photo by MGJeffries.

Despite this experience (and a similar experience with a monorail project that, thankfully, was shut down), some people in Seattle still want to build more rail transit. Why does it take cities so long to learn that rail transit is not a sound investment? Part of the answer is that urban planners keep telling them that it is.

As previously noted by the Antiplanner, back in 1976 UC Berkeley planning Professor Melvin Webber concluded that BART was a dismal failure. But he predicted that the rail system’s positive public image would contribute to “a series of multi-billion-dollar mistakes scattered from one end of the continent to the other.” This prediction has sadly come true.

A few years later, another UC Berkeley planning professor, Martin Wachs, wrote an article called “Ethics and Advocacy in Forecasting for Public Policy.” He observed that many transportation planners felt pressured by politicians to cook the books to make rail transit projects seem worthwhile. In one case, a politician ordered planners to revise ridership numbers upwards and costs downward. When the project had cost overruns and ridership shortfalls, the politician said “It’s not my fault; I relied on forecasts made by our staff, and they seem to have made a big mistake.”

In most cases today, however, I don’t sense that politicians need to prod planners into cooking the books. “Expert” consulting firms like Parsons Brinckerhoff are glad to low-ball cost estimates. Even when (as in the case of the San Jose BART line) the analysis shows that rail transit will do nothing to relieve congestion, planners unhesitatingly tell the public that it will.

Reporters from all over the world come to Oregon to learn from local planners that Portland is a city “that loves transit.” You would never know from reading their articles that only 2.2 percent of Portland-area travel is by transit, or that the share of travel using transit was higher than that before the city became infatuated with light rail.

Rail advocates love to talk about Americans’ “addition to the automobile.” But the real addiction our cities suffer is an addiction to federal and other pork barrel that is associated with rail transit. Except for the companies that earn millions in profits constructing rail transit, and perhaps the workers who earn union scale from building and running it, rail transit is a net loss for almost everyone in the cities that have it.

Brookings Institution economist Clifford Winston concluded that every rail transit system in the U.S. “actually reduces welfare and is unable to become socially desirable even with optimal pricing or physical restructuring of its network.” Ironically, considering Webber’s research, the single exception to this rule was the San Francisco BART system.

The biggest problem with BART is that it provides heavily subsidized train rides to suburban commuters who have plenty of mobility options, but its high cost has constrained the budgets of San Francisco Muni, Alameda County Transit, and other transit agencies in the region that largely serve low-income people in the inner cities. As a result, the Bay Area actually has fewer transit riders today than it had in 1984. Winston based his analysis on the benefits to the people riding transit without accounting for the costs to people who formerly rode transit and now had to find other transportation because their service was cut.

In contrast to the San Francisco Bay Area, the Seattle area has seen a huge growth in transit ridership since 1984. But if it decides to spend billions on more rail transit, it is likely to jeopardize this gain.

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14 thoughts on “Will Seattle Spend $10.8 Billion on 50 Miles of Light Rail?

  1. Dan

    The reason why Seattleites will vote to pay for this is because the topography of the area makes roadbuilding problematic. There are only so many places to build roads.

    The congestion in the area is very impressive and you just get tired of the nightmare commute, where every 8-9 days you are in the car for 3-4 hours a day due to accidents, and the buses are caught in the mess too, no relief there. So $125 in sales taxes sounds like a pretty good bet, and you can use your laptop or read or sleep or think without worrying.

    So it’s a choice between A or B. Choosing between A or A isn’t choice. It’s not hard to grasp if you want to.

    DS

  2. johngalt

    What about an “option C” that is a new right of way in the exact same place as the proposed rail line. This new ROAD would be a HOT road that could be used by express busses, vanpools/carpools, jitneys and those that pay a variable toll (3 of those 4 options would allow one to sleep or read). This new lane would cost less, use the same space and transport way more people for lower cost than the trains.

  3. StevePlunk

    My experience with Seattle traffic is not as dismal as Dan’s.

    My trucking company uses I-5 from southern California up to and beyond Seattle. I have seldom seen traffic delays of three to four hours in the twenty years I’ve been going there. If accidents cause such delays I would suggest doing what Portland did and use quick response units to clear accidents and breakdowns. That simple program did wonders for commute disruptions.

  4. Dan

    Amory Lovins at RMI uses BTU/passenger mile and finds autos highest, then buses then rail (can’t seem to find the URL for the chart right now).

    DS

  5. The Antiplanner Post author

    This is posted for JK who seems to be having some trouble:

    Dan said: Amory Lovins at RMI uses BTU/passenger mile and finds autos highest, then buses then rail (can’t seem to find the URL for the chart right now).

    JK: As usual, the planner has it wrong.

    Car, hybrid……………………….1,326 BTU/passenger-mile. (Honda Insight)

    Car, efficient……………………..2,488 (2006 KIA Rio)

    Rail, Commuter…………………..2,751 BTU/passenger-mile.

    Rail, Intercity (Amtrak)………….2,935 BTU/passenger-mile.

    Rail, Transit (light & heavy)……..3,228 BTU/passenger-mile.

    Average Car………………………3,549 BTU/passenger-mile.

    Bus, Transit…………………….. 4,160 BTU/passenger-mile.

    http://www.DebunkingPortland.com/Transit/BusVsCarTEDB.htm

    So ALL rail modes use more energy than modern small cars. If we want to save energy, it would be better policy to encourage small cars, instead of trying to herd people into cattle cars for their travels.

    Further, the average transit rail only saves about 10% compared to the average car, but for how many BILLION? Or how many dollars per BTU saved? I’d guess thousands. How much money could we save by just giving away small cars till we saved the same amount of energy?

    But the real standout is the early 21nd century technology, the hybrid car compared to the mid 19th century rail: Half the energy. And probably less than 1/4 the cost. Reminds me of another comparison: The 19th century produced giant steam locomotives that could pull thousand of pounds at 50 mph. 20th century technology took the same weight and made it fly at five times the speed!

    Oh, don’t forget that rail kills people at a higher rate than cars.

    http://www.debunkingportland.com/Transit/Cost-Cars-Transit(2005).htm

    http://www.debunkingportland.com/Roads/Docs/Delucchi_Chart.htm

    You might also enjoy these:

    http://www.seattleweekly.com/diversions/0322/diversions-bus.php

    http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_vehicles/big_rig_cleanup/rolling-smokestacks-cleaning-up-americas-trucks-and-buses.html

    http://www.ornl.gov/ORNLReview/rev26-34/text/colmain.html

    Thanks

    JK

  6. D4P

    Thanks JK.

    Since they’re so popular (particularly among anti-planning, M37-loving, IshouldbeabletodowhateverIwantwithmyland types), it would be interesting to see the BTU/passenger-mile for SUVs as a separate category. Given the figures for efficient cars and the average car, one might surmise that SUVs are somewhere in the 4,000s, though it would be surprising if SUVs were higher than buses (which are at 4,160).

  7. Dan

    Of course I was going off of memory as I didn’t provide a URL. I’ll include ‘IIRC’ when appropriate to avoid giving advocates a chance to exaggerate to try to have a point.

    What is intentionally missed, however, is what is actually being driven on the road.

    So let us use Wendell Cox’s figures and we see that the average auto on the road is ~3600 BTU/passenger mile and the ubiquitous SUV is ~4000 BTU/pm, which are far above the light rail ~3275 BTU/pm and heavy rail at ~2750 BTU/pm. Or we can drill down further here if we have the time to see that SUVs get ~4000 BTU/pm. (tbl 2.11) and that their share of the BTU consumed is increasing and about 2/3 that of autos (tbl 2.6) and their VMT is only ½ of autos (tbl 2.10).

    We also see Wendell spinning the numbers like JK tries and fails to do, which is interesting in and of itself.

    DS

  8. JimKarlock

    Dan said: So let us use Wendell Cox’s figures and we see that the average auto on the road is ~3600 BTU/passenger mile and the ubiquitous SUV is ~4000 BTU/pm, which are far above the light rail ~3275 BTU/pm and heavy rail at ~2750 BTU/pm. Or we can drill down further here if we have the time to see that SUVs get ~4000 BTU/pm. (tbl 2.11) and that their share of the BTU consumed is increasing and about 2/3 that of autos (tbl 2.6) and their VMT is only ½ of autos (tbl 2.10).
    JK: That is all hand waving.

    The context was energy saving by spending $11 BILLION on 50 miles of toy train. In the context of saving energy, one must look at other ways to save energy. And as I pointed out getting people into small cars has the potential to save far more energy than building toy trains.

    Lets see, $11 billion divided by $20,000 per Prius would buy 550,000 cars. I’ll bet that would save more energy than your toy train!

    Thanks
    JK

  9. JimKarlock

    Dan Said:
    . Or we can drill down further here if we have the time to see that SUVs get ~4000 BTU/pm. (tbl 2.11) and that their share of the BTU consumed is increasing and about 2/3 that of autos (tbl 2.6) and their VMT is only ½ of autos (tbl 2.10).
    JK: Why don’t you just get the real overall personal vehicle BTU/pass-mile from the Feds instead of speculation. Are you trying to intentionally miss the real number?

    Thanks
    JK

  10. Dan

    [/ignore]

    JK,

    I responded to a comment question @3. If you have to resort to calling my response hand-waving (as opposed to your response), that’s your problem. And your clue as to where I got the tables lies in the link; if you have to resort to calling it speculation, you may want to try a new gig, as this one isn’t working.

    [ignore]

    DS

  11. Adron

    I don’t know. The TGV does WAY better than those options above.

    If autos had to follow rules and regulations similar to passenger rail and light rail according to the FRA, autos would easily have to double their numbers.

    Let rail compete on its own merits again and reduce subsidies COMPLETELY from both and I could gaurantee there would be MILLIONS willing to fork over costs for real rail service again.

    ESPECIALLY if it loses the stupid ineffeciences caused by years of FRA reg and rule and fed “hand waving” and market delusions (or whatever you want to call that).

    But I digress… just research the history some.

  12. the highwayman

    johngalt said: What about an “option C” that is a new right of way in the exact same place as the proposed rail line. This new ROAD would be a HOT road that could be used by express busses, vanpools/carpools, jitneys and those that pay a variable toll (3 of those 4 options would allow one to sleep or read). This new lane would cost less, use the same space and transport way more people for lower cost than the trains.

    THWM: Instead of stealing right of ways from trains, why not just convert the existing freeways into tollroads!

  13. the highwayman

    Adron said:
    I don’t know. The TGV does WAY better than those options above.

    If autos had to follow rules and regulations similar to passenger rail and light rail according to the FRA, autos would easily have to double their numbers.

    Let rail compete on its own merits again and reduce subsidies COMPLETELY from both and I could gaurantee there would be MILLIONS willing to fork over costs for real rail service again.

    ESPECIALLY if it loses the stupid ineffeciences caused by years of FRA reg and rule and fed “hand waving” and market delusions (or whatever you want to call that).

    But I digress… just research the history some.

    THWM: Though people like O’Toole, Cox & Karlock are not interested in having a fair market. What they are paid to promote is a “theft market” agenda!

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