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.