Tag Archives: light rail

Obsolete Rail Line Opens in Virginia

To great fanfare, the DC Silver Line opened from Tysons Center to East Falls Church, Virginia. Although the news reports mentioned the cost–nearly $47,000 per foot or more than $3,900 per inch–a lot of other things were left unsaid.


The Silver Line will displace trains on the Orange and Blue lines, which are already being used at capacity. Click for a larger view.

Facts such as:

  • The transit agency that will operate it, WMATA, wanted an affordable bus-rapid transit line;
  • The cost doubled after the decision was made to build it;
  • Silver Line trains will displace Orange and Blue line trains that are now running full;
  • WMATA can’t afford to maintain the system it has, much less one that is even bigger;

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Because Exclusive Bus Lanes Aren’t Expensive Enough

Los Angeles transit officials are eagerly contemplating the opportunity to spend money converting the Orange bus-rapid transit line into a light-rail line. To promote this idea, they are letting people know that light rail will be faster, more comfortable, and operate more frequently (so riders will be less likely to have to stand) than buses.


These lanes are exclusively dedicated to buses, but transit agency officials say they need to replace them with light rail because there is no room to run more than one bus every eight minutes.

Of course, all of these things are wrong. The current bus line averages 26 mph, about 4 mph faster than the average light-rail line. Buses can be just as comfortable as light rail, and when vehicles are full, a higher percentage of bus riders get to sit down (about two-thirds as opposed to less than half). As for frequencies, the current schedule of the Orange line calls for one bus every eight minutes at rush hour. Since the road is closed to all other traffic, somehow I think they could squeeze a few more in if they wanted to.

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Slower Than Molasses in a Minnesota Winter

Remember the Twin Cities light-rail line that was supposed to average 17 mph but, after testing, was scheduled for just 13-3/4 mph? It turns out that, in actual operation, it averages less than 12.5 mph. That means it takes 53 minutes to go from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, 36 percent longer than the 39 minutes originally promised and more than twice as long as the 26 minutes required by a bus.


A green line train near the University of Minnesota. Flickr photo by Michael Hicks.

What’s slowing the trains down? Traffic signals. Apparently, the city of St. Paul is reluctant to give the trains signal priority over all other traffic. “It is hard to rationalize a train with 300 people stopping at an intersection with no cross traffic,” says Metro Transit’s general manager. But it is also hard to rationalize giving the few people who ride the train priority over the thousands of people who use other modes of travel.

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Critique of Austin Light-Rail Proposal

The Cato Institute has published a critique of the city of Austin’s proposal to build a 9.5-mile light-rail line that would cost nearly $1.4 billion (which was briefly discussed here). “Austinites make more than six million person trips per day, of which the light-rail line would carry less than a third of a percent,” says the critique. “Yet constructing the light-rail line would consume 5 percent of the region’s transportation budget for the next 25 years, and operations and maintenance would increase the cost still further.”

The proposed line is only one of several that the city wants to build. Yet projected ridership for the first line is expected to be less than 20,000 people per day and no more than 2,500 people per hour at its peak. As an associated op ed in the Austin American Statesman points out, since ordinary buses can move far more people than that, there is no reason to build rail. (A similar op ed looks at a light-rail proposal for St. Petersburg, Florida; a more generic op ed is here.)

Not surprisingly, “Project Connect” (the planning agency representing the city and Capital Metro) claims that light rail has a higher capacity than buses. To reach this conclusion, it made the absurd assumption that an exclusive bus lane can support no more than one bus every three minutes, allowing buses to carry no more than about 1,300 people per hour. In fact, ordinary city streets, much less exclusive bus lanes, can support far more than one bus every three minutes. Planners are clearly biased in favor of the expensive rail option, as based on this one fact alone they concluded that rail was the appropriate solution for Austin.

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13-3/4 MPH

Thirteen and three-quarter miles per hour. That’s the scheduled speed between Minneapolis and St. Paul on the Twin Cities new Green Line light rail (previously discussed here).


A test train on the Green Line passes through the University of Minnesota east bank campus. Wikimedia Commons photo by Runner1928.

“People are still learning the nature of light rail,” said Metro Transit’s John Siqveland. “We think a 48-minute schedule is a realistic schedule.” One of the reasons why people are “still learning” is because Metro deceived them before by claiming that the line would take just 40 minutes to go from Minneapolis to St. Paul, when it is now scheduled for 48 minutes.

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Light-Rail Complaints

Early tests reveal that the Twin Cities’ new light-rail cars require 67 minutes to go the 11 miles from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul for an average speed of 10 miles per hour. Metro Transit managers say they expect to get the time down before the line opens for service on June 14, but the 39 minutes promised on the agency’s web site seems unattainable considering they have added three stops since the line was originally planned. Even 39 minutes is less than 17 mph, hardly a breathtaking speed.

Buses currently do the same trip in a mere 26 minutes. Some people are mildly outraged that the region has spent $100 million per mile to get slower service. Too bad they weren’t outraged when the line was being planned.

Officials say that most people won’t ride the entire distance, and what really counts “is that these new Green Line passengers have a very high quality and reliable ride.” For that, they needed to spend a billion dollars.

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Your Freedom Is Someone Else’s Hell

Yonah Freemark, a writer over at Atlantic Cities–which normally loves any transit boondoggle–somewhat sheepishly admits that light rail hasn’t lived up to all of its expectations. Despite its popularity among transit agencies seeking federal grants, light rail “neither rescued the center cities of their respective regions nor resulted in higher transit use.”

Not to worry, however; Atlantic Cities still hates automobiles, or at least individually owned automobiles. Another article by writer Robin Chase suggests that driverless cars will create a “world of hell” if people are allowed to own their own cars. Instead, driverless cars should be welcomed only if they are collectively owned and shared.

The hell that would result from individually owned driverless cars would happen because people would soon discover they could send their cars places without anyone in them. As Chase says, “If single-occupancy vehicles are the bane of our congested highways and cities right now, imagine the congestion when we pour in unfettered zero-occupancy vehicles.” Never mind the fact that driverless cars will greatly reduce congestion by tripling roadway capacities and avoid congestion by consulting on-line congestion reports.

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Mono–Doh!

Loyal Antiplanner reader MSetty let me know about a Tennessee proposal to spend $200,000 studying the idea of building a monorail from Nashville to Murfreesboro. The irony is that the proposal comes from a tea party member of the state senate. Senator Bill Ketron is a social conservative, not a libertarian, but he should know better than to think that giving a government agency a bunch of money to do a study recommending whether to give that agency even more more money will lead to a reasonable outcome.

Take, for example, Florida’s Pinellas County transit authority, which has spent $800,000 on “public education” regarding a proposed $1.7 billion (but likely much more) light-rail line that will be on this November’s ballot. Critics question whether it is legal for the transit agency to use “taxpayer money to engage in political advocacy leading up to a referendum vote.” The agency, of course, says it isn’t advocating anything, just educating people.

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Light Rail & Low-Income Transit Riders

When Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) opened its West light-rail line last April, it naturally cancelled parallel bus service. But, for many people, riding the light rail cost a lot more than the bus. This effectively made transit unaffordable for some low-income workers, who now drive to work.


Click image to download a 2.6-MB PDF of this report.

A group called 9to5, which represents working women, formally surveyed more than 500 people who live near the West light-rail line, and informally interviewed hundreds more. It found that the light rail had put a significant additional burden on low-income families. In one case, someone who was commuting to work by bus for $2.25 per trip now has to pay $4.00 per trip to take the light rail, a 78 percent increase in cost. 9to5 points out that the cost of gasoline to drive the same distance would be about $1.25.

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The Purple Money Eater

The Antiplanner is particularly interested in the cost effectiveness of transit projects, and Maryland’s Purple Line is a prime example of an agency selecting just about the least cost-effective alternative. According to the DEIS, the cost of attracting one new rider to the “TSM” alternative is about $9; the low- and medium-cost BRT alternatives are about $14; the high-cost BRT is about $20; and the light-rail alternatives range between $22 and $24. The preferred alternative is the second-most expensive and, at $23 per new rider, the second-least cost-effective.

Put another way, the preferred alternative attracts about 134 percent more riders than TSM, but to get those riders the annualized cost is more than six times greater. Relative to the TSM alternative, the cost of getting one more transit rider on the preferred alternative is almost $34. At this rate, someone who makes a daily round-trip each work day under the preferred alternative who wouldn’t have under TSM would cost taxpayers nearly $16,000 a year.

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