Light Rail: Yesterday's Technology Tomorrow

The last issue of Subsidies Anonymous discussed "the New Urbanism" and its influence on urban planning. This issue focuses on one aspect: light-rail transit. The next issue will wrap up with a synopsis of what is wrong with the New Urbanism.

Everyone is familiar with the excitement of a train whooshing by. Trains have a powerful fascination for millions of people. This attraction has made light rail a popular transit concept in many cities.

But while it is popular as a concept, it is not popular as a form of transportation. There is little evidence that light rail is used any more heavily than the buses it replaces. This hasn't stopped people from strongly advocating light rail construction in Denver, Seattle, Dallas, Portland, Los Angeles, and numerous other cities.

Jonathan Richmond, a Californian now doing research at the University of Sydney (Australia), says that there is a strong element of myth in the light-rail idea. As he explains in his paper, "The Mythical Conception of Rail in Los Angeles, available at html, he interviewed dozens of city officials and found most strongly attracted to this mythical element and impervious to reality.

For example, the mythical conception is that a light rail or commuter rail line will transport people at 60 miles per hour from origin ot destination. The reality is that light rail typically goes about 20 miles per hour, including stops, and the average speed is even lower when it is considered that few people live or work right at a light-rail station and so must walk or use other means to get to and from the stations.

As a railfan myself, I found that overcoming the myths and getting to the reality to be the most difficult part of understanding light rail. My mind says it is neat to see the long trains of cars whiz by. The data say that hardly anyone is riding those cars.

Boiled down to its essentials, light rail has two major defects. It could possibly survive one, but together they are fatal. These defects are inflexibility and pork.

The Inflexibility of Light Rail

Even when most of the rights of way are public or easily obtainable, it takes at least three years to build a light-rail line. When planning times are included, the period from conception to operation is often more than a decade.

This inflexibility is light rail's most important physical defect. Auto routes can be changed in an instant. Bus routes can be changed in a few weeks. Light rail changes may take decades. Since we don't even know where people will want to go next year, much less ten years from now, we take a high risk building light rail. This defect overwhelms all of the apparent advantages of light rail.

On close look, those apparent advantages aren't real either.

Light-rail technology was invented more than one hundred years ago, when we called it a "trolley" or "streetcar." Even though the name is different, the technology is not. This technology made a lot of sense for cities with no cars and little pavement. Today, it makes no sense at all in cities designed for cars.

Cities designed around streetcars tended to be radial and linear, with neighborhoods clustering around streetcar stops and all streetcar lines going downtown. Today's cities are gridlike and two dimensional. Most people don't go downtown very often and they are spread out over such a large area that the linear streetcar lines no longer apply.

The high costs of rail make sense only if people are going from one high density area to another. But most American cities only have one zone that has a sufficiently high density--the downtown area. This means there is nowhere for light rail to go that can justify its costs.

In the Portland area, for example, there is a huge amount of traffic--about 250,000 vehicle trips per day--crossing the Columbia River between Vancouver and Portland. So Metro wants to build a light rail line from downtown Vancouver to downtown Portland. But less than 5,000 Vancouverites work in downtown Portland. So the light rail will carry very few people, probably fewer than the equivalent of 20,000 cars per day. Since most of those people are now riding the bus, construction of the light rail would reduce cross-river traffic by only about 2 percent. And that is if all Vancouverites who work downtown would take light rail--realistically, less than 20 percent will do so.

The fact is, most people like the idea of living near (but not too near) a light rail line. But they don't want to go where the light rail goes so they will rarely ride it.

Light rail's inflexibility and other physical problems could be overcome if the initial costs were very low. This could be done if light rail were built on existing or recently abandoned rail lines. In 1973, the state of Oregon estimated that four light rail lines could be built in Portland on existing or recently abandoned rail lines for just $50 million. While this was somewhat more than the cost of buses, the state thought that light rail's lower operating costs would make up the difference.

Portland now has, is building, or is planning four light rail lines very much like the four proposed by the state. But the cost will be closer to $5 billion than $50 million. The reason why is the light rail's second problem: Pork.

Light Rail as Pork

When Congress passed the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, it decided that the federal government should fund the capital costs of mass transit but not the operating costs. Since local governments would have to pay the operating costs, Congress reasoned, they would not be tempted to overbuild transit systems.

Wrong. The federal government's willingness to fund a high percentage of capital costs has led local governments to play a major game of trying to get as much out of the feds as possible. This game is promoted by local construction companies (which once built highways), electric companies (which will sell electricity to and see major facilities updated for light rail), and downtown interests (which see light rail as a way of revitalizing dying downtowns).

Portland's light rail is a case in point. When the first light-rail line was being considered, planners found that building exclusive bus lanes on roads would cost less and attract more riders (because buses are faster and more flexible than light rail). But they went for light rail anyway. A primary reason for this is that most of the money spent on light rail would be kept in the local area, while most of the money spent on new buses would go to bus manufacturers elsewhere. (A paper evaluating ridership on this supposedly successful line is available at

The cost of Portland's first light-rail line averaged $14 million per mile, 83 percent of which was paid for by the feds. The second line, now under construction, is costing $55 million per mile, 75 percent of which is paid for by the feds. New lines now in the planning stages are even more extravagent: Although the feds will only pay for half, planners expect to spend around $100 million per mile.

One proposed eleven-mile long line would parallel the existing Southern Pacific Railroad line for almost its entire route. Planners expect the line to cost $1.5 billion. The Union Pacific just bought the entire, 12,000-mile-long Southern Pacific for just $3.9 billion. For less than three times the price, Portland could have gotten more than 1,000 times as many miles of route!

Why is the new line costing nearly ten times as much per mile as the first line? The answer seems to be that planners don't care about the cost, while the construction lobby wants the cost to be as high as possible. So a high-cost system is the political choice.

For example, the proposed line could cross the Willamette River on an existing bridge, which was built in 1910 to handle streetcars. But the bridge opens occasionally for river traffic (though rarely at rush hour), so planners decided to build a whole new bridge, just for light rail, high enough to avoid having to open it. Cost: roughly $100 million.

Planners estimate that the last five miles of the proposed line will cost $455 million and carry just 600 riders per weeday. Amortized over 50 years at 10 percent, that represents a cost of nearly $300 per ride. Planners never blinked at this price.

In short, if the physical problem of light rail's inflexibility isn't enough to make it infeasible, the political problem of light rail as pork is. That problem might be reduced if the federal government stops funding mass transit, but it will never be eliminated so long as transit is funded out of somebody's tax dollars.

A Better Form of Transit

People often argue that subsidies to transit make sense because the government has been subsidizing highways for so long. In fact, while highways are poorly priced (that is, no congestion pricing), subsidies to highways have been smaller than subsidies to transit for more than 25 years.

In Portland, for example, 70 percent of public transportation funds are spent on transit. Most of the highway funds come from gas taxes and other user fees, while less than 10 percent of transit funds come from farebox revenues. So subsidies to transit are roughly ten times as much as subsidies to highways. Despite these subsidies, Portland's transit system carries less than 3 percent of the region's traffic.

It does make sense to try to relieve congestion with transit. But the best transit for doing so is buses, which are nearly as flexible as autos and thus can best compete with the auto. Ironically, bus service in many cities with light rail is deteriorating because the high cost of constructing and operating light rail leaves little money left over for buses. This is visibly true in Portland, where improvements in bus service have been slower than the rate of population growth because light rail has consumed most local transit funds. Yet light rail currently carries only a tiny fraction of the number of people riding the bus.

New light rail lines are on the ballot in Portland, Seattle, and other cities this fall. Those cities where voters are persuaded by the myth rather than the reality are far more likely to become gridlocked in the future since light rail will consume most of their transport funds while carrying few of their people.

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