Vanishing Automobile update #5

Light-Rail Op Ed

Houston transit officials were outraged when a court ordered that an expensive light-rail line they are planning be put to the voters. Orange County transit officials were dismayed when a Grand Jury found that light rail makes no sense in that region. The cost of Seattle's proposed light-rail system has increased by close to $2 billion since it was approved by voters.

Yet the transit lobbies in these and other cities continue to promote light-rail construction. The following is a generic version of an op ed that explains why people lobby for light rail even though it is a bad idea. Localized versions of the op ed were published in newspapers in both Houston and Orange County. On request, I can tailor it to any other city as well.

Randal O'Toole

New Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta may be one of the costliest appointments to George Bush's cabinet. A strong enthusiast of light-rail transit, as congressman from San Jose Mineta funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into that region's light-rail system.

San Jose's light rail has turned out to be an even more spectacular failure than the ones in Sacramento, Portland, and Los Angeles. Yet regions all over the country, including Houston, Seattle, and Orange County, suffer from light-rail envy and are eagerly planning new rail systems.

That Mineta remains a proponent of light rail shows that he hasn't learned the most important lesson from those cities that have already built light rail. That lesson is that this nineteenth-century technology completely fails to meet the transportation needs of twenty-first-century cities.

Does light rail improve transit? No, most cities that built light rail experienced a decline in transit's share of travel. This is partly because the expense of light rail forced transit agencies to increase fares, as Minneapolis is about to do.

Is light rail faster and more attractive to transit riders than buses? No, transit riders are sensitive to frequencies and speed, and buses can easily run on schedules more frequent and faster than light rail. Where most light rail lines average just 20 miles per hour, many express bus routes average better than 30 miles per hour.

Does light rail reduce congestion? No, it increases congestion whenever the rail lines occupy former street space and also because it is such an ineffective form of transit. Traffic growth on the freeways paralleling Portland's light-rail lines accelerated after the light rail replaced faster express bus routes.

Is light rail cost effective? No. The average light-rail line planned or under construction will cost more per mile than a four-lane freeway. Yet no light-rail system in the nation carries as many people (in passenger miles per route mile) as a single lane mile of typical urban freeway.

Nor is light rail cost-effective when compared with bus transit. One dollar spent on bus transit can provide the same benefits as $10 to $100 spent on light rail. Light rail is so expensive that most cities that have built it lacked the funds to make needed bus improvements.

Does light rail revitalize neighborhoods? No. Ten years after Portland's light-rail line opened, city officials were dismayed to find none of the redevelopment they expected along the line. They now offer millions of dollars of tax waivers and other subsidies to attract developers to the area. Los Angeles, San Diego, and other cities have had similar experiences.

Is light rail safe? Absolutely not. Fatalities -- mostly to pedestrians -- per million passenger miles are much higher from light rail than from buses or automobiles.

So why did Portland, Sacramento, and other cities build light rail? One word: Pork. The federal government has given cities billions of dollars to build useless rail lines. This generates a powerful lobby of engineering firms, building contractors, unions, rail car builders, and others to promote rail construction.

The construction lobby is joined by the banks that will sell the bonds used to finance local shares of construction. Light rail is also supported by downtown businesses that want to see federal dollars spent in their districts rather than in the fast-growing suburbs where new transportation facilities are truly needed.

In short, light rail is simply one more way to take money from the pockets of ordinary taxpayers and put it in the pockets of wealthy businesses. If you don't believe this, take a look at the political campaigns where light rail has come before voters. The vast majority of contributions for light rail come from engineering firms, contractors, unions, banks, and downtown business interests.

Subways and other heavy-rail transit work well in cities with high-density urban cores, such as New York and Chicago. Yet even in dense cities light rail is not the answer: New Jersey's Bergen-Hudson light rail is one of the biggest failures in the country.

If Mineta encourages more cities to build light-rail lines, it will cost more than the federal and local dollars wasted on these boondoggles. It will also reduce the livability of those cities by increasing urban congestion, reducing pedestrian safety, and promoting more corporate welfare such as tax breaks for developments along the light-rail lines.

Randal O'Toole ( is senior economist with the Thoreau Institute ( and author of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths.

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