the nation's urban highways have become more crowded, urban rail
systems have been proposed to alleviate the traffic congestion, but
results in city after city reveal that this approach is both costly
and ineffective. Indeed, in many cases, it would be cheaper to
provide new rail-transit riders with a Lexus or a BMW than to build
the costly light rail lines that attract so few riders. Most
discouraging of all, data from the Texas Transportation Institute
show that traffic delays have increased 24 percent more in the
urban areas that have built new rail systems than in those that did
false promise of "congestion relief" is the calling card rail
proponents have used to seduce voters into paying higher taxes. In
1994, residents of St. Louis agreed to a tax increase to build six
new urban rail lines, accepting the misrepresentation that the
federal government would pay for most of the system. In fact, the
government would not do so, and now there is scarcely enough money
to build the one line that is not yet under construction. Recently
released U.S. Census data indicate that the number of transit
commuters dropped by 4,100 during the past 10 years, despite the
opening of the area's first light rail line in 1993. During the
same period, employment increased by 95,000.
Recently, voters in Cincinnati astutely
rejected a proposal that would have levied taxes of approximately
$60 million to build just part of a regional light rail system.
Despite expenditures of more than $500,000 to promote the proposal,
it was defeated by a ratio of more than two to one, and with good
reason: The goal of the $2.6 billion plan was to raise transit's
projected share of trips in 2030 from 0.6 percent to 0.7 percent--a
decrease from today's 0.8 percent. (Undaunted, transit authority
officials declare that they are still "very committed" to the
Without Impact. St. Louis is not alone in experiencing the
disappointing results of the false hope of rail transit. Recently
released U.S. Census Bureau work-trip data reveal that many new
urban rail systems have fallen far short of producing promised
- Dallas, Texas, which opened three light
rail branches and one commuter rail line in the 1990s, experienced
a net decline of 3,100 transit commuters during a period when
employment increased by 96,000.
- Portland, Oregon, with the nation's most
aggressive "smart growth" policies and two new light rail lines,
has seen the share of commuters using transit decline 20 percent
since 1980 (the census before the first light rail line was
opened). Admittedly, Portland made modest transit gains in the
1990s, with a ridership gain of 1.3 percentage points. However,
that gain did little to alleviate Portland's deteriorating traffic
conditions, which ranked third worst in the nation from 1990 to
2000 according to Texas Transportation Institute data.
- In Washington, D.C., after more than $10
billion in rail expenditures, the area's transit work-trip market
share has declined from 15.2 percent--which is where it was before
the extensive subway system was opened--to 10.9 percent.
Transit officials have discounted these
statistics, noting that work trips represent just 20 percent of
urban travel. Yet it is the concentration of work trips in the
morning and evening peak periods that causes the daily traffic
congestion that rail alternatives were intended to relieve.
Per-Rider Expenditures. The magnitude of the waste
involved in these rail-transit failures can best be appreciated
through a comparison with alternative uses of the money involved.
Planning reports submitted to the U.S. Department of
Transportation's Federal Transit Administration indicate that, in
many cases, it would be less costly to lease a car for each new
daily commuter. For example:
- Cincinnati's proposed light rail system
would have cost $15.50 per new one-way ride, totaling $6,975
annually for each new commuter who takes two trips a day for 225
work days. In contrast, the same commuter could lease a $30,000
Lexus IS-300 for less than $5,500 annually.
- The Minneapolis "Hiawatha" light rail
line, now under construction, will cost $19.00 per new rider. This
amounts to $8,550 annually per new commuter--enough to lease a BMW
X-5 Sport Utility Vehicle.
- San Francisco's proposed Third Street
light rail line will cost $40.50 per new ride, which is equal to
$18,225 annually per new commuter. For the same money, each new
commuter could lease a new Pontiac Grand Am throughout the "life"
of the rail system and pay for more than 100,000 miles of air
travel at the average ticket rate each year. Alternatively, one
could lease the Grand Am and use the remainder of the annual
subsidy for the average mortgage payment in the nation's most
expensive housing market.
measures of transit waste have been making the rounds across the
country for years; but though these comparisons have had an impact,
it is not the one rail-transit critics had hoped for--a
reassessment of the costly and ineffective rail alternative.
Instead, the transit industry has become so embarrassed that the
Federal Transit Administration will soon stop reporting the "cost
per new trip" that each new system will incur. While hiding the bad
news is one strategy to deal with failure, it will do nothing to
alleviate the worsening congestion--a situation that is aggravated
as scarce resources are squandered on delusional nostrums rather
than invested in cost-effective solutions to urban mobility
Identifying authentic solutions will
require that policymakers rise above the current debate and its
limited choice between two 19th century technologies--road and rail
transportation. During the 1990s, while transit use declined by
23,000 riders, working at home (telecommuting) increased more than
775,000 and car-pooling increased by 256,000. Efforts to encourage
telecommuting receive virtually none of the federal transit
largess, but perhaps they should. It would be useful to explore
ways of encouraging employers and workers to increase working at
home, or car-pooling, at a cost per commuter that could be as low
as 25 percent of the $4,000 that has been typical for transit rail
programs. Taxpayers' dollars should be used wisely--or
--Wendell Cox is a Visiting Fellow at
The Heritage Foundation and an independent consultant.