In a recent
Wall Street Journal column, P.J. O'Rourke described the
great expense and ineffectiveness of mass transit. In the process, he
referred to Heritage Foundation research on the exorbitant costs of
urban rail (light rail, subways, and commuter rail). Specifically, O'Rourke
compared the cost of new rail systems to the cost of leasing riders
luxury SUVs and found transit wanting. Transit advocates have
challenged this point, but it still holds true.
For proof of the
proposition, start by looking in almost any daily newspaper. The
Newark Star-Ledger, for example, recentlycarried an
advertisement for a new BMW X-5 luxury SUV, available for lease at
an annual cost of less than $6,300.
Then compare that
to the cost of rail. For example, the Federal Transit
Administration reported in 2000 that each new trip on the Hiawatha
light rail line in Minneapolis would cost a projected $18.57-and
this was before the cost of the line escalated more than 50
percent. Using the pre-escalation number, the cost for each new
annual commuter using the line two ways each work day (for 450
trips each year) would be approximately $8,400-or about $2,100 more
than the cost to lease a BMW luxury SUV for the year. If that's not
clear enough, see Chart 1 for a graphical comparison.
Responding to the
O'Rourke column, Mr. Janek Kozlowski of Alexandria, Virginia, wrote
a letter, which the Journal published, disputing the
transit/luxury car comparison. Mr. Kozlowski bases his argument on
the new Hiawatha line. His detailed calculations include the cost
of leasing cars for all riders of the Hiawatha system, most of whom
were previously bus riders, not drivers. Kozlowski adds in the cost
of operating the cars-that is, gasoline and maintenance-and
building new highway capacity-on the specious assumption that,
without light rail, more highway capacity would be necessary. But
if one thing is clear from the U.S. experience in light rail, it is
that new rail systems have a minimal impact on traffic congestion.
For example, Portland's expensive new light rail system has been
accompanied by one of the largest increases in traffic congestion
in a major urban area.
like some other transit funding advocates before him, mistakes the
transit/luxury car comparison as an actual policy alternative to
building urban rail. But it is a rhetorical point, not a policy
proposal. More often than not, the most prominent justification for
building new rail systems is alleviation of traffic congestion,
which requires getting drivers out of their cars. It is difficult
to imagine a more absurd public policy approach than to spend more
money to get a driver out of a car than to lease him or her a new
one. Urban rail is an unreasonably expensive way to get cars off
Mr. Kozlowski is
not alone in attempting to refute the cost comparison. The same
tactic has been used before in transit industry reports, perhaps to
cloud the issue-and for good reason: transit's extravagant expense
should be an embarrassment.
If, for example,
the people of Minneapolis and St. Paul were to invest the same
amount of money per driver-$8,400, as described above-to attract
all drivers in the area to transit, they would have to spend $13
billion per year, almost as much as Minnesota's total tax revenue.
Obviously, no urban area could afford such an expensive congestion
And if the people
of Minneapolis-St. Paul were to invest the same amount per daily
trip to attract all trips from cars to transit, the cost would
approach the gross personal income of the metropolitan area. If
there were a Nobel Prize for irrational public policy, reducing
traffic congestion with light rail would be the winner.
projections based on planning reports tend to be overly optimistic.
In some cases, virtually no net transfer of ridership from cars to
urban rail systems occurs at all. For example, the most recent
expansions of the Dallas area DART light rail system have been
accompanied by a reduction in transit ridership. Similarly,
rail ridership is now lower after the doubling of the length
of the St. Louis light rail line.
All of this
demonstrates that it is extremely expensive to build urban rail
systems. And more importantly, even the most grandiose systems have
little or no impact on traffic congestion. That is because, whether
in the United States or Western Europe, transit principally serves
core urban areas and is not an affordable way to serve the non-core
and suburban markets that represent the bulk of travel demand. This
fact is well understood, if not readily admitted, by transit and
urban planners, who blather on about transit and its ability to
reduce traffic congestion. However, their actions speak louder than
their words: no regional transportation plan anticipates transit
improvements that would materially reduce automobile use. Case
Cox is a Visiting Fellow at The Heritage Foundation
and a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et
Metiers in Paris.