The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Friday, March 12, 2004

Light Rail: High on Cost, Low on Performance

Oxy Moran is as green-leaning as the next blog. So when it comes to slick marketers selling the public on environmentally-safe solutions that are not, Oxy Moran exposes the snake-oil. Particularly, as the charlatans are out to increase their book of business in more gullible cities including, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis and other financially-strapped urban centers. These over-congested American cities that can ill-afford to pursue an expensive solution that takes tens of years to complete. Worse yet it delivers no relief from congestion and worsens global warming.

Who says? The Center for the American Dream extensively studied Light Rail performance and concludes that,"The stampede to plan and build rail transit lines in American cities has led and is leading to a series of financial and mobility disasters. They are financial disasters because rail projects spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars and produce little in return. They are mobility disasters because rail transit almost always increases regional congestion and usually reduces transit’s share of commuting and general travel."

Light Rail loses transit commuters
The study notes that "of the US’s fifty largest urban regions, 23 had rail transit in 2000," and that:
• Half of all rail regions lost transit commuters during the 1990s;
• Taken together, rail regions lost 14,100 transit commuters in the 1990s;
• In contrast, bus-only regions gained 53,000 transit commuters in the 1990s;
• Transit lost market share of commuters in 2/3 of all rail regions in the 1990s;
• Per capita transit rides declined in half the rail regions;
• Transit’s share of total travel declined in a majority of rail regions;
• Sixteen of the twenty urban areas with the fastest growing congestion are rail regions—and one of the other four is building rail transit;
• By comparison, only three of the twenty urban regions with the slowest growing congestion are rail regions—and only because all three have nearly zero population growth.

Light Rail decreases urban livability
Based on these and other criteria, including cost effectiveness, safety, energy, and land use, The Center for the American Dream constructed a Rail Livability Index that assesses the effects of rail transit on urban areas. Every rail region earned a negative score, suggesting rail reduces urban livability.

Light Rail hurts users of public transit
Rail transit is not only expensive to operate, it usually costs more to build and often costs more to operate than originally projected. To pay for cost overruns, transit agencies often must boost transit fares or cut transit service outside of rail corridors. So rail transit tends to harm most transit users.

Light Rail increases road congestion
Rail transit also harms most auto drivers. Most regions building rail transit expect to spend half to four-fifths of their transportation capital budgets on transit systems that carry 0.5 to 4 percent of passenger travel. This imbalanced funding makes it impossible to remove highway bottlenecks and leads to growing congestion. Rail’s high cost makes it ineffective at reducing congestion. On average, $13 spent on rail transit is less effective at reducing congestion than $1 spent on freeway improvements. Investments in rail transit are only about half as effective as investments in bus transit.

Light Rail is accident-prone

Rail transit also tends to be more dangerous than other forms of travel. Interstate freeways cause 3.9 deaths per billion passenger miles. Accidents on urban roads and streets in general lead to about 6.8 deaths per billion passenger miles. Among the various forms of urban transit, buses, at 4.3 deaths per billion passenger miles, are the safest; heavy rail averages 5.0, commuter rail 11.3, and light rail 14.8.

Light Rail is not green
Rail transit does little to save energy. The average light-rail line consumes more energy per passenger mile than passenger cars. While some commuter- and heavyrail transit operations use a little less energy per passenger mile than cars, the energy consumed to construct rail lines can more than make up for this savings. Nor is rail transit an effective way to clean the air. Even where rail transit has attracted new transit riders out of their cars, rail transit costs roughly $1 million per ton of air pollution eliminated. Many other techniques to clean the air cost less than $10,000 per ton.

Light Rail is more expensive than bus transit
Rail transit attracts riders because of its higher frequencies and fewer stops—and thus higher speeds— than bus transit. Yet buses can also operate more frequently with fewer stops. Rail transit requires years to build and can cost fifty times as much to start as comparable bus transit. As a result, the cost of attracting one auto commuter onto rail transit, relative to bus improvements, averages $10,000 a year or more.

Light Rail is a disaster
For many, rail transit’s incredible expense is its main attraction. Auto-haters love rail transit because it consumes funds that could otherwise be spent reducing congestion. Politicians love rail transit because the companies that will profit from it are a source of campaign contributions. Transit agencies love rail transit because it boosts their budgets and national prestige. But the public should not be fooled: For everyone else, rail transit is a disaster.

Copies of the 2004 study, The Light Rail Disaster, including extensive charts and statistics can be obtained from An brief update with similar conclusions is also available.

The articles are posted solely for educational purposes to raise awareness of transportation issues. I claim no authorship, nor do I profit from this website. Where known, all original authors and/or source publisher have been noted in the post. As this is a knowledge base, rather than a blog, I have reproduced the articles in full to allow for complete reader understanding and allow for comprehensive text searching...see custom google search engine at the top of the page. If you have concerns about the inclusion of a specific article, please email for a speedy resolution.