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.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Light Rail is a Vast Waste of Money

The Seattle-area transportation proposals: a vast waste of money

Trains won't solve our problems, and we can't go back to an automobile era. The solution, unfortunately, is not on the ballot next November. That would be more buses, congestion management, and overall better use of the highways we have.

By Richard Morrill

The prospects for transportation "solutions" for the Seattle area are so hopeless, you almost have to laugh. We'll spend billions upon billions, and things will just get worse. Why? The reason is we have two equally powerful factions holding equally unrealistic and utterly incompatible views.

Two thirds of folks cling to the belief that technology will yet again rescue us with unlimited, affordable, and even maybe non-polluting fuels, so we can enjoy our big cars forever, and that we can build enough new road capacity to relieve congestion. (Well, at least if enough of those do-gooder bikers and transit riders divert enough of the demand.) The probability of all this is not much above zero. Higher gas taxes? No way! Tolls? You must be kidding.

But the other third, the richer and smarter and more politically influential folks who run the show and know what's best for everyone else, live in an equally absurd dream world. As true believers in trains and in local self-sufficiency, they are clinging, like creationists denying evolution or skeptics of global warming, to an Eden that cannot be. I'm sorry, all you smart, professional, environmentally conscious folks, including many of my own students, colleagues, and friends, but your vision of a rail panacea is absurd.

I find it nothing short of insane to spend far over half ($24 billion out of $38 billion in the November ballot package) of potential transportation investment (capital and operating) on trains which cannot possibly meet more than 1 percent of demand for trips, an amazingly small fraction. Why is this? Simply because a rail system is skeletal and accesses very few people or activities. The only reason we have wasted, and continue to waste, such enormous resources on rail is its value as somehow the symbol of a real city. People confuse theoretical capacity with actual trips taken. (For example, the cost per ride for the Sounder commuter trains is $102 — a current subsidy of $97.) If people love the theory of trains so much that they want to pay for a system, even if it is a colossal net cost to society, so be it, but they should not complain when the bills come due and congestion is as bad or worse.

One of the most important ideas of economics is that of opportunity costs — the value of goods and services lost or forgone because of an unwise and wasteful investment made on emotional rather than rational grounds. We're talking about $50 billion (and ultimately far more?) for a system that makes a barely measurable contribution, and which could be better directed, not only for more effective transportation but for environmental protection, open space, housing, and other vital needs.

There's also a nasty class issue our leaders ignore. Who benefits and will be obscenely subsidized? Rich professionals, of course. And who pays? The more lowly workers in those scattered but necessary service, retail, manufacturing, construction, and transportation workplaces.

What we should do instead is create a stupendous bus system, better than the surprisingly good one we've got.And what about the highways part of the package? It, too, is deeply flawed, relying as it does on massive construction of giant monuments rather than less glamorous but more effective improvements and management strategies – not to mention inevitable changes to driver behavior. We don't need a six-lane Highway 520 or a giant new viaduct, or two additional lanes each way on Interstate 405, given the inevitable constraints on single-occupancy vehicle use in the not-very-distant future.

In the real world, fuel costs will rise, probably far more steeply than up to now, as will the cost of dealing with carbon emissions. There is no space for large, new road systems; land has become far too valuable. The cost of driving must and will rise. But, equally, in the real world, human activities take space; demand for transportation will increase, not decline; half or more of the population will refuse to live in high-density settings; at maximum, trains could serve but a small fraction of people trips and almost no goods trips.

So if we insist on building even more trains and continue to refuse to consider tolls, congestion pricing, or other constraints on single-occupancy vehicle travel, then indeed the future is hopeless. We're certainly not doing much to address the future with a $38 billion package that is wasteful, irresponsible, extravagant, and delusional.

But perhaps people are not as stupid as the advocates of the incompatible positions (a nostalgic return to car culture or an Eden of trains) believe. People actually can learn from experience and alter their behavior. Drivers can double up if the incentives are adequate. Drivers will shift to transit (bus, jitney) if the system is of sufficient quality and is truly accessible. Many more would use bikes, if reasonably accommodated. Bus transit (including some bus rapid transit links) is several-fold cheaper and several-fold more accessible than rail. The road system can handle very significantly more demand if sensibly designed, managed, and configured. There are some good ideas floated at times, such as putting a toll on 520 now, except it should be on Interstate 90, as well. The convincing reason for demand management over capital monuments is that the key to efficient transportation is flow.

Transportation has never been and will never be cheap. Mobility is a priority need for the operation of the economy and the satisfaction of people. Given the high costs, voters need to put a priority on getting maximum value for their investments.

  • Richard Morrill is an urban demographer and taught for many years at the University of Washington's Department of Geography. You can reach him in care of

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