By. Neil Williamson, President
Once again a local official has called for an investigation into light rail as a solution to our region’s traffic issues. In last week’s meeting of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, Duane Snow R-Samuel Miller District called for a study of light rail to connect Crozet, Charlottesville and the regional airport.
“It seems like there’s money in the federal budget to explore something like this right now,” Snow said …I think that a light rail system in conjunction with the rails that are already there can be installed a lot cheaper than bridges or an extra lane of traffic.”
It is easy to see why light rail seems to be a solution. In addition to the “sexiness” of a train, there is a perception that more people will ride a train than a bus and the idea that the money would come from the federal government is also attractive.
We wrote of this siren song impacting Charlottesville City Council in our 2008 post “A Desire Named Streetcar”.
By means of background, The Free Enterprise Forum (in conjunction with The American Dream Coalition)has traveled the country looking at light rail systems. We have visited Atlanta, Portland, Seattle, Houston, and Minneapolis. In each city, the light rail was under utilized the majority of the day. On average, it has been calculated each light rail trip carries just 24 people.
At today’s construction costs, a four-lane freeway can cost $40 to $60 million to build… In a news release in early 2005, the Federal Transit Administration provided figures on nine light rail projects for which it had approved “full funding grant agreements.” The cost per mile ranged from a low of $44.5 million (Charlotte) to a high of $254 million (Pittsburgh). The average of these—and these are costs as of five years ago—was $124 million per mile. That’s five times what Oberstar claimed. And the highly touted Central Link light rail that opened just the other day in Seattle weighs in at $171 million per mile, four to five times more than a mile of freeway.
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.
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.”
Light rail does seem to work in Europe and Asia, places with significantly higher population density than Central Virginia.
Many years ago, when the Free Enterprise Forum was advocating (successfully) to have light rail removed from Albemarle County’s Comprehensive Plan, Planning Commissioner Pete Craddock said, “I hope I am six feet under ground before Albemarle has the population density to support light rail”. In addition to its low relative population density, Charlottesville and Albemarle’s jobs and homes are widely dispersed.
Based on all of the above, light rail does not fit in Charlottesville/Albemarle. In addition to increasing lane miles, we believe examining Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), Park and Ride lots and incentivizing Employer van pools is a better use of limited transit dollars. Regardless of the origin of the funds, it is all our money and we should use the funds to achieve the most effective /transit system possible.
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org