The Siren Song of Light Rail

By. Neil Williamson, President

Once again a local official has called for an investigatihouston-light-railon 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.

Charlottesville Tomorrow has the story and podcast:

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. 

Mr. Snow is mistaken regarding the costs associated with light rail.  Robert Poole of The Reason Foundation recently wrote:

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.

Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole has written extensivelyotoole  about light rail.  Here are a few of his observations:

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, Chbuss rapid transitarlottesville 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.


20070731williamson 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


10 responses

  1. Nothing about this commentary surprises me. The authors and their resources are religiously opposed to government spending. Never mind that it is trillions of dollars later and we have roads that are the marvel of the world, but costly to maintain, and expanding, gobbling up our precious farmland. This is the nonsense that the free market has delivered to our nation.

    A fact that should cause some consternation among the free market thinkers is that Wisconsin is adding two lanes to a highway from Milwaukee to Chicago, a 36 mile stretch for $1.9 billion. This road is on flat terrain, with only eleven no-stop intersections. This comes to $52 million per mile for two lanes of highway. Surely this compares to the shock (shock!) claimed by Mr. Williamson that rail costs per mile are upwards of that amount.

    Yet, even with higher upfront costs, rail is less expensive in the long haul because track maintenance is less expensive; rail can carry more passengers per track than highways per lane. Trains last longer. The ride is more pleasant than a bus, which is subject to the same potholes as any auto. If the train is sexier (Williamson seems to concede this) that may be why trains draw people out of their cars more effectively than a bus.

    What’s attractive about the feds spending the money is that rail is an alternative to spending our money on foreign oil. This is the kind of wise investment that can move our nation away from being a dependent importer. No corporation, or band of corporations, will rescue a nation (to whom it owes no allegiance) from a national problem as long as the corporation is governed by its shareholders alone.

    I’m not sure why an average of 24 people on a light rail system is considered a low number, except as a standalone statistic it rallies the troops. Putting that number into some kind of context, however, is perhaps more than what we can expect of someone who has no patience for government spending and will march out any fact that sounds pretty good. The point about “empty” buses or trains can also be made about empty highways, at certain times of the day. Or empty schools in the summer or at night. Or even an empty jail. All of these “empties” continue to serve a purpose because they generate confidence that the system will be there when you need it.

    24 passengers is about 22 fewer cars on the road. And when, during rush hour, those numbers are thousands, I would submit that most motorists are quite pleased with that number of fewer cars on their freeway.

  2. Bill,
    Miami Fl put in a light rail decades ago and its a total flop in every way. People want other folks to take the train while they continue to drive cars.

    Yes it works in European cities that have very high density. It doesn’t work in their lower density towns which is more like what Charlottesville is.

    A rail to the airport won’t generate much use since the airport doesn’t have the high of volumn. You might get some commuters to use it if you provided large amounts free parking. Even then, people won’t use it when they have errands to run nor in the winter if they have to walk far from a stop to their workplace.

    Its a boondogle.

  3. People will choose a train over a bus because of potholes? And because it takes longer to get where they are going? Hmmm…maybe we should spend those tax dollars fixing the potholes!

    Rail that works is rail that gets you to close to all the places you want to go. Think New York City. Around here you would have to take the train and then take a bus…unless you are going to put rail stops all over town.

    Let’s just put some luxury, natural gas-powered buses out there, twice as many as today, add more stops, educate people regularly on the ease and benefits of using public transportation (yes, many auto users don’t even know where to get the bus, where it will take them, how much it costs, and when it runs). Oh, and fix the potholes. I guarantee that would be less expensive than building light rail.

  4. Mark

    I don’t accept your guarantees. Here in Milwaukee, with the failure (predicted) of property tax to sustain public transportation, buses are being driven far beyond their useful life. The ride is not sweet; it is difficult to persuade drivers to use these old buses.

    Building a system is only one cost; maintaining a system is the cost of building something cheap.

    Since rail systems last much longer, why not go first class (and save money)?

    I refer you to statistics on CNT. ORG to validate the value of public transportation, and in many instances rail over bus. Luxury buses sound nice, but mostly folks want a fast, sweet ride, and not too much waiting for the one you “just missed.” Ideology of buses over trains or trains over buses is likely to miss the facts.

    But skipping the facts and weighing in with opinion is also likely to be short on fact.

  5. Well Bill, the fact that you are from Milwaukee and are opining about public transportation in Charlottesville says it all. Transportation solutions that fail to comprehensively understand and incorporate local needs and trends are doomed to fail. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Let me know when you start paying taxes here in Charlottesville and actually have a stake in our community.

  6. Mark, well you are fortunate to have a mayor that took a risk and built a rail system. Milwaukee is still behind the times on these issues, and as of now we face major degradation of our bus system without State action. I envy the leadership Charlotte has had. Lucky you.

  7. Wrong town. We are Charlottesville, VA, home of Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia. About one quarter the population of Charlotte, NC.

  8. Tell me your story. I frankly don’t trust the Free Enterprise Forum, because I don’t see free enterprise anywhere. Our economy is run by large corporations with interests I don’t share, but I certainly want to hear about your home town. Or just send me news clippings.

  9. “24 passengers is about 22 fewer cars on the road.” – Bill Sell

    Only if all of those riders were driving cars. However, in all likelihood 15-20 of those 24 were already taking transit. More so, it ignores the costs involved.

  10. “A fact that should cause some consternation among the free market thinkers is that Wisconsin is adding two lanes to a highway from Milwaukee to Chicago, a 36 mile stretch for $1.9 billion. This road is on flat terrain, with only eleven no-stop intersections. This comes to $52 million per mile for two lanes of highway. Surely this compares to the shock (shock!) claimed by Mr. Williamson that rail costs per mile are upwards of that amount.” — Bill Sell

    I’m not sure why you’d claim with other than wanting to show to people that you’re claims can not be trusted. The project you’re referring to isn’t just adding lanes, it’s about rebuilding the entire stretch of freeway from top to bottom. It’s not just about rebuilding 17 interchanges nor just straightening out some curves, but building 280 lanes miles of freeway. They’re tearing it all up and starting from scratch. The cost $6.5 million / mile.

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