You longer have to take my word that buses are more expensive than LRT, we have the National Transit Database and Sound Transit doing the hard work. LRT is more than 50% faster, and less than half as expensive per passenger mile than buses. Sound Transit says Link will be 13% the cost per passenger mile expresses buses, and will move nearly twice as fast.

17 Replies to “Light Rail and Bus Comparison”

  1. Hmm, I wonder what they based the farebox recovery on, since they have not published what fares would be. Also, why is the operating cost projected to be so much lower here? Is power less expensive? Or is it because ridership is expected to be higher? I wish I knew more of the background, but these are very interesting stats!

    1. Electric power is insanely cheap in the Pacific Northwest thanks to a lot of hydroelectric dams.

      Gasoline and diesel are still expensive.

      In addition, the Central Link is projected to carry very high ridership because it’s a major “spine” route; lots and lots of buses would be needed to run on the same route.

      So it’s a little of both.

  2. You say that the NTD proves light rail is faster than express bus, but I think what you’re comparing here is light rail vs. all bus, local and express. If so, this is not a useful comparison.

    I would also be interested to know whether these operating costs include the cost of operating the rail stations and rights of way. What I’ve read previously has suggested that the right-of-way operating costs tend to offset savings due to a reduced number of operators.

    One other thing – it’s entirely misleading to suggest that capital costs are not relevant. The total cost is what matters in comparing transit options.

    Rail is the best solution in some places, but it is not cheaper. That’s not the reason to do it.

    1. Rob,

      Rail IS cheaper to build than highways, when you talk about adding equivalent people-moving capacity. Link is designed to carry 800-person trains running as close as every two minutes, giving a peak capacity of 24,000 persons in one direction. That kind of capacity would require eight highway lanes in each direction. Where in the entire metro area do we have 300’ of right of way we can turn into a super-highway? Whose neighborhood do you bulldoze? The cost of rail is expensive but 16 lanes of highway and all the bridges, earthwork, exits and interchanges that go with it would be prohibitively expensive.

      No, we will not be using the full capacity of Link anytime soon, but it will scale very well. Remember, I-5 and I-405 weren’t full when they opened either. We are building an investment to meet future growth patterns.

    2. Actually, those buses mentioned there are Sound Transit express bus only, with no local buses.

      When capital costs are paid for LRT cheaper. If we had built forward thrust, we would have already finished bond payments and it would move more people at a lower cost than King County Metro.

      Obviously you do need to consider how big the capital costs are.

  3. You will not find a consistent definition for express bus in the national transit database. Metro’s speed for buses is about 12-13 mph for Seattle routes, 17-18 mph for suburban local routes and about 22-23 mph for freeway routes. Freeway routes here have reliability issues, but they are not operating at 13 mph.

    1. Well, all ST buses are “express buses”, but I looked at the NTD again, and it does seem the above chart’s number is not just the ST bus number.

    2. Rob Fellows: “You will not find a consistent definition for express bus in the national transit database.”

      But you will find some good definitions at the link below.

      Note: “lower cost scenarios” are what BRT/anti-transit activists are trying to sell us around here. No surprise they have to fabricate ridership estimates to make the investment seem worthwhile.

      Also note: when bus advocates like Fellows and Whisner push BRT, and whine about the high capital cost of rail, they completely ignore the associated infrastructure costs of BRT. For instance, ST is asking for $69 per year for light rail. “Bridging the Gap” (which included arterial paving for RapidRide) cost the average homeowner in Seattle more than double that amount per year. Add to that – buses tear up the roads, and require shorter intervals between re-paving. (page s-9)

      *The lower-cost scenarios (i.e., bus lanes and TSP) have the smallest time savings and ridership gains.

      *Travel time savings appears to be the greatest contributor to BRT ridership gains, followed by the provision of special BRT features.

  4. amen to Fellows comments.

    yes, that appears to be an “all-bus” average. The Puget Sound average speed includes many freeway based routes. Average bus speeds vary significantly among routes. The First Hill routes only average about 6 mph. Muni routes have a lower average speed, as they no freeway based routes.

    the capacity provided by Link will be tremendous. the extent to which it is used is relevant in deciding whether it is a cost-effective transit investment.

    there is widespread concensus that Link should be extended to Northgate.

    the debate is over the East and South extensions. Could those scarce ST2 funds be better spend on bus investments, including capital?

    another debate is over timing: 2008 v. 2010, before or after the Legislature establishes the tolling regime. The ST2 board decided upon 2008. The die is cast.

    1. Actually, if you look at the NTD, and don’t just say that it appears to be without actually looking, you’d notice that those are, in fact, the numbers from Sound Transit.

      1. Andrew, Sound Transit regional express buses do not operate at an average speed of 13 mph. If that’s what the NTD says, then there is something wrong with Sound Transit’s reporting.

    2. Well I live on the Eastside (Redmond city centre), and I know my answer to that. My place is almost directly across from the Redmond Transit center, work on campus takes me around the Overlake Transit center, and half the time when I go to downtown Seattle, I take the 545.

      We have so many buses, running so many hours, and yet still have so much congestion, I don’t see how we could add any more buses, or how we could not afford lite rail…

  5. Hmmm. Let’s think about this “cost” question another way, by looking at the revenue side.

    Currently, KCM collects 9/10s sale tax, the maximum its authority allows. That revenue supports operations and some capital to carry 400K trips/day. This tax stream is entirely consumed for these purposes. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that this operating model is sustainable, that KCM’s revenues will grow at a rate that covers cost growth, such that it is able to operate on its current scale for the next three decades. A big and questionable assumption, I know.

    ST is currently at 4/10s, proposing to go up to 9/10s in order to finance ST2. (Let’s set aside the mvet for the moment, which disappears in 2028). ST’s financial plan assumes that all projects will be built within 15 years. If that happens, it further assumes that bond pay-off will be accelerated, and the sales tax will be rolled back to cover just operations and maintenance by 2036. The project rollback amount is the entire proposed ST2 tax, 5/10s.

    That means, in 2036, ST can sustain (ie assuming capital replacement) operations of 53 miles of LRT, 750K platform hours of express bus, and 17 Sounder round-trips — generating comparable ridership to KCM’s 400K — for less than half the tax load, or 4/10s a percent of sales tax. And, ST’s rolled back 5/10s authority remains available for future voter-approved investments.

    That, in a nutshell I think, is what people mean when they say rail is cheaper. Unless KCM has a way to operate the same level of service for less money in the future, the longer term financial profiles indicate rail is the more efficient choice.

    1. Oh excellent commentary, excellent.

      As for BRT, we all know that BRT is only substantially cheaper than rail when BRT is designed to mimic normal bus systems. But of course, that cheaper cost is at the expense of service and capacity. To bridge that gap, the BRT folks then trot out BRT designs that mimic lite rail, and in doing so, lose the cost advantage, without ever equaling capacity.

      In my mind, the push for BRT locally is yet another example of going with the most minimal “solution” available, and then goldplating the hell out of it in order to make it look more promising.

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