David Brewster at Crosscut points me to the Miller-McCune list of the “The World’s Biggest Boondoggles”. Sound Transit Link Light Rail comes in Fourth, after the Denver International Airport, the Chunnel, and the Big Dig. Also on the list are Miami’s Metrorail expansion, the Jacob Javits Convention Center of New York and the Sydney Opera House. So apparently the “World” is made up of three countries who speak English. Never mind dams in China that cost ten times their original $2.6 estimate, they don’t speak English, so they don’t count.

Annoyingly, the Miller-McCune piece lumps the Monorail in with Link, and completely ignores inflation in all the numbers. They mention a 1958 study that said Bart would cost $586 million to $716 million, and by October 1974, the cost was $1.6 billion. Inflation of just 4% during that period (much of the 70’s had double-digit inflation), would have pushed the price from $716 to $1.6 billion. Not much for report.

Brewster points out:

Are you shocked? If so, consider that most of these projects are in fact wildly popular, even if the public had to be gulled to go along with building them… And often these are newly formed agencies, as Sound Transit was, and they can make lots of rookie mistakes in the first years

Sound Transit definitely had it’s problems in its infancy, but it’s comforting for Link to be on a list with BART and the Sydney Opera House. That’s good company.

16 Replies to “Link Light Rail World’s Biggest Doondoggle?”

  1. I love this comment on the Crosscut article:
    “A Prius with one occupant generates less green house gas than a moderately loaded light rail train.”

    I don’t know what is funnier, the fact that he’s comparing a train with 200-300 passengers to a vehicle that is most likely to be driven alone (of course a 1.5liter motor is going to have smaller emissions than a diesel locomotive), or to think that in this region the electricity used to power light rail comes from anything but hydro.

    I wish I had a membership on Crosscut (not really) but to tell the guy “open mouth, insert foot”

    1. Let’s not forget that even in places with coal production, it’s point pollution that is not distrubited and can be tampered by mitigation systems.

      1. I’ll use it:

        “Spending $14 billion on I-405 expansion is an enormous boondoggle!”

        In all seriousness, this is the same old Kemper Freeman talking points. Facts don’t matter, only feelings, and rail feels expensive, so it must be. Nevermind the reality that we need more capacity in Puget Sound and rail will give us more capacity for less money than highways will.

  2. Let me reply with some substance.

    While I think ST had growing pains, they’re definitely a solid organization today. ST2 is very detailed and seems to have a relatively conservative financial plan. I say this because an election is coming up in two months. Let’s ignore all of that though.

    The fact is, the thousands of people who ride Link and the thousands more who benefit from more reliable bus service and less congestion aren’t going to decry Link as a boondoggle or even as a “thicket in britches!” or any other turn of phrase from the ’40s. We’re building something that’ll help the region grow responsibly, and yes people will complain about the routing forever, but we showed are hand in the ’90s and decided to finally build something.

    Back to election mode: It’s time to double-down.

  3. I just wish people who, sit in traffic and say transit has no economic or societal benefit and is only a cost, would look at the full busses passing them and realizing that the 40 people on those busses are not trying to use the same clogged lanes with 40 separate vehicles. If you are driving alone and stuck in traffic the only person you can hold accountable is yourself. If more people rode transit there would be more transit and more choices.

    1. Since Denver made #1, some history:

      http://www.interstatetraveler.us/…/Assessment%20for%20Mass%20Transit%20Denver%20Case%20Study%201976.pdf (page 11)

      Ironies of ironies, guess who was partially responsible for the Denver Airport debacle? None other than Kemper Freeman’s hired gun, Dr. Bill Eager of TDA, Inc. http://www.truthabouttraffic.org

      You see, the Personal Rapid Transit plan Kemper’s “expert” Bill Eager & Boeing developed for Denver eventually became the ridiculous automated baggage debacle which helped bankrupt United and cost Colorado taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars. http://www.tc.umn.edu/~hause011/article/prt.html

      For some reason, Personal Rapid Transit advocates (especially of the Boeing variety) all now advocate for more freeways. Their dreams of car-like transit systems crashed and burned in the last three decades…and they blame light rail for their personal and professional failures.

      PRT & the Denver Airport boondoggle show us proprietary “alternative” plans to replace the proven technology of light rail run much larger risks of failure. But, to the benefit of Emory Bundy, Richard Harkness, John Niles, Jim MacIsaac, Jerry Schneider, Bill Eager, Jim Horn….and the rest of Kemper Freeman’s gang, it is very rare that fringe transport ideas ever make it off the drawing board. When they do, things get ugly.

      But again, light rail always becomes the punching bag.

  4. Related news (via eschatonblog.com)

    Charlotte’s light rail line has only been in operation for nine months but the ridership numbers are already approaching a remarkable milestone.

    For the month of July the LYNX light rail line tallied a ridership count of 16-thousand-900. Transit Chief Keith Parker says if they see another 5-percent growth or so in the next couple months they will have reached their ridership projections… for the year 2025.


  5. A list of the world’s biggest boondoggles that doesn’t include the Pyramids, the Maginot Line, or the SST?

    Ryan Blitstein should stick to writing about spray-can artists, seeing as how he appears to be one in a journalistic sense.

  6. It sounds to me like this article is a mere summary of the wikipedia story on Link Light Rail. In fact, that random bit about the monorail perfectly makes sense once you see how the wikipedia article is laid out.

    Why is Vancouver’s 2bn (CND$ in the year it was budgeted) Canada line with its 100k expected daily boardings not a boondoggle? It looks like it was supposed to cost 1.35bn and now it appears it has some of its funding caught up in the housing crisis.

    Why is Beijing’s US$2bn Olympics not a boondoggle? According to the Economist $40 bn more was spent on infrastructure, cleaning the environment, and who really knows what else and at what price.

    Sound Transit’s history really does sound more like growing pains and democracy at work than a boondoggle – whatever that is.

    P.S. All these $2bn projects… I would be interested in reading a comparative analysis of Central Link and the Canada Line.

  7. Never mind dams in China that cost ten times their original $2.6 estimate, they don’t speak English, so they don’t count.

    $26.00 is still pretty cheap. ;)

  8. Yep. I always feel bad for Seattle’s efforts to get Rail transit in their city. There’s opposition from all sides. I think once LRT actually is running, it will be wildly popular.

    It’s interesting, you’re right. the “Canada Line” which runs from Downtown Vancouver to the Airport and the suburb of Richmond beside the airport (akin to Tukwila) is going to end up costing $2Bln, is about the same capacity as the Seattle LRT, and only major difference is that it’s grade-separated and will be automated.

    Both about the same Length (25km vs. 19 in Vancouver)
    Both have elevated, at grade and tunnelled (Vancouver is at-grade separated at the airport, elevated in Richmond, and tunneled through Vancouver)
    Both cost about the same (1.6B US$ vs. 1.9B$ CAD)
    Both finish construction about the same time.
    Both go to the Airport
    Both have similar travel times (Seattle is 25 minutes, Vancouver’s is 19 minutes)
    Both have short trains (Don’t know platform length of Seattle’s trains, but Vancouver’s are 40-50m which is short)

    The major differences are: Vancouver’s train terminates at the Airport, Seattle’s looks like it was built with future extension in mind. Unfortunate, if you ask me, as it would’ve been a LOT nicer to integrate the station into the airport, similar to Vancouver’s line, instead of across the parking lot, but I don’t know the feasibility of this.

    Vancouver’s train is fully automated and fully grade-separated (probably is why the cost is higher)

    Seattle has a deep tunnel station at Beacon Hill (Vancouver’s tunneled stations are near the ends of the grade where it could be done cut n’ cover)

    Vancouver’s system is 3rd rail (as opposed to overhead catenary wires)

    Seattle makes use of an existing downtown bus tunnel (Vancouver ran out of those when it built its first line, the Expo line, which was built in an old postal tunnel).

    Seattles is built by the government. (Vancouver’s is a Private public partnership, a P3, which for better or worse [we’ll find out soon] means it is built and run by a private sector, while the public controls fare structure and integration.)

    Seattle’s LRVs are Japanese. (Vancouver’s trains are Korean)

    Overall, the projects are VERY similar.

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