There is a lot of manipulation and fact distorting when it comes to the debate between highway and road benefits versus fixed rail transit. One of the biggest claims to have been made against Link is that it’s a “boondoggle,” a “waste of money,” and that “no one” ever rides the trains. I pulled up an old document from the American Dream Coalition (ADC), a big anti-rail group, which compiled a laundry list of “facts” against what it calls “myths” of rail transit. It’s a long list of points, many of which we’ve already debunked, but I thought I’d highlight a few that are relevant to the comparison often being made between roads and rail.
Rebuttals below the jump.
The Congestion Myth: Rail transit can greatly reduce congestion.
The Reality: Outside of New York and a few other cities, rail transit carries too few people to noticeably reduce congestion. New York is the only urban area where transit has more than a 10 percent share of urban travel, and transit has more than a 3 percent share in only five other areas. Even if rail transit could increase transit’s share of travel, an increase from, say, 1.5 to 2.0 percent is simply not significant. In most urban areas, miles of daily driving are growing so fast that all the congestion relief provided by a billion-dollar rail project will be consumed by growth in a few weeks to a few months.
I actually don’t need to say too much about this, because we’ve already covered how this is a giant distortion of the “transit share” numbers. But to recap, citing the overall transit share of all trips in a metro area is completely irrelevant when it comes to congestion. Contrary to the American Dream Coalition’s claim that an 0.5 percent increase in transit share is “not significant,” such an increase could be quite significant if it means that those trips are shifting to transit during peak commuting hours. And since work trips are only a certain percentage share of all trips, that increase is proportionally larger when looking at only work trips made, the ones that are actually inducing congestion.
Investment in roads is always problematic because most spending is directed toward increasing capacity for peak commuters in lieu of buffering new investment in other areas, so the fair comparison can only be made in terms of work/peak trips. Frankly, we don’t mind a great deal if someone decides to hop in the car to return a Blockbuster movie at 2am in the morning.
The Rush-Hour Myth: Rail transit can cost-effectively reduce rush hour congestion.
The Reality: While a few rail-transit lines may have had a marginal effect on rush-hour congestion, the cost is exorbitant. The average light-rail line under construction or in planning stages today costs $25 million per mile ($50 million per mile in both directions). Heavy rail costs more than twice as much. By comparison, the average lane mile of freeway costs only about $5 to $10 million. Since freeway lanes carry far more people than any rail line outside of New York, they are much more cost effective. Running express buses on high-occupancy vehicle or high-occupancy/toll lanes will carry more people at a far lower cost than rail.
Rail opponents love using this argument because the assumption is that fixed transit is just not cost-effective. But when you take a good look at the numbers, it’s easy to find that the comparison being made with highways just isn’t an equitable one. The third sentence in the “reality” rebuttal makes mention of an “average lane mile,” but doesn’t really expound. Well, a highway lane mile is exactly as it sounds: one mile of one lane in one direction. But the ADC makes it sound like the cost-per-lane mile is the actual cost-per-mile of a freeway, which it is not. The number doesn’t figure in the total number of lanes that are being paved down in each direction for a complete freeway segment.
When it comes to capital costs in the Puget Sound area, our highway infrastructure tends to be a bit more expensive for the same reasons why Link has a higher cost-per-mile (close to $200 million for both directions). Granted, costs vary a lot from project to project, but just to cite an example from our area, the 2004 estimates for I-405 expansion put the cost-per-lane mile between $61-69 million. That figure is just for every mile of single lane put down, but when considering that I-405 is a bi-directional, multi-lane freeway, the aggregate capital costs sunk into construction and mitigation exceed even Link’s relatively high price tag.
Since highway construction can be either incredibly cheap or incredibly expensive, it’s better to look at the comparable capacities between one lane of highway and a single track of rail. Freeways cannot exceed a flow of 2,000 automobiles per hour per lane without inducing congestion. Light rail, on the other hand, can serve up to 12,000 passengers per hour on single tracks, depending on headway frequencies and the number of rail cars being coupled together. Marginally, the dollars are put to much better use in fixed transit investment, particularly when considering the next point.
The Operating-Cost Myth: Rails cost less to operate than buses.
The Reality: Almost all rail transit systems cost more to operate than buses running on routes in comparable corridors. Rail transit sometimes costs less to operate than the average bus route in a bus system. But rail lines are usually built along the most popular travel corridors, where costs per rider are lowest. The bus lines that rail replaces almost always cost less to operate than the rail lines that replace them. Even the average bus lines cost less to operate per ride than heavy-rail systems in Baltimore, Chicago, and Miami, and less than light-rail systems in Dallas, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco.
The ADC doesn’t clarify its argument very well here, but from what I can gather, they’re arguing that certain bus lines have a lower cost-per-boarding (CPB) than comparable rail lines. The argument is cleverly manipulative. Take a look at the syntax in the first sentence: “Almost all rail transit systems cost more to operate than buses running on routes in comparable corridors.” The ADC avoids using “average” or “overall” with good reason. They could very well be arguing that a packed commuter bus is cheaper to operate than a lightly-used train at 1am, which it is.
But when it comes down to the average costs-per-boarding between all rail and bus service in any given system and not just between “comparable corridors,” the latter is almost always more expensive. As we know, the CPB depends on ridership, and for a new and growing system like Central Link, it’s terribly unfair to compare its operating costs against those of ST Express and Metro. What’s interesting, though, is the fact that Tacoma Link has a lower CPB than the average ST Express bus; that’s a pretty good indication of what will happen once Central Link is broken in.