$100 million per mile

I had an op/ed in Sunday’s OC Register about Orange County’s light rail proposal. Here’s a chunk of it: A new Bush administration proposal would require cities to pick up much more of the tab for light-rail projects. And the man in DC controlling transportation money for projects like Orange County’s CenterLine light-rail project, Chairman of the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Ernest Istook, R-Okla., just blocked a $500 million federal grant that was supposed to go to Seattle’s light-rail project, thus delaying construction indefinitely. Istook said light-rail systems are often political “status symbols” that pay little heed to congestion relief or cost-benefit ratios. That’s an ominous sign for Orange County and the $1 billion CenterLine project. Light rail popped up all over the nation in recent decades largely because Washington was on board, but now the Federal Transit Administration faces a situation where it has far more grant requests than money. Since half of CenterLine’s expected funding comes from federal transit funds, even those who remain behind light rail on principle may have to confront a new and less hospitable political reality. After all, if Washington doesn’t back the project, there is no project. At over $100 million per mile, the CenterLine project should feel pretty pricey to most residents. And if Orange County follows the storyline established by so many other light-rail projects, it’s naÃ?¯ve to think that the cost won’t swell even more. Still, it’s easy to get lost in all the zeros after the price tag and forget how light-rail compares to other transportation alternatives. The Arizona Transportation Research Center examined the cost of building freeways versus building light rail by asking a very simple question: How much does it cost taxpayers to move one person one mile? The answer: about six cents for freeways and $2.75 for light-rail. Put bluntly, light rail costs 40 times more than freeways. It’s enough to make one ponder exactly how expensive light rail would have to be before local governments consider other alternatives. Commuters tend to be more frugal when considering their personal transportation costs. If car buyers were comfortable considering cars that cost 40 times more than the average new car, it would mean John Carbuyer would be kicking the tires of million-dollar autos. To be fair, local governments have to consider the transportation needs of whole counties. But still, when using public funds, it would be nice if local governments adopted some of the bottom-line cost considerations consumers make when they buy things. The whole article is available here (free registration required).