Carolina Officials Intrigued by San Diego’s Rail

High cost, low ridership shouldn't be admired

A group of officials from the Triangle recently returned from a trip to San Diego. Their task was to investigate how another fast-growing area has dealt with growth, and apply the lessons learned back home.

Sounds sensible, but unfortunately the Triangle’s scouts may have misunderstood the San Diego experience.

Some were reportedly smitten by San Diego’s light rail system. And if any place has had the time to grow fond of light rail it would be San Diego, which became our nation’s first light rail city in 1981. Yet San Diego’s love affair with rail has yet to bloom.

Sure, observers can always grab a rail rider who’s willing to speak glowingly of the bright red trolley cars, but that obscures the big picture. Rail accounts for only 0.2 percent of work trips, and replicating this kind of “success” in the Triangle would require a quarter-century wait.

What about cost? It’s true that – by light rail standards – San Diego’s first line was cheap, but subsequent extensions ballooned to five times the cost of the original line. Triangle residents, who have watched the Triangle Transit Authority’s regional rail project grow in cost even as it shrinks in size, are probably in no mood to consider that future lines could be even more costly.

This month the federal government expressed skepticism about the project’s ridership projections and lowered its rating. The move will likely delay, perhaps even halt, the delivery of hundreds of millions in federal funds.

But regardless of what the feds do, residents should not equate huge amounts of funding with huge amounts of improvement. Taxpayers have sunk billions into San Diego’s rail system, yet even telecommuters – who cost taxpayers virtually nothing – outnumber rail commuters 22 to one. In the Triangle, telecommuters already outnumber transit commuters, and the region’s high-tech culture means that telecommuting has great growth potential.

Other aspects of San Diego’s transportation policy are worth emulating. Take high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. On the Interstate 15 freeway, special lanes operate next to regular lanes, and since computers collect tolls electronically, there are no tollbooths to slow drivers down. Tolls rise and fall with the rise and fall of traffic, which keeps cars moving at about 60 mph even during rush hour. San Diego’s light rail system, downright speedy compared to others, operates at an average speed of just 27mph. So much for escaping gridlock.

HOT lanes offer commuters an escape route from congestion, and since cars funnel through them faster, they also relax congestion in the regular lanes. Allow buses to use the lanes without paying the toll and transit users can enjoy the unthinkable – fast and predictable travel times. Make use of public-private partnerships and many of the usual headaches associated with transportation projects – such as raising revenue – can be shifted from the taxpayer to the private sector.

Yet HOT lanes reportedly received only mixed reviews from the North Carolina scouts. How strange, since San Diegans have grown so fond of them. An 800-person survey found that most motorists like the special lanes, and those who know them best tend to be the fondest of them: 91 percent of those who use them like them.

Today, San Diego plans to build more HOT lanes, and many other areas – from San Francisco to Denver to Washington, D.C. – are moving toward the HOT concept. Even the Triangle is studying the possibility of adding HOT lanes to I-40.

Meanwhile, a recent poll reveals what everyone already knew: Triangle commuters are increasingly agitated about congestion, but they’re not sure what to do about it. It’s time to get the game plan right.

Ted Balaker is the Jacob’s Fellow at Reason Foundation.