Light Rail Hits Ridership Projections When Goals Are Low Enough

The Norfolk light rail system, The Tide, is open for business and a whopping 5,600 people ride it everday. By 2020, transit officials optimistically expect ridership to double. So, they’re calling it a success, even though costs are going to be at least 50 percent, and perhaps even double, the original estimates. Randal O’Toole has a pithy comment on this over at the Antiplanner.

What’s more interesting, however, is the comparison to Charlotte’s light rail LYNX line. Charlotte’s line is also considered a success by advocates, even though its costs were way over budget. (Although, interestingly enough, the final cost per mile, about $45 million according to transit officials, is about the same for both lines.) Employment in Charlotte’s downtown is about twice that of Norfolk’s, and ridership is about double as well (15,000 daily riders).

Another interesting point: One reason light rail system are meeting their projections is because they are lower to start with. In the 1990s, projections typically had average daily ridership at 20,000 or more per day. Now, forecasters are projecting ridership half those levels. At least that’s some progress, even if it’s not in the direction advocates would want.

But this experience begs yet another question: Is there a ridership level low enough that rail wouldn’t be justified by its advocates? I have my doubts, if 5,600 daily riders on line with 11 stops is considered a triumphant success.

I’ve blogged on low ridership estimates and projections before, and a couple of posts are here and here. Also, check out the 2004 Reason Foundation policy study (No. 321) by Ted Balaker and Tables 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.