Oberstar Misleads on Light Rail, Highway Costs

Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) is perhaps the most influential player in the debate on reshaping the federal program for highways and transit. He’s a strong advocate for spending more highway user taxes on mass transit systems, yet he continues to propagate misinformation about the relative cost and performance of freeways and rail transit.

The other day, in an interview with Blueprint America, Rep. Oberstar said the following:

“In an urban setting, a mile of freeway may cost in the range of $46 to $50 million. The same mile of urban light rail will cost $26 million and move twice as many people—or three times as many people.”

What is this man smoking?

His figures on freeway costs, at least for the largest urban areas, are in the right ballpark. At today’s construction costs, a four-lane freeway can cost $40 to $60 million to build. But his light rail figure is completely wrong. In a news release in early 2005, the Federal Transit Administration provided figures on nine light rail projects for which it had approved “full funding grant agreements.” The cost per mile ranged from a low of $44.5 million (Charlotte) to a high of $254 million (Pittsburgh). The average of these—and these are costs as of five years ago—was $124 million per mile. That’s five times what Oberstar claimed. And the highly touted Central Link light rail that opened just the other day in Seattle weighs in at $171 million per mile, four to five times more than a mile of freeway.

But what about people-moving capacity?

Freeways typically move about 2,200 vehicles/lane/hour during peak periods. So a four-lane freeway would move about 9,000 people per hour. Assuming six hours of peak conditions per weekday and that’s 54,000 vehicles moved just during rush hours. If the freeway averages only 1,000 vehicles/lane/hour for the remaining 18 hours a day, that’s another 72,000 vehicles, for a daily total of 126,000. And at the typical weekday average of 1.2 people/car, that’s a bit over 150,000 people per day on the freeway.

What about the light rail lines? The FTA’s estimates for light rail ridership by 2020 average just over 25,000 riders per day. In other words, the four-lane freeway that Oberstar compares light rail to will handle six times as many people as the rail line. That’s about as opposite as you can get to his claim that the rail will handle two or three times more people than the freeway.

Oberstar has been making this kind of comparison in interviews for years; I suspect he really believes it. And there are a lot of people who think it’s just fine for him to believe and propagate this nonsense. But nonsense is no basis for making national transportation policy. Every billion dollars of highway user tax money spent on serving a handful of people via light rail is a billion dollars that could do vastly more good adding high-occupancy toll (HOT) and bus rapid transit (BRT) lanes to our congested freeways.