Rail Systems Don’t Stay on Track

Hyped ridership figures contradicted by facts

We can learn a lot from close calls. How many of us have considered putting a bunch of money into a hot new stock only to decide against it at the last minute. When the stock tanks we get a zap of adrenaline and ponder what might have been. Orange County had its own close call with light rail and a new study reveals just how wise it was to pass up the billion-dollar CenterLine project.

Backers justify rail’s steep costs by saying only sleek rail cars are sexy enough to lure us out of our sedans, but a new study, “Rail Disasters 2005,” by the American Dream Coalition, examines two decades’-worth of data and finds that Boston is the only place where transit use has grown faster than driving.

Is that the proper measure of success?

Not surprisingly, agencies usually prefer to focus on transit ridership gains. If more people take transit today compared to days gone by, then you’ve got the makings of a good press release. Take California. Sacramento, San Jose and San Diego all have rail and all have enjoyed transit ridership gains since 1983. San Diego’s 136 percent ridership growth was greater than any other American city with a rail system. Sounds impressive, but increasing transit ridership isn’t a particularly difficult feat.

If an agency begins with a tiny ridership base, it’s not too tough to get some impressive-sounding growth figures, especially if you spend heaps of money. Nationwide transit ridership has inched up about 1 percent per year, but getting that modest increase required a 4.5 percent per year increase in subsidies. And all the growth talk can obscure the big picture – Americans choose transit for only 1.5 percent of their trips, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In California, there’s another reason why boosting ridership should be rather easy – population growth. Our state bursts with new people and – even if the vast majority choose to get around by car – as long as transit scoops up some of the new citizens, agencies can note with pride that more people are riding transit. This makes it all the more noteworthy that ridership in San Francisco has actually dropped by 14 percent during the past two decades. In Los Angeles, transit was on the upswing in 1980s, but by 1985 it began a long slide.

What happened? Rail came to LA. New rail projects were much more expensive than expected. The Blue Line and Green Lines were initially expected to cost well under $200 million, yet each reached the billion-dollar mark. In order to make up for the overruns, officials diverted funds away from a successful bus program. It’s been much the same story elsewhere in California. Rail costs shoot up, but service gets pared back, and transit systems falter.

Sure, most transportation projects cost more than expected, but according to a study published in the Journal of the American Planning Association, cost overruns for rail projects are typically five times greater than for road projects. The study also concluded that the gap between expected and actual price tags has not shrunk over time. In other words, policymakers have not learned from their mistakes.

Indeed, even after LA’s Gold Line grew in price and failed to meet ridership projections, officials didn’t opt to cut their losses; instead they proposed another billion-dollar extension. That’s how it works with rail transit. The last line might have been a disappointment, but policymakers assure wary commuters and taxpayers that success is just “one more” line away.

And though Orange County’s rail encounter thankfully ended with only a close call, rail never really goes away. Sooner or later some local official will once again point longingly to rail.

Transit backers and taxpayers can respond by pointing to areas with bus-only systems. If Orange County’s goal is finding a cost-effective way to make transit relevant to more people, much can be learned from places like Austin and Las Vegas where rubber tire transit has grown much faster than driving. Even in California cities with rail, rail gets most of the press but buses do most of the work.

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