The Strange Thing About Light Rail

No matter how much it fails, politicians want more

“Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it right.” Most of us heard that from our mothers growing up, and hopefully Orange County officials were listening because that piece of wisdom will come in handy as they determine the future path of the county’s transportation policy.

Will Orange County follow the crowd and build light rail or will it do the right thing?

It’s easy to see why light rail has some officials fooled. It has expanded into about two dozen of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas and many more, including Orange County, are looking to join the light- rail club. The board of the Orange County Transportation Authority will again consider its CenterLine project at a meeting Friday.

But a closer look shows just how wrong other local governments have been about light rail.

In Los Angeles, freeways are 11 times more cost-effective than light rail, according to a recent Reason Foundation-Center for the American Dream study. And yet even after the newest rail line produced just a third of the predicted ridership numbers, Los Angeles officials forged ahead with plans for a $900 million extension. Think L.A. commuters would rather have another light-rail line or an additional freeway lane?

In the Bay area, San Jose is home to one of the nation’s least productive and most expensive light-rail systems. Ridership numbers have plummeted in recent years. As those numbers dwindle, the city has raised fees, cut service and is now looking into a transportation tax to help prop up the ailing system.

One high-ranking transit official admits the San Jose system still has “a long way to go.” He hopes that in 40 years the city’s light-rail system will be seen as a success. Apparently, residents should just sit tight till 2044.

That’s the strange thing about light rail: Failure rarely sours public officials on future projects. It merely brings assurances that another line will improve things, and that success is just around the corner. But we’ve been rounding the corner for decades and we’re still waiting for a light-rail success story.

Even the areas that have pursued light rail most vigorously have little to brag about. After spending billions on rail lines, after using aggressive zoning, and lavishing subsidies upon developers who pursue transit-oriented development, no light-rail system has provided benefits anywhere near its cost. In fact, despite the costs, light rail does not account for even 1 percent of travel anywhere.

Back in Orange County, something certainly must be done about transportation, but rail isn’t the right something.

If the goal is congestion relief, then the solution is adding capacity with a strategy that includes building new roads ($1 spent on improving freeways typically reduces more congestion than $13 spent on rail), and expanding the kind of road pricing that commuters on the 91 freeway’s high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes use to escape gridlock.

If the goal is helping the transit- dependent poor, then the solution is what’s known as a “Bus Rapid Transit” system. Under Bus Rapid Transit, the bus receives advantages – from traffic-light priority to its own guideway – that allow riders to avoid some of the most painful parts of the rush-hour gauntlet. Buses can outdo rail’s capacity by a factor of six, and a U.S. General Accounting Office study noted that even the most expensive version of Bus Rapid Transit is only about a third the cost of light rail. Allow buses to travel on HOT lanes, and you have a system that provides both motorists and transit patrons with a faster way to get around.

It would be foolish to follow the path of other rail areas and expect different results. Simply put, light rail is expensive and ineffective – it almost always costs more to build and to operate than predicted and rarely produces anything close to ridership predictions. Here’s hoping Orange County will ignore what everyone else is doing and do the right thing instead.

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