Why Light Rail Is Wrong for Tampa

Light rail fails across the country

Since 1981, two dozen communities across this country have created light rail systems. Not one of these systems has validated the rationales or lived up to the rosy projections used by planners and advocates to justify investment in rail. All systems have been abject failures in reducing congestion.

  • Light rail has not lived up to the promise of reducing the number of cars on the road. Light rail does not get drivers out of their cars. Not even one of the nation’s 24 light rail systems carries 1 percent of all travel or even 1 percent of work trips. This is true even for Portland, Oregon – the light rail “poster child” for the modern urban community – where the city planners and politicians have been promoting, building and subsidizing light rail for decades. If you build it, they will not come.
  • Public resources that otherwise could have been available for useful road projects are often allocated to light rail systems, leaving much-needed road and transportation projects unfunded. The result is avoidable congestion.

Writing in Transport Reviews, Jonathan Richmond of Harvard University has opined, “In no case has new rail service been shown to have a noticeable impact upon highway congestion or air quality.

Over the last twenty-four years, a massive database of time series and cross-sectional (comparison) data has been accumulated, documenting the performance of light rail in twenty-four communities. Unfortunately for local rail advocates, the collective experience of these communities conclusively debunks many of the optimistically happy myths (see website) about light rail.

The data and experience has long been available to local planners, who nonetheless continue to promote light rail as a “solution” to the mobility issues of Hillsborough County. Why? Well, for those who benefit financially, the answer is PORK. For planners, some public employees and politicians, rail means:

  1. control,
  2. power,
  3. perks,
  4. privileges and
  5. budgets.

A less pecuniary motivation, driving rail buffs, may be the romantic nostalgia that rail can evoke. But for the average taxpayer-commuter, light rail is an extremely costly venture that is:

  1. counter-productive,
  2. compromises mobility and
  3. retards the process of seeking real improvements to traffic issues.

Rail is expensive. Building rail can cost five times more per mile than building a road. And since rail carries only a fraction of the traffic of a single freeway lane, our community would end up paying lots and getting little. A Federal Reserve Bank study concludes that it would be more cost effective to buy low pollution cars for every projected new transit user.

One would be well advised not to believe the cost estimates that the promoters use in attempting to sell their utopian visions (fantasies), because actual costs often dwarf projected costs. Actual costs for the existing rail systems have been, on average, 41 percent higher than projected costs. Costs are almost always higher and rider-ship lower than planners and promoters project (see website for Miami scandal).

While rail doesn’t remove motorists from cars, it does remove riders from buses. Typically rail lines replace bus lines and bus riders are rerouted to train stations to become rail passengers. Most rail riders are merely displaced bus riders. In LA, bus riders have come together in a Bus Riders Union to fight light rail schemes that compromise the bus system on which they rely, decrying the diversion of resources away from bus service, the transit mode that offers the poor the greatest mobility and flexibility.

Another myth is that light rail is “rapid transit.” Rail’s supporters tout its top speeds, but in fact light rail’s average speed is only 15 to 20 mph, not including:

  1. the time it takes to get to a station,
  2. wait for a train, and
  3. then get from the final station to final destination.

Buses can do anything that one seeks to achieve with rail, more effectively at a lower cost. The Government Accountability Office notes that even the most extravagant kind of bus service (separate bus guide-ways) costs only about a third the cost of light rail. Decades of poorly managed city bus operations may have tarnished the reputation of bus systems, but there is nothing conceptually wrong with bus systems. Not being tied to a fixed route, buses are:

  1. flexible,
  2. adaptable,
  3. lower cost and
  4. the pathways already exist where riders might wish to go.

Rail planners often justify rail’s high cost by saying that the only way to get motorists out of their cars is to provide them with a choice. Unfortunately, rail’s puny, barely-there market share shows that motorists do not select rail even when presented with the choice.

Quite simply, there is nothing enlightened or progressive about rail-it is a step backward. It is slow and inflexible – a technology from the past, not one for the future. Asking motorists to use rail is like asking office workers to exchange computers and printers for typewriters and carbon paper.

There is modern technology-telecommuting-that does have a positive and increasing impact on traffic and congestion. In Tampa, telecommuters already outnumber transit commuters more than 2 to 1, and at virtually no cost to taxpayers. From 1990 to 2000 telecommuting increased by 35% as users of public transit decreased.

Summary: The local transportation planners, opportunistic politicians and editorial cheerleaders who continue to promote light rail for Hillsborough County are unaware of, have failed to avail themselves of, or have simply refused to accept the truth and implications of the empirical information contained in available databases. Light rail is a well-documented disaster for transit users and taxpayers.

The import of the facts and logic is powerful and bad news for rail advocates. The concept of light rail is simply an old turkey ready for the abattoir.

Harry E. Teasley Jr. is Chairman Emeritus of Reason Foundation.