Thoughts On Rails and Buses

MLewyn's picture

Randall O'Toole recently published a paper attacking rail transit, focusing in particular on four transit lines (Los Angeles' Regional Connector train, San Francisco's Third Street train, Seattle's University line, and Honolulu's new rail system).  These transit lines are essentially hybrids between light and heavy rail; that is, they use smaller light-rail-type cars but are separated from streets.  By and large, his discussion is pretty technical and I don't live in the cities he writes about, so I am reluctant to take a position on his overall argument.  But there are a few points that I thought were worth discussing:

1. O'Toole asserts that buses on dedicated bus lanes can move more people per hour than trains. But bus riders are not a politically powerful consitituency, and political resistance from drivers may make dedicated bus lines especially infeasible.  For example, in Nashville, a bus rapid transit project was so controversial that the state legislature almost voted to prevent the local government form building it.  To be fair, O'Toole refers to buses running 60 miles an hour, so he is probably thinking of buses using interstate highways.  Even if highway bus lanes were more politically feasible than bus lanes in surface streets, interstate highway exits are not necessarily the best places for bus riders to congregate; outside downtowns, many highway interchanges are in low-density, auto-oriented areas unlikely to support high transit ridership. 

2.  O'Toole criticizes the abovementioned new transit lines (which he calls "high-cost, low capacity") on the ground that the cost per mile is higher than that of light rail or heavy rail.  But their absolute cost is generally less than heavy rail, and in some cases less than light rail.  Three of the four lines he mentions (all but Honolulu's) cost between $1.3 and 2 billion.  Every heavy rail line cited by O'Toole costs more than $2 billion, as does one of the light rail lines (Baltimore's).  It might be that the shorter length of the new transit lines attacked by O'Toole will lead to lower ridership than light rail, in which case they will indeed be less efficient than light rail.  But O'Toole doesn't really prove that this will be so; it might be that the grade separation will make the lines speedier and more appealing, or that the lines are in places inherently better suited for transit.  (On the other hand, O'Toole does point out that Latin American hybrid lanes have not outperformed Latin American light rail, so perhaps they are analogous).

3.  O'Toole quite correctly points out that politicians love to get the credit for building shiny new rail stations, but then skimp on maintenance because "accidents, delays and other problems can always be blamed on someone else."  But as the Strong Towns blog has noted, this is also true of roads and other suburb-oriented infrastructure.

4.  O'Toole claims that the high cost of rail transit will actually reduce growth by adding to a region's tax burden, because there has been a negative correlation between per capita transit expenditures and population growth.  This argument is meritless for two reasons.  First,  for most of the United States, transit spending means bus spending as well as (or, in some regions, as a substitute for) rail spending.  Thus, O'Toole's use of statistics does not support his anti-rail conclusions.  A more careful analysis would be sought to differentiate between rail-related costs and bus-related costs.  Second, state and local spending on public transit (and for that matter, highways) are a pretty small percentage of state and local spending.  In 2008, state and local governments spent  $51 billion on transit (including both buses and rail)- only 2 percent of overall state and local spending ($2.8 trillion).  State and local governments spent three times as much on highways (just over $153 billion, but still far less than 10 percent of state and local spending).



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