Commentary

Dispelling Transit Myths

Rail transit is a huge waste of money that harms transit riders and mainly benefits a few politically powerful interest groups, such as rail contractors, at the expense of ordinary taxpayers. Transit has performed so poorly in the two dozen U.S. urban areas with rail service that it’s hard to find any real success stories.

So expensive are rail lines to build, maintain and operate that most rail regions have, at some point, been forced to significantly raise fares and/or curtail bus services, often leading to a loss of transit riders.

Thanks in part to the high cost of rails, transit systems in Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and the San Francisco Bay Area carried fewer riders in 2005 than two decades before.

Los Angeles lost 17 percent of its bus riders when it began building rail transit, a decline reversed only when the NAACP successfully sued the region’s transit agency for favoring white neighborhoods with rail service while cutting bus service to black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Due to financial stresses caused by the high cost of rail transit, San Jose cut its transit service by 20 percent and lost a third of its transit riders.

The mass transit system in Portland, Ore., carries only 7.6 percent of the region’s commuters, down from 9.8 percent before rail construction began.

The subway in Washington, D.C., is wonderful for tourists, but not commuters: Though the region gained more than 100,000 jobs between 1990 and 2000, the transit system lost more than 20,000 daily commuters.

Many people who support rail transit hope other people will ride it, leaving less congested roads for everyone else. But rail systems that lose transit ridership or transit’s share of travel make congestion worse, not better.

As Charlotte has discovered, building a rail system is far more complicated than simply providing excellent bus service. Rail construction requires long-range forecasts of revenues, costs and ridership trends — forecasts that are almost invariably wrong. As a result, rail projects go an average of 40 percent over budget and end up carrying an average of 35 percent fewer riders than projected.

Nor is rail the environmental panacea its advocates promise. Light rail may seem to use less energy and emit less pollution than buses or cars. But rail lines must be supplemented by feeder buses that tend to run much emptier than the corridor buses the rail lines replaced. Empty buses mean high energy use and pollution per passenger, so the transit system as a whole ends up consuming more energy and producing more pollution, per passenger, than if it ran only buses.

Transit advocates brag that transit produces less carbon monoxide than autos. But carbon monoxide is no longer a serious environmental threat. Today’s problems are nitrogen oxides, particulates and greenhouse gases. Diesel buses, and rail cars whose electric power comes from burning coal, produce far more of these pollutants than today’s automobiles.

For all these reasons, Charlotte should stop building new rail lines. In fact, the best use of the line now under construction might be to pave it over and convert it to exclusive bus lanes. Those bus lanes could move more people at far lower financial and environmental costs than the multibillion-dollar rail network that the Charlotte Area Transit System wants to complete.

Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and the author of “Great Rail Disasters: How Rail Transit Harms Urban Livability,” in remarks prepared for a John Locke Foundation forum in Charlotte Wednesday, October 10.