Commentary

Light Rail Doesn’t Work

I have always loved trains, and if light-rail transit worked, I would be the first to support it.

So it is with some dismay that I review the sorry record of transit in Canadian and U.S. cities that have built light-rail lines. For the most part, light rail has increased congestion, harmed transit riders, and wasted taxpayers’ money.

Even so, there seems to be a consensus among politicians of all stripes in Ottawa that light rail is necessary, and the only debate left is how to implement it.

But let’s look at what light rail can and cannot do.

1. Light rail can spend lots of tax dollars.

Rail construction is extremely costly, so it is a great way for politicians to reward favoured contractors. Siemens, the company that is suing Ottawa over the cancelled north-south light-rail line, is obviously more interested in getting lucrative contracts than in improving your transportation network. If you are a taxpayer, hold onto your wallet: between cost overruns, high maintenance costs, and endless proposals for new rail lines, your costs will never end.

2. Light rail cannot get a lot of people out of their cars.

Studies show that transit riders care more about frequencies and speeds than about whether the vehicle they ride has rubber tires or steel wheels. Light-rail lines may boost ridership because transit agencies run the trains more frequently and (because they stop fewer times per kilometre) faster than buses. But, as the U.S. General Accountability Office has shown, transit agencies can run bus services as fast and as frequent as any light-rail line at a fraction of the cost of light rail.

3. Light rail can inconvenience transit riders.

While rail may improve service in one corridor, it is so expensive that it leads transit agencies to neglect service in the rest of the region. Many U.S. cities that built light-rail lines have seen total transit ridership decline because rail costs forced transit agencies to raise fares and reduce bus services.

4. Light rail increases congestion.

Most light-rail lines operate on streets for at least part of their length, and transit planners time traffic signals to favour trains over automobiles. The delays that result greatly exceed the benefit of getting a handful of people out of their cars.

A new light-rail line in Minneapolis so disrupted traffic signals that people using a parallel highway found they were spending an added 20 minutes or more sitting in traffic. Internal documents revealed that the government knew this would happen, but the state says it can never be completely fixed because federal rules require that signals favour the light rail.

5. Light rail benefits downtown property owners at the expense of property owners elsewhere.

A study funded by the U.S. Federal Transit Administration found that “rail transit investments rarely ‘create’ new growth, but more typically redistribute growth that would have taken place without the investment.” Such redistribution, the study found, was usually to downtowns from other parts of the city.

6. Light rail does not stimulate economic development.

Claims by some cities that rail transit stimulated new construction ignore the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies going to those new developments. Without the subsidies, rail lines generate little in the way of new development. In fact, street closures during construction and parking limits after light rail opens put many shops and restaurants out of business.

7. Light rail increases energy consumption and greenhouse gases.

Light rail uses less energy and generates less carbon dioxide, per passenger kilometre, than buses (though not necessarily less than autos). But light rail does not replace buses; instead, transit agencies typically reroute corridor buses to be feeder buses for the light-rail line.

Many people choose to drive to light-rail stations rather than wait for a bus and then transfer to a train, so feeder buses are much more lightly used than the previous corridor buses. When Salt Lake City opened its light-rail system, the average number of people riding its buses fell by nearly 50 per cent.

When taken as a whole, then, most transit systems with light rail use more energy and emit more greenhouse gases per passenger kilometre than they did when they operated only buses. Most also use more energy and emit more carbon dioxide, per passenger kilometre, than typical automobiles.

In the rare cases where light rail has reduced energy use, the energy cost of building it swamps any savings. If we want to save energy and reduce greenhouse gases, automotive improvements such as hybrid-electric cars can do far more at a far lower cost than even the best rail projects.

8. Light rail diverts tax dollars that could be used for truly productive transportation projects.

If you want to boost transit ridership, improve bus service. If you want to reduce congestion, improve highways — particularly with toll roads, which both pay for themselves and can reduce congestion by varying the toll by time of day. If you want to punish people for driving cars, then take the money that could be used for buses or highways and spend it on light rail.

You can see who favours light-rail construction: Downtown property owners; rail contractors like Siemens; and people who hate automobiles.

If you are not in one of these groups — if you are among the vast majority of Ottawa taxpayers who use automobiles for much of your travel — then light rail will cost you far more than any benefits you will ever receive.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of Great Rail Disasters: The Impact of Rail Transit on Urban Livability.