Commentary

Light Rail Isn’t the Track to the Future

As America’s largest city without rail transit, some people want San Antonio to “keep up” by building light rail. You need to know only one thing: Light rail is really expensive.

I mean, really, really expensive. The average mile of light-rail line costs two to five times as much as an urban freeway lane-mile. Yet in 2007 the average light-rail line carried less than one-seventh as many people as the average freeway lane-mile in cities with light rail.

Do the math: Light rail costs 14 to 35 times as much to move people as highways.

The Government Accountability Office found that bus-rapid transit—frequent buses with limited stops—provided faster, better service at 2 percent of the capital cost and lower operating costs than light rail.

If light rail is so expensive, why are cities building it? Starting in the 1970s, Congress offered cities hundreds of millions of dollars for transit capital improvements. If they bought buses, they wouldn’t have enough money to operate those buses.

So cities like Portland and Sacramento decided to build light rail—because it was expensive. Only light rail would use up all the millions of federal dollars. Other cities that wanted their share of federal pork soon began planning light rail, too.

How successful is light rail? In 1980, before Portland began building light rail, 9.8 percent of the region’s commuters took transit to work. Today, it is 7.6 percent.

Since 1980, Portland has spent more than $2.3 billion, half the region’s transportation capital funds, building light rail. Yet light rail carries less than 1 percent of Portland-area travel. That’s a success?

In 2002, Dallas opened a new light-rail line, doubling the number of miles in the city’s light-rail system. The new line attracted some rail riders, but the region lost more bus riders than it gained rail riders.

This often happens because rail’s high cost forces transit agencies to cut bus service. When Los Angeles started building rail transit to white, middle-class neighborhoods, it cut bus service to black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The city lost more bus riders than it ever gained in rail riders, and an NAACP lawsuit forced the city to restore buses and curtail its rail plans.

Light rail is a giant hoax that makes rail contractors rich and taxpayers poor.”

Is light rail good for the environment? Hardly. Dallas and Denver light-rail lines consume about as much energy and emit about as much greenhouse gases per passenger mile as the average SUV.

Engineering, construction, and rail car companies make huge profits from light rail. Their political contributions promote new rail lines. Siemens Transportation donated $100,000 to Denver’s light-rail campaign and was rewarded with a $184 million railcar contract.

Some people say San Antonio should build light rail because Dallas and Houston have light rail. To paraphrase American mothers, if Dallas and Houston jumped off a cliff, should San Antonio jump as well?

Taxpayers lose because their money is wasted on rail when buses could do the same thing for less. Transit riders lose when transit agencies cut bus service to pay for rail. Commuters lose when money spent on rail, which does nothing to relieve congestion, delays projects that actually can reduce congestion.

Light rail is a giant hoax that makes rail contractors rich and taxpayers poor. San Antonio should be proud to be America’s largest city that hasn’t fallen for this hoax.