Another city has discovered that light rail is not the road to utopia. In 2007, Norfolk, Virginia decided to revitalize its downtown by building a rail transit line. That line is now 45 percent over budget and its opening has been delayed by more than 16 months.
When Flickr user DearEdward took this construction photo in July, 2008, Norfolk officials were promising to open the light‐rail line in December, 2009 at a cost of $232 million. Now the cost has grown to $338 million and the opening delayed to late in 2011.
A 45‐percent cost overrun is about average for rail transit construction, but it has hit Norfolk particularly hard. In 2007, the Federal Transit Administration agreed to fund 72 percent of the then‐projected $232 million cost, with the Commonwealth of Virginia and city of Norfolk each funding about half the remainder. Since the feds did not agree to cover any of the cost overruns, the overruns represent a near‐tripling of the costs to state and city taxpayers.
In March, Cato published my review of every rail transit system in America (as of 2008), showing that in nearly every case buses would have been more cost-effective at moving people. This same view was expressed last week by a surprising source: Peter Rogoff, the Obama administration's appointee in charge of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
Appropriately, Rogoff spoke before the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, whose transit system, he pointed out, is in a "grim" state. Nationwide, he noted, America's transit industry suffers from $78 billion worth of deferred maintenance -- most of which is due to rail transit lines that cities cannot afford to keep in shape. Rogoff was disturbed that cities were asking for federal grants to build more rail lines when they can't keep the existing trains in a state of good repair.
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