Light Rail a Bad Choice for Florida County

Light rail offers no advantage over buses other than its high cost, and that’s only an advantage if you are a rail contractor.
August 18, 2014 • Commentary
This article appeared in Watch​Dog​.org on August 18, 2014.

Building a light‐​rail line at the heart of Florida’s Pinellas County, as the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority proposes to do, is like building an ordinary home but making the walls, ceiling and floors of the hallway out of solid gold. The golden hallway would more than double the cost of the home but add nothing to its functionality.

Light rail offers no advantage over buses other than its high cost, and that’s only an advantage if you are a rail contractor. Both can operate at about the same speeds, but light rail can only go where tracks go, while buses can fan out all over the county, saving people time by not making them transfer from bus to rail.

Railcars hold more people than buses, but for safety reasons light‐​rail lines can only support about 20 trains per hour, meaning most light‐​rail lines can move about 9,000 people per hour. By comparison, a single street can serve more than 160 buses per hour, and new double‐​decker buses can hold more than 100 people, meaning that street can move nearly twice as many people as a light‐​rail line.

Moreover, the bus riders will be more comfortable. When trains are full, more than half of light‐​rail riders have to stand, but when buses are full more than two thirds can be comfortably seated.

Light rail is a particularly poor choice for Pinellas County, where census data indicate that only about 6,000 people out of more than 400,000 workers commute to work by transit. Spending $1.6 billion or more on a light‐​rail line is not going to significantly increase that number.

PSTA’s own numbers indicate that, compared with bus‐​rapid transit, getting one person out of their car and onto PSTA’s proposed light‐​rail line for one trip will cost nearly $57. That means adding one more transit commuter would cost more than $25,000 a year.

It would cost less to give every new transit commuter a new Toyota Prius every year for the next 30 years than to build the proposed light‐​rail line.

PSTA has a history of poor management. Between 1991 and 2005, it spent millions of dollars increasing transit service by 46 percent, yet it attracted virtually no new riders.

Instead, the result was emptier buses as average number of riders on PSTA’s buses, which have an average of 38 seats, declined from 10.1 to 5.7 people per bus, little more than half the national average.

Between 2008 and 2012, the recession forced PSTA to cut bus service by 8 percent. Yet ridership grew by 17 percent, raising the average of bus riders to 8.0, still well under the national average. This means there is plenty of room on PSTA buses for more riders without increasing service.

Now PSTA wants voters to reward it for its failures by changing from a property tax to a sales tax and more than doubling its local tax revenue. In exchange, it promises to run more empty buses around the county and build a tax‐​draining light‐​rail line.

One problem with this proposal is that sales taxes decline even more in recessions than property taxes. This would leave PSTA even more strapped for funds in the next economic downturn, especially if a large share of its revenue was dedicated to paying an inflexible mortgage.

A second problem is that PSTA assumes spending more money means more riders. In fact, many cities that have built rail transit lines have actually lost transit riders as the high cost of rail forced transit agencies to cut bus service.

Finally, PSTA’s proposal to build light rail reveals a callous disregard for taxpayers and the need to make the most effective use of available resources. PSTA’s own analysis reveals that light rail is so wasteful that, under Federal Transit Administration rules that were in effect until just recently, it would not be eligible for federal support.

PSTA needs to go back to the drawing board to prepare a new transit plan for Pinellas County. By directing available resources to areas where they will do the most good, this new plan could actually increase ridership without a tax increase.

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