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.