Defining Success: The Case against Rail Transit

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Over the past four decades, American citieshave spent close to $100 billion constructing railtransit systems, and many billions more operatingthose systems. The agencies that spend taxpayerdollars building these lines almost invariably callthem successful even when they go an average of40 percent over budget and, in many cases, carry aninsignificant number of riders. The people whorarely or never ride these lines but still have to payfor them should ask, “How do you define success?”

This Policy Analysis uses the latest governmentdata on scores of rail transit systems toevaluate the systems’ value and usefulness to thepublic using six different tests:

  • Profitability: Do rail fares cover operatingcosts?
  • Ridership: Do new rail lines significantlyincrease transit ridership?
  • Cost‐​Effectiveness: Are new rail lines lessexpensive to operate than buses providingservice at similar frequencies and speeds?
  • The “Cable Car” Test: Do rail lines performas well as or better than cable cars, the oldestand most expensive form of mechanizedland‐​based transportation?
  • The Economic Development Test: Do new raillines truly stimulate economic development?
  • The Transportation Network Test: Do raillines add to or place stresses upon existingtransportation networks?

No system passes all of these tests, and in fact fewof them pass any of the tests at all.