Holy Rail

Mass transit boondoggles.

Although the drawbacks of rail-based mass transit are well-known enough to have inspired an episode of The Simpsons, local authorities' enthusiasm for laying track seems undimmed. As a new report from the Colorado-based Independence Institute explains, "the coalition of pork-lovers, auto-haters, and nostalgia buffs" that backs rail transit over more cost-effective alternatives is hard to beat, even if you have all the facts on your side.

In "Great Rail Disasters," economist Randal O'Toole (an adjunct scholar with the Reason Public Policy Institute, which co-published the study) meticulously lays out these facts, assessing the track record of rail transit in 23 urban areas based on 13 criteria, including ridership, cost, congestion, energy use, and safety. Among other things, he shows that advocates of rail projects routinely overestimate their popularity among commuters and underestimate their costs; that such projects "can cost 50 times as much to start as comparable bus transit"; that they typically make congestion worse instead of alleviating it (for the auto haters, that result is intended); that "the average light-rail line consumes more energy per passenger mile" than cars do; and that "rails are more deadly than the alternatives in 15 out of 23 rail regions."

In short, O'Toole writes in his understated conclusion, "rail transit is not the urban savior that its advocates claim." To the contrary, he says, "it is clear that rail transit detracts from urban livability by far more than it adds."

O'Toole argues that transportation spending should be judged by "the cost per hour of reduced delay." By that standard, he says, a system that combined bus rapid transit with networks of high-occupancy/toll lanes charging congestion-based prices would almost always look a lot better than rail.

O'Toole notes that "the biggest problem with rail transit is its great cost, which imposes a tax burden on urban areas most of whose residents rarely, if ever, use rail transit." In most places, he argues, the expense and inconvenience of taking trains, especially as compared to driving, will prevent them from becoming a popular option. But politicians eager for federal subsidies are still willing to spend the lion's share of their transportation budgets on rail systems. O'Toole illustrates this disconnect with a quote from the satirical newspaper The Onion: "98 percent of Americans support the use of mass transit by others."

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