Although they invariably cost far more per passenger mile than buses or automobiles, light-rail trains continue to capture the hearts of urban planners nationwide. Light-rail systems, as opposed to heavy-rail systems like New York's famous subway, use trains that travel on the surface, crossing other traffic rights-of-way. According to the Web site lightrail.com, such systems operate in 18 American cities, with four more under construction and more than 35 brand new systems approved or under active consideration.
One of the cities to get on board recently is Madison, Wisconsin, where the city council in January decided to spend $2.5 million to plan a light-rail line. An intergovernmental organization called Transport 2020 had propagandized the public with a 40-page report on the wonders light rail could bring to the Madison area. That report was based on a longer study done by Parsons Brinkerhoff, a company that designs and builds light-rail lines.
According to transportation policy analyst Randal O'Toole, Parsons Brinkerhoff, despite its direct pecuniary interest in the matter, was more intellectually honest than the governmental Transport 2020 crew. Parsons Brinkerhoff indicated that with two new commuter rail lines, Madison could raise the number of daily trips taken on mass transit, to 56,650 a day, from 37,250 trips without any new effort. But the firm also noted that daily trips could be raised to 55,500 merely by enhancing bus service -- at a capital cost of $60.3 million, compared to a whopping $242 million for light rail.
When Transport 2020 summarized this report for public consumption, it left out the data regarding the bus alternative. As O'Toole puts it, "Transport 2020 is telling unwary Madisonians that commuter rail is needed to increase transit ridership by 50 percent. In fact, all commuter rail does is unnecessarily spend $181 million to get less than 2 percent more riders."
Light rail remains popular with local governments because it can mean huge state and federal subsidies for construction. O'Toole argues that light rail also plays to city officials' affinity for "monument building" and their desire to seem devoted to public transit. But such devotion comes with a high price tag: According to O'Toole's calculations, cities that have light rail or are planning to build it spend anywhere from 18 to 70 times as much per passenger mile on mass transit as on highways.