Light Rail to Nowhere


A front-page story in yesterday's New York Times noted that politicians' transportation vanity projects drain money away from the sort of maintenance work that apparently was needed on the Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis last week. I was pleasantly surprised to see the Times put light rail lines in the same category as boondoggles like Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere:

Further, transportation and engineering experts said, lawmakers have financed a boom in rail construction that, while politically popular, has resulted in expensive transit systems that are not used by a vast majority of American commuters.

Representative James L. Oberstar, Democrat of Minnesota and the chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, sent out a news release last month boasting about Minnesota's share of a recent transportation and housing appropriations bill.

Of the $12 million secured for the state, $10 million is slated for a new 40-mile commuter rail line to Minneapolis, called the Northstar….

Some transportation experts also said that though light rail and other public transportation projects made sense in cities, investing in them in sprawling suburban regions might not, even if the systems were supported, in theory, by the public.

"Too many American cities are spending far too much money on expensive rail transit projects, which are used for only 1 to 2 percent of local travel, and far too little on highway projects which are used for 95 to 99 percent of local travel," Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, said in an e-mail interview.

O'Toole explained the folly of light rail in this 2004 paper (PDF) co-published by the Reason Foundation, which has assembled its light rail links herereason's coverage of the subject includes a 1999 piece by O'Toole and an article by Sam Staley and Ted Balaker in our April issue.