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Light rail costs too much, does too little

Cooking the Books

Nov 5


The Salt Lake County Council of Governments recently agreed to spend $2.5 billion on rail transit. But a state auditor found that the analysis used to justify the decision contained some errors that, if corrected, would have indicated the money should be spent on roads instead.

The analysis ranked commuter rail as the second-highest priority transportation investment for the county. But when the errors were corrected, it dropped to 19th out of 34.

“So what?” say city and county leaders. They would have spent the money on rail no matter what the analysis found.

Although cost overruns and ridership shortfalls are a problem, planners don’t bother to greatly cook the books in favor of rail transit because they know that politicians will tend to support it no matter how bad the analysis says it is. This is partly because they only hear what they want to hear.

In Denver, an analysis of the East (airport) Corridor found:

                        Cost     Delay Saved New freeway lanes        $305       61,200 HOV lanes/BRT             337       41,900 Diesel rail               374       29,700 Electric rail             571       30,300

Capital costs in millions, delay saved is annual hours of congestion delay saved by the project. Source: pp. 37-39 of the East Corridor Major Investment Study Final Report.

In other words, new highway lanes or bus-rapid transit both cost less and did more to relieve congestion than either electric or Diesel rail transit. Yet the director of Denver’s transit agency and various Denver-area politicians who claim to have read this study all believe that the study found that rail transit was more cost-effective at relieving congestion than roads.

The only surprising thing to me was that they initially picked Diesel-rail transit, which didn’t waste as much money as electric. Not to worry: under the current plan (which is now estimated to cost over a billion dollars), they are going to build electric rail.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Council is talking about (29-MB PowerPoint show) setting a target of reducing per-capita driving by 10 percent by the year 2030. (This was proposed in a state bill, S.B. 375, which failed to pass this year.) To achieve this, they propose to impose a big enough carbon or other driving tax to double the cost of driving.

They also propose to spend $60 billion of the resulting revenue on rail transit and ferries, a mere $10 billion on HOT lanes & bus-rapid transit, plus $600 million on freeway operations (ramp metering, traffic signal coordination).

Almost as an afterthought, they note that money invested in freeway operations are 15 to 50 times more cost-effective at reducing pollution and congestion than HOT lanes/BRT, while HOT/BRT are 5 to 60 times more cost-effective than rail and ferry.

So why blow so much money on rail transit? Because we don’t want to let any real data get in the way of our preconceived notions.

The presentation adds that road pricing could bring in $34 billion a year — five times as much as they spend on all transportation today. You can almost see the planners salivating at the opportunity to spend all that money on rail transit.

The most cost-effective way to reduce pollution and congestion is to build more roads and to price those roads. In fact, this approach pays for itself — no tax dollars required. But instead of focusing on that, planners want to reduce people’s mobility and blow a bunch of money on ineffective transit projects. I suspect they lose interest in road pricing once they realize that it is incompatible with their goal of reducing per-capita driving.


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Reprinted from The Antiplanner