Debate Rages Over Light Transit's Value
By Jennifer Brown, Staff Assistant
Traffic congestion increases. Commuter frustration mounts. And debate continues about how much funding should be given to light rail systems that may or may not be effective a question that seems to depend on who you talk to.
U.S. cities have been adding light rails to their transit systems for two decades, trying to curb traffic congestion and provide cleaner, more energy-efficient options for the thousands of commuters traveling to and from work everyday.
Eighteen major cities in the United States have light rail systems and more than 20 new systems have been proposed in these and other cities, according to the American Public Transportation Association
While less congestion and efficiency sound good to most people, state lawmakers and government officials want to know if light rails help enough to make the possible $1 billion to $2 billion investments worthwhile.
Advocates say light rail reduces traffic congestion and improves air quality while offering people a comfortable ride. Opponents say light rail costs too much, hasn't met ridership expectations and does not provide significant environmental benefits.
Colorado Rep. Alice Madden (D-Boulder) believes light rail is a good investment. "It is often cheaper than any all-highway alternative," Madden said, explaining why she pushed for the new double-track light rail system under construction in Denver.
"Six to eight freeway lanes would displace thousands of homes and commercial structures and would cost many times the light rail cost," Madden said.
Light rail advocates claim that operating lines have increased transit use overall, and consumer demand is driving the proposals for new and extended lines.
"The systems start with overruns and surprises," said Richard Borkowski, president of People for Modern Transit. "But as they go, there tend to be fewer surprises, and growth is driven by consumer demand because people see it as a better alternative to highway construction alone."
Borkowski says light rail offers people comfort and spaciousness not found on buses with the added benefit of "time-certain travel."
"Even though it may not be faster than a car, people know with certainty that travel time isn't going to change from day to day," he said. "With cars, sometimes you can spend a lot of time just finding parking or sitting in traffic."
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) approves transit projects and provides grants to states and localities to help pay for development, but the states and localities choose the transit mode and bear the bulk of the cost for their chosen mode.
"By law, we are mode neutral," Bruce Frame, spokesman for the FTA, said. The FTA evaluates transit proposals based on several criteria, including cost-effectiveness and environmental benefits.
Opponents of light rail contend that current systems have not lived up to the criteria, particularly cost-effectiveness.
"A lot of legislative people think they're getting free money out of D.C. to build these fancy rail systems," said Jerry Schneider, a Washington University professor and president of Innovative Transit Technologies. "That free money is driving the system toward more and more expensive solutions that don't come anywhere close to being cost-effective."
Schneider cites the proposal for a light rail system in Seattle, estimated to cost more than $100 million per mile, to show the high cost of light rail. He argues that not enough people use light rail to justify the cost. He says there are less expensive options that will provide the personal mobility people want.
John Niles, a member of the anti-light rail group Sane Transit, agrees that people want mobility not offered by light rail systems.
"The problem with light rail is fundamentally that it costs so much and doesn't go to very many places," said John Niles, a member of the anti-light rail group Sane Transit. "Cities have been built around automobiles, which allow for very high levels of dispersion."
Niles says light rail is limited to downtown areas because of its high cost to build, which means suburban commuters will still use their cars, either to drive to light-rail stations or the whole way to avoid the hassle of transfers.
"There will always be places that it's more fun and more convenient to take a car," Niles said. "At the end of the day, the train has to go where you want to go."
Transit advocates like Borkowski do not deny the challenge to suburban commuters, but they say that park-and-rides provide the solution.
"The trend has been that you can never build enough park-and-rides," Borkowski said. "I think it's a necessary requirement to deal with the lower densities of America, where people live out it in the suburbs."
Park-and-rides cause many light rail opponents to question the environmental benefits of light rail because not only are the trains run by electricity generated from coal plants, people are still driving their cars to get to the light rail stations.
"You have to look at the whole trip cycle," Niles said. "When you're talking about air quality, light rail really does remarkably little."