Light Rail Claims vs. Facts

The following is from Light Rail Progress in Austin, Texas:


In a recent debate, light rail opponent Jim Skaggs, nominal head of the anti-transit group ROAD (Reclaim Our Allocated Dollars), presented a number of claims and arguments which apparently went unanswered or inadequately answered. Light Rail Progress has been asked to respond to these points, which have been recorded and forward by Barbara McMillin.

We believe these issues will be raised by light rail opponents in virtually any city - certainly, any North American city. Light rail supporters may well face these or very similar claims and arguments in cities such as Cincinnati, Louisville, Orlando, Norfolk, Birmingham, Memphis, Tucson, Hartford, Kansas City, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Indianapolis, Victoria ... to name just a few urban areas seriously considering light rail transit (LRT). Accordingly, we are sending this information to our entire list.

Light Rail Progress 09/22/00


CLAIM: “rail never comes in under budget...”

FACT: The MAJORITY of light rail projects have come in within or even under budget.


In Portland, both the original Eastside line project (1986, $214 million) and the more recent Westside line project (1998, $964 million) were within the agency's full-funding agreement with the Federal Transit Administration. [Source: Center for Transportation Excellence website]

Denver: The nearly 9-mile-long Southwest light rail line to Littleton, which opened in July, came in on target at a total cost of $177.7 million. [Source: Denver Business Journal September 4, 2000]

Salt Lake City: According to the Utah Transit Authority Grants Administrator's Office, the publicly budgeted figure for the TRAX LRT system was $312.5 million at the time the project was funded. The actual payout has been almost exactly $300 - several million dollars UNDER budget.


CLAIM: “overall transit ridership is declining in U.S. ...”

FACT: US transit ridership has been SOARING and hitting records. In 1999, ridership surged to a total of more than 9 billion trips, the highest peak in annual ridership since 1960. Total ridership in 1999 was 4.5 percent higher than in the previous year.

That trend is continuing. For the first quarter of this year, the nationís public transportation systems have recorded a 4.8 increase in ridership over the same period in 1999 [Source: APTA]

Light rail systems have been chalking up particularly impressive ridership gains. Here are samples from the first quarter of 2000:

San Diego Trolley - 33.5% increase
Memphis (historic trolley) - 29.9% increase
Santa Clara VTA in San Jose - 23.9% increase
Denverís Regional Transportation District - 19.1% increase
[Source: APTA]

[We suspect similar gains have been recorded in Canada, but this information is not currently at hand.]


CLAIM: “trains run 5 miles an hour...”

FACT: Modern LRT systems' typical average speed (with stops) usually fall in the range of 20-25 mph.

It's important to put this in perspective.

Automobile in urban traffic: 23-25 mph
Local street bus: 11-13 mph
Downtown circulator bus: 5-9 mph

Here are some sample averages for LRT, based on schedules and line length:

Baltimore: 24 mph
Salt Lake City: 24 mph
Dallas: Red Line 21 mph, Blue Line 20 mph

SPECIAL NOTES: “Official” average speeds, often reported to the FTA, may be lower, because these include the layover times at the end of runs - which passengers don't experience. From the standpoint of service to the public and competition with automobile traffic, average speeds based on actual run time (schedule) and route length are more realistic.

Also, LRT national averages typically include a hodge-podge of older, slower streetcar systems (e.g., Boston, San Francisco) and slow historic systems (e.g., New Orleans, Memphis, Seattle, Detroit) as well as modern, fast LRT systems. That gives opponents like Skaggs lots of (erroneous) ammunition.


CLAIM: “traffic problems will be worse with a train trying to share an already crowded street...”

FACT: Traffic problems have NOT become worse in cities with light rail running in arterials - such as San Diego, Sacramento, Portland, San Jose, Calgary, Salt Lake City, Denver, Dallas. Light rail, because of upgrades to traffic-signal systems and predictable flow, can actually introduce smoother traffic flow better synchronized with signal-light cycles.

In Austin, existing street capacity will be maintained, even with LRT installed. On major arterials like North Lamar, Guadalupe, and South Congress, light rail will tremendously INCREASE the people-moving capability of these arterials - both initially and ultimately.

According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, urban arterials like Lamar Blvd. and South Congress Ave. (routes targeted for segregated light rail alignments) have lane capacity of up to 600 passenger cars per hour, equivalent to 720 persons per hour (at average occupancy of 1.2 persons/car). This would be exceeded by two 3-car light rail trains alone, totaling perhaps 750 passengers.

Based on ridership projections, it can be noted that morning peak hour trains on North Lamar would be carrying more than 2,000 passengers in a single hour into Austin's core area - nearly 3 times the capacity of adjacent arterial lanes.


CLAIM: “he has ‘facts’ comparing lane miles to LRT number of riders...”

FACT: This probably refers to the claim, circulated by Wendell Cox and others, that a freeway lane carries more people than LRT.

This is pure hokum. Most modern LRT systems carry actual peak-hour volumes equivalent to at least one or more freeway lanes.

Cox bases his claims on ideal, theoretical capacities of freeway lanes - which the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) admits are never attained - and then compares this figure to actual volumes on LRT (or volumes "melted" by faulty "numbers voodoo" applied by transit opponents).

Example: Dallas's DART LRT system, which carries approximately 2,400 riders in the maximum peak direction at the highest peak period.

Cox claims that “On average a freeway lane carries between 2,250 and 2,750 passengers during a typical peak hour (60 minutes).”

Cox consistently and drastically overestimates the capacity of freeway lanes. According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the “derived service volume” of a single freeway lane (one lane of 4, Level of Service C, 0.83 peak hour factor) is 1,370 cars/hour. That is MORE than the DESIGN level, which, for 60 MPH operation, would be only 740.

We will use the “derived service volume” as that is a closer measure of what freeways actually carry. (The 2000/hour figure repeatedly used by Cox is a purely THEORETICAL value which AASHTO admits is NEVER attained in practice.)

The AASHTO figure assumes no trucks. If we factor in, realistically, the typical mix of 20% heavy trucks (Institute of Transportation Engineers), the resultant volume (working capacity) is about 1100 cars/hour. At the typical urban peakhour commuter occupancy of 1.1 person/car, that's about 1,200 PERSONS carried by the freeway lane.

**DART's light rail line is, therefore, at peak hour, carrying approximately TWICE the capacity of a freeway lane, or about the capacity of 2 freeway lanes.**

And that's just in the PEAK direction.


CLAIM: “being able to supply everyone with a car -- that's is how expensive rail is...”

FACT: It is pure subterfuge to imply that all transportation and mobility problems for each potential (new) rider are solved simply by providing a vehicle. What's this vehicle going to roll on - clouds? Where's it going to be parked? Who's going to pay the cost of fuel? Repairs? Insurance? Once you add all those costs, the cost per passenger-mile of driving a car is far greater than that of riding mass transit - bus or rail (and in comparable service deployments, rail is almost invariably cheaper than bus).

The fully allocated costs of operating an automobile (including streets, freeways, parking facilities, traffic control, etc.) amount to about $1.32 per passenger-mile. For light rail, the cost varies by facility, but typically falls in the range $0.80-0.90 (in Austin, about $0.85).

NOTE: Details on these calculations are being prepared for release and will be posted on the Light Rail Now/Progress website.


CLAIM: “rail has no impact on mobility, air quality, or congestion...”

FACT: These recent statements by Capital Metro General Manager Karen Rae address this issue:

No one solution, whether it's roads or rail, will reduce congestion. We believe a combination of mobility solutions, including light rail, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, incident management and improved bus service, can slow the growth of congestion.

Light rail is one of the only transportation solutions that removes cars from the road. Think of the checkout lines at a crowded grocery store. What happens when they open another lane? Even if you don't move to that line, everyone gets through faster. The same will happen for drivers on Interstate 35 or MoPac Boulevard when we "open" a light-rail line.

EL Tennyson also points out that “FTA [Federal Transit Administration] ... with help from Texas Transportation Institute, has determined that rail transit DOES RELIEVE highway congestion by scientific measurement.”

Tennyson quotes the following summary from an FTA Policy Paper, USDOT 2000:

“Public transit is provided for several reasons, including basic mobiity, congestion relief, and land use efficiency. The research concluded that user benefits, net of costs and subsidies, nationwide (as of 1995) for the aforementioned three categories were $ 6.44 (mobility), $ 3.07 congestion, and $ 9.82 (land use efficiency) per user.”

In other words, mobility and congestion-relief benefits, according the the FTA, amount to nearly $10 per transit user.

Regarding the air pollution impact, Tennyson also points out:

Metropolian areas with complete rail transit systems (several lines) consume thirty (30) percent less motor fuel than cities relying only on bus transit. That is a whale of a lot of difference. For Austin, with one million population predicted, that will mean 130 million gallons of burnt fuel saved every year, worth almost $200 million per year, plus any health benefits.

The bottom line: LRT is an important element in a toolbox of measures aimed at reducing air pollution.


CLAIM: “rail in Portland handles so few riders (he just went there 10 days ago and rode the Portland line)...”

FACT: Ridership on the MAX light rail system in Portland recently reached 74,000 boardings per day and is apparently still climbing. That's a stunning achievement for a relatively small system. And for some special events the LRT system appears to have handled approximately 80,000 rider-trips per day (on 2 recent parade days, ridership totaled 160,000). [Source: Portland Tri-Met]

MAX's accomplishment is even more impressive, compared to the bus system, when one considers that the LRT system is carrying 26% of the Tri-Met transit agency's total system ridership - about 1/3 the ridership of bus operations - over a single 33-mile line made up of 2 routes, with 50 stations, and only 72 vehicles, compared with 102 bus routes, serving over 8,200 bus stops, and running 664 buses.


CLAIM: “Austin has an inadequate road system and that money is needed to build roads and HOV lanes -- a whole package of other items...”

FACT: Austin may need road improvements, but it does not compare poorly to other cities. Austin has MORE state and federally funded (i.e., top-quality) lane-miles per capita than any other Texas city. [Source: Based on TxDOT data]

Regarding HOV lanes, Capital Metro has already pledged over $90 million to construct these, and may allocate more than twice that in addition.


CLAIM: “the rail money needs to be spent on these items...”

FACT: Under current legislation, Capital Metro can allocate up to 25% of its revenues on transit-related roadway projects. However, any money diverted from transit capital projects like LRT will lose matching Federal transit grants - a net loss to the city.


CLAIM: “Austin doesn't have sufficient density in comparison to other cities that have rail (the only areas that had ... 20 people per acre density which is what you need is the UT area and the UT apartment area off Riverside)”

FACT: Several US cities with successful light systems have density comparable to Austin's.

Here's a comparison of Austin's city population density (persons per square mile), with that of several cities operating light rail installed within the last 4 decades, taken from 1990 Census data:

  Population Sq. Mi. Persons/sq mi
Austin 465,622 217.8 2,138.1
Dallas 1,006,877 342.4 2,940.6
Fort Worth 447,619 281.1 1,592.5
Salt Lake City 159,936 109.0 1,467.0
Denver  467,610 153.3 3,050.7

Here are a couple of cities where installation of new light rail systems is under way:

  Population Sq. Mi. Persons/sq mi
Tacoma 176,664 48.0 3,676.9
Phoenix 983,403 419.9 2,342.0

Here are several cities which, like Austin, are seriously considering installing new LRT systems:

  Population Sq. Mi. Persons/sq mi
Kansas City 435,146 11.5 1,396.8
Cincinnati  364,040 77.2 4,714.1
Louisville 269,063 62.1 4,331.9
Indianapolis 731,327 361.7  2,022.1
Orlando 164,693 67.3 2,448.4
Norfolk 261,229 53.8 4,859.3

Finally, it's worth including in this comparison Atlanta's “heavy” rapid rail system system, which is comfortably successful as the second-lowest-cost mover of people (per passenger-mile) in North America (the San Diego Trolley is first, with very slightly lower cost). Amazingly, Atlanta's urban density of about 2,990 persons/sq mi - enough to justify HEAVY rail - is in the ball park of Austin's density of 2,138.

  Population Sq. Mi. Persons/sq mi
Atlanta 394,017 131.8 2,989.9

Clearly, Austin's population density is well within the range of a number of peer cities either operating, constructing, or seriously considering the installation of light rail.


CLAIM: “redevelopment occurred in Dallas because it would have occurred anyway along Central Expressway...”

FACT: Much of the redevelopment has occurred downtown and in Oak Cliff, far from the Central Expressway - downtown's spectacular West End restaurant district redevelopment, for example, which rehabilitated a blighted old industrial area, and is nowhere near the Central Expressway.

And if the Central Expressway was such a development catalyst, why did all the development wait for DART's light rail before it started?

Typical of the new, rail-oriented development is the new neighborhood sprouting up around DART's Mockingbird station, described in the “Dallas Morning News” of 27 August 2000 (in an article titled “A new neighborhood - Lofts making an urban nest out of Mockingbird Lane”). Here's an excerpt:

For the first time in its 50 years as a Dallas landmark on Mockingbird Lane, Campisi's Egyptian Room finds itself in a new role: a real neighborhood restaurant.

Throughout its history at the location, the area has been strictly a busy commercial district. For decades, the Dr Pepper bottling plant was directly across the street. The nearest apartments were across Central Expressway, and the closest homes were in the “M Streets” off Lower Greenville Avenue.

Now, a 449-unit, art-deco apartment complex has replaced the Dr Pepper plant, and 211 loft apartments are expected to open next year a block away at the DART station on Mockingbird.

“It's great to watch a real neighborhood go in here,” said restaurant owner Corky Campisi. “When people move in, I give them a flier and free dinner and say, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood.’”

The Mockingbird area just east of Central Expressway is now officially booming. The Phoenix apartment building opened in December and is already more than 90 percent occupied, according to leasing agents.

The Mockingbird Station lofts – which will house apartments as well as restaurants, a movie theater, a coffee shop and clothing stores – is pre-leasing lofts and retail space. And the formerly vacant Hiltop Inn has reopened as the Hotel Santa Fe.

The result is a new, crowded urban center, where residents can walk to the train station, a grocery store, restaurants, and, if they want, across the expressway to SMU and its sparkling new stadium.

The parking lots for Mockingbird's DART station are usually full, and the number of people getting on and off the light-rail train each weekday has increased by 100 since March, up to 2,240, according to transit authority statistics.

“Obviously some of that is because of The Phoenix, and we expect that to only pick up when Mockingbird Station opens,” said DART spokesman Morgan Lyons.

“The light rail has certainly helped the area. It just makes it so much easier to do all kinds of things.”

Access to the light-rail station is definitely a draw for the area, say residents, but there are other incentives as well: close proximity to downtown, access to SMU, existing retail and the promise of new shops and restaurants.


CLAIM: [light rail] “is just like the streetcars Austin used to have. ([Skaggs] shows a postcard from the past with streetcar on Congress Avenue)...”

FACT: Well, it should be pretty clear that modern light rail is not old-time streetcars - the ROAD people are just making fools of themselves with that claim.

But - Hey! Oldtime streetcars are supposed to be bad? So why has New Orleans kept its historic St. Charles line in operation, running trolleys built in the 1920s? Why has New Orleans opened its historic Riverfront line, running even more historic trolleys? And why are they putting their Canal St. line back into operation?

Would Skaggs and his ROAD crew wag their fingers at San Francisco for keeping historic cable cars and trolleys?

From Seattle to Memphis to Detroit, cities are finding the public LOVES the old trolleys - they're a huge tourist attraction and a money-maker!


CLAIM: “light rail is not heavy rail like San Francisco, New York, Chicago ... light rail will have unsightly overhead wires...”

FACT: Are trolley wires more “unsightly” than ... street lights? Traffic lights? Elevated freeways?

Look at the photos of light rail on websites like LightRailNow/Progress: decide.


CLAIM: “all rail does is move bus riders to rail, that most riders were former bus riders, and that a small percentage ... new ones ...”

FACT: Light rail ridership does initially include many former bus riders - the FTA mandates that light rail absorb and build on previous bus transit ridership in the given corridor. These riders therefore get faster, safer, more comfortable, and more reliable service.

However, a major portion of the ridership on new light rail lines consists of new riders, most of whom are attracted from automobiles. In Dallas, about 40% of riders on DART's LRT system formerly used automobiles; in St. Louis, the figure is about 70%. For Austin, about 50% are projected to be attracted from previous automobile travel in the corridors served.

However, that's ridership on new lines. Once the service is established and mature, more and more riders can be considered to be attracted from automobiles. LRT largely stops the “hemorrhaging” of (bus) riders to cars - rail tends to retain riders to a much greater extent than do buses. Thus, after a number of years, virtually all the riders on a light rail line could be considered as persons who, one way or another, would be using the crowded roadway system if the LRT service wasn't there (look at the results of the LA strike).


CLAIM: “the reason rail has former bus riders is that the bus routes have been eliminated...”

FACT: Existing bus routes are almost never eliminated. Instead, they may be re-routed somewhat to provide better cross town and/or neighborhood-access service, and to feed light rail and other heavy-volume “spine” routes.


CLAIM: “all rail is doing is moving people who used to ride buses and ... we will spend $3 billion for bus riders to ride rail...”

FACT: See response above to the allegation that all rail riders are former bus riders. Skaggs and other ROAD Warriors keep “growing” their claim of how much light rail will cost - much like Pinocchio's nose.


CLAIM: “bus riders don't like rail because they have to spend more time than before because of the added step of catching the bus to get to the rail station before catching the train...”

FACT: For the vast majority of bus riders in the corridor, access to LRT will be the same as to the previous bus service. For those who have been transferring, the connection will be even better and faster. For the minority of past riders who may face a new need to transfer from bus to rail, even then the trip may be as fast, or even faster, because the light rail service is faster.


CLAIM: “riders don't wear coats or ties or carry briefcases...”

FACT: Is Skaggs trying to claim that LRT doesn't attract more affluent, middleclass, business riders? Of course it does - as anyone riding a in LRT train in Dallas, St. Louis, Denver, San Diego, Portland, or in any other LRT city knows.

The ROAD Warriors seem to be arguing at cross-purposes on this issue - some (like Max Nofziger) claimning the LRT trains will be populated only by rich, suburban, "techies", and others (like Skaggs) portraying a poor and rather seedy ridership for whom lavish transit expenditures would be a waste.

In reality, LRT has proven it attracts the transit-dependent AND riders with somewhat higher incomes. This issue is discussed on the Light Rail Progress website: on Myths, then on the story “Light Rail and Lower- Income Transit Riders”.


CLAIM: “the expense of rail is not justified because it moves so few people...”

FACT: Light rail has passed a difficult benefit-cost test in qualifying for federal funding. The FTA's “cost per new rider” index is a stringent mandatory hurdle which is highly disfavorable to rail. For example, it doesn't allow the agency to consider the ridership-generating impact of new development clustered around the rail stations, nor does it permit planners to take into account the special factors which particularly attract people to rail rather than bus service. Nevertheless, CapMetro's rail plan has PASSED that extremely difficult test.

Passing a benefit-cost analysis like this, as Metro's rail plan has done, means that light rail is projected to have sufficient ridership - including NEW riders - as well as overall benefits to justify the expense.

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