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The public health crisis means cities need to reevaluate transit projects

The COVID-19 crisis has started to force local governments to make painful choices about their spending priorities. The consequences will be particularly severe for public transit agencies, which face cuts in government subsidies as well as massive falls in ridership. It’s hard to predict when, if ever, public transit ridership will return to normal. Some companies that began remote work for employees may continue it indefinitely; passengers may stay off public transit for fear of infection; and corporate executives wary of traveling into large cities may push to move offices to office parks in wealthy suburbs near their own homes, as happened during the urban crises of the 1970s and 1980s.

Public transit agencies need to plan for severe near-term budget crunches and unpredictable changes in ridership plans. Unfortunately, several of them are instead investing large sums in inflexible expansion plans for a transit mode that was rarely well-considered to begin with: light rail. 

Over the past few decades, dozens of American cities have built new passenger rail systems; several are now planning expansions. These new projects typically economize by using smaller light-rail trains that are slower and lower-capacity than full subways but do not need dedicated tunnels or viaducts. Backers of light-rail projects often promise that the trains will attract new riders to public transit, and that they will save money in the long run because a light-rail train can carry many more riders than a bus.

But these promises rarely pan out. In the United States, light-rail systems uniformly cost significantly more per vehicle-hour to operate than buses in the same city, according to data collected by the Federal Transit Administration in 2018 — in the majority of cases, more than twice as much. This additional expenditure might be worthwhile if each light-rail car were used by more passengers than could fit into a bus — but this seems unlikely: Except for a few compact systems that serve relatively dense urban areas, ridership on light-rail systems in the United States is a small fraction of ridership in Europe and Canada.

In a recent issue brief for the Manhattan Institute, I analyzed 23 American light-rail systems and found that this poor performance comes down to two factors. First, agencies frequently plan routes through low-value areas, such as industrial parks and along freeways and disused freight railroads, to avoid opposition from neighborhood Nimbys. This is typically a false economy, because high-ridership light-rail lines require dense construction right next to the stations. Second, the boards of public transit agencies often are dominated by representatives from suburban areas who do not rely on their own systems. They prioritize investments that cater to infrequent suburban transit riders — such as rail connections to remote exurbs and express airport trains — rather than improvements for riders who use transit regularly.

Both of these distortions are on display, for example, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) is charging ahead with the Silver Line, a new commuter rail line connecting DFW International Airport with the affluent suburbs north of Dallas. These suburbs have experienced rapid job and residential growth, but the Silver Line, which follows a disused freight railroad through mostly industrial areas, does not serve most of them. DART’s own predictions, before the COVID-19 crisis, estimated that it would cost more than $200,000 per daily rider. Meanwhile, stops on Dallas’s most heavily used bus routes still lack benches and rain protection. Dallas is hardly alone: other cities from Houston to Phoenix and Seattle are proposing low-value suburban extensions of their light-rail networks, for unjustifiable costs.

Why are cities fine with constructing more passenger rail when the benefits have never been more dubious? In large part, because the federal government heavily subsidizes the costs of new systems. New Starts, for example, covers much of the construction costs for new fixed-guideway systems. Transit agencies can rely on other sources of federal funding, as well; for example, $900 million out of the $1.1 billion cost of the Silver Line is covered by a loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation. This isn’t just a bad deal for federal taxpayers, though: Local transit agencies have to pay for operations and maintenance for white-elephant rail systems out of their own pocket, and sometimes have to cut more useful service to compensate.

It is still far from certain how COVID-19 will alter urban travel in the United States, but this lack of certainty makes now the worst time to be making costly speculative investments in new transportation, especially following a model — new rail construction in low-density areas — that so far has failed to live up to its promises. The federal government should end subsidies for new rail construction that doesn’t serve areas with high jobs and residential densities, and local transit authorities should put suburban rail expansion plans on hold.

Connor Harris is a policy analyst for the Manhattan Institute and author of “The Economics of Urban Light Rail: A Guide for Planners and Citizens.” Follow him on Twitter @cmhrrs.

Tags coronavirus economy light rail Public transport Sustainable urban planning

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