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Light Rail: Real Solution for Austin Traffic
Myth: Buses can do the job of light rail at much less cost.
Fact: Buses are not a viable alternative to light rail transit (LRT). Buses in today's congested traffic are slow, inefficient, and expensive to operate --- and they've been typically losing riders to the automobile. Rail systems --- with LRT in the lead --- have been gaining riders. For the anti-transit, pro-automobile opponents of LRT, buses are in effect a form of euthanasia for public transit.
The expansion of light rail service has been a key factor in reversing the steep decline in public transit ridership of the past 5 decades. Rail transit ridership has climbed at a rate several times that of bus ridership, which has comparatively remained stagnant. Between 1977 and 1997, while motor bus ridership rose just 5%, "heavy" rail ridership (mainly on subway/elevated transit) increased 13%, and light rail ridership skyrocketed an astounding 155%. Source: American Public Transportation Association data
Rail opponents try to counterpose buses on freeways as an alternative to LRT. But in today's semi-gridlocked traffic conditions, that's a joke: Why would motorists stuck in freeway traffic want to abandon their cars for buses stuck in freeway traffic?
High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes --- freeway lanes reserved for buses and (usually) 2-person "carpools" --- are also touted as "low- cost" alternatives to rail transit. But while buses on HOV lanes are certainly an improvement to buses in mixed traffic, they're definitely not an alternative to light rail.
First, spend money on HOV lanes, and you've come a good part of the way in paying for a decent LRT system --- but you're still stuck with buses and all their problems.
Second, buses may not experience much traffic congestion in the HOV lane ... but how about getting into and out of the HOV lanes? Once again, as buses sit in traffic congestion getting over to the exit ramp, or waiting in the traffic-clogged exit lane itself - would motorists really yearn to forsake their cars to sit in a bus stuck in traffic?
Third, how do buses on HOV lanes ever stop to pick up passengers? Answer: They don't. Typically, the buses poke around on streets in the suburbs, picking up passengers, then run as express buses to a central location. While their schedule speed often equals or exceeds that of LRT, it's an "apples-to-oranges" comparison --- express buses compete, not with LRT, but with express commuter rail (which has proven it attracts and keeps more passengers).
In contrast, LRT provides an acceptable cross between express and local service - what's called limited-stop service. Light rail trains stop to pick up all those passengers along the route who are bypassed by HOV-lane buses ... and yet LRT still offers a high schedule speed and a ride that's attractive and comfortable enough to compete with the automobile!
And light rail holds a huge economic advantage over buses in operating cost. In Portland, for example, the operating cost per boarding bus rider is $1.67; for Portland's MAX light rail line, it's just $1.40. In Dallas, DART's new light rail system has plunged the operating cost per-passenger-mile to just 62% of that of DART's fixed-route buses --- a 38% cost drop. Source: Portland Tri-Met website 00/02/22; FTA data, summer 1999
Those operating cost savings are typically translated into an overall expansion of the entire transit system. Since 1993, St. Louis's new light rail system, for example, has helped double the metro area's total transit ridership in contrast with where it was headed before LRT. In Portland, area wide transit ridership has soared since LRT was introduced in 1986 - reversing transit's previous downward trend, and now hitting an historic high. Source: Austin360.com 00/04/08; Tri-Met website April 2000
And in Sacramento, annual ridership has steadily increased, on both the bus and LRT systems, from 14 million trips in 1987, when light rail opened, to almost 27 million trips in Fiscal Year 1999. Source: Sacramento RT website 00/02/22
What about light rail's capital costs? As noted above, LRT construction costs are close to the cost of freeway and HOV lanes - in fact, they can even be cheaper! And, while light rail cars cost more than buses, their lifespan is 3 times longer and their passenger capacity 3 times greater. All told, advantages in life cycle, capacity, and speed mean that a light rail car is functionally equivalent to at least 11 buses for equivalent types of service.
Fact: Anti-transit zealots repeatedly make extravagant claims of "underestimated" costs and predictions of mammoth cost "over- runs" of LRT projects. In reality, most new LRT systems have been completed on time and within budget. In fact, the final completion costs of Salt Lake City's brand-new TRAX light rail line - opened in December - are millions of dollars under budget. Source: UTA data, April 2000
Opponents also exaggerate the "average" per-mile costs of LRT by brandishing the cost figures from such cities as Buffalo, Dallas, and Los Angeles, which had substantial and expensive civil works such as subway and viaduct construction. But light rail lines in Austin would be routed entirely on the surface, with little need for expensive civil works.
New light rail construction in Salt Lake City, Denver, and East Saint Louis should be used as the measuring stick. Totaling 41 miles for $820 million, that's $20 million a mile in today's dollars, with no subways, automation, or elevated viaducts (except for grade crossings). In comparison, the current cost of new urban freeways is typically in the range of $50 to $100 million per mile.
Curiously, the currently most notorious cost-overrun scandal in the United States - transportation or otherwise - appears to be a freeway project. Boston's Central Artery tunnel project has ballooned by a factor of five times from the projected cost at start - from the original $2.6 billion to a current projected cost of completion of $13.5 billion (and it's still rising).
Incidentally, "urban freeway tunnels" are one of the "innovative alternatives" (to the "expense" of LRT) being pushed by the anti- rail, pro-roadway activists!
Fact: This is nonsense. While many light rail riders do indeed come from buses, many others are attracted to light rail from cars. In fact, the percentage of riders diverted from automobiles to transit is typically quite high for light rail - more than 30% in Dallas, for example, and about 70% in St. Louis.
79% of St. Louis's Metrolink LRT riders are not from buses, but are totally new to transit. 68% have 2 or more cars available to use. Source: Citizens for Modern Transit website 00/04/08
In Portland, 92% of riders using the MAX LRT service own autos, but choose light rail for recreational trips and work commutes because of its convenience. Source: Tri-Met Website 00/04/04
And, while anti-transit zealots promote the notion that only new riders attracted from cars are worth counting, bus riders who are diverted to the new LRT service are also major beneficiaries. First, if there were no transit, the vast majority - possibly all - of these transit riders would have to be using cars, clogging city streets far worse than they're clogged now. Second, as previous trends have demonstrated, many current bus riders have been relentlessly "defecting" to automobiles --- a trend which LRT has well demonstrated it can reverse.
Fact: The investment in LRT does pay off in removing cars from congested streets and freeways. While no single light rail line will miraculously make congestion and pollution utterly vanish, statistics do suggest an impact.
Cities like Houston, Phoenix, and Denver (before its LRT system) burned an average of 550 gallons of motor fuel per capita per year. Cities with good multi-rail transit systems burned only 415 gallons - a saving of about one third. Source: Kenworthy & Newman, APA Journal, Winter 1988.
As is noted above, LRT has a proven track record of diverting substantial numbers of trips off of crowded streets and freeways, and into transit trains. Portland offers a good case study, with the opening of MAX's West side line in 1998. Coupled with improved bus service, the new LRT line helped provide a 46 percent increase in transit service in Portland's western corridor. As a result, transit ridership in the corridor rose 137 percent in 1999 to 33,900 average weekday trips. Portland's transit operator, Tri-Met, now has about 20,000 more daily transit trips in the west side corridor than before MAX opened - most of those undoubtedly diverted from congested roadways. Source: Tri-Met Website 00/04/04
Rail opponents try to shock the public with the overwhelming traffic numbers for motor vehicles, compared to transit. But it's absurd. Basically, they're trying to bash transit largely for not winning travel market share in areas and for travel patterns where transit isn't even in the market. There are hundreds of small urban and suburban areas where no transit service operates at all --- Round Rock, for example --- yet those millions of person-miles by automobile are accumulated in metro area totals.
Where transit does compete for travel market share - in congested corridors into downtowns and other compact central areas, for example, and where it has improved facilities, such as its own right- of-way, transit has been winning increasingly greater shares of total trips. And in this, rail transit excels.
In cities with LRT, the evidence suggests that highway and LRT modes are attracting trips in about the proportion of the regional travel network each represents (in terms of route - mileage), although buses appear to lag behind. A transit system without high-quality trunk lines (such as LRT provides) is at a definite disadvantage in trying to compete for riders with autos.
However, neither transit nor roadway capacity improvements seem to have a "magic bullet" effect in making congestion disappear. Planners are increasingly coming to the conclusion that urban areas are going to have to live with traffic congestion. They cannot make it evaporate. There isn't enough money in the world to construct enough freeways (and parking lots) to ever keep up --- and if there were, these facilities would just fill up because of the "induced" traffic generated.
Rail transit "solves" the congestion problem by providing an alternative means of access between origins and destinations, and into compact, traffic-gridlocked areas. Rail transit is a way to bypass the congestion. Network rail with buses running on the less-congested streets, and you have the basis for a transit grid --- pretty much what got ripped out in this country decades ago.
Fact: in city after city, LRT has solidly demonstrated its potential for stimulating and shaping adjacent real estate development at its transit stops and stations. This process both builds in ridership (e.g., trips by people living near the stations or traveling to the nearby activity centers) and raises the tax base (by increasing land and property values). Together with effective policies to manage traffic and guide land use, transit-shaped development can be a key tool in helping to contain urban sprawl. In Dallas, more than $800 million in private funds has been invested in development along DART's 20-mile Light Rail Starter System - evidence of an explosion of adjacent real estate development less than 4 years after LRT was installed.
Incredibly, opponents or LRT and anti-transit zealots claim urban sprawl is just fine. A recent handout from the local anti-transit ROAD group disparages the notion of seeking a "superior urban form" and proclaims that this is "counter to the values of the populace."
At bottom, what these anti-transit, pro-sprawl Road Warriors basically advocate is more of the same old status quo: more asphalt, more traffic meat grinders, more ozone, more road rage, more sprawl. Their all-bus "alternatives" for transit, like HOV lanes, amount to moribund proposals to "euthanize", rather than energize, transit service. Their "innovative approaches" range from rehashed agitation for more roadway capacity --- e.g., more and wider freeways, which have compounded, rather than alleviated, congestion --- to off-the-wall, autonomically expensive monstrosities like urban motor vehicle tunnels. Instead, what's needed is a new start in a new direction ... and light rail can be a first step in that new direction for Austin!