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LRT: "Antidote to Congested Freeways" or Wasteful "Disaster"?

introduction by Light Rail Progress – October 2003

A recent series of exchanges of commentaries and letters in the Seattle Times provides an interesting and enlightening snapshot of pro and con arguments in the ongoing debate over the effectiveness of mass transit and light rail transit (LRT) vs. concentration on highway development in the USA. While the discussion nominally revolves around Sound Transit's LRT development program in Seattle, it will be seen that the arguments have more general relevance and applicability.

An initial commentary by LRT supporter Paul Weyrich is followed by a pro-automobile attack on mass transit by national anti-transit campaigner Randal O'Toole (whose Oregon-based Thoreau institute is bankrolled by a variety of highway industry and far-right funding sources). This is then followed by several letters responding to O'Toole and his contentions.

We start with Paul Weyrich's initial commentary:

Seattle Times
Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Seattle is wise to add light rail to its transit mix

By Paul M. Weyrich
Special to The Times

The Greater Seattle area is at long last poised to join other major cities in America in doing something very smart: building a light-rail transit system. This is one of the best things elected leaders from the area could do to improve mobility, stimulate the area's economy and improve quality of life for citizens.

As someone who is a conservative and who watches trends in transportation policy from the national level, I can assure you that Seattle is on the right track.

Transit serves some important conservative goals, including economic development, helping move people off welfare and into productive employment, and strengthening the bonds of community.

Time after time around the country, our most dynamic cities have turned to rail transit as an antidote to congested freeways, expensive housing and stagnating economies.

As a final federal decision nears, critics have predictably intensified their attempts to stop the project. The latest argument seems to be that light rail won't relieve highway congestion. That's a red herring, and here's why.

Common sense tells us, contrary to the laments of the anti-transit critics, that transit can and often does relieve congestion. There are examples around the country of communities such as Portland, Dallas, Denver and St. Louis where light-rail transit is taking cars off the street.

St. Louis's Metrolink provides a good example: it is removing about 12,500 cars from St. Louis's rush-hour traffic every day and 79 percent of its riders were new to public transit.

Some 3.2 million people live in the strip of land between the Cascade Mountains and Puget Sound. The number is going to increase by another 1.4 million in the next 20 years, according to the last census. Simply put, there is no room for these folks on the existing highways.

Light rail is being designed to absorb a big chunk of this growth by giving people an alternative they are likely to choose. In the process, light rail will help keep the highways moving.

The initial light-rail segment in Seattle is projected to carry 42,500 riders per day, including 16,000 new public-transit riders. The light-rail project is being designed to accommodate future expansions that would carry more than twice that number of people.

While I have some concern about the cost of the stations, the incremental costs of future expansions will be lower because of the expandability of the first segment.

There is no question that roads play a dominant role in the transportation system. After all, this is America, and we do love our cars. But the fact is, our reliance on roads costs us money. Billions of dollars are lost each year as a result of people and goods being jammed into the same overcrowded freeways. And while Seattle has a good bus system, buses alone will not solve this problem, because they end up stuck in the same traffic jams with everyone else.

It's a fact that the most-effective alternative to congestion is rail transit. It has been repeatedly demonstrated around the country that the one choice people are regularly willing to make, other than their cars, is rail.

I've seen this pattern repeat itself in Portland, Salt Lake City, Denver, St. Louis and a host of other cities. Seattle would be wise to follow suit.

Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress & Research and Education Foundation. Weyrich, with his colleague William S. Lind, is the author of "Does Transit Work? A Conservative Reappraisal."

Weyrich's commentary elicited the following response from anti-transit, pro-automobile campaigner Randal O'Toole.

Seattle Times
Monday, August 25, 2003

Cruising to disaster on light rail

By Randal O'Toole
Special to The Times

Seattle's plans for an expensive and largely useless light-rail line have become the laughing stock of the transportation world. If built, the line will enrich engineering and construction firms and gratify transit-agency egos. But nothing more will result other than to take dollars from taxpayers' pockets.

After studying light-rail operations in my hometown of Portland and other cities, I am surprised that people such as Paul Weyrich, with the Free Congress & Research and Education Foundation, still think light rail can reduce congestion ("Seattle is wise to add light rail to its transit mix" guest commentary, Aug. 6). Let's look carefully at the record for other cities.

Weyrich claims light rail removes 12,500 cars from St. Louis rush-hour traffic each day. Yet the 2000 census revealed that the number of St. Louis-area commuters who ride transit to work declined 19 percent since light rail opened. How does that reduce congestion?

Even if rail did remove 12,500 cars each day, what good is that in a region where people take 5 million or more auto trips a day?

Millions of daily trips in Seattle and other urban areas are made by private motor vehicles – but at what cost? And how many peakhour motor vehicle trips could be eliminated if many commuters were attracted to rail transit?

In regions the size of St. Louis and Seattle, daily auto trips grow by 12,500 each month. That means you can spend a billion dollars and five years building a light-rail line, and a month later any congestion relief is gone.

Weyrich also claims success in Portland, Dallas and Denver. Federal data show that Portland light rail carries just three-quarters of a percent of regional passenger travel. That's not much of a return for something that cost nearly half the region's transport budget.

At that, Portland's light rail carries a larger share of regional travel than any other light-rail system in the country. Denver's light rail carries less than a quarter of a percent of regional travel, Dallas just a tenth of a percent.

These lines actually increase congestion since they often occupy lanes that could otherwise be open to cars.

Rail boosters argue that one rail line has the capacity of an eight-lane freeway. But it's use, not capacity, that counts. Light rail is so slow and inconvenient that no light-rail system in the country carries more people per mile than two-thirds of a freeway lane. Since a typical light-rail mile costs as much to build as a five- to 10-lane freeway, rail is simply not cost-effective.

If Seattle builds light rail, it will probably follow in the tracks of San Jose, Calif., whose light-rail cars carry fewer people than San Francisco cable cars. Partly because its light-rail lines cost more to operate than the buses they replaced, San Jose's transit agency is suffering a fiscal crisis, forcing it to shut down many bus routes. Yet it is stubbornly building more light-rail lines that it has no money to operate.

After looking at federal census and transportation data, only someone who is deluding himself, or trying to delude you, would say, as Weyrich does, that "light rail will help keep the highways moving."

So what is the solution to Seattle congestion?

Transportation expert William Eager calculates that Seattle could relieve today's congestion and absorb 30 years of traffic growth by adding just 6 percent new lane miles to the region's highways. These could be high-occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes -- free to high-occupancy vehicles, open to other vehicles that pay tolls that help pay for construction. Since commuters make up less than half of rush-hour traffic, varying tolls by time of day would reduce congestion without hurting workers.

Whatever the answer to congestion, it must recognize that more than 90 percent of Seattle-area travel will always go by car. Light rail doesn't relieve congestion; all it does is spend your money.

Randal O'Toole is director of the American Dream Coalition,, and author of "The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths." He also is an economist with The Thoreau institute in Bandon, Ore. E-mail him at

O'Toole's arguments are then rebuffed by the following letters published in the Times:

Seattle Times
Sunday, August 31, 2003

Letters to the editor

Getting around

Events may force many cars off roads faster than we expect

Editor, The Times:

It's fairly easy to shoot down Randal O'Toole's "straw man" statistics about transit ("Cruising to disaster on light rail," Times, guest commentary, Aug. 25). For example, anyone who has ever been to San Francisco knows that no transit mode in the world will ever equal the cable cars for density of ridership. Setting the cable cars as the benchmark is like comparing your wife to Marilyn Monroe, something no sane man would ever do.

The important stats, however, are the rising cost of extracting oil and the falling interest of the Bush administration in preparing for the end of the age of oil. Throw in a generous dose of aging boomers who want to get off the road before an insane SUV driver pushes them off, and you have a potential market that may, due to events beyond our control, grow substantially before another decade has passed.

In the '50s, Boeing made a bundle betting that jet airplanes would replace trains.

In the '90s, another bundle was made by those who bet that computers would replace paper. When The Times resolutely insists that new highways are needed to deliver tons of newsprint to lethargic readers, they're missing the big picture.

Times change and O'Toole's assertion that cars will always be 90 percent of the transport solution is palpably absurd – and no help at all in facing the onrushing future.

– Terry Scott, Belfair

Light rail's not magic, but it's a start to solving traffic congestion

I find it interesting that in all the cities that have put in light rail, the systems have expanded. The expansion is due to passenger demand, not politicians' egos. Seattle desperately needs a system and it needs it now. We need to start breaking out of our auto and bus dependency and put alternatives in place that should have been there all along, such as commuter trains and light rail.

Light rail isn't going to magically reduce congestion, but it's a start. It's a fact that rail cars running on rights of way that include stretches of private rights of way attract far more riders than a conventional bus system. Building more lanes on the freeways is an exercise in futility unless someone can persuade the automakers to stop building automobiles for the next 10 years so the road expansion can catch up to the cars that are already out there!

Seattle is the last city of any consequence on the West Coast that doesn't have such a system. What do all the other cities in the country know that we don't seem to know? There is a light-rail renaissance going on all over the world as cities rediscover how to make light rail work for their transportation needs. Randal O'Toole, show me a light-rail system that has been a failure. I don't know of any.

– John Cox, Seattle

Forced changeover

Randal O'Toole of the American Dream Coalition argues that "Light rail doesn't relieve congestion; all it does is spend your money."

O'Toole doesn't realize that light rail is a replacement for the private automobile and is designed to work with the public bus system in moving large numbers of people at a much lower cost in fuel than highways full of cars. World oil production (from many sources) is expected to peak during this decade, if the peak has not already occurred. The changeover away from cars is being forced upon us.

Richard Heinberg's recent "The Party's Over" and Walter Younquist's "Geodestinies" are quite good on the subject of oil depletion, as is an internet search.

– Marvin Gregory, Renton

Cruising to success

Randal O'Toole's anti-transit diatribe extols our automobile-dependent transportation system. A glance at Seattle's rush-hour traffic speaks volumes about the credibility of his premise. Transit doesn't aim to unclog freeways, but to provide viable alternatives to cars. American transit ridership has been hitting its highest levels in nearly 40 years. So, O'Toole tries to bash Portland's light rail for failing to carry much "regional passenger traffic" in a region that includes Vancouver, Wash., not even served by light rail.

Portland's a hard target. Ridership growth has outpaced growth in both population and vehicle-miles traveled, and it has actually increased transit-mode share of work trips. So O'Toole pounces on poor San Jose's light rail and its transit budget crisis. But all of California has a budget crisis – or maybe O'Toole hasn't heard? Besides schools and highways, every transit agency is hurting, including Oakland's huge AC Transit all-bus system.

Between 1990-2000, U.S. transit registered an impressive 16-percent growth in passenger-miles. Of total growth, rail accounted for fully 84 percent, with light rail growing by more than 137 percent. Seems like rail transit is cruising, not to "disaster," but to success.

– Lyndon Henry, transportation planner, Austin, Texas

Enticement factor

Randal O'Toole understands little but is good with the sound bites. "Removal" of cars from rush-hour traffic? Analytic fiction. In the real world, high-quality transit gets used for more than just the daily commute. If O'Toole compared those 2000 census figures with rail ridership in Portland, St. Louis, Dallas, Denver and elsewhere, he'd be forced to admit that rail attracts more "nonwork" trips than previous bus services. This is significant because nonwork trips are the majority of all trips in urban areas.

Add 6 percent to our region's total highway lane-miles – "highway," not just "freeway" – to relieve today's congestion and absorb 30 years of traffic growth? Yeah, right. That would require tens of years and tens of billions. No metropolitan region has ever made traffic congestion go away. The practical "solution": high-quality alternatives to private autos.

"Disaster" has indeed befallen Portland's freeway supporters. There's not much prospect for expansion, and one section through downtown Portland has even been removed. High-quality transit cannot "force" people out of their cars, but it has a demonstrated ability to "entice" them out. Sounds like what O'Toole and other pro-sprawl types fear most.

– Leroy Demery Jr., Bainbridge island

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2003/10/31

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