April 26, 2004


Stefan at Shark Blog has been doing wonderful work counteracting the hype around the proposed Seattle Monorail. This is a greatly scaled back proposal from the original plan and the whole confabulation is funded by a tax on our car registration. (I have a '93 Volvo and my tax was $91) He has a longish article today on it and light rail (The Sound Transit Light Rail system spends $35 on each paying customer - the customers fare is $3 -- the money is made up by the taxpayers.) The link that caught my eye was to an Essay by Emory Bundy: bq. Why Rail? Why do we support systems that almost never work? bq. Since the record of new rail systems in America is abysmal, it is puzzling why they enjoy so much support. The answer lies in a marriage between an idealistic desire to recapture features of the pre-automotive era, when sprawl and congestion did not so blight our lives, and cynical, old fashioned, pork barrel politics. bq. The introduction of urban rail systems in American communities almost never works. In addition to a loss of transit market share, such systems impose a perpetual burden in the form of higher subsidies. The consequence of such capital investments, followed by burgeoning operating subsidies, is to pay more and get less, while failing to address the manifest challenges of congestion and mobility. Why, in the face of experience, do many people still promote rail development, the quintessential non-solution? bq. Later in this article, a list of affordable and affirmative responses to the awesome challenges of congestion and mobility will be presented, headed by lesson number one: donít squander resources. He goes on: bq. The Los Angeles urban area, today, is far more concentrated than metropolitan Seattle or Portland-5,800 people per square mile. Immense determination, political courage, and policy discipline would be necessary for Seattle or Portland to match that density two generations hence. And an ambitious, horrifically expensive effort to serve LA with rail has been an unmitigated disaster in that still widely distributed region. Over the past three decades Boston has added light rail and commuter rail lines, and integrated its entire metropolitan transit system. During that period, ridership has remained essentially static, market share has diminished, and annual transit subsidies have exploded from $30 million to $560 million per year-which still isn't enough to sustain transit operations. bq. So why doesn't rail generally work in American cities? The reason is exceedingly simple: the technology is far too expensive. Sound Transit is setting out to serve the transportation needs of a far-flung region with alight rail system estimated to cost $100 million per mile. People have a complex set of destinations they need to reach: how extensive a network can be formed at a cost of $100 million per mile? But unless the transit system becomes a highly elaborated network, it simply cannot get many people from where they are to the myriad destinations to which they routinely travel. bq. Even buses fail to do the job well, and they're far better suited to the task than trains are. They're less costly, more flexible, and consequently forge a more intricate network of service. But train promoters shamelessly use the shortcomings of buses as an excuse to promote rail schemes. When they succeed, they make an already inefficient transit system markedly less efficient, driving up costs, and driving down market share. He is from Seattle and does a masterful takedown on Sound Transit as well as Rail in general. Good stuff! Posted by DaveH at April 26, 2004 4:30 PM