Thursday, November 30, 2006

Damn The Costs, Full Speed Ahead

The bandwagon for cities to jump on for the past 20 years has been the Light Rail Transit (LRT) bandwagon. Some cities, that can barely run a small bus system properly, are applying for and receiving grants to build expensive LRT lines.

All you hear is the same thing from LRT proponents:

1. "LRT will be the saviour of our city"
2. "People will flock to ride the system"
3. "It's environmentally friendly since it will pull cars off the road"
4. "It's cheaper in the long run"
5. "It will save people time".
6. "A lot of immediate economic development will be done along the line"

The above are just a sampling of how LRT is made to look attractive and all are false.

1. LRT is not the saviour of a city or a transit system. LRT systems literally are a black hole for public money. Once built, other needed services get cut to keep the line in operation. Higher taxes are also an added "benefit" from light rail. LRT lines don't benefit the entire service area. They benefit one select narrow corridor. People outside of the LRT corridor don't benefit and often have bus service cut.

2. On average, you will see a slight increase in overall ridership in part to the LRT line. The problem is that in most cases, the bus routes are losing ridership as transit systems struggle to come up with money to keep the entire operation running. Bus service is always the first to be cut to free up money for the LRT line operation. Basically, in cash strapped transit systems, bus service gets eliminated because they have to run the LRT line since it was paid for by Federal funds.

3. The environmentalist angle has been shown to be false for decades. Cities that have LRT service report no decrease in automobile traffic. It's just the opposite, they cite increased auto traffic and more congestion.

As far as cleaner air, it's doubtful. No studies can conclusively prove that LRT lines actually make the air cleaner. Depending on the area you live in, all your doing is shifting the air pollution from the road to the power plant. Cities lucky enough to be powered by hydro or nuclear power can legitimately make a claim to LRT helping to clear the air but not cities powered by coal.

4. Actually it's more expensive in the long run. You have additional employees that have to be paid to run an LRT system that you don't need with a bus operation. Materials are more expensive since you not only have to maintain the LRT car as you do a bus but you also have to maintain overhead and track. LRT cars last maybe 20 years before they begin needing replaced but they are much more expensive than buses that tend to be replaced every 12 years.

5. Again, this is false in most cases. Unless you live directly on the LRT line, your door to door commute will take longer. LRT lines also have a big disadvantage which is one mishap can literally cripple the line. A derailment or downed power line can stop service completely.

6. Another falsehood. LRT lines notoriously are undeveloped for decades. Between politicians and activist groups battling over what they want, land remains vacant for years. Pittsburgh is a great example of the lack of development along the LRT line. Only One Mellon Bank Center is associated with the Downtown portion of the subway in terms of development. There was additional land at the Steel Plaza station area for development but the land was never able to be sold off for development due to political fighting over what should go there and it eventually turned into a small park.

Don't get me wrong, LRT systems have their place however most aren't being planned with the ridership in mind. They are planned with politics in mind. Most cities pushing for LRT lines have politicians and activists that are after a legacy for themselves. "Rider be damned" may as well be the motto in many cities. Lines aren't placed in high ridership areas where they would be utilized to their full extent in many cities. Many lines are built in hopes of spurring development in the direction the politicians wish it to go rather than where the line is really needed.

LRT lines should be built in areas that can justify the cost by having proven ridership on the bus lines already in the area. Federal procedures ignore existing bus ridership levels and go with projected ridership levels as someone thinks it will be once the line is opened. Projected ridership is one of the bigger scams going in getting Federal transit funding. In short, what projected ridership means is that some clown from a consulting agency comes up with a number that he thinks looks good.

Ranging from what they think the population will be, a guesstimate as to what percentage of that estimated population will ride, assuming people will flock from other areas to ride the LRT line and other mystic predictions, it all boils down to one thing. It's a guess. Not one LRT system has ever met it's projected ridership levels during the first several years of operation. That fact is spun better by the transit systems than the lies told by politicians during an election year.

Federal requirements need to be changed. Systems need to show that they have the existing population and ridership levels in place already. Smaller systems especially need to be started with a bus rapid transit system before jumping into a much more costly LRT system. Where LRT lines are built need to be evaluated better and questions need to be asked as to why a system wants a line built to the North when the bulk of your riders are in the East. None of these issues really seem to be addressed under the current regulations.

The Lance goes to the Feds for continuing to allow expensive LRT lines to be built for transit systems that can barely handle running buses. Pittsburgh's North Shore Connector and Charlotte's new line are two that come to mind immediately Tighten the regulations and start pushing the bulk of the requests from these cities off the LRT bandwagon. Sadly, it'll never happen...

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