Sunday, May 20, 2001

Light rail: All Aboard?


On track for the Tristate? The experts debate

        Does light rail work? Can our region afford it? To answer these and other questions, the Cincinnati Enquirer Editorial Board invited four guests to discuss light rail in the Cincinnati region. Opponents were Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin and Sam Staley, an economist from the conservative Buckeye Institute. Supporters were light rail advocate John Schneider and University of Cincinnati economist Haynes Goddard. Following are excerpts of their answers to our questions.

        Q. What is your best argument for or against light rail?

        John Schneider: Congestion is increasing at a rate of 4.4 percent in our region. Our topography makes it difficult to expand highways, and the other alternatives are not good. HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes are not working. Any solution has to serve all segments of the population and all areas. We have a severe problem and it's getting worse. Polls show transportation ranks among the worst problems in our region.

ABOUT LIGHT RAIL
   The Alliance for Regional Transit (ART), a light rail advocacy group of planners, transit professionals, academics, business and community leaders, is coordinating the public campaign in favor of a Greater Cincinnati light rail system.
   In the near future, area voters will be asked to approve a sales tax increase needed to begin the system. Some details:
   • According to current plans, an area light rail system would begin with an 18-mile Northeast Corridor route, which would run between Covington and Blue Ash and could be completed by about 2006. Estimated cost is close to $1 billion.
   • An expanded bus system, with cross-county routes and new service hubs, would be part of the project.
   • In all, a 100-mile system consisting of six main light rail routes is being planned. It would take 20 to 30 years to complete.
   • Each two-car light rail vehicle will cost about $2.5 million, and will carry 300-350 passengers at up to 55 miles an hour. Advocates say that such vehicles will be 15 times more fuel efficient than automobiles when total passenger miles are considered.
   • Light rail passenger ticket are projected to cost $1-$1.50 per ride, but some of the actual operating costs will be subsidized by the taxes voted to construct the system.
        Sam Staley: I view myself as an agnostic. For me, the question is if it's going to achieve policy goals. The metro area is decentralizing; that pattern is driven by the automobile. Most people want to live in single-family homes with a yard and until that trend reverses, there is no future for light rail. I don't think light rail is a practical alternative. I don't think there's any city where light rail has reduced congestion. Portland (Oregon) is a very, very qualified exception. In a metro are where 2 percent of our trips are served by mass transit, light rail is simply going in the wrong direction.

        Haynes Goddard: I became interested because too many public capital projects can't pass a rationality test. We call that pork barrel. I became an advocate after doing a serious benefit-cost analysis led by the best people I could find.

        Perhaps highways have been too much of a good thing. The (federal) Highway Trust Fund has become very much an open purse that has led to projects that would never pass a benefit-cost analysis. We have pushed our investment in highways too far. Economists call this diminishing marginal returns. And there is an induced demand effect — if you build it they will come. The extra benefit from expanding highway systems is not very great. But when you examine the returns from light rail, they are very substantial indeed. The value of people's time wasted in highway congestion — that's where most of the benefit comes from.

        The issue is the economic welfare that can be brought to a region by reducing congestion. But optimal congestion is never zero.

        John Dowlin: I'm for better transportation, but I'm against light rail because all of the data show it is not the best. Buses are better. Light rail is less effective at meeting the goals than buses and HOV lanes in terms of air quality, congestion, time to work. It's sexy, it's the “modern” thing to do but it doesn't meet the goals.

        Traffic management systems is the answer. For one-third of the cost, you get 87 percent of the benefit. As for congestion, why not look at flex time for workers? Who says we all have to go to work 8 to 4?

        I still say the cost-benefit analysis (by Mr. Goddard) is voodoo economics. There is no financial benefit for light rail. Look at the numbers. the numbers do not support the conclusion that light rail is the answer.

        Mr. Schneider: Mr. Dowling describes himself as a public transit person. Nobody in the transit community believes that.
        Q. What about the timing, given the demographics changes, declining population of the city and the riots that have caused our region to reconsider its priorities?

        Mr. Goddard: The second- largest benefit category for light rail is low-income mobility, to move inner-city residents out to jobs. I think it's fair to make the an argument that light rail is part of the solution to the complaints we heard about. We need to get people into the job mode. To do that, you've got to get them to jobs. With buses, we don't have enough street space to achieve that.

        Mr. Dowlin: The jobs are in the suburbs, the people are in the suburbs. I don't see a benefit except to some large employers who ask for it. We need to stop furthering the hub-and-spoke system, and go along with multiple hubs, routes that go east-west. Buses cost a heck of a lot less, and are more mobile. If people don't ride a certain route, you can move the route. With light rail we're going to be stuck, buying the land and putting the tracks down.

        Mr. Staley: Clearly in the long run, increasing congestion will have an effect on the economy. My issue is with the technology used to relieve it. I don't think light rail is going to cut it. One of the first things a person does when they get more income is to buy a car. Nothing's going to change that. Light rail riders now won't be light rail riders in the future. And the hub-and-spoke system, which light rail is based on, is not going to work.

        Mr. Schneider: This line is going through Over-the-Rhine, Avondale — the core, inner-city neighborhoods. Here's where we put our transportation investment, here's where community development will occur. The value of light rail is not the train, it's the track. We define our city by transportation corridors. Once you establish the transportation network, that creates the value. That puts the value back into the inner city, where you can't get highways in.

        Q. Does it work?

        Mr. Dowlin: Projections of 100,000 people on light rail versus 12 million vehicle miles in autos is not getting many people out of cars. There's a heavy subsidy. Everybody pays. the farebox only covers 25 percent of the cost. If you live in Harrison or Delhi, are you going to vote for higher taxes so that someone else can use light rail? I don't think that's the case.

        Mr. Staley: The short answer is that I don't think it's going to work. The conditions don't exist here to allow it to work. You need 14,000 to 15,000 people per square mile to make it work. You need enough people near the station to use it. That won't occur anywhere except inner-city Chicago and New York City.

        Mr. Schneider: There are 500 miles of light rail in the U.S. because cities have voluntarily decided to expand their systems by 300 miles. It works very well for those cities. Today, 38 percent of the people in Portland, Ore., use transit. They like it and it's served a purpose.

        Mr. Goddard: People are looking for a balanced transit system, and when they find it they go to it in droves. It makes sense. We've pushed highways too far.
        Q. What about the cost?

        Mr. Goddard: All these kinds of investments are expansive. For 19 miles (the initial line between Covington and Blue Ash), the estimate for this system is $1.04 billion. But we can't really make a decision based on cost alone or we'd always choose the cheapest transportation and everyone would be driving a Yugo. We don't do that. We make decisions based on all the gains we get from it.

        Mr. Schneider: We know that downtown workers would gladly pay $2 for a one-way ride to work. The fare is likely to be in the $1-$1.50 range. And the cost per passenger mile is less than bus service. It's on schedule 99 percent of the time and carries 300 passengers versus 50 on a bus, so it's less labor intensive. If you're looking for efficiency, you're going with rail.

        Mr. Staley: All the data I've seen show rail is higher than buses. I always think “How great this is” when I ride the Metro in Washington, D.C. But if I had to pay the full cost, I'd choose a taxi that would take me door to door. Despite the fact that we gie an extraordinary subsidy to mass transit systems, they struggle to have an even minor impact on our transportation habits. According to the Census, mass transit riders went from 13.3 percent in 1960 to 3.5 percent in 1990.

        Mr. Dowlin: There is no basis for Kentucky to pay anything. The Kentucky legislature would have to do it, to pay for something in Northern Kentucky but not in all the other areas of the state. We will need a tax increase for this. And we don't have the authority to raise that kind of money with a sales tax even if the people wanted it.

        Mr. Schneider: Kentucky is a year or so behind. But I think they will deal with it at the state level. It may well be that Kentucky will recognize the economic role the airport plays in our region and get funding for the line to the airport. No one is going to leave that wealth-generating mechanism unconnected.
        Q. What about the political viability?

        Mr. Dowlin: Norwood is expected to vote against it. People are concerned about gates clanging and coming down across streets every six minutes. The stadium situation has poisoned the well for any sales tax increase. Who will be funding the campaign for this?

        Mr. Staley: You have an extraordinary sell here. Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio ahve very strong home-rule traditions. It's going to be very, very difficult. If this is cast as a transit solution primarily benefiting downtown working, upper-income suburban white people, it's in trouble. The reality falls far, far short of the claims.

        Mr. Goddard: I'd like to think that better information leads to better decision making in the public sector. In cities with light rail, 54 percent of riders are former car commuters. Many systems don't make it through (at the polls) the first time. There is a long education campaign before the issue finally passes. But people understand that the transportation system is unbalanced.

        Some transportation economists argue for toll roads as an alternative. But politically speaking, it's not feasible. Even if it were a good idea, it would only raise demand for light rail.

        Mr. Schneider: The route we've chosen (for light rail) goes right through the empowerment zones. We're using it as city-building and wealth-building tools for our community. This may be the one best way to unite our city. This regional system fits Cincinnati like a glove.

       



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