Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Light rail gets favorable review


Cost-benefit analysis prefers it over adding I-75 lanes

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Adding a light rail line along Interstate 75 would bring $911 million in benefit to the area's economy over 30 years, according to an analysis presented Monday to the committee overseeing a study of what to do about the congested expressway.

Adding a lane of highway would have a benefit of less than $85 million over the same period, according to the consultants who conducted the cost/benefit analysis.

"This all depends on the time frame for when you want to solve the congestion problem," said Khalid Bekka, vice president of Silver Springs, Md.-based HLB Decision Economics Inc., which conducted the analysis. "If you want to solve it in the short term but not have long term results, you go with the highway.

"But for an urban area such as this, sustainability and the long-term return on investment is the key, and therefore the answer should be the light rail."

The analysis was done as part of the I-75 study that was to conclude this month. But Monday, the study's oversight committee learned that the Ohio Department of Transportation had provided more funding to see how many more highway lanes it would take to reduce congestion in 30 years - a process that will continue the study through the summer.

The cost-benefit analysis unveiled Monday looked at the costs associated with different solutions, including light rail, another lane of highway, a truck ban during rush hour and high-occupancy lanes.

It then looked at economic benefits derived from drive-time savings, any reductions in accidents, vehicle costs and medical costs due to cleaner air, and any economic development.

Preliminary cost estimates for a light rail line along I-75 are nearly $900 million; Bekka's study said a lane of highway between the Ohio River and Interstate-275 would cost $616 million, up from previous estimates of $485 million.

The analysis said most of the economic benefit from light rail would be from congestion relief ($1.5 billion), with most of that taking place toward the end of the 30-year period.

A lane of highway was expected to provide about $700 million in benefits overall, but that would barely overcome the costs and most of the benefits would be in the first 10 years, with those benefits dropping per year over the 30-year period.

There was one surprise: The region would gain a $250 million benefit merely by banning trucks from I-75 during rush hours and not building anything besides what is already planned.

Such a potential ban raises many legal and logistical issues, however. They including whether the I-275 bypass is constructed well enough to handle the wear and tear created by large amounts of truck traffic and whether the trucking industry would fight to use the highways.

There was a similar ban during reconstruction of the "cut in the hill" in the 1990s, but the Federal Highway Administration ruled that it had to be rescinded once the highway was rebuilt.

Other cities, most notably Atlanta, ban through truck traffic on interstates inside their beltways. But previous local traffic studies show that more than 90 percent of trucks traveling on I-75 make at least one local stop, given the Tristate's role as a major distribution hub.

Bekka also said that the main reason for the high net result is that the costs would be relatively low, but that the gross benefits would not be as high as light rail or even more highway space. "It all depends on how many trucks would follow the ban, and there's no way to tell that," he said.

E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com

Monday story:
What will it take to fix I-75?




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