A Rational Look at Transit

Seattle has a new mayor. King County has a newly re-elected executive. And the governor has a legislative majority of his own party.

All this adds up to politically stable leadership and a chance for rail transit to get back on the positive side of the public’s mind. Yet, big questions remain. Among them:

• Will Sound Transit’s current light rail receive federal funding so it can start construction on time?

• Will rapid bus service recapture political momentum if Sound Transit is unable to launch its south route with federal funds?

• How will continuing concerns be resolved over bus-versus-rail use of the downtown transit tunnel?

• Will the popular Monorail plan cause Seattle voters to approve taxes that shift resources from light rail?

Meanwhile, Congress is moving ahead on high-speed rail legislation. If passed and co-funded by new revenues from the state, this will increase the focus on improved Amtrak service, Sounder commuter rail and the waterfront freight problem.

Bus advocates talk about immediate relief of congestion. Rail advocates speak of the need for high capacity and dedicated rights-of-way. How can citizens sort out the options, especially the relative emphasis on bus-versus-rail transit?

Choosing from among these systems involves both technical and political decisions. For at least two decades, advocates have debated the costs and benefits while exchanging charges of hidden agendas, zealotry and wrong-headedness. The debate confounds taxpayers, who have sent one clear message: Do something.

Cities across North America have adopted rail systems. Portland opted for “light-rail transit” (LRT), an updated version of old-time streetcars. Vancouver, B.C., went with a starter system of heavy rail similar to New York and the Bay Area.

Both systems are successful and popular, refuting the notion that rail transit is inherently flawed and cannot be cost-effective.

But critics have their own strong point. Rail’s enormous construction costs dry up precious tax dollars that could have been used to do something else. The critics have forced rail advocates to sharpen their case and be more specific with their plans.

Consensus among the two camps is not likely — in part because each technology has its unique set of costs and benefits. But taxpayers can learn much from their arguments, which boil down to a short list of issues.

Here’s what I learned:

• Construction costs: Rail costs are huge, but they must be compared to the alternative cost of new highways and other modes of transit, especially to serve peak commute hours.

Despite our experience with Sound Transit, rail projects in the U.S. and Canada are no more prone to cost overruns than other transit systems. They get more expensive per mile when they go underground, and they are cheaper when existing right-of-way is available.

• Operating costs: Rail transit has the advantage of linking multiple cars with a single operator, which reduces labor costs. Critics charge that the level of operating subsidies does not square with this assumption. What’s crucial is the average ridership in rail cars.

Overall, costs per passenger mile are similar for auto, bus and rail. Each mode is heavily subsidized, in more obvious ways for transit (taxes) than for cars (personal and social costs).

• Impact of rail on total transit use: Opponents say rail systems degrade bus service, which leads to a decline in total transit use. But experience in most cities suggests that light rail attracts commuters who won’t use buses. Part of the reason is that most bus routes have no dedicated right-of-way so buses get stuck in traffic.

Ultimately, many experts believe bus-rail conflicts are less important than trying to maximize transit benefits by utilizing the strengths of each mode; for example, rail’s high capacity and guaranteed speed, and the route flexibility of buses.

• Rail’s impact on poor people: In Los Angeles, a conflict between the cost of suburban rail service and inner-city bus service led to a suit by the NAACP that resulted in a court order putting more buses back on the street. Rail foes rightly point to this example.

Yet, it’s also true that an extensive rail system can expand opportunities for inner-city residents by helping them reach jobs throughout the metro area more smoothly and with fewer transfers than can often be done by bus.

• Speed, safety and reliability: Transit doesn’t have to go faster than cars to attract riders, but the time difference must be modest or transit won’t be competitive. More important than speed are on-schedule departures, on-time arrivals and frequency of service. Combined with safety in transit stations and on transit vehicles, reliability provides what people need before they will leave their private vehicles for public transit.

• Measures of market share: America’s increasingly complex trip patterns cannot be covered by rail. Where rail shines is in serving major centers of jobs, shopping and entertainment. Opponents note that rail’s share of total trips in a metro area will always be low. But rail’s share of trips along major corridors to downtown can be much higher, and dense downtown conditions make rail a competitive investment.

• Energy use and air quality: There is wide variation in estimating pollution per passenger-mile by car, bus and rail. The crucial factor is the average number of people on transit vehicles. Rail transit advocates argue that the issue is more basic. Since high-capacity transit supports high density, it creates “transit leverage” — the ability to reduce miles traveled per day by the average resident. This lowers fuel use and air pollution.

• Transit-oriented development. Rail can support wise land use — if land-use policy supports rail. Foes charge rail cannot recreate the 19th-century city, but rail advocates don’t seem to have this as their goal. They aim for rail-oriented development around stations, to add a lifestyle option even in cities that remain largely auto-dependent.

In conclusion, many regions including Seattle face big decisions on investments in transportation. The arguments in the rail debate reveal many complexities and tradeoffs. Yet, as rival claims are traded by advocates, the debate often fails to fully present the issues and charges are made without back-up data or analysis. We need to raise the bar on the quality of information in this crucial arena.

It’s time to reframe the questions. Done right, rail makes sense. It’s time to get off dead center and move on to the specifics. There are plenty of knowledgeable people out there who can help. As we make our transit choices, let’s seek them out and tap into their experience.

Glenn Pascall is senior fellow for transportation at the Cascadia Project of the Discovery Institute, Seattle.