Commuter rail costs too much, does too little

COST Commentary: There is a tidal wave of many stories, articles, studies and real experiences, in numerous cities, which daily reveal and confirm rail transit, for cities such as Austin, is not effective and is a horribly wasteful expenditure of taxpayer funds. City after city has experienced major cost overruns and significantly less ridership than projected or required to improve transportation, congestion and quality of life.

The article below is about Atlanta’s Commuter rail but it reflects many of the failings of rail transit systems in general. The posting immediately prior to this is regarding rail streetcars which have become a recent fad for a number of cities. No city has proven a streetcar’s value but all have experienced their high costs and low ridership.

Austin’s Urban Rail is described as a cross between light rail and streetcars. The Austin Urban Rail vision seems to be drifting on an ever changing sea of purpose, design, route, funding and justification. It seems to have all the disadvantages of rail systems in general and none of the sparse advantages of any of them.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Tuesdy, May 7, 3013

By Wendell Cox

The fiscal challenges facing metropolitan Atlanta and the nation are clear. Tax funding needs to be as prudently spent as money in a household budget. The proposed commuter rail system would be a classic example of the opposite.

The proposed commuter rail plan would add virtually nothing to the metropolitan economy, and would do so at great cost. Seven lines would converge on downtown Atlanta. Travel times would not be quick. Macon line commuters would spend up to 4 hours 20 minutes on the train, and Athens line commuters up to 3 1/2 hours each day. The Senoia line would have the shortest maximum commute time, at nearly two hours.

In a metropolitan area where round-trip commuting averages one hour commuting each day, so few riders would be attracted that there would be no reduction in traffic congestion.

A report for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce in 2007 indicated that of the region’s nearly 2.5 million commuters, barely 20,000 people (projected ridership was about 40,000 daily boardings) would ride the trains each day.

Updating the cost estimates to 2011 dollars and applying federal discounting standards, the total annual subsidy would be more than $13,000 per rider, assuming a very optimistic 40 percent of the operating costs would be paid by passenger fares. The average Atlanta area household spends about this much on housing each year. The taxpayer subsidy could be even higher if the typical cost overrun and overly optimistic patronage projections documented by the leading international research were to occur.

The Atlanta region has opened more high-capacity rapid transit (MARTA) over the past 35 years than any metropolitan area besides Washington, D.C. Yet, only 3 percent of the region’s commuters use transit, and most of them use buses. This is not because transit is undesirable. It is rather because transit does not and cannot go where people need to go in a time that is competitive with the automobile.

Transit’s commuting impact is largely limited to downtown, which with Midtown is less than 10 percent of employment in the metropolitan area. Less than 4 percent of the metropolitan area’s jobs can be reached by transit in 45 minutes by the average employee, according to Brookings Institution research. Commuter rail wouldn’t change that.

Atlanta relies on principally cars, like every other major American and Western European metropolitan areas. Nowhere has there been a material transfer of automobile demand to transit, no matter how much rail is built. Traffic congestion can only be alleviated by providing sufficient capacity for the rapid door-to-door travel people require.

This is a problem in Atlanta with its sparse freeway coverage and less than robust arterial street
system, a factor covered in my Jan. 17, 2010 Atlanta Journal-Constitution commentary ( The expanding HOT lane program is a step in the right direction, though there is much more to do.

Traffic congestion can be reduced, but only if available funding is used to reduce travel delay the most per million or billion dollars of spending. Slow trains cannot compete on a rational basis.
Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy firm. He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission

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