Cheaper to Buy New Cars than Build Light Rail

COST Commentary:This article describes a smaller vesion of of buses and light rail but it is directly applicable to the situation unfolding in Austin regarding the City’s proposed Light Rail which it has been placed on the November ballot.

Cheaper to Buy New Cars than Build Light Rail

Review of Greenlight Pinellas

by Randal O’Toole, August 14, 2014, Working Paper NO. 22, CATO Institute

Under its “Greenlight Pinellas” proposal, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), which serves Pinellas County, FL, wants to switch its major funding source from a property tax to a sales tax at a rate that will more than double its local tax revenues, and use the added money to build a 24-mile light-rail line and expand bus service. This proposal is extremely and unnecessarily expensive given that buses can provide a superior service to light rail, carrying more passengers more comfortably to more destinations at a far lower cost.

PSTA has already shown its inability to predict short-term travel patterns. Between 1991 and 2005, it increased bus service by 46 percent yet gained essentially no new riders and actually saw a 17 percent reduction in passenger miles. The result was that average occupancies of PSTA buses, which were already emptier than the national average, fell by 44 percent.

Because of the 2008–09 recession, PSTA was forced to reduce bus service by 5 percent after 2008, yet bus ridership actually grew by nearly 9 percent. PSTA says it needs a tax increase to accommodate the growth in ridership, but as of 2012, PSTA bus occupancies of an average of 8 riders per bus were still well below the national average of nearly 11 riders per bus, showing that PSTA has a lot of room for growth without any increase in service.

PSTA’s Greenlight Pinellas proposal effectively asks the public to reward the agency for its failures. PSTA’s plan is so expensive and produces so little benefit that, under federal Department of Transportation rules that were in effect until last year, it would not be eligible for federal funding because it is so cost-ineffective.

Compared with bus-rapid transit, the proposed light-rail line would be so costly and attract so few new riders that it would be less expensive to give every new round-trip commuter who was attracted to the light rail a new Toyota Prius every single year for 30 years than to build the light rail. Yet the specific bus-rapid transit alternative that was nominally considered by PSTA is itself phenomenally expensive, costing nearly $50 for every hour of transit riders’ time that it would save.

In addition, PSTA has failed to reveal the effects of the proposed light-rail line on traffic congestion. Light rail often increases congestion when it crosses streets and disrupts traffic signal coordination systems. Although Greenlight Pinellas documents indicate that PSTA calculated the effects of light rail on congestion, it did not publish its results, suggesting that it did not want the public to know that it would make congestion worse.

As an alternative to light rail and a tax increase, this paper proposes that PSTA introduce eight new rapid bus routes that would provide better bus service to residents throughout the region. These new routes would be funded by contracting out all PSTA bus routes to private operators, which would save taxpayers at least 31 percent per route and probably more. This way, instead of spending more money on poorer quality transportation, as Greenlight Pinellas proposes, taxpayers will get better transit at no greater cost.

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