Light Rail Follies #4: Dallas Builds On Time, Under Budget

posted in Transportation section of The Antiplanner, December 13, 2007

Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) says that a light-rail line that was supposed to cost $988 million will actually cost $1.88 billion. The first phase of the “orange” line to Irving, Texas, was supposed to be completed in 2011, but due to “unforeseen” increases in costs, DART will delay that by at least a year. Eventually, the line is supposed to reach DFW Airport, but that depends on whether DART can scrape up enough money to pay for it.


DART blames those evil Indians and Chinese, who are not only taking our jobs and decorating our children’s toys with lead paint, they are consuming the steel and concrete we need by building highways. Don’t they know the age of the automobile is over and they should be building light rail instead? In any case, DART claims its experts could not have predicted this and so shouldn’t be blamed. Of course, that is exactly why transit agencies shouldn’t plan rail construction projects — they can’t predict the real costs and so almost always end up over budget.

Dallas, for example, built a line to Plano (the “red line”) that was originally supposed to cost $347 million. By the year 2000, two years before it opened, the estimated cost had increased to $517 million. I can’t find the final cost, but even if it was a little less than $517 million, it was a lot more than $347 million.

Dallas is currently building a Northwest/Southeast “green line” that was projected in 2001 to cost $1.1 billion. The current cost is up to $1.7 billion. (Since these are all “year of expenditure dollars,” they all supposedly account for inflation.)

Some say the only smart thing about the Dallas light-rail system is that they built the line through downtown under ground. Though this cost a lot of money, it kept the light-rail from adding to congestion and avoided the wham-bam tram accidents generated by the Houston light rail. Not content with having done anything right, DART is now studying a downtown streetcar system.
No doubt when DART completes the orange and green lines, it will claim they were completed on time and on budget. As near as I can tell, every light-rail line in the country has been built on time and on budget, if not under budget — at least, according to the transit agencies that built them.

According to Portland’s TriMet, for example, the eastside light-rail line was built “on time and under budget,”, while the westside light-rail line was “on time and on budget.” More objective observers say the eastside line went 55 percent over its projected cost while the westside line cost a mere 72 percent more than its projected cost.

Is there anything that transit agencies and rail advocates say about light rail that isn’t a lie? They call it high-capacity transit and it isn’t. They claim they build them on budget and they don’t. They claim rail reduces congestion, and it increases it. They claim light rail catalyzes economic development, when all it does is catalyze more subsidies to development.

Light rail is really just one big, fat lie.

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©2007 Coalition On Sustainable Transportation