As rail projects grow, value is questioned


November 04, 1990|By Doug Birch

Maryland is spending $446 million to lay track and buy light-rail vehicles -- which are essentially beefed-up streetcars -- to link Baltimore to suburban areas to the north and south. But that commitment was only puppy love.

Now, the state Department of Transportation is flirting with proposals for as many as 11 similar projects that could cost more than $2.4 billion. Around the country, more than a score of cities are similarly smitten. They have spent, or are talking about spending, tens of billions of dollars on their own light-rail projects.

But a band of dissenting academics suggests that the growing public passion for rail transit is a dangerous liaison. They say subway and light-rail projects usually cost more than expected, do not attract as many riders as predicted and need huge subsidies to keep operating.

Rail bleeds buses of riders, the critics claim, by stealing some and driving off others with higher transit fares imposed to cover rail's operating losses. And, they charge, rail projects don't reduce road congestion or pollution, because they don't lure many commuters out of their cars.

For years, these arguments have been treated as heresy by politicians and local transit agencies, who see rail systems as clean, safe, effective and energy-efficient alternatives to building more highways that are quickly overwhelmed by more traffic.

But a September 1989 report for the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) -- "Urban Rail Transit Projects: Forecast Versus Actual Ridership and Costs" by planner Don H. Pickrell -- gave rail critics a new weapon and rallying point.

Peter Gordon, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California, said the Pickrell report vindicates his view that rail projects are boondoggles. "In my classes, I refer to it as the smoking gun," he said.

The report studied the Baltimore Metro along with three other subway and four light-rail projects.

Seven of the projects, it claimed, cost from 17 percent to 156 percent more than predicted when they were proposed. The average number of weekday riders, meanwhile, was from 28 percent to 85 percent lower than forecast.

Optimistic projections, the study suggested, may have misled some cities into investing in new rail systems.

Mr. Pickrell, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Transportation's Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass., declined to discuss his report.

But Professor Joseph Schofer, director of research for the Transportation Center at Northwestern University, said Mr. Pickrell merely confirmed and summarized what early studies showed.

Planners who recommend rail projects "are not liars," Mr. Schofer said. But they are often just "focused on the symptoms" of traffic congestion and under pressure from politicians to come up with a quick fix.

Nonsense, supporters say. They say light-rail systems can be an important part of an overall transit strategy -- flexible and relatively cheap, like buses, while capable of traveling at high speeds and hauling large numbers of riders, as subways can. Middle-sized cities without extensive subway systems already in place have rushed to embrace the new technology.

Baltimore's gleaming white light-rail cars will operate as poky trolleys downtown, crossing intersections and running along tracks built in the street. Out of the city center, they will zip along like commuter trains along separate rails to growing office and industrial centers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Hunt Valley.

(The term light rail refers to the number of passengers they can carry, not to the weight of the vehicles. Subways and commuter trains are considered "heavy rail" because they are built to carry more riders.)

But is light rail really cheap?

The Pickrell report claimed that light-rail systems in Buffalo, N.Y., Portland, Ore., and Sacramento, Calif., all cost more than expected -- 59 percent more, in Buffalo's case.

A state Department of Transportation's December 1987 briefing paper on Baltimore light rail said it would cost $290 million after inflation, which was "under $11 million per mile, at least one-tenth the cost of subway systems."

The estimated cost of the system has since risen to $446 million -- or $16.2 million per mile. A new interstate highway costs roughly $17 million per mile, according to some experts.

"I don't think [light rail] is cheap," Mr. Schofer said. "I think people just believe it's cheap."

The Pickrell report angered mass transit officials, engineers and planners around the country. "Pickrell chose projections selectively in order to make projects look bad," said Thomas G. Matoff, general manager of Sacramento's transit agency.

The American Public Transit Association, an industry group, issued a 17-page rebuttal in July that blasted the UMTA-funded study as "inaccurate" and "biased" against rail. All the transit systems cited in the study -- and some that were not -- objected in writing.

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