Light rail: A 'miserable failure'

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March 19, 1991|By Amy Macht

THE GREATER Baltimore Committee lately has been demanding performance standards in many areas, including school reform and social programs. So it is all the more surprising that Robert Keller, GBC's president, promotes the Central Light Rail Line (Other Voices, March 5), a project which falls remarkably short of nationally recognized performance standards.

Contrary to Keller's unsubstantiated claim, those who criticize the light rail project are not opposed to mass transit, any more than Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was opposed to a proper defense when he vetoed the A-12 as a white elephant. In like measure, those who have applied performance standards to the light rail project have discovered that, as demonstrated by the state's own data, it fails all recognized tests of economic viability and constitutes a phenomenal waste of $50 million. The GBC demands hard, objective analysis of those programs it is prepared to criticize, but it blithely ignores that kind of analysis when discussing a project it helped initiate.

So let's get to the facts, obtained exclusively from state analysis:

1. Keller's party line is that the $50,000 to $75,000 state capital cost of light rail per new daily transit trip presumes "that each rider takes one trip, one time only in a lifetime." He is simply wrong. This figure represents the capital cost divided by the number of new riders, each of whom will take light rail each day throughout the year.

2. By the year 2005, the entire light rail line will carry only 34,000 riders per day (compared to 300,000 current bus riders per day). Of the 34,000, however, 30,000 to 32,000 were already using other forms of mass transit. In other words, even at its peak projected performance, light rail will attract a maximum of 2,000 to 4,000 new mass transit riders, or 10 percent of its total ridership.

3. Light rail will cost the state (exclusive of operating deficits) about $2,600 per year for each of the 34,000 riders. This compares with $66 per person per year for the 300,000 citizens who use the state's bus system.

4. According to the state, this project will not reduce traffic congestion.

5. According to the state, it will not reduce pollution and will increase net transportation energy consumption. (Remember, light rail is an enormous consumer of electricity.)

6. If the GBC would like to know the state subsidy for each and every new trip provided over the lifetime of the system, the MTA has provided that exact figure. It is $26.18 for each new trip. This compares abysmally with federal funding guidelines, which require projects to which the federal government makes

contributions to cost less than $6 for each new trip.

Not all mass transit projects fall so miserably short of these performance standards. Many around the country fall within the $6 federal threshold and are under consideration now for major federal funding. Certainly, the MTA should be able to design a Baltimore project that would attract enough ridership to justify its costs. And of all our local organizations, the GBC should be the first to insist on MTA compliance with recognized performance standards.

Impulsive, blind boosterism is an unattractive method for making complex decisions concerning government expenditures. As we understand all too well in this recessionary period, the decision to fund one project comes at the expense of funding another. It should be our common objective to continue on the path the GBC has previously championed of measuring the likelihood of each project's ability to achieve the goals set for it. So measured, light rail is a miserable, expensive failure.

Amy Macht writes from Baltimore.

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