Regions without rail more likely to see transit ridership grow than those with rail
Harrisburg, PA - Transit agencies that rely on buses are more likely to see transit ridership grow as fast or faster than automobile driving than those agencies that build expensive rail lines - and Pennsylvania policymakers considering new rail systems should pay attention, according to a new report from the Commonwealth Foundation and the American Dream Coalition.
The study, titled "Rail Disasters 2005," reveals that over the past two decades, transit ridership declined, or at best remained stagnant, in nearly two out of three urban areas with rail transit, while it grew in numerous regions with bus-only transit.
"Is rail really the best solution for areas-like Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh - looking to provide commuters with a mix of transportation alternatives? In a word, "no," said Commonwealth Foundation Senior Policy Analyst Grant Gulibon. "Rail's lack of success should be a lesson for rail aficionados both inside and outside government."
The new report scrutinizes transit records in twenty-three urban areas with rail transit and assigns each a letter grade based on whether transit ridership has grown faster than automobile driving, grown slower than automobile driving, or declined. Ridership has declined in fourteen of the twenty-three areas-including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh-earning those areas an "F."
Transit has grown faster than automobile driving in only two rail regions - Boston and San Diego. However, the report shows that transit has grown faster than automobile driving in many regions with bus-only transit, including Austin, Las Vegas, and Raleigh-Durham. The report also finds that in other regions, such as Portland, Dallas, and Salt Lake City, transit ridership grew faster before rail construction began than after the rail lines opened.
The cost of starting a rail transit line can be 50 to 100 times greater than the cost of starting comparable bus service. "In fact, rail's high costs present a triple threat to regions and transit riders," says the report's author, economist Randal O'Toole of the American Dream Coalition.
The first threat is cost overruns, which average 41 percent for rail transit projects. These often force agencies to raise bus fares or reduce bus service. In the case of Los Angeles, this led to a nearly 20-percent decline in bus ridership. Only when the NAACP sued to restore bus service to low-income neighborhoods did bus ridership recover. A similar lawsuit has recently been filed in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The second threat comes during recessions, when declining tax revenues force heavily indebted transit agencies to choose between defaulting on their rail-construction loans or cutting transit service. To avoid default in the recent recession, San Jose made such severe cuts in service that it lost a third of its transit riders.
The third threat comes when it is time to rebuild rail lines, which must be done every twenty to thirty years. Washington, DC, estimates that it will cost nearly as much to rebuild its rail lines in the next decade as it cost to build them, yet it has no funds to do so.
"If a region truly wants to provide public mass transit alternatives that commuters might actually use in greater numbers, its leaders would be better off improving bus service than building rail transit," concluded Gulibon.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Commonwealth Foundation report, Rail Disasters 2005, is available as a 2MB PDF file.
The Commonwealth Foundation () is an independent, non-profit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.
Randal O'Toole, an adjunct scholar at the Commonwealth Foundation, is an economist with the American Dream Coalition and author of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths.
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CONTACT: Randal O'Toole at 541.297.6798 or Grant R. Gulibon at 717.671.1901
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