The folly of fixed rail projects 

Here’s some depressing news, from Wendell Cox on Joel Kotkin’s newgeography.com website: the federal government is still bent on inducing states and localities to spend untold billions on fixed rail transit projects. The case in point is metro Orlando, where the Federal Transit Administration is trying to get the locals to commit matching dollars to a “Sunrail” commuter rail system running parallel to Interstate 4. You might wonder why a commuter rail system is needed there, since nearly every worker in metro Orlando has a car and can drive, and can travel almost any imaginable destination-to-destination route much more quickly by car than by rail.

 

The FTA wants state and local governments to put in $175 million to cover half the estimated costs for Sunrail. You might not be surprised to learn that, as three European researchers cited by Cox have found, the average fixed rail project costs 45% more than projected and that 80% cost overruns were not unusual. They also found that ridership estimates turn out almost always to be hugely inflated, which means either higher fares or bigger operating deficits or both, almost inevitably. And, as Cox points out, the feds require a giveback of some federal aid if ridership levels don’t meet certain standards.


Fixed rail projects like Sunrail strike me as a solution in search of a problem. I can see an argument for some form of mass transit to accommodate residents of metro Orlando who cannot or will not drive. That might justify a bus system or perhaps a system of vans sent out at the call of someone in need like the MetroAccess vans one sees in Washington. Either form is hugely less expensive than a fixed rail system.  Bus routes can always be adjusted and van routes by their nature would be ever-changing in response to demand; if unneeded, buses and vans can be sold to someone else. But you’re stuck with fixed rail more or less forever. And fixed rail cars are often custom designed for a particular system, which means there’s no used vehicle market.

 

So why do the feds continue to push fixed rail? Partly because it’s an existing program and there’s an incentive to shovel money out of the door. But why was the program created in the first place? Because of some “progressive” notions. Europe has a lot of fixed rail, and everyone knows that Europeans are more progressive than we benighted Americans are (which overlooks the fact that population density is much greater in Europe than in almost any part of the United States except the inner portions of metro New York). Fixed rail takes people out of polluting cars into energy-efficient trains (except that the trains may not be significantly more energy-efficient if they don’t have many passengers). Fixed rail encourages dense residential and office development (but that doesn’t explain why you’d build Sunrail parallel to Interstate 4). What I think is at work here is bossiness: planners yearn to make everyone else live in the patterns they think are progressive. I can see a case for building a fixed rail line as an amenity, contributing as parks and boulevards do to a certain aesthetic; San Diego’s Tijuana Trolley strikes me as an example. But as a form of transportation, fixed rail makes little sense in most parts of the United States. The fact that promoters of fixed rail almost inevitably produce hugely optimistic projections of cost and ridership indicate that we are dealing here with people who are less committed to rational argumentation than they are to the promotion of something which for them takes on the importance of a religious faith.

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Michael Barone

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