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T-post Tom
09-14-2008, 03:44 PM
what do you make of the light rail issue?

Looking into light-rail myths: What are the facts?
By JEFFREY SPIVAK and BRAD COOPER
The Kansas City Star

Kansas Citians will vote in November on an $815 million light-rail starter line that would stretch 14 miles, from Vivion Road in the Northland to 63rd Street and Bruce R. Watkins Drive.

City leaders want to make that investment to offer better transit alternatives in the face of high gas prices, and because light rail in other cities has spurred economic development and population growth in urban centers.

But city voters are likely to hear about several other issues with light rail during the campaign.

To help sort out some of those issues:

Less traffic

Issue: Light rail would take cars off the streets as some drivers become riders, thus reducing traffic congestion.

Fact or myth: Myth.

If there is one truism about traffic congestion, it is that it consistently grows throughout a metropolitan area. That is because populations and the number of vehicles and drivers keep growing.

Mass transit has been proven to lessen traffic delays, but how much does light rail contribute, considering it is usually a limited-range system that carries a fraction of overall transit users?

Many transit supporters recognize that the most light rail could do is perhaps slow the growth of additional traffic.

Austin, Texas, transit consultants found U.S. urban areas with rail transit systems experienced a slower rate of congestion growth during the 1990s. Of course, that meant congestion still worsened.

Rail opponents such as national transportation consultant Wendell Cox also noted that the percentage of commuters using transit hardly changed in most metropolitan areas that built light rail.

So what can Kansas City expect?

On streets where light rail would run, “there will be a reduction in travel speeds and an increase in congestion” because some lanes will be taken out of service, said John Dobies, a Kansas City Area Transportation Authority consultant.

More crime

Issue: Light rail would be dangerous for riders because it attracts criminals and would lead to a wave of crime.

Fact or myth: Big myth.

Earlier this year, consultants for Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser raised a “concern over crime” on light rail. Then Randal O’Toole, working for Missouri’s libertarian-leaning Show-Me Institute, called light rail dangerous and said it “has by far the worst crime record in the transit industry.”

As proof, O’Toole and other light rail opponents cited some fights and stabbings on the Portland, Ore., MAX system, including one story that quoted a police sergeant saying “the MAX has been a living nightmare for us.”

Yet those critics can’t name another city where crime has been a problem on light rail besides one section of Portland’s system.

Overall, light rail’s crime threat is inflated because few crimes occur on mass transit systems.

Consider: According to 2006 statistics, more rapes occurred in Prairie Village than on all the country’s light rail systems combined.

Light rail systems had 463 robberies, or one for every 824,620 riders, compared with Prairie Village’s five robberies, or one for every 4,321 residents.

Cleaner air

Issue: Light rail, by taking some vehicles off the streets, would lower pollution and improve air quality.

Fact or myth: Fact, but barely.

Light rail runs on electricity, powered by overhead lines, so an American Public Transportation Association report called light rail “the most energy-efficient mode of public transportation.” The report found that once gasoline and electricity were converted to standard BTUs, light rail required less energy per passenger mile than automobiles.

But this translates to small environmental benefits. Studies done in such cities as Dallas and Denver found light rail would reduce carbon monoxide emissions by less than 1 percent.

Light rail doesn’t take enough cars off the roads to have much effect. The EPA reported last year that the biggest emissions reductions occurred when new real estate development built up around rail stations, thus shortening car trips.

It is not surprising, then, that a public policy analysis done this year at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., concluded: “Persuading 1 percent of auto owners to purchase a car that gets 30 to 40 miles per gallon or better … will do more to reduce energy consumption and (carbon emissions) than building rail transit.”

Faster commutes

Issue: Light rail would get you to your destination faster than a car.

Fact or myth: Largely a myth.

There could be times when light rail would be faster than a car. It would just depend on where you are going.

In Dallas, trains average about 35 mph throughout the system, although they can go faster (60 mph) or slower (20 mph) depending on where the train is running. In St. Louis, trains average between 25 mph and 40 mph, although they can reach 55 mph.

In Kansas City, transit planners acknowledge that beating the car could be tough, although they think they can compete because of the convenience of taking a train.

The trains would run in the street and possibly have to stop at some traffic signals. There also would be 21 or 22 stations where the trains would stop along the 14-mile route, plus some curves that could slow them down.

Top speed would likely be 35 mph on city streets, although it might get as high as 45 mph on parts of the route across the Missouri River or along Bruce R. Watkins Drive. Average speed would be 20 mph.

But while you wouldn’t be buying a sure-fire faster trip by train, there would be some time-saving benefits to light rail. You wouldn’t have to park your car and your trip would be more consistent than a car — no traffic jams in bad weather or wrecks.

“You have to look at the full trip, door to door,” said Dick Jarrold, chief engineer for the ATA.

Higher costs

Issue: Light-rail projects tend to run over estimates.

Fact or myth: Fact

Light rail is like any major public infrastructure project — it is bound to run into complications that can drive up costs. A number of cities such as Dallas and Denver are dealing with large increases in project costs driven, in part, by the rising price of asphalt and steel.

The Federal Transit Administration studied 21 rail projects completed between 2003 and 2007, and found the costs averaged 40 percent higher than the inflation-adjusted estimates developed during the earliest stages of the projects.

However, from the point of starting final design to construction, the price disparities were smaller, between 6 and 12 percent.

Kansas City’s proposed starter rail line is projected to cost between $815 million and $835 million. The price is based on today’s dollars and doesn’t reflect what the actual cost would be in the year of construction. It could reach $1.1 billion by the time it is built, according to the ATA.

“In our case specifically, we feel we have been conservative in these cost estimates,” said Mark Huffer, the ATA general manager.