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.

Beltway ConfidentialUnited StatesUSWashington

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Police Chief Bill Scott on Wednesday said a rebranding and reoganization of the former Gang Task Force amounts to “more than just the name change.” (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFPD Gang Task Force is ‘no more’: Chief reenvisions investigative unit

New Community Violence Reduction Team adds officers with community-policing experience

Stores including Walgreens and Safeway are required to pay their employees additional hazard pay under a city ordinance that is currently set to expire later this month. (Shutterstock)
Grocery workers to gain additional weeks of $5 per hour hazard pay

San Francisco will vote next week on whether to extend a law… Continue reading

Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays attends an event to honor the San Francisco Giants' 2014 World Series victory on Thursday, June 4, 2015, in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
Willie Mays turns 90: San Francisco celebrates the greatest Giant

By Al Saracevic Examiner staff writer I couldn’t believe it. Willie Mays… Continue reading

Ja’Mari Oliver, center, 11, a fifth grader at Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, is surrounded by his classmates at a protest outside the Safeway at Church and Market streets on Wednesday, May 5, 2021 in support of him following an April 26 incident where he was falsely accused by an employee of stealing. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
School community rallies behind Black classmate stopped at Safeway

‘When you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us’

A warning notice sits under the windshield wiper of a recreational vehicle belonging to a homeless man named David as it sits parked on De Wolf Street near Alemany Boulevard on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. A proposed SF Municipal Transportation Agency law would make it illegal for overnight parking on the side street for vehicles taller than seven feet or longer than 22 feet. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFMTA to resume ‘poverty tows’ amid calls to make temporary ban permanent

Fines and fees hurt low-income, homeless residents, but officials say they are a necessary tool

Most Read