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Urban Rail Debate: Rail Transit Makes Progress, Despite Attacks

Commentary by Thomas B. Gray • February 2005

It's always interesting to follow the dialogue between rail supporters and rail opponents on the internet. It seems that the more progress rail transit makes, and the more public support it gains, the more ferocious the anti-rail barrage becomes.

Just about a year ago, in February 2004, urban rail opponent Randall O'Toole released his anti-rail screed titled Great Rail Disasters, wherein he proclaimed that "rail transit has negative net impacts on every urban area in which it is located." O'Toole writes:

The stampede to plan and build rail transit lines in American cities has led and is leading to a series of financial and mobility disasters. They are financial disasters because rail projects spend billions of taxpayers' dollars and produce little in return. They are mobility disasters because rail transit almost always increases regional congestion and usually reduces transit's share of commuting and general travel.

O'Toole is recognized as a particularly virulent rail opponent, even though his professional background is in forestry and he does not appear to have any formal training or experience in transportation planning or engineering. His writing generated several responses from rail proponents, including a rebuttal document by Tod Litman from the Victoria Transport Policy institute entitled Rail Transit in America: A Comprehensive Evaluation of Benefits. Here are some excerpts from the abstract:

...[C]ities with larger, well-established rail systems have significantly higher per capita transit ridership, lower average per capita vehicle ownership and mileage, less traffic congestion, lower traffic death rates and lower consumer transportation expenditures than otherwise comparable cities. This indicates that rail transit systems can provide a variety of economic, social and environmental benefits, and benefits tend to increase as a system expands and matures. This analysis indicates that rail investments can be a cost effective way to improve urban transport. Parking, vehicle and congestion cost savings from rail transit are estimated to exceed total U.S. public transit subsidies. [This analysis] critiques Great Rail Disasters (O'Toole, 2004), a report which argued that rail transit systems fail to achieve their objectives and are not cost effective. It finds that many claims in Great Rail Disasters are inaccurate, based on inappropriate and biased analysis.

Litman goes on to critique O'Toole's publication:

When critics conclude that rail transit is ineffective, the failure is often in their analysis, not in rail transit. Out of ignorance or intention, Great Rail Disasters fails to use current best practices for transit evaluation. It makes no reference to the literature on the subject, indicating the author intentionally ignored current concepts and practices. Its statistical analysis is flawed and biased. It fails to isolate rail transit effects from overall trends and confounding factors. It ignores many benefits of rail and overlooks some costs of bus and automobile transport. Much of the information is outdated, inaccurate or misrepresented. Data sources are not referenced and analysis methods are not described, preventing independent review. The author left substantial mistakes uncorrected. These errors and omissions violate basic evaluation principles and significantly distort results.

A .pdf file of the entire document is available at the following URL:

I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the urban rail debate.

More recently, staff from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis offered an economic analysis of St. Louis's light rail system in their magazine The Regional Economist, in an article titled Light Rail: Boon or Boondoggle? available at the following URL:

In this article, economic researchers Molly D. Castelazo and Thomas A. Garrett write:

Light-rail transit systems have become a common fixture in many American cities over the past several decades. Proponents of light rail argue that rail transit increases community well-being by creating jobs, boosting economic development and property values, and reducing pollution and traffic congestion--all while providing drivers with an economical alternative to the automobile. Opponents counter that light-rail transit provides little of these benefits to citizens and that, even if some benefits are realized, the costs still outweigh any potential benefits to society. Whether light-rail transit is a boon or a boondoggle depends on whether the societal benefits of light rail outweigh its costs.

This underscores some of the fundamental differences in perception between rail proponents and rail opponents. In this case, the article focuses mainly on costs, largely ignoring societal benefits. Castelazo and Garrett suggest that light rail is inefficient because its cost of providing service is supposedly far higher than people are willing to pay (i.e., it requires subsidies to operate). They suggest that toll roads would be a more efficient means of reducing overall congestion and expanded bus service or express buses would be more efficient ways of providing public transportation to low income citizens, even though they assert that all public transportation is less cost-efficient than the private automobile. The article even contains another variation of the tired and flawed "for the money spent on rail, you can buy a car for every transit rider" argument (although this time, instead of a Mercedes or Lexus, the car of choice is a Toyota Prius).

St. Louis LRT paxWhile rail critics denounce St. Louis's MetroLink light rail transit system, it has proven extremely cost-effective as a transit operation and popular with the public.
[Photo: L. Henry]

The Castelazo and Garrett article elicited a response from Michael Setty at, in which he states:

The real disagreement over transit lies in two areas; (1) what constitutes relevant "facts," and (2) what should be considered "costs" and "benefits." This ongoing, increasingly tedious debate is further confused when economists, such as article authors Molly D. Castelazo and Thomas A. Garrett insert an analysis that fails to go beyond mere economics and considers the fallout from political choices regarding the role of the automobile made many decades ago (e.g., tacit acceptance of motor vehicle "externalities – "road pricing" will be far more difficult than most economists like to assume). Unfortunately, Castelazo and Garrett also come to incorrect conclusions based on rather glaring methodological errors and an apparent unfamiliarity with transit in general, and light rail transit (LRT) in particular.

Setty's complete analysis can be viewed at the following URL:

I personally am of the opinion that economists who focus completely on the monetary "efficiency" of light rail and use that as the sole means to evaluate its utility are missing the overall picture because there is so much more to the debate. However, not everyone in the field of economics believes rail transit is inefficient. Dr. Haynes Godddard, for example, a professor of economics at the University of Cincinnati, argues in favor of rail transit and takes issue with its critics. His analysis can be viewed at the following URL:

And finally, there is the ongoing resistance to rail transit from within the federal government itself. The Sierra Club has recently released a report entitled Missing the Train: How the Bush Administration's Transportation Proposal Threatens Jobs, Commutes, and Public Transit Ridership. It's another good read, even though I'll readily admit that the Sierra Club is not an unbiased entity in this debate. For example, it suggests that Cincinnati's proposed light rail system is one of the projects threatened by the Bush Administration's proposal to reduce the federal funding share for mass transit in the transportation authorization bill currently being debated in Washington. In actuality, the Cincinnati project was doomed by the negative outcome of a 2002 referendum, not by anything the White House has done.

Even though opponents continue to "rail" against them, urban rail systems are being opened and expanded at a rapid pace. In addition to the January 1, 2004 opening of the 7.5-mile light rail line in Houston, recent extensions to streetcar systems began operation in Memphis and New Orleans. The Hiawatha light rail line recently began service in Minneapolis and the new monorail in Las Vegas was finally put into service on July 15th, 2004. The refurbished Overbrook line in Pittsburgh is up and running this past summer (2004), and the Yellow Line (interstate MAX) in Portland began service May 1st, 2004. Extensions to the light rail networks in San Jose and Sacramento have recently opened as well. St. Louis is busy building the so-called "Cross-County Extension" to their light rail line, and installation of new light rail systems in Phoenix and Seattle in under way. And this is by no means a complete list – but you can find a good listing of all US urban rail transit lines opened or expanded since 1980 at the following URL:

For all the ranting and raving that the anti-rail faction is doing, it's obvious that few cities are listening to them.

Thomas B. Gray is an urban planner in Houston, Texas and webmaster of his own website at the following URL:
His transportation pages can be found at:

This commentary has been adapted from one of his essays. Thomas Gray can be reached at

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Updated 2005/02/01

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