Monday, July 28, 2008

Grand Rapids: The Next Stop for the Light Rail Boondoggle Train

This weekend's Grand Rapids Press had an article about the ballooning cost of a potential "light rail" system that is in the works for Grand Rapids. The project hasn't actually even begun, but already the potential cost has jumped from $69 million to $79 million - in the span of one year. The Rapid is ready to spend $800,000 of taxpayer dollars just on studying the concept.

What would this light rail system look like? The plan is to have one rail route, from the Sixth Street/Monroe intersection, south on Monroe Avenue, to the Rapid bus depot. That's a grand total of about 3 miles. $24.8 million per mile.

The plan also calls for up to 2,900 passengers per day. The $1.30 cost of riding the streetcar would cover only about one third of the annual $1.75 million cost to continue operations.

Never mind the rediculous re-engineering that Monroe would need to build this thing (seven lanes wide?), why can't buses accomplish the same thing? We're no fan of the inefficient fixed route bus system that The Rapid employs, but good God, anything would be better than the joke that this light rail system would be.

Of course, the magical benefits of this system are touted, such as $5 in development growth for each $1 spent on the system. Where do they get that number? They often point to Portland's light rail system, which supposedly spurred so much development. But did it really? A recent report from the Cato Institute looks at just that question. A couple of telling excerpts:
[W]hen Portland’s first light-rail line opened for business in 1986, the city zoned much of the land near light-rail stations for high-density development. Ten years later, city planner Mike Saba sadly reported to the Portland city council, “we have not seen any of the kind of development—of a mid-rise, higher-density, mixed use, mixed-income type—that we would’ve liked to have seen” along the light-rail line.


Over the next decade, the city experienced a boom in high-density developments, virtually all of which were [taxpayer] subsidized.


Measured by value, the vast majority of the $1 billion of investments supposedly stimulated by the [Portland] light rail consists of government buildings, some built in response to executive orders by President Clinton and Oregon’s Governor Barbara Roberts that all federal and state agencies should relocate to downtown areas.44 One government-funded building supposedly stimulated by the lightrail line was a $5 million downtown parking garage. If light-rail works so well, why is a new garage needed and in what sense did light rail stimulate the construction of that garage?

Laughably, The Rapid's web site has on its FAQ page the following item:

  • Why not change the current bus system instead of spending new money on streetcars?

  • Streetcars have several desirable features for downtown areas. First, with metro dwellers and workers nationwide demonstrating a strong preference for rail transit, streetcar systems draw more riders than equivalent bus systems.

  • Second, streetcars have no vehicle emissions and therefore help improve air quality.

  • Third, while streetcars have a higher initial investment, their operating cost is typically lower than equivalent bus systems. Higher operating cost for buses is attributed to escalating diesel costs, and shorter service life. The average life span for streetcars is 25 to 40 years and 12 years for buses. This trade-off will be part of the feasibility study evaluation. Is it worth a higher initial cost to provide increased benefits for many years to come?

First, the idea that more people like streetcars because they are cooler than buses has got to be the worst possible reason to spend $79 million. Second, the idea that streetcars don't pollute is false, since they use electricity, and since much of our nation's electricity is generated by coal power plants (or natural gas), there certainly are emissions. And third, as we've demonstrated previously, the Rapid loses about $5.82 per passenger when they ride a traditional bus. The Rapid will lose approximately $2.60 per passenger when they use the light rail, and that doesn't include the capital costs. When you factor in a 30 year usable life for the initial capital costs, the loss per passenger rises to about $8.39 each. Where do you think that subsidy comes from? You guessed it... us, the taxpayers! That's hardly more efficient than a traditional bus.

What are these people thinking? Can they see the forest from the trees?

You can read more excellent points debunking the value of the Portland light rail system at the Antiplanner web site.


  1. Typical of those who can't see that such a system isn't right for a city the size of GR. Portland has a population of what, nearly 600,000 compared to GR's population of nearly 200,000 and Portland isn't making the returns they thought they would?

    More pork is all this idea is.

  2. So conservatives are against a public transit system?

    I am so shocked.

  3. It's a dumb idea to consider the option that attracts more riders? Really? So the agency is supposed to ignore the fact that if the like a form of transportation they will use it more?

    I suppose they should also ignore the billions in development that come from investments in transit.

  4. [...] In summary, bravo for the voters of the four cities who rejected this request. Make no mistake, they will be back, asking for more. Their next request will be for billions of dollars for an even more inefficient light rail line. [...]

  5. So the solution is that we should keep driving our gas guzzling SUVs. Yea that will make our city even greater! Down with anything mass transit..

  6. Why not create a light rail system that supports most of Kent County. There are tons of people who would love to ride back and fort to where they have to go using a more reliable source of transportation. Create a system that is worth while. Not some dumb 3 mile costly transit system that's only supporting GR. Screw that!!! Not my tax dollars I think not.