Cato Institute: Light railways 'wasteful and inefficient'

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The conservative Cato Institute is arguing that cities should stop building light railways in favor of less expensive bus systems. 

Cities such as Minneapolis, Charlotte, Dallas and Salt Lake City are currently building new light rail lines. New construction is also being discussed in places such as Los Angeles, Tampa, Fla., and the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

Cato Institute senior fellow Randal O’Toole said in an op-ed in the Daily Caller that the proposed light railways and others like them are “wasteful and inefficient,” however.  

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“Thanks to lobbying by government contractors and local politicians hungry for ‘free’ federal dollars, more cost-effective alternatives are forgone in favor of expensive, low-capacity transit,” O’Toole wrote. “Proponents misleadingly call these light-rail lines ‘high-capacity transit.’ In fact, the ‘light’ in light rail refers not to weight, but capacity; light rail is, by definition, low-capacity transit.” 

Light railways and streetcars emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as a cost-effective alternative to building "heavy rail" subway systems like Washington, D.C.'s Metrorail. Light railways are generally operated aboveground, unlike subway systems that require tunnels and more extensive power systems, and they usually run shorter trains.

Light rail lines have become popular with transit advocates because they are generally much cheaper to construct. 

O’Toole said cities would be better off if they were building buses, however. 

“Rail advocates don’t like to admit it, but buses can carry more people, more comfortably, and to more places, for far less money, than light rail,” he wrote. “Three-car light-rail trains that run in streets can hold up to 450 people, more than any bus. But most light-rail lines can only run about 20 trains per hour, whereas a single bus stop can serve 42 buses per hour. By staggering bus stops, a single street can serve more than 160 buses per hour.” 

The Obama administration has encouraged the construction of light railways and streetcars by providing grants and loans to states that are constructing them through the Federal Transit Administration. 

O’Toole said city governments often get stuck with the bill for operating the lines once they’re up and running, however. 

“For city officials, the incentive to build rail where buses would work better comes from a federal fund known as New Starts,” he wrote. “This fund promises to cover at least half the costs of new transit lines, and cities that spend more get more. Thus, cities race to build the most expensive lines possible. Though the feds may pay half the capital costs, local taxpayers have to pay not only the other half but the costs of long-term maintenance, which are much higher than bus costs.” 

O’Toole added that “the race to build light rail is a race to waste money. 

“American transit agencies should abandon this race and stick to comfortable, affordable bus service,” he concluded.