The Public Purpose
Number 60 - June 2003

Loss of Centerline Light Rail and 176 Others
Would End Transportation Aid from Washington

By Wendell Cox

Truth in Advertising: Double Standards: What if a major drug manufacturer placed commercials on national television touting its latest product as immunizing users from SARS? And, what if, like the peddler's elixirs sold from medicine wagons when trolleys were new, the claims were patently false and misleading? Surely, the Food and Drug Administration would ban the advertisements. Depending on the gravity of the situation, even stronger sanctions might be applied. Similarly, if Wal-Mart were to advertise that 177 bottles of Chablis for $10 and tried to sell them instead $10 apiece, regulatory authorities would rightly take quick action.

But when public officials engage in deceptions the equivalent (or worse) of those prohibited in the private sector, no one notices. It isn't even illegal. Take for example the case of the proposed Orange County, California "Centerline" light rail project that city of Irvine voters recently turned down (1).

Two days after the election, Mark Pisano, long-time executive director (he was there when I was appointed to the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission in 1976) of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) told the Los Angeles Times (2) that the Regional Transportation Plan had been "counting" on Centerline," as well as other projects," to help meet deadlines imposed under federal air quality regulations. SCAG is the metropolitan planning organization for the Los Angeles area. Mr. Pisano went on to say that, if the air quality regulations are not met, Southern California could lose up to $8 billion in federal transportation funds. Unidentified "regional planners" told the Times that if the Centerline light rail project is shelved "something must replace it to keep the area in compliance with federal requirements to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion." (3)

It is assumed that Mr. Pisano and the other planners were quoted accurately by the Los Angeles Times, which seems a fair bet unless NYTS (New York Times Syndrome) has struck the media outlet that, until recently at least, liked to fashion itself as the "grey lady" of the West. One can only sympathize with the plight of the planners and the 15 million other South Coast Air Basin (4) residents who face the nation's worst traffic congestion, and whose interests appears to have been so callously disregarded by the presumably selfish voters of Irvine.

What the Data Shows: To better comprehend the magnitude of the affront, I went to the Southern California Association of Government's "Regional Transportation Plan" and the US Federal Transit Administration "New Starts Report." The Regional Transportation Plan contains estimates on air pollution emissions in the area and projections on how well the area will do in the future in meeting the federal requirements. The New Starts Report provides detailed information on the Centerline light rail line and its projected air quality benefits.

Both the SCAG and FTA sources report two pollutants (Nitrogen Oxide or NOx and Carbon Monoxide or CO) in common for 2020, which is also the only common year (Table). A review of the data indicates that any sympathy is misplaced and that any "callous disregard" applies to the public officials who appear to have misled, rather than the voters of Irvine. Indeed, the data suggests that the voters of Irvine heroically cut through the smog of public deception to make a decision that will leave their community a better place to live, while more wisely allocating scarce public resources (something that apparently violates the instincts of at least some of their public servants).

South Coast Air Basin: 2020 Daily Air Quality Requirements and Plan
Factor NOx
EPA Maximum Allowable Emissions 277.77 1,623.35
Emissions with Full Implementation of Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) --- Includes Centerline 237.92 1,515.62
Difference: Amount by Which RTP Emission Estimates could Increase before Equalling Maximum Allowable Emissions 39.85 107.73
Centerline Light Rail Contribution 0.18 0.61
Regional Transportation Plan without Centerline Light Rail 238.10 1516.23
Centerline Contribution % 0.44% 0.57%
Centerline-Equivalent Projects to Equal Difference 227 176
South Coast Air Quality Basin Information from SCAG Regional Transportation Plan: Appendix H
Centreline Light Rail contribution information from 2002 FTA New Starts Report (annual figure divided by 365), page A-327.

    Nitrogen Oxide (NOx): FTA reports that Centerline will reduce daily NOx emissions by 64 tons per year in 2020, (5) or 0.18 tons per day. SCAG forecasts that total NOx emissions (summer) in the South Coast Air Basin will be 237.92 tons per day in 2020, 39.85 tons below the EPA limit. In other words, the loss of Centerline would reduce the region's safety margin by less than one percent --- 0.44 percent to be exact. With the Centerline light rail project, the South Coast Air Basin would emit 237.92 tons of NOx per day. Cancellation of the project would raise NOx emissions to 238.10 tons (Figure 1), still leaving a safety margin of more than 39 tons before non-compliance would occur. The planners' hysteria seems a bit premature. They'll have a real crisis when another 226 projects contributing the same air pollution reduction as Centerline are also canceled ("Centerline-equivalent" projects). That's what it would take, according to SCAG estimates and the data that the Centerline light rail developer (Orange County Transportation Authority) has told FTA.

Figure 1 (Note 7)
Sources: SCAG and FTA

    Carbon Monoxide (CO): FTA reports that Centerline will reduce daily CO emissions by 224 tons per year in 2020 (5), or 0.61 tons per day. SCAG forecasts that total CO emissions in the South Coast Air Basin will be 1,515.6 tons per day in 2020, 107.7 tons below the EPA limit. In other words, the loss of Centerline would reduce the region's CO safety margin less than one percent --- 0.57 percent. With the Centerline light rail project, the South Coast Air Basin would emit 1,515.6 tons of CO per day. Cancellation of the project would raise CO emissions to 1,516.2 tons (Figure 2), preserving a safety margin of more than 107 tons before non-compliance would occur. But, it must be admitted that doom will loom quicker in CO than NOx --- the margin of error for staying within the federal air quality requirements drops to 176 Centerline equivalent projects from 226. Still, there are probably more pressing problems on the political agenda of Southern California. One can only hope that SCAG and the other local Cassandras have not begun spending tax money on an expensive Washington lobbying effort to obtain an extension for complying with federal air quality standards.

Figure 2 (Note 7)
Sources: SCAG and FTA

What They Should Have Said: An accurate characterization of a Centerline light rail cancelation would be that "the Regional Transportation Plan was counting on at least 177 Centerline-equivalent projects, and that the loss of 176 more Centerline-equivalent projects could place the area in jeopardy of losing federal transportation funding." But instead, the public was led to believe, by people whose job is to be their servants, that the loss of this project will have serious consequences, and that "something" will have to replace it to keep within federal requirements. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing needs to be done to replace the Centerline light rail project, because with or without it, the South Coast Air Basin will be in compliance with federal regulations (according to the very same Southern California Association of Governments' Regional Transportation Plan). Any way you look at it, Centerline just doesn't do that much.

Skyscrapers for a Family of Four: But there are ways to replace the contribution of Centerline and at a far lower cost. Air quality expert Joel Schwartz says that "building light rail to reduce air pollution is like building a skyscraper to house a family of four." He estimates that a "gross polluting vehicle" scrappage program (government purchase of highly polluting cars) would eliminate as much air pollution for no more than one percent of the cost of the Centerline light rail project. Indeed, owners of the purchased gross polluting vehicles in Orange County could be given a $15,000 grant to buy a new car, however modest. And there still would be enough money left over to buy $15,000 cars for more than 20,000 of their closest acquaintainces. (6) In fact, it is hard to imagine a more expensive way to improve air quality than the Centerline light rail project.

Local "Leadership" and Washington's Distorted Incentives: It is fair to ask how such an expensive and ineffective project could proceed so so far in the public planning process. Part of the problem is a federal transit program that encourages local governments to raise local taxes to attract federal funding for rail lines that do virtually nothing to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion. Another is the "infrastructure envy" (the Freudian term) that afflicts starry-eyed local politicians who've never seen a public works project they didn't like, especially when someone else is paying. This looniness will continue so long as the federal government treats taxpayer expenditures for transit like a hyper-inflating third world currency.

The Mayor and Public Policy Cacophony: Irvine's Mayor is a case in point. Having led a well financed campaign that outspent opponents 10 to one, His Honor told the Orange County Register "It's about learning and listening I expect we will continue to explore light-rail alternatives." Irvine resident Joseph Vranich, who fought to save Pittsburgh's trolleys while living there, author of Supertrains and former member of the Amtrak Reform Council thinks the Mayor has not yet begun to learn. "My view is that Mayor Agran's support of a mindless transportation project that leaves our roadways just as congested makes Nero's fiddling during the Rome fire look responsible," said Vranich.

Urban Rail and Traffic Congestion: Unrelated Subjects: Regrettably, it is not unusual for public officials to make mountains out of the molehills that masquerade as urban rail benefits. Go to any metropolitan area conducting a rail referendum and you'll find the rail cheerleaders, from mayors, to planning officials and downtown business interests, claiming that the latest iteration of their trolley plan will reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. At least they say that until Tom Rubin, Randal O'Toole or I come to town to show that the very taxpayer funded reports commissioned by the same interests predict no such benefits.

"Hawking" Swampland: Drug firms can't mislead and get away with it for long. Truth in advertising laws now protect people from unscrupulous used-car salesmen. But the public remains subject to deception by too many government officials whose moral compasses appear to have been obtained (doubtless at public expense) from the swampland real estate agents who have so mercifully been run out of business.

Transitioning to Democracy: Over the last few centuries, much of humanity has progressed from absolutism and tyranny to what Abraham Lincoln called "government of the people, by the people and for the people." All of government, that is but government itself. Too often, and especially when serving in their treasured role as brokers for the lastest spending scheme, government officials act with an arrogance that would be the envy of George III's agents on the eve of the Boston Tea Party. Government, and its officials, should live by the same standards as it rightly imposes on people and businesses. The present federal transit reauthorization process is a good opportunity to take away the vestigial "divine right" of government officials who mislead the public. Congress should enact a Truth in Transit Advertising Act. It would be revolutionary.


(1) The June 3 city of Irvine contained two light rail issues. Proposition A, which was defeated 52% to 48%. Proposition A proposed a specific route for light rail. Proposition B, which would have banned all future routes, failed 48% to 52%. While losing, support for Proposition B was surprisingly high because of its blanket prohibition of all routes. Electorates rarely bind their public officials to such an extent.

(2) "O.C.'s Train Didn't Come In," June 5, 2003.

(3) This author is unaware of any federal mandate with respect to traffic congestion reduction.

(4) Generally, the Los Angeles-Orange County and Riverside-San Bernardino urban areas.

(5) This is considered a very optimistic figure. It is likely that the ridership projection for this project, as in the case of so many light rail projects in their early stages of development, is much higher than what will be realized. As a result, the pollution reduction impacts are likely to be similarly overstated.

(6) Since the FTA report, the Centerline light rail project has been significantly scaled back, however FTA has not published new air quality data for the smaller project. If the data for the current project were available, the air quality impacts would presumably be less, fewer cars would need to be scrapped to achieve the same air quality benefit and fewer new cars would be funded for acquaintances.

(7) Currently available charting software cannot portray differences as small as the "with" and "without" Centerline light rail data.


Wendell Cox is a transportation and demographics consultant and a public policy commentator. He is principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy in the St. Louis area. He also serves as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (1977-1985), during which time he was elected to chair the American Public Transit Association Policy and Planning and Governing Boards Committee. In 1999, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Newt Gingrich appointed him to the Amtrak Reform Council, to fill the unexpired term of New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman.

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