Sensible Land Use Coalition Forum
Doubletree Park Place Hotel
St. Louis Park, Minnesota
26 May 1998
It is a pleasure to speak to you today. From the questions posed to (previous speaker Hennepin County)
Commissioner McLaughlin, it seems a forgone conclusion in the audience that light rail will
reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. My job is to give you the other side of the light rail
argument. I do not argue from a position of preference or from a position that light rail is
inherently inappropriate. My case is simply this. Light rail simply has not and will not reduce
traffic congestion and air pollution. Despite the misleading perceptions
so often peddled by promoters, there is simply no connection
between the problem of traffic congestion and light rail. Moreover, whatever rather modest benefits it may bring to te
transit system can be obtained for considerably less through other strategies.
Ronald Reagan said that he went to Washington and found a great number of solutions looking
for problems. That is the situation with light rail in the Twin Cities. It is a solution looking for a
problem. Arguments are made in the abstract. People are led to believe that it will reduce traffic
congestion, that it will provide a speedy alternative to the automobile and that it will transform
the areas through which it runs. The reality is quite different, based upon the experience
I will spend a good deal of time talking about the problems with light rail. I will spend less time
on better solutions, because the this community has "put the cart before the horse," and selected
light rail without an adequate specification of the problem that would be solved by the preferred
Much of what I say will surprise you. I invite you to challenge me on any fact you believe
wrong. I can tell you that everything I say I believe to be true, and I will be happy to correct
anything that is wrong. Obviously we will disagree on judgements and analysis.
Harry Truman developed a reputation for "giving them Hell." When asked about this, Truman
responded that he just told the truth and they though it was Hell. That is what my presentation
today is about.
I will start out with a question, then discuss the experience with rail, its application to the Twin Cities and conclude with a brief resume of more effective and efficient solutions.
I am going to describe conditions in an urban area, and see if anyone in the audience can guess what urban area I am talking about.
At this point there were a number of answers from the audience --- all US cities --- and the most prominent was Los Angeles.
The answer is not Los Angeles. Indeed the city isn't even in the United States. The city is Paris, a
community in which transit is much more significant than in any US city.
A former Paris transit official recently suggested that the only effective way to handle the
growing traffic demand in the Paris urban area is more automobile capacity. And, it is to be
added. The long term regional plan includes a significant amount of new freeway construction.
Now if Paris, with one of the western world's finest metro and suburban rail systems faces
problems, surely there is little hope for US cities or for Minneapolis St. Paul to solve their traffic
problems with rail.
The central city of Paris --- smaller than either Minneapolis or St. Paul in area, has a
population density of 50,000 per square mile. Minneapolis and St. Paul are in the 5,000 to
Paris' suburbs have population density of 17,000 per square mile --- that's at least double
the most densely populated urbanized area in the United States --- city and suburbs
Let me offer a few facts pertinent to the discussion of light rail.
This raises an important issue. How shall we judge the success or failure of light rail. I would
argue that the test is not the number of people who ride the trains --- most of them are former bus
riders, former car pool riders or people who did not previously make the trip. The test is how
many automobiles light rail takes off the street. And the answer is "precious few." Think about it.
All of the world's major cities have traffic congestion. Indeed traffic congestion tends to be
worse in cities like London, Paris and Rome, which are served by comprehensive rail systems.
Each year, the Texas Transportation Institute published congestion indexes for America's major urbanized areas. Among the 12 cities that have built rail, the number of cars removed from the road in 11 of those cities would not change the TTI congestion index. Only in Washington, DC can an impact be discerned --- from 1.44 to 1.43. Put another way, the traffic removed by rail systems in the US is so small that it can be measured in days of traffic growth avoided. The top score is again Washington, DC, where it is estimated that the $12 billion subway system has removed less that three months worth of traffic growth from roadways. In other words, in exchange for $12 billion in tax funding, traffic conditions in May 1998 are what they would have been in February 1998 without rail.
And then there is the matter of projections. You can expect the costs of rail construction to be 50
percent to 100 percent higher than the planners estimates. And the federal government will not
pay for this overrun --- you will, in higher taxes. Costs are exorbitant. Virtually all new rail
systems have been so costly that it would have been less expensive to less new riders new
automobiles every three years. In Milwaukee, the cost per diverted automobile over a 40 year
career has been projected to be $7 million.
Any number of claims are made to suggest that light rail will spur development. Studies from
Portland and St. Louis are trotted out. But let me ask you this --- if light rail spurs development,
why did the Portland city council pass an ordinance to forgive 10 years of property taxes for any
new development within one-quarter mile of a light rail station? Why are governments
subsidizing development of apartment buildings along the new westside line --- and why are
landlords providing all sorts of lucrative incentives to attract renters? In St. Louis, virtually all
development along the light rail line has been tax financed. If the TWA Dome and Kiel Center in
St. Louis are products of light rail, how does one explain two new sports stadiums in downtown
Detroit --- or Erickson Stadium in Charlotte, where there is no light rail?
(Hennepin County) Commissioner Peter McLaughlin referred to himself earlier today as an
"infrastructure determinist." That's a defensible position, under the right circumstances. But not all
infrastructure projects are successes. Montreal's Mirabel Airport
and St. Louis' Mid-America Airport are good examples. Then there is the Detroit People Mover,
the Miami Metromover and Jacksonville's Skytrain. You cannot expect development to follow
light rail and you cannot expect light rail to reduce traffic congestion. For infrastructure to drive
development it has to be productive. A bridge to nowhere will not spur development. And in
terms of traffic congestion and air pollution, light rail is a bridge to nowhere.
Why is it that urban rail has so little impact? It has to do with he fact that urban rail is poorly matched to the development and demographic patters of the late 20th century.
A report produced for the Netherlands Ministry of Transport found that public transit was not an
alternative for 80 percent of the person
trips in this highly urbanized European nation,
despite the comparatively high level of service.
And just a note on commuter rail, because it has recently been added to the debate in
Minneapolis-St. Paul. It is less costly than light rail and does just that much less. Commuter rail
suffers from the same deficiencies as light rail, only worse. It can only serve downtown and it
has fewer stations so is less accessible. It leaves commuters further from their downtown
destinations, which requires transfers to shuttle buses. One issue upon which transit planners are
unanimous is that forcing passenger to transfer increases the likelihood that the passenger will go
by car instead.
This brings us to the Twin Cities --- the second least densely populated urbanized area among those with more than one million population. Consider this..
My point is that, except with respect to the central business districts, transit contributes very little
to in travel volume in the Twin Cities. Overall, transit provides approximately two percent of
trips. If transit were to double or triple in volume, no one would know the difference.
Commissioner McLaughlin noted that there has been considerable concern about a $400 million
light rail line, but little concern at all about a $267 million bill to maintain the area's freeways. I
don;'t find this surprising at all. The area's roadways carry more than 95 percent of daily trips,
while the Hiawatha light rail line would, at most, carry 0.2 percent.
Transit ridership has dropped dramatically in the Twin Cities. In 1979, 105 million rides were
carried. This has fallen to the low 60 millions. Minneapolis-St. Paul has lost as much ridership as
is carried by all of the buses in St. Louis. And there's good reason. Fares have risen substantially.
If you apply the industry standard fare elasticity of -0.35 over the past 20 years, the resulting
number fairly accurately reflects the actual reduced ridership.
My point is that there is nothing in Minneapolis-St. Paul that is different enough from other cities
in the United States to suggest that rail will have any perceivable impact on traffic and air
pollution. Indeed, in Washington and Atlanta, metro systems (subways and elevated) have failed
to materially impact traffic. What is proposed in Minneapolis-St. Paul is much more modest ---
light rail or surface rail, which will be subjected to cross traffic, rather than being grade
separated. It would not be unfair to suggest that light rail, with its speeds barely better than buses
represents the form rather than the substance of urban rail. You can expect light rail to have an
impact on traffic in Minneapolis-St. Paul after water starts running uphill.
But there is more. You can expect light rail to cost much more than planned. The current number
is approximately $400 for the Hiawatha Corridor. You had better plan on at least $500 million
and perhaps $800 million based upon experience elsewhere. This will have to come from either
the state or local taxpayers.
There are solutions.
With respect to transit, a substantial role can be played with respect to downtown oriented
commuting. And more transit riders will be carried if bus service is expanded and fares are
lowered. If you are serious about transit, then you will provide it as inexpensively as possible ---
through competitive mechanisms, like competitive contracting. Currently the transit systems in
London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, etc., etc. are converting to this
cost saving strategy. Some of this has occurred here --- but there is still much in transit service
that should be converted to competitive contracting, with the savings applied to new services and
lower fares. Then there are busways. Busways can do anything that light rail can do in this
country. Curitiba, Brazil's most effective busway carries more riders daily than all the transit
services in Minneapolis-St. Paul or even Seattle. According to Harvard's John Kain, busways
cost, on average, one-fifth to build and operate per passenger mile as rail systems. And, priority
lanes can be established on arterial streets.
But it must be recognized that there is little that can be done with a mode of transport that carries
two percent of trips to have much impact. The plain fact of it is that transit improvements have
little, if anything to do with relieving traffic congestion. You could, like Washington and Atlanta,
build a comprehensive regional rail system --- and you will still have massive traffic congestion.
There is simply no necessary connection between urban rail and traffic congestion.
The real answer requires strategies to better handle the automobile traffic which is today and will be in the future the overwhelming mode of transport not only here but also in Europe. And such strategics exist:
So what it comes down to is this.... Why build rail?
There seem to be two possible rationales.
In the final analysis, you cannot expect the proposed light rail program or any other rail system to reduce traffic congestion in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Vision is not driving the debate, it is rather fantasy, if not hallucination.