Orange County, California
Grand Jury Blasts Light Rail

The Orange County, California grand jury issued a report critical of light rail planning in that community (27 May 1999). Excerpts of the report are reprinted below.

Copy of Full Report

The national experience with urban light rail systems' ability to solve traffic congestion, air pollution and related urban problems has been poor. The Grand Jury examined the last 12 urban light rail systems developed in the U.S. The Grand Jury analysis strongly suggests that Orange County will experience that:

  • Light rail will have negligible impact on traffic congestion because it attracts few automobile drivers from their cars.
  • Demographic trends will make light rail much less effective than predicted by planners.
  • Light rail is expensive. The most cost-effective, federally funded systems have required subsidies of $5,000 and more per new ride. New rides are those riders brought out of their cars and into the transit system.
  • Light rail is inflexible once in place. The OCTA's bus system routes are adjusted three times a year.
  • Light rail cost and ridership forecasts will be erroneous and biased in favor of light rail.
  • Light rail will not spur development. Development along light rail corridors is spurred by tax subsidies, not light rail.
  • Light rail will not improve commuter travel times, energy conservation and safety.

There is a promotion of light rail by OCTA in its public Outreach/Center Line documents and briefings, rather than a process of study, analysis and evaluation as to light rail's merits and cost benefit.

The documented failure of new light rail systems to make a material contribution to improving traffic congestion and air pollution isn't a failure of rail technology. Light rail can theoretically carry a lot of people that are attracted from their autos or other modes of transit. The reality is that it doesn't because light rail is obsolete with respect to the needs of most American urban commuters.

Proposed light rail lines are often criticized for "not going to the right place". Residential or employment densities in Orange County suburban areas are so low there is little difference between routes in their ability to generate traffic. Studies have shown that transit is exceedingly unattractive for the work trip to suburban areas. Transit has no advantage for those consumers who can afford to make a choice in deciding how to make peak hour trips in the urban area. The auto, on the other hand, provides the on-demand, rapid service point to point transportation commuters to suburban jobs want.

A test of light rail's success is not how many people are on the trains; it is how many cars light rail has removed from the road, especially during peak hours. Unfortunately, light rail does not reduce traffic congestion because it attracts few auto drivers. For example, approximately 20% of Washington, D.C. rapid rail ridership formerly drove autos for their trips, while 25% of San Diego's light rail riders were former auto drivers. The majority of new light rail riders are:

If light rail were driving regional development trends, then the downtown areas they service would be prospering relative to their suburban areas. As of 1997, downtown office vacancies were above suburban vacancies in all reported light rail urban areas except Sacramento. The downtown vacancy rate averaged 70 % above the suburban rate. The average, non-rail, downtown-area vacancy rate was 15% below that of the light rail downtowns.

Light rail is not a catalyst for private developments except where governments provide subsidies to developers.

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