Light rail bias?

Light rail proponents typically highlight capacity, whereas BRT proponents point to better relative price performance. The relative costs of BRT and LRT have been extensively studied, including a US General Accounting Office report concluding that Bus Rapid Transit costs a mere fraction (typically 10% per mile) of the construction cost compared to light rail.

“First, rail’s supporters say ‘It’s cheaper.’ When you show it costs more, they say, ‘It’s faster.’ When you show it’s slower, they say, ‘It serves more riders.’ When you show there are fewer riders, they say, ‘It brings economic development. When you show no economic development, they say, ‘It helps the image.’ When you say you don’t want to spend that much money on image, they say, ‘It will solve the pollution problem. When you show it won’t help pollution, they say, finally, ‘It will take time. You’ll see.'” — Former Mayor Bob Lanier on rail transit proponents in Houston Metropolitan magazine, Nov 1990


The main point is that the enthusiasm (almost blind commitment) for LRT [light rail] has caused many to overlook the potential for more cost-effective bus-based systems and even simpler improvements to bus services that do not require dedicated right of way. And, fair or foul, buses carry a social stigma for some people in some places. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported results from focus groups held to gauge the public perception of bus travel in Los Angeles. The comments they received about local bus service, in particular, had a pretty consistent (and appalling) theme of “shame.” SOURCE: The Myth That Everyone Naturally Trains to Buses

Researchers have consistently found that rail, with its high up-front capital costs and increasing economies of scale, needs to attain a threshold density of trips in order to cost less than providing the same trips by car or bus … many recent investments in heavy-rail and light-rail have lacked the prescribed densities to support them.
SOURCE: UC Berkeley Urban Densities and Transit: A Multi-dimensional Perspective

For anyone who believes light rail is a precondition for good urban planning or relieving traffic congestion, I would urge you to please review the experience from another Orange County (California). A grand jury took the transit authority to task for using its position to hype light rail, rather than honestly discuss the facts and experiences from other communities and heed the expertise of disinterested authorities. The first finding was:

The OCTA [Orange County Transit Authority] Directors be made aware of the national experience in light rail over the past 18 years and light rail’s documented inability to solve urban transit problems such as traffic congestion and pollution. Along those lines, we further suggest that disinterested experts from academia be invited to provide the historical perspective to the Directors. Inputs should come from a variety of sources, especially experts in economics, transit, and light rail, who do not have a vested interest in the promotion of light rail for the County.
Grand Jury Findings: Orange County Transportation Authority and Light Rail Planning

Are we doomed to repeat this mistake? Will another grand jury come to the same conclusion after billions have been squandered?


Until we address the inherent light rail bias, our tax dollars will continue to be squandered while compounding our transportation problems. Relying on light rail investments as the antidote to traffic congestion will, in the end, result in worse traffic congestion. It will condemn us to a rigid and obsolete infrastructure while saddling us taxpayers with even higher taxes, ruinous debt and lost opportunities to honestly address the problem.


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.

Grand Jury Findings: Orange County Transportation Authority and Light Rail Planning

Additional examples
  • City Sued Over Public Records. Brian Rodgers lawsuit alleges failure to lawfully respond to requests on three high-profile topics including correspondence between City officials and the Downtown Austin Alliance while plans for a light-rail election were being devised.