Public Interest Transportation Forum:

Sound Transit's light rail won’t make a dent in traffic congestion.

So why build it?

by Richard Harkness

This essay was submitted to the Seattle Times as an OP ED and published on December 22,  2000
This is the original, footnoted version, published with permission of the author.

Now that disturbing truths about Sound Transit cost overruns are being exposed, it’s time voters knew Sound Transit’s other important secret. The secret is that Sound Transit’s $2+ billion light rail system won’t even make a dent in Puget Sound’s traffic congestion problem.

The proof for this can be found hidden deep within Sound Transit’s own Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a document required by Federal law. (1) It all boils down to a few numbers in Table 3.1-4. Without light rail, total daily traffic on area roads and freeways is forecast to be 68,239,618 vehicle miles of travel (VMT) in 2010. With light rail it would be reduced to 68,069,618 VMT. This is a difference of one forth of one percent. It is equivalent to removing one car of every 400. These figures along with year 2000 VMT are accurately plotted in the following chart. (2) These VMT figures are the best available measure of rail’s ability to help solve the region’s vexing traffic congestion problem. The case against rail could be rested on these numbers alone. But the EIS also contains other revealing data.

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Even where rail should have its greatest impact, the numbers are disappointing. For instance, the number of peak hour vehicles crossing the ship canal in 2010 would only decline from 45,789 to about 45,740 (3).  The number of peak period auto trips leaving downtown Seattle would only drop from 30,800 to 30,100. (4) Both are incredibly small impacts.

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Some argue the current proposal is only for a starter system intended to grow and eventually produce more meaningful results. Here again the data show otherwise. The 1993 EIS prepared for a $12+ Billion transit plan shows a 125-mile light rail system would only reduce traffic volumes 1.9% more than a bus solution costing a fraction as much. (5)

Another misleading claim is that light rail can replace 12 lanes of freeway, but this is theory assuming fully packed trains, etc. The reality (based on close analysis of actual projected rail ridership and freeway statistics) is that a single light rail track won’t even move as many people in 2010 as a single lane on I-5 does today. Measured at the ship canal (where rail looks best) the respective volumes are 20,000 persons daily for a rail track versus 29,300 for a freeway lane. (6) Averaged along the entire route, the rail line will carry less than half what a corresponding lane pair on I-5 now carries.

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Sometimes, when pressed, officials in the know admit light rail won’t help traffic congestion but retort that light rail offers an alternative. Of course that’s true, but only for a small percentage of the population who live, work and shop along the proposed route. Unfortunately, a 21-mile rail line can’t serve anywhere near the number of trip origins and destinations reached by our 15,000 miles of roads and freeways.(7) In fact, only 2 hundredths of one percent of Sound Transit’s service area would be within walking distance (1/4 mile) of a light rail station. So virtually everyone will need to drive or take a bus to reach a rail station. (8)

How cost effective is rail in offering this alternative? The EIS claims peak period VMT would be reduced from 15,898,000 to 15,858,000 for a net reduction of 40,000. (9) Since the average work trip length is about 10 miles, this amounts to removing about 4000 cars from the commute. (10) If we assume the main reason for building rail is to reduce congestion during peak commute periods, it is reasonable to divide the project’s cost of $2.6 billion by 4000. This yields the astonishing conclusion that it will cost over $650,000 for every car taken off the roads during rush hours.

Perhaps Puget Sound voters are generous enough to spend this amount so a relative few can bypass the congestion everyone else is stuck in. However, that’s not the way the question was framed when we voted in 1996. If light rail goes ahead for this reason, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, never will so many have paid so much to benefit so few.

To summarize: light rail won’t reduce congestion below today’s levels, it won’t keep congestion from getting worse, and it won’t even keep future congestion at noticeably lower levels than if we simply spent the $2 billion building a pyramid.

Similar conclusions can be drawn in respect to light rail’s impact on air quality, energy use, and urban sprawl. Since rail does not measurably reduce vehicle miles of travel, it can’t help much with these other important objectives either. In fact, the EIS Energy Backup Technical Report shows that such a huge amount of energy is needed to construct the system, it would take 75 years (at 2010 ridership levels) just to break even. (11)

It’s too bad. Everyone would like a silver bullet for our congestion, air quality, energy and urban sprawl problems. Unfortunately, there is a huge difference between rail’s theoretical capabilities and its actual performance in real cities. To make matters worse, all the above figures taken from Sound Transit’s EIS may be overly optimistic. A landmark Urban Mass Transit Administration study found that light rail systems seldom achieve even half the predicted ridership. (12)

All this is, of course, disappointing news. And for many it probably comes as a surprise, given that light rail is frequently promoted as a solution to the traffic mess. (13) Logically one would expect that the biggest impending public works project in Seattle history, namely light rail, would be targeted at solving the region’s biggest problem, namely traffic congestion. Apparently not. We are being rapidly rushed into spending over $2 billion on a non-solution. The very fact that light rail proponents seem to be in such a hurry should be a warning to us all.

What with fewer stations, higher costs and illusory benefits, could it be that Sound Transit promised a Lexus, but plans to deliver a Yugo and bill for a Rolls?

How has something with such disappointing prospects gotten so far? That’s a story in itself. The PR campaign to sell rail to the voters before the 1996 election was impressive, effective and one-sided. The image of sleek trains and expected environmental benefits was never balanced with hard facts about cost-effectiveness. How could it be otherwise? Millions of dollars have been spent promoting rail. Yet no funding exists for concerned citizen groups to publish opposing views. (14) As a result, light rail is a house of cards sustained by myth.

Few probably know how rail backers pile one stone on another in order to drive the region inexorably into a massive rail program. The latest version of the Metropolitan Transportation Plan, produced by the Puget Sound Regional Council and now out for public comment, is a good example. (15) The MTP calls for a massive increase in public spending for transportation, $98 Billion over the next 30 years. Very troubling is the fact that PSRC recommends spending 40% of that total on public transit even though public transit will handle only 5% of all trips and have almost no effect on traffic congestion. Over $13 billion would go just to light rail. (16) Should the MTP be adopted, Sound Transit can claim they are just supporting an already adopted regional strategy. And thus another stone is placed. Had PSRC applied a strict cost benefit analysis to individual elements of the MTP, it is doubtful light rail could have earned its way into the plan. State law now requires cost effectiveness analysis, or "least cost planning" be applied, but so far, the PSRC has failed to comply. (17)

Wasting $2+ billion on a non-solution is bad enough, but even worse is the strategic implication of our current preoccupation with light rail. Suppose the political leadership spends the next few years claming they are "doing something" about our traffic problem, when in reality they chase a non-solution. We’ll have let them off the hook. We’ll all wake up in 10 years realizing rail’s no answer, and congestion’s far worse. That’s the real downside we face.

In my view, voters should insist on two remedies before it’s too late. First, light rail should be put on hold until it has been thoroughly and objectively evaluated in terms of cost effectiveness in solving the transportation problems most people care about, including of course traffic congestion. Then, after the public has digested the results and heard equally from both sides, a regional vote of confidence should be held on Sound Transit’s light rail project. Until that happens, we are being lead down the yellow brick road.

Richard C. Harkness, PhD
Urban Systems Planning

  1. EIS’s are available in major libraries in a special section for EIS’s. This one is called the Central Link Light Rail Transit Project, Final EIS which is about 3 inches thick. There are a number of supporting reports as well. This is referred to as the EIS in the article.
  2. Since the rail EIS did not contain current year VMT, it was estimated by the same method used to compute interest rates. Present and future values were the year 1998 and year 2030 VMT values found on page xvii in the Metropolitan Transportation Plan Alternatives Analysis and Draft EIS dated Aug 31, 2000 and published by the Puget Sound Regional Council. This report is called the MTP in the article and other footnotes. The computed’98 to 2030 growth rate was 0.0142 per year. This was then applied to the "no build" year 2010 VMT (68.24 million, per EIS table 3.1-4) in order to calculate a year 2000 value of 60.0 VMT.
  3. These are year 2010 PM Peak Ship Canal screenline counts from Figure 5.2-1 in the Nov. 1999 Transportation Technical Report which is associated with the EIS.
  4. From Table 3.2-5 in the EIS.
  5. Source was Vol. 1 of the Final EIS for the Regional Transit System Plan dated March 1993 and produced by Metro or the RTA. Per Table 3.9.3, an all bus option called "TSM reduced VMT 1.9% whereas the bus plus 125 mile light rail option reduced it 3.8%. The TSM option cost $4.7 billion which is a fraction of the $11.5 billion for the rail option. Since that report was in 1991$ I round the cost to $12+ billion in the article to account for inflation. This EIS relates to the major bond issue that voters rejected in 1994 thus dashing plans for a 125 mile rail system. The current 21 mile Link Light rail would be a first step toward that larger vision.
  6. Per transportation planner J. MacIsaac, an analysis of projected 2010 station boardings and departures as reported in Sound Transits Preliminary Operating Plan, when converted to total daily values, shows that two way average daily person trip volume across the ship canal will be 40,000 for the light rail line or 20,000 per one way track. Mr. MacIsaac estimates the average along the entire rail line to be 26,000 or 13,000 per track. The Wash State DOT’s 1998 Freeway Ramp and Roadway Report (map 12) states that the 8 upper lanes on the I-5 ship canal bridge carried 232,365 vehicles daily in 1998. This converts to 29,064 vehicles per lane, or assuming 1.25 persons per vehicle, 36,308 persons per day per lane. (If buses were included average vehicle occupancy and thus lane totals would be even higher.) If the lower four lanes are included, daily vehicles over the bridge total 287,240 which converts to 29,920 persons per single lane. This far exceeds the 20,000 forecast to be carried by light rail. (An analysis of other major freeways shows that per lane freeway traffic in excess of 20,000 persons per lane is not rare.) (Rail loads taper off rapidly after leaving downtown Seattle whereas freeway loads are more evenly distributed which means rails actual people moving capacity relative to a freeway lane declines the further out you go from the CBD.
  7. The 15,000 miles comes from the MTP, page 19.
  8. Based on assuming the Sound Transit service area is essentially the same as the urban growth area which contains about 575,000 acres.
  9. From EIS Table 3.1-4
  10. Per page 1-8 in 1993 RTA’s EIS, in 1990 the average work trip was 9.8 miles one way and growing. PSRC staff say today's value is between 10.5 and 11. I conservatively assume 10 miles today. (Sound Transit estimates that of the 110,000 riders predicted for 2010, 36,000 will be new transit riders most of whom presumably used autos before. However, is not accurate to say 18,000 cars will removed from the road since average rail trip length is 5 miles (per ST staff) whereas average work trip by car is 10 miles.)
  11. This report states it will take 25,658 times 10 to the ninth BTUs to build the light rail system and that light rail will reduce total study area transportation energy by 0.934 times 10 to the ninth BTUs per average week day in 2010. Given 328 equivalent average week days per year simple division shows it will take 78.2 years at 2010 levels of ridership just to break even. It would take less if ridership grows past 2010 as ST projects. One the other hand history shows ridership is usually overestimated.
  12. Don Pickrell, Urban Rail Transit Projects: Forecast Versus Actual Ridership and Costs, Urban Mass Transit Administration, Oct. 1989. The table on page 130 lists ridership on six recent light rail systems. One managed to achieve 65% of estimated ridership. The remainder ranged from 26% to 45%. This same table also compares estimated costs against actual costs, and if history repeats what ST now says is a $2 billion system will actually end up costing $3 or $4 billion.
  13. Authors experience in attending several public hearing before the 1994 and 1996 rail votes. Pictures of jammed freeways and talk of congestion almost always preceded a description of the rail plan by the RTA staff, implying of course that we needed to build rail if we didnít like congestion. Consider also the following recent statements from rail boosters and public officials, all of which imply that we need to build light rail to help relieve traffic congestion:

"TRANSPORTATION This is the number one priority right now, … people are sick of bad streets and even sicker of congestion. We need to address these problems now and here’s my plan to do so: FIX THE STREETS, SAVE THE BUSES, BUILD THE SPINE, CONNECT THE NEIGHBORHOODS." He goes on to say that building the spine means building Link light rail. From mayor Schell in an e-mail called "Schell Mail #76" dated Oct 8, 2000.

"Traffic and delay are rampant……potential solutions include: ….and expanding bus and rail services…" Beighle and Rindlaub, (Chair and Vice Chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation) in a recent Special to the Times.

…we are experiencing an increase in congestion on our highways. To solve the traffic problem, voters authorized the construction of two rail systems…. Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn in a Sept 19, 2000 boilerplate letter response to the author’s e-mail expressing concern about Sound Transit.

"The region needs to come together and get behind true regional solutions to reduce gridlock. The 1995 plan (produced by PSRC) called for the development of a coordinated, region-wide system… The plan emphasized a variety of options, including cars, buses, trains…." From a Sept 2, 2000 article in the Eastside Journal called "It’s time to end the fight between roads and transit"

…the one north-south rail corridor at full capacity will be able to move 125,000 people per day, helping to significantly reduce auto congestion." From a Sept 22, 2000 Special to the Times called "Regional Voters have spoken: Sound Transit is accountable" by Barney and Guptill (co-presidents League of Woman Voters)

"If there’s one thing everyone can agree to in this election season of issues and debate, it’s that area traffic can’t get an worse. But the scary fact is, it can-and it will, if we don’t work together on a plan to ease the pain. …We need a comprehensive solution ….The PSRC is hard at work on this plan ….it will be …the region’s best chance for working our way out of this transportation mess." (They then proceed to outline two plans, clearly favoring the "Plus" plan. Inspection of the MTP, which is currently out for public comment, shows the Plus Plan includes 125 miles of light rail). Special to the Times, dated Oct. 3, 2000 and called "Lets roll up our sleeves and end region’s gridlock" was written by Biskey and Edwards, both officials of the PSRC.

"Goals: Build public awareness and enthusiasm about updating our regional plan for transportation." "The Plan will provide a road map for short term and long-term solutions to congestion" "Style Points: (be) optimistic, open, positive, clear, concise, simple" Taken from instructions (dated 9/14/00) to PSRC staff charged with briefing the public about the forthcoming Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP) This plan describes several options each consisting of a mixture of road, transit and related projects totaling up to $98 billion over the next 30 years. The overall mixture of projects in the MTP would indeed reduce congestion, however separate studies on rail (the two EIS’ noted earlier) show rail will not contribute significantly to that reduction. Instead it is mostly the new roads which reduce congestion. Nevertheless by having rail in that overall mixture the PSRC implies that rail will help relieve congestion. Had the PSRC applied benefit cost analysis or "least cost planning" to the separate elements in that mixture, as state law requires, it is doubtful light rail could have earned its way into the plan.

This author contends that whenever traffic congestion and light rail are mentioned together it is generally done to leave the impression rail will help reduce traffic congestion. The more this falsehood is repeated, and especially the more it is repeated by supposedly well informed people, the more it becomes a generally accepted truth. The motives for doing this are clearly varied. Sometimes the authors surely know they are putting out misinformation, but in other cases one can only assume they simply haven’t done their homework by looking at the actual data in the EIS. In any case the net result has been to gain public support for rail based on misinformation, or myth if you will. If Sound Transit was not trying to manipulate public opinion why have they reportedly spent millions on PR?

  1. Prior to the 1994 vote where voters rejected a 125 mile light rail system concerned citizens, including myself, struggled mightily to fund, produce and distribute a critique of Metros proposed rail system. We finally got out a booklet called "Heading Down the Wrong Track" which was delivered to a few hundred influential people. Today we are still trying to get the word out through free OP ED pieces, magazine articles, letters to the editor, and now web sites. It simply takes serious money to pay for handouts and newspaper space. Thus the public continues to hear only one side of the story.
  2. The Metropolitan Transportation Plan or MTP produced by the Puget Sound Regional Council or PSRC is an important policy document helping direct our regions future. The MTP is in a document called "Metropolitan Transportation Plan Alternatives Analysis and Draft Environmental Impact Statement" dated Aug 31, 2000. It contains a rich store of data prepared by skilled transportation planners. Sadly however its usefulness is severely degraded by an apparent policy level decision to avoid applying "least cost planning" (a cost effectiveness analysis) to individual elements of the overall plan. This means the MTP contains a market basket of road and transit projects but provides no data to pick the winners from the losers. It appears that projects got into the MTP based purely on political considerations. This document is currently out for public comment and reportedly will be adopted in about 30 days. Those interested should obtain copies from the PSRC and make comments ASAP.
  3. The $98 billion for the "MTP Plus" options comes from a table on page xxiv in the above mentioned document. The basis of saying 40% for transit is that the same table shows that the MTP Plus plan with system management emphasis would cost $98.5 billion overall of which $41 billion would go to transit. That transit would handle only 5% of trips comes from the table on page xvii where the specific numbers are 5.02% and 5.83%. That the MTP Plus plan contains 125 miles of light rail comes from statements on page 73 and 101.
  4. Statements on page 194 of the above mentioned document show PSRC is aware of the state law requiring lease cost planning. However they either misunderstand the law or seek to avoid it. On page 194 it says: "There are two major components to a least-cost planning process. The first step is the identification of alternative transportation scenarios or investment packages. The second is the estimation and comparison of the full public and private costs and benefits associated with these different alternatives." The law, (RCW 47.80.030) states that all transportation plans must be "based on a least cost planning methodology that identifies the most cost-effective facilities, services, and programs." The intent of this law, according to one of its legislative sponsors Dick Nelson was not just to evaluate one market basket of projects (scenario) against another market basket of projects as the MTP has done but rather to evaluate the cost effectiveness of individual elements in that market basket so that individual elements can be judged on their individual cost effectiveness. In the case of the MTP a 125 mile light rail system was included in each of the scenarios evaluated and there was no scenario without rail so the contribution of the rail element can not even be inferred from data in the MTP (although it can be estimated from date in the rail EISs). To be even more specific PSRC did not ‘identify the most cost-effective facilities’ as the RCW requires. Thus the PSRC has done no analysis to determine whether the rail element was cost effective and merited inclusion in the market basket of projects. Why not? At a cost of $500,000 per car removed from peak period traffic and contributing hardly at all to reducing congestion it seems likely rail would not have compared well with other plan elements. Having to publish this finding would have no doubt made PSRC unpopular with the powerful forces now pushing rail and probably explains why PSRC is currently trying to finesse adherence to the letter and intent of RCW 47.80.030. The issue is whether or not they will be able to get away with this and get the MTP adopted on schedule in March 2001. The deadline for public comments is Oct. 20th 2000.

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