Sound Transit's light rail wont make a dent in traffic
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,
its time voters knew Sound Transits other important secret. The secret is that
Sound Transits $2+ billion light rail system wont even make a dent in Puget
Sounds traffic congestion problem.
The proof for this can be found hidden deep within Sound Transits 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 rails ability to help solve the regions
vexing traffic congestion problem. The case against rail could be rested on these numbers
alone. But the EIS also contains other revealing data.
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
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
wont 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.
Sometimes, when pressed, officials in the know admit light rail wont help traffic
congestion but retort that light rail offers an alternative. Of course thats 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 cant 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 Transits 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 projects 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, thats 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 wont reduce congestion below todays levels, it
wont keep congestion from getting worse, and it wont even keep future
congestion at noticeably lower levels than if we simply spent the $2 billion building a
Similar conclusions can be drawn in respect to light rails impact on air quality,
energy use, and urban sprawl. Since rail does not measurably reduce vehicle miles of
travel, it cant 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
Its 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
rails theoretical capabilities and its actual performance in real cities. To make
matters worse, all the above figures taken from Sound Transits 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 regions 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? Thats 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. Well have let them off
the hook. Well all wake up in 10 years realizing rails no answer, and
congestions far worse. Thats the real downside we face.
In my view, voters should insist on two remedies before its 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 Transits light rail project. Until that happens, we are
being lead down the yellow brick road.
Richard C. Harkness, PhD
Urban Systems Planning
- EISs are available in major libraries in a special section for EISs. 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.
- 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
computed98 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.
- 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.
- From Table 3.2-5 in the EIS.
- 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.
- 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 DOTs 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.
- The 15,000 miles comes from the MTP, page 19.
- Based on assuming the Sound Transit service area is essentially the same as the urban
growth area which contains about 575,000 acres.
- From EIS Table 3.1-4
- Per page 1-8 in 1993 RTAs 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
heres 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,
"Traffic and delay are rampant
potential solutions include:
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
authors 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 "Its 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 theres one thing everyone can agree to in this election season of issues
and debate, its that area traffic cant get an worse. But the scary fact is, it
can-and it will, if we dont work together on a plan to ease the pain.
a comprehensive solution
.The PSRC is hard at work on this plan
.it will be
the regions 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 regions 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
havent 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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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