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On Rail Transit (A Streetcar Named Disaster)

This article is based on an academic research paper I had written and presented in 2001 as a student at Saint Edward's University in Austin, Texas. Since then, I acquired a vested interest in rail transportation. I firmly believe that railways can provide the most economical and environmentally-sound mode of transportation, but only to the degree that they are separated from roadway traffic. - J.R.C.

In November 2000, Austin area voters defeated a referendum to construct a 52-mile public transit system at a cost of $1.9 billion (Daniel "Good or Bad"). The defeat came with a margin so slim – a mere 2004 votes ("Tapping") – that debate over the issue will continue at least until it's voted on again (Daniel "Maybe").

Is Rail Right for Austin?

Should Austin construct a rail-based public transportation system? Clearly, as the Austin metropolis grows, so will the need for local public transportation. But is rail the right choice?

Public Transportation Options

Choices for land-based public transportation vehicles are limited: only buses and railcars can move large numbers of people quickly and inexpensively. Railcars include commuter (heavy) rail, tramways, streetcars, trolleys and monorails. Generally, elevated railways and subterranean railways ("subways") are referred to as modes of "rapid rail" (Henderson).

Buses and railcars are similar in many ways. Both buses and surface railways may share roads with or may be isolated from automobile traffic. (Exclusive bus highways may be called "busways.") Buses or railcars may travel short or long distances between stops; those that travel long distances between stops are referred to as modes of "rapid transit."

Making the Right Choice

So how do we decide which is right? Because we are dealing with a matter of public policy, I suggest we pursue a utilitarian approach by seeking the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people. (This is – after all – a democracy, so we had better attempt to please the greatest number of voters.)

Nearly all goods – including foods – are transported via our roadways, so the state of our roadway system affects everyone including those who don't use the roads directly. Increasing roadway congestion would decrease fuel efficiency and thereby increase operating costs for those delivering goods. As a rule, businesses pass along cost increases (usually including a modest premium) to their customers, so the impact of increased roadway congestion would affect everyone, including non-commuters. For this reason, we should dismiss modifications to the existing transit system that would increase roadway congestion, such as sharing existing roadways (with new buses or railcars) or converting existing roadways to the exclusive use of buses or railcars.

Streetcars vs. "Rapid Transit"

Although the Austin proposal called for a "light rail" system, the Light Rail Transit Association (L.R.T.A.), might better describe it as a "streetcar." L.R.T.A. chairman Mike Taplin notes that one of the distinctions between light rail and old-fashioned streetcars (or tramways) is that light rail lines "are mostly segregated from other traffic...and [therefore] the cars run faster" ("What is Light Rail?"). The route proposed by Cap. Metro. runs primarily on city streets (Atkins, Rapid Transit Project), so the L.R.T.A. would classify the project as only a streetcar system, not light rail.

Most of the rail system in San Jose, California also fails to elevate itself from "streetcar" status. "Projected to carry 40,000 passengers daily, ridership on the line has only recently topped 20,000" (Dillon). In addition to flawed route planning, the system has had other problems including the ineptitude and criminal activity of city officials. "[T]he transit authority proposed naming the system SCAT – for Santa Clara Area Transit – not realizing that SCAT is a synonym for animal droppings. 'Dung, Dung, Dung Went the Trolley,' read a Mercury News headline" (Dillon).

Conversely, the Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) rail system in Portland, Oregon has higher ridership. Though Portland is a smaller metropolis, ridership averages "27,000 on weekdays and nearly as many on weekends" (Dillon); according to the World Almanac, Portland has approximately 504,000 people (440) compared with approximately 861,000 people in San Jose (441).

Why Did Austin's Rail Votes Fail?

Through last year's campaigns, Austin's pro-rail groups outspent anti-rail groups by nearly four-to-one (Daniel "Spending"). So why did the rail referendum fail?

Poor Credibility

First off, the Austin proposal had too many negative parallels to the San Jose system. (Recall also that Austin receives many immigrants from San Jose, thanks to the local technology industry.) Austin's Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Cap. Metro.) still faces a huge, lingering credibility issue – due to past fiscal mismanagement, cronyism and an F.B.I. investigation (Kay) – similar to that of San Jose's.

Poor Speed

Both Capital Metro. and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority designed their rail routes like the block-to-block bus routes they were already accustomed to, without considering that "light rail" should include "rapid transit" by definition ("What is Light Rail?"). Both the Austin and San Jose routes also miss airport access, which the Portland system includes (Dillon).

Poor Cost-Effectiveness

Only once an effective rapid transit route has been designed can we begin to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of different modes of transportation along that route. Using our utilitarian analysis, we can assert that reducing roadways for transit systems could be bad for communities; by looking at San Jose's implementation, we can see that it is bad in practice. How then can we create a rapid transit system that won't compromise our roadways?

One method involves building transit railways on existing railway rights-of-way, which are generally already segregated from automobile traffic. This may lower railway construction costs to as little as $10 million per mile (Echikson).

When contemplating transit railways, reducing costs using existing rights-of-way is an important consideration. Many recently installed and proposed systems cost more than leasing new automobiles for each potential railway rider (Public Purpose).

There is, however, a more cost-effective alternative to even the lowest-cost transit railway systems: rapid transit buses. A recent report by the federal congressional General Accounting Office (G.A.O.) compares capital cost of bus rapid transit (b.r.t.) with that of light rail transit. The G.A.O. reported that light rail systems have per-mile capital costs averaging $34.8 million. Bus rapid transit implemented using dedicated busways (the most costly implementation of b.r.t.) cost an average of $13.5 million per mile, those sharing high-occupancy vehicle (h.o.v.) lanes cost $9.0 million per mile and those sharing arterial streets cost only $0.68 million (4).

In addition, the G.A.O. report compares the speeds of b.r.t. and transit railways in the six cities in which both operate. In five of the six cities, the bus rapid transit systems were found to run as much as three-and-a-half times faster (in Dallas; two times faster in San Jose) than their light rail counterparts (27).


So, bus rapid transit systems offer the greatest benefit to transit riders and the least cost to communities, though buses do require roadways.

Certainly, there are other reasons to support construction of light rail systems. Electric trains are seen as cleaner than smelly diesel buses (though the Austin bus fleet already runs on clean-burning compressed natural gas). Large cash donations from local business leaders are used as "pro-community" public relations tools. Some communities may simply chose to "spend federal tax dollars for local status" (Henderson), especially where people just want to ride a trolley without travelling to San Francisco.

Works Cited

  • Atkins, Karen and Bill Gatson. "Cap Metro Can't Afford to Rule Out Any Options." Editorial. Austin American-Statesman. 23 Oct. 1999: A11+.
  • Daniel, Kelly. "Good or Bad, Rail Would Change Lives." Austin American-Statesman. 2 Nov. 2000: B1+.
  • ---. "In Austin, It Appears 'No' Means 'Maybe'." Austin American-Statesman. 20 Aug. 2001: B1+.
  • ---. "Spending by Rail Advocates Dwarfs That of Rail Critics." Austin American-Statesman. 1 Nov. 2000: B3+.
  • Dillon, David. "Track Records: Light-Rail Lines' Fates in San Jose, Portland May Hold Lessons for Dallas." Dallas Morning News. 8 Sep. 1996: 37A+.
  • Echikson, William. "Trolley Turnaround." Fortune 20 Feb. 1995: 24.
  • Henderson, Harold. "Light Rail, Heavy Costs." Planning May 1994: 8+.
  • Kay, Michele. "History Can Put the Brakes on Rail Vote." Austin American-Statesman. 10 Sep. 2000: K1+.
  • Public Purpose, The. 12 Oct. 2001. < >.
  • Rapid Transit Project. 12 Oct. 2001. < >.
  • "Tapping the Brakes on Light Rail." Editorial. Austin American-Statesman. 9 Nov. 2000: A18+.
  • United States. Cong. General Accounting Office. Report to Congressional Requesters. Mass Transit: Bus Rapid Transit Shows Promise. Washington: GAO, 2001. rpt. in The Public Purpose. 12 Oct. 2001. < >.
  • "What is Light Rail?" Light Rail Transit Association. 11 Oct. 2001. < >.
  • World Almanac and Book of Facts 2001, The. Mahwah, NJ: World Almanac Books, 2001.

Works Consulted