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Commuter rail will not ease congestion on Utah roads

In a recent My View, Steve Meyer heralded commuter rail as "our wisest move." Unfortunately, much of the information in his article is inaccurate or misleading. Some of the claims he makes are patently false.

For example, Mr. Meyer claims that commuter rail will have a "positive impact on congestion by removing 10,000 cars off the road each day." This is at odds with UTA's projections that are reported in its Environmental Impact Statement and its filings with the Federal Transit Administration. The EIS for commuter rail projects that during the first year of operation, the number of daily trips will be about 5,900 — fewer than 3,000 riders if each commutes both ways. Furthermore, about half of those who will ride the train already ride the bus and others are now in carpools. Thus, no more than 1,500 cars can be removed from the highways by commuter rail in 2008. Projections for 2025, based on very pessimistic assumptions about highway congestion, suggest a larger impact but still much fewer than 10,000 vehicles.

There are two reasons why commuter rail will not reduce highway congestions. The first is that rail will replace a trivial number of auto trips — rail will carry less than 2 percent of trips along the corridor. However, even if rail attracted many more riders, there would be no noticeable impact on congestion, a fact well-known to transportation planners. Because current congestion discourages many who would like to travel on highways during peak hours, any reduction in congestion is quickly offset by this army of drivers-in-waiting. Building rail to relieve congestion is like using chemotherapy to treat heart disease — it's expensive, and it doesn't address the problem.

Even UTA's reports don't claim any meaningful impact on congestion. Instead, UTA has stressed that commuter rail is part of a "shared solution" to the transportation problems of the Weber-S.L. corridor. Unfortunately, UTA's idea of sharing is to take about half of the capital budget (since the cost of commuter rail is almost the same as the projected Legacy Highway project), while providing only a few percent (at most) of the total trips. Mr. Meyer's claim that "buses and HOV lanes alone are simply not enough to meet future travel demand," is disingenuous. UTA's own projections show that rail travel will provide a negligible fraction of all trips.

Why will so few ride the train when it will, as Mr. Meyer gushes, "travel at speeds up to 79 mph?" The train's maximum speed is more than offset by rail's basic design flaw — it can only travel quickly between where commuters don't live and where they don't work. When commuters have the option of driving a car, few will ride the train. In a world of cell phones, UTA is building a telegraph. (Isn't it ironic that the train and the telegraph come from the same technological era.)

While the number of riders will be small, the cost is not. In early years of operation the combined capital and operating cost of carrying a commuter to and from work on the rail system will be much more than $1,000 per month. Most commuters will receive a transit subsidy that is larger than their mortgage payment! The same transit benefits could be achieved at a fraction of the cost of rail with modest improvements in express bus services and the addition of HOV lanes that could be used by carpoolers as well as buses. This would provide benefits to a vastly larger group of taxpayers for a much smaller cost. How then can Mr. Meyer describe commuter rail as an "excellent value to taxpayers"?

Nor is TRAX the success that Mr. Meyer claims. Most, perhaps all, of the increase in "riders" from 1999 to 2004 is due to the design of the system, which funnels bus lines to TRAX stations. "Riders" who transfer get counted twice (or more)! Over the same period, UTA's operating cost per rider increased by 30 percent, more than twice the rate of inflation. And this ignores the huge capital cost of TRAX. Commuter rail makes even less sense. Let's not waste hundreds of million dollars just because the federal government is willing to match us!

Michael R. Ransom is a professor of economics at Brigham Young University.