Monday, September 21, 2015

A heavy taxpayer bill for light-rail? Debate continues over cost of commuter lines

By Rob Nikolewski

Light-rail projects are springing up in cities around the country, hailed by supporters as an effective way to reduce traffic, promote inner city businesses and cut down pollution.

“Light-rail is a way of making better use of your urban space, said Dave Dobbs, executive director of the nonprofit Texas Association for Public Transportation. “A lot of single-occupancy vehicles just doesn’t work” in cities.

But are taxpayers getting taken for a ride? That depends on who you talk to.

A just-released report from the Cato Institute, a libertarian public policy center based in Washington, D.C., takes aim at cost overruns in government-funded transportation projects in general as well as a number of light-rail projects in particular and concludes “the federal government is a lousy manager,” said Chris Edwards, who authored the report along with Nicole Kaeding.

In addition to looking at costly defense and energy projects, the report also analyzed transportation initiatives that racked up bloat in local, state and federal dollars for projects Cato described as “boondoggles” that cost the U.S. Treasury $13 billion a year.

“People will read in the local newspaper that the local highway expansion or the bus station or the local rail system that the local politicians had promised would only cost $100 million and it ends up costing $200 million,” Edwards told

The report included this table of transportation projects across the country that ran way overbudget, including a light-rail system recently completed in Denver:

The report quotes an infrastructure expert from the RAND Corporation who said in 2009, “of 35 public transit projects I have studied in the U.S., 33 overestimated patronage (ridership) and 28 underestimated costs.”

Earlier this year, a Cato Institute analysis examined the costs of 45 urban rail projects across the country since the 1980s and found that, on average, the costs doubled between the time the rail projects were approved and when they were completed.

In 2013, complaints about the costs of the TransBay Terminal in San Francisco prompted former mayor Willie Brown to sound off in an opinion piece, telling critics to “get off it.”

“In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment,” Brown wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. “If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

“I had to read his quote two or three times to make sure I understood what he was saying,” Edwards said.

Defenders of light-rail point to their own success stories.

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