ON THE RIGHT TRACK? As rail projects grow, value is questioned


Maryland is spending $446 million to lay track and buy light-rail vehicles -- which are essentially beefed-up streetcars -- to link Baltimore to suburban areas to the north and south. But that commitment was only puppy love.

Now, the state Department of Transportation is flirting with proposals for as many as 11 similar projects that could cost more than $2.4 billion. Around the country, more than a score of cities are similarly smitten. They have spent, or are talking about spending, tens of billions of dollars on their own light-rail projects.

But a band of dissenting academics suggests that the growing public passion for rail transit is a dangerous liaison. They say subway and light-rail projects usually cost more than expected, do not attract as many riders as predicted and need huge subsidies to keep operating.

Rail bleeds buses of riders, the critics claim, by stealing some and driving off others with higher transit fares imposed to cover rail's operating losses. And, they charge, rail projects don't reduce road congestion or pollution, because they don't lure many commuters out of their cars.

For years, these arguments have been treated as heresy by politicians and local transit agencies, who see rail systems as clean, safe, effective and energy-efficient alternatives to building more highways that are quickly overwhelmed by more traffic.

But a September 1989 report for the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) -- "Urban Rail Transit Projects: Forecast Versus Actual Ridership and Costs" by planner Don H. Pickrell -- gave rail critics a new weapon and rallying point.

Peter Gordon, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California, said the Pickrell report vindicates his view that rail projects are boondoggles. "In my classes, I refer to it as the smoking gun," he said.

The report studied the Baltimore Metro along with three other subway and four light-rail projects.

Seven of the projects, it claimed, cost from 17 percent to 156 percent more than predicted when they were proposed. The average number of weekday riders, meanwhile, was from 28 percent to 85 percent lower than forecast.

Optimistic projections, the study suggested, may have misled some cities into investing in new rail systems.

Mr. Pickrell, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Transportation's Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass., declined to discuss his report.

But Professor Joseph Schofer, director of research for the Transportation Center at Northwestern University, said Mr. Pickrell merely confirmed and summarized what early studies showed.

Planners who recommend rail projects "are not liars," Mr. Schofer said. But they are often just "focused on the symptoms" of traffic congestion and under pressure from politicians to come up with a quick fix.

Nonsense, supporters say. They say light-rail systems can be an important part of an overall transit strategy -- flexible and relatively cheap, like buses, while capable of traveling at high speeds and hauling large numbers of riders, as subways can. Middle-sized cities without extensive subway systems already in place have rushed to embrace the new technology.

Baltimore's gleaming white light-rail cars will operate as poky trolleys downtown, crossing intersections and running along tracks built in the street. Out of the city center, they will zip along like commuter trains along separate rails to growing office and industrial centers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Hunt Valley.

(The term light rail refers to the number of passengers they can carry, not to the weight of the vehicles. Subways and commuter trains are considered "heavy rail" because they are built to carry more riders.)

But is light rail really cheap?

The Pickrell report claimed that light-rail systems in Buffalo, N.Y., Portland, Ore., and Sacramento, Calif., all cost more than expected -- 59 percent more, in Buffalo's case.

A state Department of Transportation's December 1987 briefing paper on Baltimore light rail said it would cost $290 million after inflation, which was "under $11 million per mile, at least one-tenth the cost of subway systems."

The estimated cost of the system has since risen to $446 million -- or $16.2 million per mile. A new interstate highway costs roughly $17 million per mile, according to some experts.

"I don't think [light rail] is cheap," Mr. Schofer said. "I think people just believe it's cheap."

The Pickrell report angered mass transit officials, engineers and planners around the country. "Pickrell chose projections selectively in order to make projects look bad," said Thomas G. Matoff, general manager of Sacramento's transit agency.

The American Public Transit Association, an industry group, issued a 17-page rebuttal in July that blasted the UMTA-funded study as "inaccurate" and "biased" against rail. All the transit systems cited in the study -- and some that were not -- objected in writing.

Phill Colombo, operations information manager for Portland's Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District, said Mr. Pickrell was dead wrong to paint his city's 15.1-mile light-rail system, which opened five years ago, as unsuccessful.

The only problem the line is having, he said, is a lack of equipment. "We are running at almost full capacity at commuter hours and now beginning to see people start spreading their travel time out," he said.

Ronald J. Hartman, administrator of the Maryland Mass Transit Administration, said in a Jan. 19, 1990, letter to Mr. Pickrell that the 14-mile Metro line cost 9 percent more to build than anticipated, not the 95 percent the study claimed.

Several mass transit officials and industry executives declined to talk publicly about UMTA's role in the controversy, saying they did not want to jeopardize federal aid for local projects.

Privately, some complained bitterly that UMTA has been hostile to public rail systems since 1980, when the Reagan administration decided that transit is best provided by the free market.

Today, "UMTA is basically there to prevent the expenditure of federal funds on rail systems," said an official with one Western municipal transit system.

Most of Maryland's elected officials, including the governor, have shown an unflagging enthusiasm for light rail.

But rail transit is also under fire on the home front. Plans for the state's proposed $100 million Georgetown Light Rail Line linking Bethesda and Silver Spring are currently in limbo because a rail critic beat a rail supporter in the Democratic primary for Montgomery County executive.

William S. Shepard, the Republican candidate for governor, has pledged to halt the laying of track for the Baltimore light-rail line if he iselected, pending a statewide study to determine where such projects are needed.

About 50 residents of the affluent neighborhoods in the path of the northern branch of Baltimore's light-rail line showed up at a public hearing Oct. 25 in the latest skirmish of their long-running battle against the project.

Foes charged that a federally required Draft Environmental Impact Statement written for the light-rail line's proposed three-mile segment from Timonium to Hunt Valley undercut many of the state's predictions for the overall line.

Transportation officials have predicted that the Baltimore line will attract about 33,100 riders after two years of operation, pay for more than two-thirds of its operations out of fare-box revenue, reduce pollution and help forestall gridlock on area roadways.

But the impact statement forecast that the three-mile segment would attract only 640 new riders to transit, when compared with enhanced bus service. They quoted one passage in the statement declaring that the segment "will have no significantimpact on reducing roadway congestion because so few auto travelers are attracted to transit."

The least expensive alternative route, the statement said, would cost $26.18 for each new passenger lured to public transit -- more than four times the $6-per-new-rider limit set by UMTA for projects seeking federal aid. At best, the statement said, the extension would generate revenue equal only to 19 cents for every dollar it cost to operate.

"It's time for you federal officials to stand up and just say no," Robert Macht, leader of the Robert E. Lee Park Defense Fund, said at the hearing.

But a spokesman for UMTA said the agency would "give serious consideration" to waiving the $6 limit in Baltimore's case, because the state is paying for 90 percent of the overall, 27.5-mile project.

Kenneth A. Goon, the MTA's director of planning, said the Hunt Valley impact statement was written to federal specifications, which set unrealistic standards -- such as the $6-per-new-rider limit. Also, the state forecast only new commuter trips -- and not trips to the Hunt Valley Mall, Lexington Market or Camden Yards stadium -- in an effort to be conservative.

He pointed out that the study also found that the three-mile extension was expected to cut more than 20 minutes from the commuting time of some commuters. Most of the new riders, the study predicted, would be lower-income Baltimore workers who are expected to use the line to get to industrial and service jobs in the Hunt Valley area.

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