Light Rail: On Track for Development?


This has been quite a spring for public works projects in Baltimore. First came the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, an architectural masterpiece that has reinforced Baltimore's national reputation as a pacesetter in urban design and has generated hopes of a new wave of downtown redevelopment.

Today marks the official inauguration of the region's second mega-project of the spring: the 22.5-mile, $446.3-million "Central Light Rail Line." In tandem with the decade-old rapid rail Metro, the line gives Baltimore one of the more extensive rail transit systems found in medium-sized cities in the United States. Although the launching of light rail surely lacks the excitement and glamour of opening day at the new ballpark, the long-term impact of this new transit investment on the quality of life in the region may be much more profound.

Baltimore's is the eighth light rail system to be built in American cities since the early 1980s, and at least half a dozen more are in various stages of development. In the 1970s, the vogue in mass transit was "heavy rail;" with the federal government picking up 80 percent of the tab, cities such as Atlanta, Miami, Washington and Baltimore built capital-intensive, high-capacity metrorail systems, powered by an electrified third rail and operating on exclusive rights-of-way.

By the 1980s, however, cuts in federal support, coupled with shrinking local resources, made investment in expensive and often-underused heavy rail systems unfeasible. Transit planners increasingly turned to light rail, the modern variant on the old urban streetcar, capable of running on either separate rights-of-way or city streets.

In addition to saving on the cost of rights-of-way, light rail, although not inexpensive, typically requires less tunneling or elaborate stations, and thus could be built at significantly lower cost. In Baltimore, for example, the heavy rail Metro cost more than four times as much to build as the light rail.

Light rail has been touted as a moderate-cost transit system, likely to attract riders and to promote efficient land use and economic development. On the whole, the experience of other cities supports these claims, although the record is more ambiguous than proponents admit.


As the table shows, there are clear differences in the capital and operating costs of recently-built light rail systems. Capital costs vary depending, among other factors, on the amount of separate right-of-way, on whether there is a subway component, and on the mix of elaborate stations and bare-bones "shelters."

Compared with other cities, the capital costs for Baltimore's system were on the moderate end, as planners were able to use much existing right-of-way and chose unassuming stations. Moreover, the estimated operating and maintenance expenses for Baltimore's light rail are in line with the experience of other cities.

However, according to a recent study by the federal Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA), cost overruns have been common for light rail systems, and Baltimore's was no exception: The final construction costs rose 40 percent from original estimates, attributed mostly to unexpected repairs required on the right-of-way. Similarly, operating expenses for light rail have tended to run above forecasts, something to keep in mind in considering the long-run fiscal impact.


Unlike cost estimates, the ridership forecasts of transit planners for light rail have consistently been too high.

According to the UMTA study, actual daily ridership on the newer light rail systems ranges from 54 percent below forecast (Portland) to 71 percent below (Sacramento). Some critics claim transit planners have deliberately inflated their daily passenger projections to make a more compelling case for federal aid.

In Baltimore, on the other hand, all the money for light rail came from state and local government, so there was no need to inflate ridership forecasts to impress federal officials. Mass Transit Administration officials project a modest 33,000 daily passengers, a ridership level consistent with recent experience in Portland, Buffalo, San Diego and Pittsburgh, and certainly defendable in the context of Baltimore's recent transit history (45,000 daily riders on the Metro).

Economic development

Light rail has already produced an important economic benefit for Baltimore: jobs. As a major public works stimulus to the local economy, construction of light rail generated an estimated 6,500 jobs, while from 1989 to 1991 the number of jobs in Baltimore city declined by more than 40,000.

Longer-term economic benefits from light rail will ensue as development is stimulated around transit stations and route corridors. In Portland, for example, an estimated $700 million in development projects has been built along the light rail line since planning began in 1979.

Even in Buffalo, where transit planning was so poorly coordinated that the badly torn-up and disrupted downtown commercial district was labelled "Beirut" by the head of the transit authority in 1986, some development has nonetheless occurred around light rail (although, by most accounts, Buffalo's system is a white elephant, perpetually in danger of shutting down).

The positive impact of light rail on development should not be exaggerated. In no city has rail transit -- light or heavy -- staunched the movement of population and employment to suburban areas.

In metropolitan Portland, for example, despite the successful light rail line, more than two-thirds of office space built during the '80s was in the suburbs. Similar decentralization occurred in the Baltimore area, despite the completion of Metro, and will undoubtedly continue, light rail notwithstanding.

Moreover, transit-related development does not occur by itself. The "Field of Dreams" approach -- "if we build a system, developers will come" -- rarely works. By way of contrast, Portland's transit/development success seems to have resulted from an elaborate station-area planning program to promote development, a process that unfortunately was sidestepped as Baltimore moved rapidly from planning to implementation.

The record is very clear: Economic development benefits from light rail will only be realized in communities that support transit with complementary economic development policies. Such policies include public-private development around stations, zoning and investment incentives and additional public infrastructure investments.

Some cities are going even further, using rail transit as the linchpin of local reindustrialization. In Los Angeles, for example, the County Transportation Commission recently canceled an order for Japanese rail transit vehicles and voted to build its own $50 million factory to make the cars locally, with the hope of turning the city into the national center of a reinvigorated U.S. mass transit industry.

Similarly, Pittsburgh has attempted to forge a partnership with a German manufacturer of light rail vehicles to produce cars and help revive that city's manufacturing sector by creating a new local industry.

Baltimore, with its declining industrial base, might well have used similar creativity in using light rail as a strategic opportunity for local reindustrialization. Despite this missed opportunity, Maryland planners do expect economic development benefits from light rail. MTA officials hope light rail will help unemployed Baltimore residents manage a "reverse commute" to jobs in growing suburban areas north and south of the city, especially when the system is extended to Hunt Valley and Baltimore-Washington International Airport. In addition, light rail is expected to promote more efficient, compact patterns of development in suburban growth corridors.

And officials expect light rail to provide another boost to Baltimore's downtown renaissance, particularly as various forms of mass transit converge around the new ballpark, but also, they hope, along Howard Street. There, three light rail stops are located in the heart of Baltimore's traditional -- but currently flagging -- retail district.

Light rail will not remake Baltimore -- as if any one public investment, no matter how major, could do so. Moreover, despite the efficiency and speed with which the system was built, numerous opportunities to take full advantage of the potential economic development opportunities of light rail have already been missed.

Nevertheless, the new emphasis on mass transit in Baltimore offers exciting possibilities for future development. The potential for transit-related development projects still exists, and the overall productivity of the regional economy can only improve as commuting times are reduced, more efficient land use is encouraged and auto-related pollution declines. What remains to seen is whether leadership in the Baltimore region possesses the vision and vigor to take advantage of this opportunity.

Marc Levine is director of the Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He recently completed study on the economic impact of light rail transit systems.

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