NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Buses are an Alternative to Light Rail

July 9, 1999

The experience of other cities does not bode well for a new 7.4 mile light rail, or electric trolley, planned for Houston. According to a U.S. House Transportation Committee report:

  • After 12 years, ridership in Portland, Ore., has reached just two-thirds of the levels predicted for the fifth year.
  • In Buffalo, N.Y., ridership fell 68 percent short of projections, and overall transit ridership is less than before light rail.
  • Los Angeles spent $5 billion over 13 years to build two light-rail lines, a subway and six commuter lines, while ridership fell 25 percent over that period and construction on three other lines was put on hold.

In the mean time, massive rail expenditures had so starved bus operations that the NAACP and the Bus Riders Union had to obtain a court order requiring upgrading of bus service to eliminate overcrowding and mechanical failures of the old fleet.

Futhermore, the proposed rail line is unnecessary -- and may make it harder to meet mass transit needs.

  • The proposed route is already served by bus lines and surface streets, which would be supplant or truncated by rail lines.
  • Bus routes are far easier to expand or alter to meet population shifts than rail lines.
  • A rail car costs $3 million, a new bus only $300,000.
  • Finally, Metro's own study shows that a $60 million bus upgrade could handle 92 percent of the $300 million trolley's estimated ridership.

Source: Larry Lane (Houston Property Rights Association), "Should Houston Build a Light-Rail System? No." Texas Journal, Wall Street Journal, July 7, 1999.


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