NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

New Commuter Rails Are Costly And Ineffective

June 3, 1999

Cities have viewed new commuter rail systems as a way to attract automobile drivers to public transportation, thereby reducing traffic congestion and the need for highway construction. Transportation expert Wendell Cox says the new systems have failed to attract travelers, and are more costly than other modes of public transportation or highways.

For decades, commuter rail has performed an important function in transporting people in cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington-Baltimore and San Francisco.

  • Approximately 97 percent of the nation's commuter rail ridership is on these historic systems.
  • Each day, 750,000 commuters in New York alone use the system, with 325,000 in Chicago, reducing congestion significantly in both cities.
  • But relatively few commuters using the newer systems -- 25,000 daily in Los Angeles and only 1,900 in Dallas.

Furthermore, the cost of these systems is high in comparison with traditional public transportation or highway construction.

  • Operating costs per passenger mile averages at $0.73, compared with $0.14 for the best express bus system or $0.33 for the average bus system.
  • The total operating costs of a two-way highway are only $0.19 per passenger mile.

New commuter rail has been unable to attract meaningful numbers of automobile drivers.

  • Generally, there is no travel time advantage, even when going downtown.
  • Nearly 99.5 percent of urban locations are beyond walking distance of rail lines.

Alternatives, such as high occupancy vehicle (HOV) and high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes carry substantially more person trips than commuter lines operating in the same urban corridors.

The new commuter rail, therefore, has not been an effective alternative to highway construction.

Source: Wendell Cox, "America's Costly and Ineffective Experiment with New Commuter Rail, Part I: Lessons for the Austin/San Antonio Corridor," 1999 Texas Transit Opportunity Analysis, February 1999, Texas Public Policy Foundation, P.O. Box 40519, San Antonio, Texas 78229, (210) 614-0080.

 

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