NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Rail vs. Bus

August 25, 2011

The Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, known as the Silver Line, may seem like it was an obvious choice as a way to improve the region's public transportation.  Construction began in March 2009 and service is expected to begin by 2013.  While rail might seem like the most obvious solution, it is also by far the most expensive and slowest option.  The better option would have been to make use of the existing roadways and implement an expansive bus rapid transit system (BRT), says Steve Lafleur, a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

  • The 23 mile extension of the Washington Metro rapid transit system is forecast to cost $6.8 billion dollars -- roughly $296 million per mile.
  • In contrast, consider how a BRT system could have worked, and what it would have cost.
  • One lane in each direction on the Dulles Toll Road could have been designated as a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane, to ensure that buses could move relatively quickly.
  • The average cost of implementing a BRT system running on an HOV lane is $8.97 million per mile (in 1999 dollars), which would have brought the cost to roughly $230 million.
  • This average is heavily skewed by one costly project; $2 million to $5 million per mile is more typical, which would make the final cost between $52 million and $130 million.

While access to Dulles isn't the full justification for the Silver Line, it's hard to imagine the rail extension ever paying for itself.  At the end of the day, cost is the number one issue and BRT wins hands down, says Lafleur.

Source: Steve Lafleur, "Dulles Metrorail Silver Line vs. Bus Rapid Transit," New Geography, August 19, 2011.

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