NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


November 5, 2004

Mass transit advocates claim that light rail reduces pollution and congestion, but new evidence indicates that this may not be the case, says the Heartland Institute.

In recent studies of Dallas, Denver and other cities, economist Randal O'Toole notes that proposed new light rail plans would actually increase nitrous oxide emissions while increasing costs.

  • A proposed new light-rail line in Dallas would increase nitrogen oxide emissions by 42 tons per year, or 1/10 of one percent, while reducing carbon monoxide emissions by only 1/100 of one percent.
  • Denver's proposed rail lines would reduce carbon monoxide emissions by one percent, but increase nitrogen oxide emissions by 3 percent.
  • Moreover, Denver's plan will cost the average area resident $160 per year, while giving them only six new transit rides -- which cost $26 per ride.

Rail, however, is not the first choice for most commuters, says O'Toole:

  • Despite Denver's ambitious plan to build 120 miles of rail transit, it would attract less then one-half of one percent of current auto users.
  • Moreover, most suburban drivers who do use light rail will drive to a park-and-ride station, emitting pollution along the way.
  • Rail transit has not proven to get many cars off the road.

The city of San Jose has come up with a more cost-effective means of reducing pollution and congestion -- by spending $1 million on synchronizing traffic lights along one of the city's busiest streets. Reducing idle time is expected to reduce auto emissions by 5 to 15 percent. Amortized over 10 years, this measure will cost only $1,000 per ton of reduced emissions, compared to light rail's cost of $1 million per ton.

Source: Randal O'Toole, "Studies Show Commuter Trains Don't Improve Air Quality," Heartland Institute, August 2004.


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