Expanding light rail in Pittsburgh is nuts

Expanding light rail in Pittsburgh is nuts

The Port Authority of Allegheny County – still struggling with pandemic-induced low ridership (Will it ever recover?), an out-of-whack cost structure (Will it ever be tamed?) and now living large on federal bail-out dollars (What happens when they run out?) – has hired a high-salaried “chief strategy officer.”

But one of his inherited goals clearly is out of step with reality.

Donny Hamilton Jr.’s position is a new one. It pays $200,000. Port Authority CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman tells the Post-Gazette that it will be important to have someone in charge of financing the agency’s 25-year plan scheduled to be approved by the authority board this month.

Among the goals of the plan, known NEXTransit, is extending the light rail system in two lines to Bellevue and Ross from Pittsburgh’s North Shore.

But given the likely exorbitant cost – and given the gross cost-benefit failure of light rail – the Port Authority must be nuts.

So, what’s wrong with light rail? Just about everything, reminds Reason Foundation scholar James V. DeLong.

“Local officials in many urban areas have become smitten with the hope that ‘light rail’ will provide the solution to urban transportation problems,” he reminded in a study. “This dream is based on myths and will be rudely shattered when the realities reassert themselves.”

Simply put, light-rail systems are not “rapid” transit.

“Rail travel times are longer than the time required for the same trip by bus,” DeLong says.

Neither is light rail “high-capacity” transit.

“Only the most heavily used heavy rail lines have greater capacity than busways,” DeLong notes, “and these have significantly higher costs.”

Another of the great light-rail myths is that rail will decongest roads by converting automobile drivers into mass transit riders.

But “rail is not a decongestant,” the Reason scholar reminds. “Support for rail voiced by drivers is based on a hope that others will use rail transit and open up the road. … (I)n fact, rail riders are taken out of buses, not cars.”

Then there’s the “cost-effectiveness” myth.

But hands down, DeLong says light rail is “economically inferior to conventional bus service.”

There’s also this darling of urban planners: Light rail promotes “superior urban form.”

“The urban planners’ idea of “superior form” — high densities of both residences and places of employment — is counter to the values of the populace,” DeLong explains. “In any event, rail cannot overcome the forces pushing for decentralization.”

But, but, but, doesn’t light-rail transit better benefit low-income people? Not at all, DeLong explains. In fact, light-rail imposes heavy costs on those with lower incomes.

“Rail systems, even at their inefficient best, cater to the commutes of the wealthier segments of the communities. In doing so, they create route patterns that are poorly adapted to the needs of the low-income users,” he says.

“Rail transit forces everyone to make a long sideways trip to reach a
trunk line designed for commuting to a downtown, a pattern that can make what was once a short bus ride to a nearby doctor into an hour-and-a-half ordeal.

“(Light-rail) transit systems also strip resources from the bus systems that serve the needs of the low-income riders, because available funds must be funneled into fulfilling the extravagant promises made to satisfy the middle- and upper-class constituency that advocates rail systems,” DeLong concludes.

Neither are light-rail projects grand “jobs producers.”

“Bus systems provide more job per public dollar expended, and more local employment,” the think tank researcher says.

There’s also that continuing myth that light-rail projects are “cost-free” because their capital investment will be covered by non-local dollars.

But DeLong reminds that while those non-local dollars for rail often must be dedicated solely to rail, “localities may seek funds for a variety of purposes and have considerable discretion over how local transportation funds are spent.”

And, given these facts, the Port Authority now has brought yet another high-priced administrator on board to shepherd, among other things, two new light-rail projects to points North and West?

Again, that’s just nuts. And it’s certainly the furthest thing from sound public policy.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).