Pennsylvania’s Great Rail Disasters

Every Pennsylvanian agrees that traffic congestion and air pollution are hardly good or desirable things for our cities. But there is much less agreement on what strategies should be used to make Pennsylvania’s population centers better places to live, work, and raise a family. One popular solution that has been tried in the Commonwealth’s major cities is the taxpayer-funded construction, expansion, operation, and subsidization of rail transit.

Advocates of rail systems argue that such transit removes cars from local highways, thereby reducing traffic congestion and air pollution, conserving energy, and improving our quality of life. Those are among the arguments underlying plans for expansions of the existing Philadelphia and Pittsburgh rail systems, as well as the current push for a new rail network by rail transit activists and government and community planners in Central Pennsylvania.

But while the benefits of rail transit are touted as intuitive, few people have looked at the empirical evidence. To that end, The Commonwealth Foundation and the Center for the American Dream jointly released an analysis of congestion, cost, safety, and other data for all of the nearly two-dozen U.S. urban areas that have rail transit. The data show that rail transit has actually reduced the livability of every urban area that has it-and sadly for Pennsylvania taxpayers, that list includes Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Simply put, rail transit has not helped to increase overall transit ridership or market share in Pennsylvania’s major cities. Between 1990 and 2000, Philadelphia lost more than 35,000 mass transit commuters, while Pittsburgh lost over 10,000. During the same time period, mass transit’s share of travel declined by 14 percent in Philadelphia and by 26 percent in Pittsburgh. Rail’s failure to stem the decline of mass transit usage in Pennsylvania’s major cities is consistent with trends in the rest of the country.

These figures deal a severe blow to the central planners’ argument that the availability of rail transit “gets cars off the highways.” Sixteen of the 20 United States urban areas with the fastest-rising congestion have rail transit, and one of the other four is currently building rail. In fact, the data suggest that rail transit not only fails to relieve auto traffic congestion, but actually seems to make it worse.

One reason that congestion is increasing in regions served by rail transit is its relatively high cost compared to other transportation alternatives. Our study found that nationwide, buses are almost twice as cost effective as rail lines, while freeways are, on average, 14 times more cost effective at moving people than rail. The latter result is prevalent in Pennsylvania, as rail is 56 percent less cost effective than freeways in Philadelphia and 83 percent less in Pittsburgh. In addition, the average rail line consumes more energy per passenger mile than automobiles, as is the case in Pennsylvania-Philadelphia’s rail lines consume 51 percent more energy per passenger mile than cars, while Pittsburgh’s consume 110 percent more.

Finally, rail transit fails as a transportation alternative because it doesn’t always go from where you are to where you want to go. Even in large, dense metropolitan regions that should be fertile ground for rail transit, rail lines fail to compete successfully for customers. For example, Chicago’s large transit network-which includes an extensive rail system-carried 15 percent fewer riders in 2000 than in 1990, despite an 18 percent increase in jobs in that region during the 1990s. Likewise, Washington, D.C.’s much-praised transit system (including its $12 billion subway network) lost nearly 22,000 commuters in the 1990s-even as the region gained more than 100,000 new commuters overall. If rail transit doesn’t work in these densely populated regions, how will it work in far less dense areas like Central Pennsylvania?

The empirical evidence shows that Pennsylvania can reduce congestion and provide better transit service by means other than rail transit, all without raising taxes. Bus-rapid transit-which means running buses on rail schedules-can move people faster than rail. Pennsylvania can also explore turning existing highway lanes in congested areas into high-occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes, which low-occupancy vehicles can use by paying a toll. Toll revenues can then be used to build a complete network of HOT lanes throughout regions that have a need for them.

The choice for Pennsylvania taxpayers is clear: Spend billions of dollars on rail transit lines that actually reduce urban livability, or relieve congestion and improve transit service without raising taxes by expanding transportation alternatives that commuters actually use. We hope Pennsylvania policymakers learn from the Commonwealth’s past great rail disasters and make wiser transportation choices in the future.

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Randal O’Toole, an adjunct scholar with The Commonwealth Foundation, is the director of the Center for the American Dream in Denver, CO, and author of the new report, “Great Rail Disasters: The Impact of Rail Transit on Urban Livability.” Grant Gulibon is senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA.