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Will Transit Ridership Decline Mean End of Light Rail Boondoggles?

The Met Council’s controversial $2 billion Southwest Light Rail Transit line still hangs on by a thread. So do proposed LRT lines in Nashville, San Antonio and Tampa, among other cities. At the same time, overall transit ridership continues to decline or even implode in many metro areas.

The Cato transit expert who authored American Experiment’s report on Twin Cities traffic congestion earlier this year, Randal O’Toole, emphasizes just how dramatic the drop-off has been in the Wall Street Journal.

These proposals are questionable at best and reckless at worst, given that transit ridership—including bus and what little rail these regions have—is down in all three jurisdictions. This is a nationwide trend: Data released this week by the Federal Transit Administration shows that ridership is falling in nearly every major urban area (with Seattle as a notable exception).

Some regions have seen catastrophic drops in ridership since 2010: 30% or more in Detroit, Sacramento and Memphis; 20% to 30% in Austin, Cleveland, Louisville, St. Louis and Virginia Beach-Norfolk ; and 15% to 20% in Atlanta, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Miami, San Antonio and Washington.

O’Toole hits several of the key points that resonated in the Center’s congestion report.

The main reason for this drop-off is that low gas prices and ride-sharing services have given people better options. Census data show that 96% of American workers live in households with at least one car, and anyone with a smartphone can summon an Uber or Lyft.

 That said, transit ridership has been sliding for decades as jobs have become less highly concentrated in city centers. Since 1970, the number of transit trips taken per urban resident has fallen more than 20%. Outside the areas of New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, transit carries less than 1% of passenger travel. This belies the claim that mass transit is vital to urban economies.

Metro Transit generally releases the Twin Cities ridership numbers in January. Don’t hold your breath. Ridership slid four percent in 2016 with the Met Council blaming low gas prices and construction on the Nicollet Mall for the embarrassing results. But that trend hasn’t stopped the Met Council or other cities from pushing harder than ever for outdated overpriced light rail.

Yet the subsides go on, seemingly forever. Since 1970, taxpayers have plowed more than $1.1 trillion (adjusted for inflation) into transit systems. Critics may reply that roads are also subsidized. But measured per passenger-mile, the subsidies for transit are more than 40 times as great as for driving.

The transit industry has compounded its problems by going heavily into debt, allowing unfunded pensions and health-care obligations to snowball, and failing to maintain the rail lines they already have. According to the Department of Transportation, the nationwide transit maintenance backlog is approaching $100 billion, causing exactly the problems you’d expect: derailments of New York City subways, slowdowns of Chicago’s elevated train, smoke in Washington metro tunnels, and other operational and safety issues. Even if all the money now spent on new construction were redirected to maintenance, according to the department, it would take 20 years to rehabilitate America’s rail transit systems.

What’s the alternative to break congestion? As our report indicates, the Met Council and MnDOT should redirect billions of transportation dollars that should go to building roads but currently go to bike lanes, light rail and other boondoggles.  See MNCongestion.com to learn more about the causes and solutions to Twin Cities traffic congestion.

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