By: Senator Dave Donley
As a proposed alternative to building better roads to solve Anchorage's traffic problems, vocal advocates have been pushing the development of a light rail system here in Anchorage. Commuter train service or "light rail" is not an alternative to building a better road system in Anchorage.
Light rail advocates frequently point to Portland, Oregon and its elaborate light rail system as a model for Anchorage to follow. However, a close analysis reveals that these arguments are mostly based on misleading assumptions.
The claim that light rail will reduce automobile traffic is a popular misconception. Portland's area traffic congestion grew faster than any other Western city from 1986 through 1992, in spite of the new light rail system, which came on-line there in 1986. In St. Louis for example, freeway traffic adjacent to their light rail system has grown twice as fast as the rate for the entire St. Louis metropolitan area. Typically, light rail systems replace bus networks that are often more flexible and cost effective to maintain than fixed light rail systems. Light rail systems nationally and worldwide have failed to attract drivers from their cars and have required large subsidies.
Another misleading claim is that light rail reduces air pollution. What advocates forget to point out is that a majority of light rail riders will still have to drive to the rail stations. Hence, those drivers produce nearly the same amount as pollution since their cars will still have cold starts and engine cool down periods during those trips. Most of the nation's recent improvement in air quality can be attributed to improved auto emission technology, not because of light rail development.
Expert after expert is debunking the myth that light rail is a panacea for urban traffic problems. Robert Franiosi, a research fellow at the Goldwater Institute, discusses the proposed merits of light rail in his article "You Say You Want a Rail-volution", published in 1999, Mr. Graniosi points out that:
"Before we try to copy Portland, it is worthwhile to see exactly what the city's light rail system, known as MAX, has accomplished during the twelve years of its existence ... Myth Number One is that light rail reduces traffic congestion. In fact, between 1986 and 1995 average daily trips on a main Portland freeway increased by 38 percent despite a parallel rail line. During rush hour the freeway carries 11.6 times more riders than MAX. Rail also does very little to improve air quality. It is estimated that the South/North rail line would reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 1/1,000th, less than the reduction in pollution from the retirement of older, higher polluting cars."
Light rail is not a cost-effective alternative to roadway construction. Such claims are based on the assertion that light rail offers greater commuter capacity than other transit alternatives, including buses. However, US Census data in 1990 showed that only 2,500 daily commuters used Portland's Eastside's light rail system that has a capacity of over 40,000. Light rail systems are extremely expensive. Portland's proposed 16 mile South/North light rail extension bond measure, which was turned down by voters, had a total construction cost of $1.6 billion. In addition, even light rail systems in large metropolitan areas often require additional operating subsidies. In a city of less than 500,000 residents, like Anchorage, massive operating subsidies would be necessary.
Finally, Anchorage is a northern city with severe winters and automobile users are simply not going to willingly give up the comfort and convenience of their individual automobiles in such a climate.
Even Wendall Cox, who authored the proposal that funded light rail in Los Angeles in 1980, now argues against light rail development in other metropolitan areas. He points out that Los Angeles' light rail ridership is down 25% while the population has grown 10% and the traffic volume has grown by 33%. In a closing remark in his article "New Urban Rail Not Justified", published in 1998, concerning the merits of light rail Mr. Cox concludes:
"Urban areas seeking to reduce traffic congestion would do as well to increase the frequency of garbage collection or any other unrelated strategy. There is virtually no connection whatsoever between new urban rail and traffic congestion relief."
Cost effective road improvements that would alleviate gridlock in Anchorage are available today if we use state funds. Use of federal highway funds slows major projects but they still can be accomplished in five to ten years. Specific examples of prudent transportation investments would include: the connection of Abbott Loop Road north to Tudor Road, which is currently being studied and would be a positive start towards solving congestion problems at Lake Otis and Tudor; improvements to the Glenn and New Seward Highways which are ten years overdue; the construction of new East/West corridors, like the connection of Raspberry Road to Dowling Road.
Additionally better roads that reduce traffic congestion are one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce air pollution. As traffic moves quicker and is not backed up at overburdened intersections automobiles put much less pollution in the air.
A light rail system in Anchorage should not be a priority until the existing road system is adequately upgraded and prepared for the future. Government should be working to give the large majority of people what they want - better roads, not trying to force them to use light-rail in a sub-arctic climate. Let's focus on solutions that will better serve our current transportation needs, then work together to address and improve our future transportation system in a balanced and timely manner.
Sources of information and suggested reading on "Light Rail"