Review of Kansas City Transit Plans Print E-mail
By Randal O'Toole   
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

After rejecting rail transit proposals at the polls six different times, Kansas City voters approved a light-rail plan in November, 2006. This plan, however, has proven infeasible, with costs at least 50 percent greater than its promoters projected. Implementing the plan would require cutting bus service by as much as 40 percent. While the City Council formally repealed the plan in November, 2007, many people in Kansas City still believe that some form of light rail or streetcars would be worthwhile. A close look at other urban areas that have built light-rail transit during the past three decades offers many lessons for Kansas City transportation policymakers.

  • Light rail is not only expensive — typically costing as much to build as a four-lane freeway (and a mile of streetcar line typically costs as much as two freeway lane miles) — it suffers cost overruns averaging more than 40 percent.
  • The average mile of light-rail line carries only about 30 percent as many riders as a single mile of freeway lane — and streetcars about 10 percent as many. This makes light rail and streetcars more than 10 times as expensive for moving people than freeways.
  • Rail transit also costs considerably more to operate than buses on comparable routes.
  • Rail transit takes years to plan and build, and there is no guarantee that people will still want to go where the rails lead when they finally open. This gives transit agencies a tremendous incentive to become social engineers, trying to bribe or coerce people to live near rail stations.
  • Only three of the 13 formerly non-rail regions that have built new light-rail lines during the past 30 years have experienced an increase in percapita transit ridership.
  • In most regions that have built light rail, public transit’s share of passenger travel and commuting actually declined. In the few regions where that share increased, the gains were so small — less than a quarter of 1 percent — as to have an imperceptible effect on congestion.
  • When they operate in streets, light rail and streetcars actually add to congestion and disrupt coordinated traffic signals.
  • Rail transit has been especially unsuccessful in regions like Kansas City, where only a small percentage of jobs is located downtown.
  • Light rail is dangerous, killing three times as many people in accidents as buses, for every passenger mile carried. Light rail is also the scene of far more robberies, assaults, rapes, and other crimes than any other form of urban transit.
  • Most light-rail lines consume more energy and emit more greenhouse gases, per passenger mile, than the average passenger car. All of them consume more energy per passenger mile than a Toyota Prius, or other hybrid-electric cars.
  • Neither light rail nor streetcars stimulate urban redevelopment. Often, however, they do stimulate subsidies to urban redevelopment, which are simply one more type of burden to taxpayers.

This information suggests that light rail and streetcars would not be a good fit for Kansas City. Instead, this study recommends that the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority contract out bus operations to private companies, which is likely to save 30 to 40 percent of costs. This, in turn, will allow a 50- to 60-percent increase in bus services, including several new bus–rapid transit routes. These improvements should result in far more new riders using public transit than would be gained from light rail — without increasing the cost to taxpayers.

Related Links

Full Policy Study 13 (PDF)

Four-Page Policy Briefing 13 (PDF)



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