A Short Rejoinder
First, I’d like to thank Hugh Scott for his response to my op-ed arguing against expansion of the MetroLink system. I doubt we will ever see completely eye to eye on the subject, but an informed dialogue can still be illuminating for everyone involved.
Before I respond directly to any of Scott’s points, let me just clarify something that may have been unclear from the op-ed (a 700-word format does not allow for full explanation of every point): I was not arguing against the proposed half-cent sales tax. My point was that we should not expand the MetroLink system into areas with relatively low population densities because the lines would have low ridership and be even more heavily reliant on tax dollars than current lines.
Scott observes that the flexibility of buses is a disadvantage as well as an advantage, a point well-taken. Light rail is undoubtedly better than buses when it comes to understanding routes. However, the question is whether that disadvantage outweighs the advantages of flexibility and lower costs that buses provide, and my answer is that it depends on population density. The denser an area, the more rail should be preferred to buses, and vice versa.
With regard to the possible lines of MetroLink expansion, Scott is perfectly right that Metro does not plan on expanding the system without federal funds to diffuse the costs of constructing the line(s). However, even if a new line would not cost area taxpayers a cent to build, it could still be a bad deal for them if very few people rode it and they were then on the hook for operating costs. Again, my argument is that the best method of forecasting ridership is through population density. Aside from the north-south corridor, none of the proposed lines come close to matching the densities found along the current lines.
Finally, I agree that MetroLink performs well against the light-rail systems of other cities, but that is a relative metric when the question should be an absolute one: Do the benefits justify the costs? Even existing lines do not meet the profit-loss test used in the private sector, so light-rail systems are not efficient by our most common metric for success. Perhaps we need another absolute standard we could use to determine which light-rail lines are successes and which are failures, but for now the best that can be said is that it is unclear whether the benefits of MetroLink expansion would outweigh the costs.