Light Rail Light on Riders in Saint Louis
With Saint Louis County spending $1 million to study possible MetroLink expansion, light rail proponents are out trying to gin up support for new routes. We’ve been skeptical of light rail expansion in the past, especially given the large (in this case billion-dollar) price tag. But light rail proponents are undaunted by cost and argue that MetroLink is worth every penny. How do they argue this, when MetroLink loses nearly four dollars (not counting capital costs) for every passenger that steps on board? According to proponents, MetroLink is one of the best light rail systems out there. As the Post-Dispatch reported:
[Executive Director of Citizens for Modern Transit Kimberly] Cella cites studies that name MetroLink percentage-wise among the most utilized light rail corridors in the U.S.
Calling MetroLink one of the most utilized light rail lines could be considered damning with faint praise. However, the compliment itself does not appear to be correct. A quick look at data from the National Transit Database contradicts the idea that MetroLink is a particularly successful light rail line.
Of 21 reporting light rail systems, MetroLink ranked ninth in terms of passenger trips in 2013. Of course, those systems vary in their total mileage and level of service, so a better measure of utilization is passenger miles or passenger trips divided by total vehicle revenue miles (VRM), a proxy for total service provided. By those measures, MetroLink ranks eighth for passenger mile per VRM (24.6) and 19th for passenger trips per VRM (2.7).
From this data, we can see that large, dense cities tend to have the highest rate of ridership given the level of service provided. The best term to describe MetroLink utilization is middling.
Interestingly, utilization was much higher before MetroLink expanded in the early and mid-2000s.
When MetroLink only had the initial line from the airport to just across the river, it may have been true that the system had among the highest utilization rates of any light rail system. But after MetroLink expanded further into Illinois and again to Shrewsbury, utilization rates fell substantially. The reason for this is obvious: The route with the highest ridership potential was built first, with secondary options being built secondarily. Later routes, with fewer riders at a given level of service, drag down the entire system’s average.
In reality, MetroLink does not stand out among light rail systems in terms of ridership. Furthermore, adding new lines in Saint Louis County are likely to have even less ridership potential than existing routes, due to lower population density and higher car ownership. And since fewer people per train means higher subsidies per train, new lines will likely require higher subsidies and carry fewer riders. Residents should think carefully about whether Metro should, or even can, take on the extra burden.