Light rail not all it's cracked up to be

January 12, 2009
In the Dec. 29 issue I noted an opinion column by Christopher Leinberger of the University of Michigan in support of light rail for central Indiana.

Several such opinion pieces have been placed in 2008 that support this notion, and often they refer to cities like Denver and Washington, D.C., as models for emulation. I cannot recall a single cautionary voice or citation of light rail that has failed. But the examples are easy to find, and I encourage readers (and perhaps IBJ should do some investigational journalism of its own) to indulge in the tale of Miami, which is richly detailed in a series of articles running from June through December of 2008: www.miamiherald.com/multimedia/news/transit/.

Other examples of huge expenditures with little benefit include San Jose (similar to Indy in size), Los Angeles and, soon, Seattle. New York and Chicago are wonderful examples of how not to do it as well. The cost of a new or expanded roadway is often compared to the cost of laying rail, buying cars, etc. But that is only the beginning of cost. As The Miami Herald points out, 70 percent of Miami's transit costs are labor costs, not hardware. Roads do not carry that same labor-cost burden.

The Indiana Tollway was leased to a private operator because public stewardship of it failed to fund needed improvements and efficiencies. Light rail spanning several counties and tax districts will likely face the same problems.

-Bill Heller
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