Light-rail Disease

Since Len Brown seems fascinated by spending large amounts of other  peoples money to realise his dream of a light rail system. How appropriate then that a reader sent me a link to this article about the Light-rail Disease.

Forget AIDS or SARS, there’s a new billion-dollar contagion popping up across the country. Symptoms include visions of grandeur, severe loss of reality and a propensity to enact massive tax hikes. It’s called LRTS: Light-rail transit syndrome.

And while the surest cure for this new ailment is a large application of public input and a quick dose of common sense, the antidote appears in extreme short supply.

Patient zero in the current Canadian outbreak of LRTS is southwestern Ontario’s Region of Waterloo, a high-tech hub as home to BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion and the University of Waterloo. The diagnosis was confirmed this June when the region, population 500,000, approved an $818-million light rail transit project.

Uh-huh, sounds very familiar.

Light rail transit is beloved by bureaucrats and planners for its sleek and modern look that provides the aura of a big-city amenity. Those susceptible to LRTS claim it can transform modest cities into booming metropolises by instantly boosting transit usage, curbing congestion, spurring rapid downtown development and attracting young mobile workers of the Richard Florida ilk.

Sounding real familiar.

But like any fixed-track mass-transit system, light rail is best suited to moving high volumes of commuters to and from dense downtown employment cores, as is the case in Calgary. It requires specific densities and geographies to work effectively and even large cities such as Baltimore and Buffalo have struggled with light rail. And it’s expensive.

This is getting eerie.

City planners infected by LRTS, however, come to believe tracks have the magical power to transform drivers into eager transit users, regardless of local evidence, density or geography. The region claims transit ridership along the traffic spine will triple the first year that tracks open. It seems implausible, given that this would require more rail transit riders in Waterloo Region than currently exist in Minneapolis, a city of three million.

Local politicians suffering from LRTS come to see a rail system as crucial to their future success (and a handy monument to their own forward thinking). “A failure to move forward will doom us,” Waterloo Region chairman Ken Seiling warned darkly in advocating light rail transit last December.

Is Len channelling this place?

Of course LRTS requires favourable conditions to incubate: namely politics and other people’s money. Ottawa has pledged $265-million and the province $300-million. Ottawa’s commitment may seem a puzzle given the dubious nature of the plan and the federal government’s recent claims to fiscal probity. Then again Waterloo Region has that medium-sized urban profile Conservatives find very attractive: In the past two elections it has delivered a full slate of Tory MPs.

Local taxpayers, however, tend to find LRTS rather unnerving. Even with higher-order funding, Waterloo Region taxpayers are still on the hook for $253-million, or an equivalent 10.5% increase in local taxes. And with federal and provincial funding capped, any overruns will be the sole responsibility of the local tax base. Legendary cost overruns on the St. Clair light-rail project in Toronto — a $48-million project ended up costing $106-million — is a grim reminder that much can go wrong with light rail, even in big cities.

Increased rates and a white elephant are almost guaranteed with light-rail.

And now the disease is spreading. Victoria, BC, with a smaller metro population than Waterloo Region, has begun planning a bigger and even more expensive light-rail transit system — its $950-million light-rail transit plan makes no sense based on city size, geography or transit usage. It is similarly dependent on massive contributions from higher levels of government and it is driven by grandiose dreams of area politicians. And once again the taxpaying citizenry, in the form of the local chamber of commerce, is demanding a referendum.

Hamilton and Winnipeg are also showing symptoms of LRTS. And given Canadian politics, how long will it be before Quebec City is feeling a bit flush as well? With Waterloo Region setting the precedent that billion-dollar fixed rail transit systems are no longer the exclusive domain of major metropolitan centres, every Canadian city of a certain size will soon be demanding its slice of federal government track cash. The promise of a big-city image paid for by other levels of government should prove highly contagious.

For anyone wondering about palliative care for terminal cases of LRTS, consider an earlier outbreak on the other side of the Atlantic:

Edinburgh, Scotland, population 490,000 was infected by LRTS a few years before Waterloo Region. Its $870-million light-rail transit project was also presented to local taxpayers as the means by which their city would boldly march into the future. And it would be free — paid for by higher levels of government.

Today three-quarters of the budget has been spent but less than a third of the infrastructure is in place. With cost overruns entirely the responsibility of local taxpayers, this summer Edinburgh city council (after rejecting calls for a referendum) debated tearing up the whole thing and forgetting it ever happened. In the end they decided to shorten the route substantially. And they still need to come up with $438 million.

Don’t let Light Rail Transit Syndrome happen to you.

It seems to already have spread to Auckland City.




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  • Spiker
  • Mr Blobby

    All for every transport option that anybody wants to build.

    One condition it has to be self funding.

    Involve the council or Government and you have guaranteed cost over runs. Not to mention a project that is not allowed to fail for political reasons, at any cost.

    If anyone in the private sector wants to build public infrastructure I say let them. All that is required from Council and Government is assistance with the resource process. An expensive prohibitive and time expense that currently guarantees that every project is uneconomic right from the get go.

    If the project is badly planed, cost over runs, or there is no market for the service offered then it will inevitably fail.

    Outside of the public sector I have not heard anything from the Private sector on wanting to run anything that does not include a Public subsidy or Guarantee hardly a free market principle. Why is that?

    Come on guys and girls build your train set, if people want the service on offer they will use it and you will make money. If not they won’t use it and you will lose your investment. Just like any other business enterprise. The infrastructure will mainly be below ground and we can just board it up if it does not work.

    • MrV

      You mean self-funding like all those Auckland toll roads?
      Oops I mean taxpayer funded roads.

  • Seán

    Having been a regular visitor to Switzerland, namely the smallish populated cities of Zürich and Basel I have to say their light rail tram systems are fantastic and well utilised. But their (city) design is much different than Auckland’s so not sure the success there can be repeated in AKL. In the much bigger Madrid the light rail (Cercanias) is an extension of the underground metro, taking commuters to and from outlying areas. This light rail (linked to inner city bus routes and Britomart lines) could be more appropriate for Auckland considering its (widening) spread.

  • MarcW

    A series of commentaries from the Coyote blog in the US shows the running costs are eye-watering, and even for high population density cities the level of subsidy is basically, unsustainable.

  • Ben

    I am still cleaning the coffee off my keyboard and screen after reading in the media the $5.5b spend up that some in the Auckland Council and its Bureaucracy want yesterday.

    Once I’ve finished that I have to wonder if a Non “qualified” amateur planner could develop a “Auckland Plan” that would be simple, efficient, thrifty, sustainable and still be ‘The Most Liveable City.’

    Oh well suppose I can “dream” while taking my daily 35 minute snooze on the train to Britomart.

  • Gazzaw

    I am not a local politics buff aside from knowing full well not to have dvote for Comrade Len at the last election. Am I being politically naive in thinking that the next government will quite easily hold Lenny at bay by refusing to underwrite his grandiose delusions until we get the chance in 2013 to consign Brown to political history. God help us should Wussel get to hold the effective balance of power.

  • JJ

    Has a bus rapid transit system ever been investigated for Auckland as an alternative to rail expansion? I imagine the $1.5 billion the CBD rail loop would probably end up costing could produce a very large network.

  • Sam

    @JJ – A bus tunnel under the CBD was investigated as part of the business case for the CBD link – but it was to cost about twice as much if I recall correctly.

    Sure, the nortern busway offers a great service- but at the CBD end it is still restricted by city streets and a bus lane along Fanshawe Street which will be at capacity in a few years. I’m not sure what their plan is there given buses now carry over 40% of harbour bridge peak hour users- so I hope they have something in mind… otherwise our harbour crossing will surpass capacity overnight!

    The CBD Link is really to unlock capacity of the rest of the current network, rather than to get people closer to their offices. At rush hour Britomart is pretty close to capacity now- a packed train pulls in every couple of minutes, and if theres a small delay, everything gets effected as the tight timing through the station has no flexibility. And its getting worse as patronage grows nearly 20% per year every year.

    The other sizable advantage is that nearly all western line stations will be 10-15 minutes closer to the CBD.

    Overall, the city cant handle more buses, and they’re not as comfortable or fast either