Rail cost-benefit analysis

Peter Gordon, Robert Cervero, and I discuss the cost-benefit analysis of Los Angeles rail investment in this issue of Public Works Management and Policy.
Here are the citations

Peter Gordon and Paige Elise Kolesar. A Note on Rail Transit Cost-Benefit Analysis: Do Nonuser Benefits Make a Difference?
Public Works Management & Policy April 2011 16: 100-110, first published on March 24, 2011 doi:10.1177/1087724X10397380

Robert Cervero and Erick Guerra
To T or Not to T: A Ballpark Assessment of the Costs and Benefits of Urban Rail Transportation
Public Works Management & Policy April 2011 16: 111-128, first published on March 24, 2011 doi:10.1177/1087724X10397379


Lisa Schweitzer
Benefit-Cost Analysis of Rail Projects: A Commentary Public Works Management & Policy April 2011 16: 129-131, doi:10.1177/1087724X11401035

Here are first few paragraphs of my commentary.

The debate in this issue of PWMP reflects a hardy perennial in the transportation community. With some consistency, rail transit fails to meet benefit–cost criteria or ridership forecasts. Planners and transit advocates—often these are the same—respond that benefit-cost analysis is only a partial measure of a project’s worthiness. How, they ask, do you monetize the benefits of something like a trolley that reinvigorates a slumping downtown? Some of the things we could never imagine living without—like the Brooklyn Bridge—would probably have failed a benefit–cost test back in 1866
when the New York legislature authorized it. And now the bridge is an architectural icon in a region whose economic health has come to rely at least in part on the aesthetics of investments made more than a century ago.

As vocal as transit advocates have become in dismissing those who question rail investment based on benefit–cost evaluations, rail advocates have more than earned the suspicion that surrounds them. Promise after promise accompanies the push to get federal dollars for local rail transit projects: for example, transit cleans up the air (not so much); it clears up congestion (not even close); it makes us thin (even though study after study demonstrates transit’s minuscule effects on obesity). Whenever anyone points out that projects have not delivered on their promises, then comes the next flood of promises: Jobs, jobs, jobs! Climate change! Building social capital! Economic development! Retail revitalization! At some point, investments have to be accountable for the promises made on their behalf. Cervero and Guerra contend that the mobility benefits accrue to future generations—future riders. If so, that is an empirical claim we can and should test. Some systems over time will jump over the bar their advocates set for them while others are unlikely to do so.

6 thoughts on “Rail cost-benefit analysis

  1. Well, I can’t respond to articles I can’t afford to buy access to.

    I’m curious whether you voted for LA County Measure R in ’08 and your reasoning for your decision.

    I voted for it. Not because I thought it would magically solve LA’s traffic problems (although I can see the political expediency of making such a claim). I’ve been riding transit a lot lately (the Blue Line in particular). It helps me get to work in a way that’s time competitive with driving during traffic. I can read while I ride, and I like the fact that the train is powered by electricity, which could one day come from a sustainable power mix. I also like the fact that I’m a little less broke because of that service, and I do a little bit of walking because of it instead of just sitting in front of a computer screen all day.

    The train has been packed lately (not a rigorous measurement, just my impression) probably as people get shoved out of cars by $4 gas. I couldn’t make the trip I make in a reasonable amount of time on a bus that had to contend with arterial street traffic. I’d just suck it up and drive.

    I have to say I’m mostly a fan of rail transit as it’s been implemented in LA County so far, and I don’t see a credible alternative here at least, to adding transportation capacity through rail. I sure as hell don’t want to build more freeways and facilitate driving even more (even though I know Measure R does have some money to do that).

    • If you’d like me to send you pdf copies of the articles, send me an email at my usc.edu address (lschweit) and I will be happy to send those along.

      @Kevin, I don’t actually think the whole benefit-cost rail versus big-bad car argument holds much water. We don’t need benefit-cost to judge vis-a-vis rail versus car investments. We need them to differentiate rail investments from each other. Not every rail project is equally worthy, no matter how loud their advocates are.

  2. I look at this as a local minimum problem. Of course after decades of every related and unrelated government program assuming and encouraging a transportation system based on private automobile ownership and related commercial transportation models – any step away from the existing model will have a negative cost-benefit analysis.

    But if we have reached the point history where we need revolutionary change to community design (one way to do that -lead it with revolutionary transportation policy change), there is danger of complacency or inaction if we base decisions on a cost-benefit analyses drawn too small.

    Should ultra-high-tech high speed rail be part of this revolutionary push right now? My guess is: big money pointed at metro level mass transit systems teamed with -some-kind-of- inter-city less-affluent-assessible system is the correct (though I bet still crappy initially weak on cost-benefit basis) path to follow. On the other hand, getting out of deep steep local minimum wells probably always will be an exercise in creative politics… I have never been good at that, so I tend to withhold judgement once I’m confident somebody not bat-sh*t crazy is taking a run at it.

  3. Dear Peter, Robert, and Lisa:

    Let me introduce myself as the spearheader of a Eugene Streetcar proposal that is currently finishing up a review by representatives form multiple jurisdictions. And, a plan has been written.

    It is been suggested that this proposal must “simmer” with the Group until the city has a vision, a broader strategy for the downtown area is developed and real leaders step forward.

    The reality is that most of Oregon (except Portland)is isolated from the greater region and very few people understand the benefits of rail. Our private/business sector is primarily represented by extraction industries who have little incentive to invest in the state’s future or wellness plans.

    It also appears that the L.A. non-profit organization may be our best model in becoming a public/private partnership.

    I cannot stress the importance of a full-cost analysis to understand what is at risk and what the benefits are. If you have reliable information from your study that you are willing/able to share, I’m sure we would all be grateful.

    Thank you!


  4. Lisa, your piece is the pick of the bunch. An excellent summation. I’ve linked to it on my blog.

    I don’t fully get your argument about the relative impact of high energy prices on transit agencies and drivers, maybe you could expand on that one day?

  5. Mass transit proponents also ignore that trains and planes are the ideal method for spreading biological warfare. Who hasn’t cringed when the person two seats up starts coughing violently or throwing up?

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