The Regional Transportation District (RTD) now admits that bus-rapid transit is far more cost-effective than rail at attracting and carrying transit riders. In the Denver-Boulder (Northwest) corridor, spending $300 million on bus-rapid transit is projected to attract almost ten times as many transit riders as spending more than twice that amount of money on commuter trains.
This seems like a no-brainer: build bus-rapid transit; scrap the rail plan. The commuter train is projected to be so expensive that it would cost less (and be better for the environment) to give every daily round-trip rider a new Toyota Prius every year than to build and run the train. Not building the Northwest Corridor rail line would also save RTD about a third of the cost overruns on the remaining FasTracks rail projects.
Unfortunately, this ignores the politics behind FasTracks and rail transit in general. Rail transit’s only real virtue over bus transit is that rails cost a lot more. Spending more tax dollars generates huge profits for rail contractors, who then make campaign contributions to ballot measures and candidates that support transit.
Cities such as Boulder and Longmont agreed to support the 2004 tax increase to fund FasTracks only on the condition that every major city in the region would get to enjoy the “benefits” of expensive transit. In hinting that it may drop plans to have commuter rail to Boulder and Longmont, RTD is violating its promise to these cities.
Dropping rail in favor of bus-rapid transit in the Northwest Corridor also raises questions about all the other FasTracks corridors. If buses work better than trains to Boulder and Longmont, wouldn’t they work better to other FasTracks destinations?
The answer is “yes.” Every single analysis RTD ever did comparing buses and rails in the various corridors found that buses were more cost-effective at moving people than trains. For example, RTD’s study of the East (DIA) Corridor found that bus-rapid transit was 2-1/2 times more cost-effective at relieving congestion than trains—and that was before cost overruns more than doubled the costs of rail in that corridor.
RTD’s own analyses reached similar conclusions in the West, Gold, and I-225 corridors. Since those analyses, RTD’s projections of rail transit costs have grown by 50 to 125 percent, compared with less than 25 percent for bus-rapid transit, making buses even more cost-effective than rail.
Buses can be as comfortable and luxurious as the finest trains. Many new buses have free WiFi and power outlets on board, and double-decker buses can carry 80 to 85 people in cushy seats. Because buses can operate more frequently than trains, they can carry far more people per hour in busy corridors.
One region that decided to stick with buses is Las Vegas. In 1990, transit carried 4.7 percent of commuters in the Denver area but only 2.1 percent in Las Vegas. Since Denver built its first light-rail line, transit’s share of commuting has actually declined, while transit’s share in Las Vegas more than doubled to 4.8 percent, and is now greater than in Denver.
RTD’s rail obsession led it to ignore the natural advantages of buses when it decided to build rail lines that its own analyses proved were a waste of money. When RTD asked voters for a tax increase to build these rail lines, opponents such as the Independence Institute predicted that the costs of the rail lines would dramatically increase, while RTD insisted its costs were realistic.
In fact, projected costs increased almost immediately after the election. Now RTD has a choice between asking voters for another big tax increase or cutting at least one of the rail lines, and the Northwest Corridor, being the most expensive per rider, is the natural target.
Rather than simply cut the Northwest rail line, RTD should completely rethink rail transit. This means issuing no new contracts for rail construction and asking whether paying the penalties to cancel contracts for lines now under construction, and substituting bus-rapid transit, would be less expensive than finishing those projects.
RTD will do this if it cares more about taxpayers and transit riders than about rail contractors. If it comes back and instead asks for a tax increase to build the Northwest and other rail lines, you’ll know that its only real goal is to make a few people rich.
Randal O’Toole (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and director of the Independence Institute’s transportation policy center.