Making the light rail boondoggle even bigger

By Norm Leahy

The Virginian-Pilot is on board with an expansion of Norfolk’s short, costly and scandal-plagued light rail line. But in a fine display of Babbittry, we’re not supposed to pay attention to the scandals, cost overruns, delays and such. Those petty concerns only get in the way of progress. And how to pay for it all? The paper manages to mention, in passing, that money for such an expansion may be hard to come by. But that’s a secondary consideration compared to the planning that needs to take place now for an even bigger, more costly system.

But before the planners, great and small, get too excited about adding on to their train set, Randal O’Toole has a few things about the existing rails that ought to be kept in mind. I’ll quote his post in its entirety:

Norfolk Virginia finally opened its light-rail line, and ridership “exceeds expectations” at 5,600 riders a day. Considering they run 212 trains a weekday, that’s just over 26 passengers per train. How many 40-passenger buses would have been needed to handle all that traffic?

Of course, the rail line exceeded expectations in many other ways as well. The 7.4-mile line was originally expected to cost less than $200 million. The final cost was at least $120 million over that. It was also supposed to be open for business in 2008. They exceeded that expectation as well. The original projection was for 10,500 weekday riders by 2021. They’ll have to double ridership to meet that. A lot of city and transit officials also expected the rail line would be a feather in their caps. Instead, they were lucky not to be tarred and feathered when they were run out of town over cost overruns.

Despite the underestimated costs and inflated ridership numbers, the Federal Transit Administration gave Norfolk light rail a “not recommended” rating in 2004. Too bad the agency changed its mind (or had its mind changed for it by Virginia’s congressional delegation). They could have saved taxpayers a lot of money on a truly wasteful project. But that’s the story of all light rail in a nutshell.

It’s also the theme of a classic Simpsons episode — “Marge v. the Monorail,” which gave the world this snappy tune. The mob (or in this case, the Pilot) has spoken!

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3 responses to “Making the light rail boondoggle even bigger”

  1. The city fathers of Norfolk and the pundits at the Virginian-Pilot appear not to be acquainted with the concept of “Return on Investment.” They get all jazzed up about an idea and never pause to consider how the same amount of money might be spent alternatively, and what economic return they could get on that investment. Almost invariably, politically motivated “investments” generate a return far lower return than alternatives (including the alternative of leaving the money in the hands of the taxpayers).

    On the other hand, if Norfolk *does* decide to expand its rail system, it is not likely to experience the same cost overruns as the first time around. The reason, very simply, is that former VDOT Commissioner Philip Shucet is now in large. He’s a guy who can make the trains run on time.

  2. john davis Avatar

    Maybe and maybe not regarding cost overruns and trains running on time. Mr Shucet, president and CEO of Hampton Roads Transit, will return to private practice after Jan. 30 according to this article in this morning’s Virginian-Pilot: HRT offers top-tier salary to attract top-notch boss. Time will tell if the region has learned lessons from “The Tide” experience.

    Hopefully I got my correct.

    John Davis
    Norfolk, VA

  3. I don’t think Mr. Shucet will make rail transit in Norfolk any more cost-effective than most places where is it already built and operating.

    Farebox recovery tops out at about 50% on American transit.

    the reasons why – are behind Mr. Shucets ability to influence.

    I was and remain a support of Mr. Shucet but remember .. all the work he did on Dashboard and holding VDOT accountable for on-time, on-budget metrics for their projects, it was not him but Mr. McDonnell that “found” all the stranded money.

    Perhaps Mr. Shucet laid the groundwork but Mr. Kaine got the blame and Mr. McDonald the credit…

    life is cruel….

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