The Unfavorable Economics of Light Rail

Peter Baque with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who attended the Virginia Light Rail Symposium Friday, provides a quick environmental scan of light rail projects across Virginia. Everybody loves light rail, it appears — they just don’t like paying for it.

There’s a reason we don’t see a lot of light rail projects:. They’re expensive. They require a lot of money up-front to build, and then they require subsidies to continue operating. As the number of transit projects increases, operating subsidies crowd out funds to build new ones. Thus, in a $150 million budget for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation for public transit systems, $105 million is tagged for operating expenses and only $39 million for capital projects.

If a transportation mode requires massive investment up front as well as ongoing operating subsidies, that should be a clue that it is not economically viable — not with Virginia’s low-density human settlement patterns at any rate. The only strategy that I can think of that would change the economics is (a) to permit greater densities along transportation corridors, which would boost ridership, and (b) use Community Development Authorities along the corridors to issue bonds to pay the up-front costs. Landowners, whose property would gain in value from the improvements, would pay off the bonds through a special tax assessment.

If there is a public benefit to mass transit — primarily less pollution — then a modest public investment could be justified. But there needs to be a methodology for calculating the pollution-reduction benefits, and the subsidies should be proportional.

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44 responses to “The Unfavorable Economics of Light Rail”

  1. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Jim: Why would you hit up owners of land whose value went up with a special assessment? They will pay more in taxes based on the same rate for higher value – and even if they didn’t when they change the purpose of the land and make money (build houses or shops) or sell it outright they will be taxed enough.

    Don’t tax capital unless there is a real prinicple and a compelling purpose. Please.

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar

    JAB, Why hit up property owners with a special assessment? Two reasons.

    First, higher densities translate into more people and greater tax burden. Yes, higher property valuations will result in higher tax revenues, but those revenues are needed to cover the higher cost of routine government services — not pay for transportation infrastructure.

    Second, the building of transportation infrastructure creates a windfall gain for the property owner. The commercial property becomes more valuable and the income stream that can be generated from that property increases. If the project is economically viable, commercial property owners can afford to pay more in taxes. If commercial property owners scream, that’s an indication that the project really isn’t viable and shouldn’t be funded at all.

    I might be willing to argue for a residential exemption from the special assessment… Not sure. I’d like to hear the pros and cons.

  3. E M Risse Avatar

    There is a much bigger benefit from shared-vehicle systems than just pollution reduction.

    Shared-vehicle systems (including light rail) enable functional human settlement patterns.

    These stystems are worth the up-front investment only if they are designed to help create and then serve functional patterns and densities at the dooryard, cluster, neighborhood, village and community scales.

    As we have noted over and over, the problem with light rail is that the native / organic density supported by the per hour system capacity and the failure to tie down a “station-area” vs a “route” is not as attractive to investers and residents as are other shared-vehicle systems.

    Gothenburg, Sweden is a great example of light rail at its best. Systems in Toronto, Vienna and Stockholm are also very functional when combined with other systems.

    The spate of US of A light rail systems is driven by “free” federal money. Building light rail or trolleys is better than building roadways for autonomobiles but in most cases they do not generate or serve really functional settlement patterns. See the negative reviews of Portland, Seattle et. al.


  4. E M Risse Avatar

    Jim is right on with his response to JAB.


  5. Anonymous Avatar

    permit greater densities along traffic corridors so light rail would work?

    That’s like intentionally making yourself sick so that the medicine will work.

  6. E M Risse Avatar

    Insider thought he was being a smarty but he is dead wrong.

    The reality he is missing is that it is a dead end to try to build “traffic corridors.”

    Civilization will reach a sustainable trajectory only when the focus in on the evolution of functional human settlement patterns.

    Such patterns are transportable but not via building “corridors” as a goal.


  7. Suppose that mass trtansit produces 50% less pollution than the same trip by auto. Does that mean you can double the density for the same pollution?

    Of course not. Residences alone are responsible for 40% of air pollution. So, assuming that you had a 100% replacement of cars with transit you might achieve an increase of density of 25% with the same pollution.

    But you don’t get 100% replacement. What you get is all the previous auto traffic, plus the transit traffic. After thirty years of Metro we have worse traffic than ever. So now you have the auto pollution, plus the transit pollution, plus the additional pollution from higher density.

    If you make the argument that the electricity to drive Metro comes from outside the region, all you are saying is that dilution IS the solution to pollution. We can achieve that by buildng mor places. If we did that and jsut gave up on Metro we would save enough electricity to power 50,000 homes.

    After you take into account station lighting, escalators, and driving to the station, plus the cost of motive power, Metro is probably no better than a hybrid car, and it doesn’t serve as many places.

    Insider is right, building more homes in the places that are already the most expensive and dirty in order to justify annd subsidize Metro is exactly like making yourself sick so the medicine will work. That is why transit advocates frequently say that congestion is their friend.

    In the letter I quoted below, the author noted a USDOT study that says Metro saves non users twice as much time as it does users.

    It seems to me that arguing we need more subsidy to build a bigger system that wastes more time, and does not reduce either congestion or pollution, and still services a smaller area and fewer destinations is stark raving mad.

  8. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    Ray Hyde is at it again. 2:04 pm.

    “Suppose that mass trtansit produces 50% less pollution than the same trip by auto. Does that mean you can double the density for the same pollution?”

    Of course not. The relationship between density and the pollution per trip by mass transit or by auto is a false relationship. Density substitutes trips by walking for trips by auto and trips by mass transit.

    You start with a false premise, you get a meaningless answer.

    “After thirty years of Metro we have worse traffic than ever.” Another direction entirely.

    “So now you have the auto pollution, plus the transit pollution, plus the additional pollution from higher density.” Another false premise. First you have to prove that the 30 years of Metro was accompanied by higher density. It was not. It was accompanied by SPRAWL.

    “That is why transit advocates frequently say that congestion is their friend.” Another false statement. Transit works best busses are not stuck in congestion. This is why “congestion pricing” is the environmental solution. Transit is the answer to mobility when congestion pricing removes the current subsidy for the SOV.

  9. “As more employers move out of cities to be closer to skilled suburban workers, the suburbs now account for the majority of job destinations,” the analysis of commuting trends says.

    From 1990 to 2000, about 64 percent of the growth in commuting in metropolitan areas was from suburb to suburb, while the traditional commute from suburbs to a central city grew by only 14 percent, the report says.

    Meanwhile, the number of Americans commuting from the city to the suburbs increased by 20 percent.”

    – Transportation Research board.

    Here is another reason not to spend more money on Metro: the trend is going the other way. Office rents in Virgina are a fraction of what they cost in DC.

    You see things your way, and I see things as they are. I’m actually on your side, but I don’t see any arguments that make sense, to me.

    Academic studies have shown that density does not substitute trips by walking for trips by auto. What happens is that those walking trips are in addition to the auto trips.

    It’s a nice idea and I wish it was so, but the fact remains we have more congestion now than when Metro was started, Metro depends on congestion for its existence, and it depends on autos to bring in many of its riders.

    I don’t have anything against Metro. It is an important addition to the transportation system. But if we credit it with attributes it does not have or for generating benefits that it does not, we may be folloing ourselves into making bad decisions.

    The subsidy for the SOV is (largely) a myth: SOV operators pay a much higher propoertion of their own expenses than transit riders AND they also contribute to the transit rider’s fares.

    Even if you can convince me that SOV’s are highly subsidized, I don’t see that trading one subsidy for another one that offers fewer destinations at a higher cost and slower transit times makes much sense.

    Then you want to capitalize on the development Metro creates at the same time development caused by road construction is counted as a negative.

    The whole urban area is a system a system a system. There is no point in promoting one part of the system if it only comes at the expense of some other part.

    I’m n favor of Metro, but I think the hype that supports it is way out of line with its true benefits.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I’m suggesting that it’s only realistic to look at the issue with respect to how it “works” for the Wash Metro Area.

    It’s TRUE that having pollution offsite is dilution but it’s also true that it has almost no impact on decisions about Wash Metro Air quality – nor, for that matter, any other urban jurisdiction that is under EPA directive.

    Arguing about the relative merits of offsite pollution… is close to irrelevant in this context as what will happen on the ground.. in the here and right now.. is MWCOG/TPB policy with respect to EPA Air Emission targets.

    Like it or lump it… that’s the way this thing plays out and blathering on about things that won’t affect the local decision is…. well…. with all due respect… it’s blather.

    The bottom line is that Wash Metro has air quality targets that must be met or there are consequences.

    So .. think in terms of what strategies are available realistically…. go read the MWCOG site to see the strategies that they have outlined…. and, more important, why… and why other strategies ..

    And again.. I’m not able to confirm the claim that %40 of all Metro DC pollution is from residential… it would seem like if that were true.. it would be a major deal in the MWCOG/TPB strategy.. so it would be helpful to see a cite.

  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    To be honest.. I don’t see any claims of reduced congestion from building more Metro.

    But then.. to also be honest… I don’t see any such claims with respect to more roads either…

    EXCEPT just like with Metro’s case.. the advocates IMPLY that there will be less congestion.. without really bringing forth any kind of minimal data to demonstrate what they are asserting. They just sling it out.. saying more roads OBVIOUSLY means less congestion.. like it’s the only possible conclusion that could be.

    and 4 billion sounds like a LOT of money.. and it is….

    tell me what 4 billion in new roads will get you…

    re:farebox recovery… operating subsidies…

    tell me how much it costs to MAINTAIN the roads in the Wash Metro Area for one year.

    Now tell me how much gas tax is collected in the Wash Metro Area for one year.

    Then show me exactly how the road “farebox” recovery is superior…. in dollars and cents.

  12. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    If Metrorail were rendered inoperative for a significant period of time and if the majority of train passengers began driving, the added congestion would likely bring large parts of Metro D.C. to a standstill. IMO, keeping the existing rail system running is important. (That does not, however, mean Metro could not be operated much more efficiently or unlimited subsidies should be appropriated.)

    However, I wonder Metrorail also promoted more growth and development, which, in turn, created additional commuting demand, than it was able to remove from the roads. I don’t know whether this is correct. But it strikes me that, had Metrorail net been built, this area would be less developed than it is today.

    Let’s assume that, by adding Metrorail, the D.C. area could grow by X with no significant adverse impact on the transportation system. In other words, X = Metrorail + existing roads. I suspect, without knowing, that Metrorail actually sparked growth of X+Y, which is greater than the capacity of the sum of Metrorail plus existing roads.

    It seems just as likely that the addition of new roads or expanded road capacity has the same impact. We add Z capacity to I-95 or I-66, but the additional capacity sparks growth of Z+A.

    Thus, if my hypothesis is correct, we can never build our way out from the hole we are in. Moreover, if one factors in significant inflation in construction costs, we probably cannot even afford to attempt to pay catch-up. Both Kaine and the Senate are bound for failure.

    We need more places.

  13. An average three bedroom home uses almost 550,000 BTU’s of energy per day – roughly equivalent to 5 gallons of gas.

    Of course the source of that energy and the resultant pollution may be electricity, in which case your comments about dilution apply. On the other hand, we are seeing a trend toward more co-generation which would bring all that pollution home to roost, even if it saves on overall consumption.

    The supposed savings that Metro gives us in congestion relief are not real, for the reasons TMT says: we could never tolerate the amount of congestion that would be represented by all of metro switching to cars.

    Instead, what we get is the same congestion (or slightly worse) than before Metro. We are maxed out on cars. But now we have the additional costs and pollution caused by metro, plus the pollution caused by all the new development it spawns.

    Anyway, isn’t a substantial part of the electricity we use generated locally, so isn’t it part of the Washington area pollution situation?

    I’m not advocating more roads any more than I am more Metro. My position is that we already have a lot of roads that are relatively unused. Rather than build more transportation capacity in roads or Metro, let’s figure out how to use what we have.

  14. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    Toomanytaxes 4:40pm provides an excellent analysis of the transportation “non”solution to congestion.

    The “dig the hole deeper” solution to transportation will not work. This is why environmentalists emphasize increased density. Three steps. Eliminate residential zoning of more then one acre. We call this “peanut butter” zoning. You spread the new units around all the development property. Instead substitute urban density zoning.
    Two – establish transportation oriented development zones of high density which will encourage walking and mass transit. Three – encourage transit service by subsidizing it, while establishing congestion pricing districts for SOV traffic.

    More places with proper zoning will work. More places can also be more of the same problems.

    E M Risse can provide the academic background.

  15. E M Risse Avatar

    Just a little light reading will do for now.

    Check out today’s WaPo Business section and look at the quarterly real estate table.

    Add up the bars that are within R=10 and R=20 and compare them with the number of jobs outside R=20.

    To have a transportable future, the dwellings must be inside R=20.

    If you want to sell land at R=40 or 50 for urban uses that is bad news but it is fact.


  16. Nonsense. The reason envrironmentalists promote density is to save open space. Period.

    As far as I can tell all the environmental arguments for increased density, per se, are bunk. What is the value of reducing pollution by ten percent if you put 30% more in one place? What is the value of saving the cost of driving ten miles if it costs three times that in higher rent?

    As for academic background, has EMR ever been published in a refereed journal? (I haven’t either, so I guess I have no room to speak, but I at least try to quote those who have been published.) Why subsidize mass transit while calling for user pays everyehere else? Why subsidize a system that, at best, will carry only a small fraction of our transportation needs.

    As for you zoning proposal, how about eliminatng zoning of fifty acres? I’m all for more places with proper zoning. But who is the see-all know-all swami who gets to decide what is “proper”?

    Those densly constructed places are going to have a much larger environmental footprint than they apear to have. To the extent that is true they will be subsidized by more rural spaces. What I don’t hear is anything that suggests how those rural spaces will be supported, or how they will be allowed to participate and profit from growth that is directed to the “proper” places at their expense.

  17. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    This TRB monograph is the first search result for EM Risse.

    Accession Number: 00667752
    Record Type: Component
    Language 1: English
    Abstract: This paper addresses the impact of telecommunications technology on travel demand and travel demand management (TDM) in the next decade. Two primary, interrelated issues are considered: Indirect Impact – Telecommunications technology has a fundamental impact on regional pattern and density of land-use, and, thus, trip origins and destinations; and Direct Impact – Telecommunications technology may be applied to replace the commute to work (and other travel needs), and thus overcome transportation system deficiencies or locational disadvantages. The discussion is presented in the following sections: Introduction; Survey of Current and Future Telecommunications Technologies; Technology Advances: Terminal Hardware and Software; Technology Advances: Network Hardware and Software; Factors Influencing Implementation of Telecommunications Technologies; Telecommunications Impact on Travel; Conclusion; and Discussion of Three Publications on Transportation Impacts of Telecommuting.
    Pagination: p. 135-141
    Authors: Risse, E M; Risse, L T; Williams, J

    Monograph Info: See related components
    Corporate Authors: Transportation Research Board
    500 Fifth Street, NW
    Washington, DC 20001 USA

  18. I stand corrected. My searches have only turned up EMR’s references to EMR.

    While you are reading the Post, check out the article on how Clarendon is losing its neighborhood feel, due to overdevelopment.

    Then check out the story on office rents: $66 a square foot in DC and $28 a square foot in Virginia. In DC rents have risen 2.57% and in Virginia they have risen 4.95%.

    If you were building office space, would you rather see a 2.6% increase in the return on a big investment or a 4.95% increase in return on a smaller investment?

    And who is renting the space? Government contractors and Federal agencies.

    Maybe Fenty can turn DC around. Certainly there is nothing wrong with urban living. Indeed another article talks about the benefits of just that. I have no problem if someone wants to live in such places, I just don’t want to pay subsidies to make it happen.

    EMR often talks about how people want to make a profit from urban uses in the countryside. This article points out that what is driving the new urban centers is, guess what? Profit.

    According to the article, those that shop in Urban street side stores spend $84 an hour vs $57.50 in a typical enclosed mall. Big news, we know that cities are more expensive.

    One wonders how long anyone can spend $84 an hour on trinkets before they either run out of money and have to sit home, or their condo is filled to the ceiling and they have to go to the suburbs and rent a storage unit.

    By way of comparison, when my tractor is in the shop I’m spending $75 an hour, but at least when it comes back it can do some productive work.

    Finally, sure, lets eliminate all zoning larger than one acre, no matter what the market has shown it wants. How long do you think such a law would actually last? Who would you really want to have such power? Or we can just declare all land to be public property and dictate how it will be used, a la Dr. Zhivago.

    Why not subsidize transit entirely? Make it free, just like the roads are. Of course that’s nonsense because we know they are not free. Neither are they paid for entirely by users, but I submit that roads come an awful lot closer to being paid for by users, simply because almost everyone uses the roads. Whether they are paid for fairly, is another issue, but fairness is not a government responsibility, or is it?

    The whole argument is silly. Metro is what it is and roads are what they are. Set the prices fairly, and then let people decide what they want, and what they can afford. Right now, Fairfax residents are buying up open space in the city, and taxing themselves to do so. Why? They don’t want any more development.

    I’ve got an acre in Alexandria that I would turn into 4 quarter-acre lots in a heartbeat, but it isn’t going to happen. I have five neighbors who all enjoy the little bit of privacy that their lots back up to, and the hundred year old trees: they don’t want development, either.

    It looks to me as if all the impetus for more urban development comes from the big developers and those that already live in the countryside – where they don’t want any (more) development.

    Just down the road from me is a nice little farm. Apparently it was supported by construction, but now there are a bunch of bobcats and construction equipment parked out front, for sale.

    How long do you suppose it will be before the farm is for sale, too?

  19. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Higher Densities = heavier duty infrastructure = more expensive infrastructure

    a simple example is the size of a water/sewer main for a high-rise verses a 1 acre sfd or with Metro – the need for a lot more cars per train segment, more frequent trains and more stations.

    So.. it’s true a longer sewer line if more expensive than a shorter one – but what would the comparison be for a longer/smaller line compared to a shorter/thicker line? Ditto for roads and rail.

    So the advocacy that higher-density is more efficient/cost-effective than disbursed settlement patterns…needs to have some data to at least shine some light on simple things how much MORE efficient/cost-effective it is.

    Right now.. I have no clue.. and I bet I’m not alone.

    If such data exists – then clearly – few folks are aware of it because the entire concept of higher densities being “better” is best characterized as having quite a few skeptics.. at least as many as there are advocates and if the idea is going to go forward.. there’s a steep education effort ahead.

    Right now.. I feel like.. that advocates of higher-density … are not doing any better job of supporting their arguments that those who advocate that more roads will reduce congestion.

  20. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Higher Densities = heavier duty infrastructure = more expensive infrastructure

    a simple example is the size of a water/sewer main for a high-rise verses a 1 acre sfd or with Metro – the need for a lot more cars per train segment, more frequent trains and more stations.

    So.. it’s true a longer sewer line if more expensive than a shorter one – but what would the comparison be for a longer/smaller line compared to a shorter/thicker line? Ditto for roads and rail.

    So the advocacy that higher-density is more efficient/cost-effective than disbursed settlement patterns…needs to have some data to at least shine some light on simple things how much MORE efficient/cost-effective it is.

    Right now.. I have no clue.. and I bet I’m not alone.

    If such data exists – then clearly – few folks are aware of it because the entire concept of higher densities being “better” is best characterized as having quite a few skeptics.. at least as many as there are advocates and if the idea is going to go forward.. there’s a steep education effort ahead.

    Right now.. I feel like.. that advocates of higher-density … are not doing any better job of supporting their arguments that those who advocate that more roads will reduce congestion.

  21. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “Of course the source of that energy and the resultant pollution may be electricity, in which case your comments about dilution apply.”

    but why continue to use that argument(at least 3 times) .. when it has no impact on air quality decisions in the Wash Metro Area?

    The plain fact is that transit does not emit material air pollution in the WashMetro Area in comparison with autos.

    It is precisely this fact that give Metro added consideration even when it’s dollar economics are not so hot.

    I think it is safe to say that if Metro polluted on the same level of cars INSIDE of the WashMetro Area – that we’d not be talking about Metro at all… but perhaps I be wrong… but let’s at least discuss it on the actual merits and not issues that have no impact.

  22. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Jim Bacon: “windfall gain” So what? Taxing again or more – as opposed to taxing at the same rate and getting more because the value went up – is wrong – ethically (my ethics) and economically.

    “the income stream that can be generated” Operative word is ‘can be’. Tax them when theyactually make new money, not on the potential to make money.

  23. Jim Bacon Avatar

    JAB, You’re missing a key point. When property owners set up Community Development Authorities to issue bonds, they’re voluntary participants. For the most part, CDAs encompass the property owners who will benefit most directly from the improvements. They are willing to pay the extra taxes because they know they will benefit.

    Now, there is one provision in CDA legislation that does trouble me. That’s a provision that says only 50 percent of the landowners within a district have to agree to a CDA. (Whether that’s 50 percent of parcels, or acreage, I’m not sure.) So, in theory, smaller property owners can be coerced into a tax-paying situation. I do not approve of that. But I’m not sure, as a practical matter, how often that occurs. Unhappy landowners have the power to hurt a project by filing lawsuits, generating bad publicity and objecting in the rezoning process. In practice, it makes sense to draw CDA boundaries so that all participants are voluntary.

  24. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    We’re back on the same page, maybe. If is voluntary, really voluntary and all voluntary, then fine.

    If not,then not good.

  25. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Much of the time – the 50% is not an issue.

    A developer will buy and/or assemble a large parcel and propose a rezoning.

    One of the things they will proffer is the CDA – which is the allocated out to the subsequent owners/leasers contractually.

    In anyone ever gets off of I-95 at Route 3 in Fredericksburg.. check out the commercial development just west – Central Park … was done this way. Since then… most of the larger commercial development in the area has been done with CDAs.

    But we’ve had a couple of experiences.. that indicate serious unhappiness with some prospective backfitting of CDAs to already-developed areas. Even the merchants who might benefit from better access as a result of the improvements are usually opposed… and if the “improvements” mean doing away with median crossovers… forget it…

    I’ve been curious about the concept with regard to pure Residential development though…. I’ve seen it on mixed use proposals.. but I don’t think I’ve seen for Residential.

    One of the limiting issues… is how far away from the development can a CDA be used for funding improvements.

    One local case .. where it was 6 miles was determined to probably be “too far” away… for the CDA to be used.

  26. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Jim B, I believe that, at least, some CDAs are established based on taxable valution or some other variable. This is the case for the Silver Line. Therefore, a larger number of smaller landowners can be placed in a CDA by the affirmative votes of a lesser number of larger landowners.

    While the higher-value landowners, which generally have the most to gain from rail, certainly pay more taxes, the small business at the edge of the CDA’s physical boundaries pay the same tax rate. Guess where most of the proposed rail stations will be located?

    Theory is one thing; how Fairfax County actually operates is another.

  27. “If there is a public benefit to mass transit — primarily less pollution — then a modest public investment could be justified. But there needs to be a methodology for calculating the pollution-reduction benefits, and the subsidies should be proportional.”

    I think Jim is right here. Transit advocates make way too many claims that can be measured or justified. But at the same time, I think there are valid claims that are not being made. Even so, the cost of transit is so high that it is hard to figure out how it can be justified, except in special circumstances.

    And Transit is only one part of the high infrastructure costs that (excessive) density demands. It’s not just a case of a shorter but fatter pipe or roadway, it is the complexity that kills you. First you have a crossroads, then a roundabout, then a cloverleaf, then the mixing bowl.

    Nobody seems to be asking when enough is enough. I think that’s true whether we are talking about increased density or increased envirionmental restrictions.

    But, the mixing bowl is a soaring piece of functional concrete artwork as much as it is a roadway, and Metro is a national monument as much as it is a transit system. Maybe their value is more than just their utility.


    I’m still confused about the air pollution thing. My understanding is that the the metro area for pollution attainment purposes is huge. Large enough to include several generating stations. And also that attainment regulations can include sources outside the area that contribute to the problem, like Chalk Point.

    There is no doubt that Metro produces less pollution than the number of cars it would take to transport a similar number of people, but I don’t see the point of that argument because that number of vehicles is impossible.

    But, what Metro buys you is the ability to transport more people to fewer places. Those places must be built out to the max in order to support Metro, and those places then contribute more pollution of their own than they would otherwise, so you have to subtractt that out from the metro benefit.

    Then, you look at the congestion that is caused around the Vienna station because Metro both relies on and competes with Route 66, and you have to ask how much of that is due only to Metro.

    I don’t think we have the methodology for calculating benefits worked out very well. I’m not saying they are not there, just that we don’t really know what they are.

  28. JAB Re: windfall gain.

    If Metro is also supported by many people ouside the CDA then there is a windfall gain to the extent that the CDA owners benefit from the funding provided by others.

    This is one reason we use general funds for such projects and why user pays is suboptimal. The CDA’s could never raise enough money (up-front) to build the project themselves. But once it is built they benefit disproportionately, and higher than normal charges over time can eventually pay back the “loan.”

    Same problem with the toll roads.

    The question you have to ask is when are you using higher taxes to destroy capital, and when are you using them to create capital that might otherwise never have happened?

    We might not be so jealous of other people’s luck if we think they will eventually get their turn in the barrel.

  29. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: air quality WashMetro area.

    There are separate rules for power plants whether they are inside or outside of the WashMetro area.

    Within the designated Metro Area – a board (MWCOG) is responsible for ALL activities that emit air pollution – and subsequent strategies and rules/regs to assure that progress/compliance is made towards the caps.

    Here are some simple brochure URLs:

    The most important thing to recognize is that the WashMetro Area is not in full compliance with the caps AND has been classified as “Non-attainment” for some pollutants and automobiles are considered the most egregious contributors.

    I believe the rules right now – essentially preclude major new roads – unless the EPA model shows that their use won’t contribute to worse air quality.

    An obvious issue with regard to this is the ICC – which apparently DID pass muster – but is now being challenged.

  30. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Some news this morning with regard to CDAs … and their cousins service districts.

    Judge strikes Rt. 610 tax
    “A judge ruled this week that Stafford County cannot impose a tax on businesses along State Route 610 to pay for widening the congested thoroughfare.”

    Now I got a little confused as to whether this was a transportation district, or a service district or a CDA so I did a little looking around and found these which I found to be helpful:

    Powers of Service Districts:

    Minutes from a BOS discussion in Albemarle explaining the difference between a service district and a CDA

    Reading through this stuff… it appears to me that localities have some fairly potent and effective options for funding infrastructure needs and ones, in my observation not being used fully which begs the question with respect to localities saying that their hands are tied by the Dillon Rule and that APF is needed.

    Where Stafford got hung (see the first URL for FLS article) – appears to be a technicality … with respect to whether or not they can create a transportation service district if VDOT “owns” the road. (or perhaps its NOT a technicality – we’ll see – it’s going to the Va Supreme Court).

  31. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: Metro and density

    I think one of the “good” outcomes of the dialogue in this Blog is the fact that we’re getting down to the essence of the issue…

    Clearly – there is a huge divide about density and it’s purpose and goals and implementation.

    Conventional Wisdom of the anti-sprawl, planners, etc is that density is THE answer to population growth in terms of where to put the additional people.

    The opposition clearly does not believe that density is a good thing .. if I have this right.. because it’s essentially a concept that has serious consequences when it is actually implemented, in essence because, the advocates “assume” the infrastructure to mitigate density is either already present or can be provided with Metro.

    The point is… that the folks in this blog that are skeptical about density – represent a fairly significant number of non-bloggers… out in the hinterlands… and I’m not sure that density is going to “sell” anywhere very well, if it ends up being perceived as a bad impact.. that will foster a NIMBY response.

  32. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    we talk about jobs… and the benefits and impacts of job growth…

    visit the USA Today – today for a look at Jacksonville, Florida who decided that
    they did NOT want the jobs… BECAUSE of the impacts – and it’s not about the planes

  33. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Ray Hyde: “But once it is built they benefit disproportionately, and higher than normal charges over time can eventually pay back the “loan.””

    I don’t support punitive taxes. So what if someone makes out disproportionately? If they are being taxed fairly, big if, then as they gain more they will pay more. Flat rate, not changed based on how much gain, is fair rate. If the gain keeps coming the ‘loan’ will still get paid back.

  34. I’m with you on punitive taxes. If there is something important enough, and generates a big enough benefit, and if we are willing to raise taxes to create an incentive to get what we want and are willing to pay for, then that is one thing.

    But if we are going to create punitive taxes to prevent what we don’t wan’t, then that’s something else again.

    Some taxes apear to be punitive, like pollution taxes. But in this cas the taxes area cost of doing business which gets passed on to all of us as consumers anyway.

    But in the case of a CDA it seems that the situation is reversed. In this case we, as a community, pay taxes to provide a Super Amenity, like Metro. It could probably not be provided up front by the land owners because there is just too much money involved.

    But, after it is provided by at-large taxes, there is also a huge benefit to the local landowners. They should expect to pay more than other landowners in taxes to help repay the costs of the Super Amenity, to those who fronted the money.

    Eventually, when the money is paid back, some other landowner will reap the benefit of the next round of government “largesse”.

    While that is happening the previous landowner is still paying higher taxes. Pretty soon you have two big plots paying big bucks and everybody benefits (maybe).

    The down side is all the other costs. And that’s the refrain we hear from TMT.

    I’m afraid we have reached a point where anti-density and anti-sprawl have come to a head. As a result NIMBY is winning out everywhere, and there will be NO place that is acceptable for that next two million people.

    I don’t like sprawl any more than the next person. But when I look at what is happening in the cities I’d have to say that, given a choice, I would choose sprawl. It is the lesser of two evils.

    I am utterly unconvinced with any of the pro-density arguments masquerading as environmentally sound. I simply don’t see it. I think they are a collection of red herrings designed merely to prevent sprawl, and they are devoid of truth or reason.

    So, here I am, surrounded by neighbors who hate sprawl. I hate sprawl, too. But I simply cannot reconcile myself to the idea the enforced density is the answer.

    So, being the consummate centrist, I think the best answer is a little more density (and more mixed use) in a lot more places, rather than a lot more density in the places we already can’t stand to go.

    I don’t think the problem is using too much land, but using land in ways that are ugly. I think that open space is important, and it should be spread around so that we can all enjoy it, preferably as public property.

    I recognize that there are ecological needs for really large expanses of unspoiled territory, and specialized habitats, but for the most part, critters seem to get along and adapt if we just let them.

    Consequently, I am opposed to punitive land use regulation, just as I am opposed to punitive taxes: whatever it is we want, or want to save, we had better be willing to put our money where our mouth is.

    Otherwise we are just (urban or rural) nimby’s.

  35. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I think we muddy the issue when we characterize it as sprawl or density.

    The Wash Metro area is experiencing substantial growth (that may slow .. for awhile but not permanently).

    The Wash Metro area is 50 years behind many other urban areas in this country.

    They experienced the same issues .. about rather to grow “up” or grow “out”.

    I just don’t see this issue as unique to this area .. just a more recent vintage of a familiar process.

    Growing “out” or Sprawl or whatever one wants to call it… requires major road corridors.

    Just look at ANY urban area on a map.. and then look at the major roads (many times.. the interstates) and you can reliably predict where the growth occurred and where it is continuing to occur.

    You can also determine.. the limits or boundaries of growth…

    The point is.. that nationwide.. that density occurred as a result of economic forces and not anti-sprawl laws and regulations… in MOST of the urban areas (sans perhaps Portland or Seattle or Austin, Tx)…

    Roads ENABLE growing “out” or Sprawl or whatever you want to call it.. because for MOST folks about 1-2 Hrs one way (regardless of distance) is about all they’re gonna sign up for so naturally roads that move you at 70mph are going to get you further than roads at 30mph.

    But these roads are VERY expensive and have increasingly LONGER lead times to build AND most DOTs like VDOT simply are out of money.

    The REALITY is that VDOT is not likely to be flush in money.. even under the most ambitious hoped-for outcomes in the GA.

    So – the REALITY is – in my view – that the density vs preservation of greenfields is governed by things besides what Ray is not happy with. In every single county BUT Ray’s – these factors govern the process.

    Most every locality.. DOES make available more land for development – at some point. No locality that I know of with the exception of Facquier is saying NO GROWTH – period.

    I think what ultimately affects the up vs out conundrum is whether or not new/upgraded commuting-type roads are made available.

    If they are not… then it will drive development back towards density – simply because – I do not think most folks are NOT going to commute 2 hours in one direction – even if it means they’ll have to live in “less” house closer in.

  36. They are REALLY expensive when the 70 MPH roads are only carrying us at 10 MPH. We could build four 30 MPH roads for the same money and populate them with cars capable of traving only 50 MPH.

    We don’t have the rules in place to do that.

    Transit meanwhile is even more expensive, and it is carrying people at 12 MPH.

    I think we have gonw long past the point of roads controlling where we build. Now we are making explicit plans as to where we will allow building, and we expect those wh get the privilege to pay all the costs.

    I don’t have any problem with that.
    But we have forgotten or ignored the costs to those who are not included in the process. If it was a matter of markets, and people could build as they please, we could say tough luck, you made a bad choice.

    But now the situation is that the choice is being made for us, and to the benefit of others.

    At the same time, we extoll the value of “our open space”, “Our viewscapes”, “our watershed”, “our rural heritage” etc. ad nauseum.

    All I’m saying is that, if it is ours, we should expect to support it fairly with the proceeds from the savings we make by concentrating growth.

    If it isn’t ours, then we shouldget off theowners backs.

  37. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I just wanted to mention that “light rail” (the thread title) is “Light rail is the modern version of the tram (British English) or streetcar or trolley.

    but I thought the following might be of interest(wikipedia “light rail”:

    “Capacity of light rail versus roads

    Roads have capacity limits which can be determined by traffic engineers. Due to traffic congestion they experience a chaotic breakdown in flow and a dramatic drop in speed if they exceed about 2,000 vehicles per hour per lane. [9] Since automobiles in many places average only 1.2 passengers during rush hour, this limits roads to about 2,400 passengers per hour per lane. This can be mitigated by using high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, but many people prefer to drive alone.

    Light rail vehicles can travel in trains carrying much higher passenger volumes.[10] If run in streets, light rail systems are limited by city block lengths to about four 180-passenger vehicles (720 passengers). Operating on 2 minute headways using traffic signal progression, a well-designed system can handle more than 30 trains per hour, achieving peak rates of over 20,000 passengers per hour per track. More advanced systems with separate rights-of-way using moving block signalling can exceed 25,000 passengers per hour per track. [11]

    Most North American systems are limited by demand rather than capacity and seldom reach 10,000 passengers per hour per track, but European light rail systems often approach their limits. When they do, they can carry as many passengers as a 16-lane freeway in the space of a two lane roadway. If passenger volumes exceed light rail limits, heavy rail systems can be built to carry many more people.

    Then in the Richmond paper this morning.. something that will warm the cockles of TMT’s heart:

    Headline: Light rail can fuel growth, experts say!news&s=1045855934842

  38. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: open space

    I think there is a learning curve for the public – perhaps.

    But I agree with you. Folks want woods/water around their homes even if they just moved into a home that just months ago.. was woods for someone else.

    When you discuss this with those concerned with “too much” growth.. you get to the point that they hate to see the countryside becomes subdivisions… conveniently after the fact their subdivision already exists….

    We took a car trip with a few of them a while back and we purposely went to the REAL rural parts of the county – where homes are very modest… sprinkled with double-wides but VERY woodsy.

    The ladies were aghast. This was NOT a place they wanted to live nor did they think it was worth setting aside as “open space”.

    So these same folks are all in favor of having the county (taxpayers) purchase “open space” but not just any open space… much preferred to be that undeveloped land abutting their subdivision.

    And we have seen… conservation easements can become… marketing tools for high dollar homes with an unspoiled view.

    So .. yes.. there be a certain amount of hypocrisy there-in.

  39. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Larry, Can you e-mail me your e-mail address so we can correspond offline? I’m at Thanks.

  40. Anonymous Avatar


    I attended the conference about light rail.

    A light rail and street car system in Portland, Oregon has prompted $2.4 billion of
    new commercial, hotel, office and residential development in that city.

    That city has seen a reverse migration of residents from the suburbs back into the city.
    The result is less traffic in their city, less pollution and less pressure to expand the

    Norfolk has already seen a massive amount of new, quality development along their planned
    light rail system scheduled for operation by 2010.

    Virginia needs a state planning office, which we had 30 years ago. We need stronger regional
    and local master plans. Such concepts would encourage higher density development patterns that
    would support such systems.

    The future for energy costs to climb is real, thus our southern California development patterns
    are not good for us.

    Fredericksburg businesses saw a 20 to 30 % drop in business last summer when gas costs rose above
    $3 a gallon.

    Our 52,000 or so commuters had to cut certain expenses, thus saving their income to meet that

    We need new development that is less car dependent. We need light rail and street car systems.

    It is estimated we will add 2 million more residents over the next two decades.

    We will double the traffic in Hampton Roads, which requires better rail service to meet those

    I think these issues are more complicated than you some times allow on your blog site.


    Rodger Provo
    Fredericksburg, VA

  41. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Rodger, Thanks for joining the discussion. Let me correct a possible mis-perception. I’m all in favor of light rail projects that genuinely increase mobility and access — and aren’t just schemes to transfer wealth from taxpayers (or toll road drivers) to well-positioned landowners.

    It’s well documented that rail increases property values along the routes they serve. Why shouldn’t the beneficiaries of those increased property values — the land owners — be expected to contribute something toward the financing of the rail? The mechanisms exist: Community Development Authorities and tax-increment financing. We’d get a lot more rail projects accomplished in this state if we used these tools rather than look exclusively to taxpayers.

  42. Anonymous Avatar

    Jim, I would suggest to you that the issue relative to light rail is how it can cause a shift in our
    growth patterns from the suburbs to the cities, thus helping us rebuild the cities and decreasing the
    sprawl problems we have. I think you are waging class war with your comments about the transfer of
    wealth. Many systems are financed with contributions from landowners along the routes. The Portland
    Oregon Streetcar system is funded by private contributions and it made a wonderful contribution to that
    city’s recovery and quality of life. The taxpayers have always made a contribution to the development
    of our transportation system … if I bought into your arguement the interstate system would have never
    been built. My guess you use highways and streets daily in your travels to work and the need to meet
    your personal obligations ….. I am sure all of us contributed to tax money to pay for those roads …

  43. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Anonymous 8:14, You and I apparently define class war differently. I define class war as a restribution of wealth from the rich to the many. I don’t favor the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the many. But neither do I favor the redistribution of wealth from the many to the rich — which is what you get when you finance mammoth infrastructure projects like Rail to Dulles primarily through tax and tolls dollars.

  44. Anonymous Avatar

    The Greater Washington DC Metropolitan Area is expected over the next 20 years to add 2 million more residents, needing 833,000 more housing units because the region will generate 1.65 million new jobs during that period in
    an area with one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates.

    If the region does not build more rail lines linked to transit oriented developments, sprawl will completely cover the landscape from Washington, DC to Richmond, out I-66 to the Valley and further into West Virginia. We will have
    failed, unworkable sprawl just like they have in Southern California.

    The extension of Metro to Dulles is a good investment to make our future better.

    BWI and National Airports both have Amtrak, Metro and/or Baltimore Light Rail connections. My wife and I have used
    rail service at both airports for trips into the Northeast. Portland, Oregon’s airport has Max Light Rail service
    that will take into their downtown and elsewhere in that metropolitan area. My son and I during a visit there when
    he was at PSU met a lady at a transit stop in the western Portland suburbs who took the Max out to the airport for a trip back east.

    Am I to assume, given your statement about “when you finance mammouth infrastructure projects ….” that you oppose
    the money spent to fix the bottleneck at Springfield, build the new Wilson Bridge, to build I-295 around the east
    side of Richmond or to build the tunnels in the Hampton Roads area ….. cheers !!!!!

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