Let me first congratulate BeyondDC on putting together a really exciting transit vision for the nation’s capital. His long-range transit plan, like those at Greater Greater Washington, helps to get us thinking about what is possible and achievable. Also, they’re really fun to look at. At some point in the near future, I’ll have more to say about my particular transit vision for the area.
I want to comment now on one passage from BDC’s vision page. He writes:
Any attempt to cost this system out to more than a ballpark figure would be highly speculatory on our part, but to get a general sense of the costs involved we can compare the known figures for the Tysons Corner / Dulles (Silver line) MetroRail and the Columbia Pike streetcar proposals.
The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation estimates that Phase 1 of the Silver line (the portion from East Falls Church to Wiehle Ave) will cost $2.1 billion for 11.6 miles and 5 stations. Phase 2 is estimated to cost $3 billion for 11.5 miles and 6 stations. Averaged out that corresponds to a Phase 2 cost per mile of $261 million, or $223 million per mile for the entire Silver line.
According to Arlington County, the Columbia Pike streetcar is estimated to cost $140 million for 5.2 miles and several stations. That is, the entire line can be built for approximately half the money it will take to build a single mile of Silver line. Per mile, the streetcar will cost $27 million â€“ approximately 10% the cost of a mile on Silver line Phase 2.
Broken down per anticipated rider:
$5.1 billion divided by 91,200 anticipated daily riders = $55,921 per rider.
$140 million divided by 21,000 anticipated daily riders = $6,666 per rider.
The streetcar is literally eight times as fiscally efficient.
If Virginia were to build the truncated Tysons line as we’ve proposed, ending at Wolf Trap rather than Loudoun County, that would free up enough money to build about 120 miles of streetcar. If we can get ridership on all 120 miles that’s similar to what we’re getting on Columbia Pike (21,000 riders / 5.2 miles = ~ 4,000 riders per mile = 480,000 riders for 120 miles), that’s many times more efficient at producing transit riders than the Silver line. Even if we don’t get so much as half Columbia Pike efficiency on other streetcar routes, we’d still be doing far better than the western segment of the Silver line.
It’s numbers like these that have BeyondDC convinced that more streetcars is a better investment than more MetroRail.
I’m not a big fan of this presentation of the heavy rail versus light rail decision for several reasons. First, we shouldn’t talk about trade-offs between light and heavy rail at all without also discussing value per dollar spent on highways. It’s worth noting that more streetcars and more MetroRail is a better investment than more pavement.
Second, and I know this analysis is limited by available data, but I don’t think it’s right to assume that we can readily substitute one transit mode for another on any given corridor. Different modes are right for different circumstances. MetroRail is best suited to very high capacity short routes as well as medium distance routes, between dense neighborhoods, where speed is important. I think that building a streetcar line between Tysons and downtown would be cheaper but not cost effective, because the drop in service speeds would defeat much of the purpose of the extension–the creation of a rapid transit connection between Tysons and other dense neighborhoods, including downtown.
Finally, I think that transit advocates need to get in the habit of explaining to people how there is more to these choices than just cost per person per mile. The density and capacity that can be supported by a Metro station significantly increases the value of surrounding property, above and beyond increases delivered by streetcar lines. That should be taken into account. In BDC’s example, for instance, one might consider the expected value of new development planned along the new Metro stations compared to the expected value of new development along Columbia Pike. In both cases, the planned increases are impressive, but the gains along the Tysons line are an order of magnitude greater than those along the streetcar line.
A new heavy rail subway line through downtown might not look particularly cost-effective using BDC’s numbers, but it would significantly increase the robustness of the Metro system, providing redundancy, enabling more effective maintenance schedules and fewer delays, and generally increasing the value of existing Metro lines. These things need to be taken into account.
And we should also consider factors like the relative effect of Metro versus streetcars on congestion, pollution, overall neighborhood walkability and lots of other stuff.
But the bottom line is this: transit should come in a range of shapes, sizes, and speeds, and we should be committed to providing the right mode in the right situation. The big gains come from providing a credible alternative to highways, and we need to be establishing the arguments for that shift, not negotiating with ourselves about where we can afford to reduce planned transit capacity from heavy to light rail. Our long-term interests aren’t served by selling leaders on a transit-on-the-cheap world. The goal is to get people out of their cars. In many cases, MetroRail will do that more effectively, and we need to keep that in mind.