Rail Transit Toolkit

All over the United States, cities and transit agencies are planning new light-rail, streetcar, and other rail-transit lines. To some, this is allowing American cities to catch up to their European counterparts. In reality, rail transit is a gigantic boondoggle that enriches a few at the expense of many while providing few real transportation benefits.

A little more than a century ago, more than 800 American cities had streetcars or some other form of rail transit. But the development of rubber-tired buses driving on paved streets quickly made rail lines obsolete. Where rails and power facilities required expensive maintenance, buses shared infrastructure with cars and trucks, thus greatly reducing costs to transit providers. As rail lines wore out, transit companies replaced them with buses until, by 1966, only eight American urban areas–New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and New Orleans–still had rail transit.

This trend was reversed in the 1970s as Atlanta, San Francisco, and Washington built heavy-rail transit lines. In the 1980s, San Diego, Buffalo, Portland, Sacramento, San Jose, and other cities built light-rail transit lines. In the 2000s, Portland, Tacoma, and other cities built streetcar lines. Today, transit agencies in around 40 urban areas operate some form of rail transit, and many more are planning new rail lines.

These agencies aren’t building rail because it is a good transportation solution for their regions. Instead, in almost every case, their desire for rail is fueled by a race between transit agencies to get as much money as possible out of the federal government. More than half of all federal transit funds go only to transit agencies that have rail lines, and since rails are so expensive, transit agencies that build rail simply get a lot more federal money than ones that don’t.

Since 1992 (the earliest year for which complete data area available), transit agencies have spent well over $200 billion on rail transit capital improvements. Yet they have little to show for it. Between 1992 and 2012, total transit ridership grew by about 20 percent, but the population of American urban areas grew by about 30 percent, so per capita transit ridership actually declined.

This toolkit is designed to help people understand and influence rail transit proposals. In the toolkit, you will find:

Most of these pages come with links to papers, presentations, spreadsheets, and other sources further information on the topics.