Rail Transit Suffers from Ridership Shortfalls

Even as planners underestimate the costs of building rail transit, they often overestimate the number of people who will ride it. Like the cost problem, this is a problem that hasn’t been fixed since it was first noted in a DOT report in 1990.

Denver’s West light-rail line was supposed to carry 20,000 people per weekday in its first year; it actually carried 13,800. Norfolk’s light-rail line was projected to carry 10,400 people per weekday in its opening year; it actually carried less than 4,400. “The systematic tendency to over-estimate ridership and to under-estimate capital and operating costs introduces a distinct bias toward the selection of capital-intensive transit improvements such as rail lines,” said the 1990 DOT report.

Transit planners have multiple incentives to overestimate ridership and underestimate costs. First, agencies contract out much of planning to private engineering and consulting firms. These firms know that, if the project is built, they are likely to get more work helping to design and build it. Second, the Bush Administration set limits on how much a rail project could cost for each hour of time the project would save travelers. While the Obama administration lifted those limits in 2012, many transit agencies fudged their numbers to qualify under the old rules.

Finally, planners know that overestimated ridership and underestimated cost simply biases the analysis towards building capital-intensive projects. As the author of a 1990 DOT report said, “The systematic tendency to over-estimate ridership and to under-estimate capital and operating costs introduces a distinct bias toward the selection of capital-intensive transit improvements such as rail lines.” If cost and ridership estimates were more accurate, politicians and voters would be more likely to support projects that were more affordable.

Urban AreaModeRouteYear OpenPredicted RidersActual RidersOver- estimate
WashingtonHRRed & Blue1986959,000762,01326%
AtlantaHRInitial1987472,860222,372113%
BaltimoreHRSubway1987103,00043,044139%
MiamiAGMetromover198841,00016,836144%
DetroitAGPeoplemover198867,7005,9281042%
MiamiHRMetrorail1988239,00057,530315%
PortlandLREastside198842,50032,14632%
SacramentoLRInitial198850,00030,32665%
BuffaloLRMetro19899,20019,398-53%
PittsburghLRRecon.198990,50025,733252%
San DiegoLREl Cajon198921,60024,950-13%
San JoseLRGuadalupe199141,20021,03596%
St. LouisLRInitial199341,80042,381-1%
ChicagoHRSouthwest1993118,76054,986116%
HoustonBRSouthwest199327,2808,875207%
MiamiAGExtension199520,4044,158391%
BaltimoreHRHopkins199513,60010,12834%
San Fran.HRColma199615,20013,06016%
DallasLRS Oak Cliff199634,17026,88427%
BaltimoreLRBWI HV ext.199712,2308,27248%
San JoseLRTasman West199714,8758,24480%
PortlandLRWestside199860,31443,87637%
Salt LakeLRI-15199926,50022,10020%
AtlantaHRNorth200057,12020,878174%
DenverLRSouthwest200022,00019,08315%
JacksonvilleAGSkyway200042,4722,6271517%
St. LouisLRSt. Clair200120,27415,97627%
Los AngelesHRRed2002297,733134,555121%
DallasLRN. Central200217,03316,2785%
San Fran.HRAirport200367,40035,53490%
SacramentoLRSouth200312,55010,54319%
Salt LakeLRUniversity200310,05021,811-54%
San Fran.HRAirport200368,60028,321142%
BostonBRPiers200424,30013,29883%
MemphisSCExtension20044,200707494%
MinneapolisLRHiawatha200437,00033,47711%
PittsburghLRRecon.200449,00025,73390%
PortlandLRInterstate200413,90011,80018%
WashingtonHRLargo200414,2708,62365%
ChicagoHRDouglas200533,00028,62415%
San DiegoLRMission Vly200510,7958,89521%
San JuanHRTren Urbano2005114,49231,749261%
BaltimoreLRDble track200644,00028,54154%
DenverLRSoutheast200638,10031,32022%
NewarkLRElizabeth I200612,5002,500400%
New JerseyLRH-B 1 & 2200666,16041,52559%
CharlotteLRLynx20079,10011,678-22%
MiamiCRDbl Track200742,10015,138178%
PortlandYRWES20082,4001,200100%
San DiegoYRSprinter200811,9956,60082%
ClevelandBREuclid200821,10014,30048%
Salt LakeCRWeber20088,4005,30058%
PhoenixLREast Valley200826,00034,800-25%
MinneapolisCRNorthstar20094100220086%
SeattleLRLink2009349002340049%
AustinYRMetroRail20101,70088891%
DenverLRWest201219,50013,80041%
NorfolkLRTide201210,4004,347139%
MinneapolisLRGreen201334,30037,000-7%
Total3,825,6372,247,32470%
1980s2,096,3601,240,27669%
1990s426,333263,99961%
2000s1,237,044687,01480%
2010s65,90056,03518%

The numbers in the above table are based on the same sources as the cost overruns table. This means data for all but the last four projects in the table came from 2003 (17.2 MB), 2007 (3.7 MB), 2008 (0.3 MB), 2011 (0.7 MB), 2012 (0.1 MB), and 2013 (0.8 MB) DOT reports. The numbers for the last four projects came from FTA New Starts reports and the National Transit Database.