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CenterLine: Boondoggle or Mass-Transit Solution?

Light rail isn't cost-effective, won't fix traffic congestion and won't help improve air quality.

June 01, 2003|Michael G. McNally | Michael G. McNally is director of the Transportation Science interdisciplinary graduate program, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and a faculty associate of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Irvine.

There has been virtually no informed public debate on the technical merit of light-rail transit's ability to solve any transportation problem in Irvine or the rest of Orange County. The best that CenterLine supporters ("Yes on A and No on B") can say is that light rail is "quiet, clean, nonpolluting" and provides an "option" to users.

CenterLine opponents ("No on A and Yes on B") have 30 years of data in two dozen U.S. cities that unambiguously show that light rail is not cost-effective, does not address congestion in any measurable manner, has the highest operating cost and requires the highest public subsidy of all transportation modes, and negatively affects bus service. And, transit systems don't influence land-development patterns without significant economic incentives that would probably have the same effect without public transit investment.

The Orange County Transportation Authority, which has been actively promoting CenterLine for several years, has been negligent in not publicizing the poor track record of light rail in other cities. The political rhetoric of light-rail "success" stories has been particularly misleading. Despite mountains of public subsidy, public transit faces a declining market share throughout the United States. No mode of public transit, particularly one with fixed routes, can match the accessibility and mobility provided by the automobile.

For those without automobile access, bus transit virtually always provides better, more cost-effective service. OCTA's own Major Investment Study states that light rail is the least effective overall of all alternatives studied.

The question is whether it is worth $1.4 billion of public funds to build a light-rail system estimated to serve only about 21,000 of the 10 million daily trips Orange County residents make. By OCTA's own analysis, the system won't reduce congestion, improve air quality or improve transit performance.

In Irvine, proponents state that CenterLine will not pass through any residential neighborhoods but will offer Irvine residents an alternative to the automobile. But an inaccessible system cannot provide a real alternative.

Proponents also claim that CenterLine will be built at no cost to Irvine taxpayers. While no additional taxes are directed solely toward Irvine residents, all taxpayers would foot the bill for CenterLine in the form of county, state and federal funds. Irvine's $125-million stake is in the form of state bonds that will become an additional taxpayer burden if issued. Orange County's Measure M, which would pay for about one-sixth of CenterLine's construction costs, did not contain any reference to CenterLine, or light rail in general, when approved by voters.

Measure A proponents claim that CenterLine will take cars off our streets, but OCTA's analysis shows that these numbers are insignificant and that the loss of street capacity for CenterLine's infrastructure will make congestion worse.

Most Irvine residents moved to the city because of a master plan calling for low-density housing with neighborhood parks and schools separated from most commercial and employment centers. That's why most Irvine residents object to a rail line through their neighborhoods, and why they collected signatures to place Measure B (No CenterLine) on the ballot, providing a voice to all residents. When the City Council decided to add Measure A to the ballot, the result was confusion: What happens if both measures are unsuccessful?

Measure B proposes no alternative to CenterLine, but it may avoid the issuance of $125 million of public bonds that must be repaid with tax dollars. And it may well stop CenterLine altogether, leaving about $700 million for other OCTA improvements.

Voters don't have a direct say when it comes to transportation. Consequently, there is no accountability for bad transportation decisions. Measure A would contribute to a bad transportation decision -- proceeding with CenterLine. It's bad for Orange County and it's worse for Irvine. Vote "no" on Measure A.

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