The Covid-19 crisis has started to force local governments to make painful choices about their spending priorities. The consequences will be particularly severe for public transit agencies, which face cuts in government subsidies as well as massive falls in ridership. It’s hard to predict when, if ever, public transit ridership will return to normal. Some companies that began remote work for employees may continue it indefinitely; passengers may stay off public transit for fear of infection; and corporate executives wary of traveling into large cities may push to move offices to office parks in wealthy suburbs near their own homes, as happened during the urban crises of the 1970s and 1980s.
Public transit agencies need to plan for severe near-term budget crunches and unpredictable changes in ridership plans. Unfortunately, several of them are instead investing large sums in inflexible expansion plans for a transit mode that was rarely well-considered to begin with: light rail.
Over the past few decades, dozens of American cities have built new passenger rail systems; several are now planning expansions. These new projects typically economize by using smaller light-rail trains that are slower and lower-capacity than full subways but do not need dedicated tunnels or viaducts. Backers of light-rail projects often promise that the trains will attract new riders to public transit, and that they will save money in the long run because a light-rail train can carry many more riders than a bus.
Connor Harris is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute and author of the new report, “The Economics of Urban Light Rail: A Guide for Planners and Citizens.” Follow him on Twitter here.
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