RALEIGH – Taxpayers are picking up more than 90 percent of the tab for a lucky few commuters riding Charlotte’s LYNX light-rail line, despite the trains’ limited public benefit for traffic congestion, air quality, or land use. That’s a key finding in a new John Locke Foundation Policy Report.
“When you combine both operating and capital costs, the total cost per trip on Charlotte’s LYNX line is about $6.90, and the weighted average fare is about 60 cents per trip,” said the report’s lead author, David Hartgen, Emeritus Professor of Transportation Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “That means the taxpayer is subsidizing about $6.30 of every trip taken on the LYNX line. Riders are paying just 8.7 percent of the cost.”
Final LYNX construction costs total about $521.85 million, said Hartgen, who is also president of The Hartgen Group and a JLF adjunct scholar. The 9.6-mile, 15-station LYNX train line opened along Charlotte’s South Boulevard in November 2007 after nearly a decade of planning and construction.
“The project’s construction costs grew substantially,” Hartgen said. “When voters approved the project in 1998, the official cost was $227 million. The final cost, $522 million, represents about a 130 percent overrun. This is somewhat higher than the average 104 percent cost overrun for major transit projects around the world.”
In addition to construction costs, officials estimate LYNX operating costs at $9.22 million for 2008, Hartgen said. “The estimate is based partly on projections, and some of the operating cost estimates appear to be on the low side, so these expenditures could be subject to change and are likely to increase.”
Average weekday ridership was 12,457 “unlinked” trips during December 2007, the LYNX line’s first full month of operation, a figure 37 percent higher than the official forecast. But Hartgen urges caution in using those numbers to gauge support for the LYNX line. “We have to remember that the ‘official’ forecast was based on estimates prepared six years ago, before the recent run-up in gasoline prices,” Hartgen said. “Those higher prices encourage more transit traffic. If the ridership estimates had been made with current gas prices, ridership estimates would have been somewhat higher.”
Since that first full month, ridership climbed about 23 percent through July 2008, but Charlotte Area Transit System bus ridership actually increased more: 24 percent. Hartgen found that about two-thirds of the increase in LYNX ridership could be attributed to gas price increases, regional growth, and economic circumstances, rather than the availability of better transit service.
Other numbers paint a clearer picture of the source of LYNX ridership. “As a share of all CATS traffic, LYNX’s share has hovered between 16.5 percent and 20.3 percent and has averaged about 19 percent,” he said. “This share has not increased significantly since December 2007 and seems to be leveling off. There also appears to be a softening of LYNX ridership on weekends and holidays. Plus, ridership on CATS buses has actually increased faster than light-rail ridership.”
Hartgen’s report also addresses arguments that the LYNX light-rail line would divert people from using their cars on area highways, help slow the growth of congestion, improve air quality, and enhance land-use growth.
“Only about a quarter of LYNX weekday ridership is diverted directly from cars, and nearly 20 percent of the auto driver traffic using LYNX consists of vehicles with South Carolina tags,” he said. “About half of the LYNX ridership is prior bus riders. In short, the big winners are about 4,000 prior bus riders, 4,000 commuters living close to the line, and 400 South Carolina drivers.”
LYNX has diverted only a small portion of the corridor auto traffic, Hartgen said. “The overall impact on regional travel is just 0.08 percent, while LYNX traffic diverted from cars represents 0.4 percent of peak-hour travel and 4.2 percent of peak-hour travel in the South Boulevard corridor,” he said. “Even within the corridor, the effects are small and not measurable in traffic flow. Other corridor drivers have saved about one-half of a minute in average commute time. But impacts on air quality are too small to be observable.”
The land-use impact is also much smaller than city officials have implied, he said.
“A city report asserts that the South Corridor has had or will have $1.86 billion in commercial and residential development, and implies that the growth is largely attributable to the LYNX line,” Hartgen said. “But our estimates, based on actual construction between 2005 and 2007, are much lower, in the neighborhood of $250 million over 20 years.”
LYNX fares poorly in a benefit-cost analysis, Hartgen said. “Total costs of more than $706 million far outweigh quantifiable benefits of $480 million,” he said. “If you limit the cost figures to local costs — $400 million — it’s clear that what makes the project justifiable from the local government’s perspective is that local taxpayers pay only 57 percent of the costs, while the state and federal governments pay the rest of the bill. If the local government had to pay the full cost, it could not be justified from a benefit-cost basis.”