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Hidden costs of light rail

Are there additional energy costs of running a light rail that don't get measured?

By Art CardenGuest blogger / February 11, 2011

Houston Metro's first light rail car makes its inaugural run through downtown Houston in this file photo. Guest blogger Art Carden writes that light rails may not be more efficient than driving.

Michael Stravato / AP / File

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I just had an interesting online discussion with John Payne from the Show-Me Institute about light rail. Light rail fails on pretty much every efficiency measure, and I write that as someone who likes being able to get to the places I need to go in St. Louis without having to drive. It just so happened that the MetroLink in St. Louis was consistent with my preferences.

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John pointed out that to take the MetroLink would require that he stand on a platform in the cold. This raises an interesting question. One might argue that taking the train is going to be eco-friendly relative to driving if the trains are going to run anyway. Or is it?

John mentioned standing in the cold on a platform. Most of the people who are going to stand in the cold are probably going to wear an extra layer or drink more coffee. This all requires energy to produce. Are the alleged environmental benefits of light rail relative to driving swamped by additional energy costs that don’t get measured?

As I argued earlier this week, we can’t know without prices, profits, and losses. To the extent that we can measure (even indirectly) some of the costs and benefits of light rail, it fails by its own standards. Here’s John with more, and here’s an op-ed and a policy study by Randall O’Toole in which he analyzes proposals to build light rail in Kansas City.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I like the MetroLink in St. Louis because I prefer taking trains to taking cars. In November, I went to a conference at Washington University. I was able to take Greyhound from Memphis to St. Louis and then Metrolink between Wash U, my hotel, and the parts of St. Louis I wanted to visit (Wong’s Wok in the Loop, specifically). Light rail makes me better off. It is a mistake to observe that I am better off and then observe that society is better off. I think Henry Hazlitt had something to say about that.

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