Beware D.C. Light Rail Expansion

Published January 17, 2008

Federal officials have expressed serious concerns about a plan to extend Metrorail to Dulles International Airport and might reject it, according to an article in today’s Washington Post (“Federal Qualms Leave Dulles Rail at Risk,” January 17, 2008).

Officials with the Federal Transit Administration told the newspaper they fear there could be huge cost overruns and delays like those that afflicted the “Big Dig” highway project in Boston, which finished years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. The contractor who oversaw the Big Dig would also be in charge of the Dulles rail line project.

Following is a statement from Steve Stanek, managing editor of Budget & Tax News and research fellow at The Heartland Institute.

“Federal officials should be worried about the proposed rail extension of the Washington Metro to Dulles International Airport.

“Rail projects like this are notorious for huge cost overruns and delays, with the $2 billion (and growing) overrun and delays at Seattle’s Sound Transit project being exhibit A.

“Light-rail supporters try to explain away delays and cost overruns by telling us not to believe our lying eyes. They argue they really aren’t overruns because price inflation should not be considered an overrun.

“Neither should expensive solutions to engineering problems that crop up after a project gets underway.

“Neither should project upgrades (“change orders”) requested by transit officials as a project is being built.

“It’s all sophistry to obscure that fact that almost all such projects end up consuming far more time and money than supporters originally tell us. Lowballing estimates to make these projects look palatable is standard operating procedure.

“Even if we accept the argument that these really should not be considered overruns and delays, there is still the fact that rail transit accounts for only a small fraction of travel.

“‘Over the past fifteen years alone, America has spent well over $100 billion on rail transit construction projects. What do we have for it? Transit has grown by 20 percent while urban driving has grown by 50 percent. Every single dollar spent on rail transit construction is a dollar wasted,’ said Randal O’Toole, a transportation expert and senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

“The costs are huge and the benefits (if any) are tiny.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow for The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Budget & Tax News.