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Sorting out the truth in state politics

PolitiFact: Does light rail reduce congestion?

The statement

"Light rail does not reduce congestion."

No Tax For Tracks, in a website post at RailTaxFacts.com

The ruling

Critics of the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit initiative are attacking the plan at full speed by questioning the effectiveness of the proposal's light rail line.

We wondered if the idea of reduced congestion was a dependable guidepost, or if we're all being taken for a ride.

Light rail is generally considered to be a rail line that either shares space with roads or is a separate, above-ground commuter line, as opposed to a subway or elevated train. Greenlight Pinellas plans a 24-mile light rail route from St. Petersburg to Clearwater projected to cost $2 billion over a decade. With 16 stations to provide a 57-minute total trip time, it's slated to be operational within 10 years and serve as an anchor for future transit additions. Greenlight also has plans for bus rapid transit and expanded service.

One of the group's supporting links goes to a post from the Atlantic suggesting light rail's effects on congestion are debatable. The other piece of evidence is an April 2014 analysis by David McKalip, a St. Petersburg neurosurgeon and No Tax For Tracks supporter, concluding light rail actually increases congestion.

McKalip writes about how, despite extensive rail investment in Portland, Ore., the city saw more people in cars and higher traffic volumes in the subsequent years. He also cites another Atlantic post discussing a study of four British cities that showed light rail didn't get people out of their cars, but did take them off buses.

"I have yet to find any science ever that says congestion goes down," McKalip told PolitiFact Florida. "Experts say, 'Do not make that assertion.' "

McKalip followed up his post with another saying car travel times in the Tampa Bay area are routinely faster than in cities with rail and there is no concrete evidence of a relationship between congestion reduction and light rail.

Many transit experts don't agree with that conclusion.

Todd Litman, founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Canada, said, "Traffic congestion and economic impacts vary considerably depending on specific circumstances and how the impacts are measured."

He said that a transit system with sufficient demand and adequate supporting policies can indeed reduce congestion. He cited several studies that showed congestion increased at a higher rate in areas without light rail.

One showed that in Denver, there was a 31 percent increase in vehicle traffic in light rail corridors, as opposed to 41 percent elsewhere. Another said Baltimore's congestion increase dropped from 2.8 percent to 1.5 percent annually after building light rail. One Los Angeles study said people who lived within a half-mile of one light rail line in the city traveled an average of 10 to 12 miles less by car per day. Another said that Utah's TRAX system dropped the estimated number of vehicles on the studied corridor from 44,000 to 22,300 per day.

The PSTA told PolitiFact Florida that reducing future congestion is the guideline Greenlight Pinellas is addressing.

On balance, we rate the statement Half True.

Joshua Gillin, Times staff writer

Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com/Florida.

PolitiFact: Does light rail reduce congestion? 07/18/14 [Last modified: Friday, July 18, 2014 7:30pm]

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