The Cost of Lowballing Light Rail Ridership Projections

The Overhead Wire has picked up on a piece in Saturday’s New York Times
about how light rail ridership in Phoenix has exceeded expectations.
The post points out that this isn’t the first time the Federal
Transportation Administration has underestimated demand for similar
projects, a pattern that has the potential for real consequences:

3149451036_b6bac905f1.jpgLight rail in Phoenix: The demand is real. Photo by phxwebguy via Flickr.

Yay, FTA Models. You totally rule at figuring out ridership in new light rail cities. You did a bang-up job in Minneapolis (24K in 2020, current 26k), really got those Houston numbers right for 2020 (33k in 2020, current 38k), and Charlotte was right on target (9k
opening, current 14k). Note: the APTA daily numbers are a bit wonky. I
don’t know if I completely trust them to the rider but they make the
point.

Now we can add Phoenix to the list of FTA model lowballing: "The
rail was projected to attract 26,000 riders per day, but the number is
closer to 33,000, boosted in large part by weekend riders."

What
kills me about all this lowballing is what the cost-effectiveness
number was — and what it SHOULD have been. Ultimately, that is what
decides projects. And it’s a little messed up that the FTA keeps
getting it wrong, especially when they can kill a project because of a
CE below Medium.

More good stuff from around the network: Sprawled Out looks at how Panera Bread has found success by creating public spaces in suburban communities that have few or none. Kaid Benfield on NRDC Switchboard writes about how San Francisco lots left vacant by the recession might be repurposed. And The Transport Politic has the news on proposals for high-speed rail in the US from SNCF, the French national railroad operator.

  • They are doing this on purpose so that the line can be shown as “successful” and attracting riders “beyond our wildest expectations.”

    Good idea, actually. Shuts up the Cato Institute types and the NIMBYs. I think it should be continued.

    Just don’t go wild with it. A little bit of lowballing is good, but go over 40% and it starts to look suspicious.

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