Is Metro Denver Rail Expansion Improving Quality Of Life? Researchers Disagree

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PHOTO: Stock RTD Light Rail Photo
A group of riders boarding a light rail train.

RTD's newest rail line opened Monday. The B Line takes travelers between Denver's Union Station and Westminster via commuter rail. It'll eventually go to Longmont, but no earlier than 2042. Other voter-approved FasTracks projects will come online this year including the R Line light rail expansion in Aurora and the G Line commuter rail to Wheat Ridge.

As rail expands, we had a question.

Do rail lines markedly improve people's quality of life? Two researchers have come to different conclusions.

Andrew Goetz is a geography professor at the University of Denver specializing in transit. Michael Ransom is an economics professor from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. They spoke to Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Andrew Goetz- DU professor

On how his study found that light rail "succeeded in lowering the rate of increase in the level of traffic.":

"What we found was that for certain periods of time for some years there were declines, other years there weren't. And that overall the highways and roadways that were nearer to the rail transit tended to increase at a slower rate than the highways that were outside of that area. We found a 10 percent difference in terms of the rate of increase, but it was mainly for some highways just for certain periods."

On how congestion relief is not the major advantage of commuter rail:

"When rail transit systems were being built back in the 70s and 80s or so, there was a great amount of optimism that they would really be able to solve traffic congestion. As we were building these and seeing how they operated in an urban environment, which was already pretty well spread out due to the effects of highways and automobile traffic, we found that rail transit really wasn't the solution to the congestion problem. But what it does is provide other alternatives for people getting around."

On why light rail has been a good investment for the future:

"Since about 2000 of 2005 or so, what we've seen is a shift, a real shift in terms of movement back into core areas of cities in higher density nodes. A lot of younger people are not interested in driving as much, they don't necessarily want to own a car, don't necessarily want to have a license and want to have more options."

Michael Ransom- BYU professor

On his interpretation of Goetz's study:

"I mean, there's a reason that they built light rail where they did; these were corridors that were heavily congested. And our argument is that traffic couldn't grow as rapidly, because congestion was more severe to start with in those areas. And that's what we showed in our paper; we don't really make a statement as to whether there's a benefit or not. We just argue that the study didn't really inform us about if there was any congestion relief, or any reduction in the rate of growth in traffic that could be attributed to the light rail expansion."

On how the subsidy of commuter rail is too high for the public benefit:

"It's really hard to think what that benefit would be, especially if the benefit isn't reduction in congestion on the roadway, because any of the other benefits that you might talk about have to be small. And so the question of whether there's relief is actually crucial to these things, if you're going to justify on the basis of a cost benefit analysis."

On where he believes the future of commuting is:

"I think the future is actually in ridesharing. So for example, if you compare the ridership of the Southeast corridor, if you look at the person miles that are traveled on that corridor compared with the person miles traveled on I-25 and I-225 that are right next to it, light rail is carrying about 4 percent. Which means you just need to add one rider to about every 20th car, and you could carry the capacity of light rail. And so when you think about these ridesharing apps and so forth, there's a lot of unused capacity on highways. I think that's where the future is really going to go, is to use the automobile much more effectively and sensibly."

What do you think? Leave us a comment at the bottom of this story.