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The Mass Transit Delusion

or rail mass transit to succeed in metropolitan Las Vegas, says Wendell Cox, the internal combustion engine would have had to never exist

"The problem," says the Illinois consultant, "is that where the automobile has become the dominant form of transport, and where urban areas have become decentralized and highly suburbanized, there are simply not a sufficient number of people going to the same place at the same time to justify urban rail."

This is why, he says, that though many urban rail systems have been built throughout the United States in recent decades, virtually none of them have reduced traffic congestion. Nor have they reduced air pollution. Yet there is no shortage of people hawking such systems to politicians and voters.

"For example," he says, "it is typical for promoters to claim that light rail will carry the same passenger volume as six or even 12 lanes of freeway/motorway traffic." This is specious and misleading, says Cox, adding that in truth, the average new light rail line in the United States carries barely 20 percent of the traffic of a single freeway lane.

On his website, www.publicpurposes.com, Cox notes that for all urban rail systems opened since 1985, the costs are so astronomical that it typically would be less expensive to lease each new rider a new car.

When Cox's devastating study of the proposed Las Vegas monorail was made public last year, project point man Broadbent dismissed it. "He opposes mass-transit projects all over the country. That's what he does," scoffed Broadbent.

A check of Cox's website, however, shows that the consultant vigorously supports several rail-transit projects. A section devoted to "Rail Success Stories" spotlights the Hong Kong, Paris, London, Tokyo and New York City systems. In each case, the success of the rail line is correlated with the very high density of its urban setting.

Another section on the website is titled "Keys to Urban Rail Success." There the consultant analyzes prerequisites for rail-transit success. What is necessary, he argues, is that the metropolitan regions have very high residential population densities—at least 10 times those of most U.S. urbanized areas—and commensurately massive central business districts.

Absent such concentrations of people, says Cox, "urban rail is simply incapable of materially reducing traffic congestion, at any price."

As for reducing air pollution, the Illinois consultant says that even if all the ridership predictions for the monorail came true, Las Vegas would see virtually no change in air quality.

"If you read the text [of the monorail promoters' traffic impact study] ... we're talking about [only] 1 or 2 percentage points," says Cox. "That is irrelevant, especially when you consider that every year traffic grows in Vegas more than that. So if in 2015 you've reduced traffic by 1 percent, that's after all the growth [each year] before 2015."

Nevertheless, he says, Southern Nevada air quality is going to improve substantially.

"The answer to air pollution is so simple that it's unbelievable," he told Nevada Journal. "And that is, you and I ought to sit back and let things that are already in process take place. Every day cars pollute less than they did yesterday, because every day that a new car is sold—or a thousand or two-thousand cars are—about that many cars go to the junkyard. And those cars that go to the junkyard are probably creating 20 to 30 times the pollution, the day they drive to the junkyard, as the new car that drives out of the car lot that effectively replaces them.

"The fact is, that the change that has already occurred with respect to air pollution in this country is unbelievable. Despite the fact that we're driving more than ever, and more people are driving than ever, pollutant levels in this country are down 30 to 50 percent, for the most part."

Cox doesn't doubt that Las Vegas has worse air than it did 30 years ago.

"That doesn't have anything to do with vehicle technology," he says, "it has to do with the fact that the population has tripled or quadrupled in that time. The Vegas metropolitan area has gone from under 900,000 in 1990, to almost I think 1.4 million today. So you're looking at an almost 50 percent increase in population in a 10-year period.

"We're talking about population increases that haven't been seen since the early days of Detroit and Los Angeles. So the point is, with that kind of population increase, even with the technology getting better, air pollution is getting worse. But it is going to get better."

Cox notes that Honda and Toyota are today marketing hybrid technology cars that effectively get 70 or 80 miles to the gallon.

"But that's just an interim technology," he adds. "All of the major manufacturers anticipate having popularly priced vehicles, using fuel cell technology, that 'pollutes' by dropping water out of the tail pipe.

"My point is that pollution's going away, and that has only to do with cycling the next 10 years of cars through the process. And that will take care of that."  NJ

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