Light Rail v. Elevated Freeway

News and opinion from a retired, pool-playing libertarian conservative

Light Rail v. Elevated Freeway

The Tampa/St. Pete story

As a wonk who trusts numbers more than most people (read both ways) I was probably more struck than others when one of my favorite libertarian scholars, Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute and author of “Gridlock: Why were stuck in traffic and what to do about it,” made this remarkable claim on January 27th, 2018 in a Beacon Center forum that examined the flaws with and alternatives to (former) Mayor Megan Barry’s proposed tax referendum to finance what was being called a $5.4 billion transit plan.
As it turns out, $5.4 billion includes only the first 15 years’ funding which, ironically, ends just before the city will begin repaying the principal on the money borrowed to build five lines of light rail.  More recent estimates put the actual cost of the construction and operation at $9 billion, but even that is not close to being the all-inclusive long-term cost of construction, operation, and maintenance.
But I digress. The numbers that struck me most were these:
  • “You have about 219 miles of freeways in the Nashville Metropolitan area. That means, uh, for the cost of light rail, you could add two new lanes to every single freeway. The way to do it would be the way that Tampa did it recently. They built an elevated expressway over the existing freeway – not very expensive – you didn’t have to buy right-of-way. It cost $7 million a lane mile. You could do that – add two lanes to every existing lane in the Nashville metropolitan area for the cost of the light rail.”
It sounded almost too good to be true, so I checked.
It’s called the “Gateway Expressway Project.”
The Florida Department of Transportation is spending $545 Million to build new elevated roadways –  two lanes in each direction – for about 5 and ½ miles – plus: widen about 4 miles of  I-275 to create new express lanes (one in each direction). These will all be toll lanes to protect taxpayers and charge users, but that’s another issue.
Even if the cost were all born by taxpayers, not users, it would be a considerably lighter burden for taxpayers and more productive project if the purpose is to reduce congestion.
If you break the cost down to price per road mile, you end up with 30 new road miles for $545 million – or about $18 million per mile for the entire project, which also includes constructing new ramps, and improving several connecting roads and intersections.
I have not yet been able to break down the cost per mile of the elevated freeway portion of the project, but whatever it is, it is much less than the lane-mile cost of light rail – $100,000 per mile or higher.
  • “In the United States, most recent and in-progress light-rail lines cost more than $100 million per mile. Two light-rail extensions in Minneapolis, the Blue Line Extension and the Southwest LRT, cost $120 million and $130 million per mile, respectively. Dallas’ Orange Line light rail, 14 miles long, cost somewhere between $1.3 billion and $1.8 billion. Portland’s Orange Line cost about $200 million per mile. Houston’s Green and Purple Lines together cost $1.3 billion for about 10 miles of light rail.”


Construction of any kind is expensive and disruptive. If there are alternatives that involve no new taxpayer funded construction, maintenance, or operation costs, they should be fully considered first.  I believe there are.

They include, but are not limited to:
  1. The potential of the Automated Vehicle industry, which is projected to be a multi-trillion dollar industry before Nashville’s first light rail line can be built.
    1. The richest, most forward thinking corporations around the world are investing hundreds of billions of dollars in the AV industry because they believe it is going to fundamentally alter transportation, beginning with commuting.
    2. Full disclosure – I recently invested in the first two “boutique” exchange-traded funds (ETFs) devoted to the AV industry.
  2. Steadily increasing telecommuting.
    1. Regular work-at-home, among the non-self-employed population, has grown by 115% since 2005, nearly 10x faster than the rest of the workforce.

That said: If construction or any public investment is necessary, it should at least try to relieve the most congestion for the least cost and disruption. Light rail doesn’t even try, leading to speculation, even conspiracy theories about the proponents’ true motivation.

A comparison of the cost and effectiveness of light rail to any of the other alternatives leads to the same conclusion: among all of the potential solutions to Nashville’s congestion problems, the least effective and most expensive solution is light rail.
Whether you compare it to more and better buses, new freeway lanes, or investing in “smart street” technology to accommodate the AV industry, light rail is the least effective and most expensive of all the possible congestion solutions.
Even the addition of elevated freeway lanes, also very expensive and disruptive during the construction phase, is at least 10 times more cost effective and productive than light rail.
Please, don’t buy the light rail lie.
Vote NO on May 1st and join those looking for real solutions to Nashville’s growing pains.


If you like the elevated lanes option, we would not necessarily have to cover all 219 miles of Interstate that O’Toole mentioned.
We could construct 84 miles of “bypass lanes” above I-40, I-24 and I-65 from the commuter choke points to the north, south, east and west – for less than $2 billion.
  • I-40 – From where I-40 meets I-24 on Nashville’s East side to where it meets I-440 on the west side – just over seven miles X 4 lanes (2 in each direction) = 28 lanes miles @ $14 million/lane mile = $392 million.
  • I-24 – From I-40 on East Nashville to I-65 on Northwest Nashville – just over 5 miles X 4 = 20 miles @ $14 million/lane mile = $280 million.
  • I-65 – From I-440 on the south to the I-65/I-24 split on the North – just under 9 miles x 4 = 36 lanes miles @ $14 million/lane mile = $504 million.
Altogether, it would cover these miles of the most crowded Interstate miles through Nashville.

TOTAL COST = $1.76 Billion for 84 new lane miles of bypass expressway that through traffic can use (for a premium?/or not) instead of competing with traffic heading to the Nashville’s core business district.
It would be a bargain for taxpayers compared to the light rail plan that will serve only a small percentage of purely local traffic at the highest cost per lane mile of any construction alternative.
Ralph Bristol

One Response

  1. Larry Crockett says:

    This is the best alternative I’ve heard of yet.

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