Five U.S. metros (Buffalo, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, and San Jose) opened light rail systems in the 1980s to great fanfare. The mode offered many of the benefits of subway systems for far less public money; San Diego's system, per mile, cost about one-seventh of Washington, D.C.'s Metrorail. Light rail cities like Portland became transportation models for the country, pointing toward a transit-friendly urban future.
Thirty years later, light rail remains the most appealing mode of new public transportation formany American cities. Billions of local, state, and federal dollars have been invested in 650 miles of new light rail lines in 16 regions, and today 144 miles of additional lines are under construction at a cost of more than $25 billion. Many more lines are planned. No region has invested in a new heavy rail subway system, on the other hand, since 1993.
Based on the decisions to build these projects, which were made by hundreds of local officials and often endorsed by residents through referenda, you might think that the experience building light rail in the 1980s had been unambiguously successful. Yet it doesn't take much digging to find that over the past thirty years, these initial five systems in themselves neither rescued the center cities of their respective regions nor resulted in higher transit use — the dual goals of those first-generation lines.