Dr. Know: Light Rail, Heavy Expenditures

Why does light rail cost so much?

Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail cost $1.5 billion for 7.3 miles, or $205 million per mile. I'm a mass-transit fan, but yikes! I don't see gold leaf on any of the new tracks, so I'm stumped. How on earth does such a project cost so much?

—Alan C.

"Compared to Alan C.'s mom, everything sounds expensive," TriMet responded in a prepared statement. OK, not really—they responded with a bunch of facts and figures and no "your-mom" jokes at all, unless "easement" is an archaic term for "lube."

For starters, you get a bridge with this deal. I don't know if you've priced bridges lately, but I was just looking at one that was gonna run me about $4.2 billion, which makes the $134 million we're blowing on this span seem like an IKEA closeout.

There are also some costs that you probably wouldn't think about. For example, the land that the thing runs through had to be bought from all the people it belonged to ($244 million). The project also had to be planned, designed, engineered, insured and generally lawyered up—all professional services that tend to bill at a high hourly rate. That's another $200 million.

The trains are $90 million, and finance charges will eat up another $229 million. All together, that's close to a billion spent without laying a foot of track.

In truth, only $546 million—about $14,000 a foot—went toward the actual jackhammers, plumber's cracks and interminable traffic disruptions that constitute what you would think of as actually building a light-rail line.

That's still not cheap, but when you consider that construction costs for one urban parking space run about $15,000, it doesn't seem crazily out of line. Plus, the MAX Orange Line throws in 17 transit stations at no additional charge—you can't afford not to buy one!

QUESTIONS? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com

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