Do the Benefits of Light Rail Systems Outweigh the Costs?

Improving public transportation is a priority for cities around the world. One approach cities can take is building light rail systems. These systems have numerous potential benefits, but experts disagree on whether they outweigh their substantial costs. Let’s take a look at some of the advantages & expenses involved.


Here are some of the reasons cities choose to build light rail & the benefits it provides.

Reduced Traffic Congestion

Like other forms of public transportation, light rail systems can take cars off the road, reducing traffic congestion. Because they operate on the street level along with cars, however, they might not decrease traffic as much as subway systems do.

Providing Affordable Transportation

Light rail systems offer an affordable means of transportation for residents, including those who cannot afford to own a vehicle. They improve quality of life & opportunity for these individuals.

Reduced Pollution

Light rail systems run on electricity, rather than fossil fuels. Because of this, they don’t directly add to city pollution levels like buses do. If the electricity comes from clean energy sources, operating the system might produce hardly any pollution at all.

Economic Development

When a city builds a light rail system, the value of property near the stations may increase. Improved transportation also makes it easier for people to take jobs in parts of the city that are further from where they live & patronize businesses in other areas as well.


Light rail systems have an excellent safety record. Although collisions can still occur, light rail is approximately six times safer than traveling by car, according to the International Association of Public Transport.


Because light rail cars travel on tracks, they can still operate in some adverse weather conditions in which buses & cars cannot.


Of course, these benefits do not come for free. Building a rail system comes with significant upfront costs & ongoing expenses.

Construction Costs

Construction costs vary according to the specifics rail design. According to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, light rail is not as cost-effective as traveling by vehicle. Today, federal subsidies cover much of the construction costs, while the rest of the money comes from local or state tax revenues & bonds. An analyst at the Cato Institute has argued federal subsidies have discouraged cities from keeping costs low.

Operational Costs

Operational costs for light rail systems aren’t extraordinarily high, as one driver can transport a large number of people at one time. However, revenues from fares typically don’t cover operating costs, & require subsidies from taxpayers to remain operational. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis noted that in St. Louis, Buffalo and Baltimore, fares cover less than 30 percent of operating costs.

Maintenance Costs

Light rail also requires cities to spend money on maintenance to keep them in good condition. Many components of a light rail system have a lifespan of about 30 years. Public transportation authorities in the United States often have trouble keeping up with maintenance. Public transit infrastructure in the United States currently has an estimated maintenance backlog of $90 billion.

How to Know If Light Rail Is Right for a City

Light rail may succeed at accomplishing goals such as reduced traffic congestion, increasing mobility for residents & reducing pollution. Typically, however, it costs taxpayers money. That’s not to say we shouldn’t invest in light rail at all. Sometimes, these benefits may be worth the expenses, but cities should evaluate all options before deciding on light rail.

The current transportation conditions in a city & its future needs will determine what transit solution is best for it. If the benefits of light rail listed above are the primary goals of a city, light rail might be an effective solution. If not, the city should consider other options, such as buses, subway systems or improved roadways.

Light rail systems may also work best in cities that have high population densities, as there will be more potential riders, & operating the system may be more cost-effective. Cities where driving is expensive & parking is limited may also benefit more from light rail, as this gives public transit more of an advantage over driving. Having basic pedestrian infrastructure in place will also greatly improve the effectiveness of a light rail system, as people will need to walk from stations to their destinations.

The right public transit solution varies from city to city. Local governments should carefully weigh all options, benefits & expenses before choosing a plan.

Under the right conditions, the benefits of a light rail system to a city may outweigh the costs. Perhaps one day we can find a way to make light rail systems more cost-effective for all cities.


Megan Nichols
Freelance Writer, self-employed
Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance STEM writer and blogger whose work has appeared on Manufacturing Business Technology, American Machinist, & IoT Evolution. Read more posts by Megan on her blog, Schooled By Science, and follow her on Twitter.

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