Good idea for Disney World, bad idea for Maryland

Originally published in the Daily Record

Carol Park Dec 13, 2019

From Maglev to Hyperloop, Maryland’s political leaders like to claim that the next transportation innovation will magically solve all of the state’s mobility problems.

As a way to cut down congestion on Interstate 270 between the Shady Grove Metro Station and Frederick, Maryland, is currently evaluating an elevated monorail proposal by a developer from Montgomery County, Robert Eisinger.

It is understandable why lawmakers would be enticed by the image of a futuristic monorail cutting in between Maryland office buildings and gliding stylishly above ground. But, historically, monorails in the United States have mainly been built for amusements parks, hotels, and airports — for good reasons. Monorails in Disney World and Las Vegas casinos are the most famous examples, and lessons can be drawn from their experience.

First, monorails are not as safe as their proponents claim. In 2009, a Walt Disney World monorail crash killed a conductor when one monorail crashed into another. Countless injuries have been reported since the Disney systems’ inception in 1959.

Second, monorails are not cheap to build. The proposed 27-mile monorail for Maryland is estimated to cost $3.4 billion, which would supposedly be paid for by a public-private partnership. This breaks down to $127 million per mile, assuming there are no cost overruns.

That assumption clashes with history. The Las Vegas Strip monorail system initially did not call for public funding, but the commission in charge eventually had to acquire $653 million in bonds. Similarly, Maryland taxpayers would be on the hook for the I-270 project costs unless private investors jump in.

Third, ridership predictions are overly optimistic. A study of the I-270 project by consultant Cambridge Systematic predicts 30,000 trips daily if Maryland monorail opened in 2025. But, according to Paul Lewis of the Eno Center of Transportation, the additional hassle of transferring between monorail and Metro would reduce monorail ridership.

If ridership and revenues are not enough to cover operating costs, the system would have to be subsidized with additional tax dollars.

Lessons of Las Vegas

Las Vegas monorail proponents predicted 55,000 daily riders, but actual ridership is only about 14,000 daily riders. In 2011, the company that was in charge of the Las Vegas monorail filed for bankruptcy after failing to repay $650 million in construction loans. The company’s financial statements from the past four years show total losses of over $75 million.

If the I-270 monorail fails to attract sufficient riders, congestion relief on I-270 would be minimal. Marylander taxpayers would still be sitting in traffic after paying billions for the system. Meanwhile, the money spent on monorail would be gone, leaving no money to fund new transit ideas for congestion relief.

Maryland should abandon the monorail project while it is still pie in the sky. Instead, Maryland leaders should focus on cost-effective transit options for Maryland suburbs, such as Bus Rapid Transit.

BRT is a high-speed bus transit system in which buses travel on dedicated lanes. BRT systems have gained worldwide popularity for financial reasons: they cost $11.5 million per mile on average. That is because BRT projects require minimal new infrastructure and tend to have smaller cost overruns.

Unlike rail systems, BRT systems are flexible and allow routes to change and expand whenever needed. Their reduced travel times, more efficient operations, and use of greener buses also control operating costs and help improve air quality.

Unfortunately, Maryland has been hostile to BRT. The state’s Department of Transportation recently removed the Corridor Cities Transitway BRT project between Clarksburg and the Shady Grove Metro station from its list of funding priorities. The total cost of the projected was estimated at $800 million, just a fraction of the $3.4 billion estimate for the monorail.

Halting the BRT project in favor of a far more expensive monorail boondoggle is a bad move for solving Maryland’s transportation woes. If the state’s transit history has taught us anything, it is that we can’t spend our way out of congestion. Given this, state officials need to carefully reconsider the merits of the BRT project they’ve dismissed.

Yes, a monorail ride in Disney World is fun. But Maryland is not Disney World. There are reasons why most cities do not build monorails and why Maryland should not either.

Carol Park is a senior policy analyst at the Maryland Public Policy Institute.