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Light Rail Lessons from Buffalo

Buffalo is a very rare case of a city whose LRT investment didn't enjoy much success. It suffered from expensive, outdated technology and a dramatically falling population.

By Nicholas Kevlahan

Some Hamiltonians have expressed concern about the light rail transit (LRT) option for the city's rapid transit initiative, citing nearby Buffalo NY as an example of a city whose light rail investment hasn't enjoyed much success.

It's a valid concern, but a closer look at Buffalo can shed some light on what happened:

Different Demographics

During construction of the line, Buffalo's population declined catastrophically.

Buffalo Population By Decade
Year Population % Change
1960 532,759 -8.2%
1970 462,768 -13.1%
1980 357,870 -22.7%
1990 328,123 -8.3%
2000 292,648 -10.8%
Est. 2006 257,758 -11.9%

This sort of population collapse just can't be turned around by LRT. The population of Buffalo fell from 463,000 in 1970 to 258,000 in 2006 - a 44 percent decline.

This is not projected to happen to Hamilton. Quite the opposite: the GTA + Hamilton is expected to grow by three million residents in the next twenty years.

Different System

Buffalo's system is closer to a subway than an LRT since it runs underground for part of the line. It is also old (1978) technology, quite different from modern LRT like Portland, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, etc.

The tunnel construction also led to large cost over-runs and delays.

Still Some Success

The relative lack of success of Buffalo's system is exceptional: every other system we've looked at has led to new development. Nevertheless, even in Buffalo, property values are higher within walking distance of the stations.


5.4 miles of the total 6.4 miles are underground. i.e. subway. Presumably this affected capital costs a lot. In fact, people argue that it's really a subway.

"However, during the construction of the line and afterwards, Buffalo's population significantly declined. As a result, the new line's ridership was much lower than originally anticipated. The cost of the urban section was so high that no funding was available to extend the lines."

"Still, the truncated system serves 23,000 passengers daily."

"8.7km in tunnel, of which 2.5km was constructed using the cut-and-cover technique, and 6.2km was excavated by boring machines. It is called a light rail line, but it operates in a subway and in a traffic-free street."

"A study by a University at Buffalo urban planning researcher has found that houses located within a half-mile radius of Buffalo's light rail stations are assessed at $1,300 to $3,000 more than similar properties that are not within walking distance of the stations."

"Unfortunately downtown Buffalo has been in the doldrums for years. This is one of the few systems that has not sparked growth."