Portland Transit Implodes: Trains, tracks and systems wear out

August 17th, 2014

Cost Commentary: This story describes a major implication of spending huge amounts of tax dollars on train infrastructue. An initial reaction might be: buses also wear out. However, replacing buses is very inexpensive compared to train systems. Portland is one of many cities approaching the life limit of there early train systems, including Chicago, San Fransico, Wasington D.C., New York and others. There are many billions of dollars needed for these replacements and there are inadequate or no funding sources for these major spikes in capital costs. Transit agencies strongly focus on annual operating costs which is highly funded by taxpayers to significantly subsidize all riders.

With the vague vision for light rail which Austin has described, the currently proposed 9.5 mile line will be approaching the need for major replacemnet/upgrade funds about the same time which follow-on rail phases require massive funds.

Portland Transit Implodes

By Randal O’Toole in The Antiplanner

Here’s a story by the Oregonian‘s intrepid reporter, Joseph Rose that has it all: deferred maintenance, delayed trains, $950 million in unfunded retirement benefits, transit cuts and fare increases, secret pay raises to transit agency executives, an angry transit union, and a plan to move transit riders on buses around rail work that “basically imploded.”

Worn pavement and light-rail switch near Portland’s Lloyd Center. Photo from Max FAQs.

The Antiplanner has repeatedly harped on the fact that rail transit infrastructure basically lasts only 30 years and then must be replaced, often at greater expense (even after adjusting for inflation) than the original construction cost. Part of the cost is dealing with the interruptions in service that are almost inevitable when replacing rails, wires, and other fixed hardware.

Portland’s first light-rail line is only 28 years old, but it is already wearing out. Moreover, the most worn-out part happens to be a segment that all of Portland’s light-rail lines use. Shutting down this segment means shutting down the entire system.

TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, planned to have shuttle buses move passengers around the work, but the plan apparently didn’t work very well. To make matters worse, Portland temperatures rose above 90 degrees, leading TriMet to issue slow orders for all of its trains to avoid damage to wires or derailments due to kinks in the tracks. Funny; buses don’t have to slow down when the mercury rises.

TriMet claims that hardships created by the recent recession forced it to fall behind schedule in its trackwork. But this is just one more reason why transit agencies shouldn’t build rail lines: recessions can’t be predicted, and rails are a lot more sensitive to deferred maintenance than buses.

Speaking of buses, someone asked me for my response to APTA’s Art Guzzetti, who claimed a couple of months ago that my comparison of bus and rail was “fatally flawed” because my “methodology in determining capacity of buses vs. light-rail doesn’t include ‘dwell time,’ which is time riders spend paying fares, going up or down bus steps and so on.” I don’t know why he would think I failed to account for that.

Real-world observations of buses in San Antonio found that a single bus stop can handle 42 buses an hour. Portland uses a “skip stop” system in which there are four bus stops in every two blocks and all bus routes are assigned to one of the four stops. Using this system, Portland was able to schedule 160 buses per hour down a city street, only slightly below the capacity of 168 per hour if each stop can handle 42 per hour. All this is documented in a PowerPoint show on bus capacities by Portland State University professor Robert Bertini.

Moreover, my recent paper on rapid buses proposes that people pay to enter the bus stops (as they are supposed to do to enter light-rail stops), allowing them to quickly board buses without delays caused by fumbling for exact change. While this paper came out after Guzzetti made his comments, as a former transit agency executive, he should know that there is no reason why the subway turnstile system or light-rail’s honor system couldn’t be applied to buses with limited stops. Curitiba, Brazil, for example, uses a turnstile system with elevated bus platforms, allowing rapid entry to and exit from buses that should make it possible for a single bus stop to serve even more than 42 buses per hour.

Denver transit-oriented developments reflect planners’ misguided mania for density

August 16th, 2014

COST Commentary: O’Toole’s article below is about Denver, but it reflects the situation in numerous cities including Portland which was an even earlier city to impose urban planners’ “smart growth” with higher density and “transit oriented development” (TOD).

In Austin, Capital Metro announced TOD’s as a primary goal of it commuter rail line, now in its 5th year of operation, but ambitions have been scaled back as almost none have developed. The last rail stop, Leander, has substantially reduced the land area around its rail station which was zoned for TOD developments and other stations have not experienced the hyped development of TOD.

Austin’s experience is similar to Portland’s in the 1980s-1990s when, after 10 years of little development near rail, the City of Portland began an extensive finanacial incentive program to finally get developers to develop near train stations. These incentives reduced tax funds for basic city needs of police, emergency, education, roadways, etc. With billions of dollars spent on transit and the most light rail ridership in the nation, Portland still has traffic congestion similar to Austin.
Denver transit-oriented developments reflect planners’ misguided mania for density

By Randal O’Toole, The Complete Colorado, Op-ed, August 14, 2014

Over the past decade, three-, four-, and five-story apartment buildings have been built in the Denver area, especially along the routes of current and planned rail transit lines. These apartments, known as transit-oriented developments or TODs, are a part of the original FasTracks plan: first, build rail lines that don’t go where people want to go; and second, provide a customer base for the trains by building high-density, mixed-use housing along the rail lines.

TODs are just the latest version of a decades-old obsession urban planners have had with increasing urban densities regardless of the fact that most people prefer living in low-density areas. Some people blame this obsession on Agenda 21, a document written by a United Nations committee in 1992. But Agenda 21 doesn’t actually recommend increasing densities, while planners began trying to impose higher densities on American cities decades before Agenda 21 was written.

In the late nineteenth century, American cities were dense because most people could only afford to travel by foot and so everything–jobs, shops, and services–had to be within walking distance of residences. Early urban planners fretted that this density was unhealthy, unsanitary, and promoted crime, so they tried to find ways to move people to less dense areas.

Streetcars made it possible for the middle class to escape dense cities, but they were too expensive for many working-class commuters who remained confined to walking distances until Henry Ford developed the affordable Model T. By 1930, plenty of working-class suburbs had joined middle- and upper-class suburbs.

No one complained about suburban sprawl when the wealthy or middle class moved to the suburbs. But when working class families moved to the suburbs, suddenly complaints arose about people who had different tastes in clothing, food, and music and who supposedly had no appreciation for nature. The solution, said urban planners in the 1930s, was to forbid the expansion of the suburbs and instead house people (mainly the working classes) in “great new blocks of flats.”

In 1935, a Swiss architect named Le Corbusier proposed that cities tear down all existing housing and replace it with high rises for everyone to live in. After World War II, many European countries built hundreds of thousands of units of Corbusian high-rise housing, but mainly for the working classes while the middle- and upper-classes still lived in suburbs.

Similarly, the United States replaced “slums” with high rises for low-income families. These proved so unlivable that most have since been torn down.

In 1961, Jane Jacobs, a resident of Greenwich Village, New York, successfully stopped the conversion of her neighborhood into more sterile high rises.Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, argued that Greenwich Village’s four- and five-story apartments with ground floor shops were actually a vibrant, healthy neighborhood.

Jacobs’ book persuaded urban planners that high-rise residences were inappropriate for most people. Instead, they went on a crusade to transform all American cities and suburbs into Greenwich Villages: four- and five-story apartments with ground floor shops. TODs attempt to replicate Greenwich Village in Denver.

So don’t blame TODs on Agenda 21; blame urban planners’ love of Jane Jacobs.

There are several problems with imposing TODs by top-down mandates. First, most people don’t want to live that way. Some do, but the market for those who do was probably met by Denver’s Lower Downtown (LoDo) and other existing dense neighborhoods. So, to persuade developers to build unmarketable TODs, Denver and other cities have to subsidize them.

Second, TODs are expensive. Despite claims that TODs provide greener, more affordable housing, multifamily housing not only costs more per square foot, the Department of Energy reports that it uses more energy per square foot than single-family, probably because landlords have less of an incentive to insulate rental properties than homeowners. The only way TODs are affordable and green is if people live in smaller condos or apartments than the single-family homes they would otherwise prefer.

Third, TODs aren’t really all that transit oriented. University of California, Irvine, economist David Brownstone has found that the reduction in driving from higher densities is “too small to be useful” in saving energy, while careful counts by Portland’s Cascade Policy Institute reveal that people who live in TODs are just as likely to drive, and just as unlikely to take transit, as they would be if they lived elsewhere. TODs actually increase congestion because they concentrate more people on busy arterials.

In short, TODs are a counterproductive hoax urban planners are playing on residents of the Denver area. Taxpayers first pay huge subsidies to build rail transit. Then they subsidize TODs along the rail lines. Then those who get stuck living in TODs must sacrifice living space, privacy, and peace and quiet all to get the supposed advantage of living near the stop of a train that doesn’t go where they want to go, so they end up driving anyway.

Randal O’Toole (rot@i2i.org) is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, director of the Independence Institute’s transportation policy center, and author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.

Rail Bond Vote: Greatest Risk in History and Historic Tax Increase

July 31st, 2014

COST Commentary: Bill Oakey’s Blog continues to uncloak the hidden tax burdens buried in the City of Austin’s light rail proposal. The article below and others expose the truth that this rail proposal is unfordable and will result in increasing tax burden for all citizens.

This rail will double the Austin debt per capita and allow little remaining bonding capability for other community needs over many future years. In fact, there will be no capability to finance planned rail expansions beyond this “initial investment.” Yet, the City states: This system will only be effective with “much more to come” and they present a 20 year ‘build-out” concept, costing more than $5 billion. In reality, this first bond will ‘tie the hands’ of the new 10-1 City Council and prevent them from addressing key challenges of mobility and affordability which will make Austin more livable.

In addition to being unaffordable, this light rail is a major transportation detriment to Austin and its citizens, as described in many postings on this site.

Rail Bond Vote Would Bring Historic Tax Increase

By Bill Oakey – July 30, 2014

If anyone thinks the property tax impact of an annual City Council budget battle is something to worry about, please consider this. For the last two years, the budget discussions have centered around changing the City’s tax rate by a tiny fraction of one penny. That’s because our tax appraisals have skyrocketed, meaning that even a zero change in the tax rate would yield a considerable tax increase.

Well, make sure you are sitting down when you read this. If voters approve the $1 billion urban rail and road bond package in November, they can say hello to a 6 cent increase in the property tax rate over the next five years. The sobering details are contained in a City document called “General Obligation Bond Capacity Analysis.” You can read it here.

What Would Happen to Our Bond Debt If the Rail Bonds Pass?

That’s an easy question to answer. It would flat out double! Our current general obligation debt, made up of previous bond votes for roads, parks, libraries, open space, and housing stands at about $1 billion. So, in one fell swoop we would double our debt by voting for the rail and road package. And the worse part is that it would do essentially nothing to relieve traffic congestion for most existing residents.

In fact, Austin won’t even come close to attaining the ridership levels needed for Federal funding for the urban rail line unless we reach extremely optimistic, massive growth projections. The developers pushing for the rail line from Riverside to Highland Mall would need to convince voters of the “miracle” in economic development potential that the project would bring. And yet, as one Austin American-Statesman reader wrote to the editor recently, “Well, thank goodness they are building a line from Riverside to Highland Mall, because I travel between those two points all the time. SAID NO ONE EVER!”

What the City Report Says About Taxes, the Debt and Our Bond Rating

Here is a snapshot of some of the report’s most significant facts and conclusions:

1. Our current general obligation debt is about $1 billion.

2. We still have an additional $425 million in 2006-2013 bonds left to issue.

3. The City estimates that another $425 million will be needed in a separate bond election in 2018, on top of the $1 billion in rail and road bonds to be voted on this November.

4. In order to preserve our AAA bond rating, we would need to raise property taxes by 6 cents between 2015 and 2020 if all of the bonds pass.

5. Not only would the property tax rate increase by 6 cents, but the City estimates that property tax appraisals will jump by over 25%! Their example shows a $200,000 home being assessed at $255,000 by 2020. So, the tax impact would multiply exponentially.

Don’t Forget About All the Other Tax Increases!

None of the above estimates include the back to back tax increases for the main part of the City Budget, plus utility rate increases and add-on fees, and taxes for AISD, Travis County, ACC, and Central Health. And don’t forget that ACC will be asking for a $386 million dollar bond package this November as well.

So, as long as your career is rocking along with huge pay raises every six months or so, or your retirement income is zooming past inflation and leaving you with extra piles of cash, then you can easily afford to vote for the rail bonds. But if you’re like the vast majority whose income is flat or even decreasing, then make sure you pass this information along to your friends and ask them to cast a resounding NO vote in November.

Austin’s Urban Rail has Many Unanswered Questions

July 13th, 2014

By Jim Skaggs, COST, May 20, 2013 - Updated July 13, 2014

COST Commentary: More than three years ago, Austin’s Mayor Leffingwell published 30 excellent questions which he suggested needed to be answered prior to proceeding with urban rail. Additional questions were posed by COST following the Mayor’s questions and the Austin Chamber of Commerce developed a list of questions and comments. The Mayor’s questions, COST’s questions and the Chamber’s questions/comments are below. There are some overlapping areas in the three sets.

COST agrees with the Mayor that his questions, as well as the other important questions need to be answered before proceeding with urban rail. Unfortunately, the City’s pursuit of light rail has proceeded with little recognition of the vast majority of questions or the importance of the answers.

COST’s assessment is that most of the questions currently remain unanswered and the millions of dollars spent on planning urban rail do not seem to be focused on first answering the key questions. In fact, a few of the most important questions on the list should have been answered long before spending many millions of taxpayer dollars. With increasing city property taxes, energy rates, water rates, etc., it is vital that taxpayer funds be spent as effectively as possible.

As the plan has unfolded, we also see the troubling decision by Cap Metro and the City for the urban rail operation to be to be assumed by Cap Metro. Cap Metro’s transit effectiveness has already been significantly degraded by their Red Line commuter rail and will face further major degradation assuming the financial obligations to operate the urban rail. This will siphon taxpayer funds from the backbone bus system and Cap Metro reports it will require them to assume bond debt to purchase buses. Texas law does not allow Cap Metro to assume long term bond debt without voter approval. This will, likely, further reduce the agency’s ability to improve its bus effectiveness and can result in higher bus fares just as occurred with the Red Line. This will disproportionately have negative impacts on low income citizens who need transit in their daily lives and have no alternative.

Disappointing, if not unconscionable, were facts revealed in a rail presentation to the Mayor’s Transit Working Group (TWG) in 2013. It essentially indicated the rail planning effort had done little in the previous 2 years to answer the key questions below. Basically, the planning was restarted with the stated goal of a “Comparative Evaluation of Alternatives.” This ‘Alternatives Analysis should have been the first step several years ago before spending millions of tax dollars on much wasted planning effort. Unfortunately this “restart” did not result in an independent and competent ‘Alternatives Analysis.’ As of this date this key step has not been completed. Basically the rail study started with the question: Where should the rail route be placed?

COST has made the point many times that urban rail was a “predetermined solution to an ill-defined problem” and that a responsible ‘Alternative Analysis’ had not been performed (see: Austin Transit Working Group Meetings: Critique and Comment) . There can be no federal funding without a federally approved Alternatives Analysis. The overwhelming level of government funding requests and the poor condition of the federal budget makes it unlikely Austin will receive significant assistance. Cap Metro promised voters but received no funds from the Federal government for their commuter rail.

A competent alternatives analysis and answers to the many important, unanswered questions below can take up to two years. This makes it irresponsible for the city to proceed with an urban rail bond referendum for the November, 2014 election as being promoted by the Mayor. This election schedule suggests a strongly predetermined conclusion that urban rail is the solution and an unbiased, objective analysis will not be conducted. All those responsible for overseeing and planning urban rail have a strong, vested interest.

Once again, Urban Rail is the beginning of spending billions of tax dollars resulting in significant tax increases and no congestion benefit. COST believes there has not been a problem thoroughly defined which justifies this “highest cost project in the history of Austin” and that this wasteful spending of billions of tax dollars will substantially degrade the quality of life of all Austin citizens.

Although these rail questions remain unanswered by the City, there are many real experiences and comprehensive studies which basically answer most of the key questions as discussed in articles on the COST web site.

The article “24 Key “Guiding Principles” for Austin Area Transportation and Mobility” directly relates to this article by providing proven, guiding principles which are important to follow in order to avoid further careless spending of taxpayer funds while pretending to answer the questions below when those leading the effort have already determined the rail outcome. Almost none of these key principles are being followed in the Urban Rail evaluation process.

Mayor Leffingwell’s 30 Questions April, 2011

1. What will be the exact route, including the river crossing of phase one of the urban rail system?
2. What about phase two?
3. What is the anticipated route of subsequent expansions?
4. How much will construction of phase one cost?
5. Of Phase Two?
6. How much are subsequent expansions expected to cost on a per mile basis?
7. How will construction costs of phase one be financed?
8. Of phase two?
9. Of subsequent expansions?
10. What entity will operate the system?
11. What will phase one cost to operate on an annual basis?
12. What about phase two?
13. What are subsequent phases expected to cost to operate annually?
14. How will the capital costs be financed?
15. How will the operational costs be financed?
16. What will it cost to ride?
17. What are the ridership projections for phase 1?
18. For phase?
19. For subsequent expansions?
20. Will the system help reduce traffic congestion Downtown?
21. What about outside of Downtown?
22. Will it reduce traffic congestion traveling in and out of Downtown?
23. What are the other benefits of the urban rail system to Austin and the region?
24. If approved in November 2012, when would construction of phase two begin?
25. If approved in November 2012, when would phase one be operational?
26. When would construction of phase two begin?
27. When would phase two be operational?
28. When would subsequent expansions be expected to begin?
29. What are the plans to mitigate the impact on vehicle traffic and local businesses during construction?
30. What are the major unknown factors that could significantly impact the answer to any of these questions?
COST’s 30 Additional urban rail questions:

1. How does Austin expect to achieve more effective train transit and cost-effective service than that experienced by almost all cities which have implemented rail transit?
a. A sub question is: Many cities have hit a “financial wall” when it is time to replace worn-out train systems because they have no source of funds. Question: How would Austin plan to fund the billions to replace aging train systems and federal assistance is not likely?

2. What will be the increase in local taxes to fund transit due to establishment of “duplicate” transit agency overheads at Cap Metro and the city? Other Texas city regions and cities in other states have implemented transit limited to one-penny sales tax. The City’s urban rail will be a major transit cost increase to the one-penny Cap Metro spends. Cap Metro is essentially bankrupt at this point.

3. Have the priority, and any major secondary, purposes and objectives of the Urban Light Rail system been clearly articulated such that performance measures can be established?

4. What are acceptable performance measures for the system?

5. What will provide the confidence that the urban rail will perform better than the transit systems of Dallas, Houston and Austin as the three have spent billions of dollars to increase transit ridership and implemented significant train transit, but, the total ridership is less today than 15 years ago?

6. Has a thorough and objective “alternatives analysis’ been conducted to determine the most effective transportation method to achieve the stated purposes and objectives?

7. Is each phase of the Light Rail system financially sustainable for the capital/implementation and for long term operations?

8. What is the cost effectiveness of each phase of the Light Rail system and what are the taxpayer subsidies for the system’s capital and implementation and for its operation? For each phase, there should be a minimum of the following including capital/ implementation and operating costs:
a. The average cost and taxpayer cost subsidy for an average rider.
b. Cost and taxpayer subsidy per passenger mile & per trip.
c. The marginal cost to add one more transit rider.

9. How many new transit riders are added to the current transit system by the proposed new Light Rail?

10. What is the impact of urban rail on overall social equity? Will it have similar impacts as Cap Metro’s Red Line commuter rail which increased fares and reduced the backbone bus service for mostly low income riders who do not have alternatives in favor of higher income train riders who mostly have alternatives? Will transit dependent citizens disproportionately bear the burden of this expensive rail and basically subsidize those higher income citizens who have a transportation choice?

11. What is the cost of the bus shuttle system which will be required to support the train? Cap Metro has buses stationed at several RED Line commuter stops to shuttle people to or nearer their destinations.

12. Where will the parking lots/structures be located to collect people coming to downtown so they can park, catch a train, and complete their trip into and out of downtown?

13. What is the cost of these parking facilities and what is the planned parking capacity and fee structure.

14. Will the Light Rail system enhance or degrade transit service and costs for citizens depending on daily service and primarily without alternatives?

15. Does the Light Rail’s operation on the street, mingling with people and street vehicles, increase or decrease safety hazards?

16. Will the system reduce congestion and enhance or decrease mobility for most Austin citizens?

17. Will the system carry more people faster, more reliably and more cost effectively than alternatives?

18. Does the system enhance Austin’s visual environment or result in unsightly views of poles, wires, rigs connecting trains to power wires and boarding platforms such as will be viewed up Congress Avenue to the Capital?

19. Will the system enhance or degrade neighborhoods it passes through: view, noise, safety, congestion?

20. Will the system disrupt or eliminate the use of downtown streets, such as Congress Avenue, for traditional civic and charity events?

21. Does the system effectively enhance development goals for the community’s greater good or is it wasteful subsidizing of developers by taxpayers?

22. How will the system integrate with Cap Metro’s transit system regarding service and fares?

23. At realistic ridership numbers, does the system have an air quality benefit or detriment? The Red Line Commuter was promoted as an air quality benefit but is a significant detriment.

24. Does the system enhance or detract from Austin’s desirability from a citizen and visitor viewpoint?

25. This rail will be the largest project in Austin’s history. How do we assure its funding and sustainability in a way which does not degrade overall quality-of-life by reducing fundamental, priority city services.

26. Previously the city has indicated they may gamble by paying and risking the full cost of the initial urban rail segment and expect major Federal Government funding for following segments. The Federal Government has indicated a desire for cities to use Bus Rapid Transit in many cases where it will do an equal or better job because it has many times the request for transit money than will be available. With major national budget issues and proposed bills which preclude the level of federal participation assumed by Austin, is this a reasonable risk for the city to take? The down-side of the Federal Government not participating as assumed is very ugly for Austin. It leaves a very ineffective rail segment and a strained city budget with the possibility of a similar “bankruptcy” to that which Cap Metro ended up with at the end of the track. All citizens will suffer.

27. How do current and future developments and trends impact the ability of outdated train technology to provide effective transit mobility which is cost-effective? Consider:
a. The fastest growing “mode” of work trips is working at home or telecommuting.
b. The 2010 census indicates a trend in reduced density for central urban cores and increased density for outer urban areas.
c. New transportation technology and approaches are being developed and studied such as:
1. Smarter and even driverless cars.
2. Demand response transit such as Cellular Mass Transit which can more cost-effectively
serve a much higher percentage of the communities transit needs.
d. There is a continuing decline in the percentage of a region’s jobs located in the urban core. Less than 10% of a regions jobs are in the average US city core. Austin is a little higher due to the concentration of State and UT employees, but the core percentage is declining.
e. Many people promote train transit as a 50-100 year “investment,” but it seems certain this 19th century technology will become even more outdated with each passing year, denying investment in the real American Dream.

28. Recognizing current trends and those expected to continue, are hub and spoke transit models appropriate for the future? Today’s transit routes are primarily focused on the “spokes” which take people from their living areas to the central city “hub”. Growing needs are from suburban population centers to suburban employment locations and centers.

29. Has Austin fully considered the reasons that a wave of recent cities have rejected urban rail transit systems in favor of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)? Due to major reductions in funding availability, the Federal Transit Administration has also encouraged cities to look carefully at BRT as it cost much less and can perform just as well as trains for most applications.

30. Isn’t the inflexible and very difficult to move nature of rail transit incompatible with an adolescent city like Austin where development patterns are not really known at this stage. For example: The new Waller Creek waterway area will probably become a major activity area and the current train transit routes will not serve it well.

Austin Chamber of Commerce Questions and Comments about urban rail:

1. Have we sufficiently identified the problem we are attempting to solve?

2. What are the city’s criteria for success?

3. How do we measure cost effectiveness or community benefit?

4. Is this the best use of the limited transportation funds? Would we as a community be better off investing in the Lone Star Rail Project?

5. What has the city done and what is the city doing to make sure land uses are compatible with and support the Urban Rail Program?

6. Urban rail should be accessible by current jobs, but not impede future growth.

7. How does this project proactively plan for intermodal connections?

8. In Texas we don’t have the legal framework (authority) to plan. We think land use will adapt to our infrastructure investment. How patient are we willing to be, how long are we willing to wait to see how the market reacts to our investment?

9. Cheap and widely available parking negatively impacts transit use.

10. Is it possible to have dedicated ROW along the entire route?

11. If we had dedicated ROW along the entire route:
a. What is the cost of the system?
b. What is the ridership on the system?
c. What are the headways?
d. How does this impact vehicular travel times? Other impacts?
e. How does this impact development opportunities?

12. If we had shared ROW along the entire route:
a. What is the cost of the system?
b. What is the ridership of the system?
c. What are the headways?
d. How does this impact vehicular travel times? Other impacts?
e. How does this impact development opportunities?

13. How would connecting Urban Rail to the Red Line during the first phase impact ridership of the Red Line and the Urban Rail Project?

14. How would connecting Urban Rail to the Red Line during later phases impact ridership of the Red Line and the Urban Rail Project?

15. What would it cost to extend the Red Line further into downtown and connect to the Urban Rail Project closer into the urban core? How would this impact ridership on both systems?

16. How does the urban rail project connect to the Lone Star Rail project? How does this impact the ridership on both systems? Does this impact ridership on the Red Line?

17. Is there a cheaper alternative (rubber tired better bus on fixed guide way) that can be the Phase 1 for the project?

18. What peripheral support system would be required to make the system successful?

19. If we retrofit an existing bridge to cross Lady Bird Lake, would all or part of the bridge have to be closed to vehicular traffic during construction? How long would all or part of the bridge have to be closed to vehicular traffic? What travel time delays would vehicular traffic experience due to a partial or complete closure of a bridge?

20. Is Map A an additional route or in place of another route?

21. How do the multiple stations near/on the Red Line impact capital costs, operational costs, ridership, and potential development opportunities for both systems?

24 Key “Guiding Principles” for Austin Area Transportation and Mobility

July 13th, 2014

by Jim Skaggs, Coalition on Sustainable Transportation, first posted May 29, 2013 - revised July 13, 2014

This article was first written and posted more than a year ago. It is remarkable how few changes were necessary to bring it up to date.

We often hear glib, vague, politically secure comments regarding road congestion and the region’s transportation including: “We need all modes of transportation to address congestion including roads, buses, trains, and bicycles.” Or: “We need to offer alternatives to the car for citizens so they have choices for their trips.” Or: “Our growth rate will require trains someday.” Or: “We cannot solve our problems with roads alone.” Or: “We need trains because people will not ride buses.”

While most of these are unfounded statements, some of them and similar comments may have grains of reality and sound all-inclusive, considerate, caring and ‘politically correct,’ with a “feel good” resonance to them. Actually, they are shallow, superficial, mostly incorrect comments regarding a complex subject. These comments, too often, support biased, ideological or self-serving interest of people and lead to the ineffective prioritizing of transportation funds.

Then, there are frequent situations which Wendell Cox encapsulates neatly with this quote:
“Why is it that people have not abandoned their automobiles to switch to transit? Commentators often talk of America’s ‘love affair with the car,’ without recognizing a similar attachment to refrigerators, the Internet, and other modern conveniences. The attachment is to convenience and (affordable) products that enhance our lives.”
—Wendell Cox, “Transit Policy in an Era of the Shrinking Federal Dollar,” Heritage Backgrounder, Jan. 31, 2013.

According to the, Federally required, ‘Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s’ (CAMPO) 25 year transportation plan for the Austin region, almost 50% of the plan’s transportation dollars will be spent on public transit, primarily rail, to serve transit’s less than 1% of the region’s passenger miles traveled. Projections from CAMPO, Austin City, Capital Metro or any other organization do not indicate or support total transit ridership exceeding 1% of the regions passenger miles traveled. Therefore, public transit can have only minimal positive impact on congestion and significant negative impacts if implemented improperly.

It is not rocket science to project: If 50% of the transportation dollars are spent to serve 1% of traveler’s ‘passenger miles’, the remaining 99% of travelers will suffer increasing gridlock and congestion.

The simple truth is: There is not enough money in the region to provide “all modes” or “non-auto alternatives.” for everyone. It is possible to make dramatic improvements in constraining congestion by well-planned road improvements and other cost-effective actions, as already proven in this region.

The greatest positive impact on Austin transportation, public and private, can be achieved by improving road systems which were neglected for many years during strong population growth. Road improvements provide effective auto alternatives as well as substantially improving cost-effective regional transit alternatives which can better and more flexibly meet needs of today’s dispersed population and job markets.

The following guiding principles are intended to be used as guides in more effectively prioritizing the allocation of taxpayer transportation funds to better serve all citizens and the community as a whole. These principles are key but are not intended to be all inclusive. More can be found regarding each of these ‘Principles,’ and others in articles throughout this web site’s ‘News Articles’ section. e.g. - Recent posts include:

Austin Citizens Should Reject Urban Rail – 6 Major Reasons
If You Think Austin Needs Urban Rail, Read This Report
Project Connect’s Proposed Austin Urban Rail is Misguided.
12 Reasons Austin’s Urban Rail is Off-Track
Austin’s Urban Rail has Many Unanswered Questions
Auto Access to Jobs is Vital for Better Quality of Life

24 Key “Guiding Principles” for Austin Area Transportation and Mobility

1. An overarching principle is: Greater Mobility Provides Greater Quality of Life.
Throughout history, better human mobility has been associated with higher quality of life as mobility creates time efficiency and access to desires, opportunities and life’s offerings.

2. Private, motorized, road vehicles offer maximum freedom and mobility for people.
Ultimate mobility freedom and flexibility to go where and when desired is provided by private road vehicles; without competition for the vast majority of travelers and trips.

3. Overwhelming economic evidence links personal mobility with prosperity.
Freedom and prosperity benefits of the automobile have been substantial, enabling modern suburbia and powering a century of economic prosperity.

4. Increased road congestion is the primary cause of degraded human mobility.
Congestion constrains and degrades quality-of-life by limiting one’s ability to go where and when they wish/need to experience desired, quality-of-life outcomes.

5. Increased population density creates increased road congestion.The promotion of “mixed-use” and greater density (smart growth) ignores the fact that: in general, greater population density produces greater roadway congestion and air pollution.

6. Roads should be primarily funded by users of the roads.
More effective funding and transparency is promoted if all roads are fairly funded by all users to the greatest extent practical.

7. Austin’s, and other Texas cities,’ commuting by public transit has been trending down for many years.
The greatest use of transit is work trips, but, the Austin region’s 5th highest percentage (less than 2.5%) work trips, and total transit riders, have been on a declining trend for many years.

8. Public transit must be cost-effective to be sustainable.
Taxpayers highly subsidize all US transit which must be cost-effective; or, it cannot serve the maximum riders, who need it, with the most origins and destinations and it cannot be financially sustainable for the long run.

9. Bus transit is more cost-effective than rail in Austin today or 100 years from now.
Modern buses can meet or exceed every major performance characteristic of an Austin rail system for one-tenth to one-fifth the costs and are far more flexible to meet changing demands.

10. Traditional “hub and spoke” transit routes are inadequate for today’s demographics.
With under 10%, and falling, of regional employment in Austin’s ‘Central Business District’ (CBD); transit’s routing should change to a “grid” structure to better serve today’s needs.

11. Transit’s most important function is work trips for transit dependent citizens.
Work trips are up to about 50% of ridership, but transit serves only small segments of dispersed jobs and population with a small percentage of jobs reachable in an hour.

12. Ineffective, high-cost rail degrades overall public and private transportation.
High cost, low ridership rail raises overall transit costs and taxes; increases riders’ fares while reducing service; and, siphons funds from far more effective transportation projects.

13. Many cities have hit a “Financial Wall” with high cost rail.
Numerous rail cities have hit a ‘financial wall’ as their systems deteriorate; requiring many billions of dollars for replacement/upgrade for which there are no identified funding sources and unfunded liabilities are increasing at alarming rates in many transit agencies.

14. Variable toll lanes provide maximum people movement on road lanes.
Variable toll highway lanes, maintaining fairly constant speeds, effectively maximize the number of people which road lanes can carry including private, transit, commercial and emergency vehicles.

15. Variable toll lanes change driver behavior and reduce congestion.
Free-Choice, variable toll road lanes are effective in changing drivers’ travel-time behavior which reduces peak traffic period trips, reducing congestion on tolled and non-tolled lanes.

16. Low cost traffic improvements can be rapidly deployed and very cost-effective.
A number of lower cost improvements can be implemented quickly to provide faster, safer and more reliable travel: ramp metering, incident management, signal coordination, shared vehicles, etc.

17. Austin rail does not provide economic benefits commensurate with high costs.
Austin has been a top U.S. growth region for many years and not a single development was due to rail transit: Many cities have confirmed that taxpayers loose “big time” with rail.

18. Trains on busy downtown streets increase safety hazards and sight pollution.
Trains mingling with vehicles and pedestrians on busy, central, city streets create greater congestion and air pollution as well as greater safety hazards and ugly, sight pollution.

19. Rail will result in major degradation of Austin’s stated “Social Equity” intentions.Rail’s high cost and ineffective performance has major negative impacts on low income citizens including increases in taxes and transit fares, along with reductions in “backbone” bus transit service.

20. Two-way streets downtown are more congested and less safe than one-way.
Converting many downtown streets from one-way to two-way provides reduced vehicle capacity with increased congestion while reducing safety for vehicles and pedestrians.

21. Suburbanization reduces driving and helps provide housing affordability.
Increasing suburban living and dispersed job locations (“sprawl”) have resulted in a long trend of declining ‘daily vehicle miles traveled per capita’ and greater housing affordability.

22. Projections for rail costs are much too low and for ridership are much too high.
Almost all cities have projected much lower costs and much higher ridership than rail achieves and rail offers little advantage over buses, but, has major disadvantages.

23. High cost rail results in all citizens paying higher taxes with little benefit.
High cost rail systems result in higher taxes, directly or indirectly; e.g., commuter rail “bankrupt” Cap Metro and Austin city plans to spend excessive taxes on urban rail without a long-term financial plan.

24. The fundamentals have not changed since light rail was defeated in 2000.
Arguments against an Austin rail are much stronger today than in 2000 as additional, overwhelming, negative experiences, in many rail cities,’ has accumulated with the result:

The Proposed Urban (Light) Rail Transit still: COSTS TOO MUCH and DOES TOO LITTLE!

In addition, it requires many years of Tax Increases which provide negative benefits for all but a very tiny group of citizens being subsidized by all taxpayers. The City estimates the train will attract 6,500 new transit riders and, at the trains cost, each new rider will cost taxpayers more than $500,000. This does not count annual operating costs which will clearly be more than $30 million per year.

Voters must: Reject This Rail Referendum!

Austin’s Mission is Missing!

July 7th, 2014

COST Commentary: Bill Oaks has just posted a wonderful article, “What Is The Mission Of Austin, Texas - Or Do We Even Have One”, on his blog (Austin Affordability). His article addresses the key question posed by its title. Bill’s long history in Austin supports his extremely well presented articulation of key questions which Austin leaders need to urgently address as the City is facing numerous crossroads and major decisions which will dramatically affect the nature of Austin for many generations.

The article below by Wendell Cox discusses a book by Alain Bertaud, “Cities as Labor Markets” which relates to the question posed by Bill Oakey. A pertinent quote by Cox from his article is: “Cities are about people. Planning is justified to the extent that it facilitates the aspirations of people.” This thought does call into question numerous aspects of Austin’ current development plan, “Envision Austin,” which exhibits many of the shortcomings in the urban planning discussed in this article and in Bertaud’s book.

by Wendell Cox 03/06/2014

Former World Bank principal planner Alain Bertaud has performed an important service that should provide a much needed midcourse correction to urban planning around the world. Bertaud returns to the fundamentals in his “Cities as Labor Markets.”

Bertaud begins by reminding us that without well functioning labor markets, cities will not be successful. This requires mobility, which he defines as “the ability to move quickly and easily between locations within a metropolitan area” and “the ability to locate one’s house or one’s firm in any location within a metropolitan area.” This mobility, he maintains, is indispensable in facilitating growth of the city.

There is just one exception, according to Bertaud. These are retiree cities, which do not principally rely on mobility for their growth. Yet, Bertaud notes that these are themselves products of the much more numerous conventional cities, where mobility has facilitated growth and in which future retirees accumulate the resources that permit migration to the retirement cities.

There are also the planned cities for government, such as Brasilia and Washington. Bertaud contends that they have become successful because “more diversified labor market “was grafted” onto the government activities. “Before that, however: “The ‘cost is no object’ concept presided over their construction and insured their initial survival as they were financed by taxes paid by the rest of the country.” This should give pause to nations, especially in the developing world proposing to build and thereby divert resources from improving the lives of people (see; Unmanageable Jakarta Soon to Lose National Capital?).

Imaginary “Urban Villages”

Bertaud insists on the importance of cities as unified labor markets. Metropolitan areas will be hampered in their development and innovation to the extent that they are fragmented.
He is particularly critical of planning attempts to create “urban villages” within the unified labor markets (metropolitan areas). He contends that: “The urban village model” implies a systematic fragmentation of labor markets within a large metropolis and does not make economic sense in the real world.”
Bertaud does not accept the notion that:

“… everybody could walk or bicycle to work, even in a very large metropolis. To allow a city to grow, it would only be necessary to add more clusters. The assumption behind this model is either that urban planners would be able to perfectly match work places and residences, or that workers and employers would spontaneously organize themselves into the appropriate clusters.”

He is concerned at the “prevalence of this conceit in many urban master plans, “which he characterizes as “utopian trip patterns.”

According to Bertaud, the urban village “model does not exist in the real world because it contradicts the economic justification of large cities: the efficiency of large labor markets. “The cold water of reality is that “… the urban village model exists only in the mind of urban planners.”

Uncontained Self-Contained Satellite Towns

He supports his claim. Seoul’s satellite communities were intended to be self-contained towns (urban villages), in which most residents both lived and worked. Yet, most of the workers employed in the satellite towns live in other parts of the metropolitan area. At the same time, most of the residents of the satellite work in other parts of the Seoul metropolitan area. He cites Stockholm regulations requiring neighborhood jobs – housing balances as having no impact on shortening commute distances even when such a balance is achieved.

My own research using 2001 census data indicated that the London area new towns, also intended to be populated principally by people who work in them, had average work trip travel distances more than their diameter (See: Jobs-Housing Balance and Urban Villages in Southeast England). This means that large numbers of people were traveling to work outside the towns. In London as in Seoul, the planners can conceptualize the self-contained satellite towns, but it is beyond them to force the behaviors to make them work.

Similarly misguided efforts elsewhere, from the San Francisco Bay Area and other California metropolitan areas to Montréal and beyond are destined for similar failures.

Commuting and the City

Bertaud cites research by Remy Prud’homme and Choon Wong Lee at the University of Paris showing that the efficiency of cities tends to increase up so long as a large share of the commutes are less than 60 minutes, though optimal efficiency occurs at shorter commute distances. Lest there be any misunderstanding, American cities have average commute times of approximately 25 minutes, according the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, not the hour or two hour journeys of urban legends.

Defining the City

This large commuting radius makes it clear that Bertaud does not accept the distorted urban definition that would, for example, define the urban form to not extend beyond the borders of New York City, or worse beyond the Hudson, East and Harlem Rivers – the boundaries of the island of Manhattan. If the city is limited to dense cores, then the “half urban” world recently announced won’t be here for many decades. The city is the metropolitan area – the labor market, which extends to the far reaches of the commuting shed.

The Bottom Line

According to Bertaud, “Increasing mobility and affordability are the two main objectives of urban planning. These two objectives are directly related to the overall goal of maximizing the size of a city’s labor market, and therefore, its economic prosperity.”

That brings us back to first principles. Cities are about people. Planning is justified to the extent that it facilitates the aspirations of people. The city requires prosperity, which Bertaud shows in a much needed first installment of Urban Planning 101.
Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.
Note: Alain Bertaud’s “Cities as Labor Markets,” was published by the Marron Institute on Cities and the Urban Environment at New York University and is intended to be a chapter in his forthcoming book, tentatively titled Order without Design.

Austin’s Declining Affordability and Urban Rail

June 29th, 2014


COST Commentary: The blog “AustinAffordability.com“, by Bill Oakey, focuses on Austin’s affordability concerns. As noted in the blog, there are many affordability issues. For many years the Austin City Council has demonstrated careless management of Austin budgets and costs. The City’s public policies have produced continuing, irresponsible increases in property taxes and numerous fees with inequitable allocations of the burden across its citizens and businesses.

The City Council has been reckless in not establishing spending limits with priorities which serve the greater good of the community today, and for the long run, while maintaining a sensible balance with affordability for citizens. Austin’s debt has increased to about $10,000 per man, women and child. Property taxes and fees are increasing much faster than inflation.

On top of this current situation, the City Council is proposing a 9.5 mile urban rail which will be the largest transportation project in the city’s history and this project is only the “initial investment” in an envisioned city wide rail system which has not yet been defined. It has no estimated costs and no schedule. It will clearly be billions of dollars, maybe tens of billions, over a very long period and will overlay and substantially increase the already announced property tax increase for the “initial investment.” As noted in several recent postings to this site, this rail will be totally ineffective in addressing the city’s congestion and its extremely high costs will siphon finite dollars from far more productive uses; result in major property tax increases; reduce the backbone bus service and increase transit fares for primarily lower income citizens who have no choice.

Like “water drop torture,” this continuing increase in taxes and fees is lowering quality of life for many citizens to the point they have no choice but to leave Austin. One “leading edge” indicator of this is the decline of families and public school enrollment in Austin. This is similar to the decline of school enrollment in Portland, Oregon which began with the implementation of draconian land use and growth regulations in the 1970s. Transportation policies led to the beginning of a major light rail transit system in the 1980s. This all resulted in rising unaffordability and public school enrollment declined about 40% from its high of over 80,000.

Austin was slower to follow Portland’s development and regulation path, but, has picked up momentum in the past 15 years. Mimicking Portland, Austin’s housing affordability index has risen more than 19% in the past 7 years and is rapidly closing the gap with Portland. Portland’s current affordability index of 4.8 (median house price divided by median household income) is lower than its peak of 5.1 in 2007, but, is still 30% higher than Austin’s 3.7. Austin’s is closing the gap with Portland as Austin’s index has risen from 3.1 in 2006 to become the most unaffordable major city in Texas by a wide margin. (Note: A “Housing Affordability Index” of 3.0 or below is considered affordable and above 3.0 is increasingly unaffordable. An increasing index means housing prices are becoming higher relative to household income)

Austin’s public school enrollment started to drop 3 years ago from a high of about 85,000. This to be very similar to Portland’s earlier experience resulting in the closure of many schools.

Portland’s transit agency also has a huge, unfunded liability in employee retirement obligations which resulted in the agency’s head stating they would be forced to cut transit by up to 70% if new funding sources were not established. Almost all of Austin’s “peer” cities have a significantly less affordability index than Austin and Austin is the only one without a major rail system and rail commitment.

Austin has become the fastest growing region in the nation and none of it is due to rail. The real question is: Should Austin mimic the failed rail approaches of many of its peer cities or should it use it’s demonstrated creativity and innovation to continue to outperform these peer cities as it has for the past several years.

Note: The affordability data discussed in this posting can be found in: 10th Annual Demographia
International Housing Affordability Survey: 2014″

Project Connect’s Proposed Austin Urban Rail is Misguided

June 28th, 2014

Updated: June 28, 2014

COST Commentary: The papers below discuss Austin’s proposed urban rail. This would be the most expensive project in the city’s history; with the potential for major negative overall benefits and long term tax increases for all citizens. These papers are by Randal O’Toole, one of the nation’s foremost rail transit experts. They address light rail transit in general and specifically Austin’s proposed urban rail (light rail). The first, short paper is an op-ed published in the Austin-American Statesman on June 2, 2014. The second is a longer critique of Project Connect’s Austin rail plan.

Although often criticized as “anti-rail,” Mr. O’Toole is a “life-long lover” of trains, having taken his first train trips as a toddler. Since the formation of Amtrak in the early 1970s, he has traveled more than 200,000 miles on U.S. and Canadian trains as well as trains in Europe, Australia, and Asia.

Mr. O’Toole helped restore to operation the nation’s second-most powerful steam locomotive, the Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700. He also maintains a large web site called “Streamliner Memories” which details the history of passenger trains in America.

O’Toole states: “While I think riding in a dome car is the most elegant form of intercity travel, I don’t believe other people should have to subsidize my hobby.”

As pointed out in this paper, the spending of a significant portion of Austin’s finite transportation dollars on high cost, ineffective urban rail, to support a tiny portion of the area’s trips, will degrade the region’s overall mobility with increased congestion on the roads and will reduce the share of public transit riders with higher fares and decreased bus service.

This rail will result in major tax increases for all taxpayers but will serve a very small portion of the population. This will contribute to Austin’s growing un-affordability, degrade its transit and transportation systems, increase gentrification and slow economic growth.

Also, see COST’s site for: Austin Citizens Should Reject Urban Rail – 6 Major Reasons and numerous other related articles under News Articles.

CATO Institute recently released Randal O’Toole’s Policy Analysis:The Worst of Both, The Rise of High-Cost, Low Capacity Rail Transit.” This is an extensive analysis of rail transit throughout the United States and the world.
O’Toole: Buses are a better bet than rail for Austin

Posted: 12:00 a.m. Monday, June 2, 2014

By Randal O’Toole - Special to the American-Statesman

The city of Austin and Capital Metro are once again planning a light rail line, “Project Connect,” which will cost more than $1 billion to connect East Riverside Drive & Grove Street with downtown and then north to Highland Mall. Advocates say light rail can carry more people than buses, but they are wrong: buses can carry far more people, faster, more safely, and for far less money than building a new rail line.

Project Connect revealed its bias in favor of rail in its calculation of bus capacities, which assumed an exclusive bus lane could handle just one bus every three minutes. Why so few? Observations by Portland State University have found that a single bus stop can serve more than 40 buses per hour, and cities can stagger bus stops, with four stops every two blocks, allowing one bus every 22 seconds.

If that isn’t enough, bus capacities can be increased further with double-decker buses now being used in Las Vegas, Seattle, and other cities. These buses have more seats than a light-rail car and can move 18,000 people per hour, far more than any light-rail line.

Capacity isn’t really the issue, however, as Project Connect planners estimate that only about 16,000 to 20,000 people per day would ride the light rail, with no more than 2,500 per hour during rush hour. The real issue is cost: why should taxpayers spend more than $1 billion to move fewer than a third of a percent of the region’s more than 6 million person-trips per day?

Buses can share city streets with other vehicles, keeping infrastructure costs low, and can go to many different destinations so fewer people need to transfer from one vehicle to another.

By comparison, light rail is expensive to build, expensive to expand, and expensive to maintain, while the rail cars only go where tracks go.

Project Connect estimates light rail will cost close to $150 million per mile. In contrast, the MoPac Express Lanes now under construction, which will give Capital Metro buses an uncongested alternative 24 hours a day, are costing less than $20 million per mile, part of which will be covered by tolls paid by drivers of low-occupancy vehicles. The MoPac lanes are expected to move 50,000 vehicles per day.

Many people imagine light rail is rapid transit. In fact, planners estimate the trains will average only about 22 miles per hour, and this is probably high.

Other light-rail lines that stop every half a mile, as Project Connect plans, average less than 18 miles per hour. Buses on express lanes can go 60 miles per hour.

The willingness of many people to support expensive light-rail lines when buses can carry more people for less money shows they really don’t care about transportation. For the City of Austin and Capital Metro, a major reason to push light rail is to get “free” federal dollars.

A federal grant program called New Starts promises to cover at least half the cost of new rail lines, and cities that choose the most expensive technologies get the most dollars. Of course, local taxpayers have to cover the other half of the construction cost, plus most maintenance costs, which are many times higher than for buses.

Light rail is a waste of money and a poor choice for any transit corridor. Project Connect should use available funds to improve transportation for everyone, not the relative handful of people who will ride light rail.

Randal O’Toole (rot@cato.org) is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of “The Worst of Both: The Rise of High-Cost, Low-Capacity Rail Transit.”

Review of Project Connect
by Randal O’Toole, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute
May 28, 2014

Executive Summary

Project Connect—a planning consortium sponsored by the City of Austin, Capital Metro, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, and Lone Star Rail—proposes to build a 9.5-mile, high-capacity transit line in Austin from East Riverside & Grove to Austin Community College’s Highland campus. Transit vehicles would follow a dedicated guideway—either rails or an exclusive busway—with trains or buses stopping about every one-half mile. Although buses are being considered as an alternative, it is clear that Project Connect planners already favor rail, as a presentation by Project Connect concludes, “Urban Rail is the appropriate mode to meet system needs.”[1]

There are several problems with this proposal. First, the proposed rail line is not truly high-capacity transit; though Project Connect has failed to admit it, buses can actually move more people than light rail. While light rail can move about 9,000 people per hour—most of them standing—double-decker buses on city streets can potentially move 18,000 people per hour—most of them comfortably seated.

Second, the line is projected to cost $1.38 billion, but planners have failed to demonstrate the need for an expensive, dedicated guideway system of either bus or rail. In fact, the peak-hour demand projected for the line is well below the capacity of either system considered. Austinites make more than six million person trips per day, of which the light-rail line would carry less than a third of a percent. Yet constructing the light-rail line would consume 5 percent of the region’s transportation budget for the next 25 years, and operations and maintenance would increase the cost still further. By comparison, the MoPac Express Lanes now under construction cost one-seventh as much as the light rail yet are expected to significantly reduce congestion and move four times as many people per day.

Finally, project planners have greatly overestimated the benefits of the proposed line. Far from relieving congestion, light rail will make it worse as it will have priority at traffic signals, disrupting the flow of traffic for everyone else. Far from providing people with speedy travel, its speeds will average no more than 22 miles per hour and, more likely, less than 18 miles per hour. Far from providing clean transportation, light rail will require fossil fuels to generate the electricity it needs; power plants for Dallas’ light-rail system use more energy and emit more carbon dioxide per passenger mile than the average sport-utility vehicle. Far from promoting economic development, light rail is liable to slow it down as the taxes required to support it will discourage businesses from moving to Austin.

For much less than the cost of a single fixed-guideway transit line serving a few travelers, Austin can both improve bus service and relieve traffic congestion for all travelers. Traffic signal coordination, staggered bus stops in high-demand areas, increased bus frequencies, double-decker buses on high-demand routes, and the construction of more HOT lanes will smooth traffic flows and provide better transportation for everyone in the Austin area.

Transit Capacity

Rail advocates frequently call light rail “high-capacity transit.” In fact, light rail is by definition low-capacity transit, as the term “light” refers not to weight but to capacity.[2] While heavy rail (subways and elevateds) operates in exclusive rights of way, most light-rail lines sometimes operate in or cross city streets. Trains can therefore be no longer than a city block, which in Austin means three-car trains. This greatly limits the capacity of light rail relative to heavy rail, which typically operates trains as long as eight to eleven cars.

Nor are light-rail capacities greater than buses. Although an individual light-rail car may hold more passengers than a single bus, for safety reasons most light-rail systems can move no more than about 20 trains per hour in each direction. By comparison, studies by Portland State University researchers have found that a single bus stop can serve more than 40 buses per hour.[3] Portland has staggered bus stops in its most heavily used corridor so there are four stops every two blocks, meaning the corridor can move more than 160 buses per hour in each direction.

Project Connect ignores such bus capacities, basing its analysis on an assumed maximum of 20 buses per hour. This artificial maximum illustrates Project Connect’s bias against buses.

Project Connect says a light-rail car can carry 170 passengers, while a bus can carry 85 passengers.[4] Reflecting the planners’ bias towards rail, the first number is probably high; the second is low. Light-rail cars typically have about 65 to 70 seats. While manufacturers may claim a standing room capacity of 100 people or more, Americans are not willing to crowd in this tightly. About 70 to 80 standing passengers is a more realistic maximum, for a total capacity of about 150 people.

Standard 40-foot buses have about 40 seats and standing room for about 20 people. The buses being considered by Project Connect are likely articulated buses (buses pulling a trailer). These buses have about 60 seats and room for 25 or so people standing. But this technology has been rendered obsolete by new double-decker buses now being used by transit agencies in Las Vegas and other American cities. These buses, whose heights can be as low as 13.5 feet, have about 80 seats, room for at least 30 people standing, and occupy a much smaller footprint than articulated buses (42 feet vs. 60 feet), making them more nimble and less of a contributor to congestion. They are also more energy-efficient per seat mile.

Operating as single cars every three minutes, light rail can move about 3,000 people per hour. Increasing train length to three cars pushes this to 9,000 people per hour. By comparison, single-decker 40-foot buses on staggered bus stops can move more than 10,000 people per hour, while double-decker buses can move more than 18,000 people per hour.

Unlike the trains, the buses can continue beyond the end of the corridor, fanning out to serve many neighborhoods and allowing more people to ride without transferring between bus or car and rail. Moreover, with 80 seats per bus, a much higher share of passengers will get to ride in comfortable seats rather than standing precariously as railcars lurch through starts and stops.

Project Connect says that one of the advantages of rail is that it is “scalable for special events.”[5] The truth is that buses are far more scalable because the cost per passenger is about the same for any level of passengers between 40 and 18,000 per hour. In addition, buses have a wide choice of routes, while railcars can only go where rails go.

Rail is not scalable at all, as the first increment requires a huge capital investment. After that, increasing train lengths requires buying more cars (currently costing well over $4 million each compared with under $400,000 each for standard buses and $650,000 for double-decker buses), lengthening train platforms, and expanding storage tracks for those cars. Buses are not only less expensive than railcars, they are inexpensive to park and require no special loading platforms.

SuperBowl spectators discovered the lack of rail scalability this year when more than half of all SuperBowl patrons had to take transit to the game. Those who chose rail faced three-hour wait times in both directions.[6] Those who took buses had no wait problems.[7]

Project Connect estimates that the buses in its analysis would cost $900,000 to $1.0 million.[8] This cost is valid for articulated buses, but double-decker buses are less expensive. For example, earlier this year MegaBus purchased double-decker intercity buses, with such amenities as leather seats, power ports at each seat, and WiFi, for $700,000 each.[9] Even though buses have a shorter lifespan than rail vehicles, their cost per seat-mile or seat-year is far less. At $700,000 with seating and standing capacity of 105 people and a 12-year lifespan, buses cost about $550 per person per year. At $4.4 million with a capacity of 150 people and a 25-year lifespan, railcars cost twice as much at $1,100 per person per year even before counting the higher cost of rail infrastructure.

As the Cascade Policy Institute pointed out with regards to a light-rail line in Portland that cost about the same as the proposed Austin line, for the cost of light rail, a transit agency could buy enough luxury double-decker buses, complete with free WiFi, leather seats, and headrest televisions, to double existing bus service in the corridor and to operate those buses 24 hours a day, free of charge to transit riders (who would also get free coffee and doughnuts), for 150 years. When compared with light rail, this would save enough money to buy every high school freshman in Portland a new iPad and MacBook Air every year, also for 150 years.[10]


Project Connect estimates that the proposed transit guideway will attract about 15,000 to 20,000 passengers per day, with peak weekday ridership reaching 2,500 people per hour.[11] This is much smaller than the capacity of either bus or rail transit, which leads to the question of why Project Connect planners even think Austin should spend more than $1 billion on a dedicated guideway.

According to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2035 transportation plan, Austinites take more than 6 million person-trips each weekday.[12] The 2035 plan also says that the region’s transportation budget over 25 years is $28.4 billion, or slightly more than $1 billion per year to build, operate, and maintain highways, transit, and bike/pedestrian paths.[13] Project Connect proposes to spend more than an entire year’s worth of the region’s transportation funding on less than a third of a percent of the region’s travelers.

Buses using streets shared with other vehicles can provide service that is only slightly inferior to buses or rail on dedicated guideways. Light rail tends to be faster than buses mainly because it stops less frequently than conventional bus service: typically about one stop per mile vs. seven or eight stops per mile for ordinary bus service. The great advantage of sharing streets with other vehicles is that the cost of those streets can be spread to many more vehicles, so the effective cost to transit services is very low.

The main disadvantage of operating buses in streets shared with other vehicles is that the streets may become congested at times. Dedicated guideways allow transit riders to escape this congestion. But given the high cost of dedicated guideways and the small number of riders, it makes more sense to spend funds on things that reduce congestion for everyone, rather than the relative handful of people who ride transit.

For example, high-occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes such as the MoPac Express Lanes that are now under construction offer a congestion-free alternative to regular lanes and cost far less per mile than a rail line. Project Connect planners estimate the 9.5-mile rail route will cost $1.38 billion, or $145 million per route mile (with two rail miles per route mile), all to carry no more than 20,000 trips per day.[14] By comparison, the MoPac Express Lanes are expected to cost $200 million for eleven miles, or less than $20 million per route mile (with two lane miles per route mile). These lanes are expected to carry more than 50,000 vehicle trips per day in 2015, growing to nearly 75,000 per day in 2035.[15] Since vehicle occupancies average more than 1.6 people per car, this represents more than 80,000 person trips per day in 2015, more than four times as many as urban rail for one-seventh of the cost.[16]

Unlike light rail, HOT lanes not only give travelers a speedy, congestion-free alternative, they significantly reduce congestion on the nearby untolled lanes. Before the 183A toll road opened, rush-hour travelers required 36 minutes to go the 11.5 miles on US 183 from the San Gabriel River to RM 620. After 183A opened, travelers paying to use the toll road made this same trip in just 13 minutes, but travelers going on the untolled US 183 required just 19 minutes, a savings of nearly 50 percent from before the toll road was opened.[17]

When combined with the recently completed Manor Expressway and the older 183A toll road, these three projects of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority relieve congestion on more than three times as many miles of corridors as the Project Connect’s light-rail line, yet cost less than that line. Moreover, the cost of HOT lanes is shared among many users, greatly reducing the cost attributable to transit riders. Since the cost of these lanes is at least partly covered by toll revenues, it would make more sense for Capital Metro to invest in a network of HOT lanes throughout the region so that it can provide congestion-free bus service to everyone rather than just the small number of people riding limited rail systems such as MetroRail and the proposed urban rail.

Though Project Connect’s estimate of 15,000 to 20,000 riders per day is well below bus or rail capacities, this estimate may be high. To validate it, Project Connect compares ridership per mile with other light-rail lines, including lines in Virginia Beach, Charlotte, Phoenix, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Houston.[18] When compared with these systems, Project Connect’s projection of about 1,900 people per mile seems reasonable.

Project Connect, however, neglected to consider many light-rail systems that get far lower ridership, including systems in Baltimore (900 trips per mile), Cleveland (600), Dallas (1,000), Pittsburgh (1,000), Sacramento (1,200), Salt Lake City (1,600), San Jose (800), and St. Louis (1,100).[19] Given that (as detailed below) the Austin light-rail line will likely operate as slower speeds than the average line in America, it will probably also attract fewer riders per mile than average.

Project Connect also claims that many light-rail systems ended up carrying more riders than projected. However, this is deceptive because transit agencies frequently lower their projections after persuading politicians and the public to build rail lines. When new lines open, they may carry more than the lowered projections but less than the original projections that were used to persuade people to build the line.

For example, the original projection for Denver’s most recent (West) light-rail line was that it would carry 29,100 weekday riders. By the time it opened, this projection had been reduced to 19,300 weekday riders. This allowed the agency to claim it was a success by the later projection when actually it was a failure by the original projection.


Austin may be the fastest-growing urban area in the nation, having grown by nearly 65 percent between 2000 and 2012. In such a dynamic urban area, travel patterns change frequently. It is worth noting, for example, that Austin has considered several light-rail proposals in recent years, and each proposal has been for a different route, reflecting these rapidly changing travel patterns. Whatever route is picked could easily become obsolete soon after, or even before, construction is complete.

Advocates of Project Connect often refer to Austin’s growing traffic congestion. Yet light rail is far more likely to increase congestion than to reduce it. To make transit more attractive, the Federal Transit Administration strongly encourages cities to give light rail “signal priority” over other traffic, and nearly all, if not all, light-rail lines built in the last fifteen years enjoy such a priority. Yet this disrupts traffic signal coordination for other travelers, increasing the delays they face. For example, when Minneapolis opened its Hiawatha light-rail line, it so disrupted traffic signals that auto travelers in the corridor saw an extra 20 to 40 minutes added to their trips.[20]

The Austin light-rail is also certain to contribute to congestion near downtown Austin as it will be between Interstate 35 and downtown. Traffic attempting to go between I-35 and downtown will have to cross the light-rail tracks and will be delayed by frequent light-rail cars or trains on those tracks.

Two light-rail lines now being planned in Maryland are both predicted to increase congestion. The traffic analysis for Baltimore’s Red Line projects that it would reduce average travel speeds from 31.4 mph to 31.2 mph.[21] The analysis for the Purple Line, in the Washington, DC area, projects that it will reduce average travel speeds from 25.5 mph if line isn’t built to 24.4 mph if it is—a small decrease, but considering the large number of travelers in the region, it effectively adds 13 million hours of annual delay to regional travelers.[22] Similarly, a plan for a streetcar in Anaheim, California estimates that the streetcar will take up to 287 cars per hour off the road—but that it would also reduce the capacity of the road by 1,100 cars per hour.[23]

Project Connect claims the dedicated guideway will have an average speed of a little more than 20 miles per hour.[24] This, however, is optimistic. Most American light-rail lines have an average speed of a little more than 20 miles per hour, but most American light-rail lines average just one stop per mile. Lines that average one stop per half mile, as proposed by Project Connect, have average speeds of less than 18 mph. For example, the Minneapolis Central Corridor project, which is expected to open in June, 2014, has 23 stops in 11 miles. This line is projected to have an average speed of less than 17 mph, and test trains have not even reached that speed.[25] (After this article was published, the schedulle was firmed at a speed of 13.75 miles per hour which takes 48 minutes for the 11 miles between Minneapolis and St Paul. Express busses now make the trip between the downtowns in 25-30 minutes.)

Project Connect’s mode comparison claims that rail has a positive effect on vehicle emissions while buses have a negative effect. While light rail may be powered by electricity, most electricity in Texas comes from burning fossil fuels. Power plants for the Dallas light-rail system use more energy and emit more carbon dioxide per passenger mile than the average sport-utility vehicle.[26]

Finally, Project Connect claims that rail transit will promote economic development. This is unrealistic; a transit line that carries fewer than 20,000 trips per day is not going to influence economic development in an urban area where people travel more than 6 million trips per day.

Even the busiest high-capacity rail transit lines, such as the San Francisco BART system or the Washington Metro system, do not contribute to urban growth. At best, they shuffle development around from one part of an urban area to another, which means some property owners win while others lose: usually, the downtown area benefits at the expense of everyone else.[27] At worst, the added tax burden required to support rail transit actually slows economic growth; of the nation’s 64 largest urban areas, those that spent more on transit capital improvements in the 1990s grew measurably slower in the 2000s that those that spent less.[28] Austin, for example, is the nation’s fastest-growing urban area, yet it is difficult to attribute any of this growth to the region’s transit system, which carried just 2.9 percent of the region’s commuters to work in 2012, down from 3.4 percent in 2000.[29]

Nor will low-capacity transit lines help revitalize existing neighborhoods. At most, they provide cities an excuse to subsidize such revitalization. Portland opened its first light-rail line in 1986; ten years later, a Portland city planner testified to the city commission that “we have not seen any of the kind of development—of a mid-rise, higher-density, mixed-use, mixed-income type—that we would’ve liked to have seen” along the light-rail line.[30] In response, the city began using tax-increment financing and other subsidies to stimulate such development—but those subsidies would have been sufficient to stimulate redevelopment without the rail line as well.

When Portland opened its streetcar line in 2001, it was ready to hand out hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies to developments along much of that line—development that city officials later attributed solely to the streetcar. But one part of the line received no subsidies, and almost no new development took place in that area.[31]


Austin does not need a fixed-guideway transit system. The high costs of such systems can be justified only when demand goes beyond what can be provided with ordinary bus service, and Austin’s demand is nowhere near these levels now or in the future.

For much less than the cost of a single fixed-guideway transit line, Austin can both improve bus service and relieve traffic congestion for all travelers. Traffic signal coordination, staggered bus stops in high-demand areas, increased bus frequencies, double-decker buses on high-demand routes, and the construction of HOT lanes will smooth traffic flows and provide alternatives throughout the Austin area.


[1] Project Connect, Presentation to Central Corridor Advisory Group, Meeting #12, May 2, 2014, slide 25.
[2] Gregory L. Thompson, “Defining an Alternative Future: Birth of the Light Rail Movement in North America,” presentation given at the 9th National Light Rail Transit Conference, p. 29.
[3] Robert L. Bertini, “Bus Facility Capacity,” Portland State University, May 2, 2006, p. 15.
[4] Project Connect, Presentation of May 12, 2014, slide 18.
[5] Project Connect, Presentation to Central Corridor Advisory Group, Meeting #11, April 11, 2014, slide 27.
[6] Andre Malok, “Angry Super Bowl Train Passengers Curse NJ over Delays, Crowding,” NJ.com, February 2, 2014, tinyurl.com/m2elw5s.
[7] Joseph R. Vena, “Super Bowl 2014 Transit: Bus Riders Avoid Mob Scene That Train Riders Faced,” NJ.com, February 2, 2014, tinyurl.com/ lsf3p9n.
[8] Project Connect, Presentation of May 12, 2014, slide 26.
[9] “New Coaches for MegaBus.com,” busandcoach.com, January 27, 2014, tinyurl.com/oh32xtn.
[10] “The $1.5 Billion Milwaukie Light Rail Alternative,” Cascade Insider, September 14, 2011, tinyurl.com/nu6cubz.
[11] Project Connect, Presentation of May 12, 2014, slide 22.
[12] CAMPO 2035 Regional Transportation Plan Appendices (Austin: CAMPO, 2010), p. 60.
[13] CAMPO 2035 Regional Transportation Plan Appendices, p. 13.
[14] Project Connect, Presentation of May 12, 2014, slide 56.
[15] MoPac Improvement Project Environmental Assessment (Austin: Texas Department of Transportation, 2012), p. 198, says the MoPac highway will carry 201,700 vehicles per day in 2015 between RM 2244 and US 183. Since the express lanes project adds two new lanes the the current six, the 50,000 number for 2015 presumes 25 percent of the traffic will use the express lanes.
[16] Adella Santos, Nancy McGuckin, Hikari Nakamoto, Danielle Gray, and Susan Liss, Summary of Travel Trends: 2009 National Household Transportation Survey (Washington: Federal Highway Administration, 2011), Table 16.
[17] “Study Shows 183A Toll Road Benefits All Drivers,” Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, October 5, 2007, tinyurl.com/okl3szg.
[18] Project Connect, Presentation of May 12, 2014, slide 20.
[19] Calculated from the 2012 National Transit Database (Washington: Federal Transit Administration, 2013), Service and Fixed Guideway spreadsheets.
[20] Laurie Blake, “Light Rail Will Always Slow the Flow,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, December 12, 2004.
[21] Maryland Department of Transportation, Red Line Final Environmental Impact Statement (Ba timore: Maryland Department of Transportation, 2012), p. 5-125.
[22] Maryland Department of Transportation, (Baltimore: Maryland Department of Transportation, 2008), pp. 4-1–4-2.
[23] Orange County Transportation Authority, Anaheim Rapid Connection Fixed Guideway Alternatives Analysis Report (Draft)(October 3, 2012), pp. 3–26.
[24] Project Connect, Presentation of May 12, 2014, slide 16.
[25] Laura Yuen, “11 Miles in 67 Minutes?” MPR News, May 14, 2014, tinyurl.com/l285rfk.
[26] Calculations based on 2012 National Transit Database (Washington: Federal Transit Administration, 2013), Service and Energy spreadsheets reveal that Dallas light rail used 5,000 BTUs and emitted 337 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger mile. The Transportatoin Energy Data Book (Oak Ridge, TN: Department of Energy, 2013), table 2-13, says the average for SUVs with 1.6 occupants was 4,350 BTUs and 290 grams of carbon dioxide
[27] Robert Cervero and Samuel Seskin, An Evaluation of the Relationship between Transit and Urban Form, (Washington: Transportation Research Board, 1995), p. 3.
[28] Randal O’Toole, “Transit and Urban Growth,” The Antiplanner, November 6, 2013, ti.org/antiplanner/?p=8412.
[29] 2000 Census (Washington: Census Bureau, 2002), table P030, “Means of Transportation to Work,” for Austin urbanized area; 2012 American Community Survey (Washington: Census Bureau, 2013), table C08301, “Means of Transportation to Work,” for Austin urbanized area.
[30] Quotes from the October 23, 1996, city council meeting are taken from a videotape of that meeting made by the city of Portland, a synopsis of which is available at tinyurl.com/2nhgnj.
[31] Randal O’Toole, “The Great Streetcar Conspiracy,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 699, June 14, 2012, pp. 5–7.

Austin Citizens Should Reject Urban Rail – 6 Major Reasons

June 27th, 2014

Updated: June 27, 2014

COST Commentary: This is a COST article addressing six major reasons Austin citizens should reject urban rail if it appears on the ballot in November. The frequent reporting of surprises and bad news regarding urban rail (increasing costs, taxes and congestion) to serve low ridership, and the fact that many key rail questions proposed by the Mayor and others are still unanswered after three years, make it irresponsible to place urban rail on this November’s ballot.

These 6 major reasons are supported by the COST posting of “Project Connect’s Proposed Austin Urban Rail is Misguided” and several other articles posted on COST’s site.

Note: This posting is a rewrite of the previous “12 Reasons Austin’s Urban Rail is Off-Track” which has been updated and is still valid. It covers a few more reasons to reject urban rail.

Austin Citizens Should Reject Urban Rail – 6 Major Reasons

by Jim Skaggs, COST, updated June 21, 2014

1. Transit Ridership has been small and stagnant in Austin and major Texas cities for the past 15 years and in the overall U.S. for 57 years.
Please see: U.S. Public Transit is Small and Stagnant, for 57 Years

The 15 year transit ridership trends for the four largest Texas Regions are shown on the first chart below. The trends can be best described as stagnant. The sum of the four cities indicates a slight ridership loss over the past 15 years. These are four of the top 15 fastest growing regions (greater than I million population) in the nation. Thus, the percentage of people riding transit has continued to drop much more dramatically. The Cities’ population growths are shown in the second and third charts below. Dallas and Houston are in the second chart, separated from San Antonio and Austin in the third chart because of the major population differences and chart readability.

While these four Texas regions have spent billions of dollars (greatest portion on trains) to encourage and grow public transit ridership, people’s choices have primarily rejected transit in favor of private transportation which is faster and more convenient; in many cases serving trip origins and destinations and reaching opportunities which cannot be accessed by transit. Meanwhile, taxpayer subsidies for public transit have substantially increased: Transit costs have grown much faster than inflation; as the rail portion of transit has increased.

Total transit (bus and rail) is small and “stagnant” with decreasing percentages and actual ridership due to citizens’ choices for a better quality of life. This is demonstrated by the disparity in ridership and population trends for the Austin region shown in the last chart below. The chart compares the Austin region’s population growth trend to its stagnant/declining public transit ridership trend over the past 15 years. This results in a significant decline in the percentage of people using public transit.

Adding ‘transit costs per rider’ would also show an increasing trend and well above inflation; resulting in high and increasing taxpayer subsidies for each transit rider. Cap Metro reports operating costs (excluding capital costs) for each average commuter train rider are $20.00, or 5 times the cost of each average bus rider.

Visualize this chart if population trends continue for the next 15 years as Austin’s regional population is projected to do. Population would increase by more than 1,000,000 to about 2,900,000. There are no experiences or trends in the U.S indicating transit’s ridership will change very much.

This picture alone should reject the concept of “urban rail” in Austin. This insignificant train route and ridership can do nothing for congestion but will increase taxes for all, resulting in major lost opportunities to better serve Austin citizens.

Austin and regional leaders should support citizens’ free choices and not base mobility solutions on the need to change citizens’ behaviors based on carefully considered choices which better meet their needs. Constraining people to the reaches of public transit substantially reduces opportunity and degrades quality of life for most.

2. Austin’s planned urban rail will not reduce congestion.

Public transit has small ridership with many riders who do not have private vehicle alternatives, resulting in little impact on congestion. More subsidized rail transit riders would cause increasing total taxpayer subsidies, resulting in increased fares which fewer low income riders could afford. A more important factor is that potential urban rail riders on East Riverside Drive are not the car drivers creating congestion on the highways into central Austin. These few East Riverside drivers would be on surface streets for the short, 4 mile distance to city center. This is also true of train riders from the Highland Mall area, about the same distance. Urban rail provides no measurable improvement for Austin’s major congested roads.

Project Connect’s projected rail ridership is inflated but would be only a small fraction of transit ridership and less than one-quarter of 1% of total passenger miles, even by the optimistic 2030 estimate of 18,000 boardings. This is only 9,000 people on a round trip out of almost 3 million people in the region, making more than 8 million trips per day, in 2030.

Project Connect estimates only 6,500 of these 18,000 trips were new to transit. The other 11,500 were previous bus riders. This makes the train even less responsible and cost-effective as $1.4 billion is being spent to serve an estimated 6,500 new transit trips (3,250 people making round trips) in 2030. This is $ 431,000 for each new, daily, round-trip rider; not counting operating costs or the almost certain major cost overruns.

The proposed “urban rail” will create far more congestion than any minuscule positive impact it might have in a limited situation and area.

By 2030, the region’s population growth will have resulted in an increase to about 8 million road trips per day. The trains and infrastructure to support this new 6,500 transit, rail trips per day will cause major added congestion in its relatively small area of the city and will result in increased congestion throughout the region as it siphons a large portion of finite funds from more effective transportation projects.

It is great the mayor balked, along with many of us, at the idea of removing a lane, each direction, from East Riverside drive to provide two train tracks. This and the closing of Pleasant Valley Rd. through the East Riverside Dr. intersection results in a major increase in congestion. East Riverside Dr. has 40,000 to 55,000 vehicles per day and one can be sure a minor percentage are headed downtown; so the rail cannot be expected to replace many of these road trips and will replace almost none on I-35. This is just one situation, of many, indicating the proposed urban rail is not ready for an election.

In addition to the added East Riverside Dr. congestion, the rail will remove lanes from roadways along its entire, but short, route of 9.5 miles; increasing roadway congestion and safety hazards.

The urban rail route is also parallel to, and about 4 blocks west of I-35 as it passes through UT and along the East edge of Austin’s city center. This stretch carries a major portion of the vehicles from north and south I-35, and other points east, into the downtown/UT area. Therefore, all such vehicles entering and exiting central Austin and UT must cross the rail tracks and be potentially delayed by “frequent” trains and a major increase in Downtown area congestion.

There are many far better ways to serve transportation. In addition, riders are making one-way trips which average less than 4.5 miles, which means the difference between the train trip time and a modern bus time is very short and exorbitantly expensive for taxpayers to pay for this very short, if any, saved time.

3. More than 99% of all regional passenger miles (private, shared, public transit, government, school, emergency and commercial) are on roads and the primary way to improve congestion is improved roadways.

The Mayor is reported to have said Austin’s traffic congestion “calls for a big solution.” He states it needs trains, as well as roads. The City funding plan and bond amount has been changing frequently. The current plan is based on “smoke and mirrors” maneuvering which assumes tax payers will pay for part of the cost of construction thru reallocated taxes and new energy and water fees, thus reducing the bonding level required from the previous $700 million to $600 million. The city would still depend on the US government to provide $700 million matching funds in order to reach the estimated total of $1.4 billion currently estimated for the 9.5 mile rail.

Another “political” factor in this maneuvering is that the “Chamber of Commerce/business community exerted pressure for the City to have 40% of the bond election dedicated to roads. Therefore, the city arrived at $600 million for the rail and $400 million for roads. Even this is muddy in that more than $120 million of the road money is to update the I-35/Riverside intersection which must accommodate the rail.

The combining of road bonds and rail bonds in one referendum is the most egregious act of all the City’s dishonest maneuvering. This is a blatant disregard of the voters’ rights to make independent decisions on these two very different issues. Ninety-nine percent of trips are on the roads and investment of these dollars in roads improves the travel for more than 25 times the number of people which are served by this train. Combining them is clearly a feeble attempt by the City Council to improve the probability for approving the rail.

This City funding plan is highly unlikely due to the projected near term depletion of the federal highway trust fund (federal gas tax paid by users) and the burden of a huge federal budget deficit. On a much smaller scale, this is similar to Cap Metro promising voters in 2004 that the U.S. government would pay for one-half the planned commuter line. The U.S. paid nothing and Cap Metro knew, or was incompetent in not knowing, the commuter did not qualify for federal funding.

Austin prides itself in being a city of innovation and ‘above the rest.’ Yet, in addressing congestion, it is pursuing outdated 19 century rail technology and mimicking failed approaches of various cities which have pursued this path before. Where is the Austin innovation?

There are numerous ways to improve congestion and there are more creative ways to be discovered.

A) The first step to control congestion is to maintain a road system consistent with the growing population. In Austin, one still cannot take a complete vehicle loop around the city without stopping. A number of road projects are in progress but the City is well behind from years of road neglect based on a leadership philosophy of: if we don’t build it, they will not come. This and significantly reduced road funding are being somewhat compensated for by toll road segments and lanes which are increasing capacity primarily paid for with user fees which provide congestion relief for many major roadway users, both for tolled and tax paid (non-tolled) roads.

For example: For example: The first segment of the 183A toll road opened in 2007 and was completed in 2011. The Manor Expressway toll upgrade of SH-290 was completed and opened in May, 2014. The MoPac Expressway upgrade is planned to open in the fall of 2015. These upgraded roads serve hundreds of thousands of citizens daily; traveling to and from the east and west of Austin as well as a north-south road in Austin’s center which serves citizens heading into central Austin on the west side and those heading farther south and those going north connecting to the 1 toll road and other northern destinations.

The total of these three corridors is about 350,000 vehicles today and, at 1.5 passengers per vehicle, this is about 525,000 people trips per weekday. (There may be a small amount of double-counting as some people may travel on more than one of these corridors for a single, longer trip.) The total costs are roughly $1 billion (a little more inflated to today’s dollars) for the three roads which is about the same cost as the proposed urban rail in today’s dollars. This does not consider the significant costs of congestion caused by urban rail including taking away road vehicle lanes and potential delays to all vehicles, crossing the tracks as they enter and exit Austin and UT on the east side of downtown and the campus. The total road length of these three roads is more than 3 times the urban rail length and total new road lane miles of more than 110 or about 6 times the 19 rail miles of two 9.5 mile rails. The total capacity of these roads is many times this rail’s capacity. Boston has the only light rail in the nation which carries as many people as one full highway lane.

Mobility is greatly enhanced by these upgraded roads with total traveler trips of more than 550,000 per day by the end of next year: private, shared, public transit, commercial service and product, emergency and other government. This is 85 times the 6,500 new transit trips served by the urban rail estimate for 2030 or 30 times the estimate of total daily rail ridership of 18,000. The current road improvements are structured for future demand and will serve some 40% more vehicle trips per day, for total passenger trips of about 740,000, by 2030. The average rail rider (2/3 previously rode buses) will ride about 4 miles and save very little time, if any, compared with bus alternatives which cost less than one-tenth the rail. With 8 million daily trips in the region in 2030, this rail will serve 0.2% of the trips and .08% of trips will be new to transit. In addition the road vehicle trips will save travel time while the urban rail will significantly congest traffic and increase the total region’s travel delay time.

B) Staggering work hours for major employers can have a significant reduction in peak hour traffic.

C) Austin is high in carpool commuting percentage, almost 5 times the use of public transit without the support of HOV/toll lanes, rare in a city this size. A number of managed (toll) lane projects are in process or planned which can enhance carpool riders as well as relieve congestion and speed private, public transit, emergency, government and commercial service and product vehicles. This is achieved by users choosing these lanes and paying for them; resulting in greater mobility for all road users, both toll roads and non-tolled roads (those paid for by taxes, gas and local).

D) Austin Metro’s ‘Work-at-home’ is the fastest growing commute mode, is the most cost-effective mode and is enhanced by technology advances. Work-at-Home is almost 3 times transit’s 2.3% work commute mode and takes more than three times peak hour drivers off roads than public transit because a much higher percentage have vehicle alternatives than transit riders.

E. Public transit use for work commuting is less than the modes of: single drivers, car poolers, home workers and the total of all others (bikes, walking, etc.). Trains do not necessarily increase transit work commuting. Dallas has spent billions to implement the longest, 90 mile, light rail system in the nation but their percentage of transit work commuters is only 1.5%, 50% less than Austin or San Antonio at 2.3%; neither with light rail. Yet, public transit serves a vital, primary community function to provide mobility for those who have no alternative. To maximize this primary objective, public transit must be cost-effective. If not, fewer of people’s desired trip origins and destination can be served. Public transit must be better connected to today’s needs.

The city center ‘hub and spoke’ orientation and focus are outdated as the average large city Central Business District (CBD) today has fewer than 10% of the metropolitan statistical area (MSA) work force and it is declining. Austin currently has about 8.6% of the regions workforce in the CBD, but rises to about 14% counting employment just outside the CBD which includes UT and State government workforces.

Transit fleets with rubber-tire, flexible, different size vehicles must be efficiently managed to provide cost-effective transit which is timely and serving expanded origins and destinations. One example concept: ‘Cellular Mass Transit’ with rubber tires deserves objective evaluation.

Some cities are authorizing various forms of small vehicle paid transportation, generally individuals or small companies (jitneys is an example); in addition to public transit and taxis. Double deck buses can provide cost-effective transit in high transit corridors. These buses can match the capacity of light rail systems for a fraction of the costs.

F. The innovative list to improve overall mobility also includes: Numerous car sharing companies and approaches; Houston is considering allowing app-based transportation to provide alternatives. Other examples are shared vehicle systems such as “Uber,” controlled by phone apps; and, such road system enhancements as ramp metering, smart lights/synchronization, rapid response and many others.

4. Urban rail will not produce new developments which provide increased property taxes. Rail will result in higher property taxes for all taxpayers, few of which receive any benefit. Rail will not produce new jobs other than for its construction/ implementation and operations which are almost all paid for by taxpayers.

There is an economic loss with rail as higher taxes reduce the economy by removing citizens’ discretionary funds from the economy. Perhaps the major losses are opportunity losses to spend wasted rail funds on more productive mobility and for other purposes which enhance the quality of life of all citizens and lower citizen’s taxes.

Numerous studies and experiences in other cities confirm this item. Portland planned major development increases near light rail stations and, after many years of little development, major tax and other incentives were provided to developers to motivate construction. The general fund suffered from loss of tax revenues, resulting in higher taxes for citizens or reduced funding for such city services as police, fire and emergency. Here in Austin, developments near the commuter rail were projected, but none have developed due to the rail. Leander is currently reconsidering major changes to its planned development codes around the rail station because almost nothing has developed. The bottom line is: People do not come to cities because of light rail, but for opportunity. Rail can, possibly, have some impact on the location of development but it is not an increase to the area. Austin is the fastest growing region in the Nation and none of it is due to rail. Austin is far more successful in most every way compared to cities who have adopted rail in a significant way. We can do much better and have proven it. Let’s not capitulate to mimicking mediocrity. Nationally, cities without a major commitment to rail tend to have greater economic development as mentioned in the reference above in ‘COST Commentary.’

5. This urban rail recommendation has not been established by responsible alternatives analyses: starting with definition of the problems to be solved and objectively evaluating the most cost-effective alternatives to address them.

Every “official” group, citizens committees, Capital Metro, or Austin city organizations, which have evaluated the need for a possible Austin light (urban) rail during the past 30 years has recommended a different route. Even the current route was recently changed. Consider the significance of this. Fixed, inflexible rail is not the answer for a young, growing city with changing development patterns. Flexible, cost-effective rubber tire systems should be used, at least, until ridership and cost-effectiveness is established. Rail is very expensive to move and if you discontinue it, you must pay back any federal government’s matching dollars.

Thorough “alternatives analysis” and cost-effectiveness has not been used to establish rail recommendations and has not been presented to decision makers as a basis of selecting the current urban rail mode or the selected route.

At this late date, few of the key questions published three year ago, by the mayor and others, have been responsibly addressed and presented by the Project Connect group which has created this urban rail mode and route. Project Connect’s advertised story that citizens have been key contributors to this rail recommendation is completely without foundation.

6. As demonstrated many times in numerous cities, this approach of implementing ineffective, high cost rail for few riders will significantly reduce citizens’ quality of life and degrade social equity by increasing taxes for all while reducing overall transit service and increasing fares, disproportionately impacting low income citizens. The community will be robbed of massive “opportunity” funds for more important uses, including lower taxes.


The biggest “bang for the buck” in mobility is to make maximum utilization of expensive infrastructure. The lack of concentration and the spread configuration of today’s origins and destinations allows only roads to reach the maximum percentage in acceptable times and affordable costs. Needed public transit can use these roads, with rubber tires, without the added, massive cost of fixed guidways for bus or rail infrastructure. This would significantly increase the reach of public transit to provide greater opportunities and quality of like for those without transportation alternatives. All public transit is highly subsidized. Transit must be cost-effective to be sustainable and to provide transit for the most citizens to reach the broadest range of trip origins and destinations.

The Statesman reports plans for a single referendum in the November election, with $600 million for rail and $400 million for road bonds. This belies the fact: 99% of the regions daily passenger miles are on roads. Therefore, the 9.5 miles of urban rail, would receive $1.4 billion from the combination of local taxes, tax supported bonds and “hoped for” US Government grants. Roads, which carry 99% of travel, would get $400 million, 40% of the total. A major portion of this road funding is for support of the rail.

This rail will not improve congestion, but will increase it! It is not economically feasible to build enough trains, carrying enough people, to enough places, to have any measurable, positive impact on congestion. Congestion can only be significantly improved with roads, tuned and supported by roadway management approaches.

The City is playing down the fact they call this urban rail the “initial investment” and have vaguly mentioned this initial rail must be expanded to “really make it work.” The expansions have been expressed on charts as numerous wide brush-stroke bands eminating across the region from the current trains route area. And there has never been a discussion of how many billions of dollars and time this will take. Certainly there has been no reference to the required tax increases which would overlay the initial rail’s tax increase.

A joint referendum would be a deceitful, manipulative distortion showing disdain for voters and responsible process. It is designed to attract and “buy” votes of those desiring roads; votes for a rail they would otherwise reject. Roads and rail, if on the ballot, should be separate referendums so voters can decide tax allocation priorities. Rail is very low on any responsible list of priorities.

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If You Think Austin Needs Urban Rail, Read This Report

June 20th, 2014

COST Commentary: The report below by Randal O’Tool dispels many of the common myths regarding light rail (urban rail in Austin) with a comprehensive evaluation of light rail throughout the U. S. and many parts of the world.

Randal O’Toole is a “train lover” as mentioned in the commentary of: Project Connect’s Proposed Austin Urban Rail is Misguided, but is a pragmatic citizen and has based his evaluation of light rail on facts and not emotion.

As you will find in this paper:

1. “Light” in light rail was created to describe the low capacity of this rail, whereas, most rail promoters/supporters describe light rail as “high capacity.” Buses actually carry more riders at a fraction of the cost.

2. Almost all rail systems have experienced a very large overrun in projected cost and a major underrun in ridership projections, reducing an already low cost-effectiveness resulting in “High Cost – Low Capacity Transit.”

3. There are massive “hidden” cost in rail transit which are rarely revealed by rail supporters and are a huge surprise to citizens who bear the tax burden.

4. Light rail (urban rail) does not increase overall urban growth. Many cities have embarked on rail with a major objective of increasing tax revenues to only find that rail requires major tax subsidies which syphon tax funds from other basic services such as education, fire, police, emergency, etc.

5. The only thing urban rail can do that buses cannot do is cost a lot of taxpayer money. In the end urban rail “Costs Too Much and Does Too Little.”
Below is an executive summary of the full Policy Analysis, which can be downloaded at the CATO web site.

The Worst of Both: The Rise of High-Cost, Low-Capacity Rail Transit

By Randal O’Toole, CATO Institute
June 3, 2014

Most new rail transit lines in the United States and around the world are either light rail, including lines that sometimes run in or cross city streets, or heavy rail, which are built in exclusive rights of way, usually elevated or in subways. Heavy rail costs far more to build than light rail, but the capacity of light rail to move people is far lower than heavy rail. In fact, the terms light and heavy refer to people-moving capacities, not the actual weight of the equipment.

Recently, a number of cities in the United States and elsewhere have built or are building a hybrid form of rail transit that can best be described as the worst of both, combining the cost-disadvantages of heavy rail with the capacity limits of light rail. Seattle is building a three-mile subway that costs nearly six times as much per mile as the average light-rail line. Honolulu is building a 20-mile elevated rail line that costs well over twice as much as the average light rail. Yet those lines will be limited to little (or no) more than light-rail capacities. This seems to be a worldwide trend, as new, high-cost, low-capacity rail systems have recently opened in Mumbai, India; Panama City, Panama; Fortaleza, Brazil; and several other Asian and Latin American cities. A small number of French, German, Italian, and Spanish contractors and railcar manufacturers seem to be involved with building and supplying many of those lines.

Rail lines built at light-rail costs are questionable enough, as in nearly every case buses can move more people just as comfortably (if not more so), just as fast (if not faster), and at a far lower cost. Buses share infrastructure with cars and trucks, reducing their cost, while the use of high-occupancy vehicle or high-occupancy toll lanes would allow buses to avoid congestion during even the busiest times of day.

The willingness of many rail advocates to support high-cost, low-capacity rail lines calls into question the entire rail agenda. Supporters of low-capacity lines are not truly interested in transportation; supporters of high-cost lines are not truly interested in urban efficiencies. If they are not willing to draw the line against such projects, then there is little reason to believe their claims about the benefits of other rail projects.

©2007 Coalition On Sustainable Transportation