Los Angeles Rail Ridership is Declining: “Prius Cheaper.”

September 8th, 2014

COST Commentary: Los Angeles is the most congested city in the nation and has the densest urban area in the nation. As described below, its many billions spent on rail transit have resulted on stagnant ridership. Also noted is an often misunderstood aspect of rail transit: Rail increases transfers (on average) for people to complete a trip. Therefore, ridership is artificially increased, as many people require two boardings or transit rides to complete their full single trip. As always, a major portion of rail ridership is from transit riders who previously rode buses which had routes canceled when the train started.

As shown on the chart below, L.A.’s annual rail ridership is less than 12 million and not even 3 times Austin’s projected annual ridership of 4.5 million for the proposed light rail. Cap Metro’s 32 mile commuter also has declining ridership of about 675,000 this year and a projection of less next year.
Austin’s 4.5 million projection for the new light rail “sounds too good to be true and it is not true.”

Austin”s overall transit ridership, bus and train, has been stagnant for 15 years and the commuter rail, which is in its fifth year of service, has not changed this trend. Most of the commuter ridership came from cancelled bus routes. Austin’s total transit ridership is down this year from 2013 and is projected to be further down next year. This certainly does not indicate a $1.4 billion train with “much more to come” is a responsible step. It is a huge gamble of taxpayer funds with Las Vegas odds.

If rail is performing poorly in L.A., with more than 20 million people at more than double the density of Austin’s urban area, why would one believe light rail would be a success in Austin? IT WON’T! RAIL COSTS TOO MUCH AND DOES TOO LITTLE.

Let’s do those things that will really improve mobility such as the trend that started a few years ago: Three road improvements (183A, 290E and Mopac in process) have and will substantially improve the trip times for more than 500,000 people daily, next fall when Mopac opens. This compares to the very unlikely projection of 18,000 trips a day for the rail. And, the roads also improve shared, public transit, emergency, commercial, school and government vehicle trips which the train cannot. Guess what! The total cost of the three road improvements and the cost of this tiny train are approximately the same in today’s dollars.

This does not mean Austin does not need better transit. Spending this huge portion on high-cost tains actually degrades the overall transit system buy reducing bus service and increasing fares as we have seen with the commuter. For 15 years, Austin transit has had little impact on congestion and this train will make it worse.

Austin’s proposed $400 million in roads is a disguise and facade intended to manipulate voters to accept this very bad train. It is NOT WORTH IT! These projects do not have a single mile of pavement to improve congestion. Many of the pieces are to support this train and mass transit. Austin needs to vote this train down and allow the new 10-1 council to develop a comprehensive transportation plan to serve the entire city instead on one which will never reach 99.7% of the citizens.

Metrolink’s annual ridership continues to drop

By Dan Weikel, LA Times, September 7, 2014

Sean Robb of Valencia regularly took Metrolink to and from work in Glendale until the trains increasingly fell behind schedule. It became so bad, Robb called the line “Metro-Late.” He now drives to the office.

Levi Gelineau, an insurance salesman, used to ride the line from Simi Valley to Burbank. When fares rose, he bought a Toyota Prius. Now it takes a little more time to get to work, he says, but it’s cheaper than the train.

They are not the only ones who have stopped taking Metrolink.

Once hailed as the fastest-growing commuter line in the nation, the railroad has seen its annual ridership drop by almost 595,000 passengers since 2008, with resulting losses in revenue. That and other factors have left the agency squeezed between trimming service or boosting fares, either of which could prompt more defections.

Trends in Metrolink’s ridership

Officials of the six-county system — covering a region of more than 20 million people — mostly blame the downturn on the worst recession since World War II, which decimated the region’s workforce.

They also note that downtown Los Angeles — the predominant destination for Metrolink commuters — is undergoing a residential renaissance but has faded as an employment center.

“Ridership should be growing given the size of the area Metrolink serves,” said Richard Katz, a former state legislator and longtime board member for the railroad. “Though we have been attracting riders, we’ve had a hard time holding on to them.”

The decline is occurring even though Metrolink has hired experienced marketing professionals, courted employers and tapped into Facebook and Twitter to reach tech-savvy millennials.

Express service, new lines and specialty trains to ball games, rock concerts and the beach have been added. Safety has improved since the deadly Chatsworth crash in 2008, and equipping rail cars with WiFi is planned.

But Metrolink officials, transportation experts and commuters say those measures are working against factors that have steadily chipped away at the railroad’s ridership.

During the recession, the unemployment rate was 8% to 13% across the region and the number of annual boardings dropped from a peak of almost 12.33 million in 2008 to 11.14 million in 2011.

Until that time, Metrolink enjoyed steady growth. By the line’s 10th anniversary in 2002, it had exceeded its ridership goals with almost 8.95 million yearly boardings. The system also had expanded from 112 miles of track in three counties to 512 miles in six counties: Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura.

“The recession is a big part of the decline in ridership,” said Robert Turnauckas, chief of marketing and communications at Metrolink. “It’s been hard to recover from something so impactful.”

By 2013 — after then-Chief Executive John Fenton put more emphasis on customer service and building ridership — annual boardings had recovered to almost 12.07 million.

Since then, ridership — contrary to projections — has dropped to 11.74 million. The dip, along with rising costs for fuel, operations and safety projects, prompted the railroad to trim service this year and seek more money from the five county transportation agencies that help fund the line.

Further challenging the recovery, Metrolink officials say, are shifting patterns of job growth across the region.

Studies indicate that the size of the workforce in the core of Los Angeles has stagnated somewhat in the last 20 years while the number of residents has tripled. At the same time, employment has risen in Orange County, the South Bay and on the Westside.

But only Orange County is served by Metrolink, and many new downtown L.A. residents tend to work closer to home and don’t need the rail service.

“The job growth is not that high in downtown Los Angeles,” said Brian Taylor, a professor of urban planning at UCLA. Metrolink’s “ridership is very sensitive to economic change and employment shifts.”

Metrolink officials say the railroad also has been stung by a reduction in the amount of fares that can be deducted from federal taxes and by recent declines in gasoline prices that have encouraged more driving.

Some transportation experts contend that the railroad might be bumping up against the limits of its market — a still-car-dependent region with multiple job centers.

“Transit, especially rail transit, competes poorly in modern, relatively dispersed environments,” said Peter Gordon, professor emeritus of urban and regional economics at USC. “Rail transit best serves areas with dominant downtowns.”

Ridership should be growing given the size of the area Metrolink serves. Though we have been attracting riders, we’ve had a hard time holding on to them.- Richard Katz, a former state legislator and longtime Metrolink board member

New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston have dominant cores and strong rail traditions. All have commuter trains that carry hundreds of thousands of passengers a day.

Some Southern California commuters say they like riding Metrolink, but the system needs more midday and late-night service. Others have found that express buses can be faster and cheaper. Also figuring into the loss of riders are poorly synchronized train and bus connections.

For almost two years, David Clubb relied on Metrolink to get to his office in Burbank. In the morning, he took a bus to the line’s Simi Valley station, and he did the reverse in the evening.

The bus connection was good going to work, he said, but the return by train was often late.

“There was less than a five-minute window to catch the bus” on the way home, Clubb said. “If you missed it, the wait was 40 to 45 minutes for the next one. Rather than continue to lose time, I was willing to spend $30,000 on a car.”

Although local transportation agencies periodically adjust their bus schedules to match Metrolink’s, the lack of connectivity remains a serious problem, according to Bart Reed, director of the Transit Coalition, a nonprofit organization that supports public transportation.

Some of the most convenient bus and rail connections can be found in Orange County, where the local transportation agency has put a priority on coordinating timetables.

Metrolink officials say they are addressing the synchronization issue and working on other strategies to attract and keep riders, such as the planned Perris Valley Line in Riverside County.

Rail officials cite the creation of a $10 weekend pass that has become popular in the Inland Empire. They say their program for school field trips and partnership with the FlyAway Bus service to Los Angeles International Airport have also generated tens of thousands of boardings.

Michael DePallo, Metrolink’s chief executive, says the effort is paying off. Preliminary figures for July and August show an uptick in riders of about 1.7% compared with the same period last year.

Railroad officials expect more boardings as the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority expands light rail and subway service to the Westside, which will provide commuters better access to job centers and popular destinations there.

To enhance regional travel, work is underway to build run-through tracks at Los Angeles’ Union Station that will allow Metrolink trains to either make shorter stops or pass through the terminal without stopping.

The railroad is now preparing a long-range strategic plan that will evaluate ways to build ridership, including the possibility of reducing fares, an idea supported by Art Leahy, the chief executive of the MTA, which helps fund Metrolink.

As the line weighs its options, Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, a regional planning agency, is optimistic. He predicts that ridership will grow as the economy improves, fuel costs rise, major transit projects are finished and car-averse millennials enter the workforce.

“The downward trend is not going to continue,” Ikhrata said.

Light Rail Short Snippet, Bullet Points

September 1st, 2014

COST Commentary: This posting is for those looking for very brief summary points regarding the proposed light rail being presented by the City of Austin as Proposition 1 on the November ballot for voters to consider.

More detailed presentations on each of the snippet subjects can be found in articles on the COST site, by clicking on “News Articles,” including, but not limited to:

Austin Citizens Should Reject Urban Rail – 6 Major Reasons

Oakey: Why You Should Vote Against The Rail
Bonds On Nov. 4th

Los Angeles Rail Ridership is Declining: “Prius Cheaper.”

Cheaper to Buy New Cars than Build Light Rail

Portland Transit Implodes: Trains, tracks and systems wear out

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

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

Austin’s Urban Rail has Many Unanswered Questions

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

Austin’s Mission is Missing!

Austin’s Declining Affordability and Urban Rail

Project Connect’s Proposed Austin Urban Rail is Misguided

If You Think Austin Needs Urban Rail, Read This Report


This first section is, “A Fair Message to Voters from concerned citizens,” for voters to consider based on their position on key issues:

If you support money for roads, you have no guarantee that will happen if this proposition passes. You should vote No.

If you support money for roads, you deserved a chance to vote for them, a chance you do not have on this ballot: You should vote No.

If you support rail for $600 million, you have a dilemma, because, it will cost $1 billion to get this rail project funded ($600 million + meeting the legal condition of $400 million for roads). If you think that is unaffordable: You should vote No.

If you do not believe this light rail will reduce congestion, cost-effectively: You should vote No
If you want a different route or plan for rail, this isn’t likely to happen in the next decade if this proposition passes: You should vote No.

If you think big, expensive decisions like this should be made in an open process and be part of a comprehensive and affordable transportation plan: You should vote No, if for no other reason than to teach the City Council (and others) a lesson.

If you think, regardless of whether it’s for rail or road, increasing debt on local taxpayers by $1 Billion is unaffordable (especially considering taxpayers will have to pay interest on top of the $1 billion):
You should vote No.

If you think you should know the City’s planed rail expansions, costs, and future tax increases, before approving this initial plan: You should vote No.

“If you prefer to have bond propositions separated, as they always were for decades in Austin, then: You should vote No.”

This section is primarily about the light rail’s: funding and risks, very high costs, very low ridership, congestion creation, current and future tax increases

- This rail is projected to cost $1.4 billion or $147 million per mile, excluding significant supporting road costs and probable overruns (average is 40% for early estimates).

- Rail Proposition 1 is for the largest bond/debt commitment in Austin history and will double the City’s general obligation debt, preventing additional debt for many years. It will tie the hands of the new 10-1 council.

- The City states this rail is “just the beginning” and there is “much more to come.” No plan with cost, schedule and tax increases has been revealed to citizens.

- This Light rail is projected to carry a total of 18,000 (0.2%) of the regions more than 9 million daily people trips in 2030, making the rail inconsequential and no help to traffic congestion.

- Light rail is not cost-effective. Three improved roads (183A, 290 E., MoPac being done) will have 6 times the lanes/track miles and serve 40 times the number of daily rail trips. Total road costs are the same as the rail (today’s dollars)

- The City has not revealed it will spend, perhaps, hundreds of millions of tax dollars before it knows whether the U.S. Government will pay matching funds for rail.

- It is highly unlikely the U.S. government will fund Austin’s rail because of severe budget issues and there is a long line of funding requests ahead of Austin.

- Light rail operations will force Cap Metro into debt resulting in higher costs with reduced bus service and higher fares, hurting those who most need transit.

- Light Rail is projected to attract 3,250 new daily transit riders taking 6,500 trips in 2030 at capital costs of almost $500,000 per new rider. Other riders come from buses. It would be cheaper to give all new riders new car and gas each year for 25 years.

- At Austin’s estimated current growth of 70 new cars per day, this $1.4 billion light rail’s “10,000 cars off the road daily in 2030″ would be totally offset by Austin’s daily new car growth in about 100 days. So, $1.4 billion would delay traffic by 100 days. It will be fewer days because 10,000 is exaggerated.

- Light rail will increase congestion in central Austin by using car lanes and with a 4 mile “rail barrier,” which all vehicles cross to/from central Austin just west of IH-35.

- Light rail will continue to increase congestion on major roads throughout the city, as the rail siphons funds from projects which can help mobility.

- Austin transit ridership has not increased for 15 years and population has grown 56%. MetroRail has not changed this trend. U.S. transit has been stagnant for 57 years.

- Total transit ridership in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin is less today than 15 years ago; after spending many billions on rail and being among the 10 fastest growing major U.S. cities.

- Transit is the fifth most used form of work commuting behind driving alone, carpools, working at home and biking/walking.

- Every official committee in the past 20 years has chosen a different proposed route for rail because a young growing city needs flexible, rubber tire transit.

- Light rail has the highest cost and least flexibility of urban transit modes and a young city, like Austin, needs cost-effective transit with flexibility.

- Light rail will not produce added tax base because people come to Austin for jobs and not for trains: Taxpayers subsidize all rail riders and therefore pay for new rail jobs in construction and operations.

- More than 99% of people’s passenger miles in this region are on roads which offer the greatest mobility for private, public transit, shared, commercial and emergency vehicles.

- Recent road upgrades have been 80-100 times more cost-effective than rail, serving more people with a much broader spectrum of users including much enhanced transit.

- More than 3 years ago, the Mayor established 30 questions to be answered before proceeding with rail and few have been answered but the city is proceeding with the greatest risk of taxpayer funds in history.

- The construction of this rail will cause the failure of many small businesses on the route as has been experienced in many cities.

- The $400 million proposed for roads do not contain a single mile of pavement to relieve congestion on Austin’s busiest roads. Costs support rail needs, road studies, overpasses, transportation center and an access to the airport.

A Fair Message To Voters on Austin’s Light Rail Proposal

September 1st, 2014

COST Commentary: Below is a message to voters which evolved as a by-product of a citizens’ discussion session. It does a great job of encapsulating and condensing the array of complex issues regarding the City’s poorly worded Light Rail Proposition 1. All voters should consider these key issues
A Fair Message to Voters from Concerned Citizens:

If you support money for roads, you have no guarantee this will happen if this proposition passes. You should vote No.

If you support money for roads, you deserved a chance to vote for them, a chance you do not have on this ballot: You should vote No.

If you support rail for $600 million, you have a dilemma, because, it will cost $1 billion to get this rail project funded ($600 million + meeting the legal condition of $400 million for roads). If you think this is unaffordable: You should vote No.

If you do not believe this light rail will reduce congestion, cost-effectively: You should vote No

If you want a different route or plan for rail, this isn’t likely to happen in the next decade if this proposition passes: You should vote No.

If you think big, expensive decisions like this should be made in an open process and be part of a comprehensive and affordable transportation plan: You should vote No, if for no other reason than to teach the City Council (and others) a lesson.

If you think, regardless of whether it’s for rail or road, increasing debt on local taxpayers by $1 Billion is unaffordable (especially considering that taxpayers will have to pay interest on top of the $1 billion): You should vote No.

If you think you should know the City’s planed rail expansions, costs, and future tax increases, before approving this initial plan: You should vote No.

If you prefer to have bond propositions separated, as they always were for decades in Austin: You should vote No.

Austin Citizens Should Reject Urban Rail – 6 Major Reasons

September 1st, 2014

Updated: September 1, 2014

COST Commentary: This is a COST article addressing six major reasons Austin citizens should reject Austin’s Light (urban) rail to appear as Proposition 1 on November’s ballot. The frequent reporting of surprises and bad news regarding light rail (increasing costs, huge tax increases and it creation of growing congestion) to serve low ridership, and the fact that many key rail questions proposed by the Mayor and others, as prequisites to approval, are still unanswered after more than three years, make it irresponsible that the City approved light rail Proposition 1 to be placed on the ballot.

These 6 reasons to reject light rail are supplemented by COST’s recent posting of an article by Bill Oakey, “Why You Should Vote Against The Rail Bonds On Nov. 4th which outlines the major tax impacts of this rail to Austin citizens, 99% plus who will never ride it and reap zero benefits from it while continuing to be stuck in growing congestion due to the wasteful spending of more than $2 billion tax dollars (real cost estimate with interest on bonds) and $36 million (real cost estimate with interest on Cap Metro debt) in annual operations for this rail.

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 with slight updates needed. It covers a few more reasons to reject urban rail.

Austin Citizens Should Reject Urban Rail – 6 Major Reasons

by Jim Skaggs, COST, updated September 1, 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 and more flexible 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. This rail increase has not changed the ridership stagnation.

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 large 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 trends will change very much.

This population/ridership graph alone should reject the concept of light rail in Austin. This proposed insignificant train route and ridership can do nothing to improve 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 which have been determined with careful consideration of their choices to 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 these 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 transportation 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 proposed closing of Pleasant Valley Rd. through the East Riverside Dr. intersection will result 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 potential car 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 these vehicles entering and exiting central Austin and UT must cross the rail tracks and be potentially delayed by “frequent” trains (about every 5 minutes at crossings as trains run on 10 minute intervals, north and south). This will cause a huge 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, commercial, school, emergency and government) 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 changed frequently. Austin’s current Proposition 1 rail plan is based on “smoke and mirrors” manipulation and maneuvering. The cities contemplated $1.4 billion train will be paid for with a $600 million, Proposition 1 which is somewhat conditioned on receiving $600 million from the federal government (or other grantors) and on committing $400 million to their so-called road projects. It is not known how the city plans to get the additional $200 million which this plan falls short of the $1.4 billion currently estimated for this 9.5 mile light rail.

The condition based on receiving $600 million from the Federal Government (or others unknown) also has a “gaping hole” in that the City can spend an unlimited amount on planning and engineering prior to recieving any matching funds. This poses a major risk that hundreds of millions of tax dollars could be wasted if a Federal grant is not received and it will take 3 or more years to find out. $1.4 billion currently estimated for the 9.5 mile rail.

Another poorly constructed “political” factor in this maneuvering is that the “Chamber of Commerce and Real Estate Council of Austin 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 a third of the $400 million of the road money is to support current and future rail construction, with zero impact on congestion. Other large portions are for I-35 overpasses, having little congestion impact in supporting future, undefined timing, lane additions to I-35 South by TxDoT. The third portion, smallest but most highlighted, is for studies of several roadways for potential future (unknown time) upgrades. There is not a single mile of major congested roadway upgrade in the $400 million package.

The initial City plan to place $600 million for rail bonds and $400 million for “road” bonds on the same referendum was rejected by the State Attorney General as not legal. This sham was to blackmail those believing roads are needed to vote for the rail bonds in order to get the roads. This has been used in a few cities where rail could not pass on its own merits.

This combining of road financing and rail bonds in one referendum is the most egregious act of all the City’s dishonest manipulations. 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. Even here, the City was deceptive in that the $400 million for “roads” was more focused on train needs than on congestion relief.

This City funding plan is very high risk to tax payers as it 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 huge federal budget deficits. 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 northwest of Austin as well as a north-south road in Austin’s center which serves citizens heading into central Austin or 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 $1.1 billion (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 113 or about 6 times the 19 rail miles of two 9.5 mile rails. The total trips on these roads will be more than 100 times the City’s projection of this rail’s trips in 2030.

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 significant travel time while the urban rail will significantly congest traffic and increase the total region’s travel delay time.

B) Staggering work shifts and providing flexible 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/Managed-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 as many peak hour drivers off roads than public transit because many more have vehicle alternatives than transit riders.

E. Public transit use for work commuting is the 5th highest mode and 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 or it is not sustainable. If not cost-effective, fewer of people’s desired trip origins and destination can be served and fares will be higher.

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 implemented and 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 includes numerous car sharing concepts and approaches: Examples are car and bicycle rental/sharing companies; shared vehicle companies such as Uber, Lyft and Carma, controlled by phone apps; and, for profit Jitneys (private vans/buses) serving some transportation segments.

G. Implementing such road system enhancements as ramp metering, smart traffic lights and other modern traffic technologies.

H. Implementing efficient incident management on congested highways.

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 most important 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. Recently, Leander significantly reduced the area around its rail station which had been zoned for higher density development 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 25 years has recommended a different route. Even the current route was recently changed before final approval. 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.

The City’s advertised story that citizens have been key contributors to this rail recommendation is completely without foundation. Light rail has been deftly guided by a handful of Austin’s government, political and business leaders projecting a pretense of openness and transparency. Instead, concealment has prevailed.

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 services 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 flexible, rubber tire vehicles, without the added, massive cost of fixed guidways for bus or rail infrastructure which degrades overall mobility. This would significantly increase the reach of public transit to provide greater opportunities and quality-of-life 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 City’s Proposition 1, on the November Ballot (near the end of the ballot), proposes $600 million for rail bonds and $400 million for road debt. This belies the fact: 99 plus % of the region’s 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” U.S. Government grants. This is a total of almost $2 billion dollars and almost none of it improves major congestion areas as a major portion of the road funds are for the rail, some overpasses and studies - very little road pavement.

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 modern roadway management approaches.

The City is playing down the fact they call this urban rail the “initial investment” and have vaguely 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 emanating 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 major tax increases which would overlay the initial rail’s tax increase.

This joint referendum (City Proposition 1) is 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 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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Commissioner Gerald Daugherty Articles on Light rail

August 30th, 2014

COST Commentary: This posting contains a series of seven transportation articles by Travis County’s Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. They were published over a seven month period starting April of this year. The series focuses on Austin’s proposed light rail and its myriad of critical issues, including:

the inadequate process leading to this proposed light rail;
the poor rail performance already being experienced by Austin and many similar cities;
the exorbitant costs of rail with resulting awful cost-effectiveness;
the increasing congestion due to rail taking a huge portion of the finite transportation dollars and preventing other projects which can have a real impact on congestion;
the degradation of the bus transit system which is the backbone transportation for those who have no alternative; the rail’s tax increases and the major and continuing assault on affordability.

March 2014 Column
By Commissioner Gerald Daugherty

My Thoughts on Austin’s Traffic Congestion and Urban Rail – Part 1

With great interest, I read the American-Statesman’s February 26th report on Mayor Leffingwell’s State of the City speech, and the February 27th report that the Mayor declined the Democratic National Committee’s offer to apply for the 2016 convention. I feel compelled to comment on both of those.

FIRST, regarding the 2016 Democratic National Convention… the reason we had to decline the invitation to apply is simple… As Mayor Leffingwell said, we don’t have a large enough venue to hold the required number of people. But using the reason “unlike peer cities such as Charlotte, N.C. , Austin does not have an urban rail system that can easily transport visitors to and from a convention site” troubles me. While I have the utmost respect for Mayor Leffingwell, this reason makes no sense to me. Here’s why.

Democratic National Convention eligibility rules require buses and adequate transportation to get delegates to and from convention sites. The rules DO NOT REQUIRE RAIL. As for mentioning peer city Charlotte’s rail system that “could easily transport visitors to and from a convention site”… the Charlotte Observer reported that, for security reasons, the end-of-the-line downtown rail stations near the convention arena were closed. What good was that rail line for convenience in getting to the convention site?

SECOND, regarding the Mayor’s State of the City speech… I was especially intrigued by quotes attributed to the Mayor in speaking about how to deal with our traffic crisis: “For years, we did mostly just sit and watch as our population grew and our traffic got worse, while peer cities invested billions in rail”… “Our competitors figured out the equation and took action”… “Austin must invest in a robust, multi-modal transit system that includes rail”… “Rail or Fail”.

While it’s true that Austin “did mostly just sit as our population grew” and failed to build a comprehensive road system, it’s misleading to imply that we have not invested in public transit. As a matter of fact, WE HAVE INVESTED BILLIONS. Since 1985, we’ve “invested” over $2.7 billion in our public transit system via the sales taxes collected for Capital Metro… not to mention the hundreds of millions we’ve received from the feds. And what have we gotten for that? Census Bureau Data shows that Austin’s Work Trip Market Share for Transit in the year 2000 was 2.5%. For 2010, it was 2.3%. THAT’S A DROP, folks. Contrast that with Work at home (includes Telecommuting)… in 2000 Austin’s market share was 3.6%, in 2010 it was 7.3%. That’s a doubling!

As for all those “peer cities that invested billions in rail”… how has that worked out for them?… has rail helped their transit systems gain market share? Once again, here’s Census Bureau data regarding Major Metropolitan Commuting Trends from 2000 to 2010. As reported in Newgeography….“In a number of the metropolitan areas with the largest expenditures for new rail systems, there were either LOSSES, or commuting gains were concentrated in the more flexible bus services”. Here are examples:

Portland… (which Austin seems to want to emulate) continued its 30 year transit market share erosion, despite adding three new light rail lines between 2000 and 2010.
Atlanta… lost more than 3000 rail commuters.

Charlotte, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Phoenix… modest ridership increases, with most of those on their bus systems.
Salt Lake City… a small decline in transit commuting.

Dallas-Fort Worth… its light rail system more than doubled in length, yet they lost more than 3000 daily transit commuters (transit’s market share in DFW dropped from 1.8% to 1.4%). Houston… lost nearly 3000 daily transit commuters (transit market share dropping from 3.2% to 2.3%), despite building their first light rail line during this period.

My issue is with the term “Multi-modal”, because every time we see that word today it really means “RAIL”. We already have a multi-modal transit system. We have buses of all kinds (Local, Express, Airport Flyer, MetroRapid, UT Shuttle). We also have MetroAccess, van pools, bicycles, and sidewalks so people can walk. We also have a rail component - Metro Rail… a $100 million plus system, with $13 million in yearly operating costs, that carries about 1750 riders a day (that’s about 0.3% of the approximately 550,000 commuters in Travis County). We don’t need to spend the billions it would cost for more rail, wherever it would be built. Rail won’t help you get to any more places than you already can today.

Next time I’ll talk about the issue of rail in Austin, some cost-effective congestion fighting measures, and my simple plan for the proposed Urban Rail corridor.

April 2014 Column
By Commissioner Gerald Daugherty

My Thoughts on Austin’s Traffic congestion and Urban Rail – Part 2

Last month I began commenting on my reaction to Mayor Leffingwell’s February State of the City speech. I pointed out that we HAVE invested BILLIONS in public transit… that it hadn’t worked out well for those “peer cities that invested billions in rail”… and that the rail component of our multi-modal transit system carries maybe 0.3% of our commuters at an outlandish cost.

With Austin’s MetroRail share of commuters at 0.3%, let’s do some calculations for that proposed billion dollar 9 mile rail line running from Highland Mall to East Riverside Dr.

Estimates predict that we’ll add 250,000 new cars to our roadways by 2040. Generously assume that 1% (2,500) of those 250,000 new commuters would use any proposed urban rail line each day. Why would we spend a billion dollars on those 2,500? What will we do for the 247,500 that won’t use rail, but will need better roads (even if they take the bus)? If we spend a billion dollars on this rail line and billions more on others, where will we get the money to do things that would actually help with traffic congestion?

It also appears that we’ll be counting on federal grant money to help pay for that line. A decision on that grant application would take about 4 years (long after this fall’s proposed rail bond election). Even more ominous is the possibility that we won’t get that grant. What do we do then? (Congressional funding for new transit projects is limited, and there are plenty of other cities already ahead of Austin with their applications.)

Here are some well-thought-out ideas that Tom Terkel expressed in an editorial column last June for Culture Map Austin & Leadership Austin:
“Start by defining the problem… It’s Peak Hour Congestion (ie, the morning and afternoon rush hours). Prioritize congested corridors for spending…. Can we alter that road or create an alternative route? Can transit help alleviate the Peak Hour Congestion? Analyze the costs of each possible solution and describe the return on investment in terms of congestion relief. What we need is an honest process that works to solve Peak Hour Congestion…WITHOUT A PRE-ORDAINED OUTCOME.”

Can we honestly say that Project Connect has followed this approach? Have they analyzed whether this Urban Rail plan would have any effect at all on those congested areas? And, rail seems to be the pre-ordained choice… especially with the Mayor’s proclamation of “Rail or Fail”.

What’s our goal? Our goal is to make a dent in our rush-hour traffic congestion. How will this rail line accomplish that? In addition to those that already use public transit along this route, how many NEW people will this rail line attract? Are those few NEW transit users worth a billion dollar project? Another “kicker” is that this rail line might even take away a traffic lane for cars, trucks, & even buses. Why would we reduce road capacity when we desperately need more?

We not only need more roads (lane miles), we need transportation system strategies that would actually help with congestion. Here are a few…. High Occupancy Toll/Vehicle Lanes, Traffic Light Synchronization, Local Street Connectivity, Go Over/Under our Major Roadways, Teleworking, Staggered Work Times. The only way we would have a chance to implement some of these is if we don’t waste billions of dollars on an ineffective rail system.

I was heavily involved in the 2000 Light Rail election. Luckily for Austin, we defeated that billion dollar+ proposal. I didn’t actively oppose the 2004 MetroRail proposal because I figured we might as well try that rail experiment and see what happens. I think we all know that it’s been a waste of money in our efforts to reduce congestion (and it caused a financial crisis for Capital Metro).
Subsequent “feelers” to call for a rail election (in 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012) were thankfully put on hold.

Once again we see a push for a rail election this November. Once again it’s for the FIRST PHASE ONLY of a system that would cost who-knows-how-many-more BILLIONS OF DOLLARS. Once again I will be compelled to be as outspoken in opposition to this rail plan as I was in 2000. Once again the phrase “Costs Too Much, Does Too Little” still rings true.

Here’s my idea for a relatively cheap experiment in this proposed urban rail corridor. Let’s paint two stripes in the road along the proposed route, run MetroRapid buses along this route, and see what kind of ridership develops. WE DON’T NEED A BILLION DOLLAR RAIL LINE TO FIND OUT! (Especially since it wouldn’t open till around 2021.)

May 2014 Column
By Commissioner Gerald Daugherty

$1.4 BILLION for 9 MILES of RAIL?

And that’s just the start, folks! Hi-Speed Rail, Regional Rail, Commuter Rail, Metro Rail, and most recently this FIRST PHASE ONLY Urban Rail proposal for $1.4 BILLION. If you add up the cost for all the proposed rail projects for this region, we’ll end up throwing away who knows how many BILLIONS OF DOLLARS in a misguided attempt to ease our traffic congestion.

After observing the Project Connect presentation to the Central Corridor Advisory Group on May 2nd, I’m once again compelled to comment. Even though my last two columns were my thoughts about Urban Rail for Austin, the magnitude of what will happen to this community if we spend BILLIONS OF DOLLARS on rail compels me to speak out even more.

Before I continue, let’s get one thing straight. When people hear me speak out against rail for Austin, they assume that I’m against public transit/transportation. That’s not true… in fact I supported and voted for the formation of Capital Metro. I realize and support the need for an EFFECTIVE public transportation system for those that don’t have or can’t afford their own car. What I am against is anything that makes no economic sense.

Being a businessman, I always ask: “What’s the Return on Our Investment?” How much is the money we’re proposing to spend going to affect the problem we’re trying to solve? In the case of rail for Austin, we need to ask… How is all this spending on rail going to actually solve our problem of traffic congestion?… especially during rush hours? How many NEW public transit riders will use a costly rail system? If we can’t logically show that enough NEW commuters will give up their vehicles to lessen traffic congestion in a proposed rail corridor, we’re fooling ourselves by just hoping that enough NEW commuters will start using public transit just because it’s a rail car instead of a bus.

Does the term AFFORDABILITY sound familiar? We constantly see newspaper articles and hear radio reports about how so many things make living in Austin unaffordable…. Cost of Living, Housing, Rent, Low Wages, Utility rates, Property Taxes, etc. Elected officials and taxing authorities are constantly being asked to hold the line on increasing taxes. What effect do you think this first-phase-only rail plan will have on affordability in Austin? How about future bond elections that would be needed for subsequent rail plans? If you think Austin is unaffordable now, just wait until YOU are asked for the billions of dollars needed to build and maintain even more rail lines.

Now on to the May 2nd presentation and recommendation that rail is the preferred mode for the Central Corridor. Last November one of my staff members sent an email to Capital Metro’s Community Involvement Manager about an interactive event that was to be a “Community Conversation on our next transit investment”. My staff member pointed out that we were already getting the message that rail will be the mode, & that Project Connect seemed to just want input on where to build this rail line. He also asked several questions that needed to be answered before we built it. Capital Metro’s response assured him that rail was not yet the chosen mode, and if rail happened to be the chosen mode for this corridor, they could then address his questions.

Lo and behold, at the May 2nd presentation rail WAS the chosen mode for the Central Corridor. Using Capital Metro ridership figures that show approximately 0.3% of Travis County commuters use the existing Metro Rail (and remembering that most of those were previous bus riders), let’s see if these questions sent last November will now be answered:

How will this rail line improve traffic congestion for the 99.7% of commuters that won’t use it?

Why spend over a billion dollars on the 0.3% of commuters that MIGHT use this rail line?

What other things could we do with the billion+ dollars that would be spent on this rail line?

Were are we going to find the money to replace the billion+ dollars spent on this rail line? (money that we desperately need to do things that would actually help with our traffic congestion.)

There are many other things I could comment on about the May 2nd presentation, but they’ll have to wait for next time. And by then, we’ll have recommendations on phasing options for this rail line, how to fund it, who will run it, estimated operating costs, etc. That presentation is scheduled for May 16th…. And I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts after that.
June 2014 Column
By Commissioner Gerald Daugherty

A Look at Other Supposed “Successes with Rail”

Last month I talked about the foolishness of spending $1.4 Billion for 9 miles of Urban Rail in a futile attempt to alleviate our traffic congestion. Some of the stated justifications for spending this money has been examples of purported rail successes in other cities, as well as Austin’s own Metro Rail. I briefly talked about some of them in my March column. This month we’ll go into more detail on some of these…. Dallas, Houston, Denver, Portland, & Austin’s own Metro Rail.

For these cities that invested in rail… How has that worked out for them?… Has rail helped their transit systems gain market share?… Has rail helped increase ridership on their systems? The statistics and data referenced below are from the American Public Transportation Association, which gathers data reported to them by public transportation agencies like Capital Metro. The APTA then produces Quarterly Ridership Reports on transit agencies in the U.S. You can find the data (all the way back to 1990) on their website www.apta.com.

Dallas-Fort Worth… Their 2008 to 2013 gain of 28,500 average weekday light rail ridership was offset by the loss of 28,500 in their commuter rail and bus ridership. (ie… Their overall transit system ridership stayed flat.)

Houston… From 2008 to 2013 average weekday light rail ridership dropped by 1,000 and bus ridership dropped by 28,700. (Their overall transit system ridership dropped by 31,000… so what good did rail do for them?)

Here’s what’s really scary about Houston’s rail system. Houston transportation reporter Bill King wrote in August of 2013: “Houston’s light rail referendum narrowly passed in 2003, an approximately 13 mile system estimated to cost $1.2 billion. The actual cost is now $3 billion to $4 billion. Studies by Houston Metro about their rail system clearly showed two things… (1) Their system will not reduce traffic congestion, (2) Their system will not meaningfully increase transit ridership. This is a colossal boondoggle.” What lesson should this teach us about our proposed 9 mile, $1.4 billion rail line?

Denver… While their average weekday light rail ridership increased by 14,100 from 2008 to 2013, their overall transit system ridership decreased by 7000 for the same period. (ie… They lost more bus riders than they gained in rail riders.)

Another scary report about Denver is the cost of their system. As reported in June of 2013 by Daniel Bier of Reason Foundation: “In 2004, Denver voters approved $4.7 billion for 122 miles of light rail, expected to be built by 2016. Today only 48 miles are built, and their budget has ballooned to $7.4 billion, with the rest maybe built by 2044… except they don’t even have the money to pay for the present overrun.” Is this another lesson for us here in Austin?

Portland (which Austin seems to want to emulate)… Their average weekday light rail ridership increased by 7,700 from 2008 to 2013, but their overall transit system ridership decreased by 13,800 for the same period. (Once again, a city that built rail lost more bus riders than they gained in rail riders.) Plus, Portland’s transit agency if facing financial difficulty with more than $1 billion in unfunded liabilities, and citizens in the region are refusing to support light rail expansion. Again, another lesson for us?

Austin… Metro Rail opened in 2010 with average weekday ridership of 800, and by 2013 the ridership had increased to 2,400 (but, the 2012 ridership was 2,800… meaning the ridership actually decreased in 2013). Remember that ridership is not riders. At the least, divide the ridership figure by 2… which means that we had 1,200 average weekday riders in 2013. This is what we’ve gotten from a $100 million plus system, with $13 million in yearly operating costs.

Austin’s overall transit system’s average weekday ridership in 2008 was 140,700… while in 2013 it was 126,100… a drop of 14,600 (so adding rail in 2010 was no help at all in increasing transit usage).

Since 1985, Austin has given over $2.7 billion to our public transit system via the sales taxes collected for Capital Metro, not to mention the hundreds of millions they’ve received from the feds. And what have we gotten for all that money?… A drop in weekday transit usage since 2008 (remember, weekdays are when we need help with congestion)… An addition of a costly while ineffective rail line… And now a call for even more costly rail.
Maybe we should ask the citizens of Houston, Denver, and Portland how rail is working out for them?

July 2014 Column
By Commissioner Gerald Daugherty

Roads and Rail on the Same Bond Proposition?

In recent history, Austin has had 2 rail elections… the 2000 Light Rail proposal that was defeated by a majority of Capital Metro service area voters, and the 2004 MetroRail proposal that was approved (without any significant opposition). Once again, there’s a proposal for a rail election this Fall. Except, this election will have a twist to it… instead of letting a rail proposal stand on its own merits, the powers-that-be have decided to bundle a few road projects with their $1.4 billion dollar rail proposal.


This idea probably began last year, after a June 2013 opinion poll by the Downtown Austin Alliance showed a majority opposed to rail if it meant higher taxes. This poll wasn’t widely known until the Statesman’s Ben Wear wrote about it on February 28th of this year. Additionally, there’ve been rumors that the Chamber of Commerce also conducted a poll that showed significant opposition to the rail plan, after which a Chamber representative talked about wanting to “go big” on the bond proposition. The term “go big” probably meant combining roads with rail on one proposition.

In a March 11th interview on KOKE-FM, when asked about the possibility of tying rail to roads on the bond election, Mayor Leffingwell responded: “The Transit Working Group was looking at this… we need a complete package… so, rail will probably be lumped in with roads”.

In a May 5th Statesman column Ben Wear wrote “the Mayor and other rail supporters were considering adding road spending to rail spending and putting it on a single bond proposal, especially since rail hadn’t been polling well”. Ben also reported “some Austin business executives had been asked to raise money and to campaign for urban rail, and that they’d reportedly said they could… but ONLY IF there’s some road spending thrown in”.

On June 11th the Statesman reported: “Council could add road improvements to boost appeal of urban rail bond vote in November… In 2000 roads & rail were on separate propositions, roads passed but rail failed… This time the two would be linked, potentially helping put rail over the top”. In that article the Mayor was quoted as saying “we have to be realistic about the political aspects of a rail election… we have to get enough voters to say yes”.

On June 24th the Statesman reported: “City staff proposal to City Council is $600 million for rail and $400 million for roads… with the 60/40 split reportedly a strong recommendation of business interests in exchange for their support for the 9.5 mile rail line”. On June 26th the City Council unanimously endorsed that $1 billion proposal mixing rail and roads, and on August 7th or 14th they’ll officially vote on it.

Here’s something about that $400 million for roads… How much of that is really going for roads? Look closely at the proposed “road projects”, and you’ll see that several have language about rail, such as: “facilitates rail extension… construction for rail crossing… Project Connect High Capacity Transit Corridor Studies”. Does that sound like all $400 million will actually be spent on roads?

A June 24th Statesman editorial addressed the issue of combining roads with rail. The editorial said that it’s time to stop quibbling over the proposed route and call for a bond election in November… it’s time for Austin voters to have their say. (Now here’s the important part!) They also said it would be wrong to bundle rail with roads. “The council should have enough strength of conviction to allow the two initiatives to stand on their own. Road funding should not be held hostage by rail.”

Here are my thoughts on the tactic of combining roads and rail on a single proposition: It’s very DISINGENUOUS to use this tactic, it’s a DECEITFUL effort designed to “buy” the votes of those desperate for much-needed roadways. Some might even use the term “BLACKMAIL”.

The idea that “we have to have it all, including rail” is economically unsustainable. The massive cost and debt that rail will foist on this community will make it impossible to spend money on efforts that have a real chance to help our traffic congestion. If you think taxes are high now, and that Austin is becoming unaffordable… just wait till we have to start spending billions and billions on all the rail projects proposed for this community.

Let’s split this proposition in two… (1) a $400 million road proposition, and (2) a $600 million rail proposition. Let each proposition stand on its own merits, and let the voters decide what they’re willing to pay for.

August 2014 Column
By Commissioner Gerald Daugherty

Issues in the Upcoming November Elections

In addition to the importance of the National and State elections this fall, we’re looking at a watershed moment in elections on the local level. Travis County itself will have two new Commissioners Court members, including a new County Judge. Just as important, the City of Austin will transition from a 7-member City Council to an 11-member City Council. Here’s what’s important in the City of Austin… only the Mayor will be elected at-large. The rest of the City Council will be 10 Council members, each of whom will represent 1 of 10 geographical Districts.

What does this have to do with my Travis County Precinct 3?…. Several City Council Districts are also in my precinct. This is an election where not just the urban core close to downtown can vote heavily and essentially decide who will be on the City Council. This time even voters in the outlying areas of the City of Austin will have a real say in putting those who represent their interests on the City Council. Here’s what I mean. In southern Precinct 3 are at least parts of 4 City Council Districts (1, 5, 8, 9)… In northern Precinct 3 are at least parts of 2 City Council Districts (6 & 10). In essence, voters in Travis County Precinct 3 will have a say in 6 of the 10 Districts.

What about the Issues in the local elections, especially in the City of Austin election? All indications are that the key buzz word is AFFORDABILITY, followed closely by TAXES and TRAFFIC. Along with those we hear mention of “Water”, “Public Safety”, “Preserving Essential City Services”.

A July 7th American-Statesman article by Marty Toohey talks about those “top three”. He reports that a recent survey by pollster Peter Zandan actually places “snarled traffic” as the top concern for people in the Austin area. That was followed closely by “the rising cost of living”. Reasons for rising cost of living were: Rising property taxes, High cost of housing/rent, rising electric and water bills… all related to the issue of AFFORDABILITY.

A couple of other items on the local ballot will have a big impact on the “issues” we talk about above. First item… Austin Community College will have 2 bond propositions totaling $386 million, and another proposition to increase their tax rate. An American-Statesman editorial on June 19th questioned the ACC timing of putting these on the ballot this Fall. It also stated that “City leaders were hoping that ACC would hold off (on their proposals) to improve the chances of the passage of a likely light rail initiative”.

Second item… The City of Austin’s “Rail and Roads” bond proposition. As reported by Ben Wear in the Statesman on August 7th, there was a “hiccup” in drafting the final language, and that “a Texas Attorney General opinion says that combining roads and rail in one bond issue isn’t legal”. Bond language tweaks at the August 7th City Council meeting allows the City to issue $600 million in bonds for light rail, IF “future City Councils commit to spending $400 million on roads”. It’s my opinion that this bond proposition will be the main issue on the local ballot, and in all 10 City Council District races. It will affect all the issues that candidates will run on.

Most of you know my stance on rail, but I want to provide you with a couple of resources where you can research on your own. Believe it or not, these are not anti-rail websites. Go to several different sources and educate yourself about this issue so you can make an informed decision.

One website is by Bill Oakey, a retired former-government-employee accountant (self-admitted Democrat) who’s a real numbers guy. He professes that his passion is fighting for taxpayers in Travis County. Go to http://austinaffordability.com for detailed information and analysis of all the local issues and City Council candidates.

The other source, www.theragblog.com , whose motto is “The Latest in News & Views from the Progressive Front”, has a rather lengthy August 6th posting by Roger Baker. That posting has tons of information about this proposition, as well as the history of how we got to this moment of another rail bond election.

Taxpayers have a limited amount of money, and will be looking for City Council candidates who show they’ll provide the leadership in understanding their plight and who’ll be willing to make the hard choices to prioritize essential from non-essential spending of local taxpayer dollars. So, in addition to voting in State-wide races, be sure you go down-ballot to the local races (County, City, ACC, etc) and make your vote an informed vote.

September 2014 Column

By Commissioner Gerald Daugherty

Random Thoughts about Austin’s Proposition 1 on this November’s Election Ballot

This month I’m going to throw out a few facts, figures, statistics and a lot of questions for you to ponder over while deciding how to vote on Austin’s Proposition 1. Hopefully these will inspire you to research for all the information you can find so you can make an informed choice.

First question is… How did a 2008 rail proposal of 15.3 miles for about $600 million turn into this 2014 rail proposal of 9.5 miles for $1.4 billion? The 2008 numbers can be found in an August 1, 2008 Austin Chronicle article by Katherine Gregor. Compare the key statistics.

The 2008 route (similar to this 2014 route) also included Mueller, Seaholm, the Long Center, and all the way to the Airport. Cost per mile was about $38 million, operating costs about $22 million per year, with a ridership of 32,000/day by 2030. The 2014 route starts at Highland Mall and ends at Grove Street on Riverside Drive. Cost per mile is $147 million, operating costs about $22 million per year, with a ridership of about 18,000 per day by 2030.

Another thing to think about: This Proposition 1 is touted as only the FIRST PHASE in a new rail transit plan eventually including about 20 more miles. That would mean a cost of about $3 billion more. How much more would your property taxes increase?

Next question… How much of Proposition 1’s $400 million for roads would be spent on miles of new roads for Austin commuters? The 2014 Austin Strategic Mobility Plan describes those 6 projects.

(1) $120 million – Downtown IH35/Riverside: Access roads & interchange replacement, Urban Rail crossing over IH35. (2) $90 million – IH35 interchange replacements at Oltorf, Stassney, William Cannon. (3) $81.5 million – SH71 Direct Access to the Airport, plus structure for future rail extension. (4) $34 million - US183/East Riverside Interchange, plus structure for future rail extension. (5) $30 million – Regional Transportation Management Center (6) $44.5 million – Studies on 8 roadways, several of them for future rail extension.

Ask yourself… Are these Regionally Significant Roadway Projects that will relieve congestion, as promised in the bond language? Are we getting any miles of new lanes for our congested roads around Austin?

Let’s Go Austin says we’ll have up to 1 million new cars on our roads by 2040, and that this Urban Rail’s Phase 1 will have about 10,000 riders per day by 2030. Extrapolate that to 20,000 per day by 2040. Of those 20,000 rail riders, about 10,000 probably previously rode the bus… so are the 10,000 new urban rail riders worth $1.4 billion? And, what do we do about the 980,000 additional cars added to our already congested roadways?

In June of 2012 Mayor Leffingwell called off plans for a November, 2012 rail bond election because he said the city should not ask voters to approve $275 million debt for the first segment of urban rail while so many questions linger. With other expected bond proposals he said “the potential for financial strain on Austin taxpayers is deeply worrisome to me”. Does that still hold true today?

The Mayor also published 30 questions he said needed to be answered before proceeding with urban rail. Keeping in mind that this November’s bond proposition is touted as the 1st Phase of more to come, ask yourself if this sample of those questions have been answered.

How much will construction of Phase 2 cost?
How will construction costs of Phase 2 and subsequent expansions be financed?
How much are Phase 2 and subsequent phases expected to cost to operate annually?
How much are subsequent expansions expected to cost on a per mile basis?
How will capital and operational costs of those later phases be financed?
What will it cost to ride Phase 1 and subsequent phases?
What are the ridership projections for Phase 2 and subsequent expansions?
When would Phase 2 and subsequent expansions be expected to begin?
Will the system help reduce traffic congestion Downtown and outside of Downtown?

Here are a couple of final question to think about: Of the 49 City Council District candidates who have stated their position on the City of Austin’s Proposition 1, why have 44 of them (that’s 90%) said they will vote NO on this urban rail plan? What do they know that causes them to oppose what the current City Council supports?

Oakey: Why You Should Vote Against The Rail Bonds On Nov. 4th

August 29th, 2014

COST Commentary: COST agrees 100% with Bill Oakey’s recent posting, below, to his blog: AustinAffordability.com

Austin is one of the fastest rising cost-of-living regions in the nation and it must be stopped now. Its negative impacts are degradig the quality-of-life of many citizens and for reasons which are not providing benefits to the overall community. This proposed light rail bond will tie the hands of the new 10-1 City council elected in November and prevent them from stopping this cost-of-living growth.
Why You Should Vote Against The Rail Bonds On Nov. 4th

By Bill Oakey – August 29, 2014

1. This bond project is so expensive that it would double our general obligation bond debt from $1 billion to $2 billion. Far too many Austinites are being priced out of their homes with our current level of taxes. If we stretch our existing bond capacity for this one project, it will stifle our ability to fund other capital needs. Keep in mind that there will be other bond elections for AISD, Travis County, ACC and other City projects.

2. To put the tax impact into perspective, consider this. For the last few years during the budget cycle, the City Council has only had to modify the tax rate by a fraction of one penny. When property appraisals are escalating, tax rates often go down. But even with increasing property valuations, this bond package would raise the tax rate by 6 cents over 5 years, making it one of the largest tax increases in Austin history.

3. The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) claims in their 2040 growth plan that we will need $32.4 billion over the next 25 years for transportation projects. That comes out to a whopping $1.3 billion per year. Their report states that 80% of that money must come from local funding sources. So, every time you hear someone say, “We have to start somewhere” on this rail plan, hang onto your wallet! Does anyone really think we can afford to spend anything close to that amount of money every year for 25 years in a row?

4. The selected route for the rail line is based on highly speculative growth projections and density aspirations for an eastern alignment from East Riverside to Highland Mall. In order for these lofty growth projections to be met, we would have to attract so many cars to future developments along that corridors that they would easily wipe out any potential traffic relief provided by the rail system. Not only is this self-defeating, congestion-generating scenario possible, it is essential to achieving the rail ridership numbers required to obtain Federal matching funds.

5.We have all heard about the marvelous light rail system in Portland. But did you know that even with their 75-mile light rail network, the percentage of mass transit ridership has actually decreased from 9.8% to 7.0% between 1980 and 2012? We simply can’t afford to double our bond debt and impose crippling taxes upon our residents to serve a tiny fraction of the population.

Cheaper to Buy New Cars than Build Light Rail

August 25th, 2014

COST Commentary:This article describes a smaller vesion of of buses and light rail but it is directly applicable to the situation unfolding in Austin regarding the City’s proposed Light Rail which it has been placed on the November ballot.

Cheaper to Buy New Cars than Build Light Rail

Review of Greenlight Pinellas

by Randal O’Toole, August 14, 2014, Working Paper NO. 22, CATO Institute

Under its “Greenlight Pinellas” proposal, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), which serves Pinellas County, FL, wants to switch its major funding source from a property tax to a sales tax at a rate that will more than double its local tax revenues, and use the added money to build a 24-mile light-rail line and expand bus service. This proposal is extremely and unnecessarily expensive given that buses can provide a superior service to light rail, carrying more passengers more comfortably to more destinations at a far lower cost.

PSTA has already shown its inability to predict short-term travel patterns. Between 1991 and 2005, it increased bus service by 46 percent yet gained essentially no new riders and actually saw a 17 percent reduction in passenger miles. The result was that average occupancies of PSTA buses, which were already emptier than the national average, fell by 44 percent.

Because of the 2008–09 recession, PSTA was forced to reduce bus service by 5 percent after 2008, yet bus ridership actually grew by nearly 9 percent. PSTA says it needs a tax increase to accommodate the growth in ridership, but as of 2012, PSTA bus occupancies of an average of 8 riders per bus were still well below the national average of nearly 11 riders per bus, showing that PSTA has a lot of room for growth without any increase in service.

PSTA’s Greenlight Pinellas proposal effectively asks the public to reward the agency for its failures. PSTA’s plan is so expensive and produces so little benefit that, under federal Department of Transportation rules that were in effect until last year, it would not be eligible for federal funding because it is so cost-ineffective.

Compared with bus-rapid transit, the proposed light-rail line would be so costly and attract so few new riders that it would be less expensive to give every new round-trip commuter who was attracted to the light rail a new Toyota Prius every single year for 30 years than to build the light rail. Yet the specific bus-rapid transit alternative that was nominally considered by PSTA is itself phenomenally expensive, costing nearly $50 for every hour of transit riders’ time that it would save.

In addition, PSTA has failed to reveal the effects of the proposed light-rail line on traffic congestion. Light rail often increases congestion when it crosses streets and disrupts traffic signal coordination systems. Although Greenlight Pinellas documents indicate that PSTA calculated the effects of light rail on congestion, it did not publish its results, suggesting that it did not want the public to know that it would make congestion worse.

As an alternative to light rail and a tax increase, this paper proposes that PSTA introduce eight new rapid bus routes that would provide better bus service to residents throughout the region. These new routes would be funded by contracting out all PSTA bus routes to private operators, which would save taxpayers at least 31 percent per route and probably more. This way, instead of spending more money on poorer quality transportation, as Greenlight Pinellas proposes, taxpayers will get better transit at no greater cost.

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.

Project Connect’s Proposed Austin Light (Urban) Rail is Very Misguided

August 17th, 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 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 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.”

He is also an active cyclist who has never commuted to work by automobile. A few years ago, Randal did a cycling tour of the southern island of New Zealand.

As pointed out in this paper, the spending of a significant portion of Austin’s finite transportation dollars on high cost, ineffective light 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.

Capital Metro’s has spent almost $3.4 billion since starting in 1985 and its total transit ridership has been stagnant for 15 years. Cap Metro projects ridershp to be down for their 2014 fiscal year ending September 30 and is projeting another decline next year. Ridership is The MetroRail commuter line, in its 5th year of operation, has not changed this flat ridership trend while the region’s population has grown 56%. Meanwhile costs per passenger have risen at about double the rate of inflation and the train costs are 5 times the bus operating costs per passenger.

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 congestion, 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.

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.

©2007 Coalition On Sustainable Transportation