UT’s ‘The Daily Texan’: Standing Alone; Tall, Proud and Strong.

October 17th, 2014

COST Commentary: Thank you to ‘The Daily Texan.’ This article is an another example of the wisdom of youth. It displays some of the great, Texas common sense which is missing in so much of Austin’s rail rhetoric over the past 30 years. There are numerous “common sense” considerations which too many people have ignored in the emotionally charged campaign surrounding Austin’s bond proposition for the proposed light rail.

‘The Daily Texan’ is the only local newspaper to date to oppose Austin’s light rail as described in the article below. ‘The Daily Texan’ was also the only local newspaper to oppose Cap Metro’s proposed light rail which was defeated in 2000. Time has proven ‘The Daily Texan’ to be correct. Every time a light rail route has been proposed over the past 25 years, it has a different route. Hugely expensive, fixed rail transit for a rapidly growing area, with lower density, is not a responsible choice for flexible, cost effective transit to meet growing, changing needs. Rail has not lived-up to its promises in any city like Austin. In addition, rapidly advancing technology will further make outdated trains a totally irresponsible transit choice for cities like Austin today or 100 years from today.

1. The truth is: Austin’s Light Rail proposition will increase congestion throughout the city; the reverse of the City’s sales pitch and “vision” of lower congestion. Austin’s plan of higher population density and constrained, congestion laden streets will hamper mobility and quality-of-life for all. None of the major Texas cities or other similar cities have reduced congestion with rail transit. Rail is the most expensive, with the highest tax subsidies, of any normal transit option. This results in degrading overall transit because communities cannot afford to build build enough fixed rail to reach large numbers of those needing daily transit to wide-ranging destinations.

2. The City states “We have to start somewhere” and this initial rail line is just the beginning of a network of rail. This initial and increasing tax “bite” is totally unaffordable and will accelerate the continuing departure of low and medium income citizens, resulting in substantial declines in public school enrollment and the closing of dozens of schools. Austin already has the fastest growing “cost-of-living” growth and the most “overpriced housing” of all the nation’s large cities. The rail strains affordability and does nothing for congestion.

3. The City states the light rail will remove 10,000 cars (this is really car trips) daily from the roads. (A two-way work commuter is 2 car trips). While this is a dubious claim, as shown by solid analysis, lets use it. The City also states there are 110 people and 70 cars per day moving to the Austin area. Each car has an average of 3 trips per day or about 200 total new trips arriving each day. Therefore, if the rail takes 10,000 car trips off the road, they will be replaced by new arriving car trips in 50 days and we are back where we started with traffic. This means $1.4 billion is proposed to be spent to delay traffic build-up by 50 days at a cost of $28 million per day. This is clearly not cost effective: We could pay 50 people to stay home or pay companies to allow 50 car drivers to work at home for 50 days. This would cost a lot less. But, it will be even less than 50 days of very small value because there will be more than 100 new cars arriving each day in 2030 when the train is “removing 10,000 cars per day”. Therefore, there will only be 33 days of traffic build-up delay at $42.4 million per day.

4. This rail bond and its interest will use up almost all bonding capacity for some time, and, taxes keep rising if the city continues to add rail lines as planned. Austin already has more than $8 billion in bond debt payback. This rail bond will completely ‘tie the hands’ of the new 10-1 council and prevent them from issuing needed bonds, for other city needs, during their entire term.

5. This proposition is not authorizing the $400 million for “roads.” The City plan is to authorize the roads without citizen’s voting. These road commitments are actually transfers of funds to TxDoT, which performs the work, and could be done anytime, with or without, this rail proposition. But, this would not create the illusion (some call it manipulation or blackmail) that the roads are tied to the voters’ rail authorization.

6. The true cost of the rail will very likely be more than $2 billon when the related costs are considered: Bond Interest of at least $200 million; about one-half of the $400 million road package is to support the light rail; and, overruns which must be paid by taxpayers. Average overruns for such projects are about 40% and are not covered by federal funds if Austin receives any at all.

7. This bond creates the biggest taxpayer gamble in Austin’s history. The federal government has a long line of other funding requests which are ahead of Austin and federal funding availability is very questionable. The City of Austin has no limitation on how much it can spend for planning, engineering, design, environmental, etc. prior to the receiving approval for matching federal funds several years in the future. If federal funds are denied, all Austin tax money spent to this date and as much as $70 million of the bond money spent during these several years will be wasted.

8. The exact cost of the trains annual operations are not known at this point. They have been roughly estimated, by the City, as $22 million. If their costs are as poorly estimated as the current train’s costs, this burden will put Capital Metro in a deep financial hole, resulting in cut-backs in bus service and higher fares; both of which primarily burden those who need daily transit and have no alternative.

The train’s supporters include the City Council, the Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Council of Austin. None of these organizations seeked or allowed alternative views to be presented by knowledgable professionals prior to approving resolutions to support these rail bonds. None of these organizations revealed the planned long term cost and tax implications for Austin citizens.

We have been here before. Let’s not forget what we learned. Many of today’s rail promises are eerily similar to the ones made about the current red line. The Red Line has achieved none of its major promises:

1. Rail ridership remains well below expectations and Cap Metro’s overall transit ridership has been stagnant for 15 years while the population has grown 56%. The Red Line rail did not change this trend as ridership is down this year and projected to be down next again next year. Stagnant transit ridership has existed in the U.S. for more than 50 years. The four major Texas cities are among the fastest growing major U.S. Cities, but, have less total transit ridership today than 15 years ago, before spending billions on rail transit.

2. The Red Line was advertised to reduce congestion but no one has noticed this. Most observe there are more people delayed in vehicles being stopped by the Red Line than there are riders on the train.

3. The Red Line cost twice as much as committed to voters. Cap Metro promised 2004 voters that the Red Line’s operating costs would be $2 million per year when it opened in 2007. It actually opened in 2010 and operating costs are now $14 million. Cap Metro reports this train costs about $20 per average passenger ride which is almost 5 times the cost of a bus passenger ride at about $4. This clearly indicates the system is highly subsidizing train riders who generally own cars and can afford to pay more and placing the financail burden on: 1. lower income citizens through higher bus fares, and, 2. on all taxpayers.

4. The Red Line was described as “environmentally friendly” but it would be less polluting if all the rail riders were in individual cars.

Summary: Let’s not make a huge mistake doing the same thing that a previous, much smaller mistake has taught us. The proposed light rail’s estimated, but dubious, ridership is only 6 times the Red Line commuter ridership. However the proposed light rail’s capital costs will be a minimum of 10 times the red line and, likely, much more with transparency and competent analyses.

We need mobility which cost-effectively serves the 99% of daily trips which are on our roads. The sharing of road infrastructure is the most cost-effective way to efficently serve the daily needs of private, public transit, shared, hired, emergency/public safety, commercial and other government vehicles. Passenger rail is the most expensive form of transit and cannot effectively serve the community’s multiple needs. We clearly cannot afford to provide this rail “alternative,” for so few, at the expense of achieving the needs and aspirations of all citizens for effective mobility. Trains will limit and constrain our mobility while degrading transit for those who need it the most. In human time, greater mobility has provided greater quality of life.

This November, vote no on Proposition 1 bond package

Published in ‘The Daily Texan’ (University of Texas), October 13, 2014

Without a doubt, rail is a polarizing issue in Austin politics. On Tuesday, Student Government passed a resolution declaring support for Proposition 1, the Green Line urban rail and bond proposal. In July, given information and perspectives of the moment, this editorial board begrudgingly offered its endorsement for Project Connect’s urban rail plan. After further consideration and deliberation, it is only with sincere disappointment that this board must withhold our endorsement of Proposition 1, to be voted on this November.

While $600 million of the bond will go toward rail, $400 million of the bond is earmarked for road improvements. Perhaps an effort to shove a sub-par rail proposal down the public’s throat by enticing them with bundled road funds, the bundling of these two projects is unfortunate. Roads need improvement to alleviate traffic, and this disapproval of Proposition 1 should not be taken as disapproval of road improvement. Rather, the flaws of the urban rail plan outweigh the benefits of the linked road improvements.

There are two facts about public transportation that must be acknowledged before moving forward. First, the purpose of public mass transit, contrary to many pro-rail advertising campaigns, is not to ease congestion of personal vehicles. Public transportation provides an alternative to congestion, but it will never be the solution. Second, like public schools and municipal parks, public transportation is a necessary public service, not meant to be inherently profitable but sustainable enough to facilitate the everyday travel of a functioning community. With these two considerations, we must avoid auto-centric, capitalistic conversation regarding urban rail.

The route north of the river has caused the most controversy. While Project Connect, the plan’s creator, constantly touts the ‘data-driven’ plan, we question the metrics used in this designation. Project Connect used projected, as opposed to current, density data to drive its route proposal. Areas surrounding the Red Line have not seen this projected density growth that justified its creation, and we fear that, if passed, the Green Line will suffer a similar fate.

Capital Metro often references the “success” of the Red Line to boost confidence in voters that it can handle this new project. Though riders and Francine Pares, communications manager at Capital Metro, testify that at peak hours the Red Line is so full that there is standing room only, this is not a viable metric for measuring the real success of the line. Initial ridership projections of the Red Line estimated 3,000-4,000 riders per day growing to eventually 8,000-10,000 daily. In August, Pares said “more than 60,000 MetroRail trips are taken each month,” but keep in mind that a single person can make multiple trips in a day. This averages to around 2050 trips per day, less than initial estimates and nowhere close to projected growth. The fact that the Red Line has standing room only is a testament to the size of the vehicle rather than true demand. The “success” of the Red Line is dubious at best.

Furthermore, central corridor advocates overemphasized the risk of losing possible Federal Transit Administration funding, necessary for the current rail proposal, if they proposed a Lamar-Guadalupe route. They argue that because the city had just installed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) using FTA funds on the same route, a request for funding on this route would be rejected. In addition to the explicit grant language containing provisions for future development funding along the BRT route disproving this claim, Scott Morris from Our Rail group provided a memo obtained from Capital Metro where an FTA representative is quoted saying the administration would consider funding for development along the BRT route should the city introduce new priorities.

With this new proposal, many look back nostalgically on the 2000 light rail proposal, thinking, “If only we had known!” This redesigned route of this current proposal is a reaction to the 2000 “rail fail,” attempting to address issues that led a narrow margin of 2,000 more people to vote “no” at the turn of the century. But Austin has changed, and this proposal has not adequately adapted. More people than ever understand the need for comprehensive public transportation improvements. It’s a curious fact, and a daunting omen, that so many rail advocates have come out against this rail plan. Though we support transit initiatives that will make our city livable and affordable, we oppose this proposal.

Commissioner Gomez, Travis County, Pct. 4, Opposes Austin Light Rail

October 1st, 2014

COST Commentary: This letter from Travis County Commissioner Margaret J. Gomez to the ‘Democratic Precinct Chairs’ expresses our sentiments very well. As stated by the commissioner, this is absolutely not a partisan issue. However, the pro rail political action committee (Pac), Let’s Go Austin, seems to have shifted their major campaign thrust from addressing key rail issues to trying hard to provoke a partisan conflict with the ‘Citizens Against Rail Taxes’ (CART) Pac.

‘Let’s Go Austin’ has fabricated an array of egregious, false statements regarding numerous people who are opposed to this light rail for the reasons stated by Commissioner Gomez in her letter below and in a short speech she made publically at the CART Pac initial press conference. We greatly respect her courage in standing up for the greater-good of citizens she represents and all of the region’s citizens. Austin’s new 10-1 Council will need this same level of courage as they address numerous Austin issues which the past few Councils have allowed to deteriorate resulting in major affordability issues with rapidly increasing cost-of-living, gentrification and declining public school enrollment.

COST’s many reasons for opposing Proposition 1 are stated in recent postings on this site under ‘News Articles.’

CART is committed to work together, as a community, to achieve affordable mobility improvements which will serve the most people in their needs for effective mobility from the greatest number of trip origins to the greatest number of destinations. This is a major ingredient in improving citizens’ quality-of-life:

Greater Mobility provides Greater Quality of Life.

Margaret J. Gomez
Travis County Commissioner, Precinct 4

Dear Democratic Precinct Chairs:

I am writing as a concerned citizen to ensure families understand Prop 1 on the
November 4 ballot and its long-term impact on their budgets. It is crucial that we
think of urban rail as a financial issue-more precisely an affordability issue, and
not a partisan issue. There has been much talk about how Austin is not an
affordable place for families to live. Ifwe are serious about changing that, we must
think about how a billion dollar bond issue will affect Austin families.

This issue is not partisan; it affects every resident’s pocketbook in every section of
Austin, regardless of party affiliation. As a long-time resident of Austin who has
participated in almost every election, including bond elections to improve the
quality of life for families all over Austin, I have had to take a deep breath about the
urban rail issue. Every time I walk neighborhoods in Austin to educate voters about
my record and Travis County’s record in giving a 20 homestead exemption to
homeowners, I have gotten complaints about rising taxes, even for those who have
done nothing to improve the value of their homes except ordinary upkeep. At that
time, I promised them that I would bring the issue to the attention of City Council
members, and I have kept that promise.

Travis County granted $77 million in homestead exemptions in 2014. That amount
did not affect the County’s ability to fund the criminal justice system, emergency
services, EMSjStarFlight and roads for which we are statutorily responsible. We
still have a $900 million budget to address our obligations. I am appealing to all city
council candidates to very seriously consider a 20 homestead exemption for
families who have long supported City of Austin government with their taxes.
It appears to me that the affordability issue needs to be addressed before asking
Austin residents to take on a new $1 billion debt.

The urban rail plan calls for building 9.5 miles from Highland Mall to Grove Drive in
East Austin along Riverside Drive, at a cost of $147 million per mile. Moreover, it
will further decrease the supply of affordable rental housing and displace many
more people in Precinct 4.

Project Connect anticipates 18,000 boardings per day by 2030, which equals 9,000
riders going round trip. 3,250 of those riders will be new to public transportation,
with the remainder being previous bus riders. These 3,250 new riders will cost
taxpayers $430,769 each.

The $1 billion debt is just the beginning, according to the City of Austin. Two
proposals to extend the line will be forthcoming. If this bond issue passes, the City
of Austin’s bond debt will be doubled
, leaving new Council members very little
ability to meet the needs of their constituents. The fair and just action would be to
let the new council members be part of the solution after they are sworn in.
Maintenance and Operations costs are not on the ballot, but those expenditures will
amount to $22 million paid by taxpayers annually.

The fact that we failed to plan for future growth is not a good reason to approve this
$1.4 billion phase one proposal. Did we really believe that if we didn’t build roads
no one would come? This fix is too expensive for low- and middle-income families,
whose numbers in Austin are rising. Austin has had the second-largest increase
in suburban poverty among big cities between 2008-2012.
Why are we not
concerned about this?

I urge you to consider very seriously whether this proposal makes fiscal sense.
Other issues deserve this kind of investment, but if the City of Austin says it can’t
afford $35 million a year for homestead exemptions, why can it afford $1.4 billion
for expensive urban rail projects. If you think your taxes are too high now, wait until
the full bill comes in for both the rail AND the medical school! Thank you for your


Margaret J. Gomez
Travis County Commissioner, Pet. 4

“Smart Growth” & “Urban Containment” Produce Higher Cost Housing and Degraded Standard of Living

September 27th, 2014

COST Commentary: The article below addresses issues which Austin city policies have been steadily leading to. Austin has the possibility to be a much greater city, but, is using Portland as one of the cities to emulate. Portland began to introduce a long series of “smart growth’ and urban containment” policies and regulations 25-30 years ago. The long term result has been major gentrification, a 40% drop in public school enrollment, housing prices which are still well ahead of Austin’s rapidly rising prices and transit agency/government unfunded liabilities which threaten major restructuring. The head of Portland’s transit agency stated that if additional revenue sources are not found, transit service will need to be cut 70%.

The Austin area has significantly higher housing prices than its other, three major Texas cities. In addition, the cost of living in Austin is rising at one of the fastest rates of any major city in the U.S. and Austin’s debt per capita is growing rapidly.

It is time to stop these trends which will lead to degraded quality of life for all citizens. Austin has already demonstrated great potential, but has been misled by several past government administrations.

Another recent posting dealing with these negative Austin trends is: Density and Trains Do Not Make Austin a City. This posting has additional COSTCommentary.

Austin officials have established a plan which has placed the city on a path of densification and commitment of an overwhelming share of transportation funds to rail transit. This is a total misguided path and will continue to lead Austin in Portland’s path, achieving the same results and degraded quality of life for its citizens.
Note: There are numerous additional references in this article on the newgeography site. Click on the title below to access them.


by Wendell Cox, 09/10/2014 in newgeography.com

In a New York Times column entitled “Wrong Way America,” Nobel laureate Paul Krugman againreminds us of the high cost of overzealous land-use regulations. Krugman cites the work of Harvard economist Ed Glaeser and others in noting that “high housing prices in slow-growing states also owe a lot to policies that sharply limit construction.” He observes that “looser regulation in the South has kept the supply of housing elastic and the cost of living low” (Note 1).

Supply is the Issue

Krugman specifically cites Houston, Atlanta and the Sunbelt for their lower house prices and less restrictive housing regulation. In contrast, he points to New York and California as having high house prices and greater housing regulation. Krugman further observes that the secret of growth is “not getting in the way of middle- and working-class housing supply.”

This concern about housing supply is echoed by former World Bank principal planner Alain Bertaud who notes that the solution to the housing affordability problem “is to increase the supply of land” (Note 2). Bertaud further points out that “Restricting land supply and imposing too many controls also stifles business growth.”

Wrong Way Cities

However, the real problem is not a “Wrong Way America” that “gets in the way of middle- and working-class housing supply, but “Wrong Way Cities” (metropolitan areas) that have adopted land use regulations severely restrict the supply of land for urban development. The price increasing policies are often referred to as “smart growth” or “urban containment” and routinely involve restricting the supply of land for development through urban growth boundaries, large lot suburban, and exurban zoning and other strategies.

This destroys what Brookings Institution economist Anthony Downs (p. 36) calls the “competitive supply of land.” The result is higher house prices, because, all things being equal, the price of a good or service is likely to increase if its supply is severely limited. Otherwise, OPEC oil supply restrictions would never have raised concern.

Where more traditional, liberal land use policies remain, housing remains affordable. For example, during the housing bubble, an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas attributed the lower, and still affordable house prices in Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Houston to avoiding more restrictive land use polices: “… these markets have weathered the increased demand largely with new construction rather than price appreciation because of the ease of building new homes.”

Housing and the Standard of Living

Housing is the largest category of household expenditure. Moreover, housing costs vary far more between metropolitan areas than other expenditure categories, such as transportation, food and apparel. As a result, housing is the most important driver of the standard of living, especially for middle and lower income households. Where house prices are higher compared to incomes, households have less in discretionary income — the amount left over after taxes and necessities. With less left over, a lower standard of living and greater poverty is inevitable.

The differences are even greater for young households moving to metropolitan areas with restrictive land use policies. These households must pay elevated house prices, not having benefited from the lower housing costs that longer-term residents were able to lock in by purchasing years ago.

The higher housing costs prices can more than offset higher wages. Thus, a prospective domestic migrant may choose to move to Houston rather than New York, because Houston’s wages, although lower, translate into higher discretionary incomes and a higher standard of living.

These price increases create a “double hit” to the standard of living. Not only do households have to pay higher house prices, but they usually get less, as house size and lots are reduced in size as a result of the more restrictive regulations. Indeed, regulations in California are being interpreted to make it difficult, if not impossible to build the detached housing most Americans prefer (See:California Declares War on Suburbia). The irony is that smart growth advocates claim this increases “housing choice,” an Orwellian turn of phrase if there ever was one.

It is no wonder that young and aspiring households are drawn to metropolitan areas where housing is more affordable. Meanwhile, house prices have escalated strongly in the restrictively regulated metropolitan areas of California and the Northeast despite low demand. This has much to do with the significant domestic migration loss, as Paul Ganong and Daniel Shoag of Harvard have indicated. Between 2000 and 2013, more than 4,000,000 loss in net domestic migrants between 2000 and 2013, according to Census Bureau data.

The problem is acute for lower income households, which are disproportionately minority. The Thomas Rivera Institute, a Latino oriented research organization, found that California’s land regulations “are making it particularly difficult for Latino and African American households to own a home.”

The Consensus

There is virtual agreement that more restrictive policies are associated with higher house prices. The only issue in dispute is the extent of the impact. But even seemingly small differences can be important. Downs (p. 36) characterizes a modest 10 percent differential to be socially significant, because of the number of households that the higher prices made ineligible for home purchase.

In fact, the differences in house prices relative to incomes are substantial, ranging up to a nearly250 percent difference between Atlanta and San Francisco. The differences are so significant as to attract the attention of economists like Krugman, Glaeser and others for their influence on domestic migration. This is socially significant.

The Risks

No city in the United States can expect immunity from low housing affordability due to overly restrictive land use regulation, even in more depressed areas with lower housing demand. This is illustrated by Liverpool, in the United Kingdom, where smart growth policies are well entrenched. Liverpool has lost a larger percentage of its population since 1950 than any of the other 1,700 urban areas in the world with more than 300,000 population. Yet Liverpool has seen its housing affordability deteriorate to among the worst in the UK, US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.

The smart growth planning philosophy now pervades virtually all of the urban planning community, which seeks its spread to virtually everywhere (Note 3). Current targets include Minneapolis-St. Paul (see Thrive 2040: Toward a Less Competitive Minneapolis-St. Paul), andSan Antonio and the rest are on the list. The research is clear, where there is more restrictive land use policy, house prices can be expected to rise relative to incomes.

Cities for People

Current urban policy is misdirected and needs correction. Fundamentally, urban policies should be aligned with the purpose of cities. Cities are for people. People have moved to cities principally for economic reasons, as they aspire to better standards of living. Public policies that raise the price of housing substantially interfere with the reason that cities exist.

There is a need for a paradigm shift. Currently in-vogue urban policy focuses on tactics, such as urban form, legally mandated higher densities, mode of transport and urban design (”place-making”).

Economist Glaeser writes that “Bad policy puts place-making above helping people…” Bad policy should be discarded. The focus should instead be on the fundamental objectives of improving the standard of living and reducing poverty. At a minimum, this requires housing that is affordable (See Toward More Prosperous Cities).
Note 1: In the column, Krugman suggests that differences in housing regulation are more important than business regulation and taxation in explaining the migration patterns that have people generally moving from higher cost areas with higher housing costs to lower cost areas. There is strong research on both issues, and both issues are important.

Note 2: Housing affordability refers to the price of houses across the entire spectrum of income, not just low income housing.

Note 3: Perhaps the most frequently cited justification for restrictive land use policies is greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction. A growing body of research indicates that urban land use policies are a generally minor and expensive means to that objective and that technological improvements are far more effective. Smaller scale strategies are also better than “one-size-fits-all” land use regulation. It is notable that the most comprehensive US review (Jones and Kammenat the University of California, Berkeley) of GHG emissions at the local level (zip codes) found: “Generally … no evidence for net GHG benefits of population density in urban cores or suburbs when considering effects on entire metropolitan areas.” They suggest “an entirely new approach of highly tailored community strategies.”
Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is co-author of the “Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey” and author of “Demographia World Urban Areas” and “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.” He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He was appointed to the Amtrak Reform Council to fill the unexpired term of Governor Christine Todd Whitman and has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.
Photo: Minneapolis-St. Paul, by author

Randal O’Toole’s Light Rail Presentation in Austin

September 24th, 2014

COST Commentary: Randal O’Toole recently visited Austin to provide education briefings regarding rail transit in general and specifically about Austin’s proposed light rail, The City’s Proposition 1 on the November election ballot near the end of the ballot. His briefing can be found on his blog AntiPlanner. His briefing is filled with facts which support the view that this is absolutely the wrong solution for Austin’s congestion problems and will actually increase congestion while imposing a huge tax and cost increase on 99.7% of the citizens who will never use this rail.

Below is a brief sketch of Randal O’Toole.

Randal O’Toole is a Senior Fellow with the CATO Institute and is one of the nation’s foremost rail transit experts. He has recently written two papers addressing 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. These articles can be found at:

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

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 , 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. Recently, Randal did a cycling tour of the southern island of New Zealand.

If So Many People Support Mass Transit, Why Do So Few Ride?

September 24th, 2014

COST Commentary: The article immediately below describes a long term dichotomy regarding public transit: The vast majority of U.S. citizens have historically supported public transit, even as a declining percentage of citizens use it. My prediction regarding this gap is below.

It is clear that citizens throughout the nation have made reasoned mobility decisions which best support their desired quality of life. These decisions have resulted in the negative public transit trends discussed here and throughout this site.

The largest use of public transit is work commuting but public transit is less than 5% of the total, behind drive alone and carpooling. Excluding New York, work-at-home is also ahead of the use of public transit throughout the nation. About 65% of the nation’s work commuting is in six pre-automobile cities: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Chicago and San Francisco. About 96% of U.S heavy rail transit is in these cities. The rest of the nation’s transit ridership is very small as it is spread over many cities throughout the nation.

Total U.S. transit ridership has been stagnant and small for more than 50 years while many billions of tax dollars have subsidized the expansion of transit. Therefore, the percentage of citizens choosing transit has significantly declined. Work commuting has declined from just over 12% to less than 5% since 1960 when this data was first reported in the U.S. census. Meanwhile, the cost of public transit has risen faster than inflation, creating an increasing burden on all taxpayers.

Austin is no exception. Its public transit work commuting 2.3%, declining for many years, and is 5th behind drive alone, car pool, work-at-home and all other (includes bike & walk). Austin does have two major negative distinctions: Its average bus ridership is 10 people, well below other similar cities and its fare recovery of less than 10% is one of the lowest in the nation for a major city. Austin’s total transit ridership has also been stagnant and small for the past 15 years. It is actually lower last year than 15 years ago and Cap Metro projects further declines this year and next year. Austin’s substantial investment in transit, its commuter rail and a 56% increase in population have made no difference in this negative ridership trend.

My prediction: The decreasing use of transit and the increasing costs are resulting in a beginning of closing the gap between transit riders and transit supporters. Transit supporters and riders will recognize the value of cost-effective transit solutions and will cease to support the runaway costs of ineffective transit, which can only serve to reduce the entire community’s quality-of-life. We need to start this in a very big way in Austin as “brakes” are applied to the proposed light rail in Austin’s Proposition 1, near the end of November’s ballot. This will began to close the “gap” and serve the greater-good of the community.

The second article below from a year 2000 issue of ‘the Onion,’ has the famous title:

“98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others”

The article contains several comments and quotes from people about the future growth of transit and its role in mobility. For those not familiar with ‘the Onion,’ it is a clever news satire organization. This parody contains similar comments to those we still hear today regarding the merits of transit, especially train transit; in spite of the overwhelming and growing experience that transit is a small and declining portion of mobility and an increasing portion of taxes. Much as the Onion article satire suggests ways to increase transit use, 14 years ago, the article below makes a shallow attempt at suggesting the possible enhanced future roll of transit. Not likely; the current declining trend has existed for a long time and swiftly moving new technology can produce a paradigm shift in transit and mobility which will further antiquate 150 year old train technology.

The reckless pursuit of ineffective transit, which is the highest cost transit mode, is resulting in a growing economic burden on taxpayers who must subsidize it, and, to decreasing and higher cost transit service for those who need it. This is a losing combination for the community. We need cost-effective transit which will serve the most people needing it, from the most trip origins to the most destinations. Inflexible, extremely high cost rail transit such as the proposed $1.4 billion, 9.5 mile light rail will only degrade mobility and the overall community.

If So Many People Support Mass Transit, Why Do So Few Ride?
Closing the support-usage gap will be key to a strong public transportation future.

By ERIC JAFFE in CITYLAB, September 22, 2014.

Every transit advocate knows this timeless Onion headline: “98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others.” But the underlying truth that makes this line so funny also makes it a little concerning: enthusiasm for public transportation far, far outweighs the actual use of it. Last week, for instance, the American Public Transportation Association reported that 74 percent of people support more mass transit spending. But only 5 percent of commuters travel by mass transit. This support, in other words, is largely for others.

What’s more striking about the support-usage gap is that it doesn’t just exist on paper. In addition to saying they support transit funding, Americans back up that support with their own pocketbooks. Time and again at the polls, people are willing to raise local taxes to maintain or expand the transit service that so few of them actually use. According to the Center for Transportation Excellence, there were 62 transportation measures on ballots across the country in 2012—many with a considerable transit component—and nearly 80 percent of them succeeded.

Nor do these investments necessarily pay off in greater transit usage over time. Recently, transit scholars Michael Manville and Benjamin Cummins analyzed 21 local transportation funding ballots from 2001 to 2003, and found that, on average, these tax increases were approved by 63 percent of the vote. Yet a decade later, the share of commuters who drove alone in these places had fallen just 2 points, from 87 to 85 percent, while the share of transit commuters had stayed the same, at 5 percent. At best, the behavioral shifts were modest; at worst, they didn’t exist.

People believe transit has collective benefits that don’t require their personal usage.

One of the clearest examples of the disparity comes from Los Angeles County. In 1980, about 7.5 percent of commuters used transit. That year, voters approved a permanent half-cent sales tax increase to pay for transportation initiatives, including lots of transit upgrades, but by 1990, the share of transit commuters had declined to 6.5 percent. That year, voters again approved a half-cent increase by a two-to-one margin, with nearly all the money going to transit. But the transit commute share was still at 7 percent come 2008, when yet another transportation ballot, Measure R, was passed by two-thirds of the vote.

So why do so many people support transit—not just with their voices but their wallets—when they have no intention of using it? The conclusion reached by Manville and Cummins largely echoes that of the Onion: people believe transit has collective benefits that don’t require their personal usage. Maybe voters think transit will reduce traffic congestion, or improve the environment, or help low-income residents, or translate into economic development. So long as someone else uses transit right now, everyone else will win in the end.

This outcome may seem obvious, but the data behind it are truly staggering. Take a look at one analysis Manville and Cummins perform on a transportation survey conducted by the National Resources Defense Council in 2012. They found no statistical connection between respondents who supported transit funding and those who wanted to drive less, or even those willing to use transit if it were more convenient. But respondents who believed “the community would benefit” had a700 percent increase in odds of being a pro-transit voter. The researchers write in the journal Transportation:

Put simply, Americans are more likely to see transit as a way to solve social problems than as a way to get around.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, so long as people indefinitely keep paying for transit they don’t use. Perhaps that’s even a sign of societal maturity. But problems will arise if voters stop agreeing to devote their taxes to transit, because the broader benefits they’ve hoped for fail to materialize. Of course, the reason these benefits don’t emerge is that the very people supporting transit aren’t riding it: traffic congestion isn’t going to get any better, after all, if every driver waits for someone else to shift to the subway or the bus.

There’s an even worse outcome already happening in some places: the wrong types of transit riders get subsidized with public money. Since transit ballots must often appeal to wealthier suburban communities to gain enough support to pass, much of the subsequent funding goes toward the commuter rail serving these areas. That leaves city bus riders who need good service most with a smaller slice of the pie. Transport scholars Brian Taylor and Eric Morris recently reported that rail riders get 31 percent more public funding than bus riders, on the whole.

Total inflation-adjusted transit subsidy per unlinked trip by mode: 1995 to 2009. (Taylor & Morris,Transportation, 2014)

Where all these trends converge is the realization that truly supporting transit requires more than just voting to support transit. To make a real dent in mobility trends, cities will need to make driving more expensive at the same time that they make transit more appealing. “So long as many transit supporters prefer to drive, new transit spending may neither increase transit ridership nor reduce driving,” write Manville and Cummins. “Taxing driving, in contrast, could accomplish both.” But it doesn’t take the wisdom of the Onion to know that’s an idea far less than 98 percent of commuters will support.

Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others

the Onion, Nov 29, 2000

WASHINGTON, DC–A study released Monday by the American Public Transportation Association reveals that 98 percent of Americans support the use of mass transit by others.

Traffic moves slowly near Seatte, WA, where a majority of drivers say they support other people using mass transit.

“With traffic congestion, pollution, and oil shortages all getting worse, now is the time to shift to affordable, efficient public transportation,” APTA director Howard Collier said. “Fortunately, as this report shows, Americans have finally recognized the need for everyone else to do exactly that.”

Of the study’s 5,200 participants, 44 percent cited faster commutes as the primary reason to expand public transportation, followed closely by shorter lines at the gas station. Environmental and energy concerns ranked a distant third and fourth, respectively.

Anaheim, CA, resident Lance Holland, who drives 80 miles a day to his job in downtown Los Angeles, was among the proponents of public transit.

“Expanding mass transit isn’t just a good idea, it’s a necessity,” Holland said. “My drive to work is unbelievable. I spend more than two hours stuck in 12 lanes of traffic. It’s about time somebody did something to get some of these other cars off the road.”

Public support for mass transit will naturally lead to its expansion and improvement, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said.

“With everyone behind it, we’ll be able to expand bus routes, create park-and-ride programs, and build entire new Metrolink commuter-rail lines,” LACMTA president Howard Sager said. “It’s almost a shame I don’t know anyone who will be using these new services.”

Sager said he expects wide-scale expansion of safe, efficient, and economical mass-transit systems to reduce traffic congestion in all major metropolitan areas in the coming decades.

Morning rush hour on one of Los Angeles’ economical, environmentally friendly buses.

“Improving public transportation will do a great deal of good, creating jobs, revitalizing downtown areas, and reducing pollution,” Sager said. “It also means a lot to me personally, as it should cut 20 to 25 minutes off my morning drive.”

The APTA study also noted that of the 98 percent of Americans who drive to work, 94 percent are the sole occupant of their automobile.

“When public transportation is not practical, commuters should at least be carpooling,” Collier said. “Most people, unlike me, probably work near someone they know and don’t need to be driving alone.”
Collier said he hopes the study serves as a wake-up call to Americans. In conjunction with its release, the APTA is kicking off a campaign to promote mass transit with the slogan, “Take The Bus… I’ll Be Glad You Did.”

The campaign is intended to de-emphasize the inconvenience and social stigma associated with using public transportation, focusing instead on the positives. Among these positives: the health benefits of getting fresh air while waiting at the bus stop, the chance to meet interesting people from a diverse array of low-paying service-sector jobs, and the opportunity to learn new languages by reading subway ads written in Spanish.

“People need to realize that public transportation isn’t just for some poor sucker to take to work,” Collier said. “He should also be taking it to the shopping mall, the supermarket, and the laundromat.”

Austin Transportation Status and Policy Recommendations

September 22nd, 2014

Cost Commentary: Below is a draft of transportation issues and an approach to a responsive transportation policy which must be fully developed by Austin’s new 10-1 City Council. A sound policy and vision must be developed to guide aggressive actions addressing a citywide transportation system to cost-effectively resolve existing issues and plan for the future.

Austin Transportation Status and Policy Recommendations

by Jim Skaggs, COST

Austin Transportation Situation: The Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is the fastest growing region in the nation; adding a total of about 100 net domestic migration and international immigration people per day. This is an estimated 70 cars per day or 490 cars per week. More than 99% of the passenger miles traveled in the region are on roadways, including private, shared, public transit, emergency, government/school and commercial service and product vehicles.

U.S. Transit ridership percentage of work commute trips has been on a declining trend since the census first collected this data in 1960, fifty-four years ago. Work commuting is the largest use of transit. Total U.S. transit ridership has been stagnant since 1956, as reported this month by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), while the population has grown 88%.

New York has one-third of the nation’s total transit ridership. NY and five other pre-automobile cities/regions (Chicago, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia) have 65% of U. S. transit ridership. The rest of the nation has trivial transit ridership. And, no post-auto city has been developed in the high density configurations of these six cities.

Total U.S. ridership in 2013 exceeded the 2012 ridership by 0.6% and the NY increase in 2013 was larger than the total U.S. increase. The rest of the nation’s ridership declined. A recent article by professors at Columbia, Cornell and Rutgers Universities stated: “Transit is a small and stagnant part of the transportation system.” While ridership remains stagnant, cost have increased substantially (inflation adjusted).

Texan’s largest cities/regions (Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin) have invested billions of taxpayer dollars in public transit, substantially rail, over the past 15 years to increase transit ridership. Still, total, actual ridership has declined, resulting in a much greater percentage decline in transit travel; as these cities are all among the fastest growing in the nation. The decline is even greater than indicated because rail artificially increases boardings due to more rail/bus transfers being required to complete single trips.

Austin’s regional transit ridership has also been stagnant, dropping 6% in the past 15 years while population has grown 52%. Since the 2010 opening of Austin’s MetroRail commuter, total transit ridership has declined and costs have increased significantly as more cost-effective bus routes were replaced by the train. Moving transit riders to rail resulted in higher costs and less ridership. Capital Metro reported each average rail passenger costs five times each bus passengers and more transfers are required to reach destinations. Total Cap Metro boardings in 2013 were less than 1% more than in 2009, before the rail was opened; at a cost to date of more than $200 hundred million tax dollars for this minute portion of transit travel. Capital Metro and the Media focused on the 37% rail increase (222,000 boardings) in 2013 while playing down/ignoring the loss of 1,600,000 bus boardings. These few added rail boardings came at a very high price to Austin taxpayers and a portion of the bus rider loss is due to reduced bus service. Cap Metro projects declining rail and bus ridership in 2014 and added reductions in 2015.

Austin’s bus transit costs have also increased 54 % (inflation adjusted) in this 15 year declining ridership period. Work commuting is the largest use of transit and Austin’s transit is the fifth highest mode of work commuting, behind: driving alone, carpooling, work-at-home and “all other” (walk, bike, etc.). Work-at-home is the fastest growing and, at 6.4%, is 2.8 times the 2.3% total transit commute share. Carpool commuting is 11% of work commuting, almost 4.8 times transit, can be substantially enhanced with improved roads.

The Austin region population has increased almost 675,000 people (about 56%) since 1999 and transit ridership has declined about 6%. With this unimpressive transit record, Austin, with primarily a bus system, still enjoys a higher percentage (2.3%) of transit commuters than Dallas, with only 1.5%, and Dallas has spent billions of dollars on rail to implement the longest light rail system in the U.S. Fortunately, Dallas has not ignored its roads as Austin did for 25 years.

Austin’s total roadway driving has increased with population growth, but, the region’s ‘Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled (DVMT)’ per capita has a decreasing trend as jobs and living have continued to decentralize throughout the region. Work commute trips are only about 15% of overall vehicle trips. Air quality has been on an improving trend for many years, mostly due to improved vehicle engines. Austin has never violated national air quality standards and is the cleanest air major city in Texas. This improvement is projected to continue.

Issue: The Austin region has not increased roadways and capacity consistent with a long trend of well above average population growth resulting in increasing total roadway miles driven even though driving per capita has decreased with the spreading of population and its supporting businesses, schools, medical care, etc. Therefore, congestion has increased significantly. Almost all surveys of Austin region citizens place congestion at the top of regional issues.

Funding Condition: The region has finite dollars for transportation from a number of sources including U.S., state and local governments; toll road organizations, both state and private; and, private land developers.

Primary transportation funding is from state gas “tax” and federal gas tax/general tax allocations to the state and transportation agencies such as Capital Metro. These gas taxes are a form of user’s fees. Additional County and City transportation funds are part of property tax and Capital Metro’s primary funding is by its 1% portion of the 8.25% area sales tax. In addition, government and private toll roads and lanes are funded by the issue of bonds or debt.

Federal and state gas tax has not been increased for more than 20 years and vehicle engines continue to achieve major efficiency improvements; substantially reducing roadway funding through gas tax. Both federal and state gas taxes also suffer diversions, including: 20% of the federal gas tax is allocated to transit and 25% of Texas’ gas tax is allocated to schools. Since about 2008, U.S. transportation funds have been supplemented by general funds as the Highway Trust Fund (gas tax) has been depleted and no longer supports needs. The overall U.S. financial status has reduced the probability of future federal supplements, especially for transit.

There are many discussions and ideas at all government levels as to the solution to this critical funding issue, but few have been implemented except for short term “patches.” The most effective funding approach seems to be one which charges all users as fairly as possible for the “full-cost” use of transportation infrastructure, operations and maintenance while recognizing a responsible level of transit subsidies are required to support this small segment of transportation which supplies mobility to those without alternatives. Reducing diversions is also a key step.

Major Considerations: Following are several points relative to transportation planning:

1. Rail transit’s low relative ridership provides no measurable improvements in congestion in cities like Austin today or Austin 100 years from today; as proven in many cities. The initial proposed urban rail route of 9 miles from slightly north of the City to slightly south of the city (roughly parallel and just West of 1-35 for much of its route) will not improve Austin congestion as it addresses minor, low density origins and destinations for both living and employment with low current public ridership. It will likely increase central area congestion as it crosses all East-West streets accessing and leaving downtown Austin, UT and the Capital area.

Even responsible visions of future growth do not justify rail transit. If the proposed rail route is a reasonable transit route, much less expensive and flexible bus transit should be implemented to evaluate it and determine if ridership is developed. A major proponent argument is: “We have to do something and this is a start.” and “This is for the future and will need additions to fulfill its promise.” This is a bottomless tax pit: Many cities have shown that the further rail is expanded, the less cost-effective it becomes, with growing taxes.

2. Rail, or any transit, will not produce net, increased development and tax base. Many studies, including in Austin have verified this. Transit may have a minor influence on location of some developments. The only jobs rail will produce are those essentially paid for by taxpayers.

3. Fixed transit is very high risk in “young,’ growing cities, like Austin, as it is very expensive to change routes based on changing needs and development patterns, which will surely occur. Every recommendation for a proposed initial, Austin rail route by agencies, experts and “high level” government/citizens committees, over more than 25 years, has been a different route. Even the latest route, released March 25, 2014, was a revised route of some half-dozen routes suggested over the past 5 years.

4. Transit’s major flaw is addressing the elusive future transit explosion which never occurs, instead of tackling the basic, fundamental tasks of providing more cost-effective transit to those needing it in their daily lives and have no alternatives. Social equity demands we prioritize this need.

5. Creating city development plans with weighted regulations to incentivize and require high density development increases congestion on roadways and creates high levels of unaffordability. This will create gentrification and dramatically reduce families and public school enrollment just as it has in our Mayor’s designated and highly praised “pier” city of Portland Oregon where school enrollment was reduced more than 40% by policies similar to those Austin is now implementing. As Austin mimics Portland, its public school enrollment has already begun a decline from its peak which was near Portland’s prior to its decline.

6. Austin has great pride and accomplishment in being creative, unique and above the crowd as one of the most successful and fastest growing regions for several years. This should extend to developing new, innovative transportation and transit solutions which are not based on old, tired, ineffective 19th century train technology. Mimicking “peer cities” failures does not meet the needs of Austin’s citizens in the 21st century. There are far better models and approaches than the Mayor’s “Rail to Failure” approach which has been demonstrated numerous times by most of Austin’s peer cities and many others. We urge the citizens of Austin to rise out of this “rut” and work to effectively address critical citizens’ transportation needs and not those of major, greedy rail consultants, contractors and misguided politicians.

7. Exorbitantly expensive, ineffective transit approaches, combined with draconian regulations to force higher density, result in are higher taxes and transit fares which disproportionately impact lower income citizen and increase congestion for all.

The Future: Technology improvements are developing on many fronts including the development of more efficient, cleaner engines/motors; driverless vehicles; more innovative approaches to transit; shared vehicle approaches; better traffic light synchronization/control; rapid road delay response; ramp metering; better use of our roadway assets including staggered work hours, more work at home, etc. None of these will result in major changes in the recommended policy below but may reduce the current lane miles needed to effectively serve travel levels in the future within reasonable congestion levels.

Recommended Approach and Policy: The overriding goal is to reduce congestion and provide effective, safe transportation throughout the region to meet the mobility needs of this rapidly growing and expanding population including private, public transit, emergency, government/school and commercial services and goods vehicles as well as walking; while living within constraints of available transportation funds. The following policy elements are important to achieve this goal which is a continuing journey and not a destination; as our region’s population continues to grow:

1. The often heard glib and shallow phrases of “multi-model transportation,” “we need everything,” or “we need choices” to address the critical congestion issue must be tempered with the reality of finite available dollars and all transportation projects must be efficient and cost-effective or the money is all spent before we meet the needs of the vast majority of our citizens. To have “everything” is to have nothing but transportation chaos with degraded quality of life including much higher taxes.

2. The first priority is: Transportation modes must be funded in a reasonable relationship to people’s free choices of mobility which they have determined best meets their quality of life needs. More than 99% of the region’s passenger miles traveled are on roadways. There are no reasonable indications that general mobility choices will be significantly different in the foreseeable future. This suggests roadway funding solutions will be most effective in serving the overall greater-good of the community by private, public transit, emergency, government/school and commercial vehicles sharing the same road infrastructure. Building separate, fixed passenger rail infrastructure will cost too much and serve too few.

3. Effective Transportation solutions are not achieved by government policies designed to discourage free choice by coercing and forcing people to make major behavior changes such as shifting from private vehicles to public transit. This “central government knows best” approach has been tried throughout history; near term examples are socialist and communist countries which have all failed. Governments’ mission must be to effectively serve and support the free choices of citizens serving their greater-good which also serves the community’s good.

4. Public transit is vitally important for our community, especially to support the transportation needs of low income and other citizens who need mobility in their daily lives and have no other choice. In a 2006 survey, 40% of Cap Metro riders have zero cars in the household. Public transit serves less than 1% of the passenger miles traveled in the region and has been declining for many years. Therefore, the highest priority for transit is to serve as many of those needing transit as possible within the significant, but much smaller, portion of overall funds. Transit’s “free” use of taxpayer and ‘user funded’ new and improved roads, managed (toll) lanes and toll roads provides major leverage for cost-effective transit. This “hidden” taxpayer and user fee subsidy, along with the normal required sales and property tax subsidies of all public transit, provides the most financially sustainable transit system with the lowest taxes and the greatest service to more origins and destinations utilizing creative route and vehicle planning.

5. The first step for any transportation project is to determine the project is of the priority to be addressed and to fully define the goals for the project. If there are more than one realistic modes, a formal “alternatives analysis” must be performed to select the most cost-effective solution. Comprehensive knowledge of the true costs and benefits for the overall community must be evaluated. The evaluation must fully consider the negative impact of increased taxpayer subsidies for transit and the overall degradation of social equity in a difficult environment of increasing taxes/fees and increasing living costs.

6. Exorbitantly expensive rail transit can only be implemented by regions if the U.S. government pays a significant portion, usually 50% or more. The U.S. government does not share in the operating costs of these rail systems. Austin advertises the need for 50% matching U.S. government funding for urban rail implementation. This essential government funding is very unlikely to be available for Austin’s proposed, initial $1.4 billion plus dollar rail segment and less likely for any extensions. The government also does not share in the 40% overruns which occur in the average rail system. Capital Metro promised voters, the U.S. government would fund one-half of the current MetroRail line (not counting rail cars), but, no U.S. dollars were provided. Their cost overrun was greater than the 40% average which studies have shown.

Will The New Austin City Council Have What It Takes?

September 21st, 2014

COST Commentary: Through several City administrations, Austin has elected inexperienced mayors and council members who have led, or allowed, the strong negative trends which now exist. They are trends of increasing costs and congestion which both contribute to reducing quality of life for a major segment of Austin’s population. Increasing costs, Gentrification and reducing public school enrollment are major indicators of these trends.

The following article by Bill Oakey is posted on his web, blog site, Affordability Austin It describes a major challenge facing the new City council to change the current major negative trends and to reach an approach to city growth which does not result in major cost of living and congestion increases. These both degrade quality of life and are related.

New City council members will require courage and commitment to make the tough decisions to quickly and effectively address years of ingrown apathy and general lack of concern for the City’s citizens. These new council members must navigate the waters of influential, self-interested business leaders who have established City favoritism and of being strongly lobbied in favor of their districts instead of the greater good of the entire city. Past council members have not generally been successful in this journey. It will not be easy.

Can The New City Council Define The Affordability End Game

By Bill Oakey – September 19, 2014

Over the past several months I have had some fascinating conversations with a lot of smart and sophisticated people about Austin’s affordability problem. Everyone agrees that it is quite serious, and everyone agrees that solving it will not be an easy task. So, what are the steps that the new City Council would have to follow if they actually wanted to make real, quantifiable progress in solving the problem?

1. Define the Problem – That’s the first step in the scientific method. We need a detailed survey showing where the low income and moderate income Austinities live. We need charts that show details about income levels, types of jobs held by different demographic groups, etc. And we need to list the specific categories of affordability issues, such as taxes, debt, housing and rent costs, utility costs, transportation costs, building and construction costs, etc.

2. Planning, Planning, and More Planning – The only way out of any type of problem of this magnitude is to develop specific plans to target the problem. Austin is swimming in plans right now, and some of them contain numerous references to “affordability.” However, there are no real plans designed specifically to make Austin more affordable or to address the root causes of progressively worsening unaffordability.

3. Action Plans With Goals, Performance Measures, Milestones and Result Tracking – Plans by themselves only represent wishful thinking unless they are backed up by concrete actions that turn lip service into proven results. How many new low income housing projects did Austin lose each quarter throughout the year? How many did they gain? How much of a budget surplus did the City have at the end of each quarter? How much of that money was pledged to reduce taxes and fees or lower utility rates? Part of the objective here is to determine what questions to ask, and then what specific steps are needed to address each one. Those steps need to be incorporated into the action plans.

4. Combined Regional Financial Forecasts – The City, County, AISD, ACC, Central Health, Capital Metro and CAMPO need to meet regularly and discuss their future plans and how much those plans will cost. Every plan that every entity currently has in place needs to be scrutinized for feasibility. It is absurd for any organization to publish a plan with completely unattainable projections. The Capital Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2040 Transportation Plan calls for $1.2 billion in spending every single year for 25 years in a row. Eighty per cent of the funding has to come from local funding sources. There is no way in hell that Austinites will be able to afford anything close to that amount. So, the people who publish these various plans need to sit in front of each other at a table in the same room. They need to look each other in the eyes and explain out loud how they expect to get the money to pay for each of their plans. If they determine that the costs are too high, they simply need to revise the plans. Period. And they can do that by setting priorities and making realistic assumptions. Everyone needs to be constantly reminded of the tagline for this blog – “Let’s Put the Public’s Ability to Pay Into Austin’s Planning Process.”

5. Address the Cost of Growth and the Gentrification Issues Head On – There is no question that the exaggerated hype over Austin and the extremely aggressive growth rate is unsustainable. The current path that we are on will lead to an unprecedented boom and bust scenario if our leaders do not take steps to prevent it. Sometimes it can be difficult to stand up to the special interests and say no. But it is absolutely essential to the City’s future for us to consider how much capacity we have in terms of roads, water, land, and other resources as we consider how much growth we can accommodate at what pace. No private business would ever take the risky “build first and ask questions later” approach that Austin has followed for many decades. Gentrification is another issue that can be measured and quantified. We need to look at the impact of the CodeNEXT plans on existing neighborhoods. One of the best ways to insure that neighborhood plans are protected is to expand the Land Development Code Advisory Group to include equal representation between neighborhood members and industry members. And we need to establish road impact fees to help make growth pay for itself. We cannot afford to continuously increase taxpayer and ratepayer expenditures for recruiting new businesses to Austin. That is a private industry responsibility.

The bottom line in planning for growth comes down to a very simple concept. Our growth rate and the cost of growth need to be set within the context of what is sustainable. Our current policies that allow for all growth in all places all the time at breakneck speed are not sustainable and cannot be allowed to continue.

The New City Council Will Have to Hit the Ground Running

The new City Council will need to be prepared for the one of the toughest challenges that the City has ever faced. There are no off the shelf remedies for an affordability problem on the scale of what we have in Austin. The issue will require lots of innovative thinking and bold strategies. If it turns out that no other city has ever even thought about developing a comprehensive Affordability Strategic Plan, then let us be the first. Every candidate needs to be thinking about it now. Because the hard work will begin the moment after the swearing-in ceremony is completed in early January.

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. This is $147 million per mile or almost $28,000 per foot, excluding bond interest costs, 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 50 days. So, $1.4 billion would delay traffic by 50 days. with today’s car growth level It will be fewer days because 10,000 is exaggerated. By 2030, it would only take about 33 days to offset the train investment as more cars will be arriving daily.

- 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, hired, 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.

©2007 Coalition On Sustainable Transportation