Austin’s Light Rail Plan: The Bottom Line

by Jim Skaggs, Cost Member, April 18, 2011, updated July 1, 2012

Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin have spent billions of dollars to increase their transit ridership. To varying degrees, all but San Antonio have added light rail and commuter trains: Dallas has spent billions and much more is planned in completing the longest light rail in North America; Houston opened an ititial 7.5 mile route and is constructing and planning much more already estimating to cost billions more than promised; and, Austin opened a relatively less costly commuter train in 2010 which was 3 years late with major cost overruns. Annual operating costs are about 6 times the $2 million promised to voters. It is one of the three least cost-effective urban trains in the nation. Ignoring this, and the extensive negative experience in many cities, Austin is now spending millions in planning to spend billions for more trains.

The three metropolitan areas with trains are among the nation’s fastest growing large cities and have experienced major population growth from 2000-2010: Houston grew 1.2 million (26%); Dallas grew 1.2 million (23%); and Austin grew 467,000 (37%). However, each city’s total transit ridership in 2011 is less or flat with ridership a dozen years ago in 1999 and the transit passenger miles traveled are less than one percent of the area’s total. Houston’s ridership in 2011 is about 20% less than in 1999, prior to the implementation of rail. See chart below:


The only Texas, non-rail transit, major city, San Antonio, also grew rapidly [431,000 (25%)]. Due primarily to slight ridership increases in 2011, its ridership has increased 7.9% since 1999. San Antonio’s ‘bus only’ transit system is the most cost-effective of these major Texas cities and operates at much lower tax levels.

Dallas, Houston and Austin have all experienced degradation of their overall transit system by increasing fares significantly to help pay for trains and reducing bus service. This harms the vast majority of transit riders who ride buses and mostly do not have a choice.

In Austin, the Red Line Commuter highly subsidizes a few hundred people who mostly have alternatives and the 40,000+ daily bus riders, who mostly do not have alternatives, shoulder the burden of higher fares and degraded service.

The 2010 census shows Austin to be the 3rd fastest growing region in the nation. Without help from rail transit, Austin grew 37.33 % which is more than double the growth rate of major rail transit cities including Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver, Minneapolis and San Diego. As demonstrated by these cities, rail transit does not have a measurable impact on roadway congestion.

The question is: What are we trying to achieve and why? I suggest we are and will continue achieving the opposite of all the stated major transportation goals in Austin’s new Comprehensive Plan. We are clearly making a mockery of any semblance of social equity and justice which many regard as a high priority.

Austin is facing rising taxes and budget shortfalls for basic city services but continues to spend millions on rail planning without a viable plan or concept for funding the Light Rail which will cost significantly more than the City’s current admitted implementation estimate of more than $1.3 billion and annual operating costs of more than $25 million. The implementation cost estimate, without detailed engineering, has doubled about every 18 months for 3 years.

If we do not get serious about cost-effectiveness, we will hit a solid wall as other cities are struggling with. Public transit and mobility, in general, will be greatly degraded. City taxes will rise significantly and general services will also be reduced if the city continues its irresponsible pursuit of train transit.

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