Austin Urban Rail: Wrong solution for ill-defined problem.

COST Commentary: Following are comments submitted by Jim Skaggs, COST Member, to the City of Austin regarding the Austin Urban Rail ‘Environmental Impact Statement’ (EIS).
April 24, 2010

Scoping Comments for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the City of Austin’s proposed Urban Rail system.


Brief Summary

The City’s proposed Urban Light Rail will rank very high, if not the top, of the worst decisions made in Austin’s history. It has far reaching negative impacts on current and future generations. Severe misdirected and wasteful spending of taxpayer funds will decrease quality of life for a vast majority of citizens.

The Urban Light Rail is a perfect example of the term: Costs Too Much, Does Too Little. It will serve less than 1% of the citizens, mostly not in meeting priority needs, who will be highly subsidized by the other 99% receiving absolutely no personal or societal benefit. Many of those highly subsidized will be higher income downtown residents, downtown employees, business visitors or tourists taking short downtown rides.

The Light Rail will achieve the exact opposite of the objectives stated in the plan. This has all been proven in many cities:
a. It will reduce mobility and increase congestion.
b. It will increase safety hazards.
c. It will not result in net new development and tax revenues.
d. It will not improve the environment.
e. It will increase taxes and/or curtail basic, priority city services.
f. It will degrade social equity/justice.
g. It is not cost effective and not sustainable.
h. It will degrade the historic beauty of downtown Austin.
i. It will curtail or eliminate numerous, traditional, downtown civic activities.
j. It will discourage downtown trips and reduce/stop Austin’s revitalization.

Expanded Summary

Austin’s proposed Urban Light Rail (ULR) fails in every respect to meet the minimum requirements for a responsible City of Austin undertaking which will serve the greater good of all citizens. Item 1 below is a summary of comments regarding the proposed purpose of the Urban Light Rail and items 2-6 are additional summary comments in several areas. These are summary in the sense that a book could be written.

1. The stated purpose of the ULR and its sub-points are listed below with brief comment (statements in bold, italics are from the City’s presentation):

To improve the mobility, connectivity and sustainability of Central Austin – the Study Area – by:

a. Providing greater mobility options:

The goal should not be to provide options but to provide ‘cost-effective’ options. Rubber tire options, both for transit and private vehicles, have not been seriously considered. Providing gold-plated options which are inconvenient and time consuming are not a solution to providing greater mobility options and are not sustainable.

b. Improving person-moving capacity:

The city has concluded that this purpose can only be achieved with Urban Light Rail. There have been no thorough, professional studies to support this conclusion. In a less formal way the city has stated that more cars cannot get into the city so we need to use trains to squeeze more people into the city. The goal should not be to get more people into the city in ways which take substantially more time and with more exposure to inconvenient, uncomfortable conditions including weather. The goal should be to create environments which make downtown attractive such that more people wish to go there.

This plan makes downtown egress and ingress more difficult, taking more time; reduces parking and makes it more difficult; and, increases the price of parking. The City is working diligently to convert one-way streets to two-way. This increases safety hazards, reduces mobility and increases congestion. The plan is to evolve into a compact and dense urban district.” These seems to be little understanding or thought given to the general relationship: the greater the density, the greater the congestion. The Central City must be inviting for all citizens, but, not one of the 7 Transformative Steps to the next 10 years addresses the above uninviting characteristics. A goal is to be <em>“pedestrian friendly” which means pedestrians are needed, but much of the City’s plan will discourage people visiting downtown to become pedestrians.

Downtown cannot be energized and revitalized on the strength of downtown residents alone. This is already being demonstrated by the high turnover of small, downtown businesses. Austin has been blessed with extraordinary downtown development in the ten years 2000-2010. Not a single development was based on the presence of an Urban Train. However, this major downtown growth increased living population by only about 2,000 people. At this rate it would take more than 50 years to achieve even the 15,000 people which Mayor Wynn was noted for predicting. The curent city demographor’s projection is some 30,000 people by 2020 which is absurd. To have the vibrant, day and night downtown many describe, it must also remain desirable to residents who do not live in Central, Downtown Austin.

The lack of downtown visitors will also result in businesses leaving the downtown area so they can serve customers who desire more convenient access.

Many of the potential riders of ULR are projected to be citizens living downtown; although this is a questionable assumption. Since downtown properties are quite expensive, the residents are generally higher income and/or wealth. So, the City has determined it a priority to use taxpayer funds to provide major taxpayer subsidies to higher income residents, well paid business travelers and tourists.

c. Improving access and linkages to major activity centers and commuter and regional rail.

First, this purpose says very little. It has certainly not been supported that there is a major need for expensive rail line “linkages” between various points in town which have been identified, in the plan, as activity centers.” There is not a significant flow of people on a continuing all day basis between these defined activity centers to begin to justify the cost of the ULR. Shuttle buses should be used to determine if there is any measurable demand. The Dillo ran for many years all over downtown Austin and it was finally closed because of very low ridership. There is a reason for this.
A stated goal is to promote transit as the high quality mode of choice?” This has not been achieve in any city similar to Austin and is less likely to be achieved in Austin than in most cities for many reasons.

So few people need connections from the downtown commuter rail station, Cap Metro recently cancelled a number of transit buses which serve the commuter line due to lack of demand. It was sad to read in the Statesman that the Mayor has suggested the initial Urban Light Rail segment may end at Cap Metro’s downtown Commuter Station. Perhaps, he is not aware of the commuter’s anemic ridership. Cap Metro’s Red Line commuter has proven to be a gleaming example of almost everything negative in these comments about the proposed ULR. The Red Line Commuter’s:

– implementation costs for local taxpayers were more than double that promised to voters.
– annual operating costs are more than 6 times that promised to voters.
– ridership is well below the estimate provided voters. Even if the estimate was achieved, it is not cost- effective and cannot be sustained.

In addition, the Commuter:
– increases congestion.
– increases pollution.
– degrades Social equity/justice because a few hundred daily, round-trip riders, who mostly have a choice, are highly subsidized with an average of $25,000 per year; resulting in more than 40,000 daily bus riders, mostly without a choice, having degraded transit due to 3 fare increases in 3 years and reduced bus service. These backbone bus riders are subsidized with about $2,500 per year or one-tenth the commuter rider’s subsidy. Due to the commuter train, Cap Metro is essentially broke and unable to make major upgrades in its service.

Planning to connect to the “regional rail” is irresponsible. This rail may never happen or it may be many, many years in the future. Amtrak is the primary regional rail in the country and there are no commuter regional rails (as contemplated in the Austin-San Antonio rail), in the country, which do not require huge subsidies. There is no viable source of such subsidies for this “regional rail.” In this case, the ULR is a very bad gamble chasing a very bad gamble.

d. Supporting the City’s environmental, public health, planning, and economic development goals:

This purpose says little: ”motherhood“ as they say. This ULR will likely not improve the environment just as the commuter did not live up to this promise to improve air quality. Austin’s air quality has been on an improving trend for many years and Austin has never been in non-compliance with Federal air quality standards. It is true the standards are being considered for lowering again and it may bring Austin’s reducing trend closer to a new standard. The Red Line commuter is more polluting than if every rider was in a new car so it had degraded air quality. As for public health, the ULR creates major increases in safety hazards as huge train cars mingle with cars and people on major downtown streets on a greater portion of its route than any similar train in the nation.

Austin has enjoyed a downtown development boom in the last 10 years and not one development was due to a train. While Austin’s downtown population grew to more than 5,000 people, it is still quite small and not enough to support a “revitalized” Central Austin. At this rate, it would take more than 50 years to reach the 15,000 which has been discussed as possible. A downtown revitalization also needs the support of residents who do not live downtown. A year ago, the Downtown Austin Alliance predicted more than 10,000 downtown residents by the end of 2010. The actual was almost one-half of this. This large estimating error seems to be in line with the city’s ULR cost estimates and ridership estimates.

Austin seems to be pursuing antiquated ideas about downtown and is wasting millions on developing a Comprehensive Plan founded on an Urban Light Rail which does not reflect people’s choices and, sadly, will spend its life on a dusty shelf just as previous plans have. If downtown access is truly constrained, and, I doubt it, then Austin needs to seriously look at expanding Central Austin beyond arbitrary boundaries such as: I-35, Lady Bird Lake, Lamar, etc. Indications are that tomorrow’s cities will not be like those today. They will be more spread out and less of a small center focal point. No two countries are the same, but China’s new cities are built this way. This is also somewhat consistent with people’s choices and life styles as represented in the 2010 census. This census indicates a continuing move away from central cities. The greatest growth in living and job locations is overwhelmingly in the suburbs in almost every city. Austin had the largest percentage growth (20% from 2000 to 2010), within the city limits, of any major city in the nation. Some of this growth in population was due to annexation. However the Austin suburbs (outside city limits) grew 56% with almost 2.5 times as many new people.

One of the many factors affecting these trends is the rapid growth of “working at home” or telecommuting. This mode of work has surpassed the use of public transit for the work trip throughout the total nation, excluding New York City. Telecommuting has also surpassed the use of public transit in Austin.

e. Encouraging Investment:

This is a poor goal for the Urban Light Rail train. Many cities have proven that Urban Light Rail does not encourage investment. Austin has enjoyed a strong period of Central Business District investment which was slowed by the recession but is beginning to see life again. None of this robust investment was encouraged by rail. Cities have shown that rail does not encourage development. Portland found that, after 10 years of Light Rail, development had not occurred. The city then spent billions to incentivize development by giving tax abatements, using Tax Increment Financing (TIF), etc. Portland also built its city government building along the rail. Portland’s approach resulted in major funding shortages for their general fund and City services suffered.

2. There have not been unbiased, objective alternatives analyses performed which support this rail system as the most effective solution to an identified problem. This “Urban Rail” has been the predetermined conclusion of a few people driven by ideology, misguided perceptions and self-serving objectives from the very beginning. The justification for the City’s choice of Urban Light Rail has been strongly based on a Cap Metro alternatives study for a downtown circulator. This, too, was a predetermined selection of rail, specifically a streetcar, which was selected without valid support of a competent alternatives study. This streetcar circulator was to address the fact the downtown commuter train station is in an inconvenient place on the southeast side of Central Downtown. It was viewed this station area was not a major destination for many riders and that most riders needed a “shuttle” to reach final destinations to the north. In hindsight, this has apparently proven wrong in that Cap Metro just cancelled the shuttle buses which were positioned at the train station to meet shuttle needs.

The City started its considerations with Cap Metro’s train selection despite the fact that the City’s primary purpose is quite different. The City eventually selected a Light Rail instead of the streetcar. The city’s main stated purpose is to improve access into downtown because they concluded the street grid was saturated and no more cars could enter during peak hours.

3. It is fundamental that public transit systems must be cost effective to serve the greatest number of citizen’s transit needs in the community. If it is not cost effective, the community will run out of money (all tax funds have some practical limitation) before enough citizens can be served to make any real difference to overall mobility.

Cost-effectiveness has not been considered a high priority for this Urban Light Rail system. The words “Cost-effectiveness” (or equivalent) are not included in the EIS scoping material provided by the city. Cost-effectiveness has not been appropriately evaluated and considered in any of the studies or activities, including public input, leading to the selection of the proposed ULR which this EIS will consider.

4. There is no viable plan or concept for the City to finance this rail system. In fact, the costs are not known and estimates have doubled about every eighteen months for the past three years starting with Capital Metro’s estimate of about $300 million. The City’s current estimate of $1.3 billion is not based on detailed design and engineering. Projects of this nature have a long history of major average cost overruns. A worldwide study indicated an average of about 45% overrun to their final estimate:

The study also indicates, in North America, actual ridership is an average of 60% below final estimates.

Austin is facing major budget shortages with discussions of the necessity to cut basic and priority city services. The annual cost to operate this train is more than $25 million which is about the budget shortfall for 2011-2012 if the city does not raise taxes and it is planning to raise them. Regardless of one’s view of the merits of this rail system, it is not responsible to be spending millions of dollars to plan this low priority, ineffective rail system with no viable financing plan and looming major budget shortages.

5. The current plan to fund an initial segment of this line with bonds to be voted on during the November 2012 election is unsound. The bond funding being discussed of about $200-$250 million would not fund a significant or particularly usable segment of the Urban Light Rail. If the required maintenance facility is south of Lady Bird Lake, as now shown, it would require the first segment to also include a new bridge across the lake. These one-time infrastructure cost would be quite large, leaving little money for actual track, poles, wires and train cars. Its “connectivity” would be very minimal and ridership would be very small resulting in extremely poor cost effectiveness. The City’s mantra would sound like Cap Metro’s today: “This first Red Line is only a demonstrator and much more is needed to make it work.” This is, of course, hindsight public relations which were not there beforehand. This only sets the stage for a much deeper financial hole with taxpayers bearing the burden and low/limited income citizens bearing a disproportionately large share of the burden.

6. Despite City officials and staff comments to the contrary, all potential funding approaches to date would result in spiraling increases in city taxes or major reductions in basic city services or both. This is on top of increasing city taxes, increasing water rates and increasing energy fees from the city. When does it occur to the City leadership that this affects real people and real families with real financial stress? When do City leaders put citizen’s priorities ahead of their perception of their importance in changing the world by degrading Austin citizens? Just look around the country and you see a number of Cities which have been through this and there are no winners.

‘Tax Increment Financing’ (TIF) has been mentioned several times. As shown in a previous city study, there is no measurable increased tax revenue due to downtown rail. Portland and other cities have confirmed this. In Portland, they suffered major decreases in their General Fund as they found tax abatements the only way to cause new developments to be built near the train. As the Austin study indicated, it is a “zero sum game.” Developments near the train are simply displaced from other locations and are not net gains in tax revenue.

The City has mentioned potential funding partners including: State of Texas, University of Texas, and Travis County. However, there have been no agreements announced or even major discussions. Nor, will there likely be significant financial partners because there is not a benefit which is greater than the costs.

The City is planning on major federal funding for the implementation of the Urban Light Rail. The US Government is facing major budget challenges. Initial budget proposals have dramatically reduced transportation funding. The Federal Government already had request for ten times the available transportation dollars before this budget challenge. Therefore, it is very unlikely the Austin Urban Light Rail will rise to the level of priority which would result in federal funding. Late news today: The city has finally admitted they need federal funding for the first segment of ULR. Of course, the City has no clue what this first segment will be or the costs and ridership of it. The only certainty is that the ridership will be well below the preposterous estimates in the City Plan and the cost-effectiveness will be unacceptable to all but those few people who believe society owes them huge subsidies to ride a train.

The other twist revealed today is that federal funds will only be committed after a rigorous Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), preliminary engineering and final design phase which will take till 2015. The Mayor’s proposed vote on the first segment rail bond is in 2012. While the Mayor suggests that the vote be held next year and be contingent on approval of Federal funding, it would be far more prudent in these financially stressed times to delay the vote till at least 2014. This would provide time for the city to have: more detailed designs of the route and system: much better implementation cost estimates, ridership estimates and annual operating cost estimates. In either approach, the City will spend millions more on planning and design of this Urban Light Rail. This is a major gamble in tough economic times with major increasing financial burdens on citizens.

If the city planned to fund implementation of the Urban Light Rail over many years with bond funds and had no other funding support, it would take at least 20 years. Using bond funding, the system would cost more than twice as much taxpayer funds, due to bond interest. Future generations would be saddled with the debt and reduced opportunities while sadly shaking their heads at our misguided folly which achieved none of its promises. Actually, some courageous city leader along the way would, no doubt, cancel the most costly mistake in Austin’s history and put it behind them as difficult as this is for bureaucracies.

Even, if by some miracle, the huge implementation funding was achieved, the city has no way to pay the very large annual operating costs, with miserable cost-effectiveness. Then in 25-30 years, the system would need to be replaced for several billion dollars without any source of funds. This is the cycle several cities are facing today.

The City has no viable funding plan for completing the entire system and the odds of securing Federal funding are quite small. This critical funding uncertainty and the low probability of this ULR effectively addressing mobility needs is not a responsible path for Austin. The City should place this project on permanent deferral status and not continue wastefully spending millions in these financially stressed times.

Leaders, please be courageous and make the necessary decisions to avoid this disaster.

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