Major Texas Metro Areas Are Confirming Failure of Rail Transit

by Jim Skaggs, 7-25-2011, Updated 7-13-2012
Coalition on Sustainable Transportation (COST)

This article was posted almost one year ago. Its message is essentially the same and is very applicable to today’s considerations. It has been updated with current information and to correct some minor errors. Also, further review indicated urban area population and density is more appropriate because a huge portion of transit service is within the urban area. Therefore Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) population and density data was replaced with Urban Area data and the posting date was changed to the current date.

This change required a small revision to the writing but made no major difference in the overall conclusions.

Note: All referenced articles listed below in this article can be found at the COST web site.

The table below contains selected transit and other data from Texas’ four largest metro areas. The information highlights and reinforces a number of transit characteristics which are discussed throughout the COST web site.

In compiling this information, one discovers that each transit agency records financial data in different ways. In particular, debt service (principal and interest) is treated differently in financial plans. This article is not an accounting exercise and the data are used to communicate trends and comparisons between agencies. To eliminate significant distortion, debt service is added to operating costs in the table below for each region’s transit agency. This seems to be a more appropriate and accurate way to portray annual transit operating costs and evaluate cost effectiveness. It also more accurately reflects the annual funding by taxpayers who are paying the annual debt service with the same tax dollar sources which pay other operating costs. For example: Dallas will pay increasing debt service for many years and has 30 plus year bonds and commercial paper for its almost $4 billion of debt. Their debt service is considered annual operating costs in the chart below, because: By the time current bonds are paid, the rail system will be at the end of its service life and will need replacement through the creation of a new round of bonds, continuing this high bond expense for as long as the system operates. While other Texas cities have not yet reached this Dallas level of bond debt and expense, Houston is rapidly moving in the same direction and Austin’s planning is rapidly moving in this direction. Currently Dallas’s debt service is about 3 times Houston’s and almost 40 times Austin’s.

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1. The Urban Areas are listed in the order of their populations which is the same as the order of their greater investment in rail except San Antonio has not yet invested in rail.

2. The data sources referenced below did not include the small, independent Ft. Worth Transportation Authority. Its information was estimated from other sources and added to the Dallas DART data to determine the urban area totals. There may be small percentage errors in estimating Ft. Worth data but it would not have significant impacts which change trends or conclusions of this article.

3. This is not an exhaustive listing of all small transit operations in the urban areas. For example, the Austin region has a very small ‘Capital Area Rural Transportation System’ (CARTS). The sum of these small transit operations does not have insignificant impact on the totals above.

*Budgets are primarily from the transit agencies’ annual 2011 budgets. The operating costs include debt service for Dallas, Houston and Austin. San Antonio has none.

**Urban Area population and density is based on the 2010 census as published in ‘Demographia World Urban Areas’ , July 2012. It is in population per square mile. All four cities have relatively low densities: the 15% density range is from Austin at 2,700 to San Antonio at 3,100. Densities are not significantly different in the four urban areas where most areas where the majority of transit service is provided. Total metropolitan (MSA) area densities vary widely due to varying amounts and significant rural portions in each MSA; ranging from 700 people per square mile in Dallas-Ft. Worth to 284 people per square mile in San Antonio.

***Transit boardings are for calendar year 2011 as reported by transit agencies to the American Public Transit Association (APTA).

****Operating budgets are for the agency’s fiscal year ending in late 2011 and are not an exact time match with the
calendar year boardings. This should provide very little distortion in this paper’s observations and conclusions.

*****Operating costs per ride are an average of all transit rides and are determined by dividing the total operating costs by the annual rides, determined as stated in the note above. This results in some distortion of bus and rail costs as the average includes a smal percentage of much higher cost “special transit services.”

One may look at the data in the table above in many ways, but, none of the conclusions seem to be positive for rail transit. Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin are all among the top 20 fastest growing major cities in the nation. However, the three cities with various levels of rail transit, Dallas, Houston and Austin, all have flat to declining transit ridership trends for the dozen years: 1999-2011. Houston has 20% less ridership than in 1999 when it used only buses. These cities have spent billions to implement and promote transit with a heavy focus on rail transit. San Antonio, with no rail transit, achieved a very slight transit ridership increase of 7.9%, while population increased 25%, since 1999.
See: Austin’s Light Rail Plan: The Bottom Line

Also, see the following for additional comments on decreasing rail/transit ridership trends:

Austin doesn’t need train system
Transit’s Share of Work Trips Still Declining
Dallas Dart Light Rail: Major Failure for Transit and Taxpayers. Austin’s results will be more devastating.
Transit: The 4 Percent Solution for Job Access
Transit’s Long Term Ridership Trend is Down

These data highlight a number of broader Texas Metro Area negative transit trends:

1. Urban Areas with more rail transit have significantly higher costs and higher taxpayer subsidies per ride.

2. Urban Areas with more rail transit have fewer total transit boardings per capita. San Antonio’s bus only system has the highest number of boardings per capita.

3. All major Texas Urban Areas have very low transit ridership. Dallas and Houston Metro areas have more trains and higher densities but have significantly fewer transit riders (boardings) per capita. Austin’ ridership’s is somewhat boosted by University of Texas ridership which is about 15% of its ridership, but, declined UT ridership declined more than one-third since 1999. San Antonio’s bus only system has the highest ridership per capita.

4. Dallas has the largest population and greatest population density but the least cost effective transit system: Significantly higher cost per ride (boarding) and fewer boardings per capita.

5. Increasing the proportion of a region’s transit funds being spent on rail transit leads to less cost effective overall transit and degraded transit for the majority of transit riders who still ride busses.

Some Major Texas City Metro Areas comparisons/observations regarding transit data:

1. Dallas-Ft. Worth’s urban population is more than 3 times San Antonio’s and Dallas’ annual transit operating expense is 4.4 times that of San Antonio, but Dallas has only 1.4 times the transit ridership of San Antonio. Something is very wrong in Dallas.

2. Dallas-Ft. Worth’s Urban population is 4.2 times that of Austin and Dallas’ annual transit operating expense is 3.7 times the transit expense of Austin, but Dallas-Ft. Worth has only 1.9 times Austin’s ridership. Again, something is wrong in Dallas.

3. Dallas has the most invested, more than $4 billion, in light rail and it has the highest cost per transit ride at 3.3 times San Antonio’s costs and 2 times Austin’s cost. Dallas has the least boardings per capita, about one-half of San Antonio and Austin with primarily bus systems.

4. San Antonio’s bus only transit system has 1.4 times Austin’s ridership but only 84% of Austin’s annual operating expense. Buses are more cost-effective.

5. San Antonio’s ‘cost per transit rider’ is less than one-third of Dallas-Ft. Worth’s and San Antonio has more than 2 times as many transit riders per capita as Dallas-Ft Worth.

6. Dallas’ 2011 net debt service (principal and interest) budget of $153 million is greater than San Antonio’s total 2011 budgeted operating costs of $141.3 million and almost as much as Austin’s $168.2 million.

These data are revealing indicators of the very poor effectiveness and exorbitant costs of rail transit. One conclusion is that San Antonio should embrace its good fortune or transit management, expand its more cost effective bus transit system and stop considering train transit which will lead it on the same degrading transit trend which the other three areas have embarked upon and are in various stages of implementation.

It is no surprise that Dallas has hit a transit financial wall as it approached the end of its planned 90 mile light rail, the longest in North America: Increasing cost and stagnant ridership.

See the following recent articles regarding light rail disasters for Dallas with its longest light rail system; Portland, a very early implementer of light rail, often called the Mecca of rail transit; and, Seattle which had the most bus ridership of these cities with its bus-only transit system prior to opening its light rail 3 years ago:

Dallas DART Desperation: Cost is Growing but Ridership is Not

Portland TriMet: Transit Mecca’s continued fare increases and service cutbacks reduce ridership

Seattle: A grim transportation warning for Austin

The following article reports on the misguided design of most modern transit systems,including Austin’s:

Transit Studies: Austin transit is on wrong track

It seems, the more light rail Dallas implements, the more inefficient and expensive its transit becomes. This is an often occurring trend when regions implement rail transit and is a serious problem trend now developing in Houston and Austin. The result is overall degradation of transit service as exorbitantly expensive rail transit and resulting debt absorb increasingly higher percentages of transit funds. This, in turn, results in increasing transit fares and reductions in bus service which have disproportionately negative quality-of-life impacts on lower income citizens. Almost everyone forgets that the majority of transit riders still ride busses even after such massive investments in rail transit such as in Dallas or in Portland, the Mecca of train transit, where well over one-half of the transit rides are on busses. More importantly, this wasteful spending on ineffective trains ‘bleeds dry’ taxpayer funds which could be used to make positive contributions in serving communities’ many, higher priority needs for all citizens.

The recent comment of a Dallas transit executive is an example which reveals the misguided thinking of many transit leaders and which has led to the declining performance trends and degradation of the major Texas cities’ and many other cities’ transit systems. This executive reportedly stated the Dallas transit agency was not concerned with the short-term missing of ridership goals because transit is a 50-100 year investment. As a minimum, he should have known this statement does not provide public transparency and is extremely deceptive, either purposely or due to a major lack of understanding.

First, mobility technology will be quite different 100 years from now. Ridership trends to date would indicate there will be few light rail trains in the future. Mobility advancements are already making this outdated mode even more obsolete and unaffordable. There is a very high probability that the predominant mobility method will be based on private vehicles as it is today. Private vehicles provide people the ability to go where they wish to go, when they wish to go and in an acceptable time. This mobility greatly enhances economic advancement, general health and well being and quality-of-life of a vast majority of people.

Second, the fact is: Much experience has shown that, once a cycle of high cost rail transit is implemented, agencies become heavily burdened with debt for a very long time. It is highly probable that the very high debt service (principle and interest) will become a permanent and major part of the transit agency’s annual operating costs. When one issue of bonds is paid down, it becomes time for another round of debt to replace aging equipment. This, in turn results in very poor cost effectiveness and degradation of the overall transit system as it serves fewer riders at higher costs. This high debt can never be paid-off without major increases in local taxes. Transit agencies cannot responsibly project and achieve enough ridership to make rail transit cost-effective. This has even less credibility in light of the national declining trend in transit’s market share and the fact that the use of transit in Texas’ major metro areas has a flat to declining trend over the past dozen years. As Dallas and other major cities have experienced, this results in a spiraling decline in transit performance and effectiveness, degradation of mobility for low income citizens and, often, cutbacks in other higher priority city services. This results in reducing overall quality-of-life.

See the following for more on these issues:

RAIL TRANSIT: An Increasing Drain on Social Welfare and Society
Austin Urban Rail: A blow to social equity and justice.
Portland Light Rail: A Colossal Financial and Transit Failure

Poor transit management and the lack of cost-effective transit are serious societal issues which are compounded by the fact that most transit agencies have very little, real accountability to local citizens. At the same time, transit leadership often seems to accept little responsibility to actually serve the best interest of their communities, its taxpayers and its transit riders.

The current plan of the city of Austin to establish a second transit agency, in addition to Capital Metro, is highly unusual and will result in significant increases in local taxes to pay the additional transit overhead and operating costs for the area. If the city of Austin follows it current ineffective and inefficient transit path, it will result in long-term, wasteful expenditures of greater amounts of tax dollars than on any past, current or planned Austin undertaking while degrading quality-of-life for the vast majority of citizens, particularly low income people. Mobility is directly related to quality-of-life and the implementation of transit which is not cost effective will reduce mobility and will not be sustainable.

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