12 Reasons Austin’s Urban Rail is Off-Track
By Jim Skaggs, January 13, 2012, last update: 7-13-2014
Below are brief summaries of 12 reasons to reject Austin’s proposed urban rail. Each needs further expansion for one to have a more in-depth understanding. This COST site has several hundred ‘news articles’, reports and references which further address each subject and more. Several, recent, articles are referenced below. You are encouraged to read these and further peruse the site for additional detail.
The article “24 Key “Guiding Principles” for Austin Area Transportation and Mobility” directly relates to this article by providing proven, guiding principles which are important to follow in avoiding the pitfalls and errors listed below. Almost none of these principles are being followed in the Urban Rail evaluation process.
This will be a living document and will be updated from time to time for clarification and as new information develops.
1. Austin’s proposed urban rail is not cost-effective and its exorbitant costs will result in certainty of ongoing tax increases along with degrading mobility and quality of life for citizens.
Cap Metro spent several years and millions of dollars studying a downtown urban rail trolley. These studies stopped in late 2007 as commuter rail cost overruns almost bankrupt the agency. At that time, Austin’s Mayor Wynn announced sketchy outlines for a new and expanded urban rail to replace Cap Metro’s abandoned rail trolley which was estimated to cost about $230 million. The City’s current urban rail estimate is $1.4 billion (VERY BAD) or 6-plus times this early Cap Metro estimate and it is still not based on detailed engineering. An earlier estimate was $1.3 billion for a 16.5 mile train whereas the current $1.4 billion is for a 9.5 mile train. Experience with many rail systems, world-wide, would indicate costs will be closer to $2 billion (WORSE).
There are no viable, identified sources of funding for this ‘largest-in-history,’ Austin project. Nor, is there a source of funding for its operations and maintenance which will be several tens of millions of dollars each year (DISASTER).
And, this is only the first 9.5 miles of the city’s train vision. The city has announced this is only the “initial investment” and that train routes will be extended throughout the city. There are no plans with estimated costs, schedules or increased taxes, but costs will be many more billions and become less cost-effective with each link, resulting in major bond debt, with increasing taxes, which will bankrupt the city and starve key, high priority services.
The region’s single, local experience with passenger rail is consistent with that throughout the nation: major cost overruns in construction, implementation and in annual operating costs. Cap Metro’s commuter operating costs are running about 5 times their promise to voters. Austin’s urban rail is on this same track.
Austin is proposing to take huge taxpayer risks by planning to fund the start of urban rail with the assumption major federal funding will follow later. In the current federal budget environment, it is very unlikely Austin will receive rail funding for a very long time, if ever. Cap Metro promised significant federal funding but received none for its Red Line commuter. The Federal Transit Administration has indicated this by announcing it cannot support all requests and suggesting bus solutions are much more cost-effective for many proposed rail applications. Austin would clearly be better served with buses. Several cities have recently selected buses in favor of rail due to flexibility and costs.
See the following and other referenced, earlier articles, some of which may need updates to reflect this fluid and greatly undefined urban rail plan. There are also several more recent articles on the COST site which add to this discussion:
Austin’s Light Rail cannot be funded and cannot meet needs
Austin planning ignores vast majority of citizens
Austin Urban Rail: Wrong solution for ill-defined problem.
Economists: Rail transit Benefits Do Not Justify Costs
2. High costs and low ridership result in poor cost-effectiveness requiring massive taxpayer subsidies for the very few train riders.
The City’s ridership estimates for urban rail are greatly exaggerated as are most rail ridership estimates. Generally, up to one-half of public transit ridership is for work commuting. Austin’s proposed urban rail route will serve very few potential home-work commuters and a declining percentage of the region’s workers. More important than the city’s ridership estimates is the cost-effectiveness and this has never been discussed.
The Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin regions have spent billions of dollars to promote and encourage public transit ridership. Each region has made and is planning further major investments in fixed-rail transit. San Antonio is discussing its first rail trolley investment. While each of these Texas major region’s populations are in the top ten growing in the nation, total public transit ridership in these regions is stagnant and less than 15 years ago before the first rail opened. Public transit ridership is generally less than one percent of the passenger miles traveled in these and similar regions. Also flat or decreasing ridership has been accompanied by annual operating cost increases much greater than inflation which produced continuous degradation of already poor cost-effectiveness.
The Texas cities are mimicking and experiencing the dismal transit failures and wasteful tax spending long demonstrated in similar cities throughout the nation.
Today, a very high percentage of cities which implemented light rail transit starting in the 1980’s have fewer total public transit work trip riders and/or declines in the percentage of workers commuting on transit. Portland has achieved the largest ridership on new light rail systems since its initial opening in 1986. However, its percentage of transit use is lower after 30 years, 1983-2013.
The Austin region’s current 25 year transportation plan has increased its non-roadway spending to almost 50% of total estimated costs and this does not include the full cost of urban rail. The plan’s allocation of a huge proportion of taxpayer dollars to fixed rail transit to serve a tiny percentage of travelers is not sustainable and will result in major degradation of mobility and quality of life.
The most cost-effective public transit solutions can be achieved with rubber tire transit on roads such as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), single and double deck, and demand response bus/van systems such as Cellular Mass Transit (CMT). In addition, shared vehicles (cars and bicycles) can plan an important role. Austin’s first BRT system was opened approximately 7 years late due to Cap Metro’s focus and cost overruns on commuter rail. This first BRT can potentially significantly improve transit for 20 times more riders than the commuter rail and for one-tenth the costs.
3. Providing huge taxpayer subsidies for a small number of urban rail riders is not responsible public policy in any economy.
This ineffective, high cost urban rail is especially irresponsible at this time when Austin is facing budget shortfalls in providing basic, high priority services while citizens are experiencing increasing property taxes, water rates, energy rates and other fees. This all combines to disproportionately impact low income citizens resulting in reduced quality of life for many.
There have been no responsible alterative studies and analyses to determine urban rail is the most cost-effective solution to a well-defined, top priority transportation problem. Austin’s urban rail justification is based on superficial studies designed to reach a predetermined outcome with almost no unbiased, objective consideration of cost or effectiveness. Numerous cities, including Ft. Worth, Detroit, and Nashville have recently concluded bus and roadway solutions are much more cost-effective for similar mobility needs and have rejected rail transit.
The Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) has urged cities to consider buses in place of rail because of the high cost of rail and the FTA’s declining ability to fund the backlog of request in a period of constrained federal budgets.
Austin’s first priority must be to establish sound fiscal operations focused on providing priority needs efficiently and providing the opportunity for all citizens to prosper.
4. Urban rail will not improve congestion or air quality. It makes them WORSE.
This rail is proposed to use downtown streets, eliminate intersections and hamper all traffic to and from I-35, and other points east, from downtown Austin and UT which will reduce vehicle capacity, increasing congestion and air pollution. Implementation of rail, in conjunction with reducing lanes and converting from one-way to two-way streets, will significantly increase downtown congestion and safety hazards; discouraging citizens from visiting, working and living downtown as well as discouraging companies from locating there.
Areas outside downtown Austin will continue to stagnate with increasing congestion for 99% of passenger miles because precious, limited transportation funds will be depleted by rail to poorly serve much less than one-quarter of 1 percent of passenger miles. The very long list of major mobility needs will be further delayed with huge negative impacts to the quality of life of all citizens.
Examples of mobility needs include: 1) Congested roadway segments such as Mopac, 183 in East Austin, 45 Southwest, 360, 620, I-35, 290/71 through Oak Hill, North Lamar, Loop 1 South, East-West improvements; 2) Interchanges including Mopac & 360 (North and South), Mopac and Lake Austin to Downtown, 360 and 183, 71 & 183, 5th and 6th & Lamar; 3) Many other local street and intersection bottlenecks, 4) More effective use of roadway lanes with such tools as smart traffic signals, ramp metering, improved incident management and effective use of managed lanes and tolls, where appropriate.
Rail transit is often promoted as the solution to reduce driving caused by suburban living (called sprawl by some). As shown in Austin, suburbanization has resulted in decreased driving per capita over many years.
5. Urban rail will not produce measurable increases in economic development or tax base and may reduce Austin’s tax base.
Years of accumulated performance provide robust evidence that rail transit does not relieve congestion or pollution as promoted by early supporters. Many rail transit supporters have turned to ‘economic development’ as their primary reason for rail transit. This, too, has proven to be inaccurate and unsupported.
Austin has been one of the top growth regions in the nation for many years and not a single development was due to rail transit.
The city of Austin commissioned Capital Market Research, Inc. (Heimsath) to perform an economic study of the development impact of downtown rail: ‘Downtown Circulator Service Economic Impact Assessment,’ dated August 16, 2006.
This study concluded Austin received no, net economic benefit based on anticipated development along the downtown train track. The study’s bottom line was: Some development may be relocated due to the train but it would be moved from somewhere else resulting in a “zero-sum game” and no net increase in net development or tax base.
Other, broader and more extensive studies have reached the same conclusion. In Portland’s case, the result was much worse. Portland advertised mixed-use development as a major benefit of their early light rail. Ten years later, there were no additional developments around train stations. The city provided large tax abatements and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to encourage development. They got new development near stations at a huge detriment to other city services as TIFs reduced the city’s general fund. They also built large government facilities near train stations which did not increase the tax base. At one station, mixed-use development turned out to be an IKEA big-box store.
Worst of all, the city’s draconian land regulations resulted in substantially increasing housing prices, similar to Austin’s in the mid-1980’s, well above affordability indices and their public school enrollment plummeted from over 80,000 to almost 46,000. Austin’s current enrollment is about 85,000 and its housing affordability index has been trending more negative (less affordable) for several years. This trend will be exacerbated by rail transit which is not cost-effective. Austin is already the least affordable major city in Texas. As in Portland’s case, surrounding cities are growing more rapidly as Austin’s affordability decreases.
Austin’s school enrollment is now about 85,000 and the city’s growth is slowing as the surrounding growth is accelerating. Several Austin schools are facing closure due to declining enrollment. The original posting was predictive as Austin’s enrollment began to drop about the time of this posting and continues much as Portland did in dropping 40%.
6. Safety hazards and injuries are increased by street congestion as heavy train cars reduce street vehicle capacity.
Heavy trains, mingling with people and private vehicles on streets, cannot stop quickly or swerve to avoid accidents. Also, many studies have shown two-way streets are more hazardous than one-way streets. Austin’s downtown plan features conversion of many one-way streets to two-way with fewer traffic lanes resulting in the stated purpose to slow traffic by creating congestion.
7. Urban rail degrades social equity, making a mockery of Austin’s stated goals.
Rail’s high cost and low ridership result in two major negative impacts which disproportionately impact lower income citizens: 1) All taxpayers highly subsidize every train rider. All public transit is subsidized at many times subsidy levels for private transportation modes. Cap Metro’s Red Line’s high cost and low ridership results in average taxpayer subsidies of about $15,000 per year for every daily, two-way rider. Each of these riders could be given a free taxi pass or a new car, with gas, each year for less cost. Congestion and pollution would also be reduced. 2) The reality is: 40,000 daily bus riders, mostly lower income citizens with no alternative, are helping to subsidize about 2,500 train riders, mostly with alternatives and higher incomes, by paying higher fares and suffering reduced bus service.
Public transit is a vital community program for those having no alternative. However, confining a person’s transportation range of destinations to that of public transit substantially limits access to better job opportunities, most economical shopping, education, health care, recreation, entertainment; all of life’s offerings. Cost effective transit is critical to serve the maximum number of origins and destinations for people needing it in their daily lives and to provide a major stepping stone in assisting them to raise their standard of living. Poor cost effectiveness of rail results in major limitations to transit service as experienced in many cities, including Austin.
8. The City’s creation of another transit organization similar to Cap Metro will significantly increase overall taxpayer’s costs for this region’s transit.
Voters created Cap Metro and authorized its maximum one-penny sales tax funding source to provide effective public transit for the region. Cap metro has a long history of poor performance and an extended trend of increasing costs to serve fewer riders. Its costs per rider have increased at almost double inflation rates. Creation of a duplicate transit agency structure within the City of Austin will require major, frequent coordination with Cap Metro, significantly increasing the region’s transit costs. In addition to the one penny sales tax limit which funds Cap Metro, the City will be required to increase property taxes and fees to fund its transit agency as there are no other realistic, viable funding sources.
The recent announcements that Cap Metro will operate urban rail primarily with its one-penny sales tax will undoubtedly result in further degradation of transit with further reductions in the ability to expand backbone bus service. The city did commit to providing a small portion of the operating costs by giving Cap Metro one-half of its parking fees. Please see our posting “Austin Citizens Should Reject Urban Rail – 6 Major Reasons” for a discussion of the City’s deceptive maneuvering to fund urban rail with higher taxes and fees in several areas.
9. Fixed rail is inflexible and is expensive to meet changing demands and needs.
There is little current demand for downtown trolleys as demonstrated by the previous free Dillo bus circulators. Austin is a growing, adolescent city and no one knows the shape it will take as it fully develops. Fixed rail systems are very difficult and expensive to modify as changes in demand occur. Austin needs flexible, cost-effective bus transit which can easily adjust to changing demands and routes.
From Cap Metro’s early proposed rail systems to its downtown rail circulator to Austin city’s current urban rail proposal, rail configurations and routes have changed every time they have been evaluated by different people with different motivations and “politics.” This is, perhaps, the most important decision in the history of Austin and it must be guided by the greater-good of the community now and for several future generations.
10. The downtown trolley and its supporting structures are ugly vision pollution.
The trolley’s maze of overhead power cables, connecting structures, support poles and boarding platforms will destroy views as well as deny the use of key streets for traditional civic events such as parades, charity runs, etc.
11. Austin’s urban rail is obsolete, 150 year old transportation technology
Urban rail technology has been superseded with far more flexible, efficient, convenient and cost-effective transportation which is substantially more effective in meeting today’s needs for shorter trip times with personal choices of departure times and multiple destinations.
Just as river boats, canal boats, horses and horse-drawn buggies provided transportation offering certain advantages over walking for applicable trips, early trains provided additional advantages replacing prior modes to available destinations. Almost all of these early transportation improvements have been superseded by private motorized vehicles for reasons mentioned here.
Rapidly developing technology is again changing transportation needs. Telecommuting (people working at home) is growing much faster than any work commuting mode. It is now greater than the use of public transit for the work trip throughout the United States if New York City is excluded. The use of public transit is now only the fifth most used commute mode in the Austin area and has now reached a low of 2.5% of commuting. Primary focus should be on the top modes.
The future offers possibilities of new, revolutionary technology. One of these is “driverless cars” which are currently being extensively tested and could, for example: dramatically improve the capacity of existing roads.
Early transportation, including early passenger trains, was generally cost effective. Private, motorized transportation has been generally cost effective from its beginning more than 100 years ago. The current, approximately 30 year transit phase of implementing new trains for urban public transit has been a transportation and financial failure in Austin and almost every other city.
In addition, the 2010 census indicates further long term trends which make urban rail the wrong choice: Central urban areas throughout the US are decreasing in living density while outer and suburban areas are increasing in density and there is a continuing trend in the increasing number of people working at home. More people work at home than use public transit for work commuting, excluding New York City. These trends are further reducing the effectiveness of traditional ‘hub-and-spoke’ transit systems, particularly fixed rail, which are based on moving people in major corridors from outer areas to the central city.
The current US major city average is under 10% of the regional work force located in the central business district (CBD). Austin’s CBD is less than 10% also, but adding the State and UT employment just outside the CBD brings Austin to about 14%
12. Urban rail is not “Cool” or “Inovative.”
Urban rail’s 19th century technology is not becoming of a first class, high tech, creative, visionary city and is not in keeping with Austin’s innovative city image. Cool is antithetical to supporting train transit which is not cost-effective, increases taxes, degrades social equity, increases congestion, is dangerous, reduces mobility, creates visual pollution and is not sustainable.
Bus transit can achieve anything, equally or better than urban rail transit can achieve. Buses can carry just as many people, just as fast and safer, with less pollution, much more cost-effectively and with greater flexibility to meet changing needs.
Cost-effective bus transit can avoid urban rail’s negative impact to social equity by serving more low income and other citizens, without transportation choices, at lower fares.
Avoiding the exorbitantly high cost of ineffective rail transit will lower overall citizen’s tax burdens, increase mobility and enhance quality of life.
Looking backwards to outdated train technology is the wrong direction to find future visions of the American Dream.