COST Commentary: COST is pleased to welcome a local contributor to this site. Steve Durchin is a retired City of Austin employee. Through life experiences and common sense, Steve has compiled his perspective in this article regarding the City’s proposed urban rail.

COST agrees completely with Steve’s evaluation that urban rail’s ineffectiveness and exorbitant costs results in a severe lack of cost-effectiveness which does not serve the greater-good of the community. It can only serve those few who financially benefit. This site has numerous articles which further discuss and expanded on many of his points.


By Steve Durchin

There are ‘visions’ and then there are ‘myths’

‘Vision’ – The manner in which one sees or conceives of something. Some leaders develop a vision and their followers may seek its fruition.

‘Myth’ – A fiction or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an ideology.
The half-truth of a vision can be determined by testing and historical revelations.

Some City of Austin (COA) leaders and elected officials believe in the vision of developing a mass transit rail system. They seek fruition by presenting a preliminary bond offering to Austin voters. The projected initial costs will be described in the hundreds of millions of dollars, yet to build and operate their completed version of rail might be projected at between one and two billion dollars.

In fact, by simple recognition of the historical background of rail and of the cultural behaviors of people, it is surely obvious there at least four myths regarding this vision of an Austin rail system.

One – Austin rail may eventually help reduce vehicle congestion in the Metropolitan area.

Two – A rail system can add significant economic development at major station stops.

Three – The Austin area population will turn, in some significant numbers, to rail as an alternative to personal vehicle use.

Four – Build the tracks on the ground and maintain train schedules by controlling crossing signals.

Lastly, but just as important, is the cost versus value consideration.

    The Four half-truth Myths

One – Austin rail may eventually help reduce vehicle congestion in the Metropolitan area.

• We have had our test; the rail line running from Leander to downtown Austin, roughly covering an area serving at least a fifth of the greater Austin Statistical Area population. This population has reasonable access to use rail, considering both the parallel and intersecting Capitol Metro bus lines. Such rail use can provide for commuter, social, and recreational purposes. Yet it appears from the records provided by Capital Metro that train ridership is an insignificant percentage of the Austin area’s commuter traffic. Approximately 400 to 500 people a day regularly used rail in 2010. This volume rose to approximately 600 to 700 people per day in 2011. A reduction in fare fees and introduction of mid-day trains were 2011 motivating factors. Special events, like South by Southwest, and weekend runs, generated a peak use in March 2011. Those events generated a March 2011 monthly average of approximately 1000 passengers per day. These ‘test results’ verify that Austin commuter use of rail is, in truth, insignificant. The test conclusion is that vehicle congestion will not be significantly reduced by building a larger train system.

• Cap Metro reports ‘boardings per day’. Virtually all users are making round trips, so the number of actual rail passengers is about half the boardings per day rate.

Two – A rail system can add significant economic development at major station stops.

The Austin American-Statesmen reported this year on economic development at the existing rail stations. Results are, to say the least, disappointing to those projecting a significant commercial investment would occur. One could even question the wisdom of paying for an exorbitantly expensive rail system, as a strategy to spur economic growth, when other more direct means are available.

Three – The Austin area population will turn, in some significant numbers, to rail as an alternative to personal vehicle use.

There’s an existing bus system to serve as connectors for commuting by rail to work. That choice simply takes too much time versus what can be accomplished by car. As described above, only very special non-work related events will generate increased use of the existing rail system. Yes, taking a train downtown to go to Halloween on Sixth Street or to South by Southwest or to the Fourth of July Fireworks celebration will increase ridership. Yes, parents and grandparents may take their children and grandchildren to special events like taking the train to see a U.T. football game, go to the Long Symphony, or just showing off Austin to visiting friends and relatives. However, for everyday activities a personal vehicle provides for a more time efficient and more convenient cargo carrying capacity ride, than any train or bus ride could be.

A much more significant fact is the traditional and cultural nature of Austin residents. It is not just that vehicles are a norm part of life; it is rather that mass transit has never been historically significant here. Contrast this with the history of the large Northeastern cities, where mass transit has been a part of everyday life since the early years in the Nineteenth century. Children in New York City are taught at an early age to get their shopping bag, walk to the bus stop, and hop up and down the stairs to the elevated or underground tracks. Walking for miles, taking a bus, and taking a train is a back east traditional method of getting around. This childhood training continues as the norm mode of travel into adulthood.

Growing up in New York City suburbs, mama taught me to walk to the bus stops, catch the trains, and walk the blocks in between. Get the shopping bag and schlep groceries along the way. It’s a way of life in the densely populated Northeastern cities.

“The City of Austin is considering a plan to pay some municipal workers to take busses to work. Managers know they have to sweeten the pot to get people out of their cars as a trade-off to the inconveniences of using public transportation.”

There is no historic or traditional use of mass transit in Austin. Austin’s citizens are eager to walk and bike the park trails but are culturally insulated from walking, busing, and riding trains to get to work. Energetic Austin residents highly value the flexibility and time efficiency of using their private vehicles.

Four – Build the tracks on the ground and maintain train schedules by controlling crossing signals.

This is perhaps the cruelest myth of all. History of rail use in the northeast verifies without doubt that trains and vehicles should not both use the streets. Accidents will happen, no matter what controls are put in place. Not even trollies survived mutual street use in the nineteenth century. A professional rail planner from back east would likely suffer jaw-dropping disbelief to hear that a major Austin rail system would be thusly built, and vehicle traffic would be stopped to provide for uninterrupted rail crossings at inner city intersections. Austin has spent millions of dollars and will continue to do so attempting to synchronize traffic signals for road vehicles. Trains, to maintain their schedules, will have the functionality to change these signals as they approach intersections, to the detriment of synchronizing vehicle traffic flow. Only those with vested financial incentives hold onto this particular myth, as it greatly lowers rail construction costs to build on the ground. The costs of increasing vehicle congestion, the destruction of planned signal light timing, the accidents that will occur, and the waste of idling vehicle engines does not figure into their calculations. It is a self-serving half-truth vision to ignore these negatives. The clear and obvious truth, time proven in many major cities, over a hundred years of experiences, is that trains and cars cannot share the roads. Tracks must be built elevated or belowground. An Austin mass transit train system, if it must be built, should have tracks build above and below the streets.

If it must be built, build it above, or below, but not on the ground.

Therefore the true cost of building a great rail system for the great city of Austin, should accurately reflect such costs. If that adds billions more, it adds billions more, to do it right for Austin.

Lastly, but just as important, is the cost versus value consideration.

It is hard to understand the thinking of Austin’s leaders and elected officials to even consider building a major rail system under the current financial constraints. Residents are keenly aware of COA budget restraints, such as reducing library hours, closing public pools, and even to the elimination of the Trail of Lights. The COA has purchased new parklands over the years but not found the funds to improve them. Certainly the existing parks, in use by large numbers of residents, could be improved if funds were available. Yet even now, the burden of increased fees grows, such as those proposed by the City’s electric utility, and largely used to pay for expanding the infrastructure to accommodate growth. In fact, as in the current case of Apple Computer, huge tax breaks are eagerly offered to select new business ventures. The burden of paying for growth remains for the existing residents.

Austin residents may be asked to approve a multi hundred million dollar bond issue to begin limited rail service. Future bond requirements, in the factually unknown billions of dollar range, will be required to build and operate a completed system.

Residents instead could get a much better return on investment for other truly vitally needed services and facilities. Residents could choose to pay for an expanded and enlarged road system, an improved bus system (why should Cap Metro buses be allowed to stop in traffic lanes to load and unload?), develop parks, enlarge parking spaces at parks and other public enterprises, build new and operate for more days the public swimming pools, and do the same for branch libraries, and build more fire and EMS stations. It’s sad that Austin’s Fourth of July fireworks symphonic celebration and December Trail of Lights were canceled. All these improvements could be realized if vast investment funds were not allocated to pay for a rail system that would benefit so few citizens. It is not a wise decision to spend enormous tax dollars on a rail system that would be ineffective, underutilized, and operate in the red. Billion-plus tax dollars could go a long way if not invested in fixed rails serving a meager passenger demand. Never before, in Austin’s history, would so many pay so much, to service so few.

Never before would so many pay so much to service so few

Only those who would financially benefit from construction and operation of a rail system can ignore these myths and instead see only their preferred ‘vision’. I can see through these myths, can’t you?

It’s time now to “pay as we grow.”

Austin’s future growth is a certainty. Visions for how that should occur have been planned, studied and documented for many years. What has been lacking is a clear and resolute policy for who and how that growth will be paid for. To this time, those huge looming costs have been deferred, in different ways, to the existing population. Growth is now too expensive to keep heaping costs onto those shoulders. It’s time for a change. It’s time to plan and enact mechanisms so that the new populations will pay for that growth. It’s time now to pay as we grow.

It’s time now to pay as we grow

Note: COST added the bold highlights.

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