Austin Transit Working Group Meetings: Critique and Comment

COST Commentary: Below is a series of messages to Austin’s ‘Transit Working Group’ (TWG) which began meeting in late 2011 to “provide input toward a regional high capacity transit plan for Central Texas and explore how its various components work as a system to fulfill the region’s transportation and future growth needs.” The TWG is a committee of the ‘Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’ (CAMPO).

The messages are ordered with the latest message being first.

Subject: Mayor sets new direction for urban rail:

Dear TWG Members: 6-03-2012

Prior to the TWG meeting on June 1, Mayor Leffingwell posted a blog report that he had reconsidered placing Urban Rail on next November’s ballot and recommended an indefinite delay as he describes in his blog post.

My comments to the Mayor’s blog post are:

1. I fully support the Mayor’s proposed delay of the urban rail election for the many reasons in the several notes to the TWG, below.

Austin Transit Working Group Meetings: Critique and Comment

My 4-9-2012 message to the TWG is the oldest and last item at this web address. The Mayors change in direction is consistent with this message’s recommendations and the several messages since that time.

2. The Transit Working Group (TWG) has been fed a continuous stream of superficial, distorted, misleading and plain incorrect facts and information by the City, Cap Metro and consultants regarding the proposed urban rail. The City and Cap Metro folks are selling their own “wares” and the consultants are telling the clients what they wish to hear.

3. The “process” which CAMPO implemented for the TWG was not a responsible one designed to reach a final decision supported by valid analytical analyses and evaluations.

4. A sound initial plan to develop the necessary data and information was not developed. Instead, there was a predetermined, starting decision that urban rail was the solution to an ill-defined problem. Most of the TWG members properly believe the critical problem being addressed is “congestion on the roads” in the central area. However, the initial City of Austin urban rail proposal submitted by City Manager Marc Ott on November 7, 2008 contained no mention of congestion as a reason or a goal for urban rail and no content regarding urban rail’s impact on congestion. This presents a strong miss-match between TWG perceptions of congestion as the primary issue and the reality of this urban rail.

This urban rail will not improve congestion and spending huge proportions of limited transportation funds on rail will prevent it from being used on transportation projects which can address Austin’s major roadway and intersection bottlenecks, as well as implementation of cost-effective modern “smart” traffic control systems. As shown in the past several years, Austin urban area congestion can be improved with aggressive attention to adding roads and relieving roadway bottlenecks so that 99% of the region’s passenger mile travelers experience improved mobility which translates to increased quality- of-life for hundreds of thousands of citizens. Meanwhile, ridership on public transit has declined and played no role in improved mobility. In fact, wasteful spending on ineffective rail to serve 2% of the transit riders degrades the ability of the total transit system to provide greater and cost-effective mobility for the other 98% of transit riders.

Note: The “Central Austin Transit Study” by the city in 2010 is presented as “The complete alternatives evaluation for Urban Rail” and is a so-called “update” of a previous Cap Metro study on a downtown circulator. It is not a competent, professional study and is not an acceptable foundation for the selection of the current urban rail as the most effective mobility solution.

5. It has not been considered that this urban rail will cost much more than the current estimates. Cost estimates have increased about 700% in the past 6 years and the route has changed several times. The average overrun for similar rail systems is about 40% more from a much later stage of knowledge (decision to proceed) than Austin has or will have for some time. Second, the Federal Government will not likely fund anywhere near the 50% level as assumed made by the city. More likely, little or nothing will be funded by the Federal Government because they are broke and the initial route will not qualify from a ridership and alternatives standpoint. The early estimated costs of $100 million per mile is very high on the comparative cost scale. The one Seattle light rail has the current record at about $285 million per mile. Even the URS Company consultant stated 25% funding by the Feds for the total project is the highest which should be used. This results in a major tax increase for generations

6. I believe the Mayor should reconsider two of the three future steps proposed in his blog post.

a. The Mayor suggests the November, 2012 bond package fund continued rail planning. Before the City continues to spend significant funds to go further with this rambling, unorganized series of activities and presentations to the TWG, the City needs to develop a solid plan for the planning. First, a valid, unbiased alternatives analysis must be completed in accordance with standard engineering procedures. This will require the involvement of an unbiased third party. TWG members have frequently and correctly mentioned they need to understand the trade-offs and cost-effectiveness of the rail versus other alternatives in order to make sound decisions. Even if they had funds, the Federal Government will not consider funding part of this urban rail without this alternatives analysis and the government process can take 1 1/2 to 2 years.

b. The mayor proposes hiring an “urban rail expert.” This is not advised because it continues the bias that rail is the solution to something but it is not clear what; other than the perception that a first class city needs rail and some nebulous idea that it will cause new development that would not otherwise be here. Previous experience in other cities and a City of Austin study have concluded this is not true. Austin downtown development is very robust and not a single development is because of rail.

Subject: Alternatives and Capacity

Dear TWG Members: 5-28-2012

This week’s observations and comments for your consideration are below. I tried to minimize duplication of notes from previous messages which can be found online at the COST site, long with this message.

This is a critical time for TWG considerations. Thank you for your major commitment, the incredible number of hours spent and the work accomplished in just a few months.

1. Transit Alternatives

TWG presentations have not considered a number of transit alternatives which would effectively meet valid, long term future transit demand at much lower costs while providing the flexibility to rapidly adjust to changing demand and technologies. Austin seems to be on a one-way track to implement an urban rail and has not fully considered an array of more efficient, responsive and cost-effective alternatives. At this late point in Austin’s process, recommendations and discussions should be fully supported by a valid, very thorough “alternatives analysis” which conclusively recommends urban rail. But, they are not. Presenters vaguely refer to continuing and future alternatives analyses. Since the time frame (10, 20 and 30 years or longer) is so long, an alternative analysis should also support Phase 1 (first segment) of urban rail as is required for any possibility of Federal Government funding support consideration for this segment. However, the Federal Transit Administrations stated positions and the continued Federal budget constraints are very likely to result in no Federal funding or, at the most, greatly reduced amounts. Based on the current Phase 1 train configuration and the served population, I personally, doubt urban rail, Phase 1, would qualify, even if Federal money was available.

At the end of this message are selected remarks by Federal Transit Administrator Rogoff, May, 2010, regarding transit conditions and funding. The situation has clearly has not improved since these grim remarks.

In addition to the FTA’s lack of funds and stated desire to focus on more cost-effective bus transit solutions, Federal funding of urban rail is doubtful because: 1) The initial route has relatively low density and ridership will not be adequate to support a $100 million per mile rail system. 2) The City of Austin has no viable plan for funding the implementation of urban rail without major, long term tax increases for local citizens. 3) The FTA does not participate in funding, but, it requires the City to have firm planning for the major annual operating costs of many tens of millions before undertaking the commitment of hundreds of millions for rail capital and implementation costs. The City does not have a viable plan for the operating costs. (This paragraph was added after sending to the TWG)

This paper is not appropriate for detailed studies, but an example is: Studies at Portland State University (downtown Portland) found that a single bus stop can support 42 buses per hour. Portland has staggered its downtown bus stops so that there are four stops every two blocks, allowing 168 buses per hour to move through downtown in each direction on a single pair of one-way streets. Standard transit buses have 40 seats, and, counting very comfortable standing room of 15, can move more than 9,000 people per hour. This is 4.5 times the theoretical, updated Red Line Commuter “capacity” presented to the TWG. Portland has the highest light rail ridership in the nation, but, it was a very effective bus transit city long before light rail was introduced and buses still carry more passengers than light rail as is the case in the Nation. Double deck or articulated buses would provide even greater capacity if needed.

Using cost-effective buses would provide Austin greater flexibility to rapidly adjust to changing demand and provide much greater coverage of the population’s living and destination locations. In the unlikely event it would be determined at some future time that trains were a better solution, they could be implemented based on the best routes as determined over time as Austin becomes a more developed city. It is probable that the trends discussed briefly below (item 2) and changing mobility technologies will preclude the need for future outdated rail technology.

2. Comparing ‘Capacity’ and ‘Use’ is Like Comparing Apples and Oranges.

Presentations to the TWG have inappropriately compared the full passenger capacity of potential trains, such as the proposed upgraded Red Line, to the average number of passengers, about 1.2, which use private cars for work trips. If cars were treated the same as trains in these presentations, the average car capacity would be about 5 and the calculations of the volume of passengers being carried is reversed such that cars on a single lane carry considerably more people than the upgraded Red Line commuter train.

Theoretical train capacity is interesting but more important is actual demand which has not been adequately analyzed or discussed in the context of real experience, trends and valid alternative analyses.

We don’t hear much about bus capacity because there is much more capacity on most Austin transit buses than demand. The average bus ridership is quite low. The previous downtown Dillo transit circulator was in very low demand for many years before being canceled.

Projecting passenger train and transit demand, in general, has not been very accurate anywhere in the country. Actual ridership averages much less than originally projected. Cost-effectiveness is much more important than ridership. Austin presents even more uncertainty than many cities because it is a somewhat “adolescent,” changing major city in a rapidly growing region. This uncertainty has been magnified again and again as we have seen a major change in recommended transit systems and routes every time an organization or group has considered transit over the past 20 or more years. The urban rail line to the Airport was just recently deleted from the urban rail proposal because it was correctly deemed to be an inefficient segment. Cap Metro also determined this almost 12 years ago when the Airport segment was projected to have the least ridership potential and the highest cost of any segment.

Some major trends affecting Austin’s demand for transit include:

a. Transit’s major orientation is hub and spoke from outlying areas to the central city which has been the case since transit was implemented. However, mobility has changed growth patterns significantly. A major portion of population living and jobs have moved to the suburban areas along with retail, health, entertainment, education, restaurants, etc. This is also accompanied by a growing trend in people working at home as it now exceeds the number of people using transit for commuting.

b. Nationally, employment in Central Business Districts (CBS) of major cities has a decreasing trend as a percentage of area employment. The average CBD employment is just under 10%. Austin’s is higher, but declining, than this average at under 20% due, primarily, to the location of the state government.

c. More students are moving closer to the UT campus and probably more students have vehicles. UT transit ridership has declined 35-40% in the past 12 years.

d. Austin’s growth patterns are rapidly changing and will result is transit demand changes. Have we really analyzed the transit needs of, and impact on, transit dependent citizens versus current proposed transit systems and the ridership served.

e. Continued acceptable fare level is vital to ridership. This requires transit additions to be cost- effective. The Red Line has proven not to be cost-effective and it will not be sustainable for the long run, particularly, if extensions or upgrades are made with the same very high cost and extremely low effectiveness.

3. Cost-effectiveness must consider all costs, including taxpayer subsidies.

TWG presentations have compared private car total costs per trip to the fares paid by transit riders for a similar trip. Again, this comparison is apples and oranges and is not very informative in making transit investment decisions. The comparison must have actual costs for both trips. Transit riders fares are highly subsidized (more than 90% in Austin) by local taxpayers and car owners costs are not significantly subsidized. For example, the comparison of a train riders costs from Leander to Austin to a private vehicle cost used the $2.75 fare as the train riders costs and compares it to about $15 as the private car cost. The total cost of this Leander to Austin tip on the tax subsidized train is actually closer to $40 (not counting capital cost depreciation) compared to the private car cost of about $15. Including capital costs, the train passenger costs are closer to about $60 per trip for each rider from Leander to downtown Austin. Taxpayers could purchase a new car with gas, each year, for every, daily, two-way train rider, or provide a free taxi pass, and it would cost less.

4. “Traffic congestion in central Texas is a serious problem and must be addressed.”

Project Connect reported 91% of TWG members agreed with this statement. Several people have commented that: I also strongly agree with this statement. However, the current TWG presenters’ focus on spending a huge portion of available transportation funds on an initial segment of urban rail to be operational no earlier than 2021 does not address major traffic congestion in central Texas. Valid evaluation and analysis would very likely indicate urban rail would significantly increase congestion and safety hazards. There are numerous, more effective ways to spend the billions of dollars which would be directed, over time, to urban rail. This urban rail would be the most expensive project in Austin’s history and Austin’s greatest mistake.

Contrary to several remarks, there have been major instances where the reduction of highway and intersection bottlenecks have dramatically improved congestion for hundreds of thousands of citizens. Additional roadway improvements recently completed and others being worked on and planned will also make major improvements (See previous notes to TWG). Improving mobility is non-ending process as long as the region experiences the abundance of continued growth and prosperity. Accepting the myth that congestion cannot be improved is not sound justification for the wasteful spending of billions of dollars on other solutions, such as urban rail, which will have no measurable impact on congestion. Spending these funds on urban rail for the other stated, but unsupported, reasons is also not justified.

Several people have expressed the urgency of addressing traffic congestion and that “Doing nothing is not an option.” I also agree with this. However, the urban rail option before us would be far worse than doing nothing. There is a long list of projects (options) which will continue to address real mobility improvements for citizens throughout Austin. Public Transit is mostly a different issue and can be cost-effectively improved to better serve the needs of the community without siphoning critical transportation funds from key mobility projects. Some of the most effective transit improvements can be easily implemented on improved roadways, serving the mobility needs of all.


I strongly suggest it is not appropriate to select most of the presenters to the TWG from those who are “selling their product” and/or have a conflicting personal and economic interest in the outcome. This cannot possibly provide the balanced, unbiased information and input which the TWG needs to make an informed decision regarding this complex subject. One solution is to select third parties who are knowledgeable and technically qualified and which do not have a vital interest in the outcome.

Selected remarks in speech by FTA Administrator Rogoff, 5-18-2010:

“Let’s start with honesty:

Supporters of public transit must be willing to share some simple truths that folks don’t want to hear. One is this — Paint is cheap, rails systems are extremely expensive.

Yes, transit riders often want to go by rail. But it turns out you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a “special” bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.

Once you’ve got special buses, it turns out that busways are cheap. Take that paint can and paint a designated bus lane on the street system. Throw in signal preemption, and you can move a lot of people at very little cost compared to rail.

A little honesty about the differences between bus and rail can have some profound effects.

Earlier I pointed out that our new estimate for the deferred maintenance backlog for the entire transit universe is roughly $78 billion. But you should know that fully 75 percent of that figure is to replace rail assets.

Now let’s remember that the majority of transit trips in this country are still done by bus. When it comes to delivering actual transit service, Americans take 21 percent more transit trips every year than rail trips. That said, fully three quarters of the funding backlog we face in achieving a state of good repair is associated with underfunded rail assets.

Communities deciding between bus and rail investments need to stare those numbers in the face. Some communities might be tempted to pay the extra cost for shiny new rails now. But they need to be mindful of the costs they are teeing up for future generations.

Is Bus Rapid Transit a workable option for every corridor – no. There are some corridors with the kind of densities and destinations where only rail makes sense.

But Bus Rapid Transit is a fine fit for a lot more communities than are seriously considering it.”

Comments on Rogoff Remarks published in The Transport Politic by Yonah Freemark, May 19,2010:

Calling for “honesty,” saying “no,” and “telling truth to power,” Rogoff suggested that the financial difficulties facing mass transit networks today are at least partially the result of an unnecessary focus on rail expansion rather than bus improvements. He asked his colleagues to commit to improving the political viability of state-of-good-repair maintenance and to refocus their goals towards continuing today’s basic operations, rather than moving into new markets and potentially leaving existing services by the wayside.

Case in point is Sacramento, Mr. Rogoff argued, which asked the FTA for New Starts funds to build a new light rail line but which had its application denied earlier this year because of insufficient operations support for existing lines. Mr. Rogoff seemed to be suggesting that future New Starts grants will be dependent on higher local operations revenues. He seemed to be offended by the mere idea that any transit agency would want to expand given current fiscal circumstances.

Note: Bold highlighting by writer of this paper

Best regards,
Jim Skaggs

Subject: Urban Rail

Dear TWG Members: 5-22-2012

Comments in this message relate to the fundamental, critical questions which several TWG members asked during the previous meeting. The nature of discussions last week, again, point to the current lack of thorough, systems and analytical foundations of information and knowledge from which one can make sound decisions regarding Austin’s application of “mass transit” in general or of the specific urban rail being addressed by TWG for the past several months and studied by the City and Cap Metro for 6 years.

The lack of existing information and knowledge was very evident in the “sidestepping” with indirect, incomplete and uninformative diversions instead of reasoned answers to several member’s excellent questions. Let’s review a few of these areas.

1. Congestion: Several TWG members correctly expressed congestion relief as the top priority in requesting taxpayers to invest enormous amounts of dollars in urban rail. This most expensive project in Austin’s history must have a very clear delineation of its purpose and specific benefits (investment returns) for Austin’s current and future citizens/taxpayers because they will all be paying very much for a very long time. This “project purpose” must be defined with objectivity, transparency, openness and integrity.

The City’s initial urban rail proposal “Modern Streetcar/LRT Proposal,” submitted to CAMPO on November 7, 2008 and to the TWG in December, 2008, had no reference to congestion as a primary selection criteria for urban rail. The City presented no analyses, studies or actual experiences regarding the impact of the urban rail segments on congestion at that time or to the current TWG. This City proposal and congestion was further discussed in my email message to the TWG prior to its April, 27 meeting.

Some at last week’s meeting observed that urban rail will not improve congestion, suggesting this is not a valid criteria because “nothing will improve congestion.” This is not consistent with many actual experiences. Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) presented data to the TWG showing Austin’s urban area congestion has decreased following its peak in 2005 with the more aggressive completion of a series of new and expanded roadways and intersections which relieved major bottlenecks.

Austin roadway improvements are still far behind its population growth but congestion improvements due to road/intersection improvements over the past few years have improved the quality-of-life for hundreds of thousands of citizens. About 99% of our region’s passenger miles of travel is on roads. Improved roads will improve mobility for vastly more citizens than any other solution.

Meanwhile, Public Transit has had zero impact on recent congestion improvements. Overall transit ridership has a declining trend for the past dozen years while population has grown rapidly. Cap Metro’s Red Line commuter has actually increased congestion by crossing many streets and delaying road traffic while carrying few passengers, even fewer are new to transit. Public transit is not a congestion improvement strategy as shown in almost every major city. Nationally, public transit commute times average twice as long as private vehicle use. Public transit and congestion are both vital issues, but, different issues.

Houston also experienced reduced congestion for a number of years in the 1990’s when Mayor Bob Lanier spent one-quarter of Houston’s transit penny on roads to aggressively keep up with population growth. His famous quote is still accurate today:

“First they [rail’s supporters] say “It’s cheaper.” When you show it costs more, they say, “It’s faster.” When you show it’s slower, they say, “It serves more riders.” When you show there are fewer riders, they say, “It brings economic development.” When you show no economic development, they say, “It helps the image.” When you say you don’t want to spend that much money on image, they say, “It will solve the pollution problem.” When you show it won’t help pollution, they say, finally, “It will take time for rail to do some good.”

Comments below are based primarily on actual experiences, observations, studying the subject for thousands of hours, and common sense.

Austin’s proposed urban rail will not have a positive impact on congestion in greater Austin or the small central downtown Austin area:

Urban rail will not have a direct positive impact on congestion throughout the City of Austin’s 272 Square miles or the urban and suburban areas surrounding Austin. The concentration of urban rail’s proposed first phase in the Central Business District (CBD, zip 78701) with about a 5 mile, zigzag, northern path through the UT Campus and to the Mueller development will have no impact on congestion throughout the remainder of Austin. Likewise, the proposed phase two’s, southeastern extension (about 2.5 miles) across the river and out Riverside to Pleasant Valley will have no measurable impact on congestion throughout the greater Austin Area. These two segments, to be opened in 10 and 20 years (per presentation to TWG), provide access to a miniscule percentage of the Austin population’s living units and population.

The phase 1 route from the downtown convention center, thru UT, to Mueller is not very high density living and can be expected to have very low ridership for the estimated investment of $400 Million in today’s dollars. This estimate is before preliminary engineering completion and is very likely to be much higher as the average for similar projects is about 40% higher than the firm starting estimate and we are not close to this. The cost estimate for urban rail has increased to about 8 times the estimate just 6 years ago and the rail route is still being changed on a regular basis; some change is by new people looking at it and some by the same people changing their minds as various influences are encountered. This dynamic changing nature strongly suggests ‘inflexible, fixed rail’ is not the answer.

Phase 2 will also have low ridership and the line is only a maximum of about three miles from city center to its end at Pleasant Valley Road. The cost estimate for this phase was shown as $500 Million, or more than $150 Million per mile, to provide access for very few people providing low ridership for the taxpayers to highly subsidize. This is a perfect example of using the most expensive mode with the least cost-effectiveness when this short three mile segment can be quickly and effectively served by buses for one-tenth the costs without waiting 15 years.

Most cities put their initial rail routes on transit corridors with the highest ridership. Neither the proposed phase one or phase two urban rail segments are high transit corridors and will not have high ridership while costing a likely total of more than a billion dollars, not to mention the high annual operating costs.

A real issue with congestion downtown is that the new Comprehensive Plan inherently increases congestion. Urban rail mingling with people and cars on the streets is a major part of this. No other city has put rail on this much of its major downtown streets. Both this rail and converting one-way streets to two-way create additional safety hazards. So, the new downtown will increase congestion and the rail is supposed to relieve congestion, but, it actually increases congestion. The bottom line is that downtown will have greater, not less, congestion and will become less desirable to many citizens. Businesses will look for better location alternatives.

“Planners” have drawn numerous other urban rail extensions on the master map with seemingly no concept or consideration of costs, safety, valid ridership, cost-effectiveness or overall mobility based on demonstrated human preferences. History is laden with failed attempts to social engineer people. The results show people will conform to planners until they are able to make free choices. Then, they abandon the social engineered environment. However, even without engineering studies, common sense would indicate the congestion impact on Central Austin would not be measurable and certainly not cost-effective.

2. Cost-Effective:

First, in my many years of working in support of logical, cost-effective mobility improvement for the region, I have never seen Cap Metro, the City or any other organization discuss or present the results of studies of the cost-effectiveness of transit alternatives when selecting rail as the preferred approach. Competent ‘alternative analysis’ would produce cost-effective evaluations, but, none have been presented. Without appropriate alternative analysis, the selection of rail seems to have been predetermined and millions have been spent to confirm it.

The previous notes to TWG have covered the horrible cost-effectiveness of the current Cap Metro commuter train and that there is every indication the urban rail will be no better and, very likely, much worse. It is interesting the estimated costs for the first phase of urban rail were shown to be $400 Million. Even this, likely underestimated cost, is more than a recent TTI report’s estimate of the total dollars required to address, near term, major congested corridors in Austin. The point is: We must address congestion choke points which affect tens or hundreds of thousands of citizens as a priority over urban rail which provides little societal benefit but for a very few at the expense of many.

At this point, there have been no discussions of annual operating costs. After the huge implementation costs, the annual bond payments and the annual operating costs will be a major and continuing drain on local taxpayers.

The motto for the urban rail will continue the truth of Cap Metro’s commuter rail: “Never have so many paid so much to subsidize so few.” And, the many get no benefit.

As a side cost issue: The indicated cost ($850 million) of Lone Star rail in phase 1 did not include the cost of moving Union Pacific to a new set of tracks East of Austin. This has been estimated over many years but it is probably more than $1 billion and closer to $2 billion and must be paid by someone other than Union Pacific.

3. Austin’s Growth Pattern:

In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the increased percentage of women entering the work force and growing affluence in terms of more automobiles per capita resulted in driving increasing at a greater rate than population. This led some to project continuing growth in daily vehicle miles traveled (DVMT) per capita and some attributed DVMT per capita growth to sprawl. Contrary to many people’s current understanding, Austin’s growth and spreading-out has reduced ‘DVMT per capita.’

I don’t know of studies as to specifically why there is a regional reduction in DVMT per capita, but, it seems to make sense for the following reasons:

A. Work trip commuting is 20% or less of travel. These trips have increased in some cases.

B. As the population has spread, the retail, medical, entertainment, restaurants, recreation, schools, etc have moved to be near the people. These moves have reduced driving for the 80% of trips which are not commuting trips more than commuting trips may have increased driving. I say “maybe” because trucks are in the driving per capita and there has been a huge increase in truck travel through the region such as the NAFTA trucks to and from Mexico. Yet, DVMT per capita is decreasing. Total driving, 20 years ago, increased much faster than population growth, but, it is now increasing about the same rate as population growth

4. Connectivity:

The above point on the cost of Lone Star rail highlights that many of the shortcomings of urban rail exist for Lone Star, namely high cost, low ridership, poor cost-effectiveness and questionable funding sources (who will subsidize it). It is likely there will never be a Lone Star rail line, as envisioned. Spending large sums and gambling taxpayer funds to connect local system to low priority, low probability dreams is not responsible. The futures of Cap Metro, the City and Lone Star in rail transit all have the same Achilles heel that many other cities are discovering. They must be cost effective to be sustainable. In Lone Star’s case: Other than hugely dense Northeast US cities, there are no cities like Austin and San Antonio connected by regular, frequent daily passenger rail runs.

5. The Master Plan:

The abandoned MoKan train line has been talked about for many years. Our transit leaders have suggested another local train, but there has been little evaluations to support its viability. It would appear to be another train with horrible cost-effectiveness. The track has been removed from much of this line, so, paving it may be much more cost effective that reinstalling tracks with little flexibility and very high costs. To my knowledge, there has never been a discussion or study as to whether a roadway versus a train would provide greater, more cost effective mobility improvements. For example, could it be a managed lane each way with express buses, carpools and tolled cars. This is generally the most cost-effective and highest capacity use of lane real estate.

We sometime lose track of the mission and priorities of public transit in our society. Overall, public transit’s greatest ridership and contribution is in the work commuting trip. In Austin Public Transit is the 5th highest work trip mode. First, is the private motor vehicle; second, is the carpool; third, is ‘work-at-home;’ fourth, is other; and, fifth, is public transit which has been declining for a long time. Are we really evaluating the areas which will have the most impact on mobility in the future?

How will new technology play into mobility solutions. There has been a fleet of “driverless” cars being tested on our highways. What might the impact of this dramatic application of technology be?

6. More is Better

The TWG has been told by transit folks and supporters that “more transit is better.” There is absolutely no foundation for this. In every case I can think of, transit becomes less cost-effective the more it is expanded. This is especially true of trains because of their very high capital costs and lack of flexibility. There is not enough “gross city product” (city total wealth) to provide enough train or overall transit service which will increase ridership enough to make any difference to overall mobility. Cap Metro has already found that they hit the wall with bankruptcy with a relatively small train which may have a negative impact on overall mobility with a positive impact on a miniscule few who are very highly subsidized. It would cost the community less to buy all of the daily, two way commuter riders a new car, each year, and provide gas.

7. The Myth of High Capacity

Portland has the highest new light rail ridership in the nation and Portland’s population density is significantly higher than Austin’s. Last May, the Cascade Institute of Portland Oregon published “Light Rail, Streetcars, & The Myth of “High Capacity Transit,” a study of Portland’s transit agency’s claim of high capacity transit for Portland’s extensive light rail system. The Cascade study’s conclusion starts with this paragraph:

“TriMet, Metro, the city of Portland and other institutional advocates of rail transit all have promoted the myth that light rail, the streetcar, the commuter train in Washington County and the aerial tram are part of a successful “high capacity” transit system that carries large volumes of passengers quickly and efficiently to their destinations. This is simply not the case. Residences and employers are so dispersed in the Portland region that there are relatively few occasions when HCT is even necessary, and on those occasions, the Portland rail system is inadequate because it is not truly a high-capacity system.”

Austin’s urban rail is not high capacity other than in the theoretical calculations of capacity which are not the real ridership. We do not need “high capacity.” Buses can easily provide adequate capacity and equal the urban rail for a fraction of the costs, with much greater flexibility to meet changing demand.


It is irresponsible to spend inordinate amounts of taxpayer funds to provide highly subsidized service for very few, many of which have alternatives. This results in siphoning funds from higher priorities, including mobility improvements, which will serve the vast majority and prevent them from suffering in increasing congestion. It also makes a mockery of social equity goals by increasing fares and reducing service for low income, transit dependent citizens in order to subsidize people who are not low income and have alternatives.

It is not responsible to spend massive tax dollars in an attempt to reduce the congestion for a few train transit riders at the expense of increasing congestion for the vast majority of citizens which use motorized vehicles on roads and travel 99% of the area’s passenger miles.

We don’t even seem to have a consensus on the purpose of urban rail or “mass transit.” The purpose should be clearly articulated so there is a foundation to measure the effectiveness of alternatives and performance.

Subject: Major Urban Rail Risks

Dear TWG Members: 5-15-2012

Below (and attached) is the chart and content of a page of the brochure which Cap Metro mailed to voters just prior to the November 2004 election for the Austin-Leander Red Line commuter rail. The points below are lessons from Cap Metro’s commuter rail which relate to the major and growing risk considerations for the City’s proposed urban rail.

Major points: (There are many more)

1. How to Pay for it?

Cap Metro Promise: As shown on the chart below, local taxpayers would pay for one-half or $30 million of the capital/start-up costs of the Red Line and Federal funds would pay for $30 million. The statement that fares are part of local funding is nonsensical. Fares are a trivial amount and would not exist until after the train was operating.

Later Cap Metro added the planned $30 million for train cars and described the commuter rail as a $90 million project with $60 million from local taxes and $30 million from Federal taxes.

The exact, actual cost of the Red Line Capital will probably never be known because of Cap Metro’s faulty, deceptive bookkeeping. The cost was likely about $150 million including the train cars with their debt interest. This cost local taxpayers $90 million or 2.5 times that promised. They were promised total costs of $60 million including $30 million (one-half of $60 million) on the chart below and $30 million for the train cars. This resulted cost overrun and other poor decisions drained Cap Metro’s reserves and essentially bankrupt the agency. It still owes the city more that it has, but the city, with two council members on the Gap Metro board (including its chairman) has agreed to defer payment. This Red Line capital cost also does not include another $30+ million which was announced as required based on new federal regulations regarding safety due to a rash of train accidents around the country.

Promise Broken-Reality: Every indication and writings by me, at the time, stated it was highly unlikely the Red Line would qualify for federal funding. Documents received through ‘Freedom of Information’ requests, written by the federal government, indicated Cap Metro could not proceed with their schedule and purchase of rail cars if they were to have any opportunity for federal participation. The federal government stated this was “not negotiable.” Cap Metro knew or was grossly incompetent in not knowing that the Red Line would not qualify for federal funding but proceeded to deceive the public.

It seemed Cap Metro did not wish to deal with the additional time required to perform the preliminary engineering (PE) required for federal funding and risk delaying the start of the Red Line. Looking back, Cap Metro stated that much of their delay and cost overrun debacle with the Red Line was due to inadequate planning. Maybe the disciplined, structured federal government PE process would have prevented many of the problems, added costs and two years of delay.

Cap Metro frequently used the phrase “on schedule and on budget” referring to MetroRail (Red Line) almost up until the time it was originally scheduled to start operations in early 2008. Again, they were knowingly deceiving the public or were incompetent in not knowing the true status of the system: It opened two years late.

In recent TWG Urban Rail discussions, the consideration and risks of Preliminary Engineering (PE) were discussed. Contrary to Cap Metro’s rail funding decision regarding relatively small dollars, the City must perform Preliminary Engineering(PE) to have any chance of receiving Federal funds. This risks tens of millions of dollars and several years. These risks must fully consider the probability of the Federal government’s participation and the amount and timing. Please see the summary at the end.

Note: In its presentation, Cap Metro hid the capital costs of the train cars, $30 million, by a lease purchase and categorized the 10 year debt payment as operating funds. See point 2 in the next paragraph. This was another broken promise in that the lease purchase was basically the same as debt which Cap Metro informed voters (chart below) there would be no new debt. During construction, Cap Metro switched the rail car purchase to the capital account, where it should have been, and called the Red Line a $90 million project from that point forward.

2. Annual Operating Costs

Cap Metro Promise: As stated on the chart below, the “Annual Operating Costs” were to be $5 million including the “lease-purchase of vehicles.” This lease-purchase was planned at $3 million leaving $2 million as the projected annual operating costs.

Promise Broken-Reality: The actual annual operating costs are now more than $10 million which is more than 5 times the promised $2 million. These actual costs do not include the $3.7 million annual re-payment of the borrowed $36+ million for rail cars. Again, Cap Metro knew their brochure was incorrect, or was incompetent, in telling voters the annual operating costs would be $2 million. This operating expense total does not include an allocation of Cap Metro’s General and Administrative (overhead) expense.

3. Fare Recovery

Cap Metro Promise: In August of 2004, Cap Metro promised the community it would reach 20% fare recovery by 2012. This is the percentage of operating expenses covered by fare receipts.

Promise Broken: It is now 2012 and the budgeted over-all fare recovery is less than 10% and the Red Line commuter fare recovery is less than 5%.

4. Cost Effectiveness:

The Red Line is approximately 8.8% of Cap Metro’s total bus and rail operating expense in the 2012 budget, but, the Red Line is only a little over 1% of the projected bus and rail ridership in 2012. Cap Metro’s 2012 budget projects the ‘per passenger’ trip costs of rail as $30 which is 7.5 times the $4 for a bus passenger trip. Cap Metro’s Red Line has one of the poorest cost effective passenger train performances in the nation. Its bus cost performance is about average. A distortion here is that high cost, shuttle buses used to meet the train, are charged to the bus system and not the train.

The obvious conclusion from the very poor cost-effectiveness of the train is: Even if you make the very questionable assumption that large numbers of people will ride the train, you run out of money long before you can carry enough riders to make any difference in mobility. The more trains are extended the less cost effective they are because there are even fewer riders in less dense areas.

Including operating costs and amortized capital/start-up costs, each average Red Line daily, round-trip rider is subsidized more than $20,000 per year: much more for a trip between Austin and Leander and less for a trip between Austin and the Airport Blvd.-Lamar station in Crestview. This taxpayer subsidy is more than a new car with gas every year or a free taxi pass. There are no evaluations which show this high taxpayer subsidy level produces any measurable community benefit and there are several significant detriments to overall mobility and social equity.

The City of Austin, Cap Metro, CAMPO and supporting consultants are presenting the urban rail with similar deceptions, distortions and lack of full evaluation and transparency as Cap Metro presented the Red Line to voters.

Additional Major Risks include: These are brief but all can be fully supported.

1. Congestion: First, there has been no alternatives analysis which presents evidence that the urban rail will reduce congestion in the Central Austin area. No city in the nation has put light rail on this percentage of its major central city streets. Light rail, mingling with people and cars on key streets, is an extreme safety hazard. Austin’s developing downtown plan, with the rail, will reduce roadway capacity and significantly increase congestion and safety hazards.

2. Government Funding: There is a growing probability that the federal government will not participate to any significant degree in the proposed Austin urban rail. With current National economic conditions, Federal funding is far less certain today than in 2004 when Cap Metro failed to deliver on their promise of Federal funding. Federal guidelines for evaluating systems are being modified and there is no assurance Austin’s project will meet the new guidelines. It would have difficulty under the current guidelines. There are many competitive projects in the pipeline. The head of FTA has formally warned the nation that Federal money cannot support all requests and that many applications for rail can be best served by much less expensive buss solutions. That is clearly the case here in Austin. Several other cities have made this choice.

3. Cost Overruns: It has not been highlighted that the Federal Government will not participate in the funding of cost overruns. The history of Austin’s urban rail has recorded a growth in the estimated cost from $230 million to $1.3 billion in about 6 years. None of the estimates have been based on even Preliminary Engineering. The history of these rail projects throughout the world has shown average cost overruns of some 40% from the approval point and we are a long way from there.

It is interesting that every time an agency or group evaluates rail, they recommend a different route. This is because Austin is an adolescent city and will have a number of changes in growth patterns before it “matures.” We must stay flexible and cost-effective to meet the changing demand. Rail is very inflexible and changing routes will be extremely expensive.

4. Development: Numerous studies and experiences have proven that rail does not create new development, tax base or significant jobs. Austin is the fastest growing major city in the nation and not a single net, new development has been due to a rail line. The recently suggested increased development due to a rail line from the Rainey Street District across the lake to the Statesman property is totally unsupported in experience. Without analysis, it is most likely that a road in this position would produce far greater economic impact with mobility improvements and congestion relief.

5. Latest Extensions: The latest cost estimate does not include the 10 miles of extended track route which was published recently in the statesman. This could easily cost up to another billion dollars. There has been no alternatives analyses for the extensions to define the problem and determine the most effective way to address it.. In a recent TWG meeting, the city opposed extending the northern train route in the Lamar corridor due to Federal funding constraints, but, now they propose it. This clearly appears to be a “political” decision and not a reasoned one to most effectively address community needs.

A proper alternatives analysis has not even been conducted for the current proposed rail route.

6. Funding & Affordability: Even if one thought the rail was high priority, the Austin urban rail has no funding “partners” and cannot be achieved without major, long term Austin tax increases. Austin’s property tax, energy and water rates, etc. are rising and its affordability is increasingly less than other major Texas city. These alarming cost growth rates will have potential devastating impacts on Austin’s future growth. Austin is already the most unaffordable major city in Texas and this unaffordable position is getting worse each year. Public school enrollment will start to drop rapidly along with job opportunities.

7. New technology is being tested which will dramatically change future mobility. The Train’s 150 plus year old technology is outdated and does not effectively serve the future. Many cities which were early light rail implementers are facing severe financial strain as the systems are beginning to need replacement and there is no source of funds for the billions which are needed. They are all maxed-out on funding annual operations with fares recovering a small portion of the costs.

8. Social Equity: As in many other cities, Austin’s urban rail will degrade social equity by limiting access to opportunity for low income citizens and degrading overall quality of life by spending disproportionate levels of tax dollars to subsidize so few at the expense of projects which will enhance the greater good of the vast majority of the community.

9. Other: There are other risks including the train system’s visual pollution of our beautiful Capital and the negative impact to numerous, traditional civic events such as charity runs on Congress Avenue.


Urban rail’s exorbitant costs and ineffectiveness in addressing Austin’s priority mobility needs and its array of extremely high financial, safety, mobility and social risks coupled with a declining probability of significant Federal Government participation makes it inappropriate to consider at this time.

Thank you for all you do for this community.

Best regards,

Jim Skaggs

Subject: Rail Lies, Deceptions and Increasing Costs

Dear TWG Members: 4-22-2012

Martha Smiley and other TWG members have asked very key questions regarding the “evaluation of alternatives” to the urban rail the city is proposing.

Alternatives have not been discussed by the City, in any detail, since the current TWG began meeting late last year. Almost 3 1/2 years ago, November 7, 2008, the Austin City Manager submitted a Modern Streetcar/LRT Proposal to CAMPO for consideration. Following CAMPO’s review, with no recommended revisions, CAMPO’s Executive Director, Joseph Cantalupo, submitted this proposal to the CAPMO Transit Working Group for consideration on December 10, 2008.

The City’s proposal states it considered 3 alternatives Including: 1. No-Action; 2. High Capacity/Circulation Bus Alternative (TSM – Transportation Systems Management Alternative); and, 3. Streetcar (Light Rail) Alternative. The proposal contains very little detail or information regarding the ‘alternatives evaluation’ which led to the selection of the third alternative, Streetcar (Light Rail).

There is no information regarding cost-effectiveness evaluation.

In summary, the report stated the selection of Streetcar (Light Rail):

1. “- – provides the most connectivity in the corridor- -”

2. “- – the perceived transit permanence and development potential sought within the East Riverside Corridor – -”

3. “Only this option will provide the development incentives to activate the corridor into a dense, urban, and affordable community at the levels sought by the City of Austin and the community.

4. “The urban Rail/Streetcar option will provide the level of reliability needed to attract airport passengers and airport employees to a mode other than the private/rental automobile.”
This City proposal’s “Recommended Project” section is surprising and revealing in what it says and what it does not say:

a. It says nothing about congestion
b. It strongly supports its selection of Streetcar (LRT) based on its impact on development of the East Riverside Corridor, and,
c. Attracting Airport passengers and employees to abandon automobiles transportation.

Without making this a very long, detailed paper, the following summary comments are offered:

1. This City rail proposal was not considered by the TWG following its submittal in late 2008. The TWG Chairman, Mayor Wynn, was preparing to leave his office and Mayor Leffingwell was elected in May 2009. From a TWG standpoint, the proposal and a comprehensive alternatives analysis with well supported cost-effectiveness considerations have not been considered and reviewed to date.

2. The City’s proposal included an implementation cost estimate of the selected rail alternative of $537 Million to $622 Million. This 2008 cost estimate more than doubled Cap Metro’s estimate of about 2 years earlier. The 2008 estimate is less than one-half of today’s City estimate of $1.3 Billion. (Since this message, the city’s cost estimate has again increased as it added additional segments.) Annual estimated operating costs in 2008 were $21-$23 Million which were double Cap Metro’s earlier estimates. None of these estimates are believable today and no one knows the real costs. The numbers are all increasing significantly and will be much higher than any previous estimates. Based on worldwide experience of overruns on similar projects, the implementation will be closer to $2 billion and operating costs much higher than the 2008 estimates of $21-23 Million.

3. The Austin City staff and TWG members have mentioned numerous times that downtown congestion is the major issue being addressed with the City’s urban rail proposal. As stated above, congestion is not mentioned as a primary selection criteria for the Streetcar (LRT) solution. There is no evidence and experience indicates this urban rail will not relieve downtown congestion. This rail, in conjunction with the downtown comprehensive plan, now being developed, will significantly increase congestion and degrade safety. According to Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) reports, congestion had been declining (on average) in the Austin urban area since 2005 when the region, more aggressively, opened new roadway capacity (some as toll roads) and reduced major bottlenecks in roads and intersections. Public transit played no role in this improvement because their ridership has been trending flat to down for more than a dozen years. Ridership in Dallas, Houston and Austin have all been flat to down even though they have spent billions of dollars to encourage transit ridership, mostly with new trains, and they are all among the fastest growing cities in the nation.

4. There has been little or no evaluation as to the importance and cost-effectiveness of urban rail as a positive influence on development in the East Riverside Corridor. Similar to the rest of Austin, the Riverside corridor is experiencing major redevelopment and none of it is based on rail. The City of Austin contracted a major study of the impact of urban rail on downtown development and tax base in 2006. Its conclusion is that rail transit did not increase development or tax base. As for affordability, many of the residents of the Riverside Corridor are already being forced to leave because the new developments are not affordable for them. Affordability is a false promise and invalid reason for rail in the corridor.

5. It is irresponsible to select the rail alternative based on the use of rail for airport employees and passengers. There have not been trip ‘origination – destination’ or cost-effectiveness studies to conclude this is a valid basis for the rail choice. In Cap Metro’s light rail studies prior to the 2000 rail election, it determined that the segment to the airport was the most expensive with the least ridership and left it out of the election.

6. There have been no discussions of urban rail’s cost-effectiveness. The City’s 2008 Modern Streetcar/LRT Proposal indicated operating cost per passenger mile to be 3.5 to 9 times higher than 5 other similar city systems and costs per passenger trip to be 1.2 to 5.5 times the costs in these cities. The Austin urban rail had an estimated average trip length of only 2.5 miles: about the same as Houston, with its short 7.5 mile train track, but, much less than other cities including Dallas and Seattle at more than 7 miles. Austin’s ridership estimate is also greatly exaggerated which will increase these costs per passenger trip and mile. Capital costs are not included in the per trip and per mile costs.


The current TWG is being provided some of the most biased, distorted, unsupported and irresponsible information I have ever seen. You are at the end of this fast stream of input and have no way to judge it in a proper, fully informed perspective. The urban rail proposal is based on a predetermined position by key individuals and on the self-interest desire of others to please superiors. This urban rail proposal will not prevail under the scrutiny of competent, experienced and unbiased professionals. Since the 2008 City proposal, the rail’s implementation cost estimate has more than doubled and its operating costs have increased.

Please let me know if you have questions or wish further explanation.

Thank you for all you do for this great city and region.

Best regards,
Jim Skaggs

Subject: Urban Rail Considerations

Dear TWG members: 4-09-2012

I offer the following comments for consideration in your work as a member of the Transit Working Group (TWG):

1. The scheduled time for the TWG to reach conclusions regarding urban rail is rapidly approaching and few of the major questions and issues regarding urban rail have been presented by the city of Austin’s transportation department and other presenters in the depth necessary for the TWG to have thorough discussions and reach informed conclusions. Much of the several months of TWG meeting time, to date, has been with presenters providing mountains of background information and lower priority subjects. Most of the key open questions have not been addressed. For example: There have been no discussions as to why this urban rail best satisfies a well defined need including its cost-effectiveness compared to alternatives. See the posting noted below regarding unanswered questions.

2. Urban rail is often mentioned as a solution to downtown congestion, yet, experience has proven that this rail transit will not relieve congestion. There is a major dichotomy in that the current downtown Austin plan is designed to slow traffic and increase congestion while urban rail is promoted to improve congestion. What are the objectives? The risk of reducing downtown desirability is great.

3. Urban rail is the largest, most expensive project in Austin’s history and the decision regarding urban rail is, perhaps, the most important in Austin’s history. It will have major short and very long term implications on mobility, taxes, affordability, social equity, quality of life, etc. I believe it will result in very great, long-term, detrimental impacts based on all the reasons in the referenced articles below and others I sent previously.

4. Austin is an adolescent city, being more than 50 years behind Dallas in growth. Each time an Austin agency has evaluated an urban rail option, they have selected a different route. Fixed rail is not flexible and is very costly to revise. This alone should point to the need to remain flexible to meet changing demands as they will surely occur with shifting growth patterns, new technology and citizens’ choices.

5. Considering the importance of the urban rail decision and the inadequate remaining time to fully discuss, evaluate and understand the key questions and their implications, I suggest the TWG formally abandon the plan to put an urban rail referendum on the November, 2012 ballot, as quickly as possible, so that an orderly and thorough evaluation of urban rail and other alternatives can proceed without wasteful spending driven by an artificial dedline.

Below are a few recent posts on the COST site,, which are pertinent to Austin’s proposed urban rail. The ’12 Reasons’ article is an update of previous versions.

If you have any questions or observations, please let me know.

Rail Transit is False Promise to Improve Austin Mobility

Washington D.C. Metro: An example of things to come?

Is paying for transit a waste?


Portland is Not a Transit Role Model for Austin

Austin’s Urban Rail has Many Unanswered Questions

12 Reasons Austin’s Urban Rail is Off-Track

Many other articles can be found at the COST web site:

Please let me know if you have any questions or if I can be of any assistance to you in your important work.

I know many of you, but, for those I have not met, attached is a brief outline of my history so you can gain a view of the perspectives I bring to these issues.

Thank you for your continuing commitment and all you do for this great city.

Best regards,
Jim Skaggs

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