Austin Transportation Myths

by Jim Skaggs
May 26, 2007

Following are common Austin transportation myths. Each myth is followed by a discussion of reality. These myths, false statements and assertions not supported by facts, can lead to incorrect perceptions and, in some cases, to decisions and actions which do not serve the community’s greater good and often result in achieving the opposite of the good which is intended or advertised. These myths are a work in progress and will be updated from time to time.

Myth 1: A downtown Austin trolley will put more transportation “choices” in the “tool box.”

You often hear people describe the Austin region’s general transportation needs and the proposed downtown trolley specifically with statements such as: “We need more choices.” or “We need all the tools in the tool box.” or, even, “We need it all.” Another common statement is: “To be a first class city we must have rail.” While these bravado but baseless, shallow statements may sound perfectly logical and sensible at one level, allegiance to them is misguided and can lead to very negative consequences for Central Texans’ mobility and quality of life.

The first observation about the glib, general statements above is that they are void of the very important concepts of ‘efficient choices’ and ‘priorities.’ And, by the way, what “first class city” has a trolley running down the middle of its main downtown street? The answer is: None which Austin should desire to emulate. The toolbox analogy is often poorly used because it fails to recognize that all tools do not have the same value to users and, in the case of public transit, to the taxpayers footing the bill. This toolbox analogy overlooks the imperative for prioritizing efficient choices in order to direct the responsible expenditure of taxpayer funds to endeavors which address the overall needs of the vast majority of citizens. For example: It would be quite foolish to take a limited budget of $100 for a home tool kit and spend $95 of the budget for one exotic metric wrench which would be used very infrequently and not have enough money to purchase the common hammers, screwdrivers, pliers and standard wrenches needed on a regular basis. This simple example highlights the need for prioritizing and selecting efficient tools for the user because “all tools” do not have the same value.

So, I suggest we really don’t “need it all,” but should strive for “all we really need” creating responsible, prioritized, efficient and affordable choices which are sustainable.

The proposed downtown trolley is advertised to provide more choices but even a shallow examination reveals that the trolley would, in fact, substantially decrease many choices of the community and its citizens; creating severe negative consequences. The downtown trolley would:

1. Drain substantial funds from the bus transit system which continues to serve the vast majority of transit riders, many of which have no other choice. As experienced in numerous cities, this results in increased transit fares and reduced service for low income citizens who need transit daily and have no other choice. This limits their mobility and reduces their choices for opportunity and access to life’s offerings.

2. Reduce the choices for the use and enjoyment of Congress Avenue because the trolley’s maze of overhead wires, support poles and boarding platforms in the middle of the street would deny the use of Congress Avenue for many traditional civic events and destroy one of the most historic and memorable views of the Capital.

3. Create substantial increases in congestion on streets like Congress Avenue, discouraging downtown activity and reducing the choices of those who wish to drive on downtown streets.

4. Create serious safety hazards with heavy trolleys operating on the streets with pedestrians and automobiles. These heavy trolleys cannot stop quickly or swerve to avoid accidents.

5. Not create additional downtown Austin development and tax base. Austin is experiencing more robust downtown development than almost any city in the nation and none of it due to a trolley. Investment is literally pouring in from all over the nation.

6. Be an inefficient drain on taxpayers because it is the most expensive method to meet downtown circulator needs. The trolley will require huge taxpayer subsidies reducing funds which could be used for much higher community priorities and choices for Austin citizens. Cap Metro’s estimated $233 million cost for the trolley will surely grow substantially as the estimated cost of the commuter train and its operations from Leander has grown from $120 million to over $500 million through 2030. Cap Metro is already projecting that the agency will be ‘bankrupt’ in just a few years with its current cost and revenue projections which do not include the trolley or any new rail systems after the commuter rail.

7. Be inflexible and detrimental to the future growth of downtown Austin because it cannot easily adjust to changing demand (choices) which will surely occur. For example, the future Waller Creek development is too far to be served by trolleys on Congress Avenue.

Myth 2: A downtown trolley will create additional downtown investment and development.

There is absolutely no evidence supporting this myth’s assertion. Even an independent study commissioned by the City of Austin, concluded this was not true. The study concluded that any new development in the trolley corridor would be simply moving development from other areas and would not be a net addition of development value and tax base. Austin is currently experiencing more robust development than most any major city in the nation with investment pouring in from all over the United States. This is not due to a trolley. Based on similar experiences in other cities and on Austin’s experience with the downtown Dillo bus circulators, ridership on the trolley would be minimal having little measurable positive impact on transportation or development and would produce all the negative consequences discussed in Myth 1, above.

The major early justification for rail transit was to improve transportation and mobility by reducing cars on the roads. To serve this perceived priority, many transit agencies turned their focus from providing reliable transit to those who have no choice to focus on getting “choice” riders to leave their cars. Transit agencies decided this could be best achieved by using trains which often provide service primarily to those who have a choice such as the Leander commuter through a corridor mostly in Northwest Austin.

Overwhelming experience has shown that rail transit is ineffective in measurably improving transportation and mobility and supporters have turned to development as their major justification for rail transit. Just as the mobility improvement arguments for rail transit have proven incorrect, the development arguments are also incorrect. Trains do not produce more developments or better developments and taxpayers are paying heavily to subsidize developers to build near train stations. This provides no measurable benefit to the average taxpayer.

Capital Metro can best serve the greater good of this community by directing its focus back to providing efficient transit service to those who need it and have no choice. Cap Metro has not yet achieved the level of service promised to these users in 1985 when Cap Metro was founded.

Myth 3: Higher population density is the major solution to Austin congestion and growth issues.

Some people suggest much greater population densities are the major solution to Austin’s transportation and growth issues. Their theory is that higher population densities will reduce the use of automobiles and provide better human friendly environments. There is no evidence to support this. In fact, numerous studies and experiences in other cities have shown that higher densities increase congestion and pollution. Communities, such as Portland, Oregon, have developed public policies which have artificially constrained the availability of land for development in order to create higher population densities. This has caused Portland’s housing costs to increase faster than most cities in the nation. Portland and Austin had similar average ratios of median home price to median household income (approximately 3) just ten years ago. This ratio of 3 is considered to be the edge of affordability, lower than 3 being affordable and higher being affordable. Subsequently, Portland’s ratio has rapidly climbed to 5 resulting in housing being seriously unaffordable and Portland’s median income is below Austin’s. As a result, Portland public schools have lost substantial enrollment because families cannot afford to live there. Portland’s population and employment growth has slowed and some companies have left Portland. Meanwhile, Austin has remained close to the 3 ratio. This would suggest Austin’s land use policies to date have not been severe enough to cause major artificial increases in the costs of home ownership. This may also suggest that Austin is at a ‘tipping point’: Implementing more severe land use restrictions and controls, as some cities have, will very likely lead to similar experiences of increased home costs, fewer choices and the exodus of families from the city.

Land use should be largely based on “freeing” the market to operate efficiently, thus providing development environments to meet the needs of all segments of the population. This will generally result in somewhat higher population densities in areas where it is appropriate but not the Chicago level densities being promoted by some including the Austin City Planning Commission.

Myth 4: Sprawl in Austin creates more driving and increases all the negative consequences of driving including congestion, air pollution and reduced quality of life.

Austin’s development and growth pattern has actually created less driving per capita for residents over the past 10 years. While some work commutes are longer, the movement of jobs, retail and entertainment to the suburbs has decreased driving more than the increased commute trips. For example, the construction of a retail center near my home reduced my total annual driving some 3,000 miles or about 20%. This experience is being multiplied by hundreds of thousands as retail is moving aggressively into the suburbs. Good sprawl actually reduces average driving per capita supporting higher quality of life.

Congestion has increased because road capacity has severely lagged the growth in total vehicle miles traveled (VMT). For a number of years, in the 1970s and 1980s, total VMT increased faster than population because women were entering the workforce in increasing percentages and growing prosperity increased the number of vehicles per household. These accelerating factors have subsided as the percentage of women entering the workforce has peaked and the number of vehicles per household is nearer saturation. VMT growth is now and is projected to remain approximately the same as population growth.

Congestion produces more pollution than freely moving traffic. However, air quality has been improving in Austin for many years and all experts project it will continue to substantially improve in the future as newer, cleaner burning vehicles become an increasing percentage of the fleet. Austin is: 1. totally compliant with all federal air quality standards; 2. is the cleanest air major city in Texas; and 3. one of the cleanest air major cities in the nation.

Mobility and quality-of-life go hand-in-hand. Mobility provides access to greater opportunity, higher paying jobs and all of life’s offerings including better education. Mobility provides employers with greater access to employees resulting in better employees, higher productivity and increased wages. Mobility provides access to affordable homes and the “American Dream.” Mobility and homeownership are two of the greatest economic engines in human history. Some 50% of individual equity is in homes which have funded small businesses, education, retirement, medical care, entertainment, travel etc.

Myth 5: Rail transit is an efficient transportation mode for Austin.

Throughout human history, except a short period from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, mobility was primarily characterized by people deciding where they wanted to go and when. During this short 1800-1900 period, the speed of the newly invented train overcame the convenience of ‘where and when’ travel and became a dominant transportation mode. As soon as private vehicles became widely available, the choice of ‘where and when’ was returned to people without a speed penalty. At this point rail transportation declined dramatically and has continued to decline. Only the New York Metropolitan Area, which has approximately 40% use of public transit in passenger miles or boardings, has greater than 10% use of public transit as measured by passenger miles or boardings. The top seven metropolitan areas of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington-Baltimore, Boston and Philadelphia have about 75% of all the public transit use in the US. The entire remainder of the country has only 25% of the total US public transit use which has no measurable impact on transportation or congestion. There is a huge drop in the use of public transit from New York to the second city of Los Angeles with only 7% of boardings or Chicago with only 8% of passenger miles. The seventh ranked city has only 3-4% of total public transit market share of which a portion is rail. A fraction of this total public transit use is on rail yet a greatly disproportionate share or many billions of dollars are being poured into rail.

In contrast to the top transit cities, Austin’s public transit use is about 1% if passenger miles or less than 2% of trips and the proposed rail transit will be a tiny fraction of this. Since its founding in 1985, Capital Metro has spent more than $1.5 billion of local taxpayer funds and several hundred million in federal grants and transit fares but public transit’s market share has continued to decline for the past 15 years as it is throughout the nation. The current CAMPO 2030 transportation plan indicates Capital Metro will spend an additional $6 billion through 2030 and the transit ridership percentage does not grow.

The bottom line is that Public Transit use in Austin is very small and is projected to remain insignificant at some 1% of passenger miles traveled even after spending another $6 billion. The proposed Austin rail transit will be a small portion of total Austin public transit which will primarily use buses. Yet, the CAMPO 2030 plan reflects the intent to spend some 30% of our transportation tax dollars on ‘alternative transportation,’ primarily public transit, to serve this 1% of users. And, a very disproportionate share of the total transit dollars is planned for rail construction and operations which will siphon dollars from the primary bus transit system resulting in higher fares and reduced service which will be an expecially negative impact on those who need transit the most.

Rail transit has proven to be the most expensive and inefficient transit alternative for cities like Austin. Austin voters should not approve more of these wasteful tax gobbling rail projects until Capital Metro operates with complete integrity, accountability and transparency and proves that rail transit is the most efficient for the community’s transit users and taxpayers.

Myth 6: The Leander to Austin commuter rail will be cost-effective for the community?

This is absolutely false. This commuter rail line is one of the least cost effective modes of travel for this service and an express bus line could perform this transit service much more effectively for less than one-tenth the costs. Buses can carry just as many people, just as fast and they are safer and more environmentally friendly. Buses are much more flexible in rapidly and economically responding to shifting demand or to the use of Congress Avenue for civic events. Buses do not require the center street loading platforms, tracks in the street and the maze of overhead wires and support poles which destroy downtown views.

The exorbitant costs of the commuter will require taxpayers to subsidize every initial rider from Leander to Austin with some $25,000 per year. This subsidy is much greater than promised by Capital Metro because the commuter’s actual and projected costs have continued to increase. Cap Metro’s promised costs of $120 million to build and operate the commuter through 2030 is now projected to exceed $500 million, more than 4 times that promised.

The 11 mile 183A toll road and free extension running roughly parallel to the northern portion of the Leander-to-Austin commuter rail line costs less than the 32 mile commuter to construct and operate. The 183A current tolled portion of approximately 7 miles is less than one forth the commuter rail length but is already carrying more than 100 times the number of initial people Cap Metro projects for the same commuter rail route.

Cities all over the nation including Atlanta, Washington, DC, Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Houston and Austin are experiencing severe and unsustainable cost trends caused by rail transit. In most cases this has resulted in increased fares and reduced service for bus transit riders who continue to be the vast majority of transit riders who need public transit to serve their daily needs and have no alternative.

Myth 7: Capital Metro can fund the trolley within its one-penny sales tax and will not require an increase in taxes for citizens.

Even Capital Metro states this is not true. Cap Metro is projecting an inability to fund the trolley, even at the $233 million level, because Cap Metro is projecting their current cost trend will exceed revenue within the next few years. Therefore, Cap Metro has solicited several organizations including Travis County, City of Austin, University of Texas and the State of Texas to help in the financing of the trolley. There seems to be little interest or ability for major funding support from other agencies and it would be irresponsible for them to buy into the huge financial gamble on an ineffective trolley. The city has already announced it is running at a deficit of some $25 million. Not even considering the trolley, Capital Metro must consider serious structural changes to remain a viable agency. Major cost overruns on the current Austin-Leander commuter rail are only serving to exacerbate Capital Metro’s financial challenges. So, the trolley would require an increase in taxes if it is built because Capital Metro will not be capable of funding it within its one-penny tax

The unfolding of Capital Metro’s dire financial position begs the question: Where would Cap Metro be today had they undertaken the $2 plus billion (Cap Metro’s estimate) light rail they proposed to the voters in 2000? It would be bankrupt today and the vast majority of its uses would have been more severely impacted with higher fares and less service and the taxpayers would be paying exorbitant subsidies for each rider. Capital Metro needs to return to basics with fiscal responsibility, accountability and transparency.

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©2007 Coalition On Sustainable Transportation