Rail Jumps The Track AGAIN!: Georgetown City Council Votes To End Participation In Lone Star Rail District
COST Commentary: The story just below this commentary is one of the better press articles regarding rail transit. It is incomplete, but relatively balanced and indicates reasonable understanding of the Lone Star Rail District’s plans regarding the project to construct, implement and operate a commuter rail system from Georgetown, through Austin, to San Antonio.
While this article is about Georgetown withdrawing financial support from the Lone Star Rail District, it is not the first community to withdraw support and it will very likely not be the last.
Georgetown is fortunate to have city council members and citizens who are committed to the community’s greater good and spent the time and effort to look beneath the Rail District’s shallow, superficial public disclosure of this rail project. The notes, following the press article below, are by John Marler, citizen of Georgetown, Texas. The notes (slightly edited for clarification) were used by Mr. Marler as one of more than 50 people who spoke to the Georgetown City Council regarding the issue of Georgetown’s continuing contribution of $50,000 per year for planning activities related to implementing Lone Star Rail District’s planned Central Texas commuter.
The reported statements and actions reflect the strong bias, nonobjective and self-serving nature of many of the key individuals supporting this ill-advised, unsustainable rail project. Key supporters and planners of the project have not been open and transparent and have often appeared inept while making numerous, major, misleading and incorrect statements to the public.
This commuter rail is a massive undertaking which will cost many billions of dollars to construct, implement and operate. This project’s planning was started about 16 years when the Texas legislature authorized the formation of the Austin-San Antonio Rail District [current name is Lone Star Rail District (Rail District)], to plan the feasibility of such a project. In all this time and after spending many tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, the “Rail District” has not established a responsible and creditable cost estimate or route plan for this rail. As reported below, the Rail District does not reveal how much money has been spent to date and there are no cost estimates or financial statements on their web site. Fortunately, they have probably spent less than the $175 million spent on planning a new rail/bridge crossing of the Columbia river between Washington and Oregon which was declared “dead” late last month. See the story on this site: Washington State stalls Oregon’s Rail Folly: Travelers, Taxpayers & Social Equity are Winners Expenditures are also probably less than that spent on a California-Las Vegas high speed rail boondoggle and the Central California high speed rail which is rapidly collapsing. See story in this site: Rail Disasters Mounting: Tale of Three Cities
The Georgetown Advocate report below indicates the Rail District is unable to provide cost estimates to cities, with stops along its route, as to the estimated funding for capital/construction they must provide or how much annual operations will cost.
The Rail District’s pitiful economic studies indicating savings by this project are filled with incorrect assumptions and analyses which are totally unsupported by any similar rail experience. The District’s economic studies assert major cost savings (almost $1 billion in then-year dollars) by eliminating the need for an additional lane, each way, on 1-35 between Austin and San Antonio. This claim is absurd. Their inflated estimates of the number of cars removed by the train will have little impact on congestion and the, much less, actual cars removed will have negligible impact. In the many years of planning this commuter, a full lane on I-35 has been added, each direction, to this route and the parallel SH-130 toll road has been recently, fully opened as a four lane divided roadway. These six new lanes have already significantly improved I-35 mobility from San Antonio to Austin and can carry many times the train ridership for much less costs. Also, a major contributor to traffic in this corridor is trucked freight which cannot be supported by the commuter.
Only one light rail in the nation (in Boston) carries more riders than a single freeway lane. Austin’s commuter rail has actually increased congestion, as its delay of roadway vehicles at crossings is greater than the congestion of the insignificant number of cars removed from the road. Many of the few rail riders previously rode the express bus which was far more cost-effective.
In addition, city-to-city bus is the fastest growing mode of transportation in the nation. Low cost bus routes have been implemented throughout the nation by private bus companies at zero costs to taxpayers. For example: New “Megabus” city-to-city express bus routes were recently opened between major Texas cities including several daily trips between Austin and San Antonio with travel times are as fast as the train.
The Rail District’s web page states “—with dozens of regional services achieving wide popularity, including systems like the Trinity Railway Express connecting Dallas and Fort Worth and the New Mexico Rail Runner Express connecting Albuquerque and Santa Fe.” Both of these commuters are highly subsidized by taxpayers. Each cost significantly more than promised and ridership is much lower than promised or needed for cost-effective, sustainable opperations.
The regions of Dallas and Fort Worth combined are much larger than Austin and San Antonio combined. The commuter (Trinity Railway Express) between Dallas and Fort Worth had less ridership in 2012 than when it opened more than 11 years ago. This ridership was far less than projected and is less than the Lone Star Rail District’s very aggressive projection of ridership for the Austin-San Antonio commuter rail. This north Texas commuter rail is testimony to the wisdom which Georgetown council members displayed in rejecting Lone Star Rail District’s project. There are no similar U.S. commuter rail systems operating effectively between two cities similar to Austin and San Antonio.
One major reason the Rail District cannot quote costs is that it has not developed an agreement with the Union Pacific (UP) railroad for the use of the track it owns, which is planned to be the route of the Rail District’s Central Texas commuter rail. Summarized, UP has stated for many years they will consider trading their track for new tracks east of Interstate 35 to support their freight business. The cost has not been determined and revealed, but, COST’s rough “guess” based on meager input to date is that it could cost up to $5 billion for the UP track replacement between Austin and San Antonio, not counting the very significant costs for the current UP track upgrade, train vehicles, stations and all other equipment required for the planned commuter rail. This prohibitive start-up cost, with realistic operating costs and ridership, will make it impossible to ever operate cost-effectively. It will always require huge tax subsidies which will not benefit the vast majority of taxpayers and will reduce their quality of life.
The reported comment of the Rail District’s representative about not requiring cars to get from the train station to a riders destination is so irresponsible as to not deserve comment. Comments regarding penalties for cities withdrawal and the requirement “pay to play” are incompetent and naïve, recognizing the entire commuter rail plan is a fantasy with unknown configuration, track availability and routing, costs, tax increases, etc.
It is also surprisingly naïve for some citizens to believe they can acquire rail transportation without costs. It is quite clear: If riders of this proposed commuter rail were required to pay what it costs for each ride; very, very few would ride it. We have an example here in Austin: Each week-day, two-way rider of Cap Metro’s commuter train (MetroRail) is subsidized by taxpayers about $20,000 per year and taxpayers receive zero benefit.
Improved air quality is another major false promise. Cap Metro officially touted the commuter as an “environmentally friendly”, train. The reality is: The commuters polluting diesel engines and low ridership produces much greater pollution than if every rider was in a modern automobile.
A more effective approach for Austin’s high cost, low ridership and polluting commuter would be to shut down the rail and provide all daily commuters a new car with gas which would cost much less and there would be negligible impact on congestion with improved air quality.
The key financial foundation for commuter rail, as presented by the Rail District, is that NEW economic development, near train stations, will produce large increases in sales and property tax for participating communities. The Rail Districts so called “Value Capture” has been used as justification for almost every modern rail system and to “calm” concerns for increased citizen taxes. The Rail District promotes a goal of no increased citizens’ taxes based on egregious statements the rail will be funded by increased economic activity and new development property taxes. This has been promised often by transit agencies but has never been achieved. Every installation of rail and numerous studies have proven this “economic return” to be a major false promise.
Again, the city of Austin offers examples: Cap Metro made these same promises of economic development related to their commuter rail. This development has not happened. The commuter costs are exorbitant and the system is not cost-effective and sustainable. Austin also commissioned a study of the economic impact of Urban Rail. That study, “Downtown Circulator Service Economic Impact Assessment” was conducted by Capital Market Research of Austin and the conclusion was that rail was a zero sum game relative to property tax. While COST does not endorse its full conclusions, the study concluded there would be more development closer to stations but the development was moved from other locations and was not an increase in total development, producing a “zero sum“ impact on property tax. By inference, this would also be true of sales tax.
Another regular promise of rail supporters is: The federal government will pay for one-half of the cost. This assumption has huge risks. Getting one-half of the cost of an ineffective, wasteful project paid by the government is not a good deal. Most of us are government taxpayers and the remaining on-half is still a significant local tax burden. The federal government will only pay for a portion, historically up to one-half, but their increasing backlog of requests for funding and their major budget deficits make it unlikely Austin could receive one-half, and possibly none. Cap Metro promised the government would pay for one-half the commuter rail but they paid nothing. In addition, the government only pays for initial capital expenditures and the significant annual operations costs and upgrades are solely the responsibility of the communities. A downside is that, if the government pays anything, the money must be paid back if the community decides the train is not effective and cannot be sustained.
All modern rail transit, especially commuter rail, has a long history of: Costs are too high and ridership is too low to be cost effective and sustainable. Promised cost savings are always “smoke and mirrors” and taxpayers are always stuck with the bill.
It would be irresponsible for communities to ignore actual rail experience in many cities and expose their citizens to great disappointment and serious financial risk of much higher taxes for future generations. This is an undertaking in which “facts” matter a great deal and the Central Texas Rail District is very short on facts.
Since the Rail District’s establishment by the Texas legislature 16 years ago, many millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent, but there is no viable plan for this commuter. Continuing to spend taxpayer’s precious funds in search for reason’s Central Texas would be different than the long history of rail failures is not a responsible path.
This COST web site has many informative articles and reports regarding the reality of rail transit in numerous cities, based on many years of experience.
By Mike Payne • Georgetown Advocate, Thursday, June 27, 2013
After another marathon City Council meeting on Tuesday, June 25, some might wonder if the city is trying to re-write a children’s ctasstc entitled, “The Little Engine That Couldn’t.” Despite dogged efforts by council members Rachel Jonrowe and Patty Eason, when the dust had settled, the Georgetown City Council voted to withdraw its participation in the lone Star Rail District for a second consecutive time. This encore came two weeks after the council initially voted 5-2 on June 11 to rescind Georgetown’s membership in the district, but a mistake in wording on the June 11 agenda by city staff necessitated that the council revisit the issue. In the interim, rail proponents Eason and Jonrowe marshaled as much support as they could, even inviting Lone Star Rail District representatives to, as Eason commented, “explain it to the new councilmen who obviously didn’t understand.” The two to whom she was referring didn’t seem to learn anything to change their minds after a second round of public discussion and a primer from the Lone Star Rail District; when all was said and done, so was the rail participation. Veteran council members Troy Hellmann and Jerry Hammerlun again voted with Steve Fought, John Hesser and Tommy Gonzalez to terminate the project.
Public discussion in the packed chamber was, for the most part, courteous, albeit testy at times. Many in attendance were rallied to support the City’s continued participation in the Rail District. Councilman Gonzalez was asked why he “lied” to them about the cost of the rail which many in the crowd conjectured would come at “no cost” to Georgetown. Gonzalez reminded the audience that Georgetown taxpayers had already contributed $300,000 over the last six years to this project that was not even certain to ever come to fruition. The Lone Star Rail District cannot provide a cost figure to date, however they firmly asserted, “You have to pay to play. Everyone pays their fair share, and you pay as you grow,” indicating that loss of service would be the penalty for those who failed to ante up.
Gonzalez continued to probe the question of the specific sources of funding for the rail, concluding that it would inevitably come from taxes. “Call it what you will,” maintained Gonzalez, “but inclusion in this project would take tax money that could be used for other projects and then be Siphoned off into the coffers of Lone Star.
We don’t even know in what proportion we would be required to contribute. Everything from who pays for the rail stations to how much it costs to maintain the lines, estimated at a minimum of $1,000,000 per year, will cause the city to be mired down in trying to seek out additional funding sources.” Lone Star Rail District representatives contend that ‘Value Capture Revenue/ a tax imposed on new businesses around the station, will pay for the service. As the discussion parsed revenue definitions, the Lone Star Rail representative explained they didn’t consider Value Capture Revenue a tax because the business owners “wouldn’t have this money if [they] didn’t have rail,” intimating that all the mechanisms in place in Georgetown would not have the ability to develop the property unless train tracks run through it.
Aside from the primary issue of funding, other proponents voiced more parochial reasons for supporting the rail project, including “Teens don’t have an interest in getting driver’s licenses” and “I’m scared to drive on Interstate 35,” One speaker applauded the success of rail in Europe as an example, apparently unaware that statistics indicate the cost to build and operate rail in America is approximately 700% higher than it is in Europe.
Though he indicated that he likes the “idea” of commuter rail in general, Councilman Steve Fought went on to explain to the audience that he had to consider the cost of operation; for Georgetown, rail wouldn’t be as efficient or economical as the community is being led to believe, citing the fact that commuters still have to drive to the station, pay to park, buy a ticket, travel to where they’re going, and possibly rent a car at their destination. A Lone Star Rail District spokesman answered Fought’s contention, countering that he believed that “no one who uses commuter rail is going on to rent a car.” When asked how people would get to their destination from the rail station, he deftly concluded, “they would car-share or bike share,” leaving the definition of the word ‘rent’ up for debate, and continuing that the cost of the use of the car-share could be included in the rail ticket.
Among the litany of indefinite and opposing answers was the response to Councilman Troy Hellmann’s question of whether Georgetown would have the option to rejoin the Lone Star Rail District in the future by simply paying the accumulated dues for the duration it did not participate. Lone Star Rail District representatives at the June 25 counctt meeting were unable to agree on the answer, with one noting that the district “was inclined in that direction,” while another immediately followed up, saying that it could cost the City “up to $100,000,000 for getting out and back in.”
Council member Gonzalez held his position, stating that he was simply executing the wishes of his constituents. “Remember, I didn’t make rail an issue. My opponent did. She ran on that issue as a major part of her platform. Constituents in my district elected rne, and I made it clear that I was against a project with no reasonable set of facts, no budget, no end in sight to continue dumping money in, and even worse, no guarantee it would even happen.”
Council members Jonrowe and Eason remain staunch supporters of the rail, although Eason was the sixth vote in favor of the motion to terminate the Rail District participation. After the vote she admonished the crowd that hers was purely procedural, and despite the fact that the council has voted it down twice, she would be bringing the rail issue up again when it was permitted by the city charter.
Notes on the Lone Star Commuter Rail Project
By John Marler, Citizen of Georgetown, Texas
On the issue of the Lone Star Rail Project, I would submit this, very complete, report of rail systems throughout the country and containing an analysis of EVERY one of them. The report can be found at:
Defining Success-The Case against Rail Transit
There is a fault in the presupposition that ANY region NEEDS rail service! Rail transit carries less than 1% of motorized travel in all US urban areas which have rail transit except in the 6 pre-automobile urban areas of New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, in which rail transit ranges from less than 2% to about 10%. To assume rail is the only solution is less than truthful from the start.
First, all rail systems are “governed” by boards which no citizen was able to participate in selecting. Lone Star is a great example. Ms. Eason of the Georgetown city council is selected by the city council as “our” representative. Define representation. The board she sits on makes decisions without every asking any citizen anything or gaining approval for the citizens affected by the decisions. The mayor, as the representative to CAMPO voted away all funds that would have come to Williamson County and never had to gain the council’s involvement, much less the citizens of Georgetown.
I cannot understand the rush to surrender our sovereignty to a regionalized board and reduce the freedom we currently enjoy without such board. Look at the report and see where the “transit” board (ours would be Lone Star) makes regulations that prevent residents from building on their own land! There is a statement I believe in and it goes, “If you don’t own property-you become property!” Each and every quasi-government entity, run by boards which are not elected by citizen voters, in the United States is designed to eliminate citizen oversight and involvement.
When did any of you VOTE to even join the Lone Star, much less send $50,000.00 a year ($300,000.00 to date!) How many of you voted to create the Lone Star Project? How many of you voted to send Ms. Eason to that board to REPRESENT YOU?
I believe the facts, as they stand today, substantially prove that the rail project is nothing more than a vessel to load up OUR money and send it out of our area! In 25 years we will look at this courageous act of the council and see that the boondoggle which exists did not destroy our city and finances.
Please ask the city council to reject the membership and cease any and all participation in the whole scheme.