7 Major Failings of Light Rail – Confirmed by Houston Metro

COST Commentary: Below this opening commentary are three in a long series of rare media articles containing critical rail transit messages for Austin. These summary articles are clear, direct, and accurate regarding the reality of rail transit and the massive misrepresentations and empty promises of rail transit promoters. They are even rarer being published in a “Chronicle” paper. I have never seen similar transportation articles in the Austin Chronicle with this level of analyses, objective coverage and honesty.

One can almost change the city’s name in the first article from Houston to Austin and the message is still very accurate. Even the estimated Houston rail cost of $1.2 billion when their citizens voted 10 years ago is close to Austin’s current $1.3 billion estimate for its planned urban rail. Houston’s current estimate of $3-4 billion is also much closer to the real cost of Austin’s system.

The bottom line is: Austin must urgently heed these messages as its light (urban) rail plan may be the most important decision in the City’s history. Austin leaders must step forward and put a stop to the current wasteful spending on planning and the potential further wasteful spending of billions of tax dollars for an ineffective light rail which will substantially increase taxes and reduce quality of life with little or even negative impacts on transportation.

Below are seven major failings of this light rail. Not included is the failure of light rail to enhance economic development. This is a recent major focus of some Austin rail supporters, but has not been highlighted in the Houston articles below and and is covered in several other postings to this site. Following the list below is an August 2013 Houston Chronical article, an article from June 2013 and an article from November 2013 when Huston’s citizens voted to decline providing additional tax money to Houston Metro to continue increased spending for massive overruns on train routes they did not even vote for 10 years earlier. These articles and many others over the years highlight the failings of rail transit in Houston which rienforce the list below and provide a window into what Austin can expect if it stays on its current light rail path.

1. Light rail will cost many hundred million dollars, or billions, more than promised resulting in fewer transportation dollars to support far more effective transportation projects. Cap Metro’s commuter cost several times their promise to voters and citizens; resulting in higher fares as well as reduced and delayed bus service including more than 7 years delay in the initial Rapid Bus lines which will significantly improve transit service for ten times the riders of the commuter rail. This rapid bus will cost less than one-fourth to implement and less than one-tenth of the annual operating cost, per passenger, of the commuter. The initial, total annual operating cost of the red line was 5 times that promised by Cap Metro.

Cap Metro promised the federal government would pay one-half of the cost of implementing the current commuter rail. The feds paid nothing as Cap Metro did not qualify. Now, Austin is depending on the feds to pay one-half of commuter rail. It is highly unlikely Austin’s rail qualifies and the feds are “broke,” with existing funding requests for many times the available money.

2. Urban rail will have unacceptable cost-effectiveness resulting in exorbitant taxpayer subsidies for each rider. Each daily, two-way commuter rail rider is subsidized $15,000 to $20,000 per year. There are many more less wasteful ways to use this tax money. Each rider could be provided a car and gas, but then, most of them already have a car.

3. Light rail will increase congestion. The commuter also has a net negative impact on congestion. The commuter has not resulted in an increase in Austin area transit ridership and its crossing of numerous major streets delays roadway traffic. The latest ‘American Public Transit Association’ data indicates Austin lost approximately one million transit boardings, in the three months, from the first quarter of 2012 to the first quarter of 2013. At this rate, Cap Metro’s 2013 ridership will be near its lowest in more than 15 years, after spending billions to encourage transit ridership. Total ridership is down again this year and is projected to decline in Cap Metro’s 2015 budget. The proposed light rail will reduce automobile capacity on major central Austin streets and mingle with cars and people on streets, resulting in massive central congestion increases in central Austin. The train route will require every vehicle entering and exiting from/to the east of downtown Austin, UT and the Capital complex to cross the 4 miles of track along the west side and parallel to I-35, as trains will pass every 5 minutes at peak hours.

4. Austin rail transit does not improve air quality.
Cap Metro promised the commuter would be “environmentally friendly” but it resulted in a significant increase in air pollution. Every commuter rider could drive a car and the air pollution would be less. Likewise, the City’s Proposition 1 light rail will significantly increase air pollution with its increased congestion, contrary to the false environmental claims of rail supporters.

5. Austin rail transit substantially degrades social equity. The commuter rail essentially bankrupt Cap Metro resulting in degraded bus service and higher fares for the vast majority of transit riders who still use buses and have no alternative. The exorbitantly expensive commuter serves primarily those who have a choice and further burdens other transit riders, with no choice, to subsidize them. See the second King article below. The proposed light rail will further degrade social equity as it reduces transit service and increases transit fares.

6. The commuter rail and planned light rail do not increase the existing, poor transit access to regional jobs. Express and Rapid Bus transit on current and planned upgraded roads,’toll ways’ and ‘managed lanes’ will provide much greater transit effectiveness than the commuter or light rail for a fraction of the costs. The hub and spoke concept of transit, designed to carry people from suburban/fringe city areas to the city’s central core, is outdated because the more than 90% of new jobs are outside Central Austin. Transit needs to fully consider updated, cost effective, grid-based transit concepts such as the “demand-response” approach described in the “Cellular Mass Transit” (CMT) concept

7. Austin’s light rail is proposed to have one of the largest percentages of its track on major central city streets than any city in the nation, significantly increasing safety hazards for pedestrians and vehicles. Large, heavy train cars on fixed rails cannot stop quickly and cannot swerve to avoid accidents. When there is an accident, it usually shuts down the entire train route. Using these proposed rail lanes for cars would have a much more positive impact on congestion as part of a comprehensive transportation plan including traffic light synchronization, incident management and others.

A great city cannot be sustained by taking major actions to impede or deter citizens from downtown access in their cars. A vibrant City center cannot be sustained solely by those living in the central city, but, must also have significant numbers of citizens visiting regularly from the suburbs and city fringe. This influx of people depends on convenient access to parking at reasonable rates. No trainsit system can meet the necessary transportation ingredients for Austin’s success. Without convenient, reasonable parking, people will begin to choose other locations to provide the quality of life they desire. No trainsit system can overcome thie need for these necessary ingredients for Austin’s success.

There are many recent articles on COST’s web site which further address these issues. Please click on the site’s ‘News Articles’ and browse the titles.

Not mentioned in these Chronicle articles is the fact that Houston’s total, annual transit ridership was almost 100 million boardings per year prior to the introduction of light rail. In less than 10 years this ridership dropped more than 20% to less than 80 million per year. Initial light rail ridership was also artificially bolstered by Houston Metro terminating some 80 bus routes at rail stations, forcing riders to transfer to the light rail to complete their short, remaining trips. This, in turn, discouraged overall transit ridership and Houston suffered one of the greatest transit rider declines of any major city in the nation.

King: It’s time to revisit plans for light rail in Houston

Bill King says with estimated costs for a rail system now at $3 billion to $4 billion, officials need to better explain the benefits of this model.
Bill King | August 7, 2013 | Updated: August 7, 2013 6:56pm

Sometimes it is really hard to kill a bad idea.

In 2003, after years of facing formidable opposition to building a grade-separated rail system, Metro proposed a compromise: a supposedly cheaper at-grade system. A skeptical business community signed on for a pilot system to test the concept, and our community narrowly approved the 2003 referendum, which included light rail as part of a comprehensive transit plan.

Lots have changed since 2003. First, the cost has soared. In 2003, Metro’s estimate for the entire system was $1.2 billion. Now we are talking $3 billion to $4 billion. That is something like $100 million per mile. To put that in some perspective, it’s like building a new Reliant Stadium about every three and a half miles.

Also, when the referendum was approved, the federal government was reimbursing roughly 80 percent of the cost of rail projects, which was a crucial part of the pitch to voters. Now, it is 50 percent, at best. On top of that, two of Metro’s five lines do not qualify for federal subsidies. So, in addition to the cost being several times what was originally projected, the amount local taxpayers will have to fork over has gone up by even more. Also since 2003, Metro has completed a number of studies on the at-grade system. The studies clearly show two things.

1. First, the at-grade system will not, let me repeat, will not reduce traffic congestion. In fact, around major intersections it will make traffic worse. Frankly, you do not need a traffic study to figure that out. Just think about a busy intersection like Post Oak and Westheimer, then, think about adding two trains going opposite directions through that intersection on top of the traffic that is already there. It does not take a traffic engineer to figure out what a disaster that is going to be.

2. Second, the at-grade system will not meaningfully increase transit ridership. Metro projections and the history of the Main Street Line suggest that light rail mostly moves pre-existing bus passengers to rail but brings few new riders to the system. There are many other ways to increase ridership at a fraction of the cost of an at-grade rail system. Reducing or even eliminating fares is the most obvious.

As sometimes is the case with a compromise solution, the at-grade system is the worst of all of the possible alternatives. In retrospect, probably the best alternative would have been for Metro to start building a grade-separated system in the 1980s and then add to it over the intervening years.

For the last several years, I have challenged anyone to publicly debate whether the benefit of the proposed at-grade system justified the costs. Predictably, there have been no takers.

The latest to be heard from in the light-rail saga is U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, who after consulting his friends on Facebook has concluded that Metro should go forward with this colossal boondoggle. But notwithstanding the goofy Facebook explanation, Poe has a point.

My guess would be that if a poll were run today, it would show a majority in favor of some kind of rail for Houston. From my conversations on this subject over the years, support for rail seems to be mostly based on the misguided notion that it will reduce traffic congestion. Given Houston’s low-population density that would be difficult with any configuration, but this at-grade rail system will most assuredly do nothing to reduce congestion.

So here is my proposition. Since the circumstances of constructing the proposed at-grade system have changed so dramatically since 2003, let’s have a new referendum. Let’s show the public exactly where the lines are going to be built. Let’s tell them exactly how many local tax dollars it is going to take. Let’s level with the 90 percent of the transit riders who use buses and tell them they will have crappy bus service forever because of the money the light rail will soak up. And let’s be sure to tell the voters that this $3 billion to $4 billion investment will not alleviate traffic congestion anyplace. Then if voters decide this is how they want to spend a few billion of their tax dollars, so be it.

But I will make two predictions. First, there will be no referendum and, second, no one will ever accept my challenge to debate the merits of this at-grade system for the simple reason it cannot stand the hard, cold, light of day. By the way, I hear Detroit, which has one 3-mile stretch of light rail is working hard to expand their system as well.

King’s column appears Thursday and Sunday. Email King at weking@weking.net and follow him at twitter.com/weking.

King: Buses provide backbone for mass transit system

Bill King says after ignoring it for years while developing light rail, Metro finally has begun to refocus on improving Houston’s bus service.

By Bill King | June 1, 2013 | Updated: June 1, 2013 3:19pm

In 2003, the Metropolitan Transit Authority approached the Greater Houston Partnership seeking its support for a referendum it wanted to put on the ballot that November to have the public authorize the construction of a light rail system.

Metro’s initial proposal was to spend $5 billion on six lines. Some of the partnership’s leadership at the time were concerned that such a significant investment in light rail would undermine the agency’s bus service on which so many Houstonians relied to get to work.

There was also a concern that Metro’s proposal did not include any commuter rail component to the suburbs that would have brought workers into downtown, the Medical Center and the Galleria.
As a result of these concerns, Metro agreed to scale back its investment in light rail to a maximum of $3 billion and to include in the referendum a commitment to expand bus service and begin studying commuter rail possibilities.

The one that was specifically mentioned was the extension of the Main Street Line down the U.S. 90 corridor to Fort Bend County. It was this compromise with the business community that ultimately became the notorious 2003 referendum.

The new board that was appointed by then-Mayor Bill White after his election interpreted the referendum as a “mandate” to build light rail. It paid little heed to the promises in the referendum language to expand bus service and begin studying commuter rail.

Instead, after 2003, Metro became obsessed with completing the light rail project notwithstanding that its costs spiraled astronomically out of control and traffic studies showed that it would make congestion worse any place it was constructed.

As a result, exactly what some at the partnership had feared occurred. Bus service was cut and the bus fleet reduced to help pay for light rail. Metro’s senior management also paid little attention to the bus service. In a completely tone-deaf move, Metro increased bus fares even as they were degrading service. As a result, bus ridership plummeted by more than 30 percent.

By the 2009 mayoral election, it had become apparent to any informed observer that Metro financially could not afford to finish the light rail project unless it stopped rebating 25 percent of the sales tax back to its members for street projects. But with the city of Houston, which receives the lion’s share of those rebates, being strapped by flagging revenue growth and mounting pension costs, there was no chance of that happening. So it was pretty clear by 2009 that, at best, Metro would be able to complete only three of the planned lines.

Nonetheless, due to the dynamics of Houston mayoral elections, all of the major candidates for mayor campaigned on completing the light rail project and the new board appointed by Mayor Annise Parker recommitted to completing the initial system.

But financial reality set in quickly and within the first year of the new regime, Metro was quietly shelving the University and Uptown lines. Because the North, East and Harrisburg lines were already federally funded and construction was under way, the new board had little choice but to see those through.

Now that the light rail agenda has pretty well played itself out, Metro has finally begun to refocus on its bus service. And well it should. Buses still carry the overwhelming majority of Metro’s passengers. And with Houston’s far-flung, low-density development, buses are infinitely more flexible and economical to move commuters.

Metro is looking at a number of options to increase bus ridership, including scheduling enhancements, better shelters and reduced fares for off peak trips. All good ideas. And there are many more changes Metro could make that would make bus travel a viable alternative.

It is a welcome development that Metro seems to be committed to a revival of its bus service. It is unfortunate that we wasted a decade and several billion dollars on building an at-grade system that will do very little to enhance transit in Houston.

We can only imagine how good our bus service might be today had Metro spent that decade and those billions on buses.

Buses may not have the cool factor that shiny trains do. But if you really want to move a lot of people and really provide an alternative to private car travel, buses are the answer. Plus, who needs a cool train when you are already the coolest city in America?

King: Metro vote means end of light rail project

Bill King says the outcome of the referendum should allow the local transit agency to focus on improving the bus service so many need.

By Bill King | November 7, 2012 | Updated: November 7, 2012 7:07pm

I come here not to praise Metro’s light rail project, but to bury it. Because the practical result of this week’s Metro referendum to extend payments to the city of Houston, Harris County and Metro’s other member cities is that finally, thank the Lord, this colossal boondoggle is dead. Metro will, of course, continue to pretend that the balance of the project can be built, but without the revenue stream that these payments represent, there is simply no money to continue to build the project. And for my part, good riddance.

There is an old saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Metro’s light rail project from the beginning was a transit camel instead of a horse. It was the result of political compromises and community group think rather than any hard transit analysis. Metro’s own studies have consistently shown that this at-grade system would make traffic congestion worse everywhere it was built and make no meaningful contribution to improving air quality.

This was largely true because the studies have also projected it would only marginally increase transit ridership. For the most part, light rail systems do not attract new riders but instead merely move existing bus riders to the rail, and at an enormous cost. That certainly has been the experience with Houston’s ASDF

Metro likes to tout the Main Street Line’s ridership with a claim that it carries more riders per mile than any light rail in the country. That statistic is obviously derived by dividing the number of riders by the length of the line. When the denominator, i.e., the length of the line, is a small number, the result is naturally going to be high. Guess what. Metro’s Main Street Line is also one of the shortest in the country. So it is hardly surprising and totally meaningless that it carries more riders per mile than other lines.

The real measure of success should be how many new transit riders the Main Street Line has attracted compared to its cost. In 2007, I asked Metro how the ridership on the Main Street Line compared to the bus lines it replaced. At the time, there were about 28,000 boardings on the light rail system each day. Metro told me that was a 19 percent increase over the previous bus lines. In other words, Metro claimed that it had attracted about 6,000 new riders each day as a result of the rail line.

However, as of December 2011, the Main Street Line ridership had fallen to a little more than 25,000 daily riders, which is only a couple of thousand more than we had riding the buses in 2003. And of course, this marginal increase has come at an enormous cost. Just the construction cost of the Main Street Line was about $400 million. That is a cost of about $200,000 per new rider, not even counting the ongoing operating costs. The riders would have probably appreciated it more if we had just bought them a Bentley.

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