Austin Transportation Status and Policy Recommendations

Cost Commentary: Below is a draft of transportation issues and an approach to a responsive transportation policy which must be fully developed by Austin’s new 10-1 City Council and Capital Metro. A sound policy and vision must be developed to guide responsible and aggressive actions to address the needs of a citywide transportation system which will cost-effectively resolve existing issues and plan for the future.

Austin Transportation Status and Policy Recommendations

by Jim Skaggs, COST, updated January 2, 2015

Austin Transportation Situation: The Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is one of the fastest growing region in the nation; adding a total of about 100 net domestic migration and international immigration people per day. This is an estimated 70 cars per day or 490 cars per week. More than 99% of the passenger miles traveled in the region are on roadways, including private, shared, public transit, emergency, government/school and commercial service and product vehicles. We often forget that the Austin area’s public school bus transit systems carries more daily passengers (all on roads) than public transit during the school year and all on roadways.

U.S. Transit ridership percentage of work commute trips has been on a declining trend since the census first collected this data in 1960, fifty-four years ago. Work commuting is the largest use of transit. Total U.S. transit ridership has been stagnant since 1956, as reported this month by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), while the population has grown 88%.

New York has one-third of the nation’s total transit ridership. NY and five other pre-automobile cities/regions (Chicago, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia) have 65% of U. S. transit ridership. The rest of the nation has trivial transit ridership. And, no post-auto city has been developed in the high density configurations of these six cities.

Total U.S. transit ridership in 2013 exceeded the 2012 ridership by 0.6% and the NY increase in 2013 was larger than the total U.S. increase. The rest of the nation’s ridership declined. A recent article by professors at Columbia, Cornell and Rutgers Universities stated: “Transit is a small and stagnant part of the transportation system.” While ridership remains stagnant, cost have increased substantially (inflation adjusted).

Texas’ largest cities/regions (Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin) have invested billions of taxpayer dollars in public transit, substantially rail, over the past 15 years to increase transit ridership. However, total actual ridership has declined, resulting in a much greater percentage decline in transit travel; as these cities are all among the fastest growing in the nation. The decline is even greater than indicated because rail artificially increases boardings due to more rail/bus transfers being required to complete single trips.

Austin’s regional transit ridership has also been stagnant, dropping 6% in the past 15 years while population has grown 56%. Since the 2010 opening of Austin’s MetroRail commuter, total transit ridership has declined and costs have increased significantly as more cost-effective bus routes were replaced by the train. Moving transit riders to rail resulted in higher costs and less ridership. Capital Metro reported each average rail passenger costs five times each bus passengers and more transfers are required to reach destinations. Total Cap Metro boardings in 2014 were less than boardings in 2013 which were less than 2012. Boardings today are less than before the rail became operational in 2009, at a rail cost to date of more than $200 hundred million tax dollars for this rail’s minute portion of transit travel. CapMetro is planning to spend some $50 million additional on commuter rail capital to increase capacity. This will fruther increase tax subsidies per rider.

Capital Metro and the Media focused on the 37% rail increase (222,000 boardings) in 2013 while playing down/ignoring the loss of 1,600,000 bus boardings. These few added rail boardings came at a very high price to Austin taxpayers and a portion of the bus rider loss is due to reduced bus service. Cap Metro projects declining total rail and bus ridership again in 2015.

Austin’s bus transit costs have also increased 54 % (inflation adjusted) in this 15 year declining ridership period. Work commuting is the largest use of transit and Austin’s transit is the fifth highest mode of work commuting, behind: driving alone, carpooling, work-at-home and “all other” (walk, bike, etc.). Work-at-home is the fastest growing and, at 6.4%, is 2.8 times the 2.3% total transit commute share. Carpool commuting is 11% of work commuting, almost 4.8 times transit and can be substantially enhanced with improved roads.

The Austin region population has increased almost 675,000 people (about 56%) since 1999 and transit ridership has declined about 6%. With this unimpressive transit record, Austin, with primarily a bus system, still enjoys a higher percentage (2.3%) of transit commuters than Dallas, with only 1.5%, and Dallas has spent billions of dollars on rail to implement the longest light rail system in the U.S. Fortunately, Dallas has not ignored its roads as Austin did for 25-30 years.

Austin’s total roadway driving has increased with population growth, but, the region’s ‘Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled (DVMT)’ per capita has a 15 year declining trend as jobs and living have continued to decentralize throughout the region. Work commute trips are only about 15% of overall vehicle trips. Air quality has been on an improving trend for many years, mostly due to improved vehicle engines. Austin has never violated national air quality standards and is the cleanest air major city in Texas. Austin’s 2014 ozone (only major air pollutant) level was the lowest in at least the past 25 years and ozone has a 15 year significant, steady declining trend. This improvement is projected to continue primarily due to continuing improvements in engine efficiency.

Issue: The Austin region has not increased roadway capacity consistent with a long trend of well above average population growth resulting in increasing total vehicle miles driven even though driving per capita has decreased with the spreading of population and its supporting businesses, schools, medical care, etc. Therefore, congestion has increased significantly. Almost all surveys of Austin region citizens place congestion at the top of regional issues.

Funding Condition: The region has finite dollars for transportation from a number of sources including U.S., state and local governments; toll road organizations, both state and private; and, private land developers.

Primary transportation funding is from state gas “tax” and federal gas tax/general tax allocations to the state and transit agencies such as Capital Metro. These gas taxes are a form of user’s fees. Additional County and City transportation funds are part of property tax and Capital Metro’s primary funding is by its 1% portion of the 8.25% area sales tax. In addition, government and private toll roads and lanes are funded by the issue of bonds or debt which are paid by users.

Federal and state gas tax has not been increased for more than 20 years and vehicle engines continue to achieve major efficiency improvements; substantially reducing roadway funding through gas tax. Both federal and state gas taxes also suffer diversions, including: 20% of the federal gas tax is allocated to transit and 25% of Texas’ gas tax is allocated to schools. Since about 2008, U.S. transportation funds have been supplemented by general funds as the Highway Trust Fund (gas tax) has been depleted and no longer supports needs. The overall U.S. financial status has reduced the probability of future federal supplements, especially for transit. In the November, 2014 election, Texas approved a proposition which provides a major increase in state highway funding by allocating a share of the State’s oil tax revenue to the Department of Transportation. This additional annual Texas highway funding could vary between less than a billion dollars to more than $2 billion depending on the fluctuating price of oil which is influenced by a number of major world events.

There are many discussions and ideas at all government levels as to the solution to this critical funding issue, but few have been implemented except for short term “patches.” The most effective funding approach seems to be one which charges all users as fairly as possible for the “full-cost” use of transportation infrastructure, operations and maintenance while recognizing a responsible level of transit subsidies are required to support this very small segment of transportation which supplies mobility to those without alternatives. Reducing diversions is also a key step.

Major Considerations: Following are several points relative to transportation planning:

1. Rail transit’s low relative ridership provides no measurable improvements in congestion in cities like Austin today or Austin 100 years from today; as proven in many cities. The initial proposed urban rail route of 9 miles from slightly north of the City to slightly south of the city (roughly parallel and just West of 1-35 for much of its route) would not improve Austin congestion as it addressed minor, low density origins and destinations for both living and employment with low current public transit ridership. It would likely increase central area congestion as it crossed all East-West streets accessing and leaving downtown Austin, UT and the Capital area. It would also decrease car lanes further contributing to congestion.

Even responsible visions of future growth do not justify rail transit. If the proposed rail route is a reasonable transit route, much less expensive and flexible bus transit should be implemented to evaluate it and determine if ridership is developed. A major proponent argument was: “We have to do something and this is a start.” and “This is for the future and will need additions to fulfill its promise.” This is a bottomless tax pit: Many cities have shown that the further rail is expanded, the less cost-effective it becomes, with growing taxes. This rail would have been a bottomless tax pit: Many cities have shown that the further rail is expanded, the less cost-effective it becomes, with growing taxes.

2. Rail, or any transit, will not produce net, increased development and tax base. Many studies, including in Austin have verified this. Transit may have a minor influence on location of some developments. The only jobs rail will produce are those essentially paid for by taxpayers.

3. Fixed transit is very high risk in “young,’ growing cities, like Austin, as it is very expensive to change routes based on changing needs and development patterns, which will surely occur. Every recommendation for a proposed initial, Austin rail route by agencies, experts and “high level” government/citizens committees, over more than 25 years, has been a different route. Even the proposed urban rail route, released March 25, 2014, was a revised route of some half-dozen routes suggested over the past 5 years.

4. Transit’s major flaw is addressing the elusive future transit explosion which never occurs, instead of tackling the basic, fundamental tasks of providing more cost-effective transit to those needing it in their daily lives and have no alternatives. Social equity demands we prioritize this need.

5. Creating city development plans with weighted regulations to incentivize and require high density development increases congestion on roadways and creates high levels of unaffordability. This will create gentrification and dramatically reduce families and public school enrollment just as it has in our highly praised “pier” city of Portland Oregon where school enrollment was reduced more than 40% by policies similar to those Austin is now implementing. As Austin mimics Portland, its public school enrollment has already begun a decline from its peak which was near Portland’s peak of more than 80,000 students, prior to its decline.

6. Austin has great pride and accomplishment in being creative, unique and above the crowd as one of the most successful and fastest growing regions for several years. This should extend to developing new, innovative transportation and transit solutions which are not based on old, tired, ineffective 19th century train technology. Mimicking “peer cities” failures does not meet the needs of Austin’s citizens in the 21st century. There are far better models and approaches than the “Rail to Failure” approach which has been demonstrated numerous times by most of Austin’s peer cities and many others. We urge citizens of Austin to rise out of this “rut” and work to effectively address critical citizens’ transportation needs and not those of major, greedy rail consultants, contractors and misguided politicians.

7. Exorbitantly expensive, ineffective transit approaches, combined with draconian regulations to force greater density, result in higher taxes and transit fares which disproportionately impact lower income citizens and increase congestion for all.

8.The Future: Technology improvements are developing on many fronts including the development of more efficient, cleaner engines/motors; driverless vehicles; more innovative approaches to transit; shared vehicle approaches; better traffic light synchronization/control; rapid road delay response; ramp metering; better use of our roadway assets including staggered work hours, more work at home, etc. These improvements range from small impacts to “paradigm shifts.”

Driverless, atonomous or self-driving vehicles suggest significant declines in accidents and deaths while approximately doubling the capacity of highways and substantially reducing the cost of mobility. Even before these self-driving vehicles double highway capacity, cars with adaptive cruise control can increase the capacity of highways by up to 50%. This improvement requires as little as 25% of the cars on a road to have adaptive cruise control capability and numerous new car models already have it, as well as other autonomous car features of the future.

Related benefits of self-driving vehicles are to provide many people with physical or age disabilities the major benefits of private vehicle mobility; a major reduction in high priced land, such as Central Business Districts, required for parking because self-driving vehicles can park in remote, less expensive areas; the potential reduction in family vehicles required because commuting vehicles can return home for other family use during the work period; the potential shared use of vehicles, which would normally park for the day, may be used as “for hire” vehicles for such services as Uber or Lyft and earn money while not in use by the owner.

This “paradigm shift” in mobility can result in major reductions in the use of taxpayer subsidized public transit and dramatically reduce the use of very expensive transit such as light rail.

None of these considerations will result in major changes in the recommended policies below but may reduce the current lane miles needed to effectively serve travel levels in the future, within reasonable congestion levels.

Recommended Approach and Policy: The overriding goal is to reduce congestion and provide effective, safe transportation throughout the region to meet the mobility needs of this rapidly growing and expanding population including private, public transit, emergency, government/school and commercial services and goods vehicles as well as walking; while living within constraints of available transportation funds. The following policy elements are important to achieve this goal which is a continuing journey and not a destination; as our region’s population continues to grow:

1. The often heard glib and shallow phrases of “multi-model transportation,” “we need everything,” or “we need choices” to address the critical congestion issue must be tempered with the reality of finite available dollars and all transportation projects must be efficient and cost-effective or the money is all spent before we meet the needs of the vast majority of our citizens. To have “everything” is to have nothing but transportation chaos with degraded quality of life including much higher taxes.

2. The first priority is: Transportation modes must be funded in a reasonable relationship to people’s free choices of mobility which they have determined best meets their quality of life needs. More than 99% of the region’s passenger miles traveled are on roadways. There are no reasonable indications that general mobility choices will be significantly different in the foreseeable future. This suggests roadway funding solutions will be most effective in serving the overall greater-good of the community by private, public transit, shared, emergency, government/school and commercial vehicles sharing the same road infrastructure. Building separate, fixed passenger rail and exclusive guideway infrastructure will cost too much and serve too few.

3. Effective Transportation solutions are not achieved with government policies designed to discourage free choice by coercing and forcing people to make major behavior changes such as shifting from private vehicles to public transit. This “central government knows best” approach has been tried throughout history; near term examples are socialist and communist countries which have all failed. Governments’ mission must be to effectively serve and support the free choices of citizens serving their greater-good which also serves the community’s good.

4. Public transit is vitally important for our community, especially to support the transportation needs of low income and other citizens who need mobility in their daily lives and have no other choice. In a 2006 survey, 40% of Cap Metro riders have zero cars in the household. Public transit serves less than 1% of the passenger miles traveled in the region and has been declining for many years. Therefore, the highest priority for transit is to serve as many trip origins and destinations, of those needing transit, as possible within the significant, but much smaller, portion of overall funds. Transit’s “free” use of taxpayer and ‘user funded’ new and improved roads, managed (toll) lanes and toll roads provides major leverage for cost-effective transit. This “hidden” taxpayer and user fee subsidy, along with the normal required sales and property tax subsidies of all public transit, provides the most financially sustainable transit system with the lowest taxes and the greatest service to more origins and destinations utilizing creative route and vehicle planning.

Austin area major public transit needs should be served by Capital Metro, the agency which was established for this purpose. Cap Metro is now funded with the maximum funding (allowed by Texas law) of one percent of the 8 1/4 percent sales tax receipts within the transit boundaries. This is often referred to as the one-penny from the 8.25 pennies of sales tax on each dollar of such sales taxable items.

This avoids the increased transit costs of duplicate transit agencies which results in increased taxpayer costs to further subsidize transit. This single agency approach creates greater transit management discipline and less taxpayer waste. There should be close coordination between the City and Cap Metro as the City focuses on the roadway system and Cap Metro on the public transit system. This coordination should extend to the County, TxDoT and the CTRMA for roads they are responsible for. Hopefully, transit effectiveness can be improved to the point of paying for a part of the roadway systems which transit uses.

5. The first step for any transportation project is to determine the project is of the priority to be addressed and to fully define the goals for the project. If there are more than one realistic modes, a formal “alternatives analysis” must be performed to select the most cost-effective solution for realistic ridership projections. Comprehensive knowledge of the true costs and benefits for the overall community must be evaluated. The evaluation must fully consider the negative impact of increased taxpayer subsidies for transit and the overall degradation of social equity in a difficult environment of increasing taxes/fees and increasing living costs.

6. Exorbitantly expensive rail transit can only be implemented by regions if the U.S. government pays a significant portion, usually 50% or more. The U.S. government does not share in the operating costs of these rail systems. Austin advertised the need for 50% matching U.S. government funding for urban rail implementation. This essential government funding would not likely have been available for Austin’s defeated $1.4 billion plus dollar initial rail segment and less likely for any extensions. The government also does not share in the 40% overruns which occur in the average rail system. Capital Metro promised voters that the U.S. government would fund one-half of the current MetroRail line (not counting rail cars), but, no U.S. dollars were provided. Their cost overrun was greater than the 40% average which studies have shown.

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