Light Rail is Obsolete and Ineffective in Addressing Austin’s Mobility Needs

COST Commentary: The following posting was published to provide important observations, information and facts which are intended to address a recent flurry of public releases by the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC) and press coverage stimulated by these releases.

Most of those promoting rail are misguided by a lack of more detailed knowledge of the overall implications of rail transit in the context of today’s mobility needs, particularity considering current and rapidly advancing technology. Based on extensive experience, including two elections, we believe the vast majority of citizens who are provided key data and facts relative to rail transit will make decisions which enhance the overall greater-good of this great community and reject rail as ineffective, unaffordable and a major creator of congestion, degrading overall mobility. However, there are a small number of people who promote light rail from an ideological or self-interest perspective and do not place the greater-good of the community as a high priority. These folks often disregard facts and reality while presenting deceptive, distorted and unsupported views of rail transit.

Please see the COST posting at: for more details on Cap Metro’s continue significant decline in transit ridership during 2016.
Light Rail is Obsolete and Ineffective in Addressing Austin’s Mobility Needs
by Jim Skaggs, COST Web Site Posting, July 16, 2016

It is difficult to imagine anyone, with minimal evaluation, could suggest public transit, especially light rail, as an effective means to improve overall mobility and be a major contributor to relieving roadway congestion in Austin. The chart below is very revealing as to the daily mobility decisions made by citizens living in Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) areas containing the largest Texas cities of Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin; where more than one-half of all Texans live.
For the past 15 years, these four cities have poured many billions of taxpayer funds into buses and new light rail transit systems in an effort to increase transit ridership and reduce congestion. The dismal result is that there is less total public transit ridership today than there was in 1999 before any of these cities implemented significant light rail or commuter rail transit. Dallas is the only city with slightly more ridership today than 15 years ago. Dallas spent billions in tax funds to implement the longest light rail in the nation. Many of Dallas’ increased boardings (ridership) are due to transfers between bus and rail which do not increase overall individual full trips.

Dallas’ major rail expansion has resulted in canceling many bus routes, moving transit riders from cost-effective buses to much higher cost light rail. This means taxpayers pay significantly more to subsidize transit for the same number of one-way trips. Currently Dallas’ rail ridership is approaching 50% of the total with buses retaining a small lead. If just 10% of the rail and bus riders require one transfer for each of their two, going and returning, trips, it creates an approximately, additional 20,000 daily boardings. (Note: Every time a rider boards a bus or train, it counts as a boarding. For example: A single rider making one transfer going to and coming from work is recorded as 4 boardings (or riders) for the day. Transits agencies can only estimate the actual number of one-way transit trips. The chart above would reflect a much flatter graph for total Dallas transit ridership, the past 5 years, if it was based on total people using transit.

It is also revealing that Dallas, with it much larger light rail component, has the least cost-effective transit of the four cities and San Antonio, with buses only, is the most cost-effective.

A recent Article in D Magazine by Peter Simek contained the following regarding Dallas’ DART light rail:

“Light rail construction started in 1990 and continued steadily for 25 years, racing out along existing 19th-century rail right-of-ways to far-flung corners of the sprawling region. Today, with 90-plus miles of rail, the light rail system is the nation’s largest. It is also the nation’s most inefficient. In a peer-to-peer comparison study compiled by a Chicago-based transit agency, Dallas ranked at or near the bottom in terms of passenger trips, operating cost per mile, and fare recovery rate among 10 major U.S. cities. In terms of total miles ridden by passengers, the longest light rail system in the country came in dead last.”
Bold emphasis added.

This overall ridership decline of 5.6% has occurred in a period when all four of these Texas MSAs are among the fastest growing MSA populations in the U.S. The total population during this 15-year decline in transit ridership grew 44% as shown in the chart below. Austin’s MSA population increased 66% during this period, while its public transit ridership declined 9%.
4citiespopandridership (2)
Depressingly, for this same period, the cost per passenger mile for the average transit trip has grown much faster than inflation. Therefore, taxpayers’ in Austin are continuing to subsidize each transit rider’s trip on an increasing cost trend which is currently about 90%, including capital, of the real cost of the transit trip. Austin’s MetroRail is the least cost effective general transit mode, costing taxpayers more than 95% of each trip’s cost.

The Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC) is the latest in a series of groups over the past 30 years which have promoted light rail. Each of these small groups has provided unsubstantiated, distorted and incorrect information regarding the cost, ridership and congestion impact of rail which has proven to be grossly understated in cost and over-stated in ridership. There is small probability this rail could be implemented for less than double their estimated cost and have more than one-half their CACDC’s estimated ridership. Their estimated ridership is more than 10 times the current Austin commuter rail ridership. And, the light rail would significantly increase congestion.

Comparing the ridership of this suggested CACDC rail line to the that of the nation’s heaviest used light rail in Boston is an absolute joke. The CACDC ridership estimate is based on the average weekday ridership of the light rail proposed in Austin’s 2000 election. This was hugely overstated based on major erroneous assumptions as proven with the passage of time.

Austin’s MetroRail commuter implementation cost at least three times the plan and its annual operating costs were more than 5 times Cap Metros pre-election promises in 2004.

CACDC has provided no discussion of the operating costs of the rail and of the required increased taxes to subsidize its actual small ridership. Taxpayers pay more than 90% of the cost of each riders trip on the current Austin MetroRail; meaning each average daily, week-day, round trip rider is subsidized an average of about $10,000 per year. This is more than 5 times the subsidy for bus riders which will be able to make the same trip from Leander in less time than the train when current roadway upgrades are completed.

All rail transit promotions have been accompanied by promises of reduced congestion which is specified as the number one negative community issue by the vast majority of local daily commuters. Rail promoters spend little time and thoughtful effort to address the congestion impact of rail transit. Austin’s 9.5 mile, $1.4 billion light rail plan, which was soundly defeated in the 2014 election, would have created the greatest, instant, continued major congestion increase in Austin’s history. All prior rail proposals would have resulted in major roadway congestion increases, degrading mobility for notably more people than it helped. Basically, public transit and roadway congestion are separate issues, except, improved roads, especially with managed lanes open to buses can significantly improve transit time.

Perhaps, the most damaging impact of wasteful spending on rail transit is that these funds could be allocated to alleviating real traffic congestion for the 99% of all passenger miles traveled daily on Austin roadways. In addition to eliminating wasteful spending, Austin’s outdated bus transit system must be restructured to better meet transit needs.

The greatest shortcoming in proposing 19th century rail technology for today’s mobility is a failure to recognize existing and rapidly advancing 21st century mobility technology. These current technologies will greatly render rail as obviously obsolete, unaffordable and ineffective to almost all citizens. With current and new technologies, we can expect transformational positive changes in mobility and land use which will improve the quality-of-life for all.

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