Austin’s Commuter Rail Is A Monument To Government Waste
COST Commentary: This posting uses the very appropriate title the Forbes’ article below was recently published with. COST was not directly involved but we certainly agree with it. The author did not communicate with COST but the article includes a ridership chart which is from a recent COST posting on this web site. Another recent COST posting, Don’t Waste Money Subsidizing Outdated, Ineffective Light Rail refers to a previous article by this author who is a Forbes contributor, traveling the country to write a book, came to Austin and reviewed MetroRail.
This article’s capital costs for Metrorail are the standard Cap Metro deceptive, incomplete figures which are mush less than the actual costs and he did not have the data to comment on the fact that Cap Metro’s MetroRail annual operating costs started at about 5 times the cost promised voters in 2004 and are now more than double, and increasing rapidly, that high starting cost.
Cap Metro is spending more than $80 million to increase the frequency of MetroRail train trips. This will likely increase the taxpayer subsidies for each rider which is more than $20 per trip or $40 per day for a weekday round trip commuter. This is more than a $10,000 (including Capital depreciation) average yearly taxpayer subsidy for each daily round-trip commuter. They could drive or take a “ride-hailing” vehicle for less. As noted in the article below, the vast majority of these rail riders are commuting to and from work, as there are few riders other than “peak” hours. Most of these riders can be served more cost-effectively, with reduced trip times, using express buses, especially when the current MoPac, and the planned 183, toll lanes are completed to provide free express bus lanes.
The bottom line for this exorbitantly expensive, highly tax subsidized, transit mode is that its minuscule ridership provides no congestion reduction. Congestion is actually increased more than any relief and the high cost reduces the ability of Cap Metro to better serve Austin’s transit community.
As a foundation principle transit and transportation are very much different issues. Transit provides trivial help to the 99% of Austin’s daily passenger miles which are traveled on the roads. On the other hand, effective road systems can provide significant help to transit riders by reducing their travel time. On average, public transit riders take about twice as long for work commuting in the U.S. as private vehicle passengers on roads.
The recent tradition of public transit planners is to base transit on the primary objective of providing transportation alternatives which convince people to abandon private vehicles and use transit. This has failed in all cities similar to Austin, as has the related objective of coercing people to live in higher density to promote public transit. This misguided density emphasis has actually resulted is higher, less affordable housing costs. We must not base transportation and land use planning on self-serving or ideological ideals but on the decisions of the vast majority of free citizens who have considered all factors and decided the most effective way to serve their mobility needs and meet their quality-of-life objectives.
Coercing people to increase density is directly contradictory to reducing congestion. There is a simple relationship: the higher the people density, the greater the congestion on the roads and, generally, this produces higher housing costs.
There is a strong misconception in some people that roads are highly subsidized as public transit is. This is another myth: Subsidies to auto driving averaged 1.5 cents a passenger mile in 2014, up from a penny in earlier years due to Congress overspending the Highway Trust Fund and having to replenish it out of general funds. Subsidies to transit averaged 78 cents per passenger mile in 2014; 52 times the per mile subsidy for auto driving.
To better serve the greater-good of transit riders and private vehicle users, transit planning must be based on the primary objective of providing improved, cost-effective bus transit for the widest, reasonable population of citizens who have no other choice but transit. This objective must displace the current primary transit objectives in Austin. This objective cannot be achieved with ineffective, inflexible urban rail transit, the least cost-effective of current transit modes. Nor, can this objective be achieved with fixed guideway rail or bus transit. Fixed guideways are exorbitantly high cost and remove private vehicle lanes in limited space. This is contrary to people’s choices of transportation and will result in increased congestion, degrading central Austin mobility and citizens’ desirability. We are already witnessing this with Austin’s implementation of the ‘Envision Austin’ plan with its many misguided strategies.
There is another simple relationship: the greater the mobility, the greater the quality of life. To enhance overall road mobility and its very positive transit impact, road funding must be in reasonable proportion to road passenger miles traveled and not greatly less than proportionate funds for travel on transit, bicycles, or pedestrian accommodations.
Austin’s Commuter Rail Is A Monument To Government Waste
By Scott Beyer, July 29, 2016
(The Leander station, which is the northernmost one along Austin’s MetroRail line, sports an empty platform and parking lot on a Saturday / all photos by Scott Beyer)
Austin, TX–Last Saturday morning, while stumbling upon an Austin rail station, I was able to imagine at micro level what it must be like to visit one of China’s ghost cities. I was in Leander, an Austin suburb that has the northernmost stop on the metro area’s commuter rail system, when I spotted a multi-acre station plopped across what was essentially a rural area. After parking in the empty lot, I got out and walked around, to find a clean, well-landscaped facility that had not one human in sight. The info center was locked, the train platforms were empty, and no trains arrived. There was even a computerized voice humming out service updates over the platform speakers, to an absent audience. In fairness, the station was closed that day until 4pm. But that just begged the question—why would a train station be closed all Saturday morning and afternoon in a major metro area? Meanwhile, the platform offered an unobstructed view of adjacent US-183, where, in the course of 10 minutes, dozens of cars passed by in each direction.
This stark contrast summarized the idiocy that has become rail transit policy in urban America. Many U.S. cities sprawled out after World War I, when automobiles became mainstream technology, and the government exacerbated these patterns in following decades through urban renewal, restrictive zoning, minimum parking requirements and road subsidies. A number of these cities—including Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Portland, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Cleveland—tried reversing their past land use mistakes by building rail systems, which would supposedly concentrate development and bolster transit ridership. But closer analysis suggests this hasn’t worked, and anyone familiar with those cities understands why. They were built to accommodate private automobiles, meaning people can drive within them directly to and from their destinations. No one there with financial options is going to instead take rail transit that follows a fixed route, arrives every 15 minutes, and makes multiple stops–no matter how much of said transit is built. It hasn’t helped that these transit systems are run by monopolistic government agencies, meaning they suffer from misappropriations, delays, cost overruns and poorly planned routes, including trains that, in some cases, run well into the countryside before stopping in podunk towns. Unfortunately, Austin’s rail embodies all these problems, standing as perhaps America’s leading rail transit failure.
The desire for rail transit in Austin dates back to the 1970s, when the city’s fast growth spurred discussions among urbanists and environmentalists about possible mode changes. These hopes were squashed in 2000, when a ballot proposal that would have sent light rail up the well-trafficked Guadalupe Street was narrowly defeated. But rail proponents received their bone–kind of–a decade later, when Capitol Metro, the Austin public transit provider, opened MetroRail. The 32-mile line was built along existing freight tracks that began downtown, moved north through mostly residential neighborhoods, and into some commuter suburbs.
The project opened amid a storm of controversy, thanks to construction issues that escalated the final tab from $90 million to $148 million. In the opening months, the line received just 800 riders per weekday. This has since risen to 2,900 passenger trips per weekday, or about 1,500 riders, but that still is just .0007% of the metro population, which sits above 2 million. The line accounts for 2.6% of Austin’s transit ridership, while using 8.5% of the annual operating expenses for transit.
Each trip taken on the rail costs taxpayers dearly, according to data provided by Capitol Metro. In 2014, the rail line had an operating deficit of $12.6 million. The upfront capital costs of $140 million, when amortized at 2% over 30 years, creates an additional $6.2 million annual cost to taxpayers. Add these two sums up, and then divide them by the line’s number of annual unlinked trips—763,551—and the per-trip subsidy works out to $24.62. Another commentator estimated that this figure is $18, compared to $3 for every bus boarding. Jim Skaggs, the retired CEO of Tracor and a local rail skeptic, wrote on his blog that “each average daily, week-day, round trip rider is subsidized an average of about $10,000 per year.”
Even worse, this is actually hurting transit availability. MetroRail’s high capital costs depleted the agency’s reserves, leading, noted Skaggs, to service cuts on bus lines, which are widely considered a more cost-effective choice. This has reduced Austin’s overall transit ridership, just like in Texas’ other major cities (two of which also have rail transit systems). That is all the more amazing given these are some of America’s fastest-growing cities by population.
(credit to Coalition on Sustainable Transportation)
But one does not need numbers to observe, at street level, the system’s obvious failures. After happening upon the empty Leander station on Saturday, I ventured this week to other stations around downtown and the interior neighborhoods. Outside of morning and evening rush hour, they were either empty or almost empty of passengers, and were divorced from any of the city’s major job and population centers. The further north along the line I rode, the more obvious it became that this really was a train to nowhere–32 miles of expensive and dated rail infrastructure that had little to no passengers or surrounding development.
(the picture above and below are, respectively, of the downtown station and the MLK, Jr. station, both around 7pm on a Wednesday)
For these reasons, the line has even been critiqued by AURA, a pro-transit organization that was founded to call for a more transparent rail planning process. As one of the group’s board members, Susan Somers, wrote by Facebook messenger:
AURA is in favor of high ridership light rail that makes use of our best transit corridors. We’re not in favor of speculative, low-ridership lines that are intended to spur development…Currently, Cap Metro’s approach is to spend more money on the Red Line to make it more frequent and attract more riders. While that may initially seem like a noble goal, in fact the Red Line suffers from a fatal flaw: the route. AURA would prefer to see our limited Cap Metro dollars go into creating a high frequency bus network.
There have been further efforts to build rail transit in Austin, with various groups aiming for a new, more centrally-located line. In 2014, another $600 million rail proposal was floated before voters, and packaged with prospective road upgrades. But voters, clearly cold to the rail transit idea by then, defeated it by a 14 percentage point margin. There are similar attempts to get rail onto the ballot this year.
Perhaps one day rail transit will be practical in fast-growing, fast-densifying Austin, and it’s just a matter, as the proponents say, of having the right infrastructure along the right route. But a combination of academic analysis and basic observation still encourages skepticism. Data provided by the Federal Transit Administration shows that even the much-ballyhooed systems in Minneapolis, Portland, and Charlotte, while better-located and thus not as bad as Austin, are also funded by high per-trip subsidies. And this data doesn’t account for their capital costs, which for rail transit are far more expensive than for roads, tabbing in at $70 million per mile. At the same time, there are private transit solutions within the ridesharing and bus industries that are profitable, largely because, rather than imitating the fixed-route concept, they’ve tapped into the best things about cars, by offering flexibility and on-site demand. These innovations are bound to improve as driverless cars enter the mix, and Austin would be smart to encourage them, rather than banning them, as it recently did with Uber. But if Austin wants to keep its inter-urban and suburban transit stagnant, wasteful and under-performing, well, it has a formula for that too–build rail transit, and have the government run it.
Scott Beyer is traveling the U.S. to write a book about reviving U.S. cities through Market Urbanism. His work is found at BigCitySparkplug.com.