Austin Warning: Major U.S. Transit Systems Are Declining Rapidly

COST Commentary: The following article discusses declining ridership on the Northern California “Bay Area Rapid Transit” (BART) commuter train system. BART, considered one of the nations more successful commuter systems, is experiencing declining ridership and escalating operating costs. Although the article is not comprehensive, it speculates ridership decline is the product of an “overcrowded, aging system.” A previous report attributed rider decline on BART’s San Francisco airport route to an increasing preference for services such as Uber. BART, is emblematic of a general decline in transit ridership and infrastructure aging throughout the U.S.

When launched in the 1970’s, Washington D.C.’s Metrorail, our Nations’ third largest transit system, was touted as a major advancement in rail commuter systems. The D.C. Metrorail is now in serious disrepair and has experienced numerous fatal accidents. The billions of dollars necessary for upgrades and replacement of worn-out elements have no funding mechanism and pose a crisis. They are experiencing declining ridership and considering major, long term, line closures for repairs and upgrades. The D.C. Metro is scrambling to introduce major cost and personnel reductions. Chicago, the second largest U.S. transit system, has similar system degradation issues; a result of age and lack of adequate maintenance.

These are indicative of rail transit experiences throughout the nation. The cycle is consistent in most cases: An oversold, questionable system, initiated by Federal grant, is then inadequately funded by taxpayers, particularly with regard to ongoing maintenance. A system degrading over years of use, with no reliable source for the billions of dollars needed to replace old, worn-out parts is a recipe for failure and great public expense. They illustrate rail systems are the least cost-effective methodology to serve transit needs in most instances. Austin citizens recognized this in their rejection of light rail in two major elections (2000 and 2014). Capital Metro’s Red Line MetroRail (commuter rail) exposes the impotence and exorbitant cost of rail transit in Austin and other similar cities. This Austin rail system is near the bottom in national rail ridership and each routine weekday rider is subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of about $18,000 annually. The Red Line cost 4 times its initial estimate to implement and almost 10 times the annual operating cost estimate provided to voters in 2004 (over $18/boarding). Even with this dismal record, Cap Metro is “doubling down” and investing almost $100 million in this failure; a total waste of taxpayer funds that should be applied to more effective transit projects.

These rail system failures have not deterred members of the Texas Senate and House in putting forth bills in this 2017 session to circumvent the voters voice in expanding rail in Austin. These huge, often borrowed, long term expenditures of tax dollars, deserve public approval. Imagine the billions of wasted public funds had Austin voters not rejected the rail schemes in the previous two elections. We must not allow them to silence the public’s voice with legislative trickery, particularly when it involves spending huge amounts of tax payer’s money. The previous rail proposals were promoted to “reduce traffic congestion”, a totally unfounded claim which continues to be proffered with no evidence.

Two-thirds of daily U.S. transit ridership exists in seven, high density, “pre-automobile” cities, with the remainder failing to offer meaningful, cost effective solutions. Ridership statistics in major Texas cities, reveal transit’s insignificant and declining overall contribution to congestion relief and “quality-of-life” mobility. The four major Texas cities have experienced a total 44% increase in population, as transit ridership has declined to less than that in 1999. This Ridership decline is likely to continue as new and rapidly approaching, technologies emerge.

Contrary to the current “Imagine Austin” development plan, higher central Austin population density will likely display the “paradox of intensification” and achieve the exact opposite of its advertised benefits. Higher density will result in greater congestion, reduced mobility, less safety and decreased quality-of-life. Imagine Austin will degrade downtown Austin as a desirable destination for all area citizens, harm affordability and reduce quality of life.

BART ridership slumps; board mulls service cuts, fare increases

By Erin Baldassari | |
February 24, 2017

OAKLAND ¬ Despite crush-loads of passengers during peak commute times, the number of people riding BART is actually falling, forcing the transit agency to begin tough conversations about how to make up for lost revenue.

After six years of growth, staff anticipated a similar increase in the number of riders during the 2016-2017 fiscal year, which began July 1. Instead, the agency is reporting that ridership through December was 5.2 percent below what it projected. Weekend trips took the hardest hit, coming in at 9 percent lower than projected, compared with 4.2 percent for weekday trips.

In January this year, for example, weekday trips were down a little more than 4 percent, and weekend trips were down slightly more than 2 percent, compared with the same month last year. Ridership figures vary month by month, but BART staff said they are seeing a decline in the total number of riders opting to take the trains.

Weekend ridership figures first fell below 2015 numbers in February last year, and weekday ridership started to fall in August, according to BART’s monthly ridership reports.

Coupled with higher-than-anticipated non-employee costs and sluggish sales tax revenue, staff said the agency is already facing a nearly $5 million deficit for the first half of the fiscal year, and expects its operating revenues will come in $15 million to $25 million below what it had budgeted. As staff looks to craft a budget for the coming fiscal year, the outlook is even more grim, with an operating shortfall of $25 million to $35 million.

Already, the agency has put a hiring freeze in place and asked each department to cut the amount of money it spends on consultants by 10 percent, said Carter Mau, the agency’s assistant general manager of administration and budgets. That might help BART fill the gap left in lost revenues, but going into next year, Mau said the board would have to consider other options to generate revenue or reduce costs.

He suggested increasing the base fare, or the minimum the agency charges customers to ride any distance, as well as reviewing the discounts it doles out to seniors, people with disabilities and youths. Another option the board could consider is cutting its 4 a.m. service and opening the system at 5 a.m. instead, or reducing service on some lines, he said.

For the most part, board directors asked staff to consider every other possible source of generating revenue or cutting expenses. At its annual workshop last month, board members said they would rather see efforts made to reduce fare evasion, allow companies to advertise more, implement automated trains, modify the daily parking fee or charge tech shuttles to park at stations.

Cutting service would set off a “horrible spiral,” said board President Rebecca Saltzman.

“Clearly, we will have to make some hard decisions this year,” she said. “Reducing our service would be a really big mistake. Our biggest driver of revenues is our fare revenues. If we reduce service, we will likely reduce riders, and we will have less fare revenue.”

But director Thomas Blalock urged his colleagues to consider every option, while others urged the agency to first find ways to cut costs.

“Let’s not throw any baby out with the bath waters,” he said.

Mau said staff would begin polling riders this spring to assess which options are most palatable for passengers.

It’s unclear what is driving the declines, but at a November board meeting, Paul Oversier, BART’s assistant general manager of operations, attributed the dip to an overcrowded and aging system.

“If you ride during rush-hour, it’s not a pleasant experience,” Oversier said. “There is just physically not a lot of room to accommodate any additional people. So, the question becomes, how many people are we driving off because they are not satisfied with the onboard environment they are experiencing?”

The move comes at a time when customer satisfaction with BART is at a 20-year low. Driving the dissatisfaction is the screeching noise of BART wheels grating against the tracks, the lack of available seats and constant breakdowns of elevators at stations, according to a BART survey.

The board recently agreed to tear out seats to increase capacity on its trains, with a particular focus on the transbay trains, which regularly pass up commuters at downtown Oakland and San Francisco stations during the rush-hour commute. Oversier also said riders should expect some relief when the agency’s new fleet begins rolling out, which will allow BART to run longer trains with roomier cars.

Erin Baldassari covers transportation. A North Bay native, Baldassari covered local news in the greater Boston area for four years before moving back to the Best Coast. She writes about everything roads, rails, and bridges in the East Bay.

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