New Austin & Cap Metro Transit Plan will waste billions of taxpayer dollars and totally fail.

COST Commentary: Below this commentary is a depiction of the most recent Austin & Capital Metro transit plan which is now being shared with the public. Its presentations have strongly suggested that several of the defined transit routes are very likely to be designated as light rail. The ‘picture’ below is further explained on the Project Connect web site. Project Connect is a joint Cap Metro and Austin City activity to define Austin’s future transit plan. It is primarily populated and advised by those who are strong light rail advocates. Many of them have been promoting light rail for a very long time. It is interesting that each time Cap Metro and the City have proposed light rail since the voters defeat of light rail in 2000, they have proposed a very different light rail route and system. Since light rail is very expensive to install and modify the route, it seems there is a lack of stability in their suggested need. It is very true that Austin is a young city and does not really know what it will be when it “grows up.” Whatever it is, light rail will not be a factor.

The history of rail elections in Austin, early plans leading to a possible next election and funding implications are summarized in an Austin American-Statesman newspaper article by Ben Wear posted on April 6 and published in the paper on April 8 with the front page title of: Ready For Rail?
Is Austin finally ready for light rail? The answer may come in 2020.
It is a very good, factual and balanced article for this information.

COST, including its predecessor organization, was a major opposition organization during the 2000 Cap Metro and the 2014 Austin City elections in which light rail was defeated. COST’s summary position was that these Light Rails: would cost billions of taxpayer dollars to serve a miniscule percentage of Austin area citizens; would not decrease congestion as promoted, but would further increase congestion; would not improve the environment, but would degrade it; would degrade overall transit by using major funds for a small portion of transit ridership which would degrade the backbone bus system; and, would waste billions of dollars which could be effectively used for the public’s greater-good to improve roadways which serve 99% of Austin’s daily passenger miles including the transit bus system.

COST did not mount a formal, registered campaign in the 2004 commuter rail election which Cap Metro won. This was a COST strategic decision based on the much lower cost of the Commuter which was to use existing tracks, minimizing the loss of Road capacity. COST concluded the Commuter rail would be one of the least expensive ways to demonstrate to citizens that rail is not an effective transit solution. The Commuter did have major cost overruns of several hundred percent, but has proven all of the negatives described in the light rail discussion above and below. The commuter requires a major subsidy for each rider, several times bus subsidies. It causes more pollution per rider than cars and the travel time for commuters is not efficient. Considering all elements, the Commuter Rail creates a net increase in congestion.

The current Austin area transit plan shown below has many of the major flaws which the previous light rail plans contained. This web site has a long list of previous postings which address these flaws. In summary:

1. Light rail costs too much and does too little, wasting billions of taxpayer dollars on transit which does not well serve those who need transit the most, those without alternatives. (See the Dallas Morning News editorials below)

2. Light rail and dedicated bus lanes will significantly increase congestion in the central Austin area as it will require eliminating road capacity used by cars and other vehicles, both private and commercial. This will also hamper ride hailing (Uber, Lyft, etc.) services which are growing rapidly throughout the Nation.

3. The present transportation plan does not recognize rapidly advancing technologies including driverless vehicles and ride hailing (Uber, Lyft, etc.). These and other mobility advances will create alternatives which are much more flexible with more rapid response in meeting riders’ location and destination needs at costs which are competitive with train transit’s costs.

4. The draft transportation plan indicates little knowledge of the long trend in changing work locations. This plan is the traditional “spoke and wheel” configuration which transit started with in the 1800’s. Transit was designed to transport people from their homes to the major jobs locations in the City core. This is now totally outdated. Today, the average large city has less than 10% of the regional workforce in the city’s central core. Austin has slightly more than 10% if you count the state workers and UT employees which are near the core. Austin’s proposed transit plan is recreating the past with a “spoke and wheel design which would severely limit access to available jobs in the region for those who must use transit. (See the Dallas editorials below)

5. There are no large city transit models which confirm the validity of this Austin plan. The Dallas and Houston regions are about 100 years ahead of Austin’s population and they are evaluated by Inrix Corporation as being much more congested than Austin. Their billions for light rail have not measurably changed their congestion and the use of public transit has been declining with their very large population growths.

6. The rail ridership in a city like Austin does not improve the environment. Austin’s air quality has never exceeded Federal standards. Austin’s, and most cities’ low transit ridership degrades air quality.

7. Austin’s transit ridership has been on a long-term declining trend of almost 20 years while its regional population has grown about 70%. Why would we allocate billions of precious tax dollars to the least cost-effective transit mode (rail) with the hope that the trend, which reflects citizens’ choices as to best way to serve their desired quality-of-life, might change. This is not responsible!

8. Austin’s funding of light rail is being planned on the basis that a major portion will come from the Federal Government. This is not the case today and is not expected to be for the foreseeable future. Therefore, the costs for local citizens would be double that assumed in the transportation plan, many billions more.

9. The increased congestion due to dedication of current car lanes to serve buses or trains only would have a major negative impact on road construction and thousands of small businesses.

10. Creating the additional congestion would also degrade safety for travelers.

11. Austin affordability is a top issue today and in the future. Austin is one of the fastest growing cost-of-living major cities in the Nation and housing cost is a major driver of these increases. The result is driving many lower income citizens, a large percentage of transit riders, beyond the bounds of transit service and they are forced to find alternatives. This is one of the top reasons Austin’s transit ridership is falling and has been in this trend for many years. This also shows-up in a rapid drop in public school enrollment as families leave the unaffordable area. Ineffective light rail will not address this and its high costs will further increase the cost-of-living. Portland created a similar unaffordability environment starting in the 1970s and its school enrollment dropped about 45%, closing dozens of schools. Austin seems to be charging down the path to reach Portland’s unaffordable level by the wasteful spending of billions of dollars on Light Rail

12. One of the most serious rail transit problems today is that older systems in several cities including such cities as Washington DC, New York City, Chicago, and even newer cities with older Light Rail systems such as Portland, are facing the need for many billions of dollars due to long neglected maintenance and worn out systems. These cities are experiencing very unreliable transit and many riders are abandoning public transit. The maintenance and capital replacement costs have not been appropriately planned in rail transit and there is often no source of funding. The U.S. government will not play a significant role in meeting these needs which cost as much or more than the original capital expenditures to install the rail systems.

There is a previous posting on this site which includes a paper addressing the issue of transit’s future in more detail. The posting is:Transit Transformation Needed Now!
This posting contains the Executive Summary, Introduction and Conclusion of the paper. The full paper can be accessed here:
The Coming Transit Apocalypse

The bottom line to this posting and many others on the web site is that Light Rail transit is failing to meet its committed performance in many cities. By the time Austin would vote on rail in 2020 and implement a major portion of its suggested rail lines in about 2030, as described in the above Statesman article, the light rail would be obviously outdated and known as the greatest waste of billions of dollars of taxpayer money in Austin’s history. We must prevent this irrational disaster and burden which would be placed on future generations. Our limited tax dollars must be directed to those cost-effective transportation needs which have already been firmly identified by citizens’ choices and are compatible with current and future technology advances. Light Rail is not the answer.


Austin Transit Map


There are three articles posted below. The first two are Dallas Morning News editorial columns with strong criticism for Dallas’ continuing transit path of adding additional light rail capacity. This is somewhat remarkable because this newspaper was very supportive of light rail in the 1990’s when the transit agency, DART, began rail implementation. Dallas has now spent several billion dollars to implement the longest light rail system in the nation, about 100 miles. As the editorials reflect, the community is becoming more aware that the promoted benefits of light rail are very problematical and rail is producing overall negative impacts. The third article is from the Washington Post addressing the nationwide reduction in transit ridership.

DART ridership is falling, and it will keep falling until focus shifts to bus service
Dallas Morning News Editorial, March 16, 2018

Two important facts explain much about the crisis of confidence Dallas Area Rapid Transit confronts as it drives into its 35th year. Population in its 13-city service area keeps going up, and yet year after year, the total number of riders who board its buses, trains and vans keeps going down.

The agency desperately needs a course-correction, and we’re relieved to see new board members from Dallas regularly insist on service improvements. But a DART report issued Tuesday makes clear current reforms are unlikely to be sufficient.

On Tuesday, DART made its annual disclosure to creditors. Bondholders will find little to fret about, but another set of investors, the taxpayers in 13 cities who have spent billions to sustain DART, should look twice at dispiriting revelations about ridership. (See our July, 2017 special report on how DART has failed the riders who need it most, the working poor.)

DART attracted fewer riders last year than the year before, and there’s little reason to believe this year will be any different, despite rising populations and a thriving economy where jobs are plentiful.

It’s tempting to excuse this poor report on the fact that cities outside DART’s 13-city service area are growing even faster than those within it. Or because jobs, too, are increasingly being located in Dallas’ outer suburbs.

But that’s nonsense. DART’s own cities are growing, too. The census estimated that the service area added more than 160,000 new residents between 2011 and 2016. And yet, ridership across almost every mode dropped.

Tuesday’s report updated the ridership picture with 2017 numbers. Last year, DART’s fleet of buses provided 32 million trips, down by more than 5 million trips in 2014.

In truth, bus ridership has been falling for years, largely because DART has aggressively re-jiggered its routes to funnel more riders onto its growing network of trains. Tuesday’s report shows how little success that strategy has had.

The 30.1 million light rail rides DART provided last year were only a slight bump from the 29.5 million it provided in 2014.

That means that the loss in bus ridership was nearly nine times greater than the gain in rail ridership.

That’s no way to run a transit agency.

Some headwinds against DART are outside its control. But what it can do is increase the service it provides for residents within its boundaries. The most effective way to do that, and the approach that will target riders who need DART most, is to expand its bus system.

But by how much? How soon? And at what costs in terms of delay or reduced ambitions for rail?

We can’t know, and neither can DART, until it develops a bus plan that rivals in scope what it already plans to spend on the suburban Cotton Belt line and a second, underground line in downtown Dallas.

These projects are worthy. But they should be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis that compares them to a similarly scaled investment in bus service.

Otherwise, bus plans will keep fighting for scraps as a rail-dominated transit system continues to shed riders like so much exhaust.

After decades of rail expansion, it’s time for DART to think big, very big on buses
Dallas Morning News Editorial, November 2, 2017

For months now, the chorus of criticism coming from the Dallas City Council aimed at Dallas Area Rapid Transit has been growing louder. The regional agency says it’s listening, but we are skeptical.

If it is listening, DART president Gary Thomas and his cadre of well-paid executives don’t seem to understand what they are hearing.

DART, a nearly $800 million-a-year operation with more than 4,000 employees serving Dallas and 12 smaller cities, is failing the riders who need it most. And it has been for years.

Who are these riders? They are low-income workers and others who use transit because they can’t afford to drive. For these workers, many of whom live here in Dallas, an available bus ride or train trip is the difference between earning a paycheck and not.

In Dallas, the poorest of these workers — full-time, year-round workers who are nevertheless in poverty — are twice as likely to use DART than other workers. When they do, they endure commutes that are 50 percent longer.

And yet these riders are the lucky ones. A study shared with the Dallas City Council last week showed that at least 96 percent of jobs in the region are out of reasonable reach for fully 65 percent of Dallas’ transit-dependent population.

No wonder so many poor workers remain poor, shut out of potentially better jobs just because they can’t get to them. And no wonder bus ridership at DART has fallen steadily for years.

What’s needed at DART is a massive reorganization of its resources. Thomas has repeatedly promised that the agency will boost bus spending by $14 million and is adding more than 40 new coaches by 2019.

Great, but that’s a pittance. It’s almost laughably out of scale with the scope of the problem.

Over the next 35 years, DART plans to spend several billion dollars on an east-west commuter rail line connecting Plano to Addison and onto the airport. Meanwhile, Dallas is determined to double the cost for a second downtown Dallas rail line by insisting it be buried underground, even though doing so won’t add riders.

Every one of those sales tax dollars could be spent, instead, on creating a bus system that works not just for workers in Dallas but for suburban commuters, too.

We already have the longest light-rail network in America. Why not hit the pause button on rail long enough to at least study what a 10-figure investment in buses over the next 30 or 35 years might look like?

We have no idea, because no such study has ever been done. Not because no one has thought of it — but because there has never been the political will to prioritize buses. Given how great the need is, shouldn’t that change?

Of course it should. But it won’t happen if the Dallas City Council and other member cities can’t get on board with the idea that DART must better serve the riders who need it most.

Falling transit ridership poses an ’emergency’ for cities, experts fear
Washington Post, 3-20-2018

Transit ridership fell in 31 of 35 major metropolitan areas in the U.S. last year, including each of the seven cities that serve the majority of riders, with losses largely stemming from buses, but punctuated by reliability issues on systems like Metro, according to an annual overview of public transit usage.

The analysis by the New York-based TransitCenter advocacy group, using data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Transit Database, raises alarm about the state of “legacy” public transit systems in the Northeast and Midwest and rising vehicle ownership and car-based commuting in cities nationwide.

Researchers concluded that factors such as lower fuel costs, increased teleworking, higher car ownership and the rise of alternatives such as Uber and Lyft are pulling people off trains and buses at record levels.

The data also showed 2017 was the lowest year of overall transit ridership since 2005, according to TransitCenter, and bus ridership alone fell 5 percent.

“I think it needs to be considered an emergency,” said Jarrett Walker, a transit planner who served as a consultant on a top-down bus network

redesign to curb cratering ridership in Houston. “When we don’t share space efficiently we get in each other’s way. And that is a problem for the livelihood, the viability, the livability and the economy of a city. … It means more traffic, more congestion.”

Polzin described what he called a “tough political sell” for agencies faced with decreasing ridership.

“Ridership declines, and then fare revenue declines, and then you have to cut service which means ridership declines more,” he said. “So folks get nervous about the cyclical nature of the decline because of lost fare revenue. But they also undermine kind of the public will to invest additional subsidy dollars and service as well. It’s very hard to go to your government and say ‘my ridership is down 10 percent, and I need more money to subsidize 10 percent less riders.’”

Planners warn that cities simply do not have the capacity to handle a wholesale shift to other modes — whether today’s version of ride-hailing, driving or eventual ride sharing through autonomous vehicles. Those alternatives, Walker said, are no match for “the basic geometry problem that only transit can solve — which is to move large numbers of people through a city in very little space.”
However, some researchers said declining ridership is not always indicative of transit’s failures.

Los Angeles-area transit agencies have seen dramatic bus ridership declines since the mid-2000s, with overall bus ridership falling about 30 percent over the course of a decade, according to the TransitCenter analysis.

Michael Manville, an assistant professor of Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles co-authored a January 2018 study that found many of the losses could be attributed to increased car ownership, particularly among low-income and immigrant populations, who were in a better position to afford cars following the Great Recession.

“I think it puts transportation planners in a bit of an unusual position … if in fact the reason for that departure is low-income people are doing better, getti ng the ability to move around like everyone else, it’s hard to say that what we should do is get them to remove themselves from their cars and back on trains and buses,” Manville said. “Transit systems should deliver quality service to low-income people. But low-income people do not owe us a transit system.”
(Researchers also pointed out the increased ease of obtaining a car, through factors such as subprime auto loans.)

Walker warned of the future the trends could portend.

“That can’t just be a free market conversation of transit losing ridership, that’s fine, let the best mode win,” he said. “City governments have an urgent imperative to do what’s necessary to make it attractive for people to use modes that use space efficiently.”

Metro’s and other systems’ reliability issues have hit low-income riders hardest, and now those systems are having a tough time winning them back in the face of increasing alternatives, advocates say.

Kristen Jeffers, founder and editor of The Black Urbanist blog, said riders are leaving because of declining service and the increased availability of other options to fill the gaps.

“Now that you have a car or a bike or a scooter on an app in your hand, and it’s right there — in a lot of major cities, why not use that? “ Jeffers said. “Now you don’t have the indignity of being stuck on the side of the road for a bus that never comes.”
She said transit systems need to regain trust through community outreach and going out of their way to cater to riders who might previously not have had a choice.

“Treating the bus like a prestige system,” she said, similar to their treatment of heavy rail systems in the past.

Metro is pondering a wholesale redesign of its bus system, with a study “to examine travel patterns, customer demand, technology opportunities and how to most cost-effectively deliver Metrobus service to riders,” according to agency spokeswoman Sherri Ly. The agency has yet to award a contract for the study, she said.

Meanwhile another West Coast city, Seattle, is viewed as the model for how transit agencies can recoup ridership in an era of population growth, an improving economy and rapid technological change — in part because of the popularity of buses. The city’s bus ridership has steadily grown from 92 million to 119 million trips over 16 years, the TransitCenter analysis shows. Meanwhile light-rail ridership has ballooned amid expansions, to 32 million trips last year.

The city, which has some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, hosts about 45,000 Amazon employees and had added 60,000 workers to its center city core since 2010, according to Andrew Glass-Hastings, director of transit and mobility for the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile Seattle voters have approved three high-dollar, transit-friendly initiatives that in the eyes of public officials have paid dividends and will continue to boost ridership: a $50 million annual funding boost to bus service, a billion-dollar bus rapid transit expansion and a $54-billion light- rail expansion plan that would build 62 miles of light-rail in a project that will extend into the 2030s. The improved bus service has meant the build- out of priority bus lanes and higher frequencies, with buses coming every four to six minutes, Glass-Hastings says. The state also requires large employers to enact programs that encourage alternatives to workers driving alone to work, resulting in commuter-benefit programs.

The lesson, says Glass-Hastings: “You can’t neglect your transit system for decades, have it be in disrepair and expect people to continue to use it, especially in a day and age when alternatives are so readily available.”

The Washington, D.C. region, like many transit-centric cities, is a major player in the battle for Amazon’s second headquarters, which brings the promise of about 50,000 jobs. Glass-Hastings said H2Q could be a coup for whichever city lands it. About 95 percent of workers to the new Center City jobs commute by a mode other than driving alone, he said, and in Amazon’s case its workers’ transit costs are company-covered.

But there was a message for cities in Amazon’s preference of Seattle, he said:

“You can’t just drop 50,000 people in sort of a transit desert and expect them to seek out the bus.”

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