10 Reasons Austin Mayor’s Rail is Off-Track

by Jim Skaggs

(A slightly shorter version of this article was published in the November 16-22 Austin Business Journal’s Opinion section, page 38.)

Mayor Will Wynn recently proposed a new, expanded trolley passenger rail concept for Central Austin and suggested it be presented to voters in November, 2008. The Mayor’s vague concept has little definition and cannot even be considered a “draft” plan. The concept has not been evaluated by Capital Metro or any other agency and it would be irresponsible to present it to voters in 2008. Below are 10 reasons to reject the mayor’s concept:

1. Capital Metro’s current Austin-Leander Commuter Rail will have little or no operating experience by November 2008. The implementation, maintenance and operations of this rail line through 2030 is already projected to cost several hundred million more in local tax dollars than promised to voters in 2004. Each initial commuter rider from Leander to Austin will require tax payer subsidizes of more than $20,000 per year. With many red warning lights flashing, Austin and Capital Metro should be prudent and use the commuter rail to validate the usefulness and cost-effectiveness of passenger rail prior to spending up to a billion or more of our dollars for the Mayor’s new rail concept.

2. Capital Metro has spent several years and millions of dollars planning and promoting a downtown trolley train. They have not completed the detailed evaluation of the route, the costs, the ridership or a plan for funding it. The Mayor’s sketchy outline of a new and expanded passenger rail would replace Capital Metro’s preliminary plan and would cost several times Capital Metro’s downtown trolley cost estimate of some $230 million. As with the commuter and the downtown trolley, there is very low probability any of the cost would be paid by Federal Government tax dollars. The billion or more in costs with low ridership will be incredibly wasteful of local tax dollars, providing no measurable benefit for more than 99% of the citizens.

3. Capital Metro transit ridership has a ten-year downtrend. Meanwhile operating costs have grown at record rates and are now approximately 90% (inflation adjusted) higher than ten years ago, serving fewer riders. These unsustainable trends and the huge commuter cost overruns have resulted in Capital Metro projecting expenses will exceed revenues in about four years. For families and businesses, this results in bankruptcy.

4. We must not wastefully spend huge amounts of tax dollars on ineffective transportation systems while facing major fund shortages for transportation projects which will provide major mobility improvements. Austin area total transit ridership is about 1% of passenger miles traveled but the area spends about 30% of transportation funds on “alternative” transportation modes, predominately public transit. The new commuter rail is projected to initially carry only about 2% of the daily transit passenger trips or 0.02% (.0002) of the area’s total passenger trips while costing more than 10% of Capital Metro’s operating budget. Transportation funding priorities must be based on serving the needs of the citizens.

5. Capital Metro’s inability to fund a new passenger train will require other funding sources. The Mayor suggested a vague concept in which funding could be partially provided by Capital Metro, the City, the County, Airport revenues, general tax bonds, tax increment financing and maybe property tax increases. Many of these funding schemes are promoted as “no tax increase” but they will, in fact, all result in direct or indirect major increases in citizens’ taxes for no benefit to the overwhelming majority of citizens. The suggestion of paying for part of the train with increased tax revenues due to trolley induced development has already been exposed as fictitious by a City of Austin funded study.

6. Trolleys will substantially increase downtown congestion as streetcars and boarding platforms eliminate and conflict with vehicle lanes on busy streets such as Congress Avenue. More than 99% of all area travelers, whether by transit, school bus, bicycle, walking, or private and commercial vehicles arrive at their destination by roadway and this is not projected to change. Increased congestion will reduce mobility and quality of life and trolley’s will create severe safety hazards because heavy train cars intermingling with pedestrians and private vehicles cannot stop quickly or swerve to avoid accidents.

7. The trolleys’ maze of overhead power cables, connect structures, support poles and boarding platforms will destroy cherished Capital views from Congress Avenue as well as deny the use of Congress Avenue for traditional civic parades, charity runs, etc.

8. Today, there is little demand for downtown trolleys as evidenced by the insignificant use of the current, free Dillo bus circulators. Austin is in a growing, adolescent city and no one knows the shape it will take as it fully develops. Fixed rail systems are very difficult and expensive to modify as changes in demand occur. Austin needs flexible, cost-effective bus (or Dillo) circulators which can easily adjust to changing demand and routes. For example: The new Waller Creek ‘river walk’ being planned near Red River Street may be a major development area and current proposed trolley rail routes do not support it.

9. Blindly proceeding to a vote on a rail plan with little definition and inadequate evaluation is likely to result in substantial tax increases and severe negative impacts to social equity goals as numerous cities have experienced. Expensive, ineffective rail systems siphon funds from bus transit systems used by the vast majority of transit riders. This results in increased transit fares and reduced service for those who depend on transit in their daily lives and have no alternative.

10. The Mayor is to be commended for his passion and dedication to addressing the earth’s warming trend. Private individuals, companies and government organizations should all take prudent steps to more efficiently use the earth’s resources to minimize “greenhouse” gases. Unfortunately, trolleys and other passenger trains are often not “environmentally friendly” as advertised. In most cases, low passenger rail ridership, high costs, congestion increases and trains’ diesel engines result in more pollution than if all train riders were in new cars.

Mass transit failures to live up to ridership projections and enormous cost overruns across the nation indicate the necessity for thorough analysis and evaluation of all aspects of exorbitantly expensive rail systems prior to presenting them to voters. A competent evaluation of the Mayor’s new concept cannot be hurriedly completed prior to the 2008 election. The current Austin-Leander passenger rail is an appropriate “test” case and should be operated for at least two years to evaluate performance and cost-effectiveness thoroughly prior to asking voters to approve another passenger rail. In addition, Capital Metro’s current “All Systems Go” plan with extended express bus, rapid bus, local bus and other improvements is far from complete and must be completed. Concurrently, the City of Austin and Capital Metro’s board and management must establish a new, viable, sustainable plan to provide the vital transit service this community needs prior to committing to major new, high-cost, fixed rail mass transit or trolley systems.

Jim Skaggs is a retired Austin, Fortune 500, High Tech Company Chief Executive Officer and is a member of the executive committee of the Coalition on
Sustainable Transportation (COST)

Comments are closed.

©2007 Coalition On Sustainable Transportation