Letter to Austin Mayor and Council Members Regarding Downtown Trolley Considerations

Dear Mayor/Council Member:

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s season. This year offers many new opportunities and, as always, some challenges and uncertainties. For your consideration, I offer the perspectives, insights and recommendations attached concerning the City Transportation Department’s studies regarding Austin’s Strategic Mobility Plan, its planning for a central trolley line and the City’s goal of a 2010 election including rail. There are two other attachments which are discussed in the main paper.

This brief summary is based on thousands of hours of study and many years of experience: First, there is a brief background section regarding Cap Metro and the commuter rail line because it relates directly to the City’s approach to the trolley. This is followed by a section on the City’s proposed trolley transit line describing its major shortcomings and how they parallel Cap Metro’s commuter line failings. The third section discusses how Austin is eerily following in Cap Metro’s footsteps as if little has been learned. Finally, there is a short summary of recommendations.

I believe this is one of the most important decision crossroads in Austin’s history. One fork of the path leads to the reduced mobility with increased congestion and pollution, unaffordable housing, reduced opportunity, increased hazards and degraded quality of life which numerous cities are experiencing. The other path provides needed mobility for all citizens with less congestion and pollution, greater housing affordability and choices, broader access to opportunity and higher quality of life.

I hope you have time to review and reflect on these issues as we began 2010. This subject is complex and not easy to summarize. I believe all statements are basically accurate and are not exaggerated, but may need more clarification. Let me know if I can help, in any way, in your considerations. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this at your convenience.

Best regards,
Jim Skaggs


Cap Metro’s Commuter Rail Line

Do you believe Austin area voters would have approved the Commuter Rail if Cap Metro had operated with transparency and integrity, revealing the truths below? I do not. Given the knowledge below, I believe voters would have soundly rejected the Commuter Rail because the vast majority of the people will make decisions which will serve the community’s greater-good if they are given all of the important and relevant facts.

This tragedy for riders, taxpayers and travelers began with Cap Metro hastily proceeding with the development of a pre-conceived solution to an ill-defined problem. They did not conduct an objective ‘Alternatives Analysis’ or perform adequate engineering as required by sound, long proven, standard practices and by Federal regulations . This would have revealed most of the following massive shortcomings of the commuter rail.

1. The commuter rail implementation cost to local taxpayers is already well over double the $60 million promised to voters. One cannot be exact because Cap Metro has purposely obfuscated their financial performance by the distortion and misleading recording of costs in many whys which do not reflect sound, legal accounting; transparency and integrity. Annual operating costs are now projected to be more than 5 times the $2 million promised to voters. These operating cost increases will total more than the capital costs in just a few years.

Cap Metro promised voters the Federal Government would pay for one-half the commuter’s 2004 advertized $60 million in implementation costs. Cap Metro knew, or was incompetent in not knowing, that they would not qualify for Federal funds. They did not apply.

2. Taxpayers will subsidize each initial average daily, round trip commuter rail rider with about $15,000 annually. Daily, round trip riders from Leander to Austin will be subsidized with about $30,000 annually.

3. The commuter rail has substantially degraded social equity/justice: Funding the commuter rail to serve a maximum of 1,000 daily riders, who mostly have alternative (car) transportation, has resulted in rapidly increasing fares and reductions in service for the more than 40,000 daily riders using the backbone bus transit system, mostly without alternative transportation choices. It has also delayed more cost effective bus transit alternatives including Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and Express Bus.

4. The commuter rail will have no positive net benefit for congestion. It probably increases congestion as it crosses dozens of road intersections delaying vehicles on busy streets.

5. The diesel engine commuter will not provide promised “environmentally friendly” pollution benefits. Today, it is ‘cleaner’ for each rail rider to use a new car, and, car emissions continue to improve every year.

6. The commuter rail may also have safety issues as it intersects many intersections and operates through school and park areas.

7. In 2004, Cap Metro’s ridership had a several years down trend and rapidly increasing cost trend. Both trends have continued to this day with more than a 12% ridership drop from 2000 to the 2010 budget; the UT ridership portion has declined about 35%. With a rapidly growing population, this translates to a much greater drop in transit ‘ridership per capita’ which Cap Metro has historically hailed as a strong performance indicator. At the same time, its costs per passenger trip have substantially outpaced inflation and more than doubled (charts below). This is not sustainable.

City of Austin Proposed Central Austin Trolley Line

Cap Metro spent millions to study downtown trolley lines. Fortunately, the commuter rail resulted in basically bankrupting the agency and it ceased work on trolley lines.

The city of Austin resurrected the trolley project and is spending millions to hastily further study a central circulator trolley line. The decision to follow this track, wastefully spending millions of tax dollars, is very questionable. However, the city needs to exhibit absolute transparency and integrity in revealing ‘objective’ cost effectiveness/benefits or value analysis for the trolley. This has never been done by Cap Metro or the City.

Cap Metro’s experience with the commuter and the experience of many other cities indicate this trolley will have the same deficiencies (above) as Cap Metro’s commuter line plus additional issues as discussed below:

1. The Trolley specifications have not been fully determined and engineering has been shallow, but, the costs have been variously presented as $650 plus/minus million for the completed system. Thorough and sound evaluation requires up to two years and will undoubtedly result in estimated costs which are more than a billion dollars for the full system. This should be the base for ‘cost effectiveness.’ The trolley will run at frequent intervals from early morning till late evening and its annual operating costs will be much greater, probably more than $20 million, than the commuter rail which is only planned to have a few runs in the morning and evening.

2. While the costs and ‘forever’ taxpayer subsidies for the trolley are not yet fully known, every experience indicates costs will be exorbitant and subsidies per passenger mile will be in a similar range to Cap Metro’s commuter subsidies. The trolley implementation will cost several times the commuter rail with a total build-out cost of more than a billion dollars. It may have more riders in the denser downtown area but probably not more than the proportionately higher costs. Average trips will be much shorter and most of a less “critical” nature such as tourist, entertainment, lunch, etc. and little commuting on the route.

3. Inputs from the City and trolley consultants folks indicate they may well recognize the cost issue and are looking for ways to define a “starter” trolley line which would be under about $200 million. This would be combined in a large bond issue with a number of other needed infrastructure items including roads to “hook” the public and lead them unknowingly to the expanded, billion-plus dollar trolley system.

This is similar to the deceptive approach used by Cap Metro in advertizing a $60 million commuter rail which now cost several times this. Their goal was always to expand once they got their “nose under the tent.” Fortunately, they ran out of money and cannot cause more significant damage for a while.

The City’s trolley will very likely not qualify for Government funding just as Cap Metro’s commuter rail did not. Local taxpayers would pay many hundreds of millions over the lifetime of this trolley and very few will ever use it or benefit from it.

4. The trolley will degrade Social equity/justice much more than the commuter rail as huge taxpayer costs will be a burden to low income people and siphoning tax dollars to implement and operate an expensive, ineffective trolley transit line will continue to hamper the City’s ability to provide acceptable levels of basic city services to all citizens.

5. The trolley rail will increase congestion to a much greater degree than the commuter because the trolley reduces car lane capacity on many of central Austin’s major streets. In cities similar to Austin, public transit only has occasional minor and remote relationship to reduced congestion.

6. The trolley rail will present greater safety hazards because it intermingles with pedestrians and vehicles on Austin’s busy streets.

7. The trolley is not flexible to meet changing demands. Austin is an adolescent city which is growing and changing rapidly. Perceived or projected development patterns are changing. For example: If Waller Creek becomes a major center of destination activity, the current trolley vision down Congress will not serve the Waller Creek area.

8. Studies have shown that the trolley will have little impact on additional development tax base in Austin. However, whatever one’s belief, there is no way the cost to implement and operate the trolley can be paid for by the creation of additional tax base. None of Austin’s aggressive downtown growth has been inspired by or dependent on trains.

9. The trolley rail will result in visual pollution as its network maze of wires, poles and trolley connecting devices block many of the cherished, traditional views of Austin and the Capital. These views and uses of Congress Avenue belong to all Texans.

10. The trolley rail will prevent the use of major streets such as Congress Avenue for the many civic activities held each year such as parades, runs, etc.

City of Austin is Repeating Cap Metro’s Failures

Any objective evaluation would indicate that, to date, the City is operating in much the same way which led Cap Metro to its current, serious, financial collapse with long trends of substantially increasing costs and decreasing transit ridership. This is not a sustainable state. The City is now proceeding down Cap Metro’s track of shortcomings and failure:

1. Austin is starting with a pre-conceived solution to an ill-defined problem. The City and its consultants readily admit they are not doing a legitimate, objective ‘alternatives analysis’ but are only evaluating train alternatives.

There has not been a clearly articulated definition of what the objectives of the project are in some detail and in order of priority. If, for example, the trolley is primarily to address central Austin congestion, the trolley is not a solution and will exacerbate congestion. So, is the trolley for addressing mobility, pollution, social equity, or what, and in what priority? It is clear the trolley is not cost effective in any of these areas.

2. The City has dramatically over-stated early trolley ridership estimates and understated costs. The situation is similar to Cap Metro’s, and other cities’ in several ways: For example, Houston spent several hundred million on a 7.5 mile trolley from Houston’s Central Business District (CBD) to just beyond Houston’s Texas Medical Center. Houston’s central business district’s (CBD) employment is about 160,000 or almost double Austin’s (including UT). Houston’s, largest in the world, Texas Medical Center’s employment is another 72,600 and it also has 33,000 students, 11,600 volunteers and 160,000 daily visitors. Houston Metro terminates more than 80 bus routes at trolley stations, forcing transfers for the final short trips to destinations, which increases rail and transit trips without serving more people. Trolley ridership is boosted by subsidizing weekend riders to reach two professional sports arenas. The Houston trolley averages about 31,000 trips per day with an average of 2.4 miles. Austin’s early estimate for a proposed trolley is 30,000 trips per day, just shy of Houston’s, for a system which will cost three times Houston’s. Based on these very large Houston population centers, sports arenas and actual ridership, the Austin ridership estimates are clearly not credible and the Austin trolley will not be financially sustainable.

After spending more than $400 hundred million on the current trolley and planning extensions of 20.5 miles, now estimated to cost 3 times the $1.23 billion promised voters, the total ridership on Houston Metro has trended down for three years and, today, is 17% less than it was 10 years ago prior to the trolley (light rail) opening in 2004 (see attached chart, below). This down trend is even greater than these figures indicate because trips are significantly, artificially increased by terminating bus routes at the light rail station and forcing people to transfer to the rail for the short trips to their final destinations. After spending hundreds of millions, Houston’s transit ridership decline is even greater than Cap Metro’s. Austin and Houston have about the same 1% ‘Transit Share of Travel’ and declining. Dallas, with billions in trains, has less than 0.8%.

3. Austin is hastily rushing to an arbitrary election date which does not provide adequate time for engineering and cost assessment or adequate communication and education of the public “stakeholders;” and, no time for an objective ‘alternatives analysis.’

4. The City is faced with numerous financial challenges in this economy. Many basic city functions and services are being reduced along with the curtailing of hiring and salary increases. The energy department is also projecting less robust future financial performance and sales tax receipts are significantly off. This is not a time to promote the massive wasteful spending of tax dollars on a trolley which provides little community benefit: Never will so many have paid so much for so little benefit for so few.

5. To date, the City has not been transparent and has presented misleading and distorted information. If the City has defined problems and narrowed the solution to the trolley, then it must have enough information to reach this conclusion. If not, millions are again being wasted much as Cap Metro has done in numerous cases. If the City has reached this level of confidence in the trolley, it is not openly providing public insight into the true cost and cost effectiveness of the trolley to address specified objectives. If the answer is that it is too early for this information to be available, then it is not responsible to have already selected the trolley and to be suggesting a November 2010 election or even a May 2011 election.

The City has been incomplete or misleading regarding their qualification for and the availability of federal funds for this trolley project as well as the continuing funding for the substantial annual operating costs and the need and plan for capital replacement costs.

If the City, as stated, is using Cap Metro trolley studies as a foundation, they should be thrown out and redone from scratch. These studies have obviously been proven to be, inadequate, incomplete and incompetent.

6. Austin’s Strategic Mobility Plan should be completed before spending millions on this trolley. An overall city plan is critical to addressing an integrated approach to total Austin mobility. Putting this trolley ahead of the plan based on a pre-determined decision that the trolley is a viable and priority element is very high risk and can waste millions while jeopardizing the overall plan.

The commuter rail has shown that for a fraction of its cost, and years sooner, Cap Metro could have substantially improved bus transit (BRT and Express Bus) for 6-10 times the number of transit riders which the commuter rail will serve. This is what cost effectiveness and sustainability are about. Now, there is no money to do what is needed.


Austin prides itself for being a city of vision. The trolley line uses 120 year old technology which is not cost effective, is dangerous, will create massive congestion and pollution, is an eyesore and is not flexible to adjust to changing development patterns and demands. This trolley does not effectively address our priority needs and its exorbitant costs substantially detract from the City’s ability to address issues which are critically important for all citizens. At the same time, this trolley will make further mockery of our stated objectives for social equity/justice.

Austin has numerous transportation bottlenecks and dangerous situations which hundreds of thousands of citizens face on a daily basis. Austin’s transit and carpooling are missing many fundamental segments and capabilities which would quickly and cost-effectively enhance the opportunities and quality of life for many low income citizens. The proposed trolley will not have a measurable impact on these issues but it will siphon the needed funds from those projects which will address fundamental community needs.

I urge the city to thoughtfully reconsider its current track. There is nothing in Cap Metro’s performance or that of almost every similar city to indicate the City of Austin will have any different rail or transit outcome than that demonstrated by the “unsustainable” ridership and cost trends of Cap Metro on the charts below. These charts reflect an unsustainable condition for any venture and results in a true tragedy for travelers, transit riders and taxpayers.

Austin is a great city and can become one of the world’s greatest cities. It deserves modern, visionary, transportation/mobility solutions which meet the needs of the vast majority of citizens now and in future years. These solutions must be cost effective and provide the greatest mobility enhancement for the dollars invested. Those downtown and outside the central area must be equally served as it takes all citizens to make a city. Austin must learn from the many transportation/mobility mistakes of Capital Metro and numerous cities including Houston and Dallas. Our guiding principle must be improved, cost effective mobility and not unfounded ideology. We cannot begin by capitulating to the erroneous idea that roads, which serve 99% of our trips, cannot be improved; and default to the false promises of fixed rail on our busy streets. There are many unexplored possibilities and opportunities for solutions and approaches which will serve this total community and its citizens far better than the proposed downtown trolley. While this will not be easy, it can be achieved with strong, competent and objective leadership.

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Again, if I can be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to let me know. Also attached are some core questions which I recommend for the trolley in order to make sound decisions. I prepared them more than 3 years ago for Cap Metro’s streetcar and have slightly modified them. My assessment indicates that every question’s answer is negative to the trolley. Also attached is a Houston ridership chart indicating basically the same negative performance.

Houston Transit Ridership Trends

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Questions for Downtown Trolley

1. Have the priority, and any major secondary, purposes and objectives of this transit project been clearly articulated such that performance measures can be established?

2. Has a thorough and objective ‘alternatives analysis’ been conducted to determine the most effective transit mode to achieve the stated purposes and objectives?

3. Is it cost-effective compared to alternatives or will it drain funds from higher priority and more effective projects?

4. Is it financially sustainable for the capital and implementation and for its long term operations?

5. Does it enhance or degrade transit service and costs for those depending on daily service and without alternatives?

6. Will it reduce congestion or increase congestion?

7. Is it safe or does it increase safety hazards?

8. Will it enhance or decrease mobility for most citizens?

9. Will it carry more people, faster and more reliably than alternatives?

10. Will it enhance or degrade the neighborhoods it passes through?

11. Does it preserve the visual environment or result in unsightly views?

12. Does it disrupt or eliminate the use of downtown streets for traditional civic events.

13. Does it effectively enhance development goals for the community’s greater good or is it wasteful subsidizing of developers by taxpayers?

14. Does it have an air quality benefit or detriment?

15. Does it enhance or detract from Austin’s “desirability”?

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©2007 Coalition On Sustainable Transportation