O BRT, where art thou?

Opponents of a reinvigorated data-driven process for urban rail route selection often highlight the planned MetroRapid bus service.   As the map below shows, the initial service routes cover Guadalupe, Lamar, and Congress.


“The feds are already helping us meet the needs there” are the key lyrics to this particular siren song, implying that further community engagement is not needed.  At first glance, this is a compelling argument since redundant transit investments would be wasteful, not to mention a political loser.  But if we tie ourselves to an empiricist mast and delve into the details we arrive at a quite different destination.  As it turns out, the ‘duplicative funding’ argument made by opponents of comparative benchmarks requires some very unlikely assumptions about both local and federal funding.

The formal agreement with the Federal Transportation Authority (FTA) does not specify a concrete expectation of how long the fleet of MetroRapid buses need to stay in service.  The main focus of the grant agreement is to begin revenue operations by January 2014. From my querying of local transit veterans (including pro-Mueller people) it seems that ten years is the minimum expected service life of a bus.  So, the MetroRapid fleet bought with federal funds will start to wear out by 2024.

The existing projection for the Mueller urban rail ribbon-cutting is 2022. This is based on a five-year build and an assumption of immediate approval by the FTA for the project to enter preliminary engineering (PE), as well as to receive New Starts funding once PE is complete.  New Starts is the federal program the funds capital costs for new, high-cost rail projects.  The projection also assumes a successful local referendum in 2014. These assumptions are summarized in the expenditure schedule from the City’s urban rail website (as of June 16th, 2013).


If the local referendum fails next year, then the status of federal funding will be irrelevant – it would be a major blow to rail efforts and would likely totally reset planning much like the failed rail referendum did in 2000.

So let’s assume that a successful referendum can happen in 2014.  That still leaves us with the following question: how realistic is the funding schedule above?

Those not prone to lotus-eating will recall that the Transit Working Group covered rail financing last year. Testimony provided to the TWG by Project Connect’s financial consultant reveals that the above schedule, while feasible, is much closer to a ‘best case’ scenario than what is likely to occur.

James Brogan is a leading consultant with Cambridge Systematics – the firm charged with developing a financial plan for Project Connect.  At the May 4th, 2012 meeting of the TWG, Mr. Brogan laid out the facts on the funding climate for New Starts.

The bottom line: as of May of 2012, New Starts funding had been flat for a few years at a bit under $2 billion dollars, there were roughly 100 projects in contention for approval to enter New Starts at any time, and the trend was for a growing queue due to continued urbanization.  As a result, the number of approved projects was relatively stable but with growing demand. Brogan characterize New Starts as ‘oversubscribed’ due to the scores of transit suitors seeking the FTA’s engagement.  The Y-axis in the chart below from Mr. Brogan’s presentation is the count of projects.


Since last May, there have been a few scary moments for the new transportation funding authorization due to the sequester and the conservative majority in the House. Again, funding remains flat at $1.9 billion for fiscal year’s 2013 and 2014.  No authorizations are in place for subsequent years.  Given the ideological preferences of the conservative majority of the House, it is unclear if those levels will be maintained or reduced.  The testimony provided at the TWG hearing made it clear that nothing was automatic when it came to New Starts. While Austin was a compelling community, the funding pool was fiercely competitive.

‘Ballpark’ estimates were thrown around by the City of Austin Transportation Director during the TWG meeting for (1) getting access to PE as part of New Starts, (2) completing PE, (3) moving from PE to receipt of federal money for construction, and (4) the duration of construction.  The expenditure schedule presented above visualizes the lowest range of each of those estimations: an immediate entry into PE; a smooth completion of PE in three years instead of the maximum of the range cited which was five; an immediate acceptance of PE work and disbursement of construction funds; an efficient build of the rail in five years.

Perhaps the best case will unfold and the project will be done by 2022.  But if the duration for each phase is actually in the middle of the ‘ballpark’ ranges discussed at TWG or the progress with FTA is slower than discussed or funding is even tighter than expected, then it is much more likely that an actual ribbon cutting will be closer and closer to ten years or more years down the road.

From an advocacy point of view it makes sense for public sector staff and consultants to lay out the best case for the public.  But it is important for civic leaders to push back on ‘best case’ estimates driving the decision-making process.  Relying on ‘best case’ estimates leaves us in the dark, like some blinded Cyclops, incapable of undertaking accurate route optimization because of misdirection about the probable timeline.

Now let’s turn to considering the argument that the FTA will not fund anything in the corridor until the MetroRapid busses are worn.  The opponents of comparative benchmarking seem to imply that any investment (and perhaps even any conversation with FTA) about funding in the same corridors is out of the question during the minimum service life of the equipment.

Does it make sense that FTA would examine a proposal concerning the MetroRapid corridors equally if it was made on the eleventh year of operations instead of the first or second?

Such an assumption – a one-step function to how FTA discounts their investment – doesn’t seem plausible and definitely is not hardwired into our agreement.  It is also unlikely that the true discount function in the minds of the future FTA funding evaluators is a purely linear pattern with each year weighted equally – that seems too optimistic.  Instead, what is likely to be in the case is that the FTA looks at the years closer to the end of service life for the buses differently than those at the start; this resembles the rather common pattern of a logarithm.  And if the discount function is more like a logarithm, then corridor feasibility for FTA funding significantly increases in the later years of MetroRapid.


So if the eight-year schedule is too optimistic for Mueller rail and the one-step function for FTA funding consideration is too pessimistic for the feasibility of rail on other corridors, then the argument against comparative benchmarking starts to collapse. While the opponents of comparative benchmarking make these arguments out to be some kind of analytical Scylla and Charybdis against further route comparisons, they are much less fearsome when navigated with care.

Ultimately, comparative benchmarking requires consideration of the full range of funding probabilities and development states of the local transit system, not just assuming the best case scenario for one of the corridors.  There is still plenty of time for this analysis to be done without postponing a 2014 election. And many of us believe that such a process will help build the needed community consensus so that the voters will actually say ‘yes we will yes’ on an urban rail referendum.

P.S. Happy Bloomsday.

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10 Responses to O BRT, where art thou?

  1. M1EK says:

    “The feds are already helping us meet the needs there” – please don’t take this as a given either. MetroRapid, on Guadalupe/Lamar, is most definitely NOT a major improvement over existing bus service. It’s leading to a frequency DECLINE compared to existing combined 1/101 service, and is no faster than existing 101 service. The MOST you can say is that it slightly increases capacity and slightly changes the mix of buses from local towards limited.

    • Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

      I certainly don’t think it is comparable to urban rail. I think it is some kind of improvement but await your future blog post on the subject to figure out just how much of an improvement. I took an easier argument here in just pointing out that this disqualification of G/L and Congress because of MetroRapid requires assumptions about federal funding that seem a bit too favorable to the existing route.

      Also: I also referred to it as BRT because the grant application to the federal government says ‘BRT’ and just didn’t think I could keep reader attention both through the points I made AND a BRT v. rapid bus v. regular bus delineation.

  2. Dan Keshet says:

    What percentage of MetroRapid funds were spent on buses vs. stations? Could any of the stations be retrofitted into Urban Rail stations?

    • Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

      In the 2008 grant application, the vehicles were $30 million and the stations $5.8 million. Don’t know the actual expenditures or the answer on retrofit. In any event, it seems odd to sub-optimally allocate the $500 million to $1 billion we will be asking the federal government for money on because we are afraid of the ‘optics’ of re-investing in this or that non-Mueller corridor because of some relatively tiny bit of depreciation left on a bus station eight years from now.

      • Dan Keshet says:

        Wow, I didn’t realize how great the funding disparity is, either between the vehicles and the stations, or between the MetroRapid and the proposed Urban Rail. Yes, I really don’t understand how this argument carries any water.

      • M1EK says:

        The ‘optics’ argument expands when you take a look at how MetroRapid has been promoted – with a lot of talk about how it’s a game-changer; totally different from anything possible with the old bus system; etc. Necessary to convince the Feds to fund it under BRT even though most of the money went to vehicles. Hard to walk back later, without pissing off the same Feds.

      • Dan Keshet says:

        Re: M1EK’s ‘optics’ argument: I sometimes think that urbanists have a flip-side version of this. I’m cautiously optimistic that MetroRapid will be an improvement on existing bus service. I know that you have made arguments regarding frequency and time-of-service, but I’m hopeful regarding the improved onboarding/offboarding, consolidation of stops, real-time information, etc. THE main reason I’m nervous about MetroRapid is the possibility that in some people’s minds, it will preclude the ability to get much better service to these corridors.

        But I do get nervous when people make strong arguments that MetroRapid is worse than useless. If it turns out to be a mild improvement on existing bus infrastructure, some might argue that that invalidates the argument that MetroRapid isn’t *enough* of an improvement.

  3. Nice article! But it’s disappointing that there’s so much conjecture, decently argued no less, about how the FTA thinks. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could just have a public decision-making process that lays it all out for us? My support of one alignment versus the other is hinged pragmatically on whether the federal government will fund our preference.

  4. Pingback: The Austin Precedent: Bus improvements block rail | Austin On Your Feet

  5. Pingback: Project Connect Phase 1 Lie Number 2 | M1EK's Bake-Sale of Bile

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