Transit productivity not political trophies

Given the underwhelming ridership and cost figures estimated for the Grove to Highland rail proposal, some proponents are deploying a “political” argument on behalf of the route. Below is a real-world specimen that captures the main points of the political argument:


Let’s address these points individually.

1. “Unique consensus”

Of the 200,000 people that will be voting this November, perhaps 200 (or some similarly small number) believe fiercely that Project Connect’s evolving recommendation is the optimal next major transit investment. It certainly matters that some of those 200 are influential members of the community – such as the Mayor , the University of Texas community VPs, and the Chamber leadership. Therefore, what is actually truly unique is that a certain niche of civic elites with the capacity to muscle a referendum onto the ballot agree on a mode and route.

If the proposal were to be trimmed (to just Grove to UT, for example) or if it were to fail, the underlying desire by that niche of institutional players wouldn’t dissipate. Instead, they’d continue their push for service. In this way, this “special” mode and route consensus will endure even if this election is its apex of political influence. The only thing that some transit advocates – and eventually the voters – are doing is trying to discern the public value of the proposal forged from this niche consensus.

For the record, here’s how the survey-takers in Project Connect’s 1st phase sessions assessed the sub-corridors before and after being presented some basic data:


But again, this chart just represents a different niche consensus than the one that presently holds sway at Council.

As for the broader 200,000…well, it’s hard to know what they think. There’s no relevant public opinion polling and many will not delve into the details until the final weeks.

Regardless of the niche elite fights, the desire by the public to “improve transportation” isn’t going anywhere.

Certainly there will be a “wait time” before the next large investment can be put in front of the voters; but if this package performs poorly, that’s a mostly a bad thing for this package – not for transportation in general.  Below is a list of wait times for recent rail defeats:


The scale of the wait tends to be years not decades.  The subsequent proposal tends to be scaled down, which in this case is exactly what opponents want for Grove-Highland.

2. “Lamar is expensive”

Apparently, the author of the political argument views advocates interested in ensuring improvements in the productivity of transit dollars as “idealistic”.

As Oscar Wilde argued, a cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.  Idealistic pro-Lamar voices would retort that the build messiness of that route is overestimated (especially compared to the current proposal’s need to build a bridge, a tunnel, and potentially upend East Riverside car lanes.) They would also argue that the richness of its ridership potential more than makes up for the initial implementation problems and costs.

Personally, I am not much of a Guadalupe-Lamar (GL) diehard, as anybody that’s actually read this blog knows.  I certainly wish that the GL corridor would have been studied in Phase 2. I requested as much from Council at their December sub-corridor selection vote.

Perhaps further study of GL would have proven to have an even higher capital cost and an equally unappealing operating subsidy as the existing Grove-Highland proposal. If so, I would have been as committed to stopping it as the current Grove-Highland proposal.   My goal is improving the productivity of scarce transit dollars not just buying a community infrastructure trophy.

All that said, given the existing high ridership on the GL corridor and existing land use, it’s very likely that when it is eventually studied for rail (in 4 to 10 years) that the capital costs and messiness will be more than made up by how it shines on operational expenses and ridership potential. We’ll see.

3. “You can’t build on Lamar anytime soon”

Here’s what the regional FTA official relayed to CapMetro’s government affairs team (via Scott Morris):


Interpret it as you see fit. I don’t interpret that as a firm “no”. I interpret it as “let’s go through a process.”

Practically, though, Austin doesn’t have any civic leaders right now that feel strongly enough about GL that also have clout. And that clout is needed to push our local institutions to navigate the FTA process of upgrading the route to rail.  In the minds of our current elected leadership, the service just started and theoretically, rail construction would begin in the middle of the MetroRapid buses’ operational life. In their minds, it’s just not worth it. Personally, from a pure cost-benefit point-of-view, I don’t find this that compelling an objection, but I accept it. Alas, that’s where our current leadership is.  But in a couple of years it might start to make a lot more sense to accelerate the schedule, even to elected and agency leaders, especially if Austin’s growth and the corridors ridership justify it.

Ultimately, the pivot to arguing against Lamar’s immediate feasibility is a bit of misdirection. Notice how there’s no defense of Grove-Highland based on facts about its advantages or operational qualities.

4. “We need more transit. Must act now!”

Absolutely! The problem is that Grove-Highland rail reduces the productivity of our limited transit resources. In brief, it uses up an extraordinary amount of our borrowing capacity without providing per-rider mobility at a meaningfully lower cost than regular bus.


And if the projected high growth doesn’t occur and/or the operational figures underestimate costs, then Grove-Highland would further reduce transit resource productivity (Excel file version of table).  The table above demonstrates that the proposed route’s per-rider costs face too high a hurdle to clear in besting the costs for high-performing bus lines. The main cause for this quagmire is the selection of a corridor that will not have enough residential or employment density to support high ridership – even if we believe the high (a.k.a unrealistic) growth rates assumed by Project Connect’s hidden, unproven model.


Therefore, if we want more transit, we actually have to avoid additional productivity destroying mistakes like the Grove to Highland proposal. It will consume borrowing capacity we could use for other transit infrastructure and lead to fewer frequency expansions/existing service cuts as it eats up local operational dollars.

Better alternatives

Luckily, there are many compelling initiatives we could undertake right now to enable better transit.

For starters, instead of pursuing rail from Grove-Highland, we could instead do much, much cheaper BRT. By Project Connect’s own estimates – even with their high growth projections – a comparable BRT fleet would still have 25% of its capacity available at peak time in 2030. The risks of bad rail starting in 2021 are exorbitantly larger than the downside of dealing with standing-room-only BRT in 2040.

But most importantly, to really make transit work in Austin, we need to fix our land use. CodeNEXT is a part of that much needed effort and transit advocates must really push for change. The last two decades of head-in-the-sand views about growth have left Austin’s core with precious few pockets of transit-supportive density.

We must also move away from prioritizing cars within the core by providing more dedicated lanes to transit.

These steps can be coupled with a transition towards higher-frequency service where transit-supportive land use is adopted. Additional frequency can be funded through route pruning and simplification (a la Houston).

Overall, these alternatives cost much less and will do a lot more for transit ridership than the Grove-Highland proposal.

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11 Responses to Transit productivity not political trophies

  1. Mike Dahmus says:

    A virtuous cycle of investment ( is better than a death spiral. Keep it just that simple.

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  5. Meg says:

    Yes, let’s definitely look to Houston for a publish transporatation model. Yeesh.

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