The initial ridership and cost estimates are in for the proposed Grove-Highland Rail (GHR) route. And they are thoroughly disappointing. Simply put, GHR will consume an enormous amount of our transit borrowing capacity without providing mobility at a meaningfully lower rider subsidy than regular bus service.
Previously, I’ve argued that one solution to these mediocre numbers would be undertaking an initial Grove-University of Texas phase with a design that allowed the second phase to go either West towards Seaholm or Lamar or North towards Highland or Mueller. Basically, we would build the best part of GHR first and then make a call about how to proceed.
Unfortunately, Project Connect’s urban rail lead is pushing the Central Corridor Advisory Group (The Mayor’s task force designing the rail proposal) to submit the entire GHR for the necessary environmental reviews, foreclosing the possibility of a westward turn after an initial Grove to UT phase.
Given the insistence on taking out debt to serve the entire Grove-Highland route, the only solution left is to advocate for Bus Rapid Transit (real BRT, not MetroRapid) as the technology.
To grasp the problems with the GHR proposal, we must begin by reminding ourselves of what our current transit system is: bus service. For 2014, CapMetro projects about 33 million bus boardings.
Project Connect has not released (and doesn’t seem interested in releasing) the methodology for its GHR ridership “estimate”. I will refer to their estimates as “assertions”. For the moment, let’s assume that their ridership assertion is correct and that the average daily (weekday and weekend) boardings will be about 18,000. That’s 6.57 million annual boardings in 2030.
To contextualize, this means that the asserted 2030 GHR ridership equals 20% of present-day bus ridership and probably a much lower percentage of 2030 bus ridership. The implication is clear: Austin transit is about bus service and will remain about bus service for the foreseeable future. Rail should be used to build on top of that core service. It should not detract. Rail’s economic advantage over bus is its low variable cost as additional capacity is added. It is a tool for delivering cheaper mobility once a route has scale.
But as Project Connect’s own estimates show, GHR does not deliver additional transit-dollar-productivity even by 2030. Remember, 2030 will be about seven years after the rail service would launch.
The above table (Excel file) examines the productivity of different segments of GHR . It compares the cost and ridership assertions released by Project Connect against the average per-boarding subsidy for CapMetro bus service. Rather disturbingly, CapMetro ceased reporting their subsidy rates last September. The last reported per-boarding bus subsidy was $3.41. This is the “Average” used in the above table.
However, the average rate includes many bus lines that are low-performers. In reality, the subsidy hurdle rate for GHR should resemble the subsidy for high-ridership bus lines such as the 1, 7, or 20. These are the types of lines that have enough scale to merit consideration of a high capacity transit investment such as light rail or BRT.
Since CapMetro definitely doesn’t release that data, I’ve just placed an additional set of columns assuming different subsidy rates that might approximate the economics of the higher-performing bus routes. There’s a $1 and a $2 subsidy column, in addition to the $3.41 “Average” column. Those are 2014 dollars. The calculation inflates them at 4% per year until 2030, which is the inflation rate used by Project Connect. I did this to match the inflated 2030 operational cost numbers and estimated 2030 ridership rates. I’ve used a 5% farebox recovery discount on the rail cost estimates, matching MetroRail’s in the ’13 budget (systemwide passenger fares are only 6.8% of revenue). Everything on the table is in 2030 numbers.
As the chart makes obvious, GHR is likely to reduce the system’s resource productivity relative to bus. This is not a good use of rail. And remember, Project Connect’s ridership projections for the northern parts of the route rely on a hidden, unproven model that asserts unrealistic growth for the Highland area.
It could be much worse if those growth predictions are wrong. And that’s why defense of the GHR proposal is less focused on the design and operational specifics and instead focuses on the politics.
BRT has lower capital costs, is easier to expand, and retains flexibility around matching operational expenses to actual demand. A proposal can be crafted that includes phasing (Grove to UT first) and adjusts the frequency (3 minute versus 10 minute headways) to preserve transit dollar productivity. BRT could use existing bridges or it could get its own non-signature, rail-compatible bridge.
By Project Connect’s own estimates, the 2030 ridership for BRT would be 17,000. That’s just 1,000 lower than the rail estimate.
MetroRapid will end up costing less than $50 million in capital expenses. Real BRT would cost more, and a bridge would cost $150 million. To me at least, it seems getting (1) 95% of the ridership at 20% of the capital cost and (2) the ability to match operating costs to demand is (3) a great deal.
The main objection raised in front of CCAG against BRT was an expected peak time bottleneck. More plainly, it would take too many vehicles to meet potential peak time demand at some point in Grove-Highland BRT’s future. However, upon closer inspection, this concern seems dramatically over-accentuated.
As, I’ve previously written, Project Connect’s consultants rejected BRT on the basis of a set of quirky computations about peak inter-stop capacity. Basically, the computations strangely determined that a reserve capacity of 25%-36% while undertaking a “reliable service profile” (3 minute headways) is somehow the same as 0% capacity. At this time, there’s no document in the public domain that makes such a concern seem realistic.
Many GHR proponents will have a tough time ditching the proposal and doing nothing. Crafting a solid BRT proposal offers a path forward that improves transportation, protects the productivity of scarce transit dollars, and is attuned to the current resentment about home valuations and property taxes.