Advocates for this November’s ‘road and rail’ Proposition 1 would like the electorate to believe the proposed light rail segment will achieve success similar to Houston’s stellar Red Line. Here are the top 3 reasons why they are wrong and why it matters.
Source: National Transit Database. “UPT” means unlinked passenger trip (i.e. boarding). Median values for a category in bold.
1. All local money
Houston’s local political opponents (e.g. then U.S. Representative Tom Delay) were determined and powerful enough to make federal funding for Houston light rail impossible. As a result, the initial segment was funded exclusively with local funds. Practically, this meant building a shorter line; it also meant a political need for an absolutely block-busting ridership performance.
In Austin, the need to appeal to FTA’s New Starts (the federal pool of money for big transit projects) to receive a federal match has led to overlooking several highly productive initial rail segments allegedly too short for the FTA. Two obvious examples: East Riverside to Capitol or East Riverside to Seaholm. Similarly, FTA’s existing funding of MetroRapid 801 & 803 is a prime reason for the lack of consideration of any segment in the Lamar corridor where the highly-productive ‘1’ bus line operates.
In effect, Austin’s quest for ‘free money’ from the FTA warped our focus towards avoiding capital outlays at the expense of the the transit productivity of our sales-tax-anchored regional bus system. Put differently: to save on the car loan payment, we are buying a clunker that will have a terrible maintenance bill.
2. High ridership from day one
Project Connect ‘estimates’ that in 2030 – which is eight years into the expected 2022 start of the proposed rail service – daily passenger trips would average about 16,000 riders. There’s no starting year estimate both because our local transportation forecasters are consistently wrong (see Red Line, MetroRapid 801) and because any reasonable 2022 forecast would feature terrible ridership numbers.
Houston’s initial Red Line quickly arrived at 31,000 daily ridership the first year, which was 2004. It’s stayed there with a trend upwards into 36,000 daily riders, enabling line expansion. Houston’s Red Line was two miles shorter (7.5) than Austin’s proposed 9.5 mile line. They both have comparable costs at about $15-20 million.
Yes, you read that right. Even though their operational costs are similar and Houston’s initial segment was shorter, Austin’s Proposition 1 light rail line will have half the ridership of Houston’s even with the advantage of twenty six (26) years of Austin growth.
3. Supported bus system
The cost and ridership numbers are not just relevant to the success of the rail line itself. They are incredibly important to the rest of the system, especially its workhorse: conventional bus service. Plain-old bus is the overwhelming majority of what our local transit system does and will continue to do.
From a transit resource productivity perspective, light rail makes sense for corridors that already have transit-supportive density and ridership. This is because rail has high fixed operating costs (track and signal maintenance, expensive insurance) but low variable costs (drivers/engineers). Rail is for scale. As it turns out, the 16,000 daily ridership estimate for 2030 light rail is a bit lower than what the ‘1’ bus line was pulling in 2013. From a mobility productivity perspective, East Riverside to Highland is a good bus corridor, not a rail one.
As I’ve detailed elsewhere, the low ridership potential of the Proposition 1 rail will eat up scarce operational dollars. This will mean less money to add service hours to highly productive bus routes, which in turn will mean a sub-optimal system-wide annual ridership count. In Houston, the Red Line’s ridership was high enough that it used up less subsidy-per-passenger than bus service. That surplus flowing back into the system from the proper use of light rail’s advantages allows reinvestment and growth of bus service.
A ‘no’ vote gets us East Riverside MetroRapid
The Proposition 1 proposal is certainly light rail and it is definitely in Texas. In those two aspects it is similar to Houston’s Red Line. But in the most important respect – resource productivity in delivering mobility through ridership – they are not in the same league.
There are better ways to invest a billion dollars to improve Austin transportation. The defeat of Proposition 1 rail proposal does not mean we will do nothing. Given previous plans and already discussed alternatives, it actually means we will move ahead and do what is optimal from a transit productivity perspective.
Defeat of Proposition 1 will allow for the expansion of MetroRapid into the East Riverside corridor. This was the previous, more cost-effective strategy for East Riverside, Highland, and Mueller envisioned in ‘All Systems Go!’. At the July joint briefing between Council and the CapMetro board it was embraced as the post-defeat alternative. By being prudent in the use of our sales-tax-based transit operational dollars and reforming our land use policy, we can help more of Austin’s transit corridors develop the ridership densities necessary for light rail to be accretive to the system.