Achieving a 50% sustainable commute mode share requires a boost in local transit operating funding sources and a focus on productivity-enhancing transit capital projects.
A system-wide route productivity summary, courtesy of the Connections 2025 plan.
As part of its 50% sustainable commute-to-work mode share by 2039 objective, The Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (ASMP) envisions a roughly 16% transit commute-to-work mode share. The current share is 4%.
How much would CapMetro need to spend on operations in order to provide sufficient service to achieve a 16% transit commute-to-work mode share by 2039?
It’s hard to say the precise amount needed by 2039 due to the difficulty of figuring out the exact population growth that will happen in the CapMetro service district. However, we can develop a pretty robust estimate using present-day data to get a sense of the scale of the required revenue. You can find details on the calculations below in this spreadsheet.
According to the 2017 National Household Travel Survey (PDF), 37.45% of person trips on transit are commuting to and from work. Let’s assume that transit commuters use the same mode to get to and from work. Given that assumption, the percentage of person trips on transit that are to work is roughly 19%. In case it’s not clear, the Census, and therefore the ASMP, focus on the journey to work number, while the National Household Travel Survey asks about both to and from.
While not exactly the same due to transfers and other methodological quirks, we’ll use CapMetro’s ridership counts as a proxy for person trips as it’s the best available representation from local data sources.
For its 2019 fiscal year, CapMetro expects ridership of 30,709,967. Using the 19% commute-to-work number, we get 5,834,893 rides that count as commutes-to-work. To achieve a present-day 16% transit commute-to-work mode share, the agency would need to fund at least another 17,504,679 rides.
In its 2019 budget, CapMetro expects the typical ride to cost the operating budget $8.50 after subtracting contributions from fare revenue. From their 2019 budget:
To provide the needed rides at the typical $8.50 cost, CapMetro would need an infusion of about $149 million. To put this in perspective, CapMetro’s expected operating expense total for fiscal year 2019 is $270,714,102, of which $245,788,746 (or 91%) is expected to be generated by the sales taxes provided by its service district communities.
If Austin’s City Council (and other communities in the service district) adopt transit-supportive land use policies, then the cost-per-passenger will come down. In the table below that was created during the Connections 2025 service review, you can see the most productive bus lines have cost-per-passenger levels that are closer to $4 ($70 million required to meet the ASMP objective) and $5 ($88 million required).
And if CapMetro and Austin’s City Council wisely select productivity-enhancing capital projects (here’s how), then they would further decrease the cost-per-passenger and the overall boost in operating funding needed to reach the ASMP’s primary plan objective.
Unfortunately, there are also a few challenges. For starters, this simple estimate makes the assumption that folks willing to use transit for commutes won’t also need to be enticed by service for the other 62% of trips they make. If we cease making that assumption, but still assume much better regional land use, then the required boost in operating funds is closer to $225 million ($4.50 cost-per-passenger). If the land use remains car-centric, it’s hard to see how the transit system could ever be compelling enough to achieve a 16% commute-to-work share, even if we somehow found $800 million to support it.
Another challenge is that, in addition to land use, our politics may prioritize the wrong types of high-capacity projects. For example, look at that the route productivity chart again; notice how the MetroRail cost-per-passenger is close to $20? That consumes a tremendous amount of operating dollars that would be better deployed to productive bus routes. Right now, CapMetro continues to study and include a similar low-productivity route – the Green Line – in its long-term plans. Depending on the details, it’s quite possible that another political favorite, the Blue Line (East Riverside to the Red Line), could be productivity-reducing as well.
One thing is clear, though. We will not be able to achieve a 16% transit commute-to-work mode share without additional local funding sources. The 1% sales tax allocation within CapMetro’s service district is extremely unlikely to expand at the necessary rate, even if the farebox recovery rate, say, doubles or triples. Perhaps the federal government will help somewhat, but not at the scale required. It would obviously be risky to rely on the Texas legislature to change its transportation funding approaches in the near-term. Realistically, it will be up to the City, County, and Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to start making room in their budgets to fund transit operation expansion.