Another transit agency whose ridership is plummeting has published a multi-billion-dollar plan to build light rail. Austin’s Capital Metro, whose light-rail proposals have twice been rejected by voters, has issued a draft system plan that calls for construction of three light-rail lines.
Naturally, the proposal is full of lies. First, they call it a “high-capacity transit” plan when light rail actually is low-capacity transit. Second, Capital Metro told its board that the plan would cost $6 billion to $8 billion when in fact their own projections indicated it would cost $10.5 billion. “It’s extremely early in the process, so these numbers are very preliminary,” a Capital Metro official said when asked why the agency used the lower numbers. But the reality is that costs go up, not down, as plans become more detailed.
On a percentage basis, Austin is one of the two or three fastest-growing major urban areas in the United States, growing faster than 7 percent per year since 2010. Of the top 50, only Raleigh is growing faster, though Charlotte is close. Yet this growth hasn’t resulted in growing transit ridership. Since 2010, ridership has dropped 12.5 percent, and since its 2013 peak, it has dropped 19.2 percent.
Light rail won’t help. Charlotte, which is also growing at 7 percent per year, has a light-rail line yet lost 21.5 percent of its riders since 2013. Charlotte opened a new light-rail extension last month. While it’s too soon to tell, early indications are that its ridership will be below expectations.
There are still people in Austin who believe spending more money on transit will help relieve congestion. If Capital Metro were serious about relieving congestion, it wouldn’t propose light rail, which typically carries about a quarter as many people per day as an urban freeway lane yet costs five to ten times as much per mile to build. Other people call light rail “real mass transit,” because apparently the more than 400 buses that Capital Metro claims to own are really just a figment of someone’s imagination.
Other than the use of obsolete technology, the main problem with Capital Metro’s plan is that it is based on an obsolete vision of monocentric cities. All lines converging on downtown, which has only about 10 percent of the region’s jobs, and the “creative workers” mostly avoid downtown. While the jury is still out, some people believe that Houston has managed to avoid the huge ridership declines suffered in Austin, Charlotte, and other cities because it restructured its bus routes to a grid system rather than a hub-and-spoke system centered on downtown.
Capital Metro hasn’t learned that lesson. In fact, it doesn’t appear to have learned any lessons, including the ones taught by its own failed rail line. Instead, it seems to be simply hoping that the federal government will turn on the spigot regardless of the high costs and limited benefits and that local opponents will be too tired of fighting to stop the program.