It’s “time to get serious about fixing Austin’s traffic,” says a headline at KVUE. However, no one quoted in the article is actually willing to get serious about fixing Austin’s traffic.
Instead, the article is exclusively about Project Connect, a front group that has promoted light rail for Capital Metro, Austin’s transit agency. All of the “solutions” discussed in the article involve transit, including light rail and dedicated bus lanes, both of which will actually increase congestion.
Here’s why transit won’t work to fix traffic in Austin, which by some measures is the nation’s fastest-growing urban area. Between 2010 and 2015, the Austin urban area grew by 220,000 people, or 3.0 percent per year. Transit passenger miles, meanwhile, grew by 3.5 percent per year. Sounds pretty good so far. Continue reading →
Pity Capital Metro, Austin’s transit agency. It has an opportunity to include bus-rapid transit stops on a freeway that is now under construction–but it doesn’t have the funds to pay for them.
The Texas Department of Transportation, which is building the freeway, needs $18 million from Capital Metro now to buy the extra land needed for the bus stops. But Capital Metro doesn’t have it. Nor does it have the $105 million more needed to actually build the bus stops.
Where could it get the money? The best way would be to shutter the agency’s pathetic, 32-mile commuter-rail line. In 2015, Capital Metro spent more than $20 million operating and maintaining this line, but received less than $2.5 million in fares. The trains carried fewer than 1,500 round trips per day, which means each daily round-trip rider cost taxpayers nearly $12,000.
A single-year’s worth of savings on the operating costs would be nearly enough to buy the land needed to make the bus-rapid transit work. A little over five years would be enough to pay the rest of the costs. Of course, if Capital Metro hadn’t built the rail line in the first place, it would have plenty of money for bus-rapid transit. The rail line was supposed to cost $60 million, and actually cost $140 million, sending the agency’s reserve fund from $200 million to $5 million. Continue reading →
Members of the city council argued that unoccupied short-term rental houses often get turned into noisy, “party houses” and that the use of those homes for short-term rentals made housing more expensive for everyone else. The first point might be legitimate, but no owner or renter wants to see their home trashed and so it is likely to be self-policed. The second point isn’t legitimate at all; it is Austin’s over regulated land-use rules that make housing there unaffordable.
Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin is congested, so obviously (to some people, at least) the solution is to run passenger trains between the two cities. Existing tracks are crowded with freight trains, so the Lone Star Rail District proposes to build a brand-new line for the freight trains and run passenger trains on the existing tracks. The total capital cost would be about $3 billion, up from just $0.6 billion in 2004 (which probably didn’t include the freight re-route).
Click image to download a PDF version of this map.
By coincidence, that was the projected capital cost for the proposed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando (cancelled by Florida Governor Rick Scott), which are about the same 80-miles apart as Austin and San Antonio. But, despite the cost, Lone Star wouldn’t be a high-speed rail line. According to a 2004 feasibility study, trains would take about 90 minutes between the two cities, with two stops in between. While express trains with no stops would be a bit faster, cars driving at Texas speeds could still be faster.
With Austin’s light-rail ballot measure going down in flames last November due to its high costs, rail transit advocates have conceded defeat, folded up their tents, and gone home. Ha, ha, just kidding; actually, now they are talking about subways.
Although someone prepared this map of an Austin subway system more as a joke than anything else, it has been used in news reports about proposals to build subways in the Texas capital.
“What do most major popular cities that continue to grow and be vibrant have in common?” asks Tom Meredith, former CEO of Dell Computer, which is headquartered in Austin. His answer? “Subways.”
Rail transit is excessively expensive, inflexible, and incapable of moving as many people as buses. Yet when the Antiplanner points out these facts, rather than respond with factual arguments, rail supporters reply with insults and innuendo.
In Florida, for example, a Tampa Bay Times columnist named Daniel Ruth spent an entire column attacking my credibility apparently because someone paid me an honorarium of $500 to evaluate the St. Petersburg light-rail plan. Ruth did not make any factual arguments in favor of the plan; he merely contended that my opposition was a foregone conclusion and so should be ignored.
He even implied that I didn’t get paid enough for my conclusions to be credible. After all, the transit agency spent millions of dollars hiring consultants to write reports about the proposal, and those very reports were the sources of much of my information. Those same consultants are, of course, financially backing the election campaign in favor of light rail, and if voters approve, they stand to make tens if not hundreds of millions in profits. If the measure loses, neither I nor anyone at Cato will make a dime of profit. Yet somehow they are supposed to be more credible than I.
Sorry about the light postings this week, but I’ve been pretty busy talking with people about light rail. Here is my presentation about light rail in Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Florida, and here is my presentation about light rail in Austin, Texas.
These are large files–Pinellas is 18 MB, Austin is 24–and they don’t include the videos I used for those presentations. If you want the videos, which are self-driving cars, click here to download a 44-MB zip file with three videos that I used in both presentations.
One of the conclusions of the Antiplanner’s recent paper on rapid buses was that regions that had fewer than 40,000 downtown jobs didn’t need rapid buses, much less light rail. Austin has about 72,000 downtown jobs, but rapid bus isn’t working well there either.
One reason can be found in census numbers, specifically table B08141 of the American Community Survey. For 2012, this table reports that just 2.2 percent of Austin workers live in households that lack access to an automobile, yet 28 percent of them drive alone to work and 12 percent carpool, while only 25 percent take transit to work. In other words, as I’ve noted for other urban areas, transit is just not relevant to most people.
In March of this year, Austin’s MetroRapid bus attracted nearly 6,500 trips per day. This declined to 5,900 in April and 5,300 in April, rising slightly to just under 5,500 in June.
The Cato Institute has published a critique of the city of Austin’s proposal to build a 9.5-mile light-rail line that would cost nearly $1.4 billion (which was briefly discussed here). “Austinites make more than six million person trips per day, of which the light-rail line would carry less than a third of a percent,” says the critique. “Yet constructing the light-rail line would consume 5 percent of the region’s transportation budget for the next 25 years, and operations and maintenance would increase the cost still further.”
The proposed line is only one of several that the city wants to build. Yet projected ridership for the first line is expected to be less than 20,000 people per day and no more than 2,500 people per hour at its peak. As an associated op ed in the Austin American Statesmanpoints out, since ordinary buses can move far more people than that, there is no reason to build rail. (A similar op ed looks at a light-rail proposal for St. Petersburg, Florida; a more generic op ed is here.)
Not surprisingly, “Project Connect” (the planning agency representing the city and Capital Metro) claims that light rail has a higher capacity than buses. To reach this conclusion, it made the absurd assumption that an exclusive bus lane can support no more than one bus every three minutes, allowing buses to carry no more than about 1,300 people per hour. In fact, ordinary city streets, much less exclusive bus lanes, can support far more than one bus every three minutes. Planners are clearly biased in favor of the expensive rail option, as based on this one fact alone they concluded that rail was the appropriate solution for Austin.
Austin (which the Antiplanner visited last week) is the latest city to discover that rail transit is unsustainable transportation. A recent state audit of Capital Metro finds that the agency “has a history of uncontrolled costs and overspending that cannot be sustained.”
The cost of the region’s commuter-rail line, which just opened in March, “climbed from $60 million to almost $140 million.” This dragged the agency’s reserve fund down from $200 million to less than $5 million, and it could go negative next year due to the high costs of operating a commuter-rail line that carries only a few hundred round trips a day. Moreover, the agency faces further unexpected obligations: the line uses a number of older bridges that are deteriorating and, in the judgment of the auditors, pose serious safety hazards.
Capital Metro responds that the rail line is safe and claims it is addressing the other issues. But most of its actions are mere window dressing: creating new committees, interagency agreements, and so forth. Probably the best thing the agency can do is simply abandon the commuter-rail line, which would save taxpayers around $10 million a year.