Thursday, October 18, 2007

Big news on Metro rail

The Metro board met today to make some big decisions on the rail plan (Chronicle story). The bombshell is that all the lines they thought were going to start as bus rapid transit (BRT) are being upgraded to full light rail (LRT). Evidently the numbers look good enough and the federal matching fund requirements look achievable, so they're going for it. That really surprises me, because everything I've read says the feds are more biased towards BRT over LRT than ever before (more bang for the buck). I'm still not sure it's the best use of money, but it does have some nice benefits that Christof points out:
  • The Main St. line will be able to continue further north without a transfer
  • Two of the lines on the east side will be able to share tracks on Scott Street
  • It opens up the possibility for some University line trains to turn into Uptown rather than going out to the Hillcroft Transit Center, enabling a single seat ride to/from the Galleria area and avoiding transfers
Here are the reasons for the switch as stated on the Metro blog:

Later, after a press conference, John Sedlak, executive vice president at METRO, explained that METRO recommended immediate light rail to the board because the federal rules changed and allowed METRO to qualify its projects under the federal process.

"The change of federal rules allowed us to look at a system connectivity factor - to look at all the corridors tied together at one time. That allowed us to have a better performance on the overall system. That change allowed us to re-run our models, and they have a better ridership," said Sedlak.

In addition, the federal rules allowed METRO to include a factor known as "rail bias." While people accustomed to cars won't ride buses, they will board a train.

"We have been able to prove here in Houston that people ride the Houston light rail system just because it is rail," said Sedlak.

Third, since Houston has no zoning or land use controls, METRO was able to adjust its models to include a higher level of growth and development in the inner corridor of the city.

"That's been happening over the last decade, and in particular, around the rail line. And the federal government has accepted that change," said Sedlak.

Chalk up another benefit to our lack of zoning!

As expected, they chose to go to Cummins on Richmond for the west side of the Universities line before it turns down to Westpark, which is the route with the most ridership and lowest cost (hey, so now maybe Westpark road can grow wider than 3 lanes with the unused right-of-way, and take some of the local east-west load off of Richmond?). On the east side, it goes down Wheeler to TSU, then up to Alabama and UH. The ultimate plan calls for it to go all the way to the Eastwood Transit Center (which would enable east side bus riders and southeast HOV bus riders to access it), but it's unclear whether the money will be available in phase 1. Christof talked to Metro Chairman David Wolff and seems optimistic they'll find the money.

Christof has put together a great map of the final system. Click here for the larger, more detailed and readable version. Update: Here's the Chronicle's map with facts/stats.

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40 Comments:

At 8:51 PM, October 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure whether sharing tracks on Scott is a good idea. When METRO uses one track on the current line, frequency decreases resulting in longer trip times for most.

 
At 11:42 PM, October 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe they mean two lines sharing a double track for a bit along scott.

 
At 8:09 AM, October 19, 2007, Anonymous kjb434 said...

"Chalk up another benefit to our lack of zoning!"

Just more evidence being a lone ranger in the see of conformity to zoning in the US has it's benefits.


Sharing tracks is quite common and allows a lot of flexibility on the systems. The is quite common in large systems in the US and in LRT systems all over the world.

 
At 9:01 AM, October 19, 2007, Blogger ian said...

"Chalk up another benefit to our lack of zoning!"

Wait a minute, something fishy here. Isn't this the same blog that just about convinced me that BRT was the way to go for most of these lines? That the buses with dedicated right-of-way were cheaper than light rail yet functionally equivalent? It's funny that now that our lack of zoning gets some credit for bringing us the "taxpayer boondogle" of light rail, that tune has changed. Real quick.

 
At 9:18 AM, October 19, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I did note in the post that I still think BRT is more cost effective. But regardless of BRT/LRT, the lack of zoning enables more development along the lines, and that's a good thing.

 
At 9:36 AM, October 19, 2007, Anonymous Christof Spieler said...

I've argued before -- and still believe -- that BRT can be as almost good as light rail. But there are some advantages for LRT over BRT:

LRT has higher capacity since it can run in 2 car trains

You can't run LRT vehicles onto a BRT line without upgrading the BRT line to LRT.

A system that has only one technology is much more flexible in terms of its fleet because every vehicle can be used on every line.

LRT tracks can be laid in grass or gravel; BRT has to run on concrete.

LRT is quieter and has a smoother ride than BRT.

 
At 1:12 PM, October 19, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can't run LRT vehicles onto a BRT line without upgrading the BRT line to LRT.

Cristof so how is this an advantage?

 
At 1:55 PM, October 19, 2007, Anonymous Kenneth Fair said...

It is an advantage because you can then have multiple lines running on the same path, as METRO is planning to have happen on Scott.

 
At 2:16 PM, October 19, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

Christof,

LRT has higher capacity since it can run in 2 car trains.

I don't believe that's the case. See: http://www.reason.org/pu16.pdf

Furthermore, even if that were the case, it would only matter if we were in danger of exceeding the capacity which BRT is capable of. We're not.

You can't run LRT vehicles onto a BRT line without upgrading the BRT line to LRT.

True, but that's more a problem with rail than BRT, and an argument for why we shouldn't be building rail. We have more buses and more traffic lanes in the city that can be converted to BRT -- we only have one light rail line.

Accordingly, why not just scrap light rail? It's far more cost-effective and and can do exactly the same thing rail does. The focus needs to be on buses, not rail.

LRT tracks can be laid in grass or gravel; BRT has to run on concrete.

This is an advantage, sure, but only a minor advantage. Unless you have medians already or are willing to construct them, the overwhelming majority of fixed transit lines will be concrete.

LRT is quieter and has a smoother ride than BRT.

That depends on the quality of the construction. If you have high-quality buses and an excellent road surface, you'll get a very quiet, smooth ride. On the other hand, there are many low-quality rail systems that are loud and rickety.

This can be an advtange, for light rail, but not necessarily.

In any case, you're ignoring the many ways in which light rail is inferior to BRT, i.e. expense, poor stopping distances, and lack of flexibility. In the final analysis, nothing but a fetish can really justify choosing BRT over light rail.

 
At 2:42 PM, October 19, 2007, Blogger ian said...

"I don't believe that's the case."

At least this time Reason is upfront about its underlying motives: "Peter Samuel is an Adjunct Scholar of Reason Public Policy Institute and is the Editor of TOLL ROADS
NEWSLETTER." (not my emphasis). That's a nice change of pace for the organization.

 
At 6:16 PM, October 19, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

I think the point is:

1) We should qualify for federal funding for light rail now based on the ridership projections (this is the capacity argument I've mentioned over and over again)
2) As the point was always to upgrade to light rail anyway, why waste money buying buses and building whatever temporary infrastructure is necessary , when you are just going to upgrade to LRT anyway? This is just throwing money away

A third point on cost-effectiveness etc. - mass transit is about moving mass numbers of people around. It is not meant to be a free lunch for the government. It is about overall cost-effectiveness for the end-user and the government - which proponents of autos conveniently overlook. If some people can start to get rid of their cars because of this, that's when it really starts to make sense. And when you start building out your lines like Houston is about to, some people are able to do this, or at least downgrade to 1 car, which is still a huge savings.

Anyway, I, like most people in Houston, think this is terrific news!

 
At 8:03 PM, October 19, 2007, Anonymous Christof Spieler said...

Owen-

The Reason study looks at capacity for grade-separated bus lanes with off-line stations, like our HOV lanes. This isn't relevant to urban transit in city streets, where traffic light cycles and station dwell times limit capacity. Building off-line stations for an in-street busway, for example, would require 5 lanes -- two in each direction plus one lane for the platform.

The Main Street line is currently running a mix of one car and two car trains on six minute headways at rush hour. Capacity is two car trains at 4 1/2 minute headways. BRT capacity would be one car trains at 4 1/2 minutes. In other words, current service on Main is over BRT capacity. And the trains are standing room only.

As for the ride on BRT, I've ridden in brand new luxury coaches on METRO's HOV service (at 60 mph) and on brand new state of the art BRT vehicles on LA's Orange Line (at 35). I've also ridden Houston's LRT at 35 and at 60. The LRT ride was better in both cases. The BRT ride was better than the worst rail ride I've ever had -- a vintage streetcar in a rail museum -- but that seems like an irrelevent comparison. A city bus on a gravel road is even worse.

I agree that the "one technology" argument could equally well be used to support an all BRT system. In a small city with low transit demand, that would make sense. But the Main Street and University lines have ridership demand high enough that BRT makes no sense.

 
At 11:20 PM, October 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looking at the map of the complete system by Christof, it seems rather unnecessary for a commuter rail on 290 when there are all those P&Rs proposed. I dare almost say that Houston should consider a commuter bus network instead of commuter rail. How hard would it to be to create a unidirectional lane dedicated to commuter buses? I-10 and 290, it seems, wouldn't be hard to create a lane. I hope commuter bus is seriously considered for linking the inner loop to the suburbs.

 
At 7:24 AM, October 22, 2007, Blogger ian said...

Anonymous --

A couple years ago, I would have strongly disagreed. But recently, I've been riding those very same park and ride buses -- and they're great! They're fast, they're comfortable, and they go right where you need to go. I don't think commuter rail could provide much better service (and it would probably be somewhat worse). Most importantly, the current commuter buses aren't full. I ride in the off-peak direction, so I'm usually the only one on the bus, but the bus drivers I've talked to tell me they've never driven a full commuter bus. The buses aren't empty, by any stretch of the imagination -- but never is every single seat taken. So if the buses aren't full, then why would we need to expand capacity by adding rail?

I think the Galveston corridor makes a lot of sense for commuter rail, but the buses work fine for most of the other corridors. Ironically, it looks like 290 is going to be the first to get rail; Galveston barely made it onto H-GAC's top 5 corridors!

 
At 7:31 AM, October 22, 2007, Blogger ian said...

Additionally, I would go with bi-directional bus lanes as opposed to the currently existing unidirectional. It would definitely help me in the off-peak direction (coming in on 59 in the afternoon absolutely stinks!), but it would also improve the system's efficiency even if there were no riders in the off-peak direction. However, I wouldn't trust drivers of private-automobiles to safely navigate a bi-directional, high-speed roadway; that's the situation we have on 2-lane, rural highways, and those are some of the most deadly roadways that we have. So to have a highly efficient, bi-directional bus lane, I'd take out the HOVs, and definitely scrap the idea of HOTs. . .

Chances of that happening? I'm not optimistic.

 
At 9:38 AM, October 22, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> How hard would it to be to create a unidirectional lane dedicated to commuter buses?

The barrier-separated HOV lanes already exist and are very successful. Many are in the long-term process of being converted to one or more HOT lanes with dedicated capacity for buses.

 
At 10:02 AM, October 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: the shot at Reason: Obviously, taking a position contrary to Ian would mean that you are in the employ of a corporation, and everyone knows what that means. Luckily light rail vehicles, concrete rail ties, fare taking machines and electric catanery systems are all manufactured and distributed by non-pofit peasant communes located in Chiapas, who eschew government lobbying and public relations firms, as well as non-organic materials.

The soon-to-be-unionized light-rail workers similarly avoid political entanglements and will rely on the force of logic to obtain their 30-hour workweeks, complete job security and ability to retire at age 50 with full pay and benefits.

 
At 10:27 AM, October 22, 2007, Blogger ian said...

Au contraire, mon anonymous frere. The whole reason I read this blog is because Tory intelligently presents positions that frequently run contrary to my own, and on several occasions his musings have caused me to rethink my own. Reason, on the other, has not and likely will never be able to accomplish the same -- largely because I don't think they care to.

And I'd like you to consider a flipping of the circumstances. What if a report was being thrown around as evidence that toll roads are a waste of taxpayer money and cannot compete with transit systems? And furthermore, what if that report was being published by an organization such as Light Rail Now? Both you and I would be smart to read such a report with a wary, cautious eye, always conscious of the inherent conflict of interest present.

In fact, we'd probably do best to eschew "research" released by any such special interest groups and focus instead on peer-reviewed results published by such organizations as the Transportation Research Board. I'd be very surprised if any Reason (or Light Rail Now!) articles passed TRB muster.

 
At 11:20 AM, October 22, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

Christof,

The Reason study looks at capacity for grade-separated bus lanes with off-line stations, like our HOV lanes. This isn't relevant to urban transit in city streets, where traffic light cycles and station dwell times limit capacity. Building off-line stations for an in-street busway, for example, would require 5 lanes -- two in each direction plus one lane for the platform.

The Main Street line is currently running a mix of one car and two car trains on six minute headways at rush hour. Capacity is two car trains at 4 1/2 minute headways. BRT capacity would be one car trains at 4 1/2 minutes. In other words, current service on Main is over BRT capacity. And the trains are standing room only.


First of all, as you know, Metro stacked the numbers by purposely cancelling other bus lines and funnelling others into Metrorail to enhance capacity.

Secondly, there are numerous ways of enhancing bus capacity. For a fraction the cost of rail, we could have easily raised the streetlights and used double-decker buses. We could have added more BRT or regular bus lines running parallel to the LRT, and put more buses on other lines. You'd have flexibility without attempting to cram half of downtown's transit capacity into a single line, or even a few lines.

What your response says to me is that LRT urges consolidation of transit lines, which ultimately makes transit less convenient overall. It's kind of galling that Metro can continue to neglect bus service and artificially increase LRT ridership figures, all while boosting a system that comes at a much greater cost, and come forward and make arguments regarding capacity.

As for the ride on BRT, I've ridden in brand new luxury coaches on METRO's HOV service (at 60 mph) and on brand new state of the art BRT vehicles on LA's Orange Line (at 35). I've also ridden Houston's LRT at 35 and at 60. The LRT ride was better in both cases. The BRT ride was better than the worst rail ride I've ever had -- a vintage streetcar in a rail museum -- but that seems like an irrelevent comparison. A city bus on a gravel road is even worse.

The HOV service in Houston is hardly level (as you'll usually find on normal city streets when properly paved), and some of the lanes could be better maintained. I'll concede that overall rail will typically be better in terms of a smooth ride, but you can get a ride that's more than smooth enough out of buses if you manage the system properly. It's not enough to justify the added cost, not by a long shot.

I agree that the "one technology" argument could equally well be used to support an all BRT system. In a small city with low transit demand, that would make sense. But the Main Street and University lines have ridership demand high enough that BRT makes no sense.

Houston has fairly low transit demand overall. Moreover, as I've noted, Metro has made very specific attempts to increase demand along the Main Street and University lines; managing the system differently could easily take away much of that demand and spread it around, and insodoing Metro could create a more balanced system. It simply isn't the case that Main Street is the nexus of the city; when you place the focus on a single line, all you do is force people to go out of their way to walk to it.

 
At 12:16 PM, October 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My point was just that the "Source [X] is a shill for corporation [y]" argument can be silly. One can claim that if you like nukes that you must be in the employ of corporation X. Well, pretty much the largest corporation in the world (General Electric) makes windmill turbines, but I hardly think that advocating for windmills (which I don't) makes one a GE shill. One claims that sprawl is imposed on society by developers (developers = bad), but that tight, high density projects are great, and that developers of those projects should be lauded (developers = good). Funny thing is, they're pretty much the same developers.

Light rail vehicles are made by many companies with notable political entanglements, including Bombardier. I'm pretty much a light rail skeptic, but I don't base the skepticism on Bombardier getting its beak wet in the procurement process.

You set up a system, any system, and some corporation will make money. Corporations tend to follow likeminded policy analysts, not the other away around. There are sincere people on all sides of these issues. I'd rather debate the merits of a choice than cast aspersions against sincere advocates based on imagined corporate sponsorships.

 
At 12:33 PM, October 22, 2007, Blogger ian said...

"I'd rather debate the merits of a choice than cast aspersions against sincere advocates based on imagined corporate sponsorships."

I completely agree, but in order to have an intelligent debate, you have to start with reliable data. And I don't think there's anything "imagined" about Reason's sponsorships and motives.

 
At 1:08 PM, October 22, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Owen,

"Houston has fairly low transit demand overall."

Not true - we are the 4th or 7th largest city in the country depending on the data you go by. We have the population, but we do not have the transit choices of comparable cities. You cannot have demand for a transit option / system that does not exist. And the only reason that it doesn't exist yet is that Houston has not been a major city long enough to build a good transit network.

I think Christof may be thinking more along the lines of maybe cities in a smaller tier like Austin / San Antonio / El Paso etc when he says that BRT may be great for them. And obviously, it may be great for some lower-density areas in Houston. I support all sorts of mass-transit options - double decker buses - you name it! But this is not an either-or - it doesn't mean we don't also build a high-capacity rail network in our most dense, high traffic corridors.

-Mike

 
At 2:51 PM, October 22, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

michael,

I was referring more to per capita demand, or in terms of localized demand -- in those regards, Houston doesn't rank very high. We're a low-density, auto-oriented city.

Secondly, I was really addressing Cristof's claim that we *need* rail along any cooridor, or that rail has any considerable advantages for Houston when considering its shortcomings. While it is true that we have high-capacity cooridors, I don't think we have any that would outpace well-designed BRT and/or regular bus service. What Metro has done is consolidate transit lines in order to give Metrorail more ridership; BRT with more regular bus service, in my view, would be superior for downtown.

It might be different if the difference between rail vs. BRT wasn't so massive in terms of capital costs, but it's pretty extreme. And then you have to consider that rail is more accident prone (poor stopping distances), less flexible (what if you slap down rails, but the line goes bust in ten years?), and involves massive opportunity costs. For the expense of rail, numerous projects with greater per dollar effect could be considered throughout the city.

 
At 3:01 PM, October 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reason's sponsorships are real, but the notion that its researchers are toiling away so that corporation x, y or z can make its quarterly earnings estimates is silly. I think Reason's publications best explain why things are the way they are regarding personal mobility in this country. You can disagree without saying "Exxon made him do it." If Reason began touting a philosophy of ensuing that we all need to get out of our cars (all except the wealthy and connected of course), I'm sure another slew of corporations would step up to make donations.

Not everyone is looking forward to a future where most of the populace is stacked like ants in apartment blocks and relies on the government's employees and scheduling whims to move from place to place.

 
At 3:30 PM, October 22, 2007, Blogger ian said...

Owen --

I'm a bus fan, don't get me wrong. I ride 'em all the time. But to get a typical person to try transit, the ride has got to be pretty fantastic. That means a smooth ride that goes where you need without getting stuck in traffic. Can a bus do this? Absolutely. Carve out a couple lanes, separate them from the rest of traffic, pave them with the highest quality materials you can afford. . .in short, spend a lot of money. To get the kind of service LRT and true BRT can provide, you've got to spend a lot of money. And by that point, the cost of the two modes aren't that astronomically different. Factor in the longevity of LRT trains, the high cost of constantly repaving BRT lanes to mainting the level of service, and the extra drivers you'll have to hire for BRT to operate at LRT capacity, and the ongoing costs begin to favor light rail more and more. This seems so self evident to me!

 
At 7:55 PM, October 22, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

Ian,

I'm a bus fan, don't get me wrong. I ride 'em all the time. But to get a typical person to try transit, the ride has got to be pretty fantastic. That means a smooth ride that goes where you need without getting stuck in traffic. Can a bus do this? Absolutely. Carve out a couple lanes, separate them from the rest of traffic, pave them with the highest quality materials you can afford. . .in short, spend a lot of money.

First of all, the biggest concern with transit, as you know, is the placement of the line and the wait time. And these concerns aren't primary only on a single line -- you're trying to get the best service throughout the city, not just on Main Street. You could improve bus service dramatically with the money we're spending on rail in terms of the number of lines and the number of buses on those lines. In terms of overall cost-effectiveness, rail is simply a miserable failure.

Secondly, you're setting the bar too high for bus service. You can make bus service more attractive by adding more buses to existing lines, giving buses more right of way, and simply repaving existing streets (something we should be doing already for everyone's benefit). You don't have to make every roadbed like an airport landing strip; a fairly smooth and level road surface, either concrete or asphalt, will suffice. You can give buses MIRT devices on certain major lines, and dedicated lanes (i.e. BRT) for the most crucial lines.

Besides, the biggest factor keeping people away from transit is inconvenience, not the lack of a smooth ride or the lack of a dedicated right of way. If the line isn't within walking distance, transit starts out at a major, perhaps insurmountable, disadvantage. LRT is too expensive to run down most streets, and dedicating funds to LRT keeps us from maintaining good bus service that runs close to residences. This dovetails with my first point -- the opportunity costs of rail hurt the overall system.

Thirdly, even taking your assumptions, the fact remains that even the best BRT is considerably less expensive than the worst light rail (i.e. basic at-grade).

Factor in the longevity of LRT trains, the high cost of constantly repaving BRT lanes to mainting the level of service, and the extra drivers you'll have to hire for BRT to operate at LRT capacity, and the ongoing costs begin to favor light rail more and more. This seems so self evident to me!

LRT trains cost about three times as much as BRT vehicles, and ten times as much as a regular street bus. They only last about twice as long. Accordingly, buses are the better deal from the outset.

Moreover, you have to discount to present value. Spending three million today versus one million or just $300k (LRT, BRT, and regular transit buses, respectively) is actually more expensive because money today is worth more than money in the future. You miss out on investing the money in something else and getting a return. In this instance, then, you simply can't spend more money today to save it down the road unless you're also saving enough to make up for -- again -- opportunity costs.

Moreover, repaving BRT lanes isn't necessarily more expensive than maintaining LRT. I don't have the figures on hand, but I believe LRT has very high average maintenance costs. The same goes for operating costs; LRT doesn't cost less than other transit modes, regardless of what you've heard. By most measures, LRT costs more to operate than BRT.

 
At 11:24 PM, October 22, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Owen,

Interesting points.

I dug up a good article on comparing the costs / benefits of BRT and LRT:

http://tinyurl.com/234gk4

Choice selections (bold added by me):

In its September 2001 report comparing BRT and LRT systems in the U.S., for instance, the GAO reported BRT capital costs (adjusted for 2000 dollars) that ranged from a low of $200,000 per mile for an arterial, street-based system, up to $55 million per mile for a dedicated busway system. By contrast, the LRT systems reviewed by the report had capital costs ranging from $12.4 million to $118.8 million per mile.1 If eventual LRT conversion is part of the long-term plan, that also reduces BRT’s ultimate capital cost savings. Also, with added high-end technological bells and whistles such as guided technologies and the like, the total BRT bill rises rapidly.

And the following on operating costs:

While the particulars vary widely from system to system, the long-term operating costs for an LRT line are typically less than for BRT. Although buses are generally cheaper than LRT cars, their life span is only half as long, and they cost more to operate for the simple reason that each bus needs its own driver, while a chain of LRT cars can be piloted by a single person. When BRT occupies a segregated busway, has upgraded stations and high-quality buses, and serves a sufficiently dense population, BRT can begin to approach the ridership and service levels of rail transit, at a lesser initial investment. As those levels of ridership rise, however, LRT per-passenger operational costs are typically less than BRT, and the type of “upscale” BRT that will appeal to a broader swath of riders is more expensive to build. Still, at least some evidence suggests that BRT can offer overall cost savings, despite its higher operating costs over all but the lowest range of capacity. On the other hand, for a corridor expected to grow rapidly into the upper reaches of BRT capacity, LRT may end up being cheaper in the long run.

This last point deals with light-rail being able to carry about 20K passengers per hour, versus max 12K passengers per hour for BRT.

One more quote on when to build what:

"If the goal is to stimulate development at stations along a corridor that has or is poised to see sufficient growth and density, then LRT may be a better choice. BRT tends to be more successful where the lower capital investment makes more sense given a lower level of projected ridership, and where uncoordinated growth has led to low density housing coupled with significant traffic congestion. To put it bluntly, LRT is a better catalyst for growth, while BRT may be a better response to sprawl."

So, the conclusion to me seems to me that BRT works for some types of routes, whereas LRT may be better for others - which is basically what I had suspected all along. Where you and I may disagree is whether downtown Houston, the med center, uptown, etc. most resemble "dense / growing" or "sprawl". I think these areas are all clearly fairly dense and growing rapidly - but BRT may serve other areas or connections into the LRT system - for instance the Energy Corridor / Clear Lake / NASA, etc.

-Mike

 
At 9:44 AM, October 23, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

Mike,

In its September 2001 report comparing BRT and LRT systems in the U.S., for instance, the GAO reported BRT capital costs (adjusted for 2000 dollars) that ranged from a low of $200,000 per mile for an arterial, street-based system, up to $55 million per mile for a dedicated busway system.

That article is slanted; it cites the GAO's studies on BRT versus light rail, but it doesn't repeat their conclusions. The GAO concluded that BRT has substantially lower capital costs overall. Now, a basic old-style streetcar line might cost less per mile than a top of the line BRT system, but that's not a legitimate comparison. The bottom line is that the GAO found that BRT was cheaper -- there may be some slight variances at the outliers, but the difference was overwhelming overall.

While the particulars vary widely from system to system, the long-term operating costs for an LRT line are typically less than for BRT.

The article is flat out wrong in stating that LRT has lower operating costs. The GAO's comparison study concluded that in most cities and by most measures, BRT has proven cheaper to operate. However, because there were some LRT systems that fared better by some measures, the GAO held that the results were inconclusive. Still, that's a far cry from what your source is claiming, and it does so without any data to back it up.

To put it bluntly, LRT is a better catalyst for growth, while BRT may be a better response to sprawl.

No evidence is cited for this conclusion. Jonathan Richmond's 1999 Harvard/MIT study of light rail systems concluded that there was no data suggesting that light rail necessarily spurs development more than BRT. There are BRT lines that have spurred development, and there are LRT lines that are dead zones. To say that LRT is better in this regard is speculative.

So, the conclusion to me seems to me that BRT works for some types of routes, whereas LRT may be better for others - which is basically what I had suspected all along.

For the reasons above, I disagree. However, even if I accepted the article's unfounded conclusions, the fact remains that rail (and I suppose the most costly versions of BRT) are not cost effective versus other transit improvements. That's the bottom line. If you spread the money around to improve the entire transit network, rather than plunking down a huge percentage of the budget along a few major transit lines, you'd do better in terms of serving the community.

All I'm saying is that transit should be cost effective. Metro disagrees. In fact, Metro is on the record as *admitting* that light rail can't win a cost-benefit analysis versus buses. So why, I ask you, are we building rail?

 
At 10:32 AM, October 23, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

We are building rail for:

- Rider capacity
- Stimulating further growth in dense corridors
- We receive matching federal funds

The bottom line to me seems to be - if you are interested in developing a system that will last 50-100 years that has decent capacity, and you want federal funding, LRT is the way to go - that's why Houston is far from the only city going this route.

 
At 10:42 AM, October 23, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Furthermore, Metro's goal is not to focus only on the light rail lines. This will be a valuable core towards the center of the city that we can use as a building block for further transit improvements, be that commuter rail or park and ride buses into the city (which are arguably already a BRT system).

Your arguments on cost-effectiveness to me only make sense if you are looking at the very short term - say 1-10 years. If instead you are looking at the 50-100 year term, then LRT's lower maintenance / operating costs and higher ridership capacity make it the better choice. Yes, you probably have a higher initial cost, but it is worth it if you are going to save and get more utility in the long run.

 
At 11:05 AM, October 23, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

michael,

We are building rail for:

- Rider capacity
- Stimulating further growth in dense corridors
- We receive matching federal funds


#1: As I've noted, the rider capacity argument is dubious at best. Metro did, in point of fact, artificially increase light rail's ridership by funnelling in bus lines and cutting parallel lines. This consolidation actually harms transit overall.

#2: The same goes for stimulating growth. The argument that light rail stimulates growth is dubious; just look at Metrorail -- all the bars and so forth are shutting down because the economic benefits of rail were overstated. Meanwhile, most of the new development is occurring in Midtown, away from Metrorail. Other cities can attest to the folly of trying to encourage new development in areas where there isn't already demand through LRT (especially when there's no reason to believe that LRT would be better than well-managed bus lines or BRT).

#3: Matching federal funds used to be 80/20. Now they're 50/50. There's an incentive to spend the money wisely, because we're spending an equal amount of our own. The federal government will fund bus improvements, and those bus improvements are more cost-effective than LRT.

Your arguments on cost-effectiveness to me only make sense if you are looking at the very short term - say 1-10 years. If instead you are looking at the 50-100 year term, then LRT's lower maintenance / operating costs and higher ridership capacity make it the better choice.

Did you even read what I wrote? LRT doesn't have lower maintenance or operating costs. The GAO study showed mixed results as to operating costs (although in fact, LRT lost to BRT in terms of operating costs in most cities and by most measures) and I've seen nothing to suggest that LRT has lower maintinance costs. Saying something doesn't make it so.

As for higher capacity, I hold that you cannot predict demand fifty years down the road. Fifty years from now LRT may fall out of style, or be made obselete by new technology. Demand may shift away from the areas where rail is built, and you can't simply change the lines around because, unlike buses, you need rails in the pavement to run the vehicles.

If you want to have a point here, you need more than this.

 
At 11:17 AM, October 23, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Owen,

Did you even read what I wrote?

Even you claim that the GAO said that operating costs were "inconclusive". Do you even have a reason why you think they would be lower for BRT? Bus expense? Well, that seems like it would easily be offset by having to run more buses and pay more drivers - these are ongoing expenses. A new LRT car only has to be replaced what - once every 10 years? Your argument simply does not make sense, and you back up very few of your assertions. You could use some of your own medicine - "saying something does not necessarily make it so."

If the government didn't think LRT was effective, they would not be funding it. And the article I cited was actually quite neutral and they in turn cited government reports, and case studies of various cities (including success stories for BRT in some cases). Your argument seems to be mostly of bias. If the federal government / studies truly showed that LRT was inferior to BRT, then I don't believe they would be funding it across the country. Would they? (And no - I'm not naive - I know the feds can do some pretty stupid things - but really - why would they just misappropriate money on transit issues??). I'm perplexed! ;)

-Mike

 
At 11:48 AM, October 23, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

michael,

Even you claim that the GAO said that operating costs were "inconclusive". Do you even have a reason why you think they would be lower for BRT?

There are many reasons why it would be lower. For example, at-grade LRT has more accidents and thus requires more employees to respond to collisions. It could also be that LRT requires more training and so the operators demand higher salaries. Moreover, it might be that the capacity difference is negligible because you're only running at high capacity for a few hours a day.

I don't know the reasons, I just know what the GAO study said -- that LRT isn't cheaper than BRT to operate, and the cost varies by system. Their stats showed, in fact, that BRT was usually cheaper to operate by most measures. Accordingly, I'm willing to call it a draw.

If the government didn't think LRT was effective, they would not be funding it.

??? Do you really think that the govermnment only funds cost-effective projects? Private actors are forced by the market to be cost-effective, while the governmnent has no such incentive.

And the article I cited was actually quite neutral and they in turn cited government reports, and case studies of various cities (including success stories for BRT in some cases). Your argument seems to be mostly of bias.

The article wasn't neutral. It cited the GAO study very selectively in favor of LRT. It wasn't full blown against BRT and in favor of LRT, but there was a clear rail bias there. Otherwise, why wouldn't they have mentioned the GAO's conclusions regarding operating costs and the underlying figures? Instead they simply reached the opposite conclusion without evidence.

I don't claim to be unbiased. There was a time I actually favored rail transit (mostly commuter rail to ease freeway congestion), but as I researched the issue, I found that rail simply couldn't pass a cost-benefit analysis (and it turns out that commuter rail is actually the worst). Then I found that Metro agreed, but wanted to build rail anyway. That's what turned me against LRT.

But you're biased too. Even Metro admits that rail isn't cost-effective, but you're still clinging to cost-effectiveness as an justification anyway. I don't see any way the facts support it.

 
At 12:01 PM, October 23, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Owen,

You keep saying things like "Metro admits that rail is not cost-effective" - find me the quote. I'd be interested to see that.

I think LRT is clearly a cost-effective long-term solution - especially given high ridership projections - as the article mentions repeatedly. The difference between us seems to be that you think that the city should not be planning for the long-term, because "anything can happen", whereas I believe that given current understanding / engineering / population projections etc, we can take a pretty good stab at what we think is going to best serve the community. And Houston would be best served by the higher-capacity and if anything, cost "of the same magnitude" LRT than going with fancied-up BRT.

-Mike

 
At 12:51 PM, October 23, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

michael,

You keep saying things like "Metro admits that rail is not cost-effective" - find me the quote. I'd be interested to see that.

I just checked my source, and in it former Metro Chair Robert Miller was only referring to HOV buses, not regular bus service -- that's my error. Here's the exerpt:

"Buses on HOV lanes will always win a "cost-benefit" analysis against an expensive rail system, Miller conceded. If the buses run on dedicated lanes such as HOVs, they also will be faster than trains."

http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=1998_3057350

I still say it's one heck of a concession, seeing as Metro has often expressed the desire to send LRT down freeways. However, strictly speaking it doesn't apply to our discussion.

I think LRT is clearly a cost-effective long-term solution - especially given high ridership projections - as the article mentions repeatedly.

As you get into the long-term, projections become little more than wild guesses. I could make the same projections for regular buses or BRT, and they'd be no less valid.

I believe that given current understanding / engineering / population projections etc, we can take a pretty good stab at what we think is going to best serve the community.

If we'd tried to plan all our major transit routes fifty years ago, I promise you that a considerable percentage of them would be wrong today. Demand shifts -- it's a fact of life. You need a flexible transit system unless you already have a massive level of density, like New York or Paris or London. Otherwise, you can't possibly predict the demand with any degree of accuracy.

I just wish you'd admit that you have a gut preference for rail, rather than pretending it has tangible benefits that justify the cost. Basically, you're telling me that rail might not be good for the here and now, but it will be good for Houston three generations from now. I, for one, would rather build workable transit based on existing demand and predictions of demand over the next decade than pure speculation of what demand will be like when I'm already dead. I frankly don't see how your approach can be described as senisble or even reasonable given the scope of your knowledge.

 
At 1:39 PM, October 23, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Owen,

Of course I admit that I have a bias for rail. But I would hardly say that every city should have rail - it should be done only when it makes sense.

However, my understanding of the economics of rail in Houston is that if you are building today, maybe BRT / LRT are somewhat equal. Maybe there would even be a slight edge / savings over the next 20 years in building BRT. But, I think if you look 20-50 years or even further down the road, then LRT is a clear winner over BRT. I think the demand levels are already there to justify the LRT over BRT decision that metro has made (otherwise, they would not / will not qualify for federal funds), and the density of these areas which justify building a higher-capacity system is only going to continue to increase.

I would rather build a system that not only works now, but also works 20 years from now, 50 years from now (which hopefully I would still be able to enjoy), 100 years from now, etc. I don't care that I will be dead - I want the best system for the next generations as well.

Yes, demand shifts. But do you really think that the medical center, for instance, will be anything less than it is today 50 years from now? Could be, but I would rather assume that it will have a level of density higher or equivalent to what it already is - other major cities certainly do this when planning their subways / light rail / etc.

-Mike

 
At 9:38 AM, October 24, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Not sure if you guys were aware, but this thing has already been decided.

52-48

 
At 5:53 PM, October 25, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, if you want to get technical, the vote approved a fixed-guideway transit network, not necessarily the BRT vs. LRT decision.

 
At 12:01 PM, October 26, 2007, Blogger ian said...

"Well, if you want to get technical, the vote approved a fixed-guideway transit network, not necessarily the BRT vs. LRT decision."

Why do we even have votes on transit systems, when TxDOT is able to (try to) plow through any highway project it so desires? Why no elections on the Trans Texas Corridor, or local projects such as the Grand Parkway? Is there something fundamentally different between highway and transit transportation modes?

 
At 4:50 PM, October 26, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I don't remember the details, but basically the voters put the requirement specifically on Metro to get approval from them before embarking on major projects. Maybe someone else remembers the details behind why that requirement was put on Metro?

 

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