Time to go back to BRT, Metro?Hope you caught Rad's story this morning on exploding cost estimates for the Metro Solutions rail plan. "Exploding" seems inadequate in this case. A 50% increase from estimates is "exploding" to me. I don't know what to call it when they triple from previous estimates.
People should note that "an order of magnitude" (10x) qualifier is not helpful, implying a real range from $200 million to $20 billion. That's quite the spread.
The Federal Transit Administration, using data provided by Metro, said in its letters that the estimated cost of the North line, which would run 5.5 miles from north of downtown to Northline Mall, has risen to $677 million, from $276 million. The Southeast Line, 6.8 miles from downtown to Palm Center, has risen to $664 million, from $158 million, the FTA said.
By comparison, the 7.5-mile Main Street line cost $324 million and needs $104 million in new rail cars and improvements.
Numbers released by Metro varied. In February, the agency said that "by an order of magnitude," not exactly, all five planned light rail lines would cost about $2 billion, shared equally between Metro and the FTA, with the North and Southeast lines accounting for $500 million of that.
A month earlier, King says, Metro told him that the two lines would cost $854 million out of a $2.2 billion total. "A million here, a million there ... ," he quipped.
And now the FTA-Metro estimates say the two lines will cost $1.34 billion.
BlogHouston and Neal Meyer have jumped all over this. I expect Christof and Tom to weigh in soon enough (Kuff here). Neal says we're now talking $4 billion for 30 miles - a cool $133 million a mile (yes, that's a new Minute Maid Park every 2 miles). That's a major ouch. But on a daily rider basis, it gets even scarier (thanks to Neal for the numbers):
- Baseline: Main St. line = $324 million for 45,000 daily riders = $7,200 per rider. People can argue if that's reasonable or not, but no doubt, it's far more reasonable than the next two.
- North line: $677 million for 14,000 riders/day = $48,357 per rider
- Southeast line: $664 million for 13,900 riders/day = $47,770 per rider
Either way, we are looking at two rail alignments whose capital costs approach 50 percent of the entire cost of the Katy Freeway refurbishment and expansion, but will probably only carry about the equivalent of two lanes of passengers and do nothing to expedite the movement of freight or goods. Transit ridership is up about 10 percent over 2007, but transit still carries only 4-5 percent of work trips and only 1-2 percent of overall trips. Moreover, transit patronage is up for both bus and rail.There is a silver lining here. It's standard procedure for costs to spiral far beyond estimates with rail transit, but usually construction is already well along when those new estimates come to light, so it's too late to do anything about it. Taxpayers just have to bite the bullet and "rescue" the transit agency, or face drastic service cuts. But we're learning this early enough we can still make modifications and head off a financial catastrophe.
Mobility is what matters, not mode. There is a very strong argument to be made that patronage would also improve if Metro simply installed dedicated bus lanes, decreased the frequency of stops to improve bus travel speeds, and increased headway frequencies to cut down on catastrophic wait times. This could all be done at a fraction of the cost of $130 million per mile light rail lines.
What I'm wondering is will Metro - or Mayor White - step in aggressively now to fix the mess while they still can? Or will this get buried under the rug for the next administration to deal with? (and will the issue be blowing up again when Bill White is running for governor in 2010?) Will the Chronicle elevate this story/investigation to the front page, or at least the front of the Metro section, or is Rad's column the last we're going to hear? Let's hope, for the sake of the city, the light gets shined now and we work out a fiscally realistic and prudent transit solutions plan before it's too late.