Thursday, April 17, 2008

Debating the rising cost of Metro Solutions

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Kuff recently posted his thoughts on the spiraling cost estimates for the Metro Solutions plan. He raises a very good point that our core surface streets (as opposed to the freeways) are getting more and more congested as the core densifies. I've wondered myself about their carrying limit. Are they doomed to get as bad as Uptown? Or worse? His solution is rail transit to carry more of those trips, while dismissing buses (also stuck in traffic) and bus rapid-transit/BRT (politics).

First, the unfortunate results from cities like LA (with even worse street congestion) is that transit-oriented development only shifts a tiny fraction of those residents onto transit. The vast majority still use cars for most of their trips. Sure, a little bit is better than nothing, but its not going to be the solution. I was also hoping it would be the answer, but all the results I see from other cities are discouraging. Heck, even NYC with it's incredible transit system has gridlock in Manhattan and is trying to get congestion pricing to alleviate it (a friend of mine says his daily 1.5-mile Manhattan commute in a taxi takes 30-40 minutes!).

Second, the streets with the congestion problems are served by the Universities line (was always going to be rail), and maybe to some extent by the Uptown line (was BRT, now rail). It's not really a valid argument for the North, East, or Southeast lines, since their streets have little congestion.

Third, people weren't happy before, but they did come around to BRT eventually. As I pointed out before, $50K per daily rider - or a new Minute Maid Stadium every 2 miles (new data: every 3.5 miles) - is just a crazy amount to spend for rail on those low ridership lines. The public can be convinced, it just takes officials concerned with fiscal responsibility who are willing to educate them.

Yes citizens have shown a preference for rail over BRT. But it's been framed as "given this route network, which would you prefer?", when the real question should be (with BRT so much cheaper), "you can have small route network A with rail, or much larger (1.5x+) route network B with BRT - and then we'll upgrade lines to rail that have enough ridership to justify it." That makes the BRT case a whole lot more compelling by tapping many more neighborhoods, people, and destinations. It also better fits Mayor White's motto when he first modified the plan to BRT: "We want more service, sooner rather than later."

Houston has been extremely successful with our starter light rail line on Main Street. Of course, that line picked the "low hanging fruit" by connecting many key destinations in a very short distance (including acting as a parking shuttle for the medical center). I am very concerned that that success is leading to complacency with this expansion, and that we're going to wake up in a few years with many billions down the drain (far more than originally estimated) for very nice but sparsely occupied trains - and the cost overruns will make the public lose any appetite for expanding it further. Will it take our own "Big Dig"-level crisis before we learn our lesson?

Update:
I've gotten some new info that LRT may stay around $70m/mile, and that BRT-convertable (with the tracks under the pavement) would be about 70% of that. If that's the case, combined with the politics and peoples' LRT preferences (inc. developers), this may not be as worrisome as I had feared from Sallee's columns. But it's certainly worth keeping a close eye on...

Update 2: Kuff's response.

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24 Comments:

At 12:20 PM, April 17, 2008, Anonymous mike said...

Once again... the chief advantage of rail is not to reduce road congestion. It is to offer people an alternative to road congestion for getting around.

 
At 12:25 PM, April 17, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>But it's been framed as "given this route network, which would you prefer?", when the real question should be (with BRT so much cheaper), "you can have small route network A with rail, or much larger (2x+) route network B with BRT - and then we'll upgrade lines to rail that have enough ridership to justify it."

So what are your thoughts on Signature Bus? This seems like essentially BRT on the cheap to me - with better buses, stops, lower frequency of stops, and the devices that can allow the bus to alter stop-lights and go through traffic faster. Metro plans on adding 3 lines this year including the dense Bellaire to TMC corridor, and 2 more on Gessner and Westheimer presumably within the next year or two.

Plus we are getting light rail. I'm not necessarily opposed to what you are suggesting, but seems like we are getting LRT + cheap BRT as it is.

 
At 1:06 PM, April 17, 2008, Blogger ian said...

"Heck, even NYC with it's incredible transit system has gridlock in Manhattan and is trying to get congestion pricing to alleviate it (a friend of mine says his daily 1.5-mile Manhattan commute in a taxi takes 30-40 minutes!)."

So here's the question: if you have a situation where you have absolutely gridlocked roads in a dense urban area, what do you do about it? Condemning skyscrapers so you can add another traffic lane probably won't be cost efficient; instead you've got to find a way to maximize the use of what you've got. If you can move so many more people down a lane if it's dedicated to rail or buses, then isn't it possible that such a conversion might be worth it?

I think everyone is past trying to "fix" congestion. In some areas there is still more that can be done (adding arterials and thoroughfares in suburban and unincorporated areas), but there is just not much you can do in dense urban areas. The best we can do is provide alternatives so that we can move people and goods in new, efficient ways in order to keep the engine of the city running.

 
At 2:11 PM, April 17, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Provide alternatives to driving: yes, BRT is that, and a cost-effective one that has more than enough capacity for the lines planned for at least a couple decades+. *And*, since we can build so many more miles for the same price, it creates even more alternatives to driving for more people by connecting more places.

Signature bus: Great! Love it! They should do them all over. But I don't think it's eligible for federal funds the way BRT and LRT are.

If we're locked in to the referendum and the federal process, BRT is the way to go for most lines.

 
At 5:22 PM, April 17, 2008, Anonymous common_sense said...

Question for BRT supporters:

When you talk about BRT, are you talking about a bus that runs on its own grade separated lane or are you talking about simply a bus that travels down the right hand lane having to deal with people talking right turns, etc?

If it is the former, I wouldn't have as much of a problem with such a system, although I have heard that the operating costs for such a system can be rather high as compared to rail. If it is the later; no thank you.

 
At 5:34 PM, April 17, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

BRT in its own grade-separated lane.

 
At 5:42 PM, April 17, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I've gotten some new info that LRT may stay around $70m/mile, and that BRT-convertable (with the tracks under the pavement) would be about 70% of that. If that's the case, combined with the politics and peoples' LRT preferences (inc. developers), this may not be as worrisome as I had feared from Sallee's columns. But it's certainly worth keeping a close eye on...

 
At 7:17 AM, April 18, 2008, Blogger ian said...

$70m a mile is a lot different from the previous estimate of $133m a mile. How are they accounting for that difference?

 
At 7:26 AM, April 18, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think there's something in the FTA formulas, but I don't know for sure.

 
At 2:18 PM, April 18, 2008, Anonymous mike said...

So you pay a little under fifty percent more to have the same lines LRT, but in exchange you get something that is more attractive to riders and better markets our city to the rest of the world. The conservative in me can live with that.

 
At 4:49 PM, April 18, 2008, Blogger engineering said...

Great statement from Mike "Once again... the chief advantage of rail is not to reduce road congestion. It is to offer people an alternative to road congestion for getting around."
Early METRO studies had costs related to BRT and LRT. At one point I remember METRO had BRT higher than LRT, which is possible.
Shouldn't the decision of mode be based on best service for least cost?
Why is Houston that has low population densities compared to places like NY and London focused on BRT and LRT for the inner city if cities like London has decided to expand its bus system instead of its tube?
While attending an urban planning meeting in London I heard one of the members indicate that they needed to make London denser because congestion was getting worst. They did not need to make the city denser. Congestion pricing reduced traffic congestion by 30% and has proven a great success.
Now, Houston has a long long long long way to go before it experiences congestion to the level of New York and London, even Austin.

 
At 5:10 PM, April 18, 2008, Anonymous common_sense said...

engineering-

To be fair, London and New York have an existing transit infrastructure and the bus service supplements that system. Houston really lacks such an infrastructure.

 
At 8:46 AM, April 19, 2008, Anonymous RedScare said...

While I appreciate your use of the Minute Maid Park comparison for the mathmatically challenged, I suggest a more current spending analogy. At $70 million per mile, construction costs are equivalent to only 3 hours and 20 minutes in Iraq. Sounds positively cheap in comparison, doesn't it?

Likewise, I fail to understand the argument that BRT would be cheaper than LRT, when the voters and residents clearly prefer LRT. I have yet to see you post the equivalent argument on the Katy Freeway or proposed 290 rebuild. Why spend $3 Billion on the Katy or $3.5 Billion on 290, when a nice asphalt overlay will accomplish the same objective for far less money and in less time? Sure, the asphalt overlay may be a bit bumpier or not as attractive, but isn't that the same gripe lodged against BRT? And, don't give me the toll road argument, as the Westpark toll road proves that HCTRA could have run a toll road down the railroad ROW along the Katy and 290 for a few hundred million.

Frankly, as the price of gasoline pushes toward $4.00 per gallon, I find this blog to be the only place I can come to to find an anti-rail debate anymore. Everyone else has conceded the issue.

 
At 10:12 AM, April 19, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, I could make the same argument about every freeway expansion being cheap compared to Iraq - even the TTC - but it's not a relevant argument.

I'm for cost effective transportation, no matter what form: toll roads, freeways, or transit. That means finding the value point to move the most people for the least money.

Randal O' Toole at the Antiplanner blog continuously comes up with hard data devastating pro-rail arguments:
http://www.ti.org/antiplanner/

 
At 11:26 AM, April 19, 2008, Anonymous common_sense said...

I think one of the problems that many people (including me) have with the BRT argument is that many people who advocate it seem to have different motives.

Many people who call for BRT are actually against transit and pro-sprawl. And as BRT lacks a clear standard, repainted current buses with fancy new names - bam! That's BRT to some people.

If we could agree that (1.) sprawl is a problem for various reasons, (2.) Houston has a serious sprawl problem and needs to become more dense, (3.) Some type of fixed transit system can help with this problem; if we could agree on this then perhaps we could come to conclusion and get the thing built!

 
At 1:55 PM, April 19, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I don't have a problem with sprawl or density. People should be able to choose how they want to live. LRT/BRT transit is good for the core to support that density, but also allow suburban express bus commuters to get around during the day for lunches, meetings, errands, etc.

 
At 3:23 PM, April 19, 2008, Anonymous RedScare said...

"Yes, I could make the same argument about every freeway expansion being cheap compared to Iraq - even the TTC - but it's not a relevant argument."

I agree completely, which is why I recommend leaving the Minute Maid comparisons to the guys at blogHouston. It cheapens your otherwise well written blog.

 
At 6:19 PM, April 19, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I've had a lot of people tell me they find the comparison very helpful. They don't know how many millions is right for freeways or transit, but they can get their minds around the construction of a stadium, and then understand whether rail seems expensive or not by comparison. Every 2 miles seems crazy to most people. 3.5 miles is better, but still seems a bit steep.

 
At 9:09 PM, April 19, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RedScare said...
I have yet to see you post the equivalent argument on the Katy Freeway or proposed 290 rebuild. Why spend $3 Billion on the Katy or $3.5 Billion on 290, when a nice asphalt overlay will accomplish the same objective for far less money and in less time?

A "nice asphalt overlay" doesn't increase capacity which is the issue with the Katy Freeway.

 
At 7:12 AM, April 21, 2008, Blogger ian said...

Anon, but isn't an increase in capacity essentially just an increase in ride quality? I think most Katy commuters, for example, probably equate increased capacity with a quicker and more comfortable commute. They already had a massive freeway to get them into town, but they wanted better. Is that fundamentally any different from wanting LRT instead of BRT?

 
At 8:05 AM, April 21, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

BRT has, for the most part, essentially the same service quality as LRT, but lower capacity. It makes sense to start with that, and then upgrade if necessary down the road, just like it made sense at the time historically to make a lot of Houston's freeways 6 lanes first, then, at the end of their useful life, rebuild them as 8 or 10 lanes. Going straight to that many lanes, when the demand wasn't going to materialize for 20+ years, would have made no fiscal sense.

 
At 8:06 AM, April 21, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Example: they built Beltway 8 as 6 lanes, but left space to upgrade to 8 lanes, as they've recently done. Great analogy to Metro's previous proposal to create upgradable BRT lines.

 
At 10:06 AM, April 21, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ian said...
isn't an increase in capacity essentially just an increase in ride quality? I think most Katy commuters, for example, probably equate increased capacity with a quicker and more comfortable commute. They already had a massive freeway to get them into town, but they wanted better. Is that fundamentally any different from wanting LRT instead of BRT?
------
IMO quality is more than increased capacity. Saying that the Katy commuters "already had a massive freeway to get them into town, but they wanted better" is a misnomer. The freeway was designed to handle ~100,000 daily commuters. It was handling closer to ~280,000 daily commuters. It does not have the capacity to handle commuters. That is more than wanting better. The LRT/BRT issue is a different beast altogether. METRO has eliminated transit options (some bus service) because they don't have the money to run the LRT and bus service. The ridership numbers provided by METRO are low, particularly for an over 2 billion dollar expenditure. How many of the new lines run through congested areas? 2 out of 5 perhaps? (Galleria/Richmond) Is it worth spending more money than required when the ridership isn't there on the other 3? (North/East/Southeast) METRO's proposed design on the Richmond line will affect area traffic more than the relief it will provide.

 
At 12:00 PM, April 21, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>makes sense to start with that

You can't just say that without a whole bunch of figures to back that claim up. If you can show that BRT is cheaper even when a switch to LRT is made 10 years down the road, then maybe you have a point.

>>It makes sense to start with that, and then upgrade if necessary down the road, just like it made sense at the time historically to make a lot of Houston's freeways 6 lanes first, then, at the end of their useful life, rebuild them as 8 or 10 lanes. Going straight to that many lanes, when the demand wasn't going to materialize for 20+ years, would have made no fiscal sense.

It also may not make sense to choose the higher operating cost transit mode (BRT) and spend additional capital costs in the switch from BRT to LRT when you know that you are going to switch to LRT 5-10 years down the line.

I am going to have to trust my elected officials and Metro that they are looking at some of these tradeoffs (note that there is no such thing as looking at "all possible tradeoffs" as transportation is an infinite problem space) and building us a pretty good system. As I said in my previous post, we are getting several BRT lines. It is called Signature Bus and it is going to be very cheap so hopefully that makes you happy. The only thing that it doesn't have is its own ROW, but "if demand justifies it we can build that", wouldn't you say?

 

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