My advice to the Metro committeesMost of you may have heard that Mayor Parker appointed transition committees to take a hard look at Metro, and she wants them to think outside the box, including the possibility of free fares (farebox revenues make up only 20% of Metro's budget - the rest is their 1% sales tax). My regular readers know I've written a lot on Metro and transit over the years, so I thought I'd try to sum up my advice to the committees in a single post. If you know anybody on the committees, please consider forwarding this over. Thanks.
- Transit agencies all over the country have consistently overestimated revenues and underestimated costs, esp. for rail projects, eventually leading to a fiscal crisis with bus service for the poor and transit-dependent held hostage to a taxpayer bailout. Don't let it happen here. Here's a counter-example about a prudent transit agency.
- Don't let federal subsidies over-warp your thinking about what the right answers are and are not for Houston. Chasing federal money often leads to bad decisions and boondoggle projects.
- Given current fiscal realities, it is unreasonable to expect the Metro communities to give up their 1/4% sales tax for general transportation improvements.
- If we simply can't afford the Metro Solutions rail plan, and it must be stretched out or even canceled, the low-cost alternative is to replace those lines with frequent, free signature bus service. I've heard that the FTA wants to spread limited funds around and they will only strongly subsidize a single major project in each city. If we can only afford one line, make sure it's the east-west Universities line, which connects the most important destinations in central Houston not already connected by the Main St. line. More here: Adapting Metro Solutions to the new realities
- On the long-term Metro Solutions plan: Why rail to the airport doesn't make sense
- Commuter rail rarely works in a post-WW2 car-based city. Old cities in Europe and America were built with dense cores for the primary mobility mode of the time: walking. Rail allowed people to move to the suburbs and still commute to the single dense core of jobs (like Manhattan or downtown Chicago). Newer, mostly post-WW2, car-based, Sunbelt cities like Houston have decentralized jobs spread over many different centers, like Downtown, Uptown, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza, the Energy Corridor, Westchase, Greenspoint, Clear Lake, and more. Less than 7% of our jobs are downtown. Trying to connect commuters to these job centers with rail would not only be astronomically expensive, but would lead to impractically long commute times with multiple transfers and long walks for people to reach their final destination buildings. The better solution: express buses. They whisk commuters nonstop at 65mph directly to their job center and then circulate to get them right to their building. No transfers, no waits, and no walking in our unpredictable weather. They also compliment technology trends to be the ideal commute of the future.
- Push the conversion of all HOV lanes to HOT lanes, and add HOT lanes to the 610 Loop (see the fourth point here on how).
- Open up the express commuter bus/shuttle market to private competition by offering a flat subsidy per passenger-trip + per passenger-mile and letting private companies compete on service, routes, schedules, and amenities (like wi-fi). Let them use the existing Park-and-Rides or cut deals with private parking lots like churches and malls. This is the fastest way to not only improve commuter service, but also maximize ridership to reduce rush hour congestion.
- To encourage more dense inside-the-loop living (i.e. transit-oriented development) and reduced congestion, make Metro buses and rail free inside the loop (with high-frequency service). It might also make sense to eliminate all fares at Metro, but this could be a good first step in that direction.
- Wherever we do decide to build rail, listen very carefully to Christof to get the details right.
Thanks for your time and consideration.
Update: Thanks for the backup Tom, Cory, and Evan. Much appreciated.
Update 2: A relevant classic post from my first year that the committees should definitely read: A hypothesis on the deeper psychology of rail