Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Major Texas Metro Areas Are Confirming Failures in Rail Transit

Despite the success of the Main St. line, I've been concerned for a long time now that the next set of rail lines will essentially bankrupt Metro while providing minimal benefit (except for possibly the Universities line, which has moderate benefits, but may not get built anytime soon because of the money drain of the other lines being built first).  Now the Coalition On Sustainable Transportation (COST) has come out with the numbers from other cities (especially Dallas) that don't bode well for Houston at all.  Some key excerpts (I know it's a lot, but there are some really good points in here):
For example: Dallas will pay increasing debt service for many years and has 30 plus year bonds and commercial paper for its almost $4 billion of debt. Their debt service is considered annual operating costs in the chart below, because: By the time current bonds are paid, the rail system will be at the end of its service life and will need replacement through the creation of a new round of bonds, continuing this high bond expense for as long as the system operates. While other Texas cities have not yet reached this Dallas level of bond debt and expense, Houston is rapidly moving in the same direction and Austin’s planning is pointing in this direction. Currently Dallas’s debt service is about 3 times Houston’s and almost 40 times Austin’s.
One may look at the data in the table above in many ways, but, none of the conclusions seem to be positive for rail transit. Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin are all among the top 20 fastest growing major cities in the nation. However, the three cities with various levels of rail transit, Dallas, Houston and Austin, all have declining transit ridership trends and have fewer absolute transit riders today than they had a dozen years ago. They have spent billions to implement and promote transit with a heavy focus on rail transit.

These data highlight a number of broader Texas Metro Area negative transit trends:

1. Metro areas with more rail transit have significantly higher costs and higher taxpayer subsidies per ride.
2. Metro areas with more rail transit have fewer total transit boardings per capita.
3. Metro areas with higher densities have fewer transit riders (boardings) per capita.
4. Dallas has the largest population and greatest population density but the least cost effective transit system: Higher cost per ride (boarding) and fewer boardings per capita.
5. Increasing the proportion of a region’s transit funds being spent on rail transit leads to less cost effective overall transit and degraded transit for the majority of transit riders who still ride busses.

Some Major Texas City Metro Areas comparisons/observations regarding transit data:

1. Dallas-Ft. Worth Metro’s population is more than 3 times San Antonio’s and Dallas’ annual transit operating expense is 4.4 times San Antonio’s but Dallas has only 1.6 times the transit ridership of San Antonio.
2. Dallas-Ft. Worth Metro’s population is 3.8 times that of Austin and Dallas’ annual transit operating expense is 3.7 times the transit expense of Austin but Dallas-Ft. Worth has only 1.9 times Austin’s ridership.
3. Dallas has the most invested, more than $4 billion, in light rail and it has the highest cost per transit ride at 2.8 times San Antonio’s costs and almost 2 times Austin’s. Dallas has the least boardings per capita, about one-half of San Antonio and Austin.
4. San Antonio’s bus only transit system has 1.2 times Austin’s ridership but only 82% of Austin’s annual operating expense.
5. San Antonio’s ‘cost per transit rider’ is about one-third of Dallas-Ft. Worth’s and San Antonio has 2 times as many transit riders per capita as Dallas-Ft Worth.
6. Dallas’ 2011 net debt service (principal and interest) budget of $153 million is greater than San Antonio’s total 2011 budgeted operating costs of $141.3 million and almost as much as Austin’s $168.2 million.

It is no surprise that Dallas has hit a transit financial wall causing it to pause and curtail, at least temporarily, further light rail expansion. It seems, the more light rail Dallas implements, the more inefficient and expensive its transit becomes. This is an often occurring trend when regions implement rail transit and is a serious problem trend now developing in Houston and Austin. The result is overall degradation of transit service as exorbitantly expensive rail transit and resulting debt absorb increasingly higher percentages of transit funds. This, in turn, results in increasing transit fares and reductions in bus service which have disproportionately negative quality-of-life impacts on lower income citizens. Almost everyone forgets that the majority of transit riders still ride busses even after such massive investments in rail transit such as in Dallas or in Portland, the Mecca of train transit, where well over one-half of the transit rides are on busses. More importantly, this wasteful spending on ineffective trains ‘bleeds dry’ taxpayer funds which could be used to make positive contributions in serving communities’ many, higher priority needs for all citizens. (like express commuter bus services from all neighborhoods to all job centers, as I've been advocating)
Much experience has shown that once a cycle of high cost rail transit is implemented, the agency becomes heavily burdened with debt for a very long time. It is highly probable that the very high debt service (principle and interest) will become a permanent and major part of the transit agency’s annual operating costs. When one issue of bonds is paid down, it becomes time for another round of debt to replace aging equipment. This, in turn results in very poor cost effectiveness and degradation of the overall transit system as it serves fewer riders at higher costs. This high debt can never be paid-off without major increases in local taxes. Transit agencies cannot responsibly project and achieve enough ridership to make rail transit cost-effective. This has even less credibility in light of the national declining trend in the use of transit and the fact that the use of transit in Texas’ major metro areas has a declining trend over the past dozen years. As Dallas and other major cities have experienced, this results in a spiraling decline in transit performance and effectiveness, degradation of mobility for low income citizens and, often, cutbacks in other higher priority city services. This results in reducing overall quality-of-life.
Is this the future we really want for Houston?  Because it's not too late to stop it now, but it will be too late very, very soon, and then we will be stuck with the same harsh reality as Dallas for decades to come...


At 9:56 AM, September 14, 2011, Anonymous NICK said...

It is scary to think that we are spending all these funds on a plan that virtually nobody got to vote on. It is issues like this that make me think IBM’s “Smarter Cities” forum may be a worthwhile event for our city officials to attend.


At 4:36 PM, September 14, 2011, Blogger Rail Claimore said...

If Metro goes bankrupt, the resulting privatization might not necessarily be bad for Houston. In Chicago or NY where you have incredibly large CBDs that MUST be served by some form of rail transit, transit unions can simply hold the entire metro area hostage, and they know it too. Such is not the case for Houston, or even Los Angeles.

At 3:56 PM, September 15, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yeah, I'm not sure it would work out that well. They would more likely just become another public agency hobbled by debt, either stagnating or cutting service or raising taxes (or, most likely, just cutting their contribution to the general mobility fund for roads, and that money has to come from somewhere, so it's the same as raising taxes).

At 4:01 PM, September 15, 2011, Anonymous Temple Houston said...

"It is scary to think that we are spending all these funds on a plan that virtually nobody got to vote on." That's just not true. It's only true if you didn't live in Metro's service area. There was definitely an election on a rail plan. It passed. Just because you don't like the results of the election does not justify asserting there was no election.

At 4:49 PM, September 15, 2011, Anonymous Martin said...

"It is scary to think that we are spending all these funds on a plan that virtually nobody got to vote on."

Last time I checked we were a representative democracy, not a direct democracy...

At 5:55 PM, September 15, 2011, Anonymous Jay Blazek Crossley said...

"These data" are pretty poor.

Note some things:

They don't provide you with their background calculations of how they pulled this together or preferably with a downloadable version of all their work in one excel. Why? Makes this so much more useless in a meaningful policy discussion.

Houston's Metro service area covers something over 3 million people in the Houston area and the rest of the region chooses not to invest in transit. But they are using metropolitan region population numbers. Why? (This makes boardings per capita a kind of meaningless number in this chart, also...)

Population density of core city is a pretty poor statistic. City of Houston has been expanding forever, meaning that measuring density by COH population / COH land area is kind of a silly way to compare us to the City of Dallas. My guess is that a more meaningful density measure would show you that Houston has more significant density than Dallas.

You and the COST people fail to note that Metro has the highest ridership total. Seems kind of a significant number the largest collection of transit trips in a metro region in Texas is happening here in Houston. hmmmm. doesn't matter i guess....

Most importantly this lumping together of Houston rail and Dallas rail as one phenomena is either deliberately misleading or they don't know what they're talking about. Houston has the 2nd most successful light rail line in the country in terms of ridership per mile of rail. This is a efficient use of tax resources stat. A real one. Once Metro completes the North line, we will have more rail riders in Houston than Dallas' entire system which will be much much longer and have cost much much more than ours. To ignore this, once again, shows the poor nature of this "research" and the findings.

Finally, the anecdotal story of how we're losing transit riders while supposedly pouring all this money into transit intentionally and almost maliciously ignores the much larger gobs of money all of these regions (in the form of TXDOT money and local money) are pouring into subsidizing sprawl and perverting the marketplace and making our cities less efficient. Seems clear this group is not concerned with efficient use of tax dollars, or they'd have many much easier targets to go after at TXDOT...

I really like arguing with you Tory and having meaningful discussions, but it's really annoying when such poor work is shown as meaningful.

At 6:36 PM, September 15, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm not surprised Houston/Metro has the highest ridership total - I'm sure it's the most populated transit district in the state. I think that also backs up their case, since the vast majority of Metro's system is bus-based.

Agree the Main St. line is a good one. Many good destinations on a short line. I don't think the North line extension adds enough marginal riders or destinations to be worth the cost, esp. vs. the Universities line, which should be the first priority (so if we run out of $, at least we have 2 good lines connecting key destinations, not 1 good line and 3 mediocre or poor ones). "We're screwing up less than Dallas" is not really a great argument - we're still screwing up.

TXDOT certainly makes its share of mistakes, but I'm guessing they move a *lot* more people per $ spent (and definitely more passenger miles per $) than rail, at least on their metro area roads (west Texas highways may be a different story).

I think qualifying their work as "poor" is excessive. You have a couple of arguments around the edges (like which population to use), but the essential facts they state are pretty solid.

At 10:56 PM, September 15, 2011, Blogger Michael said...

So - the Main Street line is a success, and the University Line (and Uptown Lines) will be too, but we should be concerned that Metro is building these lines in the order in which they can self-fund them while the Feds take their time granting us the money for the University line? I just don't see the cause for alarm here - it seems like Metro is being very cautious in the way they are going about the build-out process.

Show us the numbers that say that building out the Southeast and North lines makes Metro go bankrupt - not some vague comparison of all Texas cities - I'm pretty sure Metro is running these specific numbers and they are still planning on building out the entire system as far as I can tell.

At 6:59 AM, September 16, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Actually, I'm not a fan of the Uptown line either. Traffic disaster that may very well kill Uptown for few riders.

Here are the numbers on the lines:

At 12:07 PM, September 16, 2011, Blogger Michael said...


This article basically confirms what I said - Metro is trying to build out the lines within their own means. Nobody knows what the ultimate federal funding will be.

I think it is already way too late to change the basic strategy. We've chosen to build out the North and Southeast lines and we're already laying rail on these lines. So to me it is highly suspect that some drastic change of course is in order.


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