Monday, March 31, 2008

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.

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.

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.

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
Yes, that's right: that old rail transit saw applies that it would be cheaper to buy every rider a Lexus. And remember, these riders already have pretty good bus service. Service that could be made a whole lot better for a lot less money. Neal adds:
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.

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.
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.

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.

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At 10:38 PM, March 31, 2008, Blogger Kevin Whited said...

** 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. **

No doubt! I like your metric, though. "A new Minute Maid Park every 2 miles" illustrates the expense nicely.

** I expect Christof, Kuff, and Tom to weigh in soon enough. **

Kuffner says it's no big deal. Specifically,

I think this may look a bit more dramatic than it is.

I disagree. It looks dramatic because it IS dramatic.

** 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? **

The Chronicle's editorial leadership has embraced a METRO cheerleading role for some years now, which is why this column was a little surprising. Perhaps the newspaper is beginning to realize that critics aren't always wrong about the transit organization, especially when it comes to costs -- and that missing/enablic a public financial fiasco (after missing Enron!) could be embarrassing to the newspaper. I hope so, and like you, I hope the newspaper begins to delve deeper into METRO financials. There is still time to reconsider our transit needs and come up with a better plan.

At 8:34 AM, April 01, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So when I can get my Metro funded Lexus?

The reality is that no at METRO cares. They're just trying to find a way to spin. We'll get a silly story from them that fuel and construction costs have gone up since their last submittal to the FTA. The supporters will say, "oh ok", and go along supporting this money waster.

The reality is that METRO continues to low ball these costs until someone throws it in their face. Thanks to the efforts of concerned citizens like Neal and others that continue to truly break down the numbers to show how METRO is cramming a massive waste of taxpayer dollars down our throats.

At 10:23 AM, April 01, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How on earth do costs triple in four years? Can anyone explain this?

At 11:12 AM, April 01, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My Light Rail Sunglasses have come off! LRT is such a waste of money. BRT is by far the best option. Is there really a good argument for LRT that interacts with cars?

If anything, elevated or submerged trains are the way to go. But like I said, if we're going to stay on the street, BRT is the way to go. Forget being cool.

At 12:14 PM, April 01, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is big news, something that should be a headline on the front page of the Chronicle. But the Chronicle seems to want to keep this quiet. We'll see if they live up to their journalistic responsibility and do some better reporting.

At 12:27 PM, April 01, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>How on earth do costs triple in four years? Can anyone explain this?

I think, if you read Kuffner's analysis, and also read the article, these costs are comparing the BRT figures in the initial proposal submitted to the FTA with the current expected costs of light rail. I am guessing that the cost of the BRT option alone has probably doubled in the past 3-4 years. But as Kuffner says we don't have any initial cost estimates of the North and Southeast lines as light rail.


At 1:22 PM, April 01, 2008, Blogger ian said...

Time to go back to BRT, Metro?

I'd like to point out one little thing that frequently seems to be ignored in these discussions: Houston passed a light rail referendum, not a BRT referendum.

Now, I happen to know a bit about transit, and I think BRT is a fine mode of transportation. But just because that fact is obvious to us transportation nerds doesn't mean that it is to everyone else. Unfortunately, we live in a democracy, where the majority rules -- not a handful of know-it-alls.

When Metro decided to go with BRT the first time, who liked that idea? Well, a bunch of people on this website, for starters (no surprise there). Who didn't like it? I'd estimate a couple hundred thousand (million?) disappointed Houstonians -- in particular, those along the lines who would be most directly affected by this grand investment. And I'm guessing those same large swaths of population would become agitated yet again if we switched modes on them another time. I'd be willing to bet more so, this time.

And you know what the kicker is? This is THEIR taxpayer money. A little bit yours, a little bit mine, sure -- but mostly that of everyone else out there. Some posters here like to point out that "oh, back in academia I had a shrewd professor who taught the difference between revealed preference and stated preference, etc, etc, etc (for about 10 or more paragraphs)".

You know what? It doesn't matter. We "elites" don't have the ability to tell others what they should spend their money on just because we "know" that they don't actually want to spend it on this or that. I "know" that BRT is great, but if Houstonians want light rail and want to spend their hard-earned money on it, then that is their prerogative. We're still at least pretending this country is a Democracy, right?

The best we can do is try to reason with others, try to coax them into thinking like we think. But we definitely shouldn't go above them and force something down upon them that is unwanted. So in that spirit, Tory, I strongly encourage you to retitle this post "Time to go back to BRT, Houston?" Because the people of Houston should really be your target audience, not Metro.

At 1:37 PM, April 01, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ian, you nailed it. Out of ignorance, if Houston residents voted for rail, why was BRT planned for two of the lines? Is there an official document out there that shows what was voted on exactly?

At 1:41 PM, April 01, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Tory's title is right, Houston is not the only entity involved in the LRT discussion. METRO represents all (or almost all) of Harris County.

Also, we regularly do things only for the minority at the objection of the majority. This country is not a democracy, but a republic (big difference).

From METRO's track record, I would guess even the lowered BRT numbers from METRO were probably way off.

At 2:14 PM, April 01, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I could be wrong, but I believe the referendum text carefully avoided the word "rail" and said something like "fixed-corridor rapid transit."

It also left wiggle room in the language for Metro to make modifications it deemed necessary, which is how it moved the Westpark line to Richmond. It's also how they determined BRT was the right choice over LRT the first time.

At 2:16 PM, April 01, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Nope, I was wrong. They did put rail in the language:

Although I remember the more broad "rapid transit" term being thrown around - maybe that was during the BRT switch.

At 2:21 PM, April 01, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Regardless, the referendum "authorized" Metro to issue bonds to build it, it did not "require" them to build it exactly as described, which is how they've been able to shift it around a bit since then (Westpark, other route shifts, BRT vs. LRT, etc.).

At 4:52 PM, April 01, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The opportunity costs of this project are huge. I've FOIA'd Metro for bus operations costs and have come to the conclusion that if we were to take the cost of the Main Street rail line, the Intermodal transit facility, and the 30 mile Phase 2 buildout, but then purchase and operate buses in their stead while investing the rest of the money in U.S. treasury notes, Metro could probably double the bus fleet and put another 1,000 buses on the road. We could substantially cut headways on all local routes, devise new routes, provide on demand door to door service with some vehicles, the possibilities are endless.

If we are going to pour 1-2 freeways worth of money into rail transit, we'd better make sure we get 1-2 freeways worth of traffic congestion relief.

The Main Street rail line draws 40,000+ riders per day. What is less known is that 16 of the 17 main bus routes which either intersect the line, truncate to it, or run nearby it, had lost 30,000 boardings in 2007 compared to 7 years ago. We do not get anywhere by substituting one for the other.

Fundamentally, I do not want to see Houston do what Los Angeles did and pour $11 billion into rail lines since 1985, only to achieve the same patronage in 2007 as LA-MTA did 20+ years ago. LA-MTA only was able to achieve its old numbers by putting money back into bus service.


At 1:10 AM, April 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What no one has pointed out is that the Main Street Line was the most unexpected success in the history of light rail. 43,000 or whatever the number is a day is successful. I'm from New York - seeing a full train in Houston is nice.

Now, in just 4 short years, we will possibly build 30 miles of rail, which compared to New York's Subway, is as long as 1 out of 27 subway lines. If we change the light rail to BRT, we could increase the 30 miles before 2012 to 60 miles (suggested 2025 plan)

Listen, Houston is ridiculously huge. It can't be completely perfect like New York (in a way where more than 75 percent of the city population needs public transit for work) But, with these price increases, lets just build the BRT lines fast - by 2010. If they become as popular as the Red Line, we'll go from there.

Much of the west side is safe from traffic congestion considering the Katy Freeway is almost completed - but the west-side rail line should follow the same path as the Westpark Tollway. But, these buses are getting increasingly crowded. This can be solved by putting BRT type vehicles on the road. Just people seeing these vehicles can attract new riders.

Lets stop with the crap and this 2025 plan. This should be the 2015 plan at the most. Hire more people, help this economy, and lets start making Houston public transit accessible, at least to our Dallas rival with several lines.

At 8:26 AM, April 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My Light Rail Sunglasses have come off! LRT is such a waste of money. BRT is by far the best option. Is there really a good argument for LRT that interacts with cars?

If anything, elevated or submerged trains are the way to go. But like I said, if we're going to stay on the street, BRT is the way to go. Forget being cool."

Wow, sounds like your sunglasses just came off. I'm sure yesterday you were an ardent light rail supporter, and this threw you to the other side.

At 9:04 PM, April 04, 2008, Blogger engineering said...

why costs have increased so much? since the referendum in 2003 we have about five years and the Iraq war. In 2005 TxDOT discovered some of its construction projects went up in cost as much as 20%.
Here are some economic factors:

1. Annual inflation, perhaps 5% but can be as much as 10%.

2. Increase cost of construction 10 to 20% per year.

3. Compound these values annually over five years.

The simple equation is:
p=c (1+r)^t

Replace r with 0.2 (assume 20% increase per year) and t with 5 (over five years)

The result is:
P=c (2.5)

So, future value P (year 2008) is 2.5 times the 2003 value c.

That is engineering economics 101.

At 2:26 PM, April 09, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't imagine that construction costs would go up 20% every year for five years, so that the same project would cost 2.5 times what it did just five years ago. That seems absurd.


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