Sunday, October 19, 2008

Lessons for Metro

Sorry for not posting late last week. I was on a business trip to NYC for a conference and had extremely erratic internet access. Right before I left, I was disappointed to see that Metro is raising fares in the face of a worsening economy. While their logic of cost inflation is fair, and supported by the Chronicle, the fact remains that a scaled-back/delayed light rail plan such as I recently proposed would give them the budget room to hold the line on fares while radically increasing commuter services to meet the surge in demand. In 2003 Metro was facing a surplus, with plenty of money and little demand for commuter services, so it was decided to focus that surplus (and much more) towards expanding the core light rail network. In the new reality of expensive gas (albeit temporarily backing off with the recession) and a huge spike in demand for commuter service, that surplus would be better deployed holding (or even rescinding) fares while increasing P&R commuter services, including maybe a little commuter rail on freight tracks.

The NY Times had an good story recently on Rochester's transit system, with some interesting lessons I think Metro could learn from:
At a time when public transportation systems around the country are struggling with soaring fuel costs and pinched budgets, the bus system in Rochester has done something that few others would contemplate: This month, it lowered its single-ride fare.
But as economic hard times have reduced tax revenues and increased demand for government transit subsidies, its experiences may provide valuable lessons for larger cities that are planning fare increases, like New York, Minneapolis and Cleveland.

The Rochester system, which expects to run a surplus for the third year in a row, has been able to reduce its one-ride fare in part by eliminating some low-trafficked routes, avoiding debt and aggressively raising revenues from other sources. The fare fell to $1 from $1.25 on Sept. 1.

It has, for instance, reached agreements with the local public school district, colleges and private businesses to help subsidize its operations, warning in some cases that certain routes might be cut if ridership did not increase or a local business did not help cover the cost. In recent years, income from these agreements has equaled or exceeded the income from regular passenger fares.

All the while, ridership has increased by 7.4 percent over the last two years in an area where the population has remained stable. And while only about 1 out of 6 customers pays the single-ride fare (the majority use daily, weekly or monthly passes), the transit service expects further ridership gains now with the fare cut in place.
...the accomplishments in Rochester are notable. Efficiency has improved, with buses driving fewer miles, carrying more passengers and generating more revenue in fares. The transit agency has installed a satellite locator system in its buses to track whether they are on schedule. Next year, it will install electronic signs in some bus stops to tell riders when the next bus will arrive.
...the Rochester authority has no debt
...The authority has banked its surpluses and now has $19 million in cash reserves.
...The Rochester authority has also helped itself by working out subsidy agreements with local businesses and educational institutions.
Is it too much to ask for a little learning and adaptation by our public agencies? Take a poll. Better yet, take a vote. I'm sure the results would reflect the changed needs and desires of Houston's citizens: delay some light rail, more commuter services now, and stable or lower fares in the face of a looming recession.

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At 7:44 AM, October 20, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That means METRO will have to listen to reason and common sense and dare make an informed decision. That's some high hopes for METRO.

There track record leaves little to be desired.

At 10:34 AM, October 20, 2008, Blogger Unknown said...

Please keep in mind that the commuter rail study suggests ridership of 40,000, less than the existing light rail line, and is projected to cost $3 billion. It is very difficult and costly to provide commuter service, but it will slowly get better - assuming we build the light rail system to provide urban service to commuters. That system projects ridership of more than 150,000 a day, not counting the connected bus service.

At 2:33 AM, October 22, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the core LRT network makes even more sense now than it did in 2004. Your fears of "companies moving out to Katy" become less likely when the capital to fund new office developments has all but tried up.

For instance, as I write this, General Growth Properties - the guys developing Bridgeland - is trading at $4.84 a share. Three months ago they were trading above 32 dollars a share. Now, Bridgeland could've provided some real competition for the inner loop, what with its "town centers" and pocket new urban developments mixed into the suburban supergrid. But now, not so much.

Same thing with Trademark's 800 acres out in Hockley. When they bought it the stated aim was to hold the property for awhile, and the current recession makes that all the more likely. In fact if there's anything that would jumpstart the Trademark development, it would be 290 commuter rail - so in that case the commuter service is actually increasing non-loop development.

As I commented on that post, your proposal to scale back the LRT network by building the East, Southeast, and North lines as signature bus would be roundly protested by the community, since you'd basically be confining LRT to the white areas of the city. That didn't work out very well for Los Angeles and METRO has wisely avoided it here.

All in all I look forward to the new LRT lines, and while I currently live in the 'trose I might just move out to the Third Ward if there's a train I can take downtown.

At 3:39 PM, October 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We already did take a vote! 78 miles of expansion were approved, and 78 miles we shall build.

As for delaying "some light rail," some light rail has already been delayed - construction should have started in 2006. Time to build what the voters approved.

At 4:22 PM, October 23, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

New times and new circumstances deserve new votes, just like Congress is probably going to revisit financial market regulations in light of this crisis, despite previous votes for a certain set of (clearly flawed) regulations. Are we only allowed to revisit decisions *after* a major a failure, or maybe we should consider *looking ahead* and *preemptively* fixing obvious mistakes-in-the-making before they happen?...

At 6:29 PM, October 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What really has fundamentally changed?

Frankly, people who bought out in BFE knew (or should have known) that fuel costs might increase and the cost of commuting 40 miles would skyrocket. I'm sorry but the answer for these people is perhaps to look at housing closer to the city. As someone who lives in midtown and commutes to downtown, I say build the rail as promised. No more delays!

At 6:59 PM, October 23, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> What really has fundamentally changed?

-Fuel costs.
-Demand for commuter transit.
-Rail cost estimates have exploded.
-Affordable debt/credit is no longer available.

At 9:14 PM, October 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let the suburban communities run their own bus lines, like the Woodlands does. Last time I checked, places like Sugar Land, New Territory, Grand Mission, Cinco Ranch, and other far-flung communities aren't in METRO's service area.

You can see METRO's service area on their system map, here. Yellow-shaded areas are outside of the service area, and thus don't pay taxes to METRO.

If Sugar Land really wants in on the commuter-bus network, let them vote to add themselves to the service area. I'm sure the added tax base would be more than adequate to fund additional commuter services, in addition to LRT.

At 9:31 PM, October 23, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree areas outside Metro's tax zone must either join Metro or pay for any services it provides through a partnership of some kind (like they're doing with Baytown). But even setting aside those areas, there are inadequate commuter services within Metro's service area. I've seen huge lines downtown waiting for their express bus. P&R parking lots fill. And the system is still far too biased towards downtown service, when more buses are needed going to alternate job centers like TMC, Greenway, Uptown, and the Energy Corridor.

At 11:52 AM, October 24, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

when more buses are needed going to alternate job centers like TMC, Greenway, Uptown, and the Energy Corridor.

Agreed on this point, but I'm still baffled by your zero-sum mentality with regards to transit improvements. If there is a large new demand for commuter services that has cropped up since the voters passed Phase I, then let's draft up Phase II - with a heavy commuter rail/bus orientation - and pass that too. The fact that demand for other types of services has increased doesn't mean that demand for the core LRT network has *decreased* - if anything, that's also gone up.

At 2:00 PM, October 24, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The new LRT lines serve areas that are already well served by transit, making it a "nice to have - but not required". The new demand is for capacity that does not currently exist. Serving that demand should take priority over upgrading parts of town from 'regular' transit service (bus) to 'luxury' service (LRT), especially when that regular service is *not* at capacity.

At 4:49 PM, October 24, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"New times and new circumstances deserve new votes"

And you thought that nothing would change in the twenty years covered by the rail plan?

Give me a break Tory, you the suburban interests lost and now you are looking for any excuse to weasel out of it.

At 8:04 AM, October 25, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yeah, I'll bet the Pentagon had plenty of Cold War weapons programs running full tilt when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. I sure am glad we plowed ahead with those. What a great use of taxpayer money...

At 6:12 PM, October 25, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not really convinced that a street with a single half-hourly bus route is "well served by transit."

There might be some room to argue for BRT in lieu of LRT, but the "luxury" argument seems pretty thin. And while BRT is wonderful in theory, its US applications to date have ended up costing as much as LRT for an inferior service. (see: LA orange line, Boston silver line)

At 10:05 PM, October 25, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I believe the service in those neighborhoods is more frequent than every half-hour, because they're high ridership neighborhoods. But I am proposing they temporarily become "signature lines", with both frequent and express service options, to make it even better. Not full BRT - which is too expensive.

After commuter demand is saturated, as well as after the Universities and Uptown lines are done (connecting all the major job centers in the core), and Metro shows it has the future budget headroom to build out full LRT for the other 3 lines, then, by all means, they should move ahead and upgrade them from the signature bus service.

At 11:25 PM, October 27, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't see "huge lines" for express buses as a problem, since those are high-capacity buses that only make a few stops downtown. I also don't see "saturated" demand from suburban commuters as a prerequisite to frequent, reliable service to the densest areas of the city.

Light Rail is a real, tangible improvement to urban mass transport. "Signature Bus" is essentially a marketing campaign. The Bellaire Express still gets stuck in the same traffic at the same ill-timed lights as the regular bus.

But I hear a lot these days about the economy is leading to "reduced consumer confidence," so I can see how in your case that would carry over to second-guessing our decision to build a comprehensive rail network.

At 11:48 AM, October 29, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

In the midst of the economic crisis, China is investing nearly $300 billion in rail and building nearly 22,000 miles of it by 2010.

I think the US should also be thinking bigger - about how all forms of transit investment are good for the country and for our metro regions - just as we have developed the consensus that nearly all forms of energy production will be required to achieve more energy security.

We should not use an economic downturn as an excuse to skimp on investing in our future. I'm all for more commuter rail as well - but not at the expense of the light rail network.

At 3:57 PM, October 30, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Dividing those numbers, $13 million a mile is uber-cheap, esp. for a country of a billion+ people mostly lacking cars or road or airport infrastructure. Probably a good investment. Here, it's more like $100 million a mile (almost 10x), and we only have 300m people in a country of about the same size, where cars, roads, and airports are plentiful. The cost-benefit equations don't match.

At 5:11 PM, October 30, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>Dividing those numbers, $13 million a mile is uber-cheap, esp. for a country of a billion+ people mostly lacking cars or road or airport infrastructure. Probably a good investment. Here, it's more like $100 million a mile (almost 10x), and we only have 300m people in a country of about the same size, where cars, roads, and airports are plentiful. The cost-benefit equations don't match.

The US also has about 5x the GDP of China - meaning we are far richer than them and can afford to build more massive infrastructure. Also, I highly doubt that it would cost $100 million / mile to have an Amtrak line run to Austin, for instance - or roughly $16 billion. Using those figures, a bare-bones Amtrak line linking Houston to Austin would cost on the same order as the new high-speed rail line in California. Not all of China's infrastructure projects are $100 million / mile mag-lev lines - probably most of the miles are actually rural basic rail connecting large urban centers - which is far cheaper than core urban subways etc. and something the US should also be investing in.

Of course, we would need to decide which lines are core - like Cali and NY / Wash - these should be high speed. Similarly, I think Houston should be on at least one high speed line, and probably 2 - one going East / West (East to New Orleans and on to Atl and West to San Antonio) and one connecting us with Dallas.

At 9:12 AM, November 24, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It will be interesting to see how the decrease in gas prices and the increase in fares affects METRO's ridership numbers next year.


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