Thursday, March 18, 2010

The decline and fall of Metro

I wanted to do a substantial post this week on the big picture situation at Metro, but it looks like it'll have to be at least next week before I'll have everything I need. Instead, this week, I want to pass along a couple of insightful posts by Bill King on Metro. The first one describes how Metro fails to serve its most important constituency: the transit dependent. 2-3 hours for a 14-mile trip is simply not acceptable. The second one lays out such a fact-based, compelling case for radical reform that I've gotten Bill's permission to reprint it in full here:

The Metro Train Wreck
by Bill King

There could hardly be a more fitting image for the close of the current Metro administration than the recent photographs for a wrecked Metro buses in front of Metro's headquarters after having been broad-sided by Metro's Main Street light rail. The last six years are likely to be remembered as the most ruinous time for public transportation in Houston's history as Metro has pursued a single-minded obsession to build its version of an at-grade rail system regardless of the cost, both in financial terms and in the degradation of the bus system on which over 100,000 Houstonians rely daily. Fortunately, Mayor Parker has ordered top-to-bottom review of the agency. Here is what that review is likely to find.
Decline in Ridership. Since 2004, Houston population has grown by over 10% from just over 2 million to 2.25 million. At the same time gas prices rose 47% from $1.81 per gallon to $2.67 per gallon. These two factors should have virtually guaranteed an increase in transit. However, exactly the opposite has occurred as bus boardings dropped almost 24% from 88 million in 2004 to 67 million in 2009. Instead of increasing bus service by 50% as it promised the voters in the 2003 referendum, Metro has slashed bus routes and increased fares by over 50%. Today Metro actually operates 225 fewer buses than it did in 2003. An outside performance audit in 2008 found that on-time performance fell by 29% from 2004 to 2008.

Financial Disaster. Since 2003, Metro's sales tax revenues have increased by 43%, rising from $357 million to $512 million. At the same time, its fare revenue increased by 41% from $42 million to $60 million by charging an ever dwindling ridership more. Yet, Metro is in the worst financial shape in recent history. At year end 2003 Metro's current assets exceeded its current liabilities by $125 million. The budget just adopted by the Metro board projects that it will have current accounts deficit of $165 million by the end of this fiscal year, a stunning loss of nearly $300 million in just five years. Over the same period, Metro's debt has swelled by nearly 50% from $546 million to $816 million.

Less Federal Dollars. When the current administration was put in place one of the promised benefits was to be its prowess in obtaining federal funding. We have been repeatedly warned not to interfere or criticize Metro's policies because it might reduce our chance for federal funding. However, during the last six years, grants from federal and state transit assistance programs have steadily declined. In 2004, Metro received $140 million in grants. By 2008, that number had dropped to $90 million, a 35% decrease. Based on the average grants received in 2001-2003, Houston has lost nearly $100 million in grants since Wilson arrived.

LRT Stalled. Even if you are one of those that think that building an at-grade rail system that will make congestion worse is a good idea, the Wilson administration has been a disaster. After spending six years and more than $200 million on planning the LRT, we still do not have any assurance that we will ever receive the funding necessary to build any of the lines. Metro, of course, to continue to promise that we are on the verge of seeing the federal dollars pour in. However, Metro told me in April 2008 that it would have full funding agreements on the North and Southeast by the end of 2008 and the University line by 2009. As of now we have neither.

In the meantime, the cost of the LRT has risen from the $1.2 billion originally estimated to something well in excess of $3 billion. Metro is seeking to borrow $2.6 billion to build the LRT, over four times what it promised the voters would be the limit in the 2003 referendum. Originally, Metro assured voters that it could build the LRT without tapping the mobility payments that are so critical to the Houston and the other member cities. Metro's projections now show that it can only afford the LRT if those payments are terminated in 2014.

Fractured Trust. The worst sin, however, has been the dissembling manner in which Metro has been administered over the last six years. There are countless examples from stonewalling reporter's request for information to Metro's recent attempt to get Attorney General to exempt from open records status its traffic studies showing the nightmare the LRT will create at many intersections. Of course, there is no better example than the recent reports of documents being shredded and the firing of Metro lawyers reminiscent of the Nixon-Archibald Cox episode.

In 2003, after a spirited public debate, this community approved, by a narrow margin, a consensus plan to enhance public transportation with a multi-modal approach. Part of that bargain was a limited experiment with a light rail system. The voters specifically limited the resources that Metro could devote to the light rail for fear that the cost might undermine the solid, dependable bus service that existed at that time. Metro's leadership has shredded that contract with the voters in favor of its own grandiose vision of transit that has little to do actually solving Houston's mobility problems. In the meantime, traffic congestion continues to get worse and working families that rely on public transportation to get their jobs everyday find riding Metro a more difficult and more expensive proposition.

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At 7:14 AM, March 19, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating; had no idea all that was going on. I don't know Bill King; I suppose he's a politician looking to the next something of something? Reading this almost gives the impression that this phase of mass transit management in Houston/Harris county is drawing to a close and that Metro and it's board might be replaced by some multi-county agency? Then all the while they're proceeding with the construction of the East end LRT line. Sounds like a real mess.

At 7:44 AM, March 19, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

There will still be a METRO Board.

Mayor Parker just announced her appointees to replace the ones the ones Bill White picked.

It's an interesting set of people. Definitely not in the mold of the ones going out.

METRO's bigger problems is the lawsuit regarding their shredding of documents that were requested as part of a public information request.

The other mounting problems hitting METRO is that "REALITY" is hitting them pretty hard. With the public eye focused on the waste in government, light rail is seen as the biggest local waste since benefits so few people.

At 1:37 PM, March 19, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would love to see that traffic study for the Uptown line. I hope it becomes available while there is still time to make modifications to the project -- or stop it altogether if necessary.

At 12:24 AM, March 20, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know about the management of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit, but one thing is certain: ridership and revenue are down, even as a new rail section opened.

On Feb 24 the Dallas Morning News had a front page article titled "DART ridership plunges - revenue also falls, which could delay rail projects downtown and in Irving"

"DART's bus ridership took the biggest hit, but the sagging numbers affected light rail and commuter rail service as well."

For October through December 2009
Av wkdy bus trips: 130,447 -16.9%
Av wkdy lt rail trips: 65,748 -5.8%
Av TRE Commuter rail: 9410 -9.9%

"Despite the opening of last fall of four new stations along DART's heavily promoted Green Line, average weekday ridership on the transit agency's 48 miles of light-rail fell 5.8%, to about 66,000 rides. That works out the roughly 30,000 round-trip passengers..."

It seems amazing to me that such an extensive rail system is only getting 66,000 boardings per day. Just goes to show, all the resources being poured into transit could be much better spent on highways and HOV.

At 3:02 AM, March 20, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Extensive doesn't mean just route length. It also means frequent and reliable service, dense zoning around stations, easy transfers, and good bus-rail connections. It's those things more than long routes that determine ridership.

Ironically, despite its sky-high construction costs Houston can get more out of its light rail than most other US cities. Its major destinations lie in a nice cross-shaped pattern, and the further extensions suggest themselves. The lack of zoning makes it easier to build high around stations. And so far the city is emphasizing urban transit over lines to the boonies terminating in huge parking lots.

METRO may look bad, but the light rail has the second highest per-km ridership in the US. The lower bus ridership isn't that big a deal, I don't think. Those buses never attracted many choice riders, anyway, which means that as Houstonians get richer, fewer ride the bus no matter what happens. The large increases in transit ridership recently have mostly come from cities that are building choice rider contingents (LA, Portland), or from cities that have many choice riders to begin with (New York, Chicago). I'd argue that Houston's rail plans are more competent than those of all the above-mentioned four cities, regardless of the current ridership numbers.

At 7:25 PM, March 20, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said Alon Levy:

Houston's inner core is in an unique position to benefit from LRT to how it's employment and activity centers are positioned (as a cross shaped pattern as Alon mentioned). Connecting Houston's park&ride system and HOV system into LRT will create a mass transit system that Houston can build upon.


At 10:08 PM, March 21, 2010, Anonymous George Vogt said...

As former city controller, Mayor Parker is eminently qualified to look at Metro's expenses with the proverbial green eyeshade. Given its history of non-transparency and financial shennanigans, this is unquestionably a turn for the better.

At 9:31 AM, December 29, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fare is nuts.I left Houston because the monthly bus pass was stripped.It is cheaper and more convenient to drive.Who can pay $15 a week for a round trip to and from downtown?And for a bus???

At 11:15 AM, January 28, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Buy a used car.The bus passes are gone and the Q card is too expensive.Bus service stinks compared to owning a vehicle.

At 12:11 PM, February 06, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Should have built a monorail ... at least it wouldn't have been crash into buses!

Houston isn't alone. At least some people are riding the Metro. In Memphis the Madison Trolley was shut down for five months for maintenance and hardly anyone noticed.


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