Monday, December 24, 2018

The Good, Bad, and Ugly of the METRONext A+ Plan

Earlier this month METRO released their new "A Plus" plan through 2040 at a board workshop you can watch here (Dec 11) and review the documents here (Chronicle coverage here, Metro promotional video here).  My thoughts on their previous round of plans are here, as well as Oscar Slotboom's take here, including some great stats, and all of which still applies to this plan.  The new plan is more than double the cost of the previous A plan: from $3.5 billion to $7.5 billion.  Overall, Metro is continuing their refreshing pragmatism and financial prudence, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be even better.  In the past I've used a good/bad/ugly framework for reviewing Metro services, and that framework will work well again here.

The Good
  • Substantial BRT and HOV service expansions, including two-way service in most corridors.
  • Speed improvements to HOV service to get through downtown, midtown, and the med center
  • Express bus/BRT to IAH airport at only $11million a mile!
  • Dropped the high-cost/low-ridership LRT line from the Astrodome to Hobby.
  • Converting the major east-west Universities line from LRT to BRT.
  • Great leverage of TXDoT money on MaX Lanes.
  • BOOST Network of local bus routes with frequent, high-quality service at the bargain price of only $53 million!
  • Faster and more reliable trips between activity centers.
  • Expanded access to opportunity within commute time constraints (see their Greenway Plaza Access map on slide 17).
The Bad/Concerning
  • BRT is still a not-cheap $42 million/mile (although a bargain vs. $150m/mile LRT!), so we need to be selective about where those routes go vs. more affordable BOOST/Signature bus service.  For example, does Gessner really justify BRT vs. good signature bus service?
  • I am still concerned about the slow commuter transfers to/from the Inner Katy BRT and the I10+290 HOV lanes, as described at the bottom of my first analysis.  MaX Lanes with commuter buses making a quick stop at the NW transit center then continuing downtown makes far more sense, and those same lanes can provide all-day express service connecting downtown to the high-speed rail terminal.
  • Strongly disagree with their assessment (in the table) that the Regional Express Network has "Low" economic growth potential.  As mainlane congestion increases, these commuter bus services will be *huge* in determining whether major employers stick it out in the core or move out to the suburbs like Exxon did.
  • General concern about congested and unsafe intersection crossings across the Universities line, especially Buffalo Speedway, Kirby, Shepherd, Montrose, and Midtown/Main/Richmond/Wheeler.  This really needs to be modeled out before going ahead so we don't end up with pure chaos on our hands (like Dallas did with their LRT downtown).
  • The priorities in this plan seem to give short shrift to the recent LINK report calling for more equitable transit serving more low-income populations.  A lot more resources could be shifted from flashy, expensive, low-ridership LRT projects (see below) to improving good basic bus service in more neighborhoods that need it.
The Ugly
  • Metro is still low-balling LRT estimates, assuming $122m/mile when all of the more recent extensions were closer to $150m/mile.  They're estimating $2.45B for LRT when it will probably be closer to $3B.
  • Even if you assume their cost estimates are right, we're talking about spending $2.45 billion for only 18,900 daily riders. That's $130k per rider! (and remember they're mostly not even new riders, but existing bus riders switching to rail)  Yes, we could buy every new rider a very nice new high-end Porsche for less money!
  • Extending the Red Line north 5.9 miles to Acres Homes at an eye-popping cost of $634 million(!).  There are some arguments about the benefits of connecting to a transit center up there, but it still seems a steep price for only 9,000 additional daily riders (most of whom are probably already riding the bus).
  • The near-criminality of spending $1.8 billion to extend both the Green and Purple lines to Hobby with only 7,200 riders a day! That's a quarter-million dollars per rider! The BOOST network is already shown connecting Hobby in the same directions at a tiny fraction of the cost! Isn't that good enough? But in both cases, I'm guessing it will take a solid hour to go from Hobby to downtown.  Who's going to ride that?! Why not just do an express bus service in the MaX Lanes like they're doing to IAH that's far faster at a tiny fraction of the cost?! (it could even hook in UH with a stop just like the IAH service has a couple of intermediate stops).
    • Airports are not as great connections as people think: the slow trip times and hassle of hauling baggage are discouraging vs. family or leisure travelers getting picked up or dropped off by friends/family or parking or using Uber/Lyft, and business travelers are usually happy to expense a faster taxi/Uber/Lyft ride (or rent a car depending on how much they're getting around).  Here's the question I ask everyone when they suggest rail to the airport: Metro needs to put limited resources where it will do the most good. With that in mind, how many times per year do you commute to work vs. commute to the airport? (probably 100-to-1 for the average person)  Connecting job centers makes far more sense than airports.
Here are a few opportunity cost thought experiments: with the $2.45 billion being spent on a negligible 20 miles of light rail, the plan could instead offer:
  • 58 more miles of BRT, or...
  • 197 more miles of additional commuter bus HOV service, or...
  • 4,900 more miles (!!) of better BOOST and signature bus service, or...
  • Provide free fares for all riders for 38 years, increasing ridership and reducing traffic congestion in the bargain! 
As Metro goes through the public feedback process, I hope they consider some of these alternatives with far, far higher benefit-to-cost ratios.

Hat tip to Oscar Slotboom for some of the observations in this post.

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At 5:57 AM, December 26, 2018, Blogger George Rogers said...


197 more miles of additional commuter bus HOV service, or...
4,900 more miles (!!) of better BOOST and signature bus service, or...
Provide free fares for all riders for 38 years, increasing ridership and reducing traffic congestion in the bargain!

At 3:54 PM, January 28, 2019, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Express from Hobby with a stop at UH" is basically the old #88, which used the IH-45 HOV in the peak direction between Eastwood TC and Monroe. That bus had decent ridership, but was eliminated during reimagining under the theory that a transfer at Hobby to a frequent route 50 with another transfer at Magnolia to LRT was more convenient than simply staying on the bus you were already riding as it zoomed up 45. Transit planner logic.

At 3:57 PM, January 28, 2019, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Man, those kinds of changes annoy the crap out of me. Take a convenient single-seat ride and turn it into a bunch of transfers to force ridership on your other routes so they look better. Boo!

At 4:44 PM, February 08, 2019, Blogger Pseudo3D said...

The idea of extending LRT to Acres Homes is terrible. With the way that the Houston light rail system is set up only makes it slower and more efficient (it's not like zooming down freight rail corridors like BART) than it already is. With the north end, it tears up more of Fulton, parts of Tidwell (with another dog-slow 90 degree turn), presumably the rest of West Montgomery Road, and then the median of North Shepherd, which looks like it has a median actually wide enough (but cuts off access), and then terminating at North Shepherd P&R, which would require either elevated sections or demolitions. Who are they trying to kid?


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