What will kill light rail? Bad rail projects


The Red Line, Cap Metro’s single rail line that travels all the way from Leander to downtown, Austin, has been an unmitigated disaster. Ben Wear explained last fall:

Back when the proposed 32-mile rail line from downtown Austin to Leander was on the ballot in 2004, the agency and the people pushing for MetroRail’s passage emphasized that the project would cost $60 million to build. And this modest investment — in passenger rail terms — would produce, we were assured, 2,000 boardings a day initially, 6,900 a day by 2017 and 16,700 a day by 2025.

…The weekday average boardings between July 2016 and this June was 2,900 a day, most of them commuters making two boardings each day.

Sharp-eyed readers will note that is a smidgen below the original 2017 projection. In fact, it is about 42 percent of the projection. As for the 2025 estimate, well, the calendar does require some prudence. No one knew in 2008, for instance, that the GOP would nominate a New York real estate developer and reality television performer for president eight years later. And that he would win. Anything could happen, I suppose.

The Red Line has gobbled up a stupendous amount of money that could have been invested in far more productive bus routes.

OK, mistakes happen and they can be forgiven. All we ask is that you learn from them. But I’m worried that Cap Metro hasn’t learned its lesson. Exhibit A: the Green Line, a proposed suburban rail line that would run from Manor to downtown, cutting southeast through the eastern crescent of the city. It’s one of a number of projects that Cap Metro is considering as part of Project Connect, the long-term plan for introducing high-capacity transit to the area.

Jay Crossley explains:

Many fewer people live or work near the proposed Green Line stations compared to all other Project Connect proposals. From an estimated cost per rider perspective, it is the worst proposal on the table of all the Project Connect proposals. It has the the most expensive cost per user, coming in at a total cost of $42.31 for every single trip on the main green line proposal and $33.55 for every trip on the proposed 2nd phase extension.

Crossley, mind you, is not anti-rail. There’s one rail project he likes a lot:

Surface light rail along Guadalupe / Lamar is the most fiscally responsible of all proposed investments, coming in at a total of $4.65 a trip. The initial build out of the Green Line is the least fiscally responsible of all proposed investments, both in terms of capital cost per rider and operating and maintenance costs per rider. We won’t get very much bang for any public bucks invested in the Green Line – as it is proposed.

Crossley points out that anti-rail activists have seized on the failures of the Red Line as evidence that rail in general is a boondoggle.

So why would Cap Metro even consider a project that offers so much less promise? Perhaps because the upfront cost would be much lower and it appears to be serving those who are most in need, at least according to the traditional West-East mentality of Austin politics, which has recently been supplemented with a focus on the  “suburbanization of poverty.” Crossley suggests that that has largely been overblown: 85% of families living in poverty in Travis County live in Austin.

According to these estimates, the initial Green line project would be used by only 991 people of color every day, while Guadalupe / Lamar (surface light rail lower-cost version) would be used by 4,965 people of color every day and the higher-cost elevated Guadalupe / Lamar light rail line would be used by an estimated 8,369 people of color every day. The Green Line is expected to serve the least people of color of all the proposals included in Project Connect.

Are there any numbers to suggest that the choice isn’t painfully clear?

2 thoughts on “What will kill light rail? Bad rail projects

  1. “The Red Line has gobbled up a stupendous amount of money that could have been invested in far more productive bus routes.”

    No it hasn’t, it has subsidized the bus routes for over a decade.

    The implementation of the Red Line brought back Capmetro’s 1/4 cent tax. Which since 2004 has brought in far more than the red line has consumed (the balance being spent on buses, metroaccess, etc.)

    “6,900 a day by 2017 ”

    True, but the very important caveat to this is it was assumed that CapMetro would have completed expansions to the line by now (the current system doesn’t have room for 7k a day, obviously).
    Those were all put on a hold by the sunset commission. The first actual expansion will trail that date by a few years (basically paralleling the opening delays however).

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