Austin’s transit expansion plan could cost more than $10.5 billion

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Austin's Project Connect

A week after Austin’s Capital Metro unveiled an aggressive $6 billion to $8 billion expansion of transit that included three new light rail lines, one of them along an original route planned nearly 20 years ago, estimated total costs have been ratcheted up to at least $10.5 billion.

This latest version of Project Connect comes at a time when transit ridership is down in Austin and across the country, and Capital Metro is settling in with a new president, Randy Clarke, formerly with the American Public Transportation Association.

Austin voters have shown no appetite for large scale rail projects since they turned back a $600 million bond in 2014. Taxpayers have been vocal in their disappointment with the ever-growing cost and underperformance of the single MetroRail line from downtown Austin to Leander, approved in 2004.

This track record may be why Capital Metro was careful to bill this latest plan as a network that could depend on rail or on high capacity bus routes. Completing the project could take as many as 30 years, according to the Project Connect plan.

The Capital Metro board is already asking the city of Austin to include as much as $15 million in a November election transit bond to get the project started with engineering studies and environmental analysis.

While Capital Metro officials made broad-brush estimates from $6 billion to $8 billion, the Austin American-Statesman put the total at $10.5 billion. Capital Metro’s higher estimate assumed that all three of the new light rail lines would be built, something spokesman Peter Partheymuller told the Statesman would be “highly unlikely.”

The updated Project Connect expansion, which did not include upgrades and cost estimates for two of the city’s 11 transit corridors, would cost as much as nearly $180 million more a year to operate, for an agency with a total transit budget — this year — of a little more than $262 million.

Should the Capital Metro board give final approval to a version of the proposal sometime in June, it would be required to also approve the language of a public referendum, if rail is a component.

As it has been since a referendum split the city and failed by 2,000 votes, any expansion of rail will be controversial. And much of the debate will inevitably focus on the cost and performance of the city’s only rail line.

At the time of the 2004 vote, proponents of the initial MetroRail line said it could be built for $60 million, and another $30 million to buy the first six rail cars. As of last September, the American-Statesman said the running total was almost $300 million — including an $85 million expansion, $66 million in safety controls mandated by the federal government and $20 million a year to operate the buses carrying passengers to and from three park and ride lots.

And when the line was up and running — two years late — ridership hit its earliest projection at 2,000 boardings a day, and gradually crept to about 2,900 boardings a day, where it stands currently. The initial plan called for 6,900 boardings a day by the end of last year.

In 2016, this reporter walked through the cost of each of those rides with Capital Metro staff. In fiscal year 2014-15, taxpayers underwrote most of the $18.91 cost of a single MetroRail ride, compared to the $4.94 Capital Metro spent per local bus ride.

In that fiscal year, MetroRail provided 2.5 percent of its 31.6 million total rides, but 7.6 percent — or more than three times — of its $195.6 million in total operating costs.

In that year, too, Austin was in the third year of a ridership slump that continues. Ridership was down by 1.7 percent to 29.95 million rides in fiscal 2017 over the year before.

Things were no different in almost every major city in America, a “disastrous” 2017 transit year, according to Randal O’Toole, one of the foremost transit experts and an urban planning analyst for the Cato Institute.

Since 2010, ridership is down by 30 percent or more in Detroit, Memphis and Sacramento; 20 to 30 percent in Austin, Cleveland, Louisville, and St. Louis; and 15 to 20 percent in Atlanta, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Miami, San Antonio and Washington, according to data compiled by the Federal Transit Administration.

Transit authorities late last month reported bus ridership was down by more than 10 percent, or 18 million rides last year in Philadelphia.

Transit experts in Texas and elsewhere point to the impact of ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft.

And with the rapid development of driverless car technology, there are questions as to whether light rail can reclaim riders who now have the option of their transit coming to them. When Los Angeles opened new light rail lines in 2016 and 2012, the ridership came at the expense of buses, whose lines were eliminated. Atlanta, Dallas, Sacramento and San Jose experienced similar shifts, O’Toole wrote in the Wall Street Journal in November.

This has not discouraged urban planners, who have convinced taxpayers to spend more than 1 trillion inflation-adjusted dollars on transit in this country, more than 40 times the subsidizing of our roads, O’Toole says.

Mayor David Briley is asking Nashville voters on May 1 to approve what he has insisted is a $5.2 billion dollar project to dig a tunnel under the city’s downtown and build 26 miles of light rail, although local reporters put the true cost at $9 billion.

And San Antonio Mayor, Ron Nirenberg, continues to press for a light rail system for the city in spite of the collapse of a much-criticized trolley system back in 2014.

Like the voters of Austin, San Antonio taxpayers went to the polls to reject light rail, in 2000 and, most recently, in 2015.

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

62 COMMENTS

  1. Some people have to understand that Austin isn’t what it used to be 20 years ago. Adding more buses and lanes on the road isn’t going to solve the problem at all. You’re just trying to put a bandaid on the problem. We don’t need 8 north/south bound lanes. The rail would help remove vehicles off of the road like during rush hour and major events.

    • Joshua Karsh of course. that’s why there’s project connect. im happy that they were planning on having a line that goes to ABIA. just give them feedbacks.

    • Steve Jones never breaks down. that’s wishful thinking. considering everything breaks down at one point or another. accidents happens without the rail. a bomber self detonating on 35 is enough to stall traffic for 3hrs.

    • The purpose of transit is to move people from place to place, not to take cars off the road. We’ll always have as many cars on the road as capacity allows, so the question is whether to continue adding capacity, i.e., lanes.

  2. “Some people” imagine that if Austin does nothing it will magically return to the sleepy college town it was in the ’70s. The rest of us have learned from the mistakes of the past 20 years. We should have built light rail in 2000, and hoping that autonomous vehicles will somehow make traffic disappear is no excuse to continue doing nothing.

  3. With the Mopac line, rail should be easy and cheap. People could park far South, near 35, and hop on the train to downtown to connect to busses. Riders in the north could do the same. Add another rail bed for more cars. Run haz mat rail cars around the city. It’s pretty simple. It’s in the works, but nobody talks about it.

    Public transportation is important for many reasons, including air quality. Also, cars are not affordable for many. The Sierra club did a study showing that rideshares contribute to traffic, and that’s easy to understand. Autonomous cars are the worst idea ever that will only make traffic worse. You can’t put everyone in a car and not expect gridlock.

  4. How about they just poll the people who are stuck in traffic everyday on 35 and Mopac and see where they are going? For example let’s say they find that a percentage of people are working at a major office complex near downtown. Use the $10 billion buy the complex or company and move it to Houston or Dallas problem solved.

  5. So much vitriol!
    The fact is that ride sharing and autonomous vehicles do NOT mean fewer cars on the road. It just means fewer owners. So, right wingers, what’s your plan? 22 lane freeways, like I- 10 in Houston? How much eminent domain seizure do you propose?

    • It’s a complicated issue because I think the trend will be more people working from home and not so many commuters heading downtown. I’m in the legal profession, and 30 years ago, all the law firms were as close to the courthouse as possible. That isn’t the case anymore. As I get older and contemplate a time when I won’t have to drive as much, I would like to live in a place where the cost of living isn’t as high as Austin’s and I can walk a lot of the places I will visit.

    • In Austin, young families find it too expensive to live downtown. Suburban growth will continue.
      Most people don’t work downtown. People commute every direction in the sprawling cities of Texas.

    • Sheila Sorvari Most people don’t work downtown? I find that surprising, maybe because I have to inch along in that traffic in the mornings and afternoons, and you can’t get through the intersections during lunchtime because of all the pedestrian traffic. I admit I haven’t looked at any numbers.

  6. It is unfortunate that Randall O’Toole and the Cato Institute are cited as credible sources in this article. O’Toole has made a career of opposing rail transit across the nation, regardless of their merits. Recall his comments about DART in Dallas, when that system was first being built – his negativism there makes his conclusions about Austin proposals entirely predictable.

  7. Hey Einstein, California has the worst schools, and if the feds had been doing their job guarding the border the last 20 years, we wouldn’t have third world mentality, mortality or criminality.

    • Ivan Stephens do you have any sources for your numbers? 1 and 2 seem highly suspicious. 3 just shows that when you give cabinet positions to lobbyists, they destroy the department’s they are put in charge of. They also have the highest turnover of any administration in history with constant conflicts of interest and ethics violations. They don’t know how to serve anyone but themselves.

    • No California has the most people, so you can’t just take the number. When you are talking per capita it doesn’t break the top 20. Red states always have the highest welfare numbers because the wages are so much lower.

    • @Ivan Stephens, to pretend politicians aren’t community organizers is absurd. How else would they get elected?

      You know one great thing about President Obama? 7 years of continuous economic growth after he inherited the worst recession. Meanwhile, Trump’s trade war with China has currently cost me several thousands of dollars. Mind telling me what his endgame is?

      How could those 10 states have more people unemployed than employed when the national average is 4.1%? For example(s), California has an unemployment rate of 4.3%, and Mississippi has an unemployment rate of 4.1%.

      Don’t you find it a little disconcerting that the “businessmen” presidents tended to immediately precede, oversee during their term(s) or initiate massive economic collapse?

      About your claim that welfare recipients average $30/hr, you might be interested to know that food stamp recipients receive an average of $126.39 per month. In a 40-hour work week, multiplied by 4 for a total of 160 hours (for one month of work), then a food stamp recipient receives about $0.78 per hour. You might want to check the math for the rest of that claim.

      You might actually want to verify what you post before yiu share it.

  8. “Light rail” was always a boondoggle for Austin.
    Yes, subways and rail systems built back east before costs exploded have been useful to handle that area’s dense population, that does not mean Austin should waste money on such things – buses work just fine if the city maintains its street system. One tell tale is that bus fares are highest in cities that build the most rail, Austin CapMetro used to be very low with free rides to the handicapped and free rides on “ozone action days”, but now the rail system costs have forced multiple bus fare increases.

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