Austin's Commuter Rail Is A Monument To Government Waste
By Scott Beyer
July 29, 2016
Austin, TX–Last Saturday morning, while stumbling upon an Austin rail station, I was able to imagine at micro level what it must be like to visit one of China’s ghost cities. I was in Leander, an Austin suburb that has the northernmost stop on the metro area’s commuter rail system, when I spotted a multi-acre station plopped across what was essentially a rural area. After parking in the empty lot, I got out and walked around, to find a clean, well-landscaped facility that had not one human in sight.
The info center was locked, the train platforms were empty, and no trains arrived. There was even a computerized voice humming out service updates over the platform speakers, to an absent audience. In fairness, the station was closed that day until 4pm. But that just begged the question—why would a train station be closed all Saturday morning and afternoon in a major metro area? Meanwhile, the platform offered an unobstructed view of adjacent US-183, where, in the course of 10 minutes, dozens of cars passed by in each direction.
This stark contrast summarized the idiocy that has become rail transit policy in urban America. Many U.S. cities sprawled out after World War I, when automobiles became mainstream technology, and the government exacerbated these patterns in following decades through urban renewal, restrictive zoning, minimum parking requirements and road subsidies. A number of these cities—including Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Portland, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Cleveland—tried reversing their past land use mistakes by building rail systems, which would supposedly concentrate development and bolster transit ridership.
But closer analysis suggests this hasn’t worked, and anyone familiar with those cities understands why. They were built to accommodate private automobiles, meaning people can drive within them directly to and from their destinations. No one there with financial options is going to instead take rail transit that follows a fixed route, arrives every 15 minutes, and makes multiple stops–no matter how much of said transit is built. It hasn’t helped that these transit systems are run by monopolistic government agencies, meaning they suffer from misappropriations, delays, cost overruns and poorly planned routes, including trains that, in some cases, run well into the countryside before stopping in podunk towns. Unfortunately, Austin’s rail embodies all these problems, standing as perhaps America’s leading rail transit failure.
The desire for rail transit in Austin dates back to the 1970s, when the city’s fast growth spurred discussions among urbanists and environmentalists about possible mode changes. These hopes were squashed in 2000, when a ballot proposal that would have sent light rail up the well-trafficked Guadalupe Street was narrowly defeated. But rail proponents received their bone–kind of–a decade later, when Capitol Metro, the Austin public transit provider, opened MetroRail. The 32-mile line was built along existing freight tracks that began downtown, moved north through mostly residential neighborhoods, and into some commuter suburbs.￼
The project opened amid a storm of controversy, thanks to construction issues that, according to Politifact.com, escalated the final tab from $90 million to $148 million–$140 million for construction plus $8 million for loan interest on the trains. In the opening months, the line received just 800 riders per weekday. This has since risen to 2,900 passenger trips per weekday, or about 1,500 riders, but that still is just .075% of the metro population, which sits above 2 million. The line accounts for 2.6% of Austin’s transit ridership, while using 8.5% of the annual operating expenses for transit.
Each trip taken on the rail costs taxpayers dearly, according to data provided by Capitol Metro. In 2014, the rail line had an operating deficit of $12.6 million. The upfront capital costs of $140 million, when amortized at 2% over 30 years, creates an additional $6.2 million annual cost to taxpayers. Add these two sums up, and then divide them by the line’s number of annual unlinked trips—763,551—and the per-trip subsidy works out to $24.62. Another commentator estimated that this figure is $18, compared to $3 for every bus boarding. Jim Skaggs, the retired CEO of Tracor and a local rail skeptic, wrote on his blog that “each average daily, week-day, round trip rider is subsidized an average of about $10,000 per year.”
Even worse, this is actually hurting transit availability. MetroRail’s high capital costs depleted the agency’s reserves, leading, noted Skaggs, to service cuts on bus lines, which are widely considered a more cost-effective choice. This has reduced Austin’s overall transit ridership, just like in Texas’ other major cities (two of which also have rail transit systems). That is all the more amazing given these are some of America’s fastest-growing cities by population.
But one does not need numbers to observe, at street level, the system’s obvious failures. After happening upon the empty Leander station on Saturday, I ventured this week to other stations around downtown and the interior neighborhoods. Outside of morning and evening rush hour, they were either empty or almost empty of passengers, and were divorced from any of the city’s major job and population centers. The further north along the line I rode, the more obvious it became that this really was a train to nowhere–32 miles of expensive and dated rail infrastructure that had little to no passengers or surrounding development.
For these reasons, the line has even been critiqued by AURA, a pro-transit organization that was founded to call for a more transparent rail planning process. As one of the group’s board members, Susan Somers, wrote by Facebook FB -0.09% messenger:
AURA is in favor of high ridership light rail that makes use of our best transit corridors. We’re not in favor of speculative, low-ridership lines that are intended to spur development…Currently, Cap Metro’s approach is to spend more money on the Red Line to make it more frequent and attract more riders. While that may initially seem like a noble goal, in fact the Red Line suffers from a fatal flaw: the route. AURA would prefer to see our limited Cap Metro dollars go into creating a high frequency bus network.
There have been further efforts to build rail transit in Austin, with various groups aiming for a new, more centrally-located line. In 2014, another $600 million rail proposal was floated before voters, and packaged with prospective road upgrades. But voters, clearly cold to the rail transit idea by then, defeated it by a 14 percentage point margin. There are similar attempts to get rail onto the ballot this year.
Perhaps one day rail transit will be practical in fast-growing, fast-densifying Austin, and it’s just a matter, as the proponents say, of having the right infrastructure along the right route. But a combination of academic analysis and basic observation still encourages skepticism. Data provided by the Federal Transit Administration shows that even the much-ballyhooed systems in Minneapolis, Portland, and Charlotte, while better-located and thus not as bad as Austin, are also funded by high per-trip subsidies. And this data doesn’t account for their capital costs, which for rail transit are far more expensive than for roads, tabbing in at $70 million per mile.
At the same time, there are private transit solutions within the ridesharing and bus industries that are profitable, largely because, rather than imitating the fixed-route concept, they’ve tapped into the best things about cars, by offering flexibility and on-site demand. These innovations are bound to improve as driverless cars enter the mix, and Austin would be smart to encourage them, rather than banning them, as it recently did with Uber. But if Austin wants to keep its inter-urban and suburban transit stagnant, wasteful and under-performing, well, it has a formula for that too–build rail transit, and have the government run it.
Scott Beyer is traveling the U.S. to write a book about reviving U.S. cities through Market Urbanism. His work is found at BigCitySparkplug.com.