Proposition 1 rail is expensive white elephant

Clay Smalley

In 2000, there was a ballot proposition for a light rail line in Austin. If the measure had passed the vote, Austin would have a robust light rail system running from downtown all the way out to 183 along the Drag and North Lamar Boulevard. It was, and still is, the most heavily traveled bus corridor in Austin, at the time carrying the 1L, 1M, 101 and bits and pieces of other routes that happened to pass by UT and downtown. And with good reason: The corridor has the highest population density and job density of any in the city. If built, the line would carry 40,000 passengers each day and cost $300 million — numbers very similar to the successful Houston MetroRail, which happened to begin construction the following year. 

The 2000 vote in Austin, however, failed by a very thin margin — eight tenths of a percent. As a result, Capital Metro substituted the MetroRapid buses for the light rail, and built the completely separate Red Line commuter rail.

Fast forward to now — Project Connect, a partnership between the City of Austin, Cap Metro and other transit agencies, will be putting a questionable light rail plan to the vote in November. Phase One of the construction would consist of light rail starting at the Austin Convention Center downtown, running north along San Jacinto Boulevard and Trinity Street to pass by the east side of UT, then jogging over to Red River to the Hancock Center, crossing the existing Red Line with an expensive bridge or tunnel and following Airport Boulevard to the derelict Highland Mall.

This line would carry half the passengers per day that the 2000 proposal would. At a hefty price tag of $1.4 billion in taxpayer dollars, though, it’s not much more than a shiny, expensive version of the bus route 10, and it’s such an awful plan that even former Cap Metro transit planner Lyndon Henry is against it.

What happened? Why did Project Connect choose this route, instead of retrying the Guadalupe-Lamar route? While the 2000 vote failed, it still passed within the city limits of Austin, whose residents are the only ones voting on the bond initiative this time around. Has anything significantly changed about the city that makes this corridor better? 


Smooth Ride, or Bumpy Start?


Let’s look at some real-life examples of light rail systems around the country. The aforementioned Houston MetroRail was planned as an upgrade to the most heavily traveled bus corridor and designed to be a backbone to the transit network of the city. The initial segment followed a near-straight line from downtown Houston to an outlying park-and-ride near the former Astroworld amusement park, tying together popular destinations and job centers such as the Texas Medical Center, the Museum District, Rice University, and the Reliant Stadium complex. This was the north-south axis of job density across the center of Houston. In other words, light rail just made sense there. 

And it saw packed trains from Day One. By the end of 2004, the year the Houston MetroRail opened, it saw 33,000 boardings on a typical day. The line has since been extended on the opposite side of downtown, and two more lines are being built as I write. They plan on expanding the system even further to stitch together all the employment centers of the city as well as beefing up the bus system to serve all the Houstonians farther away from the rail system. For such a car-oriented city, Houston is doing a fantastic job of balancing out its modes of transportation.

But an equally car-oriented city, San Jose, has been struggling to make its light rail system work since its inception. In the late ‘80s, when everyone was scrambling to buy a Macintosh or a PC with Windows 3.0, the local governments of the booming Silicon Valley wanted to complement the growth with a light rail system. With the Santa Clara VTA’s bus network to build off of, they were taking a huge gamble. The plan they came up with was one linking the downtown of San Jose, some neighborhoods of single-family homes, and vast expanses of parking lot with small office buildings peppered throughout. They crossed their fingers, expecting the rail line to induce growth, with tightly-packed office buildings and homes replacing the scarcely populated parking lots, driveways and front yards. This was the only way the light rail system could score enough riders to keep it financially stable.

Today, the Santa Clara VTA Light Rail has failed to live up to its projections, carrying 30 percent fewer passengers at an operating cost 30 percent higher than the average light rail system in the United States. It costs taxpayers in the rest of the region $10 to subsidize every round trip, and less than 1 percent of the county’s residents even ride the trains regularly. It’s important to note: There is such a thing as bad light rail. 

How does this compare with the plan here in Austin? If the 2000 Guadalupe-Lamar plan had passed, our city would have a light rail system similar to the one in Houston. It would serve all the existing walking-oriented parts of the city, including Downtown, UT, the Drag and West Campus as well as some other areas that would be more conducive to walking if they were given a little push, like the Triangle and the area around Lamar and Airport Boulevard. Trains would have been packed from the day the line opened.

And all it takes to make a San-Jose-style light rail line is to move a good line a mile east. The Project Connect line still passes through Downtown and UT but eschews state office buildings to instead serve downtown parking garages and follows San Jacinto Boulevard, an incredibly inconvenient route for the cash-cow West Campus riders. North of the University, Red River is full of low-density residential areas, with vociferous neighborhood associations that will fight tooth and nail to prevent the neighborhood from getting denser. The closest this line gets to a dense business district is near the HEB at Hancock Center, which is still an island in the middle of an ocean of parking lots. We shouldn’t put rail where we think density may be at some point in the future — rail should go where density already is.


The Consequences of Building the Wrong Route


“Won’t it take another ten to fifteen years for another light rail proposal to be put to a vote? Austin needs rail now to fix congestion!”

This is an argument I’ve unfortunately heard quite a lot. Despite what any politician says, public transit doesn’t do anything to relieve car congestion — it simply provides an alternative to it. Consider New York City: Driving around Manhattan is hell, and will likely be that way for the foreseeable future. But fortunately, there’s a cheap, quick way of getting around that is immune to car congestion, and that is the New York Subway. You may end up on a crowded train with your face in someone’s armpit for a while, but at least you’ll get to where you’re going on time.

The only way to reduce car congestion is to make it less convenient to drive. But few people want more toll roads or a higher gas taxes — unpopular ideas. So, Austin will see congestion for as long as people drive cars.

As for the lengthy waiting period, it isn’t as lengthy as it seems. It happened to be 14 years between this light rail proposal and the previous, but the average turnaround time is about 3.8 years – and grassroots organizations like AURA are working to make it even shorter. We shouldn’t rush into a bad, expensive plan if it won’t take us that long to wait for a good one.

So what if this rail line isn’t perfect? Why should we let the perfect be the enemy of the good? As it turns out, this rail route can’t even be considered good — it’s worse than building nothing. CapMetro’s Red Line commuter rail is running at full capacity, but still needs a whopping $18 subsidy for every boarding, or in other words, CapMetro loses $18 every time someone rides the Red Line. The commuter buses it replaced only needed a $3 subsidy for every boarding. So what did CapMetro do to compensate for this hefty loss? They diverted money from serving the bus system, resulting in route removals (anyone remember the Cameron Road and Wickersham Lane shuttles?) service cuts and fare hikes (or as Cap Metro calls it, fare restructuring).

This rail is something Austin can’t afford to screw up. No matter what, this proposition will only make transit worse if it passes. The resulting reduction in bus service will only encourage us, and everyone around us, to drive more – the exact opposite effect of what a transit project should do.

If you feel that cutting more bus routes will help Austin grow and develop, go ahead and vote “yes” on Proposition 1.

At least Austin will get a shiny choo-choo.

Smalley is a computer science senior from Katy and a member of Austinites for Urban Rail Action.