Category Archives: Tri-Rail

Teaser graphic

In the “Why do I keep calling Tri-Rail a failure, and why do I keep saying the Red Line is going to match its record” department; this graphic below is from this spreadsheet, which is a work in progress on developing some metrics from the national transit database.
There are those who think that any rail is good rail; and there are those who think that any rail is bad rail. Then there are those like me who recognize that some rail systems do a much better job than others in a “new rail city” at delivering new riders – and it’s frustrating how few seem to recognize intuitively the difference between a city like Houston, where the trains are packed and voters overwhelmingly approved a massive expansion as a result, and an area like South Florida, where after 20-25 years and a massive investment in double-tracking a very LONG route through a very heavily populated area, no community support for rail has developed despite a much more supportive population when the service started.
The metric I have here is basically “how much of the metro area did they get to ride the train, adjusted for mile of track”. Here’s why that’s a good starting point: You should have the goal of maximizing return on your investment – your investment is basically miles of track; and your return is how many people ride – but to compare metro areas against each other, you should also consider how many people are IN that area to begin with (delivering 20,000 riders per weekday in Portland is a far greater achievement than delivering 20,000 riders per weekday in Manhattan).
Light rail systems are being used everywhere here except South Florida and Austin, obviously. (In both our cases, unlike the other cities here, commuter rail has effectively precluded light rail – and is being sold as a light rail analogue anyways).
After the break, the picture…

Continue reading

Bad service is hard to kill

While trying to find a new link (succeeded, finally) for this old entry since the old one aged off, I was reminded to post a different excerpt which is probably even more relevant now that Lyndon Henry is out there once again claiming we can turn the Red Line into light rail, somehow:

“Was this the best investment?” asks Steve Polzin, director of public transit research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “You wonder what could have been accomplished if they had not rushed into it. If, for example, they’d waited a few years and bought the FEC.”

[...]

The Tri-Rail system was never supposed to be this expensive. Because of its innocuous start as a temporary traffic-mitigation measure and because the project has been expanded in small increments, the kind of planning that generally precedes a billion-dollar public-works project never occurred. In the end, the stop-gap became part of the transportation landscape. “Once you start service, it’s extremely hard to stop,” Polzin says. “You’ve made the commitment and invested the capital.”

Lyndon has made noises that we could still switch the Red Line over to electrified LRT and then run trains back on the 2000 route. He’s either insane or lying; and the quotes above show you why: you can’t get service like this stopped once you’ve spent 8 years telling people how great commuter rail is compared to LRT. Plus, of course, Capital Metro’s public plans are all about improving the Red Line and adding the Green Line – with more and more diesel-smokin’ trains that only take you to a shuttle-bus pickup; NOT about light rail. It’s only McCracken and Wynn talking about urban rail (light rail), and although the plan pays lip service to Capital Metro, it’s really going to be trying to build light rail despite Capital Metro.

Tri-Rail is dying; corpse still admired by idiots

Two posts I made today to the “busridersAustin” yahoo list in response to continuing misinformation from our old friend Lyndon Henry that I wanted to save for posterity. Reproduced as-is except that I’ve made the links live.

— In BusRidersAustin@yahoogroups.com, Nawdry wrote:

> Well, I see Mike has basically morphed into the rant-recycling stage

Well, I see Lyndon has basically morphed back into his lying-sack-of-crap stage.
Just ONE among many of your lies:
Tri-Rail serves mostly Broward and Palm Beach Counties – extending a bit into
Dade County, but that’s not the focus of the service. MetroRail is a Dade County
phenomenon (more specifically Miami) – most Tri-Rail ridership never goes that
far south. MetroRail (Dade County / Miami) is largely an artifact of the 1970s.
The area that saw transit stall out for 20 years was Broward and Palm Beach
Counties (Ft. Lauderdale is still trying to establish some momentum for a
streetcar/light-rail system against the headwinds of 20 years of Tri-Rail
failure).
Tri-Rail was planned and built during the mid-to-late 1980s; AFTER MetroRail.
The fact is that after Tri-Rail turned out to be such a disaster, nobody could
get any traction on any additional rail in the region for a couple of decades.
And now, the local governments are so enamored by Tri-Rail’s ‘success’ that
they’re writing ‘doomsday budgets’:
Recent Miami Herald article
Recent Palm Beach Post article
Tri-Rail ridership has, in fact, declined since the 2008 fuel spike has eased,
despite what these articles imply (note that they do not state what current
ridership actually is; if anybody cares to doubt THAT, I’ll spend some time
finding the media that I read a few months back on the subject).
One can certainly conclude, with accuracy missing from anything Lyndon Henry has
ever written here, that the public in South Florida has not supported Tri-Rail
like they have, let’s say, DART in Dallas or Houston’s Metro system (both of
which passed expansion referendi with overwhelming support).
Some other (older) links, with links back to media (some of which has expired)
and with excerpts:
Old crackplog post
“Take the Delray Beach Tri-Rail station, for instance. It’s located way west of
downtown, languishing between Linton Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue. Now, where
can one walk from that location? The whole point of public transit is to create
an alternative to driving. Yet, the thriving popular downtown area of Delray
Beach is far removed from the poorly planned station location. Thus, you still
have a downtown clogged with cars, because the Tri-Rail station is beyond
walking distance. ”
[...]
“I have ridden on Metrorail, on the other hand, and it is a joy compared to the
mess that Tri-Rail is. Metrorail actually goes places, near neighborhoods, and
other places people actually go, and it doesn’t share its tracks with 8,000
mile-long freight trains. That’s why it works.”
and:
Old crackplog post
“The greatest hindrance to Mica’s rail, however, could come from the failure of
a predecessor, South Florida’s Tri-Rail, which runs from Palm Beach County south
to Miami. Tri-Rail has proven costly; it has drained $433 million so far, and
reports say it needs another $327 million to stay alive. Despite the investment,
Tri-Rail averages only 60 percent of its projected ridership, and governments
subsidize more than 70 percent of the operating costs.
The problem? Essentially, Tri-Rail doesn’t go anywhere. For most of its 11-year
life, Tri-Rail delved only into northern Dade County. “That’s like taking a
train from Volusia and dropping people off at the Seminole County line,” Mica
says. Connections to major workplaces and airports rely on unreliable bus
systems. Moreover, Tri-Rail only runs once an hour, and is frequently late at
that.”
and:
Old crackplog post
“Luksha is among the many South Floridians who derisively note that not a single
Tri-Rail train goes through a single �downtown�, and only indirect services
via, bus, taxi or Metrorail will get you to the region�s airports after
getting off Tri-Rail. ”
As should be obvious by the lead to this post, I will not stand by and let you
drag me down without responding in kind.
- MD

and

— In BusRidersAustin@yahoogroups.com, Nawdry wrote:

> At 2009/05/25 15:41, Mike Dahmus wrote:

> >Just ONE among many of your lies:
> >
> >Tri-Rail serves mostly Broward and Palm Beach Counties – extending a
> >bit into Dade County, but that’s not the focus of the service.
> >MetroRail is a Dade County phenomenon (more specifically Miami) -
> >most Tri-Rail ridership never goes that far south.

>
> Mike is just disseminating rubbish. By far the heaviest Tri-Rail
> ridership occurs at the 5 Miami-area stations, particularly the
> MetroRail Transfer station, where interface with the MetroRail rapid
> transit occurs. Tri-Rail also serves the Miami Airport.
>
> When I stayed in Deerfield Park

Heh.
Credibility, huh?
It’s “Deerfield Beach”, you ignoramus.
And, yes, Tri-Rail ENTERS Dade County. Of its 70 mile length, by far, the overwhelming majority of the line is in Palm Beach and Broward Counties. The fact that those stations see a bit more than typical traffic shows how stupid the plan was to rely on shuttlebuses for passenger distribution everywhere else; the only marginally successful stops are the ones that feed into the existing urban rail network in Dade County at the extreme end of a 70 mile system.
Urban rail systems never took off in Ft. Lauderdale or West Palm Beach or Boca Raton or any of the other large towns and cities along the line. Commuter rail spurred precisely nothing; no public support for more rail that might actually work – were it not for the existing MetroRail system that actually goes where people want to go, and, this is important, the 1200 magnet students riding every day, the system would have collapsed 15 years ago.
I lived there for most of my life, genius. I was around when Tri-Rail was getting started. I worked at IBM three summers and then three full years within a short shuttle ride of both the Delray Beach and Boca Raton Tri-Rail stops.
I had many coworkers that gave it a try (I lived too close for it to be of any use to me). None stuck. The shuttlebuses were the problem for every single one of them.
I’ve seen more than a dozen proposals for TOD come and go along the line. None stuck. The lack of choice commuters was the problem for every single one of _them_.
I was around when the original discussions about CSX vs. FEC were taking place. You’re right in one small respect – the FEC wasn’t available right at that instant; but there were people EVEN BACK THEN who said we’d be better served by waiting a couple of years and trying to negotiate with FEC instead of CSX. (Parallel to Austin here: Some people said, me among them, that rather than barreling ahead with a stupid dead-end Red Line commuter “ender” line, we’d be better served by waiting a few years to develop momentum for a re-run at the 2000 LRT line).
This was 20 years ago, mind you. Tri-Rail still, now, 20 years after the fact, has not approached initial ridership projections, unlike light rail starter lines all over the country which have mostly knocked them out of the park. After 20 years of disastrous failure on Tri-Rail, the number of people willing to say we should have waited for FEC has grown dramatically – including most of the political leadership in the counties paying the bills.
Those counties, by the way, are the ones that are cutting their subsidy to Tri-Rail because it was such a ‘success’ that they’ve gotten tired of the bleeding for so little benefit (again, compare and contrast to what happened in Houston and Dallas after GOOD LIGHT RAIL STARTER LINES showed people what could happen – 2/3 of the electorate voted in favor of huge expansions in both cases).
It’s you whose credibility ought to be completely lacking here. You visited South Florida once and rode Tri-Rail a couple of times.
Big whoop.
I lived there for 20 years.
You’re absolutely wrong, as usual.

Listen for M1EK

KUT just called and I recorded a few snippets with them about commuter rail (they’re most interested in today’s delay announcement for commuter rail which I mostly let CM off the hook for, but I did give a bunch of other background that they might or might not use). If anybody hears it, please let me know.
Background was a condensed version of the last 6 years of this crackplog (we’re doing what Tri-Rail did; not what everybody that succeeded did; it’s not light rail – it’ll never get you to UT, etc).

Tri-Rail, The Red Line, and “Is It TOD?”

This was originally going to be a comment in response to a comment Erica from Capital Metro made to Two Quick Hits. I’ve reproduced her comment in full here.

Four comments on your two quick hits!
1. I’m new to all of this, so fact check it, but I think Polikov’s involvement dealt with the Crystal Falls development, which is not in the Leander TOD district and is not part of the TOD being developed around Capital Metro’s Leander Station. Leander is not on hold or abandoned, it is on track. http://www.capmetroblog.blogspot.com
2. Crestview: the developers have told us that the presence of MetroRail there made the opportunity attractive and desirable…doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t have been developed on its own, without the rail line there, but maybe not as quickly.
3. Tri-Rail ridership has doubled since 2005. Last year ridership was over 4m, so the “nobody rides it” argument is wearing thin. Anyhow, one of our TOD staff tells me that Tri-Rail has 2 TOD projects underway: Deerfield Beach Station and Boca Raton Station.
4. Development takes time; Mueller planning started in 1997. Groundbreaking for the big box stuff on the frontage road happened in 2006, Dell & the first housing in 2007. It’s a tad early to declare that the Red Line TOD is a failure.

Erica, I can’t agree with any of those points. In order:

  1. Under no circumstance ought you declare this a TOD – not a single spade of dirt has been turned. A lesson which should have been learned from Tri-Rail, which declared a dozen or more TODs that never materialized.
    The Leander plans are rather underwhelming, too. A development that requires that its residents cross at an unprotected crosswalk across a busy highway to get to the transit service is NOT “oriented towards transit”.
    Update: In comments on CM’s blog entry about the TOD, it becomes clear that the blog author was throwing in the crosswalk as an afterthought; it doesn’t appear to be related to this particular supposed TOD project at all. However, the thinking that a ‘crosswalk’ is somehow a bicycle/pedestrian feature which we ought to be impressed by is kind of illustrative here.

  2. Yes, Crestview would have developed just fine – the developers may have gotten a bit of a pass through the neighborhood gauntlet because of the transit, but that’s exactly what I said.
  3. Tri-Rail: Yes, it doubled, when gas went to $4.00 a gallon. Your own ridership figures skyrocketed too. More trains are also running now. The TOD projects that are ‘underway’ are, uh, NOT. “Boca Raton station” is a strip mall of retail that fronts the major arterial roadway and a bunch of parking; the train station is off and to the back. I saw absolutely nothing in Deerfield to indicate that anything’s being built.
  4. Mueller is a special case. The Triangle got done much more quickly; we’d see spades of dirt being turned by now on TODs on the Red Line if, indeed, it were capable of generating any TOD.

Some requirements to call something a TOD, from the VTPI; full list here:

  • The transit-oriented development lies within a five-minute walk of the transit stop, or about a quarter-mile from stop to edge. For major stations offering access to frequent high-speed service this catchment area may be extended to the measure of a 10-minute walk.
  • A balanced mix of uses generates 24-hour ridership. There are places to work, to live, to learn, to relax and to shop for daily needs.”
  • Transit service is fast, frequent, reliable, and comfortable, with a headway of 15 minutes or less.
  • Roadway space is allocated and traffic signals timed primarily for the convenience of walkers and cyclists.

Note that the Red Line, even if it operates every 15 minutes, is only part of their trip. The shuttle service on the downtown/UT end of the trip will never be fast, comfortable, or reliable. We can already tell, in other words, that the development in Leander won’t be real TOD – it’s already on track to fail at least four of the metrics even if they do everything right with their buildings.
Tri-Rail has been running for almost 20 years now. There’s still precisely zero square feet of TOD. Not surprising when you read what you need to answer the question “Is it really TOD?”. Light rail can do it. Heavy urban rail can do it. Commuter rail can’t and never will. They may use TOD as an excuse to upzone to what the market was already clamoring for, as demonstrated by Crestview (vs. the Triangle), or they may actually be trying to get it done, but it ain’t gonna happen – people aren’t going to pay a financial premium to live next to a train that doesn’t go anywhere worth going without transfers.
(In case you’re wondering, the CAMPO TWG streetcar/light-rail plan could produce TOD, especially on East Riverside, by the way, because people would be able to board a train operating at high frequencies in reserved guideway that would go straight downtown, to the Capitol, or to UT, without requiring transfers. People will pay more than they would otherwise be willing to pay if they’re provided with a reliable time-certain trip straight to work or school, i.e., that doesn’t ask them to get off a train and onto a bus, or even off a train and onto another train)

Two quick hits

Still catching up at work, but there’s two things I didn’t want to forget to comment on.
First, before leaving for Florida, I went with the boys and my father-in-law to the Palmer center during one of the last evenings of their Xmas shopping event. Luckily, we planned on parking at One Texas Center and walking, because traffic was backed up all the way across the 1st street bridge for the Trail of Lights. Right in the middle of all those cars not moving, what could you see? The shuttlebuses that the city wanted everybody to ride.
Easy lesson for the day: If you want people to leave their cars in a remote lot and ride shuttlebuses, ensure that the shuttlebuses aren’t stuck in traffic for an hour with the cars of everybody who didn’t take your advice. It’s amazing that in this day and age, people still don’t get this – somehow we’re supposed to enjoy being stuck in traffic more because we’re on a jerky uncomfortable bus instead of in our own vehicle (which, although almost as annoying to be stuck in traffic in, at least allows for more comfort)? There’s a trivially easy solution which requires only a small amount of political spine: make one lane of Barton Springs for shuttle-buses only. Cost? A few cops who had to be there anyways, and some orange cones. After all, you already closed Barton Springs down by the restaurants anyways, right?
Second item: There is still precisely zero square feet of evident transit-oriented development along Tri-Rail in South Florida (caveat: I only observed between the Fort Lauderdale airport and the Dreher Park Zoo, in West Palm Beach, but that’s about 50 miles worth). The relevance, for those who may be coming to this late, is that Tri-Rail is almost exactly like what we’re opening here in March: a commuter rail line which runs infrequently compared to light rail, and requires transfers to shuttle buses on the destination end of essentially all trips to get where you really want to go. Despite more than a decade now of effort to subsidize, encourage, rezone, whatever, there is no, zero, KAPUT TOD on the ground there, and none under construction, and every single prospective project along those lines floated mostly by governmental entities has failed. Every. Single. One.
And here in Austin? The supposed (mislabelled) TOD along Capital Metro’s line falls exclusively into three categories: Abandoned/on hold (far suburban projects); TOD-as-excuse-for-sorely-needed-upzoning (Crestview Station); and way-too-low-density-to-be-called-TOD (Chestnut, for instance). In the second category, Crestview Station is no more dense (probably less when complete) than the Triangle, so clearly the rail transit available to Crestview has provided precisely zero additional support for density in the project (it could have been just as dense without the rail).
More later as I slowly get up to speed.

Difference between streetcar and bus

Since many people still think that if you build streetcar, they will come; here’s a set of use case-like tables which I hope will explain what the actual difference is between streetcars and buses. The first case is for “why can’t we just fix commuter rail by building a streetcar line to which they can transfer?”. The second case is for “won’t streetcar get more residents of central Austin to take transit to work?”.
Some shorthand below explained up here:
“Stuck in traffic”: Does the vehicle have its own lane, or is it sharing a lane with cars? This affects speed and reliability.
“Detourable”: If there’s a traffic accident in the shared lane, can the vehicle in question change lanes to get around it? This is a drastic impact on reliability.
“Fast/slow”: Is the vehicle capable of accelerating/decelerating quickly? Speed, obviously.

Mode Stuck in traffic? Detourable? Fast/slow?
Circulators as applied to commuter rail service
Shuttlebus Yes Yes Slow
Streetcar Yes No Slow
Mode by itself (for residents of actual central Austin)
Shuttlebus Yes Yes Slow
Streetcar Yes No Slow

Notice anything? Whether you’re using the vehicle as a circulator or as your primary form of transit, it performs exactly the same. I know this seems obvious, but I still get people thinking that there’s some magic fairy dust that will make streetcars turn into good transit service for the people who actually wanted it, in both 2000 and 2004. No, credulous fellow residents of Central Austin, streetcar doesn’t bringing anything more to the table than bus does – arguably LESS, for daily commuters. Note the “Detourable” column. Yes, I’ve had times on the bus when I’ve benefitted from this capability. They won’t detour just to get around heavy traffic, but they darn sure will to get around an accident.
So what are some of the other benefits of streetcar not mentioned here? It provides a perception of permanence that bus service does not. This is worth something if you’re trying to stimulate development somewhere – but downtown Austin doesn’t need the help. It also provides a minor benefit for tourists – making it more obvious that transit exists, and making it more attractive (people from out of town are unlikely to want to ride the bus given the stigma of bus service in many other cities).
The only advantage streetcar has is for tourists – which is why, IF we build this thing, it should only be funded out of hotel/rental car taxes. Even if it ran through the dense residential parts of Austin, it would provide precisely nothing of benefit to those residents, who, by the way, pay almost all of Capital Metro’s bills.

First of many “TOD”‘s collapses

(TOD = “transit-oriented development“, which some people think can provide additional passengers for our commuter rail line).
Update: The author of the ABJ piece assures me in comments that this wasn’t “the” TOD project (not within the city limits) and claims that it had more to do with the housing market in general. This will teach me to link to articles for which I can’t read the full text. However, commenters and other media have indicated that this was being characterized as “a TOD” (I actually finally posted this after receiving 3 different tips from readers), and my language, while imprecise, was referring to “the first failure among the group of self-proclaimed TODs”, not “the first project declared to be a TOD has now failed”. Keep this one as a “maybe”. Certainly many people defending the commuter rail line have promised that it will provide stimulus for denser mixed-use development in that part of town – so the “weakening housing market” is in and of itself no defense here.
Original post follows:
Repeating the experience in South Florida with another stupid commuter rail line that requires shuttle-bus transfers, the first proposed TOD (really, not, just a slightly more dense suburban tract housing project) has collapsed in Leander. Expect more of these, although I expect Crestview Station and the Chestnut project will go ahead, since sufficient demand with or without rail already exists in those areas to fill the units allowed by the slight loosening of the way-too-strict zoning there. As Christof said, the most attractive place to add more density is where density already exists – don’t forget, too, that true TOD requires high-quality transit, not just anything slapped on a rail that runs to a station out in the middle of nowhere.
Does TOD ever work in cities without Manhattan-like density? YES!. It works great on light rail lines which have demonstrated good ridership among choice commuters. That requires rail lines which deliver most people directly to their destination (within a moderate walking distance). Like what Dallas did; what Portland did; what Minneapolis, Salt Lake, Denver, and even Houston did. Like what we almost did in 2000; and could have fought for in 2004 instead of rolling over for Mike Krusee. But it’s never, ever, happened on a commuter rail line with performance as poor as ours. Not even once.

Why I do it

This subject keeps coming up; and although I’ve explained it in bits and pieces in many crackplogs here, as well as in other forums, I’ve never put it all in one place before. But I’m also short on time, so I’ll reuse most of a post I made today to the excellent SkyScraperPage forums and just expand a bit.
The immediate relevance is a somewhat petulant response from Michael King to my letter to the editor in the Chronicle next week. I suppose this means I’ll be published, at least. The money quote:

we don’t find it particularly useful to hold our breaths on transit questions until we turn blue (or bile green), nor particularly helpful to respond to every interim proposal with cheerless variations on “it’s pointless and it won’t work.”

So, here it is: why it’s important to keep bringing up that this thing won’t work and WHY it won’t work, and what WOULD have worked instead:
South Florida built almost exactly what we’re going to build: a commuter rail line on existing tracks which is too far away from destinations people actually want to go to – so they have to transfer to shuttle buses for the final leg of their journey to work in the morning (and back from work in the evening). It has proved a miserable failure at attracting so-called “choice commuters”, i.e., those who own a car but are considering leaving it at home today to take the train to work.
Here’s how the experience has gone in the area:

  1. Start with a largely transit-friendly population (retirees from New York, for instance)
  2. In the mid-to-late 1980s, commuter rail gets built (requiring shuttle transfers).
  3. Everybody who says anything says “this is going to work; rail ALWAYS works!”
  4. Nobody but the transit-dependent rides it. (“we tried it and it didn’t work”).
  5. Ten years later, whenever somebody brings up light rail, “we tried rail and it didn’t work here”.
  6. In the meantime, a huge amount of money is spent double-tracking the corridor and increasing service; but still, essentially nobody who can choose to drive will ride the thing, because the three-seat ride (car, train, shuttle-bus) makes it so uncompetitive. (Remember that, like our rail line, it doesn’t run through any dense residential areas where people might be tempted to walk to the station – all passengers arrive either by car or by bus).
  7. Fifteen years later, when people still don’t ride, somebody reads about TOD and thinks “maybe that will help”. Millions are spent trying to encourage developers to build residential density around the train stations to no avail (a bit unlike Austin in that here, all we need to do is allow more density and it will crop up by itself due to pent-up demand for living in that part of town). Nothing comes of this – because people don’t want to pay extra to live next to a train station where they can hop a train to… a shuttle-bus.
  8. Twenty years later, whenever somebody brings up light rail, “we tried rail and it didn’t work here” is still the primary response – but finally some people are starting to say “well, we built the wrong thing last time”.

If there had been more people pointing out before, during, and after the system opened that a rail line which didn’t go where the people wanted to go would be a failure, it might not have taken twenty years just to restart the rail conversation there.
I don’t want it to take twenty years to restart the conversation here in Austin.
Don’t believe it will happen? Remember: the pro-commuter-rail forces, before the election, were saying let’s ride and then decide. People in South Florida rode. They decided. It didn’t work. It has taken twenty years to even start seriously talking about building rail in the right places (along the FEC corridor, or light-rail in Fort Lauderdale). We can’t afford twenty years here.

Circulators don’t work

Fresh on the heels of yesterday’s post, Christof from Houston weighs in that rail service that depends on circulators rather than pedestrian traffic isn’t likely to succeed in garnering so-called “choice commuters” (those who you’re trying to attract away from their cars).
Unfortunately, it appears that the same lesson which was learned from watching Tri-Rail’s abject failure in South Florida has to keep getting re-learned all over the country, since we keep pushing these stupid commuter rail projects which reuse existing track but don’t go anywhere worth going rather than building light rail which DOES.
So, care to guess how you’re going to get from the Capital Metro commuter rail station to your office in downtown, the Capitol, or UT?