Tag Archives: weekend Red Line

The ceiling for the Red Line

is very low.

I keep having to drag up this old Chronicle article so much I finally thought I’d better link to it AND excerpt the relevant parts in case it ever disappears down the memory hole.

February 25, 2000 in the Chronicle:

The prevailing wisdom has been that a project in Smart-Grown Austin, serving major trip generators like UT and the Capitol complex, supported by Cap Met’s ample sales tax revenue, would be a slam dunk for a “highly recommended” rating. (Conversely, the original Red Line, which had far lower ridership and — even though it was on existing rail right of way — only marginally lower projected costs, was headed, Cap Met insiders say, for a “not recommended” kiss-of-death rating, which is why the transit authority switched tracks at the 11th hour.)

The key here is that from about 1997-1999, Capital Metro’s plan of record was to take the entire Red Line (what we use now for commuter rail), build two new tracks, put up electric wire, and run light rail trains on it all day long at high frequencies.

The Federal government said the ridership would be low, negligibly higher than what we’re seeing today, and hinted to Capital Metro that they would not fund that line. Capital Metro quickly switched to what became the 2000 light rail proposal – the “Red/Green” line, using the Red Line’s ROW only from Leander to Airport/Lamar, then going in the street from there.

You can use the 1997 proposal as, effectively, a ceiling for what can be accomplished with further investment in the Red Line we have today. Nothing has truly changed since then – Capital Metro anticipated infill then around the stations in the far northwest, and they anticipate it now, and it still turns out to be low-density crap if it ever gets built. No more jobs have moved to be close to the MLK station instead of at UT.

Folks, there isn’t that much more that can be accomplished with a train that doesn’t go very many places worth going. The real action is, as it always has been, around Congress Avenue downtown (not the Convention Center); at the University of Texas (preferably its front door on Guadalupe), and at the Capitol; and no, you aren’t going to convince suburbanites to transfer to a shuttle-bus(*) to get to those places (as we’ve finally, I hope, proven by now).

lowceiling

This is why further investment in the Red Line is best characterized as wasting money trying to disprove the sunk cost fallacy. There’s very little new ridership there, even if the train gets a little faster, or runs a few more hours on the weekend.

* – no, urban rail doesn’t help either. Suburbanites own cars. Two train trips in our commuting environment, even if the second one goes closer to where they want to go, is fundamentally uncompetitive. Believe me, or not, but remember: I’m the guy who predicted the Year 1 ridership correctly, and called that nobody would want to ride shuttlebuses when everybody else said they would.

Who Is Riding The Red Line, Part Three

A friend of the crackplog (but strong Red Line supporter) who I will not identify unless I receive permission, scouted out some fellow riders at Lakeline recently (while I was on Maui) and reported the following:

Riding train in today. Very informal raise your hand survey when I boarded at Lakeline. Abt 20% of folks boarding live in Austin.

Of the rest almost all live in Cedar Park.

Talking to small group already on train, a few from Leander, 1 Cedar Park, rest neither.

While merely anecdotal, this tends to support the theory from my earlier posts that most riders at Lakeline are likely not residents of the city of Austin. My original (educated guess) estimate was that 10% of the boardings at Lakeline would be Austin residents; the anecdotal observation was 20%. Not too far off; and nowhere near the claims of Red Line defenders that because the station is within city limits, most passengers must be from Austin.

Unfortunately, the city just decided to use tax funds from the city of Austin to further subsidize suburbanites who do not contribute tax dollars to the running of the system. My letter to city council got just one response, from the council member I would have least expected to reply. So it goes.

Red Line weekend debate, in pictures

The city wants to spend this much:

per rider bringing people from OUTSIDE the

to come into town in the hopes that they’ll spend

of which the city gets back 1%, or this much:

Let’s repeat. Spend this much:

to get this much:

Here is how this all made me feel:

Write the City Council on Red Line weekend subsidy

Here’s what I just sent.

Honorable mayor and council members:

Please reject efforts by some to use additional tax revenue from the city of Austin to subsidize service on Capital Metro’s Red Line. As a strong supporter of rail transit in general but also an Austin taxpayer, I don’t want to spend our scarce local transportation dollars on a service which primarily benefits non-Austin residents, and definitely not at such a high cost.

The most recent operating subsidy information available from Capital Metro shows weekday service requiring an operating subsidy per ride of approximately 34 dollars. This is abominably high compared to good rail lines in other cities – and ten times the current bus subsidy across the system. But this subsidy, at least, is paid for by all Capital Metro members (including Leander residents, for instance). Not so the case with this new proposal.

Even if we exceed weekday numbers by perhaps double, my own quick estimates show we would likely be spending around 20 city tax dollars per rider to bring them downtown and take them back – and a reasonable expectation is that they might spend 40 or 50 dollars while here – meaning the city is asking taxpayers to spend 20 bucks to return 40 or 50 cents to the tax coffers (and this is assuming they wouldn’t have driven and paid to park were the Red Line not an option).

This money needs to be saved for the city’s own urban rail plans.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
UTC 2000-2005
mike@dahmus.org

Since sending this I realized I should also have included a point I made on the phone to KUT an hour or so ago: that during the week, you can make an argument for (some) subsidy by referring to scarce space on highways and roadways and in parking lots and garages. This is not the case on the weekend – plenty of space to get into downtown, and plenty of places to park, some of which even make the city additional revenue.

Who is riding the Red Line?

Well, we don’t know who, but we do know how many are getting on at each station. Thanks to Erica McKewen at Capital Metro for quickly supplying the following information (excerpted from a longer spreadsheet).

Morning boardings, AM peak:

Leander 154
Lakeline 211
Howard 154
Kramer 47
Crestview 26
Highland 12
MLK 8
Saltillo 3

Data from October 2011.

Analysis:

The stations where almost every passenger likely comes from the city of Austin are Kramer on down. Those stations account for (47+26+12+8+3 =) 97 boardings each morning.

The station where perhaps half the passengers come from the city of Leander (pays Cap Metro taxes, but not COA taxes – this is an important distinction for later in this post) accounts for 154 boardings each morning. So say 77 passengers here do not pay Capital Metro taxes.

The stations where most passengers likely come from places that are not the city of Austin and do not pay Capital Metro taxes are Lakeline and Howard, which account for (211+154 =) 365 boardings each morning. Say 10% of these boardings come from the city of Austin, and another 10% from other jursidictions that pay Cap Metro taxes (Leander, part of unincorporated county). This means 37 people from Austin, and 37 more that also pay Cap Metro taxes. If correct, 291 people that boarded here do not pay Cap Metro taxes.

(More on that last paragraph in another later post – suffice to say that rail stations on the edge of city limits are not going to attract most of their passengers from within that city as those people would be backtracking to board the train).

Combine those and you get a reasonable estimate that of the 615 AM peak boardings in October in this sample, about 368 are from places that do not pay any Capital Metro taxes and about 134 are from the city of Austin.

Put another way, 60% of the riders of MetroRail do not pay any taxes to support MetroRail, and 78% of the riders of MetroRail are from outside the city of Austin. If we assume the weekend ridership will be roughly the same as the in-week ridership (and this is a big assumption), these numbers would hold there too. More on that as details become more clear, but I think that even if the line terminates at Lakeline, the numbers would stay roughly the same, since some of the Leander riders would still ride, and far fewer of the people getting on in-town will (since weekend connecting bus service is far less likely).

In other words, if the city does what it is rumored to be doing and decides to pay for weekend MetroRail service, they’ll be paying 20 bucks a ride (collected from Austin taxpayers) to carry mostly non-Austinites downtown in the hopes of collecting a quarter (25 cents) or so of sales tax from each of them (that sales tax only being ‘extra’ if those people wouldn’t have driven downtown anyways – to say nothing of lost parking revenue if they would have paid to park).