Capital Metro and rail demand

http://m1ek.dahmus.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/cropped-m1ekmasthead11.png
Whether through coincidence or because their aides have read this crackplog, site Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken have stood up and finally asked the $100, malady 000 question about Rapid Bus, store namely, “why are we spending all this money for something that’s not likely to be any better than the #101 bus and won’t generate any transit-oriented development“, and what’s more, they’re apparently doing it from a pro-rail perspective. A rare bit of good news.

My fear is, though, that it’s already too late. Where were you guys in 2004 when I was saying this stuff? Frankly, I don’t think we can get light rail down this corridor once commuter rail is built — as I’ve commented before, it would be nigh-impossible to continue the light rail route northwest on the existing right-of-way from the intersection of Lamar and Airport (since commuter rail will already be there, and the vehicles are mostly incompatible), but if you don’t, you give up about half of the ridership which would have made the 2000 route a success.

(I originally misattributed Lee Leffingwell as Lee Walker; I apologize for taking so long to realize this and correct it).
Whether through coincidence or because their aides have read this crackplog, site Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken have stood up and finally asked the $100, malady 000 question about Rapid Bus, store namely, “why are we spending all this money for something that’s not likely to be any better than the #101 bus and won’t generate any transit-oriented development“, and what’s more, they’re apparently doing it from a pro-rail perspective. A rare bit of good news.

My fear is, though, that it’s already too late. Where were you guys in 2004 when I was saying this stuff? Frankly, I don’t think we can get light rail down this corridor once commuter rail is built — as I’ve commented before, it would be nigh-impossible to continue the light rail route northwest on the existing right-of-way from the intersection of Lamar and Airport (since commuter rail will already be there, and the vehicles are mostly incompatible), but if you don’t, you give up about half of the ridership which would have made the 2000 route a success.

(I originally misattributed Lee Leffingwell as Lee Walker; I apologize for taking so long to realize this and correct it).
According to Capital Metro, disease
discount
+U.S.+183,+Leander,+TX&hl=en&ll=30.586121,-97.856051&spn=0.005911,0.009087&sll=30.586401,-97.855735&layer=c&cbp=13,117.62,,0,10.55&cbll=30.586118,-97.85605&gl=us&hnear=Leander+Station,+U.S.+183,+Leander,+Williamson,+Texas+78641&t=m&z=17&panoid=kERE2sxy13-A3W-xHcHFYQ”>this spot has enough demand to justify rail:

Leander "station"
Leander “station”

But this spot does not:

24th and Guadalupe during a slow period
24th and Guadalupe during a slow period

Are Austin’s suburbs getting a sweet deal on transit or what?

This still apparently gets some people the wrong way. Please read it all the way through. Vomited out quickly because I really don’t have time to blog, mind but I have even less time to say this 140 characters at a time.

Despite appearances from this blog, page in real life I’m an introvert – fairly shy. Especially don’t like being in situations where I have to talk a lot to people I don’t know.

In 2000, I got on the Urban Transportation Commission and enjoyed the collegial relationship with a bunch of people who were like-minded to varying degrees, access to interesting subjects and speakers, the whole shebang. Still look back with fondness. In 2004, I became the public face of the “pro-rail but anti-Red-Line” campaign because nobody else would. This was a huge stretch for me – I’m not a politician; I don’t like to gladhand; and I’m petrified about giving speeches (not as much now, but definitely then).

It was just that important, though; nobody else would do it, so I had to. I gave speeches next to that asshat Jim Skaggs and said “if we build the Red Line, we can’t have good light rail”. I opposed the Red Line so vociferously and publically that, as expected, I got the boot from the UTC shortly after the election, and many people I used to talk to wouldn’t talk to me any more after that.

Of course, every prediction I made during that campaign turned out to be true – ridership was underwhelming; operating subsidies continue to be unmanageably huge.

Ever since then, I’ve struggled with people who don’t get why this was important. Why not just start with the Red Line and go from there, they say. Why not just expand the Red Line into something that works better?

This is insulting, people. Let me explain why.

1. I’m a smart guy.
2. I know transit really well.
3. I did something very uncomfortable for me for a long time and burned down a lot of stuff I liked to do because nobody else would say anything.

Do you folks honestly think I would have done that if I thought there was even a 1% chance we could get from “The Red Line exists” to “40,000 happy rail passengers a day at a sustainable operating subsidy of, say, 5 dollars per ride”? This was not and is not a simple difference of opinion. This was not me being a pessimist. I have lots of differences of opinion. I’m pessimistic and optimistic about lots of things. I wouldn’t go to all that trouble and burn down something I liked if I was only 99% sure the Red Line was going to be a disaster. Or 99.9%.

What most of the remaining optimists don’t understand is that there is quite literally NO way out of this mess that doesn’t require tearing up the Red Line unless you don’t care at all about how much money we spend on capital, operations, or both(*). Even the long-range plan the city and Cap Metro recently shat out admits this – getting up to something like 25,000 rail passengers in the year 2045 by, finally, ripping up part of the Red Line and replacing it with urban rail (of course, if we wait until 2045 to do this, it’ll be long too late for our city’s health, but still).

Even the city and Cap Metro get this. There’s no way to get “there” (40,000 happy rail passengers at a reasonable operating subsidy) from “here” (pretending the Red Line isn’t a huge disaster at operating subsidies of $25/ride for customers who mostly don’t even pay Capital Metro taxes). Again, the long-term plan of record right now is to build a bad urban rail line to Mueller, getting something shy of 10,000 riders/day; and then eventually building a second urban rail line that, once I’m retired or dead, will finally go up to about US 183 (pushing the DMU service out to the suburbs where it belonged all along). Again, this happens in 2045. At the end of all this, in 2045, we’ve spent five times as much money to get back to where we could be if we tore up the Red Line and built the 2000 route, and might get almost as many passengers, at a higher operating cost.

This isn’t a simple difference of opinion. For you to believe that there’s a way out of this mess now that doesn’t involve replacing the Red Line, you have to believe that I’m an idiot.

I’m not an idiot, people. We really are fucked.

Hope this helps.

(* – and if you don’t care how much money your plan costs, you are an idiot, or at best, painfully naive. No matter how much you stomp your feet and talk about how much we spend on highways, we still live in Texas and the United States, not New York or Western Europe – so costs matter a hell of a lot).

First assumption: JMVC (Capital Metro PR guy) knows that when people talk about the suburbs vs. the city, site we’re talking mostly about the Red Line. This is reasonable because the operating subsidies on the Red Line are gargantuan compared to bus service; and the Red Line thus consumes a hugely disproportionate share of Capital Metro’s operating and capital budgets. Although the video to which he links tries to muddy the issue by showing bus routes all over Austin as if they’re somehow as costly (and as attractive) as rail service, stuff we know better, don’t we?

So, let’s just talk about rail for right now, then.

Let’s consult the archives:

First, in Who Is Riding The Red Line, Part One?, I showed that the overwhelming majority of Red Line passengers are boarding at the three park and rides on the northern end of the line; NOT from the stations most people would think of as “in Austin”.

In Who Is Riding The Red Line, Part Two?, I showed that it was expected that most riders at the Lakeline and Howard stations would not be from the City of Austin due to simple geography (i.e. of the people for whom it would make sense to drive a reasonable distance in the correct direction to the station, the overwhelming majority would be outside the Capital Metro service area and the city of Austin).

In Who Is Riding The Red Line, Part Three?, a rider from up north verified that most passengers getting on board at the Lakeline Station (within Austin city limits, but just barely) are actually from Cedar Park, and pay zero Capital Metro taxes when in their home jurisdictions (no, the one or two lunches a week they might do in Austin don’t amount to a hill of beans).

Conclusion? As usual, please don’t mistake JMVC’s paid spin for a responsible, reasonable, take on reality. In fact, the suburbs receive transit service far in excess of what would be fair given their contributions in tax dollars (remember, most of the areas served by the Red Line are attracting riders who pay ZERO Capital Metro taxes from their home jurisdictions). The suburbs that receive 0 transit service are getting their due; many of the northern suburbs that are getting non-zero service pay zero in taxes and are thus getting far more than their due; and a cursory examination of Leander would show that they’re getting back service worth more than what they pay in, so they’re getting off well too, even though unlike the rest of our suburban friends, they’re not complete freeloaders.

 

Oh, and JMVC’s statements are misleading at best.

 

The Problem With Rail On The Drag

I’ve thrown this argument and picture around a hundred times, but have probably never put them together into a single post, so here we go.

The 2000 light rail proposal had one section that was particularly problematic: where Guadalupe narrows to 4 skinny lanes between 29th and 27th streets. The ‘solution’ to light rail as envisioned back then by the city and by Capital Metro was something like the picture you see below, but first I’ll explain it.

Light rail, to be any good, needs to run in its own space – free of cars. Also, in a two-way street, this space should be in the middle of the street – so that both directions of travel can share some infrastructure; so stations are easier to locate; etc.

Guadalupe is a wide street – mostly. Especially south of 24th, it would have been possible to keep two train lanes and (likely) two other lanes going each direction – or at a bare minimum, one lane each direction plus the tracks with no real trouble.

Except, again, for 27th to 30th. Right now there’s about 44 feet of right of way there (4 11-foot lanes). This is not enough to safely fit two train lanes and two vehicle lanes, unfortunately.

So what to do? Here’s my really crappy freehand reconstruction from memory of an engineering drawing that was on the wall of our UTC meeting room for several months in 2003, if I remember correctly. As per usual, click to embiggen.


Now, I might be getting northbound wrong here – it might have gone up Hemphill Park, but you get the idea. Both directions of through travel on Guadalupe would have been disrupted by moving to side streets.

Can you imagine trying to sell this to the public?

Well, in 2000 (and 2004, had we not rolled over for Mike Krusee), you could have made this argument:

Carrying 40,000 riders/day (boardings) is a more efficient use of this space than the cars (and buses) are currently able to pull off. An arterial lane like these can carry only 1000-1500 vehicles per hour – and this proposal trades 3 of the 4 through travel lanes for that train capacity. The travel demand in this corridor is highly directional – peak demand generally inbound in the morning and outbound in the afternoon with little reverse commuting. We could reasonably expect to somewhat increase the number of people able to use this corridor by making this change. Given there’s somewhere in the high single digit of thousands of boardings for buses in this corridor now, a safe estimate might be that you could almost double(*1) the people moved on the corridor by adding light rail that went directly from the suburban park-and-rides through the urban core into downtown.

Now move to 2012, and try to imagine making the same sale, in the world where the Red Line exists. Except those 40,000 boardings/day are nowhere in sight – because a lot of those people were suburban park-and-ride passengers who won’t ride a service that requires them to transfer (yes, even from train to train); and a few of the urban passengers who would be going up to suburban destinations. I think a reasonable estimate for ridership in this corridor, if we did what Lyndon Henry now wants and just built a stub urban rail line from the 2000 plan, would be 20,000 boardings/day. In other words, most of the urban ridership of the 2000 proposal plus the current Red Line riders. Is it worth the incredible disruption now – when you’re probably just adding a couple of thousands of boardings/day to the corridor?

No, sad to say, it is not.

And that, in addition to the political problems relating to Rapid Bus (see future post), is why we will never see rail in front of UT in our lifetimes. The key lesson here is that the entire reason I fought the Red Line in 2004 is precisely because it meant we couldn’t get rail later on Guadalupe (where it needs to be) if we built it. See here: Don’t Kid Yourself: Commuter Rail Precludes Light Rail, although that post emphasizes more of the technical and Rapid Bus related issues. I did warn people – if you start with the Red Line, you don’t get rail on Guadalupe, period.

(1: Yes, I could do the math. No, I don’t have time now. I did it on a piece of notebook paper back in the 20-oughts. You’ll have to trust me, or go look it up yourselves.)

Stop lying about TOD, Capital Metro

I know you guys know better than this. And I know you’re just repeating what the developer says, but you know better,

Here is a picture from Google Earth showing the straight-line path from the 2900 Manor Road “TOD” to the MLK station. Google Earth shows this as 0.47 miles, which is not even in the same universe as “close enough to call this a transit-oriented development”. VTPI, who essentially invented the term, allows for walks of up to a half mile IF AND ONLY IF some necessary preconditions are met, which the Red Line does not even come close to meeting. Otherwise? Quarter-mile – and that’s for a large TOD area. If you want to call a small development a TOD, it needs to be very close to the transit.

It’s bad enough to count the M Station as a TOD – but at least it’s close enough to be a reasonable distance to walk, although still much further than the prospective passenger would walk to their car in the free surface parking lot. It’s bad enough to count Midtown Commons as a TOD, given that it’s less dense than the Triangle, which has no rail transit at all.

But this? This is enough. Stop it. Stop it now.

Your pal,

M1EK

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.

Earlier in this series:

Red Line weekend debate, in pictures

WHEREAS most riders of existing Red Line service are likely not residents of the City of Austin and the majority likely don’t even reside in jurisdictions which pay Capital Metro taxes

and

WHEREAS the City of Austin already excessively subsidizes the existing Red Line operations, this as the overwhelming taxpayer to Capital Metro, contributing over 90% of Capital Metro’s revenue to allow the Red Line to be subsidized at a cost of nearly 34 dollars per ride

and

WHEREAS such funds as proposed to further subsidize the Red Line cannot possibly result in a positive economic outcome for the City of Austin given that weekend traffic on the highways is not substantial, and the city can only recover 1% of spending by visitors in the form of sales taxes

THEREFORE BE IT SUGGESTED that everybody reading this contact everyone you know and your city council members and advise AGAINST the City of Austin paying for expanded weekend service on the Red Line and saving the money, instead, for the city’s urban rail proposal – which, unlike the Red Line, will serve primarily Austinites and which desperately needs the money.
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, surgeon I don’t want to spend our scarce local transportation dollars on a service which primarily benefits non-Austin residents, thumb 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.

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, melanoma I don’t want to spend our scarce local transportation dollars on a service which primarily benefits non-Austin residents, about it 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, ophthalmologist 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.

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%, ampoule or this much:

Let’s repeat. Spend this much:

to get this much:

Here is how this all made me feel:

Who is riding the Red Line, Part Two

Here’s a summary chart showing the data from Capital Metro from October 2011; showing how many people board from each station in the AM peak, discussed yesterday in more detail.

Why break it up like this? Because as I mentioned yesterday, it should be pretty obvious that the 3 park-and-rides aren’t attracting a bunch of people from Austin itself. Nonsense, you say? Lakeline is in the city limits, you say? Let’s look at the map.

Here’s Lakeline Station.

Here’s Lakeline Station after I roughly draw the line representing the Austin city limits (by hand, so please excuse my poor skills). Map updated on 2/9/2012 to include a small section I inadvertently left out in my first poor attempt at freehand.

And here is the same image with an arrow helpfully representing the approximate direction all those transit passengers are going to work (note: Paint won’t let me go off straight vertical or horizontal; imagine it about 15 degrees to the southeast).


Now, here’s the thing: There are a few people inside that little part of Austin sticking up there who might be taking the Red Line. But it ought to be incredibly obvious based on nothing more than this picture (if it wasn’t just from words before) that most of the passengers getting on the train at Lakeline probably came from outside the city limits of Austin – because most people living inside the city limits of Austin would have to backtrack quite a ways to get to the train station.

Howard is the same – except it’s people from Pflugerville and Round Rock freeloading instead of Cedar Park. Any questions?

How you’ll use commuter rail

Or won’t, if like most people you don’t like shuttle buses.

At the last panel at which I spoke (LBJ school), Scott Polikov claimed that the commuter rail line DOES stop within walking distance of most of downtown. I’ve cut and pasted the image off the flier for showing the downtown station for commuter rail. Notice the labels on the shuttle buses on the right. From front: CAPITOL, DOWNTOWN, UT

This also marks the first post to this blog where I’ve included a picture. Man, I’m slipping.

Don’t Kid Yourself: Commuter Rail Precludes Light Rail

A lot of the effort to mollify center-city people like me who are disappointed that Capital Metro’s All Systems Go plan does nothing for the densest residential neighborhoods of the city and doesn’t deliver passengers to the two largest potential attractors (UT and state capitol) has gone into two messages:

The first message is “commuter rail is just like light rail” – relatively few people have bought this, outside the suburbs, since they know that rail going down Airport Blvd. isn’t going to do anything for any corridors where there’s any real density today or where density in the future is even remotely attractive. This has morphed into “once we double-track and build more stations, you center-city folks can just catch a quick bus to or from the commuter rail station” which I have a hard time believing is fooling anybody, but you never know. I’ve talked a bit about this and plan on doing more in a later article, but not today.

Capital Metro’s words are:

Commuter Rail
Urban Service
Operating on existing freight tracks, this line from Leander to Downtown could provide convenient service for both suburban and central city passengers.

The second message, and the one I’ll talk about today, is the idea that we can get light rail in the urban core “later” if we approve this plan now. The genius of this message is that it does a fairly good job of lumping opponents like me in with kooky pie-in-the-sky non-pragmatists who are unwilling to get something running on the ground because of the pursuit of the perfect solution.

The problem is that this message is misleading at best, and a lie at worst. The reason to oppose this plan is because it’s deadly to future transit operations in this city. IE, not just because it doesn’t do enough right away, but because it will actively prevent more effective solutions from ever happening.

Two of the strongest constituencies for ridership in the original (2000) rail plan (which was destroyed primarily through legislative manuevering by Mike Krusee) were state workers and university people. With the 2000 plan, the state workers who live anywhere in the northwest corner of the metro area could have driven to a station, boarded the rail, and rode it straight to the Capitol. Roughly the first 2/3 of the length of this trip would have been on what is now the commuter rail line; i.e., completely separate right-of-way. The remaining third would have followed the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor with prioritization far exceeding that which the new Rapid Bus will get.

The university was going to be a huge attractor for ridership in two ways. Like state workers, university workers (or students) could board anywhere along the route and get delivered directly to the destination (at least, on Guadalupe St., which is close enough to walk to anywhere at UT). A second group of riders would be travelling to the UT satellite campus on Burnet Rd. north of US 183. The mere fact that a rail link would exist between the two campuses (again, walking distance on both ends) was going to provide a powerful core of riders on day one.


The current commuter rail plan, for reference, requires both of these constituencies to transfer to shuttle buses to reach their final destination. This, as I’ve pointed out before, means that anybody who has a car and can afford parking will never ride this route.The shuttle transfer kills the performance of the transit trip to the point where only people who don’t own cars or have difficult parking situations would consider it, as is the case with today’s express bus lines.

So what about a future light rail line, as Capital Metro winks and nods might someday fill this gap? There are at least three obvious reasons why this won’t happen (at least, in a way which solves these constituencies’ travel problems).

  1. A new light rail line down Guadalupe/Lamar, if commuter rail is built, cannot follow the original 2000 path northwest on the current rail right-of-way. The two vehicles have completely incompatible trackage, even if scheduling issues could be resolved. In fact, I have a hard time believing it’s feasible to even have a light rail line on this corridor cross the commuter rail line, making even transfers an incredibly difficult proposition. Thus, the areas where we were counting on the most long-distance residential travel cannot be served even if we get a new light rail line down the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor.
  2. The operation of the commuter rail line, in my opinion, will swamp Capital Metro with enough additional operating costs that they will be unable to resume saving even 1/4 cent of their sales tax money (as they could today). See previous articles by me for why I think this system is not going to attract significant ridership compared to the light rail model – in short, no area like us in the last ten years has started with commuter rail for a very good reason: they saw what happened in South Florida.
  3. The investment in the so-called rapid bus vehicles is going to be difficult to abandon, both financially and politically. There aren’t many corridors in Austin where these vehicles could be shifted (physical constraints). The pressure to keep this crappy part of the system running is going to be very very hard to beat.

So, I think anybody who’s tempted to vote for this plan with the ‘understanding’ that we can come back later and solve the needs of actual Austin residents rather than pandering to Cedar Park ought to think twice.