This is not about roads versus rails. It is about:
CapMetro’s proposed train initially costs more than $100 million of our tax dollars while offering almost no short or long-term benefit to the community. The one-quarter penny of our sales tax that CapMetro has allocated to this and future rail systems will total more than $700 million through 2020, which is more than the estimated total net revenue from all recently proposed toll roads.
Dependence on toll roads can be reduced by allocating these funds to complete our basic road system. This is wiser use of taxpayer monies. Mobility would be dramatically improved for all citizens by reducing major deficiencies in roads and providing improved carpooling and public transit using special highway HOV and HOT lanes. This is a more cost-effective approach because of its flexibility, cost and speed. Most U.S. and all other major Texas cities have taken this key step first in meeting their mobility needs. Austin has treated its basic road system as unimportant for a long time and has become the Nation’s most congested city of its size.
CapMetro should operate a superb bus system on three-quarters of a penny sales tax, as many cities do. This three-quarters penny will total more than $2.1 billion over the next 16 years-or approximately the cost of all recently proposed toll roads. Public transit will serve a tiny fraction of travelers and commerce served by road upgrades. Considering the $1.3 billion in local taxes CapMetro has collected the past 16 years, can we honestly say we’ve received good value for this huge tax expenditure? CapMetro has not and cannot reduce congestion as implied and many hoped. CapMetro is once again asking for a “blank check” to spend tax dollars on a superficial plan that is flawed, incomplete and misleading. Even CapMetro’s figures indicate their train will not relieve roadway congestion, improve pollution or reduce travel times. Over ten years, CapMetro spent more than ten million of our tax dollars studying and promoting light rail. In 1999, based on consultants’ advice and extensive analysis, CapMetro rejected this proposed commuter train, selecting light rail. Now, CapMetro admits light rail was wrong; they stopped studying it late 2003 and, within a few months, resurrected the train line previously rejected. It is evident CapMetro doesn’t have a clear view of our public transit needs and should not proceed until they do. They view this proposal as insignificant to attract major opposition and a way to pass a ‘small’ start so they can continue with more expansive rail plans, which they are already talking about.
There are no cities similar to Austin today, or the Austin projected fifty years from now, that have successful commuter rail. CapMetro has offered no model cities or comparisons. The percentage use of public transit for US work commuting declined in every census since data was first reported in 1960. Based on experiences of similar cities, this train will have low ridership of a few hundred people and will not measurably impact congestion or pollution. In fact, the proposed train will cross 53 public streets and 20 driveways 225,000 times per year, increasing congestion and creating safety hazards for citizens. The train’s high emissions, low ridership and supporting bus circulators will result in more pollution than automobiles per passenger mile.
Light rail and commuter rail are two of the least cost-beneficial transit systems. Other cities’ experiences indicate a strong likelihood it will cost our taxpayers as much as $10,000 or more per year to subsidize each train rider. Most train riders will come from corridor buses which are cancelled when the train starts. Five train stations within 2.5 miles of downtown Austin can be better served by more frequent buses than by the infrequent train that will not even run all day. Public transit is important and must be provided cost effectively. For several years, CapMetro’s operating costs have increased much faster than wages, inflation and riders. They spent millions promoting this train. This trend is not sustainable and high-cost trains will make it worse. Fixed rail systems have become detrimental to many bus transit riders. Transit funds are shifted from buses servicing transit-dependent citizens to high-cost rail systems resulting in fare increases and reduced service for bus riders which remain the overwhelming majority of public transit riders. CapMetro refuses to accept accountability for the train’s performance. They haven’t developed performance criteria nor committed to measure performance assuring the train’s cost effectiveness compared to alternatives. They refuse to refrain from expanding or developing other rail lines until acceptable performance is proven. Other experiences indicate a high probability their train will fail to achieve acceptable performance because ridership estimates are much too high and costs estimates are much too low. Example: The Seattle area has more congestion, more than double Austin’s population and density and seven times the downtown residents but has only 1,550 daily riders on its 4 year old train from Tacoma, with 300,000 people. It stops in five cities with combined populations of 240,000 along its 35 miles while Leander (8,000 people) is the only other city on CapMetro’s 32 mile line. With three morning and evening trains, Seattle’s taxpayers subsidize each rider approximately $20,000 per year.
CapMetro should not be a speculative land developer, subsidizing developers with tax dollars. CapMetro consultants say this train is not about transportation but is a development catalyst. Selection for Federal funding requires trains to “attract and move more riders, at lower cost, than other transportation alternatives.” CapMetro’s train doesn’t qualify. There’s little evidence trains are key to development success, but roads are mandatory. Spending proposed by CapMetro shortchanges low income citizens and subsidizes developmental sprawl.
We have seen the future of rail. Having worked in high-technology, including the manned lunar landing program, for most of my career, it is impossible to envision trains as advanced technology to serve our grandchildren. They would be puzzled and saddened by train systems which mortgage their future and limit their opportunities. In most cities like Austin, trains and trolleys were removed in the early to mid 1900s because they were not competitive with cars. They still are not.
We must say “NO” to this train and force Capital Metro to constructively participate in solving Austin’s mobility crises. Rail will serve less than one-half of one percent of the area’s commuters with no positive impact on road congestion, pollution or travel time. Yet it will cost taxpayers very expensive subsidies for each rider and offer no benefit for 99.7 percent of the travelers. CapMetro can improve public transit and everyone’s mobility by eliminating this train and allocating one-quarter penny of their sales tax to complete the planned road system and reduce the need for toll roads.
James Skaggs is chairman of Reclaim Our Allocated Dollars, which focuses on trransportation issues. He is a retired Austin-area businessman, having served as CEO of Tracor, Inc. This article was orignally printed in the Austin American-Statesman.