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May 20, 2005

The black hole that is Metro

metroraillogo.gifThe economic lunacy of light rail has been an occasional topic on this blog (here, here, here, and here). However, blogHouston.net has a much more impressive archive of insightful posts over the past year on the foibles of the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority, which has completely redesigned Houston's public transit system over the past decade from a flexible one based primarily on bus transit to an inflexible one based primarily on light rail.

Well, as this Anne Linehan post from today points out, that inflexible light rail system is turning out to be a rather expensive one, too. This Chronicle story reports the shocking news:

Metro wants to spend an additional $104 million on its Main Street light rail line to almost double the number of trains and fix costly problems it blames on construction errors.

Metropolitan Transit Authority president and CEO Frank Wilson laid out his wish list to the agency's board Thursday, shortly after releasing statistics that show surging rail ridership but decreased numbers of bus riders and overall customers.

The cost Metro estimates for the improvements would raise the bill for what Metro calls its Red Line ? the 7.5-mile route from downtown to Reliant Park ? by about a third.

At the same time, the agency is seeking federal money to help build four light rail extensions with a combined price tag of $1.7 billion.

The Chronicle goes on to report that, although light rail ridership has increased, the total number of people using Metro mass transit (i.e., light rail and buses) has declined by 3% over the past year.

Not exactly the return on investment that one would wish for after plunking down $325 million to build the 7.5 mile light rail system.

At any rate, Ms. Linehan uses her skill in translating Metro-speak to explain why Metro officials believe that spending another cool $104 mil on the existing light rail line is a good idea:

"We cut corners building the 7.5 miles of downtown light rail; we have dismantled bus and trolley service in order to feed the light rail; we don't have a consistent method for collecting fares so we can't talk about 'paid ridership;' we are bleeding passengers systemwide even though Houston's population has increased; and now we'd like an extra $100 million to help fix our mess."

Thus, the scam of this publicly-financed rail system continues to eat money voraciously with no end in sight. The economic benefit of light rail is actually highly concentrated in only a few interest groups, such as elected officials who enjoy touting their political "accomplishment," environmental groups who seek to gain political influence, construction-related firms who can soak the public till, and real estate developers who enjoy the increase in the value of their property along the rail line. Inasmuch as none of these reasons for mass transit are particularly appealing to the vast majority of the electorate, the interest groups disguise their goals behind disingenuous claims that rail lines will reduce traffic congestion, curb air pollution, or -- the one I like best -- make a city "world class." In reality, rail transit has never been an efficient means to reduce either congestion or air pollution, and a rail line has certainly never made a city "world class."

On the other hand, the costs of such systems are widely dispersed among the local population. Thus, the many who stand to lose will lose only a little while the few who stand to gain will gain a lot. As a result, it is usually not worth the relatively small cost per taxpayer for most citizens to spend any substantial amount of time or money lobbying against even an uneconomic rail system. With political leadership more interested in shiny toys than pro forma operating statements, the publicly-financed rail systems continue to infect metro areas like a bad virus, and the cost of treating this civic virus grows larger each month.

Finally, the foregoing analysis does not even count the cost associated with this carnage.

Where is the Lord of Regulation when you really need him? ;^)

Posted by Tom at May 20, 2005 3:33 PM |

Comments

Tom,

I love the blog. Thanks for your hard work and thorough analysis.

I wholeheartedly endorse a lot of the criticisms of Metro, and I think a lot of people who support the light rail line can't really bear out the cases that they try to make for it. But I don't think its appropriate to hold the project responsible for the faults of some of its supporters. The Brooklyn Bridge may have had had worse problems getting built by Tammany Hall, but it seems like it was a pretty good investment for New York City.

Furthermore, what other infrastructure developments (especially ones that are designed to let people change their behavior over time) are held to the standard of needing to be in the black so early in their existence? I wonder how long it took for the Ship Channel to pay off.

As for the complaint about the rail line killing bus and trolley routes, it was designed to kill bus and trolley routes. Half the benefit comes from boiling down the transit infrastructure from busses that run all over the place to a rail line on one street to leave lane miles for cars.

When people who support things that I support are in the wrong, I try to call them on it. But as far as light rail goes, I think that we are just topping out on our region's capacity to get around on highways. That's why favor adding one other option to our transportation mix that should end up complementing our road infrastructure.

Thanks again,
---Adam

Posted by: Adam Block at May 22, 2005 10:41 AM

Adam, thanks for the kind words about HCT.

I am not theoretically against rail as a mode of mass transit. Indeed, I have experienced fine rail systems in both Chicago and New York. However, my concern is the "one approach fits all" strategy that Metro appears to be taking in regard to its rail line.

Houston is a highly dispersed metro area with low density of population in most areas. New York and Chicago, where rail works, have very high population densities. As a result, my sense is that Houston's mass transit resources should be addressed primarily to attracting and then moving the maximum number of people around that area. Because of its nature, the rail line simply cannot do that.

That does not mean that rail cannot be a viable part of a flexible mass transit system. Houston's rail line, which serves one of its most dense areas of population, could even serve a useful role as a part of such a system. However, Metro has now dedicated such a disproportionate amount of its budget and capital to the rail line that other parts of a well-integrated mass transit system are being ignored.

In sum, the rail line is not necessarily bad. It simply costs too much for what Houston is getting out it. And adding to that system at this point is simply going to exacerbate that problem. It seems more prudent to invest in more cost-effective parts of the transit system for the time being, and then expand the rail system along another dense population corridor (say, Katy Freeway to Post Oak area to downtown) if usage justifies the expense.

For more refined thoughts along those lines, check out Tony Gattis' three part series of posts at http://houstonstrategies.blogspot.com/2005/05/mobility-solution-for-houston-part-3.html

Posted by: Tom K at May 22, 2005 12:43 PM

Useful comments and criticisms. (And I look forward to reading the link that you posted in the last comment.)

I am a very big supporter of the light rail system though. Obviously, getting off the ground is the most difficult step - and the step in which the most challenges will surface again and again. But, long-term, a comprehensive light-rail system will be a tremendous boon to the Houston area - both in terms of economic impact, and quality-of-life improvements.

And I think that you may be on to something that METRO has eliminated too many options prematurely. But again, I think that in the long run, the overwhelming positives will win the day. Does first step have problems - sure. It is expensive - sure. But years from now, if we have a comprehensive rail system reaching through all the heavy traffic areas of Houston and into the 'burbs - reducing traffic on the freeways, increasing investments along the railways, providing a reasonable cost alternative for getting from one side of town to another...I think these benefits will be worth the present inconveniences and investments.

Posted by: Blake at May 23, 2005 10:18 AM

Hello.

Light rail will never shine until it's expanded into a viable system. That's an expensive and time-consuming process. Mistakes are costly and should obviously be kept to a minimum.

The problem with Houston is that it has sprawled uncontrollably. A light rail system that takes people where they want to go will cause the real estate near platforms to redevelop into higher density properties. That's exactly what you want to happen.

Buses are great for poor people, but the middle class will never ride them. If you've ever ridden a city bus from the suburbs to downtown, you know why. Buses still have their place, of course. They do in all cities, even ones with extensive rail networks. You'll find in those cities, wealthier people WILL ride the bus to get to a train station. I did it everyday for years when I was living in DC.

When designing a rail network, you have to keep in mind not only what the city looks like right then, but also what it will look like after light rail. Things will change permanently. Look at the high density developments surrounding Dallas' redline, for example. That was a system that many said would be a resounding failure, but it's thriving! The city naturally adapts to a permanent fixture like rail.

Posted by: Dustin at December 9, 2005 7:08 PM

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