Despite the success of the Main St. line, I've been concerned for a long time now that the next set of rail lines will essentially bankrupt Metro while providing minimal benefit (except for possibly the Universities line, which has moderate benefits, but may not get built anytime soon because of the money drain of the other lines being built first). Now the Coalition On Sustainable Transportation (COST) has come out with the numbers from other cities (especially Dallas) that don't bode well for Houston at all. Some key excerpts (I know it's a lot, but there are some really good points in here):
For example: Dallas will pay increasing debt service for many years and has 30 plus year bonds and commercial paper for its almost $4 billion of debt. Their debt service is considered annual operating costs in the chart below, because: By the time current bonds are paid, the rail system will be at the end of its service life and will need replacement through the creation of a new round of bonds, continuing this high bond expense for as long as the system operates. While other Texas cities have not yet reached this Dallas level of bond debt and expense, Houston is rapidly moving in the same direction and Austin’s planning is pointing in this direction. Currently Dallas’s debt service is about 3 times Houston’s and almost 40 times Austin’s.
One may look at the data in the table above in many ways, but, none of the conclusions seem to be positive for rail transit. Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin are all among the top 20 fastest growing major cities in the nation. However, the three cities with various levels of rail transit, Dallas, Houston and Austin, all have declining transit ridership trends and have fewer absolute transit riders today than they had a dozen years ago. They have spent billions to implement and promote transit with a heavy focus on rail transit.
These data highlight a number of broader Texas Metro Area negative transit trends:
1. Metro areas with more rail transit have significantly higher costs and higher taxpayer subsidies per ride.
2. Metro areas with more rail transit have fewer total transit boardings per capita.
3. Metro areas with higher densities have fewer transit riders (boardings) per capita.
4. Dallas has the largest population and greatest population density but the least cost effective transit system: Higher cost per ride (boarding) and fewer boardings per capita.
5. Increasing the proportion of a region’s transit funds being spent on rail transit leads to less cost effective overall transit and degraded transit for the majority of transit riders who still ride busses.
Some Major Texas City Metro Areas comparisons/observations regarding transit data:
1. Dallas-Ft. Worth Metro’s population is more than 3 times San Antonio’s and Dallas’ annual transit operating expense is 4.4 times San Antonio’s but Dallas has only 1.6 times the transit ridership of San Antonio.
2. Dallas-Ft. Worth Metro’s population is 3.8 times that of Austin and Dallas’ annual transit operating expense is 3.7 times the transit expense of Austin but Dallas-Ft. Worth has only 1.9 times Austin’s ridership.
3. Dallas has the most invested, more than $4 billion, in light rail and it has the highest cost per transit ride at 2.8 times San Antonio’s costs and almost 2 times Austin’s. Dallas has the least boardings per capita, about one-half of San Antonio and Austin.
4. San Antonio’s bus only transit system has 1.2 times Austin’s ridership but only 82% of Austin’s annual operating expense.
5. San Antonio’s ‘cost per transit rider’ is about one-third of Dallas-Ft. Worth’s and San Antonio has 2 times as many transit riders per capita as Dallas-Ft Worth.
6. Dallas’ 2011 net debt service (principal and interest) budget of $153 million is greater than San Antonio’s total 2011 budgeted operating costs of $141.3 million and almost as much as Austin’s $168.2 million.
It is no surprise that Dallas has hit a transit financial wall causing it to pause and curtail, at least temporarily, further light rail expansion. It seems, the more light rail Dallas implements, the more inefficient and expensive its transit becomes. This is an often occurring trend when regions implement rail transit and is a serious problem trend now developing in Houston and Austin. The result is overall degradation of transit service as exorbitantly expensive rail transit and resulting debt absorb increasingly higher percentages of transit funds. This, in turn, results in increasing transit fares and reductions in bus service which have disproportionately negative quality-of-life impacts on lower income citizens. Almost everyone forgets that the majority of transit riders still ride busses even after such massive investments in rail transit such as in Dallas or in Portland, the Mecca of train transit, where well over one-half of the transit rides are on busses. More importantly, this wasteful spending on ineffective trains ‘bleeds dry’ taxpayer funds which could be used to make positive contributions in serving communities’ many, higher priority needs for all citizens. (like express commuter bus services from all neighborhoods to all job centers, as I've been advocating)
Much experience has shown that once a cycle of high cost rail transit is implemented, the agency becomes heavily burdened with debt for a very long time. It is highly probable that the very high debt service (principle and interest) will become a permanent and major part of the transit agency’s annual operating costs. When one issue of bonds is paid down, it becomes time for another round of debt to replace aging equipment. This, in turn results in very poor cost effectiveness and degradation of the overall transit system as it serves fewer riders at higher costs. This high debt can never be paid-off without major increases in local taxes. Transit agencies cannot responsibly project and achieve enough ridership to make rail transit cost-effective. This has even less credibility in light of the national declining trend in the use of transit and the fact that the use of transit in Texas’ major metro areas has a declining trend over the past dozen years. As Dallas and other major cities have experienced, this results in a spiraling decline in transit performance and effectiveness, degradation of mobility for low income citizens and, often, cutbacks in other higher priority city services. This results in reducing overall quality-of-life.
Is this the future we really want for Houston? Because it's not too late to stop it now, but it will be too late very, very soon, and then we will be stuck with the same harsh reality as Dallas for decades to come...
This post first appeared at Houston Strategies