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Why Rail?

The city is pushing for a 2012 vote to build urban rail. The critics are asking, 'Who needs it?'

By Lee Nichols, Fri., April 8, 2011

Why Rail?

Randal O'Toole is a very convincing fellow. Spend about half an hour listening to him – as a packed dining room of Austin's movers and shakers did last year at the Headliners Club – and you may come away convinced that rail-based mass transit is about as desirable for a city as an earthquake, and possibly more expensive. According to O'Toole, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute, almost all rail projects are boondoggles or boondoggles-to-be. They cost too much money and deliver too few positive results, he says. He doesn't necessarily argue against mass transit – indeed, he recognizes its necessity in providing transportation options for those who, for whatever reason, cannot drive themselves. In fact, the Oregon resident says he uses mass transit, and is a big fan of trains as long as they aren't subsidized by taxes.

But ultimately, he believes most people don't want to and won't use mass transit – and given the high cost of building a rail line, he says it makes more sense to improve bus service for those who need it and to send limited transportation dollars toward the highways used by the majority. He presents a raft of data and anecdotes that, with no one else at the podium to challenge him, makes an apparently devastating case. O'Toole paints transit-oriented development as a sham, rail as a transit-agency budget-buster, and automobile usage as a means to freedom and a sign of prosperity. Most importantly: He claims that sprucing up bus service can actually accomplish the same goals as rail for much less money.

I mostly disagree with O'Toole. I heard his presentation; I've read one of his major policy papers; I've conversed with him on the phone. Much of his argument I found to be libertarian, anti-government claptrap. But one of his core premises resonated with me: If there is a way to accomplish the same results that rail transit supposedly can deliver but for much less money, then why wouldn't we?

That question also resonated with many of the powerful and monied that day at Headliners – people with the ability to sway elections and influence City Hall. And as officials with the city of Austin, including Mayor Lee Leffingwell, push to put a new "urban rail" line – a hybrid of streetcars and light rail – before the voters next year, it's a contention worth examining.

Those voters likely will be hit with numbers portraying rail in a bad light, and after the poor early showing for Capital Metro's Red Line commuter rail, which launched a little more than a year ago, they'll have to seriously ask: Do we really want more rail?

Dollars Per Mile = X

O'Toole's answer is simple: No.

He's not familiar with Austin's current rail proposal, but he knows about the Red Line. "I'm actually surprised, considering how badly the last [rail project] turned out, that people will seriously stand up and say, 'We need more,'" he tells the Chronicle.

Leffingwell is willing to say it. "I know there are skeptics, and I won't suggest ... that urban rail will solve all of our traffic problems," he said in his annual State of the City address in February. "But ... I believe strongly that it must be part of the solution. Because if we fail to deliver easy alternatives to single-occupant car trips, Austin will never be the kind of livable, sustainable city that we aspire to be."

It's important to note that this new project differs from the Red Line in several key respects. We've outlined the details in previous reports, but here's a primer: For starters, it's a city of Austin project, not Cap Metro's; Leffingwell says that for political as well as managerial reasons, Cap Metro might not be involved at all. ("I have confidence in Capital Metro going forward," he says of the transit agency – which has a new CEO and board of directors – but he knows those changes have not have yet moved public opinion.) Also, the new system is intended to move people within the densely populated (and likely to become more so) central city rather than serving as a suburbanite's alternative to the highway.

Most important of all are its anticipated destinations. If it gets fully built, it will connect the still-growing Mueller neighborhood, Hancock Center, and the redeveloping Riverside area with the major employment centers of the University of Texas and the Capitol complex, something the Red Line – which terminates at the southeast corner of Downtown, well away from those destinations – fails to do. It will also run to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

To O'Toole, "Rail is just an obsolete form of travel. We've got streets that go everywhere. Why not use those streets? We have to spend a huge amount of money building a rail line, and generally rail lines cost far more than building highways and carry far fewer people."

But new highways aren't really an option for the corridors under discussion here. In fact, the city-commissioned Central Austin Transit Study that outlines the need for this project states, "A Ring of Constraint, defined by severe congestion points surrounding Central Austin, restricts access to the core of the region. Yet, there's no room to expand roads, let alone construct new ones."

Still doesn't matter, O'Toole says. "Building a new road isn't the only alternative to a rail line," he says. "The real problem with rail lines is they're expensive and inflexible. There are so many alternatives.

"Number one: traffic signal coordination. Three out of four traffic signals in America are poorly coordinated. And if you coordinate traffic signals, you'll save people enormous amounts of time and energy. Number two: buses. There's nothing that rails can do that buses can't do better except one thing, and that's spend money. Buses can move more people per hour in a bus lane than any light rail or commuter rail line in the country. The only thing that can move more than a bus is a subway line. So if you're talking about moving a lot of people, you want buses, not trains. The only reason you build the train is to spend a lot of money, and to make happy the people who profit from spending that money."

Randal O'Toole
Randal O'Toole
Photo by Lee Nichols

A September 2001 study by the United States General Accounting Office lends some support to O'Toole's argument. The report "Mass Transit: Bus Rapid Transit Shows Promise" looked at the concept of "bus rapid transit" – a loosely defined term that usually means high-quality buses running on busy corridors at greater frequencies and with fewer stops. Beyond that, however, BRT systems vary widely in quality, ranging from buses that simply have traffic signal-changing technology (currently being considered by Cap Metro) to buses running in high-occupancy-vehicle lanes or even on exclusive bus highways, with fancy stops resembling rail stations.

According to the report, the BRT systems "generally had lower capital costs per mile than the Light Rail systems in the cities we reviewed, although neither system had a clear advantage in operating costs." Studying 20 BRT systems and 18 light rail systems, the GAO found BRT's capital costs per mile ranging from as low as $200,000 (with BRT running on arterial streets) to as much as $55 million (a system with dedicated "busways"), and light rail ranging from $12 million to $119 million (calculated in 2000 dollars). The average cost per mile of the BRT systems studied was $680,000 (arterial streets), $9 million (HOV lanes), and $13.5 million (busways), while light rail averaged $34.8 million.

The Central Austin Tran­sit Study, prepared by the Aus­tin-based URS Corpor­a­tion, didn't look at full-fledged BRT, but posited something called "better bus" as a possible alternative for the Muel­ler-UT-Downtown-Airport corridor. (URS said full-fledged BRT didn't score as well as better bus, "based on knowledge of the corridors and input from the public.") Better bus is apparently similar to the BRT system Cap Metro is exploring, with higher-quality buses featuring light-changing technology and "other priority measures to minimize travel delay." While the study predicted rail to have lower operational and maintenance costs than better bus (about $25 million a year vs. $32 million), the capital (construction) costs for rail would be substantially higher: in 2010 dollars, $955 million for rail compared with $132 million for better bus. (In "year of expenditure" dollars, the rail cost would be an estimated $1.3 billion.)

Robert Spillar, director of the city's Transportation Department, thinks BRT should be part of a city's transportation mix, but for this particular corridor he insists rail is the better option. "We have to look at ways to truly expand the capacity of those roadways," he says. "We can do that with urban rail much better than we can with buses. ... The buses tend to get caught in traffic. ... If we can find a new way through with dramatic new capacity – remember, rail vehicles typically hold two [or] three times what a bus can – we believe we can get the next 30,000 to 40,000-plus riders in there for employees and students and people into the central part of Austin."

"I would argue that in the long run, it's cheaper to do rail," says Leffingwell. He says the inflexibility O'Toole decries is a positive, not a negative. "Rail, being a permanent route, not easily altered, actually serves as a development incentive. When development occurs around rail stations and rail lines, it increases property values. So in the aggregate, the city, the county, all the taxing entities make more money. I think it's fairly well established that bus lines do not do that ... not to the extent, certainly, that rail systems do.

"A lot of people think maybe rail could pay for itself, just by tax-increment financing along the route," Leffingwell says. "That's not the way I'm looking right now, although that could be part of it eventually."

O'Toole claims rail doesn't actually spur such development. In the 2010 Cato Institute research paper "Defining Success: The Case Against Rail Transit," he wrote: "To support claims that rail lines spur economic development, rail advocates often cite every new building built anywhere near a rail line, even though most would have been built without the rail line." Tax-increment financing, he says, often ends up being necessary to spur the development itself, rather than being a product of it.

The Critics' Critics

O'Toole and other prominent rail critics, such as Wendell Cox (also affiliated with Cato, as well as conservative think tanks such as the Heartland Institute and the Heritage Foundation), have critics of their own.

"A lot of rail pundits always want to argue [about] the grand scale of roads versus rail, as opposed to looking at the specific corridor," notes Spil­lar. "We have a very unique situation here in Austin. Our central Downtown area, the Cap­itol complex, and UT are ringed by a series of gateway intersections that are fully at capacity. Our ability to widen the roads is minimal."

At least one researcher has taken O'Toole, Cox, and the rest head-on. Todd Litman of British Columbia's Victoria Transport Policy Institute wrote a March 2010 paper rebutting them, titled "Evaluating Rail Transit Criticism," and similarly says rail detractors are looking at the wrong picture.

"Critics of such investments generally assume the primary transit planning goal is cost minimization, resulting in lower quality service that attracts few discretionary travelers and so does little to reduce traffic problems," writes Litman. "Advocates generally assume that the primary planning goal is service quality maximization, and therefore ridership and total benefits, even if this requires higher initial investment and policy changes. Decision-makers must determine whether the additional benefits are worth the additional costs, and whether they can implement the policy changes needed to maximize benefits."

The bus vs. rail argument, Litman says, is a false one. "High quality rail transit is more than just a type of vehicle," he writes; "it is an integrated system that includes relatively fast and frequent transit service on major corridors with comfortable and attractive vehicles and stations, transit-oriented development around station areas with good walking and cycling access, efficient bus feeder service, and various support policies such as integrated fares and efficient parking management. ... Although this is often presented as a debate between rail and bus transit, it really concerns differences between high- and low-quality transit."

In other words – regardless of what system is implemented, if it isn't done right as part of a larger package of policy changes, it will fail. The problem, says Litman, is that O'Toole and his allies tar all rail, good and bad, with the same brush, ignoring or misrepresenting examples where rail has attracted good ridership and development.

Countering the O'Tooles of the world is challenging, he says, "because he's so verbose, he uses sort of a shotgun approach where he throws a bunch of stuff out and hopes it will stick." Importantly, Litman says, "O'Toole, to my knowledge, has never published any of this work in a peer-reviewed journal, and that's an indication that his analysis really can't stand up to scrutiny."

O'Toole dismisses the importance of peer review. "I don't work in that market," he says. "I've done credible work. I've written four books. My analysis of the Forest Service [Reforming the Forest Service, 1988] had a huge influence on that agency. I don't need to have that kind of peer review to show I'm doing good work."

Riding the Bus?

Last November, Austinites got a peek at one of the railcar models being considered for the urban rail proposal.
Last November, Austinites got a peek at one of the railcar models being considered for the urban rail proposal.
Photo by Lee Nichols

One big problem with the bus option: Buses, say many transit mavens, have a bad image. People who won't get on the bus, they say, will opt for nice rail cars. The reasons are multiple. For some, it's classism – buses are seen as a service for poor people. For others, it's mode of travel – the General Accounting Office report said "the public sees rail as faster, quieter, and less polluting than buses, even though Bus Rapid Tran­sit is designed to overcome those problems."

The Central Austin Transit Study projected that better bus would attract only 9,000 boardings per weekday by 2030, compared with 27,600 on urban rail. But maybe "better bus" is the problem – by offering that limited concept, rather than full-fledged BRT, as the only alternative to rail, perhaps URS gave short shrift to the potential of bus. What if Austin created BRT that approached the quality of rail?

"Since [BRT] can easily operate at higher frequencies and with fewer stops," wrote O'Toole in his Cato study, "taxpayers can legitimately question whether rail riders are attracted by the glitzy, expensive trains or simply appreciate the frequencies and speeds that could have been provided by much less expensive buses."

And from the GAO: "While transit officials noted a public bias toward Light Rail, research has found that riders have no preference for rail over bus when service characteristics are equal." (Italics ours.)

What of the opinions of locals who will actually be participating in this decision?

The highest profile Austin-area opponents of rail are undoubtedly former Tracor CEO Jim Skaggs, former Travis County Commissioner Ger­ald Daugherty, and former Texas Monthly Publisher Mike Levy. The three teamed up in 2000 to kill what would have been a comprehensive light rail system covering all of Austin, to be built and run by Cap Metro. With the anti-rail campaign slogan of "Costs Too Much, Does Too Little," they convinced voters to narrowly reject the proposal. (They also had help from former City Council Member Max Nof­ziger, which could be an issue in his new council run against incumbent Randi Shade.)

Levy brought the GAO report to my attention. As for Skaggs and Daugherty, they attack the Central Austin Transit Study, as well as previous, similar studies. Levy says he's never heard of O'Toole, but Skaggs and Daugherty are heavily influenced by his work, as well as that of similar national rail critics such as Cox.

"Fort Worth just went through this consideration in December and decided against rail as being the solution," says Skaggs. "They decided that buses, which they could do for 10 percent of what the rail cost was, were perfectly adequate to do what they wanted to do, and give them more flexibility. They had $25 million in their pocket from the feds already and had to give it back, because they decided that [with the remaining costs], they couldn't justify it." (Actually, the Fort Worth City Council's discussions of a downtown streetcar aren't completely dead and buried, but it did halt a streetcar study in December over cost concerns.) Austin's "alternatives studies from the very beginning have been based on rail," Skaggs says. "[They've asked only] 'What alternative rail are we going to use?' They have really given lip service to alternative studies and haven't really looked at the differences."

Skaggs and Daugherty say a more sensible solution would be to first give BRT a trial to see if enough ridership can be attracted to later justify rail. "The city would have been far, far ahead of the game had they put in bus rapid transit first and then talked about rail," says Skaggs, referring to the 2000 light rail vote.

"Just take Mueller, UT, the [central business district], and yes, use some paint, make a dedicated lane, give the buses light[-changing] capabilities, give them every tool they need – a real bus rapid transit system – and put it in and see if you can attract enough people to use it," Daugherty says. Not that he thinks that would work. "My opinion is, it doesn't make a damn what you do. You could give every street their own bus in this community, and we wouldn't have enough people that would opt to take that and use it as their major mode of transportation. ... But what is wrong with taking a bus rapid transit with just a minuscule amount of money compared to fixed guideway? ... So if you're really trying to build a case that we can get people to leave their cars at home and do this, then give them the opportunity to do that with another system. The 'Dillo never worked, and it was free."

Railing Against Bus

But aren't Skaggs and Daugherty really making the argument for rail? If people really do prefer rail to buses, would they try the buses as a trial or stay away and wait for what they really want? Former city Urban Transportation Commis­sion member Mike Dahmus expresses an opinion that sounds similar to Daugherty's – but in defense of rail. "You will never get there with buses," says Dahmus, author of a transportation blog called (in testimony to its owner's acerbic opinions) M1EK's Bake-Sale of Bile. "You could run the Number 5 [bus] every minute on the minute and not one more person would ride. Because every person that's willing to go slow and ride an uncomfortable vehicle and have a less reliable ride is already riding."

Local rail critics "are reading out of the playbook that's been used all over the country, and Randal O'Toole is one of the guys who wrote it," says Dahmus, who's not shy about tearing into the opposition. (He has called Skaggs a "Neanderthal" – although Skaggs can give as good as he gets, calling Transportation Director Robert Spillar "the most dangerous man in Austin.") Dahmus says that while BRT has been successful in Third World countries, "in the U.S. it ends up being a shell game 100 percent of the time."

Dahmus continues, "That playbook goes like this: 'We'll use some transit agency money to build some HOV lanes, because that will help buses. And at the beginning we'll only let carpools with four people in, maybe. And then, oh, it's not full – I see buses going by, and there's a gap [before] the next bus. We need to let cars in that lane with two people. Oh, we gotta get rid of that lane entirely – not enough cars are using it.'" Even if BRT gets dedicated lanes, Dahmus says, at best it usually only draws 60% of the riders as rail, "because buses are still buses. They're never as comfortable as trains."

Many view buses not as transportation for all but as a social service for the needy. And rail, some say, diverts funds from those who really need it. Variations on this view come from both fiscal conservatives and advocates for the poor, and the Red Line has bolstered their arguments. "The Red Line goes to the northwest where everyone has a car," Skaggs says. Given the line's low ridership numbers – probably around 600 actual daily users at the time of our interview, now up to about 1,000 – "We're subsidizing each one of those riders $30,000-$40,000 a year to ride that train." (Skaggs and O'Toole are at least consistent when talking about "subsidies" – they prefer tolls over road subsidies as well.) Mean­while, he points out, Cap Metro "cut back the bus service needed to serve 40,000 riders a day, most of which don't have an alternative, and increased the [fare] prices three times in two years. We have taken what was providing a definite daily need for a group of people who can't afford and don't have other transportation modes, and we reduced it in order to subsidize these well-paid, medium-income people. And I asked myself, 'What is the societal good that we're trying to achieve here?'"

"I work across the street from Mueller," says D'Ann Johnson of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit serving low-income people. "There's no reason to have that as a transportation hub. We made a promise to some developers, as opposed to what the city actually needs. I'm not an anti-rail person, but this seems like a plan that doesn't work, and it seems like they keep hoping if they build the rail, something will happen. ... It's not working, because the rest of the infrastructure on our bus system is not good. And they designed a program that doesn't deal anything with the poverty community. They're only trying to deal with the choice riders and not with the transit-dependent."

Robert Spillar
Robert Spillar

Leffingwell says concerns like these are why he doesn't want the city to run the rail, hoping instead to create some sort of nonprofit, regional rail agency. "I think there are potential conflicts," Leffingwell says. "When you start fighting for every dollar in the budget, there are going to be competitors. It's my own personal opinion that the transportation part has to be kind of siloed so that it's not in competition for scarce dollars with other worthy and needy causes."

"Urban rail as proposed reaches out into areas of fairly modest means – the Riverside corridor in some cases, as well as to the northeast of Downtown," Spillar says. "So I think the urban rail is uniquely designed to serve both people with choices and without choices and improve their access to that Downtown employment hub."

Good Rail vs. Bad Rail

If, as Litman asserts, it's not about rail vs. bus but, rather, high-quality transit vs. low-quality, then what would good rail look like?

Well, probably not like the Red Line.

Perhaps we're judging the Red Line too early – ridership has jumped in recent weeks with the addition of midday service and a March experiment with weekend and evening runs. And Cap Metro officials insist more will come once the economy rebounds and transit-oriented development takes off, and once other transit options – such as urban rail – connect with it. But there's no getting around the fact that as a stand-alone route, the Red Line does not hit any major employment centers; even its termination point, at the southeast corner of Downtown, is a far cry from the employment engines of UT and the state Capitol complex. "Density is the [factor] people focus on first, but it turns out that destination accessibility – being able to get places [via foot or bike from a rail stop] – is probably more important than pure density," says Armando Car­bonell of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a transit and land-use think tank.

The urban rail proposal seems to take care of this destination problem by running through or near UT and the Capitol, but the exact route is still very much in question. As noted, Johnson questions the Mueller end point. Skaggs doubts the wisdom of both end points, questioning just how many people living in Mueller work Downtown and decrying the cost of running the line all the way to the airport when Cap Metro's Airport Flyer already goes there.

And what about the actual operational design? Spillar cites the problem of buses getting stuck in traffic as an argument in favor of rail, and yet, much of the proposed rail route would share lanes with cars. Big mistake, says Dahmus. Asked if Austin really wants more rail, Dahmus says: "We want more rail if it's any good. The only way the rail is good is if it has its own lane." Otherwise, he says, you have something that's worse than buses – a rail car caught in traffic, without even a bus' ability to change lanes.

Spillar and Leffingwell show little concern over the contradiction and defend the streetcar/light rail mix that is urban rail. "Obviously it's true that if somebody messes up the track, you have to stop until it gets fixed," Leffingwell says. "The question is how often does that happen? You'd have to look around the country and ask cities that have had rail a long time what the incidence of that is, and my guess is that it would be pretty low, to the point of being a nonfactor." Spillar said his department had no stats on that, "but people tend to stay out of the way of rail vehicles." Taking away an entire auto traffic lane for Downtown, he says, is simply not a good option, for the same reason that the Down­town roads can't be expanded – there's no more room.

Failure to provide that lane could turn Dahmus, a rail enthusiast, into a rail opponent. He already did that with the Red Line – while many mass transit advocates got behind Cap Metro for the 2004 election that approved it, Dahmus screamed to anyone who would listen that it was doomed to fail and would hurt future rail efforts. (Skaggs and Daugherty agreed, and it played right into their hands. Since the Red Line – built on already existing rail tracks – cost less than most rail projects, they sat on the sidelines and let it happen. "In our view, it was the cheapest way to show why it wouldn't work," Daugherty says.)

But if the city heads in the wrong direction, it will take more than one angry blogger to stop it. Skaggs and Daugherty are likely to have less influence within Austin proper – it was communities outside Austin in Cap Metro's service area that made the margin of defeat in 2000. Pushing the city in the right direction – whether that's buses, rail, or helicopters – will have to come from a larger body of transit-watchers.

One possibility is the Alliance for Public Transportation. Dahmus has little faith in that group, saying that thus far it has been just a "rubber stamp" for Cap Metro and the city. But APT Chair Celia Israel says that's not true. "We're not cheerleaders for anybody. We're cheerleaders for good transit. We'll call it out when we see bad stuff. We'll be asking challenging questions, because we want the best transit system possible." Asked if she'd be willing to walk away from this project if it isn't up to snuff, she said: "Yes, I am. That may not make certain people within APT happy, but that doesn't mean I want to carry us over the edge to another losing rail campaign."

Let's Play 30 Questions

Challenging questions. Leffingwell has a few of those, too. Thirty, to be exact, according to a list he provided to the Chronicle. (See "Mayor's List: 30 Crucial Questions.") While he really wants this project to happen, he insists he won't move forward until his questions are answered. That was one of Cap Metro's big mistakes, as the agency has admitted – pressing ahead before all the details were worked out.

Among Leffingwell's questions: What will urban rail cost; how do we pay for it; who operates it; how does it cross the river; will it reduce traffic congestion? Failure to answer those questions last year prompted Leffingwell to boot the rail question from the November, 2010 transportation bond ballot. "What we've been saying all along," he told the Chronicle, "is there is no one solution. In the Downtown area the best option seems to be rail transit. Further out, it seems to be roads."

Yes, there are lots of questions. The issues of cost and rail vs. bus are just a couple out of many we could have touched on – several more articles could be written concerning environmental questions, whether highways or rail soak up greater tax subsidies, the hidden costs of highway spending, the health benefits of mass transit, the supposed economic benefits of transit-oriented development. No doubt, over the next year and a half, they will be. Both supporters and opponents agree that rail is far more complicated than building a line and getting people to ride.

"Because it took us many years, and many failures, to screw up our traffic this badly, now it's going to take us many years, and many successes, to finally fix it," Leffingwell said in his State of the City address. But given rail's troubled history here in Austin, he'll need the next step to be one of the successes. The next failure may be the last one rail gets.


The city hosts three open houses this week where you can learn more about the rail effort and share feedback. Thursday, April 7: 11am-2pm, AT&T Conference Center, 1900 University Ave., 404-1900; 5-8pm, Carver Museum, 1165 Angelina, 974-4926. Saturday, April 9: 11am-2pm. Ruiz Branch Library, 1600 Grove Blvd., 974-7500.

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