Metro’s Big Plan Spends Too Much on Light Rail, But Moves in the Right Direction
METRO recently released a draft $7.5 billion 2040 transit plan they’ve labeled “A Plus” (the previous “A” plan plus some additions), but unfortunately it’s more like a B- when it comes to addressing Houston’s real transportation needs over the next two decades.
It has some wonderful, cost-effective local and express bus improvements – including bus-rapid transit (BRT) at less than one-third the cost per mile of light rail – but continues to throw mountains of good money after bad on wasteful new light rail extensions.
The A+ plan proposes to add 20 miles of new light rail for $2.45 billion, or a third of the overall plan cost, to serve only a tiny 18,900 trips per day at a pricey $130,000 per daily rider – about the same as buying each rider a Porsche Cayenne Turbo SUV. The two redundant light rail routes to Hobby airport will serve a trivial 7,200 boardings per day at a projected cost per rider of a quarter-million dollars (like a Ferrari for each rider!), totaling $1.8 billion or around $129 million per mile, which is probably low since the Green and Purple lines cost $154 million per mile when completed in 2015. Why is the ridership estimate so low? It might have something to do with the fact that the 13mph light rail is so slow it will take almost an hour to get from Hobby to Downtown! Why couldn’t that be replaced with far cheaper and faster express lane BRT service like Bush Intercontinental airport is getting?
Unfortunately we’re already all too familiar with low ridership on light rail. The $1.4 billion Green and Purple lines have dismally low patronage, with only 5,077 weekday boardings on the Green Line and 7,416 weekday boardings on the Purple Line. For comparison, the Main St. Red Line has 53,412 weekday boardings, and the Katy Freeway near Beltway 8 served 366,000 vehicles carrying a half-million people per day in 2017.
Beyond the wasteful cost-inefficiency, rail is also at significant risk of technological obsolescence as autonomous vehicles and shared-ride services like Uber, Lyft, and Google’s Waymo continue to evolve. The impact of new technology on public transit is unknown but could be hugely disruptive, potentially substantially reducing demand for traditional public transit. That’s why we need a plan which is adaptable to whatever the future may bring. For future planning purposes and METRONext, it really does not matter if autonomous vehicles become available in 5 years or decades in the future. Anything built in the MetroNext plan can be expected to be in service to the year 2100 and beyond. METRONext needs to be ready for autonomous transit, if and when it comes, but also maximize mobility benefits of transit investments if autonomous transit is slow to develop or has a minimal impact. Practically, that means concrete guideways with rubber-tired vehicles than can evolve as the technology does.
Bus rapid transit guideways substantially reduces the risk of obsolescence, since concrete can accommodate the potential autonomous transit vehicles of the future. But we also need to be cautious with BRT: yes, it is much less expensive than light rail, but $42 million/mile is still not cheap, and it’s no bargain if it causes traffic chaos at intersections. METRO needs to complete the Uptown BRT, optimize it, and study its impact and effectiveness before building more of it, especially the Universities line along Richmond that will cross many congested intersections like Kirby, Shepherd, Montrose, and multiple key thoroughfares in Midtown. In some cases, Signature Bus service may be good enough, less disruptive, and far less expensive. Existing bus service on Gessner receives 6,879 boardings per day, about half of the daily volume on Westheimer (slated for Signature service) and less than the daily volume on Bellaire, Beechnut, and Richmond (all slated for enhanced BOOST service). Why spend $793 million on Gessner BRT when much less expensive Signature Bus or BOOST service is likely to be sufficient?
How should METRO redeploy that $2.45 billion light rail budget instead? They should focus on three priorities:
- Faster commutes: METRONext makes substantial regional express improvements to the HOV lane network, including two-way service and service between job centers, but it is still too downtown-centric and fails to provide regional service from all areas to all major job centers. The Texas Medical Center, Greenway, Uptown, Westchase, and the Energy Corridor all get express service from only limited parts of town, some requiring time-consuming transfers. H-GAC predicts jobs will continue to disperse with less than 17% of the region’s jobs inside the 610 Loop by 2045. METRO, in partnership with TXDoT and HCTRA, needs to serve more of the other 83% with interconnected express lanes stitching together the entire region (including connecting around downtown). We don’t need more high capacity transit, but instead need more routes that can be operated affordably to more destinations with low rider counts at high service levels. The major economic risk is that more employers will give up on being in Houston’s congested core and move to the outer suburbs like Exxon did, draining our tax base and vitality.
- Equity: LINK Houston recently released a report estimating almost a million Houstonians need better basic bus service. The METRONext plan calls for 241 miles of BOOST network bus service with higher frequencies, better reliability, and sheltered stops for the bargain cost of only $53 million ($220k/mile). Why not dramatically expand that to more of the city
- Increased ridership and reduced congestion: To buck the national trend of shrinking transit ridership, METRO needs to go big and eliminate fares entirely. Metro’s revenue is mostly sales tax, with less than 9% coming from the farebox. $1.3 billion of that $2.45 billion saved from light rail could provide free fares for the next 20 years, and it would actually cost less than that because of the internal cost savings from no longer having to collect, process, and enforce fares. That also makes boarding and trips faster. Free fares and faster trips means more riders and less traffic congestion – a win whether you ride transit or not. As a bonus, the boost to Houston’s national reputation would be substantial as well. Additionally, METRO could use the savings to improve the rider experience with more shelters and better sidewalks, making Houston more pedestrian-friendly in the process.
METRO is planning a multi-billion-dollar bond referendum in 2019. If we learned one thing after the 2003 referendum, it’s that METRO will doggedly stick with voter-approved plans even in the light of changing circumstances and shifting cost-benefit ratios. Whatever gets passed in 2019 is likely to shape Houston transportation for better or worse for decades to come amid rapid technological change, with a high risk of obsolescence and white elephants. It’s a plan we really need to get right. I encourage every Houstonian to get involved through the METRONext website and public meetings to help make it a truly A+ plan.
This article first appeared in the Houston Chronicle
Tory Gattis is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and writes the Houston Strategies blog.