Is Urban Rail an Affordable and Effective Solution for Austin?

September 9, 2013

For the last couple of years, Austin City leaders have been talking up the prospect of an urban rail project.  We have been told that the City can expect billions in benefits from the economic impact.  And of course it will relieve the terrible traffic congestion that Austinites have grown to hate.  The $550 million first phase of the project will carry a local cost of $275 million, most likely from a bond election to be held in November of next year.

Rather than use this space to try to explain the urban rail project, or to take sides for or against it, I prefer to just present some information for everyone to consider.  The debate just got a whole lot more interesting, thanks to a provocative new article in the Austin Business Journal. by guest contributor, Jim Skaggs.  A subscription is required to read the whole story, but the title and the opening lines reveal the tone.

Sep 6, 2013, 5:00am CDT

Urban rail failed in Portland and Austin faces same fate

Jim Skaggs, Guest Contributer

The recently reported Austin study indicating huge tax revenue increases due to the economic impact of rail transit is a total fabrication without foundation.

Portland was an early implementer of modern urban rail in the l980s. Leaders there promoted and projected major tax revenue benefits from economic development near train stations. This did not happen.

For many years in many cities urban rail’s failure to improve congestion and air quality have been generally accepted, and many supporters have again turned to the more subjective economic development carrot to lead rail promotion.

The website reveals some of the reality regarding …(End)

Here is an excerpt from a different ABJ article, published just a week earlier.

Aug 30, 2013, 12:38pm CDT

Urban rail’s economic impact potential: $31 billion

Robert Grattan, Staff Writer

Austin Business Journal

A fully built urban rail system running through Austin could bring as much as $31 billion in economic impact to the city by 2030, according to a new economic analysis.

The study is one of the first steps toward understanding the full impact that the $1.3 billion mass-transit system would have on the city. Until now, much of the conversation has focused on cost estimates and the size of the financial undertaking, but there hasn’t been much discussion about the return on investment.

The findings are also the first step toward identifying revenue the project could generate, which could be used to leverage private investors to help with urban rail.

Estimates put the amount of increased tax revenue at around $109 million per year, once the whole urban rail system has been built in 2030. By 2020, the city would see around $54 million per year. Most of that revenue would come from the increased value of nearby property, which would be enhanced by additional transportation options.

Those figures are predicted to mesh with and add to the Imagine Austin plans for increased density and the additional 45,000 people and 58,000 new jobs that are expected to be created by 2030.

In addition, an urban rail system – functioning as a segment of a larger mass transit system – is projected to save 25,000 daily trips from 12,500 commuters. Combined with city-wide bike infrastructure, the study projects that Austinites could save $296 million in commuting costs. That money is expected to be invested in the local economy and to create 2,300 new jobs.

The study was done through partnership with a number of transit agencies, including the city of Austin and research partner the University of Texas at Austin – which provided a supercomputer to crunch numbers.  (End of excerpt).

My Comments

There seems little doubt as to which of these assessments is correct.  After all, the City’s partner in this study, the University of Texas, “provided a supercomputer” to crunch the numbers! But since I promised an objective treatment, let’s ignore that. I will certainly buy the notion that property values along the rail route will increase significantly.  So, will your property taxes if you live near the rail footprint.

Perhaps even that remains an assumption at this point.  For the moment I am intrigued by Portland’s urban rail experience.  For them, urban rail is no longer a visionary concept.  It got built.  There is plenty of Portland potpourri to satisfy anyone’s curiosity.

But first, out of fairness, here’s a link to the official “Austin Urban Rail” website, followed by a snippet from the site:

From “Austin Urban Rail” Website

“Because our population continues to grow at a rapid pace and the transportation network serving our business and cultural core cannot meet existing demand or future growth. Transportation impacts everyone, and if people can’t move around our city, we all stand to lose what makes it great. In the same space as six Jeeps, an urban railcar would hold up to 165 people.” (End of snippet)

Here are two links that came up when I did a Google search for “Urban Rail Failed in Portland,” taken directly from the title of the recent news article:

From the Cato Institute, “Debunking Portland: The City That Doesn’t Work”

From Oregon Live, Powered by the Oregonian, “The Lost Vision for East Portland’s Gateway” 


1 thought on “Is Urban Rail an Affordable and Effective Solution for Austin?

  1. Paul Mullen

    I was trained as a Transportation Planner, worked for Sir Colin Buchanan, Britain’s leading planning consultant, and subsequently appointed Economic Advisor to Britain’s Secretary for Transport. Subsequently I have been a consultant to several leading international firms of transportation consultants. So I do have a lot of experience in these matters, Austin’s urban rail plans are muddled, far too expensive, and yet do little to change Austin from a car oriented City to a public transit oriented city. So why spend this much money?

    Yes, a good public transport service could reduce congestion, save millions in road construction, and lead to a more compact and liveable City. However these proposals won’t do that – travel patterns in Austin are too disperse and not likely to change sufficiently to achieve the aims of a transit oriented society.

    Public transport suffers from big handicaps that make it unattractive to the car owner. Even if it can offer faster travel time than road, this has to outweigh the other time delays inherent in public transport, such as the walk or travel by car to station, the wait for a train that may be running late, frequent stops to serve other passengers, and perhaps the inconvenience of changing trains if routes don’t go exactly where you want to go, and then the need to walk or take a bus from destination station to your destination.

    Since time spent sitting in your own car, listening to stereo or satellite radio, is usually more pleasant than time spent waiting for a train to arrive, the overall rail travel time has to be much shorter than road travel time if it is to be equally attractive. In other words the door to door convenience of private car far outweighs a little extra time stuck in traffic.

    Of course for some not having to drive is a big advantage. I much rather prefer sitting in a train working on my laptop to driving. But studies show that I am in a minority – motorists like to drive as it places them (somewhat) in control of the situation rather than be subject to factors they cannot control such as late running trains. They also prefer the privacy of their car to a crowded commuter train. So why would they take the train?

    Ultimately though, the only way you will drag significant numbers of motorists away from their cars is if employers stop offering free or highly subsidized downtown parking. If workers had to pay $20/day to park near their work, they will be demanding rail services (or else looking for another job). Sadly while the resource cost of downtown parking probably is something like $20/day, downtown developments have been forced by City code to construct parking. Once those buildings have been built,tenants feel they should give staff free parking.

    London, Paris and other big Cities realized this and changed their zoning codes to require no minimum onsite parking – it was left to developers to build just the parking the market demanded. More importantly they were free to convert existing parking garages to additional storage or office space. This resulted in a significant drop in road congestion.

    In smaller Cities, where suburban offices all have free parking, downtown employers may have to give free parking to compete for staff. This results in an economic distortion – car commuters are not paying the full cost of travelling by car. It would make economic sense if downtown employees were given a travel allowance, that they could either spend on parking or else travel by bus or train and pocket the savings. You can see this free market approach work in New York City where few people would want to drive to work simply because parking is so expensive.

    So back to Austin, how are they going to get the ridership they want? Yes, bus riders will switch to rail and likely will make more trips. Some have chosen to move to cheaper housing in Leander so they can commute by rail to a job downtown. But how many have switched from car to rail? Very few, as travel times are still not competitive, and even a greatly enhanced rail system will only take a very small percentage of travellers from their origin to their desired destination.

    The result is high cost service with very little return. Sorry Austin Planners but you are trying to do the impossible – Jim Skaggs is largely right.


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