October 13, 2004
Record rail ridership and the Westpark Tollway
Light rail ridership continues to increase.
Average weekday boardings on the Main Street line, which opened Jan. 1, were 32,292 last month, according to Metropolitan Transit Authority data. That's the first time the average count has topped 30,000. Daily ridership has steadily climbed since the 12,102 recorded in January, thanks mostly to changes made to connect bus routes with the trains.
Total ridership for September was 817,020, also a record high, Metro reported.
The light rail carried its second-highest passenger load Sept. 2, when the Houston Texans played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a preseason game at Reliant Stadium.
That day's count of 42,488 boardings was excluded from the average daily tabulations because the special event could skew the numbers, according to Metro.
That's good, and I hope they keep it up. The next lines are going to start getting built soon, and the more people are using rail now, the faster those lines will see ridership increase.
While we're on the subject of new transportation options, I wondered how ridership on the rail line compares to that of the new Westpark toll road. Turns out that information is hard to find. I posted a question asking what the ridership numbers were and how they compared to projections on the Katy Corridor Coalition Yahoo group, and got this response from Polly Ledvina:
HCTRA is really difficult to pry information from. I made a phone call to their general information number (832-601-7800) and asked about the ridership on Westpark. I was transferred to "Public Information" where I was told that there have been 641,307 "transactions" for the period of Sep 18 - Oct 3rd (this apparently covers the period since it was extended to highway 6). I asked how this number of transactions compares to projected numbers. The HCTRA representative did not know the answer to that question or where I could find out. I was also told that there are no sites on the internet that you can link to for ridership information.
Which leads to a question: Why is it that Metro makes its rail numbers public, but the Harris County Toll Road Authority doesn't? Aren't they both public entities? The Westpark toll road uses EZTags exclusively, so we should have an exact count available to us. Why isn't it public knowledge?
Breaking that transactions number down, I'm told (having never driven on this road) that it's common to have multiple transactions per trip. So 640,000 transactions over 16 days is 40,000 per day, which may represent 20,000 or 30,000 actual cars per day. That number should of course also be readily available to us, since each EZTag is uniquely identifiable, but it's not.
There's still the question of how the road is doing versus how people thought it would do. This Houston Press article from 1998 sheds a little bit of light.
By now, if businessman Jim Murphy's dream had come true, more than 81,000 cars a day would be using a toll road stretching nearly 13 miles from Shepherd and U.S. 59 out to the Sam Houston Tollway. Those 81,000 cars would be bypassing the clogged surface roads on a high-tech tollway where no one would have to stop to hand money over to a booth attendant and where the prices charged would vary according to the number of riders per car and the time of day.
[Metro board chairman Robert] Miller isn't sure the proposed toll road will work. Much of the $350 million or so needed for construction would come from revenue bonds; the number of bonds that could be sold depends on traffic projections done by an independent financial firm.
That study is not yet complete. "I haven't seen it," Miller says, "but my understanding is that it does not show a high degree of ridership."
It's not an official figure, but 81,000 is still a lot more than 40,000, and that's the high end of actual use. Was Miller right to be a skeptic? Note also that while the road doesn't extend inside the Loop, it does go all the way out to Highway 6. So was this irrational exuberance or not? I just want to see some data. What do you say, HCTRA?
Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 13, 2004 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Tim and I have taken the Westpark a few times now and it's a nice enough road. There's rarely much traffic, though I should add that it's not like we take it during commute hours. From Gessner to 59, I think there's two tolls. The merge onto 59 is quite a pain, though, especially since it's just before an off-ramp.
I've heard that the condition for building the toll road was that once the road was paid for, the toll would be lifted and turned over as a free access road but I've never been able to determine if that was in fact a provision in the law or not.
It would be interesting to know since the HCTRA raised the toll this year on the Sam Houston toll road because it was getting congested because it was TOO BUSY. Hmmmm, I'm guessing that mofo paid itself off a while back. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
I suppose that once the road widening in some chokepoints has been completed and the congestion is relieved, they'll lower the tolls, right?
I'm frustrated by the fact that I have not been able to more artfully work in the fact that I personally think Judge Robert Eckels is a rat bastard into this post, so I guess this will have to do - You know, Chuck, I think that Robert Eckels is a power hungry rat bastard.
Patrick: The Golden Gate Bridge was supposed to be "free" once it was paid for, too.
We can see how that turned out. It became a cash cow, the government got dependent on it for revenue, and (surprise!) reneged on its promise.
METRO'S numbers are concocted, and remain unchallenged by the media. I have the most recent letter from METRO, under the TXPIA, where they admit that they do not have any daily boarding counts from January 1, 2004 to April 30, 2004. They cite incomplete data and man power shortages prevented them from logging actual daily counts.
METRO paid $750,000.00 for the APC's to be installed in the trams in March, and were "calibrated" in April. This also belies the claims from METRO that no daily hand counts exist.
According to the METRO letter, the boarding data released, from May 1, 2004 to August 31, 2004, was manually adjusted as required! There has been no response seeking the methodology employed to massage the data.
Last month METRO admitted that, subsequent to diverting 1/2 of the bus routes (65) in the service area to dump hapless poor, minirity, elderly and handicapped riders onto the tram platforms, bus boardings dropped 17,500!
Thus, 8,700 former bus riders have found another mode of transit, and as an unintended consequence, INCREASED congestion on our streets and highways.
As far as extensions to be built soon. HOW?
METRO admitted that they are $93 million short for FY2005, and will soon make the second reduction in bus service in five months.
METRO promised voters last November to increase bus service. They are trending in the wrong direction.
Insofar as the Tram collects no revenue, and the MIS states 97% of riders will be bus transfers, where is METRO going to get fare box revenue for bus and tram operations when they continue to slash bus service? The "windfall" sales tax is not enough.
The FTA typically will only allow 50% funding for a "new start" rail, with Atlanta receiving the most, at 80%. The FTA approved too many new starts for the last budget (FY2005), which has not been approved in the current form, and was extended at the prior year funding level until the end of May 2005. It is likely that the next congress will just start working on the FY2006 transportation bill. They will have to reduce allocations to the few systems already approved.
METRO has asked for the FTA to approve the two extensions, and fund them 100%!
I am the first to admit that METRO's request makes it appear that the "FIX IS IN" since Saperstein recently held a fund raiser for DeLay in River Oaks, and Culberson appears to have been "MIA" these last several months. If you recall, last October, Culberson called for the U. S. Attorney to initiate an investigation over the phantom $116 million METRO claimed they had.
Time will tell.
Um, there's already public (at large) buy-in for projects where folks still get to drive their cars, but this whole 'using public transportation' thing still needs good PR. (particularly as idiots keep crashing INTO the trains...)
That said, I like the quicker drive on Westpark tollway. They need to do better signage as to where people can and cannot enter and exit (I keep going PAST the best exit, not realizing that it's a long way to the next) and they REALLY need to get it connected to the Beltway and finish Old Westheimer Road (which gives us a straight shot from our neighborhood.)
Of course, I'm biased because I live out in the 'burbs, where we probably won't see light rail for another decade or two. (Why yes, I could DRIVE 15 miles to get on the train. But this seems to defeat the purpose.)
Oh, how cute! Local anti-METRO crusader Tom Bazan has decided to share his wisdom with the masses:
"METRO'S numbers are concocted, and remain unchallenged by the media. I have the most recent letter from METRO, under the TXPIA, where they admit that they do not have any daily boarding counts from January 1, 2004 to April 30, 2004. They cite incomplete data and man power shortages prevented them from logging actual daily counts."
Um, Tom? It's called statistical sampling. A lot of transit agencies use it to determine their ridership numbers. The mathematics behind it are actually quite standard.
"According to the METRO letter, the boarding data released, from May 1, 2004 to August 31, 2004, was manually adjusted as required! There has been no response seeking the methodology employed to massage the data."
You know, Tom, I'm sure, if you asked nicely, without accusing him of "massaging" the data, Jim Archer in METRO's service evaluation department would be more than happy to explain to you the sampling methodology used to come up with METRO's ridership numbers. I know you don't want to believe this, given your pathological hatred of METRO, but there's really nothing sinister going on here. The ridership numbers are accurate. Sorry.
"Last month METRO admitted that, subsequent to diverting 1/2 of the bus routes (65) in the service area to dump hapless poor, minirity [sic], elderly and handicapped riders onto the tram platforms, bus boardings dropped 17,500!"
Yeah, and rail boardings increased from 14,060 in May to 26,667 in June. Which means that most of those 17,500 riders simply switched from the bus to the train. What's your point?
"As far as extensions to be built soon. HOW?
METRO admitted that they are $93 million short for FY2005, and will soon make the second reduction in bus service in five months."
The October service changes are actually something you METRO haters should be happy about, because METRO is actually trying to INCREASE ITS FAREBOX RECOVERY RATIO by eliminating poorly performing routes that the previous mayor and METRO president were too timid to cut. Did you know that the 70 University only carries 103 passengers per day? That the 84 TC Jester carries even less riders than that? That the 210 West Belt is METRO's worst-performing park and ride and that ridership continues to decrease in spite of community and METRO efforts to market the service? None of this has to do with the train. They're just routes that have outlived their usefulness and need to be cut. By cutting these poorly-performing routes, operating costs are reduced. It's really very simple.
"METRO promised voters last November to increase bus service. They are trending in the wrong direction."
Um, Tom? You do remember that METRO Solutions was a 20 YEAR PLAN, right? You're making conclusions based on a single year of service changes. Come back in 2025 and tell me if bus service has increased.
"METRO has asked for the FTA to approve the two extensions, and fund them 100%!"
You're omitting a key detail, Tom: the plan that METRO CEO Frank Wilson presented to FTA administrator Jenna Dorn is for the Feds to fully fund the North and Southeast extensions IF METRO fully funds the Harrisburg and Westpark extensions. When the four near-term extensions are considered as a whole, the Feds would actually fund LESS than 50% of the construction. Details, details...
Anyway, Tom, I truly hope that you manage to capture more than 3% of the vote in your quest to unseat Sheila Jackson-Lee. But here's some advice: you (and the rest of your KSEV-listening ilk) really need to get over your neurotic hatred of METRO. The aggency makes mistakes from time to time, yes, but they're really not as evil as people like you or Kevin Whited or Rob Booth or those screamers on 700 AM would like to believe.
Also, the light rail is built, it is operational, and it is here to stay. Get over it.
I am forced to get any, and all METRO information through Paula J. Alexander's office.
According to METRO, it does not admit to having the daily hand counts where they could apply statistical sampling factors!
Houston City fathers tore up the tram tracks once before, and it is not a question of that happening again, it is merely WHEN.
There will come a point when the bureaucrats can no longer feed that wasteful fixed-guideway "alligator."
It is a deeply moving feeling to know that you wish me well.
I was called by the Houston Business Connections magazine two weeks ago. They wanted to know who I was, as 37% of their subscribers were voting for me instead of the ten-year incumbent.
After they called SJL's office in Washington, that percentage dropped 5 points in five hours. Regardless, the percentage has then ranged from 31-33%. It is not a scientific poll.
If 1/3 of a predominately black, educated subsriber base has abandoned the incumbent, and, the demographic ratios for the new 18th changed, it would explain why SJL has had to aggressively campaign this cycle.
Please mark your calendar and be shure to vote November 3rd.
Well, Tom, I can guarantee you that I'll be "shure" to vote on November 3rd. I don't think I'll be able to vote for you (I live in John CulberScum's district now), but anybody willing to run against Queen Sheila at least gets a tip of the hat from me.
Anyway, you are correct in that all public records requests have to go through Paula Alexander and METRO's legal department. There are ways around the public records route, however. Have you ever tried calling METRO's main switchboard?
"Houston City fathers tore up the tram tracks once before, and it is not a question of that happening again, it is merely WHEN."
I'm sure you've read Steven Baron's excellent book, "Houston Electric." He details the reasons why Houston Electric Company's trolley lines were gradually phased out. But now, 60 years later, everything old is new again, and the streetcars are back! Not just in Houston, but Tampa, New Orleans (the new Canal Streetcar is *nice!* Check it out for yourself sometime!), Memphis, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, etc. People are beginning to realize that maybe there is something worthwhile to urban rail transit.
I've never heard of Houston Business Connections magazine, but I'll keep an eye out for them. Good luck you you in the upcoming weeks.