April 11, 2008
Metro costs revisited

So last week, the Chron's Rad Sallee wrote about a jump in cost projections for Metro and the Southeast and Harrisburg light rail lines, which were reverted back to LRT from BRT late last year. That column got some people up in arms, as one might expect, and now Sallee is back with a conversation with Metro CEO Frank Wilson, who tries to assuage us that it's not as bad as it looks.

Wilson said Friday that the apparent increases are misleading for several reasons. First, the mode was upgraded from Bus Rapid Transit to light rail, and since Metro had intended to put rail in the ground anyhow, the initial estimates (which did not include that) were too low.

Second, he said, the higher figures include purchases of trains, which now cost $3.5 million each, through year 2030.

And finally, Wilson said, inflation in the coming years has been factored into the stated costs. A Federal Transit Administration report said Metro's assumed inflation rate of 3.5 percent was "optimistic" and probably should be higher.

The new projections show the two lines increasing from $434 million to $1.34 billion, with Metro's share being $684 million. Wilson said Friday he expects the actual cost to be substantially less after a new contract is negotiated with Washington Group Transit Management Co., but he would not state a figure because the talks are ongoing.

Let's assume that the FTA will agree to pay half the cost of all five lines being planned. (That's not exactly what Metro proposes, but it works out to the same thing.)

Let's also be optimistic and assume that costs will rise only half as much as the new numbers from FTA and Metro indicate.

If earlier projections for the University, Uptown and East End lines rose by the same multiple, the total would be about $3.3 billion for all five lines, with a Metro share of $1.7 billion.

Wilson was emphatic Friday that the five lines together will cost less than $3 billion, but he wouldn't say how much less.

Obviously, it would be better if the costs were less. I don't know what Wilson has up his sleeve to make this happen, but let's give him a chance to make good on his word. What I want to do here is talk about why we're spending this money, and why I think we need to spend this money, whether the final cost winds up above or below the $3 billion mark.

I've harped on this before, but I feel like this discussion and the comparisons of Metro's costs to those of TxDOT's freeway widenings is missing a crucial point. We spend money on freeway widening, and minus the usual carping for cost overruns we generally agree that we should spend money on freeway widenings, because we can and because we have to. We have to because our population growth and the expansion of the Houston metropolitan area outward means we have rapid increases in the amount of vehicular traffic, and the alternative is endless, wasteful gridlock. We can because there's room to add extra lanes and HOV capacity; though some property gets condemned, a lot of the needed right-of-way already existed before the expansion in question got started.

And that's the key. We can add lanes of traffic, whether free or toll, to our highways, at least in most places. But we can't do that for the surface roads, because the right of way doesn't exist, unless you want to condemn every property that currently stands alongside that road. You can't add extra lanes to Kirby, or Richmond, or Montrose, or Westheimer, or any other thoroughfare like them that thousands of people a day depend on to get them from the highways (or wherever) to their destinations. It's simply not an option.

But these roads are getting increasingly crowded, and there's no sign that trend will slow down, much less reverse itself. Kirby, for example, has two high-rises being built at Westheimer, one of which will feature a ton of ground-floor retail; there's also the Sonoma project on Bolsover, and a new high-end apartment complex on Richmond next to Pappadeaux's. How much impact do you think that will have on Kirby's traffic? Especially at Westheimer? And Montrose/Studemont is getting busier, too. As we know, there's a ton of dense development going on Montrose/Studemont between Gray and Washington; already, this is going to mean the installation of another traffic light to handle all the entrances and exits at Memorial Heights. The stretch between Allen Parkway and Center Street already suffers nasty backups at times due to flaky timing on the lights; adding another to the mix isn't going to make that any better.

The point I'm trying to make here is simple: Traffic in Houston on the non-freeway roads is bad, it's getting worse, it has the same negative effects has gridlock on the freeways (pollution, lost productivity, etc), and it cannot be mitigated by adding capacity. The only possible solution is getting some of those cars off the road, and that means transit.

So if we accept that we have a problem - and if you don't, please make your case in the comments, because I'd like to hear it - and that we can't solve it by the same means with which we're tackling the freeway congestion problem, then the question becomes what kind of transit should we have? What can we do to actually get people out of their cars and deal with the short-term and long-term effects of denser development in Houston's core?

Well, there's always buses. They're relatively cheap, and they don't require any construction. They're also slow, unpredictable, not particularly comfortable, and they themselves contribute to congestion because they use the same road lanes as everyone else. I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time on this because I just can't see how any investment in more buses is going to get enough people to stop driving to make the increase in bus traffic a net win. Again, if you think I'm wrong about this, please say so. Note that I'm not talking about commuter bus service here, which is a fairly popular but highly cost-inefficient (*) solution for getting people off the freeways; I'm interested in reducing the number of drivers on the streets, not just on the highways. From where I sit, we already have buses, and very few people who have a choice in the matter choose to take them.

Then there's bus rapid transit (BRT), now also known as guided rapid transit (GRT), which is a big improvement over ordinary buses in that it has its own right of way and has multiple points of ingress/egress, which speeds up the getting on and off process; this also allows for direct boarding by people in wheelchairs and with bikes or strollers. It's more expensive than buses because you have to build that right of way, but less expensive than light rail because you don't have to build the tracks. In many ways, it's a fine system.

It's also not what the people want. This comment on Tory's blog sums it up very well.

When Metro decided to go with BRT the first time, who liked that idea? Well, a bunch of people on this website, for starters (no surprise there). Who didn't like it? I'd estimate a couple hundred thousand (million?) disappointed Houstonians -- in particular, those along the lines who would be most directly affected by this grand investment. And I'm guessing those same large swaths of population would become agitated yet again if we switched modes on them another time. I'd be willing to bet more so, this time.

And you know what the kicker is? This is THEIR taxpayer money. A little bit yours, a little bit mine, sure -- but mostly that of everyone else out there. Some posters here like to point out that "oh, back in academia I had a shrewd professor who taught the difference between revealed preference and stated preference, etc, etc, etc (for about 10 or more paragraphs)".

You know what? It doesn't matter. We "elites" don't have the ability to tell others what they should spend their money on just because we "know" that they don't actually want to spend it on this or that. I "know" that BRT is great, but if Houstonians want light rail and want to spend their hard-earned money on it, then that is their prerogative. We're still at least pretending this country is a Democracy, right?

Remember the outcry when Metro first announced it was scaling back its 2012 plan to build BRT instead of light rail as promised? That's a nontrivial hurdle to overcome. And unlike the rail on Richmond or Westpark controversy, there aren't any grassroots groups or politicians who will push for BRT as the answer. BRT isn't going to happen, at least not with the existing Metro Solutions map, because there's nobody who wants it to happen and will advocate for it to happen. For future expansions, maybe. For now, it's a non-starter.

So that leaves light rail, which brings us back where we started. We know from the Main Street line that people will use it, and we know from the BRT kerfuffle that people want it. The cost is a concern, though the irony is that if we'd not delayed and dilly-dallied so much after the 2004 referendum was passed, we could have built a lot of the 2012 plan for a lot less money; the longer we take to start construction on the remaining lines, the more expensive it will ultimately be. But hey, let's talk about it for another six months anyway, just in case.

The conclusion that I hope this will lead you to is that there isn't a cheap and easy fix for this problem. It's going to cost money, just like all that freeway widening did. We know about the Katy Freeway and its $2.8 billion price tag, which was originally sold to us as being a mere one point one billion. There's the massive upcoming makeover for US290, which Christof pegged at $3.5 billion; that may yet go up, as the same inflationary costs that are biting Metro are also taking a chunk out of TxDOT. The still-in-the-works I-45 widening was last guessed to be $1.5 billion, which is no doubt ludicrously out of date now. Then we've got the aesthetic and acoustic triumph that was the 59 widening/lowering, though it hasn't actually done much for mobility, for whose cost I can't find a citation, plus previous widenings south to Sugar Land and north to Kingwood, the West Loop project for another $344 million, the upcoming 288 toll lane project for which no costs have yet been calculated...we're talking some real money here, maybe $10 billion or more total. Whatever the number may be, it's certainly more than we were originally told it would be, yet there's only ever a freakout when it's transit costs that go up. Funny how that works.

But in the end, all this is an investment. It's an investment in getting people from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. And the options we have for how we make those investments aren't the same everywhere. We need to be careful in how we compare these investments to each other, because we don't have the same choices everywhere.

(*) - I say commuter buses are cost-inefficient because they're empty on their return trips, and idle during non-rush hours. Neither of those is true of regular buses or light rail trains.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 11, 2008 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Great post. I think getting people out of their cars onto busses is difficult but not impossible. It requires an absolutely great bus system combined with a lot of fantastic marketing. I don't know if that would be possible in Houston, though.

Posted by: RWB on April 11, 2008 9:49 AM

I don't disagree with much of what you've written, Charles. I guess the real kick in the groin is continued lack of inclusion of real mass transit options in those various freeway widening projects. It strikes me as an incredibly short-sighted plan by some particularly mule-headed folks who foolishly think they did something super great. (I'm looking at you John Culberson.)

The knock on light rail has long been that the city of Houston simply isn't dense enough to support such a fixed route system. And if you look at Houston in a polaroid snapshot, that's probably true.

But Houston's development is not static. It's very much a "build it and they will come" kind of town. I've seen it happen over the last 5 years as the once empty areas along Beltway 8 between I-10 and US59 have been steadily filled in with sprawling office parks, apartment complexs, hotels, multi-story office buildings, strip malls and big box stores. You can already see anticipatory growth in that Richmond corridor where the rail line is going to be built.

For those who think that rail transit follows density I would offer an alternative opinion. If many cases, especially developing metropolitan areas, rail transit DRIVES a needed level of density.

Our MLS team's second shot at naming the team really got it right. This city is a dynamo. It's a city on the cusp of becoming an internationally recognized metropolis. But it needs a transit system robust enough to grow it to it's full potential.

Posted by: Patrick on April 11, 2008 9:50 AM

Thanks for the thoughtful comments on our local mass transportation clog-up. Do add Shepherd Drive to your list of seriously clogged thoroughfares. It appears that many of the freeway proponents/light rail opponents never have to travel around Houston inside the loop on weekdays during regular business hours. One point with respect to buses is that we overlook the popularity of the trolleys (that we sold to Austin) that finally provided easy, comfortable transportation around downtown Houston. The ridership decreased as a direct result of Metro's intentional manipulation of fares (including exact change only, quarters only). You would think the merchants downtown would be willing to subsidize trolleys in order to gain customers who otherwise find the distances (and the heat) too great to tackle. In fact, if Metro really wanted to engage in some of the commercial development activities it talks about, it would take a look at establishing trolley routes downtown and in appropriate neighborhoods (e.g., Montrose, Northside, etc.) that would funnel people to the rail stations.

Posted by: Temple Houston on April 11, 2008 10:07 AM

Metro should be talking "integrated solution" which would encompass BRT, Rail, and Trolleys to various sites. This would include shorter/more strategic buses that run in the inner city, and the big longer conventional ones that run from the suburbs and airports to town and back again (i.e. park and ride). I believe METRO has a serious popularity issue with all segments of society, and needs to seriously stick to an agenda and run it until they change administrations. Advocacy is not there for BRT -- but if it were part of an initial integrated system, and articualted as such, it may get people out of their cars sooner and give METRO some wins to hang their hats on.

Posted by: TAN on April 11, 2008 12:29 PM

Regarding trolley-train connections, I remember Charles suggesting a shuttle that would run from the light rail line at Dryden through the Rice Village. I've always thought that was an excellent suggestion.

Posted by: Kenneth Fair on April 11, 2008 3:38 PM

There are traffic problems on Kirby? On Westheimer? On Shepherd? On Montrose? On Studemont? Soon, if Metro runs its line down it, on Richmond?

According to the mayor, the only traffic problems in the Inner Loop are on Bissonnet. At the corner of Bissonnet and Ashby.

If you don't like the traffic, well, move to Southampton or Boulevard Oaks.

Posted by: Baby Snooks on April 11, 2008 3:43 PM

I disagree that we can't add capacity to our surface streets like we can to our freeways due to a lack of right of way. I've been to other cities such as Chicago as an example where they have tackled this very problem. There are two solutions to adding capacity to surface streets. 1) is to make them one way, this single stroke essentially doubles the capacity of an existing thoroughfare. 2) we can build sub surface streets. Whitness chicago's upper and lower whacker drives. One is the surface level street, the second is an under ground tunnel below street level. Again this could at least double capacity through an area with some construction costs. 3rd) we can build mini under passes. Whiteness Alan parkway and its intersections. This would require some right of way acquisition at some intersections. Unless we chose to have only 1 through lane. 4th inteliggently coordinating traffic lights, and good sound street light timing can add capacity. 5th and probably most controversial, raise the speed limits which would increase the throughput of surface streets. So it is entirely possible to add capacity to city streets if we chose. Seems to me timing lights, and making one way streets is significantly less expensive then mass transitt, and improves the quality of life for everyone. Heck when we one way a street we could remove one lane and add bigger sidewalks?

Posted by: Colin on April 17, 2008 1:28 PM

Superb posting in particular the comments.
For starters, how many of us who like to discus the merits of LRT vs. BRT vs. buses actually use on a daily basis METRO's service?
Personally, the discussion should be about how to provide the best possible transit service.
Generally speaking only 5% of work trips are via transit. Peak hours METRO indicates it is 15%. That leaves 85% going to work by car.
610 Loop was carrying over 200 thousand cars per day. Per DART a light rail line is equivalent to two highway lanes. Need a lot of light rail running parallel to serve as many people as 610 Loop.
In contrast, in Hong Kong, over 80% of trips are using transit and their streets are very congested.
Point here is that transit and street congestion are not connected. Traffic congestion is cause by economic development.
How much congestion/impact would a high rise on Kirby generate? Very simple. In the engineering world we do traffic impact analysis, a study that allows us to predict how many vehicle trips or transit trips the development could generate and how these will impact the existing roadway system.
Agree, we should not focus on the cost but on the service that needs to be provided. More transit ridership means more transit and better transit service. Transit circulators are great but not popular with transit agencies.
In deed, making a street one way does increase traffic flow. Increasing posted speeds perhaps will not help as much. Better operation of traffic signals should help but these need constant attention/maintenance.
What about preventing people from talking on the phone while driving? Now this is a topic not too many people talk about but one that surely is causing some problems.
The discussion should not be a transit vs. highway or transit vs. auto. We should be talking about adding all types of modes: pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcycles, autos, buses, trolleys, transit circulators, BRT, LRT, commuter rail, highway, tunnels, even telecommuting. In fact I think telecommuting has more potential in reducing auto drivers than transit.

Posted by: Gonzalo Camacho on April 18, 2008 4:37 PM
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