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.
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?
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