The Capital Metro Finances
Ben Wear finally checked in this morning about the "commuter rail finances causing pressure for cost reductions causing union strife issue" which I covered here, although I disagree completely with his conclusion that light rail would have left us in the same mess.
- The commuter rail plan would NOT have received any substantial Federal funding. Wear glosses over this for more commentary about how difficult the New Starts process is. Rail lines with such paltry projected ridership have not done well at the FTA in recent years.
- The light rail plan, on the other hand, would easily have received the 50% Federal funding. We already know the Feds rated it highly even though they weren't allowed to include the impact of TOD and other future development such as the Triangle (which is now, in 2006, online).
- The commuter rail plan was sold to the voters of Austin on the premise that it was so cheap (with the Federal money that Capital Metro is now NOT seeking) that it would not necessitate touching the 1/4 cent "rebate" or the Build Greater Austin funds.
- The light rail plan counted on using both. Wear glosses over this to some degree, but at least mentions it.
- The operating costs of commuter rail are likely to be high - Wear mentions this, but doesn't mention why they're disproportionately high compared to light rail - again, it runs back to low ridership. Operating cost per passenger, in fact, is likely to be much higher with commuter rail than with light rail. The physical cost of moving each train is quite likely to be higher with diesel than it was with electricity, and many of the ancillary operating costs such as maintenance actually rise at a lower rate than the number of vehicles do thanks to economies of scale. Then, when you divide that cost by a much smaller number of commuter rail passengers, you're in bad news city. It's going to be a feeding frenzy for the local suburban Republicans masquerading as libertarians when the "we're paying a $15 subsidy for each rail passenger's daily ride" stories start coming out.
Summarizing: the 2000 light rail plan would have gotten a bunch of money from the Feds, would have had access to the 1/4 cent 'rebate' and Build Greater Austin funds, would have had greater income from fares, would have had proportionally lower operating costs, and would have opened up more TOD income than will this commuter rail plan. Since it would have gone "right down the gut", i.e., right next to all the neighborhoods which actually want to use transit, and directly in front of UT, the Capitol, and the parts of downtown where people actually work, it would have become the success story that we've seen in Minneapolis, Portland, Dallas, etc. IE: a credible alternative which encourages even those who drive to work every day to support future expansions and even (shudder!) tax increases.
Instead, based on what we have now, it's unlikely that, if it's ever built out, the complete commuter rail + streetcars plan being pushed today will end up being any cheaper anyways, which really puts the lie to the idea that cost was the reason for picking it. It was about screwing the center-city in favor of Krusee's suburbanites all along. If you are one of the few who ride it, this is how you're gonna get to work. And our "success story" that we're attempting to emulate is South Florida: Shuttle buses for those who were going to take the bus anyways, and branded as a big fat failure by everybody else.