Say you're riding the #3 bus up Burnet Road. You pay 50 cents to get on the bus. That's your "fare". As it turns out, if you consider all the money taken in and all the money spent out by Capital Metro, and divide the difference equally per trip, it actually costs the taxpayers a couple of bucks for your ride. (The #3 bus, because ridership is high, ends up subsidizing some other routes, but we're taking a simplistic view here). Your "farebox recovery ratio" is something like 20%.
Now say you're driving your Ford Explorer down Lamar Blvd. As I've been recently discussing in the transportation funding topic, no gas tax money is spent on roads like this in Austin (basically major roads that don't have a route shield on them).
Your "fare" for this trip is thus $0.00 (the road doesn't have tollbooths, of course). In other words, the only cost you pay directly at the time ("user fee") is the gas tax, but as noted, neither this road nor other major roads of this type in the city of Austin can be funded by gas tax dollars.
The cost of providing you with your rejuvenated driving surface was substantially more than zero (12.6 million dollars, including utility work), and all that cost was most recently paid by city of Austin taxpayers via property and sales taxes (bond election in '98). And don't fool yourself - most of the cost for projects like this isn't for pedestrians, cyclists, or bus riders. We'd have a much smaller and much cheaper transportation network if nobody drove -- the fact is that most of the money we spend on roads like this is directly attributable to people driving their cars, alone.
Your FRR on this trip is 0%. That's right, a big fat zero. The only time Capital Metro gets this bad is on Ozone Action Days. So, libertarians, perhaps you shouldn't throw stones from your suburban glass houses.
What about highways, you ask? Well, it's true the majority of funds required to build state highways do, in fact, come from the gas tax. There are other, less direct, costs of these roadways which are borne by society at large, but even when considering just direct construction and maintenance cost, you still don't get off claiming that you're paying the bills. A substantial portion (largest line-items, as a matter of fact) of both the 1998 and 2000 bond elections for Austin and Travis County's 2000 package were to pay "local contributions" towards right-of-way for new and expanded state highways. IE: even on a brand-new highway theoretically built with gas taxes, the property-owners and goods-buyers are still subsidizing you, whether they drive a lot, a little, or not at all.
The local asshats are at it again, slamming Capital Metro for supposedly running empty buses.
As regards farebox recovery (in short, the amount of cost covered by passenger fare), the asshats are 'right' - Capital Metro's number is low. As I used to keep telling them when they'd come for their quarterly report to our commission, if you run programs like the free rides on Ozone Action Days and the free rides for UT students at night (E-bus) and don't account for them separately, you leave yourself open for getting hammered on an extremely low farebox recovery ratio. And by "account for them separately" I don't mean "after the local libertarians get the media to claim you're wasting your money"; I mean "go as far as transferring 10% of your funds to the Clean Air Force and them have them contract with you for the Ozone Action Day rides just like you do with UT for the UT Shuttle".
Of course they didn't listen. Capital Metro operates in the same center-city echo-chamber that most of the bicycle advocates I work with live in. My role on the UTC, while it lasted, was largely an effort to smash out of that box and get them to realize that there's a world out there past the intersection of 183 and Mopac, and it's got more voters in it every day.
By the way, the "farebox recovery ratio" for the private automobile is about as low as Capital Metro's artificially low number given above. As the last few days have hopefully shown, especially as you get close to the center-city, most major roads aren't paid for out of the gas tax (or tolls) - they're paid for with bonds which have to be floated every few years by the city and county and are repaid with property and sales taxes. Ironically, much of the strongest opposition to the local toll road plan comes from the same group hammering Capital Metro here. Guess what, folks? A toll paid when you drive on a particular road brings you UP to the level that the transit passenger is ALREADY AT. Gas taxes don't even come close to paying your bills.
The "Exit Test":
Another way to show the discrepancy in road funding in our area is to look at freeway intersections. (In this case, our definition of "major road" is a road which is mentioned in a marked exit from the freeway - in some places due to the frontage-road-centric design of highways here, multiple major roads have the same exit).
Using a current list of exits, let's look at Round Rock through Austin. To make things even more fair for the suburbanites, and not coincidentally to make it simpler for my transcription, I'm only going to use the part of Austin north of the upper/lower-deck split (which leaves out the densest part of Austin where 100% of the exits are for locally-funded roadways).
Out of 7 exits with a road mentioned, only one is for a roadway which is locally funded; while 6 are for state-funded roadways.
Now, the exits between Round Rock and the city limits of Austin:
Finally, the exits which are for roads which cross I-35 within the city limits of Austin:
Out of 9 exits listed here, 8 are for roadways which are locally funded, and 4 are for roadways which receive state funding. (Obviously some exits are for both).
A reminder again: I used the part of Austin which has the MOST state-funded roadways in it (since I stopped short of the upper/lower-deck split two miles north of downtown where the arterials come fast and furious and NONE of them get state funding).
Resources used in this article:
What is the "HEB test"?
In central Austin, most people drive (or even, gasp, WALK!) from their home to the closest major grocery store (i.e. non-convenience store) without driving one inch on a roadway which is part of the state highway system because most major roads in central Austin are city-funded streets - not so in Round Rock or other bedrom communities; the vast majority there would not only choose to but MUST head out to FM 620 or 1825 or 685 or even I-35 to shop for anything of consequence.
For instance, from my house north of UT, these major grocery stores are the ones we shop at more than once a year. We drive to EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM without using any part of the state highway system (yes, we shop at all of these, in order of frequency). (We sometimes walk to a couple of these, and have biked to one):
Try the same test sometime in your neighborhood. When applied over a set of neighborhoods in a geographic area, I think the "HEB test" is a good indicator of how much (or how little) of your major street network is funded by the state. (Remember! Roads which don't have a route shield on them, like FM 1325 or US 183, are not parts of the state highway system, and thus are ineligible for all state gas tax money and most federal gas tax money!)
This test is a useful proxy for the claim (made by me and others knowledgeable about urban planning) that gasoline taxes effectively subsidize the suburbs - the typical dweller of the suburbs spends a much higher percentage of his "drive" on roads which actually get money back from the gas tax than does the corresponding center-city resident.
Same exercise as the last entry of this type. I couldn't get the scale exactly right - this section of Round Rock / Pflugerville is actually quite a bit larger than the corresponding section of Central Austin. (There's a "zoomed in" PDF of central Austin which I used for the original source - if I zoom in with a similar scale to this section of Round Rock, the lines are so thick as to be unusable).
Arterials which are part of the state highway system and thus get gas tax money:
(I can't list all the roads on here that aren't part of the state highway system because I don't know many of their names - some of them don't even currently exist - they are planned to be built sometime in the future by Round Rock and Williamson County).
Note that a much higher proportion of major roads in the southern Round Rock area are maintained by the state. In fact, it is unlikely that a resident of a neighborhood in this area will be able to pass the "HEB test".
This entry is going to serve as background for a future entry about the gasoline tax, new proposed "miles driven tax", and tolls. It will probably be of little interest in isolation, so you might want to wait for the commentary later.
This map (click for larger version) is from a map of central Austin from the 2025 CAMPO plan. Every road which is colored something other than black is classified as an arterial (major roadway). Note that the axis of Austin's grid is off - north-south in these comments refer to the roads that go diagonally off to the northeast.
The following arterial roadways on the image are part of the state highway system, and thus, eligible for gasoline tax money from the state:
North-south roads, roughly from left to right:
East-West Streets, roughly from top to bottom
Keep in mind that, by terms laid out in the Constitution of the State of Texas, none of the roadways in the much larger list can receive state gas tax money. And in practice, none of them really receive federal gas tax money either, since the practice at CAMPO (the local board that disburses federal gas tax money returned to the state under various programs)is to disburse pretty much all of the available roadway funds to state highway projects.
In other words, when you drive on Lamar Blvd in central Austin, you're paying gasoline tax to the state, but the city (who has to pay to rebuild the roadway when necessary, as just occurred over the last 2 years) doesn't see one penny of that money. When you see construction on 38th St, the city is paying those bills with your property and sales taxes, not with the gas tax you incur while driving.
(corrected MLK / FM 969 on 2/23 - FM 969 does not start until Airport Blvd, which is off the map)
From Minneapolis, an update on their light-rail line that opened in 2004 and runs along and in city streets when necessary (goes directly into downtown rather than relying on shuttle buses to reach its primary destinations).
This line is similar in many ways to what a scaled-back version of the 2000 light rail plan could have brought to Austin. That's not what we voted on in 2004 (many people are still confused on this topic - what we voted on was an el-cheapo commuter line which uses shuttle buses to get you to your office or UT, and precludes the development of true urban rail later on).
Note that running the line in the street and straight into downtown appears to be a horrible failure (NOTE: THIS IS SARCASM).
On with the story:
STRONG JANUARY RAIL RIDERSHIP;
MORE THAN A THIRD OF TRAIN RIDERS ARE NEW TO TRANSIT
Rail ridership for January - the first full month with Hiawatha Line
service from downtown Minneapolis to the airport and Mall of America -
was strong with customers boarding trains 441,846 times.
Nearly 40 percent of those riding the Hiawatha Line are first-time
transit users, according to a customer survey released this month. It is
the first onboard research Metro Transit has conducted specific to rail
Of those new to transit, two-thirds said they would have otherwise
driven alone for their commute, illustrating the line's initial impact
on reducing traffic congestion.
More than half (55 percent) of customers said they take the train for
their weekday commutes. Three in every five customers are riding during
rush hours. A third of customers ride on weekends as well as weekdays.
More than half of those surveyed (57 percent) ride the train five or
more times per week.
The main reasons for riding were cited as convenience (23 percent) and
enjoyment of the train (23 percent). Those who ride because they don't
own a car, want to avoid driving or have environmental reasons accounted
for less than 4 percent of respondents. Those who chose the train over
bus service did so overwhelmingly (43 percent) due to convenient rail
More customers (31 percent) reach a train station by bus than any other
way, while 26 percent walk and 24 percent use park-and-ride lots along
Thirty-seven percent pay their fares with cash, more than any other
payment method. Of those who used passes, 41 percent purchased them
through their employer, 39 percent of them using their company's
payroll deduction program.
Demographic information provided by customers shows that the average
Hiawatha Line customer is 25-54 years old (69 percent), Caucasian (84
percent), female (52 percent), speaks English as a primary language (96
percent) and has a household income of more than $70,000 (34 percent).
The research was conducted Nov. 14 through Dec. 2 by Periscope. Later
this year, a more comprehensive study, encompassing both bus and rail,
will allow Metro Transit to compare the two modes and gauge customer
satisfaction with train service for the same time.
Today when I came home, my wife showed me the mail, and there was a letter from Councilman Slusher which noted that my term on the UTC has expired (it did on 1/1/05) and that he did not wish me to continue serving until I was replaced. No further information was given.
This is not a big surprise; although the timing is at least a small surprise. Many months ago when I first spoke on the commuter rail issue, one of my fellow commissioners told me that Councilman Slusher was apoplectic with rage over the idea that I'd say the things I was saying (and this was before I really got going; at this point all I had done was write one letter to the Chronicle). He supposedly said that he was mad enough to remove me from the Commission, but didn't want to provide more attention for my supposed cause by doing so.
I was very shocked by this information at the time (and still am) - first of all, the idea that one couldn't publically be against the commuter rail plan (but still be rabidly pro-rail and rabidly pro-transit) and still serve on the Commission is quite offensive to me even today. Second, the idea that a commissioner on the UTC could have a large enough public effect to be worth such spiteful comment as was supposedly given is just ludicrous - in other words, I can't believe that I was ever big enough to be worth any bile from a City Council member at all.
At that time, I asked (quite nicely, I thought) for a meeting with him to discuss what he'd like me to do (implicitly offering to resign from the Commission if that's what he wanted - to be honest, there's little point in continuing to be on the Commission without support from your appointer). He never responded.
To this day, Councilmember Slusher has not spoken to me at all since we met a couple of years ago (when he indicated that he was fairly happy with the status of the UTC).
After the election, I missed the two remaining 2004 meetings of the UTC due to vacation and illness. The January 2005 meeting, which I had planned to attend, was canceled for lack of a quorum. The Februrary meeting is next Tuesday, and I had planned on attending.
I don't know why the decision was made (suddenly) to remove me from the Commission. Councilmember Slusher is being term-limited out of office - elections are in May. I had assumed that the fact that he didn't bother to replace me with another appointee meant that I would probably last until the new councilmember took office.
Anyways, for those reading this blog who knew I was on the UTC, that's the full scoop as of now.
To my fellow commissioners - thanks for serving with me for all these years. Your dedication to improving the transportation situation for the public at large is an inspiration, even when I disagreed with you. I hope you'll continue to do the great job you have been doing.
To city staff - please understand that I (and my fellow commissioners) appreciate the hard work you do even when we disagree. Thanks for all the night hours you had to put in to be at our meetings, and thanks for doing your part to make Austin better.
Got Another Free Night Per Month Coming Now
I just started reading a new blog called New (sub)Urbanism which seems to be a good resource so far for development and transportation issues. Give it a whirl.
June 2004 pictures are up. Long delay due to rebuilding my linux box.
Letter from me in today's Chronicle. Text at the end of this dispatch.
and today's Statesman takes up the same subject (Transit Oriented Development - commonly abbreviated as TOD) again - using East Hillsboro Oregon (suburb of Portland) as their model. When are the cheerleaders going to get it - you get TOD IF AND ONLY IF your rail line has demonstrated a year or three of high ridership from people who CHOSE to ride rail, not from people who HAD to ride public transit?
For the I Told You So watch:
A fight is looming: The neighborhood plans that already exist for Plaza Saltillo and the areas around the Lamar and MLK stops don't call for the kind of intense density city leaders want around rail stations.
As I pointed out several times during the run-up to the election, one of the many problems with the routing of this commuter rail line is that it runs through neighborhoods that don't want any additional development, rather than down Lamar/Guadalupe where additional development is regarded as inevitable (although my own wildly irresponsible neighborhood does their best to counteract city-wide sanity on this regard).
Cold Water on TOD
I hate to throw cold water on the frenzy over TOD (transit-oriented development) ["Here Comes the Train," News, Jan. 28], but it's worth remembering that no commuter rail start in the U.S. in recent memory has generated any transit-oriented development worth noting. In fact, all of the TOD that has occurred in the U.S. in most of our lifetimes has been around light rail starts which had to first demonstrate a high level of ridership from new transit customers (i.e., not just those who used to take the bus, but new customers to transit).
This is how Dallas, Denver, Portland, Salt Lake, and Minneapolis have gotten and are continuing to get great new urban buildings around their light-rail lines.
The key here is that thanks to Mike Krusee and naive pro-transit people in Austin, we're not getting a rail line like those cities got (which goes where people actually want to go from day one); we're getting one like South Florida got (which requires shuttle buses to get anywhere worth going). South Florida's commuter line has yet (after 15 years) to generate one lousy square-foot of TOD.
Urban Transportation Commission