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March 12, 2010

Teaser graphic

In the "Why do I keep calling Tri-Rail a failure, and why do I keep saying the Red Line is going to match its record" department; this graphic below is from this spreadsheet, which is a work in progress on developing some metrics from the national transit database.

There are those who think that any rail is good rail; and there are those who think that any rail is bad rail. Then there are those like me who recognize that some rail systems do a much better job than others in a "new rail city" at delivering new riders - and it's frustrating how few seem to recognize intuitively the difference between a city like Houston, where the trains are packed and voters overwhelmingly approved a massive expansion as a result, and an area like South Florida, where after 20-25 years and a massive investment in double-tracking a very LONG route through a very heavily populated area, no community support for rail has developed despite a much more supportive population when the service started.

The metric I have here is basically "how much of the metro area did they get to ride the train, adjusted for mile of track". Here's why that's a good starting point: You should have the goal of maximizing return on your investment - your investment is basically miles of track; and your return is how many people ride - but to compare metro areas against each other, you should also consider how many people are IN that area to begin with (delivering 20,000 riders per weekday in Portland is a far greater achievement than delivering 20,000 riders per weekday in Manhattan).

Light rail systems are being used everywhere here except South Florida and Austin, obviously. (In both our cases, unlike the other cities here, commuter rail has effectively precluded light rail - and is being sold as a light rail analogue anyways).

After the break, the picture...

Continue reading "Teaser graphic" »

May 27, 2009

Bad service is hard to kill

While trying to find a new link (succeeded, finally) for this old entry since the old one aged off, I was reminded to post a different excerpt which is probably even more relevant now that Lyndon Henry is out there once again claiming we can turn the Red Line into light rail, somehow:

"Was this the best investment?" asks Steve Polzin, director of public transit research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "You wonder what could have been accomplished if they had not rushed into it. If, for example, they'd waited a few years and bought the FEC."

[...]

The Tri-Rail system was never supposed to be this expensive. Because of its innocuous start as a temporary traffic-mitigation measure and because the project has been expanded in small increments, the kind of planning that generally precedes a billion-dollar public-works project never occurred. In the end, the stop-gap became part of the transportation landscape. "Once you start service, it's extremely hard to stop," Polzin says. "You've made the commitment and invested the capital."

Lyndon has made noises that we could still switch the Red Line over to electrified LRT and then run trains back on the 2000 route. He's either insane or lying; and the quotes above show you why: you can't get service like this stopped once you've spent 8 years telling people how great commuter rail is compared to LRT. Plus, of course, Capital Metro's public plans are all about improving the Red Line and adding the Green Line - with more and more diesel-smokin' trains that only take you to a shuttle-bus pickup; NOT about light rail. It's only McCracken and Wynn talking about urban rail (light rail), and although the plan pays lip service to Capital Metro, it's really going to be trying to build light rail despite Capital Metro.

May 25, 2009

Tri-Rail is dying; corpse still admired by idiots

Two posts I made today to the "busridersAustin" yahoo list in response to continuing misinformation from our old friend Lyndon Henry that I wanted to save for posterity. Reproduced as-is except that I've made the links live.

--- In BusRidersAustin@yahoogroups.com, Nawdry wrote:
> Well, I see Mike has basically morphed into the rant-recycling stage

Well, I see Lyndon has basically morphed back into his lying-sack-of-crap stage.

Just ONE among many of your lies:

Tri-Rail serves mostly Broward and Palm Beach Counties - extending a bit into
Dade County, but that's not the focus of the service. MetroRail is a Dade County
phenomenon (more specifically Miami) - most Tri-Rail ridership never goes that
far south. MetroRail (Dade County / Miami) is largely an artifact of the 1970s.

The area that saw transit stall out for 20 years was Broward and Palm Beach
Counties (Ft. Lauderdale is still trying to establish some momentum for a
streetcar/light-rail system against the headwinds of 20 years of Tri-Rail
failure).

Tri-Rail was planned and built during the mid-to-late 1980s; AFTER MetroRail.
The fact is that after Tri-Rail turned out to be such a disaster, nobody could
get any traction on any additional rail in the region for a couple of decades.
And now, the local governments are so enamored by Tri-Rail's 'success' that
they're writing 'doomsday budgets':

Recent Miami Herald article

Recent Palm Beach Post article

Tri-Rail ridership has, in fact, declined since the 2008 fuel spike has eased,
despite what these articles imply (note that they do not state what current
ridership actually is; if anybody cares to doubt THAT, I'll spend some time
finding the media that I read a few months back on the subject).

One can certainly conclude, with accuracy missing from anything Lyndon Henry has
ever written here, that the public in South Florida has not supported Tri-Rail
like they have, let's say, DART in Dallas or Houston's Metro system (both of
which passed expansion referendi with overwhelming support).

Some other (older) links, with links back to media (some of which has expired)
and with excerpts:

Old crackplog post

"Take the Delray Beach Tri-Rail station, for instance. It's located way west of
downtown, languishing between Linton Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue. Now, where
can one walk from that location? The whole point of public transit is to create
an alternative to driving. Yet, the thriving popular downtown area of Delray
Beach is far removed from the poorly planned station location. Thus, you still
have a downtown clogged with cars, because the Tri-Rail station is beyond
walking distance. "

[...]

"I have ridden on Metrorail, on the other hand, and it is a joy compared to the
mess that Tri-Rail is. Metrorail actually goes places, near neighborhoods, and
other places people actually go, and it doesn't share its tracks with 8,000
mile-long freight trains. That's why it works."

and:

Old crackplog post

"The greatest hindrance to Mica's rail, however, could come from the failure of
a predecessor, South Florida's Tri-Rail, which runs from Palm Beach County south
to Miami. Tri-Rail has proven costly; it has drained $433 million so far, and
reports say it needs another $327 million to stay alive. Despite the investment,
Tri-Rail averages only 60 percent of its projected ridership, and governments
subsidize more than 70 percent of the operating costs.

The problem? Essentially, Tri-Rail doesn't go anywhere. For most of its 11-year
life, Tri-Rail delved only into northern Dade County. "That's like taking a
train from Volusia and dropping people off at the Seminole County line," Mica
says. Connections to major workplaces and airports rely on unreliable bus
systems. Moreover, Tri-Rail only runs once an hour, and is frequently late at
that."

and:

Old crackplog post

"Luksha is among the many South Floridians who derisively note that not a single
Tri-Rail train goes through a single �downtown�, and only indirect services
via, bus, taxi or Metrorail will get you to the region�s airports after
getting off Tri-Rail. "

As should be obvious by the lead to this post, I will not stand by and let you
drag me down without responding in kind.

- MD

and

--- In BusRidersAustin@yahoogroups.com, Nawdry wrote:
> At 2009/05/25 15:41, Mike Dahmus wrote:
> >Just ONE among many of your lies:

> >

> >Tri-Rail serves mostly Broward and Palm Beach Counties - extending a

> >bit into Dade County, but that's not the focus of the service.

> >MetroRail is a Dade County phenomenon (more specifically Miami) -

> >most Tri-Rail ridership never goes that far south.


>
> Mike is just disseminating rubbish. By far the heaviest Tri-Rail
> ridership occurs at the 5 Miami-area stations, particularly the
> MetroRail Transfer station, where interface with the MetroRail rapid
> transit occurs. Tri-Rail also serves the Miami Airport.
>
> When I stayed in Deerfield Park

Heh.

Credibility, huh?

It's "Deerfield Beach", you ignoramus.

And, yes, Tri-Rail ENTERS Dade County. Of its 70 mile length, by far, the overwhelming majority of the line is in Palm Beach and Broward Counties. The fact that those stations see a bit more than typical traffic shows how stupid the plan was to rely on shuttlebuses for passenger distribution everywhere else; the only marginally successful stops are the ones that feed into the existing urban rail network in Dade County at the extreme end of a 70 mile system.

Urban rail systems never took off in Ft. Lauderdale or West Palm Beach or Boca Raton or any of the other large towns and cities along the line. Commuter rail spurred precisely nothing; no public support for more rail that might actually work - were it not for the existing MetroRail system that actually goes where people want to go, and, this is important, the 1200 magnet students riding every day, the system would have collapsed 15 years ago.

I lived there for most of my life, genius. I was around when Tri-Rail was getting started. I worked at IBM three summers and then three full years within a short shuttle ride of both the Delray Beach and Boca Raton Tri-Rail stops.

I had many coworkers that gave it a try (I lived too close for it to be of any use to me). None stuck. The shuttlebuses were the problem for every single one of them.

I've seen more than a dozen proposals for TOD come and go along the line. None stuck. The lack of choice commuters was the problem for every single one of _them_.

I was around when the original discussions about CSX vs. FEC were taking place. You're right in one small respect - the FEC wasn't available right at that instant; but there were people EVEN BACK THEN who said we'd be better served by waiting a couple of years and trying to negotiate with FEC instead of CSX. (Parallel to Austin here: Some people said, me among them, that rather than barreling ahead with a stupid dead-end Red Line commuter "ender" line, we'd be better served by waiting a few years to develop momentum for a re-run at the 2000 LRT line).

This was 20 years ago, mind you. Tri-Rail still, now, 20 years after the fact, has not approached initial ridership projections, unlike light rail starter lines all over the country which have mostly knocked them out of the park. After 20 years of disastrous failure on Tri-Rail, the number of people willing to say we should have waited for FEC has grown dramatically - including most of the political leadership in the counties paying the bills.

Those counties, by the way, are the ones that are cutting their subsidy to Tri-Rail because it was such a 'success' that they've gotten tired of the bleeding for so little benefit (again, compare and contrast to what happened in Houston and Dallas after GOOD LIGHT RAIL STARTER LINES showed people what could happen - 2/3 of the electorate voted in favor of huge expansions in both cases).

It's you whose credibility ought to be completely lacking here. You visited South Florida once and rode Tri-Rail a couple of times.

Big whoop.

I lived there for 20 years.

You're absolutely wrong, as usual.

February 27, 2009

Listen for M1EK

KUT just called and I recorded a few snippets with them about commuter rail (they're most interested in today's delay announcement for commuter rail which I mostly let CM off the hook for, but I did give a bunch of other background that they might or might not use). If anybody hears it, please let me know.

Background was a condensed version of the last 6 years of this crackplog (we're doing what Tri-Rail did; not what everybody that succeeded did; it's not light rail - it'll never get you to UT, etc).

January 12, 2009

Tri-Rail, The Red Line, and "Is It TOD?"

This was originally going to be a comment in response to a comment Erica from Capital Metro made to Two Quick Hits. I've reproduced her comment in full here.

Four comments on your two quick hits!

1. I'm new to all of this, so fact check it, but I think Polikov's involvement dealt with the Crystal Falls development, which is not in the Leander TOD district and is not part of the TOD being developed around Capital Metro's Leander Station. Leander is not on hold or abandoned, it is on track. http://www.capmetroblog.blogspot.com

2. Crestview: the developers have told us that the presence of MetroRail there made the opportunity attractive and desirable...doesn't mean that it wouldn't have been developed on its own, without the rail line there, but maybe not as quickly.

3. Tri-Rail ridership has doubled since 2005. Last year ridership was over 4m, so the "nobody rides it" argument is wearing thin. Anyhow, one of our TOD staff tells me that Tri-Rail has 2 TOD projects underway: Deerfield Beach Station and Boca Raton Station.

4. Development takes time; Mueller planning started in 1997. Groundbreaking for the big box stuff on the frontage road happened in 2006, Dell & the first housing in 2007. It's a tad early to declare that the Red Line TOD is a failure.

Erica, I can't agree with any of those points. In order:

  1. Under no circumstance ought you declare this a TOD - not a single spade of dirt has been turned. A lesson which should have been learned from Tri-Rail, which declared a dozen or more TODs that never materialized.

    The Leander plans are rather underwhelming, too. A development that requires that its residents cross at an unprotected crosswalk across a busy highway to get to the transit service is NOT "oriented towards transit".

    Update: In comments on CM's blog entry about the TOD, it becomes clear that the blog author was throwing in the crosswalk as an afterthought; it doesn't appear to be related to this particular supposed TOD project at all. However, the thinking that a 'crosswalk' is somehow a bicycle/pedestrian feature which we ought to be impressed by is kind of illustrative here.

  2. Yes, Crestview would have developed just fine - the developers may have gotten a bit of a pass through the neighborhood gauntlet because of the transit, but that's exactly what I said.

  3. Tri-Rail: Yes, it doubled, when gas went to $4.00 a gallon. Your own ridership figures skyrocketed too. More trains are also running now. The TOD projects that are 'underway' are, uh, NOT. "Boca Raton station" is a strip mall of retail that fronts the major arterial roadway and a bunch of parking; the train station is off and to the back. I saw absolutely nothing in Deerfield to indicate that anything's being built.

  4. Mueller is a special case. The Triangle got done much more quickly; we'd see spades of dirt being turned by now on TODs on the Red Line if, indeed, it were capable of generating any TOD.

Some requirements to call something a TOD, from the VTPI; full list here:

  • The transit-oriented development lies within a five-minute walk of the transit stop, or about a quarter-mile from stop to edge. For major stations offering access to frequent high-speed service this catchment area may be extended to the measure of a 10-minute walk.

  • A balanced mix of uses generates 24-hour ridership. There are places to work, to live, to learn, to relax and to shop for daily needs."

  • Transit service is fast, frequent, reliable, and comfortable, with a headway of 15 minutes or less.

  • Roadway space is allocated and traffic signals timed primarily for the convenience of walkers and cyclists.

Note that the Red Line, even if it operates every 15 minutes, is only part of their trip. The shuttle service on the downtown/UT end of the trip will never be fast, comfortable, or reliable. We can already tell, in other words, that the development in Leander won't be real TOD - it's already on track to fail at least four of the metrics even if they do everything right with their buildings.

Tri-Rail has been running for almost 20 years now. There's still precisely zero square feet of TOD. Not surprising when you read what you need to answer the question "Is it really TOD?". Light rail can do it. Heavy urban rail can do it. Commuter rail can't and never will. They may use TOD as an excuse to upzone to what the market was already clamoring for, as demonstrated by Crestview (vs. the Triangle), or they may actually be trying to get it done, but it ain't gonna happen - people aren't going to pay a financial premium to live next to a train that doesn't go anywhere worth going without transfers.

(In case you're wondering, the CAMPO TWG streetcar/light-rail plan could produce TOD, especially on East Riverside, by the way, because people would be able to board a train operating at high frequencies in reserved guideway that would go straight downtown, to the Capitol, or to UT, without requiring transfers. People will pay more than they would otherwise be willing to pay if they're provided with a reliable time-certain trip straight to work or school, i.e., that doesn't ask them to get off a train and onto a bus, or even off a train and onto another train)

January 08, 2009

Two quick hits

Still catching up at work, but there's two things I didn't want to forget to comment on.

First, before leaving for Florida, I went with the boys and my father-in-law to the Palmer center during one of the last evenings of their Xmas shopping event. Luckily, we planned on parking at One Texas Center and walking, because traffic was backed up all the way across the 1st street bridge for the Trail of Lights. Right in the middle of all those cars not moving, what could you see? The shuttlebuses that the city wanted everybody to ride.

Easy lesson for the day: If you want people to leave their cars in a remote lot and ride shuttlebuses, ensure that the shuttlebuses aren't stuck in traffic for an hour with the cars of everybody who didn't take your advice. It's amazing that in this day and age, people still don't get this - somehow we're supposed to enjoy being stuck in traffic more because we're on a jerky uncomfortable bus instead of in our own vehicle (which, although almost as annoying to be stuck in traffic in, at least allows for more comfort)? There's a trivially easy solution which requires only a small amount of political spine: make one lane of Barton Springs for shuttle-buses only. Cost? A few cops who had to be there anyways, and some orange cones. After all, you already closed Barton Springs down by the restaurants anyways, right?

Second item: There is still precisely zero square feet of evident transit-oriented development along Tri-Rail in South Florida (caveat: I only observed between the Fort Lauderdale airport and the Dreher Park Zoo, in West Palm Beach, but that's about 50 miles worth). The relevance, for those who may be coming to this late, is that Tri-Rail is almost exactly like what we're opening here in March: a commuter rail line which runs infrequently compared to light rail, and requires transfers to shuttle buses on the destination end of essentially all trips to get where you really want to go. Despite more than a decade now of effort to subsidize, encourage, rezone, whatever, there is no, zero, KAPUT TOD on the ground there, and none under construction, and every single prospective project along those lines floated mostly by governmental entities has failed. Every. Single. One.

And here in Austin? The supposed (mislabelled) TOD along Capital Metro's line falls exclusively into three categories: Abandoned/on hold (far suburban projects); TOD-as-excuse-for-sorely-needed-upzoning (Crestview Station); and way-too-low-density-to-be-called-TOD (Chestnut, for instance). In the second category, Crestview Station is no more dense (probably less when complete) than the Triangle, so clearly the rail transit available to Crestview has provided precisely zero additional support for density in the project (it could have been just as dense without the rail).

More later as I slowly get up to speed.

September 07, 2007

Difference between streetcar and bus

Since many people still think that if you build streetcar, they will come; here's a set of use case-like tables which I hope will explain what the actual difference is between streetcars and buses. The first case is for "why can't we just fix commuter rail by building a streetcar line to which they can transfer?". The second case is for "won't streetcar get more residents of central Austin to take transit to work?".

Some shorthand below explained up here:

"Stuck in traffic": Does the vehicle have its own lane, or is it sharing a lane with cars? This affects speed and reliability.

"Detourable": If there's a traffic accident in the shared lane, can the vehicle in question change lanes to get around it? This is a drastic impact on reliability.

"Fast/slow": Is the vehicle capable of accelerating/decelerating quickly? Speed, obviously.

ModeStuck in traffic?Detourable?Fast/slow?
Circulators as applied to commuter rail service
ShuttlebusYesYesSlow
StreetcarYesNoSlow
Mode by itself (for residents of actual central Austin)
ShuttlebusYesYesSlow
StreetcarYesNoSlow

Notice anything? Whether you're using the vehicle as a circulator or as your primary form of transit, it performs exactly the same. I know this seems obvious, but I still get people thinking that there's some magic fairy dust that will make streetcars turn into good transit service for the people who actually wanted it, in both 2000 and 2004. No, credulous fellow residents of Central Austin, streetcar doesn't bringing anything more to the table than bus does - arguably LESS, for daily commuters. Note the "Detourable" column. Yes, I've had times on the bus when I've benefitted from this capability. They won't detour just to get around heavy traffic, but they darn sure will to get around an accident.

So what are some of the other benefits of streetcar not mentioned here? It provides a perception of permanence that bus service does not. This is worth something if you're trying to stimulate development somewhere - but downtown Austin doesn't need the help. It also provides a minor benefit for tourists - making it more obvious that transit exists, and making it more attractive (people from out of town are unlikely to want to ride the bus given the stigma of bus service in many other cities).

The only advantage streetcar has is for tourists - which is why, IF we build this thing, it should only be funded out of hotel/rental car taxes. Even if it ran through the dense residential parts of Austin, it would provide precisely nothing of benefit to those residents, who, by the way, pay almost all of Capital Metro's bills.

August 14, 2007

First of many "TOD"'s collapses

(TOD = "transit-oriented development", which some people think can provide additional passengers for our commuter rail line).

Update: The author of the ABJ piece assures me in comments that this wasn't "the" TOD project (not within the city limits) and claims that it had more to do with the housing market in general. This will teach me to link to articles for which I can't read the full text. However, commenters and other media have indicated that this was being characterized as "a TOD" (I actually finally posted this after receiving 3 different tips from readers), and my language, while imprecise, was referring to "the first failure among the group of self-proclaimed TODs", not "the first project declared to be a TOD has now failed". Keep this one as a "maybe". Certainly many people defending the commuter rail line have promised that it will provide stimulus for denser mixed-use development in that part of town - so the "weakening housing market" is in and of itself no defense here.

Original post follows:

Repeating the experience in South Florida with another stupid commuter rail line that requires shuttle-bus transfers, the first proposed TOD (really, not, just a slightly more dense suburban tract housing project) has collapsed in Leander. Expect more of these, although I expect Crestview Station and the Chestnut project will go ahead, since sufficient demand with or without rail already exists in those areas to fill the units allowed by the slight loosening of the way-too-strict zoning there. As Christof said, the most attractive place to add more density is where density already exists - don't forget, too, that true TOD requires high-quality transit, not just anything slapped on a rail that runs to a station out in the middle of nowhere.

Does TOD ever work in cities without Manhattan-like density? YES!. It works great on light rail lines which have demonstrated good ridership among choice commuters. That requires rail lines which deliver most people directly to their destination (within a moderate walking distance). Like what Dallas did; what Portland did; what Minneapolis, Salt Lake, Denver, and even Houston did. Like what we almost did in 2000; and could have fought for in 2004 instead of rolling over for Mike Krusee. But it's never, ever, happened on a commuter rail line with performance as poor as ours. Not even once.

July 20, 2007

Why I do it

This subject keeps coming up; and although I've explained it in bits and pieces in many crackplogs here, as well as in other forums, I've never put it all in one place before. But I'm also short on time, so I'll reuse most of a post I made today to the excellent SkyScraperPage forums and just expand a bit.

The immediate relevance is a somewhat petulant response from Michael King to my letter to the editor in the Chronicle next week. I suppose this means I'll be published, at least. The money quote:

we don't find it particularly useful to hold our breaths on transit questions until we turn blue (or bile green), nor particularly helpful to respond to every interim proposal with cheerless variations on "it's pointless and it won't work."

So, here it is: why it's important to keep bringing up that this thing won't work and WHY it won't work, and what WOULD have worked instead:

South Florida built almost exactly what we're going to build: a commuter rail line on existing tracks which is too far away from destinations people actually want to go to - so they have to transfer to shuttle buses for the final leg of their journey to work in the morning (and back from work in the evening). It has proved a miserable failure at attracting so-called "choice commuters", i.e., those who own a car but are considering leaving it at home today to take the train to work.

Here's how the experience has gone in the area:

  1. Start with a largely transit-friendly population (retirees from New York, for instance)

  2. In the mid-to-late 1980s, commuter rail gets built (requiring shuttle transfers).

  3. Everybody who says anything says "this is going to work; rail ALWAYS works!"

  4. Nobody but the transit-dependent rides it. ("we tried it and it didn't work").

  5. Ten years later, whenever somebody brings up light rail, "we tried rail and it didn't work here".

  6. In the meantime, a huge amount of money is spent double-tracking the corridor and increasing service; but still, essentially nobody who can choose to drive will ride the thing, because the three-seat ride (car, train, shuttle-bus) makes it so uncompetitive. (Remember that, like our rail line, it doesn't run through any dense residential areas where people might be tempted to walk to the station - all passengers arrive either by car or by bus).

  7. Fifteen years later, when people still don't ride, somebody reads about TOD and thinks "maybe that will help". Millions are spent trying to encourage developers to build residential density around the train stations to no avail (a bit unlike Austin in that here, all we need to do is allow more density and it will crop up by itself due to pent-up demand for living in that part of town). Nothing comes of this - because people don't want to pay extra to live next to a train station where they can hop a train to... a shuttle-bus.

  8. Twenty years later, whenever somebody brings up light rail, "we tried rail and it didn't work here" is still the primary response - but finally some people are starting to say "well, we built the wrong thing last time".

If there had been more people pointing out before, during, and after the system opened that a rail line which didn't go where the people wanted to go would be a failure, it might not have taken twenty years just to restart the rail conversation there.

I don't want it to take twenty years to restart the conversation here in Austin.

Don't believe it will happen? Remember: the pro-commuter-rail forces, before the election, were saying let's ride and then decide. People in South Florida rode. They decided. It didn't work. It has taken twenty years to even start seriously talking about building rail in the right places (along the FEC corridor, or light-rail in Fort Lauderdale). We can't afford twenty years here.

March 28, 2007

Circulators don't work

Fresh on the heels of yesterday's post, Christof from Houston weighs in that rail service that depends on circulators rather than pedestrian traffic isn't likely to succeed in garnering so-called "choice commuters" (those who you're trying to attract away from their cars).

Unfortunately, it appears that the same lesson which was learned from watching Tri-Rail's abject failure in South Florida has to keep getting re-learned all over the country, since we keep pushing these stupid commuter rail projects which reuse existing track but don't go anywhere worth going rather than building light rail which DOES.

So, care to guess how you're going to get from the Capital Metro commuter rail station to your office in downtown, the Capitol, or UT?

July 20, 2006

Why The Bile

From this thread full of optimistic talk from happy-fun-land about how We Can Still Make This Thing Work, I attempt to crush the dreams and hopes of the new generation by writing the following.


The solution is to keep reminding people that there is such a thing as "bad rail", and this thing is it. Seriously, there's no way to re-route it now; they've chosen a technology which is effectively incompatible with running down Lamar/Guadalupe/Congress in the 2000 alignment. (And, by the way, it's also somewhat incompatible with street-running even across town on 4th street, due to vehicle height, unless you don't want any stations between the Convention Center and Seaholm). IE, even if Capital Metro turns over the agency to me at this point, the only solution is to completely stop working on the commuter rail line and completely change gears to the original light rail route; there's no way to extend commuter rail where it actually needs to go which is remotely feasible economically, politically, or even technologically.

The reason I keep harping on this is that LONG BEFORE the election, when there was still a chance to persuade Capital Metro to change their mind (or force them to), people like you and the other naive cheerleaders here said "well, they'll just build that thing and then we'll get light rail in the urban core later". The numerous technical, financial, and political reasons why that was never actually going to happen were viewed as just downer-talk from pessimist-land.

Switch gears to South Florida. Some people pointed out early on that requiring choice commuters to use shuttle buses wasn't going to fly. They were ignored, in favor of the great spirit of optimism. Surely, they said, we can improve the line later on, if those negative nellies actually have a point. Two decades later, and hundreds of millions of dollars of irrelevant double-tracking later, people are finally beginning to get it: the line can't be fixed; the fundamental problem is the location of the line itself; the only solution is to pick up and move to the FEC corridor (another existing rail line which runs right through all the major downtowns of the region).

Now, switch gears back to Austin. Same thing is about to happen. Not much chance of stopping them now, but at least all you cheerleaders ought to rejoin reality-land: Capital Metro is trying to convince you that Rapid Bus is really just as good as light rail would have been. Why do you think they're doing that? Could it be that old crotchedy M1EK was actually right, and that holding our noses and supporting commuter rail doomed us? No, must be something else. Keep cheering, folks! Sooner or later, something good's bound to happen!

And for those who think it couldn't possibly be this bad - I refer you to yesterday's post: there's really only one question you need to ask Capital Metro.

May 23, 2006

You can't fix a bad route.

My cow orker threatened to do nasty things, partially to himself, if I didn't crackplog before he left on his trip. I'm in the middle of yet another attempt to stop Lyndon Henry from rewriting history on the lightrail_now yahoo group; and went looking for Tri-Rail news and found this letter which explains why Tri-Rail is still, 20 years later, a complete and utter failure at attracting 'choice commuters' in South Florida.

Read carefully. Does any of this sound familiar?

Take the Delray Beach Tri-Rail station, for instance. It's located way west of downtown, languishing between Linton Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue. Now, where can one walk from that location? The whole point of public transit is to create an alternative to driving. Yet, the thriving popular downtown area of Delray Beach is far removed from the poorly planned station location. Thus, you still have a downtown clogged with cars, because the Tri-Rail station is beyond walking distance.

Remember this discussion?

Then, there's this gem:

I have ridden on Metrorail, on the other hand, and it is a joy compared to the mess that Tri-Rail is. Metrorail actually goes places, near neighborhoods, and other places people actually go, and it doesn't share its tracks with 8,000 mile-long freight trains. That's why it works.

Tri-Rail is viewed as a failure in South Florida because nearly nobody who has the choice between driving and taking it will leave their car at home. We're headed down the same path here in Austin, because people like Lyndon Henry didn't stand up and fight for Austin's interests against those of Mike Krusee.

For shame.

Those who continue to nicely but naively ask us to 'work together to fix it' don't get it: there ISN'T ANY WAY TO FIX THIS DEBACLE. More stations won't help. Nice streetcar circulators won't help. You can't recover from deciding to run your trains on existing tracks instead of where the people are who might like to ride and where the places are they definitely want to go.

We're turning dirt on a rail line which will 'prove' to most on-the-fence Austinites that 'passenger rail doesn't work' - the same thing that happened in South Florida with Tri-Rail. Only now, 20 years after the thing was planned, have many people started to change their tune from "rail doesn't work" to "maybe we screwed up in how we built it". Can Austin wait that long?

Continuing to misrepresent this thing as urban 'light' rail only makes it worse - at some point a decade from now, we're going to have to pick up the pieces from this disaster and try to sell rail again to the public. And part of that is clearly identifying what went wrong, and who led us down the wrong path. I ain't gonna stop anytime soon.

November 26, 2005

Another Tri-Rail mention

Since I'm being assailed again by Lyndon Henry for being anti-rail-transit, I spent a bit of time looking for additional Tri-Rail mentions in the press, and found this one from the Orlando Press:

The greatest hindrance to Mica's rail, however, could come from the failure of a predecessor, South Florida's Tri-Rail, which runs from Palm Beach County south to Miami. Tri-Rail has proven costly; it has drained $433 million so far, and reports say it needs another $327 million to stay alive. Despite the investment, Tri-Rail averages only 60 percent of its projected ridership, and governments subsidize more than 70 percent of the operating costs.

The problem? Essentially, Tri-Rail doesn't go anywhere. For most of its 11-year life, Tri-Rail delved only into northern Dade County. "That's like taking a train from Volusia and dropping people off at the Seminole County line," Mica says. Connections to major workplaces and airports rely on unreliable bus systems. Moreover, Tri-Rail only runs once an hour, and is frequently late at that.

Could rewrite this as:

The problem? Essentially, All Systems Go doesn't go anywhere. It delves only into the southeastern edge of downtown. Connections to major workplaces and airports rely on unreliable bus systems. Moreover, ASG only runs twice an hour, and not at all at mid-day.

October 19, 2005

More on Tri-Rail and why shuttle buses matter

The current brou-ha-ha with Lyndon reminded me to go check if anything's up with Tri-Rail in South Florida. As I've previously written, they're the best example out there of the kind of rail line Capital Metro is going to build here in Austin, in that

  • they don't run trains very often
  • most destinations require a shuttle bus ride
  • they chose to run on a cheap existing track rather than building lines closer to those destinations (like light rail systems usually do)

Well, in the process I found an updated version of an old article I think I already used, but I hadn't noticed one important paragraph before. The context is that they're finally talking seriously about moving to the FEC corridor - which is where the service should have been built all along, since it allows passengers to walk to a non-trivial number of office and retail destinations. We're even worse off here, though, since building this commuter rail line basically prevents us from building anything like the 2000 starter line. Here's the quote:

Without a FEC/TRI-Rail alliance, McCarty sees the need for continued subsidy because of the "inherent fear of feeder bus reliability." The buses "are often late," she explained.

Since Tri-Rail trains only run about every half-hour during the commute peak and less often the rest of the day (like Austin's commuter rail trains will), missing your train on the way home from work is a big deal. The "feeder" buses they're talking about are the same kind of shuttle buses we're going to be stuck with here in Austin, if you work downtown, at the Capitol, or at UT. And guess what? They're going to be unreliable too - they'll be stuck in the same traffic as your car.

Even if streetcars are used for the "high-frequency circulators" which will take you from your office to the train station, the same problem exists - since streetcars won't have their own lane and won't be given green lights over cross traffic. The chance that light rail will come out of the Future Connections Study is zero, since commuter rail precludes it from being built in the 2000 alignment, which is the only one good enough to merit Federal funding.

So just like in South Florida, people will experience a couple of missed trains and then, if they have any other options, will stop riding. Nobody wants to sit around for even a half-hour waiting for the next train home. And if all you're doing is catering to riders who don't have a choice, you might as well just dump the money into more buses.

January 10, 2005

More on What We're In For

Tri-Rail, the commuter rail line which parallels I-95 through most of South Florida, is the transit start most like Austin's proposed commuter rail line, for good and ill. Read the archives for the whole story, but here's the short version: It was cheap to get started (used existing track), just like ours will be; it doesn't go near any downtown areas, just like ours won't; and it relies exclusively on shuttle buses for passenger distribution, just like ours will. Since then, a hugely expensive double-tracking project has nearly finished without any corresponding improvement in ridership. (The double-tracking has proceeded in phases; portions complete are already in use with their corresponding speed/reliability improvements).

My own observations from my trip home follow the excerpts and comments from this article in the Boca Raton News which appeared recently.

Critics, who suggest that Tri-Rail should be shot and put out of its financial misery, grudgingly admit that railroads are closely linked with the state�s continued development and growth. Resigned to Tri-Rail�s financial reality, but resolute about its future, Palm Beach County Commissioner Jeff Koons admitted Tri-Rail �will never, never, ever pay for itself� operationally. He nodded when asked if this will mean millions upon millions annually in continued local, state and federal subsidy. He continued to nod slowly when told that critics are outraged that it�s costing taxpayers about $46,000 each and every day so that about 9,000 persons per day on average can ride the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA) commuter rail service.

That kind of talk ignores the reality that automobile commuters are incredibly subsidized too, but it bears repeating that Tri-Rail's economic performance is far worse than most light-rail starts in this country. So you can't get rid of transit subsidies, but you CAN do a hell of a lot better than that.

And note "9,000 people per day". After 15 years. On a line much much longer than the one proposed for Austin.

Luksha is among the many South Floridians who derisively note that not a single Tri-Rail train goes through a single �downtown�, and only indirect services via, bus, taxi or Metrorail will get you to the region�s airports after getting off Tri-Rail.

Yup, just like Austin (nearly zero downtown workers work within the typically considered 1/4 mile walking distance of the station at the Convention Center, so don't even try me).

Koons sighs: �It�s tough trying to promote a railroad in the middle of I-95 construction.�

No, it's not. It should be even easier to get people to take grade-separated transit when the highway option gets worse. It's not, because the grade-separated transit option in this case has the fatal flaw of relying on shuttle buses to get people where they actually need to go.

�We�re too suburban,� according to Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty, who says Tri-Rail�s financial health in fact may depend on whether SFRTA can negotiate an agreement with Florida East Coast Railroad (FEC) for use of the FEC line that wanders through most of Florida�s urban areas. Without a FEC/TRI-Rail alliance, McCarty sees the need for continued subsidy because of the �inherent fear of feeder bus reliability.� The buses �are often late,� she explained.

The FEC railroad runs right through all of the major downtowns in the area -- meaning riders of a service there could actually walk from the train station to work.

They've learned from painful experience what we're going to learn because we fell for Mike Krusee and Fred Gilliam''s snow-job.

Now for my observations:

I saw half a dozen Tri-Rail trains (while driving on I-95). All were emptier than Capital Metro's worst bus routes. I got to see the line from Boynton Beach down to I-595 (Fort Lauderdale), and did not see one lick of transit-oriented development anywhere -- the same low-density warehouse sprawl that used to be around the line is still around the line.

A brand new station is under construction (nearly done) in Boca Raton on the old IBM property (where I used to work). This old IBM site was purchased by a company which has subleased to a ton of smaller firms about 5 years ago. The property is also currently full of new construction which seems mostly to be retail uses -- interestingly enough, they are oriented as far away from the rail line as feasible -- i.e. they do not view proximity to the train station as even slightly desirable. (And the existing offices in the old IBM buildings are a good hike from the train station - especially given South Florida's weather most of the year). This station's location was chosen after about five years of failed work trying to get a station built farther south as part of a new transit-oriented development.

Lesson: You don't get transit-oriented development around a failed rail line. Meaning: the developer contemplating building a project which will incur more cost and potentially less access for motorists is going to want to see people riding the train now who fit their economic profile - i.e. people who can afford cars, but are choosing to ride the train; not the people who ride the train because they have no other choice.

This does not bode well for the Capital Metro backers who think that transit-oriented development can make up for the poor routing of our own starter line.

January 05, 2005

New observations from South Florida, Part One

I've just returned from South Florida and will be assembling a few observations over the next couple of entries. This one focuses on bicycles - the transit article (mostly about Tri-Rail and its implications for Austin) comes next.

Delray Beach, the town immediately north of Boca Raton (where I grew up and where we stayed with my parents during most of the last 3 weeks), is obstructing a plan by the state highway department to rebuild state route A1A with standard bicycle lanes on each side. A1A is the main (in most parts the only) north-south route on the barrier islands which separate the ocean from the Intracoastal Waterway. In other words, this is the beach road, and not surprisingly, this is where the rich people mostly live. This is also where most people want to ride their bikes, for obvious reasons.

The state highway department in Florida seems to be very progressive, at least compared to TXDOT. On previous visits home, I've noticed a lot of (narrow but usable) bike lanes painted on major arterials throughout the region (this area, being mostly suburban, gets most major roads built and paid for by the state, as is the case here in Round Rock but not in Austin). In fact, A1A throughout Boca Raton was granted nice new bike lanes a few years ago, and they enjoy heavy use. This has resulted in a much saner trip for both drivers and cyclists on this road.

Anyways, the folks up in Delray who live on the road aren't happy with the plan to extend this facility further north; and they got their city commission to listen. The city came back with a proposal to build 3-feet wide mini-shoulders on the road, combined with 10-foot car lanes. Sound familiar? It's even worse when applied to South Florida, where so many drivers are marginally skilled and elderly. If the state bows to the wishes of the locals and builds this facility, people will be far worse off than with the current shared lane -- it will appear to drivers that it is safe to pass cyclists without crossing the double-yellow line, and people will get hurt and killed. There is some hope that the Florida DOT will overrule the local decision, and the local mainstream press has some opposition being heard in op-eds (which doesn't happen here thanks to the gutless Statesman), so it's all not yet lost, but I wouldn't say I'd bet on a positive outcome there.

This is a timely development since the restriping specified in the Great Shoal Creek Debacle of '00 is about to finally be implemented here in Austin -- the local neighbors, who glibly assert that "curb
extensions and lane stripping will be installed finally under a compromise
agreement between the Allandale and Rosedale neighborhoods, the city, cyclists,
pedestrians and emergency services." while participating in a process which showed that neighborhood thuggery will still beat sound engineering and progressive politics any day of the week, are going to see 10-feet "shared parking and bike" lanes next to 10-feet travel lanes. In other words, the most important bicycle route in the city (a "bicycle arterial" as I like to call it) is held hostage to on-street parking, and rendered less safe than it was before. This is a compromise in the sense that a deer and a wolf "agree" that the wolf will eat the deer.

This "compromise" (which I voted against at the UTC, all on my lonesome) was nothing more than a slap in the face to reasonable cyclists who want to coexist with drivers and parking -- as demonstrated by the original plan (with on-street parking preserved on one side of the street). And anybody who voted for this farce should be banned from ever claiming to be pro-bicycle-commuting for the rest of their life. It shows that you can't expect to get good results when you sell your basic principles for the sake of getting along, or, as an anonymous contributor to Michael Bluejay's list put it:

I am dismayed that Mike Dahmus was so damned right about this whole debacle from the very beginning. Although originally, I was very hopeful that a community consensus could be reached that could benefit everyone (and possibly even improve relations amongst the diverse users of SCB), I see now that I was completely naive. What we have now is little better than what we had originally: parking in bike lanes. I'm still hopeful that traffic will be a little calmer, but I doubt that drivers will remain in their lanes, and cyclists riding near the stripe will be at risk of being struck. Any possibility that a mutually beneficial result could emerge from a consensus-based process -- however slight -- was completely dashed when the whole process was hijacked by Paul Nagy. There was a point where Gandy had hood-winked everyone into thinking a panacea solution existed, when he should have known better that his "solution" would never make it past city engineers. (I actually don't feel bad at being deceived by this snake oil, as so many others -- except Dahmus -- were also taken in, including many from the bike community.) I place full blame for that on Gandy for playing politics by trying to please everyone when it's clear that that is impossible. We hired him as an "expert," and clearly he is not.

October 05, 2004

More on our Commuter Rail Model, Tri-Rail

http://www.browardpalmbeach.com/2004-04-15/news/next-stop-nowhere/

Again, this system is about the closest analogue out there to what Mike Krusee's puppets at Capital Metro are proposing this time around. It serves primarily suburban areas; doesn't reach any downtowns or other activity centers; has high-frequency "circulators" at every station; etc.

One key difference, though: Tri-Rail's 15-year experiment with the horrible route doesn't preclude them, at least technically, from going to a much better route (down the FEC railroad which DOES run through the major actviity centers of the region). In Austin's case, if commuter rail is built, you can't technically OR politically build light-rail on the 2000 corridor, and I don't think you can even do it on the modified "keep going north on Lamar" corridor proposed briefly in 2003. In other words, we're worse off - if we're making a mistake here, we not only waste a decade or more and a hundred million bucks, we ALSO prevent ourselves from building the rail right.

Excerpts:


A week's worth of trips on the Tri-Rail, South Florida's poky, 15-year-old commuter railway, recently confirmed the conventional rat-racing wisdom: The train serves not the region's most populated areas but the fringes. It doesn't offer riders destinations they truly need or desire, nor convenient times to get there. It's underutilized, even during rush hour. It's not located where people like Nick -- an unemployed construction worker who says he's "between cars" -- are most likely to use it.

[...]

Since its start, Tri-Rail has operated on the CSX tracks, west of I-95. After about $1 billion of expenditures on its current line, transportation officials are considering shifting their main focus to the more desirable Florida East Coast Railway line, which links the region's coastal city centers. The FEC, long resistant to the idea, now says it's willing, maybe. The state has applied for $5 million in federal funds to analyze options along the FEC corridor where, critics say, Tri-Rail should have been located all along.

"Was this the best investment?" asks Steve Polzin, director of public transit research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "You wonder what could have been accomplished if they had not rushed into it. If, for example, they'd waited a few years and bought the FEC." Tri-Rail began operating in January 1989 to alleviate traffic during construction on I-95. As the highway project continued unabated, though, the commuter train became a permanent fixture. But Tri-Rail officials never took their eyes off the far-preferable downtown route -- even now, in the midst of its largest overhaul ever, including the construction of a second track along the 72-mile line and a new bridge over the New River, both of which are under way to the tune of $340 million.

Is a second track to nowhere really the answer? "It'll be nice to have," Polzin concedes. "There's value in having a corridor in good condition with double-track capacity. But is it worth that much money, especially if something happens with the rail farther to the east? When you think of the expenditure, you could argue that a marginal demand necessitated it."

Joseph Giulietti, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, acknowledges that the new plan may render the current Tri-Rail obsolete. "But when you've invested a little over a billion dollars to make this one functional -- which it is," he says, "you have to look at how to support that function."

[...]

Tri-Rail runs through a metropolitan strip that's now home to 5.2 million people. In February, it carried just 10,151 passengers a day (the highest average since April 1994). Unlike most commuter rail systems, it doesn't serve even one downtown area. "It's unique nationally in the sense that it doesn't penetrate a downtown," Polzin notes. "It's an anomaly. You scratch your head and ask, 'Could they have done more with it?'"

[...]

But Polzin isn't quite ready to call Tri-Rail a failure. "It's certainly not a raving success," he says, "but the community seems comfortable with it. At least you feel good that you tried. But you have to ask how much additional investment, if any, makes sense. Perhaps there will be a greater appreciation for commuter rail in the future, but it's not a slam-dunk by any stretch of the imagination."

Tri-Rail wants to boost ridership to 68,000 a day by 2015, which would reduce the cost per rider from a current $8.81 to $5.06. Back in 1999, the agency's then-director, Linda Bohlinger, gave the commuter system five years to accumulate 20,000 riders a day, opining that if that goal weren't reached, "either we don't know what we're doing or the public doesn't really need it."

Again, this is what Mike Krusee wants for Austin: a rail line which requires that you transfer to shuttle buses if you want to get anywhere, and that doesn't go anywhere near the densest residential parts of the city. Does this sound like a good idea to anyone?

October 04, 2004

Lessons from South Florida

I can't believe it took me this long to find this link, but I finally got it.

http://www.floridacdc.org/articles/030930-1.htm

Excerpts:

Some South Florida leaders are itching to introduce something new to the region's commuter rail service: a train that takes people somewhere they want to go.

As it stands, Tri-Rail rides on tracks beside Interstate 95. The agency's trains go through no downtowns, and provide only indirect service to the region's airports. Getting where you want to go generally involves a second trip via bus, bike, taxi or Metrorail.

The CSX line currently being used by Tri-Rail requires transfers to shuttle buses to get anywhere useful, just like the proposed Austin commuter rail line.

This article talks about efforts to get Tri-Rail service on another existing rail line which actually runs through the downtown areas of the major cities in the region (allowing people to walk to offices, basically).

Another excerpt:

In a telephone interview, Winton said the FEC line would offer a serious alternative to driving for the growing number of people who commute between counties.

Now, a Broward commuter who works in downtown Miami would have to drive to a Tri-Rail station, take the train to a Metrorail station, take Metrorail to downtown, and possibly take Metromover after that.

In contrast, a passenger service on the FEC line would link downtown Miami with, for example, downtown Fort Lauderdale, which has thousands of new apartments and condominiums either built or on the way.

In hindsight, the decision to put Tri-Rail on the CSX track was probably unwise, Winton said.

''I think it was a huge mistake,'' he said. ``It doesn't seem logical to me. It clearly hurts ridership by a ton.''