The headline, appearing Friday afternoon on the website of the august business magazine Forbes, was an attention grabber.
In the lengthy article, Forbes.com contributor Scott Beyer took that assessment a step or two further. The 6-year-old MetroRail line from downtown Austin to Leander, Beyer wrote in an article that bounced around social media pages over the weekend and had about 15,300 total views by Monday afternoon, is “perhaps America’s leading rail transit failure.”
Capital Metro officials, who said Monday that they were never contacted for the article, don’t dispute most of the facts Beyer cited about ridership and costs. MetroRail, given its typical weekday ridership of less than 3,000 boardings and a 2015-16 operating cost of about $17.2 million, is indeed highly subsidized by taxes and far less efficient than the transit agency’s regular bus service.
But they said that despite the Forbes pedigree, the article is as much an opinion piece as it is a news report.
“Regardless of the source of the article, it makes sense to us that they would actually contact us and get direct input for the article,” said Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, “instead of coming in and making a relatively uninformed, quick assessment with what seemed to be preconceived outcomes.”
Beyer, who said he has written more than 100 articles for Forbes.com over the past year, described himself in an interview Monday as a “fiscal conservative” with libertarian leanings. And he is no fan of light rail, he said. MetroRail, given the wide spacing of its stops and its diesel-powered trains (rather than electric-powered) is considered “hybrid rail” by the Federal Transit Administration rather than light rail.
“I just don’t think it works,” Beyer said of MetroRail. “If you’re going to build it, at least build it in a central location. It just didn’t make sense to me.”
On his website BigCitySparkplug.com, Beyer describes himself as “a cross-country traveler who covers U.S. urban issues” and who has been a journalist for two years. He said he is in the middle of an odyssey to 30 U.S. cities, planning to live in each of them about a month. The point, he said on his website, is to write a book about “market urbanism,” which he describes as the nexus of free-market economics and urban issues.
In the Forbes article, he reports the capital cost of building MetroRail (the project took more than five years to open after voter approval in November 2004) as $148 million at one point, and at $140 million at another. Capital Metro acknowledges that what was to be a $90 million project eventually cost $139.9 million. It opened two years late.
And Beyer writes that he “stumbled upon” an eerily empty Leander MetroRail station (32 miles from downtown Austin) on a Saturday morning. MetroRail, as Beyer acknowledges in the article, does not open for service until 4 p.m. on Saturdays. In the interview with the Statesman, Beyer said he was roaming the Austin suburbs as part of his research and did indeed come upon the empty station unexpectedly.
As for not contacting Capital Metro, Beyer said he intends to interview agency officials for a followup article, along with other Austin transit players such as retired high tech executive Jim Skaggs, who has vigorously opposed rail projects here.
MetroRail, as Beyer says in the article, is much more inefficient than Capital Metro’s express bus service, which originates at some of the same suburban locations, and, in particular, Capital Metro’s local bus service. Based on fiscal 2015 figures from the agency, MetroRail’s operating cost was $18.91 for each of the 792,333 boardings in 2014-15.
MetroExpress, more or less point-to-point bus service to and from downtown, which includes routes from Leander, Cedar Park, Northwest Austin and Wells Branch, was twice as efficient, costing $9.27 for each rider. Local bus service, with 22.3 million rides in fiscal 2015 at an operating cost of $110.1 million, cost $4.94 per ride.
MetroRail trains are at capacity during the crucial peak commuting hours of the morning and afternoon and nearly empty much of the rest of the time. The original project was kept cheap for rail (about $4.4 million per mile) in part because Capital Metro bought only six rail cars and installed passing track in only three places. An ongoing $85 million project, to be done by late 2018, would double that commute-time capacity and, assuming latent demand along the route, increase ridership.
By the numbers
As with many transit services, Capital Metro is heavily subsidized by taxes, with fares covering only a fraction of the operating costs.
$18.91 — Operating cost per ride on MetroRail in 2014-15.
$9.27 — Operating cost per ride on MetroExpress bus service.
$4.94 — Operating cost per ride on regular Cap Metro buses.
Source: Capital Metro