Here we go again: Capital Metro and the city of Austin are still trying to figure out how to improve mobility. First, we had Ben Wear’s April 8th Statesman report about Capital Metro’s plans for transit corridors. Then, we had Capital Metro’s Randy Clarke with his April 14th Statesman Viewpoint titled “Long-Term Investment in Transit Upgrades Vital.”
Capital Metro uses population and traffic woes in an attempt to get people’s support for their outdated ideas and ineffective solutions. This talk about millions of additional people in the next 20-30 years does not mean spending billions on transit is the answer. Now, Capital Metro talks about quality of life and affordability issues, and touts Project Connect as being “multigenerational.” Actually, Project Connect’s plan will take us backwards to early transit days, while ignoring mobility’s future reality that is being created by new, flexible and cost-effective approaches.
Touting billions spent in other cities — with huge traffic issues that continue to get worse — means nothing. Comparison of other cities and counties that have transportation “options” doesn’t mean anything if cost benefits are not applied. Touting the recent increase in ridership percentages is very misleading. Claiming investments have increased transit ridership is very questionable, since Capital Metro has been on a 20-year declining trend in ridership while the regional population has increased over 50 percent.
There’s no evidence that most people plan to abandon their automobile, whether the car has a driver, is driverless, or is a ride-hailing service. A new study by UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies shows mass transit use in Southern California has declined significantly in the past decade, and by 15 percent in the past 5 years alone. This study reflects a national trend, with transit ridership falling in every major urban area except Seattle, whose ridership grew less than 3 percent last year.
As to this talk about how transit is a vital link to solving population growth and traffic mitigation: If transit were really a legitimate solution, we should have seen improvement by now. Thinking big to Capital Metro means spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year, yet we have little to show for it. In fact, they’ve had 33 years — and over $4 billion — without making any real dent in our traffic congestion.
With their dismal track record of producing solutions to traffic problems, imagine giving Capital Metro or the city of Austin $6 billion to $10 billions of dollars more! We need to be careful about future spending on public transit – especially rail. As an example, Capital Metro’s Red Line has an average weekday ridership of 2,800. But ridership is based on every time someone boards the train, meaning that a commuter who uses it to get to and from work is counted twice. Using that formula, the Red Line averages considerably less than 2,000 weekday riders. Taxpayers subsidize this line to the tune of over $15 million in operating costs per year, plus capital costs, for a total of more than $15,000 per rider.
This area needs to first build a comprehensive roadway network. Capital Metro needs to focus on providing the best bus system to serve those who have no alternative. And, with the latest decision by the State Highway Commission to not allow new toll roads and lanes, our need for more local money to fund road building is critical. We need to spend our money on tangible, proven methods that give citizens real mobility choices.
Capital Metro and the city of Austin are setting the stage to again ask for an unbelievable amount of money for something that’s never been proven to truly help reduce congestion in cities like Austin. This is to plant the seed for a multibillion dollar bond election in 2020. This is irresponsible, and would siphon all the money needed for real solutions.
We’ll need these local dollars to do something that actually helps traffic and to leverage these dollars with the Texas Department of Transportation for improvements on our major roadways. If we burden ourselves with such a huge bond debt, we’ll waste billions of taxpayer dollars for no benefit, and won’t have money for what’s really needed: adding to and improving our badly needed roadway capacity.
Daugherty is the Travis County commissioner in Precinct 3.