The news last week that Capital Metro will be spending almost $66 million to install federally mandated safety controls on its MetroRail line brought to mind a similar figure from the commuter service’s 2004 birth.
And it reminds us, once again, that the original cost estimates for transit projects often turn out to be spectacularly optimistic. How optimistic? Keep reading.
Back when the proposed 32-mile rail line from downtown Austin to Leander was on the ballot in 2004, the agency and the people pushing for MetroRail’s passage emphasized that the project would cost $60 million to build. And this modest investment — in passenger rail terms — would produce, we were assured, 2,000 boardings a day initially, 6,900 a day by 2017 and 16,700 a day by 2025.
The agency in 2004 also said it would pay a manufacturer an estimated $30 million, under a lease-purchase agreement, to obtain the six rail cars it would need for the initial service. So, taken together, $90 million for the whole thing. But the $60 million number was the prominent figure in all the campaign brochures and commercials.
The figure was so cheap, we voters were told, because Capital Metro already owned the rail line and was running freight on it. The agency, in fact, had already spent $35 million to upgrade its overall 162-mile freight rail line from Llano to Giddings, including $8 million within the potential commuter rail corridor. Agency officials at the time considered it churlish of me to point out that earlier investment, and to ponder in print whether it was preemptive commuter rail spending.
Anyway, voters said yes to MetroRail (62 percent of them) and by March 2010 — more than two years late — we had ourselves a passenger line in Austin. Initial ridership was less than half of projections, and the agency soon scrambled to add Friday night and Saturday service, and more midday runs. That quickly got ridership up to that initial 2,000 a day projection, then, with further tweaks, to the 2,500 to 3,000 a day level.
That is basically where ridership still sits. The weekday average boardings between July 2016 and this June was 2,900 a day, most of them commuters making two boardings each day.
Sharp-eyed readers will note that is a smidgen below the original 2017 projection. In fact, it is about 42 percent of the projection. As for the 2025 estimate, well, the calendar does require some prudence. No one knew in 2008, for instance, that the GOP would nominate a New York real estate developer and reality television performer for president eight years later. And that he would win. Anything could happen, I suppose.
And one thing that is happening is that Capital Metro has bought four more train cars (they’re in town, being tested), is adding passing track in several places and is designing a much larger, multi-track and multi-platform downtown station. The total cost for that project: $85 million.
That will allow the agency to run twice as many trains in the morning and afternoon rush, when some of its train runs are standing-room-only. The agency’s assumption is that there is latent demand for the commuter service and, when the trains are running every 15 minutes rather than every 30 minutes as they do now, and when everyone gets a seat rather than having to stand for almost an hour, ridership will go up appreciably.
Some of that added service, Capital Metro tells me, will begin in January — long before the downtown station expansion is complete — and the agency’s next budget projects that MetroRail ridership will be 17 percent higher in the coming October-to-September fiscal year. Projected over a full calendar year, that would be 25 percent higher, or about 3,600 a day. Still well short of 6,900 daily boardings and, of course, just an estimate at this point.
As for the original $60 million projection (or $90 million with the cars), the cost of getting MetroRail up and running grew to what the agency eventually acknowledged was $140 million, for a lot of reasons. The cars cost $36 million rather than $30 million. The agency had to add an expensive rail bridge over an intersecting Union Pacific rail line. And the original track control systems turned out to be more complex and expensive than expected.
And that $140 million figure doesn’t even include the three park-and-ride lots that serve train stations, an expense of $20 million or more that the agency ascribed to bus service emanating from that same parking lots.
So, all in (and not counting the park and rides), you have that $140 million, the $8 million spent on the track before 2004, the $85 million for current expansion and now $66 million in federally mandated safety controls. That is $299 million, or roughly 400 percent above the primary estimate used by the campaign.
And for that expenditure, by sometime next year or in 2019, we will get something above the current 2,900 boardings a day. To get to 17,600 a day (the 2025 estimate) will probably require other large investments, such as extending a “green line” to Manor or even Elgin on the existing freight track. At an unknown additional cost.
It’s fair to note that Capital Metro is incurring the $66 million expense for “positive train control” — trackside and on-board electronic equipment that slows or stops a train that is running toward an obstacle or travelling at an unsafe speed — only because Congress required it in 2008 legislation. The agency, with its current track signals and communications system, has run its passenger and freight service safely for more than seven years, with MetroRail and Watco freight train service occurring at segregated time periods.
But that’s what happens with large systems: the unforeseen, the unintended consequences, the rose-shaded glasses.