Aug 012016
Owen Courrèges

Owen Courrèges

Oscar Wilde once called experience “the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” In this sense, it is very useful to discuss Austin’s “experience” in building commuter rail. You see, commuter rail was originally envisioned as a remedy for congestion and an environmental boon, a sound investment in transportation infrastructure.

Instead, it turned out to be a cautionary tale, one New Orleans would best heed.

Austin debuted Capital Metrorail in March of 2010. The 32-mile line was presented as economical given that it utilized existing freight rail tracks; however, the cost grew from an estimated $90 million to a whopping $148 million due to cost overruns.

With more than six years of service under its proverbial belt, Capital Metrorail has revealed itself to be a massive boondoggle. Writing for Forbes Magazine, contributor Scott Beyer, describes Capital Metrorail as being “perhaps America’s leading rail transit failure.

The numbers bear out Beyer’s characterization. “In 2014, the rail line had an operating deficit of $12.6 million,” Beyer wrote. “The upfront capital costs of $140 million, when amortized at 2% over 30 years, creates an additional $6.2 million annual cost to taxpayers.”

“Add these two sums up, and then divide them by the line’s number of annual unlinked trips—763,551—and the per-trip subsidy works out to $24.62.”

That’s staggering. Virtually all public transit involves some subsidies, of course, but it ought not be comparable to cab fare. According to one estimate, each daily, round-trip rider is costing the city roughly $10,000 per year.

Even worse, Beyer noted, is the fact that Capital Metrorail’s high capital costs have forced bus service cuts and reduced transit ridership overall. Rail transports only 2.6% of Austin’s transit ridership while consuming 8.5% of operating expenses. That kind of cost-ineffectiveness isn’t without practical consequences.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans appeared to be headed onto the same path as Austin. Proposals had been floated for a light rail line from downtown to Louis Armstrong Airport, along with a commuter rail line using existing freight rails between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Later, the latter project was re-imagined as a high speed rail project by the Obama Administration.

These ideas never materialized, although they’re still on the table. Instead, New Orleans has pushed forward with equally inane transit policies.

The first of these was the legendary “streetcar to nowhere” on a brief section of Loyola Avenue in the Central Business District. Like Austin’s Metrorail, it ran into major cost overruns and failed to deliver on its promises. Worse, the line made transit worse by forcing unnecessary transfers from pre-existing bus lines cut short to boost ridership numbers.

The next is the streetcar expansion on Rampart, which is currently under construction. Once again, the line is being created at massive expense even as the city has failed to restore adequate bus service. The opportunity costs are glaring.

In the midst of both of these mistakes, local politicians and transit advocates still envision a light rail line out to the airport and commuter rail service to Baton Rouge. Even though both these functions could be accomplished far more cheaply (and arguably, more effectively) with well-managed bus service, that option is barely even being discussed.

It’s almost as though rail has been fetishized to the degree where we see it as an end unto itself. Regardless of the expense, we’ll continue to build more rail while our transit network remains a shell of its former self because rail is sexy and buses are not.

The numbers don’t matter. They can always be fudged later or, as is the case with Austin, ignored entirely.

The thing is, infrastructure isn’t supposed to be sexy. It’s supposed to work, and the focus on rail transit just isn’t working for us. Unless we start to understand that, we’re just setting ourselves up to be the next great cautionary tale.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  3 Responses to “Owen Courreges: Can New Orleans learn from Austin’s commuter-rail boondoggle?”

  1. By all accounts Austin’s Capitol MetroRail is a failure, however I fail to see the similarities to the planned New Orleans-Baton Rouge line or the new streetcars. Yes NORTA’s plan that cut bus lines was a disaster and fortunately they will be restoring the affected bus lines this fall. The Loyola line itself isn’t very useful, but when combined with the new Rampart line should be a success. By the way the Rampart line appears poised to be on time and under-budget, so let’s give credit where credit is due. NORTA is also adding more frequency on many lines as well as late night service, so things are improving.

    The main difference between New Orleans and Austin is that New Orleans has a well established transit system, and is easily walkable and bikeable. A line terminating at the UPT would be walking distance to several huge venues, tens of thousands of hotel rooms, millions of square feet of office space, and thousands of apartments. The UPT is well connected to long distance trains and buses as well as many of the city’s local buses and streetcars. Austin’s transit is poor and most travel there requires a car. Its rail line doesn’t even connect to the airport – ours would.

    The fact is rail would help to address growing traffic in a corridor that would be hugely expensive to upgrade. Not to mention the relief it could bring during emergencies when I-10 is shut down or evacuations are occurring. New Orleans is suffering from a shortage of housing, while Baton Rouge and the closer suburbs will need to be connected to our businesses, airport and other facilities to remain viable. Baton Rouge has recently seen several major companies leave due to lack of air access and big city amenities – something that a quality rail connection could have prevented.

    • Phillip,

      I disagree for several reasons. There are a lot of misconceptions in what you’re saying here, so I’m going to try and address them individually:

      “The Loyola line itself isn’t very useful, but when combined with the new Rampart line should be a success.”

      There’s no reason why this would be the case. My understanding is that people will still have to transfer at Canal, so the Rampart line doesn’t add anything to the Loyola line. The only difference is that you’ll be transferring to another streetcar instead of a bus.

      “NORTA is also adding more frequency on many lines as well as late night service, so things are improving.”

      This implies that we’re seeing substantial improvements, and we aren’t. Bus service is still down by roughly half since Katrina, and that’s embarrassing. Instead of rectifying that situation, we’re investing in tourist-oriented rail lines like Loyola and Rampart that serve far fewer people.

      “The main difference between New Orleans and Austin is that New Orleans has a well established transit system, and is easily walkable and bikeable.”

      Same problem here; New Orleans simply doesn’t have a well established transit system. It was decimated by Katrina and hasn’t come close to being rebuilt. It is true that the city is more densely laid out than Austin, but that’s all the more reason to rely on a network of inexpensive buses as opposed to trying to consolidate transit into expensive streetcar lines. There are opportunity costs involved; more people could be transported more places with buses. We know because that’s what we were doing before Katrina.

      “The fact is rail [between New Orleans and Baton Rouge] would help to address growing traffic in a corridor that would be hugely expensive to upgrade.”

      Even the most generous projections don’t show a commuter rail line to Baton Rouge making more than a small dent in traffic. It will come at considerable expense and will be unlikely to take pressure off of I-10. I could be wrong, but I foresee that it would have to be massively-subsidized without much benefit for either city.

  2. Does anyone in town actually believe that the Midget, his Council Cronies and Casual City Crooks will let an open rathole of cash go untended? No. Lubed and ready. I apologise for the cheap alliteration.

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