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 UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.