Show me the money

Some days, the transit debate feels like a battle of extremes. On one side are people who want no transit at all. On the other side are people who always want more. This post is a challenge to the latter.

METRO is proposing to spend $1.2 billion — roughly half local funding and half federal funding — to build 28 miles of urban high-quality transit by 2012. Of those, 8.8 are LRT and 19.2 are BRT:

A lot of people on the east and north sides of town are upset that they’re getting BRT instead of LRT. That makes sense; LRT is nicer. But BRT is about 2/3 the cost of LRT. So we could replace 19.2 miles of BRT with 11.5 miles of LRT. But wait: METRO replaced LRT with BRT because on those lines, LRT didn’t meet federal cost effectiveness requirements (tightened since the 2003 vote). So LRT means no 50% federal funding. Thus 19.2 miles of BRT means 5.8 miles of LRT:

If you live along Harrisburg or on the North Side, or if you commute from 290 to Uptown, sorry.

But of course a lot of people don’t like street level light rail. To avoid accidents and traffic impacts, they say, we need to elevate. Monorail costs something like $160 million a mile (that’s the cost for the Las Vegas line, the only full-sized urban monorail built in the U.S. in years), about 2 1/2 times the cost of street-level light rail. Elevated light rail would be similar. Of course, elevating everything means we lose federal funding on the Universities line as well. Thus 8.3 miles of LRT and 19.2 miles of BRT becomes 3.8 miles of monorail (we’ll keep the 0.5 mile LRT extension of the Main Street line to the Northern Intermodal Center.) We can connect Main Street to Greenway Plaza. And that’s it:

But elevated structures are ugly. So how about we build a subway? That’s even more expensive: 300 million a mile or more. So that leaves us with 2 miles of subway. It’s great transit — from Main Street to Kirby. Maybe you can walk to Greenway from there:

Nobody’s going to be happy with that. But I can already guess a different response. You might say that $1.2 billion is not a lot of money. That’s the cost overrun on the Katy Freeway project (original estimate: $1.4 billion. Cost now: $2.7 billion plus) and less than the yearly profit at Haliburton. For that matter, it’s the weekly cost of the war in Iraq.

OK. But Haliburton’s not going to build us a free rail line. And neither will the Pentagon. Government money comes in pots. There’s highway funding, and there’s transit funding. METRO gets its money from its own sales tax and from the FTA. The Katy Freeway’s cost comes from TxDOT, HCTRA, and FHA, and none of those agencies are funding rail transit.

For that matter, as Robin points out, METRO has different pots. 1/4 of METRO’s tax revenues — $100 million a year, or 20 more miles of federally funded light rail by 2012 — gets distributed to local governments. And we voted in 2003 to continue that until 2014.

So you want more transit? You want monorail or elevated rail or subway? If even the first map above looks small to you, don’t blame METRO. They can only work with what they have. I would love for there to be a miracle technology that would solve all our transit problems. There isn’t. Ultimately, the only way to get better transit is to pay for it.

So it seems to me you have two choices: either you think about how to work with the money we have, or you figure out where more money would come from. The former means compromise. The latter means changing our political culture.

Cities that have built major rail transit systems have mayors and county leaders who present the public with a vision of what their city might be like and how transit will be a part of that. They have state legislatures and governors that interpret “transportation policy” to mean more than building highways. And they have congressional representatives who fight to get money for rail projects. And they have all of that not because of happenstance but because citizens demanded it.

So stop complaining. And do something.

More in the forums.

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