The Tale of Two Transit Systems: The Folly of Rail in th 21st Century

     Metro is in the process of re-examining its long-term strategy and mission.  It is an examination that is overdue.  In considering where Metro goes from here, we should look carefully at the comparison between its experience and that of Dallas’ DART.
     At around six million people, METRO and DART have roughly the same population in their service areas.  However, DART’s service area is only about half the size of METRO’s (1303 sq. mi. vs. 657 sq. mi.) making its population density considerably higher, which is a significant advantage when developing a transit system.
     Shortly after their formations in the late 1970s and early 1980s, METRO and DART took very different routes to build out their transit systems.
     DART made an early commitment to rail, snagging federal grants and investing heavily with local funds, eventually building 119 miles of rail transit.  Houston, on the other hand, has been slow to commit to rail, only recently completing its 43-mile network.
     Conversely, METRO has continued a much more robust bus service, operating a fleet of nearly 1,400 buses while DART’s fleet is light less than half that number.
     By almost every objective measurement, METRO’s strategy of relying more on buses has worked out much better than DART’s reliance on rail.
Ridership
     In 2016, METRO carried about a third more riders than DART (89,000 vs. 66,000).   Both organizations have struggled to attract new riders.  Since 2000, DART’s ridership has only increased by about 10% notwithstanding its extensive investment in rail.  METRO has lost about 12% of its ridership since it began investing in rail in 2000.
     In 2012, DART completed a significant expansion of its rail system, yet its ridership has since declined almost 10%.  METRO recently opened the expansion of its light rail system and rolled out a new bus schedule.  Initially, the new light rail and revised bus schedule had little effect, but the 2017 monthly ridership so far has seen some modest improvement.  We will have to see more data to assess whether the improvement continues and whether it is the result of METRO’s changes or a firming up of the local economy.
Financial Costs
     The most dramatic difference in the agencies’ comparative strategies has been the effect on their finances.  METRO’s revenues and expenses are about 15% higher than DART’s.  But METRO has a significant advantage in the overall cost per rider at $9.27 versus DART’s $11.28.  Fares pay less than 10% of the cost of the service at both agencies.  (Why taxpayers should pay 90% of the cost of transit is another question for another day!)
     The differential on the balance sheet is stunning.  DART now carries over $4 billion in debt, more than double METRO’s.  That works out to a debt per daily rider of about $62 for DART compared to $21 for METRO.  The debt DART has incurred to build its rail system will be an albatross around the necks of Dallas taxpayers for decades.
Conclusion
     For years rail advocates have told us that if we build a robust rail system it will attract riders and reduce congestion.  They rarely discuss the costs because rail systems are so hideously expensive.
     But the DART experience clearly disproves their argument.  DART had every advantage to develop a successful rail system.  It began early when federal grants were paying a higher percentage of the costs.  Its service area is smaller and considerably denser than METRO’s.  It had local support to incur billions in debt to build out the system.  And yet, its ridership has only marginally improved since it began its massive investment of taxpayer funds and it has actually begun to decline in the last few years.
     Interestingly, transit ridership nationally also stalled out about a decade ago and has also declined for the last three years, very similar to the DART experience.
     Notwithstanding the massive investment in rail over the last two decades made throughout the country, only about 4% of the total daily trips made by Americans are on any form of transit, and less than 2% on rail.  Bus ridership has been unchanged for the last two decades.  It would be interesting, but ultimately impossible to know how bus ridership might have improved if even a fraction of the billions spent on rail had instead been invested in improving the bus service.
     With the advent of disruptive transportation technologies like ride sharing, self-driving cars and the electrification of transportation power systems, any further investment in this highly inflexible technology would be folly.  We need to be building a transportation system for the next century, not the last one.
    But there is something akin to a religious belief in rail that I have never been able to understand.  The late, great Bob Lanier best summarized it:
"First, rail's supporters say 'It's cheaper.' When you show it costs more, they say, 'It's faster.' When you show it's slower, they say, 'It serves more riders.' When you show there are fewer riders, they say, 'It brings economic development. When you show no economic development, they say, 'It helps the image.' When you say you don't want to spend that much money on image, they say, 'It will solve the pollution problem. When you show it won't help pollution, they say, finally, 'It will take time. You'll see.'"
     Dallas’ multi-billion dollar experiment with rail has proved Mayor Bob right.  Sorry to all my friends that continue to believe rail is the solution to our mobility problems, but time is up.
[If someone forwarded you this email and you would like to be added to my distribution lists, please send me your email address at weking@weking.net.  Also, previous emails are posted at www.BillKingBlog.net]