Forbes online post misses MetroRail’s true value and impact

packedtrainA recent online opinion piece on Forbes.com discussed perceived drawbacks to commuter rail as a public transportation service, with a focus on MetroRail, which included an unfair and derogatory headline. We welcome input and inquiries from our customers, the community and journalists, as it provides Capital Metro with new perspectives on the range of services the agency provides. The thought and energy that go into the feedback we receive is remarkable and reflective of our community’s intelligence and thoroughness. There is some question as to the thoroughness of the Forbes.com post, however, and we would like to highlight a few things related to MetroRail and how the service works as a catalyst for new and exciting development in the region.

Had the author contacted us, we would have shared with him the following:

  • He says the Leander Station is “essentially in a rural area” and that “the further north along the line I rode, the more obvious it became that this really was a train to nowhere.” In fact, Leander is home to more than 38,000 residents and is the fastest growing city in the USA with a population of 15,000 or more. It has seen a 43 percent increase in population since the beginning of MetroRail service in 2010. Leander is also served by MetroExpress bus service.
  • The Leander Station is at the center of Capital Metro’s 14-acre transit-oriented development (TOD) zone and adjacent to a mixed-use development, a number of single-family homes and the upcoming 100-acre Austin Community College campus. St. David’s HealthCare is also developing a new medical facility on 52 acres adjacent to the zone.
  • Had the author experienced the train during rush hour, he would have seen the trains are often standing room only, as they also are during the many special events held in Austin each year. On a related note, the author asserts that passenger rail should not be built because he believes it can only serve rush hours. If that’s the case, why would we ever add more lanes to major road arteries when they, too, are mostly crowded during rush hour?
  • The author writes the 32-mile stretch of rail infrastructure had “little to no surrounding development,” but the site selection for MetroRail’s nine stations has served as a catalyst for significant TOD, with more than $95 million in private development since 2009 built around MetroRail Stations so far, including 5,520 new residences; 1,634 new hotel rooms; and 1.7 million sq. ft. of new office, commercial and retail space currently planned or in construction within a half-mile of MetroRail Stations.
  • Knowing TOD is important to him, we would have shared more information about substantial development occurring around the Downtown, Plaza Saltillo, MLK, Highland, Crestview, Kramer and Leander MetroRail stations, plus our own investment in expanded Park & Ride facilities at Howard and Lakeline (to which we are adding 400 more spaces due to current overcapacity). We have also been approached by several major developers seeking to relocate stations to be directly proximate to their projects, a clear sign that investors in Austin realize the mobility and access value of MetroRail service.
  • Similarly, the photos he took of the Downtown and MLK Stations depicting them empty were taken at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday. The last departure from the Downtown Station is currently at 6:30 p.m. After we add double tracking and more vehicles in 2018 as planned, we will likely add later service. Until then, freight operations, which support Capital Metro’s operating budget with $5 million annually, take over until the next morning’s commute, removing an estimated 120,000 18-wheelers off the road each year.
  • It is important to keep in mind that MetroRail is not a light rail system but rather a commuter rail system (which operates differently) that is a critical component of the larger Capital Metro transit network. It has provided more than 4 million rides since 2010. Going forward, grant-funded vehicle and track additions will give Capital Metro the ability to move more MetroRail passengers at higher frequencies over longer periods of time.
  • To clarify, the author writes the rail project’s costs “escalated” from $90 to $148 million, but the total cost was $139.9 million. While the overage certainly exceed initial estimates, because the rail already existed in the corridor, the MetroRail line was actually one of the least expensive commuter rail systems to be built.

As Central Texas continues to grow, so does our MetroRail service and the communities that have grown around it. Capital Metro welcomes all questions and concerns that come our way, but we must disagree with the Forbes contributing writer that our “urban and suburban transit is stagnant.” MetroRail is driving progress and will continue to do so long into the future with our community and business partners.

45 thoughts on “Forbes online post misses MetroRail’s true value and impact

  1. will

    Hate to break this to you darling, but the Forbes reporter is right on the money. But I do thank you for not attacking Forbes magazines founder Steve Forbes, a Republican. Hard to not have the partisan rhetoric of big government in general by agencies receiving tax revenue. I used to live in Austin and had to shop in Leander so I could by food because of the discriminatory plastic bag ban. And let me tell you the train from Leander to Lakeline was never ever standing room only. I think you are missing the reporters point, as he rode from Leander into Austin not from Lakeline station. If Leander is growing as fast as you say it is, then how come local 7 day a week service is not being provided? I have seen much more traffic in Missouri city, Fort Bend County than I have seen out to Leander, yet the main street light rail hasn’t taken much cars of the road either.

    1. Capital Metro

      Hi Will,
      Thanks for your response. In just a short amount of time (2010- 2014) ridership on the MetroRail commuter line more than quadrupled–and is still growing. Many riders have told us that during weekday commuter times, the trains are full. This is also true during special events. The reason we don’t offer 7-day service on MetroRail at this time is because we share the track with freight trains, which run when the commuter service is not running. We’re in the process of expanding the Red Line, however, adding more cars to carry more people and at greater frequency. The expanded line is slated to launch in 2018. You can read more about that here: https://capmetroblog.com/2016/02/22/great-things-are-in-the-works-metrorail-undergoing-expansion/ Also check out pages 11 & 33 of our recent annual report: http://www.capmetro.org/uploadedFiles/Capmetroorg/About_Us/CMTA_2015_AnnualReport.pdf ^AP

  2. I can see the train stop from my apartment. I still only use the train less than once a month. It stops running at something like 6:30 on weekdays. So if I wanted to go downtown for dinner and a show, I’d have to drive. It doesn’t run at all on Sundays (have you heard of the NFL?). Doesn’t start til 4:30 on Saturdays. The last train on Friday or Saturday night leaving downtown is shortly after midnight. It doesn’t go to the airport or even South of the river. It goes one place I’d ever want to take it (hint: it’s not Leander). This is the most useless public transit option I’ve ever seen.

  3. Randall

    Your response proves that your agency has no idea what it’s doing. You have no idea which population you’re trying to serve. If you want to serve Leander taxpayers instead of Austin’s, get your goddamn hands out of Austin taxpayer’s pockets. Also, stop lying about your choo choo train’s impact on density. Almost entirely every new apartment or condo built within walking distance to the Red Line would have been built without the existence of the Red Line.

    1. mdahmus

      Randall’s right about development. Capital Metro and their water-carriers like to give the Red Line credit for 3 story buildings at Crestview “Station” while ignoring the fact that a mile further in, at the Triangle, where there’s no rail, the market provided quite a bit MORE density.

      All you need to do around here to get at least 3 stories anywhere close to the core is loosen zoning. Transit has absolutely nothing to do with it.

    2. Capital Metro

      Hi Randall,
      Our service area includes Austin, Jonestown, Lago Vista, Leander, Manor, Point Venture, San Leanna, Volente, and portions of Travis County and Williamson County, including the Anderson Mill area. These jurisdictions voted to join Capital Metro and to support it with a 1% sales tax. In recent years, communities to the north of Austin have grown steadily, though many still commute daily to/from work in Austin’s core. http://www.capmetro.org/service-area.aspx

      Here’s information about transit-oriented development: http://www.capmetro.org/TOD/ ^AP

      1. Randall

        80 or 90 percent of your revenue is generated within the City of AUSTIN yet you spend the majority of your funds funneling people to other cities. IRRESPONSIBLE.

    3. Capital Metro

      Hi Randall,
      Here are the recent figures:
      Approximately 75% of Capital Metro’s total funding comes from sales tax. Of that, approximately 92% of the sales tax revenue comes from Austin. ***This equates to about 69% of our total funding.

      –It is important to note that sales tax reported as “Austin” is from outlets within Austin but is not limited to people who live in Austin (for instance, it includes sales tax generated by SXSW, ACL, etc.). ^AP

      1. mdahmus

        To be clear, by “revenue generated within”, the implication was clearly sales tax revenue; the only revenue that can be assigned to a geographic area as small as a city.

        As for revenue generated by people who live outside Austin but shop inside the city limits, this is negligible and somewhat discounted by people who do the opposite.

  4. The bus service is not good and it is two different bus systems Rapid and Cap metro . If you a poverty stricken you ride Cap metro
    You got money you ride the rapid

  5. Ryan Ricks

    Is there also a CapMetro tax for people in Leander?? They’re just outside Austin city limits and aren’t taxed yet use this. FOCUS ON AUSTIN AND CREATING A VIABLE MEANS A TRANSPORT FOR THOSE THAT NOT ONLY LIVE IN AUSTIN BUT PAY FOR CAPMETRO. I live 3 miles from downtown and the service is mediocre on its best days.

    1. Capital Metro

      Hi Ryan,
      As noted above, our service area includes Austin, Jonestown, Lago Vista, Leander, Manor, Point Venture, San Leanna, Volente, and portions of Travis County and Williamson County, including the Anderson Mill area. These jurisdictions voted to join Capital Metro and to support it with a 1% sales tax. http://www.capmetro.org/service-area.aspx Also, we are currently working with the public to enhance our MetroBus local service: http://connections2025.org/ ^AP

  6. mdahmus

    1. The line was projected to serve 1500-2000 boardings/day with its original schedule and without cutting any express buses.

    2. When it didn’t (once fares started, ridership actually met my prediction of ~800 boardings/day) express buses were cut. When that wasn’t enough, service was added through the day.

    3. That led to operating subsidies which have bounced between roughly $20 and as high as $35 PER RIDE.

    4. The majority of riders live outside the Capital Metro service area (deduction based on location of park-and-rides and # of boardings at each), and hence don’t even pay Capital Metro taxes.

    5. Our best bus lines, like the #1 (which had its frequency cut to make Rapid Bus look better, which was another indirect consequence of the Red Line disaster), have operating subsidies around $2/ride.

    6. So for every ride the taxpayers of Austin subsidize so that a non-taxpayer from Cedar Park can ride that train, 15 bus rides for actual Austin taxpayers cannot be supplied.

    Capital Metro should be ashamed of themselves.

    1. Jeff

      >1. The line was projected to serve 1500-2000 boardings/day with its original schedule and without cutting any express buses.

      >2. When it didn’t (once fares started, ridership actually met my prediction of ~800 boardings/day)

      As a daily commuter from Cedar Park to the University, I can say from personal experience that the only way the Red Line could increase its boardings is by running more frequently. The train is filled to capacity every day mornings and evenings. Do I wish it had expanded service? Hell yes. I’d love to see the Manor Express, Oak Hill Flyer and Airport Direct lines up and running, too.

      1. mdahmus

        There is no reasonable dispute now that a couple of trains in the peak direction are full. Despite this, operating subsidies still range from $20 to $30 per ride, meaning that this service, at ‘success’, is a disaster, financially speaking.

        (There are a lot of reasons why this is, not linked to rail specifically, but more about THIS rail and THESE vehicles and THIS route).

        1. Capital Metro

          Hi mdahmus,
          I checked on the $20 to $30/ride figure you noted: the cost per ride for MetroRail is $18.91. We didn’t borrow to fund this or borrow because of this–and so there is no cost of capital. ^AP

          1. mdahmus

            You did almost run out of money (ate into the reserve fund and had to stop paying the 1/4 cent rebate) when the overruns and the failure to seek Federal funding (that you promised to do) happened. Were you here at that time? I was!

            http://austin.metblogs.com/2006/01/24/capital-metro-reneges-on-promise-to-pursue-federal-matching-funds-for-commuter-rail/

            I also never said anything about ‘cost of capital’.

            Here is the most recent publically available graph on operating subsidies:

  7. NotoriousAPP

    Perhaps you’re both right but I have to side with Forbes on this one. There are still no places to service my part of town (Southwest / Oak Hill Area) where we already have $264k resident and many large companies (i.e. NXP, AMD, Yeti, Global Foundries, etc.). Why prioritize servicing an area with 38k residents? Does not make sense.

    I would definitely take the train after rush hour was it available in my part of town, maybe then there would be a reason to run it past rush hour.

    On weekends, the last northbound train leaving downtown departs at 12:30. There’s a large segment of people that go out on Fri/Sat past midnight. It seems that your schedule was not based on customer input.

  8. roccityallstar

    Perhaps you’re both right but I have to side with Forbes on this one. There are still no places to service my part of town (Southwest / Oak Hill Area) where we already have $264k resident and many large companies (i.e. NXP, AMD, Yeti, Global Foundries, etc.). Why prioritize servicing an area with 38k residents? Does not make sense.

    I would definitely take the train after rush hour was it available in my part of town, maybe then there would be a reason to run it past rush hour.

    On weekends, the last northbound train leaving downtown departs at 12:30. There’s a large segment of people that go out on Fri/Sat past midnight. It seems that your schedule was not based on customer input.

  9. Capital Metro

    Hi NotoriousAPP,
    Howdy, neighbor! –I, too, live in the Oak Hill area and see the growth that is currently taking place there. We do offer MetroBus and Express bus services in the area. MetroRapid 803 also runs nearby at West Gate. And then there is our MetroRideShare vanpool service that is used by many companies/employees. Geography, among other things, can sometimes limit the adaptability of specific transit modes in an area. We are currently working, however, to enhance our bus services: http://connections2025.org/. As for the MetroRail schedule, please see the responses above (we share the track with freight trains) but we are working on expanding the Red Line to carry more people, more frequently: https://capmetroblog.com/2016/02/22/great-things-are-in-the-works-metrorail-undergoing-expansion/ ^AP

    1. NotoriousAPP

      I appreciate your civil response to the questions from all of us but please be careful about how these are perceived, a lot of these responses give the perception that CapMetro is defending their decisions as opposed to taking customer input. Most of the people I know don’t ride the cap metro (even those in Leander) due to the schedule which is incompatible unless you live/work downtown.

      Regarding your article about expanding the Red Line. The proposed 801/803 lines look pretty decent but what’s the ETA? I keep hearing about adding more trains and track to work the existing route but when will the red line into southwest austin be opened?

      The bus service in my neck of the woods stinks. I tried 2 weeks ago to get down to Cesar Chavez and I-35 area departing my neighborhood at 9:30 and it was undoable, I had to use ride sharing. Plus, when it’s time to get back to my neighborhood the late owl pickup is nowhere close to where I am and drops me off miles from home. I don’t mind walking/biking to and from bus stops but my cap metro routes right now are beyond tolerable.

      1. Capital Metro

        Hi,
        I’m glad you mentioned customer input. While we don’t, yet, have an effective means for corralling and cataloging all of the comments we receive via social media, Capital Metro has a variety of ways to enter your feedback officially.
        We’re taking customer input concerning bus services as part of Connections 2025: http://connections2025.org/.
        And this fall, we’ll be engaging the public in a variety of ways concerning Project Connect: Central. Our website will have information about this when the project kicks off: http://www.capmetro.org/.
        To clarify, the 801 and 803 are MetroRapid lines. They were launched in 2014: http://www.capmetro.org/metrorapid/
        Currently, we don’t have plans for rail in SW Austin. Specific modes (bus/rail/rapid transit, streetcars, etc.) are chosen based on a slew of factors including (but not limited to) geography, land use, density of development, funding resources, public support, etc.
        I encourage you to keep an eye on our website, capmetro.org, for up-to-date project information and opportunities to participate in the process. ^AP

        1. After browsing the link I do not see where you are taking customer input:

          “We’re taking customer input concerning bus services as part of Connections 2025: http://connections2025.org/.”

          I see where you HAVE taken customer input :

          http://connections2025.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Plan-Goals-Strategies_0726_B.pdf

          I can see where you WILL BE taking customer input over a month from now:

          http://connections2025.org/outreach-events-2/

          But, I do not see where you ARE taking input.

          I would very much like to use capitol metro for my transportation needs, but the closest bus stop is over 2 miles from my house. I live on Slaughter, east of I-35. The closest stop is at Southpark Meadows. This is not listed as an official park and ride situation, there are many signs that say something to the effect of parking is for customers only – Towing Enforced, and if I’m downtown past midnight I have to take a $30 cab/fasten/fare ride to get my car and then drive home because the late-night bus only goes to William Cannon.

          1. Capital Metro

            While we do try to work with business owners to secure parking for our riders, it is at their discretion as they must also ensure parking for their own customers. ^AP

          2. Capital Metro

            An addition to my message from yesterday: there is a section of parking spaces for Capital Metro customers at Southpark Meadows (though it is not considered an official Park & Ride). ***Please do consider Southpark Meadows an option–there is a section of parking available for riders. ^AP

    2. Maybe she just doesn’t want to have to walk a mile or two to get to the stop. Or wait 59 minutes to connect because the buses that run once an hour miss each other by one minute.

      I’m sure she knows what you are doing for her better than your lies can convince us.

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  11. I think Forbes writer did their homework, and have it about right.

    Fact is, when Capital Metro grow heads, and offer actual modern transportation to the people of Austin, then the projects it doesn’t realize on its own are ridiculous will have value and positive impact.

  12. There is little to no feasability for me to ride the train. I live at Crestview Station. I only ever travel 1-2 stations up the rain line, to highland or kramer. And it’s 7$ to go there and back, regardless of how far I am going. How am I supposed to justify spending that much to ride a train for less than 5 minutes? Bring back the zone fare structure…

    1. Capital Metro

      Hi Brian Sluyter,
      Though MetroRail isn’t the solution for every individual or every circumstance, it is an option that increasingly more people are choosing because it works for them. ^AP

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  16. Mike

    I just relocated from Houston. I decided to rent within walking distance of lake line station to give this a try. I was a little surprise the lake line and Leander metro stations are so car focused. The layouts are clearly made for “park and ride” not walking. The way these were built makes it inconvenient for people walking. They are built for people with cars. Next year I had hoped to buy a house nearby the Leander station so that we could be a 1 car family and save on expenses, but how can I get there without a car? Even if I buy the closest house to Leander station I have to cross the highway and train tracks. There aren’t even sidewalks anywhere for miles. The new house sales rep told me to ride a bike, but that’s crazy. It’s not safe to ride a bike down the hwy with cars and trucks going 65 mph. What if my wife needs to commute to downtown for work? She couldn’t safely walk to the train station if she wanted to. I’m supposed to buy a car and drive to the metro, then pay to ride the train? Why would I do that when I could just buy a car and drive? We need to build a walking bridge over that highway so I can safely cross the highway without a car. Then, Leander needs to build crosswalks and sidewalks everywhere nearby. Otherwise your just wasting resources and time. What I’ve seen these since I’ve been in Austin is kind of a failed attempt at building a walkable town.

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