Houston Can Be Better
Would Buses Solve the Real Problem at Lower Cost?
Comment time was limited to two minutes each at the Metro meeting earlier this week (Monday, August 27, 1 P.M., South Main Baptist Church on Richmond @ Main St). I limited my questions to asking where I could find the per-passenger-mile cost comparison for bus, bus rapid transit, and rail proposals. The members of the panel indicated that such information could be gotten from the most recent Draft Environment Impact Statement (DEIS). When I asked them where that information was, they conferred among themselves before commenting that it might be difficult to put it all together from just that document.
I told them that if they could honestly tell me that that information was in there I would happily go through it and figure it out. More discussion. They finally opined that they weren't absolutely certain all of the information needed for that comparison was in there. I asked them to please make certain that something like that winds up in their response document, the one that will address all the concerns raised at the meeting.
Every discussion I have or overhear with rail supporters drifts off to nowhere the moment the cost per passenger mile comes up. Everyone is sure the numbers are there somewhere. Everyone was looking at some numbers a while ago. Everyone thinks maybe it's at the National Transportation Research Center - NTRC. Nobody has suggested that it is available from Metro Solutions or in any Metro document.
The whole thing smells a bit. Most arguments in favor of the rail are some variation of the following:
- I like trains.
- Houston deserves to be a world class city. (The implication being that without trains it cannot be.)
- We have to do something about the increasing traffic.
- More buses will not solve the problem. People will not ride buses.
- People want public transportation available close to where they live and work.
- Trains get dedicated lanes and priority at lights.
Well, I like trains, too. If buying a few billion dollars' worth of trains and rails and maintenance and wires and whatever is the most economic solution to our transportation problem, then let's do. Absent that information, what are we basing this expenditure on?
Houston is in many ways already a world class city, of course. And if you want to continue in that direction, then having the best public transportation system for the lowest cost with the least pollution would certainly enhance that status. Do trains provide that? I don't know. Everybody who is certain that they do seems a little uncertain about how to demonstrate the numbers that back up their certainty. Details seem lost. For instance, when you take into account the fuel burned to generate the electricity used to run our electric trains, do the trains actually pollute less than modern buses? (Even I take it as a given that almost any bus or train would pollute less per passenger mile than private automobiles. Surely that must be true. I assume.)
We do indeed have to do something about traffic increase with our growing population. But it doesn't have to be a train. It doesn't even have to be big buses. Is there such a thing as a smaller bus that could run on less frequented routes or at slower times of the day even on overall heavily used routes? Would they provide a lower per-passenger-mile cost and less pollution than big buses? How does acknowledging that there is a problem to deal with get us all the way to "we must have these trains along one of these routes and we must have it immediately"?
People won't ride buses, but they will ride trains? Are we that snobbish? Should we accommodate that kind of snobbishness by forking out more dollars because (and this is my main working theory) some members of some committee saw nifty trains all over Europe and decided that they just by God want Houston to look like that, too. If that's the case, could we maybe satisfy them by hiring Disney to create some nifty replacement outer shells for our buses that would look like something totally futuristic and cool?
People want public transportation available close to where they live and work, but no one has explained how having train stops every half mile, mile, or more gets them public transportation closer than buses with stops every two blocks. I must be weaker in math and geometry than I thought. I just haven't been able to calculate in any way to make even half a mile shorter than two blocks. I'll keep trying.
Trains get dedicated lanes and priority at lights because we tell cars to keep out of their lanes (oh, but not always) and we give trains control over the lights. This is the toughest point to refute. The construction, technology and flow philosophy are complex and hard to follow. Stay with me. I'll try to explain it: You can give buses dedicated lanes (without ripping up existing lanes, by the way) and give them control of the lights, too. Thanks for hanging in there with me through all that. Hey! Come to think of it, you can even put those snazzy little crossing signals along bus routes, too!
I close with an open invitation to any reader or any reader's associate to supply the information needed to produce or find the per-passenger-mile cost over 10 to 20 years of the various methods of mass transportation mentioned above, or any other candidates I overlooked.
The newly formed Rail On Westheimer! site (and organization?) is the brainchild of Weston Mikulich. At the very least, he's got a great graphic showing the new train on Westheimer as it passes across Montrose.
He may also have a good point. In an email response to my questions about whether train is even a good idea with regard to cost, he replied that:
"Rail is more expensive. But you're missing the point. METRO wants to build trains, feels it has a mandate to do so, and will ramrod Rail on Richmond very quickly now that we are near a final environmental impact report. The only way we can slow down Rail being built on Richmond is to force them to consider a better route for the rail."
The problem here is not that Wes is necessarily right. He may be. I don't know. The problem is that the way this process seems to be going leaves it wide open to speculations of this sort.
The people who are going to foot the bill for whatever we do have an absolute right to demand that their money is put to the smartest possible use. The only way they can know that is if the folks trying to spend it make the case absolutely clear and compelling.
Presentations and discussions that rely heavily on variations of "I like trains", "Trains are neat", "They have trains all over Europe", and other undeniable but irrelevant observations - these do not make the case.
Show me the money.
If you cannot understand how your opponent could be right,
then you can never really understand how he is wrong.