The Chronicle and Metro celebrate one year of light rail
The Chronicle has had a successful year of promoting light rail, carefully following the rules laid out by the infamous pro-rail memo, which was accidentally posted on the Chronicle's website, and yesterday and today we have been treated to two stories and one interview celebrating the one year anniversary.
Yesterday's story was a glowing look at how light rail revitalizes a downtown, although according to Metro officials and other rail experts, all that revitalization takes time. But that didn't stop the Chronicle from sending out four reporters to cover the mostly unseen benefits.
Yesterday's paper also carried a Lucas Wall interview with Metro CEO Frank Wilson, an interview that brought new meaning to the term "softball interview." Here's one example:
Q: The Main Street light rail line just marked its first anniversary of passenger service. What's your evaluation of how it has done ?
A: It's had a historic launch. I don't know of any other light rail line in our country that was born fully grown. We are using every single car we have today to provide service. We have 33,000 riders per day in a year. Nobody has done that. The growth in ridership is the fastest, I think, in the history of our country. It's truly remarkable.
And more so than the ridership, what it's doing to our community in terms of land use and what it's doing to people's travel habits. We are actually influencing how people move about the city.
That's some tough stuff.
Wilson is touting 33,000 riders per day, which can only be a guess, because Metro doesn't have a mechanism to count riders that we know of. Metro still doesn't have a working Smart Card system; it didn't install turnstiles to keep a count of passengers; and in fact, Lucas Wall admitted that MetroRail runs on an honor system, with random fare checks.
And that 33,000 rider number is also striking because it just so happens to be the exact number Metro was aiming for:
For all the hoopla, few Houstonians are expected to commute on the electric-powered trains. Metro has estimated daily ridership after the first year at 33,000, which translates into 16,500 people making roundtrips. That's not even 1 percent of the city's population.
Gosh, isn't that amazing? Metro's ridership is exactly what Metro guesstimated back in 2003!
What about light rail's record-setting collision rate? Wall doesn't ask about it, and Wilson doesn't offer any thoughts on it.
Today's story is at least more balanced, with light rail critics' points added to the story, which is mainly about Metro's astounding ridership success:
MetroRail's October ridership high of 32,941 represents about 16,500 people making round-trips each workday. That means roughly 0.8 percent of Houston residents use the train daily. And the critics note many of those people previously had been riding buses that were cut, so the train has taken few cars off the city's roads.
The line cost $324 million to construct. Skeptics point out that's about $20,000 per rider — enough for Metro to have purchased all of them a nice midsize car instead.
Rail opponents are also quick to point to MetroRail's chart-topping collision rate, a problem widely reported in the national media that has created a mockery of sorts for the trains and Houston drivers.
Of the 63 collisions last year, more than two-thirds were caused by motorists making illegal turns or running red lights.
Wall still goes to absurd lengths to not state the actual collision number, which was 72. But finally he points out that Metro has slashed bus routes partly because Metro is in a serious financial hole because of that $300 million+ train and partly because Metro has been trying to boost light rail usage. Some people undoubtedly went back to their cars when that happened, but who knows what happened to the people who didn't have cars, especially those who relied on bus routes that were cancelled. Slashing bus routes stands in contrast to the Metro Solutions goal of adding 50% more bus service.
So the 7.5 mile fixed track, grade level train, that shuts down when it rains; when power lines snap and trees fall down; when major downtown sporting events take place, AND when it runs into cars, wheelchairs and people is a HUGE success. It's the BEST in the nation even, according to Metro officials.
Is it any wonder this can only exist through taxpayer dollars? If it were such a workable idea, private companies would be scrambling to build mass transit, at their own expense. As it exists now, private companies scramble because millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars are available. And does light rail provide all the benefits its proponents suggest? So far, the answer is no. Does moving less than one percent of Houston's population warrant spending in excess of $300 million?
But this won't stop Metro, as it moves forward to expand Houston's light rail system:
If the federal government agrees to help foot the bill, the next two segments could be under construction as soon as next year.
"Hopefully, now that it's built and has been successful," Wolff said, "all of Houston will get behind it so we can expand the system and carry out what the voters approved."
UPDATE: The collision number of 72 includes five from the end of 2003. 2004's collision number would then be 67, still higher than what the Chronicle continues to report. As Kevin notes in the comments, John Gaver's Action America site is the best resource for information on MetroRail collisions.