Open letter to Capital Metro, cont. (the Red Line post)

In response to my open letter (on Facebook), Erica of Capital Metro makes the case for MetroRail:

Regarding MetroRail, a lot of attention does go to it, you are right. Whether this is correct thinking or not, we could debate, but it feels to me like MetroRail has to succeed before the region will embrace any other high-capacity transit options. And there are lots of successes now to talk about. And the region’s needs for transit options are not diminishing.

I think this rationale for supporting the Red Line explains why so much of the conversation is at cross-purposes.  The critics and the defenders are using different evaluation metrics.  Critics evaluate the Red Line as a transit project using ideas like fare recovery ratio, per-rider subsidy, frequency, etc.  Capital Metro on the other hand, sees the Red Line as a gamble on the future of transportation in the region.  By this line of thinking, MetroRail must succeed at any cost, and be judged not by FRR or subsidy, but by its ability to bring high-capacity transit to Austin.

I think this is pretty shaky ground to orient your organization around.  For one, I’m not sure that acerbic reviews like this one help the cause of public transportation generally.  I know that I personally have lost a lot of trust in Capital Metro through its aversion to judging the Red Line by any standard metrics.  But beyond the question of tactical effectiveness, this justification also has no real limits.  The costs and benefits are unquantifiable and therefore can justify anything.  I’m left with these questions:

  • What would have to happen for the Red Line to no longer be worth it?  Are there ridership levels low enough, fare subsidies high enough, to make the organization throw in the towel?  What are they?
  • If the Red Line were to fail to materialize into the line you want it to be, is there a Plan B for getting high-capacity lines into Austin?
  • At what point will Capital Metro start evaluating the Red Line using the same metrics it uses to evaluate other transit lines?  If  high-capacity transit is built, will the Red Line then be compared to other transit on standard efficiency grounds?  If a new line is voted down?  At what point can we expect the Red Line to play by the same rules as the rest of Capital Metro transit?

I am again left despairing that so much of the conversation revolves around the Red Line.  It seems apparent that Capital Metro has decided to make a substantial bet on MetroRail and I doubt there’s much riders can do to deter it at this point.  But for the 98% of Capital Metro’s riders and potential riders who rely on Capital Metro, but for whom MetroRail is an unuseful diversion of money and organizational energy, I hope that this isn’t a bet on which you simply keep doubling down forever.  And in the meantime, I hope that you can see to it to promote the rest of your operations with the same sort of zeal with which you promote the Red Line.

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Open letter to Capital Metro, cont. (the Red Line post)

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