Austin to Houston Rail Link in the planning stages?

The Texas Tribute reports a study is underway on the possibility of a 3-hour rail link between Austin and Houston, although “not anytime soon.”

Two thoughts:

1. I am an ardent, hard-core believer in Rail transit as a critical part of our urban and inter-urban infrastructure. But, 3 hours to Austin isn’t good enough. Not many people are going to take inter-city rail to auto-dependent cities where you have to have a car to get around unless the rail is notably faster or cheaper than driving. Despite their progressive reputation, Austin is much harder to get around car-free than Houston. Neither city has decent transit service to the majority of places people live and work, although Houston’s existing transit is vastly better than Austin’s, and it’s current transit expansion will only widen that gap.

2. The folks who planned the Capital Metro Rail project should have zero input on this proposed inter-city line.

It’s both a financial and political waste when you spend $105 million on a 32+ mile regional rail system that takes over an hour to drop you off in the outskirts of a downtown where you almost certainly have to take a very slow bus to actually get anywhere you want to go. Austin should have learned from Houston, which spent $325M on it’s 7.5 mile system. At first it sounds like Houston got a raw deal, but because it’s an urban circulator in the densest part of Houston it carries about 38,000 people per day, where Austin’s system caries 1,600.

Thus, Houston spent about $8500 per passenger/day, whereas Austin spent about $65,000 per passenger/day. Houston’s Metro carries almost 14 million people per year, Austin’s is on track to carry less than 600 thousand. If you look at a standard 30-year amortization of capital costs, Houston capital investment was about $0.78 per passenger, whereas Austin’s was austin’s was about $5.99.

So who got a better deal?

Inter-city rail is a critical part of our infrastructure future, but only when:

  1. It’s faster than driving.
  2. It costs less than driving (about half, so the train is at least competitive with a two-person carpool).
  3. It delivers you to dense, walkable places that have transit access to a large percentage of their surrounding area.

Items 1 and 2 require serious commitment from the state and federal government to invest in rail as seriously as they invest in highways — OR a total desubsidization of car travel so that private sector rail can actually compete.

Item 3 requires the same things on a local level, but also a significant cultural change to embrace urban density on a much larger scale than any place in America (perhaps outside of the urban northeast) has ever done before. This is not to say that urban density must be forced on people, but that it must be made legal again. Right now the suburban, low-density, auto-dependent development pattern is required by law in every city in the US (including Houston). Until that changes no rail (or other non-automobile) system will perform very well.

A footnote: to compare the cost of investments and “seriousness of commitment” it’s helpful to sometimes look at the difference in transit and rail spending. While this is definitely not an apples-to-apples comparison, it does give you a sense of the order-of-magnitude difference in the commitment to each mode.

The Katy Freeway carries something like 220,000 cars per day, and the most recent expansion, widening cost about $2.8 billion. That’s about $12,700 per car/day in capital investment, or about $1.20 per car trip if you spread it over 30 years.

So the order of magnitude of capital investment in Houston is about 10x higher for freeway projects than rail projects, and the capital cost per trip is 33% higher. Oh, and the highway creates massive noise and emissions pollution, takes up an enormous amount of physical space, increases downstream congestion, and is incompatible with any other transportation mode. All that, and yet mega freeway projects are embraced in this region with little more than token questions as to their cost / benefit, while rail projects are lambasted from all angles and continuously derided as a waste of money.

This is what I mean about the need for a culture-shift if we’re ever going to have transportation freedom-of-choice.

Posted: Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 at 10:50 am
Categories: move
Tags: , , , ,
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  1. For the Katy Fwy widening, wouldn’t the more appropriate measure be how many cars per day there are now as opposed to how many there were pre-widening?

    • Paul: Good point. I used the most recent numbers I could find, which from what I could tell seemed to be right before the expansion was complete. If you have a source for before / after numbers please send it to me and I’ll update the post. Thanks!

      • No clue, I haven’t been in Houston for a few years and I don’t know where to look. But as a rough guess I’d work on the maxim that traffic fills to capacity the number of added cars is going to be 220000*(added lanes/total lanes). I haven’t been in Houston for a few years, but I believe that’s 8 added lanes and 22 total? Tells me that we were hitting those 220000 numbers before the widening, but at the moment this is perhaps reducing congestion. I’d still use the 8/22 factor (if my math is right), giving $3.30 per car. This assumes that we won’t get additional traffic to re-congest, which we know will turn out wrong but we’re being a bit fuzzy with our math anyway…

        • Alternately, if we start with 220000 cars on 14 lanes and add 8, we’d get a 8/14 ratio (the free-way will re-congest with 126k new drivers) and $2.10 per car.

  2. A 3-hour train ride from Houston to Austin is a certain loser when the typical Texas driver will make it in 2 1/2 hours. At 200 mph, the nonstop rail trip should take much less than an hour. What kind of rolling stock are they planning to use, the train ride in the Houston Zoo?

  3. One should also factor in the cost of each car, insurance, maintenance and gas to get a true picture of the cost of the not-free-way. Though, to be fair, the car owner elects to bear the cost of the car and is coerced via taxation into paying for both the railway and the highway. But if there were no subsidies for roads or rails via taxes and they were funded purely by tolls then that would eliminate the coercive element.

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