Keep Austin Weird, add a subway
At a recent Austin economic forecast breakfast, former Dell Inc. CFO Tom Meredith and Silicon Laboratories CEO Tyson Tuttle contributed to “keeping Austin weird” by adding a subway as an alternative to solving Austin’s traffic congestion. But is a subway for Austin that weird of a concept?
In 1995, the Los Angeles Times published an article by former California State Senator Tom Hayden about the proposed Red Line subway. In the article Mr. Hayden indicates that the Red Line was “the most expensive subway in the nation’s history” and that by 2015 transit ridership would be “less than 0.1% relative to all trips made. Rounded off, that’s about zero.”
Benefiting from 2015 data, Mr. Hayden’s 1995 “about zero” number for the Red Line subway is hardly “about zero.” In fact, the Red Line has a current ridership of 150,000 boardings per day*. Also, the $4.5 billion, 17.4-mile long subway, at $258.6 million per mile might not be the most expensive.
In a weird Austin-like contrast, the Katy Freeway Reconstruction (I-10 in Houston), listed by the Federal Highway Administration as Innovative Program Delivery, had a reconstruction cost of $2.79 billion. This 12-mile long highway widening, at $232.5 million per mile, cost 10% less than the Red Line subway. Most interesting data is that, prior to reconstruction, the average daily traffic (ADT) ranged between 165,000 and 245,000. After reconstruction, in 2013, the ADT ranged between 265,000 to 382,000 or an increase ADT ranging between 100,000 and 137,000.**
Although 150,000 boardings per day of the Red Line is easily compared to the added 100,000 to 137,000 ADT on I-10, following are a couple differences that are not reflected in the cost-to-benefit of these projects:
While the Red Line subway is only visible at 14 stations, the Katy Freeway was expanded from about 250-foot wide pavement to 450 feet and it is visible from the International Space Station with the naked eye.
While the Red Line subway delivers pedestrians, the Katy Freeway expansion provides capacity for more than the additional 50,000 to 68,500 vehicles per day. This new traffic requires additional surface street capacity and parking.
While the Red Line subway is likely to add capacity by increasing the number of cars in a train or increasing service, most highways need twice the capacity every 20 years. Will in 20 years I-10 be double decked or 50 lanes wide?
Perhaps a subway for Austin fits well the “keep Austin weird” slogan — it is less disruptive than a mega wide highway.
*Red Line data was provided by Rick Jager from the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority
**Katy Freeway numbers obtained through public available data
Gonzalo E. Camacho, P.E. Is a civil engineer residing in Austin with over 20 years of experience in the planning and engineering of roadways and traffic systems.