When I compared Urban Rail corridors a few months back, my findings were pretty straightforward: the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, including a growth-crazy West Campus, along with the Riverside subcorridor, would both have crazy high ridership. Highland was middling at best, and only scored highly under the strange rules PC decided to use. Despite the main objection to it – that it would make it more difficult to come back later and ask for money for the powerhouse Guadalupe-Lamar corridor – few thought that it would in itself be a major cost driver as an addition to a Riverside-UT route.
No longer. Project Connect has unveiled the price tags on the Highland subcorridor and they are jaw-dropping. What was originally conceived of–and sold to the public–as a cheap project will contain a tunnel priced at either $230M or $290M in order to avoid a rail-rail intersection between urban rail and the existing MetroRail.
Cost Comparison 1
This project goes:
- 3.1 miles from Riverside and Grove to Travis Heights
- across the river on a brand new purpose-built bridge at Trinity ($75M)
- 1.4 miles through dense downtown traffic ($100M)
- 1 mile through the dense university setting
- 3 miles up Red River
- 8 blocks from Red River to Airport ($230-290M)
- A final jaunt to Highland Mall
In that long route, about half of the entire project’s cost may come from that tiny 8 neighborhood blocks from Red River to Airport. Half for 8 blocks, and the other half for 8 miles that includes a river crossing, a major university, and a major downtown! Madness! [See update below.]
$230M (let alone $290M) is the cost of the entire MetroRapid bus upgrade ($47M) and the entire 32 mile-long MetroRail project ($120M) put together, with tens of millions to spare. We could have dedicated bus lanes all over the city, a whole network of efficient, traffic-proofed transit, for the cost of one measly rail tunnel out in a not-particularly-dense part of town.
It is precisely because I am a transit advocate who is personally transit-dependent that I am so appalled by these numbers. It is not the fact that this project is expensive; all infrastructure is pretty expensive. It’s the fact that the project so wastefully spends our very rare transit dollars. $230M is real money that could be going toward real infrastructure around the city!
Two caveats here: 1) Project Connect says that these numbers are still being refined, and 2) I have yet to see a number released for what would be necessary if they ran buses instead of rail (possibly much, much cheaper, because they’re eliminating the rail-rail intersection).
But if this is what it looks like, it just looks like Austin’s rail plans have hit a major snag. If it’s going to cost $230M+ to extend this rail line so that it hits Highland Mall, the only reasonable course of action is: don’t do it. Connecting the new ACC would be nice for $10M. For $30M, that’s stretching it. For $230M, that’s crazy talk.
In the comments, Novacek and Lyndon Henry give better cost estimates. The total cost per both of their estimates comes to just about $1B, leaving the rail tunnel to be about a quarter of the cost, not a half. I’m still struck by how, at the beginning of the process we were told that the Highland route was the ultimate low-cost and the Riverside route the ultimate high cost. Instead, we’re seeing that inverted. Riverside is looking low cost, even including a brand-new bridge, and Highland very high cost.