Ridership projections for transit projects are notoriously overly optimistic. According to a 2020 FTA study, only about half of all transit projects funded by the FTA achieve 80% or more of their projected ridership. Historically, Metro’s projections for ridership of prospective projects have been among the worst, but its projections for Metro’s Uptown BRT are probably a world record for the most wildly exaggerated ridership projection.
A 2013 ridership projection in the early days of the project estimated that 18,400 riders would use the service by 2020. In 2015, Metro released a more “conservative” projection that by 2020 average daily ridership would be 14,850. Then Metro chair, Gilbert Garcia, who requested the updated study, said, “the numbers overall justify the need for improved transit along this corridor.”
After a number of delays, the project finally opened for service in August 2020. The ridership has been a complete disaster. In the last year, the line averaged 774 riders per day.1
Defenders of the Uptown line offer two excuses for the poor ridership. First, they blame the pandemic. Certainly, the pandemic affected transit ridership across the globe. But Metro’s overall ridership rebounded last year to nearly 75% of the pre-pandemic level. By comparison, there has been very little improvement in the ridership on the Uptown line.
Living in the Uptown area, I can assure you there is no shortage of vehicular traffic. A Kastle survey of return to office trends found that 60% of Houston workers have returned to the office and the Galleria shops are bustling.
So, if the Uptown BRT was, say, carrying 40-50% of the projections and using the pandemic as an excuse for lower ridership, that would be reasonable. But when a line is only carrying 5% of the projected ridership more than a year after the pandemic has been over, that is the result of a poorly designed project and delusional projections.
The second excuse sometimes offered for the poor ridership was that the original Metro Solutions plan approved by voters in 2003 contemplated that the Uptown line would be connected to light rail at both ends. While it is true that was part of the 2003 plan, that interconnectivity was not an assumption in the 2013 or 2015 ridership projections.
Those projections were based solely on the connectivity to the park and ride facilities located at each end of the line, and in particular the elevated connector to the north end, which was included. The belief was that commuters would drive their cars to the parking facilities on the north or south end of the line and then ride the BRT to the workplace. However, on almost any morning you will find the parking facilities nearly empty.
The Uptown BRT cost taxpayers roughly $200 million. That is a cost of about $250,000 per daily rider, before taking into account the ongoing operating costs. This public money was spent based on a projected ridership twenty times greater than the actual ridership has turned out to be.
In the private sector there would be consequences for such a colossal blunder. But not in the transit world. No one has been fired. The same consultants that prepared the projections are still working for Metro. And instead of reconsidering whether bus rapid transit is a viable strategy, Metro is doubling down with plans to spend billions more on the same mode that has so utterly failed in Uptown.
The cost of the Uptown line was mostly funded by the Uptown TIRZ, which means it was largely paid for with property taxes dollars. There is no end to the list of the ways those property taxes could have been better spent on refurbishing Houston’s crumbling infrastructure. We can no longer allow precious public resources to be wasted on these kinds of vanity projects which enrich special interests but provide little to no benefit to the public. We simply cannot afford it.
Note 1 – A friend of mine recently rode the Uptown line from one end to the other and back. On his ride there were two apparently homeless ladies sleeping on the bus and did not exit during his ride. I confirmed with Metro that they would have been counted as riders by the automatic passenger counters located at the entry to the bus. I do not know whether this is a common occurrence or not.