After much planning the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of Harris County (Metro) has finally completed its $10 million network overhaul. Although the change didn’t come gradually, riders were surprised with a new bus and rail line overnight on Sunday, August 16th.
Metro placed a price tag on the change at only $10 million in increased costs annually, which is reasonable for an overhaul of the region’s largest transportation system, but there are some statistics that were conveniently left out.
To acclimate riders to the new network, Metro made fares for METROBus-Local and METRORail “free” from August 16th through August 22nd. Of course, taxpayers will be picking up the tab.
And since nothing in life is “free,” what is the real cost?
Using 2014 monthly average ridership data provided by Metro, we estimated the actual cost of the “free fare week” to be just under $2.1 million, bringing the total cost of the new bus network to roughly $12.1 million.
Over the past six years Metro has seen local ridership remain below 300,000 riders per weekday.
Although transit authorities claim the new network will increase accessibility, the change cut some stops and routes, which will unfortunately leave other transit dependent riders stranded. Predictably, some of these riders were vocal opponents at many of Metro’s planning and development meetings.
Metro, by law, was required analyze the potential impact to “minority and low-income riders.” Though they acknowledged that the change will make some trips inconvenient, they say there will be no significant negative impact.
The overhaul is a part of Metro’s plan to collaborate with local developers to make Houston more “transit-friendly,” a theme we have also seen in Houston’s general plan, and the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s regional plans.
Metro is hoping the overhaul will increase the ridership numbers of its dying, overly indebted system. Last year, Metro had a bond rating downgrade from Moody’s and S&P due to low ridership/fare numbers and increased debt. As of June 2015, the system’s total debt was $1.1 billion. To say that Metro has seen better days would be an understatement. One thing is for certain—the agency has a myriad of challenges.