A few weeks ago, during a live chat sponsored by the Oklahoman, Mayor Holt was asked about the possibility of establishing regional transit in the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Area. After the questioner praised Denver’s regional transit system, the mayor was asked about plans for an interurban rail system. Mayor Holt replied that “planning for regional transit is one of the biggest things happening in our community right now.”

A couple of years ago, six cities (Del City, Edmond, Midwest City, Moore, Norman, and Oklahoma City) entered into a trust agreement, forming the Regional Transportation Authority of Central Oklahoma (RTA). While RTA is contemplating other modes of transportation, a commuter train would be the “backbone” of its regional transit system. All cities within the metropolitan area were offered the opportunity to join RTA. Some wisely chose not to participate.

By categorizing this initiative as big, Mayor Holt is correct in at least a couple of ways.

First, planning a regional transit system, particularly an interurban commuter rail, is a massive undertaking. Second, it comes with an even larger price tag. In the end, the voters will have to decide if this is a service that they are willing to pay for – because pay for it they will, for many years to come. It would be better to stop it before laying the tracks.

Consider, for example, two regional commuter rails in neighboring states. One serves the Denver metro area (the one praised during the live chat), and the other operates in the Albuquerque and Santa Fe metro areas. Both demonstrate the high cost of regional rail. 

Systemwide, Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) operates 142 fixed routes across more than 2,300 square miles, serving an area with a population exceeding 3 million. This system includes just over 113 miles of light and commuter rail track. New Mexico’s Rail Runner Express (RRX), a commuter rail that opened in 2006, shuttles passengers along a 97-mile route through the Albuquerque and Santa Fe metropolitan areas in which less than 1.1 million people reside.  

To varying degrees, both are experiencing what one expert described as a “death spiral.” The death spiral follows an observable pattern: Falling ridership and financial difficulties result in either increased fares or reduced services, or both, which causes further decreases in ridership and more significant money problems, perpetuating the downward spiral. 

Regional Transit Requires Substantial Capital

In both of the systems just described, constructing the necessary infrastructure has involved enormous upfront capital costs that suffered from significant overruns. For example, under a 2004 initiative, RTD was supposed to build 122 miles of rail for an original estimate of $4.7 billion. Recently, the projected cost to complete the project exploded to a total of $7.8 billion. Not only are the monetary costs increasing, but the timeline is also extending. For example, the Northwest Line was part of the initial 2004 vision. It was slated for completion in 2015 – a deadline that came and went. Because of a lack of funding, the most recent projections for its completion are 2042, 27 years overdue.

In New Mexico, according to a legislative Fiscal Impact Report, the original infrastructure proposal marketed to the public contemplated $122.5 million for improving the I-25 corridor. However, to make good on a campaign promise, the project’s focus shifted from a highway project to a commuter train. Consequently, the estimated cost quickly rose. According to one article, RRX was originally estimated at $300 million. However, just two years later, the estimated cost of RRX had increased to $425 million.

Taxpayers Heavily Subsidize Regional Transit

Very little of the cost of building, operating, and maintaining a regional commuter rail system is borne by the users. It is the ordinary taxpayer – whether through an earmarked tax increase or other federal or state subsidies – that will pay for regional transit, whether they use it or not.    

In Denver, like most public transit operations, user fares make up only a small portion of the cost of operating and maintaining the transit system. A major component of RTD’s revenue is a sales and use tax. According to its 2019 financial statement, 61% of RTD’s revenue came from collecting a sales tax, while only 14% came from fares. Even then, it is still not enough. RTD estimated that the gap between costs and revenues was $2.6 billion in 2019 – a number that is expected to increase.

Similarly, in New Mexico, according to a report published by the Legislative Finance Committee, 88% of the RRX’s revenue came from the federal government and the state’s gross receipts tax. By contrast, a mere 6% of RRX revenue came from the farebox.

Regional Transit is Experiencing Declining Ridership

Both RTD and RRX are experiencing declining ridership. Since 2015, RTD ridership has continuously declined.  From approximately 103.3 million boardings in 2015, systemwide ridership fell to about 95 million in 2019, an 8 percent decrease in ridership. Likewise, RRX has seen a persistent decrease in ridership. Since hitting its peak ridership of more than 1.2 million in 2010, there has been a 37 percent reduction in rides.

Regional Transit is Inefficient

If you’ve ever been without a car and had to haul a weeks’ worth of groceries on buses and metro rails or double the duration of your daily commute on a rail line, you likely understand the inefficiency to some degree.     

To illustrate the efficiency differential between public transit and automobiles, consider the number of jobs that can be accessed within a set commute. The University of Minnesota found that in the Denver metro area (which made the top-ten list for accessibility via public transit), a person could reach more than four times the number of jobs in a 30-minute commute by automobile than in 60-minutes by public transit. That’s four times the jobs in half the time. In a 60-minute commute, a person in Denver could reach nearly 9.5 times more jobs by taking a car than public transit.   

The inefficiency of public transit, particularly rail lines, also has a domino effect. New rail lines often replace lanes of traffic formerly used by automobiles. Trains, combined with restricted traffic flow, cause congestion and longer commutes for everyone. Lose-lose.

Regional Transit in OKC is a Big, Expensive Mistake

With high capital and operating costs, significant overruns, decreasing ridership, and practical inefficiencies, is RTA’s dream of regional transit centrally supported by a commuter rail a wise investment? In short – no. They’d be dumping money into transportation that has proven to be an inefficient money pit.

So, in sum, Mayor Holt is right. A shiny new commuter rail is “big” – a big mistake.

Brad Galbraith is Land Use Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.