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Dobbs: Density, travel corridor density, and implications for Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail

24 September 2014
Aerial view (looking north) of "Drag" section of Guadalupe St. (wide arterial running from bottom middle of photo to upper right). Western edge of UT campus is at far right, and extremely dense West Campus neighborhood occupies middle left of photo. In upper right corner, Guadalupe jogs northwest, then north again; main travel corridor eventually merges with North Lamar further north. Photo: Romil, posted in forum.skyscraperpage.com.

Aerial view (looking north) of “Drag” section of Guadalupe St. (wide arterial running from bottom middle of photo to upper right). Western edge of UT campus is at far right, and extremely dense West Campus neighborhood occupies middle left of photo. In upper right corner, Guadalupe jogs northwest, then north again; main travel corridor eventually merges with North Lamar further north. Photo: Romil, posted in forum.skyscraperpage.com. (Click to enlarge.)

By Dave Dobbs

This commentary has been adapted from the author’s Sep. 17th posting to an online rail transit discussion list.

How dense does a city need to be to justify a rail transit system?

One of things that the hard-core rail transit opponents like to do is to confuse a city’s overall population density with travel corridor density. Los Angeles, for example, because it grew up around 1100 miles of electric urban rail, has some very dense travel corridors, notably the Wilshire Blvd. corridor where currently they are about to begin construction on the “subway to the sea” (extension of the MetroRail rapid transit subway line to Santa Monica) The Wilshire corridor has densities comparable with those in New York City.

In my 35+ years as a transit advocate, I’ve heard the “Austin doesn’t have the density to support rail” argument hauled out time and time again. But Austin has a very congested core where 50% of the region’s employment is located within a half-mile of a six-mile-long travel corridor, Guadalupe-North Lamar. Austin is unique in that a 50-block-long segment of that corridor contains downtown, the Capital complex, the University of Texas (UT), and two residential areas, West Campus and Hyde Park with densities of more than 12,000 per square mile. And lots of people who don’t live there are traveling up and down this corridor trying to get to these places.

To serve this and similar travel corridors adequately with affordable urban rail transit will require re-allocating available street space from motor vehicles to higher-capacity transit. In other words, giving priority to rail transit because of its higher capacity and ability to ensure essential mobility. Instead of regarding the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as a disaster because the solution means giving up two of the vehicle travel lanes for trains, politicians need to see the situation in Chinese terms, where the word “crisis” merges two concepts: “danger” and “opportunity”. ■

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UT should pay for East Campus urban rail — not Austin taxpayers

2 September 2014
Project Connect map showing half-mile radius from proposed urban rail stations. Except for a mainly commercial and retail sliver along the Drag, most of high-density West Campus residential neighborhood is beyond station access radius.

Project Connect map (annotated by ARN) showing half-mile radius from proposed urban rail stations. Except for a mainly commercial and retail sliver along the Drag, most of high-density West Campus residential neighborhood is beyond station access radius.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to Project Comnnect’s Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) on 13 June 2014 regarding Project Connect’s proposed 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion urban rail starter line connecting East Riverside (southeast) with the Highland ACC site now under development (north). Ultimately, the group voted to recommend Project Connect’s proposal to the City Council.

Since 2006, UT has insisted on a San Jacinto route that would bolster its development aims for the East Campus. However, the West Campus is where the people are, with the third-highest residential density in Texas. It’s where the heavy travel flow is, and where most activity is clustered. And the FTA-required half-mile demographic “watershed” around proposed urban rail stations on San Jacinto barely touches the eastern edge of the West Campus. (See map at top of this post.)

Meanwhile, although insisting that its East Campus development program must be served by Austin’s urban rail, the UT administration has not offered a dime to fund it. Instead, they’ve happily assumed that Austin taxpayers can obligingly be squeezed with higher property taxes to pay for this amenity.

There’s a “reverse-Robin-Hood” aspect to this. Because of shale oil extraction on Permanent University Fund lands, according to a San Antonio Express-News report last year, “The University of Texas System is rich. … Oil is the reason why.”

The UT system is awash in money to the tune of a billion dollars a year, boosting UT Austin’s share to a total of nearly $200 million. Profits from football and other athletic entertainment bring in another $78 million a year.

While there are certainly various needs for this money — particularly the need to keep tuition costs affordable — and some constraints on how it’s used, it would seem logical and fair that, if UT desperately wants urban rail in the relatively less dense, less active San Jacinto route, UT should dip into its own resources to pay for it.

An East Campus-Medical School alignment could be installed as a branch from the Guadalupe-Lamar alignment proposed as an alternative to Project Connect’s plan. UT could cover the $45 million local cost in five years by modest annual dollops of $9 million from its abundant revenues.

This compromise alternative could buttress the feasibility of urban rail and increase the benefit to the entire Austin community. But UT’s administration needs to stop trying to soak Austin taxpayers, and take responsibility for funding its fair share of what it wants.

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Reality Check: How plausible are Project Connect’s time/speed claims for Highland-Riverside urban rail plan?

24 August 2014
LEFT: Phoenix's Metro LRT — similar to Project Connect's proposed Highland-Riverside line — runs almost entirely in street and arterial alignments, with maximum speed limits, traffic signal interruptions, and sharp turning movements that slow running speed. Average schedule speed: 18.0 mph. (Photo: OldTrails.com)  RIGHT: Charlotte's Lynx LRT runs entirely in an exclusive alignment following a former railway right-of-way. Average schedule speed: 23.0 mph. (Photo: RailFanGuides.us)

LEFT: Phoenix’s Metro LRT — similar to Project Connect’s proposed Highland-Riverside line — runs almost entirely in street and arterial alignments, with maximum speed limits, traffic signal interruptions, and sharp turning movements that slow running speed. Average schedule speed: 18.0 mph. (Photo: OldTrails.com) RIGHT: Charlotte’s Lynx LRT runs entirely in an exclusive alignment following a former railway right-of-way. Average schedule speed: 23.0 mph. (Photo: RailFanGuides.us)

In a Blitzkrieg of promotional presentations over the past several months, Project Connect leaders and team members have been touting ambitious travel time and average speed projections for their urban rail project proposed to connect the Highland ACC site with the East Riverside development area. In various presentations, the agency’s Urban Rail Lead, Kyle Keahey, has claimed that the line would provide an average speed of “21 to 22 miles per hour” (impressive, compared to an average of about 25 mph for motor vehicles in urban traffic, and typical local bus transit averages of about 12 mph generally and 4-8 mph running through a in a CBD).

In terms of travel time on Project Connect’s proposed line, the agency has detailed the following:

• From the East Riverside terminus at Grove to the Convention Center downtown (3.9 miles) — 11 minutes

• From the Convention Center to the ACC Highland campus (5.6 miles) — 17 minutes


Screenshot from Project Connect's June 23rd presentation to Capital Metro board, showing travel time claims for proposed urban rail project.

Screenshot from Project Connect’s June 23rd presentation to Capital Metro board, showing travel time claims for proposed urban rail project. (Click to enlarge.)


However, several anomalies immediately leap out to experienced public transit analysts. First, the distance and time projections provided by the agency — totaling 9.5 miles in 28 minutes — imply an average speed of 20.4 mph, not the “21-22″ claimed by Kyle Keahey and other representatives. Second, even an average speed of 20.4 for this type of light rail transit (LRT) service in this kind of application raises professional eyebrows (and considerable skepticism) — mainly because it’s significantly higher than what is commonly characteristic of peer systems.

Light rail transit planners commonly know that lines routes in street and arterial alignments, even reservations, face substantially more constraints to speed than do systems routed in exclusive, private right-of-way (ROW) alignments such as railway corridors, tunnels, viaducts, etc. (This is illustrated in the photo composite at the top of this post.) Some major constraints include: maximum speed limited to traffic maximum speed; operation constrained by traffic signals and cross-traffic; sharper curves and turning movements as route follows street grid. Compared with routes in exclusive alignments, the differentials usually aren’t tremendous, but enough to make a difference in schedule speeds, travel times, and other performance factors.

To illustrate this, and perform a rough comparative analysis, we’ve compiled average speeds from two sources. The first is a comparison on the Light Rail Now website, in an article titled Light Rail Schedule Speed – Faster Than Bus, Competitive With Car, with speeds summarized in the following table:


Table of LRT average schedule speeds from Light Rail Now website.

Table of LRT average schedule speeds from Light Rail Now website.


The second source is a recent compilation by Light Rail Now publisher Dave Dobbs, summarized with route lengths, average stop spacing, travel times, and average speeds, in the table below:


Table of LRT average schedule speeds and other data compiled by Dave Dobbs.

Table of LRT average schedule speeds and other data compiled by Dave Dobbs. (Click to enlarge.)


Dave notes that he included the lines he did “because they were examples from Project Connect slides.” He also points out that Project Connect’s East Riverside-to-Highland line “is virtually all street running save for the tunnels and the bridge and I don’t see that much time saving there.”

Indeed, Project Connect’s proposed line is far more of a winding, meandering route, with more traffic speed constraints and sharper turning movements, than any of the comparative peer street-running systems. It includes running in mixed traffic (Red River St.) as well as a segment through the UT campus (San Jacinto Blvd.) with heavy student pedestrian traffic crossing the alignment.

LRT systems are identified with the following designations:

BAL — Baltimore
CHA — Charlotte Lynx
DAL — Dallas DART
HOU — Houston MetroRail Red Line
LA — Los Angeles
MIN — Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro
NFK — Norfolk Tide (Hampton Roads Transit)
PHX — Phoenix Metro
SEA — Seattle Link
SLC — Salt Lake City TRAX

To simplify this comparison, we’ve included clearly identifiable route segments from both table sources, and differentiated them into Predominately Street Alignment and Predominantly Exclusive Alignment categories. For several individual systems, segments are identified in our charts as follow:

Dallas
CBD — West End to Pearl/Arts
Green Line A — West End to Fair Park
Blue Line A — West End to Ledbetter
Blue Line B — West End to Corinth
Blue Line C — Corinth to Illinois
Red Line A — CBD to Plano

Denver
Littleton — CBD to suburb of Littleton

Houston
Red — Red Line

Los Angeles
Blue — Blue Line, CBD to Long Beach

Minneapolis
Blue — Blue Line, Hiawatha
Green — Green Line, Minneapolis-St. Paul

Salt Lake City
701 — Medical Center to Ball Park
704 — West Valley Central to Airport
Sandy — CBD to suburb of Sandy

Using the data from these tabular compilations, we’ve presented a comparative summary of average schedule speeds in the following two graphs. Speed data values (mph) have been rounded to a single decimal point. The first graph presents a comparison of various predominantly street-running lines, similar to Project Connect’s proposed project. This includes an average for the actual, operating peer systems. The second graph presents average speeds for various lines and line segments in exclusive (mostly railway right-of-way) alignments. (Click either graph to enlarge.)


5_ARN_Chart-LRT-mph-street


6_ARN_Chart-LRT-mph-exclusive-rev


From this comparison, it can be seen that the average speed for Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside line, based on the projected travel time presented by the agency, is significantly above all of the peer systems running predominantly in street right-of-way. Not only does Project Connect’s line show a higher average schedule speed than any of its peer systems, but it’s a full 6.4 mph — nearly 46% — above the peer average. This seems highly implausible, particularly in view of the more convoluted, tortuous profile of the proposed alignment and the other encumbrances we’ve cited. Indeed, the travel time (and implicitly schedule speed) assumptions of Project Connect planners seem more appropriate for the operating characteristics of a route in predominantly exclusive right-of-way rather than running on streets and arterials, as they’ve designed it.

Projecting reasonably accurate travel times and speeds is important to planning any rail transit project, and not just because of plausibility with respect to public scrutiny. Travel time constitutes one of the key inputs into the ridership modeling process. Underestimating travel time, by reducing what’s called the “impedance” to the process of calculating trip generation and modal split, can readily lead to overestimation of ridership. In addition, slow travel speeds also raise the possible need for additional rolling stock to fulfill train frequency and passenger capacity requirements.

Bottom line: Project Connect planners may be estimating faster train travel speeds and shorter travel times than is realistically plausible, and the implications may be lower ridership, greater rolling stock requirements, and possibly higher operating costs than they’ve originally projected.

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Baker: Connecting some dots on Austin’s urban rail planning

24 August 2014
Graphic by ARN.

Graphic by ARN.

By Roger Baker

Roger Baker is a longtime Austin transportation, energy, and urban issues researcher and community activist. The following commentary has been adapted and slightly edited from his comments posted by E-mail to multiple recipients in June.

How did Project Connect come up with their $1.4 billion rail plan? Let’s take some known facts, and connect the dots. The dots in this case were partly the political momentum behind a new hospital district, combined with a new Opportunity Austin/Chamber-of-Commerce-recommended Austin growth policy.

We know that in 2008, a city consultant, ROMA, recommended that the proposed light rail corridor be moved east to the San Jacinto Corridor (ultimately connecting several years later to the Red River corridor), as opposed to the previously-assumed Lamar Corridor alignment. See, for example:

http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2008-04-25/616178/


Original urban rail "circulator" system in 2008 map of ROMA consulting team plan, contracted by City of Austin.

ROMA streetcar circulator map from 2008, precursor of urban rail (light rail transit) plan. Map: ROMA, via Austin Chronicle. (Click to enlarge.)


Next, we know that State Sen. Kirk Watson in 2012 announced a plan to develop about $4 billion of future medical facilities and training in the area of Brackenridge and the newly announced Dell medical training center, which would be along this same San Jacinto-Red River corridor. It is pretty obvious that to meet this ambitious goal, to handle this scale of future anticipated development, the existing roads along this corridor could not meet the projected travel demand. I pointed that out in an earlier article here:

http://www.theragblog.com/metro-roger-baker-the-proposed-austin-light-rail-plan-as-i-see-it/

How did the urban rail plan get to Riverside? Here is a downloadable audio clip with Project Connect personnel pointing out that the city sees itself as having an unfunded mandate to provide rail on the Riverside alignment in order to meet the city’s future growth goals in that area:

https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B9kg5NdhKh8RYTM0dzQ4ampmeWs/edit


East Riverside development plan, promoted by City, is a bonanza for powerful real estate development interests. Gentrification is replacing lower-cost affordable apartments with expensive condos and upscale commercial and office developments, many with premium river views. Map: City of Austin via Goodlife Realty.

East Riverside development plan, promoted by City, is a bonanza for powerful real estate development interests. Gentrification is replacing lower-cost affordable apartments with expensive condos and upscale commercial and office developments, many with premium river views. Map: City of Austin via Goodlife Realty. (Click to enlarge.)


Another problem for the medical district was that Texas state funding could not pay for the medical center without a big boost from local Travis taxpayers. This demanded the promotion of a hospital district tax. See, for example:

http://www.kirkwatson.com/the-med-school-solution/

…Ever since Austin state Sen. Kirk Wat­son first unveiled the idea at a Real Estate Council of Austin event last September, regional agencies and governments have scrambled to find funding possibilities for the massive project, which could run the involved parties (all told) as much as $4.1 billion over 12 years. At last check, the University of Texas is on board for at least a $25 million annual contribution that would climb to $30 million over the first eight years of the school’s existence. Central Health, according to the Statesman, would cough up about $35 million annually over 12 years – or a total of $420 million. The Seton Healthcare Family expects to provide nearly $2 billion, including $250 million that would ultimately result in a replacement of its aging but centrally located Brackenridge hospital facility…

But to make it all work, Central Health is asking for a tax increase, to be placed before voters on Nov. 6. Watson asked for a raise of five cents per $100 of property valuation; Central Health’s board obliged, endorsing that increase, which would bring the district’s rate to just over 12 cents for every $100 of property valuation. In dollar figures, that would mean (if voters approve) that someone who lives in a home valued at $200,000 would see an increase of $100 on their annual tax bill…


Simulation of future UT medical school development, providing expansion opportunities for University of Texas, Seton medical interests, and other real estate development investors. Graphic via KUT.org.

Simulation of future UT medical school development, providing expansion opportunities for University of Texas, Seton medical interests, and other real estate development investors. Graphic via KUT.org. (Click to enlarge.)


We know from the following document that the city of Austin is bending over backwards to maximize Austin area growth through relocation, and jobs recruitment to the Austin area.

http://www.austintexas.gov/news/city-releases-report-economic-incentives

As we can see, the City has a very well-developed industrial recruitment policy outlined in this document, which coordinates with the Chamber of Commerce, targets key industries to recruit, and gives tax breaks when certain criteria are met. The city takes its lead from the “Council Special Committee on Economic Incentives”, which in turn takes its lead from Opportunity Austin, and the Austin Chamber of Commerce, as we see in this lengthy presentation. It begins by lamenting Austin’s slow growth!

http://austintx.swagit.com/play/08272012-504

We now see unsigned blogs promoting the same maximum Austin growth recruitment as official policy:

http://www.austintexas.gov/department/about-imagine-austin

What are the specifics of Austin growth recruitment policy? The policy is to prefer that at least 25% of the jobs recruited into this area go to Austin residents, but if not, it is no deal breaker. Jobs that pay at least $11 an hour would be nice, but this too is considered optional. This is taken from page 9.

http://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/EGRSO/EGRSO_Report_on_ED_Policy_Final.pdf

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS ON THE COA ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT POLICY

Motion #5:

Change the Threshold for Extraordinary Economic Impact within the Firm-Based Matrix to include other items

The Threshold for Extraordinary Economic Impact has been used within the Firm-Based Incentive Matrix as a means for providing additional economic incentives for significant economic development projects.

Currently, if a company meets one of the four criteria within this section of the matrix, then the company is eligible for an economic incentive of up to 100% of the property tax generated by the project (see Exhibit A, Section 3 and Section 4).

Current threshold criteria include these four items:

• The firm is in a targeted industry;
• The firm is involved in leading edge technology;
• State economic development funds are available for the firm; or
• The firm will generate 500 jobs or more.

The threshold criteria allow flexibility for various economic incentive options to be considered for projects that have an extraordinary economic impact. The flexibility allows Austin to remain competitive for highly sought after projects. Examples of prior significant economic development projects include Samsung and Apple. In both cases, the Austin City Council approved 100% property tax rebates for a prescribed number of initial years…

This is all predicated on the perpetuation of the Austin tech bubble, which is really a regional manifestation of a national tech bubble. Continuing Federal Reserve stimulus is leading to asset bubbles, which are reflected in the NASDAQ’s mostly-tech growth in particular. How long before the tech bubble driving Austin’s current feverish growth and gentrification deflates is anyone’s guess, as Fortune recently pointed out:

http://fortune.com/2014/05/08/yes-were-in-a-tech-bubble-heres-how-i-know-it/

I have recently pointed out and discussed in detail the unsustainable nature of Austin’s currently-booming growth here:

http://www.theragblog.com/metro-roger-baker-the-rise-and-rise-of-austin/

This accumulation of material may help to provide a plausible political basis behind Project Connect’s rail plan. I personally have little doubt that Austin is in the midst of an unsustainable high tech growth bubble, and that the future travel demand numbers that Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) feeds Project Connect to justify its rail corridors are largely wishful thinking. Demographic forecasting, like economic forecasting, exists to make astrology look good by comparison. ■

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Why Project Connect’s urban rail plan would remove just 1,800 cars a day — not 10,000

22 August 2014
Project Connect's Highland-Riverside alignment would have negligible impact on I-35 congestion. Photo via Austin.CultureMap.com.

Congested I-35 traffic has Austinites desperate for a solution, but Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside alignment would have negligible impact. Photo via Austin.CultureMap.com.

Project Connect representatives have been claiming an array of hypothetical benefits they say would result from their proposed Highland-Riverside urban rail project. Among these is “congestion relief”.

For the most part, this sweeping claim has been blurry, undefined, unquantified, and widely dismissed as ridiculous. (See Why Project Connect’s “Highland” urban rail would do nothing for I-35 congestion.)

But in promotional presentations, Project Connect personnel and supporters have repeatedly touted one specific, numerically quantified purported benefit — the claim that their urban rail project “takes 10,000 cars off the road every weekday”.


Screenshot from Project Connect slide presentation claiming Highland-Riverside rail plan would remove "10,000 cars" a day.

Screenshot from Project Connect slide presentation claiming Highland-Riverside rail plan would remove “10,000 cars” a day. (Click to enlarge.)


This figure invites scrutiny. Project Connect has also been touting a 2030 ridership projection of “18,000 a day” — although this appears to rely on flawed methodology. (See our recent analysis Project Connect’s urban rail forecasting methodology — Inflating ridership with “fudge factor”? which, adjusting for apparent methodological errors, suggests that total ridership of 12,000 per weekday is more plausible.)

In any case, of its projected total weekday ridership, Project Connect also claims that only 6,500 are “new transit riders” for the urban rail line. (Project Connect also claims “10,000 new transit riders to system” — but typically these new “system” boardings represent the combination of the new rail rider-trips plus the same passengers using feeder bus routes to access the rail.) This is consistent with industry experience, since a sizable proportion of the ridership of new rail services consists of passengers that had previously been bus transit riders.

But this “new transit riders” figure, while plausible, immediately diminishes the plausibility of the claim of “taking 10,000 cars off the road”. How could 6,500 riders, boarding trains, eliminate 10,000 cars from the road?

Furthermore, the estimate of 6,500 rider-trips (i.e., boarding passengers) actually doesn’t equal 6,500 individual passengers, i.e., persons. Why? Because (as is commonly known and accepted in the industry) a very large percentage of those trips are made by the same, individual passengers — mainly round trips, or extra trips during lunch hour, and so on.

The count of daily “boardings”, or rider trips — i.e., ridership — is actually a tally, in U.S. industry parlance, of unlinked trips. These are the string of trips on transit made over a day by the same individual person; they might include trips on a feeder or connector bus to a rail transit train, possibly other trips during the day by transit, and perhaps that person’s return trips back home by the same modes.

So, how to figure how many individual passengers (persons) are actually involved in a given ridership figure? The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) suggests a conversion factor: “APTA estimates that the number of people riding transit on an average weekday is 45% of the number of unlinked transit passenger trips.”

Thus, applying that 45% factor to those 6,500 “new rider” trips, we realize that figure represents roughly 2,925 actual passengers projected to ride the proposed urban rail line, new to the transit system.

However, we cannot assume that every one of those new passengers would have used a motor vehicle rather than riding transit. On average, about 75% have access to a car. So 2,925 passengers X 75% = 2,194 passengers that could be assumed to leave their cars off the road to ride transit. (It’s pretty much a cinch that these hypothetical transit passengers wouldn’t be driving, on average, more than four cars a day!)

To estimate more realistically how many cars would be affected, we need to factor in average car occupancy of 1.2 persons per car (to account for some carpooling). That final calculation yields 1,828 — or (by rounding for level of confidence) roughly 1,800 cars removed from the road by Project Connect’s proposed urban rail plan.

That 1,800 is an all-day figure. Using an industry rule-of-thumb of 20%, about 400 of those cars would be operated during a peak period, or roughly 100, on average, during each peak hour. As our article on I-35 congestion, cited above, indicates, the impact on I-35 traffic would be very minimal. Most of the effect of that vehicle traffic elimination would be spread among a number of major arterials — particularly Airport Blvd., Red River St., San Jacinto Blvd., Trinity St., and Riverside Drive. This impact on local arterial congestion would be small — but every little bit helps.

While the removal of 1,800 cars from central Austin roads is a far cry from 10,000, once again, every incremental bit helps. And there’s also the decreased demand for 1,800 parking spaces in the city center.

But the point is that $1.4 billion (about $1.2 billion in 2014 dollars) is a huge investment to achieve so little. For many cities, ridership at the level of 12,000 a day typically isn’t so bad, but when you’re missing the potential of 35,000-45,000 a day, plus incurring such a high cost for this level of payoff, you need to reconsider the deal. (For example, see Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route.)

For less than half of Project Connect’s urban rail investment cost, a “backbone” urban rail line on Guadalupe-Lamar (with a branch to the Seaholm-Amtrak area) could plausibly be expected to generate at least three times as much ridership — and eliminate roughly 5,600 cars a day from central-city streets and arterials.


Summary chart compares Project Connect's claim of taking "10,000 cars off the road every weekday" vs. (1) ARN's analysis of probable actual number of cars removed by Highland-Riverside line and (2) projected number of cars that would be removed from Austin's roadways by alternative Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail plan.

Summary chart compares Project Connect’s claim of taking “10,000 cars off the road every weekday” vs. (1) ARN’s analysis of probable actual number of cars removed by Highland-Riverside line and (2) projected number of cars that would be removed from Austin’s roadways by alternative Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail plan. (Click to enlarge.)


Now, that’s some “congestion relief” worth paying for.

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Project Connect’s gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off course

15 August 2014
Graphic: GG2.net

Graphic: GG2.net

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to the City of Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission on 10 June 2014 regarding Project Connect’s proposed 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion urban rail starter line connecting East Riverside (southeast) with the Highland ACC site now under development (north). In the end, the commission voted, with minor amendments, to recommend Project Connect’s proposal to the City Council.

There are three huge problems with Project Connect’s proposal:

(1) It spends $1.4 billion to put urban rail in the wrong place.

(2) It will hinder and constrain future rail development.

(3) A vote for this flawed plan is also a vote to permanentize lower-capacity MetroRapid bus service in our strongest, densest travel corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar.

Guadalupe-Lamar is the outstanding corridor to start urban rail — among the top heavy travel corridors in Texas, a long-established commercial district, with major activity centers, the city’s core neighborhoods, and the West Campus, having the 3rd-highest residential density in Texas.

In contrast, Project Connect proposes to forsake the central city’s heaviest and densest local corridor and instead connect a weak corridor, East Riverside, with a non-existent travel corridor through the East Campus, Hancock, and Highland. By wasting over a billion dollars on urban rail in this meandering, misguided route, Project Connect will divert scarce funds from future rail development.

Project Connect’s Riverside-East Campus-Hancock-Highland plan comes “gold-plated” with a new $130 million “signature bridge” over the river and a $230 million tunnel at Hancock. But it runs in mixed street traffic from UT to Hancock. This is a proposal that costs too way much for too little value.

And it’s the third most pricey urban rail starter line, by cost per mile, in U.S. history. City officials now routinely propose a major property tax increase to finance the local share of Project Connect’s plan.


Per mile of route, proposed Highland-Riverside urban rail plan would be second most expensive light rail starter line since 1990, and third most expensive in U.S. history.

Per mile of route, proposed Highland-Riverside urban rail plan would be second most expensive light rail starter line since 1990, and third most expensive in U.S. history. Graph: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


Voting for Project Connect’s urban rail plan for East Riverside to Highland also means voting to pour concrete for bus lanes and other bus facilities on Guadalupe and Lamar that will prevent an urban rail alternative in our heaviest, neediest corridor for decades. The current MetroRapid bus service on Guadalupe, Lamar and South Congress carries 6,000 daily riders, less than one-eighth of the 51,000 forecast for light rail in that same corridor.

According to a report yesterday from a private meeting of urban rail “stakeholders” at Capital Metro, representatives of both Project Connect and Capital Metro admitted that Phase 1 of this project, which conjured up Looney-Tunes voodoo and passed it off as “scientific” projections, was “too fast and not at a pace they would typically have proceeded.”

In contrast to major rail planning in the past, the public has basically been cut out of this process. Now Mayor Leffingwell and his administration announce they’re tossing in a dollop of road projects that even some councilmembers criticize as failing to fit into the Imagine Austin concept of a walkable, dense city. In effect, they’re packaging a dubious, wasteful rail project with questionable road projects, and wrapping a “congestion relief” ribbon around it.

This is a planning process that’s gone off course and out of control. This commission needs to do the right thing, and say as much to the city council. ■

Related links:
Project Connect’s $500 million plan for bus infrastructure — The Elephant in the Road on Guadalupe-Lamar that could block urban rail
Project Connect’s Austin urban rail would be 3rd-most-pricey LRT starter line in U.S. history
Roger Baker: Austin’s ‘Strategic Mobility Plan’ — smart planning or a billion dollar boondoggle?
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Project Connect gets it wrong — Urban rail starter lines are much cheaper than extensions

14 August 2014
LEFT: Denver's starter LRT line, a 5.3-mile line opened in 1994, was routed and designed as a simple, surface-routed project to minimize construction time and cost. All-surface alignment avoided heavy, expensive civil works and kept design as simple as possible. Photo: Peter Ehrlich. RIGHT: Subsequent extensions, such as this West line opened in 2013, have required bridges, grade separations, and other major civil works, resulting in a unit cost 61% higher than that of the starter line. Photo: WUNC.org.

LEFT: Denver’s starter LRT line, a 5.3-mile line opened in 1994, was routed and designed as a simple, surface-routed project to minimize construction time and cost. All-surface alignment avoided heavy, expensive civil works and kept design as simple as possible. Photo: Peter Ehrlich. RIGHT: Subsequent extensions, such as this West line opened in 2013, have required bridges, grade separations, and other major civil works, resulting in a unit cost 61% higher than that of the starter line. Photo: WUNC.org.

Since Project Connect released the cost estimates for their proposed 9.5-mile Highland-Riverside urban rail starter line last spring, agency representatives have tried to argue that the line’s projected cost of $144.8 per mile (2020 dollars) is comparable to that of other recent light rail transit (LRT) projects, citing new extensions in Houston, Portland, and Minneapolis.

Project Connect's chart comparing their proposed Highland-Riverside "Austin Urban Rail" starter line cost to costs of extensions of several other mature light rail transit systems.

Project Connect’s chart comparing their proposed Highland-Riverside “Austin Urban Rail” starter line cost to costs of extensions of several other mature light rail transit systems. (Click to enlarge.)

Austin Rail Now challenged this comparison In our recent analysis, Project Connect’s Austin urban rail would be 3rd-most-pricey LRT starter line in U.S. history. We argued that comparing the high cost of extensions of other, mature systems, was invalid, because urban rail starter lines tend to be much lower in cost than subsequent extension projects.

That’s because, in designing a starter line — the first line of a brand-new system for a city — the usual practice is to maximize ridership while minimizing costs through avoiding more difficult design and construction challenges, often deferring these other corridors for later extensions. In this way, the new system can demonstrate sufficient ridership and other measures of performance sufficient to convince both local officials and the public that it’s a success from the standpoint of being a worthwhile investment.

In contrast with starter lines, where officials and planners usually strive to keep design minimal and hold costs down in order to get an initial system up and running with the least demand on resources (and public tolerance), extension projects more often are deferred to later opportunities, mainly because they frequently contend with “the much more difficult urban and terrain conditions that are typically avoided and deferred in the process of selecting routes for original starter systems.” Deferring more difficult and expensive alignments till later also allows time for public acceptance, and even enthusiasm, for the new rail transit system to take root and grow.

Austin’s case provides an illustration. As our article, Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route, describes, Capital Metro’s original 2000 LRT plan envisioned a “Phase 1″ 20-mile system consisting of a 14.6-mile line from McNeil to downtown, plus a short branch to East Austin and a longer extension down South Congress to Ben White Blvd. In Year of Expenditure (YOE) 2010 dollars, that full system was projected to cost $1,085.8 million (about $1,198 million in today’s dollars). But a billion-dollar project was deemed too hefty a bite for the city’s first foray into rail, so decisionmakers and planners designated the shorter 14.6-mile northern section as a Minimum Operable Segment (MOS), with a more affordable (and, hopefully, more politically palatable)pricetag of $739.0 million in 2007 YOE dollars (roughly $878 million in current dollars).

After an initial starter line is established, for most subsequent extension projects the unit cost — per mile — tends to increase because, as previously indicated, officials and designers are willing to tackle more daunting corridors and alignments. Denver is a useful example.

In 1994 Denver established basic LRT service with a comparatively simple 5.3-mile starter line, running entirely on the surface in both dedicated street lanes and an available, abandoned center-city railway alignment, with an installation cost of $37.3 million per mile (2014 dollars). From that beginning, the system has been gradually expanded with increasingly more ambitious and more costly extensions. In 2013, Denver opened its West Line (the W line) to Golden; constructed over much more daunting terrain and obstacles, with multiple grade separations, bridges, and long elevated sections, plus more complex signal and communications systems and more elaborate station facilities. The West line was finished at a cost in 2014 dollars of about $59.9 million per mile — a unit cost about 61% higher than that of the original starter line.

Despite such evidence, at an Aug. 5th urban rail forum sponsored by the Highland Neighborhood Association, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead, Kyle Keahey, dismissed the assertion that starter lines were lower in cost per mile than extensions. Instead, he insisted, “the reverse is true.”

Really? But this claim is refuted even by the same cases that Project Connect has presented as peer projects for comparing the estimated $144.8-million-per-mile cost (2020) of its Highland-Riverside proposal.

In the following comparative analysis, we use Project Connect’s own year-2020 cost-per-mile figures for their selected “peer” projects. For each of those we use the starter line cost-per-mile data from our earlier May 8th article (cited above), plus data for Portland’s original starter line (a 15.1-mile line opened in 1986 from central Portland to the suburb of Gresham). These unit costs, in 2014 dollars, were then escalated to year-2020 values via the 3% annual factor specified by Project connect for their own table data.

The resulting comparison is shown below:

Using Project Connect's selected LRT systems, this comparison shows that the cost per mile of new starter lines tends to be significantly less than the cost of later extensions. Graph: ARN.

Using Project Connect’s selected LRT systems, this comparison shows that the cost per mile of new starter lines tends to be significantly less than the cost of later extensions. Graph: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

Clearly, this analysis corroborates our original assertion — based on these cases, the unit costs of LRT starter lines tend to be considerably lower than the unit cost of later extensions when these have developed into more mature systems. And, at $144.8 million per mile, the unit cost of Project Connect’s proposed 9.5-mile Highland-Riverside urban rail starter line is certainly far higher than the cost of any of the original starter lines of these selected systems — all using Project Connect’s own cases and criteria.

Q.E.D., perhaps? ■

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