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Another possible design for light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

30 January 2016
Guadalupe St., near W. 28th St. Graphic: Google Street View.

Guadalupe St., near W. 28th St. Graphic: Google Street View.

As Austin Rail Now has repeatedly pointed out, there are various ways that a starter light rail transit (LRT) line could be fitted workably into the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. In our December 2014 article «San Francisco’s N-Judah Muni Metro line shows design option for light rail in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor» we suggested a design alternative with the objective of inserting dedicated LRT lanes while minimizing disruption and cost and maintaining four traffic flow lanes. In this, we showed how a San Francisco LRT design could serve as a model for installing a dedicated LRT alignment in the relatively narrow 80-foot width of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor (see illustrations below).


Muni Metro light rail

San Francisco’s N-Judah LRT line could serve as design model for Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Photo (copyright) Eric Haas.


Cross-sectional diagram

ARN’s proposed design shows how LRT, plus 4 traffic lanes and pedestrian/bicycle facilities, could be fitted into relatively narrow Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


This past December, another design proposal was made public by Austin community urban activist and Guadalupe-Lamar rail transit supporter Andrew Mayer. Compared to Austin Rail Now’s relatively minimalist approach, Andrew’s design is considerably more ambitious — with undoubtedly more urban impact and capital expense — but it embodies good ideas and hints at the kind of range of optional approaches available to ensure that LRT will work in this key central corridor.

As Andrew explains, “For those who are interested in urban rail along Guadalupe and Lamar … I made a bunch of detailed cross-sections with streetmix several months ago.’ These are posted on the Imgur online image sharing community and image host site: http://imgur.com/a/gsa2n. In this post, we’ll illustrate Andrew’s proposal with sample graphics selected excerpted from his presentation. (Occasional stations are selected to illustrate typical proposed station design.)

Complete Streets approach

While almost any design proposing insertion of dedicated lanes for LRT into this corridor would represent to some extent a Complete Streets approach, Andrew’s proposal seems to be a particularly large-scale and aggressive implementation. As he elaborates,

I feel like these designs are relatively ambitious (2 transit lanes, 4 auto lanes, 2 separated bike lanes, 2 12 ft sidewalks along most of its length), but revamp Guadalupe and Lamar into more complete streets, while seeing if I could retain the existing number of auto lanes. Some of these ideas I came up with way back in 2009 (i.e. the split direction of traffic along west campus, the wide boulevard between 38th and 51st st), some are more recent.

Regardless how much you agree or disagree with these designs, I hope this contributes to the discussion of rail on Guadalupe/Lamar, as I feel like detailed discussion of street design is warranted if there is going to be a push to get [Guadalupe/Lamar/Congress] urban rail on the ballot as soon as possible.

Illustrating this approach is Andrew’s proposal for making the Drag more hospitable to LRT, pedestrian, and bicycle traffic by moving southbound traffic off of Guadalupe and onto either Nueces or “possibly” San Antonio St. (see map below). Andrew notes that “Relatively slow traffic (25 mph) due to traffic calming measures … makes street pedestrian friendly despite higher traffic volumes.”


Map snippet shows Guadalupe St. at right (east), with University of Texas campus bordering on east side; San Antonio and Nueces St. in West Campus neighborhood (west of Guadalupe). Graphic: Google Maps. (Click to enlarge.)

Map snippet shows Guadalupe St. at right (east), with University of Texas campus bordering on east side; San Antonio and Nueces St. in West Campus neighborhood (west of Guadalupe). Andrew Mayer’s design proposes moving southbound traffic from the Drag onto either Nueces or San Antonio. Graphic: Google Maps. (Click to enlarge.)


Proposed southbound traffic moved from Guadalupe to Nueces St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed southbound traffic moved from Guadalupe to Nueces St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


The Drag (West Campus)

As illustrated below, Andrew’s proposal for the main Drag segment (bordering the West Campus neighborhood) seems to envision dedicated LRT lanes occupying the west side of the street (former southbound lanes, with traffic now moved to either Nueces or San Antonio St.). Traffic lanes are narrowed to 10-ft width. Andrew comments: “Bike lane stays pretty much the same, but the parking lane and current southbound lanes are used for transit lanes. Northbound lanes are pushed slightly westward to allow for a separated bike lane and wider sidewalk.”


Proposed LRT alignment along Drag. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed LRT alignment along Drag. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


In this proposal, space for station platforms appears to be appropriated from pedestrian/bike space. It’s not explicit in Andrew’s design, but station platforms would likely be staggered across intersections (a common space-conserving technique in LRT design). Andrew also suggests that “platform” space might be allocated to use as a turning lane for motor vehicles (although this could conflict with the need for a station platform at that same point). Another option, deployed in Houston Metro’s MetroRail LRT design, is to allow a turn lane to share the LRT track (with traffic signal control coordinated with train movements — discussed briefly in our article «Houston’s MetroRail shows the way — How to fit urban rail into Austin’s Guadalupe and Lamar»).

Andrew comments that “In this design, there are two platforms and both open on the right side of the vehicle.” Andrew also suggests the possibility that “the idea was that some buses would also use the transit lanes (i.e. 803, 3, other bus lines that feed onto Guadalupe) and thus the right-hand platforms would be compatible with buses that only have doors on the right-hand side.” However, while sharing of lanes between buses and LRT is entirely possible and done in some situations, sharing where there is high-frequency service by both modes is not advisable. (Our own design proposed center-street running with allocation of at least a single curbside lane on each side for local bus access.)


Proposed 24th St. station (southbound direction). Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed 24th St. station (southbound direction). Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


Proposed LRT alignment on Drag at 24th St., with possible turning lane. Graphic: Andrew Mayer.(Click to enlarge.)

Proposed LRT alignment on Drag at 24th St., with possible turning lane. Graphic: Andrew Mayer.(Click to enlarge.)


Between 24th and 29th St. (Andrew calls this the North Drag), Guadalupe narrows somewhat, constricting the space for LRT as well as pedestrian and bike facilities (see streetview at top of post, and aerial view, below). Andrew’s solution is to rely on the fact that southbound traffic has been re-routed to other streets; he also narrows the sidewalks and assumes that the bicycle route can be re-routed through this section to an available parallel street (Hemphill Park).


Aerial view of most constricted section of Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, between 24th-29th St. Graphic: Google Earth. (Click to enlarge.)

Aerial view of most constricted section of Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, between 24th-29th St. Graphic: Google Earth. (Click to enlarge.)


Proposed LRT alignment in narrow segment of Drag between 24th-29th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed LRT alignment in narrow segment of Drag between 24th-29th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


Central Guadalupe segment

To insert the LRT alignment in the relatively narrow segment of Guadalupe between 29th and 38th St., Andrew’s option seems to eliminate a traffic lane, although he assumes a turning lane in some cases. (With ROW assumed at 100 feet or more, Andrew’s plan would seem to require additional property acquisition in this section.)


Proposed LRT alignment in narrow segment of Guadalupe between 29th-38th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed LRT alignment in narrow segment of Guadalupe between 29th-38th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


Proposed 34th St. station (platform for southbound direction shown). Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed 34th St. station (platform for southbound direction shown). Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


At West 38th St. (shown in a Google Street View below), Andrew apparently proposes a short subway section, commenting “The transit lanes plunge beneath the street in a shallow cut-and-cover tunnel (basically an underpass) so there can be turning lanes for NB auto traffic without expanding the road’s ROW [right-of-way]….” Technically, this is possible — but quite an expensive feature, particularly since a station for this important east-west arterial would certainly be justified (and a subway station would add a considerable capital expense).


Street view of Guadalupe at 38th St. intersection. Graphic: Google Street View. (Click to enlarge.)

Street view of Guadalupe at 38th St. intersection. Graphic: Google Street View. (Click to enlarge.)


Our own design (which avoids any heavy civil works) assumes that LRT, like MetroRapid buses and ordinary traffic, would simply continue to operate through the W. 38th St. intersection at-grade, following the current surface street profile. Nevertheless, Andrew’s tunnel proposal indicates that there are indeed other options in the planning toolbox that could be considered to address engineering, political, or other concerns.

North of W. 38th St., for about eight blocks (to W. 45th St.) this section of Guadalupe is bordered on the east by leafy established neighborhoods such as Hancock and Hyde Park, and on the west by the publicly owned State of Texas property of the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation (MHMR, including the Austin State Hospital). Andrew proposes that a narrow strip of this public property be allocated for widening of the Guadalupe ROW, thus facilitating an LRT alignment: “Between 38th and 45th St, about 15 feet of feet from the [public property] is acquired to expand the ROW to 120 feet, allowing for an 2 bike lanes, 2 transit lanes, 4 auto lanes, and a parking lane or left turn lane, and 2 10 ft sidewalks.” Andrew suggests such a transfer of state land to the city would be plausible and workable “because the existing space is basically used for fields, some interior roads, and power lines, all of which can be moved/replaced relatively easily.”


Aerial view of section of Guadalupe St. between 28th-45th St., showing MHMR bordering on west and established residential neighborhood on east side. Graphic: Google Earth. (Click to enlarge.)

Aerial view of section of Guadalupe St. between 28th-45th St., showing MHMR bordering on west and established residential neighborhood on east side. Graphic: Google Earth. (Click to enlarge.)


Proposed LRT alignment in segment of Guadalupe between 38th-45th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed LRT alignment in segment of Guadalupe between 38th-45th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


Use of this property in this manner as part of an LRT alignment has been proposed in various studies and propositions over the past 25 years. The day is surely coming when the State will seek to divest itself of this property, perhaps to private interests, so if an easement for ROW expansion is to be procured, official planning and action would seem urgent. Yet no public body, particularly neither Capital Metro nor the City of Austin, has taken a single official step toward this goal in all the years the idea has been on the table.

In the section north of W. 45th St. West Guadalupe St. branches off Guadalupe to connect with N. Lamar Blvd., forming the Triangle area (see map below). West Guadalupe provides a wider ROW here, and is followed by the LRT route, as shown in Andrew’s design, also below. Andrew comments that “Like in the 38th-45th portion, state land would be acquired (basically fields) to expand the roadway. In this case, the northbound auto and bike lanes would be just east of the existing oak trees next to Guadalupe.”


Map snippet shows West Guadalupe St. joining North Lamar at triangular land section now known as "the Triangle". Graphic: Google Maps. (Click to enlarge.)

Map snippet shows West Guadalupe St. joining North Lamar at triangular land section now known as “the Triangle”. Graphic: Google Maps. (Click to enlarge.)


Proposed LRT alignment past Triangle, with station. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed LRT alignment past Triangle, with station. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


North Lamar segment

Having transitioned to North Lamar, the alignment with Andrew’s proposed design would seem to require acquisition of more ROW to accommodate a cross-section width of 115 feet for pedestrian and bike facilities, landscaping, and buffer zones (see typical cross-section, below).

As Andrew subsequently explains,

The expanded roadway would work by turning the parking spaces in front of businesses into larger sidewalks and bike lanes. Parking lanes would be put in between the auto lanes and bike lanes where possible to allow for some parking capacity. I HIGHLY recommend doing a study of the traffic going to businesses along this section of N Lamar. How many customers can access the business by foot/bike/transit? For those who have to drive, is there enough parking on the street or behind the business?

Andrew notes that “Interestingly, this section of Lamar Blvd is one of the study areas for CodeNEXT [current process revising Austin’s land-use regulations], so perhaps there is data available there.”

Andrew’s wide streetscape design (which undoubtedly would require extensive and costly adjacent property acquisition) contrasts with our own narrower design proposal which assumed insertion of LRT within existing public ROW (except at intersections with stations, where modest widening would occur). There’s no question that widening North Lamar with amenities such as Andrew has suggested would create a significantly enhanced environment for the public. The issue here is whether it should be included in the initial starter line design, or proposed as a later major upgrade to the corridor.


Proposed typical LRT alignment in North Lamar. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed typical LRT alignment in North Lamar. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


For a station at the intersection of North Lamar with the major east-west arterial Koenig Lane (shown below), Andrew remarks that “Large parking lots in the shopping center, unused TxDOT land (that was going to be used for freeway along [Koenig] Ln), and fields along the DPS building could all be acquired to make a full-sized boulevard next to [Koenig] Ln.”


Proposed Koenig Lane station (platform for northbound direction shown). Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed Koenig Lane station (platform for northbound direction shown). Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


Andrew’s designs terminate at Crestview — a major and rather complex nexus, with the heavily used Airport Blvd. intersecting and the MetroRail Red Line rail transit route crossing North Lamar, parallel to Airport (see aerial view, below). Maintaining a 115-ft ROW assumption, Andrew provides a surface LRT design, shown further below; although an interchange station would be essential here, none is presented. Calling his surface design “Alternative 1”, Andrew explains that “Transit lanes stay at grade, there are only 2 instead of 3 NB auto lanes, and the sidewalks are only 12 ft wide each.”


Aerial view of complex intersection of North Lamar with Airport Blvd. and Red Line alignment. Graphic: Google Earth. (Click to enlarge.)

Aerial view of complex intersection of North Lamar with Airport Blvd. and Red Line alignment. Graphic: Google Earth. (Click to enlarge.)


Proposed typical LRT alignment at Crestview. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed typical LRT alignment at Crestview. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


Andrew also proposes an “Alternative 2” in which “Transit lanes and the station go into a cut-and-cover tunnel beneath the auto lanes.” He acknowledges that such a subway would be “More expensive and complex to construct, but retains the same number of NB auto lanes and allows for wider sidewalks and more parking.” Andrew indicates a preference for his first alternative, keeping LRT on the surface.

Austin Rail Now believes that an initial surface starter LRT line could safely and efficiently operate through the Crestview intersection as it basically exists. Ultimately, however, some method of grade separation at this complicated intersection may be prudent. We believe this should involve either tunneling or elevating (or both) the motor vehicle trafficleaving the surface to transit, pedestrians, and bicycles. Not only is this approach more compatible with a livable, walkable environment, but it also recognizes that there is many times greater funding available, from all sources, for roadways, while transit is strapped for resources.

Summing up

Considering both our own design proposal and Andrew Mayer’s more ambitious approach, our thoughts return to the controversy over Project Connect’s ill-fated urban rail planning process and proposal that emerged through the fall of 2013 and eventually crashed and burned in the November 2014 vote — in particular, the expressions of skepticism, utter hopelessness, deficit of vision, and outright hostile resistance voiced by several members of the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) and Austin City Council in their efforts to disparage and dismiss the possibility of installing LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Fortunately, that nonsense (whether based on misunderstanding, ignorance, or cynical political sniping) has mostly evaporated.

Between the two designs now already on the table, it’s possible to see that in reality a broad range of alternatives and design options is available to make this happen. It’s neither impossible nor astronomically expensive. We believe our “minimalist” design is the most immediately affordable, workable, and attractive to voters and the public at large — but that’s just our assessment; we strongly believe all options are worth considering.

It’s time to end Austin’s long saga of indecision, conflict, bumbling, bungling, and diddling. Guadalupe-Lamar is truly the city’s strongest “central corridor”, by far the most logical backbone for a light rail transit starter line. The major task at hand is mustering the community and political will to bring an LRT project here to fruition. ■

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Minneapolis light rail — possible model for Austin

30 December 2015
Two light rail trains pass on 5th St., a major downtown east-west thoroughfare with dedicated lanes for light rail. Photo: L. Henry.

In downtown Minneapolis, two light rail trains pass on 5th St., a major east-west thoroughfare with dedicated lanes for light rail. Photo: L. Henry.

Last month, the 13th National Light Rail Conference, co-sponsored by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and U.S. Transportation Research Board (TRB), was held in Minneapolis, whose initial light rail transit (LRT) starter line has been operating since 2004 (see «Minneapolis-St. Paul (Twin Cities) Public Transport»). Attending the conference were two contributors to Austin Rail Now, Dave Dobbs and Lyndon Henry.

Minneapolis’s LRT system has been a spectacular success — particularly by exceeding ridership projections and providing more efficient and cost-effective transit service through lowering the average operating and maintenance (O&M) cost of urban transit per passenger-mile. Add to that the significant improvement of urban mobility and livability. This has convinced local policymakers and planners that further investment and expansion of the system are justified, leading to the opening of a second route, crossing the Mississippi River and connecting the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2014. Additional routes are now in development, and the Northstar Line, a regional passenger rail (commuter) line serving northwest suburbs and exurban communities, was also launched in 2009. See: «Minneapolis Area: Northstar Regional Rail Links Northwest Communities With Central City».

Overall, the Minneapolis LRT system appears to be a highly appropriate model for other cities — and especially Austin, where community support has been growing for an LRT starter line project in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor (Guadalupe St.-North Lamar Blvd.). (See «Plan for galvanizing Austin’s public transport development: Light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar».) As with Minneapolis’s original starter line, Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar LRT line could serve as the trunk or spine for additional lines branching out into other segments of the urban area.

This article/photo-essay presents a brief summary description of the Minneapolis LRT system and focuses especially on particular features that highlight why LRT is such an exceptionally appropriate and desirable public transport mode for a city like Austin.

Overview

So far, the Twin Cities LRT system extends approximately 23 miles, mainly south and east of central Minneapolis, as illustrated in the map below.


Map of Minneapolis Metro Transit rail transit system shows Blue and Green LRT Lines plus Northstar regional rail line (grey) to the northwest. Map adapted by ARN from Metro Transit map. (Click to enlarge.)

Map of Minneapolis Metro Transit rail transit system shows Blue and Green LRT Lines plus Northstar regional rail line (grey) to the northwest. Map adapted by ARN from Metro Transit map. (Click to enlarge.)


Blue Line — Originally dubbed the Hiawatha Line because much of its alignment uses a former railroad right-of-way (ROW) paralleling the city’s Hiawatha Avenue, the initial route (opened 2004) is now designated the Blue Line. Extended slightly, it now stretches about 12 miles south from the city’s downtown to the airport and terminates at the Mall of America. In the CBD, generally from the Downtown East station west, the Blue Line runs in dedicated lanes within 5th Street — in effect, a quasi-transit-mall configuration with some access allocated to motor vehicles (see photo at top of post).

Outside the city's core area, much of the Blue Line alignment, running on former freight railroad right-of-way, parallels Hiawatha Avenue, seen on the far left in this view. Photo: L. Henry.

Outside the city’s core area, much of the Blue Line alignment, running on former freight railroad right-of-way, parallels Hiawatha Avenue, seen on the far left in this view. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)


Blue Line train at Cedar-Riverside station, closer in to the CBD, where the former railroad ROW is quite narrow. This is similar to the narrow railroad ROW of Austin's MetroRail (Red Line), which ARN and other groups have advocated to be converted to LRT (from its current status as a diesel-propulsion light railway). LRT's electric propulsion enables faster, smoother train operation that is less costly, cleaner, and friendlier to urban livability.

Blue Line train at Cedar-Riverside station, closer in to the CBD, where the former railroad ROW is quite narrow. This is similar to the narrow railroad ROW of Austin’s MetroRail (Red Line), which ARN and other groups have advocated to be converted to LRT (from its current status as a diesel-propulsion light railway). LRT’s electric propulsion enables faster, smoother train operation that is cheaper, cleaner, and friendlier to urban livability. (Photo: L. Henry.)


Green Line — Also called the Central Line, this 11-mile route (opened 2014) crosses the Mississippi River to link the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. It also re-establishes what was once the Twin Cities’ formerly busiest streetcar route, part of the region’s vast, efficient electric rail system destroyed in the 1950s amidst the widespread national Transit Devastation, when public policy eliminated urban and interurban electric railways in a disastrous effort to encourage (and coerce) the American population to rely exclusively on personal automobiles and other rubber-tired transport (buses) rather than urban and interurban electric rail for mobility.

In contrast to the Blue Line, the Green Line is routed almost entirely via dedicated lanes or reservations within major arterials and other thoroughfares, with a particularly long stretch along University Avenue west of the Mississippi and toward St. Paul. In the Minneapolis CBD, the Green Line shares dedicated tracks on 5th St. with the Blue Line. Also of note is the use of the iconic Washington Avenue bridge (retrofitted to accommodate LRT) to cross the Mississippi River, as discussed further below.


Green Line alignment in median of University Avenue. Photo: L. Henry.

Green Line alignment in median of University Avenue. Photo: L. Henry.


Joint use of 5th St. trunk line — As mentioned above, both the Blue and Green Lines share tracks of the original 5th St. trunk route in downtown Minneapolis. A section of this alignment is illustrated in the photo at the top of this post. The following photo shows one of the stations in this alignment.


Passengers awaiting arrival of Green Line train at downtown Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue station in 5th St. alignment. Photo: L. Henry.

Passengers awaiting arrival of Green Line train at downtown Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue station in 5th St. alignment. Photo: L. Henry.


Self-service fare system — As with most new LRT systems, the Minneapolis operation uses self-service fare collection. Passengers purchase tickets at ticket vending machines (TVMs). Roving inspectors then spot-check passengers’ tickets aboard trains. (Austin’s MetroRail also uses the self-service system.)


Passenger purchases ticket from TVM at downtown station. Photo: L. Henry.

Passenger purchases ticket from TVM at downtown station. Photo: L. Henry.


Rail access/interconnections among major activity centers — The Twin Cities LRT system is outstanding in accessing and interconnecting some of the urban area’s most significant activity centers. These include, for example:

• Downtown Minneapolis
• Downtown St. Paul
• Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport
• Twin Cities Amtrak station (Union Depot, St. Paul)
• University of Minnesota (St. Paul)
• Minnesota state capitol (St. Paul)
• VA Medical Center
• Major shopping malls (Mall of America and University Ave. West/Hamline Ave.)
• Target Field sports center

Airport access

LRT can provide a cost-effective way to implement rail access to a city’s major local airport. However, typically the heaviest airport ridership tends to come from employees rather than passengers, so to be cost-effective the LRT route must also serve other significant sources of ridership close by (exemplified by LRT routes to airports in Baltimore, St. Louis, Portland, Phoenix, Seattle, Dallas, and Salt Lake City).

Minneapolis’s Blue Line LRT strongly fulfills this requirement, since its airport stations are situated in the middle of good traffic generators on both sides (between the CBD on the north end and the Mall of America on the south end, with other activity centers and residential areas also in between). From visual observation, it’s clear that lots of passengers and airline crews utilize the convenience of the LRT connection.


Blue Line train arriving at Airport Humphrey Terminal station. Photo: L. Henry.

Blue Line train arriving at Airport Humphrey Terminal station. Photo: L. Henry.


Lots of visible baggage on Blue Line train gives an indication that LRT service to Minneapolis's airport is well-used by air passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

Lots of visible baggage on Blue Line train gives an indication that LRT service to Minneapolis’s airport is well-used by air passengers. Photo: L. Henry.


Traveler with baggage boards Blue Line train at downtown station. With level boarding (station platform level with car floor), carrying on luggage is easy. Photo: L. Henry.

Traveler with baggage boards Blue Line train at downtown station. With level boarding (station platform level with car floor), carrying on luggage is easy. Photo: L. Henry.


Shopping mall access

Access to shopping malls is a major advantage for any rail transit line, and a huge convenience for the public (especially out-of-town visitors). The Minneapolis LRT system provides access to malls in both Bloomington (south of Minneapolis) and St. Paul.


Blue Line train leaves the Mall of America station located in the parking garage of this mall, which hosts the most mall visitors  in the world and is a popular tourist destination. Photo: Ymtram.mashke.org.

Blue Line train leaves the Mall of America station located in the parking garage of this giant mall, which hosts the most mall visitors in the world and is a popular tourist destination. Photo: Ymtram.mashke.org.


Green Line's Hamline station accesses major mall on University Ave. at West/Hamline Ave., with two "big box" stores (Walmart and Target). Photo: L. Henry.

Green Line’s Hamline station accesses major mall on University Ave. at West/Hamline Ave., with two “big box” stores (Walmart and Target). Photo: L. Henry.


Bridge retrofitted for LRT

To cross the Mississippi River, the Green Line uses the iconic Washington Avenue bridge, rather than a specially built bridge. According to the Minneapolis Metro Council, retrofitting the bridge rendered “cost savings to the project estimated at $80 million to $100 million and a minimum of two years in project schedule in comparison to a full bridge replacement.” The bridge was retrofitted “for an estimated $21 million, $2 million under budget….”

In Austin, ARN and other groups have advocated retrofitting either the Congress Avenue or South First (Drake) bridge to cross Lady Bird Lake (Colorado River) and link South Austin to the rest of the city on the north side of the river. We suggest this would be far more financially accessible and cost-effective than the expense of a totally new, specially constructed bridge.


Green Line train crosses over Mississippi River on newly retrofitted Washington Ave. bridge. Photo: Streets.mn.

Green Line train crosses over Mississippi River on newly retrofitted Washington Ave. bridge. Photo: Streets.mn.


Solution to complicated intersections

Somewhat like Austin’s MetroRail alignment along Airport Blvd., the Minneapolis Blue Line along Hiawatha Avenue encounters design challenges at intersections, especially where these approach at an angle. How these problems have been dealt with may suggest some traffic solutions in Austin with respect to a potential intersection of road traffic with a proposed Guadalupe-Lamar LRT at Airport/North Lamar.


In this Google Earth view, Hiawatha Ave., with the LRT line paralleling it on its western edge, runs diagonally north-south through the center of the photo. The 38th St. LRT station can also be seen, while E. 38th St. crosses both LRT line and Hiawatha Ave. east-west, in the bottom third of the graphic. Note that Hiawatha and the LRT line intersect E. 38th St. at about a 60-degree angle, somewhat similarly to Airport Blvd and N. Lamar and the MetroRail Red Line in Austin. Photo: ARN, from Google Earth.

In this Google Earth view, Hiawatha Ave., with the LRT line paralleling it on its western edge, runs diagonally north-south through the center of the photo. The 38th St. LRT station can also be seen, while E. 38th St. crosses both LRT line and Hiawatha Ave. east-west, in the bottom third of the graphic. Note that Hiawatha and the LRT line intersect E. 38th St. at about a 60-degree angle, somewhat similarly to Airport Blvd and N. Lamar and the MetroRail Red Line in Austin. Photo: ARN, from Google Earth.


From a surface view, this shows the intersection protected with crossing gates. Photo: ARN, from Google Street View.

From a surface view, this shows the intersection protected with crossing gates. Photo: ARN, from Google Street View.


Easy transport of bicycles

With typically spacious vehicles, LRT has the advantage of accommodating onboard bicycles, in contrast with the constrained interior space of buses, which usually require cyclists to place their bikes on an outside rack (if one is available). These views show how bikes are accommodated aboard Twin Cities LRT trains.


Bikes can be hung on special racks inside the LRT cars. Photo: L. Henry.

Bikes can be hung on special racks inside the LRT cars. Photo: L. Henry.


In some cases, smaller bikes are simply held by the passenger. Photo: L. Henry.

In some cases, smaller bikes are simply held by the passenger. Photo: L. Henry.


Easy accessibility for mobility-challenged

Level boarding, spacious interiors, and smooth ride qualities mean that LRT cars are exceptional in their ability to accommodate disabled, wheelchair-using, and other mobility challenged passengers. This also means that long delays in boarding wheelchairs, typical of buses, are eliminated, thus speeding transit service for all.


Passenger in wheelchair boards train at downtown station. Photo: L. Henry.

Passenger in wheelchair boards train at downtown station. Photo: L. Henry.


Passenger in wheelchair easily maneuvers chair into accessible space aboard car. In contrast to buses — no tiedowns, no operator assistance needed, no passengers ousted from their seats!  Photo: L. Henry.

Passenger in wheelchair easily maneuvers chair into accessible space aboard car. In contrast to buses — no tiedowns, no operator assistance needed, no passengers ousted from their seats! Photo: L. Henry.


Summing up

Certainly, a reasonable case can be made for considering Minneapolis (along with Portland, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and several other cities) as a particularly appropriate model for designing an LRT system for Austin, starting in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. As this discussion/photo-essay has attempted to suggest, smart, cost-effective design can be combined with significant public transit conveniences and advantages to galvanize public support, attract significant ridership. improve mobility and urban livability, and reduce the cost burden of urban travel. ■


Blue Line train approaches station along Hiawatha Avenue alignment. Photo: L. Henry.

Blue Line train approaches station along Hiawatha Avenue alignment. Photo: L. Henry.

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Another major Austin community recommendation for light rail transit in Guadalupe-Lamar

12 November 2015
Light rail transit alignment following North Lamar Blvd., Guadalupe St., Riverside Dr., and Pleasant Valley Rd. as proposed by MobilityATX.

Light rail transit alignment following North Lamar Blvd., Guadalupe St., Riverside Dr., and Pleasant Valley Rd. as proposed by MobilityATX.

The prospect of a light rail transit (LRT) starter line project in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor has received another huge boost in a recommendation from MobilityATX, an eminent Austin-focused civic organization that describes itself as “a community-engagement initiative sponsored by both public and private community partners that invites the public to create and shape public policy solutions to Austin’s transportation woes.” The recommendation for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail is included as one of ten “Popular Ideas” resulting from a community input process in the spring and summer of 2015, elaborated in a Mobility ATX Findings Report produced by Glasshouse Policy “in conjunction with community partners and stakeholders …” and packed with supportive factual documentation. The report was originally released in mid-October.

As the report relates, “Part of the MobilityCity umbrella initiative, MobilityATX is a privately-funded online and in-person platform for all Austinites to explore discrete topics that impact Austin mobility.” And regarding the background of the report: “Lasting from April to July, MobilityATX curated a conversation by inviting the public, Austin community leaders, regional transportation brands, mobility influencers and regional employers to join this effort to turn citizen-sourced priorities into effective policy solutions.”

The report’s proposed LRT alignment, shown in its map at the top of this post (see above), includes the Guadalupe-Lamar segment (which we’ve consistently advocated as the most feasible LRT starter line), then crosses Lady Bird Lake (the Colorado River) to include a possible line branching into southeast Austin. The proposed route follows North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe St. (and presumably the Guadalupe-Lavaca street pair downtown), then crosses the river via a bridge that appears to be roughly located parallel to either the South First St. (Drake) Bridge, or the Congress Avenue Bridge — or possibly it involves an adaptation of either bridge to include lanes for LRT (as we’ve also proposed).

Heading southeast, the proposed route appears to follow Riverside Drive, then turns southward to follow Pleasant Valley Road and then other unspecified alignments south of Ben White Blvd. (State Highway 71). Population density levels shown on the route map indicate that areas of high density are connected by the alignment.

In presenting the proposal, the report notes that

Despite two major defeats for light rail in recent history, it’s clear that there is sustained community interest in exploring and developing an expansive light rail system in Austin. According to the 2015 Zandan Poll of Austin-area residents, 63% of respondents would favor seeing an increase in taxes to construct an above ground rail system. In addition, Austin’s commuter rail line, the MetroRail Red Line, has seen dramatic increases in ridership. …

We must get cracking on planning a light-rail line that will serve the greatest number of riders on day one, and going forward. We can’t give up on light rail just because the city floated a bad plan and voters shot that bad plan down. Bus Rapid Transit is not a substitute.

(Emphasis added in above quotations. Original quote implied that MetroRail began operation in 2008; in actuality, MetroRail opened in spring of 2010.)

Supported by a consortium of leading civic “partners”, including the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Capital Metro (the region’s transit authority), RECA (the Real Estate Council of Austin), Leadership Austin, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the Austin Monitor (online news media), and a variety of mainly tech-involved businesses and other organizations, MobilityATX clearly represents much of the top civic leadership of the city. (See complete list of partners in the graphic below, from the Findings Report).

Mobility ATX/Glasshouse Policy partners. Graphic: MobilityATX Findings Report.

Mobility ATX/Glasshouse Policy partners. Graphic: MobilityATX Findings Report.

In his Foreword to the report, City of Austin Mayor Steve Adler emphasized:

As Austin rapidly evolves, we must continually innovate new approaches to engage Austinites in the discussions that shape City policy. Given the participation in the MobilityATX initiative, it’s clear Austinites are anxious to contribute their ideas for transforming mobility, and how it impacts our commutes, our economy, and our lives.

The final Glasshouse Policy report on this process provides me, my colleagues on the Austin City Council, private employers, public agencies, and all Austinites, with a new community perspective from which to approach our shared mobility challenge. We need to add this perspective to those gathered from other community engagement efforts to
ensure that we hear from all Austinites in every district as we plan for our mobility future. I’d also like to thank the array of public and private stakeholders for their vision and support of this effort, including business, government, and civic leaders like RideScout CEO Joseph Kopser, Dewitt Peart of the Downtown Austin Alliance, and Capital Metro CEO Linda Watson.

Each of you who took part in MobilityATX confirmed that all Austinites have something to say and deserve a forum in which to say it. I look forward to working with the MobilityATX partners to ensure Austin leads the global conversation on what constitutes a smarter, more connected city, and continues to reflect the innovators and entrepreneurs that call Austin home.

Mobility ATX’s LRT recommendation notes that

After the defeat of Proposition 1 in November, there has been no significant movement to develop a new light rail plan for Austin. In order to build new light rail in Austin, bond funding would have to be secured for a new plan. There is no official public effort underway to develop a new light rail plan.

Austinites are anticipating that city and regional transportation authorities will develop a new plan for a light rail system, a process that should include sustained and inclusive community input in the planning and development of that system. Beyond all other data collected, the expectation of inclusion is most critical to understanding Austin’s evolving mobility constituency.

And it concludes with what seems a call for action (emphasis added):

Contact your Council Member. Like the Bicycle Master Plan, building a light rail line requires a bond election. In order for a bond to appear on the ballot, City Council must vote to put that bond proposal up to popular vote. Once City Council does that, a simple majority in a popular election is required to pass the bond proposal.

The MobilityATX Findings Report has been received enthusiastically by proponents of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail, including Texas Association for Public Transportation, Austin Rail Now, and the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), which have long advocated for such a project. A report on KEYE-TV News included a graphic (see below) with an excerpt from a CACDC statement that commented, in part, “The community will support a new light rail plan that reaches the most people possible, and this is a very encouraging step forward.”

CACDC statement applauding Mobility ATX report, as shown on KEYE-TV News. Screenshot: ATXRail.

CACDC statement applauding Mobility ATX report, as shown on KEYE-TV News. Screenshot: ATXRail.

Hopefully, the MobilityATX report’s recommendation will add significant momentum to the ongoing campaign for an initial LRT starter line project in the crucial Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor. ■

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Austin’s competing growth factions both continuing on road to worsening congestion

25 October 2015
CAMPO's 2040 regional roadway plan emphasizes expanding web of roadways catering to real estate development, intensifying addiction to private motor vehicle travel, and accelerating sprawl. Map: CAMPO 2040 Draft Plan.

CAMPO’s 2040 regional roadway plan emphasizes expanding web of roadways catering to real estate development, intensifying addiction to private motor vehicle travel, and accelerating sprawl. Map: CAMPO 2040 Draft Plan.

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 recently posted by E-mail to multiple recipients.

Most Austin folks still don’t know it (and how could they without much good investigative reporting?) but there is actually a behind-the-scenes struggle being conducted by two Austin-area real estate coalitions with quite different visions — a contest conducted through the agency of our federally mandated transportation planning body, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Authority, or CAMPO.

For the time being, the more influential growth alliance which benefits from roads and more roads to serve Austin-area sprawl development has won out. There is also a distinctly different group of landed beneficiaries centered around a transition to high-level transit as the future mode choice. This policy difference is basically a long-lasting political battle between two politically influential real estate development coalitions doing normal business under somewhat unique circumstances.

Texas is a “property rights” fundamentalist state, in which unregulated land development is the rule in about the only U.S. state without county zoning. In light of this fact, it is easy to imagine why this land development policy difference would arise. Sometimes the development strategies of these coalitions coincide and at other times they don’t. But they are in complete solidarity when it comes to their support for maintaining maximum Austin-area tech-job-led population growth forever. The impossibility of doing that, as is now being planned by CAMPO, makes Texas politics all the more colorful and interesting.

Let us call these development coalitions first the “sprawler growthers” more closely allied with RECA (Real Estate Council of Austin), and with fast land deal profiteering their uppermost consideration. The other policy bloc is the “transit growthers“, more allied with the Chamber of Commerce and Project Connect, based on somewhat more of a long-term sustainable growth vision. The latter transit-supportive, somewhat smarter-growth coalition recognizes that with congestion becoming a major challenge to maintaining Austin’s tech-based growth, and buses caught up in the same congestion, this leaves only old-fashioned, high-level rail to serve on travel corridors like Lamar/Guadalupe. There is no other way to maintain what still remains of Austin’s severely degraded peak hour travel mobility.

Former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell was forced by RECA, which is the more sprawl oriented development coalition, to include $400 million in roads into his rail bond package, which ballooned it to a full billion dollars, using up all the city’s remaining high-grade bonding ability, and likely priming it for defeat. With the defeat of the billion-dollar bond package election in November 2014, and with the recent approval of the heavily sprawl-oriented CAMPO plan favored by TxDOT and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), the sprawl-growth faction now has the upper hand. They are proceeding to build and widen roads as fast as their increasingly limited finances allow, as I’ve recently reported in a Rag Blog article:

http://www.theragblog.com/roger-baker-metro-risky-business-in-central-texas-the-toll-road-bond-gamble/

The recent Travis County support for bringing the Rocky Mountain Institute into the Austin area planning process to tackle Austin congestion can’t change this unhappy reality very much. Nothing can solve problems that really stem from decades of anarchistic sprawl development, and at this late stage in the urban development process.

Now that Uber has created and promoted software that undermines certain traditional inefficiencies of the taxicab industry, there isn’t much to be done there. Capital Metro has gotten a new app that makes it possible for riders to track buses, but these buses are still largely trapped in congestion at peak, which remains their main problem. Squeezing what advantages are left to develop through wider use of telecommuting to eliminate physical travel might help some, but new breakthroughs in that area are getting hard to find.

Much slower regional growth will no doubt win out as the obvious resolution in the end. When things can’t go on any longer, they don’t. ■

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Dedicated transit lanes on Austin’s Drag must be designed for light rail

29 September 2015
Busy section of Austin's Drag, Guadalupe St. at W. 24th St. Official city planning by CTR has proposed curbside transit lanes, with buses running on outside lanes as seen in this photo. (Screenshot from Google Streetview.)

Busy section of Austin’s Drag, Guadalupe St. at W. 24th St. Official city planning by CTR has proposed curbside transit lanes, with buses running on outside lanes as seen in this photo. (Screenshot from Google Streetview.)

By Lyndon Henry

The following commentary has been adapted and expanded from remarks posted to an online Austin rail discussion. Lyndon Henry is a transportation planning consultant, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, an online columnist for Railway Age magazine, and a contributing editor to Austin Rail Now. He is also a member of the Light Rail Technical Forum and Streetcar Subcommittee of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). His comments highlight the vision of Austin Rail Now and other transit advocates that light rail is justified in, and needs to be planned for, a number of the Austin area’s major travel corridors.

As most Austinites are undoubtedly aware, the Drag is that section of Guadalupe St. stretching between (approximately) West MLK Jr. Blvd. and W. 27th St. Straddled by the University of Texas campus on its east side and the high-density West Campus neighborhood on its west side, the Drag is perhaps the single most important segment of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. See: «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps» and «Dobbs: Density, travel corridor density, and implications for Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail».


Map shows the Drag area (Guadalupe St., running north-south in center). UT campus lies on the east, West Campus neighborhood on the west. (Screenshot from Google Maps.)

Map shows the Drag area (Guadalupe St., running north-south in center). UT campus lies on the east, West Campus neighborhood on the west. (Screenshot from Google Maps.)


Now, driven partly by their fixation to substitute buses for rail as “rapid transit”, and partly by pressure from some community groups and activists, local civic leaders and official planners are floating plans for dedicated transit (read “bus”) lanes on the Drag. (Official planning defines “the Drag” as continuing north to W. 29th St.)

Last month (August 2015), AURA (originally Austinites for Urban Rail Action), a grouping of mostly Millennial-aged urban planning enthusiasts, posted a proposal for major improvements on the Drag, one of which suggested: “Extend transit priority lanes from Downtown to the Drag”.

At peak periods, transit moves roughly half of the people passing through the corridor. This is to be expected in a central location like the Drag, as transit is by far the most efficient way to move people in a city.

Given the anticipated growth of the city, increasing the throughput of people in the corridor is of paramount importance. The city should plan ahead for increased frequency of existing bus routes, and continue to examine the viability of Guadalupe as a future corridor for rail service. Buses should not have their effectiveness limited by less efficient forms of mobility. Two lanes of Guadalupe should be dedicated solely to transit.

Back in May, per its contract with the City of Austin (COA), UT’s Center for Transportation Research (CTR) produced for city staff a memo of its findings with respect to installing dedicated lanes on the Drag. As summarized by AURA’s John Laycock, the report “modeled three scenarios: Scenario 0) the baseline scenario, Scenario 1) a transit lane in each direction on Guadalupe, and Scenario 2) diverting the buses completely off of Guadalupe onto San Antonio.” Laycock reports that the city subsequently requested CTR to model an additional case, involving one transit lane northbound on Guadalupe and another southbound on Nueces/San Antonio. Results from that additional modeling effort apparently have not yet been released publicly.


Diagram from CTR report for curbside dedicated lanes on the Drag. (Screenshot from CTR memo.)

Diagram from CTR report for curbside dedicated lanes on the Drag. (Screenshot from CTR memo.)


The proposal for dedicated transit lanes on the Drag may seem fairly benign, helpful to public transport and innocuous to the prospects for light rail (LRT). However, installing reserved transit lanes without broader planning for rail can raise some quite serious problems. Depending on their design and implementation, transit lanes could significantly improve or seriously impede the prospects for light rail transit (LRT) — by far, the most feasible and affordable rail option — in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (See «Plan for galvanizing Austin’s public transport development: Light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar».)

First, I’ll note that implementing a high-quality bus service as a precursor to rail can be an effective way of building ridership and preparing the public for the coming rail upgrade. Likewise, establishing reserved transit lanes that can be dedicated to rail can also be helpful. However, both infrastructure and configuration of dedicated transit lanes, done improperly, can create problems.

Infrastructure — Proponents of dedicated transit lanes have argued that all that’s needed is to paint some stripes on the street. And certainly, in the scheme of transit capital projects, just “painting” markings on pavement is relatively cheap. But there’s almost always more involved. The Guadalupe-Lavaca transit lanes, for example, included repaving, plus bus stop relocation and upgrading. Parking meters were removed. And the project has resulted in effectively eliminating the possibility of dedicated LRT tracks on those sides of these streets (bus traffic too heavy).


Buses use curbside reserved lanes on one-way Lavaca St. downtown. Curbside lanes on the Drag would be similar, but on two-way street. Photo: L. Henry.

Buses use curbside reserved lanes on one-way Lavaca St. downtown. Curbside lanes on the Drag would be similar, but on two-way street. Photo: L. Henry.


In previous discussions I’ve suggested that LRT dedicated lanes would need to be relocated on the opposite side of each street. Total cost of the downtown bus lane project was about $370,000 — not a billion-dollar investment, but enough of an investment certainly to give pause to totally redoing this project, or making substantial modifications to it (although modification to add LRT would definitely be a highly worthwhile investment).

We also don’t know what COA and Capital Metro have in mind for the Drag project. Some community transit activists might be thinking very minimalist, but what are official planners thinking?

Configuration — The precise alignment on the transit lanes also needs serious consideration with respect to the needs of LRT (and evidence suggests that a substantial portion of the Austin community would like to see LRT as a project on the planning table now). Curbside lanes — as assumed in the CTR design, described above — are used by several major LRT systems (Portland, Houston, Dallas, and Denver come immediately to mind), but this configuration can often encounter serious problems, mainly with motor vehicle right-turns and especially pedestrian traffic (including where the right turns are made). Another problem for the Drag is the number of driveway cuts and the issue of access to businesses along this commercial alignment.


Denver: Passengers waiting to board LRT train running in curbside lane on Stout St. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

Denver: Passengers waiting to board LRT train running in curbside lane on Stout St. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.


To be sure, a number of different LRT alignment and configuration options are possible. My preferred alignment concept for the Drag has been to keep both LRT tracks on Guadalupe, in the center (with stations also in the center), and the outside (curb) lanes continued for mixed motor vehicle traffic, including buses. The main reason for this configuration is that buses need access to right-side loading at stops, and I envisioned that local routes like #1 would need to be continued. Of course, bus routes could be moved further west, probably to San Antonio-Nueces, but keeping them on Guadalupe would facilitate relatively easy transfers to and from LRT and bus.

Ideally, the main Drag segment in this heavy-pedestrian/heavy-transit traffic area should be converted to a pedestrian-transit mall, with general motor vehicle traffic prohibited (except perhaps in the case of service vehicles for adjacent businesses). However, a design with reserved transit lanes plus a single mixed-traffic lane in each direction would appear to be possible.

To sum up: While dedicated transit lanes, with very minimal investment, could possibly be helpful as a preparation for LRT, I’d recommend huge caution and vigilance as this notion moves forward. Keeping particularly in mind the considerations I’ve raised above.

In this regard, it’s important to realize that a major chunk of Austin’s civic leadership, and planning establishment, still regard MetroRapid as the city’s “rapid transit system”. Likewise, the fantasy persists that Austin could “become the best bus system we can be” without a rail system. (Cities with the “best bus systems” also seem to happen to have excellent rail systems too.) Reserved transit lanes on the Drag could advance the case for LRT, but only if they’re properly configured, designed, and planned in the context of an ultimate LRT outcome. ■

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Austin is a village of villages — and they need to be connected by rail

29 August 2015
City of Austn's Imagine Austin "Centers and Corridors" map shows "regional centers", "town centers", neighborhood centers" and "activity centers". Center-city has three de facto villages, aka "town centers", that align in almost a perfectly straight line down the city's spine. Map excerpt: City of Austin.

City of Austn’s Imagine Austin “Centers and Corridors” map shows “regional centers”, “town centers”, neighborhood centers” and “activity centers”. Center-city has three de facto villages, aka “town centers”, that align in almost a perfectly straight line down the city’s spine. Map excerpt: City of Austin.

By Mary Rudig

Mary Rudig is a Gracy Woods Neighborhood Association coach and editor of the North Austin Community Newsletter. The following commentary has been adapted and slightly edited from her comments recently posted to selected recipients.

Right now, there is a very logical and straightforward way to create a solid transportation system in Austin — but it starts with all of us in this community having to realize that Austin, like most cities in the Southwest, is a village of villages. Most people don’t want to go downtown, they want to go to the next village.

We need to go back to the Imagine Austin plan and start by truly connecting the major activity centers through rail, going down the spine of the city. Rundberg/Lamar down to the North Lamar Transit Center down to the Triangle, then into campus, then through downtown to Seaholm. Add rapid bus systems to connect the Parmer/Mopac tech employment hub, drop more rapid buses along Parmer so you can add density in the Techridge area to the Northeast, add another rapid bus system into Highland Mall/ACC, and another rapid bus into Riverside and down into Slaughter. Eventually those rapid systems will build enough ridership to justify more legs and spurs to the main rail line.

Proposed 6.8-mile "Plan B" light rail transit line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

Light rail transit starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor could serve as basic spine for eventual urban rail system together with other transit modes connecting metro area “villages”.

Second, we need to tear apart the PUD (Planned Unit Development) ordinance and basically make PUDs temporary TIFs (Tax increment Financing districts) — I would suggest twenty years. So to pay for the infrastructure, sidewalks, and other things to create this massive transportation plan, we could encourage neighborhoods to allow PUDs to be built, but the revenue and some of the property tax from each PUD would then go back into an account that can only be used for transportation and park/greenbelt/trails in the immediate area.

Third, we would need to force developers to stop building massive parking garages every time they put in another apartment complex and insist, instead, that they have to come up with some matching funds to put in sidewalks and hike & bike trails that connect their development into the surrounding neighborhoods. Sure, the developers will howl, but we just need to tell them sweetly, but firmly, that sidewalks and hike & bike trails are actually far cheaper than parking garages, and we are no longer buying the idea that an apartment complex is truly “compact AND connected”, unless it has very few parking spots and a whole ton of, you know, actual connectivity into surrounding neighborhoods. If we can get enough PUDs generating some funds, then there will be plenty of cash on hand to match the developers’ funds.

As for the idea (being promulgated by some community activists) that all of us in the outer ring of neighborhoods are living in “suburbs” where everybody is wealthy and low-density, that’s an interesting theory — let’s test it.

Let’s see, even though the City includes the Walnut Creek Metro Park into their density calculations, my neighborhood is still over 1200 people per square mile denser than the average density in Austin (4700 versus the typical 3500), and we have a ton of fairly affordable duplexes and older apartments. Oh, and I live in a 960-square-foot bungalow, on a street that is surrounded by duplexes, and we have the Domain two blocks away. Did I mention that I walk to work, my husband walks to work, my nextdoor neighbor bikes to work, and the neighbor next to him also walks to work?

In fact, my area of town (north of U.S. 183) has nearly 90,000 people packed into 13 square miles — so we have downtown beat when it comes to density. We also have neighborhoods to the east of me where 15% of the population doesn’t have cars, versus the 3-5% that is typical in most of Austin. (The official planners have never studied my neighborhood, so I haven’t a clue where we stand on this, but we have a lot of families that do exist happily on one (1) vehicle, instead of the typical family armada)

The truth is, the development crowd in this town keeps the myth of low-density outer suburbs going because they don’t want anybody to clue into the fact that the developers are — yup, actually building sprawl. A super-dense development carefully built to hide a massive parking garage, with a sidewalk that goes nowhere tacked on as a nod to “connectivity”? That’s a vertical gated suburban community that caters to the car culture, folks — and each one of these that gets built is pushing us a little further away from the goal of Austin having good mass transit and walkable, bikable connectivity.

And just to be super-transparent … Yes, I am one of those awful “anti-growth”, “anti-density”, “ANCer” “neighborhood NIMBYs” that both well-heeled real estate groups and some “liberal” community activist groups warn you about. Because I want stuff like rail and walkability, and I don’t think car-culture sprawl and gated communities are good for Austin. Huh. ■

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Texas Tribune op-ed urges support for “Plan B” light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar

27 July 2015
TribTalk op-ed headline with photo of Houston light rail train. (Screenshot: ARN)

TribTalk op-ed headline with photo of Houston light rail train. (Screenshot: ARN)

The case for light rail transit (LRT) in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor just received a huge boost with the publication of an op-ed in TribTalk, the op-ed web page of the widely respected Texas Tribune.

“It may seem unlikely in Texas, but across the state, people are benefiting from rail transit” say William S. Lind and Glen D. Bottoms in their commentary (ARN emphasis added here and subsequently).

In Dallas, which now has the country’s largest light rail system, more than 100,000 Texans escape traffic congestion each day by riding Dallas Area Rapid Transit rail. In Houston, the light rail Red Line draws about 3,500 weekday boardings per mile, more than any other modern light rail operation in the country.

“Critics, many of whom call themselves conservatives (though most are really libertarians), predicted that both systems would fail because no one would ride them” they add.

Both writers are venerable, renowned veterans of the U.S. public transportation industry. Lind was also a close associate of the late conservative leader Paul Weyrich, a well-known advocate of rail transit among conservative circles.

In their op-ed, Lind and Bottoms note that “As conservatives, we find it odd that many people expect us to oppose public transportation, especially rail.”

In fact, high-quality transit, which usually means rail, benefits conservatives in a number of important ways. It spurs development, something conservatives generally favor, especially in Texas. It saves people, including conservatives, precious time, because those who ride rail transit can work or read on the train instead of wasting hours stuck in traffic. Transit of all kinds helps poor people get to jobs, which conservatives prefer over paying welfare. And rail transit, especially streetcars, helps support retail in downtowns by increasing the number of middle-class people on sidewalks.

Libertarians’ arguments against rail transit mostly boil down to one criticism: It’s subsidized. Yes, it is. So is all other transportation. Highway user fees now cover only 47.5 percent of the cost of highways. Nationally, rail transit of all types covers 50 percent of its operating costs from fares. It’s a veritable wash. In contrast, bus systems, which libertarians often favor over rail, cover only 28 percent of their operating costs from the farebox.

“Regrettably,” the writers caution, “conservatives’ tendency to accept libertarians’ arguments against rail transit (without checking their numbers) may deprive Texas conservatives of more chances to escape traffic congestion.”

As a case in point, they turn to Austin, explaining that it “may be different from other Texas cities in many ways, but not when it comes to traffic.”

The city’s rapidly growing population has packed its freeways at rush hours. And as other cities have found, building more freeways is not the answer. New lanes fill up as soon as they’re opened, and limited-access freeways in urban areas slice up and kill surrounding communities.

While they recount that “Austin voters last year rejected a poorly conceived light rail proposal that supporters said would help alleviate that congestion”, Lind and Bottoms argues that the failure of that plan nevertheless

…could be a good thing because it opened the door to a “Plan B” rail line that would serve the city better. A basic rule of rail transit planning is to “build it where people want to go,” and the alternative plan proposes a rail line that would run along Guadalupe Street and North Lamar Boulevard, Austin’s most heavily traveled urban corridor. We hope Austin conservatives will support “Plan B.”

Included in their commentary is a hyperlink to our own article from last October, «A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line». (Also see our recent article «Plan for galvanizing Austin’s public transport development: Light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar», which links to our series of articles for this alternative plan with “what, where, how, and how soon” details about the proposed project.

Lind and Bottoms also point to other opportunities for rail, such as the streetcar project in El Paso and the Texas Central Railway highspeed rail system proposed to connect Dallas and Houston. “A combination of high-speed rail connecting Texas cities and good light rail and streetcar systems in those cities would make Texas a national leader…” they say in their conclusion. ■

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