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Plan for galvanizing Austin’s public transport development: Light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar

30 June 2015
LEFT: Map of proposed 6.8-mile light rail route in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (Map: ARN.) RIGHT: San Francisco light rail train in dedicated lanes in Judah St., similar to Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (Photo: Eric Haas.)

LEFT: Map of proposed 6.8-mile light rail route in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (Map: ARN.) RIGHT: San Francisco light rail train in dedicated lanes in Judah St., similar to Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (Photo: Eric Haas.) (Click to enlarge.)

LEFT: Map of proposed 6.8-mile light rail route in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (Map: ARN.) RIGHT: San Francisco light rail train in dedicated lanes in Judah St., similar to Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (Photo: Eric Haas.)

Austin’s transportation planning could be seen as “a tale of two systems“. On one hand, here in the 21st century — amidst crises over the climbing cost of energy, increasing road congestion by private vehicles, and global climate change impacted by greenhouse gas emissions — local planners and leaders are expanding highways like it’s 1955. In all directions, nowadays it’s mostly tollways, with new ones under development or planned in southwestern Travis County; across the river, double-decked over Loop 1 (MoPac); from East Austin to ABIA; and through the heart of the city with new toll lanes on I-35. Austinites who’re already paying taxes to fund roads now get to pay out-of-pocket tolls to use the new ones — a kind of Double Whammy.

So what about public transportation? Basically, since last year’s “Rail to Nowhere” Highland-Riverside proposal crashed and burned, public transportation planning has been going in circles — a circular maze, to be exact.

In other words, roads burgeon while transit diddles.

Meanwhile the solution continues to stare the Austin community in the face. As we noted in our March 29th article «Austin’s urban transport planning seems struck by catastrophic case of amnesia and confusion», “For two and a half decades, local officials and planners have explained why urban rail — affordable light rail transit (LRT), in Austin’s case — has been an absolutely essential component of the metro area’s mobility future.” We went on to elaborate that

…the fundamental case for LRT in Austin has been grounded in truth — the higher capacity, greater ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, environmental benefits, unsurpassed magnetism to transit-oriented development and economic development, and other advantages of light rail are indeed essential for the future of this community. Mobility cannot be sustained of a continuing expansion of rivers of highways and tollways and a steadily rising flood of personal motor vehicles. Urban rail continues to be key to providing truly attractive public transit alternative, and shifting at least significant segments of the Austin metro to a sustainable alternative mobility lifestyle.

Austin Rail Now has underscored the case — and extensive evidence — in an array of solidly documented articles, including:

Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps

Latest TTI data confirm — Guadalupe-Lamar is central local arterial corridor with heaviest travel

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

West Campus is where the students are!

Guadalupe-Lamar is highest-density corridor in Austin — according to Project Connect’s own data!

Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail line would serve 31% of all Austin jobs

Demographic maps show Lamar-Guadalupe trumps Mueller route for Urban Rail

Dobbs: “Why are we squandering our best asset?”

How urban rail can be installed in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

Strong community support for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail continues — but officials seem oblivious

Poll: Austinites want surface rail!

Community endorsements

Why the MetroRapid bus project currently is NOT an obstacle to urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar

Contradicting local official claims, FTA says it “would consider request” for urban rail on North Lamar

So where and how could LRT be installed in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor? Austin Rail Now has provided conceptual details for a workable, affordable, attractive, cost-effective plan in a series of thoroughly researched articles:

What and where — Our article «A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line» proposed a 6.8-mile LRT starter line from the North Austin Transit Center down North Lamar and then Guadalupe and Lavaca to downtown, with a westward spur to the Seaholm-Amtrak Station area. Total cost was estimated at less than $600 million (2014 dollars), and daily ridership was estimated at 30,000 to 40,000.


Proposed 6.8-mile "Plan B" light rail transit line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would have 17 stations and connect  the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S> 183 with Crestview, the Triangle, UT and the West Campus, the Capitol Complex, the CBD, and the Seaholm-Amtrak area. It's projected to serve 3 times the ridership of the Prop. 1 Highland-Riverside rail line at slightly over half the capital cost.

Map of proposed 6.8-mile LRT starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, with connection to Seaholm-Amtrak Station site. (Map: ARN. Click to enlarge.)


How — Our article «San Francisco’s N-Judah Muni Metro line shows design option for light rail in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor» explains how two dedicated LRT tracks could be installed in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor in a design that maintains four traffic lanes (two per direction) and facilities for pedestrians and cyclists.


Cross-sectional diagram of major arterials in corridor, showing center LRT reservation, traffic lanes, sidwalks, and side-mounted TES poles for suspending the OCS. Graphic: ARN.

Cross-section of proposed LRT dedicated lanes in Guadalupe-Lamar, including 4 traffic lanes and pedestrian-bicycle facilities. (ARN. Click to enlarge.)


How soon — Our article «How soon to get Austin’s urban rail on track after Nov. 4th?» explains policy steps that the new City Council could implement to re-focus planning on a viable Guadalupe-Lamar LRT starter line and a local funding mechanism. Our subsequent, more detailed article «Possible timeline for installing light rail transit in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor» lays out a plausible itemized timeline that brings an LRT plan for Guadalupe-Lamar from the start of system-level planning to opening of operations in less than seven years.


Hypothetical timeline.

Conceptual timeline for proposed LRT starter line project, with assumed starting point in fall of 2015. (ARN. Click to enlarge.)


Until this city has a signature rail system, beginning with a starter line in the right corridor to serve as a spine and anchor for a citywide and regionwide network, Austinites will continue to face one highway ripoff after another — burdened with steadily rising costs for more roads and shackled to dependency on increasingly expensive private vehicles in worsening traffic congestion.

We’ve proposed a plan that can work and initiate a realistic path forward for solving Austin’s mobility crisis. Will Austin decide to proceed on that path, or continue to circle around in the maze of indecision and procrastination? ■

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Poll: Austinites want surface rail!

31 May 2015
(Sceenshot of poll results)

(Sceenshot of poll results)

We’ve been insisting that — despite last November’s voter rejection of the deeply flawed official “urban rail” plan — Austinites do support rail.

Now this has been corroborated. A poll conducted in early March by the Zandan Poll (and reported April 16th by the Austin American-Statesman) indicates that 63% of respondents would favor “an increase in taxes” to construct an “Above ground rail system”.

According to the Statesman, the results are based on the responses of over 800 people that participated in online surveys. Yhr particupar quesrion on transportation was:

Assuming an increase in taxes for projects that involve lots of new construction, how supportive are you of the following transportation initiatives/infrastructure projects?

As the graphic at top shows, respondents also gave a thumbs-up to “More dedicated express lanes on Austin’s major highways ” and “Expanding service on the most frequently used bus routes”. And over half apparently even favor a subway.

All in all, this suggests that votes could be mustered to support money for rail — if the project is right. ■

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Plan Now for Light Rail in South Lamar!

29 April 2015
South Lamar corridor. Map: City of Austin.

South Lamar corridor. Map: City of Austin.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments, adapted here to webpage format, were distributed to attendees at a public event sponsored by the City of Austin’s South Lamar Boulevard Corridor Study project on 10 December 2014. Lyndon Henry is a transportation planning consultant, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and a contributing editor to Austin Rail Now. 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.

► South Lamar light rail transit line makes sense

• In terms of both travel density and traffic congestion, South Lamar Blvd. ranks high among Austin’s major travel corridors (see Latest TTI data confirm — Guadalupe-Lamar is central local arterial corridor with heaviest travel). Current travel density plus rapidly increasing population density plus commercial growth in this corridor all indicate that planning for light rail transit (LRT) should long since have been under way.

• A South Lamar surface LRT line, possibly using an alignment design such as is illustrated below, needs to be a major part of an eventual citywide system branching north, south, east, and west throughout our region from an initial central spine in the Guadalupe-North Lamar corridor.


Cross-sectional diagram showing how center LRT reservation could be inserted in South Lamar, maintaining traffic lanes and sidwalks. Design would use side-mounted traction electrification system poles for suspending the overhead contact system for LRT electric propulsion. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

Cross-sectional diagram showing how center LRT reservation could be inserted in South Lamar, maintaining traffic lanes and sidwalks. Design would use side-mounted traction electrification system poles for suspending the overhead contact system for LRT electric propulsion. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


• The South Lamar Corridor Improvement Program should be reconfigured to include planning for LRT as a crucial focus of this project. Planners and traffic engineers need to ensure that any “improvements” in this corridor facilitate dedicated transit lanes for future light rail, and certainly should not impose obstacles to it. It’s way past time to scrap the practice of proceeding with major projects with little if any thought to the future.

► Form a Community Policy & Technical Oversight Committee

• Planning should involve the Austin community as a whole, and this means forming a broad, inclusive community committee to oversee policy and technical decisions, including a comprehensive transit-focused mobility plan for Austin and its surrounding region. No more secretive project teams meeting in a virtual “bunker”, then emerging to tell us what they’ve decided for us! Authentic public participation means including representatives of neighborhood and other community groups, plus others with applicable expertise within the Austin community at large.


Current view of traffic on South Lamar. Photo: Austin Mobility.

Current view of traffic and urban development on South Lamar. Photo: Austin Mobility.


► Dedicate street lanes for light rail transit

Light rail can carry many more peak passengers than private cars, and attract many more riders than buses (both “regular” and MetroRapid). Austin needs to start re-allocating street space from traffic lanes to transit lanes, and the South Lamar corridor must be included. Smart design could install LRT in this corridor while retaining at least 4 lanes of traffic (see diagram in first section, above). ■

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Texas Legislature’s transportation policy: Full speed backwards?

23 April 2015
Highway Patrol TV series opening image. Graphic: flickr.

Highway Patrol TV series opening image, c. 1955. Graphic: flickr.

While much of the USA — and the world — seems committed to moving vigorously into the future with rail mass transportation systems, the Texas legislature (currently in its 2015 biennial session) seems determined to proceed backwards (perhaps to somewhere in the mid-1950s). This can readily be concluded from recent Senate and House bills (designated with S.B. and H.B. respectively) introduced in both state houses.

Hostility to public transportation among the predominantly Tea-Party-leaning Republican majority was hinted early on in the discussion over S.B. 5, which proposes to bestow a new gusher of state sales tax money (from motor vehicle sales and rental car services) on highway expansion. Legislative discussion of S.B. 5 involved assurances that not a dime of this new flood of money would be allocated to the despised “rail mass transit”.

Rail public transportation was then specifically targeted by S.B. 1048, introduced in early March, which would mandate that “The [Texas Transportation] department, a local governmental entity, or another political subdivision of this state may not use money provided by the Federal Transit Administration for a mass transit passenger rail project.” In other words, under this proposed legislation, a local government entity, such as a city or transportation authority, would be prohibited from using grant funds approved and awarded for a rail transit project by the FTA.

Other legislators have aimed their target sights at intercity rail issues, particularly with measures to obstruct highspeed rail development. H.B. 3918 would mandate that “no bonds may be issued to finance, in whole or in part, the construction or operation of an electric railway as defined by Section 131.011 Transportation Code or high speed rail as defined by Section 111.103(a) Transportation Code, that is capable of operating at speeds greater than 100 miles per hour, between two municipalities in this state.” S.B. 1601, curiously defining “High-speed rail” as “intercity passenger rail service that is reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 miles per hour”, then proposes to eliminate any such project’s ability to acquire right-of-way through eminent domain: “…a company that operates a high-speed rail system may not exercise the power of eminent domain for the system.” (While these measures probably reflect a response to the fears of landowners along the proposed route of a somewhat dubious Dallas-Houston highspeed rail concept, they could have much wider impact on more immediately feasible rail improvement projects as well.)

This anti-mass transportation bias suggested by the proposed legislative measures has basically been confirmed by actual statements from key Texas legislators. As Dick Kallerman, a transportation policy leader in the Austin-area Sierra Club, reports,

On Tuesday, April 7, I attended “Texas Tribune Talks” hosted by Evan Smith. His guests were Senator Nichols and Rep. Pickett, both heads of their transportation committees. They said nothing new or interesting, no insight from the top, just well-worn, politically correct statements. I got the microphone during the question session. I made the case that Texas has very little mass transit and asked if that might change in the future.

Pickett said that the Texas culture is an automobile culture and that Texans aren’t much interested in mass transit. Nichols said that since 97% of Texans drive their cars to work it shows that they’re not interested in transit, and besides, transit requires subsidies while the auto pays its own way.

These attitudes seem straight out of the 1950s and 1960s — in effect, the dinosaur era of American transportation (including the misconception that private automobile transportation, showered with fuel sales tax money, local government bond proceeds, and parking subsidies, is in effect a “free ride”). Here in the 21st century, what is a supposedly forward-looking state like Texas doing with a legislative majority that seems focused on mobility assumptions and policies from five or six decades ago in the last century?

Texas is not just the second-largest state in the USA, it’s also home to some of America’s most powerful corporate and private business giants — companies like ExxonMobil, AT&T, American Airlines, Kimberly-Clark, USAA, Southwest Airlines, Whole Foods, Texas Instruments, J. C. Penney, KBR, FMC Technologies, Clear Channel, Dell Computer, Neiman Marcus, Shell Oil, Schlumberger, 7-Eleven, BNSF, Hewlett-Packard … and dozens more. One wonders how long these mammoth and influential commercial institutions and powerful national leaders will continue to tolerate a state political leadership that so blithely dismisses the value and relevance of public transportation, urban rail, and highspeed rail for Texas’s diverse and rapidly expanding population.

We suspect that a lot of top-level business movers and shakers will start to re-evaluate the effectiveness of a political transportation mindset still rooted the middle of the last century. And will take action accordingly… ■

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Stealth plans for “forced busing” in heavy local travel corridors may be wasteful barrier to light rail

30 March 2015
Consequences of investing in bus-based "rapid transit" (BRT) can be seen in Ottawa, where bus bunching and huge bus jams like this one reveal massive size of fleet necessary to support "rapid transit" levels of ridership — ridership far more efficiently accommodated by urban rail . Similar plans for expanded BRT infrastructure in Austin pose similar need for light rail transit (LRT) alternative. Photo: Flickr.

Consequences of investing in bus-based “rapid transit” (BRT) can be seen in Ottawa, where bus bunching and huge bus jams like this one reveal massive size of fleet necessary to support “rapid transit” levels of ridership — ridership far more efficiently accommodated by urban rail. Similar plans for expanded BRT infrastructure in Austin pose need for light rail transit (LRT) alternative. Photo: Flickr.

By Dave Dobbs

Dave Dobbs is publisher of LightRailNow.com. This commentary has been adapted and expanded from original private Email comments.

Recent developments in local metro area transportation planning, particularly in the aftermath of last November’s ill-conceived “urban rail” bond vote debacle, have made it evident to some of us that there’s a need for a grassroots collection of stakeholders to unite behind a new urban rail planning process, and getting it started ASAP. This is more urgent than most people realize.

It’s abundantly clear that, over the past several years, Project Connect and CAMPO planners and officials have been aiming toward “forced busing” on Austin’s best potential light rail routes, the heavy local travel routes where currently the big red MetroRapid buses run — Guadalupe/North Lamar, South Congress, and South Lamar. As I pointed out in an earlier article on this issue («No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes…»), it’s ironic that, for the past several years, while some public officials have piously insisted we can’t possibly convert car travel lanes to reserved rail lanes on Guadalupe/North Lamar, it seems that all along, since at least 2012, this has been in planning for MetroRapid — in effect, a “stealth” plan for incremental BRT.


Light rail/urban rail has simply vanished from CAMPO's 2040 Transportation Plan. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN.

CAMPO 2040 plan includes hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed “BRT” projects, including plans to construct dedicated lanes in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor in lieu of light rail. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


If, this coming May, the CAMPO 2040 plan is adopted with the Urban Transit Projects (2020 – 2040) currently in the plan, Capital Metro, perhaps together with the City, will have the green light to immediately pursue federal funding for concrete bus lanes on the above thoroughfares. And they will no doubt do so, as the 80% federal matching funds for buses are far more available than 50% federal matching funds for rail. Yet, even with the heavier federal proportion, this would be a disastrous waste in the longer term, since the ridership attractiveness, cost efficiency, more livable urban environment, stimulus for transit oriented development (TOD) and economic development, and other benefits for the community, far outweigh the advantage of a higher rate of federal bus system funding.


Total cost per passenger of urban rail becomes lower than "bus rapid transit" as ridership rises above about 10,000 per day. Graph: Project Connect.

Project Connect graph, presented in June 2012 to Transit Working Group, showed greater cost-effectiveness of urban rail (LRT) compared with BRT, as ridership increases. Screenshot: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


We should expect that the MetroRapid bus lane process will be similar to the Project Connect rail public process — i.e., art gallery open houses, boards and commission hearings and approvals, and finally, council and Capital Metro board approval … but no general public vote, because the the local 20% match will be small enough to construct discrete sections and can probably be found in a slush fund someplace. While 20% of the overall $442,861,656 Capital Metro has identified for dedicated MetroRapid bus lanes is around $88.6 million, it’s logical to expect a piecemeal approach, one section at a time, so as to avoid a citywide response over the loss of vehicle travel lanes. Divide and conquer.

For example, after having paint-striped a little over a mile of Guadalupe and Lavaca between Cesar Chavez and MLK, the most likely next step is to convert two vehicle travel lanes on Guadalupe from MLK to the Triangle (North Lamar at Guadalupe), a distance of 2.5 miles, for about $60 million. Of this, Austin’s share would be roughly $12 million, small enough to be found in current budget funds without going to the voters. Perhaps an even shorter segment, 1.5 miles to 38th Street, would be considered, where the local share would be only about $7 million.

While the downtown Guadalupe/Lavaca paint striping cost $270,000/mile, the dedicated lanes called for in the CAMPO 2040 plan are tear-up-the-street, fix-utilities, and pour 18 inches of concrete (very much like installing light-rail-dedicated reserved lanes) and cost about $24 million/mile for a lane in each direction. Of course, once the bus lanes are in, we couldn’t change our minds because (1) we’ll have spent a lot of federal dollars, and switching over to rail anytime soon would not get a hearing from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and (2) merchants and residents are not going to easily, willingly, or peacefully suffer urban street surgery twice. Currently the $38 million in Federal grants for MetroRapid in mixed traffic is mostly portable to another corridor (like Riverside, where it would be appropriate), and after seven years, buses are mostly amortized in the eyes of the FTA. Exclusive bus lanes at $350 million is another matter entirely, for something that can’t be moved.


Construction for dedicated bus lanes, rarely shown by "BRT" promoters, is very similar to that for LRT, as this example from San Bernardino demonstrates. Yet effective capacity, ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, TOD, and other benefits typically fall short of what LRT typically achieves. Photo: Omnitrans.org.

Construction for dedicated bus lanes, rarely shown by “BRT” promoters, is very similar to that for LRT, as this example from San Bernardino demonstrates. Yet effective capacity, ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, TOD, and other benefits typically fall short of what LRT achieves. Photo: Omnitrans.org. (Click to enlarge.)


Proceeding with major investment in bus infrastructure in Guadalupe-Lamar and other high-travel local corridors is a huge mistake. As I warned in the earlier article cited above, if you would prefer urban rail instead of a major dedicated bus lane project in Guadalupe-Lamar, “it’s essential to speak up and act. Let neighborhood groups and other community organizations know what official plans have in store for this corridor.” It’s also important to communicate to local agencies involved with planning and members of the Austin City Council “that you want to ride urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, running in reserved tracks, not just a souped-up bus service weaving in and out of special lanes.” ■

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Austin’s urban transport planning seems struck by catastrophic case of amnesia and confusion

29 March 2015
Graphic: Rich's Management Blog

Graphic: Rich’s Management Blog

The devastating befuddlement of Austin’s official-level urban transportation planning over the past five months has been nothing short of jaw-dropping. Especially when you consider this in context.

For two and a half decades, local officials and planners have explained why urban rail — affordable light rail transit (LRT), in Austin’s case — has been an absolutely essential component of the metro area’s mobility future. As our recent article «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps» describes, the logical starting point for an initial LRT route has been the central city’s heaviest-traveled central corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar.

Year after year, planning proceeded in some way for LRT. Even after 2003, while official planning was distracted and mis-directed toward potential routes more to the east of the central core city, the need for rail transit was still proclaimed. Austin had to have rail to maintain an adequate level of mobility into the future.

Beginning about 2006, an original streetcar “connector” rail transit concept emerged that gradually morphed into more ambitious “urban rail” — a full LRT system. An official blue-ribbon committee of civic leaders, the Transit Working Group (TWG), was hand-picked (first by State Sen. Kirk Watson, then by Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell) to guide rail planning. Extensive planning documents were finalized for a route scheme linking the Core Area with Seaholm, East Riverside, the East Campus, and Mueller — a rather deranged route, in our view, but rail nonetheless. The City then launched a full-fledged NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process (required for federal funding), with a series of “open houses” and other public events.

Activities of the TWG continued to heat up, primarily focused on planning for the urban rail line to Mueller. Route alternatives, cost issues, funding issues, organizational and management arrangements, and all kinds of associated issues were discussed exhaustively. A new consortium of public agencies, called Project Connect, was formed, mainly to coordinate rail planning and to produce a massive regional plan criss-crossed with proposed rail lines. Remember all this?

By 2013, the official establishment apparently felt urban rail needed the scrutiny of a special High-Capacity Transit study. So a special Project Connect team, headed by consultant Kyle Keahey, was formed, and virtually the second half of 2013 was consumed with “studying” (translation: justifying) and finalizing the need, size, and shape of an officially preferred urban rail plan. Mueller was sidelined, replaced by a desperate quest for a rail line from East Riverside to the former Highland Mall site. “Gotta get to Mueller! Mueller! Mueller!” became “Gotta get to Highland! Highland! Highland!”


Urban rail has been on the official planning agenda for decades. Throughout the first 10 months of 2014, the Highland-Riverside plan (envisioned in this simulated scene) was hyped incessantly. Graphic: Project Connect.

Urban rail has been on the official planning agenda for decades. Throughout the first 10 months of 2014, the Highland-Riverside plan (envisioned in this simulated scene) was hyped incessantly. Graphic: Project Connect.


As this blog, and a sizable segment of local transit advocates, insisted, the plan was conceived for the wrong reasons and fundamentally flawed. But for about the last two months of 2013, and ten months of 2014, the City administration, plus Capital Metro, plus the prevailing faction of local civic leaders, all insisted over and over that rail was absolutely, positively essential (although it had to be the peculiar Highland-Riverside plan officials had concocted). An expensive ad campaign, much of it financed from federal funds channeled through Capital Metro, bombarded the public via the Internet and virtually all major media outlets — reiterating the message that traffic congestion was a growing threat to the metro area and rail (the official plan of course) was the essential remedy. Mayor Leffingwell’s familiar aphorism was suddenly appearing and being heard everywhere: “Rail or Fail!

And then, on Nov. 4th, it all hit a wall, as voters said No to the puzzling, nonsensical, controversial, and fabulously expensive Project Connect plan that had been offered.

And all of a sudden, rail was erased, scrubbed, from official discourse. Despite all the years, decades, of documentation of the need for a rail transit system for the city, the official vision of transit became refocused on “becoming the best bus system we can be”; after years of explanations that reliance on further highway development wasn’t a realistic solution for preserving the city’s mobility, regional highway and tollway development has suddenly received a new surge of energy in official policy.

Meanwhile, rail transit planning has basically vanished from official planning. It’s just gone “Poof”. As David Orr has reported in his recent commentary «Austin’s “shadow government” (CAMPO) disappears light rail from local planning», all reference to urban rail has been expunged from the 2040 Transportation Plan of CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization), and replaced by line items for “bus rapid transit” (i.e., expansion of the MetroRapid limited-stop bus service).

Affirmed, until last November, as an absolutely essential component of Austin’s future mobility, light rail has now disappeared from public discourse, from the mainstream media, from the lips of politicians and civic leaders. Is it some kind of collective amnesia? Have the local planning and decisionmaking establishment all been struck with a strange disability, like the global mass blindness in Day of the Triffids? Or is the obliteration of rail a calculated excision, like the Soviet Stalin regime’s air-brushing elimination of political undesirables from photos, or the “Photoshopping” of group photos by some misguided religious media to “disappear” women?


Evaporation of Austin's light rail planning resembles a catastrophe of collective affliction, like the mass blindness portrayed in Day of the Triffids. Movie poster: IMDb.com.

Evaporation of Austin’s light rail planning resembles a catastrophe of collective affliction, like the mass blindness portrayed in Day of the Triffids. Movie poster: IMDb.com.


One wonders whether any of these Austin-area leaders and planners have given a thought as to how this plays in public perceptions of their own credibility and integrity. Were all the assurances and explanations of the need for urban rail to maintain Austin’s future mobility and vitality just deceptive hype, a marketing ploy for some kind of alternative agenda?

Maybe, but we believe the fundamental case for LRT in Austin has been grounded in truth — the higher capacity, greater ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, environmental benefits, unsurpassed magnetism to transit-oriented development and economic development, and other advantages of light rail are indeed essential for the future of this community. Mobility cannot be sustained of a continuing expansion of rivers of highways and tollways and a steadily rising flood of personal motor vehicles. Urban rail continues to be key to providing truly attractive public transit alternative, and shifting at least significant segments of the Austin metro to a sustainable alternative mobility lifestyle.


According data from Texas Transportation Institute, even with implementation of infrastructure expansion in CAMPO 2035 plan, Austin metro travel time would increase 80% due to traffic congestion. Graph: Austin Chamber of Commerce 2013 Mobility Report.

According to data from Texas Transportation Institute, even with implementation of infrastructure expansion in CAMPO 2035 plan, Austin metro travel time would increase 80% due to traffic congestion. Graph: Austin Chamber of Commerce 2013 Mobility Report. (Click to enlarge.)


And we have a strong suspicion that a preponderant number of local planners and officials actually continue to agree with this perspective. If so, they need to realize there’s a lot of community support for urban rail — from voters on both sides of last year’s debate — and they need to start stepping forward. They need to heed their sense of responsibility, find their mojo, or whatever it takes, to take the lead to get LRT planning back on track.

The groundwork, in terms of preliminary planning, is already there — and, in recent articles and other public information, Austin Rail Now along with other mass transit advocates have expanded on it.

Austin is waiting. We’re wondering who’ll take the first step. ■


LRT train on Portland's 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland’s light rail trains (in dedicated lanes) share 5th and 6th Avenue transit mall with buses as well as cars — a potential transit design model for Austin? Photo: L. Henry.

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Austin’s “shadow government” (CAMPO) disappears light rail from local planning

26 March 2015
Graphic: PEHUB.com

Graphic: PEHUB.com

By David Orr

David Orr, an Austin community activist involved with transportation issues, is a longtime environmental justice and transportation advocate.

The more I learn about how the political sausage gets made around here nowadays, the more I’m convinced that CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) is Austin’s “shadow government“, at least so far as large-scale transportation-related land use decisions are concerned.

The CAMPO 2040 Plan is egregiously deficient in providing alternatives to automobile-based transportation. Indeed, it seems like the plan is designed — intentionally so — to ensure that development of efficient rail-transit infrastructure cannot occur.

From what I’ve read, there are exactly ZERO miles of light rail in the plan, whereas a decision has apparently been made to go all in on BRT (bus rapid transit). It’s not clear to me where, or by whom, the decision was made to pretend light rail is no longer an option, but the fact that this policy is embedded so deeply in CAMPO’s planning documents makes clear that the agency has a clear agenda.

CAMPO 2040 Plan includes hundreds of millions of dollars for additional investment in MetroRapid "BRT" operation. Such facilities could impose a barrier to urban rail in key corridors such as Guadalupe-Lamar. Photo: L. Henry.

CAMPO 2040 Plan includes hundreds of millions of dollars for additional investment in MetroRapid “BRT” operation. Such facilities could impose a barrier to urban rail in key corridors such as Guadalupe-Lamar. Photo: L. Henry.

Where is the political accountability for this? Have local governments adopted resolutions of support for BRT while unequivocally stating opposition to any further study of light rail?

It seems to me that citizens have to demand that the City of Austin and Travis County — the most populous city and county in the CAMPO region — respond to CAMPO’s 2040 Plan before it is finalized next month (April). Even though it seems that the majority of CAMPO’s board have made it clear that their priorities are not in synch with concerns of Austin and Travis County officials who would like to see less emphasis on highway construction, it should be incumbent on both local entities to stand up for the interests and concerns of the residents here.

If CAMPO adopts a plan that zeros out light rail for the next 25 years, that will greatly complicate any effort that we can marshal to promote a light-rail project. I’m not well-versed in U.S. DOT (Department of Transportation) and FTA (Federal Transit Administration) law and regulations, so I don’t know whether an Austin-based light-rail project would have to obtain CAMPO’s support to proceed, but the FTA surely would notice if CAMPO was not behind it. Another crucial question is whether the Austin City Council or the Travis County Commissioners would be inclined to object to the finalizing of the 2040 Plan.

Light rail/urban rail has simply vanished from CAMPO's 2040 Transportation Plan. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN.

Light rail/urban rail has simply vanished from CAMPO’s 2040 Transportation Plan. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

During CAMPO’s meeting on the night of March 9th, the agency’s director stated that they were required by federal rules to adopt this plan in the next month or two. If that’s true, such a requirement may make it impossible to stop this measure, but at least the city and/or county could register official displeasure (and preferably opposition?) at the lack of public input on so many key policies and plan provisions.

I encourage others to join me in expressing concern publicly. If you have a good relationship with friendly elected officials, it seems like this is a critical time to ask them to engage. ■

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