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. ■


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. ■


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? ■


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. ■


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). ■


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… ■


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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