Why the MetroRapid bus project currently is NOT an obstacle to urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar19 October 2013
by Lyndon Henry
The question of which route to choose for an initial urban rail line — the officially preferred downtown-East Campus-Mueller plan or the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) plan — is linked to the related issue of the $47.6 million MetroRapid bus project currently under way in this and other corridors and due to open for service in 2014. However, as this blog has noted, as currently intended, designed, and funded, MetroRapid — 80% funded from a $37.6 million grant under the Small Starts program of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) — is about as minimalist as a bus upgrade project can get, involving little more than the following:
• Rolling stock — A fleet of new buses, intended to run almost entirely in mixed general traffic with private motor vehicles. These could readily be redployed into other transit routes or entirely new corridors.
• Upgraded bus stops — Mostly modular in design (i.e., shelters, benches, etc. could be relocated to other locations). These will be equipped with digital cellular-based schedule information systems that are also modular.
• Downtown transit priority lanes — A project to install these (i.e., restripe a lane on each of Guadalupe and Lavaca St. and relocate bus stops) is currently under way. However, as we noted in a previous posting (referring to Portland as a model for transit priority lanes),
there are legitimate questions as to whether these two lanes could simultaneously and effectively accommodate the two MetroRapid bus routes (10-minute headways each) plus all other Capital Metro routes (various headways) as well as urban rail (10-minute headway), all running in both directions.
• Rebranding and marketing — Rechristening limited-stop buses on G-L (a service configuration basically replicating the #101) as a “rapid” service (although the schedule time difference is minuscule to zero). See: Why MetroRapid bus service is NOT “bus rapid transit”.
Besides all the rebranding and marketing hype, one can legitimately ask: What’s really different about MetroRapid?
• Buses, including limited-stop (even with special branding) have been running in the G-L corridor for decades…
• Capital Metro has repeatedly upgraded both rolling stock and bus stop facilities using federal grant funding…
You could say … Well, there are those downtown transit priority lanes. But Capital Metro and City of Austin planners have long intended to use those also for urban rail! As we hinted in the article on Portland cited above, crowding all downtown bus operations plus MetroRapid plus urban rail into those two lanes does seem to present a problem … but that’s an issue we’ll deal with in a subsequent article. (For urban rail, our remedy is to allocate two more separate lanes.)
So, we have this very minimalist FTA-funded Small Starts bus project (MetroRapid), simply running buses in the street with traffic, and yet, to support their case for Mueller and dismiss the case for urban rail on G-L, some local planners and Project Connect officials have been claiming that the FTA will bar funding of an urban rail project because it would disrupt this small-scale project. Despite the fact that:
• The MetroRapid project was never intended to become an immutable obstacle to rail in the G-L corridor…
• The new buses could be redeployed to other uses — including to urban rail stations in the same streets…
• The modular bus stop facilities (including the cellular information system) could be relocated and redeployed, or simply left in place for use by passengers for the other local bus services…
• MetroRapid in the G-L could simply be re-purposed and rebranded as a precursor to urban rail in the same corridor…
The heaviest artillery brought to bear for this has not been testimony from any FTA official, nor FTA policies, but a major Washington lobbyist, hired by the City of Austin, and brought to a work session of the Austin City Council in May 2012 to proclaim that the MetroRapid project represents a barrier to rail in the G-L corridor for the next 20 years! (His opinion has subsequently been repeatedly cited as evidence to support the “MetroRapid barrier” contention.)
It’s legitimate to ask: On what basis, and with what actual evidence, are these claims made? Where have other major rail investments been denied because of this supposed justification? Where has FTA explicitly stated that they resolutely forbid altering a portion of an FTA-funded project and substituting a different project for that section prior to the fulfillment of a defined “minimum life cycle”?
The Official (City + Project Connect) position might as well be: We’re already running buses in this corridor, so there’s no role for rail. That, of course, is absurd — existing bus service means you’ve already got well-established transit ridership, a huge plus for rail.
The same holds true of MetroRapid. The argument that this somehow, in its present form, makes it a daunting barrier to urban rail is also nonsense. (They’d like to make it an authentic barrier, by installing special bus lanes … but that’s another issue — see No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes….)
Let’s look at several scenarios:
• Worst-case scenario — Austin would have to reimburse FTA the $38 million grant in full. Not really likely, but possible. If so, this $38 million would be a relatively small penalty added to the cost of a project of hundreds of millions. Actually, FTA would probably deduct it from the grant for any urban rail FFGA (Full Funding Grant Agreement) that would be submitted in the future.
• Acceptable scenario — Austin would be required to reimburse FTA for just the portion from downtown to some point on North Lamar. This seemingly amounts to about 20% or less of the total. It’s also arguable that reimbursement need be based solely on the cost of all or portions the stations and other fixed facilities, but not the rolling stock (which was the preponderance of the grant).
On a route-length basis, the affected G-L portion of the MetroRapid project represents about 20% of the total length. Rolling stock procurement represents about 53% of the total project cost, fixed facilities about 47%. So altogether Austin would be looking at reimbursing 20% X 47% X $37.6 million (FTA grant), which equals … about $3.5 million. And that’s assuming that FTA would not credit the city for re-purposing and re-using these fixed facilities for urban rail or other bus services.
• Best-case scenario — No reimbursement needed. Instead, Austin would just re-deploy the buses in other corridors (including further north on Lamar), and be authorized to relocate fixed facilities or re-purpose them (e.g., the traffic-signal-preemption systems would simply be reconfigured for the rail system).
Also note that FTA is accustomed to changes in FFGAs and other contractual elements all the time and doesn’t just blacklist the agency when that happens. Remember — we’d be dealing with just a portion of this total project, and a small portion of just a very small project at that. So we’re not suggesting here a total cancellation of the entire MetroRapid contract.
In dealing with FTA, there are bureaucratic protocols involved, and the need to adhere to stated rules and regulations, but there’s also a lot of politics. The crucial issue for supporters of urban rail in G-L is to influence overall community desire, intent, and policy to re-focus urban rail into the G-L corridor. Once we accomplish that, there’s a very high probability that local civic and political leadership will climb aboard the reoriented urban rail project and work hard to forge the necessary political clout at the federal level.
Also keep in mind that final design and engineering of any rail system will take a fair chunk of a decade. So the MetroRapid system (which should be re-purposed and re-branded as a precursor to rail) will be operating for several years, anyway, before even construction gets under way. Austin could argue that amortization of fixed facilities (and the “BRT” system) should be accounted for in any reimbursement demanded by FTA.
So how is any of the above a real impediment to installing urban rail properly in the right corridor, i.e., the one which should logically continue to be the city’s highest-priority corridor? The contention that the MetroRapid project represents some kind of insurmountable barrier to moving ahead with urban rail in the G-L corridor seems implausible to the point of absurdity.