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

1 February 2014
MetroRapid bus (left) and simulation of urban rail (right). Actual FTA view expresses openness to consider replacing MetroRapid service with urban rail in North Lamar corridor. Photo: L. Henry; simulation: COA.

MetroRapid bus (left) and simulation of urban rail (right). Actual FTA view expresses openness to consider replacing MetroRapid service with urban rail in North Lamar corridor. Photo: L. Henry; simulation: COA.

On December 12th, in the course of a contentious meeting, the Austin City Council endorsed Project Connect’s recommendation to pursue “high-capacity transit” in East Riverside and a narrow swath of area mostly northeast of the UT campus, dubbed the “Highland sub-corridor”. (See City Council to Central Austin: Drop Dead.) Present at this meeting was a long queue of critics of the proposal, and proponents of an alternative urban rail route in the “backbone” West Campus-Guadalupe-Lavaca corridor.

Over previous months, Project Connect and its partisans had repeatedly insisted that Capital Metro’s new MetroRapid bus service in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor – because it was funded by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) – was an impenetrable barrier to urban rail. In recent days, the argument had intensified, with solemn declarations that even raising the issue of replacing MetroRapid bus with urban rail might so incense FTA that all future federal funding could be jeopardized.

Thus, in this context, earlier in the December 12th Council meeting, anticipating a barrage of criticism over the rejection of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, Councilman Mike Martinez (also chairman of Capital Metro) took the opportunity to make a special announcement, evidently intended to steal a march on Guadalupe-Lamar proponents. Word from the FTA had just come in, he intoned, that the agency considered Metro Rapid an absolutely “permanent” investment, and therefore a daunting obstacle to its replacement by rail.

From the City of Austin transcript, the following are Councilman Martinez’s remarks (for readability, edited for spelling, grammar, and punctuation):

I wanted to read a response from FTA that Capital Metro received this afternoon in a meeting with them in Fort Worth. This is an FTA official that … his response to the question about the high-capacity transit that is already going in, the BRT in the Lamar corridor.

His response was: BRT in the North Lamar corridor is a priority transit project. The project was supported by the region through CAMPO. Capital Metro and FTA signed a contract to this effect. FTA sees their investment as permanent.

It is important to consider that there are many demands for federal funds on new starts and small starts [projects]. and FTA made a permanent investment in this [corridor]. If Capital Metro were to come back to FTA and indicate there is a change in priorities or new need in this corridor, Capital Metro, CAMPO and the community would need to go through the entire planning process again to show that urban rail is the highest priority for this corridor.

That to me is a pretty definitive statement from FTA that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to go back through the process and receive new start money in that corridor. They view the current investment as permanent.

City of Austin transcript excerpt with Councilmember Mike Martinez's Dec. 12th remarks on FTA, MetroRapid, and urban rail for North Lamar. Screenshot: L. Henry.

City of Austin transcript excerpt with Councilmember Mike Martinez’s Dec. 12th remarks on FTA, MetroRapid, and urban rail for North Lamar. Screenshot: L. Henry.

While the FTA statement, as read orally, seemed less of a definitive and absolute rejection of an urban rail alternative in the Lamar corridor than Councilman Martinez portrayed it, as it turned out, further examination or evaluation of the statement was not immediately possible because a printed copy was not made available to the public for scrutiny. Instead, it took a Public Information Request by Scott Morris of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation, and over 40 days, before the actual FTA statement was made available, in the original form provided to Councilman Martinez.

The FTA’s views, as communicated orally to Capital Metro’s representative Ken Cartwright, are summarized by Capital Metro in an internal document available by download from ARN. As this document indicates, Capital Metro raised the issue: “We have been approached about the possibility of putting an urban rail investment in the North Lamar corridor where we already have the BRT investment.”

FTA’s oral (“verbal”) response is summarized:

The Austin community decided that bus rapid transit in the North Lamar corridor was a priority and the next need. The project was supported by the region through CAMPO. Capital Metro and FTA signed a contract to this effect. FTA sees their investments as permanent. However, if the Austin community were to come back to FTA and indicate that there has been a change in priorities or a new need in this corridor, FTA would consider the request. Before making this request, Capital Metro and the community would need to go through the entire planning process again to show that urban rail is the highest priority in this corridor. It is important to consider that there are many demands on federal funds for New Starts and Small Starts projects, and FTA has already made a permanent investment in this corridor.

Of particular interest is FTA’s assurance that “FTA would consider the request” for urban rail if Capital Metro and the Austin community were able “to show that urban rail is the highest priority in this corridor.”

FTA's actual statement, summarized in CMTA memo provided to Councilmember Martinez. Screenshot from PDF by L. Henry.

FTA’s actual statement, summarized in CMTA memo provided to Councilmember Martinez. Screenshot from PDF by L. Henry.

Clearly, the FTA’s actual statement on the issue of replacing MetroRapid service with urban rail is considerably more encouraging than the interpretation verbalized by Councilmember Martinez during the highly polemical Dec. 12th City Council debate on rejecting the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor and endorsing Project Connect’s recommendation for a less centrally located route for “high-capacity transit”. This basically corroborates the position expressed by Austin Rail Now.

See:

MetroRapid bus service should be a precursor to urban rail, not an obstacle!

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

Bottom line: FTA’s actual statement offers a far more propitious prospect for FTA support of urban rail in this crucial core-city corridor.

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6 comments

  1. “Over previous months, Project Connect and its partisans had repeatedly insisted that Capital Metro’s new MetroRapid bus service in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor – because it was funded by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) – was an impenetrable barrier to urban rail.”

    That’s absolutely not true. Project Connect repeatedly stated that it _didn’t_ preclude rail, both verbally and in documents. To this day, the Project Connect site states:

    “Nothing related to Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) funding of MetroRapid was considered in the evaluation. The project team wanted to do a ‘fair’ comparison of all of the sub-corridors, and was prepared to have that difficult discussion if Lamar, for instance, would have performed better than the rest.”

    http://www.projectconnect.com/connect/blog/metrorapid-central-corridor-high-capacity-transit-study


  2. First, Project Connect’s “evaluation matrix” DID consider the FTA’s funding of MetroRapid bus in the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor, in that MetroRapid was considered “competitive” service in the “Lamar” sector, and thus points were deducted from that sector’s ranking. Project Connect’s position has been that FTA funding basically means that withdrawing MetroRapid and replacing it with urban rail is not an option — thus urban rail would “compete” with the supposedly “permanent” MetroRapid service.

    Second, since the late spring/early summer of 2012 Project Connect has repeatedly affirmed that the MetroRapid project, because of FTA funding, remains a daunting obstacle to urban rail until such time (initially expressed as several decades) as the economic life of the project is exhausted. Various articles on ARN, as well as other public feedback, have vigorously challenged these contentions by City of Austin (COA) and Project Connect representatives.

    These representatives have repeatedly portrayed the MetroRapid project, mainly because of FTA funding, as a de facto impenetrable barrier to urban rail, insisting that replacing this very minimal investment in bus service, installed with movable facilities, would disastrously jeopardize all FTA funding for major projects in the Austin area.

    Under pressure and criticism from various community pro-transit activists, City and Project Connect officials have dangled the possibility of eventual installation of urban rail (or other supposedly “high-capacity transit”) in the G-L corridor at some unspecified time in the distant future. But this project is long overdue, and the need to proceed with it is immediate.

    — ARN editor


  3. “First, Project Connect’s “evaluation matrix” DID consider the FTA’s funding of MetroRapid bus in the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor, in that MetroRapid was considered “competitive” service in the “Lamar” sector, and thus points were deducted from that sector’s ranking.”

    How does that ranking address funding at all (which is the issue at hand, and the whole point of the article)? It doesn’t. An equivalent system, completely Austin/CapMetro funded, would have shown the same ranking.

    Or is your issue that there’s any negative points at all for the existing system? What’s wrong with that? If the corridor has an existing system, shouldn’t replacing it show a clear and present improvement over and above it, before we spend a billion dollars on the replacement?


    • Your questions are adequately answered in my previous reply and the article itself.

      And this “billion dollar” estimate comes from where? Project Connect’s “study” didn’t even evaluate the Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor at all, so I doubt they’ve put a pricetag on urban rail there. But then, who knows what the honchos do down in their bunker?

      — ARN editor


  4. […] Lyndon Henry provides more details about the communication with the FTA. […]


  5. […] • Contradicting local official claims, FTA says it “would consider request” for urban rail on Nort… […]



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