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Officials boost roads and “Super BRT”, put urban rail on side track

31 August 2017

Cross-section of one version of TxDOT’s plan for massive rebuild and expansion of I-35. Center tolled “express” lanes (at bottom center of diagram) are proposed for use by “Super BRT” project to be funded and operated by Capital Metro. Graphic: Mobility35. (Click to enlarge.)

Commentary by David Orr

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

Last month, on July 26th, Capital Metro’s Project Connect, together with several other regional agencies, sponsored another of their “Traffic Jam” community meetings to discuss possible options in the planning process. This mainly consisted of a panel of professionals and officials, some local, and some from elsewhere in the country, sitting on a stage in a chapel at Huston-Tillotson University explaining different transit issues to the audience.

I attended this event, but was extremely disappointed in what I saw for a number of reasons. For one, the talking heads were allowed to go over their allotted time (typical for politicians and agency officials), leaving only a half-hour of the two and a half hours of the originally scheduled event time for audience participation. This common practice is designed to minimize public input and maximize officials’ output (i.e., a PR effort).


Project Connect-sponsored “Traffic Jam” meeting on July 26th at Huston-Tillotson University. Opportunity for audience participation was truncated. Photo: L. Henry.


More importantly to our concerns, as was the case with the April “Traffic Jam”, the politicians never got specific about mass transit and talked instead mostly about how expensive transit is and how little money they have. At the same time they have been touting how much good they’re doing building new road capacity with the 2016 bond issue.

Capital Metro’s blog post on the recent “Traffic Jam” added little of substance, but in truth there was little offered by the consultants and local officials, so not much to report on. This event could have been much more effective had there been discussion of Austin’s specific needs, rather than dwelling on reports of what worked in other cities. There was no mention from the stage of what kind of new transit should be built here – and where. That was a glaring omission in the program agenda. It seemed a clear message that they’re seeking public (written) comment of the kind where officials will not be required to respond with any specificity, much less take a stand for or against. I hope I’m wrong, but to date the only messages we’ve received indicating openness to specific forms of new transit initiatives relate to what they’re calling “Super BRT” as if it were a done deal.

The “Super BRT” idea has been brought to public attention only within the last couple of months, bypassing Project Connect’s ongoing “high-capacity transit” study. A June 27th article by Caleb Pritchard in the Austin Monitor cited information from Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, Todd Hemingson:

… Hemingson told reporters that the agency has been talking with TxDOT for five years about the I-35 bus rapid transit plan. The department is planning a $4 billion overhaul of the highway and appears to be open to the agency’s insistence that the project include some dedicated allowance for transit. The formative vision for the bus rapid transit system includes a handful of stations built on bus-only lanes in the median of the interstate. Those stations, Hemingson said, would be paired with frequent-service bus routes on intersecting east-west corridors.

This “Super BRT” is really a “pseudo BRT” plan, since the buses would run with mixed traffic in HOV toll lanes (“HOT lanes”). Basically, it seems like just another express bus system with some added improvements.

At the July 26th “Traffic Jam” I was particularly disturbed by a glossy brochure being distributed from Capital Metro titled Connections 2025, which laid out in very concrete terms the agency’s “vision” for the next five years. Nowhere in this document was any rail expansion even mentioned as a possibility. In contrast, the I-35 “Super BRT” plan was mentioned twice, in both places identifying it as if it’s already approved as a project in line for implementation.


Capital Metro’s Connections 2025 brochure includes “Super BRT” as an assumed project. Graphic: CMTA. (Click to enlarge.)


There was no discussion at all of this “Super BRT” project on I-35 during any of the many presentations and speeches during the program, and the very abbreviated public Q&A at the meeting did not permit me to ask for clarification. The only mention in this document of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor was the continued development and expansion of MetroRapid 801 as well as 803 and additional routes. If they intend to continue to dump cash on the “rapid bus” projects in this corridor, that would effectively preclude serious discussion of a light rail transit (LRT) project in that corridor within the next decade at least.

In the Connections 2025 brochure, the “Super BRT” project was listed on the agency timeline for completion by 2023. Needless to say, it looks like the fix is in, at least as far as Capital Metro is concerned. However, I did ask a Project Connect staffer whether this was now a foregone conclusion, and he insisted it’s not. He also said that LRT is still on the table, but admitted that no one at the agency is really discussing it. That was an eye-opener.

Clearly this is a major challenge to those of us – transit advocates and a large contingent of neighborhoods and other community members – who have been backing LRT in Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L). Perhaps It’s time to request Capital Metro’s board for clarification on their plans for “Super BRT” and how their public input supports this major investment. Especially in view of the fact that this carries a huge opportunity cost for alternatives that might include LRT anywhere else in the city, much less on the G-L route. It’s clear that Capital Metro has been intentionally avoiding responding to the continuing public input they’re receiving in support of LRT and the lack of public support for this “Super BRT” notion.

It may also be necessary at some point to bypass Capital Metro and take this directly to the City Council. Council can make this happen even if they have to drag the transit agency off the “Super BRT” express bus.

However, there are other factors in play that may take the air out of the tires of this scheme. A July 24th article by Ben Wear in the American-Statesman quotes a TxDOT spokesperson regarding the request for money from Capital Metro for in-line stations on I-35. The TxDOT representative insists that “as far as financing goes, none of our funding sources will cover transit.”

Based on my reading of this news report, it seems TxDOT has given Capital Metro a clear signal that “Super BRT” will only happen if the transit agency pays for it. In the current situation, that’s actually very good news from the standpoint of proper planning and what kind of major transit improvement Austin truly needs – LRT.

If Capital Metro can’t raise the funds on its own to build this “Super BRT” – or even some scaled-back version of it – that will likely be the end of that bad dream. Presumably its proponents would have to get some bond money to fund it, but if that had to go before the voters it could turn out like the Prop 1 debacle which failed because the public support just wasn’t there. Capital Metro’s credibility would be pretty much destroyed. So maybe there is hope for a G-L LRT after all. From a politics standpoint, it’s usually easier to kill something controversial than it is to approve it.

A small but vocal opposition armed with facts could probably sink “Super BRT” if it came to a bond election. I suspect that politically aware members of Capital Metro’s board would be sensitive to sustained expressions of support for G-L LRT, and if there’s no evident support for Super BRT they may respond accordingly, if reluctantly.

We have every reason to doubt that Capital Metro will even be able to come close to providing the money demanded by TxDOT to build the “Super BRT” line, at least to whatever standards Capital Metro may determine will have a ghost of a chance in reaching reasonable ridership numbers. This would be a situation where the lack of agency funding could actually work to the benefit of truly effective transit – i.e., an urban rail alternative.

In any case, approval of G-L LRT will itself require a public vote. Nevertheless, supporters of this long-overdue project have good reason to believe it will pass if we can bring strong public support to the cause. We’ll have to win an election, and we need to start strategizing now.

My hunch is that funding “Super BRT” will kill off LRT for the next decade. Conversely LRT could do in this pseudo-BRT project. It’s a zero-sum game. So long as BRT is getting all the official attention our side is side-lined in the public’s eyes.

It’s been pointed out here that the likelihood of funding I-35 “Super BRT” through a public bond vote would be much less likely than is the case with LRT, which would run where people actually live and work. One of our most potent arguments is that high ridership depends on convenience and flexibility in options for future build-out/expansion. Yet “Super BRT” on I-35 is just a one-trick route, with few options for east-west routes. In contrast, LRT of course has many possibilities for eventual expansion.


Rendition of LRT on Drag from 2000. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.

Rendition of LRT passing UT campus on Guadalupe St. An initial starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would provide basic urban rail backbone for expansion into a citywide system. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.


This is the sort of discussion that Capital Metro should be facilitating as part of the Project Connect planning process. One bright spot I have seen recently in the process is the agency’s stated intention to respond on their website to written comments. This is an opportunity to find out how responsive the agency is to public interest and demands for specific proposals. At least Capital Metro has not so far ruled out anything.

Thus it is up to pro-rail transit advocates to submit written comments. It’s critical that the written public record reflect the breadth and depth of support for options on the table for consideration. Strong and persistent demonstrations of support for a G-L LRT starter line project may persuade Capital Metro to rethink some of their assumptions and give supporters of this plan a fair hearing, and a detailed response.

This would also be helpful in familiarizing more Austinites with the G-L LRT plan and the case that can be made on its behalf. Advocates of LRT – including the starter line LRT project in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor – have sufficient expertise and numbers behind this proposal to present a credible and persuasive concept that will be difficult to dismiss.

So long as positive expressions of support are received the transit agency must recognize the breadth and depth of support for urban rail. Hopefully some official heads can be persuaded.

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Urban Rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, Not I-35 “BRT”

31 July 2017

Map from Austin Rail Now/Our Rail leaflet distributed at July 26th “Traffic Jam” shows 21-mile light rail transit line proposed as a “high-capacity transit” alternative to the “BRT” line in I-35 advocated by TxDOT and other road proponents.

As our April 30th article «Reorganized Project Connect 2.0 opens up, reaches out» explained, Project Connect – the major planning effort -sponsored by Capital Metro, has been re-evaluating Austin-area corridors as possible candidates for rail and other forms of “high-capacity transit”. In recent months, the Texas Department of Transportation (seeking funding participation for its planned overhaul of Interstate Highway 35 through Austin) has been prodding the transit agency to allocate funding for a so-called “bus rapid transit” (BRT) service to be installed in the proposed reconstructed highway. This has become one of the de facto “high-capacity transit” alternatives competing with urban rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor for major local funding.

On July 26th, Project Connect, Capital Metro, and several other collaborating agencies sponsored a “Traffic Jam” community meeting, with invited panelists, to discuss possible options in the planning process. The following article is adapted from a leaflet published and distributed by Austin Rail Now, together with the Our Rail political action committee, at the “Traffic Jam” meeting, focusing on a proposed central 21-mile light rail transit (LRT) project, paralleling I-35 and Loop 1 (“MoPac”, Austin’s other north-south freeway), as an alternative to the I-35 “BRT” proposal.


Why not a true mobility option?

Alternative to I-35 and Loop 1 — A 21-mile urban rail line, running from Tech Ridge in the north to Southpark Meadows in the south, following the Loop 275 (North Lamar to South Congress) corridor, could provide alternative traffic relief to Austin’s major north-south freeways (I-35 and Loop1/MoPac).

Map at left illustrates the major neighborhoods and activity centers that would be served. Such a route could plausibly have a potential of attracting ridership of 100,000 a day.

Better option than I-35 “BRT” — Urban rail is a far better public transit option than a dubious, seriously handicapped “bus rapid transit” (BRT) line in I-35. Urban rail lines have demonstrated significantly greater potential to attract riders, guide adjacent development, improve commercial taxbase, and stimulate economic activity. It’s unlikely that buses running in an I-35 HOV toll lane would yield any of these benefits.

Affordable — Light rail transit (LRT), predominantly surface-routed, can most easily and affordably be installed to serve people where they live, work, and need to go. Decades of experience in other major U.S. cities demonstrates that light rail is substantially less costly to operate per passenger-mile than buses, and tends to create high-value taxbase around stops. This can significantly enhance public revenue for better city services, while at the same time helping stabilize or even lower property taxes.

Guadalupe-Lamar starter line — Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) is the center city’s 3rd-heaviest north-south corridor. In addition to major activity centers, the corridor serves a variety of dense, established neighborhoods, including the West Campus with the 3rd-highest population density in Texas. With Austin’s highest total employment density on Guadalupe-Lamar, an urban rail line could serve 31% of all Austin jobs.

An initial 6 or 7 mile LRT starter line from U.S. 183 or Crestview to downtown could serve as the initial spine of an eventual metrowide system, with branches north and south, northwest, northeast, east, southeast, west, and southwest.

BRT Reality Check — So-called “BRT” operations in other cities like Minneapolis and Cleveland typically fail to meet the ridership and urban benefit claims of their promoters. Minneapolis’s Orange Line, an upgrade of the city’s heaviest bus transit corridor in I-35W, with just 14,000 daily ridership on 25 routes after 45 years’ worth of facility investment, is no model for Austin. (In contrast, Minneapolis’s 2 LRT lines attract ridership of 68,000.) Cleveland’s Health Line carries ridership of 16,000 in the city’s historically busiest local corridor. Running both in reserved lanes and in mixed traffic, this line is more akin to Austin’s MetroRapid bus services than a “BRT” operation in I-35.

Community benefits — Compared with buses, LRT systems are more user-friendly, more comfortable to access and ride, and more reliable. G-L LRT would provide higher passenger capacity than the proposed I-35 “BRT”, while being more energy efficient, encouraging denser development and safer, more livable urban environments, and emitting less greenhouse gases.

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East Austin: Upscale gentrification worsens affordable housing crisis, avoids bona fide TOD

29 June 2017

Rendition of southeast portion of Plaza Saltillo development, now under construction. Higher-density gentrification is replacing affordable housing and business locations under guise of “TOD”. (Graphic: Plaza Saltillo project via Austin Chronicle.)

Commentary by David Orr

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

Appropriate increases in density can be beneficial, but in the case of East Austin increasing density has become a major contributor to the expanding economic (and racial) segregation recognized by the Census Bureau and others as the worst in the U.S. Notably, the primary locus of the new construction is along the city’s only light railway commuter route (MetroRail), which uses abandoned the abandoned right-of-way (ROW) of a freight-rail spur into downtown.

Rapid changes in certain neighborhoods today are accelerated by rapid growth and massive investment in upscale development in and near downtown. What’s been billed as the tallest residential skyscraper between the east and west coasts is going up in downtown right now. East Austin is separated from downtown by I-35 which was built in that location to keep the black and Latino populations on “their” side of town. But downtown is hemmed in, and the real estate values are through the penthouse roof, so the Eastside is obviously the prime target for massive development.

The biggest redevelopment project in the city’s history is centered around a rail station (Plaza Saltillo) in a former railroad marshaling yard that for many decades has been surrounded by public housing, homes built in the 1920s and 30s, and funky old bars and auto mechanic shops. These are systematically being razed – entire city blocks every month or two – to make way for newly arrived, millennial code warriors who work downtown and want the dense urban streetlife environment. Small groceries, trendy bars and restaurants, and lots of parking garages for those shiny BMWs (“transit-oriented development”!) are going in block by block. From an environmental policy standpoint this is progress, as it will reduce auto commutes (not necessarily the number of trips) … but it’s mostly aimed at new residents moving in from places like Silicon Valley, with all that cash, and does little to address the need to increase densities in other areas near major employment centers.

For example, Apple’s huge complex is out in the boonies and not even on a bus route. But they have a huge parking garage that serves only their own staff. So much for Apple’s commitment to environmental concerns. There’s plenty of space around Apple’s complex for high-density development that could support transit, but so long as their well-paid staff drives in to work (and parks for free) and lives miles away in gated communities, there’s little incentive to the company to “think different” about their transportation situation.

In other parts of the city, especially in older neighborhoods, there is resistance to more density because folks want to maintain the quiet and quaint character of their ‘hoods. I appreciate that, especially in the case of Austin being one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the U.S., and the desire of folks to stay in their (often historic and) well-maintained homes.

Meanwhile there are large swaths of lower-cost, low-density land in the “old” sprawl zones that should be targeted for high-density redevelopment, but were leapfrogged by developers building upscale projects in the fast-disappearing ranch lands in nearby rural areas. These older urban fringe areas are disdained in part because they’re near lower-income neighborhoods that were middle-class subdivisions only 20 years ago, and in part because the employment centers were allowed to build in the hinterlands, leaving these low-density, affordable areas largely bereft of investor interest. At least there are still some areas where low-income people can still afford housing, even if it is half their monthly income.

Property taxes in Texas are high, especially in high-income counties like ours, as the state has no income tax and deals with funding for poor counties’ schools by taking from the rich counties (i.e. forcing them to raise property taxes to support other counties) and redistributing the wealth to those counties with low tax bases. Thus property taxes in our (relatively “wealthy”) county are high – even for poor people – exacerbating economic pressures to sell private homes (many of which are paid off and/or rented to low-income residents) for big redevelopment. We might call this a Texas-Style 21st-century Urban Renewal program (a.k.a. “Negro Removal,” as the old urban removal programs were known to activists of the mid-20th century).

What does all this mean for transit development? It means real estate interests aren’t interested in it because they’re focused on adding Lexus Lanes to area freeways to accommodate (in their minds) wealthy commuters and tourists going downtown.

In addition to auto-oriented development, the state and anti-transit activists have made it difficult to build light rail at all, much less in areas where it’s needed most, but where redevelopment investment is low. Dallas now has more miles of light rail than any urban area in the U.S., and the so-called “green” city of Austin has only one piddling DMU two-car commuter line that can carry only a few hundred riders per hour at peak time, often leaving riders standing at the station to wait for the next train (headway around 1/2 hour). Bus routes offer infrequent service in most areas if they’re served at all, and provide few direct connections to two new express routes billed as “bus rapid transit” (BRT) but which operate almost entirely in congested auto traffic lanes. The city just passed a $750 million bond issue that will benefit road projects but provides near-zero funding for transit improvements.

Bottom line: Austin’s reputation as an “innovative” city is belied by its failure to implement effective, bona fide transit-oriented development (TOD) projects in areas that are ripe for redevelopment and that don’t negatively impact the limited supply of affordable housing stock (disproportionately occupied by people of color). The injustice is not only economic and social, it’s environmental.

It’s a joke to think of Austin as progressive when you see developers dictating land use to the city, and the city addressing the affordability crisis by allowing these developers to avoid incorporating affordability into new projects even as they demolish existing affordable neighborhoods. The powers that be control the transit agency’s board, dictating policy to Capital Metro, ensuring the agency won’t put up a fuss or make “unreasonable” demands – such as pushing the city to require redevelopment of the older sprawl zones before permitting new sprawl. Austin lags far behind many other cities in terms of equitable, environmentally sensible transportation services, and it doesn’t look as if that’s going to change any time soon.

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The case for urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar

30 May 2017

Top: Map of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail starter line minimal operable segment (MOS), proposed in 2016. (Map: CACDC.) Bottom: Salt Lake City light rail line at downtown station could resemble system proposed for Austin. (Photo: L. Henry.)

by Lyndon Henry

This post has been adapted from comments distributed to members of the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee (MCAC) at its meeting of 26 April 2017. Lyndon Henry is a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project and a contributing editor to the Austin Rail Now website.

Why light rail transit (LRT)?

Ridership — On average, light rail systems have excelled in attracting passengers, especially new riders who have access to a car but choose to ride LRT. Compared with buses, LRT systems are more user-friendly, more comfortable to access and ride, and perceived as safer and more reliable.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#ridership
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#mode-preference

Affordable — Especially for cities of Austin’s size, light rail has typically demonstrated an affordable capital cost and the lowest operating + maintenance cost per passenger-mile of typical urban transit modes.
http://www.vtpi.org/bus_rail.pdf

Environment & energy — Evidence shows light rail systems have the lowest air pollution and noise impacts, preserve neighborhoods and urban quality of life, and reduce energy usage per passenger-mile compared with cars and buses.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#environmental-impacts
http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec145.pdf

Urban benefits — In contrast to bus operations, light rail systems have demonstrated a consistent, significant propensity to attract adjacent development, stimulate economic prosperity, and help shape and guide a changing urban landscape.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#urban

Capacity — Compared to both buses and “gadget” modes like gondolas, LRT has far higher capacity in normal service scenarios and greater capability to accommodate future demand. Unlike many “gadget” alternatives, LRT is well-proven in public service, a readily available technology, and non-proprietary.
https://www.thoughtco.com/passenger-capacity-of-transit-2798765

Expandable — The lower capital cost of a predominantly surface LRT system makes it the ideal affordable mode for future expansion of a rail transit network throughout the Austin metro area.

Why the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor?

Travel density — Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) is center city’s 3rd-heaviest north-south corridor. The City of Austin (COA) has repeatedly emphasized that G-L is the primary local traffic corridor in central-city Austin, with exceptionally heavy traffic at maximum capacity for over the past 2 decades. Texas Transportation Institute ranks North Lamar as one of the most congested arterials in Texas. Urban rail is essential to maintaining mobility in this crucial corridor. It’s the most logical location for an urban rail starter line.
https://austinrailnow.com/2014/10/13/latest-tti-data-confirm-guadalupe-lamar-is-central-local-arterial-corridor-with-heaviest-travel/

Employment & population density — With Austin’s highest total employment density on Guadalupe-Lamar, an urban rail line could serve 31% of all Austin jobs. Since, this corridor also has Austin’s highest population density, an urban rail line would serve the highest-density residential concentrations in the city – including the West Campus, ranking as the 3rd-highest neighborhood in residential density among major Texas cities.
http://centralaustincdc.org/transportation/austin_urban_rail.htm

Future expansion — As Austin’s primary central arterial access corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar is ideally positioned to become the spine and anchor for future expansion of LRT into an eventual citywide system.

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Reorganized Project Connect 2.0 opens up, reaches out

30 April 2017

Guadalupe-Lamar corridor places at top of Project Connect’s table of corridor rankings shown in slide at April 26th MCAC meeting. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)

Has Austin’s public transportation planning and decisionmaking establishment turned a new leaf?

That’s yet to be fully determined. But … if Project Connect – the Capital Metro-sponsored major planning effort in charge of evaluating possible rail and other forms of “high-capacity transit” – offers any indication … there may be signs of a changed focus.

The original Project Connect earned intense distrust from Austin’s most ardent transit advocates because of its role leading the 2013-2014 High-Capacity Transit study that produced the disastrously flawed $600 million Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal (defeated by voters in November 2014). In contrast, the current planning agency (“Project Connect 2.0”) appears to have actually undergone a makeover in some important respects.

Personnel — A totally new planning team, with completely different personnel from the original Project Connect.

Consultants — A new consultant team led by AECOM.

Methodology — A focus on actual travel corridors rather than the original Project Connect study’s method of slicing up central Austin into districts and sectors and mislabeling them “corridors” and “subcorridors” … plus analytics that seem more accurate in evaluating and prioritizing corridors for a comprehensive plan.

Public involvement — What seems to be a much more sincere effort than in the past to solicit and engage actual involvement by key members of the community in the nuts and bolts of the planning process.

Included in this outreach have been strong advocates of urban rail for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Invited to an April 17th consultory meeting, representatives of the Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT, sponsor of the Light Rail Now Project and this website) and the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC) were presented an overview of Project Connect’s planning process and its current status, which appeared to represent a new direction in goals and methodology and a somewhat new approach to public involvement.

Currently Project Connect is completing what it designates as Phase 1 of its overall analysis – concentrating mainly on evaluating and selecting corridors as candidates for possible “high-capacity transit”. Phase 2, according to the agency, about to begin, will focus on selecting modes (i.e., types of “vehicle” systems), identifying funding mechanisms, determining “the best set of solutions”, and recommending Locally Preferred Alternatives (LPAs).

At the April 17th meeting, the attendees were told that the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor was ranking quite high in the evaluation. They were encouraged to attend a public meeting of the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee (MCAC), set for April 26th, where the major results of Phase 1 would be presented.

And indeed, at the April 26th MCAC meeting, Project Connect team members, via a slide presentation led by the project’s Director of Long Range Planning Javier Argüello, revealed the study’s conclusion: Guadalupe-Lamar had emerged as the study’s top-ranked corridor. (At top of this post, see closeup of slide of ranking table.)


Project Connect’s table of corridor rankings shown in slide at April 26th MCAC meeting. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)


From here, according to the study timetable, the focus will narrow on possible modes (rail modes, buses, others) and comparative costs. Obviously, there’s no guarantee that light rail transit (LRT) on Guadalupe-Lamar – the center of substantial community interest for decades – will make the final cut.

Unfortunately, it’s possible that an evaluation could be impaired or skewed by false assumptions. For example: Buses in dedicated lanes may rate as a “high-capacity” mode, but they have not shown that they can attract passengers to utilize that capacity at a rate or level comparable to LRT. Also, LRT has shown a much higher propensity to attract adjacent development – particularly transit-oriented development, or TOD – than “high-capacity” bus services such as MetroRapid. And there are other significant performance and operational issues to consider.*

*See:
New light rail projects in study beat BRT
LRT or BRT? It depends on the potential of the corridor

Nevertheless, despite an array of critical differences, study methodologies and planning models frequently treat rail and bus modes as if they’re totally interchangeable in key features such as attracting ridership, accommodating future ridership growth, and stimulating economic development.

So will an adequate, fair, accurate comparison be conducted? Are local public transport planners actually starting to move in a new direction? The jury’s still out. But Austin’s staunchest transit advocates are watching … and hoping.

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“Traffic Jam” to discuss “high capacity transit” becomes “bait & switch” push for road plans

26 March 2017

Graphic: Neonlink.com

By David Orr

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

Last year, during Austin’s prolonged community debate over the $720 million mainly roads-focused “Go Big” bond measure, supporters of an urban rail starer line in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor rallied behind a plan put forward by the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC). Unfortunately, Mayor Steve Adler (together with several city council members) insisted that the community wasn’t “ready” for such a plan – so a rail vote would have to wait. Many in the community are now wondering: Is there a current initiative to get rail back on the ballot?

Judging from recent events and statements by leading public officials, leadership for rail continues to appear close to nonexistent.

Take for example, the “workshop” at the Bullock Museum on Saturday March 4th sponsored by the reincarnated Project Connect and billed as a “Traffic Jam”. Supposedly a kickoff for a new planning process for “high capacity transit” systems, this event (which turned out to be a sort of “bait & switch” escapade) featured a panel consisting of Mayor Adler, Senator Kirk Watson, Rep. Celia Israel, Capital Metro Board chairman Wade Cooper, and CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) Executive Committee member Terry Mitchell.

At no time was “high capacity transit” even mentioned, let alone covered in any substantive way. The happy talk was all about how hard they worked at the legislature and all the compromises they gladly made only to see their efforts come to naught. The only specific comment Rep. Israel made was that we shouldn’t let the “perfect be the enemy of the good”, presumably by pushing high capacity transit, and that “tires” were what sells to local governments. As opposed to … rails?

Watson & Co. were all smiles about the more than $700 million allocated for facilities for cars – but no mention of funding for transit at all, except that it would be very difficult to get and it would be sought only at some point in the future.

Traffic Jam, indeed.


Promotional notice for “Traffic Jam” event at Bullock Museum, 4 March 2017.


Given this latest iteration of Project Connect, especially as revealed in this recent workshop at the Bullock Museum, I’d say that a rail ballot issue is farthest from the minds of Steve Adler as well as Celia Israel and Kirk Watson, all of whom spoke at some length on the virtues of more “tires” (as Israel put it)​ and of their pride and excitement at moving forward with road building following the bond passage last November.

Never mind that this meeting was supposed to be about planning for “high capacity transit” – there was near-ZERO discussion by these elected officials of any desire for, much less commitment to, building up Capital Metro infrastructure. Also on the stage, as noted above, were members of CapMetro’s board and of CAMPO’s board. The closest any of them came to discussing “high capacity transit” was to bemoan the lack of funding, as if to pre-empt any further talk of building high capacity transit – unless “you” (apparently meaning we the people in the audience and/or those in the general public at large who care about the matter) can find the big bucks required to do anything.

The only mention of expanding CapMetro service was Rep. Israel’s expressed desire to expand into Pflugerville, but this was in the context of her expressing that city’s desire to see service in their city. Her comment about “tires” was made in response to a point she was making about satisfying the demands of Pflugerville city council for action to implement fixed-route service. There were vague references to expanding farther, but they carefully avoided mentioning any other currently unserved/underserved outlying cities or counties, involving either urban or rural areas.

The only mention of actual plans for improved service was their agreement with CTRMA (Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, primarily a tollroad development agency) for allowing buses to use the high-occupancy/tolled “Lexus lanes” on Mopac (i.e., Loop 1, as well as perhaps on the TBA expanded I-35). Speakers touted their hard-bargaining negotiation with CTRMA, carefully couched in terms that made CTRMA look magnanimous rather than cold-hearted.

So to answer directly that question from the first paragraph, as posed by many in the community: I have huge skepticism whether Mayor Adler would ever commit to supporting rail. “BRT” perhaps, but I’d be surprised by even that.

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Transit planning cabal-style

28 February 2017
Graphic: Marvel Database.

Graphic: Marvel Database.

In recent weeks, within Austin’s transit advocacy community, rumors have been circulating of some kind of “package” of major transit projects possibly being compiled, perhaps for the November 2018 election cycle. While details are murky – concocted behind the veil of a resuscitated Project Connect and the tightly shuttered enclaves of the high-level leadership consortium of Capital Metro, City of Austin, plus some Travis County and state officials – it is whispered that such a plan might include a “Guadalupe-Lamar project” as well as an expansion of the MetroRail regional railway, a highway-routed bus “rapid transit” (BRT) line, and other possible projects.

A “Guadalupe-Lamar project” sounds great – a starter light rail transit (LRT) line in the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor would represent the crucial linchpin of an eventual LRT (urban rail) network for the entire metro area. But there’s no guarantee that LRT is the “project” behind the dark curtain. Whatever concrete details of these wisps of plans may exist seem to be closely guarded secrets. For the G-L corridor, officials, planners, and their consultants may be envisioning urban rail, or they might just as plausibly be concocting more investment in the pathetic MetroRapid faux-“BRT” operation … or a cable-gondola line … or some other scheme.

The problem is that this top-level methodology of secrecy is now the routine modus operandi of most of Austin’s major public transport planning. And this, in an era of so-called “transparency”.

In fact, a lot of this methodology comes close to the definition of a cabal: “the contrived schemes of a group of persons secretly united in a plot ….” While it doesn’t have the cohesiveness of a bona fide cabal – and it certainly isn’t motivated by evil intent – today’s transport planning process nevertheless feels enough like a behind-the-scenes cabal to merit this unfortunate comparison. (And that’s why we’ve dubbed it “cabal-style”.)

Local planning wasn’t always this Machiavellian. Back in the early days of the Austin Transportation Study (predecessor of CAMPO) and Capital Metro, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, planning was upfront; plans were on the table for public review, discussion, and debate. Community activists were intimately involved in the planning process; public participation was vigorous and vibrant. Meetings of advisory bodies such as Capital Metro’s Citizens Advisory Committee and Transitway Corridor Analysis Project Advisory Committee were frequent and well-attended, often by participants in the dozens. Plan proposals were not only clearly on view, but were shaped and fine-tuned by direct community input.

That process has, in recent years, been squelched. Interactive public meetings have been replaced by “open houses” and “workshops” where actual full discussion among all participants is excluded. Austin Rail Now has analyzed and criticized this deleterious process in considerable detail – see the numerous articles collected in the category Public involvement process.

Bona fide, free-speaking, freely attended, full public meetings are a critical component of democratic process. That’s how ideas are raised, shaped, tweaked, finalized – via discussion within groups of participants with a diversity of expertise, backgrounds, viewpoints, insights.

You can be sure that these occult, mysterious transit plans we’ve been referring to have been hatched by vigorous interactive meetings … not of the public, but of a relatively tiny, cabal-like huddle of officials, planners, and consultants sheltered from public view and involvement. A carefully assembled community body like the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee is allowed an occasional glimpse of what’s already been decided elsewhere … and then, only every few months or so. Back in the days of the directly involved and intensely active public advisory committees, meetings were held several times a month (especially in the final stages of formulating plans).

Even through this dark, distorted process, perhaps acceptable plans will emerge that will be embraced by the Austin community. But don’t hold your breath. The absence of direct, intimate, ongoing, adequately engaged, fully democratic public participation seriously increases the risk of flawed outcomes and political problems.