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Project Connect Plan Can Lead the Way Toward Regional Electric Light Rail System

30 September 2020

Austin metro area is a regional area and needs a complete, comprehensive, fully interlined regional electric light rail system for adequate, cost-effective mobility. Map: ARN, from Google Maps.

By Lyndon Henry

The following statement by Lyndon Henry, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project and contributing editor to Austin Rail Now (ARN), was presented as part of Public Comment by phone on 7 August 2020 to a joint meeting of the Austin City Council and Capital Metro Board considering approval of an Interlocal Agreement and incorporation measure to implement a proposed Austin Transit Partnership to manage the proposed Capital Metro/Project Connect multi-modal transit system expansion project. The $7.1 billion multi-modal transit system plan, with two initial light rail lines, will be presented on the ballot for voter approval as Proposition A in the upcoming election on 3 November 2020. (The complete Project Connect long-range plan includes three eventual light rail lines as well as other regional rail services and various bus-based services.)

I’m Lyndon Henry. I’m an urban planner and transportation planning consultant, a former Capital Metro Board member, and a former data analyst for Capital Metro.

The Project Connect plan, centered on an urban rail system and anchored by a light rail spine along the key North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress Orange Line corridor, would basically implement the mass transit vision I’ve been advocating for the past 49 years. In pursuit of that vision, I participated in creating Capital Metro, served four years on its board, and later worked for the agency for nine years.

Starting in the 1970s, I initiated an effort to acquire, for rail transit use, the former Southern Pacific Railroad branch line from Giddings to Llano, the western part of which is in operation today as the Metrorail Red Line. I’ve also been continuously active over four decades as a community participant in the urban rail planning process, including Project Connect.

From its inception Capital Metro was conceived as a regional system with rail transit to serve both suburban and central-city neighborhoods of the Austin metro area. The Project Connect plan, with its three light rail lines, can be a major step toward fulfilment of that original intention to connect Austin’s more outlying neighborhoods with one another and the central city.

Expanding electric light rail is crucial to that regional vision. This can be done relatively easily and cost-effectively.

First, the Metrorail Red Line and proposed Green Line can be converted to faster, more cost-effective, high-capacity electric light rail service for the northwest and eastern sections of the metro area..

Second, the former Katy railroad right-of-way is a natural alignment to link eastern and northeastern suburbs and communities into central Austin.

Third, in south and southeast Austin, the former Bergstrom spur right-of-way offers an excellent route for an additional light rail line directly linking the ABIA airport with the Union Pacific rail corridor, South First St., the South Congress Transit Center, and neighborhoods east of I-35 along the Ben White/US 71 corridor.

I strongly support approving the Interlocal Agreement and incorporation measure to implement the proposed Austin Transit Partnership, and the funding commitments, toward the goal of building the regional highspeed electric light rail network that Austin has needed for so long.

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Project Connect’s Light Rail-Centered Plan Is a Huge Step Forward

31 August 2020

Simulation of Austin light rail alignment in roadway median. Graphic: Project Connect.

Commentary by Lyndon Henry


The following statement by Lyndon Henry, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project and contributing editor to Austin Rail Now (ARN), was presented as part of Public Comment by phone to a joint meeting of the Austin City Council and Capital Metro Board on 10 June 2020. Subsequently, Project Connect’s plan for a $7.1 billion multi-modal transit system expansion, including two initial light rail lines, has been approved by the Austin City Council and scheduled as a ballot measure for the upcoming election on 3 November 2020.

I’m Lyndon Henry. I launched the concept of light rail transit for Austin with a feasibility study back in 1973. Over the past 47 years I’ve worked to make this crucial public transport system a reality.

As I’ve long pointed out, light rail has unique potential, as a more affordable high-capacity urban rail mode, to attract ridership, provide more cost-effective operation, stimulate transit-oriented development, galvanize the entire transit system, create a more livable urban environment, and mobilize community support.

At last, decades of effort by the City of Austin and Capital Metro, particularly Project Connect, have brought us to today’s monumental plan, centered on light rail with a central spine along the key North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress Orange Line corridor as its anchor.

This massive public-works project will provide jobs and help rebuild Austin’s economy when we finally emerge from the pandemic nightmare. Light rail will open exciting possibilities for catalyzing development in the Core Area, especially around the massive proposed subway infrastructure, as well as elsewhere along other corridors. This will provide crucial economic stimulus to create more jobs as well as expand critical taxbase and fund further service improvements.

Thinking well into the future has been a hallmark of Project Connect’s ambitious planning, preparing for future urban growth and transit capacity needs. This critical foresight must be continued with a view to eventual conversion of the Red Line to light rail transit.

The northwest corridor, paralleling US 183, definitely ranks among the heaviest travel corridors in our metro area. Converting the Red Line to more efficient electric light rail would provide huge service improvements, improve cost-effectiveness, and stimulate much higher ridership, especially by offering seamless, transfer-free travel from northwestern communities into Austin’s core. This would also extend electric light rail service to benefit East Austin neighborhoods.

This future improvement needs to be prepared for now, by designing appropriate infrastructure features into the planned Crestview intersection grade separation

I want to thank all of the diverse team involved with Project Connect for listening to so many of us in the community in developing this plan. It is certainly heartening and refreshing to see the results of this long saga of planning and to be able to support such an ambitious and exciting project.

I urge you to designate this plan as Austin’s Locally Preferred Alternative. Thank you.

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Austin: To subway, or not to subway?

29 February 2020

Map showing proposed downtown LRT subway. Source: Project Connect.

As ARN reported in our posting of 31 January, Project Connect Connect (Capital Metro’s major transit investment planning program) together with most of Austin’s top civic leadership apparently are now focusing on a massive multi-modal transit development vision with light rail transit (LRT) as its centerpiece, running in both the the Orange Line (North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress) and Blue Line (downtown-East Riverside-ABIA) corridors.

As we also noted, ridership volumes projected for the Orange Line are eye-popping – certainly, unusually high levels for a single U.S. starter line in a mid-sized Southwest city. Projected 2040 weekday ridership (61,600 to 73,500) would exceed or rival ridership experienced by the original single lines of relatively new major LRT projects (e.g, Los Angeles, Denver, St. Louis, Dallas, Houston) and even rail rapid transit – “heavy rail” metro – projects (e.g., Philadelphia-Lindenwold, Miami, Baltimore).

These volumes appear to underlie suggestions by Project Connect planners that segments of the proposed LRT lines, particularly in Austin’s Core Area, merit consideration as subway alignments. In addition, a segment of the Blue Line, several blocks eastward, is also considered for subway; it would feed into the Orange Line via an underground junction at Republic Square.

Need for greater capacity

Heavy peak transit passenger flows typically require more frequent trains and longer consists (number of cars per train) to provide sufficient capacity. Especially in concentrated downtowns and other central-city locations, these factors can in turn impact traffic flows across intersections by not just cars and trucks but also pedestrians, cyclists, and transit buses.

Particularly fueling interest is a subway tunnel is the length of downtown blocks (about 300 feet), which would limit train lengths to no more than three coupled LRT cars. This implies the need for a subway alignment in the Core Area north of the Colorado River (known as Lady Bird Lake) and south of Martin Luther King (MLK) Blvd. (basically, the southern border of the University of Texas campus).

In addition to eliminating conflicts with surface traffic and providing adequate capacity well into the future, the case for a subway appears to be bolstered by political support, both among the city’s top civic leadership as well as the public at large.

Subway drawbacks

On the other hand, there are significant drawbacks to subway rather than surface LRT line construction, both generally and in Austin’s case:

• Subway construction typically is far more expensive than surface facilities, entailing a much heavier demand on financial resources. According to cost estimates from Project Connect, building a downtown subway for an Orange Line LRT, rather than installing a surface alignment, would add nearly $837 million to the project investment cost.

• Federal Transit Administration funding is limited, and FTA officials tend to prefer more modest investment grant applications so that available funding can be spread more broadly. Increasing the cost of a New Start project significantly may render a project less competitive and lower it in the queue of projects seeking funding. Adding a downtown subway segment to, say, a starter LRT line from the North Lamar Transit Center to downtown would increase total project cost by over 65%.

• Particularly because the precise details of what’s below the surface are largely hidden, subway construction is far more prone to unexpected challenges and costs which can result in hefty budget overruns.

• Operating & maintenance (O&M) costs for subway LRT operation tend to be somewhat higher than for surface operation because of the added operational costs (e.g., electrical power) and functional maintenance needs of ventilation systems, elevators, escalators, etc. Also, maintenance-of-way work (maintaining track, power supply, signals, etc.) tends to be more expensive in underground conditions.

• Compared to surface LRT, where trains are run in the open and stations are easy to see and recognize – orienting the public to the available service and helping attract potential passengers – subway operations and stations are almost entirely out of sight, except for small entrances to ground level that may be difficult for the general public (especially new riders, tourists, etc.) to find and recognize.

• Access-egress to-from subway stations, which require climbing stairs, waiting for and riding elevators, or riding escalators, can be somewhat daunting. (The access time penalty is often included in ridership forecast models.) While accessing surface LRT platforms often requires waiting for traffic or pedestrian signals, typically the time penalty and physical difficulty are much less.

Capacity of an Orange Line surface LRT line

While there’s no question that a subway would provide greater potential to accommodate ridership further into the future, a technical examination of the capacity requirements to meet Project Connect’s actual predicted peak ridership volumes in the 2040 target year suggests that these could be met by a surface LRT alignment (running in dedicated street lanes) through Austin’s downtown, even with the limitation of 3-car trains running at very narrow headways (i.e., high frequencies). For example, Both Dallas and Calgary (Alberta) operate 3-car trains providing heavy capacity through downtown street alignments. Dallas runs trains as close as 4-min peak headways; Calgary runs trains as close as 2.4-min peak headways. Presumably Austin could operate trains at least as close as 3-min headways, or 20 trains per hour.

Project Connect assumes each LRT car would have a peak capacity of 172 passengers. Thus a 3-car train would provide capacity for 516 passengers. Running 20 three-car trains per hour would provide peak capacity of 10,320 riders per peak hour/peak direction. Using the rule of thumb that peak ridership in the peak direction = 10% of daily weekday ridership, this implies that surface LRT trains would provide an operating capacity capable of handling ridership up to 103,000 a day.

Project Connect forecasts daily ridership of 61,600 for the 90% street-alignment option, and 73,600 for the 50% grade-separated option. Extrapolating from the agency’s estimates, ARN calculates the annual growth rate for Project Connect’s 90% street option to be 2.2% per annum. At that rate, it would take another 24 years to reach 103,000 daily ridership level, or the year 2064 – 44 years from today – when the capacity of street running with 3-car trains would presumably be reached.

While a surface LRT line may provide adequate capacity for several decades into the future, nevertheless it’s virtually guaranteed that eventually it will not be able to meet Austin’s growing transit ridership market at some further point. Should Austin be designing a system for that far into the future? Perhaps, but this “future-proofing” strategy needs to be weighed against other considerations, such as Austin’s available bonding capacity, and the need for such a project to be competitive for relatively scarce FTA capital investment grant funding.

A downtown subway project could still be undertaken at the point of unavoidable need, 40 or 45 years from now. Salvageable surface trackage and facilities could possibly be redeployed for a surface circulator system.

Economic development potential

But capacity and operational characteristics are not the only aspects of such a major urban rail investment to be considered. Light rail – either surface or subway – can be expected to catalyze significant nearby and adjacent economic development that potentially could provide a revenue stream recompensing most, or even all, of the infrastructure investment. The tens of billions of dollars in economic development stimulated by new LRT systems in cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, Portland, Phoenix, Charlotte, Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Kansas City, Detroit, and others represent abundant evidence of these benefits.

It’s worth imagining that LRT stations (either subway or surface) in downtown Austin could stimulate the development of a major underground/above-ground commercial/shopping complex there, directly connecting with the LRT system. Models of such developments, with stores, small shops and boutiques, theatres, restaurants, and other attractions, can be found in an array of global cities with signature core-area LRT systems or metros, whereby the urban rail system provides fast, easy access to these work, shopping, dining, and recreational opportunities. Several examples include:

• Los Angeles — The Bloc (connecting to Metro and LRT subways)

• Dallas — Dallas Pedestrian Network (underground concourses with shops, food services connecting to DART LRT)

• Toronto — Massive PATH underground shopping complex connecting with six TTC subway stations, including Union Station, the city’s largest transit hub

• Montreal — Underground City, “a multi-level network of tunnels and stairways that connect various shopping malls, metro stations, offices, hotels, libraries, schools, concert halls, and restaurants” (Culture Trip)

• Edmonton — The Pedway, a network of underground concourses and aerial walkways connecting over 40 office buildings, shopping centers, and parking facilities with three LRT stations in the downtown area

And of course there are numerous other examples worldwide of similar downtown complexes integrated with urban rail stations.

Whether Project Connect’s final plan includes a subway or not, the opportunity to design Austin’s LRT stations to catalyze economic development must be a major element. And especially with this city’s role as an internationally known venue for events such as SxSW, ACL, and Formula One, the chance to transform and enrich downtown with such a major integrated complex of activity centers with urban rail should not be missed.

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Project Connect study: Ridership potential, capacity advantages push light rail into lead

31 January 2020

Chart shows 2040 forecast ridership for both surface (top bar) and grade-separated (lower bar) options of BRT (left end of each bar) and LRT (right end of each bar). In both cases, LRT ridership substantially exceeds that of BRT. That disparity, plus capacity limitations of BRT, seem to tip scales toward LRT. Graphic: Project Connect (click to enlarge).

In what appears to be a dramatic turn in the saga of Austin’s Project Connect planning process, Austin civic leaders, Capital Metro’s Board, and the team of Project Connect (Capital Metro’s major transit investment planning program) appear to have embraced a planning scenario backing light rail transit (LRT) for both the Orange Line (North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress) and Blue Line (downtown-East Riverside-ABIA).

Consensus for this option seemed to emerge during and after a joint Austin City Council/Capital Metro Board work session on 14 January. According to a report in the Austin American Statesman of that date, while LRT would cost more to build than a bus rapid transit (BRT) alternative, “a Cap Metro analysis found the [BRT] system would reach its capacity in 2040.”

In comparison, rail would offer much more potential for passenger growth. Maximum capacity for ridership on a bus rapid transit system would be reached less than a decade from when the system is completed — a fact that doomed it as an option.

Bus rapid transit “does not work … and the analysis shows that now,” Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said. “It doesn’t have the capacity we need.”

Advocates for an LRT starter line serving the Orange Line corridor have long predicted the enormous ridership potential of this route, and Project Connect’s ridership forecasts, based on the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) STOPS model integrated with a locally developed model used by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), bear out these community predictions. According to Project Connect’s working forecasts in their operations & maintenance documentation, LRT ridership is projected at unusually high levels for a single new starter line.

• For the year 2028, typical weekday ridership is projected at more than 54,200 for a 50% grade separated (elevated or subway) option, and over 47,200 for a 90% surface option.

• For the year 2040, typical ridership is projected at more than 73,500 for a 50% grade separated option, and over 61,600 for a 90% surface option.

The significance of these Orange Line ridership projections for a single starter line can be assessed by placing them in perspective with ridership experienced by the original single lines of other relatively new major rail rapid transit (RRT, “heavy rail”) and LRT projects, for which data has been readily available. (Weekday ridership data from National Transit Database and American Public Transportation Association.)

Light rail lines — Los Angeles (1993) 36,600; Denver (1996) 13,500; St. Louis (2005) 40,900; Dallas (1998) 36,700; Salt Lake City (2002) 31,400; Minneapolis (2005) 25,700; Houston (2005) 36,700

Rail rapid transit (“heavy rail”) lines — Philadelphia-Lindenwold (2019) 38,900; Miami (2019) 59,000; Baltimore 38,400.


For a single-line new-start project, projected 2040 ridership for Orange Line LRT alternative seems to exceed that of even several heavy metro lines, such as this one in Baltimore. Photo: Doug Grotjahn.


It can be seen that the Orange Line projected ridership, if achieved, would fall in the range of some of the highest-ridership new single lines, both LRT and RRT, in the USA, and possibly could count as the highest achieved by any new LRT project in this country.

As Project Connect’s planning proceeds further, attention is focusing on critical details, including fine-tuning and finalizing capital cost estimates that would impact a major municipal bond election proposed for this coming November. Current estimates for the complete Capital Metro service area system, including numerous additional corridors with lighter BRT operations, regional rail services, and other essential transit services as well as the LRT lines, range between $3.8 and $9.4 billion, depending on options such as percentage of surface alignment vs. proposed elevated or subway segments.

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Project Connect’s Orange Line operating cost assumptions seem to fail plausibility test

3 December 2019

Cover of Project Connect’s O&M cost methodology and assumptions report. Screen capture by ARN.


This analysis has been adapted and revised from comments originally posted to the #ATXTransit listserv by Lyndon Henry, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project and contributing editor to Austin Rail Now (ARN).

For approximately the past year, Capital Metro’s planning program, Project Connect, has been analyzing two travel corridors for major high-capacity rapid transit investment – the Orange Line (basically following the North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress corridor) and the Blue Line (roughly following the Red River-San Jacinto/Trinity corridor through downtown and then the Riverside corridor out to ABIA). A federally required Alternatives Analysis has been undertaken by a consulting team led by AECOM to recommend a modal system choice between light rail transit (LRT) and bus rapid transit (BRT), as well as other features and service characteristics such as vehicle types, station locations, alignments, and the capital costs and operating and maintenance (O&M) costs of each alternative.

Recently the agency released as public information selected details, including methodological procedures and cost assumptions. These have prompted scrutiny by community professionals and activists, particularly in regard to important O&M cost assumptions. In some cases these assumptions have been called into question.

For example, a 13 November posting by research analyst Julio Gonzalez Altamirano (JGA) on his Informatx.org website presented an extensive critical analysis. This resulted in two major findings:

• Project Connect’s BRT revenue hour cost estimate is lower than the national average by 26%. Project Connect does not explain its rationale for the methodological choices that lead to the lower rate.

• Project Connect’s use of a flat passenger car revenue hour rate to calculate LRT costs obfuscates the economies of scale associated with multi-car LRT trains. This is a change from the approach taken by Project Connect in 2013-2014. The new method makes Blue Line LRT appear more productive and Orange Line LRT less productive than an approach that recognizes the cost advantages of LRT scale (e.g. multi-car trains). Project Connect does not explain the rationale for the methodological switch or why its current approach will generate more accurate estimates.

These findings are broadly in line with the results of ARN’s own research into Project Connect’s O&M cost methodology and resultant assumptions, particularly with respect to the Orange Line surface LRT and BRT alternatives. Our analysis relied primarily on data for appropriate peer systems to Austin, reported in the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database (NTD).

Basically, we find that Project Connect’s cost per vehicle-hour assumptions consistently seem to overestimate LRT costs by more than 51% and underestimate BRT costs by over 26%. The bottom-line result is to skew Project Connect’s O&M cost assumptions as much as 70% in favor of the BRT alternative. This produces a relatively huge disparity in evaluating the alternatives, and challenges plausibility. Details of our analysis, plus conclusions and a recommendation, are presented below.

Methodology

Operational configurations and service cycles affect O&M costs, including costs per vehicle-mile. ARN’s methodology has differed somewhat from JGA’s. Most importantly, from the 2017 NTD (latest currently available), ARN selected seven new-start LRT “peer” systems based on both urban characteristics and surface-running alignment and operational configurations that we judged to more closely match those of Austin and the proposed Orange Line surface LRT: Denver, Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City. Although some have urban or suburban branches on exclusive alignments, all have significant segments in urban streets.

These seven systems have been selected in part for their urban, extensively on-surface, and in some cases predominantly street-routed character (similar to the alignment proposed for Austin’s Orange Line). Generally comparable urban population and density were also an important factor. As state capitals, Denver, Sacramento, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and St. Paul (included in the Minneapolis-St. Paul system) also make good peer cities for Austin. Other new-start LRT systems that might have some sections on city streets but operate predominantly over extensive regional lines or grade-separated alignments were not considered as fully comparable cost models.

In contrast to our peer-systems approach, Project Connect states that, via its own methodology, “O&M unit costs for LRT service reflect a weighted national average cost per revenue hour ….” [Orange Line Operating and Maintenance Costs, 30 Oct. 2019] Apparently these costs are based on NTD data.

However, if Project Connect calculated its average from national data of all LRT systems reported in the NTD, this would have included a widely disparate collection of O&M and other data, much of it starkly dissimilar to Austin’s demographics and proposed LRT operational conditions. For example, legacy systems (remnants of historic surface electric railways dating back to the late 19th or early 20th century) such as those in Boston, San Francisco, Newark, and Pittsburgh retain a variety of older operating characteristics (e.g., onboard fare collection by train operators) that drive their vehicle-hour costs significantly higher than the average of modern new-start systems.

Other problems with such an indiscriminate approach include differences in alignment engineering configuration. Accordingly, we assessed some modern new-start LRT systems to be less suitable O&M vehicle-hour cost models for Austin’s proposed street-routed LRT Orange Line, including several we excluded particularly because of their proportionately more extensive subway and elevated segments: Buffalo, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Dallas, Seattle.

Nevertheless, despite what appear to be serious weaknesses with its own methodological assumptions, Project Connect has calculated an O&M cost per vehicle-hour of $284.15 (2017) for its Orange Line LRT surface alternative.

As regards BRT, in our judgement eight of the operational configurations of BRT systems reported in the 2017 NTD seemed to conform to the Orange Line BRT surface operating proposal, and can be assumed to represent peer systems with respect to Austin. These BRT services – operating in Cleveland, Eugene, Ft. Collins, Grand Rapids, Hartford, Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Orlando – thus provide an appropriate basis for comparing and evaluating Project Connect’s Orange Line LRT and BRT scenarios. New York City was excluded because its exceptionally high density, population size, and vast multi-model transit system are far out of proportion to Austin’s conditions. Boston’s disconnected system, partly operating as a trolleybus subway, also seemed inappropriate as a peer system. Likewise the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s operation, a basically rural system more closely resembling a regional or intercity motor coach service than an urban transit service, was also excluded. Data for the eight peer systems were used to develop metrics for comparison with Project Connect’s assumed cost inputs.

For 2017 O&M cost per vehicle-hour for Project Connect’s Orange Line BRT surface alternative, Project Connect’s own assumptions (based on information from CMTA and NTD) amount to an effective estimate of $119.10, as JGA has converted from Project Connect’s 2028 estimates.

To calculate current national averages and metrics for comparison, we’ve totaled current costs and other relevant values for the target LRT and BRT peer groups from National Transit Database (NTD) profile data, then calculated averages from those totals. All costs discussed are presented in 2017 dollars.

Results

LRT: Average actual 2017 O&M cost per vehicle-hour for the seven peer LRT systems is $187.52, 34.0% lower than Project Connect’s assumed cost of $284.15 for the Orange Line surface LRT option.

BRT: Average actual 2017 O&M cost per vehicle hour for the eight peer BRT systems is $162.23, 36.2% higher than Project Connect’s assumed cost estimate of $119.10 for the Orange Line surface BRT option.

LRT vehicle-costs/hour are typically higher than for buses mainly because LRT cars are larger and stations are also usually larger, creating higher maintenance costs. (These characteristics generally stem from LRT’s higher capacity and propensity to attract greater passenger volumes.) The ratio of actual NTD-reported peer-system LRT to BRT costs is 1.16. However, Project Connect’s cost assumptions amount to an LRT:BRT ratio of 2.39 – in other words, approximately twice the cost ratio in actual operating experience. The disparity between Project Connect’s estimates and costs experienced in actual operations is illustrated in the graph below.


Graphic illustration of disparity between Project Connect’s O&M unit-cost estimates and actual reality of costs experienced by actual operations of comparable peer LRT and BRT systems. Graph: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


Conclusions and recommendation

Project Connect’s assumption for cost per vehicle-hour appears to substantially underestimate BRT and overestimate LRT – and this has dramatic consequences for the agency’s overall cost model results, seemingly skewing the evaluatory process and calling into question the plausibility and validity of the agency’s O&M cost analysis. The table below, presenting Project Connect’s comprehensive O&M cost calculations for the Orange Line alternatives, illustrates how the differential in O&M cost-per-vehicle-hour estimates translate into enormous differences of tens of millions of dollars in annual O&M cost assumptions.


Table of O&M cost calculations from Project Connect’s report. Screen capture by ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


We would strongly recommend that these assumptions and the overall O&M analysis of these alternatives be reviewed and revised – particularly by basing cost estimates on appropriate peer systems relevant to the LRT and BRT alternatives proposed by Project Connect for the Orange Line.

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Austin Coalition for Transit supports light rail transit for proposed Orange Line

26 November 2019

ACT backs light rail for Orange Line. Graphics: ACT logo, Project Connect map.


The following is a media release issued by Austin Coalition for Transit (ACT) on 1 October 2019. Austin Rail Now, a participant in the ACT coalition, supports this policy statement. The statement has been slightly reformatted and edited for website publication.

Press Release:

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Subject:

Austin Coalition for Transit (ACT) Issues Statement Supporting Light Rail for the Orange Line

Contact:

[Provides names and contact information for: Andrew Clements, Dave Dobbs, Roger Cauvin, Lyndon Henry, Steven Knapp, Roger Baker, Scott Morris, Gabriel Rojas, Mike Wong]

Today marks the one year anniversary of the release of the draft Project Connect Vision Map. It is an appropriate time to discuss some of the benefits an investment could bring to the people of our city and to the region as a whole.

Background

On October 1, 2018, a draft Project Connect Vision Map was released, and the Capital Metro Board went on to adopt an amended Project Connect Long-Term Vision Plan on December 17th. Two high capacity rapid transit corridors, the Orange Line and the Blue Line, were advanced for further study. A Federal Transit Administration (FTA) alternatives analysis has been underway to recommend modes or vehicle types, station locations, street alignments and service characteristics. Transit advocates have participated in this process, and we thank the agency for its public engagement.

Project Connect Orange Line: Unique Purpose and Potential

► The 21-mile Orange Line will be the north-south spine of Austin’s transit system. It will run in the Guadalupe-North Lamar and South Congress corridors between Tech Ridge and Southpark Meadows and may be served by an east-west grid of timed-transfer bus routes.

► The purpose of the Orange Line is to increase affordable, sustainable mobility and create economic opportunity for all, especially for the working class, people of color and the most economically vulnerable.

► The Orange Line will greatly increase the number of people who can move through the region’s core without the hindrance of congestion.

► The Orange Line will catalyze station-area economic development and include affordable housing developments for diverse economic groups to address the acute housing shortage in Austin for lower and middle-income families and individuals.

► Station-area development will also add to the commercial tax base, generating revenue for the City and Capital Metro that can be used to help pay for the costs to operate and maintain a Light Rail Transit system.

► As a successful starter line of a new transportation system, the Orange Line will improve daily life for a significant percentage of the region’s population and unify the city for generations to come.

Why Austin’s Orange Line Needs Light Rail

► The vehicle or mode of transit for this corridor has not yet been finalized, but strong current and future ridership demand in Austin’s most active transit corridor make Light Rail the most appropriate mode or vehicle choice.

► Light Rail offers large-vehicle capacity with speed to meet this ridership demand. The largest Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) vehicles are too small and slow and require wider lanes. The current 60’ MetroRapid BRT buses are overwhelmed by the number of riders even now.

► Orange Light Rail will attract more riders than buses, and use narrower lanes, maximizing the return on the public space required. Since 40% of Orange Line riders are expected to transfer from buses, this attraction factor will benefit the whole system.

► Orange Light Rail will have the capacity and frequency to move large volumes of people safely, reliably and comfortably within our constrained corridors.

► Orange Line Light Rail would serve the highest concentration of employers in the region and offer all people, including those who are economically disadvantaged, the ability to quickly get to well-paying jobs.

► Orange Line Light Rail will increase freedom and economic opportunity for students and the working class by reducing car dependency, maximizing the number of people who are able to live without the expense of a car.

► Orange Line Light Rail will maximize the ridership potential in the corridor, accelerate development of the transit system, and maximize the environmental benefits and human capital return on the investment.

Feasibility and Opportunity

► Orange Line Light Rail has the potential to pay for itself by delivering the highest return on investment (ROI) and will allow tax increment financing (TIF) in station areas to pay for the operation of the system. It will be a catalyst to invigorating and creating rail stations that are great urban places scaled to the pedestrian. Residential taxpayers will benefit from the new commercial tax base over time as a greater portion of city, county and school district property taxes will be covered by new commercial property in downtown and station areas.

► Orange Line Light Rail will efficiently scale to meet passenger growth, reducing Capital Metro’s per-passenger operating costs for each new rider as total system ridership grows over the years.

► Effective high capacity rapid transit requires dedicated transitways. The Orange Line is aligned with the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (ASMP) allowing for dedicated transitways on Guadalupe, North Lamar and South Congress. This plan reduces car dependency, calling for a mode shift toward high capacity transit and active transportation. These goals will not be reached without good high capacity transit that people actually want to ride and adopt into their daily lives. Once dedicated transitways are built, it will be easier to find political support to retain and defend them with Light Rail than with buses.

► Outside the immediate Orange Line station areas, the City of Austin should consider developing transit-related land use policy to protect the vulnerable populations of North Lamar and South Congress by preserving their contributions and culture, reversing displacement and safeguarding existing affordable housing. Extending north of US 183 into the Rundberg area, the Orange Line will connect a dense and transit-dependent, multi-cultural population to work and play opportunities in other areas of the city.

► The 21-mile Orange Line runs parallel to IH-35 and Mopac and would serve as a bypass to help take pressure off highways by adding people-moving, time-certain mobility capacity for our growing region. Tech Ridge and Southpark Meadows are ideal transfer points for regional commuter buses, large park and rides or sites for affordable housing. Combined with the Red Line connection at Crestview, the Orange Line will give Central Texas commuters real alternatives to IH-35, Mopac and Hwy 183 congestion.

► Linking the neighborhood, town, and regional centers along the Orange Line will serve to activate the vision of the Imagine Austin centers concept by providing necessary transportation infrastructure for these locations.

► The Orange Line should be largely built on the surface to improve station access, maintain cost effectiveness, and keep the project affordable for the taxpayers of the City of Austin. Expensive underground tunneling and elevated segments must be minimized to keep the project competitive for federal capital grant funding.

► On narrow streets, other cities have met this challenge and avoided expensive tunneling or elevation by routing one direction of track down a parallel street, removing the center catenary pole, using curbside stations or purchasing right of way.

► The Orange Line and Blue Line need an interconnection that would allow riders to change lines seamlessly. Both the lines need to share at least one common station. The connector on 4th Street proposed by Project Connect between the Convention Center and Republic Square effectively splits the Blue Line in two. Blue Line passengers need a direct way to access Republic Square. It’s the city’s busiest transfer center and major point of convergence of express, local and MetroRapid buses, as well as a potential interconnection to the Orange Line.

About the Austin Coalition for Transit

Rooted in decades of advocacy, ACT is a coalition of individuals and non-profit organizations. ACT works collaboratively and inclusively to conduct a nonpartisan, equity-based, politically honest and technically accurate discussion about transit and its interrelated policy areas. ACT is independent of any agency or governmental body, and it works to ensure the voice of transit users are heard in transit planning.

Follow the Austin Coalition for Transit on Twitter for updates: @AustinTransit

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Project Connect Orange Line: Unique Purpose and Potential

26 October 2019

Project Connect’s Vision Plan map shows proposed Orange Line alignment from Tech Ridge (north) to Slaughter Lane (south). Annotated by ARN.


Commentary by Dave Dobbs

The following summary proposing urban rail for Austin’s Orange Line corridor is adapted and edited from a previous Email commentary by Dave Dobbs, Executive Director of Texas Association for Public Transportation and publisher of LightRailNow.com.

Running in the Guadalupe-North Lamar and South Congress corridors between Tech Ridge and Southpark Meadows (see map at top of post), the 21-mile Orange Line will be Austin’s north-south electric urban rail transit spine. It must be fed by an east-west grid of timed-transfer buses that will provide a viable alternative to the private automobile, thereby increasing affordable, sustainable mobility for all, regardless of income or circumstance.

Regionally, large park & ride facilities at the ends of this “anchor” line, and rail connections at Crestview, will give Central Texas commuters real alternatives to the congestion on IH35, MoPac (Loop 1), and US183, thereby insuring high daily ridership on both trains and buses. Catalyzing station-area economic development will follow, with “alternative downtowns” and dense, mixed-use housing opportunities for a wide range of incomes and for a far larger number of Austin’s citizens – thus providing affordable living space to address the acute housing shortage in Austin for lower and middle-income families.

Every Austin taxpayer, transit rider or not, will benefit from the large commercial tax base created. Revenues from property and sales taxes uniquely generated by the Orange Line urban rail investment will more than pay for the capital and operating and maintenance (O&M) costs of the urban rail itself as shown by the experience of a number of new U.S. light rail transit systems installed since 2001. Examples of cities where documentation is available of these catalytic, massive urban rail economic development effects include: Portland, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Houston, and Kansas City. (Also see: Methodological Considerations in Assessing the Urban Economic and Land-Use Impacts of Light Rail Development.)

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An Alternative Basic Urban Rail Framework for Austin

29 September 2019

Basic Urban Rail Framework, using available “opportunity assets”, is readily implementable, affordable path to a more extensive, interoperable citywide urban rail system using electric light rail transit (LRT) technology. Map: ARN. (Click on image to enlarge.)

This proposed alternative vision for a “foundation” of Austin-area urban rail lines has been revised and updated from a handout originally distributed on 21 August 2019 to a Project Connect community meeting.

An extensive high-capacity urban rail system, together with high-quality bus services and other useful public transport modes, would be a transformational upgrade of mobility for metro Austin and its surrounding region. Towards this goal, the lines in the map above represent a proposed initial “skeleton” or framework of readily implementable, affordable, workable urban rail alignments, upon which routes/branches into other corridors can be added.

The key advantage of this Basic Urban Rail Framework is that these alignments are, in effect, the “low-hanging fruit” of available “opportunity assets” – in this case, available railway alignments and wide roadways – that can expedite implementation of multiple interoperable urban rail lines, deploying electric light rail transit (LRT) technology, providing exceptionally attractive, cost-effective, high-capacity rail transit. Using the technologically common mode of LRT, interconnected urban rail lines (and rolling stock) can be interlined (shared by different routes).

Given Austin’s size, growth dynamics, and financial resources, LRT is optimally scaled to achieve the essential and realistic mobility goals for our metro area. LRT makes the best use of existing “opportunity assets”, particularly available railway alignments. Both the existing Red Line and proposed Green Line (both using CMTA-owned right-of-way) can be upgraded to LRT at approximately half the cost (or less) per mile of new street trackage. In fact, much of the existing trackage and other infrastructure of the Red Line can be converted to LRT at even lower expense.

Capacity and high acceleration capability are critical. LRT would provide adequately high capacity and performance to attract and cost-effectively accommodate heavy ridership volumes (current and future), particularly in the northwest Red Line corridor. More efficient performance, higher capacity, and lower unit operating & maintenance costs would be expected from conversion of the Red Line from diesel multiple units (DMUs) to electrically propelled LRT. Not only would an LRT Red Line enable urban rail service into northwest Austin, but in addition it would provide significantly higher-level urban rail service to East Austin and interconnective links to work, education, and other opportunities.

Freight service could be maintained on both the Red Line and Green Line tracks via a Federal Railroad Administration shared-use waiver based on temporal separation (logically, meaning late-night use of these tracks only by freight trains). The outer segment of the Green Line to Elgin (and other regional extensions) could possibly be served with DMU regional rail using existing rolling stock.

A complete transit network of local routes, “rapid bus”, express bus, etc. can be overlaid on this Basic Framework of primary LRT trunk lines. Additional urban rail lines (possibly as streetcar operations) could branch from these trunk routes to serve other corridors; for example: Manor Road to the Mueller development and northeast Austin; MLK into East Austin; and the Lake Austin Blvd. corridor serving the south segment of West Austin.

LRT systems have demonstrated an exceptional ability to attract new riders, and to catalyze economic development and transit-oriented-development (TOD). Additional taxbase created often can more than recompense the costs of LRT systems. Those are additional reasons why this Basic Urban Rail Framework makes abundant sense.

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Blue Line Should Branch from Orange Line Urban Rail — Nix the Redundant Infrastructure!

15 August 2019

Map shows ARN’s alternative proposed urban rail configuration in Core Area connecting Orange Line (Tech Ridge to Slaughter Lane) with Blue Line (UT campus through Core Area and East Riverside to ABIA). Both lines would share First St. (Drake) Bridge over river, thus eliminating need for an expensive redundant Blue Line bridge. Blue Line would branch from Orange Line at Dean Keaton and at W. 4th St. to serve east side of Core Area and provide link to airport. Map: ARN.
(Click image to enlarge)


By Austin Rail Now

Commentary slightly adapted from one-page handout originally produced by ARN and distributed to participants in Project Connect’s Blue Line Workshop at ACC Highland, 31 July 2019.

► Orange Line as primary corridor — Urban rail installation in the Orange Line alignment (N. Lamar-Guadalupe-Lamar-South Congress/NL-G-SC) must be prioritized. Positioned as Austin’s major central local corridor, between I-35 to the east and Loop 1 (MoPac) to the west, the Orange Line corridor is the center city’s 3rd-heaviest north-south travel corridor (after I-35 and MoPac). The City of Austin has repeatedly emphasized that this is the primary local traffic corridor in central-city Austin, with exceptionally heavy traffic at maximum capacity for over the past 2 decades. North Lamar alone is ranked by Texas Transportation Institute as one of the most congested arterials in Texas. With Austin’s highest total employment density on Guadalupe-Lamar, an urban rail line there alone could serve 31% of all Austin jobs. It would also serve the highest-density residential concentrations in the city — including the West Campus, ranking the 3rd-highest in residential neighborhood density among major Texas cities.
https://austinrailnow.com/2014/10/13/latest-tti-data-confirm-guadalupe-lamar-is-central-local-arterial-corridor-with-heaviest-travel/
http://centralaustincdc.org/transportation/austin_urban_rail.htm
https://austinrailnow.com/2019/07/29/future-proof-austins-mobility-with-urban-rail-not-infrastructure-for-techno-fantasies/

► Light rail transit (LRT) — For over 30 years, urban rail in the NL-G-SC (currently designated Orange Line) alignment has been regarded as the key central spine for an eventual citywide and regional urban rail network using well-proven, widely deployed, effective, affordable light rail transit (LRT) technology. Particularly with little to no need for major civil works, the Orange Line is ideal for a surface-installed LRT starter line.

Since initially selected as Capital Metro’s Locally Preferred Alternative in 1989, LRT has remained Austin’s premier major high-capacity transit vision. LRT has demonstrated numerous key advantages over bus rapid transit (BRT). And unlike many “gadget” alternatives, LRT is well-proven in service, a readily available technology, and non-proprietary. (In contrast, “autonomous BRT” has been neither deployed commercially nor even tested.) Compared with buses, LRT systems provide higher capacity and are faster, more user-friendly and more comfortable to access and ride. On average, ridership on new LRT systems is 127% higher than on BRT. LRT is also more cost-effective – average operating cost of new LRT systems is 10% lower than for BRT.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#ridership
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#mode-preference
http://www.vtpi.org/bus_rail.pdfAPTA/National Transit Database

► Alternate Blue Line — Simply trying to resurrect the failed 2014 Highland-Riverside plan is not a prudent option. The Blue Line makes the most sense if it shares segments of the Orange Line, branching from it to serve the eastside of the Core Area and UT, and the East Riverside corridor (and ultimately ABIA). Running westward from ABIA on East Riverside, the Blue Line in this proposal would join the Orange Line south of the S.1st St. (Drake) Bridge. Sharing trackage across the bridge, it would proceed northward to Republic Square, where it would turn east to the San Jacinto/Trinity arterial pair, then turn northward and proceed to serve the Medical District and the UT East Campus. At Dean Keaton, the alignment would then turn west and travel on Dean Keaton toward Guadalupe St. to rejoin the Orange Line, proceeding northward from there. Access to-from ACC Highland could be made available via transfer with Red Line trains (with improved frequency) or various bus alternatives (from UT campus or Crestview).

► Eliminate redundant infrastructure — Major advantages of this alternative include more efficient operation, better passenger interconnection between Blue and Orange Lines, and very significant cost savings through eliminating redundancy: the proposed bridge over the Colorado, approximately three miles of line infrastructure paralleling the Orange Line, and five stations.

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“Future-Proof” Austin’s Mobility With Urban Rail — Not Infrastructure for Techno-Fantasies

29 July 2019

Orange Line (north-south route indicated within black outline) shown within Project Connect’s map of proposed regional system. Excerpted and edited by ARN.


By Austin Rail Now

Commentary originally produced by ARN and distributed (as one-page handout) to participants in Project Connect’s Orange Line Workshop at Austin Central Library, 17 July 2019.

♦ Light rail transit (LRT) — This well-proven, widely deployed, effective, affordable urban rail alternative has been proposed for the Orange Line (N. Lamar-Guadalupe-S. Congress) corridor for 30 years. Since selected as Capital Metro’s Locally Preferred Alternative in 1989, LRT has remained Austin’s premier major high-capacity transit vision. In early 2018, Project Connect 2’s proposal for LRT in the Orange Line corridor received widespread community acclaim. However, the proposal was subsequently quashed by Capital Metro, which proceeded to restart the Project Connect process.

As noted below, LRT has demonstrated numerous key advantages over bus rapid transit (BRT). And unlike many “gadget” alternatives, LRT is well-proven in public service, a readily available technology, and non-proprietary. (In contrast, “autonomous BRT” has been neither deployed commercially nor even tested.)

♦ 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. On average, ridership on new LRT systems is 127% higher than on bus rapid transit (BRT).
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#ridershiphttp://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#mode-preference
APTA/NTD

♦ Affordability — Especially for a city of Austin’s size, light rail has typically provided an affordable capital cost opportunity to install urban rail (costs similar to “real” BRT), with significantly lower operating + maintenance cost per passenger-mile compared to buses. Average operating cost of new LRT systems is 10% lower than for BRT. The lower capital and operational costs of a predominantly surface LRT system make it the ideal affordable mode for future expansion of a rail transit network throughout the Austin metro area.
http://www.vtpi.org/bus_rail.pdfNational Transit Database


Average operational cost of LRT is 10% lower than for BRT. Average costs calculated by ARN from data reported to National Transit Database, 2016.


♦ Environment & energy — Evidence shows LRT 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. LRT especially avoids the energy-wasting effects of hysteresis and asbestos pollution of rubber-tire transport.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#environmental-impactshttp://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec145.pdf

♦ Urban benefits — In contrast to bus operations (including BRT), light rail systems have demonstrated a consistent, significant, superlative propensity to attract adjacent development and economic growth, and help shape and guide a changing urban landscape.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#urbanhttp://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/Conferences/2019/LRT/LyndonHenry.pdf

♦ Capacity — Compared to both buses and “gadget” modes, LRT has far higher capacity in normal service scenarios and greater capability to accommodate future demand.
https://www.thoughtco.com/passenger-capacity-of-transit-2798765

♦ Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor — Positioned as Austin’s major central local corridor, between I-35 to the east and Loop 1 (MoPac) to the west, G-L has repeatedly been regarded as ideal for an LRT surface starter line (with no need for major civil works) to create the key central spine for an eventually citywide and regional urban rail network. It’s the 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.
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. An urban rail line in this corridor would serve the highest-density residential concentrations in the city — including the West Campus, ranking as the 3rd-highest in residential neighborhood density among major Texas cities.
http://centralaustincdc.org/transportation/austin_urban_rail.htm

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Why light rail transit is crucial for the Orange Line corridor

28 June 2019

A logical and affordable first step to actually implement a bona fide “high-capacity transit” system in the Orange Line corridor would be a 6.2-mile LRT starter line from US183 to downtown. Map: David Dobbs.

Commentary by David Dobbs

This commentary has been adapted, edited, and slightly expanded from original comments submitted to the Federal Transit Administration in response to Early Scoping for Project Connect’s Orange Line “high capacity” corridor (North Lamar-Guadalupe-downtown). David Dobbs is Executive Director of the Texas Association for Public Transportation and publisher of LightRailNow.org.

Austin, Texas is a line village whose principle population centers are caught between two major north-south freeways that are rapidly approaching maximum capacity and cannot be meaningfully expanded. The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) states that failure to adequately address Austin’s future mobility in the IH-35 corridor will essentially shut down economic growth by 2035. [1] This approximately 21-mile-long, one-to-three-mile-wide ribbon of urban population has only one continuous north-south travel corridor that can provide sufficient mobility for future residents – and then only if a well-designed electric urban light rail transit (LRT) line is constructed as a surrogate/alternate to IH-35 from Parmer Lane to Slaughter Lane, primarily routed via North Lamar, Guadalupe, and South Congress

This concept – basically, an elaboration of the Orange Line sketched in Project Connect’s Long-Term Vision Plan – is summarized in the linked 5-doc_Dobbs_Objective-2030-Basic-Concept page (PDF). Constructed as surface-running LRT (e.g. Phoenix, Houston, etc.), revenue service could begin in 2030. With a 17 mph average speed, a cross-platform transfer point with the Red Line at the Crestview Station, and major park & ride facilities at each end, such a line could plausibly carry as many as 100,000 daily rider-trips by 2035. Running through the densest sectors of the city, it would serve as a template for dense, mixed-use transit-oriented development (TOD), while at the same time providing excellent access to outlying areas sans the use of automobiles. We estimate the cost of this 21-mile Orange Line at approximately $2 billion in 2019 dollars, a fraction of the cost of expanding IH-35 (see map below).

LRT in Orange Line corridor could link Tech Ridge on the north end to Southpark Meadows on the south. Map: David Dobbs.

As the Objective 2030 Basic Concept page also suggests, a first step toward this 21-mile central route could be a much shorter initial starter line (at substantially more modest cost). Illustrated in red on the map (and in the map excerpt included at the top of this post) is a 6.2-mile Minimum Operable Segment running from the North Lamar Transit Center (at US183) on the north end, south via N. Lamar and Guadalupe (and Lavaca) to a south terminus at W. 4th St. downtown.

The Austin community has spent more than $30 million in planning money over the last 40 years trying to get this essential transportation element built here in the Texas capital – see, for example, FTA’s summary of the 2000 LRT plan. [2] Unfortunately, with mobility worsening and the pace of critical urban decisions speeding up, time is running out. We simply cannot wait for some hypothetical new technology to be developed and become available at some undetermined date in the future. Light rail is the proven alternative world-wide.

References

[1] Mobility Investment Priorities Project Long-Term Central Texas IH 35 Improvement Scenarios August 2013 pp 58-61
http://tti.tamu.edu/documents/TTI-2013-18.pdf

[2[ FTA New Starts/Small Starts Austin, Texas/Light Rail Corridors (November 1999-& 2000)
https://austinrailnow.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/fta_austin-texas-cmta-light-rail-corridors-new-starts-nov-1999_.pdf

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TxDOT-CAMPO $8 billion I-35 expansion plan wastes money and robs transit

29 May 2019

TxDOT rendering of I-35 expansion project through downtown Austin. Screenshot from TxDOT video via Austin Chronicle.

Commentary by Roger Baker

Roger Baker is a longtime Austin transportation, energy, and urban issues researcher and community activist. The following commentary has been adapted and slightly edited from his comments recently posted by E-mail to multiple recipients.

As various news sources have reported, a major expansion of I-35 through Austin is back on the official agenda, particularly after the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) voted to approve a huge expansion plan on May 6th:

I-35 changes dramatically in TxDOT’s proposed $8 billion expansion

Some See A Plan To Expand I-35 As A Betrayal Of Austin’s Environmental Values

But that vote was followed a few days later by a basically contradictory vote on May 9th by the Austin City Council to endorse a “Green New Deal” for the city:

Austin throws support behind Green New Deal

Yes indeed, the political pressure to widen IH-35 is an important contradiction that puts Austin politicians who voted to widen it at the recent CAMPO meeting in a real bind. That starts with Mayor Steve Adler (a real estate property rights lawyer). The Green New Deal calls for a major policy shift toward transportation alternatives, and away from roads and cars.

The core problem here is that CAMPO, which Mayor Adler now chairs, has always been strongly supportive of the trend of adding more car-addictive suburban sprawl development to the area surrounding Austin. Because Austin is still gentrifying fast, that means that Austin’s lowly paid service workers, who seek to work in Austin, are being forced by low wages to commute from the surrounding suburbs. This is creating severe congestion on Austin’s primary commuting roads, like IH-35.

TxDOT and the local real estate lobby – like the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) and the Chamber of Commerce – want to keep this dysfunctional, unsustainable, anti-environmental Ponzi scheme going as long as possible because it is a win-win situation for both the suburban sprawl developers, and also the TxDOT road contractors that TxDOT hires to build its roads. Since TxDOT is like an 800-pound gorilla in terms of its political clout in Texas, no CAMPO politician is brave enough to say “no” when TxDOT demands $400 million dollars from local government, in return for doing dumb stuff like widening commuter highways, justified by the specious claim that this will reduce congestion. This is at a time when U.S. driving is stagnating and TxDOT is heavily in debt because Texas hasn’t raised its gas tax for 25 years!

Meanwhile TxDOT has no idea of how it is going to get the rest of the $8 billion needed to widen just this one road through central Austin. The era of easy low-interest credit from the Fed appears to be coming to an end, although this has been largely responsible for keeping high-tech jobs coming into the Austin area. (Austin has pretty much put all its future growth hopes into high-tech and tourism in recent years.)

The reality is that almost every politician, including those on CAMPO, is afraid of TxDOT, which has god-like discretion over local policy. That is why TxDOT almost always gets their way. And why Molly Ivins used to call TxDOT “the Pentagon of Texas”.

In this case CAMPO decided to pledge to help fund the road with local money despite TxDOT being mostly $8 billion short of what they envision being able to afford someday. Last year, Streetsblog posted a useful critique of Austin’s most infamous road which warned that “a proposal to add miles of new lanes will likely only exacerbate the problems that led to congestion in the first place. … Just as road expansions elsewhere in Texas have failed at reducing congestion — like Houston’s Katy Freeway expansion — any congestion benefits from widening I-35 will likely be short-lived.”

Highway Boondoggles: Interstate 35 Expansion in Austin

The article also highlights a further drawback:

An I-35 expansion would also drain money from other pressing transportation needs. In 2012 Austin adopted a city vision for limiting sprawl, expanding transportation choices, and creating more compact, connected communities. Achieving that vision will require a variety of projects. These include building better bike and pedestrian infrastructure downtown, like the improvements proposed for the Guadalupe Street Corridor that would cost $33.7 million. Various proposals have called for creating new light rail routes through the heart of Austin, at a cost of $400 million to $1.4 billion.

In other words, the $8 billion I-35 project would drain funds that could otherwise be used for “creating new light rail routes through the heart of Austin” – such as the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, now designated as the “Orange Line” option.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) would apparently require dedicated right-of-way, which would remove what are currently car lanes, while providing a lot of new bus capacity along the Lamar corridor in return. But experience elsewhere indicates that even that even frequent BRT capacity could be overwhelmed. The operating expenses would probably be higher than for light rail.

My thinking is that light rail could provide the highest level of capacity along part or all of this Orange Line corridor, perhaps through the downtown area and up Guadalupe past UT and into this already dense area.

Why not build rail as a shorter segment which would get the highest ridership and do the most good in satisfying mobility demand early on? If Austin’s current bonding capacity is big enough, we might consider approving bonds to build the highest-use light rail segment of the Orange line in November 2020. Then lengthen that rail segment later and phase out buses in accord with rising corridor ridership.

In any case, channeling public funding into urban rail and other major transit investments would seem to be a much better use of $8 billion – or even a fraction of that money.

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Did Austin’s new Smart Mobility agenda kill light rail?

28 March 2019

Left: Passengers preparing to board Houston’s Metro light rail. Have “Smart City” visions scuttled Austin’s hopes for urban rail? Right: Simulation of “Smart City” traffic with autonomous and “connected” vehicles. Sources: L. Henry; Propmodo.com.

Commentary by Roger Baker

Roger Baker is a longtime Austin transportation, energy, and urban issues researcher and community activist. The following commentary has been adapted and slightly edited from his comments recently posted by E-mail to multiple recipients. References for numbered citations are at end of post.

On March 2, 2017 the Austin City Council passed a resolution that called for a major policy Austin transportation policy shift toward a future of electric and automated vehicles (EV/AV) based on public-private partnerships (P3s), ride-sharing, and other factors. This effort arose out of Austin’s Smart City Challenge entry, which it had lost to Columbus, Ohio. [1]

This big shift away from business as usual obviously required a new plan with a lot of detail. The City Manager was ordered to draft a New Mobility EV/AV Plan by June 15, 2017. One part of this policy shift was to get people within the Austin Transportation Department (ATD) to help promote this shift. Two of the top ATD people responsible for this are now Karla Taylor, in charge of all ATD staff, and Jason JonMichael who knows about wiring “Smart Cities”, stuff like getting all the vehicles and street intersections and other vehicles to talk to one another, and persuading the public to accept the shift.

This new industrial development policy reportedly is meant to help generate startups and assist in the new programs developed by mobility tech leaders like Google, Tesla, Uber. And even Ford, which wants to move in the same electric and alternative transportation direction. The new wave of sharable scooters and bikes fits right into this new city perspective.

It is true that light rail transit (LRT) is electric, but currently it is only rarely autonomous. Since high-level corridor LRT service handles so many people with one driver, there is not such a great need for rail to operate autonomously.

On the other hand, autonomous vehicles like Uber cars, trucks, and buses would be a different story since the big mobility providers could maybe save money two ways. They can save on transportation fuel cost by shifting to electric, and supposedly also by possibly eliminating driver labor.

Moving urban rail off the table

In order to get everyone moving in the same direction, and shift to the new transportation agenda, Capital Metro had to be brought on board. Aside from its penny sales tax, Cap Metro can’t issue bonds using city resident’s property, but the city can do so. Without much state funding and with federal funds uncertain, a lot of the cost is probably now going to fall on local taxpayers.

This shift was also made by hiring a new transit czar, Randy Clarke, who understands that his new marching orders include things like new autonomous and electric buses. Of course this also meant making a big shift in the nearly complete Project Connect planning process, which was supposed to be finished in September 2018 after years of work. But in mid-2018 the Project Connect process, now falling under autonomous-friendly management, was extended to December 2018 for an additional $600,000. As a result, we should see a new rapidly revised version of the Project Connect plan soon, with more than just lines on map.

For its part, the City of Austin (COA) focused on creating a new Smart Mobility plan. The City Manager missed an original June 2018 deadline, but did finally come up with the City’s new 141-page Smart Mobility Roadmap on October 5, 2017. See:

https://austintexas.gov/smartmobilityroadmap

Click to access Smart_Mobility_Roadmap_-_Final.pdf

In my opinion, light rail will probably not be allowed to get in the way of “reinventing” transportation, no matter what transportation experts might think or advocate, primarily because it doesn’t have the high-tech startup potential that the City’s new marching orders require. Autonomous has already been proclaimed to be Austin’s future. You can see it from the Smart Mobility autonomous vehicle agenda, where the public-private partnerships have decided that the Austin’s transportation future is autonomous and “smart”, and as certified by the tech gurus the city hires. And don’t forget that new fleets of electric autonomous buses will supposedly help save us from global warming,

High-tech deliverance?

The executive summary from the Smart Mobility Roadmap gives an overview of what city leaders have in mind. [2] As this excerpt from the document lays out, the City of Austin and Capital Metro’s Smart Mobility Roadmap comprises five key areas:

• Shared-Use Mobility
• Electric Vehicles and Infrastructure
• Autonomous Vehicles
• Data and Technology
• Land Use and Infrastructure


City of Austin’s Smart Mobility Roadmap.


The Mobility Roadmap makes a series of recommendations for implementing, accommodating, and facilitating EV/AV vehicles in “Smart City” style:

1. Engage citizens, businesses and visitors on how this technology can meet their needs and address community issues
2. Hire an Executive level Officer of EV/AV Transportation
3. Develop a Master Plan roadmap for emerging electric-connected and autonomous vehicle (E-CAV) technologies
4. Create an interdisciplinary AV Work Group
5. Create an infrastructure task force to examine electric, technology and land use infrastructure requirements
6. Test Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC) technology for vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) reciprocal safety messages
7. Test 5G technology for vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) reciprocal safety messages; compare to DSRC 8. Increase public awareness of electric autonomous (E-AV) shuttles in various Austin locations through EV/AV pilots
9. Increase public awareness of last mile E-AV delivery robots
10. Establish an EV/AV Commercialization Opportunities/ Economic Development Work Group
11. Create Shared/EV/AV focused team
12. Increase public awareness of electric and autonomous vehicle benefits
13. Create a regional New Mobility Workforce Training task force for new job training and educational opportunities for those with legacy occupations

We all know, or should know by living in our high-tech city, that all kinds of automated and electric vehicles are destined for our future. Scooters, autonomous vehicles, rental “Smart Cars”, and incredible stuff like fleets of autonomous connected buses will be shuffling throughout Austin, supposedly solving our congestion problems as they go.

In addition to its rental scooters, Lime is making a foray into services with larger vehicle. Last May, Bloomberg News reported that Lime was ramping up its mobility-rental efforts by launching a car-sharing in Seattle, aiming to with ultimately 1,500 distribute Lime-branded “free-floating” rental cars around the city. Lime is also testing vehicles it calls “transit pods,” resembling “enclosed golf carts or electrified rickshaws”, according to Bloomberg, with a top speed of about 40 miles per hour. [3]

It’s not hard to foresee these “pods” adding to the mix of new modes gushing onto the streets and sidewalks of Austin. By adopting the Smart Mobility roadmap as official city policy, Austin has made it pretty clear that whatever the tech giants like Lime want to do will get a friendly reception here.

High-capacity transit vs. laboratory experiment

The strategy here is apparently to make Austin a kind of Petri dish – in effect, a laboratory experiment – to incubate and give birth to all kinds of innovative high technology startups, such as the recent invasion of rentable electric scooters (which incidentally are not permitted in Seattle due to safety considerations). Also included here is Cap Metro’s vision of autonomous, electrified bus rapid transit (so far, not operating anywhere as far as anyone knows). From this permissive support for high-tech innovation, the benefits are supposedly going to trickle down to average Austin residents, who will end up paying an unknown share of the final cost.

But how can Austin continue to manage to deny the need for a very high-capacity corridor transit system (only rail has the adequate capacity) running roughly between our highly congested road corridors of I-35 and MoPac? Even now, nearly twenty years after such a reasonable system was narrowly defeated, we still try to ignore the obvious under city-level political pressure, as usual based on using average homeowner-based property tax revenue to benefit private real estate development interests. This defies all logic, and to me is yet more evidence of the continuing special interest influence over Austin’s transportation planning.

At some point we need to bite the bullet and admit that public funding is limited and requires hard choices, not only involving mode choice but also geographical areas. CAMPO’s outlook is that we can have both “guns and butter”, that unlimited roads plus lots of transit are somehow affordable. The fact that neither the state nor federal gas taxes have been raised for 25 years is clear proof of our continuing denial of economic reality and our inability to make hard choices until something breaks.


Attractive high-capacity light rail transit is changing mobility patterns, boosting economic development in cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul. Photo via Transit for Livable Communities.


Reference Notes

[1] http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=272885

[2] https://austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Smart_Mobility_Roadmap_Executive_Summary_-_Final_with_Cover.pdf

[3] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-11-13/lime-wants-to-spread-1-500-shared-cars-around-seattle?srnd=premium

Related: Plans for Smart City could be dumb choice for Austin

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Road and rubber-tire transport plans thwarting urban rail? Seems to fit a pattern

30 January 2019

Construction of U.S. 183 South expressway. Source: Fluor..

As previous posts on this website have noted, for about 28 years – from 1989, when light rail transit (LRT) was identified by Capital Metro as the region’s Locally Preferred Alternative for its Major Investment public transport mode, until the first quarter of 2018 – urban rail held a central and absolutely key role in Austin-area mass transit planning, memorably exemplified by the “Rail or Fail” slogan in 2014. But just as the Project Connect planning process, in early 2018, was rendering a new proposal for LRT after more than two additional years of research, public input, and analysis, that process was thwarted and reversed by a new Capital Metro administration in consort with several local officials, all focused on rubber-tired, roadway/highway-based, and sprawl-driving alternatives to rail.

The reasons for this 180-degree change in policy remain somewhat obscure. But they do seem to fit a persistent pattern of trying to minimize public transport investments in order to divert local funding resources into major new roadway projects (such as a massive overhaul to I-35). This emphasis on vast new roadway investment has been documented in a series of our previous posts:

• Why spending $4.7 billion trying to improve I-35 is a waste of money [March 2016]
https://austinrailnow.com/2016/03/29/why-spending-4-7-billion-trying-to-improve-i-35-is-a-waste-of-money/

• City’s “Smart Corridor” Prop. 1 bond plan promising way more than it can deliver [Sep. 2016]
https://austinrailnow.com/2016/09/29/citys-smart-corridor-prop-1-bond-plan-promising-way-more-than-it-can-deliver/

• Austin — National model for how roads are strangling transit development [Oct. 2016]
https://austinrailnow.com/2016/10/31/austin-national-model-for-how-roads-are-strangling-transit-development/

• “Traffic Jam” to discuss “high capacity transit” becomes “bait & switch” push for road plans [March 2017]
https://austinrailnow.com/2017/03/26/traffic-jam-to-discuss-high-capacity-transit-becomes-bait-switch-push-for-road-plans/

• Urban Rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, Not I-35 “BRT” [July 2017]
https://austinrailnow.com/2017/07/31/urban-rail-on-guadalupe-lamar-not-i-35-brt/

• Officials boost roads and “Super BRT”, put urban rail on side track [Aug. 2017]
https://austinrailnow.com/2017/08/31/officials-boost-roads-and-super-brt-put-urban-rail-on-side-track/

• Why TxDOT-Capital Metro “BRT” plan for I-35 is a massive boondoggle [Oct. 2017]
https://austinrailnow.com/2017/10/01/why-txdot-capital-metro-brt-plan-for-i-35-is-a-massive-boondoggle/

• Why “Super BRT” in I-35 would betray Capital Metro’s member cities [Oct. 2017]
https://austinrailnow.com/2017/10/31/why-super-brt-in-i-35-would-betray-capital-metros-member-cities/

• Plans for Smart City could be dumb choice for Austin [Jan. 2018]
https://austinrailnow.com/2018/01/31/plans-for-smart-city-could-be-dumb-choice-for-austin/

• Capital Metro strikes three blows against Lamar-Guadalupe light rail [May 2018]
https://austinrailnow.com/2018/05/31/capital-metro-strikes-three-blows-against-lamar-guadalupe-light-rail/

• Reinstate Urban Rail in Austin’s Planning [Sep.2018]
https://austinrailnow.com/2018/09/19/reinstate-urban-rail-in-austins-planning/

Basically attempting to reboot the “derailed” Project Connect planning process, Capital Metro has has just issued a solicitation for engineering/planning services, to include performance of an Alternative Analysis of transit mode options. But this comes in the context of about seven months of aggressive top-level hyping of the supposed advantages of “bus rapid transit” (BRT) and a chimerical mode (currently “under development”) described as “autonomous rapid transit” (ART) – autonomous (robotic) buses theoretically capable of emulating the operation of LRT trains.

Capital Metro’s recent solicitation appears to focus on the proposed “Orange Line” corridor (basically the Tech Ridge-to-Slaughter Lane alignment that consists of the N. Lamar-Guadalupe and South Congress corridors), intended for implementation of “high-capacity transit” in “dedicated pathways”. Under pressure and criticism from various community leaders and Austin councilmembers, the solicitation specifies inclusion of “Dedicated Pathways Light Rail Transit (LRT)” in the mix of modes to be considered in the Alternatives Analysis.

Unfortunately, over many previous months several local officials favoring highways and buses have, in public statesments, claimed exaggerated costs for LRT and implied that this “high cost” makes such a system unaffordable for Austin. In occasionally similar major investment planning situations in other communities, it’s been suspected that key public officials have influenced their planning teams to skew “analysis” results toward their preferred results.

Light rail can have a broad range of costs and performance results depending on key design decisions and the competence of the planning team. Will evaluation of LRT be handled fairly in the forthcoming “high-capacity transit” study for the Orange Line corridor? Transit advocates would be well-advised to do their best to help ensure that it will be.

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Let’s Fast-track a Plan for Urban Light Rail — and Make It Happen

31 December 2018

Map and graphics from Project Connect’s Feb. 2018 proposal illustrates possible 12-mile initial light rail line from Tech Ridge (at left end of map) routed south down N. Lamar-Guadalupe corridor to Republic Square in CBD (map is rotated 90°, with north to left and south at right). Other graphics show alignment design options and station attributes. Yet Capital Metro leadership has now withdrawn plan and restarted study process for another two years. Graphics: Project Connect.

by Lyndon Henry

This post is a publication of comments made by Lyndon Henry to the Austin City Council on 13 December 2018. Henry is a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project and a contributing editor to the Austin Rail Now website.

For decades, Austinites have been suffering the agonies of a worsening mobility crisis. Help has never been far away – over the past 30 years, no less than six official studies have come to the same conclusion: light rail transit, interconnected with an extensive bus network, is what’s needed.

But time after time, Austin’s leadership has failed to bring a single one of these plans to successful fruition. Austin has become the national poster child of analysis paralysis.

And now Capital Metro and its Project Connect planning program have restarted us on another re-iteration of this same exhausting process for a seventh time and another two years.

Transit advocates appreciate that Capital Metro has revised its Vision concept by restoring light rail and some additional corridors. But much more is needed.

Instead of backsliding to zero again, Capital Metro and the City of Austin need to fast-track this process by building on the data, analysis, community input, and other resources that have already recommended a light rail system and enhanced bus network as the way out of our mobility quagmire.

The Vision plan needs to become a lot more visionary. It needs to preserve a lot more corridors for future dedicated transit lanes. It needs to envision more and longer routes reaching out to serve other parts of the urban area.

Light rail can make this possible. It’s an affordable, cost-effective, off-the-shelf electric transport mode that’s well-proven in hundreds of cities and, best of all, it’s here today – we don’t have to wait for some science fiction technology. Austin needs a solution that’s available now.

Urban light rail is the crucial linchpin of a mobility plan because it has the power to make the whole system work effectively. It’s shown it has the true capacity to cost-effectively handle and grow Austin’s heaviest trunk routes, freeing up buses and resources to expand service into many more neighborhoods citywide. This advantage is validated by solid evidence – in average ridership and cost-effectiveness, cities with urban rail have significantly outpaced cities offering bus service only.

Yet even before Study No. 7 has begun, some Capital Metro and other local officials have been hinting they favor bus rapid transit (BRT) – basically a repackaging of bus service with minimalist capital improvements and lots of fanfare. But it’s unlikely BRT will provide the breakthrough Austin so desperately needs.

On average, compared to BRT, new light rail systems are carrying over three times the ridership at 10% lower operating cost. They’ve shown they can spark adjacent economic development and help shape urban density and growth patterns. BRT has shown almost no such benefits. And light rail comes without the toxic pollution and other problems of rubber tires.

Let’s leave the paralysis behind, and put a light rail starter line on a fast track for a vote in 2020.


An even more affordable light rail starter line project has been proposed by Central Austin Community Development Corporation as a 5.3-mile Minimum Operable System extending from the Crestview MetroRail station (at N. Lamar/Airport) to Republic Square. For a surface alignment with no major civil works, estimated cost in 2016 was less than $400 million. Graphic: CACDC.

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Let’s Put Austin’s Urban Rail Planning Back on Track

29 November 2018

Light rail starter line using N. Lamar-Guadalupe corridor from Tech Ridge to downtown was key element of Project Connect comprehensive regional plan presented in February 2018. Despite a three-year data-driven process with community participation, it was subsquently overruled and aborted by Capital Metro officials – setting back planning process another two years.

This post publishes the text of a handout distributed to a “Community Conversation” meeting sponsored by Project Connect in Council District 5 on 17 November 2018.

No more backsliding – Finalize a plan!

Last February (2018), Capital Metro’s Project Connect planning program, with public input, was finally nearing the end of a two-year process to devise a regional public transport proposal with urban rail and other “high-capacity” transit. On the table was a widely acclaimed, tentative plan for a viable, attractive public transport system, centered on a north-south light rail line from Tech Ridge to Slaughter Lane to link the city’s heaviest local travel corridors and provide a spine for ultimate rail extensions to other sections of the city. It was conceivable that details could be finalized to place a starter line on the November ballot for bond funding.

But that wouldn’t happen. Just over a month later, CapMetro’s new incoming CEO, with the blessing of the board, discarded the plan and reset the whole process back to zero – thus adding another two years to the seemingly endless effort to forge a transit remedy to Austin’s worsening mobility crisis.

While this destructive action was unprecedented and outrageous, for Austin it nevertheless fit a pattern of transit system plans aborted, botched, or abandoned by top leaders of CapMetro and the city’s political power elite, persisting over the past three decades. That’s a graveyard of at least six – count ‘em, 6 – urban rail planning efforts, totaling tens of millions of dollars, that have died because of official disinterest or misleadership, prolonging Austin’s mobility crisis pain and misery by 30 years. This delay needs to end – Austin needs to finalize and implement an urban rail system ASAP!

Real-world light rail, not science fiction dreams

In official studies from 1989 to 2018, light rail transit (LRT) has repeatedly been validated as Austin’s best choice for an attractive, cost-effective high-capacity transit system and the centerpiece of a regional system.

In recent decades, at least 19 North American cities have opened brand-new, affordable light rail systems that have typically excelled in attracting passengers, provided essential capacity and cost-effectiveness, and stimulated economic development that has more than repaid the public investment. Yet Austin’s official planning has recently been re-focused on visions of a totally untested, speculative technology (a “Smart Mobility roadmap” and ”Autonomous Rapid Transit”) – i.e., substituting science fiction for realistic, workable planning.

This seems basically a cover for dumping bona fide rapid transit and embracing a rebranded buses-only operation – bus rapid transit (BRT) – contradicting not only the recently aborted Project Connect process, but at least three official comparative studies over the past 28 years that have selected LRT as superior to BRT, particularly in key features such as capacity, ridership, cost, and economic development impacts. Disappeared from planning now are critical goals such as creating livable, transit-friendly, pedestrian-friendly streets and neighborhoods, and shaping public transit to guide growth and create economic investment.

Plans for urban rail should be fast-tracked

Austinites have long been suffering the pain of this region’s prolonged and worsening mobility crisis. We need real-world, proven, effective solutions nownot speculative visions of the possibilities of high-tech toys and autonomous vehicles. For sure, while prudently assessing new technology, we must not let our city be turned into a “Smart Mobility” Petri dish in lieu of installing a well-proven mass transit system such as LRT.

Austin’s mobility planning needs to be re-focused on developing an extensive, attractive, affordable, accessible, cost-effective public transport system with urban rail that can enhance livability, reduce total mobility cost, help guide growth, and encourage economic development that can recoup the public investment. To make up for time lost through delays and top-level debacles, rail planning should be fast-tracked, particularly by reinstating the results and community-participated planning decisions already achieved.

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Reinstate Urban Rail in Austin’s Planning

19 September 2018

Project Connect slide illustrating “Autonomous Rapid Transit” technology at joint Capital Metro/City of Austin work session Sep. 14th represents currently hypothetical, undeveloped technology as question mark, yet proposes it for inclusion in new “Vision Plan”. Meanwhile, plan with proven, available modes including light rail transit (LRT), presented in February 2018, has been withdrawn. Graphic: Project Connect.

by Lyndon Henry

This post is a publication of comments made by Lyndon Henry to a public hearing held by the board of directors of Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority on 17 September 2018. (The remarks refer to a “presentation this past Friday” – made by Capital Metro’s Project Connect planning team to a Joint Capital Metro Board/City of Austin City Council Work Session on Friday 14 September.) Henry is a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project and a contributing editor to the Austin Rail Now website.

I’m Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant, former Capital Metro Board member, and currently a writer for Railway Age magazine.

Seven months ago, Project Connect at last presented a viable, attractive public transport plan, centered on a central light rail line from Tech Ridge to Slaughter Lane that would connect the city’s heaviest local travel corridors – Lamar-Guadalupe and South Congress. It was a plan that won substantial acclaim from the community and reflected what was already supported in public surveys.


Left: Project Connect draft system plan (presented in Feb. 2018) proposed multiple bus and rail routes, including long north-south light rail line (shown in purple north of the river and lavender to the south) stretching from Tech Ridge to Slaughter Lane. Right: Initial phase of LRT project (proposed Feb. 2018) would run from Tech Ridge to downtown at Republic Square, mainly following the North Lamar-Guadalupe corridor. Maps: Project Connect. (Click to enlarge.)


Astoundingly, within a month that plan was taken off the table, and apparently discarded. To judge from the presentation this past Friday, that realistic, workable plan has now been replaced by a question mark – literally. While Austin is facing a painful and mounting mobility crisis, we’re now informed that official planning is expunging rail from consideration, and has been re-focused on a buses-only operation predicated on visions of a totally untested, effectively imaginary technology (identified with a question mark in presentation slides).

This recent abrupt about-face in the direction of Austin’s public transport planning is extremely bad news – for urban public transport and the future mobility and livability of this entire metro area. Besides the trashing of the orderly planning process, the implications for Austin’s public transport are potentially far more seriously damaging.


Slide from Feb. 14th Project Connect presentation shows hypothetical “Autonomous Rapid Transit (ART)” as question mark. Since mode is currently imaginary, characteristics and performance claims for it in chart are apparently based on pure speculation. Does a currently fictional technology merit inclusion in a presentation of critical public transport options? Graphic: Project Connect.


It says a lot that, since the late 1970s, at least 19 North American cities have opened brand-new light rail systems, almost every one of which has decisively reversed previously declining ridership, increased public attraction to transit, improved urban livability, sparked economic development, and attracted real estate development to cluster near the rail stations. In contrast, the results for the handful of new BRT [bus rapid transit] and quasi-BRT operations have been spotty, and at best a pale shadow of light rail’s success.

In Austin, over the past 28 years, at least three multimillion-dollar publicly sponsored comparative studies have selected light rail as the superior mode to BRT, particularly in key features such as capacity, cost, and various community impacts.

While new technology can improve transit, it must be rigorously tested and proven. But in terms of demonstrated workability and performance, the latest “transit vision” of “a regional system of autonomous, electric-powered buses moving in platoons” is little more than a fantasy, and quite possibly a fraud. Four years ago, the Project Connect team rejected reliance on “Newer technology that does not have proven application”, and warned that “Unproven technologies have unforeseen costs”. Now those caveats have disappeared, replaced by assurances and hype.


Project Connect chart from 2014 includes warnings (annotated with red arrow) against “Unproven technologies”. Graphic: Project Connect.


But what proponents seem to be actually committing Austin to, in reality, is BRT for the region’s major “high-capacity” transit system. The idea seems to be to place all our hopes on an unproven hypothetical technology that will emerge – and be satisfied with BRT in the meantime.

Yet while the Austin region’s mobility crisis continues to worsen as I speak, light rail is available now, a well-proven mode with a long record of success. It’s out-performed BRT and proven far more affordable than subway-elevated alternatives. I urge you to reinstate that February plan with a central light rail spine so Austin can continue to move forward with a real-world solution to our mobility crisis.

Thank you for the opportunity to put these observations and warnings in the public record.

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Capital Metro strikes three blows against Lamar-Guadalupe light rail

31 May 2018

Graphic: Grace in the city

In a post this past February 28th, we reported on a surprising development coming from Capital Metro’s Project Connect planning process – the “conceptual” proposal of a 21-mile predominantly linear north-south light rail transit (LRT) corridor, running from Tech Ridge in North Austin, through the central heart of the city, to Slaughter Lane, near the Southpark Meadows area, in South Austin. The proposal particularly extolled the merits of a 12-mile-long segment, through the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, from Tech Ridge to downtown.

After over four decades of indecision, missteps, and delay, it seemed like the transit agency (and city leadership) might, amazingly, have turned a corner. Could this actually mean that, at long last, Capital Metro and Austin’s top leadership were prepared to move ahead with a plausible, workable light rail plan – implementing a long-awaited leap forward in urban mobility – for the city’s most important central corridor?

Unfortunately, no. Slightly over a month later, Capital Metro reversed itself, withdrew the LRT proposal, and reverted to the familiar decades-long pattern of indecision, confusion, dithering, and delay that has gripped Austin like a curse.

Instead of an actual, specific project for a new light rail system, with a starter line from Tech Ridge to Republic Square downtown, the proposal had dissolved into the clouds, becoming just another line on a map of “perhaps something, some day”. To explain the retreat, planning was now described as “mode agnostic” – in other words, reverting back to a kind of official daydreaming, without any modes (the things that people would actually ride) identified to define a real-world project.

Almost exactly a month later, Capital Metro’s board made another fateful decision. Whereas mode-specific recommendations from the Project Connect study were scheduled for June, the board delayed that back to late in the fall (or perhaps winter) – far too late to put any kind of actual, mode-specific project (such as the previous LRT proposal) on the November ballot for possible voter approval of bond funding. (At best, this would now delay voter approval of any hypothetical project until the 2020 election cycle.)

A third blow against LRT in the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor was struck on May 8th, when the Capital Area Mobility Planning Organization (CAMPO) approved a Capital Metro-sponsored plan (originally submitted Jan. 19th) to overhaul the N. Lamar Blvd.-Airport Blvd.-MetroRail intersection (adjacent to the Crestview MetroRail station) with a design – exclusively focused on accommodating and facilitating motor vehicle traffic, rather than public transport – that would impose enormous obstacles to LRT on North Lamar. Currently, community activists and urban rail advocates are endeavoring to prompt a redesign of this project.

For decade after decade, the Austin community has agonized, writhed, and wailed over its steadily mounting mobility crisis. Hundreds of miles of lanes and roads have been built and rebuilt, and even more vigorous roadbuilding is currently underway. Yet the mobility crisis continues to worsen – for many motorists, driving around the urban area increasingly feels like trying to swim through solidifying mud. Or, alternatively, slogging through a battlefield ….

Repeatedly, the need for light rail has been affirmed. (See «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps».) As we pointed out in a March 2015 post, “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.” («Austin’s urban transport planning seems struck by catastrophic case of amnesia and confusion».)

Capital Metro designated LRT in the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor as the region’s Locally Preferred Alternative in 1989. In 2000, Capital Metro hastily placed LRT on the ballot – but, in a poorly organized election campaign, it was defeated in the overall service area by a tiny margin (although it was approved by Austin voters). In 2014, another LRT plan was presented to Austin voters under the slogan “Rail or Fail” – but, proposed for the ridiculously weak Highland-Riverside corridor, the plan was resoundingly rejected. (See «Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead».)

Time and time again, Austin has demonstrated that it’s the national poster child for chronically muddled urban mobility planning. In a January 2015 post, we warned that “Austin – supposedly the most ‘progressive’ city in the ‘reddest’ rightwing state of Texas – has a distinctive (read: notorious) reputation for dithering, dallying, and derailing in its public transport planning ….” («Strong community support for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail continues — but officials seem oblivious».) As our previously-cited March 2015 post went on to observe: “The devastating befuddlement of Austin’s official-level urban transportation planning … has been nothing short of jaw-dropping.”

Will Austin, and Capital Metro, ever manage to break out of this pattern of failure? Does hope still spring eternal?

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North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress light rail plan seems back on the table

28 February 2018

Project Connect’s latest draft system plan envisions multiple bus and rail routes, including the long, linear north-south light rail line (shown in purple north of the river and lavender to the south) stretching from Tech Ridge to Slaughter. Map: Project Connect.

The stream of Twitter posts on Feb. 12th from Steven Knapp, attending a meeting of the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee (MCAC), came like a bombshell – forwarding snapshots of an apparent conceptual proposal, by Capital Metro’s Project Connect planning body, for a light rail line not merely in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, but stretching all the way from Tech Ridge in North Austin, southward down North Lamar, and Guadalupe, through the Core Area, and on down South Congress to the Southpark Meadows area in far South Austin.

The route, originally proposed by local transportation activist Dave Dobbs in 2014, incorporates sections initially proposed by transportation planner and local activist Lyndon Henry in 1989, plus the portion of Capital Metro’s 2000 plan taking light rail transit (LRT) from the Crestview area (N. Lamar/Airport Blvd.) as far south as the Ben White freeway. Dave’s extensions north to Tech Ridge and south to Southpark Meadows have created a highly plausible north-south linear alignment, offering a central alternative to both I-35 and the MoPac (Loop 1) freeway, that has caught the public’s imagination and attention.


Initial phase of LRT project would run from Tech Ridge to downtown at Republic Square, mainly following the North Lamar-Guadalupe travel/development corridor. Map: Project Connect.


While Capital Metro insists that the idea at this stage is just “a draft for internal review”, LRT in the city’s most important central corridor – North Lamar-Guadalupe – plus South Austin’s most venerable central corridor – South Congress Avenue – does seem to be garnering particularly serious interest. According to Project Connect’s Feb. 12th MCAC presentation,

The North Lamar/Guadalupe Corridor has been one of the most critical transportation arteries in Austin for over a century. Phase 2 of Project Connect considered the 12 miles of the corridor stretching from Tech Ridge in North Austin to Republic Square in Downtown. The corridor connects many of Austin’s most important destinations, including Downtown, the State Capitol, University of Texas, and several major state agency offices between 38th and Crestview.

A graphic emphasizes this corridor’s potential even more:


Table shows demographic and other data bolstering potential of LRT in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: Project Connect.


It should be noted that these improved prospects for Guadalupe-Lamar LRT come into ascendancy just as the alternative scheme for an I-35 “Super BRT” – buses running in future toll lanes in the Interstate highway – have been placed “on hold”. (See «Why TxDOT-Capital Metro “BRT” plan for I-35 is a massive boondoggle».) Reportedly, toll-based highways are being rejected by top Texas officials, particularly in light of prohibitions by Texas voters against using relatively new road revenue streams to finance them.

Yet even if LRT is suddenly, truly on the official table, moving forward with an an actual project is not without challenges. First, Project Connect’s planning methodology is still encumbered with unfortunate flaws, a few of them somewhat similar to several within the 2013 planning process. These include dubious and implausibly rigid “corridor” criteria, as well as questionable evaluation criteria. (See «The fraudulent “study” behind the misguided Highland-Riverside urban rail plan».)

But by far the biggest challenge will be how to pay for such an ambitious plan, especially in view of the Trump administration’s evidently skeptical and parsimonious attitude toward public transport funding. But there’s a saying worth keeping in mind: “Who wills the end, wills the means.” Austin could, like Houston, rely on local bonds to fund its own LRT starter line project – if it’s designed (and kept) sufficiently modest and affordable. And some level of federal funding is not necessarily totally out of the question.

In any case, Project Connect appears at least to have taken an official step toward putting LRT back on a sound path for planning and, hopefully, implementation. And that may signal real progress. ■

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Plans for Smart City could be dumb choice for Austin

31 January 2018

Austin’s “Smart City” vision is still mainly about cars and buses and roads. Graphic: Austin Tech Alliance.

Commentary by Roger Baker

Roger Baker is a longtime Austin transportation, energy, and urban issues researcher and community activist. The following commentary has been adapted and slightly edited from his comments recently posted by E-mail to multiple recipients.

Austin Transportation Dept. Director Robert Spillar has a vision of the city’s transportation future, and how high tech can solve Austin’s notorious transportation congestion, working along the lines of the Smart City Challenge Austin was trying to win last year. As a recent Governing article discloses, this Smart City vision is still mainly about cars and buses and roads and Austin becoming a “Smart City”, with driverless electric cars steadily displacing gas vehicles.

Another major component of Austin’s Smart City application will be put into place thanks to a voter-approved bond measure from November that included $482 million for up to nine “smart corridors” in the city. The improvements along those arterial roads will include a mix of old and new technology: turn lanes, bus bays and sidewalks will go in along with traffic and weather sensors and connected traffic lights.

The sensors will help traffic engineers better respond to changing conditions, as well help motorists and improve road networks. Texas universities, for instance, will use the information to improve traffic projections and troubleshoot the road network. The city has already done something similar using Bluetooth signals, which led officials to change a downtown street from one-way to two-way during major events to reduce traffic.

There are other components of the Smart City concept which may introduce other drawbacks. As local public transit advocate David Orr has pointed out, “one extremely problematic aspect of the auto-dependent Smart City craze is the proliferation of ride-hailing vehicles which increase congestion and VMT [vehicle miles traveled].”

So far as I know, the latest (2017) Austin city marching orders on transportation are publicized in its Smart Mobility Roadmap. The large PDF document gives the barest of mentions of the terms “light rail” on page 40 and “light rails” on page 71 of this 141 page document!!

The rest of this document is about how driverless electric cars and data collection everywhere are going to change our lives as part of the Smart City of the future – pure distilled essence of Robert Spillar, reading like science fiction, but expressed as certainty. Since Austin outranks Capital Metro in every political sense, the new Director at Metro had better get friendly with this new Austin-cratic transportation policy agenda. Since the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce just hired two road transportation enthusiasts, Phil Wilson and Brian Cassidy, as top leaders, I imagine that things can only get worse.

A major financing notion being floated in connection with these Smart Mobility plans are PPPs, or Public-Private-Partnerships. But PPPs commonly depend on assuming decades of speculative municipal (or other governmental) bond indebtedness. In this category, the toll roads already built, using high-yield bonds being promoted by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), and then unsuccessfully promoted on IH-35, would be some leading examples.

Now that the top legal architect behind the local CTRMA toll roads, Brian Cassidy, is working for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, could he be convinced to shift his legal focus to transit? Maybe toward promoting PPP-financed rail on Guadalupe, and as the only way short of a much costlier subway to unclog this important corridor between UT and the Capitol?

Unfortunately, the Wall Street needs be sold on at least the possibility for good returns. Rocky Mountain Institute seems to have sold Rob Spillar on the startup potential for Smart Car technologies, which is the hook there. Uber is for occasional use or for tech guys with money, but of little interest for the average commuters that jam up our big roads at peak.

Whereas toll roads can be profitable, especially under conditions of rapid sprawl growth and while fuel is cheap, transit is almost never profitable. I think Capital Metro only gets about 8% return from the fare box (i.e., operating revenues cover only 8% of costs). Where does the profit to attract private investment then come from?

Why would anyone expect “unprofitable” light rail to attract PPP investment money? Any more than our totally “unprofitable” and poorly maintained sidewalks would do?

The strong increased driving trend that took off with the 2014 oil price collapse may be starting to weaken. Low-wage service workers don’t drive as much as they used to do unless they need to commute for work.

In my opinion, this nationally weakening driving trend, plus rising global fuel costs yet to come, are likely to create a swing in public sentiment, if not actual dollars, toward transit. A need when buses can no longer be scaled up adequately to do the job on Guadalupe, nor serve the suburbs adequately either. We have forgotten how to make hard but realistic choices, or come up with compassionate solutions.

The public needs to experience and see basic civic needs for libraries, sidewalks, and roads as being appropriate when applied to transit. Modest solutions scaled to solving current problems rather than big-bond-package urbanist visions should be the rule. I like the Strong Towns approach which basically says we need to concentrate on solving our current problems in a modest way, as opposed to grand and expensive bond debt lasting decades to deal with future hypothetical growth problems. See, for example, the following articles:

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/9/the-real-reason-your-city-has-no-money

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/6/14/greatest-hits-the-growth-ponzi-scheme

We could do wonders with a half-billion-dollar light rail line down the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, but it may be some time until the stars line up right. That should have a much higher priority in a world that makes sense. As compared with TxDOT’s crazy obsession with widening I-35 in a futile battle against congestion – reality-denial which only delays doing the really smart stuff like running light rail past UT. ■