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Why “Super BRT” in I-35 would betray Capital Metro’s member cities

31 October 2017

Project Connect rendition illustrates how “SuperBRT” might use high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes alongside a highway such as I-35. But where are the stations? Graphic: CMTA online.

Commentary by Dave Dobbs

Dave Dobbs is publisher of LightRailNow.com. This commentary has been adapted and expanded from original private Email comments.

This website’s recent articles «Officials boost roads and “Super BRT”, put urban rail on side track» (Aug. 31) and «Why TxDOT-Capital Metro ‘BRT’ plan for I-35 is a massive boondoggle» (Oct. 1) explained how (under pressure from TxDOT) Capital Metro has been proposing to designate I-35 as Austin’s primary transit corridor, and to install a 21-mile express bus facility (“Super BRT”) in what is to be an overhauled freeway-tollway. “Politically aware” members of Capital Metro’s board ought to understand that providing scarce Capital Metro dollars for this “Super BRT” project – designed mainly to serve non-member cities like Round Rock (voted not to join the transit agency in 1985) and Pflugerville (withdrew in 2000) – is a betrayal of the original sales-tax-paying members of Leander, Jonestown, Lago Vista, Point Venture, Anderson Mill, Volente, San Leanna and Manor, all of which (except Manor and San Leanna) are located northwest, on the US 183 corridor.

Most importantly, with over 95% of Capital Metro’s local tax revenues coming from Austin sale taxes, I-35 Super BRT is a very poor use of limited resources from the benefit principle perspective. This is bad public policy and bad public finance with a negative ROI.

Capital Metro board members, other local officials, Austin’s civic leadership, and the metro area public at large need to consider: What does expending scarce transit agency funds on “Super BRT” to run in I-35 – i.e., funding a transit facility that primarily benefits non-member citizens – say to Capital Metro’s taxpayers?

In contrast, a Guadalupe-Lamar corridor light rail connection to MetroRail at Crestview would be highly advantageous to those who pay the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CMTA) 1¢ sales tax. In lieu of this, where’s the benefit to the citizens of Austin and six of the eight member cities who’ve the sales taxes for CMTA transit service from the start?

This is a serious public finance question. Jonestown, Lago Vista, Leander, Point Venture, Volente, Anderson Mill and vast areas in Austin’s northwest ETJ are entitled to any major transit fixed quideway investment on a first-priority basis over entities who never were or aren’t now Capital Metro members. Spending Capital Metro money on an IH35 “busway” is a complete rejection of the Benefit Principle.

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Why TxDOT-Capital Metro “BRT” plan for I-35 is a massive boondoggle

1 October 2017

Rendering of rebuilt I-35 at MLK Blvd. with HOT lanes for use by “Super BRT” (shown in purple and yellow). Graphic: TxDOT.

The leadership of Austin’s Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CMTA, aka Capital Metro) seems to be rolling forward full-throttle to implement a dubiously described “bus rapid transit” (BRT) plan for Interstate Highway 35 pushed by by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to bolster the highway agency’s massive over-$4 billion I-35 upgrade project. This mammoth project was the focus of a March 2016 posting on this website by Roger Baker and Dave Dobbs headlined «Why spending $4.7 billion trying to improve I-35 is a waste of money» (with the secondary headline «Trying to widen Austin’s most congested road will only make congestion worse»).

As that article warned,

TxDOT is far short of sufficient funds to widen I-35 with its own resources, having identified only $300 million in-house out of $4.5 billion needed. That leaves TxDOT $4.2 billion short — over 90% deficient. In fact, the Travis County section of TxDOT’s My35 redesign is still $1.8 to $2.1 billion short, which should raise red flags for local property owners who could well be targeted for big tax increases.

During this period, Capital Metro resuscitated Project Connect – its major planning effort ostensibly tasked with evaluating possible rail and other forms of “high-capacity transit” – to supposedly sift through various corridors, types of service, and alternative transit modes, and develop recommendations for a package of major new “high-capacity transit” investments. The process has been performed nominally with the oversight of the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee (MCAC).

Mysterious new “Super BRT” project appears

For a while the Project Connect study appeared to stay mostly on track, still focused on corridors, and just starting an evaluation of transit modes. But then it seemingly began to take a detour this past summer, when reports began to reveal TxDOT’s sudden interest in obtaining Capital Metro’s commitment to a very specific transit decision: a mysterious new “bus rapid transit” project on I-35, proposed to use High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes planned for the huge reconstruction of the freeway. (See graphic rendering above.) In a June 27th article Austin Monitor reporter Caleb Pritchard noted some details about the BRT plan discussed at a Capital Metro board meeting the previous evening, including TxDOT’s efforts to muscle the transit agency “to fork over $123.5 million to cover the entire cost of the [bus project] transit infrastructure.” At this, reported Pritchard, Capital Metro had “balked”, but was negotiating with TxDOT on a “counter-offer” to “cough up approximately $18 million” toward such a project and to seek other agencies (such as the City of Austin) as partners.

According to the article, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, Todd Hemingson, revealed that the transit agency had “been talking with TxDOT for five years about the I-35 bus rapid transit plan.”

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

The initial ridership projects for the proposed route between Tech Ridge Boulevard in North Austin to State Highway 45 in South Austin is between 4,000 to 6,000 trips per day.

At the meeting, Multimodal Community Advisory Committee member Susan Somers (president of the AURA urban issues community group) “raised concerns about moves that appear to make a proposed bus rapid transit system on I-35 a predetermined outcome of the Project Connect process.”

TxDOT’s arm-twisting intensified. Within weeks, the highway agency was insisting that Capital Metro had better speed up and get with the BRT program to contribute its share to the big I-35 rebuild project. Pritchard captured the situation in a subsequent July 13th Austin Monitor report headlined: «TxDOT pressures Capital Metro to act fast on I-35 transit».

As Pritchard’s report elaborated, the BRT plan emerging from the shadows already had quite a bit of detail. TxDOT wanted money to cover the cost of right-of-way “for three bus rapid transit stations to be built in the middle of the highway.”

Those three stations would be near Tech Ridge Center, at Rundberg Lane and at Slaughter Lane. The bus line that would service those stations would operate in new express lanes that TxDOT is planning to add to the freeway. The stations would allow the buses to pull out of the travel lane to allow boarding and deboarding without interrupting traffic flow. The buses would also enter and exit the highway in downtown Austin, perhaps via dedicated transit ramps, and terminate in the south at a park-and-ride off State Highway 45 Southeast.

Capital Metro VP Hemingson had also revealed that the original plan for “BRT” had been even more extensive, but had to be scaled back because of funding limitations.

Hemingson told the board that his team originally proposed to TxDOT a “super bus rapid transit” model that would have included inline stations at 51st Street, Oltorf Street and William Cannon Drive, three roads whose intersections have seen recent infrastructure investments by the state agency.

“It was kind of met with a thud, that idea,” he reported, citing its estimated cost of $400 million, or 10 percent of the roughly $4 billion that TxDOT is planning to spend on the entire I-35 project.

TxDOT’s mounting pressure on Capital Metro was corroborated on July 24th by the Austin American-Statesman. In a news report with the headline «TxDOT: Cap Metro must pay to put buses on future I-35 toll lanes», the paper’s transportation reporter Ben Wear cited the $123 million cost for the “rapid bus stations” and noted that “The agency is pressing Capital Metro for $18 million now to buy land needed for those stations.” However, reported Wear, a “Cap Metro official says the full $123 million cost is beyond its means to pay in the coming years.”

But the benefits of that $123 million investment seemed to be steadily diminishing. An August 11th Austin Monitor news update by Caleb Pritchard aptly titled «TxDOT document reveals limp projections for I-35 bus plan» reported that TxDOT had “projected less than stellar ridership numbers” for the proposed “BRT” service – at most, 3,400 boardings a day. In ridership, that would place the “rapid transit” bus line ninth among the transit agency’s other routes, well behind an assortment of more ordinary and somewhat less spectacular street-based services without heavy investment.

This tends to reflect the major disadvantages of trying to install a viable, higher-quality transit operation within a freeway. Passenger access to and from the stations – especially pedestrian access – is a distinct problem. Transit-oriented development (TOD) – particularly residential development – ranges from poor to actively discouraged. Economic development goals are unfulfilled. Yet, because of the difficulties of construction and the high land values around a freeway or tollway, capital costs are inordinately extremely high.

Yet abruptly, after months of a supposedly impartial, rigorous process of laboriously pursuing data-led solutions … Project Connect and its parent agency Capital Metro were suddenly abandoning that rigorously defined exercise, bypassing the whole process, and embracing a plan for an approximately 20-mile, $123.5-million, 3-station “BRT” line in I-35 that had actually been in Capital Metro’s planning process, albeit at a very low profile, for the past five years.

Curiously, our website (ARN) had already reported hints of such a pre-planned outcome last November. In an article titled «Capital Metro — Back to 1986?» we observed that “Austin’s Capital Metro seems determined to return to the thrilling days of yesteryear – at least in its longrange transit system planning.” A key basis for our suspicion consisted of reports from longtime Austin-area transportation activist Mike Dahmus, together with “with confirmation from other participants”, making it “clear” that “”some implementation of ‘bus rapid transit’ (BRT) on I-35 is (in the words of one observer) a ‘foregone conclusion’.” ARN had noted that this was a “revival” of a nearly identical but “faulty 1986 plan from the agency’s past.”

And additional evidence that a “BRT solution” has actually long been slated for implementation (despite an ostensible “study” process) has continued to emerge. A commentary by David Orr in ARN’s posting of Aug. 31st revealed that a Connections 2025 brochure disseminated by Capital Metro listed the I-35 “Super BRT” plan as if it were already approved as a project in line for implementation.

Minneapolis “Orange Line BRT” — a faulty model

Much of Capital Metro’s case for the I-35 “Super BRT’ plan appears to use a somewhat similar HOV-lane nominally “BRT” operation in Minneapolis as a model. Dubbed the Orange Line, the 17-mile express-bus-on-highway project is currently under development for the metro area’s I-35W corridor. However, the Minneapolis Metro Orange Line project is significantly different from what TxDOT and Austin’s Capital Metro and Project Connect are proposing. (Information regarding the Orange Line project has been obtained via discussion with former Metro planner Aaron Isaacs as well as online material from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Metropolitan Council.)

First, it would seem that the status of I-35 in Austin (with almost imperceptible bus service) is nothing remotely like Minneapolis’s 45-year-old, mature, heavily used I-35W transit corridor, with 25 bus routes, 14,000 daily rider-trips, and substantial existing transit investment, proposed for upgrading into the Orange Line (including one in-line station)
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Minneapolis’s I-35W bus transit system dates from the early 1970s, when the administration of President Richard Nixon was encouraging investment in enhanced bus operations as an alternative to planning what it perceived as more expensive rail transit. In Minneapolis, this started with metered freeway ramps (controlling access to the freeway); beginning in 1972, HOV bypasses to the metered ramps were implemented, with more being added over the subsequent years. Metro also implemented bus-only shoulders on portions of I-35W and feeder highways 62 and 77.

Eventually this operation included HOV lanes (opened in 2009) used by buses. One “in-line” bus station is already in operation in the middle of I-35W.


Minneapolis Metro express-bus operation (slated for upgrade to Orange Line) has a single station in median of I-35W. Photo: Metro.


This program never produced ridership and benefit results anything close to what would be expected of a major rapid transit (or light rail) investment – a drawback that became a major factor persuading Minneapolis decisionmakers to proceed with the Hiawatha Avenue light rail transit (LRT) project (now the Blue Line) which opened in 2004. This raises the question whether it is prudent for Austin to follow a similar course of heavy bus transit investment in the I-35 corridor as its major transit option.

Secondly, the Orange Line is not intended to be Minneapolis’s heaviest major transit corridor. That role is already performed by the region’s two LRT routes – the Blue Line with 31,000 daily ridership and the Green Line with 37,000.

Third, in addition to the already-established heavy infrastructure involved in the Orange Line project, it’s relevant to note all the additional infrastructure in terms of surface dedicated lanes that exists and is being expanded with this project. Downtown Minneapolis already has an entire bus mall. This infrastructure is essential to support the heavy volumes of buses the transit agency channels through downtown Minneapolis. (Fortunately, LRT absorbs a huge portion of the total transit volume and handles this more efficiently with trains.) Are the City of Austin and Capital Metro prepared to include this level of downtown infrastructure investment in the project package in addition to the proposed “super BRT” on I-35?

Finally, it’s important to realize that a “BRT” project nearly identical to what Project Connect is now proposing was proposed and rejected in the late 1980s, in favor of LRT on a somewhat parallel route (including Guadalupe-Lamar). The main reason: the high capital cost of inserting this heavy infrastructure into the narrow I-35 freeway corridor. The proposed high volume of buses (with traffic implications for the Core Area) was also a factor in the elimination of this alternative.

Fake “BRT”, “Super” or otherwise

As one takes a broader view of this entire issue, it is legitimate to question whether it is valid to consider buses running in HOV or HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes as “bus rapid transit” (BRT) at all.

One of the key criteria specified for “true” BRT has been having a right-of-way or alignment clearly designated as exclusive for the bus-only operation. The basic argument behind this has been that to emulate rail systems, all of which have a defined trackway that passengers know identifies the rail line (especially surface LRT), the BRT operation must have a correspondingly uniquely identified alignment reserved for its exclusive use. This is important in order to (supposedly) impart a comparable sense to passengers and the general public of the presence of the route and where it goes – i.e., a crucial factor in orienting passengers and the general public to this service. An HOV tollway open to general mixed-use traffic does not provide this characteristic.

Furthermore, the TxDOT/CMTA proposal for I-35 “BRT” would have the “rapid transit” buses leave the freeway entirely to serve most stations off the “highspeed” facility. That certainly would seem to violate the concept of a readily understandable, visually clear “rapid transit” route. Not to mention putting a big dent in travel time.

And some final considerations: With three proposed “inline” stations over about 20 miles, the I-35 “BRT” would have an average station spacing of about 10 miles. What “rapid transit” line in the world has station spacing averaging 10 miles? BART (which has some of the function of a commuter rail as well as rapid transit) has an averaging spacing of about 2.8 miles, and that’s unusually long. The next in line, the Washington Metro, averages 1.4 miles.

Our own conclusion: What’s being promoted as “BRT” – bus-style “rapid transit” – on Austin’s I-35 would be basically just a commuter bus operation, with some added amenities.

LRT makes more sense

There’s a far more attractive, effective, workable, beneficial, and ultimately affordable public transport alternative to the TxDOT-Capital Metro-Project Connect express-bus plan packaged as “Super BRT”. This alternative is LRT – specifically, as ARN proposed in our July 31st article «Urban Rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, Not I-35 “BRT”» – a 21-mile LRT line paralleling I-35 but serving the center of Austin.

Running from Tech Ridge in the north to Southpark Meadows in the south, mainly via North Lamar, Guadalupe, and South Congress, such a line would offer dozens of stations and immensely greater accessibility, available mobility, attractiveness, ridership, and benefits to the community.


Proposed LRT running in Guadalupe-Lamar and South Congress corridors from Tech Ridge to Southpark Meadows, paralleling I-35. Graphic: ARN.


As our July 31st article indicated, the first segment should be a “starter line” in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor:

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

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

This kind of investment in LRT would appear to represent a far greater value for money, with potential for a much higher ROI (return on investment), than even a lower-cost express-bus project such as that proposed by TxDOT and Capital Metro, and it surely deserves a fair and impartial evaluation through the legitimate Project Connect study process. The attempt to ram through a “rush to judgement” for TxDOT’s “Super BRT” plan (evidently aimed in part to obtain Capital Metro’s buy-in for the I-35 mega-project) deserves to be jettisoned.

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

31 August 2017

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

Commentary by David Orr

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

31 July 2017

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

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

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


Why not a true mobility option?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

29 June 2017

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

Commentary by David Orr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The case for urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar

30 May 2017

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

by Lyndon Henry

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

Why light rail transit (LRT)?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor?

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

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

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

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Reorganized Project Connect 2.0 opens up, reaches out

30 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Consultants — A new consultant team led by AECOM.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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