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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
https://austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/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?