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

28 February 2018

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

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

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


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


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

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

A graphic emphasizes this corridor’s potential even more:


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


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

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

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

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

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Plans for Smart City could be dumb choice for Austin

31 January 2018

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

Commentary by Roger Baker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Capital Metro’s planning keeps falling short

31 December 2017

Capital Metro’s proposed Connections 2025 map. Graphic: CMTA.

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.

Capital Metro says it has a major renovation in its bus network underway. Perhaps, but in my opinion, Cap Metro is trying to do too much on too little money. In addition, the agency is politically manipulated, held on a tight city leash by long tradition, with top-down political forces in charge.

Being a big institutional cookie jar has become a practical barrier to developing really smart, compassionate policy, one that riders can depend on from year to year. For example, good Cap Metro planners should understand and hedge against the fact that Cap Metro sales tax revenues can fall as well as rise, depending on the quirky volatility of Austin’s tech-based economy.

This latest transit policy is the result of being forced to choose between two groups and types of service: trying to accommodate the scattered captive riders on the cheaper living-cost fringes, versus the more time-sensitive discretionary riders near the core.

One of the kinder, more compassionate resolutions of this dilemma would be a compromise. The most needy or most bus dependent nearby areas would have bus service that at least wouldn’t get any worse for the next five years, come hell or high water. That way it would be possible for these folks to often hold service jobs in Austin, and the transit service could motivate people who struggle to meet tight family budgets to migrate to these same transit-friendlier areas. At the same time, in the spirit of compromise, Cap Metro could offer a few less 15-minute bus routes serving the core area, but this promise of improved, higher-frequency core service would be equally firm.

But here’s another problem with that. Cap Metro suffers from an acute lack of transit planning that can stay on track for a time that exceeds the current management’s longevity and influence.

Overall, the core problem facing Austin transportation is getting from cheap suburban living to living-wage jobs via existing highways like I-35. Roads like this will never be able to affordably handle this level of peak mobility demand. We should learn to regard congestion as self-limiting in nature.

Insofar as this daily peak traffic is partly related to core retail commerce, will these jobs still be there in predicted numbers, after another five years of Amazon killing local retail? How did the planners at Cap Metro get in such trouble with their sales tax projections? Has that budgetary over-optimism been fixed?

In my opinion, focusing on short-term planning and compassionate meeting of current transit needs in the next few years should get top priority. Included in this category is a $400 million light rail starter line segment down the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, which is clearly needed today to unclog that corridor.

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Gentrification syndrome hurts transit

27 November 2017

Passenger using bicycle rack on front of Capital Metro bus, c. 2015. Photo: CMTA.

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.

Fast growth over decades, together with a lack of Texas land use planning, leads to intractable peak-hour congestion, as we can readily see in Austin. Service workers try to commute from the cheaper-living suburbs to get to good core city jobs. If good transit were there, many would use it. How could things be otherwise, given a big difference in living costs inside and outside the core city, mediated by crowded highways?

Austin, as the most expensive major city in Texas nowadays, is a good example of the urban gentrification syndrome described in a recent Streetsblog story. As the author Angie Schmitt points out,

Bus ridership is declining in almost every U.S. city. Some reasons are fairly obvious: Lower gas prices combined with higher transit fares and service cuts make transit less appealing.

However, says Schmitt, other factors may also be involved – “rising housing costs, with higher-income residents displacing lower-income residents in neighborhoods that traditionally have had robust transit ridership” – and the article cites an analysis of Portland’s problems published in TransitCenter by two planners, Tom Mills and Madeline Steele, at Tri-Met (Portland’s transit agency). As the StreetsBlog article summarizes,

In surveys, many people told Tri-Met that they ride transit less because of a change of home or work address. This led Mills and Steele to take a closer look at the interplay of ridership changes and the housing market.

According to these analysts’ TransitCenter report,

We found substantial overlap between areas where real market home value increased and transit ridership decreased the most. These areas are concentrated in the same traditionally low-income, inner eastside neighborhoods that have experienced significant economic displacement. Correspondingly, transit ridership grew in areas that saw minimal increases in real market home values. These areas tended to be in the first ring suburbs where many low to moderate-income earners relocated after leaving the inner city.

These economic and demographic dynamics put our most loyal transit riders farther away from our best transit service, and strengthen the market for travel modes that are favored by high-income earning residents who may only use transit to commute.

In her conclusion, Schmitt emphasizes that “For transit agencies, any effective response requires coordination with the cities they serve.”

If transit-friendly Portland is losing bus ridership due to gentrification, what chance does Austin have here, where Capital Metro is treated like a reserve cash cookie jar? Austin takes a big part of Cap Metro’s tax money. For example, see page 33 of this link for the agency’s 2015 budget, describing “City of Austin mobility programs” which transferred $26 million out of Cap Metro’s funds to the City of Austin:

https://www.capmetro.org/uploadedFiles/Capmetroorg/About_Us/Finance_and_Audit/Approved%20FY%202016%20Budget.pdf

Recently TxDOT tried to charge Cap Metro a lot (about $18 million) to make I-35 a supposedly “BRT”-friendly highway, presuming it could be used that way a decade from now, if and when it gets widened. Since nobody can accurately predict population growth, or travel demand, or transit demand, even two years from now, let alone in 2045 as CAMPO is presuming to do, shouldn’t we focus on things that we can measure and see? Like vital transit needs right now. Like current bus problems, including the need to maintain useful service in the fringes, a lifeline as vital as Social Security (and other public assistance) for many old and low-income folks.

If we had a genuinely compassionate and liberal Austin City Council, I think they would say this: You know it is unfair to the voters who approved the full cent for Cap Metro transit in the first place for the City to then divert that money, for decades, and for their own projects. As if bus riders have a permanent obligation to make their personal sacrifice to fund weird city transportation projects. Like the focus on driverless cars which we already know will not improve congestion. Let’s urge the city to give back five or ten million a year of this big unfair mordida to improve fringe city lifeline bus service. It is the right thing to do in these hard times.

The core problem facing Austin transportation is getting people from cheap suburban living to livable-wage jobs using existing highways like I-35 – roads that will never be able to affordably handle this level peak mobility demand. We should learn to regard congestion as self-limiting in nature.

Insofar as this daily peak traffic is partly related to core retail commerce, will these jobs still be there in predicted numbers, after another five years of Amazon killing local retail? How did the planners at Cap Metro get in such trouble with their sales tax projections? Has that budgetary over-optimism been fixed?

In my opinion, focusing on short-term planning and compassionate meeting of current transit needs in the next few years should get top priority. Included in this category is a $400 million light rail segment down the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, which is clearly needed today to unclog that corridor. The fact that the City needs a fancy study like Project Connect to arrive at that conclusion is to me a major symptom of our core planning problem. If we could find some way to infuse Austin’s city leadership with more pro-transit leaders (such as those in cities like San Antonio and Nashville), maybe that would help significantly with this problem.

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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)
.
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.