Archive for October, 2013

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Houston’s MetroRail shows the way — How to fit urban rail into Austin’s Guadalupe and Lamar

30 October 2013
Two-car Houston MetroRail light rail train glides northbound in reservation along Main St. Notice landscaping in median, where station platforms are also placed. Photo: Mike Harrington.

Two-car Houston MetroRail light rail train glides northbound in reservation along Main St. Notice landscaping in median, where station platforms are also placed. Photo: Mike Harrington.

It’s pretty amazing.

While the so-called “People’s Republic of Austin” has agonized, dillied, dallied, and dawdled for years over whether or not to give priority to transit, or to preserve sacred traffic lanes for cars, Houston — long assumed to be a poster child of motor vehicle dependency — already took the plunge over a decade ago, carving dedicated transit reservations out of some of its busiest central-city arterials for its MetroRail light rail transit (LRT) line.

Opened in 2004, Houston’s MetroRail runs 7.5 miles with 16 stations through the heart of the city, from University of Houston–Downtown to Fannin South, using well-separated reservations created by re-allocating former traffic lanes and turning (“chicken”) lanes to rail transit. It’s highly successful, carrying 37,500 rider-trips per average weekday (second quarter 2013) at about 8% lower cost per passenger-mile than Houston’s bus system average (National Transit Database, 2011).

MetroRail is routed almost entirely on major arterials through central-city Houston. Map: Light Rail Now.

MetroRail is routed almost entirely on major arterials through central-city Houston. Map: Light Rail Now.

From the standpoint of the engineering design of its alignment, MetroRail presents a model of what could be possible in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor. Facing the constrained street right-of-way available, Houston’s local decisionmakers and planners bit the bullet, opting to re-allocate entire street lanes away from motor vehicle traffic, and allot the space to the much higher carrying-capacity of the planned new LRT line.

The most drastic re-allocation occurred on Main St., which in its most constrained section was originally a four-lane street with a center turning lane. About 40% (northern section) of the route runs in Main; there’s a short section of several blocks with the line split between Fannin and San Jacinto Streets; then the remaining southern portion of the route runs in Fannin.

Photo-essay: Houston MetroRail

The remainder of this post is mostly a photo-essay on selected street alignment features of Houston’s MetroRail, particularly showing how previous traffic lanes have been re-allocated to transit in route sections most closely resembling the conditions of Guadalupe St. and Lamar Blvd. in Austin.

Main St. alignment


Overhead view of MetroRail on Main St. at Preston. Photo: Houston Metro.

Overhead view of MetroRail on Main St. at Preston. Photo: Houston Metro.

The MetroRail LRT system was installed in Main Street as part of a massive overhaul of Houston’s downtown streets beginning in the late 1990s. The objective was to emphasize pedestrian and transit access while reducing motor vehicle traffic.

In the photo above, you can see how LRT tracks and stations — and widened sidewalks — have replaced what was once several traffic lanes. Traffic has been reduced to one lane in each direction, with occasional parking space, mainly so adjacent stores and offices can be accessed by commercial services.


Main St. without MetroRail. Photo: Wikipedia.

Main St. without MetroRail. Photo: Wikipedia.

Further south from downtown, near the Medical Center, the MetroRail alignment leaves Main St., and continues in Fannin and San Jacinto Streets. However, Main continues south.

In the photo above, Main St. is a bit wider than it is in the more constrained section downtown, but you can still get an idea of how the street looked before MetroRail.


Main St., 2 views of MetroRail alignment. LEFT: Train near Preston (photo: L. Henry). RIGHT: Train near Gray (photo: Frank Hicks).

Main St., 2 views of MetroRail alignment. LEFT: Train near Preston (photo: L. Henry). RIGHT: Train near Gray (photo: Frank Hicks).

The two photos above illustrate the MetroRail alignment from ground level — the left photo in the heart of downtown, the right photo further south on the edge of downtown. Notice the use of large traffic buttons to emphasize segregation of LRT tracks. Also notice how the median area between tracks is used for both stations and landscaping.


MetroRail passengers deboarding at Downtown Transit Center station. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

MetroRail passengers deboarding at Downtown Transit Center station. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

This view, showing passengers deboarding a MetroRail train at the Downtown Transit Center station, provides another ground-level view of a station fitted into the Main St. streetscape.


MetroRail passing under I-45. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

MetroRail passing under I-45. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

Houston’s MetroRail passes under a couple of freeways as it heads south from downtown. No reconstruction of the grade separations was necessary — track and overhead contact system (OCS) wires were simply installed through the underpass. Here, a train on Main St. passes under the I-45 freeway not far from the Downtown Transit Center station. This may offer design hints for solving similar underpass LRT needs in Austin, such as the proposed extension of the Guadalupe-Lamar line under the US 183 underpass.


Aerial view of MetroRail on Main St. at Ensemble-HCC station. Photo: Screen capture by L. Henry from Google Maps.

Aerial view of MetroRail on Main St. at Ensemble-HCC station. Photo: Screen capture by L. Henry from Google Maps.

This aerial view of the alignment in Main St. at the Ensemble-HCC station gives another perspective on how MetroRail has been fitted into the streetscape south of central downtown. Stations are staggered, with separate platforms and shelters to serve either northbound or southbound trains (thus not requiring extra street width).


Double-track to single tracks on Fannin-San Jacinto

Map showing MetroRail transition from Main St to Fannin-San-Jacinto (Screen capture by L. Henry from Google Maps).

Map showing MetroRail transition from Main St to Fannin-San-Jacinto (Screen capture by L. Henry from Google Maps).

The map above shows where the double-track MetroRail alignment leaves Main St. (at Richmond and Wheeler Ave.), runs diagonally southward, and then splits (just after passing under the Southwest Freeway), with the southbound track following Fannin St. and the northbound track following San Jacinto St.


Aerial view of 2 tracks splitting into single tracks on Fannin and San Jacinto. Photo: Screen capture by L. Henry from Google Maps.

Aerial view of 2 tracks splitting into single tracks on Fannin and San Jacinto. Photo: Screen capture by L. Henry from Google Maps.

In the aerial view above, the double-track MetroRail alignment can be seen running diagonally, passing beneath the Southwest Freeway, and then splitting into single tracks on Fannin St. and San Jacinto St., where the tracks are laid in curbside alignments.


MetroRail Museum District station. Photo: Houston Metro.

MetroRail Museum District station. Photo: Houston Metro.

The photo above shows the curbside MetroRail alignment and a curbside platform at the Museum District station. Note how light rail station platform is raised approximately 14 inches above track level (which is also street level) to permit level boarding into each car. The woman will be able to roll her baby carriage directly onto the train, with no lifting or need for a ramp.


Double-track alignment in Fannin and Braeswood

Aerial photo of Fannin-San Jacinto single tracks merging into double-track on Fannin. Photo: Photo: Screen capture by L. Henry from Google Maps.

Aerial photo of Fannin-San Jacinto single tracks merging into double-track on Fannin. Photo: Photo: Screen capture by L. Henry from Google Maps.

This aerial view shows how the single-track alignments on Fannin and San Jacinto are merged south of Hermann Drive into a double-track alignment on Fannin St.


MetroRail Hermann Park-Rice University station on Fannin St. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

MetroRail Hermann Park-Rice University station on Fannin St. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

Somewhat further on south on Fannin St. is the Hermann Park-Rice University station. This cross-sectional view shows how the median island-type station, serving both directional tracks, is fitted into the roadway, with trackage separated by traffic buttons.


Aerial view of Hermann Park-Rice University station. Screen capture by L. Henry from Google Maps.

Aerial view of Hermann Park-Rice University station. Screen capture by L. Henry from Google Maps.

The photo above provides an aerial perspective of the Hermann Park-Rice University station.


Train serving Memorial Hermann Hospital-Houston Zoo station. Photo: Panoramio.com.

Train serving Memorial Hermann Hospital-Houston Zoo station. Photo: Panoramio.com.

This ground-level photo of a train stopped at the Memorial Hermann Hospital-Houston Zoo station illustrates how (to accommodate the narrower roadway width) station design has reverted to the staggered-platform layout, with separate platforms and shelters for each direction .


Passengers waiting to board train at Dryden/TMC station Photo: Brian Flint.

Passengers waiting to board train at Dryden/TMC station Photo: Brian Flint.

Because of the tight street constraint, the Dryden/TMC station has a staggered-platform profile similar to the Memorial Hermann Hospital-Houston Zoo station.


Aerial view of Dryden/TMC station. Screen capture by L. Henry from Google Maps.

Aerial view of Dryden/TMC station. Screen capture by L. Henry from Google Maps.

This aerial view of the Dryden/TMC station illustrates how left turn lanes are handled. Notice that there are left-turn channelization arrows painted in the trackway. Cars are allowed access into these turning lanes (i.e., sharing the LRT tracks) via the traffic signal system. Notice cars in the upper right photo queued in the lane and preparing to turn left.


MetroRail train on S. Braeswood Blvd. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

MetroRail train on S. Braeswood Blvd. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

For a short “dogleg”, the MetroRail alignment departs from the Fannin route and runs in S. Braeswood Blvd. and Greenbriar Drive before returning to Fannin. This photo shows how the trackage is aligned in that section of the route.


Conclusion

Certainly, Houston’s MetroRail doesn’t represent a design “blueprint” for Austin (or any other community) that can simply be replicated — every city has its own challenges and needs in terms of streetscape and transit requirements. However, MetroRail does demonstrate an excellent Best Practices guide as to how this major auto-centric and asphalt-centric city has found the will and the way to incorporate workable, efficient, and attractive urban rail into a fairly constrained streetscape environment.

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Project Connect admits major data error in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor study

27 October 2013
Snippet of Project Connect's much larger "Central Corridor" map (actually, the central-city study area) shows "Lamar" sector (in orange, dubbed a "sub-corridor" in Project Connect's peculiar nomenclature) plus several adjacent sectors. Actual Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor includes both the Lamar and Core sectors, but each sector is being evaluated in isolation.

Snippet of Project Connect’s much larger “Central Corridor” map (actually, the central-city study area) shows “Lamar” sector (in orange, dubbed a “sub-corridor” in Project Connect’s peculiar nomenclature) plus several adjacent sectors. Actual Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor includes both the Lamar and Core sectors, but each sector is being evaluated in isolation.

The Project Connect urban rail planning team has been conducting a nominal study of designated alternative “sub-corridors” for urban rail (they’re actually not “corridors”, but sectors of the central-city study area). In the process, the agency has been compiling purported data (covering key indicators for each “corridor”, or study sector, such as population, density, transit ridership, etc.) in a series of so-called Map Books (each one an update of the previous one).

Meanwhile, tirelessly and tediously scrutinizing each volume of Map Book data has been the self-appointed task of Scott Morris, head of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), which, together with Texas Association for Public Transportation, has been advancing the case for the Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor as the most effective alignment for Austin’s proposed urban rail starter line. Scott has performed amazingly detailed and well-supported research into these data issues, and he has found and pointed to a lengthy array of dozens of mostly serious errors. A handful of these have been quietly rectified.

One of the most serious data anomalies that Scott has recently detected is the “disappearance” of virtually all the ridership for Capital Metro’s routes #1M/L and #101, the heaviest-ridership transit routes in the system, serving the G-L corridor as well as South Congress. This was cited in a listing of nearly three dozen data problems submitted by CACDC to the Project Connect urban rail study team:

v4 Comment 29 High
Pages 36-37 Bus Ridership 2011
According to the 2020 service plan in January 2010, the #1 North Lamar and the #101 had over 17,000 daily boardings combined. But, this chart seems to omit nearly all boardings for the Guadalupe-North Lamar Corridor.

At last, Project Connect has publicly admitted at least one of the numerous errors that have been published in the series of Map Books. Responding mainly to criticism by Jace Deloney, one of the leaders of Austinites for Urban Rail Action (AURA, which supports a transparent, open, and fair route evaluation process), on October 22nd Project Connect issued a statement acknowledging the erroneous ridership data, which it says resulted from “populating” the map (data visualization graphic) with the “wrong data field”. A screen capture of the statement is shown below.

Project Connect statement admits major error in transit ridership data for Lamar-Guadalupe corridor.

Project Connect statement admits major error in transit ridership data for Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

Data errors, in particular large ones like this, are especially serious because the selection of a “corridor” (actually, a sector of the huge central-city study area) depends critically on key data factors, including existing transit ridership in a given corridor.

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Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail line would serve 31% of all Austin jobs

24 October 2013

ARNx0_CACDC_map_Austin-Urban-Rail-Employment-Centers-2013-snip

An urban rail line installed in the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor (plus a short extension to the Seaholm area) would provide high-quality, high-capacity transit service to nearly one-third of all Austin jobs, according to a study based on 2011 U.S. Census data by the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), led by Scott Morris.

ARNx1_CACDC_map_Austin-Urban-Rail-Employment-Centers-2013

The CACDC’s Austin Urban Rail website presents a map of a possible alignment on Guadalupe-Lamar, including 14 stations with locations optimized by the census employment data. The CACDC study says that that the On The Map online census utility “was used to measure jobs located within one quarter mile and one half mile of each proposed station point.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Center for Economic Studies 2011 Current Employment Statistics, the Guadalupe-North Lamar Sub-Corridor contains the highest density of jobs in the city. … The results speak for themselves. If built, the Guadalupe North Lamar alignment would put tracks within a ten minute walk of over 31% of all jobs in the city.

One can infer that, if the G-L corridor route were combined with the proposed conversion of the eastside Red Line to electric urban rail (light rail transit) as proposed by Texas Association for Public Transportation — a proposal which includes a spur line into the Mueller site and Northeast Austin — it’s plausible to speculate that the total system would possibly provide access to as many as 40 to 50% of city jobs. And, in addition, serve the huge ACC campus developing at Highland.

TAPT proposes "loop" line, with routes on both Guadalupe-Lamar and eastide through converting the MetroRail line to electric light rail — plus a spur to Mueller.

TAPT proposes “loop” line, with routes on both Guadalupe-Lamar and eastside through converting the MetroRail line to electric light rail — plus a spur to Mueller.

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Why the MetroRapid bus project currently is NOT an obstacle to urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar

19 October 2013
New MetroRapid buses, representing about 53% of total project cost, could readily be redeployed to other routes or new premium-bus services. In the meantime, MetroRapid service on Guadalupe-Lamar could be re-purposed and presented as precursor to urban rail. (Photo: Filipa Rodrigues, KUT News)

New MetroRapid buses, representing about 53% of total project cost, could readily be redeployed to other routes or new premium-bus services. In the meantime, MetroRapid service on Guadalupe-Lamar could be re-purposed and presented as precursor to urban rail. (Photo: Filipa Rodrigues, KUT News)

by Lyndon Henry

The question of which route to choose for an initial urban rail line — the officially preferred downtown-East Campus-Mueller plan or the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) plan — is linked to the related issue of the $47.6 million MetroRapid bus project currently under way in this and other corridors and due to open for service in 2014. However, as this blog has noted, as currently intended, designed, and funded, MetroRapid — 80% funded from a $37.6 million grant under the Small Starts program of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) — is about as minimalist as a bus upgrade project can get, involving little more than the following:

Rolling stock — A fleet of new buses, intended to run almost entirely in mixed general traffic with private motor vehicles. These could readily be redployed into other transit routes or entirely new corridors.

Upgraded bus stops — Mostly modular in design (i.e., shelters, benches, etc. could be relocated to other locations). These will be equipped with digital cellular-based schedule information systems that are also modular.

Downtown transit priority lanes — A project to install these (i.e., restripe a lane on each of Guadalupe and Lavaca St. and relocate bus stops) is currently under way. However, as we noted in a previous posting (referring to Portland as a model for transit priority lanes),

there are legitimate questions as to whether these two lanes could simultaneously and effectively accommodate the two MetroRapid bus routes (10-minute headways each) plus all other Capital Metro routes (various headways) as well as urban rail (10-minute headway), all running in both directions.

Rebranding and marketing — Rechristening limited-stop buses on G-L (a service configuration basically replicating the #101) as a “rapid” service (although the schedule time difference is minuscule to zero). See: Why MetroRapid bus service is NOT “bus rapid transit”.

MetroRapid bus route (black line) planned for the G-L corridor. Red line denotes MetroRapid in the Burnet-South Lamar corridor. (Map: Capital Metro)

MetroRapid bus route (black line) planned for the G-L corridor. Red line denotes MetroRapid in the Burnet-South Lamar corridor. (Map: Capital Metro)

Besides all the rebranding and marketing hype, one can legitimately ask: What’s really different about MetroRapid?

• Buses, including limited-stop (even with special branding) have been running in the G-L corridor for decades…

• Capital Metro has repeatedly upgraded both rolling stock and bus stop facilities using federal grant funding…

You could say … Well, there are those downtown transit priority lanes. But Capital Metro and City of Austin planners have long intended to use those also for urban rail! As we hinted in the article on Portland cited above, crowding all downtown bus operations plus MetroRapid plus urban rail into those two lanes does seem to present a problem … but that’s an issue we’ll deal with in a subsequent article. (For urban rail, our remedy is to allocate two more separate lanes.)

So, we have this very minimalist FTA-funded Small Starts bus project (MetroRapid), simply running buses in the street with traffic, and yet, to support their case for Mueller and dismiss the case for urban rail on G-L, some local planners and Project Connect officials have been claiming that the FTA will bar funding of an urban rail project because it would disrupt this small-scale project. Despite the fact that:

• The MetroRapid project was never intended to become an immutable obstacle to rail in the G-L corridor…

• The new buses could be redeployed to other uses — including to urban rail stations in the same streets…

• The modular bus stop facilities (including the cellular information system) could be relocated and redeployed, or simply left in place for use by passengers for the other local bus services…

• MetroRapid in the G-L could simply be re-purposed and rebranded as a precursor to urban rail in the same corridor…

MetroRapid bus stations are minimalist, low-cost, modular (movable). LEFT:  Completed station at North Lamar Transit Center (Photo: Downtown Austin Alliance) • RIGHT: Bus stop on Guadalupe at 39th St. being upgraded for MetroRapid (Photo: Mike Dahmus)

MetroRapid bus stations are minimalist, low-cost, modular (movable). LEFT: Completed station at North Lamar Transit Center (Photo: Downtown Austin Alliance) • RIGHT: Bus stop on Guadalupe at 39th St. being upgraded for MetroRapid (Photo: Mike Dahmus)

The heaviest artillery brought to bear for this has not been testimony from any FTA official, nor FTA policies, but a major Washington lobbyist, hired by the City of Austin, and brought to a work session of the Austin City Council in May 2012 to proclaim that the MetroRapid project represents a barrier to rail in the G-L corridor for the next 20 years! (His opinion has subsequently been repeatedly cited as evidence to support the “MetroRapid barrier” contention.)

It’s legitimate to ask: On what basis, and with what actual evidence, are these claims made? Where have other major rail investments been denied because of this supposed justification? Where has FTA explicitly stated that they resolutely forbid altering a portion of an FTA-funded project and substituting a different project for that section prior to the fulfillment of a defined “minimum life cycle”?

The Official (City + Project Connect) position might as well be: We’re already running buses in this corridor, so there’s no role for rail. That, of course, is absurd — existing bus service means you’ve already got well-established transit ridership, a huge plus for rail.

The same holds true of MetroRapid. The argument that this somehow, in its present form, makes it a daunting barrier to urban rail is also nonsense. (They’d like to make it an authentic barrier, by installing special bus lanes … but that’s another issue — see No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes….)

Let’s look at several scenarios:

Worst-case scenario — Austin would have to reimburse FTA the $38 million grant in full. Not really likely, but possible. If so, this $38 million would be a relatively small penalty added to the cost of a project of hundreds of millions. Actually, FTA would probably deduct it from the grant for any urban rail FFGA (Full Funding Grant Agreement) that would be submitted in the future.

Acceptable scenario — Austin would be required to reimburse FTA for just the portion from downtown to some point on North Lamar. This seemingly amounts to about 20% or less of the total. It’s also arguable that reimbursement need be based solely on the cost of all or portions the stations and other fixed facilities, but not the rolling stock (which was the preponderance of the grant).

On a route-length basis, the affected G-L portion of the MetroRapid project represents about 20% of the total length. Rolling stock procurement represents about 53% of the total project cost, fixed facilities about 47%. So altogether Austin would be looking at reimbursing 20% X 47% X $37.6 million (FTA grant), which equals … about $3.5 million. And that’s assuming that FTA would not credit the city for re-purposing and re-using these fixed facilities for urban rail or other bus services.

Best-case scenario — No reimbursement needed. Instead, Austin would just re-deploy the buses in other corridors (including further north on Lamar), and be authorized to relocate fixed facilities or re-purpose them (e.g., the traffic-signal-preemption systems would simply be reconfigured for the rail system).

Also note that FTA is accustomed to changes in FFGAs and other contractual elements all the time and doesn’t just blacklist the agency when that happens. Remember — we’d be dealing with just a portion of this total project, and a small portion of just a very small project at that. So we’re not suggesting here a total cancellation of the entire MetroRapid contract.

In dealing with FTA, there are bureaucratic protocols involved, and the need to adhere to stated rules and regulations, but there’s also a lot of politics. The crucial issue for supporters of urban rail in G-L is to influence overall community desire, intent, and policy to re-focus urban rail into the G-L corridor. Once we accomplish that, there’s a very high probability that local civic and political leadership will climb aboard the reoriented urban rail project and work hard to forge the necessary political clout at the federal level.

Also keep in mind that final design and engineering of any rail system will take a fair chunk of a decade. So the MetroRapid system (which should be re-purposed and re-branded as a precursor to rail) will be operating for several years, anyway, before even construction gets under way. Austin could argue that amortization of fixed facilities (and the “BRT” system) should be accounted for in any reimbursement demanded by FTA.

So how is any of the above a real impediment to installing urban rail properly in the right corridor, i.e., the one which should logically continue to be the city’s highest-priority corridor? The contention that the MetroRapid project represents some kind of insurmountable barrier to moving ahead with urban rail in the G-L corridor seems implausible to the point of absurdity.

Portland's light rail transit line on 4-lane Interstate Avenue gives an idea of how urban rail could operate in reservation in G-L corridor. (Photo: Peter Ehrlich)

Portland’s light rail transit line on 4-lane Interstate Avenue gives an idea of how urban rail could operate in reservation in G-L corridor. (Photo: Peter Ehrlich)

This posting has been revised since originally published. It originally reported that “a major Washington lobbyist, hired by the City of Austin” had been “brought to a meeting of the Transit Working Group (TWG) in May 2012….” The lobbyist actually presented his remarks to a work session of the Austin City Council.
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Petition — “I want to ride LIGHT RAIL on Guadalupe/North Lamar!”

18 October 2013
TAPT plan (left) and CACDC plan (right) both propose Guadalupe-Lamar as the major focus of Austin's Phase 1 urban rail starter line.

TAPT plan (left) and CACDC plan (right) both propose Guadalupe-Lamar as the major focus of Austin’s Phase 1 urban rail starter line.

Take your pick — the Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT) plan, or the Central Austin Community Development Corporation plan — or maybe even another plan for Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L)! — but be sure to sign the CACDC’s petition telling the Austin City Council and involved public transportation agencies you want a light rail transit (LRT) line on the G-L corridor where it belongs!

Wording:

Petitioning The Austin City Council, the boards of Capital Metro, Lone Star Rail, and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the Federal Transit Administration.

I want to ride LIGHT RAIL on Guadalupe/North Lamar!

Petition by Central Austin Community Development Corporation

Add your (digital) signature here:

https://www.change.org/petitions/i-want-to-ride-light-rail-on-guadalupe-north-lamar#share

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Here’s what a real public meeting on rail transit looks like … in San Antonio

18 October 2013
Kyle Keahey, Project Connect's Urban Rail Lead and a consultant to San Antonio's VIA Metropolitan Transit, speaks during a VIA public meeting discussing San Antonio's modern streetcar plans this past July.

Kyle Keahey, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead and a consultant to San Antonio’s VIA Metropolitan Transit, speaks during a VIA public meeting discussing San Antonio’s modern streetcar plans this past July.

As this blog has been reporting, despite promises and assurances to local community leaders and activists who’ve been asking for bona fide public meetings to discuss local urban rail planning, Project Connect can’t seem to make one happen. Instead of real meetings, the Austin community has been offered “open houses”, which we’ve compared to “art galleries”, where people can walk through a room of “pretty pictures” (maps, charts, renderings, etc.), supposedly admiring and considering them and submitting comments or questions to the “guards” (planning personnel standing around). See: Back to “art galleries”! Project Connect reneges on community meetings and Meetings, “open houses”, workshops … and democratic process.

But while urban planners here in Austin haven’t been able to pull together a true public meeting, San Antonio has been holding real meetings — such as the one shown in the photo at the top of this post. And Kyle Keahey, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead, is also the lead rail planning consultant to San Antonio’s VIA Metropolitan Transit — and there he is, speaking to a San Antonio community meeting on urban rail!

San Antonio streetcar simulation. Graphic: VIA, from Rivard Report.

This was a meeting sponsored by VIA on 30 July 2013 at San Antonio’s Temple Beth-El to discuss the agency’s downtown modern streetcar project. According to a July 31st report in the San Antonio Express-News, “VIA officials gave more details about the possible streetcar routes, including two new ones ….” As the report noted, the two additional route alternatives “resulted from input from many directions — stakeholders along the route, movers-and-shakers and comment sheets from everyday citizens.” The paper also quotes VIA’s chief development officer’s assurance that “The process is to provide public input.”

And, in contrast to Austin, what has San Antonio got going for it — other than a far more realistic timeframe for decisionmaking, and an authentic official commitment to encouraging community participation?

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No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes…

18 October 2013
Ottawa's "BRT" Transitway delivers a "conga line" of buses onto urban streets. Photo: Errol McGhion.

Ottawa’s “BRT” Transitway delivers a “conga line” of buses onto urban streets. Photo: Errol McGhion.

by Dave Dobbs and Lyndon Henry

Which kind of transit — urban rail or buses in special lanes — do you want to see on Guadalupe-Lamar?

Not to decide is to decide.

It’s crucial that Austin’s first urban rail (starter) line be a whopping success. This means it must serve the heart of the city in its heaviest-traffic corridor, with its highest densities and employee and employment concentrations, and its most long-established neighborhoods. The Guadalupe-Lamar corridor offers the ideal alignment for an affordable, cost-effective surface light rail alignment.

It’s also important to understand that if we don’t get light rail transit (LRT) on Guadalupe and North Lamar, we most certainly will get dedicated bus lanes within the next 10 years. A major project to overhaul the corridor by installing infrastructure for battalions of MetroRapid buses is waiting in the wings if urban rail is not implemented. This alternative, not requiring a public vote, would produce a far less efficient, adequate, and attractive system, seriously degrade urban conditions, and result in a less livable environment compared with urban rail.

This package of so-called “Bus Rapid Transit” (“BRT”) projects — whereby MetroRapid buses would enter stretches of dedicated bus lanes, and then merge back and forth, into and out of mixed general traffic — was first raised publicly in a Project Connect/City of Austin Transportation Department presentation made in City Council chambers on 25 May 2012 to the CAMPO Transit Working Group (TWG). Shown below is page 10 of that presentation, with arrows pointing to the relevant information.

Excerpt from Project Connect presentation in May 2012 indicating planned $500 million package for MetroRapid "BRT" facilities, including Guadalupe-Lamar. Graphic: Project Connect.

Excerpt from Project Connect presentation in May 2012 indicating planned $500 million package for MetroRapid “BRT” facilities, including Guadalupe-Lamar. Graphic: Project Connect.

These dedicated lanes will be built with 80% federal money, will not require an election, will be vetted publicly only at art gallery-style “open houses”, and approved by boards and commissions, the Capital Metro Board, and the Austin City Council, and then they will be built, unless we implement urban rail in the Guadalupe-North Lamar corridor. And keep in mind that — unlike the current minimalist MetroRapid project — this level of hefty physical investment in roadway infrastructure will become a de facto obstacle to any future rail project in the corridor.

These dedicated bus lanes are the official plan as things currently stand.

There are numerous drawbacks with premium buses, and even “BRT”, compared with LRT. Just to cite a couple:

• LRT on average is significantly more cost-effective than bus operations.

• Buses don’t attract nearly as much ridership as LRT, but as ridership starts to reach higher volumes, bus traffic and overwhelming “conga lines” of buses cause more problems … plus more queues of riders start to slow operations.

Another bus "conga line" leaving downtown Brisbane, Australia to enter busway.

Brisbane, Australia: More “conga lines” of buses travel on reserved lanes between the city’s downtown and a busway. Photo: James Saunders.

If you would prefer urban rail instead of a major bus lane project in Guadalupe-Lamar, it’s essential to speak up and act. Let neighborhood groups and other community organizations know what official plans have in store for this corridor. Sign petitions being circulated to support urban rail on G-L. Communicate to Project Connect and members of Austin City Council that you want to ride urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, running in reserved tracks, not just a souped-up bus service weaving in and out of special lanes.

Houston's MetroRail demonstrates that LRT can attract and carry more passengers faster, more effectitly and safely, more cost-effectively than high-capacity bus operations. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

Houston’s MetroRail demonstrates that LRT can attract and carry more passengers faster, more effectively and safely, and more cost-effectively than high-capacity bus operations. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.