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.


  1. Yes, the FTA argument is one of those designed to shut down serious debate. Thanks for addressing this issue.

    But if we factor FTA funding out of it, isn’t there still an obvious issue of overlapping service? There certainly is demonstrable demand in the G-L corridor, but if we take it as a given that MetroRapid and other fixed route buses will meet much of that demand, doesn’t it make the arguments for rail on that same corridor less compelling? No matter which alignment we favor, we need to address this elephant in the room head on.

  2. Roger, leaving aside the issue of FTA funding, per your assumption, it’s unlikely there would be “overlapping” service in the sense of MetroRapid continuing to operate in the same service corridor as urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar. A rational realignment of service might continue MetroRapid north of the northernmost terminus of urban rail (perhaps Crestview or US 183), but continuing to “overlap” MetroRapid with urban rail would seem wasteful.

    However, implicit in your comment is the question: Why isn’t MetroRapid just as good as urban rail (i.e., light rail transit, LRT) and thus a substitute for it? Short of a very long comprehensive digression on the merits of rail over “premium bus”, there are several points to bear in mind that are factually demonstrable:

    (1) Bus services simply don’t attract the same level of ridership as LRT.

    (2) Where bus services do carry large volumes of passengers, seemingly comparable to rail, they tend to do so at higher ongoing costs.

    (3) Likewise, high-capacity bus services render environmental impacts that tend to be deleterious to livable urban neighborhoods (e.g., the long bus queues and other problems).

    (4) Bus services are typically less effective in accommodating certain sectors of ridership (e.g., wheelchair passengers, cyclists) compared with rail.

    (5) Even Premium Bus Transit — for that matter, “Bus Rapid Transit” on totally exclusive guideways — has not demonstrated the same strong degree of attraction to adjacent development (e.g., TOD) as rail systems.

    (6) Bus services are still overwhelmingly dependent on petroleum-based fuel, and thus are not as effective as electric rail transit in addressing problems of Peak Oil (and diminishing cheap oil availability) and GHGs.

    Those are some of the most pre-eminent arguments in the case for rail. But why does this case need to be made all over again? Hasn’t the City and its allies been making this case for a number of years in regard to the need for … first, a “circulator system” (streetcar), which then morphed into a full-fledged LRT system — with respect to the route to Mueller and then the East Riverside line?

    Curiously, it’s mainly supporters of those official plans (now on de facto hold) that have started raising the “bus is just as good as rail” argument all over again, but this time directed at Guadalupe-Lamar. I’m presuming those are the kinds of arguments you’re hearing.

    — ARN editor

  3. Thanks. I wasn’t questioning the merits of rail over buses. I’m just wondering about the “overlap” question.

    You’re suggesting that one solution is to replace the MetroRapid service with the alignment of urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, initially terminating, perhaps, at Crestview or US 183. But wouldn’t that arrangement work to the detriment of passengers traveling far north to far south, or far south to far north? It would necessitate a transfer instead of a single, uninterrupted ride on MetroRapid.

    Regardless of how the mix of rail and bus service would look were urban rail present on Guadalupe-Lamar, the central corridor evaluation process hasn’t confronted these questions and hasn’t incorporated any assumptions in the evaluation criteria. Unspoken assumptions are biasing almost everyone’s discussion of evaluation criteria. We need to make those assumptions explicit and discuss them more transparently.

    • Roger, I hate to see you falling for the MetroRapid Kool-Aid here; especially with weak arguments like these. There’s virtually no far north to far south travel on this corridor (Cap Metro uses this imaginary trip to make MetroRapid look better than the 101, but essentially nobody ever goes that way).

      • Mike, I’m just asking questions so they get answers.

        If we’re for an transparent, data-driven process, we should make sure the data regarding the number of far north to far south trips is readily available. I myself don’t know the numbers.

        In any case, far north to far south trips (and vice versa) are the extreme cases. Far north to downtown (and back) or far south to downtown (and back) are other important cases. In those cases as well, eliminating MetroRapid and 101 in the corridor would seem to force passengers to make transfers or use regular fixed route buses the whole way.

        Overlapping service wouldn’t necessarily be a big problem. But let’s acknowledge the circumstances under which it would occur, factor it into the evaluation criteria to the extent it makes sense to do so, and evaluate what we would do about it.

      • Roger, ONE transfer from bus to rail each way is not an extreme change – it’s very typical for a corridor which gets rail, actually. As long as the rail hits a large enough chunk of the corridor that the transfer is ‘worth it’, it’s fine.

  4. Roger, I don’t have time for a really thorough response, but I’ll note that Route #1L/1M (local) service would probably still be maintained from end to end, so this would provide an option for a “seamless” trip (South Congress to far North Lamar) such as you describe.

    — ARN editor

    • I wish more people were having this discussion about the relationship between bus and rail service on Guadalupe and Lamar.

      For north-south commuters traveling long distances, the local 1L/1M will offer significantly longer travel times than MetroRapid.

      Thus replacing MetroRapid service with the initial alignment of rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would either force many north-south passengers to transfer, or to experience longer travel times on local 1L/1M buses. Neither of these consequences would necessarily be a fatal flaw, but they should be part of the dialog.

      Again, I’m not arguing against the Guadalupe-Lamar rail alignment, but we need to be transparent and thoughtful about the implications and how to deal with them.

  5. Roger, you continue to make some excellent points, and I and the Austin Rail Now group strongly agree with you that transit advocates and planners must be transparent, mindful, and upfront about the impacts of major transit changes.

    It’s important to recognize that almost any major changes to transit routes and services will have positive impacts for some passengers and adverse impacts for others. This certainly applies to bus services as well as rail startups and extensions.

    For example, major changes to Capital Metro’s services have had such impacts. Opening the South Congress Transit Center just a few years ago, for example, added a couple of minutes to travel time from the southern terminus to downtown, as buses have had to access the new center en route.

    The #10 S. First route inconvenienced a lot of people when its southern turnaround on William Cannon-Woodhue was eliminated and the route was extended all the way south on S. First to Slaughter to interline with the #3 Manchaca. Obviously, winners and losers with that change.

    Convenient access by the #3 route on N. Lamar was eliminated when the #3 was re-routed at W. 29th St. to turn into Guadalupe and run north to W. 38th St. Access by the #3 to the Senior Activity Center (at 29th/Lamar) was lost, eliminating service by this major route to this facility which serves a clientele particularly in need of public transit. (Service by the #338 route is still maintained on Lamar.)

    It’s been reported that Capital Metro plans to replace the #3 on Manchaca with the forthcoming #803 MetroRapid bus, which is planned to terminate at Westgate Mall. Service on the former #3 route south would be provided by a connector route, thus requiring a transfer for what was once a through journey to downtown or other points north of that general point near Manchaca Rd. (I don’t know for certain if this route overhaul is still planned.)

    I’m sure there are many other examples. The point is that service improvements often do involve major route changes that incur inconveniences for some passengers and new benefits for others. That will also be true as urban rail is implemented in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor (and, hopefully, eventually further south on S. Congress). Your point that we all should be honest and forthright about these issues is well taken.

    — ARN editor

  6. […] • Why the MetroRapid bus project currently is NOT an obstacle to urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar […]

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