Archive for January, 2014

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Baker: What’s behind the switch from urban rail to “BRT”?

24 January 2014
Roger Baker speaks to CAMPO committee, 14 Nov, 2011. Screengrab from YouTube video by Winter Patriot.

Roger Baker speaks to CAMPO committee, 14 Nov, 2011. Screengrab from YouTube video by Winter Patriot.

Under the leadership of Kyle Keahey, designated in early 2013 as Urban Rail Lead, Project Connect’s former “urban rail” planning has morphed into “high-capacity-transit” planning — apparently moving away from urban rail and toward embracing so-called “bus rapid transit” (“BRT”) as its new mode du jour. Represented by Capital Metro’s new MetroRapid bus operation, the newly favored “BRT” is in reality merely a version of ordinary limited-stop bus service modestly upgraded with extra features like traffic signal prioritization, nicer stops, nicer and larger buses with amenities like Wi-Fi … but it’s not rapid transit. (And may even represent an overall degradation of service in the corridor.) See: Why MetroRapid bus service is NOT “bus rapid transit”.
In this commentary, Roger Baker provides a perspective of background and analysis helping explain why Project Connect, the City of Austin, and Capital Metro seem to be now leading Austin’s rail planning way off the rails and not merely into a ditch, but over a cliff.

By Roger Baker

Austin has persistently lacked a strong progressive populist voice, like a crusading newspaper, willing to dig in and take sides against the prevailing business interests. Even though Austin is liberal compared to Texas, we have an unprincipled Democratic mayor willing to make Toronto’s discredited right-wing mayor Rob Ford an honorary citizen, and equally willing to cut sleazy deals with local business interests tied to certain favorite rail alignments and other official projects.

At the top of state politics, we have Gov. Rick Perry’s climate change deniers and transportation cronies running TxDOT, trying to attract cheap-labor jobs, and to maintain profitable suburban sprawl development, which is creating huge budget shortfalls at TxDOT.

The proceeds from land development as usual are disappearing into the Hip Pocket National Bank.

If we had adult supervision and rational enforcement of sound transit planning on the federal level, coming from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA), we might be in good shape. But what mid-level federal officials are willing to lose their jobs by crossing the Republicans who run our state for the benefit of the landed gentry?

Austin is also facing a water crisis, likely even more serious than California’s, since Austin’s water comes from now bone dry West Texas. Our daily paper has admitted that we face a water crisis, but without ever mentioning global warming or climate change.

Given all this, special-interest-oriented light rail planning tends to prevail, and the public doesn’t have easy media access to good analysis of rail corridor alternatives.

A likely reason that Austin transportation planners are now redirecting their focus toward BRT instead of rail, is that the special interests involved have run voter polls and see that an urban rail election (required to approve local bond funding) is likely to fail, and they are hedging their bets. Five years from now maybe average folks will get frustrated enough with Austin’s already severe congestion to be broadly supportive of rail, but for now an election might not succeed. Also, our rail-hating opponents are aligned with the Texas road lobby who want roads to complement the current Austin growth boom.

Our six-county MPO, CAMPO, is doing a $32 billion transportation plan that would put 70% of our year 2040 population growth (supposedly doubled by then) in the five counties ringing Travis County, the county which includes Austin. This is like a prescription for an extreme suburban sprawl land use future, which by its nature is road-dependent low-density development that can’t be served efficiently by transit.

This plan can’t work, but the idea is to get federal approval to channel our shrinking fuel tax revenues toward roads to serve sprawl development, before the shortcomings become apparent.

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City-funded 2008 Downtown Austin Plan explained why urban rail better choice than bus

23 January 2014
Back in 2008, City of Austin hired Roma Design Group as lead consultant to design urban rail starter system plan and promote benefits of light rail over bus services. PPT title page screenshot: L. Henry.

Back in 2008, City of Austin hired Roma Design Group as lead consultant to design urban rail starter system plan and promote benefits of light rail over bus services. PPT title page screenshot: L. Henry.

Are Project Connect, the City of Austin (COA), and Capital Metro all starting to get cold feet over advancing an urban rail project?

The first suggestion of this came a few months back, as Project Connect’s Urban Rail Project (with Kyle Keahey designated the Urban Rail Lead) morphed into a so-called “High-Capacity Transit” project.

Then, more recently, there have been more frequent and persistent hints and hedging statements by local officials and transit planners referring to vague “high-capacity transit” … plus a sudden, more emphatic shift into extolling the bountiful benefits of so-called “bus rapid transit” (“BRT”). And now there are all these sudden cautions from various City and Project Connect personnel that maybe, possibly, urban rail may be off the table for much of the “East Riverside to Highland” route now in official favor.

Particularly significant is the intensified emphasis with which Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead (should he now be re-designated “High-Capacity Transit Lead”?) Kyle Keahey — and Mayor Lee Leffingwell — have been suddenly brandishing “BRT” (as applied to the rather mundane MetroRapid upgraded-bus service) as an exciting “high-capacity transit” possibility for East Riverside and even the so-called “Highland” route. Along with this, there’s been repeated lecturing to Central Austin neighborhoods along the West Campus-Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as to how fortunate they are to have the MetroRapid service.

And of this all in the context of recent revelations that Urban Rail Lead Keahey has, on record, apparently favored “BRT” over rail transit for at least several years. See: Kyle Keahey, Urban Rail Lead, hypes “BRT” as “more affordable…more flexible investment” than rail.

This sudden switch, from the promotion of rail over the past eight years, to disparaging rail and exalting bus transit, stands in stark contrast to arguments repeatedly presented in City-sponsored presentations for most of the past decade. This case for rail per previous policy is exemplified in a 24 July 2008 Austin City council briefing under the Downtown Austin Plan (DAP) delivered by a consultant team under contract to the City, led by ROMA Design Group in a consortium also including LTK Engineering, Kimley-Horn, HDR/WHM, Studio 8, CMR, HR&A, and Group Solutions.

The PPT presentation, titled “Why Rail, and How Can it Work in Austin?” not only explained the background of the DAP and the team’s latest findings, but also addressed the usual questions over why the team were recommending a rail transit system (envisioned as a streetcar at that point) plus how and why it would be superior to simply running bus service.

In the second major section of the presentation, “Why Rail, and How Can it Work in Austin?” this case is made in a slide headed “Passengers prefer rail because of increased comfort and greater capacity.” As you can see in the screenshot below, the ROMA team noted that rail transit has shown a “Proven increase in ridership over bus-only cities”, has influenced the “Most significant decrease in automobile trips and parking”, is associated with a “Reduction in operating cost per passenger”, and is “More sustainable”, and in addition, “Fixed routes influence land use patterns and promote density” and are “Best suited to corridors where destinations are concentrated”.

Screenshot of slide from ROMA team's Austin City Council briefing.

Screenshot of slide from ROMA team’s Austin City Council briefing.

These same arguments, disseminated by City and Project Connect representatives in many community presentations over the intervening years, are now abruptly being discarded as official planners have apparently begun to distance themselves from urban rail.

The ROMA team’s PPT presentation unfortunately is no longer available on the City’s website, but we’ve uploaded it and you can access the full version here:

Why Rail, and How Can it Work in Austin?

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Kyle Keahey, Urban Rail Lead, hypes “BRT” as “more affordable…more flexible investment” than rail

20 January 2014
Kyle Keahey promoting "high-capacity transit" route selected by Project Connect, Nov. 2013. Photo: YouTube screengrab.

Kyle Keahey promoting “high-capacity transit” route selected by Project Connect, Nov. 2013. Photo: YouTube screengrab.

Perhaps Kyle Keahey, Project Connect’s designated Urban Rail Lead, might better qualify as “Urban Bus Lead”?

It turns out that, for some time, Keahey and his consulting firm HNTB have been blowing the horn of the “back to buses” movement. In HNTB “white papers” (for which he’s listed as a “resource” and apparent co-author), Keahey enthusiastically disparages rail transit and promotes “bus rapid transit” (BRT) as purportedly “Faster to implement, less expensive than rail” and a “more affordable … more flexible investment.”

Title page of Kyle Keahey's 2011 HNTB paper on BRT (PDF version).

Title page of Kyle Keahey’s 2010 HNTB paper on BRT (PDF version).

These arguments are very similar, even in wording, to the attacks on rail transit — especially light rail transit (LRT) — from major rail opponents such as Randal O’Toole and Wendell Cox. See: Rail Public Transport Opponents. It should also be noted that Keahey’s BRT “white papers” aren’t just informational, they’re promotional — hyping the supposed superiority of upgraded bus services over rail transit.

As is typical with so many forays in rail-bashing, the fallacy starts with a sleight-of-hand trick over the basic concept of what, exactly, BRT is. According to Keahey & Co., “BRT” can apply to almost any bus service above an ordinary local operation: “The term bus rapid transit actually covers a broad array of applications, ranging from enhanced bus service on arterial streets to operations on exclusive bus-only roadways and other dedicated rights-of-way….”

In effect, cosmetically enhanced ordinary limited-stop bus service (which might more accurately be called “bus upgraded transit”) is conceptually re-branded as “bus rapid transit”. This verbal legerdemain allows the practitioner to portray visions of relatively rapid buses on exclusive paveways and rapid-transit-style stations while simultaneously touting the much lower costs and faster implementation times of moderately upgraded limited-stop buses, running in mixed general traffic, with cheap bus stops conventionally located at curbside. See: Why MetroRapid bus service is NOT “bus rapid transit”.

Capital Metro MetroRapid bus in test operation on North Lamar, Dec. 2010. Photo: L. Henry.

Capital Metro MetroRapid bus in test operation on North Lamar, Dec. 2013. Photo: L. Henry.

Keahey’s bait-and-switch tactics are exemplified in a 2010 HNTB paper, titled A new take on an old standard — The changing image of bus rapid transit, which claims that “For the commuter, BRT is similar to rail in its ability to provide predictable scheduling, clear and simple routing and speed” … and then steps up the attack in a section sub-headed “Faster to implement, less expensive than rail”:

Compared to rail-based systems such as traditional commuter and light rail, BRT can be implemented more rapidly. It often takes just two to four years to implement a BRT line versus the seven to ten or more years it takes to implement a rail transit system. …

In addition to being faster to implement and more affordable, BRT is a more flexible investment. Without having to place rails in the streets or develop infrastructure for overhead power, routes can be moved when traffic or economic development patterns change.

Finally, BRT does not require large capital improvements beyond stations and signage versus the significant capital investment of a fixed-rail system.

Snippet from Kyle Keahey's 2011 HNTB paper promoting BRT over rail transit (webpage version).

Snippet from Kyle Keahey’s 2010 HNTB paper promoting BRT over rail transit (webpage version).

These themes are further elaborated in a more recent (January 2014) HNTB paper, titled How buses are becoming “cool” again, in which Keahey (listed among other HNTB “resource contacts”) mounts a number of arguments for eschewing rail in favor of an upgraded bus-based system, “An affordable alternative to fixed-guideway, rail-based systems” which “combines the flexibility and cost savings of buses with the efficiency, speed, reliability and amenities of a rail system – often without the expense of adding significant infrastructure.”

“By choosing BRT over rail,” claims Keahey’s paper, transit agencies can achieve a number of advantages. Furthermore, “BRT system capital costs are a fraction of the cost of a rail-based system and can be implemented in a fraction of the time.” Thus, “many cash-strapped municipalities will be more likely to seriously consider BRT.”

Snippet from Kyle Keahey's 2014 HNTB paper promoting BRT over rail transit (webpage version).

Snippet from Kyle Keahey’s 2014 HNTB paper promoting BRT over rail transit (webpage version).

These kinds of claims and arguments, long disseminated by rail adversaries claiming “BRT” is “just like rail, but cheaper”, have consistently been exposed as exercises that are dubious at best and generally fraudulent, playing fast and loose with facts.

Buses running in limited-stop and express mode, even with spiffied-up stations, have been around since the 1930s (when General Motors first branded them as “bus rapid transit”). If they’re “as good as rail, but cheaper”, why are so many cities, in the USA, North America, and around the globe, hustling to install new light rail transit (LRT) and other rail transit lines? Here are some issues to consider that are typically ignored by “BRT” promoters:

Actual rapid-transit-style BRT typically has capital costs that equal or exceed those of LRT, and tend to be significantly higher when annualized, with lower bus system lifecycle costs factored in.

Bus operating & maintenance (O&M) costs tend to be higher than those of rail transit. Thus, cities that operate both rail and bus transit have on average lower total costs per passenger-mile than cities operating only buses.

• LRT systems have demonstrated significantly greater success than BRT and “bus upgraded transit” systems in attracting and retaining ridership.

• Electric LRT is not dependent on increasingly expensive petroleum fuels, and produces fewer carbon emissions per passenger-mile than buses.

• LRT continues to have significantly greater influence in attracting transit-oriented development than bus-based alternatives.

• LRT excels in supporting urban livability and a pedestrian-friendly, bike-friendly urban environment.

Phoenix light rail transit (LRT, left); Los Angeles Orange Line “bus rapid transit” (BRT, right). Photos: L. Henry.

Phoenix light rail transit (LRT, left); Los Angeles Orange Line “bus rapid transit” (BRT, right). Photos: L. Henry.

The following analyses provide data and further information:

Comparative examination of New Start light rail transit, light railway, and bus rapid transit services opened from 2000

Research study: New LRT projects beat BRT

Research: BRT can truly be pricier than LRT

Study: LRT ridership gains are spectacular

Evaluating New Start Transit Program Performance: Comparing Rail And Bus

Rail Transit vs. “Bus Rapid Transit”: Comparative Success and Potential in Attracting Ridership

“Free” buses vs. “expensive” rail?

“Bus Rapid Transit” Analyses and Articles

Energy Efficiency of Light Rail Versus Motor Vehicles

But while all this back-and-forth over BRT vs. LRT certainly is an important debate within the transit industry, let’s conclude by returning to the main focus, and a controversy that raises two critical questions:

• Why has an individual who clearly believes that upgraded bus services are a better alternative to rail transit been selected as Urban Rail Lead and placed in charge of Austin’s major urban rail study?

• Did this disdain for rail, and preference for bus operations, play any role in leading Project Connect’s rail study away from a fair, impartial, and technically accurate evaluation of Guadalupe-Lamar, the city’s overall highest-performing and best travel corridor?

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University Area Partners’ endorsement of Guadalupe-Lamar corridor underscores West Campus support for “backbone” urban rail

13 January 2014
West Campus neighborhood, primarily represented by University Area Partners. Map: The Galileo, rev. by ARN.

West Campus neighborhood, primarily represented by University Area Partners. Map: The Galileo, rev. by ARN.

Back in November, in the midst of all the uproar over problems with Project Connect’s “Central Corridor” study and forthcoming route “recommendation”, this blog missed reporting that yet another major neighborhood association had jumped on board the effort to designate the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor as the preferred starter-line route for urban rail (light rail transit).

On Nov. 12th, the University Area Partners (UAP) neighborhood association voted to express its belief “that any first investment in light rail must serve as an expandable backbone of rapid transit, and such an alignment is most suited along North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe Street and terminated at or near the North Lamar Transit Center ….”

The University Area Partners is a neighborhood organization representing business, institutions, and property owners in the University of Texas area, encompassing most of West Campus, UT-Austin, and The Drag area.

According to UAP member John Lawler, reasons the UAP board decided to support the G-L alignment include:

• Prioritizing urban rail along the G/L corridor would better serve the steadily growing and already dense West Campus neighborhood
• UAP wants to support the UT Student Government position, as students are the primary residents in the area
• CANPAC, the planning area UAP is an original member of, has endorsed the plan
• BRT is not a solution for the Drag’s traffic congestion and the neighborhood has repeatedly encouraged rail development for the past several decades

The endorsement of this influential neighborhood organization is especially important because, in terms of residential density, the West Campus ranks as the third or fourth-highest neighborhood among major Texas cities.

Yet, while Project Connect’s recent “Central Corridor” study used the metrics of Guadalupe and the West Campus area in its justification and analysis, its proposed “sub-corridor” configuration would effectively bypass this crucial area, instead planning an alignment on San Jacinto, one-half to three-quarters of a mile east of the Drag and West Campus neighborhood.

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Here’s what a REAL urban rail public involvement planning meeting looks like

10 January 2014
Minneapolis-area community meeting on proposed Southwest light rail project. Photo: Karen Boros.

Minneapolis-area community meeting on proposed Southwest light rail project. Photo: Karen Boros.

While Project Connect has been doubling down in its determination to squelch true public involvement (and substituting a process of rigidly controlled public manipulation portrayed as “community input”), a recent community meeting in the Minneapolis area gives an idea of what bona fide public involvement should look like (see lead photo, above).

The focus was the Southwest Light Rail Transit plan proposed by Minneapolis’s Metropolitan Council. About 14 miles long, connecting downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul with the suburban community of Eden Prairie, the line would be (after the Central Corridor project now under way) the next major extension of the metro area’s highly successful Hiawatha light rail line (named after a major highway corridor it uses for much of its route).

On January 8th, as reported by an article in the mostly online MinnPost, over 200 people filled the gym of a large recreation center (as shown above) to discuss and debate the project. Unlike Project Connect’s charade of “public participation” (where “meetings” consist of either personal one-on-one conversations with official representatives, or “opportunities” to approve predetermined choices with clickers), the Minneapolis event provides an example of a real community meeting, where participants were actually able to ask questions, voice comments, raise alternative approaches, and maybe come up with ideas and options the official planners hadn’t considered.

That’s the kind of robust community involvement process that in the past was typical here in Austin, until roughly a decade ago.

Project Connect, keeping its advisory committees in a kind of bell jar, and keeping itself in a virtual underground bunker, isolated from authentic public oversight, has been making extremely dubious decisions — including rigging a phony “Central Corridor” plan for “high-capacity transit” based in part on fantasy data.

In continuing to isolate and insulate itself from bona fide community involvement and oversight, it’s highly likely that Project Connect will continue to fashion plans that ignore authentic community needs, misplace resources, and squander taxpayers’ money. Provoking public disgust and anger — even among strong public transportation supporters — is surely not a prudent strategy for building a voting constituency for major rail transit projects.

“Stakeholders” cannot feel they have much “stake” when they’re excluded and manipulated. Will some members within Austin’s civic leadership have the strength and fortitude to recognize this, and demand an open, fully democratic, and authentic community involvement process?

Revision: 2014/01/12 — The second paragraph of this posting has been revised to clarify information about Minneapolis’s proposed Southwest light rail project.