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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