Archive for May, 2014

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Project Connect’s wasteful plan — Ultra-pricey urban rail “decoration” in the wrong route

17 May 2014
Lyndon Henry speaking to Central Corridor Advisory Group, 16 May 2014. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

Lyndon Henry speaking to Central Corridor Advisory Group, 16 May 2014. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to Project Connect’s Central Corridor Advisory Group on 16 May 2014. At the meeting, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey revealed the agency’s estimates and proposals regarding operating & maintenance costs, property valuation and tax revenue increases, funding, phasing issues, and “governance” (oversight and administration) the proposed 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion line connecting East Riverside (southeast) with the old Highland Mall site (north), currently under development as a new Austin Community College campus.

For months, Project Connect and Austin civic leaders have been considering subways, elevated lines, and other extravagant investments way out of scale for an urban rail starter line in a city of Austin’s size and density. The result is a $1.4 billion plan for urban rail linking a weak corridor, East Riverside, with a non-existent corridor, so-called “Highland”.

Meanwhile, Project Connect and the city’s leadership appear to have virtually abandoned the core neighborhoods, and heaviest local travel corridor, in the central city – Guadalupe-Lamar, where urban rail is desperately needed. The problem isn’t $1.4 billion for urban rail, it’s investing this money on what amounts to a very pricey decoration instead of addressing congestion with essential mobility.

At $119 million per mile in current dollars, Project Connect’s urban rail plan for Austin would be the third most costly light rail starter line in U.S. history, in terms of cost per mile. Compared with the previous Guadalupe-Lamar light rail project, planned until 2003, Project Connect’s plan costs 29% more than what that project would cost today, yet provides 35% less route length, and 47% fewer riders.

LEFT: Capital Metro 2000 urban rail plan included initial minimum operable segment (MOS) running 14.6 miles down Capital Metro railway, Lamar, and Guadalupe to CBD, plus 5.4 miles of extension down South Congress to Ben White and branch into East Austin. Total 20.0 miles surface route (with adaptation of existing river bridge) would cost $1.2 million in current dollars ($60 million/mile). RIGHT: Project Connect plan proposes a 9.5-mile route from East Riverside, crossing river on new "signature" bridge, proceeding through east side of CBD, East Campus, along Dean Keaton and Red River to Hancock Center, then into open cut and tunnel, then along Airport Blvd. into Highland site.  Total cost: $1.1 billion ($119 million/mile) in current dollars.

LEFT: Capital Metro 2000 urban rail plan included initial minimum operable segment (MOS) running 14.6 miles down Capital Metro railway, Lamar, and Guadalupe to CBD, plus 5.4 miles of extension down South Congress to Ben White and branch into East Austin. Total 20.0 miles of surface route (with adaptation of existing river bridge) would cost $1.2 million in current dollars ($60 million/mile). RIGHT: Project Connect plan proposes a 9.5-mile route from East Riverside, crossing river on new “signature” bridge, proceeding through east side of CBD, East Campus, along Dean Keaton and Red River to Hancock Center, then into open cut and tunnel, then along Airport Blvd. into Highland site. Total cost: $1.1 billion ($119 million/mile) in current dollars.

Stretching over 14 miles from McNeil along what’s now the MetroRail corridor, then down Lamar and Guadalupe to the CBD, that original starter line in today’s dollars would cost roughly $878 million, or about $60 million per mile, for 54% more miles of route. Ridership for 2025 was projected at 37,400 per day – 87% higher than the “high” 20,000 for Project Connect’s plan.

The next phase involved expanding into a larger 20-mile urban rail system for roughly $320 million more in today’s dollars, also amounting to about $60 million per mile. But that’s through the heart of central and south Austin, with over twice as much rail as Project Connect’s plan. By serving Austin’s highest-traffic, most populated, densest inner-city corridors, ridership was projected at 51,000 a day.

Project Connect and Austin’s leadership seem to have abandoned all thought of cost-effectiveness and seeking the best value for spending taxpayers’ money. Now they’re playing a game of magic tricks with operating-maintenance costs and dreams of a bonanza of real estate valuation increases.

But many Austin voters realize that lower ridership means higher operating subsidies from taxpayers. And while a tax rate increase is real, projections of future tax revenues are just projections — in other words, hopes and dreams.

Judging from Project Connect’s flawed, fairytale projections from last fall’s study process, Austin voters should view these hopes and dreams with strong skepticism.

Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant, is a technical consultant for the Light Rail Now Project, and a former board member and data analyst for Capital Metro. He also writes an online column for Railway Age magazine.
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Project Connect’s Austin urban rail would be 3rd-most-pricey LRT starter line in U.S. history

8 May 2014

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Project Connect’s urban rail plan for Austin, if implemented, at $119 million per mile in current dollars, would be the third most costly light rail transit (LRT) starter line in U.S. history, in terms of cost per mile.

That’s a conclusion Austin Rail Now draws from results emerging from a recent study posted on the Light Rail Now blog, plus other available data. The LRN study, reported in an article titled New U.S. light rail transit starter systems — Comparative total costs per mile, researched the cost per mile of a dozen new “heavy-duty” (as opposed to streetcar-type) LRT starter lines installed since 1990. In 2014 dollars, these range in investment cost from $26.8 million per mile (Baltimore, opened 1992) to $185.6 million per mile (Seattle, opened 2009).

Project Connect’s urban rail proposal

Project Connect revealed their proposal for urban rail (see map below) at a meeting of the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) on May 2nd. The 9.5-mile project comes with a pricetag of $1.13 billion in current dollars, escalating to $1.38 billion in Year of Expenditure (YOE) dollars by 2020, for a projected ridership in the range of 16,000-20,000 per day.

Project Connect's proposed line, criticized for avoiding Austin's central axis and most serious mobility needs, would run 9.5 miles from the Highland site (north) to a terminus on East Riverside (southeast). Map: Project Connect.

Project Connect’s proposed line, criticized for avoiding Austin’s central axis and most serious mobility needs, would run 9.5 miles from the Highland site (north) to a terminus on East Riverside (southeast). Map: Project Connect.

The proposal invites comparison with the plan for light rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor (see Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route). When compared, Project Connect’s $1.4 billion plan can be seen to cost 29% more than the previous Guadalupe-Lamar line would cost today, yet provide 35% less route length, and 47% fewer riders.

To finance such a plan through general obligation bonds, according to an April 29th Austin American Statesman report, Austin homeowners would face a substantial increase in property tax, estimated to range between $77 to $153 per year for a “typical” $200,000 home. That estimate was based on financing a $965 million project, about 85% of the actual size of the project now on the table.

Even if the Federal Transit Administration agrees to fund half the project cost, city officials and civic leaders are considering “bundling” the rail proposal with several hundred million dollars for additional road projects. The result could be a substantial 67% increase in Austin’s debt load per capita.

Urban rail cost comparison

At the May 2nd CCAG meeting, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey assured his audience that the investment cost of the 9.5-mile proposal was quite comparable with recent similar projects, particularly in cost per mile, with the chart shown below as evidence:

3_ARN_ProCon_LRT-cost-comparison

However, there’s a serious problem with this comparison — it compares the proposed starter line for Austin with extensions of these several well-established LRT systems, each of them contending with the much more difficult urban and terrain conditions that are typically avoided and deferred in the process of selecting routes for original starter systems. A far more valid cost comparison would evaluate the cost of starter system projects, thus offering better “apples-to-apples” cost equivalence.

That’s because, in designing a starter line — the first line of a brand-new system for a city — the usual practice is to maximize ridership while minimizing costs through avoiding more difficult design and construction challenges, often deferring these other corridors for later extensions. In this way, the new system can demonstrate sufficient ridership and other measures of performance sufficient to convince both local officials and the public that it’s a success from the standpoint of being a worthwhile investment. Thus, comparing the cost of Project Connect’s 9.5-mile project with that of similar U.S. starter lines enables a better evaluation of the Project Connect project in terms of transit industry Best Practices.

Placing the per-mile cost of Project Connect’s proposed line in the cost listing from the recent LRN study affords such a comparison, as shown in the chart below (click to enlarge).

4_ARN_Chart_US-LRT-starter-lines-cost-per-mi_rev2

It’s evident from this comparison that Project Connect’s proposed project for Austin would rank as the second most costly U.S. starter line, in cost per mile, since 1990.

But several of these starter lines benefited from the less challenging, lower-cost advantage of being installed in existing railway rights-of-way. Project Connect’s 9.5-mile line would use predominantly paved trackage embedded in existing streets and arterials. Of the new systems tabulated since 1990, only Houston and Phoenix feature comparable in-street alignments.

To evaluate cost in terms of type of type of alignment, Austin Rail Now has compared Project Connect’s proposed line with these other two systems. The results are displayed in the chart below (click to enlarge).

5_ARN_Chart_US-LRT-starter-lines-in-street-cost-per-mi

It’s clear that Project Connect’s proposed line is significantly more expensive, in cost per mile, than either of these similarly constructed in-street starter lines in considerably larger urban areas than Austin.

Finally, how would Project Connect’s urban rail plan rank among all U.S. LRT starter lines for totally new systems in the modern rail transit era? By far, the most expensive LRT project has been Buffalo’s 6.4-mile Metrorail line, constructed 81% in subway and opened in 1985. Based on a cost analysis prepared by Alan Hoback for the 2008 Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board, the cost of Buffalo’s starter line can be calculated as $228.9 million per mile in 2014 dollars.

Thus, Project Connect’s proposed line, in cost per mile among modern systems, would rank as the third most expensive light rail transit starter line in U.S. history. ■

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Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route

4 May 2014
Capital Metro's 2000 MOS (dashed line) and full Phase 1 light rail plan. Map: FTA.

Capital Metro’s 2000 MOS (dashed line) and full Phase 1 light rail plan. Map: FTA.

Throughout the debate over urban rail for Austin, and especially Project Connect’s self-styled “central corridor study”, transit advocates who’ve insisted that the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor offers a far better route alignment than the more easterly alignment preferred by Project Connect have emphasized the salient advantages of G-L — the core city’s heaviest local arterial traffic flow, vibrant and long-established commercial activity, numerous major activity centers, the very densely populated West Campus — as reasons for anticipating an extremely effective, affordable, and successful urban rail project in this corridor.

These expectations are supported in key official documents produced in the period 1999-2000. In addition, in a comparison of equivalent metrics with the Project Connect plan, the superiority of a Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail alignment is clear. Austin Rail Now is making these two critical documents available as PDF files linked in this posting:

Capital Metro – Annual Report on New Starts – Executive Summary (November 10,1999)

This important document was formerly available on Capital Metro’s website, but apparently has been removed. This PDF was created from a hardcopy in the possession of Lyndon Henry.

Federal Transit Administration – Austin Light Rail Corridors – Austin, Texas (November 1999)

This document no longer remains available as a webpage at the FTA’s site. For convenience, Austin Rail Now has posted a PDF on this site. (Note: This has been updated since original posting.)

Project Connect’s plan, at last revealed on May 2nd to a meeting of the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG), proposes an easterly alignment running about 9.5 miles from the Highland/Austin Community College site, through the East Campus of the University of Texas, through the east side of downtown, across the Colorado River, to Grove Blvd. on East Riverside Drive. The investment cost was estimated at about $1.4 billion (about $145 million per mile), yielding projected ridership of 16,000 to 20,000 per day (average weekday).

In contrast, the official documents cited above for Capital Metro’s 2000 light rail plan in the Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress (SoCo) corridor provide an authoritative basis for a comparison. Capital Metro’s proposal was sectioned into two parts — a shorter Minimum Operable Segment (MOS), running from McNeil Rd. in north Austin — using railway right of way (now used by today’s MetroRail), then Lamar-Guadalupe — to the CBD, and a full Phase 1 plan, which added a line down South Congress to Ben White, and another branch on Capital Metro’s railway right of way to Pleasant Valley Rd. (See map at top.)

Capital Metro's 2000 light rail plan envisioned urban rail running through the SoCo area. Simulation: Capital Metro.

Capital Metro’s 2000 light rail plan envisioned urban rail running through the SoCo area. Simulation: Capital Metro.

As you can see from the information in these documents, the 2000 route plan benefited from the heavy travel densities in these key central corridors, the plethora of major activity centers, and the higher population densities, especially in the West Campus area.

MOS (McNeil Rd. to CBD) — This 14.6-mile initial starter line segment was projected to cost $739.0 million in 2007 (Year of Expenditure) dollars. In 2014 dollars, this comes to roughly $878 million, or about $60 million per mile — about 41% of the per-mile cost of the Project Connect plan. That’s for about 54% more miles of route. Ridership for the forecast year (2025) was projected at 37,400 per day — 87% higher than Project Connect’s “high” estimate of 20,000 for their own plan.

Phase 1 (full MOS, East Austin, SoCo) — The full 20.0-mile Phase 1 plan carried a projected cost of $1,085.8 million in 2010 (YOE) dollars. In 2014 dollars, this tallies to about $1,198 million, or (again) about $60 million per mile and about 41% of the unit cost of the Project Connect plan. And that’s for more than double the route-mileage. Yet ridership for the 2025 forecast year was projected at 51,000 per day — over 2.5 times higher than Project Connect’s “high” estimate of 20,000.

Thus, as these documents reveal, for a dramatically lower cost per mile, and total cost, either the “starter line” MOS plan or the full Phase 1 plan centered on the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor delivered strikingly higher ridership, in comparison with the proposal offered by Project Connect and Austin’s current leadership. In other words, far more bang for the buck.

Why would Austin citizens want to invest in Project Connect’s plan, which costs so much more for so much less ridership? This question, and these comparisons, should be kept well in mind by both Austin decisionmakers and the public at large as they continue to ponder the Project Connect plan vs. alternatives for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. ■

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Project Connect’s urban rail plan “costs way too much to do too little”

3 May 2014
Map of Project Connect's urban rail proposal, as shown by KEYE-TV. Despite blurry image quality, the convoluted, meandering character of the route, well to the east of central Austin and its core axis, can be seen. Screenshot: L. Henry.

Map of Project Connect’s urban rail proposal, as shown by KEYE-TV. Despite blurry image quality, the convoluted, meandering character of the route, well to the east of central Austin and its core axis, can be seen. Screenshot: L. Henry.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to Project Connect’s Central Corridor Advisory Group on 2 May 2014. At the meeting, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey revealed the agency’s proposal for a 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion line connecting East Riverside (southeast) with the old Highland Mall site (north).

I’m Lyndon Henry. I’m a transportation planning consultant, and am considered among the strongest rail transit advocates in Austin. Since I originally launched the notion of urban rail for this region over four decades ago, I’ve consistently made the case for urban rail as a crucial mobility alternative for Austin’s heaviest traffic, plus other benefits such as better urban development patterns.

Urban rail’s primary focus is mobility, to provide some relief for congestion – not to just enhance the value of real estate development or be a decoration for other public projects. Unfortunately, Austin’s political and civic leadership have lost this essential focus, and the result is Project Connect’s seriously misguided plan. Austin voters should reject it.

Austin voters are being asked to authorize a billion-dollar investment for this convoluted adornment for real estate interests and proposed developments — a line that bypasses the heart of the city and slowly meanders nine miles, from the East Riverside “Apartment City” area, through the backwater East Campus, up to Hancock, then through a tunnel and into the old Highland site. How many Austinites are traveling such a route? Installing a second rail line parallel to MetroRail along Airport Blvd. just squanders more money.

Furthermore, a vote for Project Connect’s plan is very likely a vote to lock out any hope of rail on Guadalupe-Lamar — our heaviest travel corridor — and lock in the MetroRapid bus replacement — so-called “BRT”. Project Connect has hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of dedicated bus lanes and other infrastructure planned for this corridor that would block rail, possibly for decades.

By depleting available financial resources on tunnels and other lavishly expensive construction, this wasteful urban rail plan limits the more effective expansion of rail regionally. Tunnels and subway stations are options way out of scale for an urban rail starter line for Austin or virtually any city this size.

Voter rejection of this plan is the better option, because it opens the possibility for a return to planning a basic north-south rail spine along the central Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Project Connect’s plan costs way too much to do too little, and Austin deserves better. Voters can opt for a better plan by saying No on November 4th.

Kyle Keahey, Project Connect's Urban Rail Lead (bottom row, center) during presentation to CCAG. Top row, facing, left to right: CCAG leading members Bill Spelman (Austin City Council), John Langmore (Capital Metro), Maypor Lee Leffingwell, Sid Covington (Lone Star Rail). Photo: L. Henry.

Kyle Keahey, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead (bottom row, center) during presentation to CCAG. Top row, facing, left to right: CCAG leading members Bill Spelman (Austin City Council), John Langmore (Capital Metro), Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Sid Covington (Lone Star Rail). Photo: L. Henry.