As this blog has been warning, there’s substantial evidence that the Project Connect consortium has plans in mind for major investments in bus infrastructure for the MetroRapid bus routes, including Guadalupe-Lamar — infrastructure that would have the effect of a de facto barrier to installing urban rail.
From various recent statements by local officials, Project Connect personnel, and supporters of their current Highland-Riverside urban rail plan, it also seems likely that such a so-called “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT) infrastructure program for Guadalupe-Lamar would be initiated if their rail proposal receives public approval. Thus, our predictive analysis that “a vote for Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside urban rail project is a vote for a bus project on Guadalupe Lamar.” In effect, this is the Elephant in the Road shadowing all the debate over Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal.
Context of cumulative evidence
The evidence for this is hard to miss. For example:
• Project Connect’s stated plans — As our article No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes… has previously reported, in a PowerPoint presentation to the 25 May 2012 meeting of the Transit Working Group (TWG), the Project Connect team envisioned a “Preferred System Phase 1” program of projects, to be implemented within “0 to 10 years”, that included $500 million (2012 dollars) targeted for the MetroRapid “BRT” system then under development in four major corridors (and now in operation in the Guadalupe-Lamar and South Congress corridors). This half-billion-dollar investment would include covering the “Cost of 40%-50% dedicated lanes”.
This was proposed in the context of Project Connect’s plan for urban rail (aka light rail transit, LRT) to serve UT’s East Campus, Red River, and Hancock Center, and at that time, the Mueller site … plus a clear rejection of proposals by Lyndon Henry, Dave Dobbs, Andrew Clements, and others that the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor had far more potential for an urban rail starter line. (The line to Mueller has, at least for now, been replaced by a proposed line to the former Highland Mall site.) So, in effect, even then, Project Connect envisioned a somewhat beefed-up, more heavily invested version of what they called “BRT” as the mode of “high-capacity transit” planned for Guadalupe-Lamar well into the future.
• Framing MetroRapid as an obstacle — Starting in the spring of 2012, Project Connect representatives and members of the Transit Working Group began portraying the Small Starts MetroRapid project as a “bus rapid transit” replacement for urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar, and thus an obstacle to any urban rail alternative in the corridor. Moreover, it was hinted that any effort to switch from MetroRapid to urban rail would sour Austin’s relationship with the FTA and jeopardize future funding for any projects of any mode in the Austin area.
Supporters of urban rail for the G-L corridor have responded that not only was the FTA investment — and the project itself — very minimal, but MetroRapid was originally intended, and should be regarded as, a precursor to urban rail in the corridor, not a barrier. See:
Nevertheless, in the spring of 2012, national transportation legal and policy consultant Jeff Boothe was hired by the city to reinforce the offical argument. In various public statements, including a presentation to a City Council work session on 22 May 2012, Boothe claimed that the minimalist Small Starts MetroRapid bus service would pose a daunting barrier to urban rail on Guadalupe and Lamar for decades. Asked by Councilman Bill Spelman how long this supposedly “BRT” operation would need to run in the corridor before urban rail could be substituted, Booth claimed “At least a minimum of 20 years. . . .That is FTA’s expectation.” (This assertion has subsequently been debunked; see, for example, Contradicting local official claims, FTA says it “would consider request” for urban rail on North Lamar.)
This theme continued in the fall of 2013 as Project Connect representatives Kyle Keahey, Linda Watson, and others portrayed the MetroRapid project as an obstacle, particularly citing the FTA’s “commitment” to “BRT” in this corridor. During the crucial final decisions by the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) and Austin City Council leading to an endorsement of Project Connect’s “Highland-Riverside” recommendation, the same argument was repeatedly brandished prominently by public officials such as Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Councilman Bill Spelman, Capital Metro Chairman Mike Martinez, and Capital Metro board member John Langmore as a compelling reason to rule out urban rail for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.
While these specious claims of the “permanence” of “BRT” in this corridor, and the supposed intransigence of the FTA, in themselves don’t explicitly include detailed plans to install a G-L “BRT” infrastructure, they certainly bolster a strong suspicion of intent to proceed with the $500 million program already announced by Project Connect.
• Public statements — Not only have officials, Project Connect representatives, and supporters of their program made it clear that they see MetroRapid “BRT” as the “rapid transit” system “permanently” allocated to Guadalupe-Lamar, but Project Connect representatives have also indicated intent to install more substantial infrastructure for this operation. For example, at a Project Connect “Data Dig” on 3 December 2013, team representatives acknowledged that MetroRapid, running almost entirely in mixed traffic, fell short of “rapid transit”. In response, Project Connect staff assured participants that “dedicated lanes” were among the measures being considered to speed MetroRapid buses in the corridor.
In the context of a proposed $500 million “dedicated lane” program, it’s extremely unlikely that mere paint-striping of transit lanes is what’s under consideration here. Technical issues of operational needs, safety, and other factors, plus “Best Practices” in the industry, all strongly point to a much more robust infrastructure investment than mere paint-striping to render a safe, efficient dedicated-lane facility.
And in the context of repeated affirmations of “commitment” to “BRT” in the G-L corridor, it’s entirely reasonable to expect that any further MetroRapid-related investments — even paint-striped lanes — would be regarded as a further reinforcement of the “permanence” of “BRT” in this corridor.
• “North Corridor BRT” integration — Project Connect has concocted a “regional” plan for the so-called “North Corridor” (in effect, a vast sector with multiple travel corridors located north of the core city) that consists almost entirely of bus operations, including “BRT”. In various presentations, Project Connect representatives such as Kyle Keahey have indicated that this “North Corridor BRT” system would connect neatly with “high-capacity transit” in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.
While no explicit proposals for specific facilities have been presented publicly, it seems reasonable to infer that, within the previously described context, this plan for a northern “BRT” connection would encourage and bolster the “Preferred System Phase 1” vision for “40%-50% dedicated lanes” in the G-L corridor.
Concrete vs. painted lanes
But if merely paint-striping reserved lanes on Lavaca and Guadalupe Streets downtown is adequate there, why can’t this be applied north of downtown, through the Drag, and on north, up Guadalupe and North Lamar?
The answer is that there’s a qualitative difference between separating slower-moving, congested downtown street traffic from bus lanes, and separating dedicated lanes designed for buses traveling 35-45 mph. As we’ve already noted, operational features (such as providing for general traffic turning movements), right-of-way constraints, and safety considerations virtually mandate much “more robust” — and thus expensive — facilities, not just striped-off lanes. In addition, heavy bus use typically requires construction of reinforced paveways for the running lanes.
All that implies pouring concrete and asphalt, not just brushing stripes with paint. And as we’ve also noted, given recent history, virtually any further capital improvements — no matter how minimal — for MetroRapid will be used to reinforce the contentions of a faction of Austin’s civic leadership that MetroRapid is too “permanent” to be relocated to permit the installation of urban rail.
“BRT” funding and implementation options
Some skeptics question how Project Connect’s $500 million project for partially “dedicated lanes” on Guadalupe and Lamar would be funded and implemented. Austin Rail Now suggests it would probably be done incrementally, perhaps in route segments, rather than implemented as a single large program. And, besides possible right-of-way acquisition, it might involve an array of bus-traffic-related measures, from demarcated and reinforced running lanes, fully new paveways, reversible center bus lanes, queue-jumper lanes, and other options. But in any case, it would involve a substantial overhaul of these major arterials.
FTA Section 5307 or 5309 funds might cover 80%, with the local 20% share coming perhaps from a variety of sources, such as the quarter-cent contractual transfer from Capital Metro to the City of Austin (COA); COA funds possibly remaining for non-specific mobility improvements in North Lamar and Guadalupe; and even COA’s ongoing public works maintenance budget. Project segments and funding allocations could be added to CAMPO’s annual Transportation Improvement Program as Project Connect is ready to proceed with them.
However the details might materialize, Austin Rail Now is convinced that the preponderance of the evidence overwhelmingly points to desires and intentions on the part of the city administration and Project Connect to pursue this kind of massive program to “permanentize” MetroRapid “BRT” facilities in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — and that these facilities would effectively reinforce official contentions that urban rail is blocked as an option. Thus, we underscore our warning that a vote for Project Connect’s urban rail plan is also a vote to institute major bus infrastructure as an impediment to urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar. ■