While Project Connect’s disastrously flawed Highland-Riverside “urban rail” plan recedes into history — decisively rejected by voters on Nov. 4th — community support for a sensible, workable, affordable light rail transit (LRT) plan continues. For example, see:
As this website reported in a “post-mortem” analysis posted a day after the Nov. 4th rail vote, “…it’s clear that Austin is basically a very pro-rail city. Widespread community sentiment for urban rail — much of it for just about any rail line, anywhere — was palpably strong.”
The Highland-Riverside plan may be dead, but the campaign for a Guadalupe-Lamar light rail starter line is firing up. Light rail in this heavily traveled, high-density central corridor can become the basic spine of a far more effective and truly extensive urban rail system in the future for the city.
There’s already a strong constituency and base of support for light rail transit (LRT) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.
Ironically, part of the evidence of community support for rail comes from the Nov. 4th election results themselves. While a majority voted to defeat the Highland-Riverside plan on the ballot, a tally of precincts suggests strong pro-rail sentiment in the heart of the city. This is shown in an interactive election results map provided by Travis County, illustrating precinct-by-precinct vote preponderance, with pro-rail sentiment indicated as light blue (or turquoise) and opposition to the measure as lavender or purple (screenshot below).
Although the central pro-rail precincts (blue in the above map) seem surrounded by a sea of precincts against the measure, it’s important to realize that those central precincts include some of the densest and most populous in the city. An analysis by veteran Guadalupe-Lamar LRT supporter Mike Dahmus suggests that these central-city precincts that voted for the rail measure did so less enthusiastically than in the 2000 LRT referendum — tending to corroborate the hypothesis that opposition from rail transit advocates and supporters played a major role in helping defeat the official Highland-Riverside plan, perceived as flawed and even “worse than nothing”. (Stronger core-city support could have outweighed opposition in suburban precincts.)
Conversely, this tends to bolster the plausibility that a sensible, widely supported light rail (“urban rail”) proposal could muster the majority of votes needed to pass. The prospect of an LRT starter line project in the crucial, central, high-travel Guadalupe-Lamar corridor has already mustered affirmations of support from adjacent neighborhood associations, the UT student government, and other community sources, and would seem to have strong potential to succeed as a ballot measure.
Kate Harrington, in an article posted by the Building ATX.com website on Nov. 11th, just a week after the Nov. 4th vote, reminded readers of Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s prediction that if the “urban rail” bond measure failed it “would mean that no new transit initiative would take shape for a decade or more.” But, Harrington observed, “Instead, it seems the issue is anything but dead. … Since voters decisively shot down the rail proposal last week, conversations about a possible ‘Plan B’ have sprung up all over the city.”
Most recently, via an interactive, annotated map (see screenshot below), the latest proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar LRT route has been publicized by Brad Parsons, a community activist involved with urban and transportation issues. Starting at the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S. 183, this route would follow North Lamar Blvd., Guadalupe St., Nueces St., San Antonio St., and finally Guadalupe and Lavaca St. past established central Austin neighborhoods and activity centers, through the West Campus, past the Capitol Complex, and into Austin’s CBD. Brad’s proposal underscores the fact that there’s a variety of ways that LRT can be fitted into this constrained but high-volume traffic corridor.
Throughout last year’s ballot measure campaign, supporters of the official rail proposal (led by Let’s Go Austin) continuously depicted “urban rail” as absolutely essential to secure and sustain Austin’s future mobility and livability. With the slogan “Rail or Fail”, Mayor Leffingwell himself repeatedly warned that Austin needed an urban rail transit system to maintain its economic vitality and mobility in the face of steadily menacing traffic “gridlock”. Furthermore, news reports and competent analyses emphasized that simply building more highways or adding more buses to the roadway grid was counterproductive.
But while much of the Austin public seem to perceive and even embrace the alternative of an urban rail “Plan B” starter line routed in Guadalupe-Lamar (where the population density, major employment and activity centers, and heavy local travel are), key public officials and former leaders of the Let’s Go Austin pro-rail campaign seem to have been struck blind and deaf, oblivious to the obvious feasibility of LRT in the city’s most central and heavily used local corridor. For instance, the City’s Guadalupe Street Corridor Study, suddenly awakened from apparent dormancy to hold its first widely publicized public event on Dec. 3rd discussing “how to improve” the Drag, has explicitly ruled out consideration of rail transit, according to project manager Alan Hughes.
For Capital Metro board chairman (and outgoing City Councilmember) Mike Martinez, who had been expounding for the past year that “urban rail” was absolutely essential, further study of an alternative LRT plan now is apparently inconceivable. Martinez’s new mantra — basically a variant of “my way or the highway” — is that “the voters have spoken”, rail is off the table, and “we have to become the best bus city in America.”
Evidently at Martinez’s behest, Capital Metro has been sifting about for other ways to spend nearly $3 million in planning funds previously scheduled for further “urban rail” study (on the now-defunct Highland-Riverside proposal). Re-allocate these funds to a resumption of planning for LRT in Guadalupe-Lamar (where urban rail would actually make overwhelmingly good sense)? Certainly not.
Instead, at a Dec. 15th Capital Metro board meeting, Todd Hemingson, the agency’s head of strategic planning and development, outlined a “Heart of the City” list of potential study efforts (see photo of PowerPoint slide, above). Hemingson’s presentation made clear that even the two items seemingly most relevant to the central Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — “Guadalupe/Lavaca Transit Mall” and “Central Corridor Transit Entryways” — were actually focused merely on modest bus service expansion and infrastructure (including a possible tunnel for buses between the Loop 1 toll lanes and arterials leading into downtown).
Austin — supposedly the most “progressive” city in the “reddest” rightwing state of Texas — has a distinctive (read: notorious) reputation for dithering, dallying, and derailing in its public transport planning … while excluding the general public and making key decisions secretively behind closed doors. Surely the time has come to break this pattern. Will a new mayor and a new district-based 10-1 City Council provide an opportunity to scrap this modus operandi of failure and disaster, bring the community into authentic involvement in crucial decisions, and move forward with the first phase of LRT as a starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar?
We’re trying our hardest to help make that happen. ■