Archive for March, 2015

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Stealth plans for “forced busing” in heavy local travel corridors may be wasteful barrier to light rail

30 March 2015
Consequences of investing in bus-based "rapid transit" (BRT) can be seen in Ottawa, where bus bunching and huge bus jams like this one reveal massive size of fleet necessary to support "rapid transit" levels of ridership — ridership far more efficiently accommodated by urban rail . Similar plans for expanded BRT infrastructure in Austin pose similar need for light rail transit (LRT) alternative. Photo: Flickr.

Consequences of investing in bus-based “rapid transit” (BRT) can be seen in Ottawa, where bus bunching and huge bus jams like this one reveal massive size of fleet necessary to support “rapid transit” levels of ridership — ridership far more efficiently accommodated by urban rail. Similar plans for expanded BRT infrastructure in Austin pose need for light rail transit (LRT) alternative. Photo: Flickr.

By Dave Dobbs

Dave Dobbs is publisher of LightRailNow.com. This commentary has been adapted and expanded from original private Email comments.

Recent developments in local metro area transportation planning, particularly in the aftermath of last November’s ill-conceived “urban rail” bond vote debacle, have made it evident to some of us that there’s a need for a grassroots collection of stakeholders to unite behind a new urban rail planning process, and getting it started ASAP. This is more urgent than most people realize.

It’s abundantly clear that, over the past several years, Project Connect and CAMPO planners and officials have been aiming toward “forced busing” on Austin’s best potential light rail routes, the heavy local travel routes where currently the big red MetroRapid buses run — Guadalupe/North Lamar, South Congress, and South Lamar. As I pointed out in an earlier article on this issue («No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes…»), it’s ironic that, for the past several years, while some public officials have piously insisted we can’t possibly convert car travel lanes to reserved rail lanes on Guadalupe/North Lamar, it seems that all along, since at least 2012, this has been in planning for MetroRapid — in effect, a “stealth” plan for incremental BRT.


Light rail/urban rail has simply vanished from CAMPO's 2040 Transportation Plan. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN.

CAMPO 2040 plan includes hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed “BRT” projects, including plans to construct dedicated lanes in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor in lieu of light rail. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


If, this coming May, the CAMPO 2040 plan is adopted with the Urban Transit Projects (2020 – 2040) currently in the plan, Capital Metro, perhaps together with the City, will have the green light to immediately pursue federal funding for concrete bus lanes on the above thoroughfares. And they will no doubt do so, as the 80% federal matching funds for buses are far more available than 50% federal matching funds for rail. Yet, even with the heavier federal proportion, this would be a disastrous waste in the longer term, since the ridership attractiveness, cost efficiency, more livable urban environment, stimulus for transit oriented development (TOD) and economic development, and other benefits for the community, far outweigh the advantage of a higher rate of federal bus system funding.


Total cost per passenger of urban rail becomes lower than "bus rapid transit" as ridership rises above about 10,000 per day. Graph: Project Connect.

Project Connect graph, presented in June 2012 to Transit Working Group, showed greater cost-effectiveness of urban rail (LRT) compared with BRT, as ridership increases. Screenshot: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


We should expect that the MetroRapid bus lane process will be similar to the Project Connect rail public process — i.e., art gallery open houses, boards and commission hearings and approvals, and finally, council and Capital Metro board approval … but no general public vote, because the the local 20% match will be small enough to construct discrete sections and can probably be found in a slush fund someplace. While 20% of the overall $442,861,656 Capital Metro has identified for dedicated MetroRapid bus lanes is around $88.6 million, it’s logical to expect a piecemeal approach, one section at a time, so as to avoid a citywide response over the loss of vehicle travel lanes. Divide and conquer.

For example, after having paint-striped a little over a mile of Guadalupe and Lavaca between Cesar Chavez and MLK, the most likely next step is to convert two vehicle travel lanes on Guadalupe from MLK to the Triangle (North Lamar at Guadalupe), a distance of 2.5 miles, for about $60 million. Of this, Austin’s share would be roughly $12 million, small enough to be found in current budget funds without going to the voters. Perhaps an even shorter segment, 1.5 miles to 38th Street, would be considered, where the local share would be only about $7 million.

While the downtown Guadalupe/Lavaca paint striping cost $270,000/mile, the dedicated lanes called for in the CAMPO 2040 plan are tear-up-the-street, fix-utilities, and pour 18 inches of concrete (very much like installing light-rail-dedicated reserved lanes) and cost about $24 million/mile for a lane in each direction. Of course, once the bus lanes are in, we couldn’t change our minds because (1) we’ll have spent a lot of federal dollars, and switching over to rail anytime soon would not get a hearing from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and (2) merchants and residents are not going to easily, willingly, or peacefully suffer urban street surgery twice. Currently the $38 million in Federal grants for MetroRapid in mixed traffic is mostly portable to another corridor (like Riverside, where it would be appropriate), and after seven years, buses are mostly amortized in the eyes of the FTA. Exclusive bus lanes at $350 million is another matter entirely, for something that can’t be moved.


Construction for dedicated bus lanes, rarely shown by "BRT" promoters, is very similar to that for LRT, as this example from San Bernardino demonstrates. Yet effective capacity, ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, TOD, and other benefits typically fall short of what LRT typically achieves. Photo: Omnitrans.org.

Construction for dedicated bus lanes, rarely shown by “BRT” promoters, is very similar to that for LRT, as this example from San Bernardino demonstrates. Yet effective capacity, ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, TOD, and other benefits typically fall short of what LRT achieves. Photo: Omnitrans.org. (Click to enlarge.)


Proceeding with major investment in bus infrastructure in Guadalupe-Lamar and other high-travel local corridors is a huge mistake. As I warned in the earlier article cited above, if you would prefer urban rail instead of a major dedicated bus lane project in Guadalupe-Lamar, “it’s essential to speak up and act. Let neighborhood groups and other community organizations know what official plans have in store for this corridor.” It’s also important to communicate to local agencies involved with planning and members of the Austin City Council “that you want to ride urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, running in reserved tracks, not just a souped-up bus service weaving in and out of special lanes.” ■

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Austin’s urban transport planning seems struck by catastrophic case of amnesia and confusion

29 March 2015
Graphic: Rich's Management Blog

Graphic: Rich’s Management Blog

The devastating befuddlement of Austin’s official-level urban transportation planning over the past five months has been nothing short of jaw-dropping. Especially when you consider this in context.

For two and a half decades, local officials and planners have explained why urban rail — affordable light rail transit (LRT), in Austin’s case — has been an absolutely essential component of the metro area’s mobility future. As our recent article «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps» describes, the logical starting point for an initial LRT route has been the central city’s heaviest-traveled central corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar.

Year after year, planning proceeded in some way for LRT. Even after 2003, while official planning was distracted and mis-directed toward potential routes more to the east of the central core city, the need for rail transit was still proclaimed. Austin had to have rail to maintain an adequate level of mobility into the future.

Beginning about 2006, an original streetcar “connector” rail transit concept emerged that gradually morphed into more ambitious “urban rail” — a full LRT system. An official blue-ribbon committee of civic leaders, the Transit Working Group (TWG), was hand-picked (first by State Sen. Kirk Watson, then by Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell) to guide rail planning. Extensive planning documents were finalized for a route scheme linking the Core Area with Seaholm, East Riverside, the East Campus, and Mueller — a rather deranged route, in our view, but rail nonetheless. The City then launched a full-fledged NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process (required for federal funding), with a series of “open houses” and other public events.

Activities of the TWG continued to heat up, primarily focused on planning for the urban rail line to Mueller. Route alternatives, cost issues, funding issues, organizational and management arrangements, and all kinds of associated issues were discussed exhaustively. A new consortium of public agencies, called Project Connect, was formed, mainly to coordinate rail planning and to produce a massive regional plan criss-crossed with proposed rail lines. Remember all this?

By 2013, the official establishment apparently felt urban rail needed the scrutiny of a special High-Capacity Transit study. So a special Project Connect team, headed by consultant Kyle Keahey, was formed, and virtually the second half of 2013 was consumed with “studying” (translation: justifying) and finalizing the need, size, and shape of an officially preferred urban rail plan. Mueller was sidelined, replaced by a desperate quest for a rail line from East Riverside to the former Highland Mall site. “Gotta get to Mueller! Mueller! Mueller!” became “Gotta get to Highland! Highland! Highland!”


Urban rail has been on the official planning agenda for decades. Throughout the first 10 months of 2014, the Highland-Riverside plan (envisioned in this simulated scene) was hyped incessantly. Graphic: Project Connect.

Urban rail has been on the official planning agenda for decades. Throughout the first 10 months of 2014, the Highland-Riverside plan (envisioned in this simulated scene) was hyped incessantly. Graphic: Project Connect.


As this blog, and a sizable segment of local transit advocates, insisted, the plan was conceived for the wrong reasons and fundamentally flawed. But for about the last two months of 2013, and ten months of 2014, the City administration, plus Capital Metro, plus the prevailing faction of local civic leaders, all insisted over and over that rail was absolutely, positively essential (although it had to be the peculiar Highland-Riverside plan officials had concocted). An expensive ad campaign, much of it financed from federal funds channeled through Capital Metro, bombarded the public via the Internet and virtually all major media outlets — reiterating the message that traffic congestion was a growing threat to the metro area and rail (the official plan of course) was the essential remedy. Mayor Leffingwell’s familiar aphorism was suddenly appearing and being heard everywhere: “Rail or Fail!

And then, on Nov. 4th, it all hit a wall, as voters said No to the puzzling, nonsensical, controversial, and fabulously expensive Project Connect plan that had been offered.

And all of a sudden, rail was erased, scrubbed, from official discourse. Despite all the years, decades, of documentation of the need for a rail transit system for the city, the official vision of transit became refocused on “becoming the best bus system we can be”; after years of explanations that reliance on further highway development wasn’t a realistic solution for preserving the city’s mobility, regional highway and tollway development has suddenly received a new surge of energy in official policy.

Meanwhile, rail transit planning has basically vanished from official planning. It’s just gone “Poof”. As David Orr has reported in his recent commentary «Austin’s “shadow government” (CAMPO) disappears light rail from local planning», all reference to urban rail has been expunged from the 2040 Transportation Plan of CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization), and replaced by line items for “bus rapid transit” (i.e., expansion of the MetroRapid limited-stop bus service).

Affirmed, until last November, as an absolutely essential component of Austin’s future mobility, light rail has now disappeared from public discourse, from the mainstream media, from the lips of politicians and civic leaders. Is it some kind of collective amnesia? Have the local planning and decisionmaking establishment all been struck with a strange disability, like the global mass blindness in Day of the Triffids? Or is the obliteration of rail a calculated excision, like the Soviet Stalin regime’s air-brushing elimination of political undesirables from photos, or the “Photoshopping” of group photos by some misguided religious media to “disappear” women?


Evaporation of Austin's light rail planning resembles a catastrophe of collective affliction, like the mass blindness portrayed in Day of the Triffids. Movie poster: IMDb.com.

Evaporation of Austin’s light rail planning resembles a catastrophe of collective affliction, like the mass blindness portrayed in Day of the Triffids. Movie poster: IMDb.com.


One wonders whether any of these Austin-area leaders and planners have given a thought as to how this plays in public perceptions of their own credibility and integrity. Were all the assurances and explanations of the need for urban rail to maintain Austin’s future mobility and vitality just deceptive hype, a marketing ploy for some kind of alternative agenda?

Maybe, but we believe the fundamental case for LRT in Austin has been grounded in truth — the higher capacity, greater ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, environmental benefits, unsurpassed magnetism to transit-oriented development and economic development, and other advantages of light rail are indeed essential for the future of this community. Mobility cannot be sustained of a continuing expansion of rivers of highways and tollways and a steadily rising flood of personal motor vehicles. Urban rail continues to be key to providing truly attractive public transit alternative, and shifting at least significant segments of the Austin metro to a sustainable alternative mobility lifestyle.


According data from Texas Transportation Institute, even with implementation of infrastructure expansion in CAMPO 2035 plan, Austin metro travel time would increase 80% due to traffic congestion. Graph: Austin Chamber of Commerce 2013 Mobility Report.

According to data from Texas Transportation Institute, even with implementation of infrastructure expansion in CAMPO 2035 plan, Austin metro travel time would increase 80% due to traffic congestion. Graph: Austin Chamber of Commerce 2013 Mobility Report. (Click to enlarge.)


And we have a strong suspicion that a preponderant number of local planners and officials actually continue to agree with this perspective. If so, they need to realize there’s a lot of community support for urban rail — from voters on both sides of last year’s debate — and they need to start stepping forward. They need to heed their sense of responsibility, find their mojo, or whatever it takes, to take the lead to get LRT planning back on track.

The groundwork, in terms of preliminary planning, is already there — and, in recent articles and other public information, Austin Rail Now along with other mass transit advocates have expanded on it.

Austin is waiting. We’re wondering who’ll take the first step. ■


LRT train on Portland's 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland’s light rail trains (in dedicated lanes) share 5th and 6th Avenue transit mall with buses as well as cars — a potential transit design model for Austin? Photo: L. Henry.

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Austin’s “shadow government” (CAMPO) disappears light rail from local planning

26 March 2015
Graphic: PEHUB.com

Graphic: PEHUB.com

By David Orr

David Orr, an Austin community activist involved with transportation issues, is a longtime environmental justice and transportation advocate.

The more I learn about how the political sausage gets made around here nowadays, the more I’m convinced that CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) is Austin’s “shadow government“, at least so far as large-scale transportation-related land use decisions are concerned.

The CAMPO 2040 Plan is egregiously deficient in providing alternatives to automobile-based transportation. Indeed, it seems like the plan is designed — intentionally so — to ensure that development of efficient rail-transit infrastructure cannot occur.

From what I’ve read, there are exactly ZERO miles of light rail in the plan, whereas a decision has apparently been made to go all in on BRT (bus rapid transit). It’s not clear to me where, or by whom, the decision was made to pretend light rail is no longer an option, but the fact that this policy is embedded so deeply in CAMPO’s planning documents makes clear that the agency has a clear agenda.

CAMPO 2040 Plan includes hundreds of millions of dollars for additional investment in MetroRapid "BRT" operation. Such facilities could impose a barrier to urban rail in key corridors such as Guadalupe-Lamar. Photo: L. Henry.

CAMPO 2040 Plan includes hundreds of millions of dollars for additional investment in MetroRapid “BRT” operation. Such facilities could impose a barrier to urban rail in key corridors such as Guadalupe-Lamar. Photo: L. Henry.

Where is the political accountability for this? Have local governments adopted resolutions of support for BRT while unequivocally stating opposition to any further study of light rail?

It seems to me that citizens have to demand that the City of Austin and Travis County — the most populous city and county in the CAMPO region — respond to CAMPO’s 2040 Plan before it is finalized next month (April). Even though it seems that the majority of CAMPO’s board have made it clear that their priorities are not in synch with concerns of Austin and Travis County officials who would like to see less emphasis on highway construction, it should be incumbent on both local entities to stand up for the interests and concerns of the residents here.

If CAMPO adopts a plan that zeros out light rail for the next 25 years, that will greatly complicate any effort that we can marshal to promote a light-rail project. I’m not well-versed in U.S. DOT (Department of Transportation) and FTA (Federal Transit Administration) law and regulations, so I don’t know whether an Austin-based light-rail project would have to obtain CAMPO’s support to proceed, but the FTA surely would notice if CAMPO was not behind it. Another crucial question is whether the Austin City Council or the Travis County Commissioners would be inclined to object to the finalizing of the 2040 Plan.

Light rail/urban rail has simply vanished from CAMPO's 2040 Transportation Plan. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN.

Light rail/urban rail has simply vanished from CAMPO’s 2040 Transportation Plan. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

During CAMPO’s meeting on the night of March 9th, the agency’s director stated that they were required by federal rules to adopt this plan in the next month or two. If that’s true, such a requirement may make it impossible to stop this measure, but at least the city and/or county could register official displeasure (and preferably opposition?) at the lack of public input on so many key policies and plan provisions.

I encourage others to join me in expressing concern publicly. If you have a good relationship with friendly elected officials, it seems like this is a critical time to ask them to engage. ■