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. ■



  1. Unintended consequence of voting down last fall’s rail plan. CAMPO sees this and rationalizes that “the citizens of Austin do not support rail”.

    • Here’s an analogy.

      A guy opens a restaurant and features a lunch special of Roasted Rat Meat. Nobody orders the special, so he figures everybody must be a vegetarian, and changes his whole menu from then on.

      Are local planners and officials (and CAMPO) really that stupid? We doubt it. We think articles like this one by David Orr are much closer to the reality, and “The voters rejected our wonderful proposal, so they must hate rail” is just a rationalization and an excuse for lousy decisions, a disastrously bad proposal, and terrible transportation planning.

      ARN editor

  2. CAAMPO is doing it right by not having any light rail miles or $ in its 2040 plan. It;s the City and Cap Metro who refuse to accept the fact that a properly designed and run bus based system is the most cost effective, people serving solution. From anywhere to anywhere anytime service is possible and locally invented Cellular Mass Transit http://www.CMT4Austin.org shows how to serve everyone for a fraction of the LR’s cost that would serve < 10% of commuters, many who already ride the bus. Learn about CMT and help local inventor Richard Shultz get the politicians and bureaucrats to embrace and implement it.

  3. You are completely ignoring one of the fundamentals of operating transit systems that is the wages cost of the operators which can amount to 80% of total operating costs (year in, year out as long as the system continues to operate).

    Sensible and informed transit design recognises that the form or forms of transit vehicle must be appropriately married to the travel demand. This means that buses are PART of the solution, not the solution. Just as rail may be more appropriate in particular corridors.

    To say that “that a properly designed and run bus based system is the most cost effective” is a fact is just untrue especially when you give no evidence to support your claim.

    CMT is a bubble going nowhere unless you can find some very gullible people with lots of spare cash.

  4. No, it doesn’t

    “Capital Metro
    City of Austin
    Travis Central Corridor Central Austin Future high capacity transit 2025 $498.8”

  5. There is 20 years of data from the APTA that Mini Buses just don’t save any operating money. A real BRT system is never cheap but if it is done well you can move a lot of people. A good BRT is always complex in operation and its operating costs grow very high along with the increases in passengers carried. The main problem in the first world with buses as a rapid transit vehicle is because they have a low passenger capacity per operator. Once you hit a certain operational cost point, rail systems become the only viable operating cost option. This point is different for each city and depends on the infrastructure built as well as the passenger demand. There are BRT systems that have huge capacity but, what you have to build to support that needed capacity becomes very expensive to operate and very destructive to the surrounding area. Most of the really big systems are in places with relatively low worker costs compared to the First World nations. China and Latin America are great examples of this. However, they did come up with some great cheap operational ideas that we should copy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: