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.



  1. Why do you guys act surprised? CAMPO sees rail voted down twice in the last 15 years and takes it off the books, and this is some sort of surprise? As I stated in the linked article as well, this is the unintended consequence of voting down last fall’s plan. Yes, it had lots of issues, but the fact that folks who otherwise would support rail but for the fact that “their plan” was not the one chosen, was a terrible blow to the future of rail in this city. Penny wise, pound foolish? It will take a long time to recover from this last defeat. Will it be another 14 years or longer? Who knows. Meanwhile, prepare for tolled capacity being the only transportation facility to be added for the next 20+ years.

  2. If all you rail enthusiasts would put on your thinking caps and look at the reality basic transit facts including 1)cost effectiveness, 2) service to the entire community, 3) efficiency of operation, 4) affordability, 5) form anywhere to anywhere anytime — then you would see the error of your ways and climb aboard and celebrate success for all with Austin bred Cellular Mass Transit http://www.CMT4Austin.org invented by a fellow citizen Richard Shultz and doable in a short time frame for a small fraction of the investment and operating cost of your or the City’s Urban Rail proposals. Come on, folks, rally around and lobby for a real solution that you can proudly say you had a hand in a successful revolution of transit for all people, using all existing infrastructure and greatly increasing ridership and actually reducing air pollution and congestion not remotely possible with your rail ideas.

  3. Bus is mediocre for the trunk portion. Rail with its larger vehicles and ability to have trains is far better for the trunk portions of a route because of its proven capability to handle spikes in traffic. It is also easier to give rail priority. For the feeder services, I question the capability of vans. They are even more awkward for handling wheelchairs. The driver cost per vehicle is roughly the same and a 15 passenger van has been noted as a vehicle with serious safety concerns.

    • While I don’t really care to support the CMT proposal, the new generation of large vans based on front-wheel drive (Ford Transit and Ram Promaster) and are safer than their predecessors. Having HOV lanes also supports this sort of vision.

      The reason I don’t use it is that I feel the usage of the system will be far more burdensome than a rail system would be. How do you sign up to check out a van? What sort of training is required? Who accepts liability if there were to be an accident?

  4. You are making comments on “Basic transit facts” which cannot go unchallenged. Without any justification for your claims one must conclude they are unsubstantiated and untrue.

    The number of new and expanded light rail systems currently under construction in informed communities indicates that many decision makers would not agree with your points 1,2,3 and4.

    Point 5 – anywhere to anywhere anytime is just plain silly.


  5. It’s disengenous to purport rail as a solution for traffic congestion. Not a single example exists where it has, somehow this fact gets overlooked. Another facet is most citizens have to get to stations by car, vehicle trips are re-arranged, not eliminated in that zero sum game.

    Is there a traffic crisis on Guadalupe and Lamar? There certainly will be, if vehicle lanes are eliminated for fixed guideway. CAMPO knows there will be 9,600,000 trips/day in less than 15 years. No train, even if it had unprecidented ridership, 10 times that of the Prop 1 rail will put a dent in that volume.

    Contemporary rail costs too much, loses money and moves too few passengers per $. I would support a rail system IF it was cost effective – the reality is, examples of that are slim to none. The rapid advancment of autonomous vehicles put a stake in the heart of these wasteful , inflexible, obsolete systems.

    Last but not least, with MAP21/federal funds dried up and expiring last month, where do we get the massive amount of money? Austin affordibility is in crisis and taxpayers are under assault by a new courthouse, more AISD bonds coming and a severe demand for roadway infrastructure tha serves 98% of our commuters.

    Time is running out, we must be implementing COST EFFECTIVE transit solutions that serve the most people and parts of town.

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