The case for light rail transit (LRT) in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor just received a huge boost with the publication of an op-ed in TribTalk, the op-ed web page of the widely respected Texas Tribune.
“It may seem unlikely in Texas, but across the state, people are benefiting from rail transit” say William S. Lind and Glen D. Bottoms in their commentary (ARN emphasis added here and subsequently).
In Dallas, which now has the country’s largest light rail system, more than 100,000 Texans escape traffic congestion each day by riding Dallas Area Rapid Transit rail. In Houston, the light rail Red Line draws about 3,500 weekday boardings per mile, more than any other modern light rail operation in the country.
“Critics, many of whom call themselves conservatives (though most are really libertarians), predicted that both systems would fail because no one would ride them” they add.
Both writers are venerable, renowned veterans of the U.S. public transportation industry. Lind was also a close associate of the late conservative leader Paul Weyrich, a well-known advocate of rail transit among conservative circles.
In their op-ed, Lind and Bottoms note that “As conservatives, we find it odd that many people expect us to oppose public transportation, especially rail.”
In fact, high-quality transit, which usually means rail, benefits conservatives in a number of important ways. It spurs development, something conservatives generally favor, especially in Texas. It saves people, including conservatives, precious time, because those who ride rail transit can work or read on the train instead of wasting hours stuck in traffic. Transit of all kinds helps poor people get to jobs, which conservatives prefer over paying welfare. And rail transit, especially streetcars, helps support retail in downtowns by increasing the number of middle-class people on sidewalks.
Libertarians’ arguments against rail transit mostly boil down to one criticism: It’s subsidized. Yes, it is. So is all other transportation. Highway user fees now cover only 47.5 percent of the cost of highways. Nationally, rail transit of all types covers 50 percent of its operating costs from fares. It’s a veritable wash. In contrast, bus systems, which libertarians often favor over rail, cover only 28 percent of their operating costs from the farebox.
“Regrettably,” the writers caution, “conservatives’ tendency to accept libertarians’ arguments against rail transit (without checking their numbers) may deprive Texas conservatives of more chances to escape traffic congestion.”
As a case in point, they turn to Austin, explaining that it “may be different from other Texas cities in many ways, but not when it comes to traffic.”
The city’s rapidly growing population has packed its freeways at rush hours. And as other cities have found, building more freeways is not the answer. New lanes fill up as soon as they’re opened, and limited-access freeways in urban areas slice up and kill surrounding communities.
While they recount that “Austin voters last year rejected a poorly conceived light rail proposal that supporters said would help alleviate that congestion”, Lind and Bottoms argues that the failure of that plan nevertheless
…could be a good thing because it opened the door to a “Plan B” rail line that would serve the city better. A basic rule of rail transit planning is to “build it where people want to go,” and the alternative plan proposes a rail line that would run along Guadalupe Street and North Lamar Boulevard, Austin’s most heavily traveled urban corridor. We hope Austin conservatives will support “Plan B.”
Included in their commentary is a hyperlink to our own article from last October, «A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line». (Also see our recent article «Plan for galvanizing Austin’s public transport development: Light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar», which links to our series of articles for this alternative plan with “what, where, how, and how soon” details about the proposed project.
Lind and Bottoms also point to other opportunities for rail, such as the streetcar project in El Paso and the Texas Central Railway highspeed rail system proposed to connect Dallas and Houston. “A combination of high-speed rail connecting Texas cities and good light rail and streetcar systems in those cities would make Texas a national leader…” they say in their conclusion. ■