Grassroots effort proposes small light rail starter project for an authentic “mobility bond” measure11 June 2016
An Austin “mobility” bond package without a single major transit project? That’s the current plan from the office of Austin Mayor Steve Adler – a $720 million bond bundle overwhelmingly (about 83%) concentrated on roadway projects, with a smattering of “alternative mobility” pedestrian and bicycle projects, and virtually no significant public transport improvements.
The current official bond package stands in stark contradiction to the decades of official “green” rhetoric verbally embracing public transportation and “high-capacity transit” as key components of the “alternative mobility” measures necessary to “keep Austin moving” – rhetoric also enshrined in major policy initiatives of recent decades such as Envision Central Texas and Imagine Austin. The “mobility” bond package also comes in contrast to a recent resurgence of competent studies and reports suggesting that continuing to emphasize further roadway development – because of effects such as encouraging suburban sprawl, creating further dependency on private car travel, and inducing even more traffic – is a losing game.
An affordable light rail starter line
In response, an outcry has arisen throughout the Austin community, calling for some major public transport elements to be included in the “mobility” bond measure. By far the most substantial alternative approach to the official roadwork-heavy bond offering is a proposal crafted by Scott Morris and Andrew Clements of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), a small nonprofit organization. Supported by a group of other community leaders, the proposal suggests that a light rail transit (LRT) Minimum Operable Segment (MOS) would be feasible, stretching 5.3 miles from Crestview (North Lamar at Airport Blvd.) south to Republic Square (West 4th St.) in downtown Austin (see maps above and further below). CACDC estimates daily ridership of 37,400 for the MOS.
The MOS is actually a subset of previous plans for the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor, such as Capital Metro’s 1994 plan, the agency’s 2000 plan, a 2013 proposal from Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT), an earlier, more extensive CACDC plan for the G-L corridor, and the 2014 “Plan B” proposal from Austin Rail Now (ARN).
In addition to previous design work by Capital Metro consultants from 1994, 2000, and the early 2000s, ARN has also suggested another design option for inserting LRT infrastructure into the corridor. See: «San Francisco’s N-Judah Muni Metro line shows design option for light rail in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor».
CACDC’s capital investment cost estimate for the proposed MOS – $397.5 million – is based on an average of costs from 15 rail projects (LRT plus one diesel-powered light railway), as compiled by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and reviewed and analyzed by Andrew Clements. This renders an average of $68.3 million per mile (2016 dollars). Especially in light of past studies of LRT in the G-L corridor, as well as recent projects nationwide, the methodology certainly provides a competent and plausible basis for a “system-level” order-of-magnitude estimate suitable for presentation to voters and justification for further, more detailed planning.
CACDC is proposing that its year-2016 cost estimate ($397.5 million) be offered to voters in full as a ballot measure this coming November. CACDC believes the MOS project could be implemented via local funding and without assistance from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
A more methodologically conservative estimate of investment cost for the same proposed MOS by the Light Rail Now Project of Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT) accepts CACDC’s cost estimate but adds a higher allowance for contingency. As explained by Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant and technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project (and also a contributing editor to this website), there is a substantial component of “unknown” in most major rail transit projects. Therefore, best standard practice for capital investment cost estimates is to apply a contingency allowance (for surface LRT projects) averaging at least 25-30% of the total of all other costs – in effect, as a kind of “insurance”. Curiously, a cost estimate of “about $465 Million” reported in a May 12th KEYE-TV News segment covering the CACDC proposal, including an interview with Clements, appeared to incorporate such a contingency, amounting to about 28% added to the cost-per-mile average that Clements found from his analysis of FTA project data.
However, the actual project funding intended in a bond measure must also allow for the effects of inflation as the project proceeds. Thus standard practice is to escalate the given current-year investment cost estimate into YOE (year of expenditure) dollars. Otherwise project proponents, designers, and managers will either (a) be caught short or (b) need to go to voters again for enough money (or scrummage for some other source) to actually complete the project. The TAPT estimate assumes a 2.5% adjustment rate over a project span of four years.
In TAPT’s assessment, seeking FTA assistance (and thus collaboration and oversight) is important, particularly since TxDOT lacks a strong rail oversight program. The dangers of disdaining federal collaboration already became clear in some of the most serious missteps of Capital Metro’s MetroRail implementation, resulting in a significantly delayed opening, jeopardizing public support, and leading to expensive operational constraints and unexpected requirements, continuing to this day. FTA participation would also imply 50-50 sharing of the capital investment cost, significantly alleviating the funding burden borne by Austin taxpayers. Also, a design concept to implement a cross-platform transfer between LRT and MetroRail (under the aegis of the Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA) would invoke FRA involvement.
Based on all these factors, the TAPT capital investment cost estimate, with 28% contingency and YOE escalation at 2.5% per annum, totals about $520 million for this 5.3-mile MOS starter line. In TAPT’s FTA-funded scenario, a mobility bond measure of $260 million would be sufficient to provide a local 50% match for funding the project.
Assuming a 14-mph average speed for the 5.3-mile starter line, Henry calculates a 23-minute Crestview-to-Republic Square running time. This compares with 26-28 minutes by Capital Metro’s MetroRapid Route 801 “rapid transit” bus service. (And while MetroRapid buses often skip some stops because no passengers are waiting there, LRT trains make every stop and actually board passengers at each station because of the greater attractiveness of rail service.)
That differential may seem small, but, compared with buses, LRT brings additional advantages. Passengers have a greater sense of service reliability and safety, and greater orientation to where routes go and where stations are located. There’s a much greater sense of permanence. LRT railcars are more spacious, easier to board and deboard, and more comfortable to ride. Attributes like these combine to attract substantially higher ridership.
Based on past ridership estimates for this corridor, including a 2000 New Starts profile study approved by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Henry estimates a daily ridership of 30,000 for this MOS (within two years of opening). From the new rider data in the FTA study, Henry extrapolates that approximately 13,800 of these rider-trips would be new to transit in the corridor. By assuming that all these new rider-trips would otherwise be made by motor vehicle, this means that about 12,600 daily vehicle trips would be eliminated from these arterials (in addition to those already diverted to public transit). During peak travel periods, nearly 5,000 private vehicle trips would be eliminated, as former motorists would be attracted to the proposed new light rail service.
This also implies the elimination of approximately 1,300 peak vehicle trips per hour in the corridor — roughly equivalent to two arterial lanes of capacity. In other words, this LRT starter line would add the equivalent of two lanes of extra peak capacity to this corridor in each direction. As Henry pointed out in an E-mail memo to City Councilmembers (emphasis added),
The road-focused $720 million “mobility” bond package currently under consideration tries to address congestion and safety by increasing “throughput” of vehicles. Unfortunately, experience and a vast body of evidence suggest that this is a losing approach — trying to tweak more capacity to squeeze more traffic typically merely induces more traffic. Furthermore, this influx of ever-growing vehicle traffic simply imposes more stress on congested areas such as Austin’s core.
In contrast, our LRT proposal (and future expansions of LRT throughout Austin) removes traffic from roadways by attracting both drivers and passengers to the transit service
I would suggest that our approach — providing highly attractive rail transit service on its own dedicated tracks — makes far more sense and is far more sustainable as a long-term solution for alleviating mobility congestion, than those elements in the current official proposal that simply attempt to squeeze more traffic onto the city’s crowded streets, roads, and parking spaces.
And those capacity projections are merely predicated on the initial base estimate of 30,000 daily ridership. The actual potential capacity of the line’s infrastructure, with additional railcars and minor upgrades (e.g., increased power supply), could be raised to 9,000 peak-period rider-trips per hour, corresponding to daily ridership of about 90,000. That’s ultimately equivalent to approximately ten freeway lanes (five per direction).
These capacity benefits are joined by an array of other benefits with LRT, such as:
• Reduction in unit cost of public transport operations compared with bus-only services
• Safer, more accessible neighborhoods
• Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and other motor vehicle pollutants
• Reduction in demand for parking spaces in areas served by LRT
• Safer, more reliable, lower-cost mobility for the public
• More accessible and more affordable public transportation to reinforce affordable housing policies
An authentic mobility bond measure
Over the past several decades, Austin has acquired notoriety for endless agonizing, hesitation, confusion, and indecision over urban rail. Dozens of “studies, re-studies, and re-studies of the re-studies” (in the words of Lyndon Henry) have been executed for LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, with no outcome other than further indecision. Now, in the face of excruciating congestion, and a mounting toll of bloody and fatal accidents, the prospect of a “mobility” bond package is on the table. CACDC’s proposal for a 5.3-mile Minimum Operable Segment (MOS) provides an opening path toward some truly realistic solutions.
A powerful case can be made that a substantial bond commitment for LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor can be inserted into the $720 million official “mobility package”. This can be accomplished by reducing some of the proposed roadway expenditures and substituting rail bonding.
The City Council has before it at least two alternative urban rail bond options, either of which can make urban rail actually happen. Each of these represents an alternative way of funding the same basic project:
• CACDC bond proposal — $397.5 million: this would provide (in our assessment) about three-fourths funding (and potential local match, with FTA assistance) of the proposed MOS starter line
• TAPT bond proposal — $260 million: this would provide 50% local match for the MOS starter line with 50% FTA assistance
Currently, $720 million is on the table — it’s now a question of “what’s in the package for that amount of money?” Ensuring that urban rail is included would bring authenticity of bona fide “mobility” to such a mobility bond package. ■