Let’s Put Austin’s Urban Rail Planning Back on Track

29 November 2018

Light rail starter line using N. Lamar-Guadalupe corridor from Tech Ridge to downtown was key element of Project Connect comprehensive regional plan presented in February 2018. Despite a three-year data-driven process with community participation, it was subsquently overruled and aborted by Capital Metro officials – setting back planning process another two years.

This post publishes the text of a handout distributed to a “Community Conversation” meeting sponsored by Project Connect in Council District 5 on 17 November 2018.

No more backsliding – Finalize a plan!

Last February (2018), Capital Metro’s Project Connect planning program, with public input, was finally nearing the end of a two-year process to devise a regional public transport proposal with urban rail and other “high-capacity” transit. On the table was a widely acclaimed, tentative plan for a viable, attractive public transport system, centered on a north-south light rail line from Tech Ridge to Slaughter Lane to link the city’s heaviest local travel corridors and provide a spine for ultimate rail extensions to other sections of the city. It was conceivable that details could be finalized to place a starter line on the November ballot for bond funding.

But that wouldn’t happen. Just over a month later, CapMetro’s new incoming CEO, with the blessing of the board, discarded the plan and reset the whole process back to zero – thus adding another two years to the seemingly endless effort to forge a transit remedy to Austin’s worsening mobility crisis.

While this destructive action was unprecedented and outrageous, for Austin it nevertheless fit a pattern of transit system plans aborted, botched, or abandoned by top leaders of CapMetro and the city’s political power elite, persisting over the past three decades. That’s a graveyard of at least six – count ‘em, 6 – urban rail planning efforts, totaling tens of millions of dollars, that have died because of official disinterest or misleadership, prolonging Austin’s mobility crisis pain and misery by 30 years. This delay needs to end – Austin needs to finalize and implement an urban rail system ASAP!

Real-world light rail, not science fiction dreams

In official studies from 1989 to 2018, light rail transit (LRT) has repeatedly been validated as Austin’s best choice for an attractive, cost-effective high-capacity transit system and the centerpiece of a regional system.

In recent decades, at least 19 North American cities have opened brand-new, affordable light rail systems that have typically excelled in attracting passengers, provided essential capacity and cost-effectiveness, and stimulated economic development that has more than repaid the public investment. Yet Austin’s official planning has recently been re-focused on visions of a totally untested, speculative technology (a “Smart Mobility roadmap” and ”Autonomous Rapid Transit”) – i.e., substituting science fiction for realistic, workable planning.

This seems basically a cover for dumping bona fide rapid transit and embracing a rebranded buses-only operation – bus rapid transit (BRT) – contradicting not only the recently aborted Project Connect process, but at least three official comparative studies over the past 28 years that have selected LRT as superior to BRT, particularly in key features such as capacity, ridership, cost, and economic development impacts. Disappeared from planning now are critical goals such as creating livable, transit-friendly, pedestrian-friendly streets and neighborhoods, and shaping public transit to guide growth and create economic investment.

Plans for urban rail should be fast-tracked

Austinites have long been suffering the pain of this region’s prolonged and worsening mobility crisis. We need real-world, proven, effective solutions nownot speculative visions of the possibilities of high-tech toys and autonomous vehicles. For sure, while prudently assessing new technology, we must not let our city be turned into a “Smart Mobility” Petri dish in lieu of installing a well-proven mass transit system such as LRT.

Austin’s mobility planning needs to be re-focused on developing an extensive, attractive, affordable, accessible, cost-effective public transport system with urban rail that can enhance livability, reduce total mobility cost, help guide growth, and encourage economic development that can recoup the public investment. To make up for time lost through delays and top-level debacles, rail planning should be fast-tracked, particularly by reinstating the results and community-participated planning decisions already achieved.


One comment

  1. Public transportation plans in Austin lack common sense, causing spending on them that provides underachieving and inadequate results that harm those most in need.

    Public Transportation attracts a very small % of people mobility in all of Texas , and Austin has suffered for decades with plans and decisions that have not boosted ridership despite huge expenditures and enormous population gains.

    The reasons are patently obvious: transit is slower than a personal vehicle and does not provide its “from anywhere to anywhere anytime” service.
    Other important factors are cost, efficiency and sustainability of service.

    Public transit use languishes despite $billions in expenditures on solutions that fail to ask and solve the simplest question: how to move people “from anywhere to anywhere anytime”.
    If that question were asked and answered honestly, most of the spending on transit systems over the last 5 decades would have been vastly different.
    The solution is so simple that it’s unconscionable that transportation responsible politicians and bureaucrats languish in closed mind thinking, and consultants they hire and interest groups that lobby them continue to clamor for too costly, inefficient, unsustainable, customer unserving solutions.
    This insanity will end only when the public and transit supporters insist that decision makers do the obvious for the good of the people.

    That obvious, common sense solution can be Cellular Mass Transit
    CMT was invented for Austin, TX by a non-transit-industry citizen Richard Shultz and, using all existing infrastructure is:
    – quickly implementable
    – affordable within the existing 1% sales tax and grants
    – sustainable
    – provides “from anywhere to anywhere anytime” service
    – ensures under 10 minute wait time using visual or automated demand based queuing
    – serves everyone and improves mobility, reach and opportunity for those without personal vehicles.
    – reduces taxpayer subsidy by more than doubling local ridership

    – is a customer demand based system
    – has more efficient 50% faster point to point service
    – divides the service area into 10 square mile cells
    – adds a transit center in the cell at a location most people in the cell already travel to for daily needs or desires
    – adds small vans to each cell which do routes within 1/4 mile of everyone and/or on demand service
    – delivers people to destinations within their cell.
    – takes people by rapid bus or rail to other transit hubs for longer trips.
    – delivers them to remote destinations by small van.
    – takes advantage of all the road infrastructure

    CapMetro, CAMPO, City and County need to recognize and embrace and act on these simple truths and implemented an obvious solution that greatly improves public transit and actually reduces congestion..

    There is no other solution known that can do what CMT does in the world of publicly funded transit systems.
    CMT is flexible and can be easily integrated with all the new technology solutions that emerge as viable people mobility improvers.

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