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Project Connect’s Light Rail-Centered Plan Is a Huge Step Forward

31 August 2020

Simulation of Austin light rail alignment in roadway median. Graphic: Project Connect.

Commentary by Lyndon Henry


The following statement by Lyndon Henry, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project and contributing editor to Austin Rail Now (ARN), was presented as part of Public Comment by phone to a joint meeting of the Austin City Council and Capital Metro Board on 10 June 2020. Subsequently, Project Connect’s plan for a $7.1 billion multi-modal transit system expansion, including two initial light rail lines, has been approved by the Austin City Council and scheduled as a ballot measure for the upcoming election on 3 November 2020.

I’m Lyndon Henry. I launched the concept of light rail transit for Austin with a feasibility study back in 1973. Over the past 47 years I’ve worked to make this crucial public transport system a reality.

As I’ve long pointed out, light rail has unique potential, as a more affordable high-capacity urban rail mode, to attract ridership, provide more cost-effective operation, stimulate transit-oriented development, galvanize the entire transit system, create a more livable urban environment, and mobilize community support.

At last, decades of effort by the City of Austin and Capital Metro, particularly Project Connect, have brought us to today’s monumental plan, centered on light rail with a central spine along the key North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress Orange Line corridor as its anchor.

This massive public-works project will provide jobs and help rebuild Austin’s economy when we finally emerge from the pandemic nightmare. Light rail will open exciting possibilities for catalyzing development in the Core Area, especially around the massive proposed subway infrastructure, as well as elsewhere along other corridors. This will provide crucial economic stimulus to create more jobs as well as expand critical taxbase and fund further service improvements.

Thinking well into the future has been a hallmark of Project Connect’s ambitious planning, preparing for future urban growth and transit capacity needs. This critical foresight must be continued with a view to eventual conversion of the Red Line to light rail transit.

The northwest corridor, paralleling US 183, definitely ranks among the heaviest travel corridors in our metro area. Converting the Red Line to more efficient electric light rail would provide huge service improvements, improve cost-effectiveness, and stimulate much higher ridership, especially by offering seamless, transfer-free travel from northwestern communities into Austin’s core. This would also extend electric light rail service to benefit East Austin neighborhoods.

This future improvement needs to be prepared for now, by designing appropriate infrastructure features into the planned Crestview intersection grade separation

I want to thank all of the diverse team involved with Project Connect for listening to so many of us in the community in developing this plan. It is certainly heartening and refreshing to see the results of this long saga of planning and to be able to support such an ambitious and exciting project.

I urge you to designate this plan as Austin’s Locally Preferred Alternative. Thank you.

5 comments

  1. Any light rail project that isnt a monorail or otherwise elevated line is and will be a boondoggle that will create more problems than it solves and never travel faster than a car or bus.

    Honestly do not know how many times this needs to be said. There is a reason cities build subways. If we can’t afford a subway, then we need to go overhead with an El train or monorail. Safer, Faster, Does not impact traffic, reduced ground footprint, and creates covered walkways/bikeways all at the same time.

    A ground level light rail is just a magnet for problems, issues and opposition. And rightfully so. I say this as a proponent of light rail, but only one that actually looks to the future.

    Javier Bonafont Writer – Director – Prod Designer CineFont javier@CineFont.com


  2. This statement is a sad, shallow misrepresentation of the proposed massive modification of Austin’s Transit system. The city has already demonstrated a major lack of transparency to citizens and the use of Dishonest, Deceptive and Destructive “marketing” approaches being paid for with tax dollars.

    Austin’s proposed transit plan will result in huge tax and rent increases for all citizens, further increasing cost-of-living and continuing current gentrification and inequity by driving additional waves of lower income people to exit Austin. This, primarily light rail system, will not provide any of the proposed fantasy benefits. It would be the most destructive project in Austin’s history, reducing the quality-of-life of all. Citizens’ have defeated light rail plans twice in the past 20 years. Third time is charm.

    1. There has been a long decline in transit ridership in the Nation and transit ridership in Texas is less today (prior to pandemic) than it was 20 years ago. Austin has the largest percentage ridership drop of the four major Texas cities.

    2. There has been a growing trend in the “work-at-home” population in Austin over the past 20 years. Work-at-home has increased almost 5 times and the use of transit to commute to work has been flat for many years. The pandemic has resulted in a major shift and work-at-home is accelerating rapidly. It is projected to be, 25-75% of the work force. This change will produce 10 times, or more, the major benefits of reduced traffic congestion and reduced automobile emissions promised for the $10 billion plus transit system. This positive “WORK-AT-HOME” INCREASE IS FREE OF COST TO TAXPAYERS AND RENTERS versus generations of tax increases for the light rail.

    3. The City has been very deceptive and dishonest with citizens regarding the cost of this transit plan. The large “Tax Proposition A,” proposed by the City, is not enough to pay for the systems implementation over the 10 plus years. The city will return with additional tax and resulting rent increases. The current Red Line Commuter cost twice as much as promised to implement and about 8 times as much to operate. In addition, the City has not revealed the source of the huge annual operating costs for the new transit plan, which will also be a citizen’s burden. The result is major tax and rent increases in perpetuity. AND FOR WHAT?? The light rails will serve less than 1% of the area’s trips and the pandemic may significantly reduce this. People will be riding for convenience and subsidized, almost totally, by all citizens. By the way, a significant percentage of these riders will be $100,000 and above in compensation, a trend in rail in the U.S.

    4. This primarily, obsolete light rail system will be a joke at the end of the 10-15 years to get it up and running. Future Mobility is moving rapidly to a new phase of equitable mobility which will be “doorstep to destination” supporting all citizen’s needs for timely access to all desired locations in a reasonable time.

    5. This rail plan is closely related to the new density proposed by the City’s “Code Next.” This density will destroy neighborhoods with higher costs and substantially increase congestion with the higher density. Here again, national trends are ignored. Jobs are being created in the suburbs by a 10-1 factor over the central business area. Transit is focused on people all heading to the Austin central business area. No wonder transit ridership is failing and, with the pandemic impact, transit decline may be rapidly accelerated.

    Don’t gamble the future on this very high risk plan which is likely to be several times the cities previous wasted losses of taxpayer funds.
    More importantly, this plan can destroy Austin.


  3. Lyndon is a fine person who I greatly respect, but he is wrong.

    Prop A will increase the City’s tax levy over 25% at a time of extraordinary hardship. People are out of work and struggle to make ends meet, it’s cruel to impose this rent and home ownership affordability crushing increase, when people are down.

    It’s a gentrification and displacement machine, that will penalize low-income, communities of color along the rail lines with for-profit, stainless/granite, re-development. The $0.0025/$100 “displacement fund” while touted as $300 million, in reality raises less than $4m/yr – insignificant in addressing the displacement travesty. It’s political window dressing to do damage control.

    An on-demand, doorstep to destination, ‘New Mobility’ is the future, not a 19th century fixed route train. Fixed rail is inconvenient and has the fatal impediment of having to travel TO it, to USE it. Most Austin residents would have to burn so much time and travel so far to access it, they are better off going directly to their destination with a personal vehicle.

    V2X, which is already being implemented in Austin by the Smart Mobility Program, is a game changer that will drastically improve the efficiency of our existing roadways, reduce congestion and improve safety.

    We now have the granular data to truly define mobility (i.e. INRIX). It shows micro-mobility can replace over 40% of urban mobility – without oppressive taxes and reduce greenhouse emissions light years more than Project Connect ever could.

    Light rail won’t put a dent in traffic congestion, the 14 most congested cities ALL have rail systems and the high debt/taxes to fund them. With COVID these systems have cratered; many may not recover without bailouts. What’s worse, a massive ‘state of good repair’ backlog in the hundreds of millions already plagued these failing systems and overall ridership has been in decline. More pandemics are in our future, it’s madness to go deep into debt for a technology so vulnerable to pathogen.

    Austin is a high-tech, progressive community, let’s act like it.
    Project Connect is NOT a step forward, it is a step backward to obsolete technology, that frankly left the station long ago.


  4. It’s regrettable, my initial comment was removed. Apparently you fear the truth and diversity of opinion.

    Prop A raises taxes 25% at a time when people are out of work and struggle to make ends meet. Insensitive and unconscionable.

    A cruel gentrification machine, it’s for-profit, stainless/granite redevelopment will displace low-income, working families, mostly of color. The miniscule $4m/yr ‘displacement’ fund (touted as $300 million) is political damage control and validates the problem.

    The future of mobility is on-demand and point to point. Light rail’s fixed schedule/fixed route technology is a step backward into obsolescence. Its fatal flaw is inconvenience; you have to get to it, to use it. Accessing this central, fixed route system for most Austinites, requires so much time and energy, they are better off going directly to their destination in a personal vehicle. It’s unrealistic to think they will sacrifice the superior convenience and advantage of a personal vehicle.

    V2X, already being implemented in our city, will make existing roadways much more efficient, safe and less congested. Micro-mobility is rapidly growing and can serve over 40% of Austin urban trips. That’s cars off the road and far greater carbon reduction than several Project Connects could ever deliver.

    Those improvements come without huge, affordability crushing taxes and reductions in our existing mobility network that, unlike rail, serve first responders, service providers, material delivery and the vast majority of our mobility. Imagine removal of key traffic lanes on Lamar, Guadalupe, Riverside and Congress, then consider the east/west arterial disruption.

    COVID has devastated these rail systems. Many teeter on the edge of bankruptcy begging for bailouts. It would be madness to go deep into debt for a system so vulnerable to pathogen.

    The promise of federal funds is vaporware, with no commitment. The Cities resolution states they will keep collecting the tax regardless. The promise of traffic congestion reduction has no proof, to the contrary: The top 14 most congested American cities ALL have rail and high taxes to pay for them.

    Power players and millions of dollars are behind the scenes pushing this multi-billion dollar gravy train. $7 billion is over 4.6 times the current property tax funded debt of our city. There are so many really great things this money could do for our ENTIRE community. Just the cost of the tunnel would put solar panels on every house, improving affordability and really fighting climate change. Follow the money.

    This is a high-tech, progressive city, let’s act like it. We would be foolish to invest in old, fixed route, technology that left the station long ago.


  5. Well now I feel quite foolish. Apparently there is a time lag for posting comments I wasn’t aware of.

    The lack of critical coverage (and questioning) related to Project Connect, has me very concerned and I over reacted. Millions of public dollars have been spent to sell this plan and groom the media and they don’t present both sides (or at best very little opposing viewpoint). This is troubling and undermines the credibility of our local news media. I deplore comment cleansing, it’s a disservice to the exchange of ideas and opinion.

    I was wrong, apparently you DO value truth and diversity; something I support and sincerely appreciate.



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