Archive for November, 2020

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Success at last! Austin votes to install light rail system

30 November 2020

Campaign poster for Austin’s Proposition A transit ballot measure, showing LRT trains, with annotation after Nov. 3 victory. ACTPAC graphic, annotated by ARN.

It’s taken over 40 years of proposals, planning, debate, defeats, and delays, but finally, on 3 November 2020, despite the daunting challenges of the global Covid-19 pandemic and massive economic crisis, 58.3% of Austin voters approved a $7.1 billion major transit upgrade and expansion to the Capital Metro (transit authority) system, including a New-Start electric light rail transit (LRT) system for the city. For the initial starter system, two lines are proposed, intersecting in a downtown subway tunnel. About 45% of the capital funding is expected to come from the U.S. Federal Transit Administration. To cover the local 55% share, even in these hard times, voters okayed a modest increase in the local property tax ($0.0875 per $100 valuation).

At long last, this amazingly successful vote redeems the very narrow failure of Capital Metro’s LRT vote in 2000. While that plan received a majority of City of Austin votes, it failed by less than 2000 total votes in the more suburban and rural parts of Capital Metro’s service area. In contrast, the 2020 ballot measure involved City of Austin voters (and City bonding authority) only, receiving a comfortable majority margin of eight percentage points. Ironically, the Orange Line component of the LRT plan just approved is, in large part, a replication of the central North-Lamar-to-South-Congress alignment proposed in the 2000 plan!

This latest vote, for the ballot measure identified as Proposition A, also approved not just light rail, but a massive increase in Austin’s overall transit system, including an upgrade of the bus network with improved service frequency plus new “bus rapid transit” (more the “light” variety than the full, capital-heavy type); conversion to an all-electric bus fleet; a citywide on-demand pickup/circulator bus/van system; and an upgrade and expansion of the MetroRail light regional railway service, operated with diesel-multiple-unit (DMU) rolling stock compliant with Federal Railroad Administration “heavy” mainline railroad standards. In the map below, the proposed new LRT lines are shown in orange (gold) and light blue; the “BRT” lines are purple; the existing MetroRail line is red, and the new MetroRail line is green.


Map shows system plan of public transit system approved by Austin voters on Nov. 3rd. Graphic: Project Connect.


The basic anchor of the planned LRT system is the Orange Line, which will create a powerful public transport backbone along the crucial North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress travel and urban development route – Austin’s heaviest-traffic, highly developed, and most centrally positioned major local corridor. For background, the importance of this corridor, and the decades of intensive, agonizing public interest, studies, hopes, indecision, deliberations, and proposals concerning it, are described in ARN’s 2015 report, Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps. For additional background on the importance of this corridor, also see: Latest TTI data confirm — Guadalupe-Lamar is central local arterial corridor with heaviest travel and Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail line would serve 31% of all Austin jobs

The initial alignment of the Orange Line is planned to stretch from the North Lamar Transit Center (NLTC) at U.S. 183 and North Lamar, southward down Lamar, then Guadalupe, and into a downtown subway with a major underground hub at Republic Square (W. 4th St.). Continuing south, the subway is currently proposed to extend under the Colorado River (locally known as LadyBird Lake). Emerging back to the surface, it would proceed in the median of South Congress southward to a provisional terminus at Stassney Lane. The longer-range plan entails extending this line north to Capital Metro’s transit hub at Tech Ridge, and southward to a new multi-modal center at Slaughter Lane/Southpark Meadows.

The Blue Line, to be developed concomitantly, would interline with the Orange Line from the NLTC into the downtown subway. At the Republic Square junction, the Blue Line would branch eastward, running in its own short tunnel a few blocks to a proposed Downtown Station. Emerging from the subway, it would then head across the river on a new multi-modal bridge. It would then turn eastward again, following East Riverside Drive and other alignments to reach a terminal at the ABIA Airport

Preliminary tunnel construction plans have envisioned using the cut-and-cover method. However, geometric and engineering constraints and subsurface conditions may favor the use of deep boring. For rolling stock, planning has assumed peak four-car consists of articulated electric LRT vehicles. For the Orange Line alone, ridership in excess of 85,000 per day has been forecast for the year 2040 in systems-level planning.

Vigorous grassroots community involvement has been key to the successful outcome of Austin’s long-recognized need for urban rail. A persistent campaign spearheaded initially by the Texas Association for Public Transportation in the 1970s, joined in the 2000s by the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), gradually mobilized a coalition of local activists and organizations to maintain an unrelenting public focus on the need for an LRT system anchored in the North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress corridor. To its great credit, Capital Metro’s planning program, Project Connect, mounted a massive community outreach program, reaching tens of thousands of individuals throughout the city, and created the Project Connect Ambassadors Network (PCAN), involving dozens of key community activists who met monthly to interact with the official planning team, inputting ideas and helping shape the development of the final plan.

During the election campaign the official campaign leadership and planning team, organized as Transit for Austin and the Mobility for All PAC, managed a well-run, aggressive, consistent, and effective public involvement and media campaign that certainly played a crucial role in achieving this victory. This was bolstered by other community efforts, particularly the Austin Coalition for Transit PAC (ACTPAC).

All in all, Austin’s LRT New Start achievement is an amazing leap forward for a concept that started with the vision and aspirations of a few community activists in the 1970s. These early dreams and hopes led them to catalyze the effort to create a transit authority in the mid-1980s; to persevere through the narrow LRT plan defeat in 2000; to inspire and attract additional community support; to reject the flawed plan in 2014; and finally to soldier on to an astonishing success for a widely supported multi-line LRT system in this otherwise catastrophic year.