Archive for the ‘Austin 2016 urban rail bond campaign’ Category

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Austin Council nixes light rail bond — But stay tuned for 2017 or 2018

31 August 2016
Austin City Council votes unanimously for proposed "Go Big" $720 million bond measure on Aug. 11th. Photo: Screen capture from ATXN video.

Austin City Council votes unanimously for proposed “Go Big” $720 million roads-focused bond measure on Aug. 11th. Photo: Screen capture from ATXN video.

Despite intense community support and effort, particularly by transit advocates, on August 11th the Austin City Council ignored pleas to include a nearly $400 million bond item for light rail transit (LRT) on the November 2016 ballot. The administration’s own so-called “mobility” bond proposal, a $720 million package dubbed “Go Big”, without any major transit projects included, was passed unanimously. The package is “five times larger than any transportation bond ever approved in the city” according to an August 18th report by the Austin American-Statesman’s veteran transportation reporter Ben Wear.

The community-proposed transit measure would have provided a local funding share for a 5.3-mile LRT starter line minimum operable system in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (See «Grassroots effort proposes small light rail starter project for an authentic “mobility bond” measure».)

However, the seeming unanimity of the preliminary Aug. 11th vote apparently masked conflicted attitudes and misgivings of several councilmembers, simmering just below the surface. During preliminary discussions on an earlier item dealing with a proposed commission to evaluate and recommend future bond items, Councilmembers Ann Kitchen (District 5) and Delia Garza (District 2) – both transit supporters who sit on the board of Capital Metro (the regional transit agency) – floated the possibility of a rail bond ballot item in 2017 or 2018.

As reported by Caleb Pritchard in the Austin Monitor, in the discussion of the current bond proposal for 2016, District 4 Councilmember Greg Casar raised the possibility of light rail, stating “I recognize that there is some real support for public transit in the $720 million plan currently on the table, but I think that given this presidential election, it would be great to do more.” Mayor Pro Tem (and District 9 Councilmember) Kathie Tovo also tried to open the door for an LRT bond measure, but she was alone in stating she would be favor such an action, “if that was the will of the Council.”

Pritchard’s report continued:

Council members Delia Garza, Pio Renteria and Kitchen, along with Adler, also all voiced support for light rail as a concept. However, each said that the timeline is not compatible with the formal planning needed. Each said they would support a renewed light rail effort in 2018.

As previously noted, the “Go Big” roads-focused bond measure was approved unanimously at the first reading on Aug. 11th. However, a week later, in the final Council vote on August 18th, at least some disagreements came clearly into the open when four councilmembers failed to support the measure – reportedly, an unprecedented fracturing with respect to a bond item, for which council votes have historically been unanimous. As the Statesman’s Ben Wear observed in an Aug. 19th followup story, “Having a split council vote on bond packages is not how these things go historically, and it doesn’t bode well for passage by voters.”

The nonsupportive votes broke down as three abstentions and one opposition. Although the “Go Big” package was primarily a roads measure (designed to “increase throughput” of traffic, according to its proponents), right-leaning pro-highway Councilmembers Don Zimmerman (District 6) and Ellen Troxclair (District 8) – who tend to be disdainful of public transit – abstained because of what they perceived as a lack of transparency with respect to the property tax impact.

District 2 Councilmember Delia Garza – as noted, a transit supporter – also abstained. As she explained, “I have concerns about the bond capacity, the bond fatigue in our community and that there are no direct improvements to public transit.” (Reported by the Austin Business Journal.)

The strongest opposition came from District 1 Councilmember Ora Houston. Houston, who is black, seemed particularly outraged at the lack of more diverse representation in the process of developing projects included in the bond package. “I am dismayed that a $720 million bond that is on the November ballot is a product of the way things have always been done …” she said, as quoted by Ben Wear in the Aug. 18th Statesman. “I feel like I’ve been bullied …” she added.


Councilmember Ora Houston in City Council meeting of Aug. 18th, during which she was only councilmember to vote against proposed "Go Big" bond package. Photo: Screen capture from ATXN video.

Councilmember Ora Houston in City Council meeting of Aug. 18th, during which she was only councilmember to vote against proposed “Go Big” bond package. Photo: Screen capture from ATXN video.


Wear further reported Houston’s view that “the studies that led to the ‘smart corridor’ projects arose from the old citywide-elected council and were heavily influenced by a core of central city activists rather than a more representative sampling of Austinites.” In his Aug. 19th article (previously cited above), Wear elaborated her complaint that “public input” on the content of “mobility bonds” presented to voters had been “the spawn of the bad old days of a council that was beholden to white, central city urbanites who dominated elections, and tended to cater to that clique’s policy desires.”

The roads-focused bond item now slated for the Nov. 8th ballot seems to have the role of an adjunct to TxDOT’s ambitious plans for a mammoth overhaul to I-35. As Roger Baker and Dave Dobbs pointed out on this website this past March in their critique «Why spending $4.7 billion trying to improve I-35 is a waste of money», at best, trying to “solve” congestion with more roadway facilities – thus encouraging more traffic – is a fool’s errand. And TxDOT, with local political allies, facing a daunting $4.7 billion potential cost, has been seeking to get Austin-area taxpayers on board. Particularly through some cost-shifting, the $720 million “Go Big” bond plan seems to have a role in this larger scheme.

Nevertheless, given evidence of nominal support for urban rail by Mayor Steve Adler and a majority of members of Austin’s City Council, advocates of an LRT starter line for Guadalupe-Lamar are looking hopefully to a possible rail bond measure in 2017 or 2018. But this may be a treacherous path, especially since Capital Metro board members/Austin Councilmembers Kitchen and Garza place a lot of stock in the “Central Corridor analysis” Capital Metro has in process. And once again, that “study” is positioned under the rubric of Project Connect – the same consortium of agencies that produced the disastrously flawed Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal resoundingly rejected by voters in November 2014.

Local community activists and transit advocates still have bitter memories of Project Connect’s “high-capacity transit study” process, particularly from the last five months of 2013 (and embellished during the bond vote campaign in 2014) – an exercise in subterfuge with its deeply flawed methodology (designed to justify a preordained agenda) and outrageous sham of “public involvement” (substituting “art galleries” and “clicker” feedback for bona fide meetings and involvement). For background information on that experience, see:

The fraudulent “study” behind the misguided Highland-Riverside urban rail plan

City Council to Austin community: Shut Up

In our article titled «Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead», and posted immediately after the 2014 defeat of Project Connect’s plan, Austin Rail Now warned :

This vote also represents not only a rejection of an unacceptable rail transit proposal, but also a protest against the “backroom-dealmaking” modus operandi that has characterized official public policymaking and planning in recent years — a pattern that included shutting community members out of participation in the urban rail planning process, relegating the public to the status of lowly subjects, and treating us all like fools. Leaping immediately into a process of community inclusion and direct involvement is now essential. The community must become re-connected and involved in a meaningful way.

So far, with their latest venture into a “Central Corridor” rail study, there is no evidence that Capital Metro administrators and planners have learned appropriate lessons from the 2013-2014 debacle. As this new study moves forward, community activists and public transport advocates deserve to be extremely wary, and to be prepared to do whatever they can to avoid a replay of that previous experience at all cost. ■

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Grassroots effort proposes small light rail starter project for an authentic “mobility bond” measure

11 June 2016
5.3-mile Minimum Operable Segment light rail line proposed by CACDC. Graphic: Screenshot from CACDC map.

5.3-mile Minimum Operable Segment light rail line proposed by CACDC. Graphic: Screenshot from CACDC map.

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».


Cross-sectional diagram of major arterials in corridor, showing center LRT reservation, traffic lanes, sidwalks, and side-mounted TES poles for suspending the OCS. Graphic: ARN.

Cross-sectional view of a possible design for LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: ARN.


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.


Wider-view map showing 5.3-mile LRT MOS route strategically serving busy local Guadalupe-Lamar corridor between Loop 1 (MoPac) and I-35. Graphic: ARN.

Wider-view map, in context of central-city Austin, showing 5.3-mile LRT MOS route strategically serving busy local Guadalupe-Lamar corridor between Loop 1 (MoPac) and I-35. Graphic: ARN.


Significant benefits

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.


Proposed citywide urban rail system. Map: Andrew Mayer.

Proposed MOS LRT starter line could serve as anchoring backbone for expansion into LRT network throughout metro area. Map: Andrew Mayer.


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. ■