Archive for the ‘Austin 2020 urban rail plan & ballot measure’ Category

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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.

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Support Project Connect mass transit plan in this crisis? Definitely Yes

31 October 2020

Simulation of light rail train serving ABIA airport station. Source: Project Connect.


The $7.1 billion Project Connect mass transit plan – with two electric light rail lines, intersecting in a downtown subway, plus a network of vastly expanded and upgraded bus lines, running a new fleet of electric buses, and a new extension of the MetroRail diesel-powered light railway – is certainly Austin’s most ambitious mass transit plan to date, and possibly the most ambitious initial urban rail starter system yet proposed for any U.S. city. It represents the culmination of nearly 50 years of planning and intrepid effort by grassroots transit advocates, and unity between those who favored urban rail in an eastside-ABIA route and those favoring a central “spine” following the Guadalupe-Lamar and South Congress corridors.

To fund the local share of Project Connect, the City of Austin has placed Proposition A on the ballot, seeking voter approval of a substantial increase in the municipal property tax rate. City and Capital Metro (transit authority) leaders and planners expect federal funds to supplement nearly half of the investment cost of the plan.

Unfortunately, the Prop. A vote occurs as Austin, and of course the entire USA, writhes in the midst of a disastrous pandemic and concomitant deep economic and social crisis. Mass unemployment, widespread small business failures, rising evictions, foodbanks overwhelmed by mile-long queues of families – these are among the signals of massive distress, perhaps surpassing the Great Depression of the 1930s. Under these conditions, it’s understandable that even some otherwise firm, longtime supporters of public transport are hesitant or reluctant to embrace Prop. A and the tax measure

But in this very context of distress, now is precisely the crucial time to launch a massive public-works project like Project Connect to help resuscitate a semi-collapsed economy and provide a wide variety of new job opportunities. Furthermore, such an infusion of public funds will almost certainly have a multiplier effect – in particular, putting money in people’s pockets to support the many restaurants and other small businesses currently struggling to stay afloat.

While Prop. A would authorize a city tax rate increase averaging about 20%, that affects just a portion of total property taxes (Travis County, AISD, etc.); thus the total rate increase would amount to only about 4%. (See graph below.) Nevertheless, the hard reality is that, dollarwise, for most of us, this is a very hefty tax increase, averaging several hundred dollars for typical homeowners. In other words, in dollar terms the increase would be about as much as a typical monthly car payment.


Actual impact of property tax rate change would average about 4% increase in total taxes. Source: City of Austin.


But that that same ballpark amount for the “transit tax” would be an annual amount, not a monthly cost. In other words, the transit “payment” would be roughly 1/12 of the total annual payments on a typical car loan. (Of course, the car loan probably gets paid off in 4-5 years, but then at some point you’ve got to take out another one to replace your old car.)

So what do we get for the 1/12th of a car loan payment? With the major new flow of revenue, besides the new light rail lines (and subway) – including a rail connection to the ABIA airport – Capital Metro plans to increase frequency on virtually all bus routes, making them more accessible and feasible to use. There would be many more park & ride facilities to help with access to transit. Additional MetroRapid bus routes, with high-frequency service throughout the day, would be added and extended across the city.

By far one of the most useful innovations, especially for more outlying suburban areas and other neighborhoods with less access to fixed-route services, is the expansion of the “pickup-circulator” minibus/van system into 15 new zones – a system currently operating experimentally that functions somewhat like Uber/Lyft, but at far lower cost, to connect homes or other origins with major transit stops or other destinations. This service might not totally eliminate the need for a car, but it might reduce total driving (thus maintenance costs) and possibly eliminate the need for a second car in some households.

Certainly, this is a very difficult time for a big tax rate increase, and no matter when, it would be burdensome for most of us. However, let’s keep in mind that the rate hike would most likely begin with the 2021 assessment, probably becoming due sometime in early 2022. Hopefully we will all be climbing out of this disaster by then, and a major new Project Connect public works project would be injecting essential jobs and cash into the economy to help with the process of revitalization.

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Project Connect Plan Can Lead the Way Toward Regional Electric Light Rail System

30 September 2020

Austin metro area is a regional area and needs a complete, comprehensive, fully interlined regional electric light rail system for adequate, cost-effective mobility. Map: ARN, from Google Maps.

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 on 7 August 2020 to a joint meeting of the Austin City Council and Capital Metro Board considering approval of an Interlocal Agreement and incorporation measure to implement a proposed Austin Transit Partnership to manage the proposed Capital Metro/Project Connect multi-modal transit system expansion project. The $7.1 billion multi-modal transit system plan, with two initial light rail lines, will be presented on the ballot for voter approval as Proposition A in the upcoming election on 3 November 2020. (The complete Project Connect long-range plan includes three eventual light rail lines as well as other regional rail services and various bus-based services.)

I’m Lyndon Henry. I’m an urban planner and transportation planning consultant, a former Capital Metro Board member, and a former data analyst for Capital Metro.

The Project Connect plan, centered on an urban rail system and anchored by a light rail spine along the key North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress Orange Line corridor, would basically implement the mass transit vision I’ve been advocating for the past 49 years. In pursuit of that vision, I participated in creating Capital Metro, served four years on its board, and later worked for the agency for nine years.

Starting in the 1970s, I initiated an effort to acquire, for rail transit use, the former Southern Pacific Railroad branch line from Giddings to Llano, the western part of which is in operation today as the Metrorail Red Line. I’ve also been continuously active over four decades as a community participant in the urban rail planning process, including Project Connect.

From its inception Capital Metro was conceived as a regional system with rail transit to serve both suburban and central-city neighborhoods of the Austin metro area. The Project Connect plan, with its three light rail lines, can be a major step toward fulfilment of that original intention to connect Austin’s more outlying neighborhoods with one another and the central city.

Expanding electric light rail is crucial to that regional vision. This can be done relatively easily and cost-effectively.

First, the Metrorail Red Line and proposed Green Line can be converted to faster, more cost-effective, high-capacity electric light rail service for the northwest and eastern sections of the metro area..

Second, the former Katy railroad right-of-way is a natural alignment to link eastern and northeastern suburbs and communities into central Austin.

Third, in south and southeast Austin, the former Bergstrom spur right-of-way offers an excellent route for an additional light rail line directly linking the ABIA airport with the Union Pacific rail corridor, South First St., the South Congress Transit Center, and neighborhoods east of I-35 along the Ben White/US 71 corridor.

I strongly support approving the Interlocal Agreement and incorporation measure to implement the proposed Austin Transit Partnership, and the funding commitments, toward the goal of building the regional highspeed electric light rail network that Austin has needed for so long.

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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.