Archive for the ‘Austin light rail issues’ Category

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Transit planning cabal-style

28 February 2017
Graphic: Marvel Database.

Graphic: Marvel Database.

In recent weeks, within Austin’s transit advocacy community, rumors have been circulating of some kind of “package” of major transit projects possibly being compiled, perhaps for the November 2018 election cycle. While details are murky – concocted behind the veil of a resuscitated Project Connect and the tightly shuttered enclaves of the high-level leadership consortium of Capital Metro, City of Austin, plus some Travis County and state officials – it is whispered that such a plan might include a “Guadalupe-Lamar project” as well as an expansion of the MetroRail regional railway, a highway-routed bus “rapid transit” (BRT) line, and other possible projects.

A “Guadalupe-Lamar project” sounds great – a starter light rail transit (LRT) line in the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor would represent the crucial linchpin of an eventual LRT (urban rail) network for the entire metro area. But there’s no guarantee that LRT is the “project” behind the dark curtain. Whatever concrete details of these wisps of plans may exist seem to be closely guarded secrets. For the G-L corridor, officials, planners, and their consultants may be envisioning urban rail, or they might just as plausibly be concocting more investment in the pathetic MetroRapid faux-“BRT” operation … or a cable-gondola line … or some other scheme.

The problem is that this top-level methodology of secrecy is now the routine modus operandi of most of Austin’s major public transport planning. And this, in an era of so-called “transparency”.

In fact, a lot of this methodology comes close to the definition of a cabal: “the contrived schemes of a group of persons secretly united in a plot ….” While it doesn’t have the cohesiveness of a bona fide cabal – and it certainly isn’t motivated by evil intent – today’s transport planning process nevertheless feels enough like a behind-the-scenes cabal to merit this unfortunate comparison. (And that’s why we’ve dubbed it “cabal-style”.)

Local planning wasn’t always this Machiavellian. Back in the early days of the Austin Transportation Study (predecessor of CAMPO) and Capital Metro, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, planning was upfront; plans were on the table for public review, discussion, and debate. Community activists were intimately involved in the planning process; public participation was vigorous and vibrant. Meetings of advisory bodies such as Capital Metro’s Citizens Advisory Committee and Transitway Corridor Analysis Project Advisory Committee were frequent and well-attended, often by participants in the dozens. Plan proposals were not only clearly on view, but were shaped and fine-tuned by direct community input.

That process has, in recent years, been squelched. Interactive public meetings have been replaced by “open houses” and “workshops” where actual full discussion among all participants is excluded. Austin Rail Now has analyzed and criticized this deleterious process in considerable detail – see the numerous articles collected in the category Public involvement process.

Bona fide, free-speaking, freely attended, full public meetings are a critical component of democratic process. That’s how ideas are raised, shaped, tweaked, finalized – via discussion within groups of participants with a diversity of expertise, backgrounds, viewpoints, insights.

You can be sure that these occult, mysterious transit plans we’ve been referring to have been hatched by vigorous interactive meetings … not of the public, but of a relatively tiny, cabal-like huddle of officials, planners, and consultants sheltered from public view and involvement. A carefully assembled community body like the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee is allowed an occasional glimpse of what’s already been decided elsewhere … and then, only every few months or so. Back in the days of the directly involved and intensely active public advisory committees, meetings were held several times a month (especially in the final stages of formulating plans).

Even through this dark, distorted process, perhaps acceptable plans will emerge that will be embraced by the Austin community. But don’t hold your breath. The absence of direct, intimate, ongoing, adequately engaged, fully democratic public participation seriously increases the risk of flawed outcomes and political problems.

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Capital Metro — Back to 1986?

30 November 2016
Ottawa Transitway (BRT) bus congestion in downtown, 2011. Bus congestion has persuaded Ottawa to launch LRT project, now under construction. The possibility of severe bus overcrowding in downtown Austin led Capital Metro board to reject a proposed BRT line in I-35 in favor of LRT in 1989.

Ottawa Transitway (BRT) bus congestion in downtown, 2011. Bus congestion has persuaded Ottawa to launch LRT project, now under construction. The possibility of severe bus overcrowding in downtown Austin (as warned by local community transit activists) led Capital Metro board to reject a proposed I-35 BRT line in favor of LRT in 1989. (Photo: Flickr.)

Austin’s Capital Metro seems determined to return to the thrilling days of yesteryear – at least in its longrange transit system planning.

That would appear to be the case, according to reports from participants in a meeting where representatives of Project Connect (unearthed from its grave by Capital Metro) presented the agency’s “priorities” for regional transit system planning.

The presentation, organized on the evening of November 15th by the Friends of Hyde Park neighborhood association, was reported by Austin community transit activist Mike Dahmus in Twitter messages and a posting on his blog. Mike’s report, with confirmation from other participants, makes it clear that some implementation of “bus rapid transit” (BRT) on I-35 is (in the words of one observer) a “foregone conclusion”. But this is a revival of a faulty 1986 plan from the agency’s past.

This proposal for “BRT” (i.e., express or limited-stop buses) on I-35 is basically a reversion to Capital Metro’s planning as of about 1986, at the start of the Transitway Corridor Analysis Project (TCAP). This early study effectively began with the premise that “BRT” was probably the desirable “rapid transit” mode for the region (although light rail was included in the TCAP study as a kind of whipping-boy target to be rejected). Just as with the agency’s current scheme, the 1980s-era “BRT” plans envisioned buses running in I-35. Feeding more buses into the I-35 alignment was to be the function of a northwestern branch; this was proposed as alternatives of running buses either in U.S. 183 or in a dedicated busway to be constructed along the new railway alignment (now the Red Line) that had been acquired by the City of Austin from the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Unfortunately for that “BRT” strategy, a number of savvy light rail transit (LRT) advocates were members of the TCAP Technical Group of Capital Metro’s then-very-active Citizens Advisory Committee, which met regularly (every two to three weeks or so) during the study process. Particularly knowledgeable about technical issues relating to the comparative evaluation of transit modes (e.g. issues from ridership forecasting to infrastructural, operational, and cost issues), community activist Dave Dobbs and public transportation planner Lyndon Henry were effective in responding to various claims and factual errors forthcoming from both Capital Metro staff members and consultants. The end result was a recommendation from the Technical Group for the Capital Metro board to approve LRT as the preferred mode, and subsequently (in 1989) the board did designate LRT as the agency’s Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for the central corridor.

What persuaded Capital Metro’s top decisionmakers to opt for LRT over the BRT plan? The most salient factors included:

• Evidence (plus intuition) that rail transit has greater public attractiveness and generates higher ridership than comparative bus systems …

• Unease over the difficulties and high investment cost of inserting BRT into a freeway alignment, and questions over the value per dollar spent compared with LRT …

• Perception and evidence that LRT tended to generate greater adjacent real estate and economic development than BRT …

• Overall perceptions that economic development plus total cost-effectiveness suggested a higher return on investment (ROI) for LRT …

• Concern over the possibility of bus overcrowding and even congestion on Central Area streets with the high-capacity BRT alternative …

• Conclusion that LRT would yield better compatibility (and fewer environmental impacts) with Austin’s urban environment than BRT.

Unfortunately, there’s no indication that any of these issues are being considered in the current Project Connect 2.0 study process, or emerging as a focus of attention on the part of today’s Capital Metro board.

And Capital Metro seems headed to repeat other past mistakes as well. Apparently, as related by Mike Dahmus’s blog report, the resuscitated “Project Connect 2.0” study process is also committing the same kinds of absurd, critical methodological errors that so thoroughly damaged the original “Project Connect 1.0” attempt to fashion a “High-Capacity Transit” (HCT) proposal in 2013. (See «The fraudulent “study” behind the misguided Highland-Riverside urban rail plan».)

For example, Mike reports:

The framework for discussion has been set in a way that heavily disfavors Guadalupe/Lamar rail. There are three ‘segments’ of travel they put up on the screen; as well as a slide which shows “previous HCT studies”. Guadalupe/Lamar is not in the top slide (most important service), nor is it listed in “previous HCT studies”. It is instead consigned to the second group, called “connector corridors”, implying that Capital Metro has already decided that it cannot be the spine of the transit network.

This kind of planning contortion – dissecting and severing major travel corridors into irrelevant “segments” – is exactly the kind of methodological butchery that in 2013 provided Project Connect 1.0 a rationale to dismiss the city’s most significant central urban travel corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar. Mike goes on to correctly explain that

… when the majority of your passengers on your theoretical ‘spine’ have to transfer, YOU HAVE A BAD SPINE, DAWG. Spines need to go down the middle and get to the good stuff. And especially on the ‘work end’ of the trip (not the ‘home end’): if a large percentage of your riders have to transfer off the spine, you’ve chosen poorly.

His blog post also quotes Houston urban planner and transit advocate Christof Spieler’s observation on the need to zero in on a city’s most important corridor:

For Houston, the strategy meant building a light rail through the city’s primary urban corridor, where lots of people already live and work.

Cities often shy away from that approach because it’s more expensive and disruptive to lay tracks in such populated locations. But the factors that make it difficult to build light rail there were exactly the things that made it the right place to have light rail.

Unfortunately, these key lessons seem lost on Capital Metro and its reanimated concoction Project Connect 2.0. Currently, the agency appears to be on course to once again disparage, downplay, and bypass the most important urban travel corridor in the city: Guadalupe-Lamar. ■

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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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Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail needs to be included in Austin’s “mobility” bond package

27 July 2016
Ann Kitchen chairs City of Austin Mobility Committee meeting of June 14th. Photo: Sceenshot from ATXN video.

Ann Kitchen chairs City of Austin Mobility Committee meeting of June 14th. Photo: Sceenshot from ATXN video.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to a public meeting of the City of Austin’s Mobility Committee on 14 June 2016. Lyndon Henry is a transportsation planning consultant, a former board member of Capital Metro, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and a contributing editor to this website.

I urge you to include a measure for urban rail in the proposed $720 million “mobility” bond package now under consideration. I support the proposal for an affordable 5.3-mile light rail Minimum Operable Segment on North Lamar and Guadalupe from Crestview to downtown.

Currently 83% of the proposed $720 million package is devoted to road projects. Surely some of these road projects could be replaced with the $260 million to $400 million that would facilitate an urban rail project.


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

Proposed 5.3-mile light rail transit starter line Minimum Operable Segment in Guadaluoe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: CACDC.


It’s absurd that the $720 million bond package you’re considering could be labeled a “mobility” package despite NO major initiative for transit, let alone urban rail, which has been studied and affirmed as a necessity for decades. This bond proposal stands in contradiction to the decades of official “green” rhetoric and policy initiatives such as Envision Central Texas and Imagine Austin that have verbally embraced public transportation and “high-capacity transit” as key “alternative mobility” measures necessary to “keep Austin moving”.

This road-focused $720 million package tries to address congestion by increasing “throughput” of vehicles. Unfortunately, experience and evidence suggest that this is a losing approach — trying to tweak more capacity to squeeze through more cars typically just induces more traffic. Furthermore, this influx of ever-growing vehicle traffic imposes more stress on congested areas such as Austin’s core.


Lyndon Henry presenting comments to City of Austin Mobility Committee on June 14th. Photo: Screenshot from ATXN video.

Lyndon Henry presenting comments to City of Austin Mobility Committee on June 14th. Photo: Screenshot from ATXN video.


In contrast, this light rail plan (and future expansions throughout Austin) removes traffic from roadways by attracting motorists to the transit service, adding the equivalent of four lanes of extra peak capacity to this corridor. Can the same be said for the current $720 million road-focused bond plan?

I suggest that urban rail — providing highly attractive rail transit service on its own dedicated tracks — makes far more sense as a solution for alleviating mobility congestion, than simply trying to squeeze more traffic onto the city’s crowded streets, roads, and parking spaces.

I’ve heard the argument that urban rail is “not ready” to be offered as a bond measure. Yet polls and other evidence indicate resounding support for public transit and urban rail, and the Austin community has gone through years of repeated outreach exercises familiarizing them with the technology and the issues. The public seems more ready than ever to support rail; it’s Austin’s civic leadership that seems to have cold feet.

Finally, whatever bond package you choose, I urge you to unbundle the roads bonds from the small proportion of bicycle and pedestrian bonds. This would allow the community at least to consider these alternative mobility elements separately. ■

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NOTE: As of this posting, the Mobility Committee and City Council have approved the $720 million roads-dominated bond measure, without provision for transit, as a bundled package.
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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. ■

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Support grows to include urban rail in November “mobility” bond package

28 May 2016
J.D. Gins, member of Urban Transportation Commission, at May 10th meeting, argues for recommendation to Austin City Council to include rail transit in November bond package. ARN screenshot from COA video.

J.D. Gins, member of Urban Transportation Commission, at May 10th meeting, argues for recommendation to Austin City Council to include rail transit in November bond package. ARN screenshot from COA video.

On May 7th, Austin voters resoundingly defeated Proposition 1, an effort by “gig” taxi firms Uber and Lyft to exempt themselves from several regulatory measures applying to other taxi services operating in Austin. In response, Uber and Lyft have both suspended their operations in Austin.

An interesting result is that interest has surged in the possibility of an urban rail alternative – mainly focused on an electric light rail transit (LRT) starter line for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor – being added to a proposed package of “mobility” bond measures this coming November. In a May 12th news segment, for example, KXAN-TV News reporter Chris Sadeghi noted that “As Uber and Lyft leave the conversation on mobility options in Austin, it could provide urban rail the opportunity to re-enter it.”

At its regular meeting of May 10th, the City of Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission (UTC) unanimously passed a resolution presented by board member J.D. Gins (see photo at top of this post) recommending that “the City Council consider rail options including, but not limited to, a minimum operating segment as part of the 2016 bond proposal.” Reporting on this development, KXAN reporter Sadeghi interviewed UTC member Mario Champion. As Sadeghi related, “Because there have been studies and plans already conducted into the feasibility and design of rail projects, Champion said the commission is hopeful the process to getting an election item on the November ballot can move quickly.”

“We could dust off those plans and learn from the community what was good about them and what was not good about them” Champion told the reporter.


Resolution passed by Urban Transportation Commission recommends City Council consider including rail transit in November bond package. Screenshot by ARN from COA PDF.

Resolution passed by Urban Transportation Commission recommends City Council consider including rail transit in November bond package. Screenshot by ARN from COA PDF. (Click to enlarge.)


Also covering the UTC recommendation for putting rail on the ballot, KEYE-TV News reporter Melanie Torre interviewed Andrew Clements with the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC). “Clements has been pushing for an urban light rail for years, but where the rail goes is critical to its success” reported Torre. Clements and the CACDC had played a key role in providing information on urban LRT for UTC members.

“All along North Lamar and Guadalupe there’s already density that would support light rail” Clements told Torre, adding “We’ve known since probably the 1970s that’s the best place to put light urban rail first.” Torre explained that “Years down the road, rail construction could expand north toward Rundberg Lane, east down Riverside Drive and south down Pleasant Valley Road.”

According to the KEYE report, CACDC is proposing a first segment that would “span from Crestview Station to Republic Square Park in downtown” at an estimated cost of about $465 million (2016 dollars). (The CACDC route replicates nearly 80% of the “Plan B” proposal described in an October 2014 ARN posting.)

“Even though it’s expensive, the most efficient way is what we need to start dedicating our public right-of-ways to …” Clements insisted. It should be noted, however, that this is a bargain price for such a mobility investment, which could potentially remove as many as 2,700 motor vehicles each peak hour from major arteries in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

The $465 million investment cost also appears eminently affordable, if 50% Federal Transit Administration funding is assumed. Converting CACDC’s 2016 estimate to Year of Expenditure (YOE) dollars would imply a total project investment of $514 million over four years, and a local 50% match of $257 million – a budgetary allotment for Austin commensurate with other major capital investments in recent years.

A May 16th Austin Monitor article by Caleb Pritchard focused on the UTC vote and also put the urban rail possibility in the context of greater emphasis on alternative mobility opportunities, including expanded bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Pritchard notes that a funding package that would include the 2014 Bicycle Master Plan “as well as the construction of high-priority sidewalks around schools and transit stops” was already on the table in the amount of $411 million.

Miller Nuttle, representing Bike Austin, told the Monitor reporter: “I think rail should be a critical part of solving Austin’s long-term transportation crisis. I also think biking and walking are critical, too, and that’s something we can do now given that the plans have been thoroughly publicly vetted. All they need in order to be actualized is capital funding.”

Pritchard also quoted Clements in regard to the merits of CACDC’s $465 million proposal. “Of all the things that are being considered, I think light urban rail will have the most impact on mobility…” Clements stated. “I strongly support the bike master plan and the sidewalk plan, but I think that, at best, those are going to have single-digit impacts on ride-share mode splits. And I believe light urban rail will have the biggest bang for the buck.”

On May 17th, the City’s Zoning and Platting Commission included the UTC’s resolution “calling for funding the bicycle master plan, high priority sidewalks, and corridor plans that increase opportunities for high capacity transit, including the consideration of rail” in citing their basis to approve a resolution “calling on the city council to put a transportation bond proposal on the upcoming November ballot ….” according to a report from Fox 7 TV News.

Dick Kallerman, a longtime leader of the Travis County Sierra Club’s involvement in transportation issues, interviewed by Fox 7 News, suggested that “a better outreach campaign” might help convince more of the public to “get on board” with public transportation .

“If people start thinking in turns of urban, urban living, mass transit it part of it …” said Kallerman. ” If you get in a car it’s a contradiction, if you think you are an urbanite living in a city and you get in a car, it means you really don’t know what urban living is all about.” ■

Proposed LRT alignment in narrow segment of Guadalupe between 29th-38th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

One possible design for inserting light rail line into Guadalupe St. between W. 29th-W. 38th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

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Vision for an Austin metro-wide light rail system

28 April 2016
Austin metro area. Graphic: Google Maps.

Austin metro area. Graphic: Google Maps.

In a number of postings this website has focused on the need and various alternative possibilities for an initial light rail transit (LRT) starter line in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. However, it’s crucial to emphasize that this would be merely the starter-anchor-spine of future branches of light rail to create an eventual metro-wide system. Most of America’s most successful LRT systems – such as San Diego, Portland, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Denver, St. Louis, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Phoenix – have expanded into more extensive citywide and even region-wide systems via this process of beginning with a single highly successful starter line.

Guadalupe-Lamar is, first and foremost, well positioned as such a starter line that could become the basic spine for expanding into a system with routes reaching outward into the metro area. As we’ve also repeatedly emphasized, it’s essential to develop a vision of a system that serves as many sectors of the metro area as feasible, and present this to the public. This is why it’s essential to keep the scale, design, and cost appropriate and affordable.

A number of Austin’s key corridors clearly have the residential and employment density, and the travel density, to support LRT. Certainly a “short list” of corridors worthy of inclusion in a viable system would include South Congress, South Lamar, and East Riverside, as well as extensions up North Lamar, conversion of MetroRail between downtown and Lakeline to LRT, and corridors through the Mueller redevelopment area into Northeast Austin, out East MLK into East Austin, and westward out Lake Austin Blvd.

Recently community urban activist and Guadalupe-Lamar rail transit supporter Andrew Mayer created his own version of the kind of extensive citywide system Austin Rail Now has been proposing. As shown in the map below, Andrew’s plan has electric LRT lines reaching throughout the city, north, northwest, northeast, west, east, south central (SoCo), southwest (SoLa), and southeast to the East Riverside area.


Proposed citywide urban rail system. Map: Andrew Mayer.

Proposed citywide urban rail system. Map: Andrew Mayer.


Andrew’s “ultimate build-out” metro-wide LRT system map (as with similar proposed systemwide maps) is an excellent, plausible, and credible visioning tool, particularly for helping major civic leaders and the public in general understand the vision of where a fully effective urban rail system eventually needs to go in this metro area. So is a metro-wide LRT system a realistic, achievable prospect from the standpoint of financial resources?

In 2014, at the height of the controversy over Project Connect’s then-proposed official Highland-Riverside $1.4-billion “urban rail” line, the implications for an expanded citywide rail transit system began to become a subject of more public discussion, with comparisons being made to other cities’ LRT systems, such as the expanding network of lines in Portland, Oregon. Some skeptics and rail transit opponents began brandishing a figure of “$8 billion” ($8.8 billion in some cases) as the investment cost of an Austin-area rail buildout comparable to Portland’s approximately 60-mile system — an exorbitant pricetag mainly based on an extrapolation of the extravagant cost of the Highland-Riverside project (a project facing some of the most challenging, expensive, and anomalous conditions in our own metro area).

In reality, a well-designed, value-engineered multi-line system for Austin is likely to cost far less than either these inflated cost assumptions or even the costs that have faced LRT planners in Portland’s difficult terrain. All told, a plausible investment cost estimate for a 60-mile Austin system (including an initial Guadalupe-Lamar starter line) would most likely average about $73 million per mile (2016 dollars), with total current investment cost falling in the range of roughly $4.4 billion. A realistic timeline for buildout of such a system might be three decades (about the same as in Portland). If we assume 50% Federal Transit Administration funding, that implies a 50% local share of about $2.2 billion, about $733 million per decade, or roughly $73 million per year.

Could the Austin region sustain a major rail transit development program of about $73 million per year? In view of current City of Austin and Capital Metro combined capital projects funding of more than $800 million per year, such an LRT starter line and system expansion program would indeed appear plausible, particularly with potentially available additional sources of funding (such as Tax Increment Financing) and other resources.

So far, as several of our articles have documented, Austin-area officials’ plan for spending vast additional billions of dollars on virtually endless highway development and expansion seems to be a program of investment in a “vision” of further misery and hopelessness. (See: «Baker: CAMPO’s 2040 plan = “prescription for intense and auto-addictive suburban sprawl development far into future”» and «Why spending $4.7 billion trying to improve I-35 is a waste of money».)

Andrew Mayer’s map for a metro-wide urban rail system, shown above, presents a very different, and we believe far more hopeful and desirable, vision for Austin’s future. Integrated with a robust, bus-based public transit services network, this is the kind of urban rail transit system that can catapult public transit into a truly major force in addressing the needs of mobility in metro Austin. ■

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Why spending $4.7 billion trying to improve I-35 is a waste of money

29 March 2016

Trying to widen Austin’s most congested road will only make congestion worse


I-35 traffic congestion — bad and predicted to get much worse. Source: Culturemap.com.

Austin’s I-35 traffic congestion — bad and predicted to get much worse. Photo: Culturemap.com.


By Roger Baker and Dave Dobbs

The purpose of this analysis is to document the strong case against widening roads like I-35 (Interstate Highway 35, aka IH-35) to relieve congestion, especially when there are much smarter ways to use the same public money to solve transportation problems. This concept is important to understand because TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) is now actively planning to increase the lane-miles and vehicle capacity of I-35 along the San Marcos to Georgetown stretch of I-35 at a cost of $4.7 billion. This road section is ranked as the most congested corridor in Texas.

There is now a near-consensus by transportation experts that trying to relieve congestion by building and widening roads in very congested cities, like Austin, will actually worsen congestion. Severe congestion throughout a city during peak hour means that traffic will seek out and fill up any new freeway capacity as fast as it can be added. As discussed in a report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG), the Katy Freeway in Houston, I-10 demonstrates this fact.

In Texas, for example, a $2.8 billion project widened Houston’s Katy Freeway to 26 lanes, making it the widest freeway in the world. But commutes got longer after its 2012 opening: By 2014 morning commuters were spending 30 percent more time in their cars, and afternoon commuters 55 percent more time.

In fact, it has been known for some time that building and widening roads doesn’t relieve congestion, but with urbanization, economic prosperity, and easy-guaranteed credit reinforced by automobile-centric federal transportation policy, the familiar American car-based suburban sprawl land pattern happens automatically. Rings of suburbs ever further from a city’s core inevitably lead to severe traffic congestion in every major USA city, Austin being no exception.

For decades, the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) at Texas A&M University has effectively functioned as a pro-road think tank friendly to TxDOT and the Texas road beneficiaries. Understandably, until recently, TTI has been reluctant to admit that building more roads didn’t actually relieve congestion, which is a counter-intuitive outlook. However, using TTI’s own data, the reform-minded Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) was able to document this situation back in 1998:

By analyzing TTI’s data for 70 metro areas over 15 years, STPP determined that metro areas that invested heavily in road capacity expansion fared no better in easing congestion than metro areas that did not. Trends in congestion show that areas that exhibited greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn’t, yet ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, wasted fuel, and travel delay. The STPP study shows that on average the cost to relieve the congestion reported by TTI just by building roads could be thousands of dollars per family per year. The metro area with the highest estimated road building cost was Nashville, Tennessee with a price tag of $3,243 per family per year, followed by Austin, Orlando, and Indianapolis.


TTI Roadway Congestion Index (Mean) shows that roadway congestion has continued to rise despite intensive investment in capacity expansion. Source: STPP.

TTI Roadway Congestion Index (Mean) shows that roadway congestion has continued to rise despite intensive investment in capacity expansion. Graph: STPP.


David Dilworth, in a 2012 posting, did the following review of the basic reasons why you can’t pave your way out of congestion, and what happens when you attempt it anyway.

1) There is now overwhelming evidence, including a nationwide study of 70 metropolitan areas over 15 years (Texas Transportation Institute), and another California specific study (Hansen 1995, which included Monterey County) that when an area is congested – additional lanes or roads do not provide congestion relief.
2) It is also well documented that additional lanes increase traffic, and that new highways create demand for travel and expansion by their very existence.
3) Further experience shows “When road capacity shrinks — So Can Traffic”; traffic congestion goes down!

So, when a road is congested, adding more lanes or roads will not relieve congestion, but will likely increase traffic.
When a road is congested the only way to relieve congestion is not by building more roads, but by reducing land use – or paradoxically by closing roads.

Closing roads and reducing land use clearly implies that planners will need to rethink mobility, i.e., moving people rather than cars, and finding ways to reduce travel distances so that walking, biking, and transit become the preferred alternatives.

Nowadays, even TTI has admitted that I-35 can’t be fixed in any meaningful sense. True, some lane capacity can be added, and an urban-friendly design could mitigate its impact on the center city. However, nothing will significantly address congestion as the following excerpts taken from a recent TTI report indicate.

…This modeling research demonstrates that Central Texas cannot “build its way out of congestion” on IH 35. Examination of the initial set of scenarios demonstrates that, as capacity is added to IH 35, traffic moves to IH 35 from other streets and roads that operate with even worse congestion, in essence “re-filling” the road. As described above, Central Texas drivers fill any capacity added to IH 35. Therefore, additional capacity provides little relief to peak-hour IH 35 general purpose lane congestion. And, because population and jobs are projected to grow so much in the corridor, any open road space created by new lanes is quickly filled. …

The study team concluded that this effort demonstrates a very unlikely future. That is, the levels of congestion predicted for IH 35 — in fact, the Central Texas region — will be unacceptable for local residents and business. In discussions with the MIP Working Group regarding these technical results, there is heightened concern that the levels of congestion demonstrated by this study would dampen the area’s growth in population and employment because people and businesses will quite simply not move here if the transportation infrastructure is insufficient to avoid this level of congestion. Therefore, with impacts predicted to be this substantial to quality of life and economic health, such levels of congestion will likely be unacceptable to future residents and businesses, so that the area’s growth is in fact, unsustainable….


I-35 congestion, considered worst in Texas. Texas Transportation Institute has concluded that "additional capacity provides little relief...". Source: TTI.

I-35 congestion, considered worst in Texas. Texas Transportation Institute has concluded that “additional capacity provides little relief…”. Photo: TTI.


Despite this, TxDOT is greenlighting the My35 Capital Corridor project even though it has no clear idea of where most of the money to widen I-35 will come from, and likewise the Texas Transportation Commission is authorizing funds piecemeal to construct parts of the full-blown I-35 vision in TxDOT’s District 14, Austin, where $158 million has been allocated for this year (as reported by the Austin American-Statesman).

This question remains. Why should we be planning a traffic solution which we know in advance will make I-35’s daily bumper-to-bumper congestion a lot worse, and which will make us more dependent than ever on fossil fuels, even while knowing that the money to do this isn’t there? And why would we rush to judgement in November, at least for I-35, when the major construction benefits, if there are any, won’t happen for years?

It seems like government spending on old solutions that don’t work well anymore has become almost the standard operating procedure. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) have both been made chronically underfunded and paralyzed by partisan infighting in Congress, which has led to a series of national transportation funding extensions, rather than common-sense reforms. The refusal of either Texas or the federal government to raise the fuel tax for the past 20 years is sufficient evidence for how unworkable and out-of-touch our current policies really are.

Trying to promote an expensive policy that is known in advance not to work is bad enough, but proceeding to do that while having no idea of where to get most of the money requires real chutzpah, a shameless audacity. If any Texas state agency has the history, credentials, and political clout to try make that work anyhow, it is TxDOT. To understand why, we need to take a more detailed look at TxDOT and the history of Texas transportation politics.

Texas road politics

Let us start with trying to understand how daily Austin congestion on I-35 and MoPac (State Loop 1) ever got to the point that now a lot suburban drivers who get to work on these roads dread a nerve-jangling daily commute. The reality is that Austin’s peakhour congestion has gradually progressed from tolerable to notoriously bad for decades. Nothing unusual, but the sort of end result you should expect when you try to keep building roads to maintain unsustainable transportation and land-use trends for too long.

Governments by their nature try to encourage economic growth. In Texas, as with most Sunbelt cities, cars, trucks, and roads have all become essential components of urban growth. The Texas fuel tax money is comparable to TxDOT’s oxygen supply. This state and federal fuel tax revenue can fund roads, but not transit under Texas law. Transit is left largely on its own, obliged to rely mostly on local funds and a shrinking level of federal transit funds.

Given the current lack of state land-use regulation outside the city limits of Texas cities, there is the potential opportunity to shift to greater land-use regulation. As data from the Texas Comptroller’s Office shows, more than 86% of the total Texas population is now urban and has outgrown our rural heritage.

These major metropolitan areas, the glowing patches you see from a jet plane at night, function as coherent economies. Ideally these metro areas should be governed as such, without the burden of conflicting and overlapping layers of city and county government.

Austin’s regional congestion is aggravated by a combination of rapid regional population growth and unregulated suburban sprawl development. Over time, unregulated sprawl growth leads to decreasing urban mobility, increasing city-core land prices, and gentrification that drives out the city’s lower-paid service workers into suburban commutes, thus increasing traffic congestion even more. This has been particularly true for Austin’s African-American population, who for a variety of reasons have moved on to the suburbs, such as Pflugerville. (Source: Texas Tribune.)

As a University of Texas study observed “All told, the combined effects of, concentrated segregation and concentrated, gentrification of Austin’s historic African-American district provide a partial, explanation for the rapid decline in African-American residents between 2000 and 2010.”


Official transportation and land-use policies have encouraged Austin-area sprawl development patterns. Photo: Mopacs, via Skyscraperpage.

Official transportation and land-use policies have encouraged Austin-area sprawl development patterns. Photo: Mopacs, via Skyscraperpage.


Given these trends and the increasingly longer, more severe peakhour congestion periods in Austin today, a different approach beyond widening roads might be expected. But here in Texas, powerful political special interests continue to block meaningful transportation reform. TxDOT has great institutional power and this is still focused on providing roads to serve an exponential increase in cars and trucks. In the Austin area, TxDOT is supporting the CAMPO 2040 plan, which anticipates ever more roads, cars, and congestion — in other words, business as usual for as long as possible.

In 1974, when the first energy crisis hit the USA, Griffin Smith, Jr. wrote an excellent, well-researched account of how there came to be the Texas road lobby, the wide network of political allies devoted to building roads, and the effort to make roads and driving a permanent aspect of Texas lifestyle and culture. See «The Highway Establishment and How it Grew and Grew and Grew». So it was in Texas then, during the first energy crisis, and so it has been in Texas for the more than forty years since, without great change. Legendary Texas newspaper columnist Molly Ivins used to call TxDOT “the Pentagon of Texas” (see «Roger Baker: The Texas Road Lobby Meets Peak Oil»).

Over the years an established pattern of money and politics developed, whereby Texas governors as political favors appoint businessmen to be heads of state agencies. If a governor stays in office a long time, as Rick Perry did, he can (and he did) appoint all the Texas Transportation Commissioners (TTC, the five-person body that has the authority to decide when and where to build the state roads). With their overlapping six-year terms, TTC members even stay influential for a while after a governor leaves office.

It should come as no surprise, then, that highways and roads often tend to benefit the land developers, road contractors, and special interests who reward the governor and legislators with campaign contributions. According to Texans for Public Justice (TPJ), reviewing campaign contributions from 2003-2008, the special interests tied to the $175 billion Trans-Texas Corridor project “contributed $3.4 million to Texas candidates and political committees — a significant increase in their political activity.” You can see a comprehensive breakdown of those contributions at: http://info.tpj.org/watchyourassets/ttc/

Looming large in the background are federal housing and real estate policies that favor home ownership, especially detached single-family homes on individual lots, with generous tax write-offs and government-backed credit that largely favors suburban living. It’s an exploitative pattern of income redistribution from the city to the suburbs made possible by TxDOT’s publicly funded roads. (See «Starving the cities to feed the suburbs» in The Grist, 9 Jan. 2013.)

The CAMPO transportation planners who make the funding decisions for the Austin region are expected to ignore state, national, and global economic trends. Known resource limits like global warming, fuel costs, and water constraints are never considered in CAMPO’s growth and travel demand models.

Presently there is no transportation alternative — no “Plan B” — for the 2040 CAMPO plan, as there was in the region’s previous CAMPO 2035 five-year plan. The planners do not provide an alternative future that thinks longterm and which does not subsidize suburbs at city taxpayers’ expense. The 2040 CAMPO Plan states that even if our region finds the money (highly unlikely) to implement in the approved regional CAMPO 2040 Plan perfectly and in full, Austin-area congestion will keep getting worse until 2040.

Austin’s officially adopted longrange transportation plan aims at spending $35 billion dollars to maintain the current sprawl-based regional development trends, while doubling the population and putting 70% of this future growth, not just outside Austin, but well beyond Travis County. Absurd as the unaffordable nightmarish outcome might seem, it is the officially adopted plan. Lots of future sprawl is now Austin’s officially adopted future in both state and federal law, for regional transportation funding purposes.

As already noted, the biggest reason for this flagrant disregard of likely funding constraints and/or undesirable future outcomes is the special interests who profit in the short term from bad public policy. To give just one local example, as reported by the Austin Business Journal, Canadian land speculation investment group Walton Development owns about 15 square miles of raw land in the Austin area.

Walton Development and Management is preparing to make a big splash in Central Texas even though the company has had boots on the ground here since 2007. The Canadian-based land investor and master-planned community developer has seven communities in the pipeline in Central Texas, following years of researching the market and building relationships with consultants and government officials. Collectively, Walton owns 83,000 acres in Canada and the U.S. — and has quietly amassed about 10,000 acres in Central Texas…

The Calgary, Alberta-based company has been assessing numerous U.S. markets in the wake of the subprime mortgage meltdown and the Great Recession. Central Texas, predominantly south and east of Austin, has risen to the top of its hot list, as well as Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Orlando, Fla.; Dallas; Phoenix; Tucson, Ariz.; and Southern California.

TxDOT’s dedicated funding source — from motor fuel taxes and licensing fees for roads-only as specified by the Texas constitution — virtually guarantees an all-the-roads-as-fast-as-possible policy to address traffic increases. If I-35 is the state’s most congested corridor, the agency’s reflexive response is to spend whatever it takes to get whatever additional capacity is possible, the cost-benefit results notwithstanding.

Recognizing I-35’s strategic regional importance against an increasing inability to cope with increasing population, local officials created what’s called the “Mobility35” (My35) partnership in 2011. Several studies, hundreds of public meetings, and $12 million later, courtesy of Austin taxpayers, what has emerged is a call for billions from local governments to fix the problem TxDOT’s way.

TxDOT is really broke and its credit lines look shaky

These are not business-as-usual times. The politics (and government funding) in support of cars and roads is so firmly entrenched and TxDOT is so politically powerful that its major threat is its money running out. TxDOT’s funding shortfalls have been growing and it probably now regrets ever having gotten into the unprofitable toll road business. That is why TxDOT invented Regional Mobility Authorities (RMAs) like the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) — to try to shift the road-funding burden onto the private sector with toll road municipal bond debt. (See Roger Baker’s article «Risky business in Central Texas: The toll road bond gamble».)

There can be little doubt that TxDOT has a serious solvency challenge (see «Roger Baker: Can TxDOT Avoid Financial Disaster? / 2»). We see a state agency that has to spend a big part of its total yearly income just to pay interest on its massive accumulation of road debt. (Source: http://www.collierfortexas.com/2015/02/25/txdot-addicted-debt/.)

The Texas Department of Transportation just issued its audited financial statements for 2014. They’ve rung up a debt balance of $19 billion. It was only $4 billion back in 2006. That’s when Rick Perry went on his debt binge. Of the $7.3 billion tax revenues TxDOT will take from Texans in 2016-2017, more than $2.4 billion will go to making debt payments.

TxDOT is far short of sufficient funds to widen I-35 with its own resources, having identified only $300 million in-house out of $4.5 billion needed. That leaves TxDOT $4.2 billion short — over 90% deficient. In fact, the Travis County section of TxDOT’s My35 redesign is still $1.8 to $2.1 billion short, which should raise red flags for local property owners who could well be targeted for big tax increases.

When deciding what to do about I-35, should Austin taxpayers subsidize a highly politicized state agency, TxDOT, which has been steadily sinking relentlessly farther and farther into debt? TxDOT’S debt is now so bad that it has helper agencies, the RMAs (such as the Austin area’s local CTRMA), that can borrow even more to build privatized toll roads, supposedly shifting debt to the private sector; but when these efforts fail, the taxpayers will have to bail them out. Banks are not the only institutions “too big to fail”.

A rush-job November 2016 transportation bond election to widen I-35?

Some local officials already appear to be supporting TxDOT’s plans to widen I-35 in the name of relieving congestion. Austin’s influential state senator, Kirk Watson, has publicly registered his approval for TXDOT’S I-35 plans and seems to believe that it is possible for TxDOT to relieve I-35 congestion by widening the road. A Jan 28th Community Impact article titled «TxDOT targets I-35 in Austin for $158.6 million in congestion relief funding … State’s most congested roadways to get $1.3 billion» reports:

“Relieving traffic congestion is essential for our economy and our quality of life,” state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said in a news release. “I’m pleased this initiative has put the emphasis on I-35, which is the most pressing congestion problem for Central Texas as well as the state. We’ve worked hard and successfully to develop a plan for reducing congestion on I-35 and this investment is key to moving that plan forward.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler has been a vocal proponent of a November 2016 bond election for transportation. Adler has been talking about the need for a November 2016 transportation bond election, instead of waiting until the next bond cycle in 2018. As reported in the Austin American-Statesman, here is what Mayor Adler has said about the justification for a November bond election tied to I-35:

We need to do some significant movement with respect to mobility and transportation in 2016… It wouldn’t surprise me if we weren’t coming to the voters in November with some capital expenditures associated with transportation. We know there have been some proposals with respect to I-35 that include increasing capacity that include putting in managed lanes so that we can have buses traveling at 45 miles per hour regardless of traffic so as to encourage people to get out of their cars, and depressing lanes so that (there is) a visual connection of the east and west sides of I-35. And I think there might be an opportunity to do something regionally in that respect. Why not try for that? There are also road corridors in the city that have gone through corridor studies… Lamar, Airport Boulevard, MLK, I think. People are looking for some movement on (Loop) 360 and other roads that are in the southwest and northwest. I would think that we need to take a really hard look at doing those things.

In another Statesman article, Austin’s Assistant City Manager Robert Goode explains why speeding up a bond election for next November would be difficult at best:

Goode said there could be an “accelerated path” of 10 to 12 months, with the first two phases tightened up. But, remember, there are only nine months left until November 8, and phase one hasn’t even begun. So Goode, cognizant that Mayor Steve Adler (with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce nudging in the background) has been pushing to do something in November, offered one more timeline: the “aggressive path.”

In other words, getting to a November 2016 bond election would mean serious compression of Austin’s existing standard bond review process in the name of addressing traffic congestion, without a sufficient vetting of what voter-approved debt would accomplish or how much would be needed — a political pig-in-a-poke labeled “Trust us!” that commits the city to a course of action that only TxDOT controls.

Maybe Austin planners and public officials should first find out in advance how much of the $4.5 billion TxDOT is willing and able to fund, and why TxDOT doesn’t fully pay for its roads like it used to do. Committing local funds to a “borrow and spend” agency billions in debt for a project with little positive outcome at some indefinite time in the future — bus lanes in ten years, at best; a depressed freeway covered with great streets; completion date and local costs, unknown and unknowable — ought to be setting off alarm bells, especially when TxDOT and Austin city management folks talk about “partnerships” and “partners”.

Public works projects, in particular big highway projects, have a history of long delays and large cost overruns. Boston’s 3.5-mile “Big Dig“, a tunnel under Beantown to eliminate the old elevated freeway through the city core, is a cautionary tale with similarities and problems we should expect here in Austin.

Scheduled to be finished in seven years at a cost of $2.8 billion, the Big Dig took sixteen years to complete and cost $14.6 billion; when adjusted for inflation — a 190% cost overrun, not including the $7 billion in interest required to pay off the debt incurred. As the Boston Globe headlined in 2008, a year after the project was completed, “Big Dig’s red ink engulfs state.”


Boston's "Big Dig" under construction past city's CBD. Project re-routed I-93 Central Artery into a central-city tunnel. Source: Imaginerpe.com.

Boston’s “Big Dig” under construction past city’s CBD. Project re-routed I-93 Central Artery into a central-city tunnel. Photo: Imaginerpe.com.


With TxDOT is already engulfed in debt, the I-35 My35 “partnership” should be seen as a plan to similarly engulf and encumber Austin’s taxpayers, thereby subordinating city finances to a condition of impotency to do little else but pay down debt on a state project that has little or no positive outcomes or predictable future except for the contractors and planners employed to pursue it.

Some of the details of this scheme were revealed in a Feb. 3rd TxDOT presentation to the Austin City Council’s Mobility Committee, chaired by Councilmember Ann Kitchen. The presentation can be viewed online in the video of the meeting, available from the City of Austin’s video archive, in the segment labelled “Items 7 & 8”.

About 23 minutes into the “Items 7 & 8” segment, TxDOT’s new District 14 Engineer, Terry McCoy, explains to the Austin City Council Mobility Committee what’s planned for I-35. Along with a lot of talk about “partnership” with the city, TxDOT, McCoy says, plans to spend about $4.3-4.6 billion on I-35 between San Marcos and Georgetown upgrading the “most congested corridor” in Texas. Around 35 minutes into the video clip there is a series of slides on parts of the project expected to start between 2016 and 2019, assuming that funding can be found.

TxDOT slide showing projected cost of proposed I-35 upgrade project. Source: ARN screen capture of TxDOT slide.

TxDOT slide showing projected cost of proposed I-35 upgrade project. Graphic: ARN screen capture of TxDOT slide.

TxDOT’s message to Austin here is clear. In the partnership assumed by TxDOT’s McCoy and Austin’s Assistant City Manager Goode, TxDOT is the senior partner who makes the rules and if Austin wants anything beyond TxDOT’s basic least expensive, most lanes-for-the-bucks design, such as a “cut and cap” proposal to bury I-35 downtown, it’s going to cost local taxpayers a lot of money. As the Austin Business Journal has reported,

…One goal of the effort is to improve east-west connectivity across the thoroughfare in the urban core. The possibilities include intersection and access redesigns and adding bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure to cross the highway. “We’re adopting an ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach to I-35,” McCoy said. That includes either modifying the downtown section of I-35 along its current double-decker form or depressing all of the lanes, which would drop them below ground level. If city leaders and state transportation officials agree to lowering I-35, McCoy noted local funds could be used to then cover it up and put the new real estate to use in some way.

“Once you depress the main lanes of I-35, then you have the potential to build caps. What you do with those cap sections is up to the locals,” he said. “But from TxDot’s perspective…it is an amenity, so it would be a local cost item to pick up. TxDOT is essentially saying we cannot participate in the cost of constructing those caps.”…

(More information is disclosed in the Q & A session, about 40 minutes into that video segment.)

According to Assistant City Manager Goode, speaking in the same clip, Austin is behind about $4.5 billion in needed funds for its own City of Austin transportation needs over the next 30 years, a billion of that just for sidewalks.

A grassroots architect and planning coalition, ReconnectAustin.com, has been promoting a depressed I-35 design developed by UT Austin architect Sinclair Black. They have been trying for years to get TxDOT support for a sunken, capped, and covered-over I-35 along the east edge of downtown Austin. However, this is a concept that conflicts with TxDOT’s traditional design standards. (See, for example, «Reconnect Austin: Part Two … It’s a beautiful vision, but could it work?» Austin Chronicle, 31 Jan. 2014.)


Rendition of Reconnect Austin's proposed "fully depressed" alternative design for I-35. Source: KUT Radio.

Rendition of Reconnect Austin’s proposed “fully depressed” alternative design for I-35. Graphic: KUT Radio.


Pro forma, TxDOT defines I-35 improvements as squeezing the most possible cars onto its failing roads at the lowest cost. Economies of scale dictate elevated lanes on I-35 through downtown, and adding them onto MoPac South across the river. These are least-expensive road designs that ignore community plans and desires for connections, city space, and economic revitalization as well as returns from improved transportation infrastructure — goals that TxDOT simply doesn’t share.

TxDOT’s plans to add elevated lanes on MoPac South are proceeding despite organized resistance from environmentalist groups like the Save our Springs Association. How to distribute increased amounts of inbound commuter traffic into downtown is still unresolved, but that’s the city’s problem, not TxDOT’s.

It will take TxDOT another two years to complete the NEPA federal study process on the downtown section of I-35. Depressing I-35 through downtown as opposed to TxDOT’s standard design would cost about $300 million extra, and capping it over at least as much, but the cap is a feature TxDOT won’t pay for. Toll lanes with express lanes for buses on I-35 that Mayor Adler mentions could not be implemented for perhaps a decade, and that depends on another billion or so in public money which isn’t there now.

If ever there was a time to stop and look at alternatives to expanding I-35, that time is now, before we commit scarce local money for vague allusions to an urban-friendly freeway design unlikely to be delivered and toll-lane-only congestion relief, which TTI calls a “limited option.”

November bonds to widen I-35 will be a hard sell once it’s widely known that real congestion relief is not possible for any price, especially when a decade or more of detours and disruption — and yes, even more congestion — will be required to fix the unfixable. The bottom line is that I-35 cannot be decongested in any meaningful sense, not with Mucinex or for any amount of money. That even when completed, I-35 cannot be made into a less frustrating driving experience than it is today and that is what the A&M’s TTI has been saying.

Austin could choose its own future, as Houston is trying to do

On January 28, 2016 Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told The Texas Transportation Commission — the body that governs TxDOT — that he wants a paradigm shift in transportation planning that makes better sense for cities. Given Turner’s long record of leadership in the Texas House of Representatives and now, as Houston Mayor, we can only hope that other Texas big city mayors take note and follow suit. (Source: Streetsblog.org.)

Here is some of what Sylvester Turner said:

…We’re seeing clear evidence that the transportation strategies that the Houston region has looked to in the past are increasingly inadequate to sustain regional growth… The region’s primary transportation strategy in the past has been to add roadway capacity. While the region has increasingly offered greater options for multiple occupant vehicles and other transportation modes, much of the added capacity has been for single occupant vehicles as well… It’s easy to understand why. TxDOT has noted that 97% of the Texans currently drive a single occupancy vehicle for their daily trips. One could conclude that our agencies should therefore focus their resources to support these kinds of trips. However, this approach is actually exacerbating our congestion problems. We need a paradigm shift in order to achieve the kind of mobility outcomes we desire…

Turner went on to make three recommendations:

…We need a paradigm shift in how we prioritize mobility projects. Instead of enhancing service to the 97% of trips that are made by single occupant vehicles, TxDOT should prioritize projects that reduce that percentage below 97%. TxDOT should support urban areas by prioritizing projects that increase today’s 3% of non-SOV trips to 5%, 10%, 15% of trips and beyond. Experience shows that focusing on serving the 97% will exacerbate and prolong the congestion problems that urban areas experience. We need greater focus on intercity rail, regional rail, High Occupancy Vehicle facilities, Park and Rides, Transit Centers, and robust local transit. As we grow and densify, these modes are the future foundation of a successful urban mobility system. It’s all about providing transportation choices.

Imagine Austin, where some brave politician stands up and speaks up like Houston Mayor Turner did, and declares independence from TxDOT’s highway idolatry — the simplistic view that somehow, someway we can build roads faster than Detroit et al. can build cars. Surely not all of our leaders believe that widening I-35 should be our top transportation priority for our limited resources — perhaps a billion dollars in AAA bonding capacity to bankroll a bankrupt state highway department. My35 alone could consume everything we could put up and more; but, in all fairness, we could easily use up all of our debt capacity widening non-state roads inside Austin, and that would also discourage alternatives and make congestion worse, too.

Whatever we decide about funding I-35 — beyond the $12 million we’ve already spent for planning — will say a lot about where we intend to go as a city. Any additional local money for the My35 project is a slippery slope, a probable Point of No Return. After all, “in for a penny, in for a pound”. Eventually, at some unknown time in the future, after years of construction disruption, the freeway would carry more vehicles, but congestion overall would be worse, not better. Transit, bike, and pedestrian benefits promised in the project are longterm and incidental, and could better be achieved through direct spending elsewhere.

Healthy cities need integrated transportation and land-use planning, the latter unrecognized and unacknowledged in TxDOT’s institutional mindset. Cost-effective, efficient transportation is the direct result of integrated transportation and land-use planning from the outset, using tools like Smart Growth and transit-oriented development (TOD) to maximize mobility at an affordable cost. Cities are almost by definition congested, but urban mobility goes beyond movement, and is heavily dependent upon destination proximity and modal choice.

Inside the city of Austin alone, there are billions of dollars in existing, but neglected, road, bike, and sidewalk needs. But for a real game changer, Austin needs a Guadalupe-North Lamar light rail line from downtown to some point past the North Lamar Transit Center.


Rendition of LRT train on Guadalupe (the Drag) passing UT campus. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.

Rendition of LRT train on Guadalupe (the Drag) passing UT campus. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.


Running in-between and parallel to our two most congested roads, I-35 and MoPac, these trains would reinforce and complement the transit-friendly land uses that have existed in this corridor since the days streetcars plied these same streets. (See «Austin’s First Electric Streetcar Era».) Urban rail in reserved lanes on the street would deliver 40,000 riders a day to and from the city core, while experience elsewhere says that this small beginning would generate billions of dollars’ worth of new tax base for an investment of less than $750 million, half of which would likely come from the Federal Transit Administration.

Compared to rebuilding I-35 from Georgetown to San Marcos, a Guadalupe-North Lamar light rail project is a relatively simple transportation endeavor. It is a project we’d build, we’d own, we’d control, we would pay for with identified funds, and would benefit from directly — compatible with buses, biking, and walking. Plus, it would be built on a relatively predictable schedule of less than five years with an extremely high potential for payback within a decade of opening, while setting the stage for better-funded, more frequent, and more comprehensive public transit throughout the city and the region.

If 2016 is Austin’s year of mobility bonds on November’s ballot, a Guadalupe-North Lamar light rail line should be the first priority. A plan for this could be quickly assembled from at least four official past rail studies done on this corridor since 1984 — the last, a full Preliminary Engineering/Draft Environmental Impact Statement from 2000. Furthermore, it could be accomplished using the well-known competent national consulting team, AECOM, already hired by Capital Metro to essentially study the same corridor.

What’s needed now is political leadership to get it done. With our backs literally up against TxDOT’s wall of debt for an insanely risky My35 rebuild, the facts speak for themselves.

Rail References

Ridership

• Light Rail Corridor. Austin, Texas (November 2000) — Federal Transit Administration New Starts summary
https://keepaustinwonky.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/fta-new-starts_small-starts-austin-texas_light-rail-corridors.pdf

Billions in new tax base

The two best examples of initial light rail lines with similar characteristics, i.e., Big Dot connections and high ridership, are Houston and Phoenix.

• Houston METRO — $324 million to construct, opened 2004
$8 billion in economic development on initial 7.5 mile Main Street line since 2004
http://www.planetizen.com/node/81699/texas-cities-see-mass-transit-path-economicdevelopment

• Phoenix METRO — $1.351 million to construct, opened 2008
$8.2 billion in economic development on 19.6 miles Phoenix to Tempe since 2008
http://www.bizjournals.com/phoenix/news/2015/07/28/valley-metro-development-alonglightrail-tops-8.html

Other examples with more mature systems

• Dallas DART — 157% ROI, 85 miles, 61 stations
https://www.dart.org/about/economicimpact.asp

• Portland MAX (TriMet) — $4.66 billion (adjusted to 2015 $) to construct 59.7 miles of light rail with 97 stations, yielding ROI of $11.5 billion of economic development within walking distance of stations since 1986.
http://trimet.org/business/

• Salt Lake City TRAX and FrontRunner — $3.6 billion to construct 45 miles light rail and 88 miles of regional (commuter) rail, yielding ROI of $7 Billion economic development since 1999.
http://www.sltrib.com/csp/mediapool/sites/sltrib/pages/printfriendly.csp?id=2665260

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Capital Metro: Let’s have 2 1/2 more years of analysis paralysis

27 February 2016
Title slide of Capital Metro's CCCTA presentation to Austin City Council Mobility Committee on Feb. 3rd. Screen capture: ARN.

Title slide of Capital Metro’s CCCTA presentation to Austin City Council Mobility Committee on Feb. 3rd. Screen capture: ARN.

After months of preparation, organizing, bidding, and selection, with lots of fanfare Capital Metro at last launched its $3 million, 30-month (2.5-years) Central Corridor Comprehensive Transit Analysis (CCCTA) study. In a Jan. 25th news release, Capital Metro announced that its board of directors had selected engineering firm AECOM as the lead consultant to conduct the Central Corridor analysis.

To the uninitiated, inexperienced, and uninformed, this latest study might seem some kind of step forward for Austin’s transit development. After all, its elements include impressive-sounding goals like “An in-depth study of a variety of transportation modes and their potential for creating improved transit options within the corridor”, “A multimodal transportation plan that improves the feasibility of transit in the Central Corridor while effectively maximizing connections with regional routes in surrounding communities”, and “A realistic cost analysis for building, operating and maintaining the proposed sustainable and connected transit system”.


Capital Metro's planning chief Todd Hemingson explains CCCTA study to Austin Mobility Committee on Feb. 3rd. Photo: ARN screenshot from official video.

Capital Metro’s planning chief Todd Hemingson explains CCCTA study to Austin City Council Mobility Committee on Feb. 3rd. Photo: ARN screenshot from official video.


Analysis Paralysis gold medal

But, among grassroots public transportation advocates in Austin, it’s hard to find a transit supporter who’s enthusiastic about this study. The reason: All of these issues have already been exhaustively studied, and plans prepared and re-prepared, over and over and over and over again, for more than two decades. For Austin transit supporters, we’ve “been there, done that” — multiple times. It’s just one more repetitive “re-study of the re-studies of the re-studies ….”

To get a breathtaking idea of the time, resources, energy, and money Austin has sunk into planning for “high-capacity” public transport, just check out our February 2015 chronicle of studies and re-studies of light rail transit (LRT) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor: «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps». This central travel corridor’s high level of traffic, population and employment density, and crucial position accessing and connecting vital activity centers (like UT, the Capitol Complex, and downtown) with key established neighborhoods and extended commercial activity along the route have made it the focus of planning for rail transit for over three decades.

In terms of public transit, Austin clearly is a top contender for the Analysis Paralysis gold medal. And Capital Metro’s latest CCCTA study, as it’s currently designed, surely represents Exhibit A toward this dubious award. The confusion, misdirection, conflicting intentions, and lack of purpose underlying this “paralysis” were discussed in our March 2015 article «Austin’s urban transport planning seems struck by catastrophic case of amnesia and confusion».

Meanwhile, as meaningful public transport planning continues to languish, the Austin metro area is experiencing a veritable blitz of intensive highway development and construction, including at least three new tollways, massive projects on I-35, and assorted projects throughout the urban area. As the saying goes, “Roads get built, transit gets studied“.

Project Connect back from the dead?

But confusion and a continuation of “analysis paralysis” aren’t the only problems with the CCCTA study. As currently configured, the study seems little more than a rehash of Project Connect’s ill-fated “High-Capacity Transit Study” which elicited such intense community outrage beginning in 2013, the precursor to its ultimate resounding rejection by voters in November 2014. Indeed, the CCCTA project seems the first major effort to resuscitate Project Connect since its 2014 debacle.

Among the worst weaknesses of the Project Connect disinterment is the revival of the seriously flawed methodology of the earlier “analysis”. This includes ignoring actual, existing travel corridors — such as the pre-eminent Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — and instead mislabeling huge chunks and sectors of the city as “corridors”. (The methodology further subdivided the “Central Corridor” into “subcorridor” mini-sectors.) Thus, according to Capital Metro, per the CCCTA study, “The Central Corridor is defined as an area bordered on the south by Ben White (US-290), on the east by the Capital Metro’s Red Line, on the north by RM 2222/Koenig Lane, and on the west by MoPac Expressway, and includes downtown Austin.”

Not only is that vast glob of central Austin not a corridor, but (as in the 2013 activity) this approach slices and truncates actual travel corridors, particularly Guadalupe-Lamar, rather than analyzing them in terms of their suitability and potential for actually solving mobility problems with public transport (particularly urban rail). We analyzed the problems with this in our November 2013 article «Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors!»


Infographic shows how Project Connect’s methodology segmented Guadalupe-Corridor into nonsensical pieces, and summarizes numerous other major problems. (Click to enlarge.)

Methodology of Project Connect study in 2013 labeled huge chunk of central city as a “corridor”, but severed actual intact travel corridors into meaningless pieces. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


Community skepticism about Capital Metro’s “corridor” methodology in the CCCTA study was illustrated as early as last September by Jace Deloney, a co-founder of the influential AURA group (involved with urban and transportation issues) and former chairman of the City’s Urban Transportation Commission and Capital Metro’s Customer Satisfaction Advisory Committee:

It’s very important that we advocate against using the previous subcorridor definitions for any future high capacity transit planning project. In my opinion, these subcorridor definitions were deliberately designed to end up with a Red River alignment recommendation.

Re-direct the CCCTA study!

Besides the exhaustive “saga” of studies of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor detailed in the ARN article cited and linked above, Austin Rail Now and other community stakeholders have presented LRT alternative alignment and design proposals that provide more than enough basis for quickly reaching a decision for an urban rail starter line. The most recent proposals are described in several ARN articles:

Plan for galvanizing Austin’s public transport development: Light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar (June 2015)

Another major Austin community recommendation for light rail transit in Guadalupe-Lamar (November 2015)

Another possible design for light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor (January 2016)

So far, in the absence of any sense of direction toward a major urban rail investment, Austin’s top political and civic leadership is vulnerable to pressure by highway interests (such as TxDOT) for municipal general obligation bond funding for a heavy local investment in a massive I-35 overhaul and other huge highway projects. To this, a major rail transit starter line investment might be counter-proposed as a far more effective and desirable alternative for city bond funding.

It would definitely seem time to end Austin’s decades of “analysis paralysis” and move forward quickly toward finalizing an urban rail plan for public approval — a strategy that could be expedited by re-directing Capital Metro’s CCCTA study. There is certainly sufficient planning and design preparatory work already in place to provide the voting public a basis on which to make a decision for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. The AECOM consultant team (widely respected in the public transportation industry, with experience with LRT in Portland, Minneapolis, and elsewhere) could simply update and tweak the major engineering studies that have already been done (e.g., those in 1993 and 2000) for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.


Proposed 6.8-mile "Plan B" light rail transit line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would have 17 stations and connect  the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S> 183 with Crestview, the Triangle, UT and the West Campus, the Capitol Complex, the CBD, and the Seaholm-Amtrak area. It's projected to serve 3 times the ridership of the Prop. 1 Highland-Riverside rail line at slightly over half the capital cost.

Austin Rail Now proposal is one of several possible configurations already suggested for light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: ARN.


This would likely require a major intervention by Austin City Council members to request Capital Metro to negotiate with its consultant team for a modification of the CCCTA work plan — eliminating the proposed 30-month “slow track” study, and re-directing the project into planning, design, and engineering of LRT for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as suggested above. This would have the aim of placing a measure on the ballot for bond funding (to be kept in escrow till further planning and Preliminary Engineering/Environmental Impact Study tasks are completed). Adequate cost estimates are already on hand for such a ballot measure.

According to Surinder Marwah, the former Capital Metro Senior Planner who secured federal funding for the MetroRapid bus project, this can be “a reasonable plan if the elected officials, business leaders and major stakeholders can come to an agreement” for the general Guadalupe-Lamar alignment corridor. “AECOM can update the preliminary cost estimates quickly and perform fatal flaw analysis for the alignment corridor within few months — by mid-late August to get this into [a] November ballot measure.”

Capital Metro’s currently contrived CCCTA study seems little more than a “holding pattern” reflecting the indecisiveness and lack of will of key public officials in regard to public transport policy. Re-directing this study as proposed above would at long last move Austin’s rail public transport development into a widely supported action phase and head it expeditiously toward the mobility quantum leap Austinites have so long been denied. ■

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Another possible design for light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

30 January 2016
Guadalupe St., near W. 28th St. Graphic: Google Street View.

Guadalupe St., near W. 28th St. Graphic: Google Street View.

As Austin Rail Now has repeatedly pointed out, there are various ways that a starter light rail transit (LRT) line could be fitted workably into the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. In our December 2014 article «San Francisco’s N-Judah Muni Metro line shows design option for light rail in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor» we suggested a design alternative with the objective of inserting dedicated LRT lanes while minimizing disruption and cost and maintaining four traffic flow lanes. In this, we showed how a San Francisco LRT design could serve as a model for installing a dedicated LRT alignment in the relatively narrow 80-foot width of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor (see illustrations below).


Muni Metro light rail

San Francisco’s N-Judah LRT line could serve as design model for Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Photo (copyright) Eric Haas.


Cross-sectional diagram

ARN’s proposed design shows how LRT, plus 4 traffic lanes and pedestrian/bicycle facilities, could be fitted into relatively narrow Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


This past December, another design proposal was made public by Austin community urban activist and Guadalupe-Lamar rail transit supporter Andrew Mayer. Compared to Austin Rail Now’s relatively minimalist approach, Andrew’s design is considerably more ambitious — with undoubtedly more urban impact and capital expense — but it embodies good ideas and hints at the kind of range of optional approaches available to ensure that LRT will work in this key central corridor.

As Andrew explains, “For those who are interested in urban rail along Guadalupe and Lamar … I made a bunch of detailed cross-sections with streetmix several months ago.’ These are posted on the Imgur online image sharing community and image host site: http://imgur.com/a/gsa2n. In this post, we’ll illustrate Andrew’s proposal with sample graphics selected excerpted from his presentation. (Occasional stations are selected to illustrate typical proposed station design.)

Complete Streets approach

While almost any design proposing insertion of dedicated lanes for LRT into this corridor would represent to some extent a Complete Streets approach, Andrew’s proposal seems to be a particularly large-scale and aggressive implementation. As he elaborates,

I feel like these designs are relatively ambitious (2 transit lanes, 4 auto lanes, 2 separated bike lanes, 2 12 ft sidewalks along most of its length), but revamp Guadalupe and Lamar into more complete streets, while seeing if I could retain the existing number of auto lanes. Some of these ideas I came up with way back in 2009 (i.e. the split direction of traffic along west campus, the wide boulevard between 38th and 51st st), some are more recent.

Regardless how much you agree or disagree with these designs, I hope this contributes to the discussion of rail on Guadalupe/Lamar, as I feel like detailed discussion of street design is warranted if there is going to be a push to get [Guadalupe/Lamar/Congress] urban rail on the ballot as soon as possible.

Illustrating this approach is Andrew’s proposal for making the Drag more hospitable to LRT, pedestrian, and bicycle traffic by moving southbound traffic off of Guadalupe and onto either Nueces or “possibly” San Antonio St. (see map below). Andrew notes that “Relatively slow traffic (25 mph) due to traffic calming measures … makes street pedestrian friendly despite higher traffic volumes.”


Map snippet shows Guadalupe St. at right (east), with University of Texas campus bordering on east side; San Antonio and Nueces St. in West Campus neighborhood (west of Guadalupe). Graphic: Google Maps. (Click to enlarge.)

Map snippet shows Guadalupe St. at right (east), with University of Texas campus bordering on east side; San Antonio and Nueces St. in West Campus neighborhood (west of Guadalupe). Andrew Mayer’s design proposes moving southbound traffic from the Drag onto either Nueces or San Antonio. Graphic: Google Maps. (Click to enlarge.)


Proposed southbound traffic moved from Guadalupe to Nueces St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed southbound traffic moved from Guadalupe to Nueces St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


The Drag (West Campus)

As illustrated below, Andrew’s proposal for the main Drag segment (bordering the West Campus neighborhood) seems to envision dedicated LRT lanes occupying the west side of the street (former southbound lanes, with traffic now moved to either Nueces or San Antonio St.). Traffic lanes are narrowed to 10-ft width. Andrew comments: “Bike lane stays pretty much the same, but the parking lane and current southbound lanes are used for transit lanes. Northbound lanes are pushed slightly westward to allow for a separated bike lane and wider sidewalk.”


Proposed LRT alignment along Drag. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed LRT alignment along Drag. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


In this proposal, space for station platforms appears to be appropriated from pedestrian/bike space. It’s not explicit in Andrew’s design, but station platforms would likely be staggered across intersections (a common space-conserving technique in LRT design). Andrew also suggests that “platform” space might be allocated to use as a turning lane for motor vehicles (although this could conflict with the need for a station platform at that same point). Another option, deployed in Houston Metro’s MetroRail LRT design, is to allow a turn lane to share the LRT track (with traffic signal control coordinated with train movements — discussed briefly in our article «Houston’s MetroRail shows the way — How to fit urban rail into Austin’s Guadalupe and Lamar»).

Andrew comments that “In this design, there are two platforms and both open on the right side of the vehicle.” Andrew also suggests the possibility that “the idea was that some buses would also use the transit lanes (i.e. 803, 3, other bus lines that feed onto Guadalupe) and thus the right-hand platforms would be compatible with buses that only have doors on the right-hand side.” However, while sharing of lanes between buses and LRT is entirely possible and done in some situations, sharing where there is high-frequency service by both modes is not advisable. (Our own design proposed center-street running with allocation of at least a single curbside lane on each side for local bus access.)


Proposed 24th St. station (southbound direction). Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed 24th St. station (southbound direction). Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


Proposed LRT alignment on Drag at 24th St., with possible turning lane. Graphic: Andrew Mayer.(Click to enlarge.)

Proposed LRT alignment on Drag at 24th St., with possible turning lane. Graphic: Andrew Mayer.(Click to enlarge.)


Between 24th and 29th St. (Andrew calls this the North Drag), Guadalupe narrows somewhat, constricting the space for LRT as well as pedestrian and bike facilities (see streetview at top of post, and aerial view, below). Andrew’s solution is to rely on the fact that southbound traffic has been re-routed to other streets; he also narrows the sidewalks and assumes that the bicycle route can be re-routed through this section to an available parallel street (Hemphill Park).


Aerial view of most constricted section of Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, between 24th-29th St. Graphic: Google Earth. (Click to enlarge.)

Aerial view of most constricted section of Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, between 24th-29th St. Graphic: Google Earth. (Click to enlarge.)


Proposed LRT alignment in narrow segment of Drag between 24th-29th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed LRT alignment in narrow segment of Drag between 24th-29th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


Central Guadalupe segment

To insert the LRT alignment in the relatively narrow segment of Guadalupe between 29th and 38th St., Andrew’s option seems to eliminate a traffic lane, although he assumes a turning lane in some cases. (With ROW assumed at 100 feet or more, Andrew’s plan would seem to require additional property acquisition in this section.)


Proposed LRT alignment in narrow segment of Guadalupe between 29th-38th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed LRT alignment in narrow segment of Guadalupe between 29th-38th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


Proposed 34th St. station (platform for southbound direction shown). Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed 34th St. station (platform for southbound direction shown). Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


At West 38th St. (shown in a Google Street View below), Andrew apparently proposes a short subway section, commenting “The transit lanes plunge beneath the street in a shallow cut-and-cover tunnel (basically an underpass) so there can be turning lanes for NB auto traffic without expanding the road’s ROW [right-of-way]….” Technically, this is possible — but quite an expensive feature, particularly since a station for this important east-west arterial would certainly be justified (and a subway station would add a considerable capital expense).


Street view of Guadalupe at 38th St. intersection. Graphic: Google Street View. (Click to enlarge.)

Street view of Guadalupe at 38th St. intersection. Graphic: Google Street View. (Click to enlarge.)


Our own design (which avoids any heavy civil works) assumes that LRT, like MetroRapid buses and ordinary traffic, would simply continue to operate through the W. 38th St. intersection at-grade, following the current surface street profile. Nevertheless, Andrew’s tunnel proposal indicates that there are indeed other options in the planning toolbox that could be considered to address engineering, political, or other concerns.

North of W. 38th St., for about eight blocks (to W. 45th St.) this section of Guadalupe is bordered on the east by leafy established neighborhoods such as Hancock and Hyde Park, and on the west by the publicly owned State of Texas property of the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation (MHMR, including the Austin State Hospital). Andrew proposes that a narrow strip of this public property be allocated for widening of the Guadalupe ROW, thus facilitating an LRT alignment: “Between 38th and 45th St, about 15 feet of feet from the [public property] is acquired to expand the ROW to 120 feet, allowing for an 2 bike lanes, 2 transit lanes, 4 auto lanes, and a parking lane or left turn lane, and 2 10 ft sidewalks.” Andrew suggests such a transfer of state land to the city would be plausible and workable “because the existing space is basically used for fields, some interior roads, and power lines, all of which can be moved/replaced relatively easily.”


Aerial view of section of Guadalupe St. between 28th-45th St., showing MHMR bordering on west and established residential neighborhood on east side. Graphic: Google Earth. (Click to enlarge.)

Aerial view of section of Guadalupe St. between 28th-45th St., showing MHMR bordering on west and established residential neighborhood on east side. Graphic: Google Earth. (Click to enlarge.)


Proposed LRT alignment in segment of Guadalupe between 38th-45th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed LRT alignment in segment of Guadalupe between 38th-45th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


Use of this property in this manner as part of an LRT alignment has been proposed in various studies and propositions over the past 25 years. The day is surely coming when the State will seek to divest itself of this property, perhaps to private interests, so if an easement for ROW expansion is to be procured, official planning and action would seem urgent. Yet no public body, particularly neither Capital Metro nor the City of Austin, has taken a single official step toward this goal in all the years the idea has been on the table.

In the section north of W. 45th St. West Guadalupe St. branches off Guadalupe to connect with N. Lamar Blvd., forming the Triangle area (see map below). West Guadalupe provides a wider ROW here, and is followed by the LRT route, as shown in Andrew’s design, also below. Andrew comments that “Like in the 38th-45th portion, state land would be acquired (basically fields) to expand the roadway. In this case, the northbound auto and bike lanes would be just east of the existing oak trees next to Guadalupe.”


Map snippet shows West Guadalupe St. joining North Lamar at triangular land section now known as "the Triangle". Graphic: Google Maps. (Click to enlarge.)

Map snippet shows West Guadalupe St. joining North Lamar at triangular land section now known as “the Triangle”. Graphic: Google Maps. (Click to enlarge.)


Proposed LRT alignment past Triangle, with station. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed LRT alignment past Triangle, with station. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


North Lamar segment

Having transitioned to North Lamar, the alignment with Andrew’s proposed design would seem to require acquisition of more ROW to accommodate a cross-section width of 115 feet for pedestrian and bike facilities, landscaping, and buffer zones (see typical cross-section, below).

As Andrew subsequently explains,

The expanded roadway would work by turning the parking spaces in front of businesses into larger sidewalks and bike lanes. Parking lanes would be put in between the auto lanes and bike lanes where possible to allow for some parking capacity. I HIGHLY recommend doing a study of the traffic going to businesses along this section of N Lamar. How many customers can access the business by foot/bike/transit? For those who have to drive, is there enough parking on the street or behind the business?

Andrew notes that “Interestingly, this section of Lamar Blvd is one of the study areas for CodeNEXT [current process revising Austin’s land-use regulations], so perhaps there is data available there.”

Andrew’s wide streetscape design (which undoubtedly would require extensive and costly adjacent property acquisition) contrasts with our own narrower design proposal which assumed insertion of LRT within existing public ROW (except at intersections with stations, where modest widening would occur). There’s no question that widening North Lamar with amenities such as Andrew has suggested would create a significantly enhanced environment for the public. The issue here is whether it should be included in the initial starter line design, or proposed as a later major upgrade to the corridor.


Proposed typical LRT alignment in North Lamar. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed typical LRT alignment in North Lamar. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


For a station at the intersection of North Lamar with the major east-west arterial Koenig Lane (shown below), Andrew remarks that “Large parking lots in the shopping center, unused TxDOT land (that was going to be used for freeway along [Koenig] Ln), and fields along the DPS building could all be acquired to make a full-sized boulevard next to [Koenig] Ln.”


Proposed Koenig Lane station (platform for northbound direction shown). Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed Koenig Lane station (platform for northbound direction shown). Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


Andrew’s designs terminate at Crestview — a major and rather complex nexus, with the heavily used Airport Blvd. intersecting and the MetroRail Red Line rail transit route crossing North Lamar, parallel to Airport (see aerial view, below). Maintaining a 115-ft ROW assumption, Andrew provides a surface LRT design, shown further below; although an interchange station would be essential here, none is presented. Calling his surface design “Alternative 1”, Andrew explains that “Transit lanes stay at grade, there are only 2 instead of 3 NB auto lanes, and the sidewalks are only 12 ft wide each.”


Aerial view of complex intersection of North Lamar with Airport Blvd. and Red Line alignment. Graphic: Google Earth. (Click to enlarge.)

Aerial view of complex intersection of North Lamar with Airport Blvd. and Red Line alignment. Graphic: Google Earth. (Click to enlarge.)


Proposed typical LRT alignment at Crestview. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

Proposed typical LRT alignment at Crestview. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)


Andrew also proposes an “Alternative 2” in which “Transit lanes and the station go into a cut-and-cover tunnel beneath the auto lanes.” He acknowledges that such a subway would be “More expensive and complex to construct, but retains the same number of NB auto lanes and allows for wider sidewalks and more parking.” Andrew indicates a preference for his first alternative, keeping LRT on the surface.

Austin Rail Now believes that an initial surface starter LRT line could safely and efficiently operate through the Crestview intersection as it basically exists. Ultimately, however, some method of grade separation at this complicated intersection may be prudent. We believe this should involve either tunneling or elevating (or both) the motor vehicle trafficleaving the surface to transit, pedestrians, and bicycles. Not only is this approach more compatible with a livable, walkable environment, but it also recognizes that there is many times greater funding available, from all sources, for roadways, while transit is strapped for resources.

Summing up

Considering both our own design proposal and Andrew Mayer’s more ambitious approach, our thoughts return to the controversy over Project Connect’s ill-fated urban rail planning process and proposal that emerged through the fall of 2013 and eventually crashed and burned in the November 2014 vote — in particular, the expressions of skepticism, utter hopelessness, deficit of vision, and outright hostile resistance voiced by several members of the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) and Austin City Council in their efforts to disparage and dismiss the possibility of installing LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Fortunately, that nonsense (whether based on misunderstanding, ignorance, or cynical political sniping) has mostly evaporated.

Between the two designs now already on the table, it’s possible to see that in reality a broad range of alternatives and design options is available to make this happen. It’s neither impossible nor astronomically expensive. We believe our “minimalist” design is the most immediately affordable, workable, and attractive to voters and the public at large — but that’s just our assessment; we strongly believe all options are worth considering.

It’s time to end Austin’s long saga of indecision, conflict, bumbling, bungling, and diddling. Guadalupe-Lamar is truly the city’s strongest “central corridor”, by far the most logical backbone for a light rail transit starter line. The major task at hand is mustering the community and political will to bring an LRT project here to fruition. ■

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Minneapolis light rail — possible model for Austin

30 December 2015
Two light rail trains pass on 5th St., a major downtown east-west thoroughfare with dedicated lanes for light rail. Photo: L. Henry.

In downtown Minneapolis, two light rail trains pass on 5th St., a major east-west thoroughfare with dedicated lanes for light rail. Photo: L. Henry.

Last month, the 13th National Light Rail Conference, co-sponsored by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and U.S. Transportation Research Board (TRB), was held in Minneapolis, whose initial light rail transit (LRT) starter line has been operating since 2004 (see «Minneapolis-St. Paul (Twin Cities) Public Transport»). Attending the conference were two contributors to Austin Rail Now, Dave Dobbs and Lyndon Henry.

Minneapolis’s LRT system has been a spectacular success — particularly by exceeding ridership projections and providing more efficient and cost-effective transit service through lowering the average operating and maintenance (O&M) cost of urban transit per passenger-mile. Add to that the significant improvement of urban mobility and livability. This has convinced local policymakers and planners that further investment and expansion of the system are justified, leading to the opening of a second route, crossing the Mississippi River and connecting the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2014. Additional routes are now in development, and the Northstar Line, a regional passenger rail (commuter) line serving northwest suburbs and exurban communities, was also launched in 2009. See: «Minneapolis Area: Northstar Regional Rail Links Northwest Communities With Central City».

Overall, the Minneapolis LRT system appears to be a highly appropriate model for other cities — and especially Austin, where community support has been growing for an LRT starter line project in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor (Guadalupe St.-North Lamar Blvd.). (See «Plan for galvanizing Austin’s public transport development: Light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar».) As with Minneapolis’s original starter line, Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar LRT line could serve as the trunk or spine for additional lines branching out into other segments of the urban area.

This article/photo-essay presents a brief summary description of the Minneapolis LRT system and focuses especially on particular features that highlight why LRT is such an exceptionally appropriate and desirable public transport mode for a city like Austin.

Overview

So far, the Twin Cities LRT system extends approximately 23 miles, mainly south and east of central Minneapolis, as illustrated in the map below.


Map of Minneapolis Metro Transit rail transit system shows Blue and Green LRT Lines plus Northstar regional rail line (grey) to the northwest. Map adapted by ARN from Metro Transit map. (Click to enlarge.)

Map of Minneapolis Metro Transit rail transit system shows Blue and Green LRT Lines plus Northstar regional rail line (grey) to the northwest. Map adapted by ARN from Metro Transit map. (Click to enlarge.)


Blue Line — Originally dubbed the Hiawatha Line because much of its alignment uses a former railroad right-of-way (ROW) paralleling the city’s Hiawatha Avenue, the initial route (opened 2004) is now designated the Blue Line. Extended slightly, it now stretches about 12 miles south from the city’s downtown to the airport and terminates at the Mall of America. In the CBD, generally from the Downtown East station west, the Blue Line runs in dedicated lanes within 5th Street — in effect, a quasi-transit-mall configuration with some access allocated to motor vehicles (see photo at top of post).

Outside the city's core area, much of the Blue Line alignment, running on former freight railroad right-of-way, parallels Hiawatha Avenue, seen on the far left in this view. Photo: L. Henry.

Outside the city’s core area, much of the Blue Line alignment, running on former freight railroad right-of-way, parallels Hiawatha Avenue, seen on the far left in this view. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)


Blue Line train at Cedar-Riverside station, closer in to the CBD, where the former railroad ROW is quite narrow. This is similar to the narrow railroad ROW of Austin's MetroRail (Red Line), which ARN and other groups have advocated to be converted to LRT (from its current status as a diesel-propulsion light railway). LRT's electric propulsion enables faster, smoother train operation that is less costly, cleaner, and friendlier to urban livability.

Blue Line train at Cedar-Riverside station, closer in to the CBD, where the former railroad ROW is quite narrow. This is similar to the narrow railroad ROW of Austin’s MetroRail (Red Line), which ARN and other groups have advocated to be converted to LRT (from its current status as a diesel-propulsion light railway). LRT’s electric propulsion enables faster, smoother train operation that is cheaper, cleaner, and friendlier to urban livability. (Photo: L. Henry.)


Green Line — Also called the Central Line, this 11-mile route (opened 2014) crosses the Mississippi River to link the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. It also re-establishes what was once the Twin Cities’ formerly busiest streetcar route, part of the region’s vast, efficient electric rail system destroyed in the 1950s amidst the widespread national Transit Devastation, when public policy eliminated urban and interurban electric railways in a disastrous effort to encourage (and coerce) the American population to rely exclusively on personal automobiles and other rubber-tired transport (buses) rather than urban and interurban electric rail for mobility.

In contrast to the Blue Line, the Green Line is routed almost entirely via dedicated lanes or reservations within major arterials and other thoroughfares, with a particularly long stretch along University Avenue west of the Mississippi and toward St. Paul. In the Minneapolis CBD, the Green Line shares dedicated tracks on 5th St. with the Blue Line. Also of note is the use of the iconic Washington Avenue bridge (retrofitted to accommodate LRT) to cross the Mississippi River, as discussed further below.


Green Line alignment in median of University Avenue. Photo: L. Henry.

Green Line alignment in median of University Avenue. Photo: L. Henry.


Joint use of 5th St. trunk line — As mentioned above, both the Blue and Green Lines share tracks of the original 5th St. trunk route in downtown Minneapolis. A section of this alignment is illustrated in the photo at the top of this post. The following photo shows one of the stations in this alignment.


Passengers awaiting arrival of Green Line train at downtown Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue station in 5th St. alignment. Photo: L. Henry.

Passengers awaiting arrival of Green Line train at downtown Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue station in 5th St. alignment. Photo: L. Henry.


Self-service fare system — As with most new LRT systems, the Minneapolis operation uses self-service fare collection. Passengers purchase tickets at ticket vending machines (TVMs). Roving inspectors then spot-check passengers’ tickets aboard trains. (Austin’s MetroRail also uses the self-service system.)


Passenger purchases ticket from TVM at downtown station. Photo: L. Henry.

Passenger purchases ticket from TVM at downtown station. Photo: L. Henry.


Rail access/interconnections among major activity centers — The Twin Cities LRT system is outstanding in accessing and interconnecting some of the urban area’s most significant activity centers. These include, for example:

• Downtown Minneapolis
• Downtown St. Paul
• Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport
• Twin Cities Amtrak station (Union Depot, St. Paul)
• University of Minnesota (St. Paul)
• Minnesota state capitol (St. Paul)
• VA Medical Center
• Major shopping malls (Mall of America and University Ave. West/Hamline Ave.)
• Target Field sports center

Airport access

LRT can provide a cost-effective way to implement rail access to a city’s major local airport. However, typically the heaviest airport ridership tends to come from employees rather than passengers, so to be cost-effective the LRT route must also serve other significant sources of ridership close by (exemplified by LRT routes to airports in Baltimore, St. Louis, Portland, Phoenix, Seattle, Dallas, and Salt Lake City).

Minneapolis’s Blue Line LRT strongly fulfills this requirement, since its airport stations are situated in the middle of good traffic generators on both sides (between the CBD on the north end and the Mall of America on the south end, with other activity centers and residential areas also in between). From visual observation, it’s clear that lots of passengers and airline crews utilize the convenience of the LRT connection.


Blue Line train arriving at Airport Humphrey Terminal station. Photo: L. Henry.

Blue Line train arriving at Airport Humphrey Terminal station. Photo: L. Henry.


Lots of visible baggage on Blue Line train gives an indication that LRT service to Minneapolis's airport is well-used by air passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

Lots of visible baggage on Blue Line train gives an indication that LRT service to Minneapolis’s airport is well-used by air passengers. Photo: L. Henry.


Traveler with baggage boards Blue Line train at downtown station. With level boarding (station platform level with car floor), carrying on luggage is easy. Photo: L. Henry.

Traveler with baggage boards Blue Line train at downtown station. With level boarding (station platform level with car floor), carrying on luggage is easy. Photo: L. Henry.


Shopping mall access

Access to shopping malls is a major advantage for any rail transit line, and a huge convenience for the public (especially out-of-town visitors). The Minneapolis LRT system provides access to malls in both Bloomington (south of Minneapolis) and St. Paul.


Blue Line train leaves the Mall of America station located in the parking garage of this mall, which hosts the most mall visitors  in the world and is a popular tourist destination. Photo: Ymtram.mashke.org.

Blue Line train leaves the Mall of America station located in the parking garage of this giant mall, which hosts the most mall visitors in the world and is a popular tourist destination. Photo: Ymtram.mashke.org.


Green Line's Hamline station accesses major mall on University Ave. at West/Hamline Ave., with two "big box" stores (Walmart and Target). Photo: L. Henry.

Green Line’s Hamline station accesses major mall on University Ave. at West/Hamline Ave., with two “big box” stores (Walmart and Target). Photo: L. Henry.


Bridge retrofitted for LRT

To cross the Mississippi River, the Green Line uses the iconic Washington Avenue bridge, rather than a specially built bridge. According to the Minneapolis Metro Council, retrofitting the bridge rendered “cost savings to the project estimated at $80 million to $100 million and a minimum of two years in project schedule in comparison to a full bridge replacement.” The bridge was retrofitted “for an estimated $21 million, $2 million under budget….”

In Austin, ARN and other groups have advocated retrofitting either the Congress Avenue or South First (Drake) bridge to cross Lady Bird Lake (Colorado River) and link South Austin to the rest of the city on the north side of the river. We suggest this would be far more financially accessible and cost-effective than the expense of a totally new, specially constructed bridge.


Green Line train crosses over Mississippi River on newly retrofitted Washington Ave. bridge. Photo: Streets.mn.

Green Line train crosses over Mississippi River on newly retrofitted Washington Ave. bridge. Photo: Streets.mn.


Solution to complicated intersections

Somewhat like Austin’s MetroRail alignment along Airport Blvd., the Minneapolis Blue Line along Hiawatha Avenue encounters design challenges at intersections, especially where these approach at an angle. How these problems have been dealt with may suggest some traffic solutions in Austin with respect to a potential intersection of road traffic with a proposed Guadalupe-Lamar LRT at Airport/North Lamar.


In this Google Earth view, Hiawatha Ave., with the LRT line paralleling it on its western edge, runs diagonally north-south through the center of the photo. The 38th St. LRT station can also be seen, while E. 38th St. crosses both LRT line and Hiawatha Ave. east-west, in the bottom third of the graphic. Note that Hiawatha and the LRT line intersect E. 38th St. at about a 60-degree angle, somewhat similarly to Airport Blvd and N. Lamar and the MetroRail Red Line in Austin. Photo: ARN, from Google Earth.

In this Google Earth view, Hiawatha Ave., with the LRT line paralleling it on its western edge, runs diagonally north-south through the center of the photo. The 38th St. LRT station can also be seen, while E. 38th St. crosses both LRT line and Hiawatha Ave. east-west, in the bottom third of the graphic. Note that Hiawatha and the LRT line intersect E. 38th St. at about a 60-degree angle, somewhat similarly to Airport Blvd and N. Lamar and the MetroRail Red Line in Austin. Photo: ARN, from Google Earth.


From a surface view, this shows the intersection protected with crossing gates. Photo: ARN, from Google Street View.

From a surface view, this shows the intersection protected with crossing gates. Photo: ARN, from Google Street View.


Easy transport of bicycles

With typically spacious vehicles, LRT has the advantage of accommodating onboard bicycles, in contrast with the constrained interior space of buses, which usually require cyclists to place their bikes on an outside rack (if one is available). These views show how bikes are accommodated aboard Twin Cities LRT trains.


Bikes can be hung on special racks inside the LRT cars. Photo: L. Henry.

Bikes can be hung on special racks inside the LRT cars. Photo: L. Henry.


In some cases, smaller bikes are simply held by the passenger. Photo: L. Henry.

In some cases, smaller bikes are simply held by the passenger. Photo: L. Henry.


Easy accessibility for mobility-challenged

Level boarding, spacious interiors, and smooth ride qualities mean that LRT cars are exceptional in their ability to accommodate disabled, wheelchair-using, and other mobility challenged passengers. This also means that long delays in boarding wheelchairs, typical of buses, are eliminated, thus speeding transit service for all.


Passenger in wheelchair boards train at downtown station. Photo: L. Henry.

Passenger in wheelchair boards train at downtown station. Photo: L. Henry.


Passenger in wheelchair easily maneuvers chair into accessible space aboard car. In contrast to buses — no tiedowns, no operator assistance needed, no passengers ousted from their seats!  Photo: L. Henry.

Passenger in wheelchair easily maneuvers chair into accessible space aboard car. In contrast to buses — no tiedowns, no operator assistance needed, no passengers ousted from their seats! Photo: L. Henry.


Summing up

Certainly, a reasonable case can be made for considering Minneapolis (along with Portland, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and several other cities) as a particularly appropriate model for designing an LRT system for Austin, starting in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. As this discussion/photo-essay has attempted to suggest, smart, cost-effective design can be combined with significant public transit conveniences and advantages to galvanize public support, attract significant ridership. improve mobility and urban livability, and reduce the cost burden of urban travel. ■


Blue Line train approaches station along Hiawatha Avenue alignment. Photo: L. Henry.

Blue Line train approaches station along Hiawatha Avenue alignment. Photo: L. Henry.

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Another major Austin community recommendation for light rail transit in Guadalupe-Lamar

12 November 2015
Light rail transit alignment following North Lamar Blvd., Guadalupe St., Riverside Dr., and Pleasant Valley Rd. as proposed by MobilityATX.

Light rail transit alignment following North Lamar Blvd., Guadalupe St., Riverside Dr., and Pleasant Valley Rd. as proposed by MobilityATX.

The prospect of a light rail transit (LRT) starter line project in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor has received another huge boost in a recommendation from MobilityATX, an eminent Austin-focused civic organization that describes itself as “a community-engagement initiative sponsored by both public and private community partners that invites the public to create and shape public policy solutions to Austin’s transportation woes.” The recommendation for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail is included as one of ten “Popular Ideas” resulting from a community input process in the spring and summer of 2015, elaborated in a Mobility ATX Findings Report produced by Glasshouse Policy “in conjunction with community partners and stakeholders …” and packed with supportive factual documentation. The report was originally released in mid-October.

As the report relates, “Part of the MobilityCity umbrella initiative, MobilityATX is a privately-funded online and in-person platform for all Austinites to explore discrete topics that impact Austin mobility.” And regarding the background of the report: “Lasting from April to July, MobilityATX curated a conversation by inviting the public, Austin community leaders, regional transportation brands, mobility influencers and regional employers to join this effort to turn citizen-sourced priorities into effective policy solutions.”

The report’s proposed LRT alignment, shown in its map at the top of this post (see above), includes the Guadalupe-Lamar segment (which we’ve consistently advocated as the most feasible LRT starter line), then crosses Lady Bird Lake (the Colorado River) to include a possible line branching into southeast Austin. The proposed route follows North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe St. (and presumably the Guadalupe-Lavaca street pair downtown), then crosses the river via a bridge that appears to be roughly located parallel to either the South First St. (Drake) Bridge, or the Congress Avenue Bridge — or possibly it involves an adaptation of either bridge to include lanes for LRT (as we’ve also proposed).

Heading southeast, the proposed route appears to follow Riverside Drive, then turns southward to follow Pleasant Valley Road and then other unspecified alignments south of Ben White Blvd. (State Highway 71). Population density levels shown on the route map indicate that areas of high density are connected by the alignment.

In presenting the proposal, the report notes that

Despite two major defeats for light rail in recent history, it’s clear that there is sustained community interest in exploring and developing an expansive light rail system in Austin. According to the 2015 Zandan Poll of Austin-area residents, 63% of respondents would favor seeing an increase in taxes to construct an above ground rail system. In addition, Austin’s commuter rail line, the MetroRail Red Line, has seen dramatic increases in ridership. …

We must get cracking on planning a light-rail line that will serve the greatest number of riders on day one, and going forward. We can’t give up on light rail just because the city floated a bad plan and voters shot that bad plan down. Bus Rapid Transit is not a substitute.

(Emphasis added in above quotations. Original quote implied that MetroRail began operation in 2008; in actuality, MetroRail opened in spring of 2010.)

Supported by a consortium of leading civic “partners”, including the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Capital Metro (the region’s transit authority), RECA (the Real Estate Council of Austin), Leadership Austin, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the Austin Monitor (online news media), and a variety of mainly tech-involved businesses and other organizations, MobilityATX clearly represents much of the top civic leadership of the city. (See complete list of partners in the graphic below, from the Findings Report).

Mobility ATX/Glasshouse Policy partners. Graphic: MobilityATX Findings Report.

Mobility ATX/Glasshouse Policy partners. Graphic: MobilityATX Findings Report.

In his Foreword to the report, City of Austin Mayor Steve Adler emphasized:

As Austin rapidly evolves, we must continually innovate new approaches to engage Austinites in the discussions that shape City policy. Given the participation in the MobilityATX initiative, it’s clear Austinites are anxious to contribute their ideas for transforming mobility, and how it impacts our commutes, our economy, and our lives.

The final Glasshouse Policy report on this process provides me, my colleagues on the Austin City Council, private employers, public agencies, and all Austinites, with a new community perspective from which to approach our shared mobility challenge. We need to add this perspective to those gathered from other community engagement efforts to
ensure that we hear from all Austinites in every district as we plan for our mobility future. I’d also like to thank the array of public and private stakeholders for their vision and support of this effort, including business, government, and civic leaders like RideScout CEO Joseph Kopser, Dewitt Peart of the Downtown Austin Alliance, and Capital Metro CEO Linda Watson.

Each of you who took part in MobilityATX confirmed that all Austinites have something to say and deserve a forum in which to say it. I look forward to working with the MobilityATX partners to ensure Austin leads the global conversation on what constitutes a smarter, more connected city, and continues to reflect the innovators and entrepreneurs that call Austin home.

Mobility ATX’s LRT recommendation notes that

After the defeat of Proposition 1 in November, there has been no significant movement to develop a new light rail plan for Austin. In order to build new light rail in Austin, bond funding would have to be secured for a new plan. There is no official public effort underway to develop a new light rail plan.

Austinites are anticipating that city and regional transportation authorities will develop a new plan for a light rail system, a process that should include sustained and inclusive community input in the planning and development of that system. Beyond all other data collected, the expectation of inclusion is most critical to understanding Austin’s evolving mobility constituency.

And it concludes with what seems a call for action (emphasis added):

Contact your Council Member. Like the Bicycle Master Plan, building a light rail line requires a bond election. In order for a bond to appear on the ballot, City Council must vote to put that bond proposal up to popular vote. Once City Council does that, a simple majority in a popular election is required to pass the bond proposal.

The MobilityATX Findings Report has been received enthusiastically by proponents of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail, including Texas Association for Public Transportation, Austin Rail Now, and the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), which have long advocated for such a project. A report on KEYE-TV News included a graphic (see below) with an excerpt from a CACDC statement that commented, in part, “The community will support a new light rail plan that reaches the most people possible, and this is a very encouraging step forward.”

CACDC statement applauding Mobility ATX report, as shown on KEYE-TV News. Screenshot: ATXRail.

CACDC statement applauding Mobility ATX report, as shown on KEYE-TV News. Screenshot: ATXRail.

Hopefully, the MobilityATX report’s recommendation will add significant momentum to the ongoing campaign for an initial LRT starter line project in the crucial Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor. ■

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Dedicated transit lanes on Austin’s Drag must be designed for light rail

29 September 2015
Busy section of Austin's Drag, Guadalupe St. at W. 24th St. Official city planning by CTR has proposed curbside transit lanes, with buses running on outside lanes as seen in this photo. (Screenshot from Google Streetview.)

Busy section of Austin’s Drag, Guadalupe St. at W. 24th St. Official city planning by CTR has proposed curbside transit lanes, with buses running on outside lanes as seen in this photo. (Screenshot from Google Streetview.)

By Lyndon Henry

The following commentary has been adapted and expanded from remarks posted to an online Austin rail discussion. Lyndon Henry is a transportation planning consultant, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, an online columnist for Railway Age magazine, and a contributing editor to Austin Rail Now. He is also a member of the Light Rail Technical Forum and Streetcar Subcommittee of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). His comments highlight the vision of Austin Rail Now and other transit advocates that light rail is justified in, and needs to be planned for, a number of the Austin area’s major travel corridors.

As most Austinites are undoubtedly aware, the Drag is that section of Guadalupe St. stretching between (approximately) West MLK Jr. Blvd. and W. 27th St. Straddled by the University of Texas campus on its east side and the high-density West Campus neighborhood on its west side, the Drag is perhaps the single most important segment of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. See: «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps» and «Dobbs: Density, travel corridor density, and implications for Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail».


Map shows the Drag area (Guadalupe St., running north-south in center). UT campus lies on the east, West Campus neighborhood on the west. (Screenshot from Google Maps.)

Map shows the Drag area (Guadalupe St., running north-south in center). UT campus lies on the east, West Campus neighborhood on the west. (Screenshot from Google Maps.)


Now, driven partly by their fixation to substitute buses for rail as “rapid transit”, and partly by pressure from some community groups and activists, local civic leaders and official planners are floating plans for dedicated transit (read “bus”) lanes on the Drag. (Official planning defines “the Drag” as continuing north to W. 29th St.)

Last month (August 2015), AURA (originally Austinites for Urban Rail Action), a grouping of mostly Millennial-aged urban planning enthusiasts, posted a proposal for major improvements on the Drag, one of which suggested: “Extend transit priority lanes from Downtown to the Drag”.

At peak periods, transit moves roughly half of the people passing through the corridor. This is to be expected in a central location like the Drag, as transit is by far the most efficient way to move people in a city.

Given the anticipated growth of the city, increasing the throughput of people in the corridor is of paramount importance. The city should plan ahead for increased frequency of existing bus routes, and continue to examine the viability of Guadalupe as a future corridor for rail service. Buses should not have their effectiveness limited by less efficient forms of mobility. Two lanes of Guadalupe should be dedicated solely to transit.

Back in May, per its contract with the City of Austin (COA), UT’s Center for Transportation Research (CTR) produced for city staff a memo of its findings with respect to installing dedicated lanes on the Drag. As summarized by AURA’s John Laycock, the report “modeled three scenarios: Scenario 0) the baseline scenario, Scenario 1) a transit lane in each direction on Guadalupe, and Scenario 2) diverting the buses completely off of Guadalupe onto San Antonio.” Laycock reports that the city subsequently requested CTR to model an additional case, involving one transit lane northbound on Guadalupe and another southbound on Nueces/San Antonio. Results from that additional modeling effort apparently have not yet been released publicly.


Diagram from CTR report for curbside dedicated lanes on the Drag. (Screenshot from CTR memo.)

Diagram from CTR report for curbside dedicated lanes on the Drag. (Screenshot from CTR memo.)


The proposal for dedicated transit lanes on the Drag may seem fairly benign, helpful to public transport and innocuous to the prospects for light rail (LRT). However, installing reserved transit lanes without broader planning for rail can raise some quite serious problems. Depending on their design and implementation, transit lanes could significantly improve or seriously impede the prospects for light rail transit (LRT) — by far, the most feasible and affordable rail option — in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (See «Plan for galvanizing Austin’s public transport development: Light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar».)

First, I’ll note that implementing a high-quality bus service as a precursor to rail can be an effective way of building ridership and preparing the public for the coming rail upgrade. Likewise, establishing reserved transit lanes that can be dedicated to rail can also be helpful. However, both infrastructure and configuration of dedicated transit lanes, done improperly, can create problems.

Infrastructure — Proponents of dedicated transit lanes have argued that all that’s needed is to paint some stripes on the street. And certainly, in the scheme of transit capital projects, just “painting” markings on pavement is relatively cheap. But there’s almost always more involved. The Guadalupe-Lavaca transit lanes, for example, included repaving, plus bus stop relocation and upgrading. Parking meters were removed. And the project has resulted in effectively eliminating the possibility of dedicated LRT tracks on those sides of these streets (bus traffic too heavy).


Buses use curbside reserved lanes on one-way Lavaca St. downtown. Curbside lanes on the Drag would be similar, but on two-way street. Photo: L. Henry.

Buses use curbside reserved lanes on one-way Lavaca St. downtown. Curbside lanes on the Drag would be similar, but on two-way street. Photo: L. Henry.


In previous discussions I’ve suggested that LRT dedicated lanes would need to be relocated on the opposite side of each street. Total cost of the downtown bus lane project was about $370,000 — not a billion-dollar investment, but enough of an investment certainly to give pause to totally redoing this project, or making substantial modifications to it (although modification to add LRT would definitely be a highly worthwhile investment).

We also don’t know what COA and Capital Metro have in mind for the Drag project. Some community transit activists might be thinking very minimalist, but what are official planners thinking?

Configuration — The precise alignment on the transit lanes also needs serious consideration with respect to the needs of LRT (and evidence suggests that a substantial portion of the Austin community would like to see LRT as a project on the planning table now). Curbside lanes — as assumed in the CTR design, described above — are used by several major LRT systems (Portland, Houston, Dallas, and Denver come immediately to mind), but this configuration can often encounter serious problems, mainly with motor vehicle right-turns and especially pedestrian traffic (including where the right turns are made). Another problem for the Drag is the number of driveway cuts and the issue of access to businesses along this commercial alignment.


Denver: Passengers waiting to board LRT train running in curbside lane on Stout St. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

Denver: Passengers waiting to board LRT train running in curbside lane on Stout St. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.


To be sure, a number of different LRT alignment and configuration options are possible. My preferred alignment concept for the Drag has been to keep both LRT tracks on Guadalupe, in the center (with stations also in the center), and the outside (curb) lanes continued for mixed motor vehicle traffic, including buses. The main reason for this configuration is that buses need access to right-side loading at stops, and I envisioned that local routes like #1 would need to be continued. Of course, bus routes could be moved further west, probably to San Antonio-Nueces, but keeping them on Guadalupe would facilitate relatively easy transfers to and from LRT and bus.

Ideally, the main Drag segment in this heavy-pedestrian/heavy-transit traffic area should be converted to a pedestrian-transit mall, with general motor vehicle traffic prohibited (except perhaps in the case of service vehicles for adjacent businesses). However, a design with reserved transit lanes plus a single mixed-traffic lane in each direction would appear to be possible.

To sum up: While dedicated transit lanes, with very minimal investment, could possibly be helpful as a preparation for LRT, I’d recommend huge caution and vigilance as this notion moves forward. Keeping particularly in mind the considerations I’ve raised above.

In this regard, it’s important to realize that a major chunk of Austin’s civic leadership, and planning establishment, still regard MetroRapid as the city’s “rapid transit system”. Likewise, the fantasy persists that Austin could “become the best bus system we can be” without a rail system. (Cities with the “best bus systems” also seem to happen to have excellent rail systems too.) Reserved transit lanes on the Drag could advance the case for LRT, but only if they’re properly configured, designed, and planned in the context of an ultimate LRT outcome. ■

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Texas Tribune op-ed urges support for “Plan B” light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar

27 July 2015
TribTalk op-ed headline with photo of Houston light rail train. (Screenshot: ARN)

TribTalk op-ed headline with photo of Houston light rail train. (Screenshot: ARN)

The case for light rail transit (LRT) in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor just received a huge boost with the publication of an op-ed in TribTalk, the op-ed web page of the widely respected Texas Tribune.

“It may seem unlikely in Texas, but across the state, people are benefiting from rail transit” say William S. Lind and Glen D. Bottoms in their commentary (ARN emphasis added here and subsequently).

In Dallas, which now has the country’s largest light rail system, more than 100,000 Texans escape traffic congestion each day by riding Dallas Area Rapid Transit rail. In Houston, the light rail Red Line draws about 3,500 weekday boardings per mile, more than any other modern light rail operation in the country.

“Critics, many of whom call themselves conservatives (though most are really libertarians), predicted that both systems would fail because no one would ride them” they add.

Both writers are venerable, renowned veterans of the U.S. public transportation industry. Lind was also a close associate of the late conservative leader Paul Weyrich, a well-known advocate of rail transit among conservative circles.

In their op-ed, Lind and Bottoms note that “As conservatives, we find it odd that many people expect us to oppose public transportation, especially rail.”

In fact, high-quality transit, which usually means rail, benefits conservatives in a number of important ways. It spurs development, something conservatives generally favor, especially in Texas. It saves people, including conservatives, precious time, because those who ride rail transit can work or read on the train instead of wasting hours stuck in traffic. Transit of all kinds helps poor people get to jobs, which conservatives prefer over paying welfare. And rail transit, especially streetcars, helps support retail in downtowns by increasing the number of middle-class people on sidewalks.

Libertarians’ arguments against rail transit mostly boil down to one criticism: It’s subsidized. Yes, it is. So is all other transportation. Highway user fees now cover only 47.5 percent of the cost of highways. Nationally, rail transit of all types covers 50 percent of its operating costs from fares. It’s a veritable wash. In contrast, bus systems, which libertarians often favor over rail, cover only 28 percent of their operating costs from the farebox.

“Regrettably,” the writers caution, “conservatives’ tendency to accept libertarians’ arguments against rail transit (without checking their numbers) may deprive Texas conservatives of more chances to escape traffic congestion.”

As a case in point, they turn to Austin, explaining that it “may be different from other Texas cities in many ways, but not when it comes to traffic.”

The city’s rapidly growing population has packed its freeways at rush hours. And as other cities have found, building more freeways is not the answer. New lanes fill up as soon as they’re opened, and limited-access freeways in urban areas slice up and kill surrounding communities.

While they recount that “Austin voters last year rejected a poorly conceived light rail proposal that supporters said would help alleviate that congestion”, Lind and Bottoms argues that the failure of that plan nevertheless

…could be a good thing because it opened the door to a “Plan B” rail line that would serve the city better. A basic rule of rail transit planning is to “build it where people want to go,” and the alternative plan proposes a rail line that would run along Guadalupe Street and North Lamar Boulevard, Austin’s most heavily traveled urban corridor. We hope Austin conservatives will support “Plan B.”

Included in their commentary is a hyperlink to our own article from last October, «A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line». (Also see our recent article «Plan for galvanizing Austin’s public transport development: Light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar», which links to our series of articles for this alternative plan with “what, where, how, and how soon” details about the proposed project.

Lind and Bottoms also point to other opportunities for rail, such as the streetcar project in El Paso and the Texas Central Railway highspeed rail system proposed to connect Dallas and Houston. “A combination of high-speed rail connecting Texas cities and good light rail and streetcar systems in those cities would make Texas a national leader…” they say in their conclusion. ■

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Plan for galvanizing Austin’s public transport development: Light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar

30 June 2015
LEFT: Map of proposed 6.8-mile light rail route in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (Map: ARN.) RIGHT: San Francisco light rail train in dedicated lanes in Judah St., similar to Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (Photo: Eric Haas.)

LEFT: Map of proposed 6.8-mile light rail route in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (Map: ARN.) RIGHT: San Francisco light rail train in dedicated lanes in Judah St., similar to Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (Photo: Eric Haas.) (Click to enlarge.)

LEFT: Map of proposed 6.8-mile light rail route in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (Map: ARN.) RIGHT: San Francisco light rail train in dedicated lanes in Judah St., similar to Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (Photo: Eric Haas.)

Austin’s transportation planning could be seen as “a tale of two systems“. On one hand, here in the 21st century — amidst crises over the climbing cost of energy, increasing road congestion by private vehicles, and global climate change impacted by greenhouse gas emissions — local planners and leaders are expanding highways like it’s 1955. In all directions, nowadays it’s mostly tollways, with new ones under development or planned in southwestern Travis County; across the river, double-decked over Loop 1 (MoPac); from East Austin to ABIA; and through the heart of the city with new toll lanes on I-35. Austinites who’re already paying taxes to fund roads now get to pay out-of-pocket tolls to use the new ones — a kind of Double Whammy.

So what about public transportation? Basically, since last year’s “Rail to Nowhere” Highland-Riverside proposal crashed and burned, public transportation planning has been going in circles — a circular maze, to be exact.

In other words, roads burgeon while transit diddles.

Meanwhile the solution continues to stare the Austin community in the face. As we noted in our March 29th article «Austin’s urban transport planning seems struck by catastrophic case of amnesia and confusion», “For two and a half decades, local officials and planners have explained why urban rail — affordable light rail transit (LRT), in Austin’s case — has been an absolutely essential component of the metro area’s mobility future.” We went on to elaborate that

…the fundamental case for LRT in Austin has been grounded in truth — the higher capacity, greater ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, environmental benefits, unsurpassed magnetism to transit-oriented development and economic development, and other advantages of light rail are indeed essential for the future of this community. Mobility cannot be sustained of a continuing expansion of rivers of highways and tollways and a steadily rising flood of personal motor vehicles. Urban rail continues to be key to providing truly attractive public transit alternative, and shifting at least significant segments of the Austin metro to a sustainable alternative mobility lifestyle.

Austin Rail Now has underscored the case — and extensive evidence — in an array of solidly documented articles, including:

Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps

Latest TTI data confirm — Guadalupe-Lamar is central local arterial corridor with heaviest travel

Dobbs: Density, travel corridor density, and implications for Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail

West Campus is where the students are!

Guadalupe-Lamar is highest-density corridor in Austin — according to Project Connect’s own data!

Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail line would serve 31% of all Austin jobs

Demographic maps show Lamar-Guadalupe trumps Mueller route for Urban Rail

Dobbs: “Why are we squandering our best asset?”

How urban rail can be installed in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

Strong community support for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail continues — but officials seem oblivious

Poll: Austinites want surface rail!

Community endorsements

Why the MetroRapid bus project currently is NOT an obstacle to urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar

Contradicting local official claims, FTA says it “would consider request” for urban rail on North Lamar

So where and how could LRT be installed in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor? Austin Rail Now has provided conceptual details for a workable, affordable, attractive, cost-effective plan in a series of thoroughly researched articles:

What and where — Our article «A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line» proposed a 6.8-mile LRT starter line from the North Austin Transit Center down North Lamar and then Guadalupe and Lavaca to downtown, with a westward spur to the Seaholm-Amtrak Station area. Total cost was estimated at less than $600 million (2014 dollars), and daily ridership was estimated at 30,000 to 40,000.


Proposed 6.8-mile "Plan B" light rail transit line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would have 17 stations and connect  the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S> 183 with Crestview, the Triangle, UT and the West Campus, the Capitol Complex, the CBD, and the Seaholm-Amtrak area. It's projected to serve 3 times the ridership of the Prop. 1 Highland-Riverside rail line at slightly over half the capital cost.

Map of proposed 6.8-mile LRT starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, with connection to Seaholm-Amtrak Station site. (Map: ARN. Click to enlarge.)


How — Our article «San Francisco’s N-Judah Muni Metro line shows design option for light rail in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor» explains how two dedicated LRT tracks could be installed in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor in a design that maintains four traffic lanes (two per direction) and facilities for pedestrians and cyclists.


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-section of proposed LRT dedicated lanes in Guadalupe-Lamar, including 4 traffic lanes and pedestrian-bicycle facilities. (ARN. Click to enlarge.)


How soon — Our article «How soon to get Austin’s urban rail on track after Nov. 4th?» explains policy steps that the new City Council could implement to re-focus planning on a viable Guadalupe-Lamar LRT starter line and a local funding mechanism. Our subsequent, more detailed article «Possible timeline for installing light rail transit in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor» lays out a plausible itemized timeline that brings an LRT plan for Guadalupe-Lamar from the start of system-level planning to opening of operations in less than seven years.


Hypothetical timeline.

Conceptual timeline for proposed LRT starter line project, with assumed starting point in fall of 2015. (ARN. Click to enlarge.)


Until this city has a signature rail system, beginning with a starter line in the right corridor to serve as a spine and anchor for a citywide and regionwide network, Austinites will continue to face one highway ripoff after another — burdened with steadily rising costs for more roads and shackled to dependency on increasingly expensive private vehicles in worsening traffic congestion.

We’ve proposed a plan that can work and initiate a realistic path forward for solving Austin’s mobility crisis. Will Austin decide to proceed on that path, or continue to circle around in the maze of indecision and procrastination? ■

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Poll: Austinites want surface rail!

31 May 2015
(Sceenshot of poll results)

(Sceenshot of poll results)

We’ve been insisting that — despite last November’s voter rejection of the deeply flawed official “urban rail” plan — Austinites do support rail.

Now this has been corroborated. A poll conducted in early March by the Zandan Poll (and reported April 16th by the Austin American-Statesman) indicates that 63% of respondents would favor “an increase in taxes” to construct an “Above ground rail system”.

According to the Statesman, the results are based on the responses of over 800 people that participated in online surveys. Yhr particupar quesrion on transportation was:

Assuming an increase in taxes for projects that involve lots of new construction, how supportive are you of the following transportation initiatives/infrastructure projects?

As the graphic at top shows, respondents also gave a thumbs-up to “More dedicated express lanes on Austin’s major highways ” and “Expanding service on the most frequently used bus routes”. And over half apparently even favor a subway.

All in all, this suggests that votes could be mustered to support money for rail — if the project is right. ■

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Plan Now for Light Rail in South Lamar!

29 April 2015
South Lamar corridor. Map: City of Austin.

South Lamar corridor. Map: City of Austin.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments, adapted here to webpage format, were distributed to attendees at a public event sponsored by the City of Austin’s South Lamar Boulevard Corridor Study project on 10 December 2014. Lyndon Henry is a transportation planning consultant, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and a contributing editor to Austin Rail Now. His comments highlight the vision of Austin Rail Now and other transit advocates that light rail is justified in, and needs to be planned for, a number of the Austin area’s major travel corridors.

► South Lamar light rail transit line makes sense

• In terms of both travel density and traffic congestion, South Lamar Blvd. ranks high among Austin’s major travel corridors (see Latest TTI data confirm — Guadalupe-Lamar is central local arterial corridor with heaviest travel). Current travel density plus rapidly increasing population density plus commercial growth in this corridor all indicate that planning for light rail transit (LRT) should long since have been under way.

• A South Lamar surface LRT line, possibly using an alignment design such as is illustrated below, needs to be a major part of an eventual citywide system branching north, south, east, and west throughout our region from an initial central spine in the Guadalupe-North Lamar corridor.


Cross-sectional diagram showing how center LRT reservation could be inserted in South Lamar, maintaining traffic lanes and sidwalks. Design would use side-mounted traction electrification system poles for suspending the overhead contact system for LRT electric propulsion. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

Cross-sectional diagram showing how center LRT reservation could be inserted in South Lamar, maintaining traffic lanes and sidwalks. Design would use side-mounted traction electrification system poles for suspending the overhead contact system for LRT electric propulsion. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


• The South Lamar Corridor Improvement Program should be reconfigured to include planning for LRT as a crucial focus of this project. Planners and traffic engineers need to ensure that any “improvements” in this corridor facilitate dedicated transit lanes for future light rail, and certainly should not impose obstacles to it. It’s way past time to scrap the practice of proceeding with major projects with little if any thought to the future.

► Form a Community Policy & Technical Oversight Committee

• Planning should involve the Austin community as a whole, and this means forming a broad, inclusive community committee to oversee policy and technical decisions, including a comprehensive transit-focused mobility plan for Austin and its surrounding region. No more secretive project teams meeting in a virtual “bunker”, then emerging to tell us what they’ve decided for us! Authentic public participation means including representatives of neighborhood and other community groups, plus others with applicable expertise within the Austin community at large.


Current view of traffic on South Lamar. Photo: Austin Mobility.

Current view of traffic and urban development on South Lamar. Photo: Austin Mobility.


► Dedicate street lanes for light rail transit

Light rail can carry many more peak passengers than private cars, and attract many more riders than buses (both “regular” and MetroRapid). Austin needs to start re-allocating street space from traffic lanes to transit lanes, and the South Lamar corridor must be included. Smart design could install LRT in this corridor while retaining at least 4 lanes of traffic (see diagram in first section, above). ■

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Austin’s urban transport planning seems struck by catastrophic case of amnesia and confusion

29 March 2015
Graphic: Rich's Management Blog

Graphic: Rich’s Management Blog

The devastating befuddlement of Austin’s official-level urban transportation planning over the past five months has been nothing short of jaw-dropping. Especially when you consider this in context.

For two and a half decades, local officials and planners have explained why urban rail — affordable light rail transit (LRT), in Austin’s case — has been an absolutely essential component of the metro area’s mobility future. As our recent article «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps» describes, the logical starting point for an initial LRT route has been the central city’s heaviest-traveled central corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar.

Year after year, planning proceeded in some way for LRT. Even after 2003, while official planning was distracted and mis-directed toward potential routes more to the east of the central core city, the need for rail transit was still proclaimed. Austin had to have rail to maintain an adequate level of mobility into the future.

Beginning about 2006, an original streetcar “connector” rail transit concept emerged that gradually morphed into more ambitious “urban rail” — a full LRT system. An official blue-ribbon committee of civic leaders, the Transit Working Group (TWG), was hand-picked (first by State Sen. Kirk Watson, then by Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell) to guide rail planning. Extensive planning documents were finalized for a route scheme linking the Core Area with Seaholm, East Riverside, the East Campus, and Mueller — a rather deranged route, in our view, but rail nonetheless. The City then launched a full-fledged NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process (required for federal funding), with a series of “open houses” and other public events.

Activities of the TWG continued to heat up, primarily focused on planning for the urban rail line to Mueller. Route alternatives, cost issues, funding issues, organizational and management arrangements, and all kinds of associated issues were discussed exhaustively. A new consortium of public agencies, called Project Connect, was formed, mainly to coordinate rail planning and to produce a massive regional plan criss-crossed with proposed rail lines. Remember all this?

By 2013, the official establishment apparently felt urban rail needed the scrutiny of a special High-Capacity Transit study. So a special Project Connect team, headed by consultant Kyle Keahey, was formed, and virtually the second half of 2013 was consumed with “studying” (translation: justifying) and finalizing the need, size, and shape of an officially preferred urban rail plan. Mueller was sidelined, replaced by a desperate quest for a rail line from East Riverside to the former Highland Mall site. “Gotta get to Mueller! Mueller! Mueller!” became “Gotta get to Highland! Highland! Highland!”


Urban rail has been on the official planning agenda for decades. Throughout the first 10 months of 2014, the Highland-Riverside plan (envisioned in this simulated scene) was hyped incessantly. Graphic: Project Connect.

Urban rail has been on the official planning agenda for decades. Throughout the first 10 months of 2014, the Highland-Riverside plan (envisioned in this simulated scene) was hyped incessantly. Graphic: Project Connect.


As this blog, and a sizable segment of local transit advocates, insisted, the plan was conceived for the wrong reasons and fundamentally flawed. But for about the last two months of 2013, and ten months of 2014, the City administration, plus Capital Metro, plus the prevailing faction of local civic leaders, all insisted over and over that rail was absolutely, positively essential (although it had to be the peculiar Highland-Riverside plan officials had concocted). An expensive ad campaign, much of it financed from federal funds channeled through Capital Metro, bombarded the public via the Internet and virtually all major media outlets — reiterating the message that traffic congestion was a growing threat to the metro area and rail (the official plan of course) was the essential remedy. Mayor Leffingwell’s familiar aphorism was suddenly appearing and being heard everywhere: “Rail or Fail!

And then, on Nov. 4th, it all hit a wall, as voters said No to the puzzling, nonsensical, controversial, and fabulously expensive Project Connect plan that had been offered.

And all of a sudden, rail was erased, scrubbed, from official discourse. Despite all the years, decades, of documentation of the need for a rail transit system for the city, the official vision of transit became refocused on “becoming the best bus system we can be”; after years of explanations that reliance on further highway development wasn’t a realistic solution for preserving the city’s mobility, regional highway and tollway development has suddenly received a new surge of energy in official policy.

Meanwhile, rail transit planning has basically vanished from official planning. It’s just gone “Poof”. As David Orr has reported in his recent commentary «Austin’s “shadow government” (CAMPO) disappears light rail from local planning», all reference to urban rail has been expunged from the 2040 Transportation Plan of CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization), and replaced by line items for “bus rapid transit” (i.e., expansion of the MetroRapid limited-stop bus service).

Affirmed, until last November, as an absolutely essential component of Austin’s future mobility, light rail has now disappeared from public discourse, from the mainstream media, from the lips of politicians and civic leaders. Is it some kind of collective amnesia? Have the local planning and decisionmaking establishment all been struck with a strange disability, like the global mass blindness in Day of the Triffids? Or is the obliteration of rail a calculated excision, like the Soviet Stalin regime’s air-brushing elimination of political undesirables from photos, or the “Photoshopping” of group photos by some misguided religious media to “disappear” women?


Evaporation of Austin's light rail planning resembles a catastrophe of collective affliction, like the mass blindness portrayed in Day of the Triffids. Movie poster: IMDb.com.

Evaporation of Austin’s light rail planning resembles a catastrophe of collective affliction, like the mass blindness portrayed in Day of the Triffids. Movie poster: IMDb.com.


One wonders whether any of these Austin-area leaders and planners have given a thought as to how this plays in public perceptions of their own credibility and integrity. Were all the assurances and explanations of the need for urban rail to maintain Austin’s future mobility and vitality just deceptive hype, a marketing ploy for some kind of alternative agenda?

Maybe, but we believe the fundamental case for LRT in Austin has been grounded in truth — the higher capacity, greater ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, environmental benefits, unsurpassed magnetism to transit-oriented development and economic development, and other advantages of light rail are indeed essential for the future of this community. Mobility cannot be sustained of a continuing expansion of rivers of highways and tollways and a steadily rising flood of personal motor vehicles. Urban rail continues to be key to providing truly attractive public transit alternative, and shifting at least significant segments of the Austin metro to a sustainable alternative mobility lifestyle.


According data from Texas Transportation Institute, even with implementation of infrastructure expansion in CAMPO 2035 plan, Austin metro travel time would increase 80% due to traffic congestion. Graph: Austin Chamber of Commerce 2013 Mobility Report.

According to data from Texas Transportation Institute, even with implementation of infrastructure expansion in CAMPO 2035 plan, Austin metro travel time would increase 80% due to traffic congestion. Graph: Austin Chamber of Commerce 2013 Mobility Report. (Click to enlarge.)


And we have a strong suspicion that a preponderant number of local planners and officials actually continue to agree with this perspective. If so, they need to realize there’s a lot of community support for urban rail — from voters on both sides of last year’s debate — and they need to start stepping forward. They need to heed their sense of responsibility, find their mojo, or whatever it takes, to take the lead to get LRT planning back on track.

The groundwork, in terms of preliminary planning, is already there — and, in recent articles and other public information, Austin Rail Now along with other mass transit advocates have expanded on it.

Austin is waiting. We’re wondering who’ll take the first step. ■


LRT train on Portland's 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland’s light rail trains (in dedicated lanes) share 5th and 6th Avenue transit mall with buses as well as cars — a potential transit design model for Austin? Photo: L. Henry.

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Possible timeline for installing light rail transit in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

17 February 2015
LRT construction in Houston. A similar LRT line in the Guadalupe-Lamar could potentially be completed and in service in less than a decade. Photo: Houston Metro.

LRT construction in Houston. A similar LRT line in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor could potentially be completed and in service in less than a decade. Photo: Houston Metro.

In our Feb. 10th article «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps» we provided a selective summary chronicle of the exhaustive history of planning for major infrastructure upgrades — almost all of it light rail transit (LRT) — to expand capacity, enhance urban livability and the environment, and improve and sustain mobility in Austin’s most important central local corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L). Over 40 years of LRT proposals and studies were noted and maps associated with them were presented, among them several alternatives we’ve featured on this website.

As we’ve contended in our article «Strong community support for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail continues — but officials seem oblivious», there’s abundant evidence of enduring community interest in, and support for, LRT in this crucial corridor, indicated in part by various alternative route proposals that have emerged in recent years. One of these — originally presented in a posting on this website last October as a so-called “Plan B” proposal (the name deriving from the presumption that the disastrously flawed officially sponsored Highland-Riverside urban rail plan, decisively rejected by voters in November, was “Plan A”) — has been modestly developed as a light rail transit (LRT) starter line project with suggested basic planning, route, and design concepts:

A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line

San Francisco’s N-Judah Muni Metro line shows design option for light rail in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

So, on the assumption that the critical mass of community and political support could be mustered to proceed, how long would it take to get an actual G-L starter line (the seminal “spine” from which extensions throughout the metro area and the region would subsequently branch) in operation? What milestones might there be along the way, and what might be typical (or at least realistic) timeframes for achieving each milestone? And could a new Project Connect-style study be initiated and concluded within about a year, in time to put a rail project funding measure on the ballot in 2016?

In response to these issues, we’re posting here a somewhat fanciful and speculative timeline (based on the proposed 6.8-mile G-L-Seaholm line described in our “Plan B” article cited above), with some modestly rosy assumptions, but based on real-world experience elsewhere. In addition, it’s been vetted by a number of transit industry professionals and savvy advocates.


Hypothetical timeline.

Hypothetical timeline (click to enlarge).


(Click to enlarge.)

(Click to enlarge.)

Our timeline assumes that some project phases could be accelerated or “telescoped” because so much previous study and analytical work has already been completed on this corridor (and some of the planning work involved in the Highland-Riverside proposal might also be applicable). Obviously, all dates (and phases) should be considered as hypothetical, and thus to have some room for adjustment.

This information is mainly intended just to provide a general idea of a possible timeline for such a project in the G-L corridor. Typically, project timelines are meticulously developed by an entire project team and are subject to ongoing revisions.

As our timeline suggests, it’s plausible to envision that a G-L LRT starter line project could be completed within about seven years from the start of conceptual system-level planning. This would lead to a possible opening of the line for service in 2022. To meet such a schedule, system-level planning (to develop a basic conceptual plan to present to the public and to voters for funding) would need to begin sometime later this year — ideally, in the early to middle autumn. Otherwise it would be difficult to finalize a plan for a public vote by November 2016.

Missing the Nov. 2016 vote deadline, as we understand current state law governing bond elections, would likely introduce two more years of delay. This would push a hypothetical vote to 2018, and service startup to the year 2024. In any event, it’s clear that a plausible case can be made that urban rail, in the form of surface LRT, could be up and running in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor within a decade, and quite likely sooner. ■

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Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps

10 February 2015
Red highlighting line demarcates North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe St., north-south central spine of Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor. (Click to enlarge.)

Red highlighting line demarcates North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe St., north-south central spine of Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor. (Click to enlarge.)

Last October, in our article titled «Latest TTI data confirm — Guadalupe-Lamar is central local arterial corridor with heaviest travel», this website noted that “For years, many Austin public transit activists have been insisting that the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor is the central inner city’s most heavily traveled local travel route, and should be the first priority for installing urban rail.” As the article further explained:

By far, the heavy travel flow in this corridor one of that most compelling features that cry out for the capacity, public attractiveness, and cost-effectiveness of urban rail (light rail transit, LRT). Study after study has documented the fact that this is the most intensely traveled inner-city local corridor — the only major corridor serving the city’s central axis between I-35 and Loop 1 (MoPac).

Now, the latest annual report of the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), endorsed by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) not only strongly corroborates these assessments, but provides data that further emphasize the key importance of the G-L corridor.

The article summarized the TxDOT data with several graphs showing that, in both traffic and mobility congestion, Guadalupe-Lamar surpasses all other major local arterial corridors in the city. Conclusion: Once again, “Good sense suggests that Guadalupe-Lamar remains the top-priority corridor for an urban rail starter line.”

This conclusion merely corroborates a reality that has changed relatively little in more than 50 years — a saga of planning for this crucial central corridor that can be more fully grasped in the following series of maps spanning over five decades.

Central Freeway plan

As early as 1962, the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor was proposed as the route of a Central Freeway (also designated a Central Expressway) in a regional transportation plan produced by the Texas Highway Department (predecessor of the Texas Department of Transportation, TxDOT). The map below, an excerpt from the larger 1962 regional map in the official report, zooms in on roadways planned for central Austin, with proposed freeways shown as dashed red lines. We’ve annotated the Central Freeway in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor (running north-south just to the left of center) with an additional yellow line in the middle of the red.


Central Freeway (annotated here with yellow line in center of dashed red line). (Click to enlarge.)

Central Freeway (annotated here with yellow line in center of dashed red line). (Click to enlarge.)


The prospect of a new freeway slicing through established neighborhoods like Hancock, Hyde Park, and the West Campus eventually prompted interest in a rail transit alternative for the corridor. This is noted in the following information from the Texas Freeway website, which provides a verbal narrative of the proposed Central Freeway route:

Central Freeway Starting downtown just west of the Capitol, this freeway would have been located a block or two west of Guadalupe and proceeded northward up to the UT campus, where it would join Guadalupe and follow Guadalupe northward to Koenig lane. It then curved to follow the route of Lamar street. A light rail line was planned for this route in 2000, but was narrowly rejected by Austin voters in November 2000. In the long run, there is still a very good chance that light rail will be built on this route.

Past light rail plans

The prominence of the Guadalupe-North Lamar travel corridor, the need to effectively provide access to major core activity centers including the University of Texas campus, the Capitol Complex, and downtown, plus the looming prospect of a major freeway to cut through the heart of the city, prompted strong interest in exploring public transit alternatives. Starting in the 1970s, these began to emerge.

► CARTRANS proposal — The possibility of rail transit as an effective and plausible alternative to the Central Freeway for Austin’s central Guadalupe-Lamar corridor emerged decisively in 1973 via the release of A Preliminary Feasibility Study for a Capital Area Rapid Transit System (with the acronym CARTRANS). Prepared by Lyndon Henry, a leader of Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT), with the collaboration of Phil Sterzing, a former Austin city planner, the plan proposed a 19.2-mile electrically propelled light transit (LRT) line running in a subway and on elevated structure through the heart of the center-city, then on surface railway alignments north and south. (Lyndon Henry is currently a contributing editor to this website.)


CARTRANS report (left) proposed LRT 19.2-mile route (right) stretching from north to south Austin and paralleling major central flow of travel along North and South Lamar, South Congress, and I-35. Photos: ARN.

CARTRANS report (left) proposed LRT 19.2-mile route (right) stretching from north to south Austin and paralleling major central flow of travel along North and South Lamar, South Congress, and I-35. Photos: ARN.


Published by the Washington, DC-based RAIL Foundation, the CARTRANS report quickly garnered interest and support from the Austin City Council and much of Austin’s top civic leadership. This catapulted rail transit — previously disparaged as inappropriate for any Texas city — into a possibility under serious consideration as a realistic public transit alternative for the central city.

► Capital Metro planning in early 1990s — After approximately a decade of additional transit planning conducted mainly via the Austin Transportation Study, civic interest and public excitement over the possibility of an Austin rail transit system (particularly as an alternative to the metro area’s increasingly congested and dangerous roadways) helped facilitate creation of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CMTA, Capital Metro) in 1985. Subsequently, the agency’s initial major planning effort, the Transitway Corridor Analysis Project (TCAP), having concluded in 1989 with robust community involvement, led to the designation of LRT as the agency’s Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA, a federally required decision).

Also emerging from the TCAP experience was the concept of connecting access to the northwest metro area, via the City of Austin’s newly acquired railway line, with the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, serving multiple destinations, established and high-density neighborhoods, the University of Texas (UT), Capitol Complex, and downtown. In addition, most local transit advocates, including TAPT, as well as local planners and decisionmakers realized that a surface LRT system (rather than significant subway or elevated infrastructure) was best suited for Austin’s scale and financial resources.

Beginning in the early 1990s, Capital Metro contracted with a consulting team led by E.P. Hamilton & Associates to conceptually design and evaluate a surface-routed electric LRT alignment to serve primarily the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor plus a segment of Austin’s northwest corridor, served by available “opportunity assets” including the now publicly owned railway line as well as the major arterials North Lamar and Guadalupe St. Also included was a short additional spur into East Austin, using a segment of the same CMTA railway. As with all such proposals, this was envisioned as merely a “starter line”, seen as the first crucial leg of an ultimately multi-route system serving the entire metro area.

The eventual plan, finalized by a Light Rail Transit Station and Corridor Area Planning consultant team led by Carter Design Associates, in association with 6 other consulting firms, proposed a 14-mile starter line route running from Parmer Lane southward to the CBD. From Parmer to U.S. 183 the route uses the CMTA railway right-of-way; alternative routes using U.S. 183/North Lamar or the railway are proposed from there to Justin Lane; then the route follows Lamar, Guadalupe, and Lavaca into the CBD, with the already mentioned branch into East Austin. The plan was projected to have a total investment cost of $244 million (1992 dollars), with opening targeted for 2000, and daily ridership forecast as 34,900 in 2010. The route map and key features are summarized in the following informational page from Capital Metro, dated April 1994:


Capital Metro LRT plan for Guadalupe-Lamar and northwest, 1994. Map: CMTA. (Click to enlarge.)

Capital Metro LRT plan for Guadalupe-Lamar and northwest, 1994. Map: CMTA. (Click to enlarge.)


► Capital Metro 2000 LRT plan — During the mid-to-late 1990s, Capital Metro changed course somewhat to focus on a possible diesel-operated rail service exclusively on the agency’s railway. Mainly because of this, and political and organizational upheavals at Capital Metro, the 1994 plan was effectively shelved … only to be resurrected, almost intact, in 1999-2000 by a reorganized Capital Metro board chaired by tech industry executive Lee Walker. In a charette convened by the agency, dozens of national transit industry professionals reaffirmed the primacy of the Guadalupe-Lamar and northwest travel corridors, and endorsed the need for a line very similar to the 1994 proposal.

Assisted by the Parsons-Brinckerhoff consulting firm, Capital Metro planners devised an LRT plan intended to be funded 50% with Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grants. As described in our article «Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route», “Capital Metro’s proposal was sectioned into two parts — a shorter Minimum Operable Segment (MOS), running from McNeil Rd. in north Austin — using railway right of way (now used by today’s MetroRail), then Lamar-Guadalupe — to the CBD, and a full Phase 1 plan, which added a line down South Congress to Ben White, and another branch on Capital Metro’s railway right of way to Pleasant Valley Rd.”

The MOS (McNeil Rd. to CBD) consisted of a 14.6-mile initial starter line segment, with ridership for the forecast year (2025) projected at 37,400 per day. The complete Phase 1 plan — adding the South Congress (SoCo) extension, plus a branch into East Austin, comprised 20.0 miles of route. These are shown in the following map from the FTA’s New Starts report on the project:


Capital Metro's 2000 MOS (dashed line) and full Phase 1 light rail plan. Map: FTA.

Capital Metro’s 2000 MOS (dashed line) and full Phase 1 light rail plan. Map: FTA. (Click to enlarge.)


While Capital Metro’s LRT initiative was rejected in a November 2000 referendum, it lost by less than one percentage point — and actually got a solid majority vote within the City of Austin itself. This thread of public support would help keep the project alive.

► Rapid Transit Project planning — Because of the very narrow margin of the loss in the 2000 LRT plan vote, and the clear evidence of support from City of Austin voters, following the 2000 election Capital Metro and the City of Austin established a joint Rapid Transit Project (RTP) that continued planning, with a focus on the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as well as a potential alignment on Capital Metro’s railway to the northwest. While several alternative segments were considered (including a subway option, which was discarded), the primary route through the heart of the central city remained Guadalupe-Lamar, as indicated in the following annotated map disseminated in April 2002 by the RTP:


Route alternatives considered by the City-Capital Metro joint Rapid Transit Project, as presented in 2002. Guadalupe-Lamar remained the heart of the plan's route into the Core Area, as shown by the red line. Map: RTP. (Click to enlarge.)

Route alternatives considered by the City-Capital Metro joint Rapid Transit Project, as presented in 2002. Guadalupe-Lamar remained the heart of the plan’s route into the Core Area, as shown by the red line. Map: RTP. (Click to enlarge.)


During this period, intensive planning for LRT, particularly in the G-L corridor and downtown, continued, with vigorous public meetings and consultations. Included in these activities was the extensive involvement of community activists and residents of neighborhoods along the proposed route, much of it focused on developing and finalizing neighborhood station-area plans with the aim of effectively utilizing the anticipated resource of LRT.

These planning efforts continued until the RTP’s activities were effectively curtailed and eventually terminated as Capital Metro abruptly ended planning for LRT in the G-L corridor in mid-2003 and turned instead to developing a diesel-operated “urban commuter rail” line (in effect, a revival of a very similar concept from the mid-1990s). That effort led to voter endorsement of the plan in November 2004, and the Red Line, rebranded as MetroRail, opened in the spring of 2010.

However, as this website has related in our Nov. 2014 article «Derailing the Mueller urban rail express — Preamble to Project Connect’s 2013 “High-Capacity Transit Study”», unlike the LRT plan that would run straight to Austin’s Core Area, the new diesel-multiple-unit (DMU) operated system lacked this access: “Since the newly approved DMU line ran on a railway alignment that bypassed most of the heart of the city, ending only at the southeast corner of the CBD, officials and planners realized they needed some way to connect passengers with key activity points, including UT and the Capitol Complex.”

This led officials and planners to try to solve the problem with various schemes, including “connector” buses, then the MetroRapid bus project, and some kind of rail “circulator” that would connect the commuter-like MetroRail with key destinations. As our article cited above explains, a streetcar scheme morphed into a more robust LRT concept that included both a route on East riverside Drive and a more central line running through the east side of downtown, UT’s East Campus on San Jacinto Blvd., and on into the Mueller site, first via Manor Road, then eventually via a route using Red River St., Hancock Center, and Airport Blvd. to access Mueller. Any vestige of LRT in the city’s most heavily traveled central local arterial corridor — Guadalupe-Lamar, including access to the West Campus and the business commercial district and established neighborhoods along it — was abandoned.

Current light rail plans

But while the obsession of Austin’s local political establishment and official planners had turned to a route apparently motivated in part by a desire to bolster real estate development plans at Mueller and East Riverside, and the UT administration’s East Campus expansion plans, local community activists and public transit activists continued to call attention to the abiding need for LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. It was clear years ago, and now, that reliable data has continued to corroborate what Austinites can themselves see and experience — that this is the most important, heavily traveled local corridor in the heart of the city. See, for example, data cited in our articles:

Demographic maps show Lamar-Guadalupe trumps Mueller route for Urban Rail

Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail line would serve 31% of all Austin jobs

Guadalupe-Lamar is highest-density corridor in Austin — according to Project Connect’s own data!

Latest TTI data confirm — Guadalupe-Lamar is central local arterial corridor with heaviest travel

This community involvement, including the efforts of TAPT and the Light Rail Now Project, has led in more recent years to a series of alternative proposals for LRT/urban rail alignments in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, as described below.

► TAPT “loop route” — In May 2012, responding to an official proposal for a 5.5-mile, $550 million “urban rail” line running from downtown, through the East Campus, to Mueller, TAPT leaders Dave Dobbs and Lyndon Henry presented an alternative $700 million plan for 14.7 miles of LRT serving both the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor and the eastside Red Line corridor. Connected at both north and south ends where the west and eastside lines would converge, the route thus formed a “loop” around the heart of the city. A branch serving the Mueller site was also included. (When an estimated $150 million was added into the official “urban rail” plan — accounting for a projected “BRT” line in the G-L corridor — the TAPT “loop” proposal matched the cost of the official concoction of rail + “BRT”.)

The route proposed in this plan, described in our March 2013 article «An alternative Urban Rail plan», is illustrated in the original map below:


TAPT "loop" plan from the early summer of 2012 proposed a 14.7-mile route "looping" around the heart of the central city, including a line in the G-L corridor, plus a branch to Mueller. Map: TAPT. (Click to enlarge.)

TAPT “loop” plan from the early summer of 2012 proposed a 14.7-mile route “looping” around the heart of the central city, including a line in the G-L corridor, plus a branch to Mueller. Map: TAPT. (Click to enlarge.)


► CACDC proposal — In this general period, prior to the start of Project Connect’s “High-Capacity Transit Study” activities in the late summer of 2013, the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), led by Scott Morris, posted maps and data for a seven-mile-long Central Corridor urban rail plan following North Lamar and then Guadalupe. As described in our article «Another alternative urban rail plan for Guadalupe-Lamar corridor»,

The CACDC route would extend from the North Lamar Transfer Center, down North Lamar past the Crestview station, through the West Campus area, to 4th St. From there, it includes an eastward spur to the Seaholm development site, and also proposes a short spur line branching from the existing MetroRail Red Line into the Mueller development site.


CACDC's Central Corridor urban rail plan (blue), with MetroRail (red) and various bus links (grey). Map: CACDC

CACDC proposed 7-mile G-L urban rail route from the North Lamar Transit Center to downtown, then to the Seaholm development site (shown in blue). Existing MetroRail line shown in red. Map: CACDC.(Click to enlarge.)


► Skinner proposal — In late November 2013, while debate raged over the Highland-Riverside route recommendation just presented by the Project Connect study team, community activist Adrian Skinner, a member of Austinites for Urban Rail Action (AURA) group, posted on Twitter a map of a proposed urban rail route along the G-L corridor. Skinner’s annotated map (below) indicates nearly two dozen significant points that would be served, from key activity centers to major neighborhoods.


Adrian Skinner map (Nov. 2013) shows important points that would be connected by urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Screenshot: L. Henry.

Adrian Skinner map (Nov. 2013) shows important points that would be connected by urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Screenshot: L. Henry.


► ARN Plan B proposal — This plan was devised last October (2014) in response to the contention (mainly articulated by supporters of the Highland-Riverside urban rail ballot measure, but also by some media personnel) that “there’s no Plan B” if the official rail proposal were to be rejected by voters (as, of course, it was on Nov. 4th). As we pointed out in our Oct. 5th article «A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line»,

Apparently, they’re willfully ignoring that there definitely is a “Plan B”. All along, there’s been an alternative urban rail project on the table … and it’s ready to replace the Project Connect/Prop. 1 plan if it fails.

Our proposal aimed to provide an example of a “Plan B” for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, “a plausible and fairly simple option for an LRT starter line aimed at minimizing design and cost while providing an attractive service with adequate capacity.” As our above-cited article explains, the plan assumes “a 6.8-mile line starting at the North Lamar Transit Center (NLTC, Lamar and U.S. 183) on the north, running south down North Lamar and Guadalupe, then Guadalupe and Lavaca to the CBD, then west on 4th and 3rd Streets to a terminus to serve the Seaholm development and Amtrak station at Lamar. Capital investment cost was roughly estimated at $586 million (2014 dollars), of which it was assumed 50% (less than $300 million) would be locally funded and the other 50% funded via FTA grants.

For this proposed line, our plan also assumed “30,000 to 40,000 as a plausible potential ridership range …, based on previous forecasts for this corridor plus factors such as the interconnection with MetroRail service at Crestview, and extensions both to U.S. 183 and to the Seaholm-Amtrak site.” The route, and several of the most important activity centers served, are shown in the annotated map below.


Proposed 6.8-mile "Plan B" light rail transit line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would have 17 stations and connect  the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S> 183 with Crestview, the Triangle, UT and the West Campus, the Capitol Complex, the CBD, and the Seaholm-Amtrak area. It's projected to serve 3 times the ridership of the Prop. 1 Highland-Riverside rail line at slightly over half the capital cost.

ARN’s “Plan B” proposed a 6.8-mile LRT line in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, from the North Lamar Transit Center to downtown, plus a short branch to the Seaholm-Amtrak site. Map: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


► Parsons proposal — One of the most recent proposals for a Guadalupe-Lamar LRT route was presented in late December by Brad Parsons, a community activist involved with urban and transportation issues. As described in our article «Strong community support for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail continues — but officials seem oblivious»,

Starting at the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S. 183, this route would follow North Lamar Blvd., Guadalupe St., Nueces St., San Antonio St., and finally Guadalupe and Lavaca St. past established central Austin neighborhoods and activity centers, through the West Campus, past the Capitol Complex, and into Austin’s CBD. Brad’s proposal underscores the fact that there’s a variety of ways that LRT can be fitted into this constrained but high-volume traffic corridor.

Parsons’s map, shown below, includes markers indicating key points of interest along the route.


Map of Guadalupe-Lamar corridor light rail route proposed by Brad Parsons.

Guadalupe-Lamar LRT route proposed in December by community activist Brad Parsons. Screenshot: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


Summing up

The experience of more than five decades can be summed up in several major takeaways.

• Clearly, the importance of Austin’s most central travel corridor is underscored by the long history of study and design efforts that has been concentrated on major investments to expand capacity and expedite access, and on planning for a rail line in particular.

• It should be apparent that an enormous volume of examination, evaluation, and analysis has reflected the significant attention — from both the community at large and official agencies — brought to bear on the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. This has produced an abundance of previous federally approved documentation of the need for LRT in the corridor. In this context, the need for additional study should be minimal — mainly minor updating and evaluation of alignment and design issues.

Recommendations to “go back to Ground Zero” and “start again from scratch” amount merely to a recipe for further delay and dithering. There’s no need for further studies of the re-studies of the re-studies of the studies. It’s high time to finalize a workable, affordable, effective LRT project for this key center-city corridor, and move forward with it.

Support for LRT among Austinites has endured. This is substantiated by evidence, for example, we’ve shown in our earlier-cited article «Strong community support for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail continues — but officials seem oblivious».

Bolstering this is the support of neighborhood associations, community activists, and residents along in the corridor itself — “the extensive involvement of community activists and residents of neighborhoods along the proposed route” noted earlier has translated into a series of endorsements of G-L LRT from neighborhoods. See: Community endorsements.

The seemingly interminable saga of indecision, dithering, agonizing, despairing, dallying, official dementia, waste, and delay that has persisted for over half a century needs to come to an end. An achievable, affordable LRT starter line plan is within reach, and the resources to finalize planning for it are at hand. Let’s do it!


Rendition of LRT on Drag from 2000. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.

Rendition of LRT on the Drag (2000). Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.