Archive for the ‘Austin proposed subway’ Category

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Success at last! Austin votes to install light rail system

30 November 2020

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31 October 2020

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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Austin: To subway, or not to subway?

29 February 2020

Map showing proposed downtown LRT subway. Source: Project Connect.

As ARN reported in our posting of 31 January, Project Connect Connect (Capital Metro’s major transit investment planning program) together with most of Austin’s top civic leadership apparently are now focusing on a massive multi-modal transit development vision with light rail transit (LRT) as its centerpiece, running in both the the Orange Line (North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress) and Blue Line (downtown-East Riverside-ABIA) corridors.

As we also noted, ridership volumes projected for the Orange Line are eye-popping – certainly, unusually high levels for a single U.S. starter line in a mid-sized Southwest city. Projected 2040 weekday ridership (61,600 to 73,500) would exceed or rival ridership experienced by the original single lines of relatively new major LRT projects (e.g, Los Angeles, Denver, St. Louis, Dallas, Houston) and even rail rapid transit – “heavy rail” metro – projects (e.g., Philadelphia-Lindenwold, Miami, Baltimore).

These volumes appear to underlie suggestions by Project Connect planners that segments of the proposed LRT lines, particularly in Austin’s Core Area, merit consideration as subway alignments. In addition, a segment of the Blue Line, several blocks eastward, is also considered for subway; it would feed into the Orange Line via an underground junction at Republic Square.

Need for greater capacity

Heavy peak transit passenger flows typically require more frequent trains and longer consists (number of cars per train) to provide sufficient capacity. Especially in concentrated downtowns and other central-city locations, these factors can in turn impact traffic flows across intersections by not just cars and trucks but also pedestrians, cyclists, and transit buses.

Particularly fueling interest is a subway tunnel is the length of downtown blocks (about 300 feet), which would limit train lengths to no more than three coupled LRT cars. This implies the need for a subway alignment in the Core Area north of the Colorado River (known as Lady Bird Lake) and south of Martin Luther King (MLK) Blvd. (basically, the southern border of the University of Texas campus).

In addition to eliminating conflicts with surface traffic and providing adequate capacity well into the future, the case for a subway appears to be bolstered by political support, both among the city’s top civic leadership as well as the public at large.

Subway drawbacks

On the other hand, there are significant drawbacks to subway rather than surface LRT line construction, both generally and in Austin’s case:

• Subway construction typically is far more expensive than surface facilities, entailing a much heavier demand on financial resources. According to cost estimates from Project Connect, building a downtown subway for an Orange Line LRT, rather than installing a surface alignment, would add nearly $837 million to the project investment cost.

• Federal Transit Administration funding is limited, and FTA officials tend to prefer more modest investment grant applications so that available funding can be spread more broadly. Increasing the cost of a New Start project significantly may render a project less competitive and lower it in the queue of projects seeking funding. Adding a downtown subway segment to, say, a starter LRT line from the North Lamar Transit Center to downtown would increase total project cost by over 65%.

• Particularly because the precise details of what’s below the surface are largely hidden, subway construction is far more prone to unexpected challenges and costs which can result in hefty budget overruns.

• Operating & maintenance (O&M) costs for subway LRT operation tend to be somewhat higher than for surface operation because of the added operational costs (e.g., electrical power) and functional maintenance needs of ventilation systems, elevators, escalators, etc. Also, maintenance-of-way work (maintaining track, power supply, signals, etc.) tends to be more expensive in underground conditions.

• Compared to surface LRT, where trains are run in the open and stations are easy to see and recognize – orienting the public to the available service and helping attract potential passengers – subway operations and stations are almost entirely out of sight, except for small entrances to ground level that may be difficult for the general public (especially new riders, tourists, etc.) to find and recognize.

• Access-egress to-from subway stations, which require climbing stairs, waiting for and riding elevators, or riding escalators, can be somewhat daunting. (The access time penalty is often included in ridership forecast models.) While accessing surface LRT platforms often requires waiting for traffic or pedestrian signals, typically the time penalty and physical difficulty are much less.

Capacity of an Orange Line surface LRT line

While there’s no question that a subway would provide greater potential to accommodate ridership further into the future, a technical examination of the capacity requirements to meet Project Connect’s actual predicted peak ridership volumes in the 2040 target year suggests that these could be met by a surface LRT alignment (running in dedicated street lanes) through Austin’s downtown, even with the limitation of 3-car trains running at very narrow headways (i.e., high frequencies). For example, Both Dallas and Calgary (Alberta) operate 3-car trains providing heavy capacity through downtown street alignments. Dallas runs trains as close as 4-min peak headways; Calgary runs trains as close as 2.4-min peak headways. Presumably Austin could operate trains at least as close as 3-min headways, or 20 trains per hour.

Project Connect assumes each LRT car would have a peak capacity of 172 passengers. Thus a 3-car train would provide capacity for 516 passengers. Running 20 three-car trains per hour would provide peak capacity of 10,320 riders per peak hour/peak direction. Using the rule of thumb that peak ridership in the peak direction = 10% of daily weekday ridership, this implies that surface LRT trains would provide an operating capacity capable of handling ridership up to 103,000 a day.

Project Connect forecasts daily ridership of 61,600 for the 90% street-alignment option, and 73,600 for the 50% grade-separated option. Extrapolating from the agency’s estimates, ARN calculates the annual growth rate for Project Connect’s 90% street option to be 2.2% per annum. At that rate, it would take another 24 years to reach 103,000 daily ridership level, or the year 2064 – 44 years from today – when the capacity of street running with 3-car trains would presumably be reached.

While a surface LRT line may provide adequate capacity for several decades into the future, nevertheless it’s virtually guaranteed that eventually it will not be able to meet Austin’s growing transit ridership market at some further point. Should Austin be designing a system for that far into the future? Perhaps, but this “future-proofing” strategy needs to be weighed against other considerations, such as Austin’s available bonding capacity, and the need for such a project to be competitive for relatively scarce FTA capital investment grant funding.

A downtown subway project could still be undertaken at the point of unavoidable need, 40 or 45 years from now. Salvageable surface trackage and facilities could possibly be redeployed for a surface circulator system.

Economic development potential

But capacity and operational characteristics are not the only aspects of such a major urban rail investment to be considered. Light rail – either surface or subway – can be expected to catalyze significant nearby and adjacent economic development that potentially could provide a revenue stream recompensing most, or even all, of the infrastructure investment. The tens of billions of dollars in economic development stimulated by new LRT systems in cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, Portland, Phoenix, Charlotte, Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Kansas City, Detroit, and others represent abundant evidence of these benefits.

It’s worth imagining that LRT stations (either subway or surface) in downtown Austin could stimulate the development of a major underground/above-ground commercial/shopping complex there, directly connecting with the LRT system. Models of such developments, with stores, small shops and boutiques, theatres, restaurants, and other attractions, can be found in an array of global cities with signature core-area LRT systems or metros, whereby the urban rail system provides fast, easy access to these work, shopping, dining, and recreational opportunities. Several examples include:

• Los Angeles — The Bloc (connecting to Metro and LRT subways)

• Dallas — Dallas Pedestrian Network (underground concourses with shops, food services connecting to DART LRT)

• Toronto — Massive PATH underground shopping complex connecting with six TTC subway stations, including Union Station, the city’s largest transit hub

• Montreal — Underground City, “a multi-level network of tunnels and stairways that connect various shopping malls, metro stations, offices, hotels, libraries, schools, concert halls, and restaurants” (Culture Trip)

• Edmonton — The Pedway, a network of underground concourses and aerial walkways connecting over 40 office buildings, shopping centers, and parking facilities with three LRT stations in the downtown area

And of course there are numerous other examples worldwide of similar downtown complexes integrated with urban rail stations.

Whether Project Connect’s final plan includes a subway or not, the opportunity to design Austin’s LRT stations to catalyze economic development must be a major element. And especially with this city’s role as an internationally known venue for events such as SxSW, ACL, and Formula One, the chance to transform and enrich downtown with such a major integrated complex of activity centers with urban rail should not be missed.