Archive for the ‘Austin transportation planning’ Category

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Blue Line Should Branch from Orange Line Urban Rail — Nix the Redundant Infrastructure!

15 August 2019

Map shows ARN’s alternative proposed urban rail configuration in Core Area connecting Orange Line (Tech Ridge to Slaughter Lane) with Blue Line (UT campus through Core Area and East Riverside to ABIA). Both lines would share First St. (Drake) Bridge over river, thus eliminating need for an expensive redundant Blue Line bridge. Blue Line would branch from Orange Line at Dean Keaton and at W. 4th St. to serve east side of Core Area and provide link to airport. Map: ARN.
(Click image to enlarge)


By Austin Rail Now

Commentary slightly adapted from one-page handout originally produced by ARN and distributed to participants in Project Connect’s Blue Line Workshop at ACC Highland, 31 July 2019.

► Orange Line as primary corridor — Urban rail installation in the Orange Line alignment (N. Lamar-Guadalupe-Lamar-South Congress/NL-G-SC) must be prioritized. Positioned as Austin’s major central local corridor, between I-35 to the east and Loop 1 (MoPac) to the west, the Orange Line corridor is the center city’s 3rd-heaviest north-south travel corridor (after I-35 and MoPac). The City of Austin has repeatedly emphasized that this is the primary local traffic corridor in central-city Austin, with exceptionally heavy traffic at maximum capacity for over the past 2 decades. North Lamar alone is ranked by Texas Transportation Institute as one of the most congested arterials in Texas. With Austin’s highest total employment density on Guadalupe-Lamar, an urban rail line there alone could serve 31% of all Austin jobs. It would also serve the highest-density residential concentrations in the city — including the West Campus, ranking the 3rd-highest in residential neighborhood density among major Texas cities.
https://austinrailnow.com/2014/10/13/latest-tti-data-confirm-guadalupe-lamar-is-central-local-arterial-corridor-with-heaviest-travel/
http://centralaustincdc.org/transportation/austin_urban_rail.htm
https://austinrailnow.com/2019/07/29/future-proof-austins-mobility-with-urban-rail-not-infrastructure-for-techno-fantasies/

► Light rail transit (LRT) — For over 30 years, urban rail in the NL-G-SC (currently designated Orange Line) alignment has been regarded as the key central spine for an eventual citywide and regional urban rail network using well-proven, widely deployed, effective, affordable light rail transit (LRT) technology. Particularly with little to no need for major civil works, the Orange Line is ideal for a surface-installed LRT starter line.

Since initially selected as Capital Metro’s Locally Preferred Alternative in 1989, LRT has remained Austin’s premier major high-capacity transit vision. LRT has demonstrated numerous key advantages over bus rapid transit (BRT). And unlike many “gadget” alternatives, LRT is well-proven in service, a readily available technology, and non-proprietary. (In contrast, “autonomous BRT” has been neither deployed commercially nor even tested.) Compared with buses, LRT systems provide higher capacity and are faster, more user-friendly and more comfortable to access and ride. On average, ridership on new LRT systems is 127% higher than on BRT. LRT is also more cost-effective – average operating cost of new LRT systems is 10% lower than for BRT.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#ridership
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#mode-preference
http://www.vtpi.org/bus_rail.pdfAPTA/National Transit Database

► Alternate Blue Line — Simply trying to resurrect the failed 2014 Highland-Riverside plan is not a prudent option. The Blue Line makes the most sense if it shares segments of the Orange Line, branching from it to serve the eastside of the Core Area and UT, and the East Riverside corridor (and ultimately ABIA). Running westward from ABIA on East Riverside, the Blue Line in this proposal would join the Orange Line south of the S.1st St. (Drake) Bridge. Sharing trackage across the bridge, it would proceed northward to Republic Square, where it would turn east to the San Jacinto/Trinity arterial pair, then turn northward and proceed to serve the Medical District and the UT East Campus. At Dean Keaton, the alignment would then turn west and travel on Dean Keaton toward Guadalupe St. to rejoin the Orange Line, proceeding northward from there. Access to-from ACC Highland could be made available via transfer with Red Line trains (with improved frequency) or various bus alternatives (from UT campus or Crestview).

► Eliminate redundant infrastructure — Major advantages of this alternative include more efficient operation, better passenger interconnection between Blue and Orange Lines, and very significant cost savings through eliminating redundancy: the proposed bridge over the Colorado, approximately three miles of line infrastructure paralleling the Orange Line, and five stations.

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“Future-Proof” Austin’s Mobility With Urban Rail — Not Infrastructure for Techno-Fantasies

29 July 2019

Orange Line (north-south route indicated within black outline) shown within Project Connect’s map of proposed regional system. Excerpted and edited by ARN.


By Austin Rail Now

Commentary originally produced by ARN and distributed (as one-page handout) to participants in Project Connect’s Orange Line Workshop at Austin Central Library, 17 July 2019.

♦ Light rail transit (LRT) — This well-proven, widely deployed, effective, affordable urban rail alternative has been proposed for the Orange Line (N. Lamar-Guadalupe-S. Congress) corridor for 30 years. Since selected as Capital Metro’s Locally Preferred Alternative in 1989, LRT has remained Austin’s premier major high-capacity transit vision. In early 2018, Project Connect 2’s proposal for LRT in the Orange Line corridor received widespread community acclaim. However, the proposal was subsequently quashed by Capital Metro, which proceeded to restart the Project Connect process.

As noted below, LRT has demonstrated numerous key advantages over bus rapid transit (BRT). And unlike many “gadget” alternatives, LRT is well-proven in public service, a readily available technology, and non-proprietary. (In contrast, “autonomous BRT” has been neither deployed commercially nor even tested.)

♦ Ridership — On average, light rail systems have excelled in attracting passengers, especially new riders who have access to a car but choose to ride LRT. Compared with buses, LRT systems are more user-friendly, more comfortable to access and ride, and perceived as safer and more reliable. On average, ridership on new LRT systems is 127% higher than on bus rapid transit (BRT).
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#ridershiphttp://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#mode-preference
APTA/NTD

♦ Affordability — Especially for a city of Austin’s size, light rail has typically provided an affordable capital cost opportunity to install urban rail (costs similar to “real” BRT), with significantly lower operating + maintenance cost per passenger-mile compared to buses. Average operating cost of new LRT systems is 10% lower than for BRT. The lower capital and operational costs of a predominantly surface LRT system make it the ideal affordable mode for future expansion of a rail transit network throughout the Austin metro area.
http://www.vtpi.org/bus_rail.pdfNational Transit Database


Average operational cost of LRT is 10% lower than for BRT. Average costs calculated by ARN from data reported to National Transit Database, 2016.


♦ Environment & energy — Evidence shows LRT systems have the lowest air pollution and noise impacts, preserve neighborhoods and urban quality of life, and reduce energy usage per passenger-mile compared with cars and buses. LRT especially avoids the energy-wasting effects of hysteresis and asbestos pollution of rubber-tire transport.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#environmental-impactshttp://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec145.pdf

♦ Urban benefits — In contrast to bus operations (including BRT), light rail systems have demonstrated a consistent, significant, superlative propensity to attract adjacent development and economic growth, and help shape and guide a changing urban landscape.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#urbanhttp://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/Conferences/2019/LRT/LyndonHenry.pdf

♦ Capacity — Compared to both buses and “gadget” modes, LRT has far higher capacity in normal service scenarios and greater capability to accommodate future demand.
https://www.thoughtco.com/passenger-capacity-of-transit-2798765

♦ Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor — Positioned as Austin’s major central local corridor, between I-35 to the east and Loop 1 (MoPac) to the west, G-L has repeatedly been regarded as ideal for an LRT surface starter line (with no need for major civil works) to create the key central spine for an eventually citywide and regional urban rail network. It’s the center city’s 3rd-heaviest north-south corridor. The City of Austin (COA) has repeatedly emphasized that G-L is the primary local traffic corridor in central-city Austin, with exceptionally heavy traffic at maximum capacity for over the past 2 decades. Texas Transportation Institute ranks North Lamar as one of the most congested arterials in Texas. Urban rail is essential to maintaining mobility in this crucial corridor.
https://austinrailnow.com/2014/10/13/latest-tti-data-confirm-guadalupe-lamar-is-central-local-arterial-corridor-with-heaviest-travel/

♦ Employment & population density — With Austin’s highest total employment density on Guadalupe-Lamar, an urban rail line could serve 31% of all Austin jobs. An urban rail line in this corridor would serve the highest-density residential concentrations in the city — including the West Campus, ranking as the 3rd-highest in residential neighborhood density among major Texas cities.
http://centralaustincdc.org/transportation/austin_urban_rail.htm

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TxDOT-CAMPO $8 billion I-35 expansion plan wastes money and robs transit

29 May 2019

TxDOT rendering of I-35 expansion project through downtown Austin. Screenshot from TxDOT video via Austin Chronicle.

Commentary by Roger Baker

Roger Baker is a longtime Austin transportation, energy, and urban issues researcher and community activist. The following commentary has been adapted and slightly edited from his comments recently posted by E-mail to multiple recipients.

As various news sources have reported, a major expansion of I-35 through Austin is back on the official agenda, particularly after the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) voted to approve a huge expansion plan on May 6th:

I-35 changes dramatically in TxDOT’s proposed $8 billion expansion

Some See A Plan To Expand I-35 As A Betrayal Of Austin’s Environmental Values

But that vote was followed a few days later by a basically contradictory vote on May 9th by the Austin City Council to endorse a “Green New Deal” for the city:

Austin throws support behind Green New Deal

Yes indeed, the political pressure to widen IH-35 is an important contradiction that puts Austin politicians who voted to widen it at the recent CAMPO meeting in a real bind. That starts with Mayor Steve Adler (a real estate property rights lawyer). The Green New Deal calls for a major policy shift toward transportation alternatives, and away from roads and cars.

The core problem here is that CAMPO, which Mayor Adler now chairs, has always been strongly supportive of the trend of adding more car-addictive suburban sprawl development to the area surrounding Austin. Because Austin is still gentrifying fast, that means that Austin’s lowly paid service workers, who seek to work in Austin, are being forced by low wages to commute from the surrounding suburbs. This is creating severe congestion on Austin’s primary commuting roads, like IH-35.

TxDOT and the local real estate lobby – like the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) and the Chamber of Commerce – want to keep this dysfunctional, unsustainable, anti-environmental Ponzi scheme going as long as possible because it is a win-win situation for both the suburban sprawl developers, and also the TxDOT road contractors that TxDOT hires to build its roads. Since TxDOT is like an 800-pound gorilla in terms of its political clout in Texas, no CAMPO politician is brave enough to say “no” when TxDOT demands $400 million dollars from local government, in return for doing dumb stuff like widening commuter highways, justified by the specious claim that this will reduce congestion. This is at a time when U.S. driving is stagnating and TxDOT is heavily in debt because Texas hasn’t raised its gas tax for 25 years!

Meanwhile TxDOT has no idea of how it is going to get the rest of the $8 billion needed to widen just this one road through central Austin. The era of easy low-interest credit from the Fed appears to be coming to an end, although this has been largely responsible for keeping high-tech jobs coming into the Austin area. (Austin has pretty much put all its future growth hopes into high-tech and tourism in recent years.)

The reality is that almost every politician, including those on CAMPO, is afraid of TxDOT, which has god-like discretion over local policy. That is why TxDOT almost always gets their way. And why Molly Ivins used to call TxDOT “the Pentagon of Texas”.

In this case CAMPO decided to pledge to help fund the road with local money despite TxDOT being mostly $8 billion short of what they envision being able to afford someday. Last year, Streetsblog posted a useful critique of Austin’s most infamous road which warned that “a proposal to add miles of new lanes will likely only exacerbate the problems that led to congestion in the first place. … Just as road expansions elsewhere in Texas have failed at reducing congestion — like Houston’s Katy Freeway expansion — any congestion benefits from widening I-35 will likely be short-lived.”

Highway Boondoggles: Interstate 35 Expansion in Austin

The article also highlights a further drawback:

An I-35 expansion would also drain money from other pressing transportation needs. In 2012 Austin adopted a city vision for limiting sprawl, expanding transportation choices, and creating more compact, connected communities. Achieving that vision will require a variety of projects. These include building better bike and pedestrian infrastructure downtown, like the improvements proposed for the Guadalupe Street Corridor that would cost $33.7 million. Various proposals have called for creating new light rail routes through the heart of Austin, at a cost of $400 million to $1.4 billion.

In other words, the $8 billion I-35 project would drain funds that could otherwise be used for “creating new light rail routes through the heart of Austin” – such as the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, now designated as the “Orange Line” option.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) would apparently require dedicated right-of-way, which would remove what are currently car lanes, while providing a lot of new bus capacity along the Lamar corridor in return. But experience elsewhere indicates that even that even frequent BRT capacity could be overwhelmed. The operating expenses would probably be higher than for light rail.

My thinking is that light rail could provide the highest level of capacity along part or all of this Orange Line corridor, perhaps through the downtown area and up Guadalupe past UT and into this already dense area.

Why not build rail as a shorter segment which would get the highest ridership and do the most good in satisfying mobility demand early on? If Austin’s current bonding capacity is big enough, we might consider approving bonds to build the highest-use light rail segment of the Orange line in November 2020. Then lengthen that rail segment later and phase out buses in accord with rising corridor ridership.

In any case, channeling public funding into urban rail and other major transit investments would seem to be a much better use of $8 billion – or even a fraction of that money.

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Did Austin’s new Smart Mobility agenda kill light rail?

28 March 2019

Left: Passengers preparing to board Houston’s Metro light rail. Have “Smart City” visions scuttled Austin’s hopes for urban rail? Right: Simulation of “Smart City” traffic with autonomous and “connected” vehicles. Sources: L. Henry; Propmodo.com.

Commentary by Roger Baker

Roger Baker is a longtime Austin transportation, energy, and urban issues researcher and community activist. The following commentary has been adapted and slightly edited from his comments recently posted by E-mail to multiple recipients. References for numbered citations are at end of post.

On March 2, 2017 the Austin City Council passed a resolution that called for a major policy Austin transportation policy shift toward a future of electric and automated vehicles (EV/AV) based on public-private partnerships (P3s), ride-sharing, and other factors. This effort arose out of Austin’s Smart City Challenge entry, which it had lost to Columbus, Ohio. [1]

This big shift away from business as usual obviously required a new plan with a lot of detail. The City Manager was ordered to draft a New Mobility EV/AV Plan by June 15, 2017. One part of this policy shift was to get people within the Austin Transportation Department (ATD) to help promote this shift. Two of the top ATD people responsible for this are now Karla Taylor, in charge of all ATD staff, and Jason JonMichael who knows about wiring “Smart Cities”, stuff like getting all the vehicles and street intersections and other vehicles to talk to one another, and persuading the public to accept the shift.

This new industrial development policy reportedly is meant to help generate startups and assist in the new programs developed by mobility tech leaders like Google, Tesla, Uber. And even Ford, which wants to move in the same electric and alternative transportation direction. The new wave of sharable scooters and bikes fits right into this new city perspective.

It is true that light rail transit (LRT) is electric, but currently it is only rarely autonomous. Since high-level corridor LRT service handles so many people with one driver, there is not such a great need for rail to operate autonomously.

On the other hand, autonomous vehicles like Uber cars, trucks, and buses would be a different story since the big mobility providers could maybe save money two ways. They can save on transportation fuel cost by shifting to electric, and supposedly also by possibly eliminating driver labor.

Moving urban rail off the table

In order to get everyone moving in the same direction, and shift to the new transportation agenda, Capital Metro had to be brought on board. Aside from its penny sales tax, Cap Metro can’t issue bonds using city resident’s property, but the city can do so. Without much state funding and with federal funds uncertain, a lot of the cost is probably now going to fall on local taxpayers.

This shift was also made by hiring a new transit czar, Randy Clarke, who understands that his new marching orders include things like new autonomous and electric buses. Of course this also meant making a big shift in the nearly complete Project Connect planning process, which was supposed to be finished in September 2018 after years of work. But in mid-2018 the Project Connect process, now falling under autonomous-friendly management, was extended to December 2018 for an additional $600,000. As a result, we should see a new rapidly revised version of the Project Connect plan soon, with more than just lines on map.

For its part, the City of Austin (COA) focused on creating a new Smart Mobility plan. The City Manager missed an original June 2018 deadline, but did finally come up with the City’s new 141-page Smart Mobility Roadmap on October 5, 2017. See:

https://austintexas.gov/smartmobilityroadmap
https://austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Smart_Mobility_Roadmap_-_Final.pdf

In my opinion, light rail will probably not be allowed to get in the way of “reinventing” transportation, no matter what transportation experts might think or advocate, primarily because it doesn’t have the high-tech startup potential that the City’s new marching orders require. Autonomous has already been proclaimed to be Austin’s future. You can see it from the Smart Mobility autonomous vehicle agenda, where the public-private partnerships have decided that the Austin’s transportation future is autonomous and “smart”, and as certified by the tech gurus the city hires. And don’t forget that new fleets of electric autonomous buses will supposedly help save us from global warming,

High-tech deliverance?

The executive summary from the Smart Mobility Roadmap gives an overview of what city leaders have in mind. [2] As this excerpt from the document lays out, the City of Austin and Capital Metro’s Smart Mobility Roadmap comprises five key areas:

• Shared-Use Mobility
• Electric Vehicles and Infrastructure
• Autonomous Vehicles
• Data and Technology
• Land Use and Infrastructure


City of Austin’s Smart Mobility Roadmap.


The Mobility Roadmap makes a series of recommendations for implementing, accommodating, and facilitating EV/AV vehicles in “Smart City” style:

1. Engage citizens, businesses and visitors on how this technology can meet their needs and address community issues
2. Hire an Executive level Officer of EV/AV Transportation
3. Develop a Master Plan roadmap for emerging electric-connected and autonomous vehicle (E-CAV) technologies
4. Create an interdisciplinary AV Work Group
5. Create an infrastructure task force to examine electric, technology and land use infrastructure requirements
6. Test Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC) technology for vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) reciprocal safety messages
7. Test 5G technology for vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) reciprocal safety messages; compare to DSRC 8. Increase public awareness of electric autonomous (E-AV) shuttles in various Austin locations through EV/AV pilots
9. Increase public awareness of last mile E-AV delivery robots
10. Establish an EV/AV Commercialization Opportunities/ Economic Development Work Group
11. Create Shared/EV/AV focused team
12. Increase public awareness of electric and autonomous vehicle benefits
13. Create a regional New Mobility Workforce Training task force for new job training and educational opportunities for those with legacy occupations

We all know, or should know by living in our high-tech city, that all kinds of automated and electric vehicles are destined for our future. Scooters, autonomous vehicles, rental “Smart Cars”, and incredible stuff like fleets of autonomous connected buses will be shuffling throughout Austin, supposedly solving our congestion problems as they go.

In addition to its rental scooters, Lime is making a foray into services with larger vehicle. Last May, Bloomberg News reported that Lime was ramping up its mobility-rental efforts by launching a car-sharing in Seattle, aiming to with ultimately 1,500 distribute Lime-branded “free-floating” rental cars around the city. Lime is also testing vehicles it calls “transit pods,” resembling “enclosed golf carts or electrified rickshaws”, according to Bloomberg, with a top speed of about 40 miles per hour. [3]

It’s not hard to foresee these “pods” adding to the mix of new modes gushing onto the streets and sidewalks of Austin. By adopting the Smart Mobility roadmap as official city policy, Austin has made it pretty clear that whatever the tech giants like Lime want to do will get a friendly reception here.

High-capacity transit vs. laboratory experiment

The strategy here is apparently to make Austin a kind of Petri dish – in effect, a laboratory experiment – to incubate and give birth to all kinds of innovative high technology startups, such as the recent invasion of rentable electric scooters (which incidentally are not permitted in Seattle due to safety considerations). Also included here is Cap Metro’s vision of autonomous, electrified bus rapid transit (so far, not operating anywhere as far as anyone knows). From this permissive support for high-tech innovation, the benefits are supposedly going to trickle down to average Austin residents, who will end up paying an unknown share of the final cost.

But how can Austin continue to manage to deny the need for a very high-capacity corridor transit system (only rail has the adequate capacity) running roughly between our highly congested road corridors of I-35 and MoPac? Even now, nearly twenty years after such a reasonable system was narrowly defeated, we still try to ignore the obvious under city-level political pressure, as usual based on using average homeowner-based property tax revenue to benefit private real estate development interests. This defies all logic, and to me is yet more evidence of the continuing special interest influence over Austin’s transportation planning.

At some point we need to bite the bullet and admit that public funding is limited and requires hard choices, not only involving mode choice but also geographical areas. CAMPO’s outlook is that we can have both “guns and butter”, that unlimited roads plus lots of transit are somehow affordable. The fact that neither the state nor federal gas taxes have been raised for 25 years is clear proof of our continuing denial of economic reality and our inability to make hard choices until something breaks.


Attractive high-capacity light rail transit is changing mobility patterns, boosting economic development in cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul. Photo via Transit for Livable Communities.


Reference Notes

[1] http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=272885

[2] https://austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Smart_Mobility_Roadmap_Executive_Summary_-_Final_with_Cover.pdf

[3] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-11-13/lime-wants-to-spread-1-500-shared-cars-around-seattle?srnd=premium

Related: Plans for Smart City could be dumb choice for Austin

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Let’s Put Austin’s Urban Rail Planning Back on Track

29 November 2018

Light rail starter line using N. Lamar-Guadalupe corridor from Tech Ridge to downtown was key element of Project Connect comprehensive regional plan presented in February 2018. Despite a three-year data-driven process with community participation, it was subsquently overruled and aborted by Capital Metro officials – setting back planning process another two years.

This post publishes the text of a handout distributed to a “Community Conversation” meeting sponsored by Project Connect in Council District 5 on 17 November 2018.

No more backsliding – Finalize a plan!

Last February (2018), Capital Metro’s Project Connect planning program, with public input, was finally nearing the end of a two-year process to devise a regional public transport proposal with urban rail and other “high-capacity” transit. On the table was a widely acclaimed, tentative plan for a viable, attractive public transport system, centered on a north-south light rail line from Tech Ridge to Slaughter Lane to link the city’s heaviest local travel corridors and provide a spine for ultimate rail extensions to other sections of the city. It was conceivable that details could be finalized to place a starter line on the November ballot for bond funding.

But that wouldn’t happen. Just over a month later, CapMetro’s new incoming CEO, with the blessing of the board, discarded the plan and reset the whole process back to zero – thus adding another two years to the seemingly endless effort to forge a transit remedy to Austin’s worsening mobility crisis.

While this destructive action was unprecedented and outrageous, for Austin it nevertheless fit a pattern of transit system plans aborted, botched, or abandoned by top leaders of CapMetro and the city’s political power elite, persisting over the past three decades. That’s a graveyard of at least six – count ‘em, 6 – urban rail planning efforts, totaling tens of millions of dollars, that have died because of official disinterest or misleadership, prolonging Austin’s mobility crisis pain and misery by 30 years. This delay needs to end – Austin needs to finalize and implement an urban rail system ASAP!

Real-world light rail, not science fiction dreams

In official studies from 1989 to 2018, light rail transit (LRT) has repeatedly been validated as Austin’s best choice for an attractive, cost-effective high-capacity transit system and the centerpiece of a regional system.

In recent decades, at least 19 North American cities have opened brand-new, affordable light rail systems that have typically excelled in attracting passengers, provided essential capacity and cost-effectiveness, and stimulated economic development that has more than repaid the public investment. Yet Austin’s official planning has recently been re-focused on visions of a totally untested, speculative technology (a “Smart Mobility roadmap” and ”Autonomous Rapid Transit”) – i.e., substituting science fiction for realistic, workable planning.

This seems basically a cover for dumping bona fide rapid transit and embracing a rebranded buses-only operation – bus rapid transit (BRT) – contradicting not only the recently aborted Project Connect process, but at least three official comparative studies over the past 28 years that have selected LRT as superior to BRT, particularly in key features such as capacity, ridership, cost, and economic development impacts. Disappeared from planning now are critical goals such as creating livable, transit-friendly, pedestrian-friendly streets and neighborhoods, and shaping public transit to guide growth and create economic investment.

Plans for urban rail should be fast-tracked

Austinites have long been suffering the pain of this region’s prolonged and worsening mobility crisis. We need real-world, proven, effective solutions nownot speculative visions of the possibilities of high-tech toys and autonomous vehicles. For sure, while prudently assessing new technology, we must not let our city be turned into a “Smart Mobility” Petri dish in lieu of installing a well-proven mass transit system such as LRT.

Austin’s mobility planning needs to be re-focused on developing an extensive, attractive, affordable, accessible, cost-effective public transport system with urban rail that can enhance livability, reduce total mobility cost, help guide growth, and encourage economic development that can recoup the public investment. To make up for time lost through delays and top-level debacles, rail planning should be fast-tracked, particularly by reinstating the results and community-participated planning decisions already achieved.

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Capital Metro strikes three blows against Lamar-Guadalupe light rail

31 May 2018

Graphic: Grace in the city

In a post this past February 28th, we reported on a surprising development coming from Capital Metro’s Project Connect planning process – the “conceptual” proposal of a 21-mile predominantly linear north-south light rail transit (LRT) corridor, running from Tech Ridge in North Austin, through the central heart of the city, to Slaughter Lane, near the Southpark Meadows area, in South Austin. The proposal particularly extolled the merits of a 12-mile-long segment, through the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, from Tech Ridge to downtown.

After over four decades of indecision, missteps, and delay, it seemed like the transit agency (and city leadership) might, amazingly, have turned a corner. Could this actually mean that, at long last, Capital Metro and Austin’s top leadership were prepared to move ahead with a plausible, workable light rail plan – implementing a long-awaited leap forward in urban mobility – for the city’s most important central corridor?

Unfortunately, no. Slightly over a month later, Capital Metro reversed itself, withdrew the LRT proposal, and reverted to the familiar decades-long pattern of indecision, confusion, dithering, and delay that has gripped Austin like a curse.

Instead of an actual, specific project for a new light rail system, with a starter line from Tech Ridge to Republic Square downtown, the proposal had dissolved into the clouds, becoming just another line on a map of “perhaps something, some day”. To explain the retreat, planning was now described as “mode agnostic” – in other words, reverting back to a kind of official daydreaming, without any modes (the things that people would actually ride) identified to define a real-world project.

Almost exactly a month later, Capital Metro’s board made another fateful decision. Whereas mode-specific recommendations from the Project Connect study were scheduled for June, the board delayed that back to late in the fall (or perhaps winter) – far too late to put any kind of actual, mode-specific project (such as the previous LRT proposal) on the November ballot for possible voter approval of bond funding. (At best, this would now delay voter approval of any hypothetical project until the 2020 election cycle.)

A third blow against LRT in the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor was struck on May 8th, when the Capital Area Mobility Planning Organization (CAMPO) approved a Capital Metro-sponsored plan (originally submitted Jan. 19th) to overhaul the N. Lamar Blvd.-Airport Blvd.-MetroRail intersection (adjacent to the Crestview MetroRail station) with a design – exclusively focused on accommodating and facilitating motor vehicle traffic, rather than public transport – that would impose enormous obstacles to LRT on North Lamar. Currently, community activists and urban rail advocates are endeavoring to prompt a redesign of this project.

For decade after decade, the Austin community has agonized, writhed, and wailed over its steadily mounting mobility crisis. Hundreds of miles of lanes and roads have been built and rebuilt, and even more vigorous roadbuilding is currently underway. Yet the mobility crisis continues to worsen – for many motorists, driving around the urban area increasingly feels like trying to swim through solidifying mud. Or, alternatively, slogging through a battlefield ….

Repeatedly, the need for light rail has been affirmed. (See «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps».) As we pointed out in a March 2015 post, “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.” («Austin’s urban transport planning seems struck by catastrophic case of amnesia and confusion».)

Capital Metro designated LRT in the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor as the region’s Locally Preferred Alternative in 1989. In 2000, Capital Metro hastily placed LRT on the ballot – but, in a poorly organized election campaign, it was defeated in the overall service area by a tiny margin (although it was approved by Austin voters). In 2014, another LRT plan was presented to Austin voters under the slogan “Rail or Fail” – but, proposed for the ridiculously weak Highland-Riverside corridor, the plan was resoundingly rejected. (See «Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead».)

Time and time again, Austin has demonstrated that it’s the national poster child for chronically muddled urban mobility planning. In a January 2015 post, we warned that “Austin – supposedly the most ‘progressive’ city in the ‘reddest’ rightwing state of Texas – has a distinctive (read: notorious) reputation for dithering, dallying, and derailing in its public transport planning ….” («Strong community support for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail continues — but officials seem oblivious».) As our previously-cited March 2015 post went on to observe: “The devastating befuddlement of Austin’s official-level urban transportation planning … has been nothing short of jaw-dropping.”

Will Austin, and Capital Metro, ever manage to break out of this pattern of failure? Does hope still spring eternal?

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Plans for Smart City could be dumb choice for Austin

31 January 2018

Austin’s “Smart City” vision is still mainly about cars and buses and roads. Graphic: Austin Tech Alliance.

Commentary by Roger Baker

Roger Baker is a longtime Austin transportation, energy, and urban issues researcher and community activist. The following commentary has been adapted and slightly edited from his comments recently posted by E-mail to multiple recipients.

Austin Transportation Dept. Director Robert Spillar has a vision of the city’s transportation future, and how high tech can solve Austin’s notorious transportation congestion, working along the lines of the Smart City Challenge Austin was trying to win last year. As a recent Governing article discloses, this Smart City vision is still mainly about cars and buses and roads and Austin becoming a “Smart City”, with driverless electric cars steadily displacing gas vehicles.

Another major component of Austin’s Smart City application will be put into place thanks to a voter-approved bond measure from November that included $482 million for up to nine “smart corridors” in the city. The improvements along those arterial roads will include a mix of old and new technology: turn lanes, bus bays and sidewalks will go in along with traffic and weather sensors and connected traffic lights.

The sensors will help traffic engineers better respond to changing conditions, as well help motorists and improve road networks. Texas universities, for instance, will use the information to improve traffic projections and troubleshoot the road network. The city has already done something similar using Bluetooth signals, which led officials to change a downtown street from one-way to two-way during major events to reduce traffic.

There are other components of the Smart City concept which may introduce other drawbacks. As local public transit advocate David Orr has pointed out, “one extremely problematic aspect of the auto-dependent Smart City craze is the proliferation of ride-hailing vehicles which increase congestion and VMT [vehicle miles traveled].”

So far as I know, the latest (2017) Austin city marching orders on transportation are publicized in its Smart Mobility Roadmap. The large PDF document gives the barest of mentions of the terms “light rail” on page 40 and “light rails” on page 71 of this 141 page document!!

The rest of this document is about how driverless electric cars and data collection everywhere are going to change our lives as part of the Smart City of the future – pure distilled essence of Robert Spillar, reading like science fiction, but expressed as certainty. Since Austin outranks Capital Metro in every political sense, the new Director at Metro had better get friendly with this new Austin-cratic transportation policy agenda. Since the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce just hired two road transportation enthusiasts, Phil Wilson and Brian Cassidy, as top leaders, I imagine that things can only get worse.

A major financing notion being floated in connection with these Smart Mobility plans are PPPs, or Public-Private-Partnerships. But PPPs commonly depend on assuming decades of speculative municipal (or other governmental) bond indebtedness. In this category, the toll roads already built, using high-yield bonds being promoted by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), and then unsuccessfully promoted on IH-35, would be some leading examples.

Now that the top legal architect behind the local CTRMA toll roads, Brian Cassidy, is working for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, could he be convinced to shift his legal focus to transit? Maybe toward promoting PPP-financed rail on Guadalupe, and as the only way short of a much costlier subway to unclog this important corridor between UT and the Capitol?

Unfortunately, the Wall Street needs be sold on at least the possibility for good returns. Rocky Mountain Institute seems to have sold Rob Spillar on the startup potential for Smart Car technologies, which is the hook there. Uber is for occasional use or for tech guys with money, but of little interest for the average commuters that jam up our big roads at peak.

Whereas toll roads can be profitable, especially under conditions of rapid sprawl growth and while fuel is cheap, transit is almost never profitable. I think Capital Metro only gets about 8% return from the fare box (i.e., operating revenues cover only 8% of costs). Where does the profit to attract private investment then come from?

Why would anyone expect “unprofitable” light rail to attract PPP investment money? Any more than our totally “unprofitable” and poorly maintained sidewalks would do?

The strong increased driving trend that took off with the 2014 oil price collapse may be starting to weaken. Low-wage service workers don’t drive as much as they used to do unless they need to commute for work.

In my opinion, this nationally weakening driving trend, plus rising global fuel costs yet to come, are likely to create a swing in public sentiment, if not actual dollars, toward transit. A need when buses can no longer be scaled up adequately to do the job on Guadalupe, nor serve the suburbs adequately either. We have forgotten how to make hard but realistic choices, or come up with compassionate solutions.

The public needs to experience and see basic civic needs for libraries, sidewalks, and roads as being appropriate when applied to transit. Modest solutions scaled to solving current problems rather than big-bond-package urbanist visions should be the rule. I like the Strong Towns approach which basically says we need to concentrate on solving our current problems in a modest way, as opposed to grand and expensive bond debt lasting decades to deal with future hypothetical growth problems. See, for example, the following articles:

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/9/the-real-reason-your-city-has-no-money

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/6/14/greatest-hits-the-growth-ponzi-scheme

We could do wonders with a half-billion-dollar light rail line down the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, but it may be some time until the stars line up right. That should have a much higher priority in a world that makes sense. As compared with TxDOT’s crazy obsession with widening I-35 in a futile battle against congestion – reality-denial which only delays doing the really smart stuff like running light rail past UT. ■