Archive for the ‘Design and cost issues’ Category

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

9 December 2014
N-Judah Line Muni Metro light rail transit (LRT) train running in raised median on San Francisco's Judah St. Alignment in this constricted 80-foot-wide arterial includes space for 2 dedicated light rail tracks, 4 vehicle lanes, and shared sidewalk for pedestrians and bicyclists. Similar alignment design could fit dedicated LRT tracks, 4 traffic lanes, and sidewalks into Austin's Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Photo (copyright) Eric Haas.

N-Judah Line Muni Metro light rail transit (LRT) train running in raised median on San Francisco’s Judah St. Alignment in this constricted 80-foot-wide arterial includes space for 2 dedicated light rail tracks, 4 vehicle lanes, and shared sidewalk for pedestrians and bicyclists. Similar alignment design could fit dedicated LRT tracks, 4 traffic lanes, and sidewalks into Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Photo (copyright) Eric Haas.

In recent years, critics of installing “urban rail” — i.e., a light rail transit (LRT) line — in the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor have endeavored to portray this potential project as an impossibly daunting task, contrary to many years of local planning to do just that. The predominant contention is that these two busy major arterials are simply too narrow to accommodate a double-track LRT alignment on dedicated lanes while maintaining adequate general traffic flow, and that introducing LRT would require either heavy civil works construction, or extensive, costly acquisition of adjacent property to widen the right-of-way (ROW), or both.

However, the G-L travel corridor — most central in the city — actually carries the heaviest travel flow of local arterials, serves the highest-density neighborhoods; and connects the most important activity clusters; thus, ultimately, given the inherent constraints of motor vehicle transportation, some type of high-quality, high-capacity public transport alternative is essential to maintain long-term mobility. Fortunately, there are LRT alignment designs that would facilitate fitting affordable, cost-effective, surface LRT into these arterials, while maintaining at least four lanes of general traffic capacity through most of the corridor.

While this corridor is characterized by an unusually narrow roadway structure — much of both North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe St. have total ROW (including sidewalks and curbs) just 80 feet wide — there appears to be adequate ROW width to install dedicated LRT lanes, within a 24-foot reservation, without additional ROW acquisition (easements), together with four traffic lanes (two 10-ft lanes per direction) for most of the alignment, plus sidewalks and curbs (8 fteet) on each side.


North Lamar traffic (several blocks north of the Triangle). Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor carries heaviest traffic flow of any local Central Austin arterial, serves residential concentration ranking among highest density in Texas, serves 31% of all Austin jobs — yet corridor was "dismembered" by Project Connect and excluded from "Central Corridor" study! Photo: L. Henry.

North Lamar Blvd. has unusually narrow right-of-way width for heavily traveled central local arterial street. Conditions of Guadalupe St. are similar. Photo: L. Henry.


For stations, relatively short segments of additional ROW would need to be acquired — approximately 20 feet of width for 300 feet (about one block) on each side of major intersections intended as station sites. Acquiring wider ROW would also be useful along sections of Guadalupe St. (particularly where the proposed LRT alignment runs adjacent to stretches of state-owned land). Within the Drag section of Guadalupe (W. 29th St. to MLK Blvd.), dedicated LRT lanes could remain in the center of the arterial, with some reconfiguration of traffic lanes and other facilities.

ROW constraints will impact the traction electrification system (TES) and overhead contact system (OCS) design in the G-L corridor. (OCS is the commonly used term for the overhead power wire system; it can be catenary or a simple, single-trolley-wire design.)

Appropriate design of the TES is critical to the narrow overall alignment design required in this corridor. Unlike many other modern new-start LRT installations, for OCS power wire suspension this alignment design would eschew TES center poles (masts) with bracket arms. Instead, to facilitate adequately narrow LRT ROW, this design would use an alternative design whereby the OCS would be carried by cross-span cables suspended from side poles inserted at curbside. Examples of this type of OCS suspension can be found in other LRT installations, such as in Houston, San Diego, and San Jose. (Whether OCS is simple trolley wire or catenary-type suspension would not affect this aspect of alignment design.)

The following schematic diagram illustrates a cross-section of this design for the majority of both North Lamar and Guadalupe, with LRT running in a dedicated reservation, two traffic lanes on each side, and sidewalks shared by pedestrians and bicyclists on each side.


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


For such a configuration of an LRT reservation within a major arterial, constrained by narrow ROW width, San Francisco offers perhaps the closest operating example with the N-Judah Line of the Muni Metro LRT system that branches westward from the city center. For a roughly 10-block section along Judah St., from about 9th Avenue to 19th Avenue, LRT tracks are laid in a raised dedicated reservation that isolates them from motor vehicle traffic; eliminating the need for additional barriers such as channelization buttons or other separation devices, this design has the benefit of minimizing horizontal clearance.

As the photo at the top of this post illustrates, despite a ROW constraint of just 80 feet, this configuration of the major Judah St. arterial is able to provide the raised LRT reservation plus 4 motor vehicle lanes plus parallel sidewalks. It should not be difficult to envision a similar design working in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

In the overhead view shown in the photo below, the top of a Muni Metro train can be seen in the center, running on the upper of the two tracks in the reservation. The different allocation of ROW space for traffic and sidewalk can be noticed — San Francisco provides an on-street parking lane and a traffic lane on each side of the arterial, plus sidewalks nearly 11 feet in width. In contrast, Austin Rail Now recommends that Guadalupe-Lamar would have 4 full traffic lanes of 10-ft width, no parking lanes, and 8-ft sidewalks.


Aerial view of Judah St. corridor segment, showing central reservation with Muni Metro LRT train, motor vehicle lanes on each side, and sidewalks on each side of arterial. Photo: Google Maps Satellite View.

Aerial view of Judah St. corridor segment near 10th Ave., showing central reservation with Muni Metro LRT train, motor vehicle lanes on each side, and sidewalks on each side of arterial. Photo: Google Maps Satellite View. (Click to enlarge.)


The following two photos at surface level showing Muni Metro trains in the Judah St. reservation further suggest how efficient LRT service can be installed in the relatively constrained arterial ROW of Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.


In this view of single-car train on slightly raised median near 16th Avenue, transverse spanwire that holds OCS power wire can be seen behind train, suspended between TES poles on either side of street. TES poles also serve as street light masts, a typical dual function. PHOTO: Peter Ehrlich.

In this view of single-car train on slightly raised median near 16th Avenue, transverse spanwire that holds OCS power wire can be seen behind train, suspended between TES poles on either side of street. TES poles also serve as street light masts, a typical dual function. PHOTO: Peter Ehrlich.


In this view of a train near 15th Avenue, the slightly raised center median reservation can be seen more clearly. Over the train, transverse spanwires holding OCS can be seen; other cross-wires are general utility cables. Photo (copyright) Eric Haas.

In this view of a train near 16th Avenue, the slightly raised center median reservation can be seen more clearly. Over the train, transverse spanwires holding OCS can be seen; other cross-wires are general utility cables. Photo (copyright) Eric Haas.


There are other alternatives for installing LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. To eliminate the need for TES poles, for example, there are “wireless” power options, but these tend to be proprietary, somewhat experimental technologies and substantially more expensive. Widening these arterials by acquiring more ROW is another option, but this also introduces greater expense. We believe that the raised-median design, with side-mounted TES poles, presented here, represents a particularly cost-effective, functional solution worth considering for G-L and other major Austin corridors. ■

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Reality Check: How plausible are Project Connect’s time/speed claims for Highland-Riverside urban rail plan?

24 August 2014
LEFT: Phoenix's Metro LRT — similar to Project Connect's proposed Highland-Riverside line — runs almost entirely in street and arterial alignments, with maximum speed limits, traffic signal interruptions, and sharp turning movements that slow running speed. Average schedule speed: 18.0 mph. (Photo: OldTrails.com)  RIGHT: Charlotte's Lynx LRT runs entirely in an exclusive alignment following a former railway right-of-way. Average schedule speed: 23.0 mph. (Photo: RailFanGuides.us)

LEFT: Phoenix’s Metro LRT — similar to Project Connect’s proposed Highland-Riverside line — runs almost entirely in street and arterial alignments, with maximum speed limits, traffic signal interruptions, and sharp turning movements that slow running speed. Average schedule speed: 18.0 mph. (Photo: OldTrails.com) RIGHT: Charlotte’s Lynx LRT runs entirely in an exclusive alignment following a former railway right-of-way. Average schedule speed: 23.0 mph. (Photo: RailFanGuides.us)

In a Blitzkrieg of promotional presentations over the past several months, Project Connect leaders and team members have been touting ambitious travel time and average speed projections for their urban rail project proposed to connect the Highland ACC site with the East Riverside development area. In various presentations, the agency’s Urban Rail Lead, Kyle Keahey, has claimed that the line would provide an average speed of “21 to 22 miles per hour” (impressive, compared to an average of about 25 mph for motor vehicles in urban traffic, and typical local bus transit averages of about 12 mph generally and 4-8 mph running through a in a CBD).

In terms of travel time on Project Connect’s proposed line, the agency has detailed the following:

• From the East Riverside terminus at Grove to the Convention Center downtown (3.9 miles) — 11 minutes

• From the Convention Center to the ACC Highland campus (5.6 miles) — 17 minutes


Screenshot from Project Connect's June 23rd presentation to Capital Metro board, showing travel time claims for proposed urban rail project.

Screenshot from Project Connect’s June 23rd presentation to Capital Metro board, showing travel time claims for proposed urban rail project. (Click to enlarge.)


However, several anomalies immediately leap out to experienced public transit analysts. First, the distance and time projections provided by the agency — totaling 9.5 miles in 28 minutes — imply an average speed of 20.4 mph, not the “21-22” claimed by Kyle Keahey and other representatives. Second, even an average speed of 20.4 for this type of light rail transit (LRT) service in this kind of application raises professional eyebrows (and considerable skepticism) — mainly because it’s significantly higher than what is commonly characteristic of peer systems.

Light rail transit planners commonly know that lines routes in street and arterial alignments, even reservations, face substantially more constraints to speed than do systems routed in exclusive, private right-of-way (ROW) alignments such as railway corridors, tunnels, viaducts, etc. (This is illustrated in the photo composite at the top of this post.) Some major constraints include: maximum speed limited to traffic maximum speed; operation constrained by traffic signals and cross-traffic; sharper curves and turning movements as route follows street grid. Compared with routes in exclusive alignments, the differentials usually aren’t tremendous, but enough to make a difference in schedule speeds, travel times, and other performance factors.

To illustrate this, and perform a rough comparative analysis, we’ve compiled average speeds from two sources. The first is a comparison on the Light Rail Now website, in an article titled Light Rail Schedule Speed – Faster Than Bus, Competitive With Car, with speeds summarized in the following table:


Table of LRT average schedule speeds from Light Rail Now website.

Table of LRT average schedule speeds from Light Rail Now website.


The second source is a recent compilation by Light Rail Now publisher Dave Dobbs, summarized with route lengths, average stop spacing, travel times, and average speeds, in the table below:


Table of LRT average schedule speeds and other data compiled by Dave Dobbs.

Table of LRT average schedule speeds and other data compiled by Dave Dobbs. (Click to enlarge.)


Dave notes that he included the lines he did “because they were examples from Project Connect slides.” He also points out that Project Connect’s East Riverside-to-Highland line “is virtually all street running save for the tunnels and the bridge and I don’t see that much time saving there.”

Indeed, Project Connect’s proposed line is far more of a winding, meandering route, with more traffic speed constraints and sharper turning movements, than any of the comparative peer street-running systems. It includes running in mixed traffic (Red River St.) as well as a segment through the UT campus (San Jacinto Blvd.) with heavy student pedestrian traffic crossing the alignment.

LRT systems are identified with the following designations:

BAL — Baltimore
CHA — Charlotte Lynx
DAL — Dallas DART
HOU — Houston MetroRail Red Line
LA — Los Angeles
MIN — Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro
NFK — Norfolk Tide (Hampton Roads Transit)
PHX — Phoenix Metro
SEA — Seattle Link
SLC — Salt Lake City TRAX

To simplify this comparison, we’ve included clearly identifiable route segments from both table sources, and differentiated them into Predominately Street Alignment and Predominantly Exclusive Alignment categories. For several individual systems, segments are identified in our charts as follow:

Dallas
CBD — West End to Pearl/Arts
Green Line A — West End to Fair Park
Blue Line A — West End to Ledbetter
Blue Line B — West End to Corinth
Blue Line C — Corinth to Illinois
Red Line A — CBD to Plano

Denver
Littleton — CBD to suburb of Littleton

Houston
Red — Red Line

Los Angeles
Blue — Blue Line, CBD to Long Beach

Minneapolis
Blue — Blue Line, Hiawatha
Green — Green Line, Minneapolis-St. Paul

Salt Lake City
701 — Medical Center to Ball Park
704 — West Valley Central to Airport
Sandy — CBD to suburb of Sandy

Using the data from these tabular compilations, we’ve presented a comparative summary of average schedule speeds in the following two graphs. Speed data values (mph) have been rounded to a single decimal point. The first graph presents a comparison of various predominantly street-running lines, similar to Project Connect’s proposed project. This includes an average for the actual, operating peer systems. The second graph presents average speeds for various lines and line segments in exclusive (mostly railway right-of-way) alignments. (Click either graph to enlarge.)


5_ARN_Chart-LRT-mph-street


6_ARN_Chart-LRT-mph-exclusive-rev


From this comparison, it can be seen that the average speed for Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside line, based on the projected travel time presented by the agency, is significantly above all of the peer systems running predominantly in street right-of-way. Not only does Project Connect’s line show a higher average schedule speed than any of its peer systems, but it’s a full 6.4 mph — nearly 46% — above the peer average. This seems highly implausible, particularly in view of the more convoluted, tortuous profile of the proposed alignment and the other encumbrances we’ve cited. Indeed, the travel time (and implicitly schedule speed) assumptions of Project Connect planners seem more appropriate for the operating characteristics of a route in predominantly exclusive right-of-way rather than running on streets and arterials, as they’ve designed it.

Projecting reasonably accurate travel times and speeds is important to planning any rail transit project, and not just because of plausibility with respect to public scrutiny. Travel time constitutes one of the key inputs into the ridership modeling process. Underestimating travel time, by reducing what’s called the “impedance” to the process of calculating trip generation and modal split, can readily lead to overestimation of ridership. In addition, slow travel speeds also raise the possible need for additional rolling stock to fulfill train frequency and passenger capacity requirements.

Bottom line: Project Connect planners may be estimating faster train travel speeds and shorter travel times than is realistically plausible, and the implications may be lower ridership, greater rolling stock requirements, and possibly higher operating costs than they’ve originally projected.

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Project Connect’s gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off course

15 August 2014
Graphic: GG2.net

Graphic: GG2.net

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to the City of Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission on 10 June 2014 regarding Project Connect’s proposed 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion urban rail starter line connecting East Riverside (southeast) with the Highland ACC site now under development (north). In the end, the commission voted, with minor amendments, to recommend Project Connect’s proposal to the City Council.

There are three huge problems with Project Connect’s proposal:

(1) It spends $1.4 billion to put urban rail in the wrong place.

(2) It will hinder and constrain future rail development.

(3) A vote for this flawed plan is also a vote to permanentize lower-capacity MetroRapid bus service in our strongest, densest travel corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar.

Guadalupe-Lamar is the outstanding corridor to start urban rail — among the top heavy travel corridors in Texas, a long-established commercial district, with major activity centers, the city’s core neighborhoods, and the West Campus, having the 3rd-highest residential density in Texas.

In contrast, Project Connect proposes to forsake the central city’s heaviest and densest local corridor and instead connect a weak corridor, East Riverside, with a non-existent travel corridor through the East Campus, Hancock, and Highland. By wasting over a billion dollars on urban rail in this meandering, misguided route, Project Connect will divert scarce funds from future rail development.

Project Connect’s Riverside-East Campus-Hancock-Highland plan comes “gold-plated” with a new $130 million “signature bridge” over the river and a $230 million tunnel at Hancock. But it runs in mixed street traffic from UT to Hancock. This is a proposal that costs too way much for too little value.

And it’s the third most pricey urban rail starter line, by cost per mile, in U.S. history. City officials now routinely propose a major property tax increase to finance the local share of Project Connect’s plan.


Per mile of route, proposed Highland-Riverside urban rail plan would be second most expensive light rail starter line since 1990, and third most expensive in U.S. history.

Per mile of route, proposed Highland-Riverside urban rail plan would be second most expensive light rail starter line since 1990, and third most expensive in U.S. history. Graph: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


Voting for Project Connect’s urban rail plan for East Riverside to Highland also means voting to pour concrete for bus lanes and other bus facilities on Guadalupe and Lamar that will prevent an urban rail alternative in our heaviest, neediest corridor for decades. The current MetroRapid bus service on Guadalupe, Lamar and South Congress carries 6,000 daily riders, less than one-eighth of the 51,000 forecast for light rail in that same corridor.

According to a report yesterday from a private meeting of urban rail “stakeholders” at Capital Metro, representatives of both Project Connect and Capital Metro admitted that Phase 1 of this project, which conjured up Looney-Tunes voodoo and passed it off as “scientific” projections, was “too fast and not at a pace they would typically have proceeded.”

In contrast to major rail planning in the past, the public has basically been cut out of this process. Now Mayor Leffingwell and his administration announce they’re tossing in a dollop of road projects that even some councilmembers criticize as failing to fit into the Imagine Austin concept of a walkable, dense city. In effect, they’re packaging a dubious, wasteful rail project with questionable road projects, and wrapping a “congestion relief” ribbon around it.

This is a planning process that’s gone off course and out of control. This commission needs to do the right thing, and say as much to the city council. ■

Related links:
Project Connect’s $500 million plan for bus infrastructure — The Elephant in the Road on Guadalupe-Lamar that could block urban rail
Project Connect’s Austin urban rail would be 3rd-most-pricey LRT starter line in U.S. history
Roger Baker: Austin’s ‘Strategic Mobility Plan’ — smart planning or a billion dollar boondoggle?
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Project Connect gets it wrong — Urban rail starter lines are much cheaper than extensions

14 August 2014
LEFT: Denver's starter LRT line, a 5.3-mile line opened in 1994, was routed and designed as a simple, surface-routed project to minimize construction time and cost. All-surface alignment avoided heavy, expensive civil works and kept design as simple as possible. Photo: Peter Ehrlich. RIGHT: Subsequent extensions, such as this West line opened in 2013, have required bridges, grade separations, and other major civil works, resulting in a unit cost 61% higher than that of the starter line. Photo: WUNC.org.

LEFT: Denver’s starter LRT line, a 5.3-mile line opened in 1994, was routed and designed as a simple, surface-routed project to minimize construction time and cost. All-surface alignment avoided heavy, expensive civil works and kept design as simple as possible. Photo: Peter Ehrlich. RIGHT: Subsequent extensions, such as this West line opened in 2013, have required bridges, grade separations, and other major civil works, resulting in a unit cost 61% higher than that of the starter line. Photo: WUNC.org.

Since Project Connect released the cost estimates for their proposed 9.5-mile Highland-Riverside urban rail starter line last spring, agency representatives have tried to argue that the line’s projected cost of $144.8 per mile (2020 dollars) is comparable to that of other recent light rail transit (LRT) projects, citing new extensions in Houston, Portland, and Minneapolis.

Project Connect's chart comparing their proposed Highland-Riverside "Austin Urban Rail" starter line cost to costs of extensions of several other mature light rail transit systems.

Project Connect’s chart comparing their proposed Highland-Riverside “Austin Urban Rail” starter line cost to costs of extensions of several other mature light rail transit systems. (Click to enlarge.)

Austin Rail Now challenged this comparison In our recent analysis, Project Connect’s Austin urban rail would be 3rd-most-pricey LRT starter line in U.S. history. We argued that comparing the high cost of extensions of other, mature systems, was invalid, because urban rail starter lines tend to be much lower in cost than subsequent extension projects.

That’s because, in designing a starter line — the first line of a brand-new system for a city — the usual practice is to maximize ridership while minimizing costs through avoiding more difficult design and construction challenges, often deferring these other corridors for later extensions. In this way, the new system can demonstrate sufficient ridership and other measures of performance sufficient to convince both local officials and the public that it’s a success from the standpoint of being a worthwhile investment.

In contrast with starter lines, where officials and planners usually strive to keep design minimal and hold costs down in order to get an initial system up and running with the least demand on resources (and public tolerance), extension projects more often are deferred to later opportunities, mainly because they frequently contend with “the much more difficult urban and terrain conditions that are typically avoided and deferred in the process of selecting routes for original starter systems.” Deferring more difficult and expensive alignments till later also allows time for public acceptance, and even enthusiasm, for the new rail transit system to take root and grow.

Austin’s case provides an illustration. As our article, Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route, describes, Capital Metro’s original 2000 LRT plan envisioned a “Phase 1” 20-mile system consisting of a 14.6-mile line from McNeil to downtown, plus a short branch to East Austin and a longer extension down South Congress to Ben White Blvd. In Year of Expenditure (YOE) 2010 dollars, that full system was projected to cost $1,085.8 million (about $1,198 million in today’s dollars). But a billion-dollar project was deemed too hefty a bite for the city’s first foray into rail, so decisionmakers and planners designated the shorter 14.6-mile northern section as a Minimum Operable Segment (MOS), with a more affordable (and, hopefully, more politically palatable)pricetag of $739.0 million in 2007 YOE dollars (roughly $878 million in current dollars).

After an initial starter line is established, for most subsequent extension projects the unit cost — per mile — tends to increase because, as previously indicated, officials and designers are willing to tackle more daunting corridors and alignments. Denver is a useful example.

In 1994 Denver established basic LRT service with a comparatively simple 5.3-mile starter line, running entirely on the surface in both dedicated street lanes and an available, abandoned center-city railway alignment, with an installation cost of $37.3 million per mile (2014 dollars). From that beginning, the system has been gradually expanded with increasingly more ambitious and more costly extensions. In 2013, Denver opened its West Line (the W line) to Golden; constructed over much more daunting terrain and obstacles, with multiple grade separations, bridges, and long elevated sections, plus more complex signal and communications systems and more elaborate station facilities. The West line was finished at a cost in 2014 dollars of about $59.9 million per mile — a unit cost about 61% higher than that of the original starter line.

Despite such evidence, at an Aug. 5th urban rail forum sponsored by the Highland Neighborhood Association, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead, Kyle Keahey, dismissed the assertion that starter lines were lower in cost per mile than extensions. Instead, he insisted, “the reverse is true.”

Really? But this claim is refuted even by the same cases that Project Connect has presented as peer projects for comparing the estimated $144.8-million-per-mile cost (2020) of its Highland-Riverside proposal.

In the following comparative analysis, we use Project Connect’s own year-2020 cost-per-mile figures for their selected “peer” projects. For each of those we use the starter line cost-per-mile data from our earlier May 8th article (cited above), plus data for Portland’s original starter line (a 15.1-mile line opened in 1986 from central Portland to the suburb of Gresham). These unit costs, in 2014 dollars, were then escalated to year-2020 values via the 3% annual factor specified by Project connect for their own table data.

The resulting comparison is shown below:

Using Project Connect's selected LRT systems, this comparison shows that the cost per mile of new starter lines tends to be significantly less than the cost of later extensions. Graph: ARN.

Using Project Connect’s selected LRT systems, this comparison shows that the cost per mile of new starter lines tends to be significantly less than the cost of later extensions. Graph: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

Clearly, this analysis corroborates our original assertion — based on these cases, the unit costs of LRT starter lines tend to be considerably lower than the unit cost of later extensions when these have developed into more mature systems. And, at $144.8 million per mile, the unit cost of Project Connect’s proposed 9.5-mile Highland-Riverside urban rail starter line is certainly far higher than the cost of any of the original starter lines of these selected systems — all using Project Connect’s own cases and criteria.

Q.E.D., perhaps? ■

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Why Project Connect’s “Highland” urban rail would do nothing for I-35 congestion

9 July 2014
I-35 is the most congested roadway in Texas. But is this really the main travel corridor for commuters from "Highland-Riverside" neighborhoods to the Core Area? And would Project Connect's proposed urban rail line have any perceptible impact? Photo source: KVUE-TV.

I-35 is the most congested roadway in Texas. But is this really the main travel corridor for commuters from “Highland-Riverside” neighborhoods to the Core Area? And would Project Connect’s proposed urban rail line have any perceptible impact? Photo source: KVUE-TV.

By Dave Dobbs and Lyndon Henry

Lately, Project Connect representatives have been trying to claim that their meandering urban rail route proposed from Highland, through Red River and San Jacinto, to East Riverside, somehow addresses the problem of congestion on … I-35.

Really?

Leaving I-35 at the Highland site to ride a slow train to downtown doesn’t make any sense when, at Highland ACC, you are almost at the Core Area. By the time you leave the freeway, park your car, walk to the station, wait for the train, and ride downtown, you might as well have stayed on the freeway.

The I-35 traffic jam actually begins way north of Highland — at the confluence of Howard Lane, North Lamar, and I-35 — and that’s where people would park and ride a train if it were there. But first we have to build urban rail in the right place — up Guadalupe and North Lamar.

You have to put your transit station, with park & ride (P&R) access, near the outer end of the traffic jam. You don’t have to be a transportation savant to figure this out.

After all, as the public transit planning profession knows very well, P&R facilities need to be provided well upstream of the heavy congestion on a highway facility. There’s very little hope of attracting travelers off the highway if they already have to travel through severe congestion to access the transit station.

Project Connect’s claim of “congestion relief” is especially implausible when you further consider that they’re expecting prospective urban rail passengers to slog their way through the I-35 congestion, then, just a few minutes from their destination, to exit the freeway, hassle with parking, wait for a train, and then take a long, slow, sinuous train ride into the Core Area — a route that includes entering Airport Blvd., navigating through mixed traffic on Red River St., then winding through San Jacinto Blvd. and other streets comprising this tortuous “Highland” route.

What about the the hints from Project Connect that I-35 may be a major artery that neighborhood commuters themselves, along the proposed “Highland” rail route, supposedly use to reach the Core Area? To believe this speculation, you’d have to accept a vision of about 260 commuters per peak hour from these neighborhoods, currently driving, on average, about 6 blocks to then pack themselves onto a severely congested I-35 (#1 on TxDOT’s list of the state’s most congested roads) to then travel an average 28 blocks into the Core. And doing this when they have at least four other important but much less congested local arterials, including Guadalupe-Lamar, to use instead.

Commuters on I-35 would need to drive through miles of heavy congestion to reach Project Connect's proposed urban rail P&R at Highland ACC  — thus, little potential for "congestion relief". In contrast, Capital Metro's Tech Ridge P&R is located upstream of I-35 congestion. Alternative Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail plan would have North Lamar Transit Center P&R at US 183, upstream of congestion. Future urban rail extension up North Lamar to Howard Lane could provide another P&R upstream of I-35 congestion. Infographic map by ARN based on Google Maps.

Commuters on I-35 would need to drive through miles of heavy congestion to reach Project Connect’s proposed urban rail P&R at Highland ACC — thus, little potential for “congestion relief”. In contrast, Capital Metro’s Tech Ridge P&R is located upstream of I-35 congestion. Alternative Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail plan would have North Lamar Transit Center P&R at US 183, upstream of congestion. Future urban rail extension up North Lamar to Howard Lane could provide another P&R upstream of I-35 congestion. Infographic map by ARN based on Google Maps. (Click to enlarge.)

Maybe, but this is a scenario that similarly invites powerful skepticism. And is it worth over a billion dollars for an urban rail alignment that would lure perhaps about 65 motorists off I-35 in a peak hour (assuming about 25% modal split for Project Connect’s urban rail)?

Instead, as an authentic urban rail alternative to either I-35 or MoPac into the Core Area, you have to travel through the actual heart of the central city and its core neighborhoods on an actual travel corridor where you actually travel to and get off close to your destination. And a lot more of those destinations are within walking distance of Guadalupe-Lamar. That’s why there are 23,000 bus riders daily in this corridor today.

Some transit planner a quarter century ago put it something like this at an Austin public meeting: “All transit studies show that people will climb high mountains and/or swim deep rivers to access good rail service if it’s far enough out and is easily accessible by another mode (i.e., beyond the traffic jam), providing that their final destinations are within a quarter mile of a stop.”

The MetroRail Red Line demonstrates this wisdom; after Howard Lane, for passengers riding inbound AM peak trains, it’s standing-room only. And don’t expect a seat outbound in the evening rush until Howard Lane.

However, the Red Line’s biggest fault is that while it’s quite long enough, it fails to “connect the dots”. It misses serving the heavy-traffic Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, and bypasses core central-city neighborhoods, the UT campus, the Capitol Complex, and most of downtown (while providing virtually useless service for East Austin en route).

MetroRail Red Line (red) skirts entire heart of central Austin, illustrated by "Missing Link" through Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Urban rail would provide the crucial connections to core neighborhoods, UT West Campus, and Capitol Complex missed by MetroRail. Infographic Map by Light Rail Now.

MetroRail Red Line (red) skirts entire heart of central Austin, illustrated by “Missing Link” through Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Urban rail would provide the crucial connections to core neighborhoods, UT West Campus, and Capitol Complex missed by MetroRail. Infographic Map by Light Rail Now.

In bypassing the heart of the city and the Core Area, the Red Line does indeed miss the big dots, but people hate US 183. Before the freeway to Lakeway and beyond, the bumper sticker read: “Pray for me, I drive 183!” Nothing has changed except that we have a much bigger road, even more traffic, more stress. longer drive times, and only a glimmer of a solution around it.

And by far the biggest part of any solution is urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar.

Summing up: Most I-35 travelers are not going to get off the freeway at the proposed Highland station when the real traffic jam starts to form at Howard Lane. The current bus park & ride, Tech Ridge Transfer Center, for AM commuters to the Core, is located where it makes most sense — much further north (upstream) from Highland, at Howard near I-35.

Again, it comes back to the real alternative: Urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, which could serve a P&R station at the North Lamar Transit Center (upstream of the congestion on North Lamar) — with a clear path for further extension north — and interface with train service to the northwest (initially MetroRail, eventually an extension of electric urban rail) serving outlying P&R facilities such as Howard and Lakeline.

We think that’s a “congestion relief” plan that actually makes sense. ■