Archive for the ‘Design and cost issues’ Category

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Project Connect’s Orange Line operating cost assumptions seem to fail plausibility test

3 December 2019

Cover of Project Connect’s O&M cost methodology and assumptions report. Screen capture by ARN.


This analysis has been adapted and revised from comments originally posted to the #ATXTransit listserv by Lyndon Henry, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project and contributing editor to Austin Rail Now (ARN).

For approximately the past year, Capital Metro’s planning program, Project Connect, has been analyzing two travel corridors for major high-capacity rapid transit investment – the Orange Line (basically following the North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress corridor) and the Blue Line (roughly following the Red River-San Jacinto/Trinity corridor through downtown and then the Riverside corridor out to ABIA). A federally required Alternatives Analysis has been undertaken by a consulting team led by AECOM to recommend a modal system choice between light rail transit (LRT) and bus rapid transit (BRT), as well as other features and service characteristics such as vehicle types, station locations, alignments, and the capital costs and operating and maintenance (O&M) costs of each alternative.

Recently the agency released as public information selected details, including methodological procedures and cost assumptions. These have prompted scrutiny by community professionals and activists, particularly in regard to important O&M cost assumptions. In some cases these assumptions have been called into question.

For example, a 13 November posting by research analyst Julio Gonzalez Altamirano (JGA) on his Informatx.org website presented an extensive critical analysis. This resulted in two major findings:

• Project Connect’s BRT revenue hour cost estimate is lower than the national average by 26%. Project Connect does not explain its rationale for the methodological choices that lead to the lower rate.

• Project Connect’s use of a flat passenger car revenue hour rate to calculate LRT costs obfuscates the economies of scale associated with multi-car LRT trains. This is a change from the approach taken by Project Connect in 2013-2014. The new method makes Blue Line LRT appear more productive and Orange Line LRT less productive than an approach that recognizes the cost advantages of LRT scale (e.g. multi-car trains). Project Connect does not explain the rationale for the methodological switch or why its current approach will generate more accurate estimates.

These findings are broadly in line with the results of ARN’s own research into Project Connect’s O&M cost methodology and resultant assumptions, particularly with respect to the Orange Line surface LRT and BRT alternatives. Our analysis relied primarily on data for appropriate peer systems to Austin, reported in the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database (NTD).

Basically, we find that Project Connect’s cost per vehicle-hour assumptions consistently seem to overestimate LRT costs by more than 51% and underestimate BRT costs by over 26%. The bottom-line result is to skew Project Connect’s O&M cost assumptions as much as 70% in favor of the BRT alternative. This produces a relatively huge disparity in evaluating the alternatives, and challenges plausibility. Details of our analysis, plus conclusions and a recommendation, are presented below.

Methodology

Operational configurations and service cycles affect O&M costs, including costs per vehicle-mile. ARN’s methodology has differed somewhat from JGA’s. Most importantly, from the 2017 NTD (latest currently available), ARN selected seven new-start LRT “peer” systems based on both urban characteristics and surface-running alignment and operational configurations that we judged to more closely match those of Austin and the proposed Orange Line surface LRT: Denver, Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City. Although some have urban or suburban branches on exclusive alignments, all have significant segments in urban streets.

These seven systems have been selected in part for their urban, extensively on-surface, and in some cases predominantly street-routed character (similar to the alignment proposed for Austin’s Orange Line). Generally comparable urban population and density were also an important factor. As state capitals, Denver, Sacramento, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and St. Paul (included in the Minneapolis-St. Paul system) also make good peer cities for Austin. Other new-start LRT systems that might have some sections on city streets but operate predominantly over extensive regional lines or grade-separated alignments were not considered as fully comparable cost models.

In contrast to our peer-systems approach, Project Connect states that, via its own methodology, “O&M unit costs for LRT service reflect a weighted national average cost per revenue hour ….” [Orange Line Operating and Maintenance Costs, 30 Oct. 2019] Apparently these costs are based on NTD data.

However, if Project Connect calculated its average from national data of all LRT systems reported in the NTD, this would have included a widely disparate collection of O&M and other data, much of it starkly dissimilar to Austin’s demographics and proposed LRT operational conditions. For example, legacy systems (remnants of historic surface electric railways dating back to the late 19th or early 20th century) such as those in Boston, San Francisco, Newark, and Pittsburgh retain a variety of older operating characteristics (e.g., onboard fare collection by train operators) that drive their vehicle-hour costs significantly higher than the average of modern new-start systems.

Other problems with such an indiscriminate approach include differences in alignment engineering configuration. Accordingly, we assessed some modern new-start LRT systems to be less suitable O&M vehicle-hour cost models for Austin’s proposed street-routed LRT Orange Line, including several we excluded particularly because of their proportionately more extensive subway and elevated segments: Buffalo, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Dallas, Seattle.

Nevertheless, despite what appear to be serious weaknesses with its own methodological assumptions, Project Connect has calculated an O&M cost per vehicle-hour of $284.15 (2017) for its Orange Line LRT surface alternative.

As regards BRT, in our judgement eight of the operational configurations of BRT systems reported in the 2017 NTD seemed to conform to the Orange Line BRT surface operating proposal, and can be assumed to represent peer systems with respect to Austin. These BRT services – operating in Cleveland, Eugene, Ft. Collins, Grand Rapids, Hartford, Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Orlando – thus provide an appropriate basis for comparing and evaluating Project Connect’s Orange Line LRT and BRT scenarios. New York City was excluded because its exceptionally high density, population size, and vast multi-model transit system are far out of proportion to Austin’s conditions. Boston’s disconnected system, partly operating as a trolleybus subway, also seemed inappropriate as a peer system. Likewise the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s operation, a basically rural system more closely resembling a regional or intercity motor coach service than an urban transit service, was also excluded. Data for the eight peer systems were used to develop metrics for comparison with Project Connect’s assumed cost inputs.

For 2017 O&M cost per vehicle-hour for Project Connect’s Orange Line BRT surface alternative, Project Connect’s own assumptions (based on information from CMTA and NTD) amount to an effective estimate of $119.10, as JGA has converted from Project Connect’s 2028 estimates.

To calculate current national averages and metrics for comparison, we’ve totaled current costs and other relevant values for the target LRT and BRT peer groups from National Transit Database (NTD) profile data, then calculated averages from those totals. All costs discussed are presented in 2017 dollars.

Results

LRT: Average actual 2017 O&M cost per vehicle-hour for the seven peer LRT systems is $187.52, 34.0% lower than Project Connect’s assumed cost of $284.15 for the Orange Line surface LRT option.

BRT: Average actual 2017 O&M cost per vehicle hour for the eight peer BRT systems is $162.23, 36.2% higher than Project Connect’s assumed cost estimate of $119.10 for the Orange Line surface BRT option.

LRT vehicle-costs/hour are typically higher than for buses mainly because LRT cars are larger and stations are also usually larger, creating higher maintenance costs. (These characteristics generally stem from LRT’s higher capacity and propensity to attract greater passenger volumes.) The ratio of actual NTD-reported peer-system LRT to BRT costs is 1.16. However, Project Connect’s cost assumptions amount to an LRT:BRT ratio of 2.39 – in other words, approximately twice the cost ratio in actual operating experience. The disparity between Project Connect’s estimates and costs experienced in actual operations is illustrated in the graph below.


Graphic illustration of disparity between Project Connect’s O&M unit-cost estimates and actual reality of costs experienced by actual operations of comparable peer LRT and BRT systems. Graph: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


Conclusions and recommendation

Project Connect’s assumption for cost per vehicle-hour appears to substantially underestimate BRT and overestimate LRT – and this has dramatic consequences for the agency’s overall cost model results, seemingly skewing the evaluatory process and calling into question the plausibility and validity of the agency’s O&M cost analysis. The table below, presenting Project Connect’s comprehensive O&M cost calculations for the Orange Line alternatives, illustrates how the differential in O&M cost-per-vehicle-hour estimates translate into enormous differences of tens of millions of dollars in annual O&M cost assumptions.


Table of O&M cost calculations from Project Connect’s report. Screen capture by ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


We would strongly recommend that these assumptions and the overall O&M analysis of these alternatives be reviewed and revised – particularly by basing cost estimates on appropriate peer systems relevant to the LRT and BRT alternatives proposed by Project Connect for the Orange Line.

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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. ■

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Project Connect’s $500 million plan for bus infrastructure — The Elephant in the Road on Guadalupe-Lamar that could block urban rail

21 June 2014
Graphic: Panoramio.com

Graphic: Panoramio.com

As this blog has been warning, there’s substantial evidence that the Project Connect consortium has plans in mind for major investments in bus infrastructure for the MetroRapid bus routes, including Guadalupe-Lamar — infrastructure that would have the effect of a de facto barrier to installing urban rail.

From various recent statements by local officials, Project Connect personnel, and supporters of their current Highland-Riverside urban rail plan, it also seems likely that such a so-called “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT) infrastructure program for Guadalupe-Lamar would be initiated if their rail proposal receives public approval. Thus, our predictive analysis that “a vote for Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside urban rail project is a vote for a bus project on Guadalupe Lamar.” In effect, this is the Elephant in the Road shadowing all the debate over Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal.

Context of cumulative evidence

The evidence for this is hard to miss. For example:

• Project Connect’s stated plans — As our article No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes… has previously reported, in a PowerPoint presentation to the 25 May 2012 meeting of the Transit Working Group (TWG), the Project Connect team envisioned a “Preferred System Phase 1” program of projects, to be implemented within “0 to 10 years”, that included $500 million (2012 dollars) targeted for the MetroRapid “BRT” system then under development in four major corridors (and now in operation in the Guadalupe-Lamar and South Congress corridors). This half-billion-dollar investment would include covering the “Cost of 40%-50% dedicated lanes”.

Excerpt from Project Connect presentation in May 2012 indicating planned $500 million package for MetroRapid "BRT" facilities, including Guadalupe-Lamar. Graphic: Project Connect.

Excerpt from Project Connect presentation in May 2012 indicating planned $500 million package for MetroRapid “BRT” facilities, including Guadalupe-Lamar. Graphic: Project Connect, with annotations by Dave Dobbs.

This was proposed in the context of Project Connect’s plan for urban rail (aka light rail transit, LRT) to serve UT’s East Campus, Red River, and Hancock Center, and at that time, the Mueller site … plus a clear rejection of proposals by Lyndon Henry, Dave Dobbs, Andrew Clements, and others that the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor had far more potential for an urban rail starter line. (The line to Mueller has, at least for now, been replaced by a proposed line to the former Highland Mall site.) So, in effect, even then, Project Connect envisioned a somewhat beefed-up, more heavily invested version of what they called “BRT” as the mode of “high-capacity transit” planned for Guadalupe-Lamar well into the future.

• Framing MetroRapid as an obstacle — Starting in the spring of 2012, Project Connect representatives and members of the Transit Working Group began portraying the Small Starts MetroRapid project as a “bus rapid transit” replacement for urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar, and thus an obstacle to any urban rail alternative in the corridor. Moreover, it was hinted that any effort to switch from MetroRapid to urban rail would sour Austin’s relationship with the FTA and jeopardize future funding for any projects of any mode in the Austin area.

Supporters of urban rail for the G-L corridor have responded that not only was the FTA investment — and the project itself — very minimal, but MetroRapid was originally intended, and should be regarded as, a precursor to urban rail in the corridor, not a barrier. See:

MetroRapid bus service should be a precursor to urban rail, not an obstacle!

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

Why MetroRapid bus service is NOT “bus rapid transit”.

MetroRapid bus stops are currently designed to be modular and movable, and could be relocated to other routes or to use by urban rail. But civic officials and Project Connect representatives portray MetroRapid bus service as "permanent" form of "rapid transit" that "blocks" urban rail. Photo: L. Henry.

MetroRapid bus stops are currently designed to be modular and movable, and could be relocated to other routes or to use by urban rail. But civic officials and Project Connect representatives portray MetroRapid bus service as “permanent” form of “rapid transit” that “blocks” urban rail. Photo: L. Henry.

Nevertheless, in the spring of 2012, national transportation legal and policy consultant Jeff Boothe was hired by the city to reinforce the offical argument. In various public statements, including a presentation to a City Council work session on 22 May 2012, Boothe claimed that the minimalist Small Starts MetroRapid bus service would pose a daunting barrier to urban rail on Guadalupe and Lamar for decades. Asked by Councilman Bill Spelman how long this supposedly “BRT” operation would need to run in the corridor before urban rail could be substituted, Booth claimed “At least a minimum of 20 years. . . .That is FTA’s expectation.” (This assertion has subsequently been debunked; see, for example, Contradicting local official claims, FTA says it “would consider request” for urban rail on North Lamar.)

This theme continued in the fall of 2013 as Project Connect representatives Kyle Keahey, Linda Watson, and others portrayed the MetroRapid project as an obstacle, particularly citing the FTA’s “commitment” to “BRT” in this corridor. During the crucial final decisions by the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) and Austin City Council leading to an endorsement of Project Connect’s “Highland-Riverside” recommendation, the same argument was repeatedly brandished prominently by public officials such as Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Councilman Bill Spelman, Capital Metro Chairman Mike Martinez, and Capital Metro board member John Langmore as a compelling reason to rule out urban rail for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

While these specious claims of the “permanence” of “BRT” in this corridor, and the supposed intransigence of the FTA, in themselves don’t explicitly include detailed plans to install a G-L “BRT” infrastructure, they certainly bolster a strong suspicion of intent to proceed with the $500 million program already announced by Project Connect.

• Public statements — Not only have officials, Project Connect representatives, and supporters of their program made it clear that they see MetroRapid “BRT” as the “rapid transit” system “permanently” allocated to Guadalupe-Lamar, but Project Connect representatives have also indicated intent to install more substantial infrastructure for this operation. For example, at a Project Connect “Data Dig” on 3 December 2013, team representatives acknowledged that MetroRapid, running almost entirely in mixed traffic, fell short of “rapid transit”. In response, Project Connect staff assured participants that “dedicated lanes” were among the measures being considered to speed MetroRapid buses in the corridor.

MetroRapid buses running in mixed traffic are portrayed as central Austin's "rapid transit" — but this has become local joke. Photo: L. Henry.

MetroRapid buses running in mixed traffic are portrayed as central Austin’s “rapid transit” — but this has become a target of local jokes. Photo: L. Henry.

In the context of a proposed $500 million “dedicated lane” program, it’s extremely unlikely that mere paint-striping of transit lanes is what’s under consideration here. Technical issues of operational needs, safety, and other factors, plus “Best Practices” in the industry, all strongly point to a much more robust infrastructure investment than mere paint-striping to render a safe, efficient dedicated-lane facility.

And in the context of repeated affirmations of “commitment” to “BRT” in the G-L corridor, it’s entirely reasonable to expect that any further MetroRapid-related investments — even paint-striped lanes — would be regarded as a further reinforcement of the “permanence” of “BRT” in this corridor.

• “North Corridor BRT” integration — Project Connect has concocted a “regional” plan for the so-called “North Corridor” (in effect, a vast sector with multiple travel corridors located north of the core city) that consists almost entirely of bus operations, including “BRT”. In various presentations, Project Connect representatives such as Kyle Keahey have indicated that this “North Corridor BRT” system would connect neatly with “high-capacity transit” in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

Project Connect's North Corridor plan includes "BRT" extensions of MetroRapid (shown in green) into northern suburbs. Map: Project Connect.

Project Connect’s North Corridor plan includes “BRT” extensions of MetroRapid (shown in green) into northern suburbs. Map: Project Connect.

While no explicit proposals for specific facilities have been presented publicly, it seems reasonable to infer that, within the previously described context, this plan for a northern “BRT” connection would encourage and bolster the “Preferred System Phase 1” vision for “40%-50% dedicated lanes” in the G-L corridor.

Concrete vs. painted lanes

But if merely paint-striping reserved lanes on Lavaca and Guadalupe Streets downtown is adequate there, why can’t this be applied north of downtown, through the Drag, and on north, up Guadalupe and North Lamar?

The answer is that there’s a qualitative difference between separating slower-moving, congested downtown street traffic from bus lanes, and separating dedicated lanes designed for buses traveling 35-45 mph. As we’ve already noted, operational features (such as providing for general traffic turning movements), right-of-way constraints, and safety considerations virtually mandate much “more robust” — and thus expensive — facilities, not just striped-off lanes. In addition, heavy bus use typically requires construction of reinforced paveways for the running lanes.

All that implies pouring concrete and asphalt, not just brushing stripes with paint. And as we’ve also noted, given recent history, virtually any further capital improvements — no matter how minimal — for MetroRapid will be used to reinforce the contentions of a faction of Austin’s civic leadership that MetroRapid is too “permanent” to be relocated to permit the installation of urban rail.

Reinforced paveway on San Bernardino's sbX "BRT" Green Line shows that adequately "dedicated" bus lanes require more than just paint striping. Photo: TTC Inland Empire blog.

Reinforced paveway on San Bernardino’s sbX “BRT” Green Line shows that adequately “dedicated” bus lanes require more than just paint striping. Photo: TTC Inland Empire blog.

“BRT” funding and implementation options

Some skeptics question how Project Connect’s $500 million project for partially “dedicated lanes” on Guadalupe and Lamar would be funded and implemented. Austin Rail Now suggests it would probably be done incrementally, perhaps in route segments, rather than implemented as a single large program. And, besides possible right-of-way acquisition, it might involve an array of bus-traffic-related measures, from demarcated and reinforced running lanes, fully new paveways, reversible center bus lanes, queue-jumper lanes, and other options. But in any case, it would involve a substantial overhaul of these major arterials.

FTA Section 5307 or 5309 funds might cover 80%, with the local 20% share coming perhaps from a variety of sources, such as the quarter-cent contractual transfer from Capital Metro to the City of Austin (COA); COA funds possibly remaining for non-specific mobility improvements in North Lamar and Guadalupe; and even COA’s ongoing public works maintenance budget. Project segments and funding allocations could be added to CAMPO’s annual Transportation Improvement Program as Project Connect is ready to proceed with them.

However the details might materialize, Austin Rail Now is convinced that the preponderance of the evidence overwhelmingly points to desires and intentions on the part of the city administration and Project Connect to pursue this kind of massive program to “permanentize” MetroRapid “BRT” facilities in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — and that these facilities would effectively reinforce official contentions that urban rail is blocked as an option. Thus, we underscore our warning that a vote for Project Connect’s urban rail plan is also a vote to institute major bus infrastructure as an impediment to urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar. ■

Passenger stations of Kansas City's MAX "BRT" (left) and Houston's MetroRail LRT (right) illustrate significant design differences between bus and LRT facilities. Thus major infrastructure, from running ways to stations, installed for "BRT" must be removed or reconstructed for LRT — a substantial expense and thus obstacle to rail. Photos: ARN library.

Passenger stations of Kansas City’s MAX “BRT” (left) and Houston’s MetroRail LRT (right) illustrate significant design differences between bus and LRT facilities. Thus major infrastructure, from running ways to stations, installed for “BRT” must be removed or reconstructed for LRT — a substantial expense and thus obstacle to rail. Photos: ARN library.

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Project Connect’s wasteful plan — Ultra-pricey urban rail “decoration” in the wrong route

17 May 2014
Lyndon Henry speaking to Central Corridor Advisory Group, 16 May 2014. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

Lyndon Henry speaking to Central Corridor Advisory Group, 16 May 2014. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to Project Connect’s Central Corridor Advisory Group on 16 May 2014. At the meeting, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey revealed the agency’s estimates and proposals regarding operating & maintenance costs, property valuation and tax revenue increases, funding, phasing issues, and “governance” (oversight and administration) the proposed 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion line connecting East Riverside (southeast) with the old Highland Mall site (north), currently under development as a new Austin Community College campus.

For months, Project Connect and Austin civic leaders have been considering subways, elevated lines, and other extravagant investments way out of scale for an urban rail starter line in a city of Austin’s size and density. The result is a $1.4 billion plan for urban rail linking a weak corridor, East Riverside, with a non-existent corridor, so-called “Highland”.

Meanwhile, Project Connect and the city’s leadership appear to have virtually abandoned the core neighborhoods, and heaviest local travel corridor, in the central city – Guadalupe-Lamar, where urban rail is desperately needed. The problem isn’t $1.4 billion for urban rail, it’s investing this money on what amounts to a very pricey decoration instead of addressing congestion with essential mobility.

At $119 million per mile in current dollars, Project Connect’s urban rail plan for Austin would be the third most costly light rail starter line in U.S. history, in terms of cost per mile. Compared with the previous Guadalupe-Lamar light rail project, planned until 2003, Project Connect’s plan costs 29% more than what that project would cost today, yet provides 35% less route length, and 47% fewer riders.

LEFT: Capital Metro 2000 urban rail plan included initial minimum operable segment (MOS) running 14.6 miles down Capital Metro railway, Lamar, and Guadalupe to CBD, plus 5.4 miles of extension down South Congress to Ben White and branch into East Austin. Total 20.0 miles surface route (with adaptation of existing river bridge) would cost $1.2 million in current dollars ($60 million/mile). RIGHT: Project Connect plan proposes a 9.5-mile route from East Riverside, crossing river on new "signature" bridge, proceeding through east side of CBD, East Campus, along Dean Keaton and Red River to Hancock Center, then into open cut and tunnel, then along Airport Blvd. into Highland site.  Total cost: $1.1 billion ($119 million/mile) in current dollars.

LEFT: Capital Metro 2000 urban rail plan included initial minimum operable segment (MOS) running 14.6 miles down Capital Metro railway, Lamar, and Guadalupe to CBD, plus 5.4 miles of extension down South Congress to Ben White and branch into East Austin. Total 20.0 miles of surface route (with adaptation of existing river bridge) would cost $1.2 million in current dollars ($60 million/mile). RIGHT: Project Connect plan proposes a 9.5-mile route from East Riverside, crossing river on new “signature” bridge, proceeding through east side of CBD, East Campus, along Dean Keaton and Red River to Hancock Center, then into open cut and tunnel, then along Airport Blvd. into Highland site. Total cost: $1.1 billion ($119 million/mile) in current dollars.

Stretching over 14 miles from McNeil along what’s now the MetroRail corridor, then down Lamar and Guadalupe to the CBD, that original starter line in today’s dollars would cost roughly $878 million, or about $60 million per mile, for 54% more miles of route. Ridership for 2025 was projected at 37,400 per day – 87% higher than the “high” 20,000 for Project Connect’s plan.

The next phase involved expanding into a larger 20-mile urban rail system for roughly $320 million more in today’s dollars, also amounting to about $60 million per mile. But that’s through the heart of central and south Austin, with over twice as much rail as Project Connect’s plan. By serving Austin’s highest-traffic, most populated, densest inner-city corridors, ridership was projected at 51,000 a day.

Project Connect and Austin’s leadership seem to have abandoned all thought of cost-effectiveness and seeking the best value for spending taxpayers’ money. Now they’re playing a game of magic tricks with operating-maintenance costs and dreams of a bonanza of real estate valuation increases.

But many Austin voters realize that lower ridership means higher operating subsidies from taxpayers. And while a tax rate increase is real, projections of future tax revenues are just projections — in other words, hopes and dreams.

Judging from Project Connect’s flawed, fairytale projections from last fall’s study process, Austin voters should view these hopes and dreams with strong skepticism.

Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant, is a technical consultant for the Light Rail Now Project, and a former board member and data analyst for Capital Metro. He also writes an online column for Railway Age magazine.
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Project Connect’s Austin urban rail would be 3rd-most-pricey LRT starter line in U.S. history

8 May 2014

0_ARN_money-flying-away

Project Connect’s urban rail plan for Austin, if implemented, at $119 million per mile in current dollars, would be the third most costly light rail transit (LRT) starter line in U.S. history, in terms of cost per mile.

That’s a conclusion Austin Rail Now draws from results emerging from a recent study posted on the Light Rail Now blog, plus other available data. The LRN study, reported in an article titled New U.S. light rail transit starter systems — Comparative total costs per mile, researched the cost per mile of a dozen new “heavy-duty” (as opposed to streetcar-type) LRT starter lines installed since 1990. In 2014 dollars, these range in investment cost from $26.8 million per mile (Baltimore, opened 1992) to $185.6 million per mile (Seattle, opened 2009).

Project Connect’s urban rail proposal

Project Connect revealed their proposal for urban rail (see map below) at a meeting of the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) on May 2nd. The 9.5-mile project comes with a pricetag of $1.13 billion in current dollars, escalating to $1.38 billion in Year of Expenditure (YOE) dollars by 2020, for a projected ridership in the range of 16,000-20,000 per day.

Project Connect's proposed line, criticized for avoiding Austin's central axis and most serious mobility needs, would run 9.5 miles from the Highland site (north) to a terminus on East Riverside (southeast). Map: Project Connect.

Project Connect’s proposed line, criticized for avoiding Austin’s central axis and most serious mobility needs, would run 9.5 miles from the Highland site (north) to a terminus on East Riverside (southeast). Map: Project Connect.

The proposal invites comparison with the plan for light rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor (see Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route). When compared, Project Connect’s $1.4 billion plan can be seen to cost 29% more than the previous Guadalupe-Lamar line would cost today, yet provide 35% less route length, and 47% fewer riders.

To finance such a plan through general obligation bonds, according to an April 29th Austin American Statesman report, Austin homeowners would face a substantial increase in property tax, estimated to range between $77 to $153 per year for a “typical” $200,000 home. That estimate was based on financing a $965 million project, about 85% of the actual size of the project now on the table.

Even if the Federal Transit Administration agrees to fund half the project cost, city officials and civic leaders are considering “bundling” the rail proposal with several hundred million dollars for additional road projects. The result could be a substantial 67% increase in Austin’s debt load per capita.

Urban rail cost comparison

At the May 2nd CCAG meeting, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey assured his audience that the investment cost of the 9.5-mile proposal was quite comparable with recent similar projects, particularly in cost per mile, with the chart shown below as evidence:

3_ARN_ProCon_LRT-cost-comparison

However, there’s a serious problem with this comparison — it compares the proposed starter line for Austin with extensions of these several well-established LRT systems, each of them contending 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. A far more valid cost comparison would evaluate the cost of starter system projects, thus offering better “apples-to-apples” cost equivalence.

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. Thus, comparing the cost of Project Connect’s 9.5-mile project with that of similar U.S. starter lines enables a better evaluation of the Project Connect project in terms of transit industry Best Practices.

Placing the per-mile cost of Project Connect’s proposed line in the cost listing from the recent LRN study affords such a comparison, as shown in the chart below (click to enlarge).

4_ARN_Chart_US-LRT-starter-lines-cost-per-mi_rev2

It’s evident from this comparison that Project Connect’s proposed project for Austin would rank as the second most costly U.S. starter line, in cost per mile, since 1990.

But several of these starter lines benefited from the less challenging, lower-cost advantage of being installed in existing railway rights-of-way. Project Connect’s 9.5-mile line would use predominantly paved trackage embedded in existing streets and arterials. Of the new systems tabulated since 1990, only Houston and Phoenix feature comparable in-street alignments.

To evaluate cost in terms of type of type of alignment, Austin Rail Now has compared Project Connect’s proposed line with these other two systems. The results are displayed in the chart below (click to enlarge).

5_ARN_Chart_US-LRT-starter-lines-in-street-cost-per-mi

It’s clear that Project Connect’s proposed line is significantly more expensive, in cost per mile, than either of these similarly constructed in-street starter lines in considerably larger urban areas than Austin.

Finally, how would Project Connect’s urban rail plan rank among all U.S. LRT starter lines for totally new systems in the modern rail transit era? By far, the most expensive LRT project has been Buffalo’s 6.4-mile Metrorail line, constructed 81% in subway and opened in 1985. Based on a cost analysis prepared by Alan Hoback for the 2008 Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board, the cost of Buffalo’s starter line can be calculated as $228.9 million per mile in 2014 dollars.

Thus, Project Connect’s proposed line, in cost per mile among modern systems, would rank as the third most expensive light rail transit starter line in U.S. history. ■

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Project Connect’s urban rail plan “costs way too much to do too little”

3 May 2014
Map of Project Connect's urban rail proposal, as shown by KEYE-TV. Despite blurry image quality, the convoluted, meandering character of the route, well to the east of central Austin and its core axis, can be seen. Screenshot: L. Henry.

Map of Project Connect’s urban rail proposal, as shown by KEYE-TV. Despite blurry image quality, the convoluted, meandering character of the route, well to the east of central Austin and its core axis, can be seen. Screenshot: L. Henry.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to Project Connect’s Central Corridor Advisory Group on 2 May 2014. At the meeting, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey revealed the agency’s proposal for a 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion line connecting East Riverside (southeast) with the old Highland Mall site (north).

I’m Lyndon Henry. I’m a transportation planning consultant, and am considered among the strongest rail transit advocates in Austin. Since I originally launched the notion of urban rail for this region over four decades ago, I’ve consistently made the case for urban rail as a crucial mobility alternative for Austin’s heaviest traffic, plus other benefits such as better urban development patterns.

Urban rail’s primary focus is mobility, to provide some relief for congestion – not to just enhance the value of real estate development or be a decoration for other public projects. Unfortunately, Austin’s political and civic leadership have lost this essential focus, and the result is Project Connect’s seriously misguided plan. Austin voters should reject it.

Austin voters are being asked to authorize a billion-dollar investment for this convoluted adornment for real estate interests and proposed developments — a line that bypasses the heart of the city and slowly meanders nine miles, from the East Riverside “Apartment City” area, through the backwater East Campus, up to Hancock, then through a tunnel and into the old Highland site. How many Austinites are traveling such a route? Installing a second rail line parallel to MetroRail along Airport Blvd. just squanders more money.

Furthermore, a vote for Project Connect’s plan is very likely a vote to lock out any hope of rail on Guadalupe-Lamar — our heaviest travel corridor — and lock in the MetroRapid bus replacement — so-called “BRT”. Project Connect has hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of dedicated bus lanes and other infrastructure planned for this corridor that would block rail, possibly for decades.

By depleting available financial resources on tunnels and other lavishly expensive construction, this wasteful urban rail plan limits the more effective expansion of rail regionally. Tunnels and subway stations are options way out of scale for an urban rail starter line for Austin or virtually any city this size.

Voter rejection of this plan is the better option, because it opens the possibility for a return to planning a basic north-south rail spine along the central Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Project Connect’s plan costs way too much to do too little, and Austin deserves better. Voters can opt for a better plan by saying No on November 4th.

Kyle Keahey, Project Connect's Urban Rail Lead (bottom row, center) during presentation to CCAG. Top row, facing, left to right: CCAG leading members Bill Spelman (Austin City Council), John Langmore (Capital Metro), Maypor Lee Leffingwell, Sid Covington (Lone Star Rail). Photo: L. Henry.

Kyle Keahey, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead (bottom row, center) during presentation to CCAG. Top row, facing, left to right: CCAG leading members Bill Spelman (Austin City Council), John Langmore (Capital Metro), Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Sid Covington (Lone Star Rail). Photo: L. Henry.

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Austin urban rail: Unfortunate revelations from Project Connect’s April 12th “workshop”

14 April 2014
At April 12th "public workshop", attendees watch presentation from Project Connect Urban rail Lead Kyle Keahey. Photo: L. Henry.

At April 12th “public workshop”, attendees watch presentation from Project Connect Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey. Photo: L. Henry.

By Lyndon Henry

On Saturday, April 12th, Project Connect held an event they described as a “Central Corridor Public Workshop” at a location on East Riverside Drive. The notice for the event stated that Project Connect team members would be available “to provide an overview of the issues under study, gather input on maps and final alternatives and answer questions. Input gathered from the workshop will help develop potential transit projects for further study.”

Prior to the event, I prepared a number of questions I would like to have answered. I also disseminated these among other Austin public transit activists.

My questions are presented below, followed by feedback — some of it troubling — that I was able to receive from Project Connect personnel.

 


 

• Why are the public (who are expected to vote ultimate approval) being allowed only these rare, occasional, highly constrained opportunities to review and select from a narrow assortment of choices determined by the Project Connect team and officials? Why aren’t the public, through an inclusive community-wide technical committee, being given the opportunity to be involved in reviewing the basic data, interacting with the consultants, and formulating the choices themselves?

One Project Connect representative seemed to recognize the value of “an inclusive community-wide technical committee” in broadening the pool of possible alternative solutions to challenging issues. He suggested that names of possible candidates for such a group could be forwarded to him.

• Why is Project Connect still going through the motions of a purported high-capacity transit “study” to determine alignment and mode, and seek CCAG and Council approval for an LPA (Locally Preferred Alternative), when it’s already submitted $1.6 billion of URBAN RAIL projects for inclusion in CAMPO’s 2040 plan — including $275mn already projected for an initial route to Hancock to open in 2020? If URBAN RAIL and its details are already a foregone conclusion, why is taxpayers’ money and the time and effort of CCAG, the City Council, and other bodies being wasted on this?

A Project Connect representative’s explanation (consistent with arguments already reported in a newspaper account) was that the “urban rail” data were submitted as “placeholders” in CAMPO’s preparatory process for its 2040 regional transportation plan. However, since Project Connect has supposedly “zeroed out” its previous urban rail plans for central Austin, and within the current “high-capacity transit” study process no mode or specific alignment has yet been formally determined, why were specific “urban rail” projects inserted as “placeholders”, and not a more generic “high-capacity transit” designation? “That’s a good question” was the response.

The dollar amounts were described as mere “updates” of previous Project Connect cost estimates from approximately 2012. But at that time, no “Hancock-Highland” route was planned, so where did the $91.4 million cost for this segment come from? This was “another good question”.

• Why is $190mn in “BRT” infrastructure being proposed for Guadalupe-Lamar? Won’t this be a barrier to future urban rail?

Including $12.9 million allocated to “BRT” infrastructure on Guadalupe and Lavaca, the total for Guadalupe-Lamar “BRT” amounts to $202.9 million. A Project Connect representative was unable to say what specific infrastructure items this included, nor whether these would present a physical barrier to future urban rail.

• Why is a Guadalupe-Lamar route omitted from the $1.6bn urban rail submission to CAMPO’s 2040 plan?

I didn’t have a chance to raise this question directly, but a Project Connect representative insisted that urban rail as well as “BRT” and possibly other modes would be evaluated for future needs in this corridor.

• Why is this plan proposing a slow, tortuous, meandering route from downtown, the least active part of the UT campus, and Hancock Center, to ultimately reach Highland/ACC? Where’s evidence of the travel demand in this route? Does this route carry as much travel as the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor?

The basic responses from a couple of Project Connect personnel at this event seemed to be that the situation has changed since the original “straight and simple” urban rail route in the Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress corridor was proposed in 2000. Issues of comparative travel demand and ridership weren’t addressed by the personnel. However, several Project Connect representatives seemed to regret that official attitudes no longer favor shifting existing street (and bridge) space from motor vehicle traffic capacity to urban rail.

• What’s the ridership projected for this route? (Wouldn’t that be considered in the decision to submit this to CAMPO?) How can Project Connect claim that this route would have more ridership than the 30,000+ daily ridership previously forecast for the Guadalupe-Lamar route?

A Project Connect representative emphasized that ridership figures for the current proposed line will be forthcoming. But Project Connect representatives seemed to regard previous assessments of the potential of urban rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as a moot issue.

• Why is a new $75mn bridge proposed to cross Lady Bird Lake, when either the Congress or S. First St. bridge could be retrofitted for urban rail at half the cost or less ($23-36mn)?

Project Connect Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey indicated that the option of retrofitting one of the existing bridges was presented to the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) but was rejected by the group. Accordingly, it has not been pursued further, so the only option has been to propose constructing a totally new bridge.

I pointed out that current officials and selected civic leaders in the CCAG and Transit Working Group (TWG) seem to have adopted a position that retrogresses from the general consensus of 2000 that traffic lanes in streets, arterials, and bridges should and would be reallocated from general traffic to rail transit. Thus, Austin’s leaders appear to have taken a big step backward in their mindset.

• Is a grade separation considered necessary for urban rail to cross the MetroRail line? Why? Dispatching is entirely under the control of CapMetro. Light rail already crosses heavy rail lines in Philadelphia and Tampa. (This issue would also be involved in the case of urban rail on N. Lamar and the MetroRail line.)

According to a couple of Project Connect personnel, because Capital Metro is converting MetroRail to full compliance with Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) heavy rail standards, the unfortunate (and disputable) assessment of Project Connect planners is that urban rail can no longer cross this line at grade, unlike general traffic. This has not specifically been discussed with either FRA or the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), but Project Connect doesn’t want to get involved with the FRA over this. This also means that, according to Project Connect, urban rail will not cross the MetroRail line at grade either downtown or on North Lamar.

I pointed out that this now encumbers any urban rail plan with an extra liability of tens of millions of dollars for constructing grade separations at any future crossing, but Project Connect and civic leaders now seem to exhibit an unfortunate willingness to accept this. The “Highland” urban rail route plan now includes options for tunnels with a cost range of $230 to $290 million for urban rail to access the north side of the MetroRail line and reach Airport Blvd. This would seem to push the total cost of just the downtown-Hancock-Highland/ACC segment close to $600 million (roughly $275 million + $90 million + $250 million).

As I pointed out to several Project Connect representatives, this entire “study” process (post-2004 through the creation of the Project Connect consortium) has resulted in morphing from a simple, relatively straight, affordable surface urban rail route through central Austin’s major activity centers and highest residential densities, with no need for any major civil works, into a meandering, convoluted, complicated route serving more marginal activity centers and less density, and requiring vast expense to build bridges and tunnels.

Urban rail (light rail transit) route proposed in 2000 was much straighter, simpler, cost-effective, and affordable, will no major civil works. Project was approved by majority of City of Austin voters, but failed in Capital Metro service area as a whole. Map: Light Rail Now library.

Urban rail (light rail transit) route proposed in 2000 was much straighter, simpler, cost-effective, and affordable, with no major civil works — and it served central Austin’s heaviest travel needs and highest population density. Project was approved by majority of City of Austin voters, but ballot measure very narrowly (<1%) failed in Capital Metro service area as a whole. Map: Light Rail Now library.

This seems to be the result of errors that are built upon previous errors — in a sense, a process whereby Project Connect is simply digging itself (and the Austin community) into a deeper and deeper hole. Perhaps they’ll begin to understand why I and so many other advocates of public transportation expansion in Austin have become so disgusted not only with Project Connect and its process, but also with the proposals that are emerging from it.

Apparently under pressure from City officials and various civic leaders, the Project Connect process unfortunately also seems to have departed from the goal of seeking a cost-effective, affordable urban rail network for metro Austin. In addition to the other revelations, this was indeed very disturbing. Ideally, the entire Project Connect process would be “reset” back to zero, and a totally new process, embracing once again this goal, would be re-launched.

Possibly, a rejection of Project Connect’s plan and quest for bond funding in November by voters would lead to such a “re-boot” of the urban rail planning process. Otherwise, if this approach to rail development goes forward, it would certainly seem that future rail transit infrastructure expansion in Austin would be severely constrained by the legacy of bad past decisions and design criteria that impose very heavy cost encumbrances.

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Subway cost per mile nearly 9 times higher than for light rail, says study

15 February 2014
Chart showing median cost results from Light Rail Now subway vs, LRT study. Graphic: Light Rail Now blog.

Chart showing median cost results from Light Rail Now subway vs, LRT study. Graphic: Light Rail Now blog.

For years, Austin’s civic leaders and official urban rail planners have been trying to figure out how to raise more than $500 million in local and federal funding for a new-start surface urban rail project — 5-6 miles of light rail transit (LRT) running in relatively lower-cost surface alignments. Suddenly, at least some official interest has turned to ….building a subway instead?

This seems to be influenced mainly by two factors:

• An aversion or reluctance to shift urban public thoroughfare space away from apparently precious motor vehicle traffic and re-allocate it to public transit (rail in this case), and

• Insistent claims by several subway proponents (disputed by professionals and advocates of LRT) that subway construction costs are nearly the same as, or only slightly more than, surface LRT.

Recent study results of subway-LRT investment costs posted on the Light Rail Now (LRN) blog site provide a sobering reality check on the cost issue. As portrayed graphically in the chart at the top of this post, LRN found median investment cost to be nearly 9 times higher for subway construction projects than for in-street LRT.

Projects examined were an assortment of “recent urban rail projects (all from the 2000s), either completed or well under construction and fully budgeted.” The report lists 24 subway and 13 LRT projects included in the analysis.

• Only “full subway projects (entirely or nearly totally underground)” were examined in the study, including subway portions of LRT projects.

• Only surface LRT projects exclusively, or nearly totally, in street alignments were included (“to compare the most difficult, highest-cost type of surface construction with subway construction”).

Summarizing the study results, LRN underscores the huge cost disparity between subway and in-street LRT construction, and the implications for a long-term rail expansion policy:

…for recent U.S. projects, subway construction has a median cost nearly seven times that of in-street LRT construction. Worldwide, the differential is nearly 9:1. And thats only comparing in-street LRT construction, not accounting for the possibility of, say, transitioning into an available railway alignment outside the city center, with far lower installation cost.

What this means is that, even if your community can somehow afford the initial financial commitment (even with federal assistance), expansion of your system will be severely attenuated. Basically, for a given amount of available funding, you can construct 7 to 9 times as much surface LRT as subway. Put another way: For available resources, you can have a far more comprehensive rail system with surface LRT, many times the size of a system relying on subway construction.

Buffalo's 6.4-mile LRT line, with 5.2 miles (81%) in subway, has never been expanded since its opening in 1985. On the whole, the heavy cost of subway (and elevated) construction has been a powerful deterrent that has delayed or prevented the expansion of totally grade-separated urban rail systems.

Buffalo’s 6.4-mile LRT line, with 5.2 miles (81%) in subway, has never been expanded since its opening in 1985. On the whole, the heavy cost of subway (and elevated) construction has been a powerful deterrent that has delayed or prevented the expansion of totally grade-separated urban rail systems. Photo: Buffalo Tourism.

(LRN’s results — which tabulate subway construction costs ranging from $114 million to well over $1 billion per mile — appear generally consistent with information provided at Project Connect’s Feb. 8th “interactive workshop”. Official consultants at this event described “tunnel” construction as costing in the range of $220 to $350 million per mile. However, it’s unclear whether this included the costs of underground stations, access portals and ramps, and major system costs such as rolling stock and storage-maintenance-operations facilities.)

Noting examples of appropriate subway deployment in Dallas and Portland, LRN emphasizes that, for these mature systems, some underground construction may be needed “to keep pace with ridership growth and the need for fast, more frequent service going beyond in-street capacity.” However, the article points out that “both cities relied primarily on surface construction to start and develop their initial systems….”

LRN’s report ends by cautioning that, in the face of evidence from this study, any commitment to launch a new urban rail startup system “should not be made on the supposition that a subway would cost ‘just a little bit more’ than constructing LRT in the street.”

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Portland — Light rail in East Burnside Street

9 October 2013
Light rail train in East Burnside St. approaches intersection and station at NE 181st. Ave. Photo: Adam Benjamin.

Light rail train in East Burnside St. approaches intersection and station at NE 181st. Ave. Photo: Adam Benjamin.

How might an urban rail line — in the form of light rail transit (LRT) — be fitted into four-lane roadways like North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe St.?

First, inserting any kind of transit-priority lanes (with or without tracks) requires tradeoffs, including an acceptance of the principle that public transport provides more mobility potential — and people-moving capacity — in the longer term, and needs to be emphasized.

Basically, Austin needs to start making realistic, sensible choices to expedite public transit over general motor vehicle traffic. Officials need to start replacing abstract platitudes about the “importance of alternative mobility” with action. This will require, one way or another, shifting more and more priority to transit.

Second, it’s crucial to keep in mind that there’s a fairly wide variety of options for addressing routing and design issues. Even fairly good consultants aren’t necessarily aware of all of them. There’s no “one and final answer” — community activists need to examine the assumptions and the design alternatives, and have an opportunity to input new ones and have them seriously considered.

Portland, Oregon’s MAX LRT system — operated by the TriMet regional transit agency and generally considered one of the finest models for surface urban rail in the USA — offers a useful example of how LRT can be workably and efficiently inserted into a four-lane roadway. Since 1986, MAX’s Blue Line (the original line that is routed east from downtown Portland to the suburb of Gresham) has run in the middle of East Burnside St. for most of its outer section to Gresham. The following photo-overview gives an idea of design details.


LRT train in E. Burnside St. crossing major arterial

Photo: Peter Ehrlich

Photo: Peter Ehrlich

The photo above shows a one-car MAX LRT train in East Burnside St. after it has just crossed a major intersection with SE Stark. TriMet did not feel it necessary to build expensive grade separations at such intersections.

Also notice that the LRT line in this case is installed with ballasted, not paved, track. This is cheaper (in both capital cost and ongoing maintenance) than paving embedded track, and also discourages incursions by both motor vehicles and pedestrians, thus enhancing safety.


Aerial view of East Burnside LRT alignment

Photo: Google Maps screen capture by L. Henry

Photo: Google Maps screen capture by L. Henry

The aerial view above shows a segment of East Burnside running east-west (from left to right in middle of photo), with the MAX LRT as a brown strip (because of the ballasted track). Here the Burnside LRT alignment crosses NE 181st Ave., a major arterial running north and south and the location of a major station-stop.

Notice how the LRT alignment is relatively narrow (far left and right in photo) but widens somewhat nearing the intersection and each station facility — to allow space for extra turning lanes and the station platforms. Also note how the stations are staggered on each side of the intersection so as to absorb the minimum of right-of-way width. Traffic engineers offset both tracks and traffic lanes slightly, and may add additional right-of-way, to maintain road capacity and even install the narrow turning lanes.

Also, it’s worth noting that, even on this major busy arterial, TriMet saw no need for a grade separation.


LRT alignment showing track and lane offset

Photo: Peter Ehrlich

Photo: Peter Ehrlich

In the photo above, with a train approaching an intersection, you can see that the LRT track has gradually been offset to the right (from the alignment further back in the distance), and the road has been slightly widened, with a turning lane inserted.


Train passing station

In the photo above a train on the opposite track passes the East 102nd Ave. station. Even with a platform width of only 10-12 feet, LRT stations have sufficient space for TVMs (ticket vending machines), a shelter, waiting bench, and other amenities.

Photo: Adam Benjamin

In the photo above a train on the opposite track passes the East 102nd Ave. station. Even with a platform width of only 10-12 feet, LRT stations have sufficient space for TVMs (ticket vending machines), a shelter, waiting bench, and other amenities.


Aerial view showing LRT line, intersection, stations

Photo: Google Maps screen capture by L. Henry

Photo: Google Maps screen capture by L. Henry

In this closer view of the intersection and stations at NE 188 Ave. you can see each of the two station platforms, offset on each side of the intersection. The beige color of each platform contrasts with the brown of the track alignment, and the green-tinted roof of each platform’s waiting shelter can be seen.

Also note the configuration of left-turning lanes. Motor vehicles queue up in these lanes, waiting their special signal to make a turn across the tracks. LRT train operation interfaces with the traffic signal system, and trains have their own special signals.


Train entering intersection, approaching station

Photo: L. Henry

Photo: L. Henry

Here a train passes a station on the other track as it enters the 181st Ave. intersection, approaching the waiting platform for its direction on the other side. On the opposite side of the street, next to the tracks, you can see a car is waiting to make a left turn.