Archive for the ‘Guadalupe-Lamar corridor’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hypothetical timeline.

Hypothetical timeline (click to enlarge).


(Click to enlarge.)

(Click to enlarge.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central Freeway plan

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


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

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


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

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

Past light rail plans

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Current light rail plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


Summing up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

3 January 2015
Graphic: Midwest District Blog.

Graphic: Midwest District Blog.

While Project Connect’s disastrously flawed Highland-Riverside “urban rail” plan recedes into history — decisively rejected by voters on Nov. 4th — community support for a sensible, workable, affordable light rail transit (LRT) plan continues. For example, see:

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

Resume planning light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar!

As this website reported in a “post-mortem” analysis posted a day after the Nov. 4th rail vote, “…it’s clear that Austin is basically a very pro-rail city. Widespread community sentiment for urban rail — much of it for just about any rail line, anywhere — was palpably strong.”

The Highland-Riverside plan may be dead, but the campaign for a Guadalupe-Lamar light rail starter line is firing up. Light rail in this heavily traveled, high-density central corridor can become the basic spine of a far more effective and truly extensive urban rail system in the future for the city.

There’s already a strong constituency and base of support for light rail transit (LRT) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

Ironically, part of the evidence of community support for rail comes from the Nov. 4th election results themselves. While a majority voted to defeat the Highland-Riverside plan on the ballot, a tally of precincts suggests strong pro-rail sentiment in the heart of the city. This is shown in an interactive election results map provided by Travis County, illustrating precinct-by-precinct vote preponderance, with pro-rail sentiment indicated as light blue (or turquoise) and opposition to the measure as lavender or purple (screenshot below).


Screenshot of interactive map of Nov. 4th "urban rail" vote by precinct. Source: Travis County. (Click to enlarge.)

Screenshot of interactive map of Nov. 4th “urban rail” vote by precinct. Source: Travis County. (Click to enlarge.)


Although the central pro-rail precincts (blue in the above map) seem surrounded by a sea of precincts against the measure, it’s important to realize that those central precincts include some of the densest and most populous in the city. An analysis by veteran Guadalupe-Lamar LRT supporter Mike Dahmus suggests that these central-city precincts that voted for the rail measure did so less enthusiastically than in the 2000 LRT referendum — tending to corroborate the hypothesis that opposition from rail transit advocates and supporters played a major role in helping defeat the official Highland-Riverside plan, perceived as flawed and even “worse than nothing”. (Stronger core-city support could have outweighed opposition in suburban precincts.)

Conversely, this tends to bolster the plausibility that a sensible, widely supported light rail (“urban rail”) proposal could muster the majority of votes needed to pass. The prospect of an LRT starter line project in the crucial, central, high-travel Guadalupe-Lamar corridor has already mustered affirmations of support from adjacent neighborhood associations, the UT student government, and other community sources, and would seem to have strong potential to succeed as a ballot measure.

Kate Harrington, in an article posted by the Building ATX.com website on Nov. 11th, just a week after the Nov. 4th vote, reminded readers of Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s prediction that if the “urban rail” bond measure failed it “would mean that no new transit initiative would take shape for a decade or more.” But, Harrington observed, “Instead, it seems the issue is anything but dead. … Since voters decisively shot down the rail proposal last week, conversations about a possible ‘Plan B’ have sprung up all over the city.”

Most recently, via an interactive, annotated map (see screenshot below), the latest proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar LRT route has been publicized by Brad Parsons, a community activist involved with urban and transportation issues. Starting at the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S. 183, this route would follow North Lamar Blvd., Guadalupe St., Nueces St., San Antonio St., and finally Guadalupe and Lavaca St. past established central Austin neighborhoods and activity centers, through the West Campus, past the Capitol Complex, and into Austin’s CBD. Brad’s proposal underscores the fact that there’s a variety of ways that LRT can be fitted into this constrained but high-volume traffic corridor.


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

Map of Guadalupe-Lamar corridor light rail route proposed by Brad Parsons. (Click to enlarge.)


Throughout last year’s ballot measure campaign, supporters of the official rail proposal (led by Let’s Go Austin) continuously depicted “urban rail” as absolutely essential to secure and sustain Austin’s future mobility and livability. With the slogan “Rail or Fail”, Mayor Leffingwell himself repeatedly warned that Austin needed an urban rail transit system to maintain its economic vitality and mobility in the face of steadily menacing traffic “gridlock”. Furthermore, news reports and competent analyses emphasized that simply building more highways or adding more buses to the roadway grid was counterproductive.

But while much of the Austin public seem to perceive and even embrace the alternative of an urban rail “Plan B” starter line routed in Guadalupe-Lamar (where the population density, major employment and activity centers, and heavy local travel are), key public officials and former leaders of the Let’s Go Austin pro-rail campaign seem to have been struck blind and deaf, oblivious to the obvious feasibility of LRT in the city’s most central and heavily used local corridor. For instance, the City’s Guadalupe Street Corridor Study, suddenly awakened from apparent dormancy to hold its first widely publicized public event on Dec. 3rd discussing “how to improve” the Drag, has explicitly ruled out consideration of rail transit, according to project manager Alan Hughes.

For Capital Metro board chairman (and outgoing City Councilmember) Mike Martinez, who had been expounding for the past year that “urban rail” was absolutely essential, further study of an alternative LRT plan now is apparently inconceivable. Martinez’s new mantra — basically a variant of “my way or the highway” — is that “the voters have spoken”, rail is off the table, and “we have to become the best bus city in America.”

Evidently at Martinez’s behest, Capital Metro has been sifting about for other ways to spend nearly $3 million in planning funds previously scheduled for further “urban rail” study (on the now-defunct Highland-Riverside proposal). Re-allocate these funds to a resumption of planning for LRT in Guadalupe-Lamar (where urban rail would actually make overwhelmingly good sense)? Certainly not.


Capital Metro's "Heart of the City" latest projects propose to usurp millions in urban rail planning funds for other purposes. Screenshot from video of Dec. 15th Capital Metro board meeting.

Capital Metro’s “Heart of the City” latest projects propose to usurp millions in urban rail planning funds for other purposes. Screenshot from video of Dec. 15th Capital Metro board meeting.


Instead, at a Dec. 15th Capital Metro board meeting, Todd Hemingson, the agency’s head of strategic planning and development, outlined a “Heart of the City” list of potential study efforts (see photo of PowerPoint slide, above). Hemingson’s presentation made clear that even the two items seemingly most relevant to the central Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — “Guadalupe/Lavaca Transit Mall” and “Central Corridor Transit Entryways” — were actually focused merely on modest bus service expansion and infrastructure (including a possible tunnel for buses between the Loop 1 toll lanes and arterials leading into downtown).

Austin — supposedly the most “progressive” city in the “reddest” rightwing state of Texas — has a distinctive (read: notorious) reputation for dithering, dallying, and derailing in its public transport planning … while excluding the general public and making key decisions secretively behind closed doors. Surely the time has come to break this pattern. Will a new mayor and a new district-based 10-1 City Council provide an opportunity to scrap this modus operandi of failure and disaster, bring the community into authentic involvement in crucial decisions, and move forward with the first phase of LRT as a starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar?

We’re trying our hardest to help make that happen. ■


Light rail in Guadalupe and North Lamar could be modeled after San Francisco's N-Line route in Judah St., seen in this satellite view from Google Maps. Screenshot: Dave Dobbs.

Light rail in Guadalupe and North Lamar could be modeled after San Francisco’s N-Line route in Judah St., seen in this satellite view from Google Maps. Screenshot: Dave Dobbs. (Click to enlarge.)

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Resume planning light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar!

11 December 2014
Guadalupe St. at W. 24th St., looking south. The Drag, passing one of the densest residential neighborhoods in Texas and busy commercial district, is major segment of high- travel-density Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Photo: Google Maps Streetview.

Guadalupe St. at W. 24th St., looking south. The Drag, passing one of the densest residential neighborhoods in Texas and busy commercial district, is major segment of high-
travel-density Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Photo: Google Maps Streetview.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments, adapted here to webpage format, were distributed to a public event sponsored by the City of Austin’s Guadalupe Transportation Corridor Project on 3 December 2014. Lyndon Henry is a transportation planning consultant, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and a contributing editor to this website.

► Guadalupe-Lamar light rail transit starter line makes most sense

• A light rail transit (LRT) starter line for the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor has been studied for 40 years, with at least $30 million invested. (Source: AustinRailNow.com) This is a plan that makes sense, and it’s time to move forward with it!

• G-L is Austin’s most central north-south corridor, with by far the heaviest travel and congestion. A starter line from the North Lamar Transit Center to downtown, serving this busy corridor, established neighborhoods, the high-density West Campus, the Capitol Complex, and the central business district, with a branch to the Seaholm-Amtrak development area, is estimated to carry 30,000-40,000 rider-trips a day. (Source: AustinRailNow.com)

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

6.8-mile starter line, proposed by Austin Rail Now, could launch electric LRT service in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor for less than $600 million. Proposal includes dedicated lanes for rail, 4 traffic lanes, and sidewalks. Map: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

• A surface starter line like the one shown at left (6.8 miles) could be installed for less than $600 million. With affordable, cost-effective design, this would become the central spine of an eventual citywide system branching north, south, east, and west throughout our region.

• The Guadalupe Transportation Corridor Project should be reconfigured to focus on development of this long-deferred LRT project, along with the $2.5 million of previous funding for the now-defunct Highland-Riverside urban rail plan, now held by Capital Metro. Re-purpose urban rail planning to focus on light rail transit for G-L!

► Form a Community Policy & Technical Oversight Committee

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

► Dedicate street lanes for light rail transit

Light rail can carry many more peak passengers than private cars, and attract many more riders than buses, MetroRapid included. Austin needs to start re-allocating street space from traffic lanes to transit lanes, and G-L is the ideal corridor to start in! Smart design could install LRT in this corridor while retaining at least 4 lanes of traffic for most of the route. For more information, check out: http://austinrailnow.com

At Dec. 3rd Guadalupe Transportation Corridor Project public event, project manager Alan Hughes (center, in checkered shirt) discusses project issues over table with Drag corridor maps. At far right in photo is Roberto Gonzalez of Capital Metro's Planning Department. Photo: L. Henry.

At Dec. 3rd Guadalupe Transportation Corridor Project public event, project manager Alan Hughes (center, in checkered shirt) discusses project issues over table with Drag corridor maps. At far right in photo is Roberto Gonzalez of Capital Metro’s Planning Department. 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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Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead

5 November 2014
Election night graphic on KXAN-TV News showed heavy loss for Highland-Riverside urban rail bonds proposition. Final tally was 57%-43%. Screenshot by L. Henry.

Election night graphic on KXAN-TV News showed heavy loss for Highland-Riverside urban rail bonds proposition. Final tally was 57%-43%. Screenshot by L. Henry.

On November 4th, Austin voters resoundingly defeated the seriously flawed Highland-Riverside urban rail plan and $600 million bond proposition by a wide 14-point margin. The final tally is 57% against vs. 43% in favor of the bond measure.

Significantly, this was the first rail transit ballot measure to be rejected by Austin voters. In 2000, a proposed 14.6-mile light rail transit (LRT) running from McNeil down the Capital Metro railway alignment to Crestview, then south on North Lamar and Guadalupe to downtown, received a narrow majority of Austin votes — but the measure failed in the broader Capital Metro service area because of rejection by many suburban voters. In 2004, Capital Metro voters, including Austin, approved the 32-mile “urban commuter rail” plan from downtown Austin to Leander, subsequently branded as the MetroRail Red Line.

So why did this proposal fail? We believe it’s because Austin’s most dedicated, most experienced — and most knowledgeable — rail advocates opposed the official Highland-Riverside urban rail plan. These included long-established pro-transit organizations like the Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT) and its Light Rail Now Project; the nonprofit Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC); AURA (Austinites for Urban Rail Action); the Our Rail Political Action Committee; and an array of important north and central Austin neighborhood and community groups.

Our own reasons for so intrepidly opposing this plan are presented in numerous articles throughout this website; for a representative summary of several of our key criticisms, see Project Connect’s gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off course.

Opposition from rail advocates and otherwise pro-rail organizations and neighborhood groups throughout the community seems to have thrown preponderant voting weight against the disastrously misguided rail plan, and thus, together with the usual pro-road and anti-tax opponents, tipping the balance toward majority voter rejection. As we wrote in Let’s Go Austin — Tea-baiting from an awfully glass house,

Of course, highway proponents, anti-taxation activists, and, yes, some Tea Party sympathizers have emerged to oppose this rail bonds proposition — but wouldn’t they do so in any case? What’s surely revved them up, and encouraged them to pour exceptionally heavy resources into this fracas, is undoubtedly the leading role of rail supporters disgusted and outraged at the corruption and distortion of the rail transit planning process and de facto disenfranchisement of the wider community from involvement.

But it’s clear that Austin is basically a very pro-rail city. Widespread community sentiment for urban rail — much of it for just about any rail line, anywhere — was palpably strong. This has been an uphill struggle to convince pro-rail voters that a very bad rail plan could actually be worse than nothing. (See Project Connect’s urban rail plan is “worse than nothing”.) That’s one major reason why we believe this community can move forward quickly to a sensibly designed, cost-effective light rail plan in a strong, logical route — a Guadalupe-Lamar starter line.

Nevertheless, channeling pro-rail sentiment into a vote against this terrible project has been a challenge. And added to that was the additional challenge that our side was a relatively small David against a very powerful Goliath — a fairly solidly unified political and civic elite, heavily bankrolled, backed by influential business and real estate interests with a stake in the proposed rail route, able to muster media support, and assisted by a network of various community and professional organizations (environmental, New Urbanist, technical, real estate, and others) seemingly motivated into an almost desperate embrace of the urban rail plan. And let’s not forget the 800-lb gorilla in Goliath’s corner — the University of Texas administration, dead-set on a San Jacinto alignment to buttress their East Campus expansion program.

So, against this Goliath, how did David win this? A lot of this victory is due to the broad public perception of just how appallingly bad the Highland-Riverside rail plan was. And with a staggering $1.38 billion cost that required a staggering local bond commitment, which in turn required a hefty property tax rate increase. And all that in the context of recent homeowner property tax increases and utility rate increases. So, would voters really want to approve over a billion dollars for even a mediocre rail project, much less a terrible one?

That message was disseminated widely through the community — not by pricey media advertising (rail advocacy groups and their followers didn’t have big bucks for that, anyway), but by a vast network of activities involving social media, Email messages, excellent blog-posted information, and community meetings. But traditionally anti-transit, pro-highway groups also weighed in, with big bucks to fund effective advertising (with a message focused predominantly on the shortcomings of the particular Highland-Riverside plan) to rebuff the months-long, heavy ad and media blitz from the Project Connect/Let’s Go Austin forces backing the official proposal.

This vote also represents not only a rejection of an unacceptable rail transit proposal, but also a protest against the “backroom-dealmaking” modus operandi that has characterized official public policymaking and planning in recent years — a pattern that included shutting community members out of participation in the urban rail planning process, relegating the public to the status of lowly subjects, and treating us all like fools. Leaping immediately into a process of community inclusion and direct involvement is now essential. The community must become re-connected and involved in a meaningful way.


Minneapolis-area community meeting on proposed Southwest light rail project. Photo: Karen Boros.

Real community involvement in the planning process means real community meetings with community members having a direct say in planning and policy decisions, as in this meeting in Minneapolis area. Photo: Karen Boros.


On election night, as the defeat of the Highland-Riverside rail bonds proposition became evident, Scott Morris of the Our Rail PAC issued the following statement:

Tonight’s results are gratifying, but the work remains. With this vote, Austin has rejected a bad urban rail plan. It was the wrong route and it was formed by values that were not shared by our community. What we do share with those who supported this measure is a resolve in moving forward with true mobility solutions that make transit a ubiquitous part of life in our growing city.

01_ARN_ourrail9 Today, Austin delivered a strong statement, that transit must serve the existing population first. Transit planning should not be subordinated for the purpose of shaping future development to the exclusion of ridership, cost effectiveness and efficiency. This is a mandate that any first investment in urban rail must serve the community first. If we put service to people first, it will be built and operated in a cost efficient way. The citizens did not accept the argument that a defeat would create a long delay until the next opportunity to vote on rail. Austin is ready to get the right plan on the ballot as soon as possible, with true citizen involvement in shaping that plan.

This election is just one more step in the process. As a grassroots organization, we’re committed to work hard for a solution. Tonight is the first step in a new direction. Austin has a new plan to create and a strong case to build for rail, and we think it will succeed. We will support and work with our transit agency, Capital Metro; to develop a plan for rail that is cost effective, open, fair and transparent with strong community input. It will need the community’s full support and engagement to preserve and enhance its basic services, especially to transit dependent populations, as it adjusts to a growing city.

The people have assumed a new leadership role in determining the future of transit. With this action, they have also assumed a strong responsibility for guaranteeing its future.

Let’s take a breath and get back to work.

The Highland-Riverside plan may be dead, but the campaign for a Guadalupe-Lamar light rail starter line is firing up. Light rail in this heavily traveled, high-density central corridor can become the basic spine of a far more effective and truly extensive urban rail system in the future for the city.

There’s already a strong constituency and base of support for light rail transit (LRT) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. But the majority of Austinites don’t want another 14 years of top-level dithering and wavering — they’re ready to move forward with a workable, sensible urban rail plan. And certainly — especially with a new political leadership — we do face an exciting challenge informing the entire community and explaining why rail transit is essential, why it’s a cost-effective, crucial mobility solution, and why central-city street space needs to be allocated for dedicated transit, including light rail as well as improved bus service.

We’re already rolling up our sleeves. ■


Passengers waiting to board train at Dryden/TMC station Photo: Brian Flint.

Houston’s MetroRail shows how dedicating street lanes to light rail transit can dramatically improve urban mobility. MetroRail has highest passenger ridership per route-mile of any U.S. light rail transit system. Photo: Brian Flint.


This article has been slightly revised since its original posting.

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The fraudulent “study” behind the misguided Highland-Riverside urban rail plan

4 November 2014
Infographic shows how Project Connect’s methodology segmented Guadalupe-Corridor into nonsensical pieces, and summarizes numerous other major problems. (Click to enlarge.)

Infographic map shows several major flaws of Project Connect methodology, applied to a portion of “study” area. Result was to skew results (and urban rail route) toward desired sectors of central city. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

Few local issues have been more divisive than the City of Austin’s 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion urban rail plan. Envisioned for a route that meanders from the Highland ACC area on the north to the East Riverside area on the southeast, the proposal is now on the Nov. 4th ballot as a $600 million municipal General Obligation bonds measure that would help fund slightly less than half of the projected investment cost.

Community skepticism — and puzzlement — about this rail project is widespread, but sponsors and supporters of it have repeatedly endeavored to bolster its credibility by describing it as the product of a “scientific”, “data-driven”, or “data-based” effort, a “high-capacity transit study” pursued by the Project Connect transportation agency consortium roughly between June and December 2013. However, as this website and numerous other critical sources have exhaustively documented, that “study” was basically a fraud.

It’s useful to review and summarize the origins of this seriously flawed rail plan as election day has come upon us. In particular, it’s important to keep in mind that the Project Connect “study” represents an object lesson in how not to conduct a study for a New Start rail transit project. This review will rely primarily on previous articles published contemporaneously on this website during the “study” exercise.

From Mueller to Riverside to Highland

As our recent article Derailing the Mueller urban rail express — Preamble to Project Connect’s 2013 “High-Capacity Transit Study” recounted, for years, local streetcar and then “urban rail” planning had focused on a starter line to the Mueller redevelopment project. There, the major urban development enterprise Catellus had been promised a rail transit link to help raise density limits, attract more property investors and homebuyers, and thus boost profits. Important also were the desires of the small but growing community of Mueller residents who expected a rail connection to jobs and other destinations.

However, for years the question had been repeatedly raised: Since the North Lamar-Guadalupe corridor was recognized as the city’s heaviest local arterial corridor, with the heaviest congestion — even used to justify the very need for urban rail in official presentations and documents — why was out-of-the-way Mueller targeted for the initial starter line investment? This inconsistency was the focus of our March 2013 article Why abandon Austin’s major corridor and congestion problem? which presented the following graphic, originally contained in a 27 January 2012 commentary by Lyndon Henry (now a contributing editor to this website):


xxxxxxx

Graphic from 2012 suggested official emphasis on urban rail line to Mueller was misplaced, when real mobility need was in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Infographic: L. Henry.


As our “Derailing…” article, cited above, further recounts, the City of Austin/Project Connect pretext for continuing to plan an easterly, East Campus urban rail starter line to Mueller began to fall apart when the competency of a 2010 “Route Alternatives Evaluation” — the nominal basis for the plan then current — was questioned. Possibly other factors may also have begun to come into play (such as business community interest in exploring other development opportunities that could affect urban rail route planning).

In any case, the direction of rail planning shifted significantly. As our article noted,

In early 2013, Kyle Keahey was hired as Urban Rail Lead to head a new “High-Capacity Transit Study”, tasked with supposedly re-evaluating everything, racing through a process (with a presumably more competent and defensible methodology) that would result in a recommendation by the end of 2013.

Summary assessments of Project Connect “study”

Personnel associated with Austin Rail Now, the Light Rail Now Project, and other pro-rail organizations were involved intimately in following the planning activities of the “high-capacity transit” exercise from midsummer through the early winter of 2013. A number of our articles, particularly beginning in early November, chronicled revelations and realizations about the planning process as they emerged at the time.

However, a reasonable overview of the fundamental problems with the Project Connect exercise is provided in two of our articles in particular, each of them based on major commentaries by Lyndon Henry addressed to the Central Corridor Advisory Council (a group of community leaders hand-picked by Mayor Lee Leffingwell to review and approve work of the “study” team). These two articles, from early December 2013, together represent in essence an indictment of the competency and indeed the very legitimacy of the Project Connect exercise:

Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector

Project Connect Needs an Overhaul

What emerges is the sense of a process that was corrupted and skewed to render what, in hindsight, appears to be predetermined results — results seemingly contrived to justify a routing scheme for the proposed urban rail starter line project contrived to fulfill the aims and desires of City of Austin policy and various special interests. As our article Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place (17 November 2013) assessed the process, Project Connect’s “study” seemed to have

… numerous hallmarks of having been rigged, from a peculiarly contrived methodology that departs from longstanding professional practice, to cherry-picking of a highly questionable set of data elements and the exclusion of data indicators far more appropriate for such an ostensible “corridor study”. (And, one might add, a highly secretive and insular process that immunized the ProCon team and their study procedures from public scrutiny and oversight.)

Thus the basic flaw in ProCon’s data analysis can be boiled down to one word: GIGO (“Garbage In, Garbage Out”). In effect, this appears to have been a process that involved limiting the focus to gerrymandered data sources, and then playing games with gerrymandered data.

The task facing Kyle Keahey and the Project Connect team was daunting. The prevalent public sentiment strongly favored the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor for the urban rail starter line. Most Austinites sensed that Guadalupe-Lamar carried the heaviest traffic, served the highest density, and accessed the most key activity centers in the central city. Yet the City of Austin administration, Project Connect political leadership, and a major segment of local political and civic leaders desired a “study” outcome that would validate their economic and real estate development objectives. Project Connect’s effort would therefore have to try to convince the community, “Don’t believe your lying eyes.”


PowerPoint slide in Nov. 2013 Project Connect public presentation shows audience's overwhelming preference for "Lamar" — a proxy for the Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor. Photo: Workingbird Blog.

PowerPoint slide in Nov. 2013 Project Connect public presentation shows audience’s overwhelming preference for “Lamar” — a proxy for the Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor. Photo: Workingbird Blog.


Critical failings of the Project Connect “study” charade can be grouped into categories of practices. The following summaries of these practices include references to various ARN articles that may further illuminate these issues.

► Failure to examine travel corridors

Rather than zooming in on, and analyzing, actual travel patterns and density of travel in actual travel corridors within central Austin, the “study” instead carved out a great square of the central city, dubbed it the “Central Corridor” (although it contained multiple corridors in every direction), and then further subdivided this into a series of ten component sectors, some sprawling over considerable expanses of urban real estate. Since virtually the entire central city had been designated a “corridor”, these sectors were then dubbed “sub-corridors” — a kind of camouflage verbiage that masked the actual nature of what were in effect city neighborhoods or districts, not travel corridors. The “sub-corridor” designation also imparted a veneer of “transportation study” truthiness.

Our first analysis of this methodological problem, Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors! noted that Project Connect’s subdivision of the study area in this way thus

… created an array of balkanized sectors that are analyzed more as autonomous geographic-demographic “islands” than as components essential to work together as a whole. As a result, actual, realistic, workable travel corridors have been obscured by all this.

Our article included a detailed explanation, with examples, of what urban travel corridors actually are, and how they should be treated and evaluated in a bona fide transportation corridor study. But, rather than corridors, Project Connect’s sectors (“sub-corridors”), we pointed out at the time, “resemble, to some extent, rather large travel analysis zones (TAZs, also called traffic analysis zones or transportation analysis zones).”

But, rather than TAZs for legitimate analysis purposes, we pointed out,

Project Connect’s sectors, in contrast, seem more designed to pit one part of the city against another — to function more as neighborhood enclaves to be assessed for their isolated demographics and “level of misery” (poverty, congestion, etc.) in a competitive showdown within a game of “Which sector deserves the urban rail prize?” It’s astounding that this charade is presented as a form of officially sponsored urban transportation planning.

Together with the agency team’s “seemingly heedless” segmentation of travel routes, their “treatment of adjacent sectors as insular, isolated enclaves, whose demographics and other characteristics apply only to themselves” was equally harmful to proper analysis. “Likewise travel characteristics are treated in isolation, as if the population in all these different ‘enclaves’ confine themselves to the sector boundaries that ProCon planners have established for them.”

Throughout the “study” process, we repeatedly returned to this problem. Our article Questions for Project Connect (3 December 2013), publishing questions which we raised in a “data dig” with Project Connect team members, asked “Why has this study avoided performing an actual corridor study, and instead spent its time (and taxpayers’ dollars) confined to undertaking a de facto inventory (and ‘beauty contest’) of various urban sectors in isolation?”

In our Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector (5 December 2013) we noted that “The basic methodology of focusing on sectors (so-called ‘sub-corridors’) meant that the study failed to study a single actual potential travel corridor in the study area.”

► Gerrymandered “study” sectors

Our Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors! article, pointing out the peculiar boundaries applied to Project Connect’s weirdly sprawling sectors, described them as “gerrymandered”, and further experience confirmed this assessment. Our 17 November 2013 article Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place observed that

rather than performing a bona fide study of actual alternative corridors, ProCon embarked on what amounted to an inventory of highly filtered attributes of basically gerrymandered sectors, dubbed “sub-corridors”, devolving into a kind of “beauty contest” among sectors of the city, while distorting as well as ignoring the actual travel corridors that should have been the focus.

The article provides the example of the highly contrived “Highland” sector:

It should be noted that the “Highland” sector bears very little resemblance to the actual Highland neighborhood, delineated by both the Highland Neighborhood Association (see Highland Neighborhood Association endorses Guadalupe-Lamar for urban rail) and the Highland Neighborhood Planning Area defined by the City of Austin (COA). While the actual Highland neighborhood and planning district includes North Lamar Blvd. (mostly as its western boundary) all the way from Denson Drive to U.S. 183, ProCon’s “Highland” sector studiously avoids Lamar, and never reaches U.S. 183; instead, the sector incorporates I-35 (never even touched by the real Highland), and droops down far south of the actual neighborhood to include Hancock Center and the northern edge of the UT campus — thus overlapping the long-proposed Mueller route for urban rail. In this sense, “Highland” appears to be manipulated here as a kind of “proxy” for the COA’s original plan, functioning as a precursor of a full route to Mueller.

► Severed and segmented travel corridors

This was perhaps the single most serious fault of the Project Connect exercise — not only failing to examine actual corridor travel patterns, but essentially destroying intact corridors, such as Guadalupe-Lamar, simply because they crossed boundaries of the arbitrary sectors. As we first noted in Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors!

Perhaps the most serious flaw in ProCon’s urban rail study methodology — actually, catastrophic, because it fundamentally impairs the integrity of the whole process — is that the actual travel corridors are not only basically ignored as workable corridors, but also are truncated and segmented by ProCon’s arbitrary slicing up of the urban area.

If you’re evaluating a travel corridor, you must evaluate the corridor as a whole — what it connects from, to, and in between; what the populations and densities along the corridor are; what activity centers it connects; and so on. All those are important, because they’re critical to what makes a transit line in that corridor actually feasible and worth investing in.

The results for the Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor were basically fatal, as we pointed out:

the Guadalupe-Lamar route is severed just north of the UT-West Campus area at W. 29th St. In other words, most of this potential route is cut off from its highest-density population district as well as its most productive destinations in the core of the city!

What’s left is a “rump” route, from a few blocks south of U.S. 183 to W. 29th St., that seems to have little purpose beyond perhaps some kind of “shuttle” along this isolated route segment. If there were a prize for idiotic public transport planning, surely Project Connect would be very high on the candidate list.

This problem also was repeatedly underscored. In our article Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector (5 December 2013) we warned that “The basic methodology of focusing on sectors (so-called ‘sub-corridors’) meant that the study failed to study a single actual potential travel corridor in the study area”, and added:

This methodology also segmented an otherwise viable corridor such as Guadalupe-Lamar into nonsensical pieces, severing the corridor from its most logical destination (West Campus and core area), and thus creating an arbitrary “rump” route (29th St. to south of U.S. 183) that goes from nowhere to nowhere.

Likewise, in Project Connect Needs an Overhaul (7 December 2013), we reiterated: “Project Connect’s methodology segmented the outstanding Guadalupe-Lamar corridor into nonsensical pieces, severing it from its most logical destination (the West Campus and core area), thus creating an arbitrary ‘rump’ route that goes from nowhere to nowhere.” These warnings, of course, were ignored.

► Excluding student and other nonwork travel patterns

While specific travel corridor trips were not examined in the “study”, Project Connect did include tabulations of total travel in each sector and estimates of trips between sectors and the Core Area. However, a particularly breathtaking aspect of the project’s Evaluation Matrix (also called the Comparison Matrix) was the exclusion of all trips except home-based work trips. In other words, non-work trips — including student trips — were omitted from consideration.

As we asked in our “data dig” Questions for Project Connect, “Why has this study’s assessment of “travel demand” from each sector to the core ignored home-based non-work (HBNW) trips — including UT student trips and recreational trips — in a college city with the largest university in Texas in its core area?”

This omission was repeatedly emphasized in subsequent articles. In our Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector, we pointed out:

As a measure of “Travel Demand” from each sector to the core, non-work trips such as UT student trips and recreational trips (e.g., to restaurants, bars, etc.) have been EXCLUDED — dismissing not only the enormous importance of non-work trips (which are heavy in the off-peak) for more cost-effective transit service, but especially the huge significance of student and recreational trips in a city with the largest university in the state (and located in its core).


Student travel was omitted from Project Connect's evaluation process, although their ultimately recommended route connected UT, the state's largest university, with ACC, the city's major community college. Photo via UTRugby.com.

Student travel was omitted from Project Connect’s evaluation process, although their ultimately recommended route connected UT, the state’s largest university, with ACC, the city’s major community college. Photo via UTRugby.com.


And similarly, in Project Connect Needs an Overhaul, we asked:

Extremely important non-work trips such as UT student trips and recreational trips have been EXCLUDED as a measure of “Travel Demand” from each sector to the core. How could they do this in a city whose core contains the largest university in the state?

In hindsight, the omission of student travel from the Evaluation Matrix is especially ironic in light of the fact that travel between UT and ACC would ultimately be a major component of the purported ridership of the final route presented by Project Connect.

► Manipulation of implausible projections

Skepticism about Project Connect’s heavy reliance on dubious projections began to emerge as the pace quickened toward a “recommendation” from the project team. In our 3 December 2013 article related to the “data dig”, Questions for Project Connect, we asked: “Why has this study used such speculative projections based on procedures that maximize all possible development for targeted areas (such as ‘ERC’, ‘Mueller’, and ‘Highland’), rather than using conservative projections based on conditions closer to reality?”

Local researchers and analysts such as software developer and research analyst Dan Keshet and management consultant Julio Gonzalez Altamirano had exposed serious weaknesses in the array of data projections being deployed by the project team — especially the conversion of what were in effect development “wish lists” into hard projections of future development, population, and employment that were being plugged into Project Connect’s model (an Excel-based “Evaluation Matrix” designed to competitively score the various sectors and render a winner). Their conclusions and other problems of the project’s data projections are discussed in our article What’s with Project Connect’s “2.9 million daily ridership” projection? (16 December 2013). As this article noted,

The question of projections has been an extremely contentious issue in Project Connect’s urban rail “study”. For many critics, the agency’s “projections” have represented de facto fantasies about what they would like to see, rather than the solidly reliable output of competent predictive analytics.

While projections were critical in any process of forecasting future developments and especially public transit ridership, we explained, “…there’s a vast distinction between developing conservative, reliable, and plausible forecasts, and producing exaggerated, fantasy-like projections, as Project Connect has done, heavily skewed toward certain geographical areas.”


Many of Project Connect's "data projections" for 2030 were based on "wish lists" of development, population, employment, and other demographic features — leading critics to ridicule them as "fantasy". Graphic via ARN.

Many of Project Connect’s “data projections” for 2030 were based on “wish lists” of development, population, employment, and other demographic features — leading critics to ridicule them as “fantasy”. Graphic via ARN.


In the 17 November 2013 article Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place, we expressed skepticism about “the selection of a predominantly questionable array of data elements as the basis for ‘evaluation’ of the various sectors. Leaving their ‘weighting’ aside, in the aggregate the evaluatory elements themselves are inappropriate.”

As the article explained,

ProCon relies very heavily on projections of future conditions for their basic measures. As the rail advocacy group AURA (Austinites for Urban Rail Action) has explained in its evaluation guide, projections themselves are basically unreliable, risky, flaky, whereas, in contrast, “We believe use of the real-world, recently-observed data gives the more accurate and reliable picture of potential ridership, as well as the greatest viability for federal funding.”

… Beyond a roughly five-year horizon, projections for specific neighborhoods and similar chunks of real estate basically become unreliably speculative — which seems to be what we’ve actually been dealing with … a significant dollop of real estate speculation, given a kind of veneer of “techiness” by CAMPO and their land use/travel demand model package.

For decades, public transportation advocates have warned repeatedly about the “self-fulfilling prophecy” syndrome in this kind of transportation planning process. In the past, it’s been applied mainly to highway development — justifying “future growth” in just the right places where developers want to build, so as to rationalize huge investments in new freeways and other roads. And, lo and behold, these very projections somehow materialize after the transportation facilities are built, thus “proving” the “validity” of the projections!

Today, in Austin, this process may be at work justifying speculative land development in certain areas of the central city (i.e., the central study area — “Central Corridor”), this time with the added drawback of ignoring or dismissing opportunities for redevelopment of areas in the heart of the core city, particularly centered along the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

As an example, in our article “Highland” sector favored by Project Connect — but where’s the travel demand? (19 November 2013) we noted that Project Connect’s presentation of CAMPO travel demand data in their own Map Book contradicted the claims of high travel demand in the “Highland” sector — one of the key underpinnings for their “recommendation” of a route to serve this fabricated sector. Thus, we warned, “since Project Connect based its assessment significantly on this data, the results presented, and the contrary evidence of very strong travel demand in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, contradicting Project Connect’s own stated conclusions, should at the very least raise questions about the competency and integrity of the study process.”

As we summarized the pattern in What’s with Project Connect’s “2.9 million daily ridership” projection?

Another way of saying this is that Project Connect’s planners have converted their own wishful thinking into actual data inputs, that are then deployed to make their evaluation. Wishes are used to try to make the wishes come true.

► Applying subjectively derived scores

Despite the characterization by supporters that Project Connect’s efforts were thoroughly “data-driven” and “scientific”, some components of their “study” were not even camouflaged as “projections” or externally derived data, but instead were presented merely as subjective judgements of the project team. In our 3 December 2013 “data dig” Questions for Project Connect, we asked

Project Connect’s “Physical Constraints” metric appears to be based on totally subjective value assessments, and no information has been given as to how these value judgements have been developed. Where’s the factual basis for this?

The response was that these scores were based purely on the team’s “professional judgement”. We highlighted this on our article Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector:

The study has assigned an extremely high “Constrained Right-of-Way” penalty to the “Lamar” sector, but not to the “Highland”, “Mueller”, “ERC” sectors — apparently implying that Project Connect considers there to be no “Constrained Right-of-Way” problems for “Highland”, “Mueller”, and “ERC”. This also is implausible, and this penalty seems to be arbitrarily applied to sectors (“sub-corridors”) that the Project Connect team dislikes (e.g., “Lamar”), but withheld from sectors they seem to prefer (e.g., “ERC”, “Highland”, “Mueller”).

► Selective manipulation of data

Another practice skewing Project Connect’s “study” results was their “cherry-picking” of data categories and their selective manipulation of their own methodology — pre-eminently, the Transit Orientation Index model they appropriated from Portland. As we explained in our analysis What’s with Project Connect’s “2.9 million daily ridership” projection? (16 December 2013):

Apparently in an attempt at a gesture toward some kind of prediction of future transit ridership, one of the metrics Project Connect decided to use in their Comparison Matrix is a “Transit Orientation Index” (TOI), a ridership demand assessment model developed in 1997 by consultants for Portland, Oregon’s TriMet transit agency. …

According to the documentation, the TOI metric is envisioned to assess transit ridership demand at the level of a small analysis zone …. Project Connect planners, however, have applied the model to considerably larger sectors covering several square miles with hundreds and even thousands of acres.

We’d previously summarized the astounding problem with the TOI model in our Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector, which warned that, when key projections, already embedded in the Evaluation Matrix, were plugged into the TOI,

… the results are extremely implausible — e.g., for the “ERC” (East Riverside) sector, Project Connect calculates high total daily transit ridership of 2.9 million, about equal to the total citywide daily ridership of Chicago and Philadelphia combined. (Their “low estimate” for that single sector is higher than the total citywide ridership of entire cities like Denver and Seattle.) This strongly tends to corroborate other evidence that Project Connect’s projections have been seriously exaggerated and are utterly implausible.

Likewise, in Project Connect Needs an Overhaul we observed:

Rather than developing conservative, reliable, and plausible forecasts, Project Connect has produced exaggerated, highly questionable projections, heavily skewed toward certain geographical areas. When these same projections are plugged into Project Connect’s own Transit Orientation Index (TOI), the results are ridiculously unbelievable. For the single “ERC” sector, the low-end prediction of daily transit ridership is higher than the total system daily ridership of entire cities like Denver and Seattle. On the high end, it’s about equal to the total system daily ridership of Chicago and Philadelphia combined.

These implausible outputs from the TOI were jaw-dropping. When the projections of Year-2030 population, employment, and other data items that were mainstays of their Evaluation Matrix were fed into the model, even the low-end results were absurd. For the “ERC” (East Riverside) sector, for example, as we pointed out in our What’s with Project Connect’s “2.9 million daily ridership” projection? analysis, “… the low-end figure — daily ridership of 492,682 (493K) — is equally preposterous, exceeding the total system daily ridership of entire large cities.” These cities included Portland, Seattle, Denver, and Atlanta.

As for the Highland sector, TOI results were likewise other-worldly. As we noted,

…the TOI model results for 2030 are similarly off the scale. Whereas current 2013 ridership is about 5K (5100/day), the “low” TOI prediction for 2030 is about 127K — an increase of 2,440%. The “high” prediction (no need for upper-bound substitution in this case) is 279K — a predicted increase of 5,480%.

Put another way, to meet the lower-end ridership suggested by the demographic and economic projections, average daily ridership in the “Highland” sector would have to exhibit sustained average daily ridership growth of about 7,200 each year for 17 years.

Curiously, while the project team excluded such embarrassing outputs from the TOI model from their matrix, they were selectively using other aspects of the TOI as inputs for the same matrix. As we noted,

… Project Connect’s matrix does use the TOI, itself based on the same dubious projection inputs, to render a metric score to bolster their preferred sectors (“sub-corridors”) in the competition they’ve set up. …

But, even more importantly, the TOI for 2030, dependent as it is upon Project Connect’s “projections” (de facto fantasies), exposes their absurdity. No wonder Project Connect and its entourage don’t want these used … no wonder they attempt to distance themselves from them!

It’s very simple — plug Project Connect’s own projections into this otherwise fairly realistic model, and you get bizarrely, unbelievably exaggerated results. Maybe a hint that the original projections are bizarrely unbelievable?

In effect, the TOI is performing here somewhat like a “canary in the coalmine” — telling Project Connect, and all of us, that something is terribly wrong with their demographic and economic projections for 2030.

Big Picture: Fraud

The impact of all these seemingly disconnected errors, missteps, omissions, and methodological shenanigans on a single portion of the “study” area is illustrated by the infographic at the top of this post, which focuses on several of the sectors surrounding the Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor. (The so-called “Lamar” sector was widely misinterpreted as this corridor itself, but it was actually just a wide swath of urban real estate, stretching as far west as Shoal Creek Blvd., and embracing Burnet Road to the west as well as a segment of Guadalupe-Lamar in its eastern half — and neither of these two major travel corridors was examined.) As this graphic makes clear, the ground rules and methodology of Project Connect’s “study” very effectively prevented meaningful evaluation of this key, heavily traveled, central corridor.

From this grab-bag of colossal problems, your first assessment might be that Project Connect’s team was the rail planning equivalent of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Unfortunately, it’s worse. What actually emerges out of all this, from the vantage point of a year of hindsight, is a much more troubling image than mere ineptitude — by connecting the dots, the outline of a deliberate effort to deceive and to manipulate the “study” becomes unmistakable.


Kyle Keahey promoting "high-capacity transit" route selected by Project Connect, Nov. 2013. Photo: YouTube screengrab.

Project Connect Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey presenting “recommendation” of Highland-Riverside urban rail route, Nov. 2013. Photo: YouTube screengrab.


Contradictory as it might seem, it’s entirely plausible that otherwise technically competent members of the Project Connect team, drawn into the “trees” of the exercise, were unaware of the implications of the larger “forest”. Also the mind, with its ability to rationalize, justify, and alibi, can be a very mysterious apparatus.

In any case, the motives for tailoring the proposed urban rail route to the needs of development policies and interests are also very clear. These are described particularly in three of our articles:

Who are those guys? Real estate development interests and Austin’s urban rail boondoggle

UT should pay for East Campus urban rail — not Austin taxpayers

Derailing the Mueller urban rail express — Preamble to Project Connect’s 2013 “High-Capacity Transit Study”

So there’s motivation. There’s an amazing assortment of jaw-dropping methodological botch-ups. And it all fits together to promote the desires of the sponsors of the exercise.

The Big Picture we see of this whole process is dominated by a bright red fluorescent flashing sign. The sign says: Fraud. This is definitely a model of rail planning for other communities — a model to avoid at all costs. ■

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Why Austin is faced with a “Worse-Than-Nothing” urban rail plan

2 November 2014
Graphic via Blip.tv

Graphic via Blip.tv

By Dave Dobbs

The pro-transit group AURA (Austinites for Urban Rail Action) is owed a strong acknowledgement of thanks for posting their exposé pointing out the Republican origins of the money behind Let’s Go Austin’s campaign to try to paint all the opponents of the City’s urban rail bond proposition as captives of the Tea Party. Special thanks are due to the AURA author(s) and researcher(s) who did the homework. (Also see: Let’s Go Austin — Tea-baiting from an awfully glass house.)

One person commenting recently to a local rail discussion forum made some interesting observations about Let’s Go Austin’s tactics:

I expect they’ve taken this angle because their polling says the most popular way to portray the bond is “progressive.” … I think the best chance for defeating Prop 1 is sowing doubt among the self-identified “progressives.”

I think these comments are absolutely right about sowing doubt with progressives about the forces behind the Project Connect Riverside-Highland rail bonds. AURA’s blog post reminds us of Deep Throat’s advice to Woodward and Bernstein in All The President’s Men: “Follow the money!” and Ben Bradlee’s recent death reminds us that this advice still holds today.

Uncovering the money trail reinforces my belief that the Austin rail bonds are really about maintaining “business as usual” with as little disruption as possible. In answer to “Why” Austin has a “Worse-than-Nothing-is-Doing-Stupid-Things” rail plan, I’ve offered the following analysis.

I believe that the powers-that-be chose this approach because it is the approach that does as little as possible to disturb the status quo, while at the same time tying up Capital Metro’s assets far into the future with a faux solution that benefits some of the folks in the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) and Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce tent (emphasis here on “Greater”). This satisfies certain city developer insiders who see the rail line as their ticket to access and greater densities, while at the same time perpetuating the business-as-usual-sprawl-ever-outward real estate speculators who need more and more roads to realize their investments on the urban fringes.

Generally, city developers and suburban developers are natural enemies, and this is the compromise to keep order in the house. An ineffectual rail start contingent upon the new city council issuing $400 million in certificates of obligation for road improvements before the bonds can be used, is a pretty clear indication of priorities. So is the fact that the city continues to collect a quarter of Capital Metro’s one-cent sales tax that is mostly spent on roads.

This explains why Guadalupe-Lamar, where light rail would be a smashing success with 40,000 riders daily, was never considered, because a G-L rail line would totally change Capital Metro from “cash cow” to a recognized indispensable tool for bringing growth into city neighborhoods sans the traffic impacts that choke the densities necessary for a more productive tax base, while at the same time creating a demand for more train service in other parts of Austin. It would also build bus ridership because buses would be shuttles to train service for people who would not otherwise use buses. And, in turn, this would create greater public demand to spend more money on public transit, bikes, and pedestrians and less for bigger, wider roads.

Given this reality, fringe-area developers and their political surrogates who control the political process want to minimize the market availability for the alternative lifestyles that many retirees and millennials are seeking. In order to do that, Capital Metro must remain an impotent dog at the heals of Austin’s road warrior masters and suburban real estate investors. (That”s polite talk for “land speculators”.) ■

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Derailing the Mueller urban rail express — Preamble to Project Connect’s 2013 “High-Capacity Transit Study”

2 November 2014
Urban rail concept started as a plan for a streetcar "circulator" system, shown in this early map from 2006. Map adapted from Austin Chronicle.

Urban rail concept started as a plan for a streetcar “circulator” system, shown in this early map from 2006. Map adapted from Austin Chronicle.

To understand the roots of the Highland-Riverside urban rail plan on the ballot today, you need to understand how an official “express train” planning process, aiming to lock in an urban rail line to the Mueller redevelopment site, got derailed and sidetracked by community intervention. Here’s a very abbreviated version of the story.

Austin’s current “urban rail” planning arose ca. 2005-2006 following the November 2004 voter approval of Capital Metro’s “urban commuter rail” project, in a package (including “rapid bus” service) called All Systems Go proposing the operation of DMU (diesel multiple-unit) railcars between downtown and the suburb of Leander. The previous light rail (i.e., urban rail) plan for a line on Guadalupe, North Lamar, and the railway alignment northwest as far as McNeil had been shelved in mid-2003 in favor of the cheaper, but very bare-bones, DMU plan.

Since the newly approved DMU line ran on a railway alignment that bypassed most of the heart of the city, ending only at the southeast corner of the CBD, officials and planners realized they needed some way to connect passengers with key activity points, including UT and the Capitol Complex. The answer they devised was a “circulator” system using streetcar technology, which would intersect with the DMU line (eventually rebranded as MetroRail) and connect to downtown Austin, the east side of the Capitol Complex, the East Campus of UT, and the Mueller development site. (See map at top of post.)

But, critics asked, what about the dense West Campus neighborhood and the busy commercial district on The Drag? What about the original plan for light rail along Guadalupe and Lamar? The “rapid bus” service included in the All Systems Go package, intended as a precursor to rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, was then viewed only as a temporary “fix”, and it seemed clear that rail needed to be planned for that corridor as well.

Within Capital Metro, Lyndon Henry (then a Data Analyst with the transit agency) pressed the case for at least an initial rail line to serve The Drag and West Campus, and at public meetings on the proposed “circulator” Henry and others continued to raise the issue. In this period, as problems emerged with the MetroRail project, Capital Metro’s involvement in the streetcar project was superseded by the City, which assumed control. When Henry’s supervisor Matt Curtis left Metro to become an aide to Mayor Lee Leffingwell, for a brief period a West Campus spur did appear in City of Austin planning maps for the proposed streetcar. (Henry is currently a contributing editor to this website.)

In 2008, as a line on East Riverside to ABIA, with a bridge over the river into the CBD, was proposed, planners became convinced that capacity and speed required fullsize light rail transit (LRT) rolling stock. However, apparently to distinguish the emerging plan from the original, centrally routed Guadalupe-Lamar line, and to retain some of the supposed lower-cost ambience of streetcar technology, the expanded system was dubbed “urban rail”, supposedly a hybrid between a streetcar and a rapid LRT system. By 2010, the Central Austin Transit Study (CATS), prepared by a consortium headed by URS Corporation, recommended a system that stretched from the Mueller site, down Manor Rd. and Dean Keeton to San Jacinto, then south through the East Campus, across the river, and out East Riverside to ABIA. Alternative alignments were suggested, and spurs to Seaholm and the Palmer Auditorium area were also proposed as later extensions.

As the project made its way through the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process, and afterward, the route structure gradually solidified; for a connection to Mueller, a preference was emerging to move the alignment from Manor Rd. to a route via Red River and Airport Blvd. But even the gesture of a spur connection to the West Campus began to vanish, prompting Lyndon Henry and the Light Rail Now Project to call attention to the need for urban rail in the “Missing Link” — the gap between MetroRail’s station at Crestview and North Lamar, and its terminus downtown. Because of that gap, not only were passengers inconvenienced by having to transfer to buses to access their destinations along the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, but also Capital Metro was running costly bus shuttles to connect MetroRail stations on the east side to the UT campus and the Capitol Complex. See: Give priority to “Missing Link”.


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.

“Missing Link” urban rail (green), in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, would provide the crucial connections to core neighborhoods, UT West Campus, and Capitol Complex missed by MetroRail (dashed red line). Infographic Map by Light Rail Now.


But why had the West Campus, and Guadalupe-Lamar, disappeared from the official urban rail plan? As Henry, Dave Dobbs, Andrew Clements, Roger Baker, and others persistently raised this issue, mainly at meetings of the Transit Working Group (a blue-ribbon committee of civil leaders nominally attached to CAMPO, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization), planners and officials under the aegis of the Project Connect public agency consortium pointed to a Route Alternatives Evaluation Process included in the 2010 CATS project that had supposedly ruled out a “University of Texas (UT) to North Central Austin (Hyde Park)” route, instead giving top scores to routes serving Mueller, East Riverside, and Seaholm — basically, what City policy actually wanted.

Scrutinizing the “Route Alternatives Evaluation”, Henry identified serious methodological drawbacks and summarized these in a commentary, City’s Urban Rail “alternatives analysis” omitted crucial Lamar-Guadalupe corridor! presented to the TWG on 27 April 2012. These problems are also discussed in our article City’s 2010 urban rail study actually examined corridors! But botched the analysis… (26 November 2013). Basically, the 2010 “evaluation” totally ignored the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, and “evaluated” an array of alternatives with subjective ratings of 1, 2, or 3. Thus, voila! The preferred official routes, including the route to Mueller, won the “competition”!


CATS map of actual potential rail corridors studied. Map: COA and URS.

CATS map of potential rail corridors studied — but Guadalupe-Lamar was omitted! And subjective scoring system facilitated ratings that favored City’s desired route plan. Map: COA and URS.


In what seemed like an Urban Rail Express to Mueller, by May 2012, the official urban rail proposal had gelled into a Phase 1 project running 5.5 miles from downtown, through UT’s East Campus via San Jacinto, then northeast via Red River St., 41st St., and Airport Blvd. into the Mueller site. The total investment cost was estimated to be $550 million.


Finalized in May 2012, 5.5-mile, $550-million Phase 1 urban rail starter line was proposed to connect downtown, UT East Campus, Hancock Center, and Mueller site. Graphic: Project Connect.

Finalized in May 2012, 5.5-mile, $550-million Phase 1 urban rail starter line was proposed to connect downtown, UT East Campus, Hancock Center, and Mueller site. Graphic: Project Connect.


But the constant pounding by community critics — especially Lyndon Henry’s exposé of the outrageously dubious Route Alternatives Evaluation from 2010 — was taking its toll. The result was that Project Connect placed the Mueller Phase 1 plan on hold and shifted course dramatically. In early 2013, Kyle Keahey was hired as Urban Rail Lead to head a new “High-Capacity Transit Study”, tasked with supposedly re-evaluating everything, racing through a process (with a presumably more competent and defensible methodology) that would result in a recommendation by the end of 2013.

To some, it seemed a new beginning and a possibly more hopeful and fair approach to analyzing travel corridors, particularly the heavily traveled, high-density, and widely popular Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Unfortunately, that was not to happen. As it proceeded, it became increasingly clear that the much-vaunted “High-Capacity Transit Study” was actually a fraud. The highlights of this process will be summarized in a subsequent report. ■

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

13 October 2014
Heavy peak-hour traffic on North Lamar. Guadalupe-Lamar is Austin's most heavily travelled inner-city central corridor, long seen as top priority for urban rail. Photo: L. Henry.

Heavy peak-hour traffic on North Lamar. Guadalupe-Lamar is Austin’s most heavily travelled inner-city central corridor, long seen as top priority for urban rail. Photo: L. Henry.

For years, many Austin public transit activists have been insisting that the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor is the central inner city’s most heavily travelled local travel route, and should be the first priority for installing urban rail. In this blog’s first posting, in the spring of 2013, we described how City of Austin planners were proposing an urban rail starter line to connect downtown and the east side of the University of Texas with the Mueller development site, but “Lamar-Guadalupe is the ‘Missing Link’ in their plan.”

Ironically, COA has also been emphasizing that Lamar-Guadalupe is the primary local traffic corridor in central-city Austin, and even identified this corridor in the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) scoping meetings, held throughout Austin in spring 2012, as being at maximum capacity for over the past 2 decades.

In a posting just this past August, we summarized the case for Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) in a single sentence:

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.

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

Now, the latest annual report of the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), endorsed by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) not only strongly corroborates these assessments, but provides data that further emphasize the key importance of the G-L corridor. The report tabulates both vehicular traffic (measured as daily vehicle-miles travelled, or VMT) and congestion (measured as annual person-hours of delay) for each major roadway included in the list.

TTI’s complete statewide listing of major roadways, in an Excel XLSX spreadsheet, can be downloaded from this link:
http://tti.tamu.edu/documents/umi/most-congested-in-texas-final.xlsx
Selected data from Austin (Travis County) is summarized (webpage text) at this link:
http://mobility.tamu.edu/most-congested-texas/austin/

Certainly, as north-south highways, I-35 and Loop 1 (MoPac) remain at the top of the list in terms of traffic flow and congestion (person-hours of delay). But these are primarily intercity-regional highways, flanked by frontage roads and sprawling, motor-vehicle-oriented development, mostly commercial. As potential transit corridors, they are physically inappropriate as alignments for regional passenger rail, and definitely unsuitable for urban-suburban light rail, which is ideal for interconnecting points along an inner-city corridor.

Guadalupe-Lamar is ideal for urban rail, since it channels incoming suburban travel from both I-35 and Loop 1 and distributes it to inner-city destinations. And it interconnects those same activity centers as well as many of Austin’s most established central-city neighborhoods.

The TTI data underscore the high-traffic primacy of Guadalupe-Lamar. Since these data a presented for segments of the total corridor, we’ve consolidated these segments to show flow in the entire corridor.

We’ve created graphic comparisons to contrast Guadalupe-Lamar with other major inner-city north-south corridors, both in terms of traffic flow (daily VMT) and congestion (annual person-hours of delay). Data for South Congress, South First, and Manchaca have similarly been consolidated to highlight each of these corridors in its entirety. (Data for South Lamar and Burnet Road were not similarly segmented in the TTI report.)

Graph illustrates that traffic flow in Guadalupe-Lamar is more than twice that of any other inner-city north-south corridor.

Graph illustrates that traffic flow in Guadalupe-Lamar is more than twice that of any other inner-city north-south corridor.

Graph illustrates that congestion (person-hours of delay) in Guadalupe-Lamar is nearly twice that of the next highest inner-city north-south corridor, South Congress.

Graph illustrates that congestion (person-hours of delay) in Guadalupe-Lamar is nearly twice that of the next highest inner-city north-south corridor, South Congress.

We also compared the Guadalupe-Lamar data with TTI data for the officially proposed Highland-Riverside (H-R) urban rail route. H-R data were consolidated from available arterial data provided in the TTI report, which included the entire Riverside Drive alignment from South Lamar to S.H. 71, plus Airport Blvd. from North Lamar to I-35. (Other arterials in the Highland-Riverside route, such as Trinity, San Jacinto, and Red River, apparently register too little traffic and congestion to even qualify for inclusion on TTI’s listing.)

Graph illustrates that traffic flow in Guadalupe-Lamar is at a volume about 2.4 times that of arterials in the Highland-Riverside route.

Graph illustrates that traffic flow in Guadalupe-Lamar is at a volume about 2.4 times that of arterials in the Highland-Riverside route.

Graph illustrates that congestion (person-hours of delay) in Guadalupe-Lamar is nearly three times that of arterials in the Highland-Riverside route.

Graph illustrates that congestion (person-hours of delay) in Guadalupe-Lamar is nearly three times that of arterials in the Highland-Riverside route.

This comparison suggests that, in terms of both traffic flow and congestion (which can be interpreted as a proxy for travel density), the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor far outpaces the H-R corridor proposed for urban rail by Project Connect, and offered for public endorsement (i.e., bond funding authorization) in Proposition 1 on November 4th. (It’s worth noting that Project Connect’s much-vaunted “scientific” and “data-based” exercise a year ago, portrayed as a “study”, failed to evaluate a single actual travel corridor, let alone with this kind of data comparison.)

The logical conclusion: Overwhelmingly, in both traffic and mobility congestion, Guadalupe-Lamar trumps not only the official Highland-Riverside line, but every other alternative corridor as well. Good sense suggests that Guadalupe-Lamar remains the top-priority corridor for an urban rail starter line. ■

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

5 October 2014
Proposed 6.8-mile "Plan B" light rail transit line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would have 17 stations and connect  the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S> 183 with Crestview, the Triangle, UT and the West Campus, the Capitol Complex, the CBD, and the Seaholm-Amtrak area. It's projected to serve 3 times the ridership of the Prop. 1 Highland-Riverside rail line at slightly over half the capital cost.

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

Supporters of the Proposition 1 urban rail proposal have been issuing dire warnings that “there’s no Plan B” if Prop. 1 — with its Highland-Riverside rail line — is rejected by voters on Nov. 4th.

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

Light rail transit (LRT, a.k.a. urban rail) for the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor has been in various stages of planning since the late 1980s. The ridership potential has been assessed in the range of 30,000-40,000 a day (see Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route).

There are various design alternatives (see, for example An alternative Urban Rail plan and Another alternative urban rail plan for Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.)

In this particular proposal, including elements in both alternative G-L plans listed above, we present a plausible and fairly simple option for an LRT starter line aimed at minimizing design and cost while providing an attractive service with adequate capacity. Like the Prop. 1 plan, this would require re-allocation of some traffic lanes to dedicated rail transit use, some intermittent property acquisition, and streetscape amenities including pedestrian and bicycle provisions. Our plan would route LRT entirely on the surface; thus there are no major civil works (although there is a bridge included over Shoal Creek and rebuilding of the pedestrian interface).

We assume a 6.8-mile line starting at the North Lamar Transit Center (NLTC, Lamar and U.S. 183) on the north, running south down North Lamar and Guadalupe, then Guadalupe and Lavaca to the CBD, then west on 4th and 3rd Streets to a terminus to serve the Seaholm development and Amtrak station at Lamar. (See map at top of post.) We’ve assumed 17 stations, but have not proposed specific locations except for the termini at NLTC and Seaholm-Amtrak.

As a starter line for urban rail, this plan would serve Austin’s most heavily traveled inner-city corridor (North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe St.) plus the West Campus, Texas’s third-densest residential neighborhood — both totally ignored by the seriously flawed Prop. 1 plan. Our plan would also serve the Seaholm-Amtrak area. All these crucial residential and activity areas are missed by Prop. 1’s proposed line.

At Crestview, we’ve assumed a track diversion into and through the mixed-use development to facilitate interchange with the MetroRail Red Line; the tracks would return into N. Lamar at each end of the development. There are other options for achieving this transit interface, including a major overhaul of the entire intersection of N. Lamar, Airport Blvd, and the Red Line.

Through the West Campus area, to serve this dense neighborhood and the University of Texas campus, we’ve assumed a simple route on Guadalupe. However, several other options are possible, such as a split-directional alignment with one track on Guadalupe and another on Nueces.

We assume 30,000 to 40,000 as a plausible potential ridership range for this proposal, based on previous forecasts for this corridor plus factors such as the interconnection with MetroRail service at Crestview, and extensions both to U.S. 183 and to the Seaholm-Amtrak site. Our “horseback” design and cost assessment (generally similar to a typical “systems-level” engineering estimate) envisions sufficient rolling stock to accommodate this volume of daily passenger-trips in 3-car trains at 10-minute headways. We’ve estimated average schedule speed at 16 mph and a round trip of roughly an hour.

On this basis, we’ve assumed a fleet of 30 LRT railcars, including spares. Storage, maintenance, and operations facilities would be located at the NLTC, which would also provide expanded park & ride facilities.

As presented in the table below, we’ve estimated the capital investment cost of this project at $586 million. We believe this is a far more affordable investment for an initial LRT starter line than the daunting $1.1 billion ($1.4 billion in year of completion) estimated for the Highland-Riverside proposal in Prop. 1. With 50% Federal Transit Administration funding assumed, this would mean a local share of $293 million, most likely financed from local City of Austin bonds and possibly other sources.

Line installation includes right-of-way acquisition, trackwork and running way construction, minor civil works, electric power supply and distribution, signal and communications system, stations and facilities, and streetscape amenities, including sidewalks and bicycle lanes. Rolling stock is assumed as “short” low-floor LRT cars similar to those recently procured in Salt Lake City and Atlanta; a storage, maintenance, and operations facility is included. Total cost includes a 25% contingency and a 15% administrative/engineering allowance.

2_ARN_PlanB-G-L-urban-rail-altv-est-cost

Unit capital cost of this “Plan B” project calculates to about $87 million per mile — roughly 73% of the cost per mile of the Prop. 1 proposal. Total cost is 52% of the Prop. 1 Highland-Riverside plan. Thus, for just over half the cost of the Prop. 1 plan, this proposal would render about three times the ridership. We’d expect this high ridership (as well as high passenger-mileage) to translate to signficantly lower operating & maintenance (O&M) unit costs compared with the Prop. 1 rail proposal, as well as lower unit subsidies.

In addition, it would serve Austin’s most heavily travelled inner-city arterial corridor, one of the state’s densest neighborhoods, the city’s highest-density corridor, and a number of Austin’s most established center-city neighborhoods — neighborhoods that have anticipated and planned for light rail for well over a decade. It would also serve centers of development such as the Triangle area, clusters of major new development emerging in various segments along the corridor, and much of the very high-density residential and commercial development booming in the western section of the CBD.

Hopefully, by investing dollars wisely and conservatively in an affordable initial starter line project, Austin will be in a position to budget for a vigorous expansion of LRT lines in other potential corridors citywide, such as:

• South Congress
• North Lamar to Parmer Lane
• Northwest to Lakeline Transit Center
• South Lamar
• East Riverside to ABIA
• Mueller development and northeast Austin
• Lake Austin Blvd.
• West 38th St.

Plan B — possibly this design or something similar to it — is definitely ready and waiting. Hopefully, it will move forward vigorously if Proposition 1 is rejected on Nov. 4th. ■

Portland's light rail transit line on 4-lane Interstate Avenue gives an idea of how urban rail could operate in reservation in G-L corridor. (Photo: Peter Ehrlich)

Portland’s Yellow Line LRT on Interstate Avenue serves a corridor similar to Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar. (Photo: Peter Ehrlich)

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

24 September 2014
Aerial view (looking north) of "Drag" section of Guadalupe St. (wide arterial running from bottom middle of photo to upper right). Western edge of UT campus is at far right, and extremely dense West Campus neighborhood occupies middle left of photo. In upper right corner, Guadalupe jogs northwest, then north again; main travel corridor eventually merges with North Lamar further north. Photo: Romil, posted in forum.skyscraperpage.com.

Aerial view (looking north) of “Drag” section of Guadalupe St. (wide arterial running from bottom middle of photo to upper right). Western edge of UT campus is at far right, and extremely dense West Campus neighborhood occupies middle left of photo. In upper right corner, Guadalupe jogs northwest, then north again; main travel corridor eventually merges with North Lamar further north. Photo: Romil, posted in forum.skyscraperpage.com. (Click to enlarge.)

By Dave Dobbs

This commentary has been adapted from the author’s Sep. 17th posting to an online rail transit discussion list.

How dense does a city need to be to justify a rail transit system?

One of things that the hard-core rail transit opponents like to do is to confuse a city’s overall population density with travel corridor density. Los Angeles, for example, because it grew up around 1100 miles of electric urban rail, has some very dense travel corridors, notably the Wilshire Blvd. corridor where currently they are about to begin construction on the “subway to the sea” (extension of the MetroRail rapid transit subway line to Santa Monica) The Wilshire corridor has densities comparable with those in New York City.

In my 35+ years as a transit advocate, I’ve heard the “Austin doesn’t have the density to support rail” argument hauled out time and time again. But Austin has a very congested core where 50% of the region’s employment is located within a half-mile of a six-mile-long travel corridor, Guadalupe-North Lamar. Austin is unique in that a 50-block-long segment of that corridor contains downtown, the Capital complex, the University of Texas (UT), and two residential areas, West Campus and Hyde Park with densities of more than 12,000 per square mile. And lots of people who don’t live there are traveling up and down this corridor trying to get to these places.

To serve this and similar travel corridors adequately with affordable urban rail transit will require re-allocating available street space from motor vehicles to higher-capacity transit. In other words, giving priority to rail transit because of its higher capacity and ability to ensure essential mobility. Instead of regarding the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as a disaster because the solution means giving up two of the vehicle travel lanes for trains, politicians need to see the situation in Chinese terms, where the word “crisis” merges two concepts: “danger” and “opportunity”. ■

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UT should pay for East Campus urban rail — not Austin taxpayers

2 September 2014
Project Connect map showing half-mile radius from proposed urban rail stations. Except for a mainly commercial and retail sliver along the Drag, most of high-density West Campus residential neighborhood is beyond station access radius.

Project Connect map (annotated by ARN) showing half-mile radius from proposed urban rail stations. Except for a mainly commercial and retail sliver along the Drag, most of high-density West Campus residential neighborhood is beyond station access radius.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to Project Comnnect’s Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) on 13 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). Ultimately, the group voted to recommend Project Connect’s proposal to the City Council.

Since 2006, UT has insisted on a San Jacinto route that would bolster its development aims for the East Campus. However, the West Campus is where the people are, with the third-highest residential density in Texas. It’s where the heavy travel flow is, and where most activity is clustered. And the FTA-required half-mile demographic “watershed” around proposed urban rail stations on San Jacinto barely touches the eastern edge of the West Campus. (See map at top of this post.)

Meanwhile, although insisting that its East Campus development program must be served by Austin’s urban rail, the UT administration has not offered a dime to fund it. Instead, they’ve happily assumed that Austin taxpayers can obligingly be squeezed with higher property taxes to pay for this amenity.

There’s a “reverse-Robin-Hood” aspect to this. Because of shale oil extraction on Permanent University Fund lands, according to a San Antonio Express-News report last year, “The University of Texas System is rich. … Oil is the reason why.”

The UT system is awash in money to the tune of a billion dollars a year, boosting UT Austin’s share to a total of nearly $200 million. Profits from football and other athletic entertainment bring in another $78 million a year.

While there are certainly various needs for this money — particularly the need to keep tuition costs affordable — and some constraints on how it’s used, it would seem logical and fair that, if UT desperately wants urban rail in the relatively less dense, less active San Jacinto route, UT should dip into its own resources to pay for it.

An East Campus-Medical School alignment could be installed as a branch from the Guadalupe-Lamar alignment proposed as an alternative to Project Connect’s plan. UT could cover the $45 million local cost in five years by modest annual dollops of $9 million from its abundant revenues.

This compromise alternative could buttress the feasibility of urban rail and increase the benefit to the entire Austin community. But UT’s administration needs to stop trying to soak Austin taxpayers, and take responsibility for funding its fair share of what it wants.

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Project Connect’s urban rail plan is “worse than nothing”

21 July 2014
Project Connect's "urban rail" plan would not only absorb vast local financial resources, but would install "dedicated bus lanes" as an obstacle to urban rail where it's actually most needed — in Guadalupe-Lamar. Graphic: Adaptation by ARN from Project Connect map.

Project Connect’s “urban rail” plan would not only absorb vast local financial resources, but would install “dedicated bus lanes” as an obstacle to urban rail where it’s actually most needed — in Guadalupe-Lamar. Graphic: Adaptation by ARN from Project Connect map. (Click to enlarge.)

By Dave Dobbs and Lyndon Henry

For weeks now, Project Connect (with public tax money) has been carrying out a “saturation bombing” ad campaign promoting its $1.4 billion urban rail plan, primarily aimed at bolstering development plans and centered on the interests of private developers and the East Campus expansion appetites of the University of Texas administration.

It’s a “Pinocchio-style” campaign (and plan) packed with exaggerations contrived to try to sucker voter support. Perhaps the worst problem is the “city-wide system” deception that Project Connect is pushing in its ad blitz — the make-believe that an urban rail line on East Riverside through the East Campus to Highland will lead to rail in other parts of the city.

In fact, just the opposite will happen. The staggering cost will soak up available local funding for years to come — and that in itself will impede future rail transit development.

Not only will future voters see the resulting Highland-Riverside ridership as not worth the cost — a future political challenge — but, even worse, Project Connect’s plans to convert automobile travel lanes on the MetroRapid routes to dedicated bus lanes by 2025 will essentially block any expansion of rail in the crucial, high-travel, dense Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (See our recent article Project Connect’s $500 million plan for bus infrastructure — The Elephant in the Road on Guadalupe-Lamar that could block urban rail.)

Graphic: Panoramio.com

The “Elephant in the Road” — a vote for Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside “urban rail” project is also a vote for a bus project on Guadalupe-Lamar that will block urban rail where it’s most needed. Image: ARN library.

Once they spend $28 million a mile for bus lanes using 80% federal grants (as stated in official plans) we’ll have to live with that investment for two to three decades. Essentially Guadalupe-Lamar, South Congress, and South Lamar, streets that need rail to handle the potential passenger volumes, will end up with MetroRapid in dedicated right-of-way with an automobile lane and perhaps a bike lane in each direction. Instead of buses being seen as shuttles to good city-wide train service, buses will continue to be seen, as former State Highway Engineer DeWitt Greer once expressed it, as suitable only for “a certain class of people” and a nuisance “in the way of my car.”

Austin has waited a long time for an urban rail system — but it’s far better to wait a bit longer to do it right than to rush into a plan (which includes flawed roadway projects as well) just because it’s “rail”. A plan that impedes good transit development and future system expansion is worse than nothing. ■

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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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Austin pro-rail group declares war on Project Connect urban rail plan

15 June 2014
Julie Montgomery, AURA leader, was sole member of Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) to vote against Project Connect's urban rail plan. Photo: L. Henry.

Julie Montgomery, AURA leader, was sole member of Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) to vote against Project Connect’s urban rail plan. Photo: L. Henry.

In a 13-1 vote this past Friday (June 13th), a key mayor-appointed review committee, the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG), approved recommending Project Connect’s urban rail proposal to the Austin City Council. If (as expected) the council endorses the plan as the city’s Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for urban rail, it could set the basis for approving, perhaps in August, a ballot measure for bond funding in the November 4th election.

The CCAG vote context on this controversial project was far from placid, with public comments criticizing the plan as well as supporting it (the usual speakers’ limit of five was obligingly expanded to allow two extra supporters, while an opponent was turned away). The first speaker, Marcus Denton, representing a major pro-rail group, Austinites for Urban Rail Action (AURA), announced the organization’s opposition. AURA’s constituency includes a significant segment of particularly influential and technologically savvy young professionals in the Austin community.

Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant and former Capital Metro board member (and currently a contributing editor for Austin Rail Now), noted that the Project Connect plan fell short of serving the University of Texas West Campus, one of the densest neighborhoods in Texas. He suggested that a rail line in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — backed by many community groups and individuals — could include branches serving both the West and East Campuses, but called for UT’s administration to take “responsibility for funding its fair share of what it wants.”

CCAG member Julie Montgomery, one of AURA’s top leaders (see photo at top), was the sole member of CCAG to vote against endorsing Project Connect’s urban rail plan, particularly questioning the validity of the data, methodology, and projections on which it’s based.

AURA immediately issued a media release (below), now posted on the AURA website.

Marcus Denton announces AURA's opposition to Project Connect plan at CCAG meeting. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

Marcus Denton announces AURA’s opposition to Project Connect plan at CCAG meeting. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

Following today’s vote by the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) recommending a $1.4 billion Riverside-to-Highland urban rail line, AURA announced the route would act as a long-term barrier to a comprehensive, efficient transportation system and urged Austin City Council not to put it on the November ballot.

“We’ve worked for months – some of us years – trying to get an urban rail route we could support, but unfortunately this is worse than no rail,” AURA board member Steven Yarak said. “Squandering scarce funds on a second low-ridership rail line would set back public support for more effective public transit investments for decades.”

AURA’s Project Connect Central Corridor Committee co-chair Brad Absalom noted that, “While we’re supportive of the more cost-effective Riverside segment, we’re very worried the northern section will block rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, our most productive corridor, indefinitely, even as it drains funds from buses.”

AURA urged City Council not to place a Riverside-Highland urban rail bond proposition on the November ballot. Susan Somers, AURA board member, described AURA’s transportation agenda going forward: “Step one in building a better transportation system is preventing this urban rail bond from making the ballot, and defeating it if it does. As we continue lobbying for an urban rail line we can support, we’ll be pushing hard for improvements to Austin’s bus, cycling, and pedestrian infrastructure.”

AURA is a grassroots urbanist organization focused on building an Austin for everyone by improving land use and transportation through policy analysis, public involvement, and political engagement.

AURA leaders indicated they would actively campaign to defeat a bond measure for Project Connect’s rail plan, while striving to substitute a new urban rail plan, more effectively meeting community needs, together with broader public transport and other alternative mobility initiatives. ■

Majority of CCAG votes to endorse Project Connect urban rail plan. AURA leader Julie Montgomery, at table at left in photo, voted No. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)

Majority of CCAG votes to endorse Project Connect urban rail plan. AURA leader Julie Montgomery, at table at left in photo, voted No. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)

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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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Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route

4 May 2014
Capital Metro's 2000 MOS (dashed line) and full Phase 1 light rail plan. Map: FTA.

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

Throughout the debate over urban rail for Austin, and especially Project Connect’s self-styled “central corridor study”, transit advocates who’ve insisted that the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor offers a far better route alignment than the more easterly alignment preferred by Project Connect have emphasized the salient advantages of G-L — the core city’s heaviest local arterial traffic flow, vibrant and long-established commercial activity, numerous major activity centers, the very densely populated West Campus — as reasons for anticipating an extremely effective, affordable, and successful urban rail project in this corridor.

These expectations are supported in key official documents produced in the period 1999-2000. In addition, in a comparison of equivalent metrics with the Project Connect plan, the superiority of a Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail alignment is clear. Austin Rail Now is making these two critical documents available as PDF files linked in this posting:

Capital Metro – Annual Report on New Starts – Executive Summary (November 10,1999)

This important document was formerly available on Capital Metro’s website, but apparently has been removed. This PDF was created from a hardcopy in the possession of Lyndon Henry.

Federal Transit Administration – Austin Light Rail Corridors – Austin, Texas (November 1999)

This document no longer remains available as a webpage at the FTA’s site. For convenience, Austin Rail Now has posted a PDF on this site. (Note: This has been updated since original posting.)

Project Connect’s plan, at last revealed on May 2nd to a meeting of the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG), proposes an easterly alignment running about 9.5 miles from the Highland/Austin Community College site, through the East Campus of the University of Texas, through the east side of downtown, across the Colorado River, to Grove Blvd. on East Riverside Drive. The investment cost was estimated at about $1.4 billion (about $145 million per mile), yielding projected ridership of 16,000 to 20,000 per day (average weekday).

In contrast, the official documents cited above for Capital Metro’s 2000 light rail plan in the Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress (SoCo) corridor provide an authoritative basis for a comparison. Capital Metro’s proposal was sectioned into two parts — a shorter Minimum Operable Segment (MOS), running from McNeil Rd. in north Austin — using railway right of way (now used by today’s MetroRail), then Lamar-Guadalupe — to the CBD, and a full Phase 1 plan, which added a line down South Congress to Ben White, and another branch on Capital Metro’s railway right of way to Pleasant Valley Rd. (See map at top.)

Capital Metro's 2000 light rail plan envisioned urban rail running through the SoCo area. Simulation: Capital Metro.

Capital Metro’s 2000 light rail plan envisioned urban rail running through the SoCo area. Simulation: Capital Metro.

As you can see from the information in these documents, the 2000 route plan benefited from the heavy travel densities in these key central corridors, the plethora of major activity centers, and the higher population densities, especially in the West Campus area.

MOS (McNeil Rd. to CBD) — This 14.6-mile initial starter line segment was projected to cost $739.0 million in 2007 (Year of Expenditure) dollars. In 2014 dollars, this comes to roughly $878 million, or about $60 million per mile — about 41% of the per-mile cost of the Project Connect plan. That’s for about 54% more miles of route. Ridership for the forecast year (2025) was projected at 37,400 per day — 87% higher than Project Connect’s “high” estimate of 20,000 for their own plan.

Phase 1 (full MOS, East Austin, SoCo) — The full 20.0-mile Phase 1 plan carried a projected cost of $1,085.8 million in 2010 (YOE) dollars. In 2014 dollars, this tallies to about $1,198 million, or (again) about $60 million per mile and about 41% of the unit cost of the Project Connect plan. And that’s for more than double the route-mileage. Yet ridership for the 2025 forecast year was projected at 51,000 per day — over 2.5 times higher than Project Connect’s “high” estimate of 20,000.

Thus, as these documents reveal, for a dramatically lower cost per mile, and total cost, either the “starter line” MOS plan or the full Phase 1 plan centered on the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor delivered strikingly higher ridership, in comparison with the proposal offered by Project Connect and Austin’s current leadership. In other words, far more bang for the buck.

Why would Austin citizens want to invest in Project Connect’s plan, which costs so much more for so much less ridership? This question, and these comparisons, should be kept well in mind by both Austin decisionmakers and the public at large as they continue to ponder the Project Connect plan vs. alternatives for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. ■

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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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West Campus is where the students are!

26 March 2014
Rendition of LRT on Drag from 2000. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.

Rendition of urban rail on Drag from 2000. From the late 1980s until the mid-2000s, Guadalupe-Lamar was recognized as the primary major corridor for an urban rail starter line. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.

For at least the past 8 years, City of Austin and Capital Metro officials, and the planners and engineers following their bidding, have insisted on plotting a route for urban rail (light rail transit, LRT) along San Jacinto Street, through the relatively quiet, marginal East Campus of the University of Texas campus. Meanwhile they’ve continually dismissed and avoided the high-activity West Campus area, with the busy commercial activity center along the Drag, plus the third-highest-density residential population in Texas, and the intense Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) travel corridor, ranking as the highest-traffic local arterial corridor in central Austin.

Where urban rail needs to be is emphasized in the following map graphic, based on 2010 Census data and prepared by the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), a nonprofit headed by Scott Morris (Scott also leads the separate Our Rail coalition promoting voter support for urban rail in the G-L corridor).

Large cluster of red sections illustrates residents in age cohort 18-24 years old, overwhelmingly located in West Campus neighborhood just west of the Drag and the UT campus. Additional high-density clusters can be seen on campus, as well as north along and near Guadalupe. Density enclave along San Jacinto (bulge in southeast corner of campus) is small fraction of West Campus concentration. Map: CACDC.

Large cluster of red sections illustrates residents in age cohort 18-24 years old, overwhelmingly located in West Campus neighborhood just west of the Drag and the UT campus. Additional high-density clusters can be seen on campus, as well as north along and near Guadalupe. Density enclave along San Jacinto (bulge in southeast corner of campus) is small fraction of West Campus concentration. Map: CACDC. (Click to enlarge.)

It can be seen that the overwhelming preponderance of typically college-student-aged population (18-24) is concentrated in the West Campus neighborhood, on the west side of the campus itself, and along or near the G-L corridor north of the campus. As CACDC explains on its website, UT’s Student Government (UTSG) — described as “the official voice of 52,000 students” — has made clear its preference for a West Campus urban rail alignment:

On April 23, 2013, and October 1, 2013 the University of Texas Student Government Assembly passed Resolution AR-5 and Resolution AR-15 respectively, unanimously calling for the Guadalupe-North Lamar Alignment to connect West Campus to Downtown as Austin’s first rail alignment priority. UT students want a connection to their downtown from their homes, not from the east side of campus.

At the time of the first UTSG vote, a Daily Texan editorial emphasized the importance of connecting urban rail to the West Campus:

According to new census data, the UT campus and West Campus are among the most densely populated census tracts in the state. Failing to link these neighborhoods to a new rail system would be a disservice to the students who live there — all of whom contribute to the city’s property tax revenue every time they mail their sky-high rent checks.

The editorial noted that the UTSG resolution voiced concerns about the official plans “for rail to run through the UT campus along San Jacinto Boulevard, a route that is too far from the density of activity and residents along the western edge of campus.”

Instead, reports the Texan, “The resolution endorses a rail line along or near Guadalupe that would ‘directly serve students in their home communities, by building through the heart of residential student density.'”

It’s clear that the East Campus route using San Jacinto fails to meet this need. But instead of serving its students — and the desperately more pressing mobility needs of Austin’s population as a whole — UT’s administration has focused on demanding urban rail as a kind of embellishment to its own East Campus expansion plans. This began with envisioning rail as a campus circulator following the decision in the early 2000s to relocate the major campus shuttlebus hub from the Speedway/21st St. area at Jester Center to the East Fountain on San Jacinto near Memorial Stadium. Since then, UT has become increasingly insistent that Austin’s rail planners heed their bidding and keep urban rail’s route planned for San Jacinto. In repeated public statements, UT’s Vice-President for University Operations, Pat Clubb, has emphasized the University’s plans for museums, administration buildings, and other facilities that administrators would like to have served by rail in the East Campus.

But an urban rail starter line cannot go everywhere and serve every “nice to have” location or activity point. Particularly for a New Start project, it’s crucial for the line to go where the people actually are, where the density is, and especially where the public have been demonstrating, with their own behavior, they want to go. That’s the West Campus and the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

So here’s a couple of suggestions for UT and Project Connect: (1) Launch a nice MetroRapid Bus Upgraded Transit service for the Trinity-Jacinto corridor and East Campus (current MetroRapid buses could even be relocated for that purpose as urban rail is installed in Guadalupe-Lamar); and (2) If UT’s administration are desperate for urban rail to complement their East Campus development plans, how about they fund and install an eastside branch of urban rail themselves?

Just sayin’…