Archive for the ‘Lyndon Henry’s postings’ Category

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Project Connect’s Light Rail-Centered Plan Is a Huge Step Forward

31 August 2020

Simulation of Austin light rail alignment in roadway median. Graphic: Project Connect.

Commentary by Lyndon Henry


The following statement by Lyndon Henry, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project and contributing editor to Austin Rail Now (ARN), was presented as part of Public Comment by phone to a joint meeting of the Austin City Council and Capital Metro Board on 10 June 2020. Subsequently, Project Connect’s plan for a $7.1 billion multi-modal transit system expansion, including two initial light rail lines, has been approved by the Austin City Council and scheduled as a ballot measure for the upcoming election on 3 November 2020.

I’m Lyndon Henry. I launched the concept of light rail transit for Austin with a feasibility study back in 1973. Over the past 47 years I’ve worked to make this crucial public transport system a reality.

As I’ve long pointed out, light rail has unique potential, as a more affordable high-capacity urban rail mode, to attract ridership, provide more cost-effective operation, stimulate transit-oriented development, galvanize the entire transit system, create a more livable urban environment, and mobilize community support.

At last, decades of effort by the City of Austin and Capital Metro, particularly Project Connect, have brought us to today’s monumental plan, centered on light rail with a central spine along the key North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress Orange Line corridor as its anchor.

This massive public-works project will provide jobs and help rebuild Austin’s economy when we finally emerge from the pandemic nightmare. Light rail will open exciting possibilities for catalyzing development in the Core Area, especially around the massive proposed subway infrastructure, as well as elsewhere along other corridors. This will provide crucial economic stimulus to create more jobs as well as expand critical taxbase and fund further service improvements.

Thinking well into the future has been a hallmark of Project Connect’s ambitious planning, preparing for future urban growth and transit capacity needs. This critical foresight must be continued with a view to eventual conversion of the Red Line to light rail transit.

The northwest corridor, paralleling US 183, definitely ranks among the heaviest travel corridors in our metro area. Converting the Red Line to more efficient electric light rail would provide huge service improvements, improve cost-effectiveness, and stimulate much higher ridership, especially by offering seamless, transfer-free travel from northwestern communities into Austin’s core. This would also extend electric light rail service to benefit East Austin neighborhoods.

This future improvement needs to be prepared for now, by designing appropriate infrastructure features into the planned Crestview intersection grade separation

I want to thank all of the diverse team involved with Project Connect for listening to so many of us in the community in developing this plan. It is certainly heartening and refreshing to see the results of this long saga of planning and to be able to support such an ambitious and exciting project.

I urge you to designate this plan as Austin’s Locally Preferred Alternative. Thank you.

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Let’s Fast-track a Plan for Urban Light Rail — and Make It Happen

31 December 2018

Map and graphics from Project Connect’s Feb. 2018 proposal illustrates possible 12-mile initial light rail line from Tech Ridge (at left end of map) routed south down N. Lamar-Guadalupe corridor to Republic Square in CBD (map is rotated 90°, with north to left and south at right). Other graphics show alignment design options and station attributes. Yet Capital Metro leadership has now withdrawn plan and restarted study process for another two years. Graphics: Project Connect.

by Lyndon Henry

This post is a publication of comments made by Lyndon Henry to the Austin City Council on 13 December 2018. Henry is a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project and a contributing editor to the Austin Rail Now website.

For decades, Austinites have been suffering the agonies of a worsening mobility crisis. Help has never been far away – over the past 30 years, no less than six official studies have come to the same conclusion: light rail transit, interconnected with an extensive bus network, is what’s needed.

But time after time, Austin’s leadership has failed to bring a single one of these plans to successful fruition. Austin has become the national poster child of analysis paralysis.

And now Capital Metro and its Project Connect planning program have restarted us on another re-iteration of this same exhausting process for a seventh time and another two years.

Transit advocates appreciate that Capital Metro has revised its Vision concept by restoring light rail and some additional corridors. But much more is needed.

Instead of backsliding to zero again, Capital Metro and the City of Austin need to fast-track this process by building on the data, analysis, community input, and other resources that have already recommended a light rail system and enhanced bus network as the way out of our mobility quagmire.

The Vision plan needs to become a lot more visionary. It needs to preserve a lot more corridors for future dedicated transit lanes. It needs to envision more and longer routes reaching out to serve other parts of the urban area.

Light rail can make this possible. It’s an affordable, cost-effective, off-the-shelf electric transport mode that’s well-proven in hundreds of cities and, best of all, it’s here today – we don’t have to wait for some science fiction technology. Austin needs a solution that’s available now.

Urban light rail is the crucial linchpin of a mobility plan because it has the power to make the whole system work effectively. It’s shown it has the true capacity to cost-effectively handle and grow Austin’s heaviest trunk routes, freeing up buses and resources to expand service into many more neighborhoods citywide. This advantage is validated by solid evidence – in average ridership and cost-effectiveness, cities with urban rail have significantly outpaced cities offering bus service only.

Yet even before Study No. 7 has begun, some Capital Metro and other local officials have been hinting they favor bus rapid transit (BRT) – basically a repackaging of bus service with minimalist capital improvements and lots of fanfare. But it’s unlikely BRT will provide the breakthrough Austin so desperately needs.

On average, compared to BRT, new light rail systems are carrying over three times the ridership at 10% lower operating cost. They’ve shown they can spark adjacent economic development and help shape urban density and growth patterns. BRT has shown almost no such benefits. And light rail comes without the toxic pollution and other problems of rubber tires.

Let’s leave the paralysis behind, and put a light rail starter line on a fast track for a vote in 2020.


An even more affordable light rail starter line project has been proposed by Central Austin Community Development Corporation as a 5.3-mile Minimum Operable System extending from the Crestview MetroRail station (at N. Lamar/Airport) to Republic Square. For a surface alignment with no major civil works, estimated cost in 2016 was less than $400 million. Graphic: CACDC.

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The case for urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar

30 May 2017

Top: Map of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail starter line minimal operable segment (MOS), proposed in 2016. (Map: CACDC.) Bottom: Salt Lake City light rail line at downtown station could resemble system proposed for Austin. (Photo: L. Henry.)

by Lyndon Henry

This post has been adapted from comments distributed to members of the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee (MCAC) at its meeting of 26 April 2017. Lyndon Henry is a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project and a contributing editor to the Austin Rail Now website.

Why light rail transit (LRT)?

Ridership — On average, light rail systems have excelled in attracting passengers, especially new riders who have access to a car but choose to ride LRT. Compared with buses, LRT systems are more user-friendly, more comfortable to access and ride, and perceived as safer and more reliable.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#ridership
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#mode-preference

Affordable — Especially for cities of Austin’s size, light rail has typically demonstrated an affordable capital cost and the lowest operating + maintenance cost per passenger-mile of typical urban transit modes.
http://www.vtpi.org/bus_rail.pdf

Environment & energy — Evidence shows light rail systems have the lowest air pollution and noise impacts, preserve neighborhoods and urban quality of life, and reduce energy usage per passenger-mile compared with cars and buses.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#environmental-impacts
http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec145.pdf

Urban benefits — In contrast to bus operations, light rail systems have demonstrated a consistent, significant propensity to attract adjacent development, stimulate economic prosperity, and help shape and guide a changing urban landscape.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#urban

Capacity — Compared to both buses and “gadget” modes like gondolas, LRT has far higher capacity in normal service scenarios and greater capability to accommodate future demand. Unlike many “gadget” alternatives, LRT is well-proven in public service, a readily available technology, and non-proprietary.
https://www.thoughtco.com/passenger-capacity-of-transit-2798765

Expandable — The lower capital cost of a predominantly surface LRT system makes it the ideal affordable mode for future expansion of a rail transit network throughout the Austin metro area.

Why the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor?

Travel density — Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) is center city’s 3rd-heaviest north-south corridor. The City of Austin (COA) has repeatedly emphasized that G-L is the primary local traffic corridor in central-city Austin, with exceptionally heavy traffic at maximum capacity for over the past 2 decades. Texas Transportation Institute ranks North Lamar as one of the most congested arterials in Texas. Urban rail is essential to maintaining mobility in this crucial corridor. It’s the most logical location for an urban rail starter line.
https://austinrailnow.com/2014/10/13/latest-tti-data-confirm-guadalupe-lamar-is-central-local-arterial-corridor-with-heaviest-travel/

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

Future expansion — As Austin’s primary central arterial access corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar is ideally positioned to become the spine and anchor for future expansion of LRT into an eventual citywide system.

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Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail needs to be included in Austin’s “mobility” bond package

27 July 2016
Ann Kitchen chairs City of Austin Mobility Committee meeting of June 14th. Photo: Sceenshot from ATXN video.

Ann Kitchen chairs City of Austin Mobility Committee meeting of June 14th. Photo: Sceenshot from ATXN video.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to a public meeting of the City of Austin’s Mobility Committee on 14 June 2016. Lyndon Henry is a transportsation planning consultant, a former board member of Capital Metro, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and a contributing editor to this website.

I urge you to include a measure for urban rail in the proposed $720 million “mobility” bond package now under consideration. I support the proposal for an affordable 5.3-mile light rail Minimum Operable Segment on North Lamar and Guadalupe from Crestview to downtown.

Currently 83% of the proposed $720 million package is devoted to road projects. Surely some of these road projects could be replaced with the $260 million to $400 million that would facilitate an urban rail project.


5.3-mile Minimum Operable Segment light rail line proposed by CACDC. Graphic: Screenshot from CACDC map.

Proposed 5.3-mile light rail transit starter line Minimum Operable Segment in Guadaluoe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: CACDC.


It’s absurd that the $720 million bond package you’re considering could be labeled a “mobility” package despite NO major initiative for transit, let alone urban rail, which has been studied and affirmed as a necessity for decades. This bond proposal stands in contradiction to the decades of official “green” rhetoric and policy initiatives such as Envision Central Texas and Imagine Austin that have verbally embraced public transportation and “high-capacity transit” as key “alternative mobility” measures necessary to “keep Austin moving”.

This road-focused $720 million package tries to address congestion by increasing “throughput” of vehicles. Unfortunately, experience and evidence suggest that this is a losing approach — trying to tweak more capacity to squeeze through more cars typically just induces more traffic. Furthermore, this influx of ever-growing vehicle traffic imposes more stress on congested areas such as Austin’s core.


Lyndon Henry presenting comments to City of Austin Mobility Committee on June 14th. Photo: Screenshot from ATXN video.

Lyndon Henry presenting comments to City of Austin Mobility Committee on June 14th. Photo: Screenshot from ATXN video.


In contrast, this light rail plan (and future expansions throughout Austin) removes traffic from roadways by attracting motorists to the transit service, adding the equivalent of four lanes of extra peak capacity to this corridor. Can the same be said for the current $720 million road-focused bond plan?

I suggest that urban rail — providing highly attractive rail transit service on its own dedicated tracks — makes far more sense as a solution for alleviating mobility congestion, than simply trying to squeeze more traffic onto the city’s crowded streets, roads, and parking spaces.

I’ve heard the argument that urban rail is “not ready” to be offered as a bond measure. Yet polls and other evidence indicate resounding support for public transit and urban rail, and the Austin community has gone through years of repeated outreach exercises familiarizing them with the technology and the issues. The public seems more ready than ever to support rail; it’s Austin’s civic leadership that seems to have cold feet.

Finally, whatever bond package you choose, I urge you to unbundle the roads bonds from the small proportion of bicycle and pedestrian bonds. This would allow the community at least to consider these alternative mobility elements separately. ■

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NOTE: As of this posting, the Mobility Committee and City Council have approved the $720 million roads-dominated bond measure, without provision for transit, as a bundled package.
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Dedicated transit lanes on Austin’s Drag must be designed for light rail

29 September 2015
Busy section of Austin's Drag, Guadalupe St. at W. 24th St. Official city planning by CTR has proposed curbside transit lanes, with buses running on outside lanes as seen in this photo. (Screenshot from Google Streetview.)

Busy section of Austin’s Drag, Guadalupe St. at W. 24th St. Official city planning by CTR has proposed curbside transit lanes, with buses running on outside lanes as seen in this photo. (Screenshot from Google Streetview.)

By Lyndon Henry

The following commentary has been adapted and expanded from remarks posted to an online Austin rail discussion. Lyndon Henry is a transportation planning consultant, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, an online columnist for Railway Age magazine, and a contributing editor to Austin Rail Now. He is also a member of the Light Rail Technical Forum and Streetcar Subcommittee of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). His comments highlight the vision of Austin Rail Now and other transit advocates that light rail is justified in, and needs to be planned for, a number of the Austin area’s major travel corridors.

As most Austinites are undoubtedly aware, the Drag is that section of Guadalupe St. stretching between (approximately) West MLK Jr. Blvd. and W. 27th St. Straddled by the University of Texas campus on its east side and the high-density West Campus neighborhood on its west side, the Drag is perhaps the single most important segment of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. See: «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps» and «Dobbs: Density, travel corridor density, and implications for Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail».


Map shows the Drag area (Guadalupe St., running north-south in center). UT campus lies on the east, West Campus neighborhood on the west. (Screenshot from Google Maps.)

Map shows the Drag area (Guadalupe St., running north-south in center). UT campus lies on the east, West Campus neighborhood on the west. (Screenshot from Google Maps.)


Now, driven partly by their fixation to substitute buses for rail as “rapid transit”, and partly by pressure from some community groups and activists, local civic leaders and official planners are floating plans for dedicated transit (read “bus”) lanes on the Drag. (Official planning defines “the Drag” as continuing north to W. 29th St.)

Last month (August 2015), AURA (originally Austinites for Urban Rail Action), a grouping of mostly Millennial-aged urban planning enthusiasts, posted a proposal for major improvements on the Drag, one of which suggested: “Extend transit priority lanes from Downtown to the Drag”.

At peak periods, transit moves roughly half of the people passing through the corridor. This is to be expected in a central location like the Drag, as transit is by far the most efficient way to move people in a city.

Given the anticipated growth of the city, increasing the throughput of people in the corridor is of paramount importance. The city should plan ahead for increased frequency of existing bus routes, and continue to examine the viability of Guadalupe as a future corridor for rail service. Buses should not have their effectiveness limited by less efficient forms of mobility. Two lanes of Guadalupe should be dedicated solely to transit.

Back in May, per its contract with the City of Austin (COA), UT’s Center for Transportation Research (CTR) produced for city staff a memo of its findings with respect to installing dedicated lanes on the Drag. As summarized by AURA’s John Laycock, the report “modeled three scenarios: Scenario 0) the baseline scenario, Scenario 1) a transit lane in each direction on Guadalupe, and Scenario 2) diverting the buses completely off of Guadalupe onto San Antonio.” Laycock reports that the city subsequently requested CTR to model an additional case, involving one transit lane northbound on Guadalupe and another southbound on Nueces/San Antonio. Results from that additional modeling effort apparently have not yet been released publicly.


Diagram from CTR report for curbside dedicated lanes on the Drag. (Screenshot from CTR memo.)

Diagram from CTR report for curbside dedicated lanes on the Drag. (Screenshot from CTR memo.)


The proposal for dedicated transit lanes on the Drag may seem fairly benign, helpful to public transport and innocuous to the prospects for light rail (LRT). However, installing reserved transit lanes without broader planning for rail can raise some quite serious problems. Depending on their design and implementation, transit lanes could significantly improve or seriously impede the prospects for light rail transit (LRT) — by far, the most feasible and affordable rail option — in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (See «Plan for galvanizing Austin’s public transport development: Light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar».)

First, I’ll note that implementing a high-quality bus service as a precursor to rail can be an effective way of building ridership and preparing the public for the coming rail upgrade. Likewise, establishing reserved transit lanes that can be dedicated to rail can also be helpful. However, both infrastructure and configuration of dedicated transit lanes, done improperly, can create problems.

Infrastructure — Proponents of dedicated transit lanes have argued that all that’s needed is to paint some stripes on the street. And certainly, in the scheme of transit capital projects, just “painting” markings on pavement is relatively cheap. But there’s almost always more involved. The Guadalupe-Lavaca transit lanes, for example, included repaving, plus bus stop relocation and upgrading. Parking meters were removed. And the project has resulted in effectively eliminating the possibility of dedicated LRT tracks on those sides of these streets (bus traffic too heavy).


Buses use curbside reserved lanes on one-way Lavaca St. downtown. Curbside lanes on the Drag would be similar, but on two-way street. Photo: L. Henry.

Buses use curbside reserved lanes on one-way Lavaca St. downtown. Curbside lanes on the Drag would be similar, but on two-way street. Photo: L. Henry.


In previous discussions I’ve suggested that LRT dedicated lanes would need to be relocated on the opposite side of each street. Total cost of the downtown bus lane project was about $370,000 — not a billion-dollar investment, but enough of an investment certainly to give pause to totally redoing this project, or making substantial modifications to it (although modification to add LRT would definitely be a highly worthwhile investment).

We also don’t know what COA and Capital Metro have in mind for the Drag project. Some community transit activists might be thinking very minimalist, but what are official planners thinking?

Configuration — The precise alignment on the transit lanes also needs serious consideration with respect to the needs of LRT (and evidence suggests that a substantial portion of the Austin community would like to see LRT as a project on the planning table now). Curbside lanes — as assumed in the CTR design, described above — are used by several major LRT systems (Portland, Houston, Dallas, and Denver come immediately to mind), but this configuration can often encounter serious problems, mainly with motor vehicle right-turns and especially pedestrian traffic (including where the right turns are made). Another problem for the Drag is the number of driveway cuts and the issue of access to businesses along this commercial alignment.


Denver: Passengers waiting to board LRT train running in curbside lane on Stout St. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

Denver: Passengers waiting to board LRT train running in curbside lane on Stout St. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.


To be sure, a number of different LRT alignment and configuration options are possible. My preferred alignment concept for the Drag has been to keep both LRT tracks on Guadalupe, in the center (with stations also in the center), and the outside (curb) lanes continued for mixed motor vehicle traffic, including buses. The main reason for this configuration is that buses need access to right-side loading at stops, and I envisioned that local routes like #1 would need to be continued. Of course, bus routes could be moved further west, probably to San Antonio-Nueces, but keeping them on Guadalupe would facilitate relatively easy transfers to and from LRT and bus.

Ideally, the main Drag segment in this heavy-pedestrian/heavy-transit traffic area should be converted to a pedestrian-transit mall, with general motor vehicle traffic prohibited (except perhaps in the case of service vehicles for adjacent businesses). However, a design with reserved transit lanes plus a single mixed-traffic lane in each direction would appear to be possible.

To sum up: While dedicated transit lanes, with very minimal investment, could possibly be helpful as a preparation for LRT, I’d recommend huge caution and vigilance as this notion moves forward. Keeping particularly in mind the considerations I’ve raised above.

In this regard, it’s important to realize that a major chunk of Austin’s civic leadership, and planning establishment, still regard MetroRapid as the city’s “rapid transit system”. Likewise, the fantasy persists that Austin could “become the best bus system we can be” without a rail system. (Cities with the “best bus systems” also seem to happen to have excellent rail systems too.) Reserved transit lanes on the Drag could advance the case for LRT, but only if they’re properly configured, designed, and planned in the context of an ultimate LRT outcome. ■

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Plan Now for Light Rail in South Lamar!

29 April 2015
South Lamar corridor. Map: City of Austin.

South Lamar corridor. Map: City of Austin.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments, adapted here to webpage format, were distributed to attendees at a public event sponsored by the City of Austin’s South Lamar Boulevard Corridor Study project on 10 December 2014. Lyndon Henry is a transportation planning consultant, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and a contributing editor to Austin Rail Now. His comments highlight the vision of Austin Rail Now and other transit advocates that light rail is justified in, and needs to be planned for, a number of the Austin area’s major travel corridors.

► South Lamar light rail transit line makes sense

• In terms of both travel density and traffic congestion, South Lamar Blvd. ranks high among Austin’s major travel corridors (see Latest TTI data confirm — Guadalupe-Lamar is central local arterial corridor with heaviest travel). Current travel density plus rapidly increasing population density plus commercial growth in this corridor all indicate that planning for light rail transit (LRT) should long since have been under way.

• A South Lamar surface LRT line, possibly using an alignment design such as is illustrated below, needs to be a major part of an eventual citywide system branching north, south, east, and west throughout our region from an initial central spine in the Guadalupe-North Lamar corridor.


Cross-sectional diagram showing how center LRT reservation could be inserted in South Lamar, maintaining traffic lanes and sidwalks. Design would use side-mounted traction electrification system poles for suspending the overhead contact system for LRT electric propulsion. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

Cross-sectional diagram showing how center LRT reservation could be inserted in South Lamar, maintaining traffic lanes and sidwalks. Design would use side-mounted traction electrification system poles for suspending the overhead contact system for LRT electric propulsion. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


• The South Lamar Corridor Improvement Program should be reconfigured to include planning for LRT as a crucial focus of this project. Planners and traffic engineers need to ensure that any “improvements” in this corridor facilitate dedicated transit lanes for future light rail, and certainly should not impose obstacles to it. It’s way past time to scrap the practice of proceeding with major projects with little if any thought to the future.

► Form a Community Policy & Technical Oversight Committee

• Planning should involve the Austin community as a whole, and this means forming a broad, inclusive community committee to oversee policy and technical decisions, including a comprehensive transit-focused mobility plan for Austin and its surrounding region. 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.


Current view of traffic on South Lamar. Photo: Austin Mobility.

Current view of traffic and urban development on South Lamar. Photo: Austin Mobility.


► 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 (both “regular” and MetroRapid). Austin needs to start re-allocating street space from traffic lanes to transit lanes, and the South Lamar corridor must be included. Smart design could install LRT in this corridor while retaining at least 4 lanes of traffic (see diagram in first section, above). ■

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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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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 gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off course

15 August 2014
Graphic: GG2.net

Graphic: GG2.net

By Lyndon Henry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Related links:
Project Connect’s $500 million plan for bus infrastructure — The Elephant in the Road on Guadalupe-Lamar that could block urban rail
Project Connect’s Austin urban rail would be 3rd-most-pricey LRT starter line in U.S. history
Roger Baker: Austin’s ‘Strategic Mobility Plan’ — smart planning or a billion dollar boondoggle?
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Project Connect’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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Project Connect’s wasteful plan — Ultra-pricey urban rail “decoration” in the wrong route

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

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

By Lyndon Henry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant, is a technical consultant for the Light Rail Now Project, and a former board member and data analyst for Capital Metro. He also writes an online column for Railway Age magazine.
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Project Connect’s urban rail plan “costs way too much to do too little”

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

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

By Lyndon Henry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Lyndon Henry

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Science seems missing from Project Connect’s “scientific” transit planning

10 February 2014
Project Connect's proposed "high-capacity transit" alternative alignments for "Highland" sector.

Project Connect’s proposed “high-capacity transit” alternative alignments for “Highland” sector.

By Lyndon Henry

This past Saturday, Feb, 8th, I attended Project Connect’s “interactive workshop” event at the Highland ACC site with a specific mission in mind: raising questions to gather information and data. I particularly wanted to refrain from actually providing input into the process, because Project Connect seems to use this type of public feedback as evidence of popular validation of, and acquiescence to, their overall process, methods, and conclusions — and I wanted to avoid that as much as possible. I did strongly encourage other supporters of the Guadalupe-Lamar alignment proposed for urban rail to attend this event if at all possible.

The most recent documents on the topic of the event, as far as I knew, were the “alternative route” maps that Project Connect had made available online, as a PDF:

http://www.projectconnect.com/connect/sites/default/files/Preliminary%20Alternatives.pdf

Through Project Connect’s presentations to the Transit Working Group and Central Corridor Advisory Group, and in other presentations and statements here and there, a multitude of questions had already been raised, and these maps raised even more issues. Much of my curiosity was motivated by unanswered questions associated with the “Phase 1” study process — supposedly a thoroughly “data-driven” study. Indeed, City Councilman (and Capital Metro chairman) Mike Martinez has emphasized that the route profiles selected by the Project Connect team are all based on a highly “scientific” process. So, in my view, it’s entirely valid to seek the “scientific” evidence that supposedly underpins the route alignment choices now being presented for public perusal.

At the Feb. 8th event, I didn’t have an opportunity to raise all my questions or obtain definitive answers to the ones I did raise, but I’m sharing much of what I did learn in this post. I’ll note that I mainly discussed these with a couple of volunteer Project Connect table moderators, and a couple of Project Connect consultants. I’ve categorized these questions into several sub-issues.

“Highland” issues

• The “Phase 1” study projected huge increases in population and economic activity in this sector by 2030. Where, exactly, would these increases occur?

Basically, the Project Connect representatives I discussed this with didn’t have an answer. They’re planning “high-capacity transit” routes on the basis of projections of enormous population and economic growth, but they seemed somewhat confused about whether there was any data indicating exactly where in this sector such growth would occur.

So, how could station locations be determined if you don’t know where the heaviest growth will be? Is there huge growth projected west of Red River, along the proposed Duval alignment? They couldn’t say.

• Do the proposed alignment alternatives take the actual locations of population and economic concentration into account? If so, how?

Basically, no — for the same reason as with the previous response.

However, I did overhear one of the consultants explain to another participant (who favored an alignment to the Mueller development area) that Project Connect was giving “major consideration” to the possibility that an alignment serving Hancock Center would “set you up” for an ultimate extension to Mueller.

• Of the routes within the “Highland” sector from the UT campus to Highland/ACC, I-35 is omitted. Yet heavy traffic on I-35 was included as a major factor in swaying the Phase 1 recommendation for this sector. So, why is this major travel artery not included as a possible “high-capacity transit” (HCT) alignment for this sector? Where’s the metrics-based evaluation to eliminate it?

The impression I got from discussing this is that there’s no “metrics-based” evaluation, just a sort of hunch that an alignment in or along I-35 would not be a good idea. So, if traffic volumes on I-35 were a major factor in selecting the “Highland” route, are there any park & ride sites in mind? I was told that the Highland/ACC site would be an excellent location for a P&R facility — and that seems a quite reasonable judgement.

However, there’s been no study of the relative attractiveness of such a P&R to I-35 motorists between access to the UT and core area via the eastern “Highland” routes or the more direct, western route via Lamar and Guadalupe.

• Duval and Red River are both capacity-constricted minor thoroughfares narrowing into 2-lane neighborhood streets. Are these routes appropriate for the mainline of a HCT service, particularly an urban rail alignment?

Project Connect is seriously considering rail on these streets, but other than that confirmation, I couldn’t get any evaluatory comments. One participant mentioned a possible streetcar-type alignment, and another argued that these were “three-lane” streets, which is hard to believe from the visual evidence. (To procure a third lane, you’d have to eliminate neighborhood street parking on Red River and bike lanes on Duval.)

Both Red River (left) and Duval (right) are narrow 2-lane neighborhood streets, with barely space for local parking on Red River and bike lanes on Duval. L. Henry screenshot from Google Maps streetview.

Both Red River (left) and Duval (right) are narrow 2-lane neighborhood streets, with barely space for local parking on Red River and bike lanes on Duval. L. Henry screenshot from Google Maps streetview.

I mentioned that “HCT” by Project Connect’s definition could mean MetroRapid bus service, but I was assured that, for reasons not explained, they have rail in mind for this route.

• To install HCT in these alignments, are property acquisitions for right-of-way (ROW) being considered?

I couldn’t get a clear answer on this.

• For these alignments, are elevated or subway alignments under consideration for urban rail? In the case of a subway, where would the portal be located (this generally takes most of a city block)?

Elevated and subway construction seems to be under consideration only in a very general way; I got the definite impression that Project Connect’s thinking is focused more on a surface alignment. I didn’t have a chance to raise the portal issue.

• Where would a storage-maintenance-operations site for rolling stock be located?

I didn’t have a chance to raise this issue. (Previous urban rail planning tended to locate an SMO facility on the Mueller site, or just north of it.)

• For the alignments along Airport Blvd., wouldn’t these duplicate MetroRail service?

A consultant explained that Project Connect doesn’t see duplication, because the HCT service (whatever it is) would have intermediate stops, unlike MetroRail. Apparently, in their minds, you only have duplication if you duplicate all or most of the parallel line’s stations. I found it rather peculiar that Project Connect planners would regard it as impermissible to replace MetroRapid bus service on Guadalupe-Lamar with urban rail, but quite acceptable to in effect duplicate rail transit service along Airport Blvd. with, possibly, another form of rail transit.

• Is Project Connect planning to replace a segment of MetroRail service with urban rail? If so, how would MetroRail connect from downtown to Crestview?

Apparently they’re not planning to replace MetroRail with urban rail in this phase of planning.

• If Project Connect is planning on FTA funding for urban rail, would this be possible with a line paralleling existing MetroRail service?

As discussed above, Project Connect doesn’t consider such a route along Airport Blvd. as duplicate service to MetroRail. I doubt, however, that — in the case of a major rail investment — the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) would readily agree with this, especially after their recent award of a TIGER grant to upgrade the MetroRail line.

Core area issues

• Various routes are proposed through the core area. On what specific core area metrics analyses are these based?

Project Connect representatives were somewhat confused by this question about core area metrics. Having followed the “Phase 1” HCT study process closely, I never saw evidence of any metrics-focused study of the core area (Core “sub-corridor”, i.e., sector). One consultant offered the University of Texas’s campus plan as a factor in the decision to follow the East Campus alignment along San Jacinto, but I explained that a plan is more like a wishlist, not a metrics-based analysis. I was told that maybe there was some kind of comparison of ridership, cost, etc. between the eastside and westside (Drag/West Campus) alignments, but nobody could produce one.

• Was a data-driven analysis of various alignments, evaluating ridership potential, cost, etc., ever performed for alternative routes through the core area?

Apparently there has been no metrics-based analysis that would guide alignments within the core area. Project Connect basically is taking major activity centers, such as the planned medical school, into account — but this is more based on whim rather than a “scientific” analysis evaluating data-based metrics.

• Was any kind of data-driven analysis of projected demographics, economic activity, etc., ever performed on the core area in the “Phase 1” study?

No, per the answer to the previous question.

• On what “scientific” data metrics-based rationale is the Drag excluded as an alignment through the core area?

Apparently none.

• On what data-driven basis is the crosstown alignment on 4th and 3rd Streets included?

I didn’t have a chance to raise this issue.

“East Riverside” issues

• The “Phase 1” study projected huge increases in population and economic activity in this sector by 2030. Where, exactly, would these increases occur?

As with the responses to similar questions in regard to “Highland” there seems to be no data for this.

• Do the proposed alignment alternatives take the actual locations of population and economic concentration into account? If so, how?

Again, apparently not, as with the previous responses. It would seem that much of the placement of alternatives is based on hunch and whim rather than a “scientific” evaluation of data elements.

• Why have other major potential alignments through this sector, such as Oltorf St., Congress Ave., and S. Lakeshore Blvd., been excluded? All of these were included in the original “ERC” sector in the “Phase 1” study. Is there data-based evidence for singling out East Riverside as the sole alignment?

Again, no one could explain this.

• Project Connect has repeatedly referred to MetroRapid, with buses running in normal general road traffic, as “high-capacity transit”. Why, then, are bridge options being considered for the “East Riverside” area? Could these buses not use existing traffic bridges?

Bridges are being considered for urban rail or possibly special bus-only use. But representatives agreed that, if MetroRapid is HCT, you could have Project Connect’s definition of “rapid transit” fulfilled by running MetroRapid buses in mixed traffic over existing bridges.

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Project Connect Needs an Overhaul

7 December 2013
Lyndon Henry, technical consultant for Texas Association for Public Transportation, making presentation to CCAG on Dec. 6th. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

Lyndon Henry, technical consultant for Texas Association for Public Transportation, making presentation to CCAG on Dec. 6th. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

By Lyndon Henry

These comments were presented to the December 6th meeting of the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG), just prior to their voting 14-1 to approve the official recommendation (favoring the “Highland” and “ERC” sectors for so-called “high-capacity transit” — generally perceived as camouflage-speak for urban rail). Extemporaneous verbiage included during the oral presentation has been added to the version posted here.

 

To Central Corridor Advisory Group:

 

• Project Connect’s “High-Capacity Transit” study needs either to be paused and reviewed, or for Phase 2 to be expanded to include actual travel corridors in both the “Lamar” and “Mueller” sectors.

• The way this study was conducted has been shameful — an unprecedented rush in a context of pressure from political officials and special interests, ignoring actual travel corridors, gerrymandering city areas for study, cherry-picking data, manipulation of data, substituting value judgements for facts, public manipulation, muzzling community input, isolation from effective community review. However it may go forward, this process needs a major overhaul.

• Contradictory though it may seem, this does not mean I’m impugning the basic honesty or competency of the Project Connect team. While I do believe this study has been skewed, I continue to believe that the Project Connect personnel are fundamentally honest and competent. In my view, there’s a tragedy that good, decent, honest, competent professionals are influenced by external political pressures to make unwise decisions on crucial methodological and procedural issues.

• The problems in this study are way too numerous to detail here, so I’ll just note a few of the most outrageous.

• 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.

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

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

• 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?

• 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.

Do you really expect the Austin public at large to believe these kinds of results?

These shenanigans, and treatment of the community as if they were fools, have been a slap in the face to central Austin’s core neighborhoods, that have remained among urban rail’s strongest supporters, have been promised a rail line, and have spent many hours of time crafting neighborhood rail station plans.

Guadalupe-Lamar remains at the heart of the city, where all the core neighborhoods are, and where a Phase 1 urban rail line should start and provide a spine or anchor for outward extensions. And it provides both the demographics and the “opportunity assets” at the least cost for doing so.

I urge you to do the right thing and help to move this process in a very different direction.

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

5 December 2013

0_ARN_Pause Button

By Lyndon Henry

This Email was sent on December 5th to members of the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG). While the memo indicates an assumption that Citizens Communications would be allowed at the end of the CCAG meeting, the posted agenda, in a departure from past practice, now indicates that Citizens Communications will take place in the middle of the meeting, prior to “Discussion & Action”.

To Members of the Central Corridor Advisory Group:

I am writing to urge you either to hold off voting on a recommendation on the Phase 1 urban rail project, or to recommend including the “Lamar” sector (“sub-corridor”) for further evaluation in the next phase of Project Connect’s study.

"Lamar" sector ("sub-corridor") includes a portion of Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Map: Project Connect.

“Lamar” sector (“sub-corridor”) includes a portion of Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Map: Project Connect.

As the Project Connect team has started releasing some of their methodology and basic data, an ever-widening array of problems has become evident, and questions from the community continue to multiply.

From the outset, this urban rail study (now a “High-Capacity Transit” study) has been inexplicably rushed, in clear violation of Best Practices within the transit industry and cities across the country. Even Kyle Keahey has repeatedly admitted that, ordinarily, this kind of study would require 12 to 18 months. Yet Project Connect has raced to a decision in less than five months of actual study.

This is not a sound or propitious basis for rallying community and voter support behind such a major public transportation investment. This project should preferably be put on Pause; barring that, the “Lamar” sector should at least be added for further consideration.

As I’ve mentioned, the list of problems and anomalies identified in this study is sizable, and continues to grow. Here are just a few of the most egregious that I’ve identified:

• 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.

• 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.

• 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).

• Rather than developing conservative, reliable, and plausible projections, Project Connect has produced bizarrely exaggerated and highly implausible projections that are heavily skewed toward certain geographical areas such as East Riverside and the so-called “Highland” sector.

• When these same projections are plugged into the Transit Orientation Index (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.

• 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”).

In reality, “Highland”, “Mueller”, and “ERC” not only face serious problems of constrained ROW, but daunting problems of major civil works (e.g., a river bridge, grade-separations with I-35, etc.). In contrast, the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would encounter no necessity for major civil works.

For Project Connect’s recent “Data Dig” meeting, I submitted a longer and more detailed list of problems and anomalies which is available online here:

Questions for Project Connect

The following article from the Austin Rail Now blog discusses even more problems, and includes links to a number of online posts from several other researchers, analysts, and transit advocates in the community:

TILT! Project Connect’s gerrymandering and data fiddling ignite public skepticism, pushback

The Austin public is certainly not stupid, yet Project Connect’s peculiar methods and rationales have made many in the community feel as if they’re being treated like fools. Contrary to Project Connect’s claims that their public participation process has been “robust” and “open”, it’s a serious departure from past democratic norms.

This is exemplified by the fact that public communications to CCAG were opened only in the very final stages of the study process, and just the last meeting before Project Connect made its decision. And now, since Citizens Communications comes at the conclusion of your Dec. 6th meeting, speakers will not even have a chance to address your meeting until after the recommendation issue has been dealt with.

Further problems with Project Connect’s community involvement are discussed in detail here:

From community participation then … to community exclusion today

Persuading the public to understand the need for urban rail in Austin, and to vote approval of bonds to fund it, will be an enormous challenge. This will be an even more difficult challenge if Project Connect persists in alienating the core neighborhoods in the heart of the central city — and West Campus and student population — by rushing to decisions based on implausible and dubious analyses, and a cavalier attitude toward bona fide community involvement.

Please give your strongest consideration to either pausing this process, or including the “Lamar” sector in Phase 2 of the study process so that it can be more adequately and fairly evaluated.

Lyndon Henry
Technical consultant
Light Rail Now Project
Texas Association for Public Transportation

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Questions for Project Connect

3 December 2013
Project Connect's data visualization of congestion in 2035 for study area sectors shows congestion in every direction. But wasn't this supposed to be a study to determine best travel corridor to serve core area, not a "beauty contest" among "competing" sectors of the city?

Project Connect’s data visualization of congestion in 2035 for study area sectors shows congestion in every direction. But wasn’t this supposed to be a study to determine best travel corridor to serve core area, not a “beauty contest” among “competing” sectors of the city?

By Lyndon Henry

[These are some of the questions about the urban rail study that I hope to raise today at Project Connect’s “Data Dig” (Capital Metro boardroom, 11:30am-1:30pm).]

Why has Project Connect’s urban rail study failed to study a single actual potential travel corridor in the study area?

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?

• Why has this supposed “corridor” study segmented an otherwise viable corridor such as Guadalupe-Lamar into non-sensical pieces, severing it from its most logical destination (core area), and thus creating an arbitrary “rump” route (29th St. to south of U.S. 183) that goes from nowhere to nowhere?

• Why has this study failed to evaluate another logical route plan — the “loop” route using both Guadalupe-Lamar and the Red Line (converted to urban rail), with a spur line into the Mueller site?

• 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?

• These same projections have produced bizarrely implausible transit ridership projections — e.g., 2.9 million daily rider-trips for the “ERC” (East Riverside) sector. That’s about as many trips in that single sector of Austin as the total urban ridership of Chicago and Philadelphia combined. That’s the output of the study’s main predictor of transit ridership. With results like that, why hasn’t Project Connect more intensely questioned its own demographic and economic assumptions and projections?

• Why have travel and congestion on major freeways (I-35, Loop 1, U.S. 290) — which are roadway arteries used throughout the urban area — been treated as if they affected only the sectors (“sub-corridors”) they happen to pass through? Why has their congestion been “assigned” only to the “inventory” for those sectors?

• 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?

• Why has this study, in determining the potential of a specific sector (“sub-corridor”) for supporting an urban rail line from that sector to the core, considered “Regional Trips Passing through Sub-Corridor to Core” — i.e., pass-through trips — as relevant?  Why have “Regional O-D Trips Beginning or Ending in Sub-Corridor” been considered relevant to a study focused on trips from a given area to the core? How does this provide any meaningful assessment of need or potential ridership for an urban rail line from any sector (“sub-corridor”) to the core area? Is it plausible that any significant number of motorists traveling from, say, the “Highland” sector to Round Rock or San Marcos would use urban rail to the core for part of the trip?

• Why has this study, for these trips whose validity and relevance for this study is far more dubious, nevertheless included all types of trips — including UT student and recreation trips —  while excluding them for the much more valid and plausible trips from each sector to the core (and intra-sector)?

Does this metric have any purpose other than to produce a particularly high score in this category for the “Highland” sector?

• Why does this study assign an extremely high “Constrained Right-of-Way” penalty to the “Lamar” sector, but not to the “Highland”, “Mueller”, “ERC” sectors? Is Project Connect saying that there are no “Constrained Right-of-Way” problems for “Highland”, “Mueller”, “ERC”? The “Constrained Right-of-Way” 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”).

• 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?

• Because, theoretically, Project Connect hasn’t actually selected an alignment, how can they assign “constraints” to anything? Isn’t this “Physical Constraints” metric premature, since the study is dealing not with actual corridors, but with great, huge, sprawling sectors (“sub-corridors”) in which routes could presumably be considered anywhere?

• For each sector, the study has tallied ridership for Capital Metro transit routes in every direction. How is this relevant in assessing ridership from each sector to the core?

• What is the breakdown of ridership (boardings) for each of the Capital Metro transit routes in each sector included in the total?

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From community participation then … to community exclusion today

1 December 2013
As democratic involvement and real meetings have disappeared, public participation at Project Connect's events, such as this "open house", has withered. Photo: Project Connect.

As democratic involvement and real meetings have disappeared, public participation at Project Connect’s events, such as this “open house”, has withered. Photo: Project Connect.

By Lyndon Henry

This posting has been excerpted, adapted, and expanded from a personal Email sent by the author to someone involved with Austin’s urban rail study, in response to an inquiry.

The lack of bona fide democratic discussion and participation by the public has been seen by many in the Austin community as an ongoing problem with Project Connect’s “community outreach” and “public participation” procedures. However, the current problem merely continues and intensifies a policy tendency, over approximately the last dozen or so years, among some local Austin-area public bodies — particularly involved with transportation and urban planning issues — to discourage and suppress authentic community involvement in planning such proposed projects and services.

This stands in stark contrast to the vibrant, lively public involvement of the 1970s through early 2000s, where popular input was encouraged and solicited in the form of participatory community meetings and personal involvement of a widely representative array of individuals in actual planning committees.

Finding a suitable model for implementing true democratic discussion today in Project Connect and other programs would be simple — reinstating the types of outreach, public participation programs, and community discussion activities that were typical of Austin-area transportation planning up until the early 2000s. These types of participatory processes have gradually been attenuated in recent years.

A fully democratic and effective process of community participation and discussion is essential, particularly so that community participants feel they have true involvement, engagement, and a stake in the planning process. At least as important, critical planning issues are effectively scrutinized and analyzed, and additional professional expertise (in architecture, engineering, planning, finance, etc.) in the community is accessed and brought to bear on various aspects of the project.

Almost certainly, the lack of such oversight and engagement of community expertise has been a major factor in the array of serious methdological and data problems that have characterized Project Connect’s urban rail study process and impugned its credibility. See, for example, the wide range of problems and community discontent documentted in this blog’s recent posting TILT! Project Connect’s gerrymandering and data fiddling ignite public skepticism, pushback.

Public participation process of the past

Ongoing citizen advisory committees used to be (and should be now) much larger, with multiple members typically appointed by each councilmember, Capital Metro board member, etc. In the late 1980s, Capital Metro’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee involved over a hundred members, with at least several dozen typically attending a given meeting. Professionals with transit-industry expertise and community activists on transportation issues were often appointed to these bodies, rather than specifically excluded, as they are now.

My longtime friend and professional colleague Dave Dobbs and I served on several such committees through the development of the regional transportation plan by the Austin Transportation Study (precursor to CAMPO) and the creation of Capital Metro (we both served on the Austin-Travis County Mass Transportation Commission that recommended creation of a regional transit authority for the Austin metro area). Another particularly important example of our community participation involvement was the advisory committee to the Transitway Corridor Analysis Project (TCAP), in the late 1980s. The TCAP committee had at least several dozen members, including interested stakeholders like Alan Kaplan and Roger Baker, and met regularly with the Capital Metro personnel and consultants directly involved with evaluating either a busway or light rail transit (LRT) for a fixed transit line from the core area to the northwest, possibly using U.S. 183, the railway alignment, I-35, or a combination of these alignments.

The democratic involvement of highly interested and technically savvy community members was critical to the final outcome of the TCAP study. Dave and I and other committee members questioned or challenged assumptions and methodology point by point, in a democratically interactive process that altered the course of the study. The original intent had seemed to be to justify a busway in this corridor, and if this had prevailed, buses would probably be rolling along through Crestview, Wooten, and other neighborhoods on a paveway in the Capital Metro railway right-of-way today instead of MetroRail DMU railcars. But instead, the advisory committee and consultants ultimately recommended LRT, and this was selected by the board as the Locally Preferred Alternative.

Trend from democratic involvement to “democratic” pretense

There has been nothing comparable to this kind of democratic community interactive planning within roughly the past decade.

Community meetings have likewise virtually disappeared. I recall open, fully democratic meetings, with large attendance, in various areas of the Capital Metro service area when I was on the authority’s board during the original LRT study in the early 1990s. Board members like me, and top officials like General Manager (CEO) Tony Kouneski, would attend these meetings. Participants weren’t just given clickers to respond to the contrived choices presented by Capital Metro — they were free to voice their opinions, ask questions, even respond to other views expressed in the meetings. New views, new options, could be voiced. The community members learned things from one another and felt a far greater sense of involvement in the process that is totally missing today.

Real community meetings, such as this one focused on transit options in Toronto, allow free and open discussion and facilitate questions and comments from the attendees. In contrast, Project Connect's events have squelched community discussion and sought to manage and muzzle discussion. Photo: Torontoist.

Real community meetings, such as this one focused on transit options in Toronto, allow free and open discussion and facilitate questions and comments from the attendees. In contrast, Project Connect’s events have squelched community discussion and sought to manage and muzzle discussion. Photo: Torontoist.

During the LRT study process in 1999-2000, numerous small community meetings were held all over the city to explain the LRT plan and alternatives, and receive real input, freely voiced, from the community. Then-General Manager Karen Rae herself typically led these meetings, usually accompanied by one or more staff personnel. This interaction helped fine-tune the eventual alignment that was proposed.

Even after the LRT referendum narrowly failed, in 2001-2003 democratic public meetings continued, involving both smaller meetings around the city and larger public meetings, including charettes. Attendees had the opportunity to speak, voicing comments or criticism and asking questions, at all meetings.

Workshops in past periods previously were far different and more democratic than the recent ones sponsored by Project Connect. The groups, often subdivided by particular topics, would discuss an issue for perhaps 20-40 minutes. A participant was also free to visit other groups at other tables and inject comments, suggestions, etc. Each table group (“workshop”) would select one member to summarize the group’s conclusions, or controversial issues, to the entire meeting in a summation period. Individual group members had a chance to clarify points covered in the discussion.

In contrast, Project Connect’s recent “workshops” seemed more like mechanisms to contain and squelch discussion rather than facilitate it. Discussion was confined to each individual small group, for perhaps 5-10 minutes at most. Only very narrow topics — basically, “choices” presented by Project Connect — were presented for discussion within each table group … with no real opportunity for alternatives and questions to be presented. Project Connect staff members, present at each table, then filtered and briefly summarized some of the discussion to the larger group.

Similarly, “open houses” are not public “meetings” but mechanisms to fragment and granularize public involvement into one-to-one interactions with project representatives, who can “listen” and then rationalize official decisions to individual participants. Attendees are expected to wander through the room, viewing the results of project decisions previously made by the project bureaucracy, results that are typically presented with lots of graphics — prompting me to describe these as “art galleries”. But these are definitely not democratic community meetings. See:

Back to “art galleries” Project Connect reneges on community meetings

Meetings, “open houses”, workshops … and democratic process

In contrast to the Transit Working Group (TWG) meetings, which at least allowed a few 3-minute “citizen communications” at the end of each meeting, Project Connect abolished even such minimal community input at meetings of its successor, the Central Corridor Advisory Committee (CCAG), until the last one before Project Connect made its decision on urban rail sectors. In other words, CCAG could not formally be presented with alternative views, ideas, and proposals, or criticism of the official methodology, throughout the critical period when decisions were being made and ratified by CCAG.

In sum, Project Connect’s overall “public involvement” exercises have seemed more like a gesture at public involvement as a CYA effort to fulfill federal requirements.

Outline for bona fide community participation program

What would a more truly democratic public involvement program look like? For starters, here are some thoughts, based on examples and experience from the past:

• A general advisory group that is large and inclusive, with representatives appointed by all councilmembers, Capital Metro board members, and possibly other public bodies — rather than a small group hand-picked by the mayor. This advisory committee would also be able to co-opt additional members to itself. It would provide a forum to consider both official proposals and alternative proposals and ideas from the community, while seeking a consensus with the official project team.

• Numerous smaller meetings (covering several sectors with several neighborhood areas per sector) at least every couple of months, where participants could voice their alternative ideas, concerns, questions, criticisms, and other comments to the meeting group — thus sharing and disseminating alternative views and approaches within the general community as well as among project staff.

• At least a couple of charettes, open to the public at large, over the course of the project. These would focus on key issues particularly needing public input. The emphasis would be on the voicing of ideas and assessments, not just clicking choices among prescribing alternatives.

Major public meetings, every 3-4 months, in a “hearing” format, where community members could at least have a chance to voice their views.

In contrast with this kind of open process from past times, the new model of “public involvement” by public agencies, exemplified by Project Connect’s process, seems designed mainly to muzzle the public, procure some kind of very shallow public acquiescence for official decisions, and thus allow project officials to claim validation. It also ensures that officials can proceed with planning effectively isolated and insulated from democratic community scrutiny and input — thus (as I’ve characterized it) operating “inside a bell jar”.

Neighborhood groups and other community organizations need to make it clear they’ve had enough of this sham pretense at “public participation”. They need to demand a reinstatement of at least the level of democratic participation that was the norm in the past.

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City’s 2010 urban rail study actually examined corridors! But botched the analysis…

26 November 2013
Closeup of City's Central Austin Transit Study map, showing core, potential rail corridors, and City's version of route to "North Central Austin" (Hyde Park via Speedway). Guadalupe-Lamar was avoided. Map: Snip from COA document.

Closeup of City’s Central Austin Transit Study map, showing core, potential rail corridors, and City’s version of route to “North Central Austin” (Hyde Park via Speedway). Guadalupe-Lamar was avoided. Map: Snip from COA document.

By Lyndon Henry

In this blog and other forums, for months I’ve been making the case that Project Connect’s urban rail study has not been considering actual travel corridors, but rather large tracts of urban land more aptly described as sectors. Actual travel corridors haven’t just been ignored, they’ve been severed and segmented, so that effective evaluation of them for rail transit routes has been impossible. (The best example is Guadalupe-Lamar, for which Project Connect cut off the head — the core area — and then severed the legs — any extensions north of Crestview.)

Project Connect has supposedly been focusing on possible urban rail routes in the center of the city, so it designated a huge central-city study area — implausibly calling it the “Central Corridor”, although it had none of the characteristics of an actual urban travel corridor. (See Project Connect’s “corridor” study ­ without corridors!)

Project Connect's "Central Corridor" (study area) with "sub-corridors" (i.e., sectors). (Click to enlarge.)

Project Connect’s “Central Corridor” (study area) with “sub-corridors” (i.e., sectors). (Click to enlarge.)

As one can see in the map above, within this huge central study area, Project Connect then carved up a number of major study districts — which it then labeled “sub-corridors” (since the entire center of the city was now labeled a “corridor”). Rather than actual travel corridors — which are what you’d need to study fixed transit facilities like urban rail — these subdivisions are, in effect, huge, sprawling sectors of the center-city, mostly comprising several square miles. “Mueller”, for example, reaches out of the Mueller development site to reach central neighborhoods west of I-35, and north to gulp up most of Northeast Austin.

But local officials definitely know what real corridors are. As recently as 2010, the City of Austin, in collaboration with its consultant URS Corporation, produced the Central Austin Transit Study (CATS) — the pre-eminent initial feasibility study for a central Austin urban rail system. And, as the map below shows, they didn’t dither around with huge, arbitrary, misnamed blobs of urban land … they examined actual corridors:

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

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

However, then, as now, the basic aim was to justify a Phase 1 urban rail route through the east side of the UT campus and on out to the Mueller redevelopment site. So the study and the map of selected corridors were cleverly contrived to confine and steer the study in the “proper” direction.

In particular, notice how the City planning team studiously avoided the most obvious route going north from the campus — up Guadalupe and North Lamar. Instead, Corridor #11 is fashioned as “University of Texas (UT) to North Central Austin (Hyde Park)”, and directed up Speedway (a minor arterial that’s almost a neighborhood street) as far as 51st St. And of course, it’s purpose is to make a connection to … Mueller!

But manipulating the routes was only half the game. The other half was manipulating the evaluatory methodology.

For the 2010 study, that was a lot simpler than now. Instead of “gerrymandering” data, playing with projections and hypothetical growth rates, and assigning heavy freeway traffic to relatively quiet neighborhoods, the City and URS team in 2010 just devised a simple, subjective 1-2-3 rating system that allowed them to assign a subjective “score” at whim to the various corridors. And whaddaya know … Mueller won!

But the point is that more or less real travel corridors were studied in 2010, although they were shaped and located to fit the outcome desired by top officials. So local planners do know what real corridors should look like.

And it’s real travel corridors that Project Connect’s urban rail study should have been scrutinizing and evaluating all along. That’s what the Austin community deserves. Instead, what Austin has gotten so far is another exercise in smoke-and-mirrors “planning” intended again to achieve a desired outcome.