Archive for the ‘Lyndon Henry’s postings’ Category


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.


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.


Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place

17 November 2013


By Lyndon Henry

This past Friday, Nov. 15th, to a meeting of the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG), the Project Connect (ProCon) team presented their “recommendation” of sectors (misnamed “sub-corridors”) for the first urban rail route(s) — a combination of “Highland” (a proxy to facilitate city officials’ desired route to Mueller) and “ERC” (containing the East Riverside Corridor, which the City has been heavily promoting as a development district).

Tilting the playing field

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

Project Connect's "recommendation" revealed on Nov. 15th. Photo: ProCon.

Project Connect’s “recommendation” revealed on Nov. 15th. Photo: ProCon.

Just a few days prior to Friday’s meeting, COA Mayor Lee Leffingwell cancelled plans to bring the selection of a sector for urban rail to both the Capital Metro board and the entire City Council for a vote. Instead, in what’s being portrayed by critics as a kind of “palace coup”, the mayor has ditched plans for such votes and authorized Project Connect to make its own decision about a sector (which in effect clinches the basic route decision). Thus, ProCon’s Nov. 15th “recommendation” amounts to the actual decision to start planning urban rail routes — lo and behold, the same basic routes the city administration, Project Connect, and an assortment of real estate development interests have wanted all along.

And all from a process that repeatedly seems to have rigged the game, and tilted the playing field.

Data flaw: Garbage In, Garbage Out

Kyle Keahey presented ProCon’s justification to the CCAG and the audience in the classic maneuver of a “data blitz” — a rapid PowerPoint barrage of tables of values, bar graphs, and bullet points almost guaranteed to dazzle and overwhelm. Assuring the CCAG attendees that his team had been busy slicing, dicing, and splicing the data approximately six different ways, including subjecting all that abundant data to a “sensitivity analysis”, Keahey wrapped up his case for basically the original official route plan (a line leading from downtown through UT’s East Campus to Hancock Center and eventually to the Mueller site, plus a route to bolster real estate and other commercial development along East Riverside).

But this picture of a fair, balanced, scrupulously diligent evaluation process is being greeted with considerable skepticism in the community. ProCon’s study has numerous hallmarks of having been rigged, from a peculiarly contrived methodology that departs from longstanding professional practice, to cherry-picking of a highly questionable set of data elements and the exclusion of data indicators far more appropriate for such an ostensible “corridor study”. (And, one might add, a highly secretive and insular process that immunized the ProCon team and their study procedures from public scrutiny and oversight.)

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

Along the way, from the rather soft-focus Map Book “data visualizations” made available, a wide array of serious data errors and omissions were identified by various stakeholders. See, for example:

Huge problems cited with Project Connect’s urban rail study data

Sub-Corridor Selection Scoreboard

Three Suggestions for the Project Connect Sub-Corridor Survey

“Beauty contest”, not corridor analysis

But the core problems with ProCon’s exercise go far deeper. In addition to the numerous data anomalies (and the lack of public access to the raw data being used), there are serious methodological faults. Perhaps the most troubling involves the fundamental concept and approach of the study itself, discussed in Austin Rail Now’s article Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors!

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

This involved the selection of a predominantly questionable array of data elements as the basis for “evaluation” of the various sectors. Leaving their “weighting” aside, in the aggregate the evaluatory elements themselves are inappropriate. Here’s why:

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

Snippet of ProCon's evaluation matrix shows preponderant emphasis on hypothetical future projections rather than current factual data.

Snippet of ProCon’s evaluation matrix shows preponderant emphasis on hypothetical future projections rather than current factual data.

This is especially true in regard to locational projections, i.e., projections of future developments in specific geographical locations. Beyond a roughly five-year horizon, projections for specific neighborhoods and similar chunks of real estate basically become unreliably speculative — which seems to be what we’ve actually been dealing with … a significant dollop of real estate speculation, given a kind of veneer of “techniness” by CAMPO and their land use/travel demand model package.

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

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

(2) Percentages and growth rates — Obviously, percentages (of poverty, transit dependency, etc.) and growth rates can be somewhat useful indicators, but relying on them overwhelmingly, as ProCon’s methodology does, can skew the planning process. Neither actual population, nor actual transit ridership in an actual corridor between any sector and the core, is considered as a measure!

Percentages can be deceptive, especially when it comes to forecasting transit ridership. Area A may have a population of 100, of which 50 are transit-dependent — 50% transit dependency. Area B may have 10,000 population, of which 2,000 are transit-dependent — 20% transit dependency. If you have a rating system that awards the higher score to the higher rate, then you’re giving a higher score to an area that will yield you only 50 potential transit-dependent riders, vs. an area that will yield you 2000!

Likewise with growth rates. If Area A is projected to grow over 20 years from 100 to 1000 residents, that’s a 900% growth rate. Meanwhile, much larger Area B is projected to grow from 40,000 to 50,000 — a 25% growth rate. Again, if your rating system awards scores based on growth rate, Area A will get the overwhelmingly higher rating. Yet Area A provides only 1,000 residents as a market for your transit line, whereas Area B provides 50,000!

ProCon’s evaluation methodology measures have over a dozen of this type of potentially fallacious characteristic. And ProCon’s growth rates, by presuming the validity of 2030 projections of land use and travel demand, compound the possible errors associated with the first category discussed, Projections.

(3) Black Box — For all their assurances of “transparency”, ProCon’s methodology for integrating and manipulating all these evaluation measures, and merging them into a model to render ratings, remains totally mysterious. Here and there are other occult items, such as the “Transit Orientation Index” (whazzat?), which seems to be rendering ratings for 2010 and 2030. If documentation of these model processes is available on the ProCon website, they sure have it well-concealed. So far, it’s either absurdly difficult or impossible to find anything either on their website or through Google searches.

Botched analysis

How could a study, from fallacious basic concept to botched data analysis, go so wrong?

Rush, rush, rush — From the outset, the ProCon team, apparently goaded by an impatient COA administration, has been puzzling both participants and observers of the study by their unprecedented breakneck race to wrap up an exceptionally complicated study — on an inordinately brief timeframe — and jump to a conclusion.

De facto objective — Suspicions are now rampant that the real aim, all along, behind the scenes, has been to find a way to deploy data “truthiness” (i.e., creatively selective collection and manipulation of data and advantageous “projections”) to justify the original rail route preferences of a small clique of powerful local political leaders and real estate interests to bolster and enhance somewhat speculative real estate investments in certain sectors of Austin.

Muzzling the public — As I said in my own Citizen Communication remarks, the ProCon team have pretty much operated in a kind of bell jar, insulating and isolating themselves from effective interaction and cooperation with the public, so I’ve really never had an opportunity for a substantive discussion of these issues.

Among some critics, ProCon’s ostensible selection of East Riverside and the so-called “Highland” sector is seen as basically camouflage for a stratagem focused on developing the desired line from downtown to Hancock Center, which was being considered by ProCon anyway for months prior to the start of the “study”. The expensive East Riverside line (requiring heavy investment in a new bridge across the Colorado as well as a rebuilding of the grade separation with I-35) would likely be put on hold until the Mueller line as far as Hancock is completed; the final Mueller link could be added later.

Both critics and many community observers, favoring urban rail but increasingly skeptical of ProCon and their methods, are planning to ratchet up their opposition to this ill-conceived plan. In effect, Project Connect seems to be preparing to push Austin toward a vote for an expensive rail investment in what would typically be an uphill struggle, but now with the added challenge of having made enemies out of its strongest pro-rail allies in the heart of the core city.


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

19 October 2013
New MetroRapid buses, representing about 53% of total project cost, could readily be redeployed to other routes or new premium-bus services. In the meantime, MetroRapid service on Guadalupe-Lamar could be re-purposed and presented as precursor to urban rail. (Photo: Filipa Rodrigues, KUT News)

New MetroRapid buses, representing about 53% of total project cost, could readily be redeployed to other routes or new premium-bus services. In the meantime, MetroRapid service on Guadalupe-Lamar could be re-purposed and presented as precursor to urban rail. (Photo: Filipa Rodrigues, KUT News)

by Lyndon Henry

The question of which route to choose for an initial urban rail line — the officially preferred downtown-East Campus-Mueller plan or the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) plan — is linked to the related issue of the $47.6 million MetroRapid bus project currently under way in this and other corridors and due to open for service in 2014. However, as this blog has noted, as currently intended, designed, and funded, MetroRapid — 80% funded from a $37.6 million grant under the Small Starts program of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) — is about as minimalist as a bus upgrade project can get, involving little more than the following:

Rolling stock — A fleet of new buses, intended to run almost entirely in mixed general traffic with private motor vehicles. These could readily be redployed into other transit routes or entirely new corridors.

Upgraded bus stops — Mostly modular in design (i.e., shelters, benches, etc. could be relocated to other locations). These will be equipped with digital cellular-based schedule information systems that are also modular.

Downtown transit priority lanes — A project to install these (i.e., restripe a lane on each of Guadalupe and Lavaca St. and relocate bus stops) is currently under way. However, as we noted in a previous posting (referring to Portland as a model for transit priority lanes),

there are legitimate questions as to whether these two lanes could simultaneously and effectively accommodate the two MetroRapid bus routes (10-minute headways each) plus all other Capital Metro routes (various headways) as well as urban rail (10-minute headway), all running in both directions.

Rebranding and marketing — Rechristening limited-stop buses on G-L (a service configuration basically replicating the #101) as a “rapid” service (although the schedule time difference is minuscule to zero). See: Why MetroRapid bus service is NOT “bus rapid transit”.

MetroRapid bus route (black line) planned for the G-L corridor. Red line denotes MetroRapid in the Burnet-South Lamar corridor. (Map: Capital Metro)

MetroRapid bus route (black line) planned for the G-L corridor. Red line denotes MetroRapid in the Burnet-South Lamar corridor. (Map: Capital Metro)

Besides all the rebranding and marketing hype, one can legitimately ask: What’s really different about MetroRapid?

• Buses, including limited-stop (even with special branding) have been running in the G-L corridor for decades…

• Capital Metro has repeatedly upgraded both rolling stock and bus stop facilities using federal grant funding…

You could say … Well, there are those downtown transit priority lanes. But Capital Metro and City of Austin planners have long intended to use those also for urban rail! As we hinted in the article on Portland cited above, crowding all downtown bus operations plus MetroRapid plus urban rail into those two lanes does seem to present a problem … but that’s an issue we’ll deal with in a subsequent article. (For urban rail, our remedy is to allocate two more separate lanes.)

So, we have this very minimalist FTA-funded Small Starts bus project (MetroRapid), simply running buses in the street with traffic, and yet, to support their case for Mueller and dismiss the case for urban rail on G-L, some local planners and Project Connect officials have been claiming that the FTA will bar funding of an urban rail project because it would disrupt this small-scale project. Despite the fact that:

• The MetroRapid project was never intended to become an immutable obstacle to rail in the G-L corridor…

• The new buses could be redeployed to other uses — including to urban rail stations in the same streets…

• The modular bus stop facilities (including the cellular information system) could be relocated and redeployed, or simply left in place for use by passengers for the other local bus services…

• MetroRapid in the G-L could simply be re-purposed and rebranded as a precursor to urban rail in the same corridor…

MetroRapid bus stations are minimalist, low-cost, modular (movable). LEFT:  Completed station at North Lamar Transit Center (Photo: Downtown Austin Alliance) • RIGHT: Bus stop on Guadalupe at 39th St. being upgraded for MetroRapid (Photo: Mike Dahmus)

MetroRapid bus stations are minimalist, low-cost, modular (movable). LEFT: Completed station at North Lamar Transit Center (Photo: Downtown Austin Alliance) • RIGHT: Bus stop on Guadalupe at 39th St. being upgraded for MetroRapid (Photo: Mike Dahmus)

The heaviest artillery brought to bear for this has not been testimony from any FTA official, nor FTA policies, but a major Washington lobbyist, hired by the City of Austin, and brought to a work session of the Austin City Council in May 2012 to proclaim that the MetroRapid project represents a barrier to rail in the G-L corridor for the next 20 years! (His opinion has subsequently been repeatedly cited as evidence to support the “MetroRapid barrier” contention.)

It’s legitimate to ask: On what basis, and with what actual evidence, are these claims made? Where have other major rail investments been denied because of this supposed justification? Where has FTA explicitly stated that they resolutely forbid altering a portion of an FTA-funded project and substituting a different project for that section prior to the fulfillment of a defined “minimum life cycle”?

The Official (City + Project Connect) position might as well be: We’re already running buses in this corridor, so there’s no role for rail. That, of course, is absurd — existing bus service means you’ve already got well-established transit ridership, a huge plus for rail.

The same holds true of MetroRapid. The argument that this somehow, in its present form, makes it a daunting barrier to urban rail is also nonsense. (They’d like to make it an authentic barrier, by installing special bus lanes … but that’s another issue — see No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes….)

Let’s look at several scenarios:

Worst-case scenario — Austin would have to reimburse FTA the $38 million grant in full. Not really likely, but possible. If so, this $38 million would be a relatively small penalty added to the cost of a project of hundreds of millions. Actually, FTA would probably deduct it from the grant for any urban rail FFGA (Full Funding Grant Agreement) that would be submitted in the future.

Acceptable scenario — Austin would be required to reimburse FTA for just the portion from downtown to some point on North Lamar. This seemingly amounts to about 20% or less of the total. It’s also arguable that reimbursement need be based solely on the cost of all or portions the stations and other fixed facilities, but not the rolling stock (which was the preponderance of the grant).

On a route-length basis, the affected G-L portion of the MetroRapid project represents about 20% of the total length. Rolling stock procurement represents about 53% of the total project cost, fixed facilities about 47%. So altogether Austin would be looking at reimbursing 20% X 47% X $37.6 million (FTA grant), which equals … about $3.5 million. And that’s assuming that FTA would not credit the city for re-purposing and re-using these fixed facilities for urban rail or other bus services.

Best-case scenario — No reimbursement needed. Instead, Austin would just re-deploy the buses in other corridors (including further north on Lamar), and be authorized to relocate fixed facilities or re-purpose them (e.g., the traffic-signal-preemption systems would simply be reconfigured for the rail system).

Also note that FTA is accustomed to changes in FFGAs and other contractual elements all the time and doesn’t just blacklist the agency when that happens. Remember — we’d be dealing with just a portion of this total project, and a small portion of just a very small project at that. So we’re not suggesting here a total cancellation of the entire MetroRapid contract.

In dealing with FTA, there are bureaucratic protocols involved, and the need to adhere to stated rules and regulations, but there’s also a lot of politics. The crucial issue for supporters of urban rail in G-L is to influence overall community desire, intent, and policy to re-focus urban rail into the G-L corridor. Once we accomplish that, there’s a very high probability that local civic and political leadership will climb aboard the reoriented urban rail project and work hard to forge the necessary political clout at the federal level.

Also keep in mind that final design and engineering of any rail system will take a fair chunk of a decade. So the MetroRapid system (which should be re-purposed and re-branded as a precursor to rail) will be operating for several years, anyway, before even construction gets under way. Austin could argue that amortization of fixed facilities (and the “BRT” system) should be accounted for in any reimbursement demanded by FTA.

So how is any of the above a real impediment to installing urban rail properly in the right corridor, i.e., the one which should logically continue to be the city’s highest-priority corridor? The contention that the MetroRapid project represents some kind of insurmountable barrier to moving ahead with urban rail in the G-L corridor seems implausible to the point of absurdity.

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

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

This posting has been revised since originally published. It originally reported that “a major Washington lobbyist, hired by the City of Austin” had been “brought to a meeting of the Transit Working Group (TWG) in May 2012….” The lobbyist actually presented his remarks to a work session of the Austin City Council.

No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes…

18 October 2013
Ottawa's "BRT" Transitway delivers a "conga line" of buses onto urban streets. Photo: Errol McGhion.

Ottawa’s “BRT” Transitway delivers a “conga line” of buses onto urban streets. Photo: Errol McGhion.

by Dave Dobbs and Lyndon Henry

Which kind of transit — urban rail or buses in special lanes — do you want to see on Guadalupe-Lamar?

Not to decide is to decide.

It’s crucial that Austin’s first urban rail (starter) line be a whopping success. This means it must serve the heart of the city in its heaviest-traffic corridor, with its highest densities and employee and employment concentrations, and its most long-established neighborhoods. The Guadalupe-Lamar corridor offers the ideal alignment for an affordable, cost-effective surface light rail alignment.

It’s also important to understand that if we don’t get light rail transit (LRT) on Guadalupe and North Lamar, we most certainly will get dedicated bus lanes within the next 10 years. A major project to overhaul the corridor by installing infrastructure for battalions of MetroRapid buses is waiting in the wings if urban rail is not implemented. This alternative, not requiring a public vote, would produce a far less efficient, adequate, and attractive system, seriously degrade urban conditions, and result in a less livable environment compared with urban rail.

This package of so-called “Bus Rapid Transit” (“BRT”) projects — whereby MetroRapid buses would enter stretches of dedicated bus lanes, and then merge back and forth, into and out of mixed general traffic — was first raised publicly in a Project Connect/City of Austin Transportation Department presentation made in City Council chambers on 25 May 2012 to the CAMPO Transit Working Group (TWG). Shown below is page 10 of that presentation, with arrows pointing to the relevant information.

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

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

These dedicated lanes will be built with 80% federal money, will not require an election, will be vetted publicly only at art gallery-style “open houses”, and approved by boards and commissions, the Capital Metro Board, and the Austin City Council, and then they will be built, unless we implement urban rail in the Guadalupe-North Lamar corridor. And keep in mind that — unlike the current minimalist MetroRapid project — this level of hefty physical investment in roadway infrastructure will become a de facto obstacle to any future rail project in the corridor.

These dedicated bus lanes are the official plan as things currently stand.

There are numerous drawbacks with premium buses, and even “BRT”, compared with LRT. Just to cite a couple:

• LRT on average is significantly more cost-effective than bus operations.

• Buses don’t attract nearly as much ridership as LRT, but as ridership starts to reach higher volumes, bus traffic and overwhelming “conga lines” of buses cause more problems … plus more queues of riders start to slow operations.

Another bus "conga line" leaving downtown Brisbane, Australia to enter busway.

Brisbane, Australia: More “conga lines” of buses travel on reserved lanes between the city’s downtown and a busway. Photo: James Saunders.

If you would prefer urban rail instead of a major bus lane project in Guadalupe-Lamar, it’s essential to speak up and act. Let neighborhood groups and other community organizations know what official plans have in store for this corridor. Sign petitions being circulated to support urban rail on G-L. Communicate to Project Connect and members of Austin City Council that you want to ride urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, running in reserved tracks, not just a souped-up bus service weaving in and out of special lanes.

Houston's MetroRail demonstrates that LRT can attract and carry more passengers faster, more effectitly and safely, more cost-effectively than high-capacity bus operations. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

Houston’s MetroRail demonstrates that LRT can attract and carry more passengers faster, more effectively and safely, and more cost-effectively than high-capacity bus operations. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.


How urban rail can be installed in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

10 October 2013
Except for the the somewhat clunkier styling of the railcars, this 2000 simulation of what light rail transit might look like on the Drag is not that different from one of the options today. Graphic: Light Rail Now collection.

Except for the the somewhat clunkier styling of the railcars, this 2000 simulation of what light rail transit might look like on the Drag is not that different from one of the options today. Graphic: Light Rail Now collection.

by Lyndon Henry

Some supporters of the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor for Austin’s urban rail starter line have been seeking details about how urban rail (i.e., light rail transit, or LRT) would be installed in these thoroughfares — running in mixed traffic, in reserved lanes, or how? At about the same time, proponents of the Official (aka City of Austin-Capital Metro) proposal for an urban rail line from downtown to Mueller have recently begun raising the issue of right-of-way (ROW) constraints in this same G-L corridor.

It’s important to keep in mind that the Mueller proposal itself has its own ROW constraints and other challenges, but I think it would be helpful here to address some of the issues in the G-L corridor. One of the reasons for this is that I’m not convinced that all parties in the Project Connect team will necessarily make a good-faith effort to find a truly workable, affordable design for inserting urban rail into the G-L thoroughfare alignments — and advocates need to be prepared to insist that valid (and proven) alternatives be examined.

The basic idea is for urban rail (light rail transit, LRT) to operate totally, or almost entirely, in its own lanes. This would require some reconstruction of Lamar Blvd. and probably Guadalupe St. in sections, including slight narrowing of existing lanes, elimination of the turning (“chicken”) lane and replacement with transit-integrated traffic controls (such as left turn lanes), and other measures. Light rail systems in places like Portland, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City, etc. are models for this.

Having crossed intersection, Houston LRT train accesses station on Fannin St. as traffic control system allows queue of motor vehicles to make left turn over track reservation behind it.

Having crossed intersection, Houston LRT train accesses station on Fannin St. as traffic control system allows queue of motor vehicles to make left turn over track reservation behind it. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

Also keep in mind that Project Connect’s longer-range plan for buses on Lamar-Guadalupe is to install tens of millions of dollars’ worth of reserved lanes — so official planners are already prepared to bite a bullet on this basic issue. What advocates of urban rail in the G-L corridor are saying is that it makes a lot more sense to install reserved lanes for rail rather than buses.

It’s possible that there might be a short section of LRT in mixed traffic (one or both tracks). Sacramento’s LRT operates with this kind of compromise (for about a mile along 12th St., approaching the city’s downtown from the northwest), and has done so for the past 26 years — see Advantages of Light Rail in Street Alignments.

Sacramento's LRT shares one lane with traffic along 12th St.

Sacramento’s LRT shares one lane with traffic along 12th St.

There’s a very narrow section on the Drag (especially in the 24th-29th St. area) that might require, totally or partially, something like an interlaced (“gauntlet”) track (i.e., two tracks overlapping each other). This would operate effectively like a single-track section but could be fitted into 5-minute headways and possible shorter. (In Amsterdam, interlaced track is even used with 2-minute headways. More on this rail design configuration in a subsequent posting.)

Further downtown, south of MLK Blvd., it would be logical for the double-track line on Guadalupe to split into two single-track lines — southbound on Guadalupe, northbound on Lavaca St. However, it’s likely that LRT would need its own priority lanes in these streets.

Here’s why: The “Transit Priority Lanes” now being installed on the Lavaca and Guadalupe street pair already seem to present major problems for MetroRapid bus, much less LRT. The reason: Official plans involve inserting MetroRapid into a single lane each way along with well over two dozen bus routes. The City’s own 2011 study of this warned that delays to transit might result. And that’s even before urban rail comes along.

It seems eminently reasonable that LRT would need its own reserved lanes on the opposite side of each street (Lavaca and Guadalupe) from the bus lanes. It’s possible that urban rail could perhaps share lane use with MetroRapid, but not with all those other routes.

Since MetroRapid buses can operate only on the righthand side of the street, these buses (with righthand-side doors) couldn’t share a “lefthand” lane with urban rail on the opposite side of each street. So the solution seems to come down to reserving an additional lane exclusively for urban rail on each street.