Archive for the ‘MetroRapid bus service’ Category

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Bus paveways on Guadalupe-Lamar — Project Connect’s “elephant in the room”

17 December 2013
MetroRapid bus, southbound on N. Lamar, nears Koenig Lane during testing on Dec. 10th. By dumping urban rail for this corridor, Project Connect would be free to proceed with plan to install specially paved bus lanes instead of rails. Photo: L. Henry.

MetroRapid bus, southbound on N. Lamar, nears Koenig Lane during testing on Dec. 10th. By dumping urban rail for this corridor, Project Connect would be free to proceed with plan to install specially paved bus lanes instead of rails. Photo: L. Henry.

By Dave Dobbs

The Elephant in the Room within the Project Connect (COA) urban rail plan (first to Mueller via East Campus, etc. and then out the East Riverside Corridor) is the official proposal to build 40% to 50% dedicated bus lanes, roughly 15-18 miles, within the 37-mile MetroRapid system. This $500 million expenditure appears as a near-term (within 10 years) investment, 80% of which would come from the Federal Transit Administration. Lyndon Henry and I have documented this and explained how it might work in an October 18th article entitled No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes….

When I spoke with Project Connect’s Scott Gross about the nature of this a few weeks ago, he said that the dedicated bus lane plan was one that included both right-of-way acquisition and exclusive bus lanes. The math here says that these lanes would be far more extensive than paint-on-paving such as we are about to see on Guadalupe and Lavaca between MLK and Cesar Chavez, 1.4 miles at a cost of $370,000.

Here’s the math …

$500,000,000 ÷ 18 miles = $27.8 million ÷ 2 lanes = $13.9 million per lane-mile

This figure points to a heavy-duty reinforced concrete bus lane in each direction, 18 inches thick, similar to the bus pads at bus stops we see along major bus routes. This would require tearing up the street as severely as a light rail installation would, with all the other utility improvements therein that might be accomplished at the same time.

While my cost-per-lane mile is a simple mathematical one, the result is consistent with what Ben Wear reports for building SH-130, 90 miles from Georgetown to Sequin, for $2.9 billion, or about $8 million a lane-mile. Construction costs in the middle of a very congested street, e.g., South Congress or North Lamar, would be significantly higher than a highway over farmland. That and ROW acquisition costs could easily account for $5.9 million dollars of difference.

These bus lanes, planned in the next decade, would definitely be an obstacle to further FTA investment for 20 to 30 years wherever they are installed. The question we ought to be asking is: What kind of “high capacity transit” do we want on our heaviest-traveled streets?

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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.
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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.

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Why MetroRapid bus service is NOT “bus rapid transit”

22 September 2013
Capital Metro MetroRapid bus. Photo: CMTA blog.

Capital Metro MetroRapid bus. Photo: CMTA blog.

Capital Metro’s MetroRapid bus project received its $38 million of Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funding through its designation as a “Bus Rapid Transit” project under the FTA’s Small Starts program. But calling a bus operation “rapid transit” that will run predominantly in mixed motor vehicle traffic seems either rather fraudulent, self-deceptive, or a branding effort that has descended to the ridiculous. Yet some local officials, planners, and enthusiasts of the officially promoted downtown-to-Mueller Urban Rail route have been vigorously singing the praises of MetroRapid as a viable and equivalent substitute for light rail transit (LRT) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

Even LRT, which typically runs entirely or predominantly in reserved or exclusive alignments, and (for comparable levels of service) is faster than so-called “BRT”, isn’t called “rapid transit”.

The un-rapid drawbacks of CapMetro’s MetroRapid have been cited by other analyses. For example, Austin American-Statesman transportation reporter Ben Wear, in a February 2012 article titled MetroRapid bus service not so rapid, not expected until 2014, noted:

Despite an agency goal of offering time savings of 10 percent, in hopes of attracting more people to buses, the two lines would mostly offer minimal time savings, according to a Capital Metro presentation on the MetroRapid bus system, now scheduled to start operating in 2014.

In one case, a MetroRapid bus running from Howard Lane in North Austin to downtown would make the trip in 47 minutes — the same as an existing limited-stop bus that runs the same route. Trips between South Austin and downtown on that same line would offer time savings of just two to three minutes.

Community public transit activist Mike Dahmus, in a blog entry titled Rapid Bus Ain’t Rapid, 2011 Confirmation, provided schedule evidence from CapMetro’s own website indicating that travel time differentials between the proposed Route 801 service (North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress) for atypically long trip lengths were minimal — time savings of 0 to perhaps 3 minutes even for such unusually lengthy trips as journeys between far-flung transit centers.

And in another article titled Rapid [sic] Bus Fact Check: Will It Improve Frequency? Dahmus offered a cogent argument that headways (thus waiting times for passengers) would be increased, not decreased, with MetroRapid service in the Route 801 corridor. Assuming the most likely operating scenario, Dahmus figures the number of scheduled bus trips in an average hour would be reduced from 9 to 8 — i.e., an increase in service headways and concomitant increase in waiting time for passengers.

Wikipedia provides a useful definition/description of Rapid Transit:

A rapid transit system is a public transport system in an urban area with high capacity, high frequency not needing timetables, is fast and is segregated from other traffic…. Operating on an exclusive right of way, rapid transit systems are typically grade separated and located either in underground tunnels (subways) or elevated above street level (elevated transit line). … Modern services on rapid transit systems are provided on designated lines between stations typically using electric multiple units on rail tracks, although some systems use guided rubber tyres, magnetic levitation, or monorail.

Numbered citations were omitted from the quotation above, but the Wikipedia article’s references included:

• “Rapid transit”. Merriam-Webster.
• “Metro”. International Association of Public Transport.
• “Glossary of Transit Terminology”. American Public Transportation Association.
• “Rapid Transit”. Encyclopedia Britannica.

In the USA, the term “rail rapid transit” has a de facto meaning of such an urban electric metro or subway/elevated system, running entirely (with rare exceptions) on its own, exclusive right-of-way, with no grade crossings or other interference with street traffic or pedestrians.

It would seem reasonable that the public, political and civic leaders, and transportation professionals should hold “bus rapid transit” to the same standard. Certainly, “bus rapid transit” should not be applied to bus operations running merely in reserved traffic lanes, or in and out of mixed and reserved or exclusive lanes, etc. — yet these are precisely the kinds of operating applications that FTA, and several major BRT advocacy organizations, have been blithely characterizing as “BRT”.

To call a modestly enhanced bus operation “rapid transit” while denying this designation to a streetcar/light rail operation with much or most of its alignment in exclusive or reserved ROW seems like branding gone haywire — particularly so when the buses depart from the totally exclusive alignment and meander on routes in mixed traffic. Why should a bus coming down the street, waiting in traffic jams, etc., be called “rapid transit”? This would seem to make a mockery of the term.

In effect, the term Bus Rapid Transit is being applied to service/capacity mode configurations that are significantly inferior not just to Rail Rapid Transit but to Light Rail Transit — and that would seem highly misleading, especially to the general public. For these modestly improved bus services, a term such as Bus Premium Transit would appear more accurate and appropriate.

The section below provides a brief photo-summary distinguishing among bona fide rail rapid transit and bus rapid transit, and Bus Premium Transit operations erroneously (and widely) characterized as “BRT”.


♦ This is rail rapid transit (RRT)

Baltimore Metro. Photo: Doug Grotjahn.

Baltimore Metro. Photo: Doug Grotjahn.

Miami MetroRail. Photo: L. Henry.

Miami MetroRail. Photo: L. Henry.


♦ This is bus rapid transit (BRT)

Miami-Dade County Busway. Photo: Jon Bell.

Miami-Dade County Busway. Photo: Jon Bell.

Brisbane (Australia) busway. Photo: That Jesus Bloke.

Brisbane (Australia) busway. Photo: That Jesus Bloke.

Boston Waterfront Silver Line. Photo: Massachusetts Government blog.

Boston Waterfront Silver Line. Photo: Massachusetts Government blog.


♦ This is NOT “bus rapid transit”

Los Angeles MetroRapid Route 720. Photo: Sopas EJ.

Los Angeles MetroRapid Route 720. Photo: Sopas EJ.

Kansas City MAX premium bus service (branded as "BRT"). Photo: Metro Jacksonville.

Kansas City MAX premium bus service (branded as “BRT”). Photo: Metro Jacksonville.


Bottom Line: With MetroRapid bus service, Capital Metro does seem to be modestly upgrading current bus service in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor and elsewhere with spiffier station facilities and newer buses — improvements that most bus riders, and probably the public in general, would welcome.

But an acceptable substitute for urban rail … it ain’t.

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

18 September 2013
View of part of MetroRapid fleet.

View of part of MetroRapid fleet.

Some local officials, favoring the City’s long-preferred Urban Rail plan from downtown through the UT East Campus to the Mueller development site, have been presenting Capital Metro’s MetroRapid juiced-up-bus-service project as a barrier to alternative proposals for implementing urban rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor.

As Austin Rail Now will discuss in subsequent analyses, this argument is fatuous and fallacious. Instead, MetroRapid can and should be re-purposed and re-branded as a precursor to urban rail, not a competitor and obstacle.

This concept of MetroRapid as a precursor to rail was first presented in a 27 April 2012 commentary by Lyndon Henry (technical consultant for Light Rail Now) to the Transit Working Group:

Rapid Bus can be a precursor to Urban Rail in Lamar-Guadalupe corridor!

Here are excerpts (adapted for Webpage format) from that commentary that may be useful to the discussion of such a possible role for MetroRapid as a precursor to urban rail (using light rail transit technology) in the G-L corridor:


♦ Useful reference: BRT as a Precursor of LRT? (TRB conference paper, 2009)

Paper presented by Dave Dobbs and [Lyndon Henry] to 2009 Joint International Light Rail Conference sponsored by Transportation Research Board [TRB] provides research and guidelines for BRT as rail precursor:

Cover of TRB conference proceedings.

Cover of TRB conference proceedings.

Title and author lines from published paper.

Title and author lines from published paper.

[Link to proceedings]

http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec145.pdf

♦ Examples where “BRT” has been precursor to rail – including with FTA approval

Various U.S. examples exist where both technically and policy-wise, a RapidBus or BRT-type system can function as a precursor to rail transit service – and with Federal Transit Administration (FTA) approval!

• Dallas – BRT-like express bus service, operated by Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) on North Central Expressway, served as a precursor to DART’s LRT extension to Plano.
• Miami – Miami-Dade Busway has been serving as precursor to extensions of MetroRail rapid transit.
• Los Angeles – Wilshire Boulevard MetroRapid service, operated by Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), has served as precursor to extension of MTA’s rail rapid transit metro system, a project now under way.
• Seattle – In Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, BRT-type bus service functioned as precursor to Link light rail (now operating jointly with buses – see photos below).

♦ In 2009, Capital Metro’s MetroRapid was envisioned as precursor to rail

As recently as 2009, MetroRapid project was being designed for eventual conversion to light rail:

Excerpt from section of paper.

Excerpt from section of paper.

♦ Conclusion: BRT or RapidBus must be originally designed as light rail precursor!

Paper concludes that best-practices approach to plan for BRT or RapidBus as precursor to rail is to design it for eventual conversion from the start. This means keeping infrastructure investment minimal and designing for modularity (i.e., designing station components, communications, etc. so they can be easily relocated or reconfigured for the rail mode during conversion).

Excerpt from Conclusion of paper.

Excerpt from Conclusion of paper.

If the transit agency can demonstrate that the BRT or RapidBus investment won’t be lost, but can be upgraded into a higher and more effective use (e.g., Urban Rail), FTA has approved such conversion.