Archive for the ‘Project Connect Orange Line LRT planning’ Category

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Plan now for conversion/inclusion of NW corridor, Red & Green Lines in CapMetro’s new light rail system

7 November 2021

Red Line/NW corridor map
Map shows Red Line and proposed Green Line. Red Line north and west of Crestview station serves metro area’s northwest corridor, currently operated with diesel “urban commuter rail” technology. Conversion to electric light rail and inclusion in new LRT system would provide major advantages. Source: CMTA (click on graphic to enlarge).

By Lyndon Henry

Lyndon Henry, an urban and transportation planner, is a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project of Texas Association for Public Transportation and contributing editor to Austin Rail Now (ARN).

Capital Metro, Project Connect, and the Austin Transit Partnership seem to be heading toward a serious and expensive mistake, ultimately with longterm adverse consequences: setting in concrete and steel the exclusion of the metro area’s northwest corridor and Red Line from Austin’s new electric light rail transit (LRT) system. It’s a decision currently in planning and at “only” 15% of design, but the eventual results could include suppressing potential ridership, raising ongoing operating costs significantly, and locking in place a two-tier rail transit operation of two different technologies requiring separate but duplicative facilities to serve similar segments of the metro population.

The northwest corridor – generally centered along the US 183 highway and 183A tollway, and also served by the Red Line “commuter rail” transit service to Leander – comprises metro Austin’s second-heaviest growth and travel corridor, after I-35. With density averaging more than 6100 persons per square mile, this corridor includes the City of Austin’s rapidly densifying northwestern suburban neighborhoods as well as the fast-growing suburban cities of Cedar Park and Leander. A member of Capital Metro’s service area since the agency’s inception, in 2020 Leander was described as an “Austin area suburb named as fastest growing city in America”. [Austin Business Journal, 26 July 2020]

“Urban commuter rail” substituted for light rail

From the 1970s, the railway line to Leander was envisioned as a crucial branch of a future LRT system, and as such was included in Capital Metro’s official light plans in the 1990s and early 2000s. However, to install a rail transit operation quickly, the MetroRail DMU (diesel multiple-unit) service, characterized as “urban commuter rail”, was conceived as an interim replacement, and approved by voters as part of the All Systems Go program in 2004.

At that time, the diesel-powered, bare-bones, lower-capacity, mostly single-track approach seemed an affordable, lower-risk way to get a minimalist rail transit operation up and running – in effect, a “demonstration line” allowing the metro Austin public to experience rail transit in their community, and to enable transit planners to assess community response. Unfortunately, current plans appear to perceive the “urban commuter rail” system – both the operating Red Line and new Green Line – as a permanently separate system, distinct from the electric LRT system now being implemented in central-city Austin.


Project Connect presentation in 2012 to Transit Working Group emphasized extraordinary demographic growth and ridership potential of northwest corridor. Source: Project Connect, TWG (click on graphic to enlarge).

Advantages of LRT for northwest corridor

Why is this such an unfortunate policy? Mainly because “commuter” rail (regional passenger rail) is a far less efficient and cost-effective mode than electric LRT for this kind of rapidly developing and densifying urban-suburban corridor. Here are some of LRT’s strongest advantages for Austin’s northwest corridor:

Faster, more frequent service — LRT’s high-power electric rolling stock, with higher acceleration/deceleration rates, would be able to provide faster, much more frequent service and thus substantially higher capacity for journeys within this major travel corridor to and from Austin’s central area.

Seamless connections — By interlining with the Orange and Blue LRT lines, LRT would offer a convenient, comfortable, “seamless” journey – without the need for a transfer – to northwest corridor passengers traveling to and from major destinations such as the University of Texas West Campus area, the Capitol Complex, the heart of downtown, and the ABIA aiport.

Significantly higher ridership — Faster, seamlessly direct rail transit service between the northwest corridor, the major activity centers within Austin’s core, and ABIA should itself stimulate a significant increase in ridership. The higher performance features of LRT could make additional stations in the corridor more feasible, adding a further boost in ridership.

Enhanced TOD potential — The availability of a fast, seamless, direct rail connection to Austin’s core and ABIA can be expected to further enhance the attraction of northwest corridor station sites for transit-oriented development (TOD). This in turn would likely create its own additional stimulus to ridership.

Lower operating costs — On average, the operating & maintenance (O&M) costs of LRT per passenger-mile (p-m) amount to just 34% of those of DMU “light commuter” operations of the same type as Capital Metro’s MetroRail. Put another way, MetroRail DMU operation costs about 3X as much per p-m as LRT. To take some examples from the most recent National Transit Database report (2019) by the Federal Transit Administration, Capital Metro’s Red Line service costs $1.73 per p-m compared to $0.85 for Dallas’s DART LRT system, $0.80 for Portland’s MAX, $0.39 for San Diego’s Trolley.

Elimination of duplicative service — Current planning seems to envision two permanently separate transit systems/technologies, with duplicate rolling-stock fleets, service facilities, etc., to serve corridors with basically very similar demographics within the same urbanized area. This seems inherently wasteful and unnecessary. Unifying these separate operations could further reduce costs by both eliminating duplication and facilitating economies of scale in procurements.

More flexible alignment opportunities — Unlike MetroRail’s “heavy” railroad rolling stock, LRT trains can turn street corners and run in city streets, as needed, compatibly with motor vehicle traffic. This would make possible, say, a simple crosstown rail transit connection between the Convention Center station and the Seaholm development area.

Compatibility with freight rail — Capital Metro’s privately contracted freight rail operation is currently an important revenue source for the agency; in addition, by reducing motor truck traffic on metro area roadways, it provides a net environmental benefit. MetroRail passenger service currently shares these tracks with freight via temporal (time) separation (freight operations run late at night, leaving the tracks free for transit service from morning to evening). LRT could operate likewise. LRT operations elsewhere also provide models and precedents for this: the San Diego Trolley (since 1981) and Salt Lake City Trax (since 1999) have successfully and safely shared tracks with freight railroad services for decades.


Service in northwest corridor (marked with red arrows on these maps) was proposed in past LRT plans developed by Capital Metro. LEFT: 1993 plan. RIGHT: 2000 plan. Source: CMTA (click on graphic to enlarge).

Unifying MetroRail and LRT

A unified system, with electric LRT service out to Leander, would not only serve one of the heaviest-traffic and fastest-growth corridors in the city with a proper high-capacity rapid transit-type operation, but would also, as noted above, enable an uninterrupted one-seat ride from Leander and other points along the Red Line corridor straight to UT, the Capitol Complex, and the heart of downtown. Making this a northwest extension of the planned Blue Line LRT would also incorporate a direct connection to ABIA. The Red Line service, from Leander to ACC’s Highland campus, through East Austin, and into the lower east side of downtown, could also be maintained with LRT.

Converting the MetroRail Red Line to electric LRT, and incorporating a connection in the grade-separation already being planned at Crestview, would be a relatively moderate-cost project, much less than building a new line from scratch. On average, using and modifying an existing railway alignment provide by far the lowest-cost type of LRT line construction. Planning for an integrated LRT system including the northwest line to Leander would need planning for both design and funding.

In terms of design, two engineering features are necessary:

• Plans for the grade-separated interchange at Crestview (N. Lamar/Airport Blvd.) would need to be modified to include a future track junction to enable northwest-corridor trains to join and interline with the Orange/Blue Line tracks on North Lamar. As currently planned, both rail alignments would be separated from the North Lamar roadway lanes; but a total grade separation is also planned between the existing railway (Red Line, which would tunnel under the intersection), and Project Connect’s proposed LRT alignment (which would fly over the intersection on a viaduct). This would force a cumbersome transfer for all LRT passengers traveling to or from the northwest and points south. A track junction would facilitate interlining and enable the seamless, transfer-free ride described earlier.


Diagram illustrates current design (15% complete) of future Orange Line LRT entering elevated alignment on North Lamar at Crestview, with Red Line totally grade-separated and crossing below LRT in tunnel (freight track would remain at-grade). To link northwest corridor into LRT system, this design must be modified to include track junction between Red Line and Orange Line. Graphic: Project Connect (click to enlarge).

• LRT system rail and vehicle wheel profiles that conform with railroad specifications would need to be designed and selected (i.e., the rails and car wheel profiles for the new LRT system would need to match those currently in use for the Red Line). This is standard for transit systems that include track-sharing with heavy railroad operation.

However, it must be realized that Project Connect’s planners are moving quickly toward finalizing a two-tier separated MetroRail and LRT dichotomy permanently in their final design, now 15% completed in late 2021 and expected to be 30% completed in the spring of 2022. Unless that design is tweaked to include the unification and compatibility measures described in this report, residents in the northwest corridor, including Leander, would likely never have that one-seat ride to UT, the Capitol, and ABIA, and Capital Metro’s rail transit services would be burdened with higher-than-necessary O&M costs.

The inclusion of the northwest corridor, and conversion of the Red Line to LRT, are not part of the large Project Connect transit program approved by voters in November 2020 and now underway. These plan changes would need to be approved, funded, and undertaken as a future separate project. This would include negotiating for and receiving a track-sharing waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration (as was done in San Diego and Salt Lake City). But surely the multiple benefits and substantial cost savings justify investing the effort and resources to achieve a unified regional LRT system for metro Austin. ■

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Project Connect Plan Can Lead the Way Toward Regional Electric Light Rail System

30 September 2020

Austin metro area is a regional area and needs a complete, comprehensive, fully interlined regional electric light rail system for adequate, cost-effective mobility. Map: ARN, from Google Maps.

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 on 7 August 2020 to a joint meeting of the Austin City Council and Capital Metro Board considering approval of an Interlocal Agreement and incorporation measure to implement a proposed Austin Transit Partnership to manage the proposed Capital Metro/Project Connect multi-modal transit system expansion project. The $7.1 billion multi-modal transit system plan, with two initial light rail lines, will be presented on the ballot for voter approval as Proposition A in the upcoming election on 3 November 2020. (The complete Project Connect long-range plan includes three eventual light rail lines as well as other regional rail services and various bus-based services.)

I’m Lyndon Henry. I’m an urban planner and transportation planning consultant, a former Capital Metro Board member, and a former data analyst for Capital Metro.

The Project Connect plan, centered on an urban rail system and anchored by a light rail spine along the key North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress Orange Line corridor, would basically implement the mass transit vision I’ve been advocating for the past 49 years. In pursuit of that vision, I participated in creating Capital Metro, served four years on its board, and later worked for the agency for nine years.

Starting in the 1970s, I initiated an effort to acquire, for rail transit use, the former Southern Pacific Railroad branch line from Giddings to Llano, the western part of which is in operation today as the Metrorail Red Line. I’ve also been continuously active over four decades as a community participant in the urban rail planning process, including Project Connect.

From its inception Capital Metro was conceived as a regional system with rail transit to serve both suburban and central-city neighborhoods of the Austin metro area. The Project Connect plan, with its three light rail lines, can be a major step toward fulfilment of that original intention to connect Austin’s more outlying neighborhoods with one another and the central city.

Expanding electric light rail is crucial to that regional vision. This can be done relatively easily and cost-effectively.

First, the Metrorail Red Line and proposed Green Line can be converted to faster, more cost-effective, high-capacity electric light rail service for the northwest and eastern sections of the metro area..

Second, the former Katy railroad right-of-way is a natural alignment to link eastern and northeastern suburbs and communities into central Austin.

Third, in south and southeast Austin, the former Bergstrom spur right-of-way offers an excellent route for an additional light rail line directly linking the ABIA airport with the Union Pacific rail corridor, South First St., the South Congress Transit Center, and neighborhoods east of I-35 along the Ben White/US 71 corridor.

I strongly support approving the Interlocal Agreement and incorporation measure to implement the proposed Austin Transit Partnership, and the funding commitments, toward the goal of building the regional highspeed electric light rail network that Austin has needed for so long.

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Austin: To subway, or not to subway?

29 February 2020

Map showing proposed downtown LRT subway. Source: Project Connect.

As ARN reported in our posting of 31 January, Project Connect Connect (Capital Metro’s major transit investment planning program) together with most of Austin’s top civic leadership apparently are now focusing on a massive multi-modal transit development vision with light rail transit (LRT) as its centerpiece, running in both the the Orange Line (North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress) and Blue Line (downtown-East Riverside-ABIA) corridors.

As we also noted, ridership volumes projected for the Orange Line are eye-popping – certainly, unusually high levels for a single U.S. starter line in a mid-sized Southwest city. Projected 2040 weekday ridership (61,600 to 73,500) would exceed or rival ridership experienced by the original single lines of relatively new major LRT projects (e.g, Los Angeles, Denver, St. Louis, Dallas, Houston) and even rail rapid transit – “heavy rail” metro – projects (e.g., Philadelphia-Lindenwold, Miami, Baltimore).

These volumes appear to underlie suggestions by Project Connect planners that segments of the proposed LRT lines, particularly in Austin’s Core Area, merit consideration as subway alignments. In addition, a segment of the Blue Line, several blocks eastward, is also considered for subway; it would feed into the Orange Line via an underground junction at Republic Square.

Need for greater capacity

Heavy peak transit passenger flows typically require more frequent trains and longer consists (number of cars per train) to provide sufficient capacity. Especially in concentrated downtowns and other central-city locations, these factors can in turn impact traffic flows across intersections by not just cars and trucks but also pedestrians, cyclists, and transit buses.

Particularly fueling interest is a subway tunnel is the length of downtown blocks (about 300 feet), which would limit train lengths to no more than three coupled LRT cars. This implies the need for a subway alignment in the Core Area north of the Colorado River (known as Lady Bird Lake) and south of Martin Luther King (MLK) Blvd. (basically, the southern border of the University of Texas campus).

In addition to eliminating conflicts with surface traffic and providing adequate capacity well into the future, the case for a subway appears to be bolstered by political support, both among the city’s top civic leadership as well as the public at large.

Subway drawbacks

On the other hand, there are significant drawbacks to subway rather than surface LRT line construction, both generally and in Austin’s case:

• Subway construction typically is far more expensive than surface facilities, entailing a much heavier demand on financial resources. According to cost estimates from Project Connect, building a downtown subway for an Orange Line LRT, rather than installing a surface alignment, would add nearly $837 million to the project investment cost.

• Federal Transit Administration funding is limited, and FTA officials tend to prefer more modest investment grant applications so that available funding can be spread more broadly. Increasing the cost of a New Start project significantly may render a project less competitive and lower it in the queue of projects seeking funding. Adding a downtown subway segment to, say, a starter LRT line from the North Lamar Transit Center to downtown would increase total project cost by over 65%.

• Particularly because the precise details of what’s below the surface are largely hidden, subway construction is far more prone to unexpected challenges and costs which can result in hefty budget overruns.

• Operating & maintenance (O&M) costs for subway LRT operation tend to be somewhat higher than for surface operation because of the added operational costs (e.g., electrical power) and functional maintenance needs of ventilation systems, elevators, escalators, etc. Also, maintenance-of-way work (maintaining track, power supply, signals, etc.) tends to be more expensive in underground conditions.

• Compared to surface LRT, where trains are run in the open and stations are easy to see and recognize – orienting the public to the available service and helping attract potential passengers – subway operations and stations are almost entirely out of sight, except for small entrances to ground level that may be difficult for the general public (especially new riders, tourists, etc.) to find and recognize.

• Access-egress to-from subway stations, which require climbing stairs, waiting for and riding elevators, or riding escalators, can be somewhat daunting. (The access time penalty is often included in ridership forecast models.) While accessing surface LRT platforms often requires waiting for traffic or pedestrian signals, typically the time penalty and physical difficulty are much less.

Capacity of an Orange Line surface LRT line

While there’s no question that a subway would provide greater potential to accommodate ridership further into the future, a technical examination of the capacity requirements to meet Project Connect’s actual predicted peak ridership volumes in the 2040 target year suggests that these could be met by a surface LRT alignment (running in dedicated street lanes) through Austin’s downtown, even with the limitation of 3-car trains running at very narrow headways (i.e., high frequencies). For example, Both Dallas and Calgary (Alberta) operate 3-car trains providing heavy capacity through downtown street alignments. Dallas runs trains as close as 4-min peak headways; Calgary runs trains as close as 2.4-min peak headways. Presumably Austin could operate trains at least as close as 3-min headways, or 20 trains per hour.

Project Connect assumes each LRT car would have a peak capacity of 172 passengers. Thus a 3-car train would provide capacity for 516 passengers. Running 20 three-car trains per hour would provide peak capacity of 10,320 riders per peak hour/peak direction. Using the rule of thumb that peak ridership in the peak direction = 10% of daily weekday ridership, this implies that surface LRT trains would provide an operating capacity capable of handling ridership up to 103,000 a day.

Project Connect forecasts daily ridership of 61,600 for the 90% street-alignment option, and 73,600 for the 50% grade-separated option. Extrapolating from the agency’s estimates, ARN calculates the annual growth rate for Project Connect’s 90% street option to be 2.2% per annum. At that rate, it would take another 24 years to reach 103,000 daily ridership level, or the year 2064 – 44 years from today – when the capacity of street running with 3-car trains would presumably be reached.

While a surface LRT line may provide adequate capacity for several decades into the future, nevertheless it’s virtually guaranteed that eventually it will not be able to meet Austin’s growing transit ridership market at some further point. Should Austin be designing a system for that far into the future? Perhaps, but this “future-proofing” strategy needs to be weighed against other considerations, such as Austin’s available bonding capacity, and the need for such a project to be competitive for relatively scarce FTA capital investment grant funding.

A downtown subway project could still be undertaken at the point of unavoidable need, 40 or 45 years from now. Salvageable surface trackage and facilities could possibly be redeployed for a surface circulator system.

Economic development potential

But capacity and operational characteristics are not the only aspects of such a major urban rail investment to be considered. Light rail – either surface or subway – can be expected to catalyze significant nearby and adjacent economic development that potentially could provide a revenue stream recompensing most, or even all, of the infrastructure investment. The tens of billions of dollars in economic development stimulated by new LRT systems in cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, Portland, Phoenix, Charlotte, Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Kansas City, Detroit, and others represent abundant evidence of these benefits.

It’s worth imagining that LRT stations (either subway or surface) in downtown Austin could stimulate the development of a major underground/above-ground commercial/shopping complex there, directly connecting with the LRT system. Models of such developments, with stores, small shops and boutiques, theatres, restaurants, and other attractions, can be found in an array of global cities with signature core-area LRT systems or metros, whereby the urban rail system provides fast, easy access to these work, shopping, dining, and recreational opportunities. Several examples include:

• Los Angeles — The Bloc (connecting to Metro and LRT subways)

• Dallas — Dallas Pedestrian Network (underground concourses with shops, food services connecting to DART LRT)

• Toronto — Massive PATH underground shopping complex connecting with six TTC subway stations, including Union Station, the city’s largest transit hub

• Montreal — Underground City, “a multi-level network of tunnels and stairways that connect various shopping malls, metro stations, offices, hotels, libraries, schools, concert halls, and restaurants” (Culture Trip)

• Edmonton — The Pedway, a network of underground concourses and aerial walkways connecting over 40 office buildings, shopping centers, and parking facilities with three LRT stations in the downtown area

And of course there are numerous other examples worldwide of similar downtown complexes integrated with urban rail stations.

Whether Project Connect’s final plan includes a subway or not, the opportunity to design Austin’s LRT stations to catalyze economic development must be a major element. And especially with this city’s role as an internationally known venue for events such as SxSW, ACL, and Formula One, the chance to transform and enrich downtown with such a major integrated complex of activity centers with urban rail should not be missed.

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Project Connect study: Ridership potential, capacity advantages push light rail into lead

31 January 2020

Chart shows 2040 forecast ridership for both surface (top bar) and grade-separated (lower bar) options of BRT (left end of each bar) and LRT (right end of each bar). In both cases, LRT ridership substantially exceeds that of BRT. That disparity, plus capacity limitations of BRT, seem to tip scales toward LRT. Graphic: Project Connect (click to enlarge).

In what appears to be a dramatic turn in the saga of Austin’s Project Connect planning process, Austin civic leaders, Capital Metro’s Board, and the team of Project Connect (Capital Metro’s major transit investment planning program) appear to have embraced a planning scenario backing light rail transit (LRT) for both the Orange Line (North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress) and Blue Line (downtown-East Riverside-ABIA).

Consensus for this option seemed to emerge during and after a joint Austin City Council/Capital Metro Board work session on 14 January. According to a report in the Austin American Statesman of that date, while LRT would cost more to build than a bus rapid transit (BRT) alternative, “a Cap Metro analysis found the [BRT] system would reach its capacity in 2040.”

In comparison, rail would offer much more potential for passenger growth. Maximum capacity for ridership on a bus rapid transit system would be reached less than a decade from when the system is completed — a fact that doomed it as an option.

Bus rapid transit “does not work … and the analysis shows that now,” Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said. “It doesn’t have the capacity we need.”

Advocates for an LRT starter line serving the Orange Line corridor have long predicted the enormous ridership potential of this route, and Project Connect’s ridership forecasts, based on the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) STOPS model integrated with a locally developed model used by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), bear out these community predictions. According to Project Connect’s working forecasts in their operations & maintenance documentation, LRT ridership is projected at unusually high levels for a single new starter line.

• For the year 2028, typical weekday ridership is projected at more than 54,200 for a 50% grade separated (elevated or subway) option, and over 47,200 for a 90% surface option.

• For the year 2040, typical ridership is projected at more than 73,500 for a 50% grade separated option, and over 61,600 for a 90% surface option.

The significance of these Orange Line ridership projections for a single starter line can be assessed by placing them in perspective with ridership experienced by the original single lines of other relatively new major rail rapid transit (RRT, “heavy rail”) and LRT projects, for which data has been readily available. (Weekday ridership data from National Transit Database and American Public Transportation Association.)

Light rail lines — Los Angeles (1993) 36,600; Denver (1996) 13,500; St. Louis (2005) 40,900; Dallas (1998) 36,700; Salt Lake City (2002) 31,400; Minneapolis (2005) 25,700; Houston (2005) 36,700

Rail rapid transit (“heavy rail”) lines — Philadelphia-Lindenwold (2019) 38,900; Miami (2019) 59,000; Baltimore 38,400.


For a single-line new-start project, projected 2040 ridership for Orange Line LRT alternative seems to exceed that of even several heavy metro lines, such as this one in Baltimore. Photo: Doug Grotjahn.


It can be seen that the Orange Line projected ridership, if achieved, would fall in the range of some of the highest-ridership new single lines, both LRT and RRT, in the USA, and possibly could count as the highest achieved by any new LRT project in this country.

As Project Connect’s planning proceeds further, attention is focusing on critical details, including fine-tuning and finalizing capital cost estimates that would impact a major municipal bond election proposed for this coming November. Current estimates for the complete Capital Metro service area system, including numerous additional corridors with lighter BRT operations, regional rail services, and other essential transit services as well as the LRT lines, range between $3.8 and $9.4 billion, depending on options such as percentage of surface alignment vs. proposed elevated or subway segments.