Archive for the ‘Project Connect planning issues’ Category


Proposed Cost-Saving Light Rail Design Changes: Downtown and South Congress Avenue

20 November 2022

Proposed alternative Orange Line alignment. Source: L. Henry (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 (a Texas nonprofit organization) and contributing editor to Austin Rail Now (ARN). He is also a member of the Engineering, Architecture and Construction (EAC) Advisory Committee of the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP), the public agency overseeing Austin’s major transit development program (including light rail) approved by city voters in November 2020.
In April 2022, Project Connect reported it was encountering a $4.5 billion budget overrun in its light rail transit (LRT) program, of which $3.9 billion was linked to the Orange Line and tunnel segments. In a May2022 memo to the EAC committee, Lyndon noted that much of this “appears to be a result of the extension of the subway tunnel under the river, the South Bank, and South Congress Avenue” (which had replaced an earlier conception of a surface alignment and bridge). As remedial measures, Lyndon offered proposals to consolidate the Orange and Blue lines into a single tunnel alignment through downtown and onto a single crossing, by bridge, over the Colorado River (Lady Bird Lake). These ideas are being considered by the Project Connect team as possible design alternatives.
In an effort to contribute to the “criteria evaluation and project optimization” goals of a 22 October Light Rail Workshop of several ATP advisory groups, including the EAC, Lyndon submitted a handout proposing his tunnel and bridge consolidation plan plus suggesting a redesign of the South Congress light rail extension as a surface alignment, “avoiding the heavy cost of a subway tunnel in this segment.” These ideas “appear to offer potential to reduce cost and speed up construction, helping to fulfill what voters have approved” he noted, adding that “Hopefully, at least a portion of the proposed extension into Central South Austin might be completed per the original schedule.” The below presents the proposals in that workshop handout.

With serious potential budget overruns posed by the transit system plan designs to date, the Project Connect team has been seeking ideas for alterations and alternatives. Here are some of my own thoughts and proposals toward “criteria evaluation and project optimization” as requested in this workshop.

Securing public trust

A major premise of my approach, based on 50 years of involvement and research in public transportation, is that maintaining public trust is absolutely crucial to a project of this importance and magnitude.

Public expectations should be highly valued. Accordingly, my proposals are intended to maintain as much of the original light rail transit (LRT) route structure and completion schedule as possible, remaining faithful to what voters have approved. Given the budget problems and constraints that have emerged, this seems to imply some major changes to plan configurations, particularly infrastructure design, to reduce budgetary investment cost and minimize construction time.

Downtown subway reconfiguration

In the map [shown above] (originally presented to the EAC Advisory Committee in May), I have proposed an alternative alignment for the Orange Line southward from Republic Square, eliminating the currently proposed tunnel under the river to the South Bank and into South Congress Avenue. Instead, from Republic Square southward the Orange Line would follow the Blue Line alignment via the 4th St. tunnel, then the Trinity tunnel. Emerging just north of the Colorado River, the Orange Line would then share the proposed bridge over to the South Bank.

On the South Bank, the Orange Line would branch westward via available real estate and Riverside Drive right-of-way over to South Congress Avenue (a station could be installed in this area to provide approximately 0.4-mile access to Auditorium Shores and the Long Center). Sharing the Blue Line alignment via 4th St./Trinity St. and the proposed transit bridge as an alternative connection from downtown to the South Bank would alone reduce investment cost significantly (perhaps by $1 billion or more). The Orange Line could then proceed into the South Congress corridor either in tunnel or as a surface alignment.

South Congress surface alignment

A surface alignment on South Congress Avenue (as proposed in the original conception of this LRT project) in lieu of tunnelling would offer another means of substantial construction cost and time saving and likely facilitate at least some of the previously proposed extension of the Orange Line into Central South Austin by 2029. Perhaps the widest local arterial in the central city, South Congress offers a virtually ideal opportunity for surface light rail. (See graphic simulation, below.)

Construction of surface facilities (e.g., stations, overhead contact system) should be possible within the Capitol View Corridors (CVC) regulatory guidelines at least as far south as Mary Street. (As defined by the Downtown Commission in a 2007 document, “A view corridor is a plane that extends from a defined view point or points to the base of the Capitol dome. … No structure is permitted to pierce the plane.”) To avoid obstructing the CVC in the remaining short segment from Mary to south of Live Oak St., trains could operate on batteries or perhaps a technology such as Alstom’s proprietary APS (alimentation par sol – ground power) electrification system, which uses a surface power strip between the rails which is electrified only when a train is passing on that section of track.

Simulation of surface light rail alignment on South Congress (courtesy George Barsky)

Rethinking intersection with Cesar Chavez St.

So far, design of LRT alignments downtown has been constrained by the assumption that Cesar Chavez St. with its heavy traffic flow cannot tolerate the interruptions from a surface intersection with light rail. However, LRT lines in various other cities have worked well for decades with surface intersections with similar major arterials (e.g., Portland’s original MAX LRT line has crossed the city’s major 5th and 6th Avenues downtown since 1986). Elimination of this constraint, thus permitting LRT surface crossings of Cesar Chavez, could provide Project Connect greater planning flexibility and lead to even more substantial cost savings. ■



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. ■


Project Connect Orange Line: Unique Purpose and Potential

26 October 2019

Project Connect’s Vision Plan map shows proposed Orange Line alignment from Tech Ridge (north) to Slaughter Lane (south). Annotated by ARN.

Commentary by Dave Dobbs

The following summary proposing urban rail for Austin’s Orange Line corridor is adapted and edited from a previous Email commentary by Dave Dobbs, Executive Director of Texas Association for Public Transportation and publisher of

Running in the Guadalupe-North Lamar and South Congress corridors between Tech Ridge and Southpark Meadows (see map at top of post), the 21-mile Orange Line will be Austin’s north-south electric urban rail transit spine. It must be fed by an east-west grid of timed-transfer buses that will provide a viable alternative to the private automobile, thereby increasing affordable, sustainable mobility for all, regardless of income or circumstance.

Regionally, large park & ride facilities at the ends of this “anchor” line, and rail connections at Crestview, will give Central Texas commuters real alternatives to the congestion on IH35, MoPac (Loop 1), and US183, thereby insuring high daily ridership on both trains and buses. Catalyzing station-area economic development will follow, with “alternative downtowns” and dense, mixed-use housing opportunities for a wide range of incomes and for a far larger number of Austin’s citizens – thus providing affordable living space to address the acute housing shortage in Austin for lower and middle-income families.

Every Austin taxpayer, transit rider or not, will benefit from the large commercial tax base created. Revenues from property and sales taxes uniquely generated by the Orange Line urban rail investment will more than pay for the capital and operating and maintenance (O&M) costs of the urban rail itself as shown by the experience of a number of new U.S. light rail transit systems installed since 2001. Examples of cities where documentation is available of these catalytic, massive urban rail economic development effects include: Portland, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Houston, and Kansas City. (Also see: Methodological Considerations in Assessing the Urban Economic and Land-Use Impacts of Light Rail Development.)


An Alternative Basic Urban Rail Framework for Austin

29 September 2019

Basic Urban Rail Framework, using available “opportunity assets”, is readily implementable, affordable path to a more extensive, interoperable citywide urban rail system using electric light rail transit (LRT) technology. Map: ARN. (Click on image to enlarge.)

This proposed alternative vision for a “foundation” of Austin-area urban rail lines has been revised and updated from a handout originally distributed on 21 August 2019 to a Project Connect community meeting.

An extensive high-capacity urban rail system, together with high-quality bus services and other useful public transport modes, would be a transformational upgrade of mobility for metro Austin and its surrounding region. Towards this goal, the lines in the map above represent a proposed initial “skeleton” or framework of readily implementable, affordable, workable urban rail alignments, upon which routes/branches into other corridors can be added.

The key advantage of this Basic Urban Rail Framework is that these alignments are, in effect, the “low-hanging fruit” of available “opportunity assets” – in this case, available railway alignments and wide roadways – that can expedite implementation of multiple interoperable urban rail lines, deploying electric light rail transit (LRT) technology, providing exceptionally attractive, cost-effective, high-capacity rail transit. Using the technologically common mode of LRT, interconnected urban rail lines (and rolling stock) can be interlined (shared by different routes).

Given Austin’s size, growth dynamics, and financial resources, LRT is optimally scaled to achieve the essential and realistic mobility goals for our metro area. LRT makes the best use of existing “opportunity assets”, particularly available railway alignments. Both the existing Red Line and proposed Green Line (both using CMTA-owned right-of-way) can be upgraded to LRT at approximately half the cost (or less) per mile of new street trackage. In fact, much of the existing trackage and other infrastructure of the Red Line can be converted to LRT at even lower expense.

Capacity and high acceleration capability are critical. LRT would provide adequately high capacity and performance to attract and cost-effectively accommodate heavy ridership volumes (current and future), particularly in the northwest Red Line corridor. More efficient performance, higher capacity, and lower unit operating & maintenance costs would be expected from conversion of the Red Line from diesel multiple units (DMUs) to electrically propelled LRT. Not only would an LRT Red Line enable urban rail service into northwest Austin, but in addition it would provide significantly higher-level urban rail service to East Austin and interconnective links to work, education, and other opportunities.

Freight service could be maintained on both the Red Line and Green Line tracks via a Federal Railroad Administration shared-use waiver based on temporal separation (logically, meaning late-night use of these tracks only by freight trains). The outer segment of the Green Line to Elgin (and other regional extensions) could possibly be served with DMU regional rail using existing rolling stock.

A complete transit network of local routes, “rapid bus”, express bus, etc. can be overlaid on this Basic Framework of primary LRT trunk lines. Additional urban rail lines (possibly as streetcar operations) could branch from these trunk routes to serve other corridors; for example: Manor Road to the Mueller development and northeast Austin; MLK into East Austin; and the Lake Austin Blvd. corridor serving the south segment of West Austin.

LRT systems have demonstrated an exceptional ability to attract new riders, and to catalyze economic development and transit-oriented-development (TOD). Additional taxbase created often can more than recompense the costs of LRT systems. Those are additional reasons why this Basic Urban Rail Framework makes abundant sense.


Blue Line Should Branch from Orange Line Urban Rail — Nix the Redundant Infrastructure!

15 August 2019

Map shows ARN’s alternative proposed urban rail configuration in Core Area connecting Orange Line (Tech Ridge to Slaughter Lane) with Blue Line (UT campus through Core Area and East Riverside to ABIA). Both lines would share First St. (Drake) Bridge over river, thus eliminating need for an expensive redundant Blue Line bridge. Blue Line would branch from Orange Line at Dean Keaton and at W. 4th St. to serve east side of Core Area and provide link to airport. Map: ARN.
(Click image to enlarge)

By Austin Rail Now

Commentary slightly adapted from one-page handout originally produced by ARN and distributed to participants in Project Connect’s Blue Line Workshop at ACC Highland, 31 July 2019.

► Orange Line as primary corridor — Urban rail installation in the Orange Line alignment (N. Lamar-Guadalupe-Lamar-South Congress/NL-G-SC) must be prioritized. Positioned as Austin’s major central local corridor, between I-35 to the east and Loop 1 (MoPac) to the west, the Orange Line corridor is the center city’s 3rd-heaviest north-south travel corridor (after I-35 and MoPac). The City of Austin has repeatedly emphasized that this is the primary local traffic corridor in central-city Austin, with exceptionally heavy traffic at maximum capacity for over the past 2 decades. North Lamar alone is ranked by Texas Transportation Institute as one of the most congested arterials in Texas. With Austin’s highest total employment density on Guadalupe-Lamar, an urban rail line there alone could serve 31% of all Austin jobs. It would also serve the highest-density residential concentrations in the city — including the West Campus, ranking the 3rd-highest in residential neighborhood density among major Texas cities.

► Light rail transit (LRT) — For over 30 years, urban rail in the NL-G-SC (currently designated Orange Line) alignment has been regarded as the key central spine for an eventual citywide and regional urban rail network using well-proven, widely deployed, effective, affordable light rail transit (LRT) technology. Particularly with little to no need for major civil works, the Orange Line is ideal for a surface-installed LRT starter line.

Since initially selected as Capital Metro’s Locally Preferred Alternative in 1989, LRT has remained Austin’s premier major high-capacity transit vision. LRT has demonstrated numerous key advantages over bus rapid transit (BRT). And unlike many “gadget” alternatives, LRT is well-proven in service, a readily available technology, and non-proprietary. (In contrast, “autonomous BRT” has been neither deployed commercially nor even tested.) Compared with buses, LRT systems provide higher capacity and are faster, more user-friendly and more comfortable to access and ride. On average, ridership on new LRT systems is 127% higher than on BRT. LRT is also more cost-effective – average operating cost of new LRT systems is 10% lower than for BRT. Transit Database

► Alternate Blue Line — Simply trying to resurrect the failed 2014 Highland-Riverside plan is not a prudent option. The Blue Line makes the most sense if it shares segments of the Orange Line, branching from it to serve the eastside of the Core Area and UT, and the East Riverside corridor (and ultimately ABIA). Running westward from ABIA on East Riverside, the Blue Line in this proposal would join the Orange Line south of the S.1st St. (Drake) Bridge. Sharing trackage across the bridge, it would proceed northward to Republic Square, where it would turn east to the San Jacinto/Trinity arterial pair, then turn northward and proceed to serve the Medical District and the UT East Campus. At Dean Keaton, the alignment would then turn west and travel on Dean Keaton toward Guadalupe St. to rejoin the Orange Line, proceeding northward from there. Access to-from ACC Highland could be made available via transfer with Red Line trains (with improved frequency) or various bus alternatives (from UT campus or Crestview).

► Eliminate redundant infrastructure — Major advantages of this alternative include more efficient operation, better passenger interconnection between Blue and Orange Lines, and very significant cost savings through eliminating redundancy: the proposed bridge over the Colorado, approximately three miles of line infrastructure paralleling the Orange Line, and five stations.


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

31 December 2018

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

by Lyndon Henry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Let’s Put Austin’s Urban Rail Planning Back on Track

29 November 2018

Light rail starter line using N. Lamar-Guadalupe corridor from Tech Ridge to downtown was key element of Project Connect comprehensive regional plan presented in February 2018. Despite a three-year data-driven process with community participation, it was subsquently overruled and aborted by Capital Metro officials – setting back planning process another two years.

This post publishes the text of a handout distributed to a “Community Conversation” meeting sponsored by Project Connect in Council District 5 on 17 November 2018.

No more backsliding – Finalize a plan!

Last February (2018), Capital Metro’s Project Connect planning program, with public input, was finally nearing the end of a two-year process to devise a regional public transport proposal with urban rail and other “high-capacity” transit. On the table was a widely acclaimed, tentative plan for a viable, attractive public transport system, centered on a north-south light rail line from Tech Ridge to Slaughter Lane to link the city’s heaviest local travel corridors and provide a spine for ultimate rail extensions to other sections of the city. It was conceivable that details could be finalized to place a starter line on the November ballot for bond funding.

But that wouldn’t happen. Just over a month later, CapMetro’s new incoming CEO, with the blessing of the board, discarded the plan and reset the whole process back to zero – thus adding another two years to the seemingly endless effort to forge a transit remedy to Austin’s worsening mobility crisis.

While this destructive action was unprecedented and outrageous, for Austin it nevertheless fit a pattern of transit system plans aborted, botched, or abandoned by top leaders of CapMetro and the city’s political power elite, persisting over the past three decades. That’s a graveyard of at least six – count ‘em, 6 – urban rail planning efforts, totaling tens of millions of dollars, that have died because of official disinterest or misleadership, prolonging Austin’s mobility crisis pain and misery by 30 years. This delay needs to end – Austin needs to finalize and implement an urban rail system ASAP!

Real-world light rail, not science fiction dreams

In official studies from 1989 to 2018, light rail transit (LRT) has repeatedly been validated as Austin’s best choice for an attractive, cost-effective high-capacity transit system and the centerpiece of a regional system.

In recent decades, at least 19 North American cities have opened brand-new, affordable light rail systems that have typically excelled in attracting passengers, provided essential capacity and cost-effectiveness, and stimulated economic development that has more than repaid the public investment. Yet Austin’s official planning has recently been re-focused on visions of a totally untested, speculative technology (a “Smart Mobility roadmap” and ”Autonomous Rapid Transit”) – i.e., substituting science fiction for realistic, workable planning.

This seems basically a cover for dumping bona fide rapid transit and embracing a rebranded buses-only operation – bus rapid transit (BRT) – contradicting not only the recently aborted Project Connect process, but at least three official comparative studies over the past 28 years that have selected LRT as superior to BRT, particularly in key features such as capacity, ridership, cost, and economic development impacts. Disappeared from planning now are critical goals such as creating livable, transit-friendly, pedestrian-friendly streets and neighborhoods, and shaping public transit to guide growth and create economic investment.

Plans for urban rail should be fast-tracked

Austinites have long been suffering the pain of this region’s prolonged and worsening mobility crisis. We need real-world, proven, effective solutions nownot speculative visions of the possibilities of high-tech toys and autonomous vehicles. For sure, while prudently assessing new technology, we must not let our city be turned into a “Smart Mobility” Petri dish in lieu of installing a well-proven mass transit system such as LRT.

Austin’s mobility planning needs to be re-focused on developing an extensive, attractive, affordable, accessible, cost-effective public transport system with urban rail that can enhance livability, reduce total mobility cost, help guide growth, and encourage economic development that can recoup the public investment. To make up for time lost through delays and top-level debacles, rail planning should be fast-tracked, particularly by reinstating the results and community-participated planning decisions already achieved.


Reorganized Project Connect 2.0 opens up, reaches out

30 April 2017

Guadalupe-Lamar corridor places at top of Project Connect’s table of corridor rankings shown in slide at April 26th MCAC meeting. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)

Has Austin’s public transportation planning and decisionmaking establishment turned a new leaf?

That’s yet to be fully determined. But … if Project Connect – the Capital Metro-sponsored major planning effort in charge of evaluating possible rail and other forms of “high-capacity transit” – offers any indication … there may be signs of a changed focus.

The original Project Connect earned intense distrust from Austin’s most ardent transit advocates because of its role leading the 2013-2014 High-Capacity Transit study that produced the disastrously flawed $600 million Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal (defeated by voters in November 2014). In contrast, the current planning agency (“Project Connect 2.0”) appears to have actually undergone a makeover in some important respects.

Personnel — A totally new planning team, with completely different personnel from the original Project Connect.

Consultants — A new consultant team led by AECOM.

Methodology — A focus on actual travel corridors rather than the original Project Connect study’s method of slicing up central Austin into districts and sectors and mislabeling them “corridors” and “subcorridors” … plus analytics that seem more accurate in evaluating and prioritizing corridors for a comprehensive plan.

Public involvement — What seems to be a much more sincere effort than in the past to solicit and engage actual involvement by key members of the community in the nuts and bolts of the planning process.

Included in this outreach have been strong advocates of urban rail for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Invited to an April 17th consultory meeting, representatives of the Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT, sponsor of the Light Rail Now Project and this website) and the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC) were presented an overview of Project Connect’s planning process and its current status, which appeared to represent a new direction in goals and methodology and a somewhat new approach to public involvement.

Currently Project Connect is completing what it designates as Phase 1 of its overall analysis – concentrating mainly on evaluating and selecting corridors as candidates for possible “high-capacity transit”. Phase 2, according to the agency, about to begin, will focus on selecting modes (i.e., types of “vehicle” systems), identifying funding mechanisms, determining “the best set of solutions”, and recommending Locally Preferred Alternatives (LPAs).

At the April 17th meeting, the attendees were told that the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor was ranking quite high in the evaluation. They were encouraged to attend a public meeting of the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee (MCAC), set for April 26th, where the major results of Phase 1 would be presented.

And indeed, at the April 26th MCAC meeting, Project Connect team members, via a slide presentation led by the project’s Director of Long Range Planning Javier Argüello, revealed the study’s conclusion: Guadalupe-Lamar had emerged as the study’s top-ranked corridor. (At top of this post, see closeup of slide of ranking table.)

Project Connect’s table of corridor rankings shown in slide at April 26th MCAC meeting. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)

From here, according to the study timetable, the focus will narrow on possible modes (rail modes, buses, others) and comparative costs. Obviously, there’s no guarantee that light rail transit (LRT) on Guadalupe-Lamar – the center of substantial community interest for decades – will make the final cut.

Unfortunately, it’s possible that an evaluation could be impaired or skewed by false assumptions. For example: Buses in dedicated lanes may rate as a “high-capacity” mode, but they have not shown that they can attract passengers to utilize that capacity at a rate or level comparable to LRT. Also, LRT has shown a much higher propensity to attract adjacent development – particularly transit-oriented development, or TOD – than “high-capacity” bus services such as MetroRapid. And there are other significant performance and operational issues to consider.*

New light rail projects in study beat BRT
LRT or BRT? It depends on the potential of the corridor

Nevertheless, despite an array of critical differences, study methodologies and planning models frequently treat rail and bus modes as if they’re totally interchangeable in key features such as attracting ridership, accommodating future ridership growth, and stimulating economic development.

So will an adequate, fair, accurate comparison be conducted? Are local public transport planners actually starting to move in a new direction? The jury’s still out. But Austin’s staunchest transit advocates are watching … and hoping.


Transit planning cabal-style

28 February 2017

Graphic: Marvel Database.

Graphic: Marvel Database.

In recent weeks, within Austin’s transit advocacy community, rumors have been circulating of some kind of “package” of major transit projects possibly being compiled, perhaps for the November 2018 election cycle. While details are murky – concocted behind the veil of a resuscitated Project Connect and the tightly shuttered enclaves of the high-level leadership consortium of Capital Metro, City of Austin, plus some Travis County and state officials – it is whispered that such a plan might include a “Guadalupe-Lamar project” as well as an expansion of the MetroRail regional railway, a highway-routed bus “rapid transit” (BRT) line, and other possible projects.

A “Guadalupe-Lamar project” sounds great – a starter light rail transit (LRT) line in the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor would represent the crucial linchpin of an eventual LRT (urban rail) network for the entire metro area. But there’s no guarantee that LRT is the “project” behind the dark curtain. Whatever concrete details of these wisps of plans may exist seem to be closely guarded secrets. For the G-L corridor, officials, planners, and their consultants may be envisioning urban rail, or they might just as plausibly be concocting more investment in the pathetic MetroRapid faux-“BRT” operation … or a cable-gondola line … or some other scheme.

The problem is that this top-level methodology of secrecy is now the routine modus operandi of most of Austin’s major public transport planning. And this, in an era of so-called “transparency”.

In fact, a lot of this methodology comes close to the definition of a cabal: “the contrived schemes of a group of persons secretly united in a plot ….” While it doesn’t have the cohesiveness of a bona fide cabal – and it certainly isn’t motivated by evil intent – today’s transport planning process nevertheless feels enough like a behind-the-scenes cabal to merit this unfortunate comparison. (And that’s why we’ve dubbed it “cabal-style”.)

Local planning wasn’t always this Machiavellian. Back in the early days of the Austin Transportation Study (predecessor of CAMPO) and Capital Metro, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, planning was upfront; plans were on the table for public review, discussion, and debate. Community activists were intimately involved in the planning process; public participation was vigorous and vibrant. Meetings of advisory bodies such as Capital Metro’s Citizens Advisory Committee and Transitway Corridor Analysis Project Advisory Committee were frequent and well-attended, often by participants in the dozens. Plan proposals were not only clearly on view, but were shaped and fine-tuned by direct community input.

That process has, in recent years, been squelched. Interactive public meetings have been replaced by “open houses” and “workshops” where actual full discussion among all participants is excluded. Austin Rail Now has analyzed and criticized this deleterious process in considerable detail – see the numerous articles collected in the category Public involvement process.

Bona fide, free-speaking, freely attended, full public meetings are a critical component of democratic process. That’s how ideas are raised, shaped, tweaked, finalized – via discussion within groups of participants with a diversity of expertise, backgrounds, viewpoints, insights.

You can be sure that these occult, mysterious transit plans we’ve been referring to have been hatched by vigorous interactive meetings … not of the public, but of a relatively tiny, cabal-like huddle of officials, planners, and consultants sheltered from public view and involvement. A carefully assembled community body like the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee is allowed an occasional glimpse of what’s already been decided elsewhere … and then, only every few months or so. Back in the days of the directly involved and intensely active public advisory committees, meetings were held several times a month (especially in the final stages of formulating plans).

Even through this dark, distorted process, perhaps acceptable plans will emerge that will be embraced by the Austin community. But don’t hold your breath. The absence of direct, intimate, ongoing, adequately engaged, fully democratic public participation seriously increases the risk of flawed outcomes and political problems.


Capital Metro — Back to 1986?

30 November 2016

Ottawa Transitway (BRT) bus congestion in downtown, 2011. Bus congestion has persuaded Ottawa to launch LRT project, now under construction. The possibility of severe bus overcrowding in downtown Austin led Capital Metro board to reject a proposed BRT line in I-35 in favor of LRT in 1989.

Ottawa Transitway (BRT) bus congestion in downtown, 2011. Bus congestion has persuaded Ottawa to launch LRT project, now under construction. The possibility of severe bus overcrowding in downtown Austin (as warned by local community transit activists) led Capital Metro board to reject a proposed I-35 BRT line in favor of LRT in 1989. (Photo: Flickr.)

Austin’s Capital Metro seems determined to return to the thrilling days of yesteryear – at least in its longrange transit system planning.

That would appear to be the case, according to reports from participants in a meeting where representatives of Project Connect (unearthed from its grave by Capital Metro) presented the agency’s “priorities” for regional transit system planning.

The presentation, organized on the evening of November 15th by the Friends of Hyde Park neighborhood association, was reported by Austin community transit activist Mike Dahmus in Twitter messages and a posting on his blog. Mike’s report, with confirmation from other participants, makes it clear that some implementation of “bus rapid transit” (BRT) on I-35 is (in the words of one observer) a “foregone conclusion”. But this is a revival of a faulty 1986 plan from the agency’s past.

This proposal for “BRT” (i.e., express or limited-stop buses) on I-35 is basically a reversion to Capital Metro’s planning as of about 1986, at the start of the Transitway Corridor Analysis Project (TCAP). This early study effectively began with the premise that “BRT” was probably the desirable “rapid transit” mode for the region (although light rail was included in the TCAP study as a kind of whipping-boy target to be rejected). Just as with the agency’s current scheme, the 1980s-era “BRT” plans envisioned buses running in I-35. Feeding more buses into the I-35 alignment was to be the function of a northwestern branch; this was proposed as alternatives of running buses either in U.S. 183 or in a dedicated busway to be constructed along the new railway alignment (now the Red Line) that had been acquired by the City of Austin from the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Unfortunately for that “BRT” strategy, a number of savvy light rail transit (LRT) advocates were members of the TCAP Technical Group of Capital Metro’s then-very-active Citizens Advisory Committee, which met regularly (every two to three weeks or so) during the study process. Particularly knowledgeable about technical issues relating to the comparative evaluation of transit modes (e.g. issues from ridership forecasting to infrastructural, operational, and cost issues), community activist Dave Dobbs and public transportation planner Lyndon Henry were effective in responding to various claims and factual errors forthcoming from both Capital Metro staff members and consultants. The end result was a recommendation from the Technical Group for the Capital Metro board to approve LRT as the preferred mode, and subsequently (in 1989) the board did designate LRT as the agency’s Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for the central corridor.

What persuaded Capital Metro’s top decisionmakers to opt for LRT over the BRT plan? The most salient factors included:

• Evidence (plus intuition) that rail transit has greater public attractiveness and generates higher ridership than comparative bus systems …

• Unease over the difficulties and high investment cost of inserting BRT into a freeway alignment, and questions over the value per dollar spent compared with LRT …

• Perception and evidence that LRT tended to generate greater adjacent real estate and economic development than BRT …

• Overall perceptions that economic development plus total cost-effectiveness suggested a higher return on investment (ROI) for LRT …

• Concern over the possibility of bus overcrowding and even congestion on Central Area streets with the high-capacity BRT alternative …

• Conclusion that LRT would yield better compatibility (and fewer environmental impacts) with Austin’s urban environment than BRT.

Unfortunately, there’s no indication that any of these issues are being considered in the current Project Connect 2.0 study process, or emerging as a focus of attention on the part of today’s Capital Metro board.

And Capital Metro seems headed to repeat other past mistakes as well. Apparently, as related by Mike Dahmus’s blog report, the resuscitated “Project Connect 2.0” study process is also committing the same kinds of absurd, critical methodological errors that so thoroughly damaged the original “Project Connect 1.0” attempt to fashion a “High-Capacity Transit” (HCT) proposal in 2013. (See «The fraudulent “study” behind the misguided Highland-Riverside urban rail plan».)

For example, Mike reports:

The framework for discussion has been set in a way that heavily disfavors Guadalupe/Lamar rail. There are three ‘segments’ of travel they put up on the screen; as well as a slide which shows “previous HCT studies”. Guadalupe/Lamar is not in the top slide (most important service), nor is it listed in “previous HCT studies”. It is instead consigned to the second group, called “connector corridors”, implying that Capital Metro has already decided that it cannot be the spine of the transit network.

This kind of planning contortion – dissecting and severing major travel corridors into irrelevant “segments” – is exactly the kind of methodological butchery that in 2013 provided Project Connect 1.0 a rationale to dismiss the city’s most significant central urban travel corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar. Mike goes on to correctly explain that

… when the majority of your passengers on your theoretical ‘spine’ have to transfer, YOU HAVE A BAD SPINE, DAWG. Spines need to go down the middle and get to the good stuff. And especially on the ‘work end’ of the trip (not the ‘home end’): if a large percentage of your riders have to transfer off the spine, you’ve chosen poorly.

His blog post also quotes Houston urban planner and transit advocate Christof Spieler’s observation on the need to zero in on a city’s most important corridor:

For Houston, the strategy meant building a light rail through the city’s primary urban corridor, where lots of people already live and work.

Cities often shy away from that approach because it’s more expensive and disruptive to lay tracks in such populated locations. But the factors that make it difficult to build light rail there were exactly the things that made it the right place to have light rail.

Unfortunately, these key lessons seem lost on Capital Metro and its reanimated concoction Project Connect 2.0. Currently, the agency appears to be on course to once again disparage, downplay, and bypass the most important urban travel corridor in the city: Guadalupe-Lamar. ■


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

4 November 2014

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

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

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

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

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

From Mueller to Riverside to Highland

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

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


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

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

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

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

Summary assessments of Project Connect “study”

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

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

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

Project Connect Needs an Overhaul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

► Failure to examine travel corridors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

► Gerrymandered “study” sectors

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

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

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

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

► Severed and segmented travel corridors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

► Excluding student and other nonwork travel patterns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

► Manipulation of implausible projections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the article explained,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

► Applying subjectively derived scores

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

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

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

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

► Selective manipulation of data

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

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

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

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

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

Likewise, in Project Connect Needs an Overhaul we observed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Picture: Fraud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

2 November 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MetroRail Red Line (red) skirts entire heart of central Austin, illustrated by "Missing Link" through Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Urban rail would provide the crucial connections to core neighborhoods, UT West Campus, and Capitol Complex missed by MetroRail. Infographic Map by Light Rail Now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

28 October 2014

Map of urban rail line proposed for bond funding in November shows major private development interests and property owners that stand to benefit from selected route. Graphic: ARN.

Map of urban rail line proposed for bond funding in November shows major private development interests and property owners that stand to benefit from selected route. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

For years, the Light Rail Now Project, public transport advocates such as Dave Dobbs, Lyndon Henry, and Andrew Clements, and researchers and journalists such as Roger Baker have been criticizing Austin’s official urban rail planning process. In particular, they’ve been calling attention to the distortion of planning to avoid addressing bona fide mobility needs and instead defer to the needs and interests of real estate development.

In his analysis Connecting some dots on Austin’s urban rail planning, Baker revealed how planning for urban electric light rail was shifted away from a focus on crucial travel patterns in the heart of the city, and remade to promote development goals in more peripheral areas: “The dots in this case were partly the political momentum behind a new hospital district, combined with a new Opportunity Austin/Chamber-of-Commerce-recommended Austin growth policy.” Thus, “… in 2008, a city consultant, ROMA, recommended that the proposed light rail corridor be moved east to the San Jacinto Corridor (ultimately connecting several years later to the Red River corridor), as opposed to the previously-assumed Lamar Corridor alignment.”

Similarly, in their commentary Project Connect’s urban rail plan is “worse than nothing”, Dobbs and Henry explain how the official urban rail plan ignores the travel problems of the city’s core Lamar-Guadalupe axis in preference for catering to real estate and economic development development objectives. Now on the November ballot to seek voter authorization for General Obligation bonds to fund a 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion line strangely wandering from East Riverside Drive over a series of disparate, otherwise disconnected roadways to the former Highland Mall site, the proposed project, they say, is “primarily aimed at bolstering development plans and centered on the interests of private developers and the East Campus expansion appetites of the University of Texas administration.”

Rail transit and economic development

There’s certainly nothing wrong with efforts to site or cluster new development around or near rail transit stations. On the contrary, transit agencies, modern planning policy, and the transit industry all encourage and seek such development, often in the form of transit-oriented development (TOD) or transit-adjacent development – typically, synergistic residential development and activity center patterns that promote transit ridership, reduce dependency on personal motor vehicles, and help minimize urban-area sprawl.

But as the current controversy illustrates, a huge problem arises when rail planning forsakes serious mobility needs in deference to a predominant quest by political officials and civic leaders for obsessively desired real estate and economic development. Neglecting mobility function in favor of embellishing or promoting real estate development not only is a disservice to overall community needs, but also can be harmful to cost-effectiveness and other critical performance characteristics of good rail transit. Furthermore, rail transit can be a magnet for development, but this happens more or less in direct correlation with mobility effectiveness – i.e., rail transit in a heavily traveled, high-ridership corridor will tend to attract much more land and economic development than lower ridership in a weaker corridor.

But it’s precisely this faulty course of focusing overwhelmingly on coveted real estate and economic development possibilities, rather than crucial mobility priorities, that Austin’s political and civic leadership have taken. While private development interests obviously perceive that rail transit can bolster their real estate ventures, City of Austin planners and officials are clearly consumed by the prospect of higher property valuations and property tax revenues.

This was underscored at a 27 April 2012 meeting of the Transit Working Group (TWG) — the hand-picked “blue ribbon” circle of civic leaders then chaired by Austin’s Mayor Lee Leffingwell — that was dedicated almost totally to examining the prospects for real estate and economic development along what was then envisioned as an East Riverside-to-Mueller route for urban rail. (See video of meeting.)

Kevin Johns, director of the City’s Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services office, moderated a panel of key players in property development and development planning that extolled the potential for lucrative “return on investment” from the ripening urban rail plan. Significantly, the interaction of such development possibilities with actual mobility patterns and needs was not on their radar.

A major portion of this event included a PowerPoint presentation by Scott Polikov, principal of Gateway Planning, a development consultancy based in Ft. Worth and evidently under contract to the City of Austin. Polikov focused on several projects his firm was involved in, detailing other major players, future projects, projected valuations and tax revenues, and other aspects.

Scott Polikov of urban planning and development firm Gateway Planning gives presentation to TWG, 27 April 2012. Screenshot from COA video.

Scott Polikov of urban planning and development firm Gateway Planning gives presentation to TWG, 27 April 2012. Screenshot from COA video.

And what about the role of the University of Texas? As Lyndon Henry’s commentary UT should pay for East Campus urban rail — not Austin taxpayers points out, the UT administration has played its own role in distorting Austin’s planning process – mainly by demanding an eastside rail alignment, forsaking the high-density West Campus and major commercial activity on the Drag in favor of embellishing UT’s ongoing East Campus expansion program (and most recently, the development of a relatively small medical teaching facility just south of the main campus).

But UT’s influence is primarily political — the influence of being the proverbial “800-pound gorilla” that happens to sit on well over 40 acres of prime central Austin real estate (tax-exempt, nonetheless), and also happens to hold powerful connections to the Texas state government (and let’s not neglect to mention the UT system’s vast oil & gas holdings). Leaving UT aside, evidence is substantial that private business interests — property development interests in particular — have represented a major economic influence swaying the urban rail planning and decisionmaking of City officials.

Earlier planning for East Riverside and Mueller

For years, City planners and various public officials have repeatedly referred to the economic development potential and taxbase implications of their urban rail plans. An entire project — the City’s East Riverside Corridor Project — has focused on encouraging development and “revitalization” of the East Riverside area, historically a haven of medium to high-density, lower-cost, more affordable housing for both students and a segment of Austin’s lower and lower-middle-income workers and their families.

These development plans and policies, and their impact on East Riverside residents, were chronicled as early as 2007 by a landmark Austin American-Statesman in-depth examination. Dated 6 Aug. of that year, the story, titled “Banking on Riverside”, carried the ominous sub-ledes “Neighborhood in Transition” and “As explosive growth nears, where will longtime residents go?”

Statesman reporter Susannah Gonzales described the area as “one of the city’s largest concentrations of apartment complexes … home to thousands of immigrants and college students drawn by the lower rents and public transportation.” However, she noted, massive change was on the way. “Several plans for new development are under way in the vicinity.” Gonzales portrayed a determined effort by the City administration to expunge cheaper, affordable residential facilities and replace them with upscale condos, offices and retail outlets in a process of densification and gentrification.

Those early signals of East Riverside development, and subsequently the official corridor project, provide critical clues as to the thrust of City of Austin policy. And urban rail planning has been molded to support this policy, not just in East Riverside but in other areas deemed lucrative for both private development interests and City taxbase enhancement goals.

The Mueller development site also fits into this pattern. Since the early 2000s, the private development giant Catellus has proceeded, under City authority, to replace this former primary airport site with a 700-acre, mixed-use development envisioned to include 4,900 residences, over 650,000 square feet of retail space, and some 4.2 million square feet of office/commercial space. Until insider desires shifted in the course of the Project Connect urban rail “study” a year ago — reflecting development appetites eyeing the Highland ACC site — urban rail was planned to be routed into the Mueller project area. And Catellus has been assured that the current Red River-Hancock Center alignment will facilitate an eventual urban rail connection if the proposal on the November ballot is approved by voters. Indeed, “urban rail” planning actually began (c. 2005) as a streetcar “circulator” plan aimed at linking Mueller to UT’s East Campus and the Core Area.

Private interests that stand to gain

From a variety of reliable sources, Austin Rail Now has been able to compile a fascinating listing of many of these private property and economic development interests that stand to gain from the proposed Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal — ranging from property owners that might benefit from upward valuations to major development firms with projects already completed or under way. While some of these business interests undoubtedly have contributed to election campaigns of some councilmembers, our assessment is that City policy has been dominated by expectations of increased economic development and elevated property values, leading to expansion of taxbase and increases in property tax revenues. (The pitfalls of basing urban rail planning on such expectations have already been noted, above.) In any case, a number of these interests can be considered major players in the evolution of City urban rail planning and policy decisions. (Also see infographic at top of this post.)

East Riverside corridor — The Statesman article of 6 August 2007 listed ten specific developer or property-holder interests with projects either planned, under construction, or completed in this area. These included:

Development interests in East Riverside area as of 2007. From Austin American-Statesman report, 2007/08/06.

Development interests in East Riverside area as of 2007. From Austin American-Statesman report, 2007/08/06.

The 2007 article included a map and key of the specific developments:

Map and key of East Riverside developments as of August 2007. Screenshot of scan of Statesman map by Dave Dobbs.

Map and key of East Riverside developments as of August 2007. Screenshot of scan of Statesman map by Dave Dobbs. (Click to enlarge.)

South Shore — This area, also called the South Bank, just across the river (Lady Bird Lake) from Austin’s CBD, seems to be regarded as especially lucrative because of the availability of high-dollar river views for office buildings and condominiums. It was featured in Scott Polikov’s 2012 presentation to the TWG, which indicated how a new urban rail bridge across the river would benefit existing property owners, and help open up the area for a future development boom:

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed adjacent South Shore property owners that stood to benefit.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed adjacent South Shore property owners that stood to benefit.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible future South Shore development boom.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible future South Shore development boom.

The Gateway presentation also described the possible economic payoff from South Shore development stimulated by urban rail:

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible economic and tax benefits of urban rail plan in South Shore area.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible economic and tax benefits of urban rail plan in South Shore area.

In summary, major current beneficiaries of the proposed urban rail project through the South Shore area would include:

Development interests in South Shore area.

Development interests in South Shore area.

Eastside CBD — This area lies generally between Congress and I-35, from the river north to the UT campus. Information on development interests has been compiled from the Downtown Austin Alliance Emerging Projects listing, the Gateway 2012 TWG presentation, and a knowledgeable political consultant speaking on background. According to this last source, several major developers and speculators are acquiring large property holdings (entire blocks in some cases) along and near the East 6th St. area in anticipation of the valuation effects of urban rail as well as the Waller Creek project.

Based on these sources, some major beneficiaries of the proposed urban rail project through the east side of the CBD include:

Development interests in east side of CBD.

Development interests in east side of CBD.

The Gateway 2012 TWG presentation also zeroed in on a possible development boom, bolstered by the proposed urban rail alignment, engulfing the Rainey St. neighborhood, in the southeast corner of the CBD:

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible future Rainey St. development boom.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible future Rainey St. development boom.

Hypothetical economic benefits were also listed:

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible economic and tax benefits of urban rail plan in Rainey St. neighborhood.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible economic and tax benefits of urban rail plan in Rainey St. neighborhood.

Airport Blvd. corridor and Highland ACC area — Information on development interests in these segments of the City’s proposed urban rail route has been derived from a 28 Aug. 2011 article in the Austin American-Statesman, the 2012 TWG presentation by Gateway Planning (which has been involved in recommending and projecting economic and real estate development for the Airport Blvd. corridor), and a 2 Nov. 2012 article from the Austin Business Journal.

Reportedly, planners and officials envision a “new urbanist” redevelopment with classroom facilities, administrative offices, “and a mix of residential, retail and other commercial development.” (Statesman) The RedLeaf development is aimed to be “a thriving public-private complex with perhaps 1,250 residential units”. Major private development players cited in these sources include:

Development interests in Highland ACC and Airport Blvd. area.

Development interests in Highland ACC and Airport Blvd. area.

Along and east of the Highland site, the Airport Blvd. corridor is proposed for a massive overhaul. Giving some visualization of what the character of development along this corridor could look like, the Gateway 2012 TWG presentation provides a slide showing a proposed transit-oriented development (TOD) project in the Fiskville neighborhood along the corridor:

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed rendering of possible TOD in Fiskville corridor near Airport Blvd.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed rendering of possible TOD in Fiskville corridor near Airport Blvd.

As this post has already emphasized, there’s nothing illicit or irregular with private development interests seeking opportunities to locate new projects near rail transit stations. But in the case of the urban rail plan now proposed for bond funding via a proposition on this November’s ballot, considerations of economic and real estate development potential — and expectations of increased property valuations and tax flows for local government budgets — seem to have trumped essential mobility priorities and thoroughly distorted the planning process and the proposed rail plan.

Likewise, it should be noted that there’s no assumption that interests listed in this post that stand to benefit from the routing of urban rail have directly intervened to influence urban rail planning. However, it is known that some real estate and development interests have been listed as contributors to the semi-official Let’s Go Austin campaign leading the effort to advocate passage of the bond funding measure. ■


Baker: Connecting some dots on Austin’s urban rail planning

24 August 2014

Graphic by ARN.

Graphic by ARN.

By Roger Baker

Roger Baker is a longtime Austin transportation, energy, and urban issues researcher and community activist. The following commentary has been adapted and slightly edited from his comments posted by E-mail to multiple recipients in June.

How did Project Connect come up with their $1.4 billion rail plan? Let’s take some known facts, and connect the dots. The dots in this case were partly the political momentum behind a new hospital district, combined with a new Opportunity Austin/Chamber-of-Commerce-recommended Austin growth policy.

We know that in 2008, a city consultant, ROMA, recommended that the proposed light rail corridor be moved east to the San Jacinto Corridor (ultimately connecting several years later to the Red River corridor), as opposed to the previously-assumed Lamar Corridor alignment. See, for example:

Original urban rail "circulator" system in 2008 map of ROMA consulting team plan, contracted by City of Austin.

ROMA streetcar circulator map from 2008, precursor of urban rail (light rail transit) plan. Map: ROMA, via Austin Chronicle. (Click to enlarge.)

Next, we know that State Sen. Kirk Watson in 2012 announced a plan to develop about $4 billion of future medical facilities and training in the area of Brackenridge and the newly announced Dell medical training center, which would be along this same San Jacinto-Red River corridor. It is pretty obvious that to meet this ambitious goal, to handle this scale of future anticipated development, the existing roads along this corridor could not meet the projected travel demand. I pointed that out in an earlier article here:

How did the urban rail plan get to Riverside? Here is a downloadable audio clip with Project Connect personnel pointing out that the city sees itself as having an unfunded mandate to provide rail on the Riverside alignment in order to meet the city’s future growth goals in that area:

East Riverside development plan, promoted by City, is a bonanza for powerful real estate development interests. Gentrification is replacing lower-cost affordable apartments with expensive condos and upscale commercial and office developments, many with premium river views. Map: City of Austin via Goodlife Realty.

East Riverside development plan, promoted by City, is a bonanza for powerful real estate development interests. Gentrification is replacing lower-cost affordable apartments with expensive condos and upscale commercial and office developments, many with premium river views. Map: City of Austin via Goodlife Realty. (Click to enlarge.)

Another problem for the medical district was that Texas state funding could not pay for the medical center without a big boost from local Travis taxpayers. This demanded the promotion of a hospital district tax. See, for example:

…Ever since Austin state Sen. Kirk Wat­son first unveiled the idea at a Real Estate Council of Austin event last September, regional agencies and governments have scrambled to find funding possibilities for the massive project, which could run the involved parties (all told) as much as $4.1 billion over 12 years. At last check, the University of Texas is on board for at least a $25 million annual contribution that would climb to $30 million over the first eight years of the school’s existence. Central Health, according to the Statesman, would cough up about $35 million annually over 12 years – or a total of $420 million. The Seton Healthcare Family expects to provide nearly $2 billion, including $250 million that would ultimately result in a replacement of its aging but centrally located Brackenridge hospital facility…

But to make it all work, Central Health is asking for a tax increase, to be placed before voters on Nov. 6. Watson asked for a raise of five cents per $100 of property valuation; Central Health’s board obliged, endorsing that increase, which would bring the district’s rate to just over 12 cents for every $100 of property valuation. In dollar figures, that would mean (if voters approve) that someone who lives in a home valued at $200,000 would see an increase of $100 on their annual tax bill…

Simulation of future UT medical school development, providing expansion opportunities for University of Texas, Seton medical interests, and other real estate development investors. Graphic via

Simulation of future UT medical school development, providing expansion opportunities for University of Texas, Seton medical interests, and other real estate development investors. Graphic via (Click to enlarge.)

We know from the following document that the city of Austin is bending over backwards to maximize Austin area growth through relocation, and jobs recruitment to the Austin area.

As we can see, the City has a very well-developed industrial recruitment policy outlined in this document, which coordinates with the Chamber of Commerce, targets key industries to recruit, and gives tax breaks when certain criteria are met. The city takes its lead from the “Council Special Committee on Economic Incentives”, which in turn takes its lead from Opportunity Austin, and the Austin Chamber of Commerce, as we see in this lengthy presentation. It begins by lamenting Austin’s slow growth!

We now see unsigned blogs promoting the same maximum Austin growth recruitment as official policy:

What are the specifics of Austin growth recruitment policy? The policy is to prefer that at least 25% of the jobs recruited into this area go to Austin residents, but if not, it is no deal breaker. Jobs that pay at least $11 an hour would be nice, but this too is considered optional. This is taken from page 9.


Motion #5:

Change the Threshold for Extraordinary Economic Impact within the Firm-Based Matrix to include other items

The Threshold for Extraordinary Economic Impact has been used within the Firm-Based Incentive Matrix as a means for providing additional economic incentives for significant economic development projects.

Currently, if a company meets one of the four criteria within this section of the matrix, then the company is eligible for an economic incentive of up to 100% of the property tax generated by the project (see Exhibit A, Section 3 and Section 4).

Current threshold criteria include these four items:

• The firm is in a targeted industry;
• The firm is involved in leading edge technology;
• State economic development funds are available for the firm; or
• The firm will generate 500 jobs or more.

The threshold criteria allow flexibility for various economic incentive options to be considered for projects that have an extraordinary economic impact. The flexibility allows Austin to remain competitive for highly sought after projects. Examples of prior significant economic development projects include Samsung and Apple. In both cases, the Austin City Council approved 100% property tax rebates for a prescribed number of initial years…

This is all predicated on the perpetuation of the Austin tech bubble, which is really a regional manifestation of a national tech bubble. Continuing Federal Reserve stimulus is leading to asset bubbles, which are reflected in the NASDAQ’s mostly-tech growth in particular. How long before the tech bubble driving Austin’s current feverish growth and gentrification deflates is anyone’s guess, as Fortune recently pointed out:

I have recently pointed out and discussed in detail the unsustainable nature of Austin’s currently-booming growth here:

This accumulation of material may help to provide a plausible political basis behind Project Connect’s rail plan. I personally have little doubt that Austin is in the midst of an unsustainable high tech growth bubble, and that the future travel demand numbers that Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) feeds Project Connect to justify its rail corridors are largely wishful thinking. Demographic forecasting, like economic forecasting, exists to make astrology look good by comparison. ■


Why Project Connect’s urban rail plan would remove just 1,800 cars a day — not 10,000

22 August 2014

Project Connect's Highland-Riverside alignment would have negligible impact on I-35 congestion. Photo via

Congested I-35 traffic has Austinites desperate for a solution, but Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside alignment would have negligible impact. Photo via

Project Connect representatives have been claiming an array of hypothetical benefits they say would result from their proposed Highland-Riverside urban rail project. Among these is “congestion relief”.

For the most part, this sweeping claim has been blurry, undefined, unquantified, and widely dismissed as ridiculous. (See Why Project Connect’s “Highland” urban rail would do nothing for I-35 congestion.)

But in promotional presentations, Project Connect personnel and supporters have repeatedly touted one specific, numerically quantified purported benefit — the claim that their urban rail project “takes 10,000 cars off the road every weekday”.

Screenshot from Project Connect slide presentation claiming Highland-Riverside rail plan would remove "10,000 cars" a day.

Screenshot from Project Connect slide presentation claiming Highland-Riverside rail plan would remove “10,000 cars” a day. (Click to enlarge.)

This figure invites scrutiny. Project Connect has also been touting a 2030 ridership projection of “18,000 a day” — although this appears to rely on flawed methodology. (See our recent analysis Project Connect’s urban rail forecasting methodology — Inflating ridership with “fudge factor”? which, adjusting for apparent methodological errors, suggests that total ridership of 12,000 per weekday is more plausible.)

In any case, of its projected total weekday ridership, Project Connect also claims that only 6,500 are “new transit riders” for the urban rail line. (Project Connect also claims “10,000 new transit riders to system” — but typically these new “system” boardings represent the combination of the new rail rider-trips plus the same passengers using feeder bus routes to access the rail.) This is consistent with industry experience, since a sizable proportion of the ridership of new rail services consists of passengers that had previously been bus transit riders.

But this “new transit riders” figure, while plausible, immediately diminishes the plausibility of the claim of “taking 10,000 cars off the road”. How could 6,500 riders, boarding trains, eliminate 10,000 cars from the road?

Furthermore, the estimate of 6,500 rider-trips (i.e., boarding passengers) actually doesn’t equal 6,500 individual passengers, i.e., persons. Why? Because (as is commonly known and accepted in the industry) a very large percentage of those trips are made by the same, individual passengers — mainly round trips, or extra trips during lunch hour, and so on.

The count of daily “boardings”, or rider trips — i.e., ridership — is actually a tally, in U.S. industry parlance, of unlinked trips. These are the string of trips on transit made over a day by the same individual person; they might include trips on a feeder or connector bus to a rail transit train, possibly other trips during the day by transit, and perhaps that person’s return trips back home by the same modes.

So, how to figure how many individual passengers (persons) are actually involved in a given ridership figure? The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) suggests a conversion factor: “APTA estimates that the number of people riding transit on an average weekday is 45% of the number of unlinked transit passenger trips.”

Thus, applying that 45% factor to those 6,500 “new rider” trips, we realize that figure represents roughly 2,925 actual passengers projected to ride the proposed urban rail line, new to the transit system.

However, we cannot assume that every one of those new passengers would have used a motor vehicle rather than riding transit. On average, about 75% have access to a car. So 2,925 passengers X 75% = 2,194 passengers that could be assumed to leave their cars off the road to ride transit. (It’s pretty much a cinch that these hypothetical transit passengers wouldn’t be driving, on average, more than four cars a day!)

To estimate more realistically how many cars would be affected, we need to factor in average car occupancy of 1.2 persons per car (to account for some carpooling). That final calculation yields 1,828 — or (by rounding for level of confidence) roughly 1,800 cars removed from the road by Project Connect’s proposed urban rail plan.

That 1,800 is an all-day figure. Using an industry rule-of-thumb of 20%, about 400 of those cars would be operated during a peak period, or roughly 100, on average, during each peak hour. As our article on I-35 congestion, cited above, indicates, the impact on I-35 traffic would be very minimal. Most of the effect of that vehicle traffic elimination would be spread among a number of major arterials — particularly Airport Blvd., Red River St., San Jacinto Blvd., Trinity St., and Riverside Drive. This impact on local arterial congestion would be small — but every little bit helps.

While the removal of 1,800 cars from central Austin roads is a far cry from 10,000, once again, every incremental bit helps. And there’s also the decreased demand for 1,800 parking spaces in the city center.

But the point is that $1.4 billion (about $1.2 billion in 2014 dollars) is a huge investment to achieve so little. For many cities, ridership at the level of 12,000 a day typically isn’t so bad, but when you’re missing the potential of 35,000-45,000 a day, plus incurring such a high cost for this level of payoff, you need to reconsider the deal. (For example, see Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route.)

For less than half of Project Connect’s urban rail investment cost, a “backbone” urban rail line on Guadalupe-Lamar (with a branch to the Seaholm-Amtrak area) could plausibly be expected to generate at least three times as much ridership — and eliminate roughly 5,600 cars a day from central-city streets and arterials.

Summary chart compares Project Connect's claim of taking "10,000 cars off the road every weekday" vs. (1) ARN's analysis of probable actual number of cars removed by Highland-Riverside line and (2) projected number of cars that would be removed from Austin's roadways by alternative Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail plan.

Summary chart compares Project Connect’s claim of taking “10,000 cars off the road every weekday” vs. (1) ARN’s analysis of probable actual number of cars removed by Highland-Riverside line and (2) projected number of cars that would be removed from Austin’s roadways by alternative Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail plan. (Click to enlarge.)

Now, that’s some “congestion relief” worth paying for.


Project Connect’s $500 million plan for bus infrastructure — The Elephant in the Road on Guadalupe-Lamar that could block urban rail

21 June 2014



As this blog has been warning, there’s substantial evidence that the Project Connect consortium has plans in mind for major investments in bus infrastructure for the MetroRapid bus routes, including Guadalupe-Lamar — infrastructure that would have the effect of a de facto barrier to installing urban rail.

From various recent statements by local officials, Project Connect personnel, and supporters of their current Highland-Riverside urban rail plan, it also seems likely that such a so-called “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT) infrastructure program for Guadalupe-Lamar would be initiated if their rail proposal receives public approval. Thus, our predictive analysis that “a vote for Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside urban rail project is a vote for a bus project on Guadalupe Lamar.” In effect, this is the Elephant in the Road shadowing all the debate over Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal.

Context of cumulative evidence

The evidence for this is hard to miss. For example:

• Project Connect’s stated plans — As our article No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes… has previously reported, in a PowerPoint presentation to the 25 May 2012 meeting of the Transit Working Group (TWG), the Project Connect team envisioned a “Preferred System Phase 1” program of projects, to be implemented within “0 to 10 years”, that included $500 million (2012 dollars) targeted for the MetroRapid “BRT” system then under development in four major corridors (and now in operation in the Guadalupe-Lamar and South Congress corridors). This half-billion-dollar investment would include covering the “Cost of 40%-50% dedicated lanes”.

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, with annotations by Dave Dobbs.

This was proposed in the context of Project Connect’s plan for urban rail (aka light rail transit, LRT) to serve UT’s East Campus, Red River, and Hancock Center, and at that time, the Mueller site … plus a clear rejection of proposals by Lyndon Henry, Dave Dobbs, Andrew Clements, and others that the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor had far more potential for an urban rail starter line. (The line to Mueller has, at least for now, been replaced by a proposed line to the former Highland Mall site.) So, in effect, even then, Project Connect envisioned a somewhat beefed-up, more heavily invested version of what they called “BRT” as the mode of “high-capacity transit” planned for Guadalupe-Lamar well into the future.

• Framing MetroRapid as an obstacle — Starting in the spring of 2012, Project Connect representatives and members of the Transit Working Group began portraying the Small Starts MetroRapid project as a “bus rapid transit” replacement for urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar, and thus an obstacle to any urban rail alternative in the corridor. Moreover, it was hinted that any effort to switch from MetroRapid to urban rail would sour Austin’s relationship with the FTA and jeopardize future funding for any projects of any mode in the Austin area.

Supporters of urban rail for the G-L corridor have responded that not only was the FTA investment — and the project itself — very minimal, but MetroRapid was originally intended, and should be regarded as, a precursor to urban rail in the corridor, not a barrier. See:

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

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

Why MetroRapid bus service is NOT “bus rapid transit”.

MetroRapid bus stops are currently designed to be modular and movable, and could be relocated to other routes or to use by urban rail. But civic officials and Project Connect representatives portray MetroRapid bus service as "permanent" form of "rapid transit" that "blocks" urban rail. Photo: L. Henry.

MetroRapid bus stops are currently designed to be modular and movable, and could be relocated to other routes or to use by urban rail. But civic officials and Project Connect representatives portray MetroRapid bus service as “permanent” form of “rapid transit” that “blocks” urban rail. Photo: L. Henry.

Nevertheless, in the spring of 2012, national transportation legal and policy consultant Jeff Boothe was hired by the city to reinforce the offical argument. In various public statements, including a presentation to a City Council work session on 22 May 2012, Boothe claimed that the minimalist Small Starts MetroRapid bus service would pose a daunting barrier to urban rail on Guadalupe and Lamar for decades. Asked by Councilman Bill Spelman how long this supposedly “BRT” operation would need to run in the corridor before urban rail could be substituted, Booth claimed “At least a minimum of 20 years. . . .That is FTA’s expectation.” (This assertion has subsequently been debunked; see, for example, Contradicting local official claims, FTA says it “would consider request” for urban rail on North Lamar.)

This theme continued in the fall of 2013 as Project Connect representatives Kyle Keahey, Linda Watson, and others portrayed the MetroRapid project as an obstacle, particularly citing the FTA’s “commitment” to “BRT” in this corridor. During the crucial final decisions by the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) and Austin City Council leading to an endorsement of Project Connect’s “Highland-Riverside” recommendation, the same argument was repeatedly brandished prominently by public officials such as Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Councilman Bill Spelman, Capital Metro Chairman Mike Martinez, and Capital Metro board member John Langmore as a compelling reason to rule out urban rail for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

While these specious claims of the “permanence” of “BRT” in this corridor, and the supposed intransigence of the FTA, in themselves don’t explicitly include detailed plans to install a G-L “BRT” infrastructure, they certainly bolster a strong suspicion of intent to proceed with the $500 million program already announced by Project Connect.

• Public statements — Not only have officials, Project Connect representatives, and supporters of their program made it clear that they see MetroRapid “BRT” as the “rapid transit” system “permanently” allocated to Guadalupe-Lamar, but Project Connect representatives have also indicated intent to install more substantial infrastructure for this operation. For example, at a Project Connect “Data Dig” on 3 December 2013, team representatives acknowledged that MetroRapid, running almost entirely in mixed traffic, fell short of “rapid transit”. In response, Project Connect staff assured participants that “dedicated lanes” were among the measures being considered to speed MetroRapid buses in the corridor.

MetroRapid buses running in mixed traffic are portrayed as central Austin's "rapid transit" — but this has become local joke. Photo: L. Henry.

MetroRapid buses running in mixed traffic are portrayed as central Austin’s “rapid transit” — but this has become a target of local jokes. Photo: L. Henry.

In the context of a proposed $500 million “dedicated lane” program, it’s extremely unlikely that mere paint-striping of transit lanes is what’s under consideration here. Technical issues of operational needs, safety, and other factors, plus “Best Practices” in the industry, all strongly point to a much more robust infrastructure investment than mere paint-striping to render a safe, efficient dedicated-lane facility.

And in the context of repeated affirmations of “commitment” to “BRT” in the G-L corridor, it’s entirely reasonable to expect that any further MetroRapid-related investments — even paint-striped lanes — would be regarded as a further reinforcement of the “permanence” of “BRT” in this corridor.

• “North Corridor BRT” integration — Project Connect has concocted a “regional” plan for the so-called “North Corridor” (in effect, a vast sector with multiple travel corridors located north of the core city) that consists almost entirely of bus operations, including “BRT”. In various presentations, Project Connect representatives such as Kyle Keahey have indicated that this “North Corridor BRT” system would connect neatly with “high-capacity transit” in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

Project Connect's North Corridor plan includes "BRT" extensions of MetroRapid (shown in green) into northern suburbs. Map: Project Connect.

Project Connect’s North Corridor plan includes “BRT” extensions of MetroRapid (shown in green) into northern suburbs. Map: Project Connect.

While no explicit proposals for specific facilities have been presented publicly, it seems reasonable to infer that, within the previously described context, this plan for a northern “BRT” connection would encourage and bolster the “Preferred System Phase 1” vision for “40%-50% dedicated lanes” in the G-L corridor.

Concrete vs. painted lanes

But if merely paint-striping reserved lanes on Lavaca and Guadalupe Streets downtown is adequate there, why can’t this be applied north of downtown, through the Drag, and on north, up Guadalupe and North Lamar?

The answer is that there’s a qualitative difference between separating slower-moving, congested downtown street traffic from bus lanes, and separating dedicated lanes designed for buses traveling 35-45 mph. As we’ve already noted, operational features (such as providing for general traffic turning movements), right-of-way constraints, and safety considerations virtually mandate much “more robust” — and thus expensive — facilities, not just striped-off lanes. In addition, heavy bus use typically requires construction of reinforced paveways for the running lanes.

All that implies pouring concrete and asphalt, not just brushing stripes with paint. And as we’ve also noted, given recent history, virtually any further capital improvements — no matter how minimal — for MetroRapid will be used to reinforce the contentions of a faction of Austin’s civic leadership that MetroRapid is too “permanent” to be relocated to permit the installation of urban rail.

Reinforced paveway on San Bernardino's sbX "BRT" Green Line shows that adequately "dedicated" bus lanes require more than just paint striping. Photo: TTC Inland Empire blog.

Reinforced paveway on San Bernardino’s sbX “BRT” Green Line shows that adequately “dedicated” bus lanes require more than just paint striping. Photo: TTC Inland Empire blog.

“BRT” funding and implementation options

Some skeptics question how Project Connect’s $500 million project for partially “dedicated lanes” on Guadalupe and Lamar would be funded and implemented. Austin Rail Now suggests it would probably be done incrementally, perhaps in route segments, rather than implemented as a single large program. And, besides possible right-of-way acquisition, it might involve an array of bus-traffic-related measures, from demarcated and reinforced running lanes, fully new paveways, reversible center bus lanes, queue-jumper lanes, and other options. But in any case, it would involve a substantial overhaul of these major arterials.

FTA Section 5307 or 5309 funds might cover 80%, with the local 20% share coming perhaps from a variety of sources, such as the quarter-cent contractual transfer from Capital Metro to the City of Austin (COA); COA funds possibly remaining for non-specific mobility improvements in North Lamar and Guadalupe; and even COA’s ongoing public works maintenance budget. Project segments and funding allocations could be added to CAMPO’s annual Transportation Improvement Program as Project Connect is ready to proceed with them.

However the details might materialize, Austin Rail Now is convinced that the preponderance of the evidence overwhelmingly points to desires and intentions on the part of the city administration and Project Connect to pursue this kind of massive program to “permanentize” MetroRapid “BRT” facilities in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — and that these facilities would effectively reinforce official contentions that urban rail is blocked as an option. Thus, we underscore our warning that a vote for Project Connect’s urban rail plan is also a vote to institute major bus infrastructure as an impediment to urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar. ■

Passenger stations of Kansas City's MAX "BRT" (left) and Houston's MetroRail LRT (right) illustrate significant design differences between bus and LRT facilities. Thus major infrastructure, from running ways to stations, installed for "BRT" must be removed or reconstructed for LRT — a substantial expense and thus obstacle to rail. Photos: ARN library.

Passenger stations of Kansas City’s MAX “BRT” (left) and Houston’s MetroRail LRT (right) illustrate significant design differences between bus and LRT facilities. Thus major infrastructure, from running ways to stations, installed for “BRT” must be removed or reconstructed for LRT — a substantial expense and thus obstacle to rail. Photos: ARN library.


Project Connect’s urban rail forecasting methodology — Inflating ridership with “fudge factor”?

20 June 2014

Graphic: Watts Up With That blog

Graphic: Watts Up With That blog

By Susan Pantell

Recently Project Connect posted a Technical Memorandum dated 13 June 2014 from Alliance Transportation Group discussing what it describes as “Central Corridor Initial LPA Transit Ridership Forecasting Methodology and Summary Ridership Forecasts”. In this posting, researcher Susan Pantell provides a critical analysis of this memo.

Screenshot of page 1 of Alliance Transportation Group's Technical Memorandum on Project Connect's ridership forecasting methodology.

Screenshot of page 1 of Alliance Transportation Group’s Technical Memorandum on Project Connect’s ridership forecasting methodology.

This memo does not really provide data on their methodology since the model is secret. Beyond that, their documentation is largely hand-waving.

1. Most importantly, they did analysis only for 2030. FTA now requires current year ridership analysis. “Current year” is the most recent year for which data on the existing system and demographic data are available. An applicant may choose to also evaluate a 10-year or 20-year horizon, and, in that case, the current-year and future-year estimates will each count 50%. Current year ridership would be a lot lower because there is not the development around Highland or the eastern side of UT, but they did not do it.

2. They estimate 15,580 daily trips using the model, which they round up to 16,000. Then they say that on game or event days, ridership could be 20,000 or higher. So they conclude “the project team believes that the median value of 18,000 is a reasonable preliminary estimate of 2030 ridership.” At the end of the memo they explain that this is not based on their calculations, but on their assumption of a 10-15% increase in ridership based on future development (18,000 is a 15% increase).

Lyndon Henry says that is a reasonable assumption, and it may be, but it is not based on data or adequately documented in this memo. They don’t say how many days they predict ridership will be 20,000 or over. There are a lot of events in Austin, but not a lot with high ridership — only 8-9 game days for football and about 10 days for SXSW. If I assume 40 days with 21,000 ridership and 15,600 on the other days, the average comes to 16,300.

They are also accounting for the special event days by adding 25 to the annualization factor of 300 that FTA uses. In addition, they add 103,000 to the annual ridership figure to account for special events.

3. Note that they estimate that total trips for the Capital Metro system will increase by 10,700 in 2030, which is lower than the ridership estimate above because bus ridership will be reduced along the route. Based on that figure, bus ridership will go down by almost 5,000 trips.

4. “Transit fares were set at the equivalent Capital Metro fares for premium transit modes discounted to 2005 model base year dollars.”

Why are they estimating 2030 ridership based on 2005 fares? Because ridership is higher with lower fares. They are assuming $1.50 fare. Using an online calculator, $1.50 is $2.78 in 2030 dollars for a 2.5% inflation rate. (For 2020 it would be $2.02 – $2.34.) That’s assuming they don’t raise the rates beyond the inflation rate.

I calculated the ridership based on a 2030 fare of $2.78 and assuming a 0.4% decrease in transit ridership for every 1% fare increase [TCRP, Report 95, Transit Pricing and Fares, 2004, Chapter 12, p. 12-6. TCRP RRD #61, Traveler Response to Transportation System Changes, 2003, p.19]. I come up with a 2030 ridership of 12,300, as compared with their 15,580. If you add their 15% fudge factor, it comes out to 14,000. If you decrease the base ridership of 12,300 by the same percentage as they do to come up with the total system trips, it comes to 8,500 new trips for the system.

Is that worth $1.4 billion?


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

15 June 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Austin Business Journal guru slams Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal as “a very small plan benefiting a limited group of people”

6 June 2014

Because design and implementation dollars have been invested wisely, Denver’s light rail system increasingly resembles a network that’s expanding to serve more crucial corridors in the region. High ridership has also attracted transit oriented development (TOD) near stations, helping influence urban growth patterns. Map: RTD.

Because design and implementation dollars have been invested wisely, Denver’s light rail system increasingly resembles a network that’s expanding to serve more crucial corridors in the region. High ridership has also attracted transit oriented development (TOD) near stations, helping influence urban growth patterns. Map: RTD.

For the most part, Austin’s business and civic elite seem to have closed ranks around Mayor Lee Leffiingwell (“The Lee Team”) and his administration’s efforts to promote a very pricey 9.5-mile, $1.4-billion urban rail project widely suspected to be concocted more as a giveaway to the development ambitions of the University of Texas and a faction of private developers, and less as a remedy for alleviating Austin’s most serious mobility deficits. Included in this “business and civic elite” is virtually the entirety of the local media establishment.

Jan Buchholz. Photo: Austin Business Journal.

Jan Buchholz. Photo: Austin Business Journal.

But occasionally there are fractures in this ostensibly solid consensus, and one of these is represented by Jan Buchholz, an Austin Business Journal staff writer who seems to have the professional role of a de facto guru specializing in real estate market happenings. In a May 7th column, comparing urban development and transportation in Denver and Austin, she seems very favorably impressed with Denver, a model from which Austin, in her estimation, falls far short.

“Rejuvenated neighborhoods are cropping up across Denver and development is being defined in many instances by the evolution of public transit” she writes. But unfortunately, “This dynamic does not exist in Austin to any great degree, and there’s little evidence that transit will play a significant role here any time soon.”

The reason? Mainly that Project Connect’s urban rail plan is pretty crummy:

The latest rail plan rolled out … is a $1.4 billion project that will run from Highland Mall to East Riverside Drive. Already, folks are decrying its high cost, but I don’t think it’s the cost that’s the real issue. It’s the fact that it’s a very small plan benefiting a limited group of people. That makes this price tag hard to swallow.

One of Buchholz’s gripes is that the proposal, which runs a short way southeast, ends way short of the region’s ABIA airport. And while local politicians are talking about “sweetening” the urban rail ballot measure with some dollops of highway projects, Buchholz doesn’t feel the highway capacity element is enough. (For the record, Austin Rail Now believes the Austin area’s emphasis on highway expansion is excessive, and should be ended.)

In regard to Denver’s urban rail development, Buchholz admires how the Mile-High City has prudently and energetically installed and expanded its system:

During the past 20 years, the Denver Regional Council of Governments — with support from a wide spectrum of stakeholders from government officials to businesses and residents — has embraced a huge vision for transportation improvements across the five-county metro area. It was never an easy sell, but for the most part taxpayers have supported the expensive, time-consuming and often inconvenient plan.

… The light rail is fully built out to the south, southeast and western suburbs. Construction is in progress for the light-rail line from downtown Denver to Denver International Airport, and another line will be built to the northwest suburbs.

Rejuvenated neighborhoods are cropping up across Denver and development is being defined in many instances by the evolution of public transit.

This dynamic does not exist in Austin to any great degree, and there’s little evidence that transit will play a significant role here any time soon.

What’s critical to understand is that, from the start, Denver planners and political honchos realized that resources were scarce and that the region’s first light rail transit (LRT) — i.e., urban rail — starter line had to be located where it would get the proverbial “best bang for the buck”. And they also realized that, to influence developers’ decisions and encourage transit-oriented development (TOD), rail lines would need to be routed to maximize ridership.

Yes, most rail stations often do attract some adjacent development. But it’s the potential volume of ridership — i.e. the traffic on the line — that carries the most influence on private developers’ decisions. The more people, the more residents and customers at your development, which in turn becomes more attractive in the real estate market.

Opening day of Denver's West Line light rail extension to Golden, Colorado, April 2013. Photo: David Warner.

Opening day of Denver’s West Line light rail extension to Golden, Colorado, April 2013. Photo: David Warner.

Key to urban rail expansion is conserving financial resources and deploying them wisely. Relatively lower outlays in the initial installation and operation of a new system means more funding available for expansion. So Denver started with a minimalist, 5.3-mile route from a northeastern neighborhood, proceeding down a busy corridor, via both street-running and a railway alignment, through a major commercial district, into the CBD, including a multi-institution university complex.

In 1994, they did that for $115 million. In 2014 dollars, about $37 million a mile. Compare that with Project Connect’s extravagant plan, including a tunnel and below-ground station, plus a “signature” bridge, at $119 million a mile. And Project Connect’s plan doesn’t even serve a major travel corridor!

Partly because they’d conserved financial resources, and partly because of the “big bang for the buck” effect that galvanized popular support, Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) was able to embark on the vigorous urban rail expansion and TOD development program that so impresses Jan Buchholz. As a result, Denver’s light rail ridership mushroomed from 15,000 in 1994 to 86,900 a day by the end of 2013 — a nearly five-fold increase.

But Denver’s approach to urban rail has been virtually the polar opposite of Austin’s. Project Connect’s extravagantly wasteful billion-dollar starter line, with its peculiar, head-scratching route structure and high-dollar infrastructure, has divided potential urban rail supporters, pitting pro-rail community members and neighborhoods against one another in a way the pro-highway, anti-transit Road Warriors never could.

And the results are apparent in potential ridership. An alternative route for urban rail, long proposed for the heavily traveled, busy, dense Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, serving the high-density West Campus of the University of Texas, has been forecast to attract six times as much ridership as Project Connect’s meandering, peripheral line — at about 20% lower capital cost.

The prospects for voter approval of municipal bonds to finance Project Connect’s project are not sanguine. As Buchholz points out,

No one wants to be nickel and dimed to death for a mediocre and limited public transit system. Add to that the public perception that the MetroRail from Leander to downtown has been only marginally effective and has been fraught with issues from the get-go. Combine those two factors and this latest plan doesn’t have a chance for ever leaving the station.

If Austin has any hope of matching urban development and public transport successes like Denver’s it needs to start with an affordable urban rail starter line that makes sense. This notion seems to have “Lamar-Guadalupe-West Campus” written all over it.


Project Connect’s wasteful plan — Ultra-pricey urban rail “decoration” in the wrong route

17 May 2014

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

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

By Lyndon Henry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant, is a technical consultant for the Light Rail Now Project, and a former board member and data analyst for Capital Metro. He also writes an online column for Railway Age magazine.