Archive for the ‘Regional planning issues’ Category

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As Austin wobbles into 2017, peer cities breeze past with urban rail

31 December 2016
New-Start light rail transit (LRT) systems have proliferated in cities across USA while Austin urban rail planning has languished. LEFT: Norfolk's new LRT line opened in 2011. (Photo: D. Allen Covey.) RIGHT: Tucson's new SunLink streetcar opened in 2014. (Photo: Tyler Baker.)

New-Start light rail transit (LRT) systems have proliferated in cities across USA while Austin urban rail planning has languished. LEFT: Norfolk’s new LRT line opened in 2011. (Photo: D. Allen Covey.) RIGHT: Tucson’s new SunLink streetcar opened in 2014. (Photo: Tyler Baker.)

Heading into 2017, in the face of a relentless and steadily worsening mobility crisis, the Austin metro area seems guaranteed to retain its notorious status as the national (and perhaps global?) Poster Child for indecision, confusion, and phenomenally incompetent transportation planning. Not only has this crisis been getting more severe … but even worse, policy decisions by local officials and planners have been reinforcing and expanding the underlying problems of suburban sprawl, a weak public transport system, and near-total dependency on personal motor vehicle transport. These have constituted the primary generators of congestion and the incessant tsunami of motor vehicle traffic engulfing the metro area … increasingly exposing the Austin-area public to hardship and danger.

Despite years of “politically correct” affirmations of the need for public transport (including urban rail) and more livable development patterns, local public policy has consistently maintained a central focus on expansion of the roadway system and encouragement of outwardly widening sprawl. This transportation and urban development policy has been and continues to be the region’s de facto dominant, obsessive aim.

The main mechanism for formulating and implementing this objective has been CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization), the metro region’s federally certified mandatory transportation planning agency, with representatives from Austin, Travis County, and five other surrounding counties. In concert with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), policy has been dominated by suburban and rural officials, assisted by the acquiescence of “progressive” political leaders representing Austin and Travis County.

In 2015, articles posted on Austin Rail Now by Roger Baker and David Orr described how CAMPO’s planning process not only implemented a determined focus on expanding roadways and suburban sprawl, but also removed light rail transit (LRT) from consideration. (Most recently, CAMPO also discarded the Lone Star regional rail plan that would have connected Georgetown, Round Rock, Austin, San Marcos, New Braunfels, and other towns and small cities with San Antonio.)

• «Baker: CAMPO’s 2040 plan = “prescription for intense and auto-addictive suburban sprawl development far into future”»

• «Austin’s “shadow government” (CAMPO) disappears light rail from local planning»

For Austin-area public transport, the result has been a malicious triple whammy: (1) A pervasive, growing network of widely available, easily accessed roadways continues to attract travel away from relatively slower, weaker public transit. (2) Sprawling roadways encourage and facilitate sprawling land-use patterns that virtually require personal motor vehicle ownership for access to jobs and essential services such as grocery shopping. (3) The enormous expense of constructing, maintaining, and expanding roadways (and associated infrastructure such as traffic signals, street lights, drainage facilities, and utilities to serve ever-spreading sprawl development) absorbs available public funds and restricts and diverts funding from public transport.

These impacts were described in our article «Austin — National model for how roads are strangling transit development» posted this past October, which also highlighted the role of the “progressive” city administration’s huge “Go Big” $720 million “mobility” bond package as an accelerant to the region’s ongoing road expansion agenda.


I-35 traffic congestion — bad and predicted to get much worse. Source: Culturemap.com.

Relentless, obsessive focus on highway expansion by CAMPO and TxDOT contiinues to induce increasing traffic and to worsen congestion. Source: Culturemap.com.


Within this environmental and policy context of continual, ferociously aggressive roadway expansion and sprawl development, how has public transit policy fared? Within roughly the past 15 years, the answer is … miserably. The pursuit of a rational, viable LRT project (i.e., affordable urban rail) in Austin’s busiest, densest central local corridor – an effort that lasted from the last 1980s until the early 2000s – has basically been abandoned in official planning.

While MetroRail (which was initially proposed in the late 1990s to demonstrate the efficacy of rail transit, and serve as a precursor to electric LRT) was endorsed by voters and eventually launched in 2010, Austin’s regional transit agency, Capital Metro, has never attempted to expand its potential. Instead, the agency has locked in MetroRail’s role as a small “commuter” line, and has ditched the original vision of conversion to LRT. The rail operation remains a relatively tiny adjunct to Capital Metro’s system, with (mainly because of low ridership) the highest operating and maintenance costs per passenger-mile of any comparable rail systems in the country.

Despite a significant legacy of planning for LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor (see «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps») and enduring community support for a starter LRT line in the corridor, Austin and Capital Metro officials have persistently either avoided consideration of LRT, or have pursued plans in other, far less viable corridors such as the once-favored route to the Mueller development area. (See «Derailing the Mueller urban rail express — Preamble to Project Connect’s 2013 “High-Capacity Transit Study”».)

By far, of course, the preeminent example of this has been the ridiculous Project Connect-sponsored “High-Capacity Transit” study of 2013 (see «The fraudulent “study” behind the misguided Highland-Riverside urban rail plan») and resultant absurd recommendation of a $1.4 billion Highland-Riverside urban rail “line to nowhere”. Fortunately, Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside critically flawed “urban rail” proposal was resoundingly defeated by voters in November 2014. (See «Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead».)

A concomitant fiasco has been Capital Metro’s effort to portray its MetroRapid limited-stop bus service as “rapid transit”, evidently intended in part to try to deflect community interest in urban rail for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. So how’s that effort worked out?

As the Austin American-Statesman’s transportation reporter Ben Wear pointed out this past July in an article titled «Pondering Cap Metro’s ridership plunge», “It hasn’t gone well.” Wear notes that, despite the introduction of supposed “rapid transit” service, ridership in the corridor has dropped by a third over the past four years.


Capital Metro and Austin officials have touted MetroRapid bus service as "rapid transit". Photo: L. Henry.

Capital Metro and Austin officials have touted MetroRapid bus service as “rapid transit”. Photo: L. Henry.


Likewise, in an Oct, 26th KXAN-TV news story titled «MetroRapid ridership lags along North Lamar and South Congress», reporter Kevin Schwaller noted that current North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress Route 801 MetroRapid boardings, at 13,000 a day, are running about 7,000 short of the 20,000 a day projected when the service was launched in 2014.

Capital Metro, it seems, remains astonishingly clueless. As our article «Capital Metro — Back to 1986?» pointed out last month, Capital Metro’s current planning seems essentially an effort to revive plans for “bus rapid transit” on I-35 rejected back in the late 1980s.

Meanwhile, as Austin (which has been considering LRT since the mid-1970s) has been mired in decades of indecision, confusion, fantasizing, and diddling, other comparable metro areas have been moving forward vigorously in their mobility, particularly by installing and expanding new modern urban light rail transit (LRT) systems (including streetcars, which can readily be upgraded to fullscale LRT). (Dates shown below indicate year new system was opened for public operation.)

Largest Western and Southwestern cities — The largest metro areas in America’s West and Southwest now all have LRT systems in operation. These include: San Diego (1981), Los Angeles (1990), Dallas (1996), Houston (2004), Phoenix (2008), Seattle (2009). It should also be noted that San Francisco has a legacy LRT system, based on its original streetcar system operating since the 19th century, and modernized to LRT beginning in the 1970s.

Peer cities — This category consists of a sampling of systems in metro areas that can be regarded as peer cities to Austin, in terms of size, demographics, and other relevant features). These include: Buffalo (1985), Portland (1986), San Jose (1987), Sacramento (1987), Baltimore (1992), St. Louis (1993), Denver (1994), Salt Lake City (1999), Tacoma (2003), Charlotte (2007), Norfolk (2011), Tucson (2014), Kansas City (2016), Cincinnati (2016). We should note that Oklahoma City also has a modern streetcar project under way.


With its LRT system, opened in 1999, Salt Lake City is one of many peer cities that have sped past Austin in their public transport development. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

With its LRT system, opened in 1999, Salt Lake City is one of many peer cities that have sped past Austin in their public transport development. Photo: Dave Dobbs.


Other new LRT systems — It should also be noted that new modern LRT systems have also been opened in northern New Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen corridor (2000) and Minneapolis (2004).

All in all, particularly in the face of this progress in rail transit development from coast to coast across the country, Austin’s aptitude for dithering and stagnation is breathtaking. ■

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Austin — National model for how roads are strangling transit development

31 October 2016
Central Texas Roadway System – brand-new highways (mostly tollways) under construction and planned. Map: CTRMA.

Central Texas Roadway System – brand-new highways (mostly tollways) under construction and planned. Map: CTRMA. (Click to enlarge.)

For decades, Road Warriors (aggressive proponents of roadway expansion) and other transit critics have disparaged America’s urban public transportation for its daily ridership levels amounting to just a small fraction of total metro area trips. In contrast, the vigorous ongoing expansion of urban roadway systems, outwardly sprawling development patterns, and levels of motor vehicle ownership has eclipsed transit development.

Of course, it’s widely recognized that much of the value of public transit resides in its function as a relief for the heavily congested passenger flows during daily peak hours and at other times, such as during special events – and this is where the high capacity of rail transit certainly excels. Nevertheless, it’s true that urban public transport needs to perform as much more than merely a subsidiary mode for peak traffic relief. Transit development has remained stunted in U.S. cities for decade after decade, well behind its role in comparable cities abroad, such as those in Europe, Asia, and Australia.

For Austin, “green” means “green camouflage”

Why is this? Public policy in Austin – a city that touts itself as embracing “green” principles and a commitment to public transport – illustrates how (despite decades of verbiage) the municipal and regional civic leadership and political establishment have maintained a commitment to prioritizing motor vehicle transport and roadway expansion.

From the Austin Tomorrow program of the 1970s to Envision Central Texas in the early 2000s to the more recent Imagine Austin community planning programs, community forums, official resolutions, and dozens of reports and pronouncements have solemnly affirmed a supposed dedication to more modern urbanist principles and public transport to provide the infrastructure for them. Yet time and time again, actual policy has funneled the heavy funding and other resources into further roadway development, and the continuation of suburban and rural sprawl development patterns.

The reality is: For Austin, “green” means green camouflage for major policies that are de facto harmful to the environment and quality of life. Austin actually serves as a model of how this commitment to prioritizing roads is strangling the development of adequate and fully effective public transport.

“Extravaganza” of roadway development

Ongoing roadway expansion doesn’t mean merely the addition of more lanes to existing highways. For the past half-century or more, it would be difficult to find a period in the Austin area when brand-new major highways have not been under construction.

This incessant extravaganza of roadway development includes: I-35 and then its double-decking; the “MoPac” (Loop 1) freeway; the development of the Ed Bluestein expressway; the conversion of Research Blvd. into a new freeway; the development of the Loop 360 expressway; the conversion of Ben White Blvd. into a new freeway; the development of the U.S. 290 East freeway. In more recent years, the construction of the SH 130 tollway; the 183-A tollway; the SH 45 tollway (north). And currently, the “MoPac” (Loop 1) reconstruction and tollway (HOT lanes) project; the 183 South (Bergstrom Expressway) tollway and expressway expansion project; the SH 45SW tollway; the SH 71 Express tollway project (between ABIA and SH 130); and the “MoPac” (Loop 1) South reconstruction and tollway (HOT lanes) project. And, of course, much more to come later – such as the mammoth overhaul of I-35 being planned by TxDOT. (See map at top of post.)

Meanwhile, over the entire lifetime of Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, since the agency’s inception in the mid-1980s, the one major capital investment transit project implemented has been MetroRail, currently operating a relatively tiny six-car system carrying less than 3,000 rider-trips a day. And in that same roughly 30-year period, the City of Austin and other local agencies have been siphoning off funds out of the transit agency’s basic revenue stream (generally ranging between 10-25%) to pay for roadway projects. For example, CMTA funding paid for most of the Build Greater Austin urban roadway program (over $93.4 million) and contributed heavily ($29.5 million) to the purchase of tollroad right-of-way for SH 45 and MoPac (Loop 1) into Williamson County north of Parmer Lane. (See Note at end of post.)

CAMPO boosts roads, dumps transit project

A powerful influence in the skewing of transportation policy toward road-focused priorities undoubtedly lies with the region’s major transportation planning body. Today, most large-scale transportation project funding decisions are made by CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization), now heavily biased in its structure toward suburban, exurban, and rural segments of the metro area.

In public comments to a Sep. 12th meeting of the agency, veteran transportation researcher and activist Roger Baker criticized CAMPO for being “heavily skewed to the suburban areas.” Another community activist, Jay Blazek Crossley, provided CAMPO board members with copies of a study he had completed highlighting disparities in democratic and demographic representation within CAMPO. As described in a report by Caleb Pritchard in the Sep. 15th Austin Monitor,

Crossley found that Travis County residents make up 57 percent of CAMPO’s six-county population. However, only 45 percent of TPB members come from Travis County communities.

More details of Crossley’s report can be found in the Streetsblog article «How Unrepresentative Is Your Regional Planning Agency?»

But in what almost was an act of chutzpah, at that same Sep. 12th meeting the CAMPO board voted to even further reduce Austin and Travis County representation in the strategic Technical Advisory Committee. Baker denounced the action as a “step backwards”.

While reorganizing itself to accelerate its programs for highway expansion and further regional sprawl development (see Roger Baker’s Feb. 2015 analysis), the CAMPO board moved to cancel its support for the region’s single new rail passenger project, Lone Star Rail (LSTAR). For approximately the past 15 years, this project had spent millions of dollars planning a regional rail passenger line to connect Round Rock, Austin, San Marcos, New Braunfels, and San Antonio with fast regional commuter-style trains.

The ultimate plan involved a swap with the Union Pacific Railroad (UP), which would sell its right-of-way and infrastructure to LSTAR in exchange for the agency providing new right-of-way and track along a route miles to the east. In addition to high-quality regional rail transit service, the plan would have eliminated the rail transport of hazardous cargo through the heart of center-city Austin.

But the plan was jeopardized when the UP reneged on its agreement in early 2016. Rather than stepping up to campaign for LSTAR and bring pressure on the UP to reinstate the deal, local officials – including those on CAMPO – did basically nothing, leaving LSTAR to hang by itself. In the end, even supposedly “progressive” liberal representatives from Austin and Travis County essentially sat on their hands, allowing the UP and CAMPO destruction of LSTAR to proceed without a fight. No champion, “progressive” or otherwise, stepped forward to tangibly defend the agency and this vital project. In the final CAMPO vote to withdraw support, there was not a single vote in opposition.

“Go Big” $720 million road bond measure

This background of a road-focused urban and regional mobility perspective is the context for the City of Austin’s “Go Big” campaign for a $720 million “Mobility Bond” package (to be financed by a hefty increase in local property taxes). This past summer, several “progressive” members of the City Council virtually led the charge to thwart efforts to add an urban rail starter line project to the package.

To sweeten the package in hopes of seducing some community support, the City added a smattering of funding for “alternative mobility” sidewalk and bicycle projects, and tried to portray the “Smart Corridors” road projects as somehow models of New Urbanism. The sweeteners worked – a number of community pro-pedestrian, cycling, neighborhood, and New Urbanist-aligned groups have jumped on board to support the bond campaign. (To her credit, liberal District 1 Councilmember Ora Houston has steadfastly opposed the bond package.)

But the basic thrust of the bond proposal has always been road expansion and improvements to facilitate motor vehicle traffic. From the outset, the program was sold as a way to “increase traffic throughput”. The ads for the bond package sponsored by Move Austin Forward (the primary campaign organization) focus on the benefits to cars, with slogans like “Cut Travel Time” and “Move Traffic Faster”.


TV ad promoting "Mobility Bond" package focuses on benefits for private motor vehicle traffic.  Graphic: Screenshot of Move Austin Forward TV ad.

TV ad promoting “Mobility Bond” package focuses on benefits for private motor vehicle traffic. Graphic: Screenshot of Move Austin Forward TV ad.


Noting recent news reports that the City hopes to procure federal matching grants to balloon the road bond funding into a massive $1.5 billion roadbuilding mega-program, Roger Baker commented

This makes it pretty clear that [Austin Mayor] Adler’s bond package is essentially top-down, business as usual road politics. This as opposed to a cost-effective engineering solution to some well-defined transportation problem or approach. Austin can’t possibly pave its way out of congestion by raising property taxes, and a truly smart city wouldn’t try.

This unceasing emphasis on unending roadway development continues to receive the overwhelming majority of funding. Especially on the local level, massive bond funding measures for roads such as the current $720 million “Mobility Bond” proposal have the effect of using up more and more of the available funding “oxygen” in the region and the city.

The Austin area’s continual expansion of roadways simultaneously fosters greater dependency on personal motor vehicles for local travel, and encourages more and more outwardly sprawling development patterns. These development patterns in turn necessitate increasing dependency on personal motor vehicle transportation. In a vicious spiral, taken together, more motor vehicles, greater dependency on them, and spreading sprawl further contribute to strangling the potential of public transport and opportunities to extend services and make them more effective.

Altogether, transit continues to be strangled, with no relief in sight. And if you wonder why transit ridership continues to be surpassed by traffic – despite mounting congestion – perhaps you can better understand a big part of the reason why.


Another TV ad screenshot promoting "Mobility Bond" package promises that bonds will "Move Traffic Faster".  Graphic: Screenshot of Move Austin Forward TV ad.

Another TV ad promoting “Mobility Bond” package promises that bonds will “Move Traffic Faster”. Graphic: Screenshot of Move Austin Forward TV ad.

NOTE: This article as originally posted stated that Capital Metro funds were used to purchase right-of-way for the SH 130 tollroad. However, ARN has not been able to verify this. Instead, evidence definitely indicates that Capital Metro funds were allocated to other tollroad projects, as indicated in the text.

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Vision for an Austin metro-wide light rail system

28 April 2016
Austin metro area. Graphic: Google Maps.

Austin metro area. Graphic: Google Maps.

In a number of postings this website has focused on the need and various alternative possibilities for an initial light rail transit (LRT) starter line in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. However, it’s crucial to emphasize that this would be merely the starter-anchor-spine of future branches of light rail to create an eventual metro-wide system. Most of America’s most successful LRT systems – such as San Diego, Portland, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Denver, St. Louis, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Phoenix – have expanded into more extensive citywide and even region-wide systems via this process of beginning with a single highly successful starter line.

Guadalupe-Lamar is, first and foremost, well positioned as such a starter line that could become the basic spine for expanding into a system with routes reaching outward into the metro area. As we’ve also repeatedly emphasized, it’s essential to develop a vision of a system that serves as many sectors of the metro area as feasible, and present this to the public. This is why it’s essential to keep the scale, design, and cost appropriate and affordable.

A number of Austin’s key corridors clearly have the residential and employment density, and the travel density, to support LRT. Certainly a “short list” of corridors worthy of inclusion in a viable system would include South Congress, South Lamar, and East Riverside, as well as extensions up North Lamar, conversion of MetroRail between downtown and Lakeline to LRT, and corridors through the Mueller redevelopment area into Northeast Austin, out East MLK into East Austin, and westward out Lake Austin Blvd.

Recently community urban activist and Guadalupe-Lamar rail transit supporter Andrew Mayer created his own version of the kind of extensive citywide system Austin Rail Now has been proposing. As shown in the map below, Andrew’s plan has electric LRT lines reaching throughout the city, north, northwest, northeast, west, east, south central (SoCo), southwest (SoLa), and southeast to the East Riverside area.


Proposed citywide urban rail system. Map: Andrew Mayer.

Proposed citywide urban rail system. Map: Andrew Mayer.


Andrew’s “ultimate build-out” metro-wide LRT system map (as with similar proposed systemwide maps) is an excellent, plausible, and credible visioning tool, particularly for helping major civic leaders and the public in general understand the vision of where a fully effective urban rail system eventually needs to go in this metro area. So is a metro-wide LRT system a realistic, achievable prospect from the standpoint of financial resources?

In 2014, at the height of the controversy over Project Connect’s then-proposed official Highland-Riverside $1.4-billion “urban rail” line, the implications for an expanded citywide rail transit system began to become a subject of more public discussion, with comparisons being made to other cities’ LRT systems, such as the expanding network of lines in Portland, Oregon. Some skeptics and rail transit opponents began brandishing a figure of “$8 billion” ($8.8 billion in some cases) as the investment cost of an Austin-area rail buildout comparable to Portland’s approximately 60-mile system — an exorbitant pricetag mainly based on an extrapolation of the extravagant cost of the Highland-Riverside project (a project facing some of the most challenging, expensive, and anomalous conditions in our own metro area).

In reality, a well-designed, value-engineered multi-line system for Austin is likely to cost far less than either these inflated cost assumptions or even the costs that have faced LRT planners in Portland’s difficult terrain. All told, a plausible investment cost estimate for a 60-mile Austin system (including an initial Guadalupe-Lamar starter line) would most likely average about $73 million per mile (2016 dollars), with total current investment cost falling in the range of roughly $4.4 billion. A realistic timeline for buildout of such a system might be three decades (about the same as in Portland). If we assume 50% Federal Transit Administration funding, that implies a 50% local share of about $2.2 billion, about $733 million per decade, or roughly $73 million per year.

Could the Austin region sustain a major rail transit development program of about $73 million per year? In view of current City of Austin and Capital Metro combined capital projects funding of more than $800 million per year, such an LRT starter line and system expansion program would indeed appear plausible, particularly with potentially available additional sources of funding (such as Tax Increment Financing) and other resources.

So far, as several of our articles have documented, Austin-area officials’ plan for spending vast additional billions of dollars on virtually endless highway development and expansion seems to be a program of investment in a “vision” of further misery and hopelessness. (See: «Baker: CAMPO’s 2040 plan = “prescription for intense and auto-addictive suburban sprawl development far into future”» and «Why spending $4.7 billion trying to improve I-35 is a waste of money».)

Andrew Mayer’s map for a metro-wide urban rail system, shown above, presents a very different, and we believe far more hopeful and desirable, vision for Austin’s future. Integrated with a robust, bus-based public transit services network, this is the kind of urban rail transit system that can catapult public transit into a truly major force in addressing the needs of mobility in metro Austin. ■

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Austin’s competing growth factions both continuing on road to worsening congestion

25 October 2015
CAMPO's 2040 regional roadway plan emphasizes expanding web of roadways catering to real estate development, intensifying addiction to private motor vehicle travel, and accelerating sprawl. Map: CAMPO 2040 Draft Plan.

CAMPO’s 2040 regional roadway plan emphasizes expanding web of roadways catering to real estate development, intensifying addiction to private motor vehicle travel, and accelerating sprawl. Map: CAMPO 2040 Draft Plan.

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 recently posted by E-mail to multiple recipients.

Most Austin folks still don’t know it (and how could they without much good investigative reporting?) but there is actually a behind-the-scenes struggle being conducted by two Austin-area real estate coalitions with quite different visions — a contest conducted through the agency of our federally mandated transportation planning body, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Authority, or CAMPO.

For the time being, the more influential growth alliance which benefits from roads and more roads to serve Austin-area sprawl development has won out. There is also a distinctly different group of landed beneficiaries centered around a transition to high-level transit as the future mode choice. This policy difference is basically a long-lasting political battle between two politically influential real estate development coalitions doing normal business under somewhat unique circumstances.

Texas is a “property rights” fundamentalist state, in which unregulated land development is the rule in about the only U.S. state without county zoning. In light of this fact, it is easy to imagine why this land development policy difference would arise. Sometimes the development strategies of these coalitions coincide and at other times they don’t. But they are in complete solidarity when it comes to their support for maintaining maximum Austin-area tech-job-led population growth forever. The impossibility of doing that, as is now being planned by CAMPO, makes Texas politics all the more colorful and interesting.

Let us call these development coalitions first the “sprawler growthers” more closely allied with RECA (Real Estate Council of Austin), and with fast land deal profiteering their uppermost consideration. The other policy bloc is the “transit growthers“, more allied with the Chamber of Commerce and Project Connect, based on somewhat more of a long-term sustainable growth vision. The latter transit-supportive, somewhat smarter-growth coalition recognizes that with congestion becoming a major challenge to maintaining Austin’s tech-based growth, and buses caught up in the same congestion, this leaves only old-fashioned, high-level rail to serve on travel corridors like Lamar/Guadalupe. There is no other way to maintain what still remains of Austin’s severely degraded peak hour travel mobility.

Former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell was forced by RECA, which is the more sprawl oriented development coalition, to include $400 million in roads into his rail bond package, which ballooned it to a full billion dollars, using up all the city’s remaining high-grade bonding ability, and likely priming it for defeat. With the defeat of the billion-dollar bond package election in November 2014, and with the recent approval of the heavily sprawl-oriented CAMPO plan favored by TxDOT and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), the sprawl-growth faction now has the upper hand. They are proceeding to build and widen roads as fast as their increasingly limited finances allow, as I’ve recently reported in a Rag Blog article:

http://www.theragblog.com/roger-baker-metro-risky-business-in-central-texas-the-toll-road-bond-gamble/

The recent Travis County support for bringing the Rocky Mountain Institute into the Austin area planning process to tackle Austin congestion can’t change this unhappy reality very much. Nothing can solve problems that really stem from decades of anarchistic sprawl development, and at this late stage in the urban development process.

Now that Uber has created and promoted software that undermines certain traditional inefficiencies of the taxicab industry, there isn’t much to be done there. Capital Metro has gotten a new app that makes it possible for riders to track buses, but these buses are still largely trapped in congestion at peak, which remains their main problem. Squeezing what advantages are left to develop through wider use of telecommuting to eliminate physical travel might help some, but new breakthroughs in that area are getting hard to find.

Much slower regional growth will no doubt win out as the obvious resolution in the end. When things can’t go on any longer, they don’t. ■

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Austin is a village of villages — and they need to be connected by rail

29 August 2015
City of Austn's Imagine Austin "Centers and Corridors" map shows "regional centers", "town centers", neighborhood centers" and "activity centers". Center-city has three de facto villages, aka "town centers", that align in almost a perfectly straight line down the city's spine. Map excerpt: City of Austin.

City of Austn’s Imagine Austin “Centers and Corridors” map shows “regional centers”, “town centers”, neighborhood centers” and “activity centers”. Center-city has three de facto villages, aka “town centers”, that align in almost a perfectly straight line down the city’s spine. Map excerpt: City of Austin.

By Mary Rudig

Mary Rudig is a Gracy Woods Neighborhood Association coach and editor of the North Austin Community Newsletter. The following commentary has been adapted and slightly edited from her comments recently posted to selected recipients.

Right now, there is a very logical and straightforward way to create a solid transportation system in Austin — but it starts with all of us in this community having to realize that Austin, like most cities in the Southwest, is a village of villages. Most people don’t want to go downtown, they want to go to the next village.

We need to go back to the Imagine Austin plan and start by truly connecting the major activity centers through rail, going down the spine of the city. Rundberg/Lamar down to the North Lamar Transit Center down to the Triangle, then into campus, then through downtown to Seaholm. Add rapid bus systems to connect the Parmer/Mopac tech employment hub, drop more rapid buses along Parmer so you can add density in the Techridge area to the Northeast, add another rapid bus system into Highland Mall/ACC, and another rapid bus into Riverside and down into Slaughter. Eventually those rapid systems will build enough ridership to justify more legs and spurs to the main rail line.

Proposed 6.8-mile "Plan B" light rail transit line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

Light rail transit starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor could serve as basic spine for eventual urban rail system together with other transit modes connecting metro area “villages”.

Second, we need to tear apart the PUD (Planned Unit Development) ordinance and basically make PUDs temporary TIFs (Tax increment Financing districts) — I would suggest twenty years. So to pay for the infrastructure, sidewalks, and other things to create this massive transportation plan, we could encourage neighborhoods to allow PUDs to be built, but the revenue and some of the property tax from each PUD would then go back into an account that can only be used for transportation and park/greenbelt/trails in the immediate area.

Third, we would need to force developers to stop building massive parking garages every time they put in another apartment complex and insist, instead, that they have to come up with some matching funds to put in sidewalks and hike & bike trails that connect their development into the surrounding neighborhoods. Sure, the developers will howl, but we just need to tell them sweetly, but firmly, that sidewalks and hike & bike trails are actually far cheaper than parking garages, and we are no longer buying the idea that an apartment complex is truly “compact AND connected”, unless it has very few parking spots and a whole ton of, you know, actual connectivity into surrounding neighborhoods. If we can get enough PUDs generating some funds, then there will be plenty of cash on hand to match the developers’ funds.

As for the idea (being promulgated by some community activists) that all of us in the outer ring of neighborhoods are living in “suburbs” where everybody is wealthy and low-density, that’s an interesting theory — let’s test it.

Let’s see, even though the City includes the Walnut Creek Metro Park into their density calculations, my neighborhood is still over 1200 people per square mile denser than the average density in Austin (4700 versus the typical 3500), and we have a ton of fairly affordable duplexes and older apartments. Oh, and I live in a 960-square-foot bungalow, on a street that is surrounded by duplexes, and we have the Domain two blocks away. Did I mention that I walk to work, my husband walks to work, my nextdoor neighbor bikes to work, and the neighbor next to him also walks to work?

In fact, my area of town (north of U.S. 183) has nearly 90,000 people packed into 13 square miles — so we have downtown beat when it comes to density. We also have neighborhoods to the east of me where 15% of the population doesn’t have cars, versus the 3-5% that is typical in most of Austin. (The official planners have never studied my neighborhood, so I haven’t a clue where we stand on this, but we have a lot of families that do exist happily on one (1) vehicle, instead of the typical family armada)

The truth is, the development crowd in this town keeps the myth of low-density outer suburbs going because they don’t want anybody to clue into the fact that the developers are — yup, actually building sprawl. A super-dense development carefully built to hide a massive parking garage, with a sidewalk that goes nowhere tacked on as a nod to “connectivity”? That’s a vertical gated suburban community that caters to the car culture, folks — and each one of these that gets built is pushing us a little further away from the goal of Austin having good mass transit and walkable, bikable connectivity.

And just to be super-transparent … Yes, I am one of those awful “anti-growth”, “anti-density”, “ANCer” “neighborhood NIMBYs” that both well-heeled real estate groups and some “liberal” community activist groups warn you about. Because I want stuff like rail and walkability, and I don’t think car-culture sprawl and gated communities are good for Austin. Huh. ■

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Stealth plans for “forced busing” in heavy local travel corridors may be wasteful barrier to light rail

30 March 2015
Consequences of investing in bus-based "rapid transit" (BRT) can be seen in Ottawa, where bus bunching and huge bus jams like this one reveal massive size of fleet necessary to support "rapid transit" levels of ridership — ridership far more efficiently accommodated by urban rail . Similar plans for expanded BRT infrastructure in Austin pose similar need for light rail transit (LRT) alternative. Photo: Flickr.

Consequences of investing in bus-based “rapid transit” (BRT) can be seen in Ottawa, where bus bunching and huge bus jams like this one reveal massive size of fleet necessary to support “rapid transit” levels of ridership — ridership far more efficiently accommodated by urban rail. Similar plans for expanded BRT infrastructure in Austin pose need for light rail transit (LRT) alternative. Photo: Flickr.

By Dave Dobbs

Dave Dobbs is publisher of LightRailNow.com. This commentary has been adapted and expanded from original private Email comments.

Recent developments in local metro area transportation planning, particularly in the aftermath of last November’s ill-conceived “urban rail” bond vote debacle, have made it evident to some of us that there’s a need for a grassroots collection of stakeholders to unite behind a new urban rail planning process, and getting it started ASAP. This is more urgent than most people realize.

It’s abundantly clear that, over the past several years, Project Connect and CAMPO planners and officials have been aiming toward “forced busing” on Austin’s best potential light rail routes, the heavy local travel routes where currently the big red MetroRapid buses run — Guadalupe/North Lamar, South Congress, and South Lamar. As I pointed out in an earlier article on this issue («No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes…»), it’s ironic that, for the past several years, while some public officials have piously insisted we can’t possibly convert car travel lanes to reserved rail lanes on Guadalupe/North Lamar, it seems that all along, since at least 2012, this has been in planning for MetroRapid — in effect, a “stealth” plan for incremental BRT.


Light rail/urban rail has simply vanished from CAMPO's 2040 Transportation Plan. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN.

CAMPO 2040 plan includes hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed “BRT” projects, including plans to construct dedicated lanes in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor in lieu of light rail. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


If, this coming May, the CAMPO 2040 plan is adopted with the Urban Transit Projects (2020 – 2040) currently in the plan, Capital Metro, perhaps together with the City, will have the green light to immediately pursue federal funding for concrete bus lanes on the above thoroughfares. And they will no doubt do so, as the 80% federal matching funds for buses are far more available than 50% federal matching funds for rail. Yet, even with the heavier federal proportion, this would be a disastrous waste in the longer term, since the ridership attractiveness, cost efficiency, more livable urban environment, stimulus for transit oriented development (TOD) and economic development, and other benefits for the community, far outweigh the advantage of a higher rate of federal bus system funding.


Total cost per passenger of urban rail becomes lower than "bus rapid transit" as ridership rises above about 10,000 per day. Graph: Project Connect.

Project Connect graph, presented in June 2012 to Transit Working Group, showed greater cost-effectiveness of urban rail (LRT) compared with BRT, as ridership increases. Screenshot: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


We should expect that the MetroRapid bus lane process will be similar to the Project Connect rail public process — i.e., art gallery open houses, boards and commission hearings and approvals, and finally, council and Capital Metro board approval … but no general public vote, because the the local 20% match will be small enough to construct discrete sections and can probably be found in a slush fund someplace. While 20% of the overall $442,861,656 Capital Metro has identified for dedicated MetroRapid bus lanes is around $88.6 million, it’s logical to expect a piecemeal approach, one section at a time, so as to avoid a citywide response over the loss of vehicle travel lanes. Divide and conquer.

For example, after having paint-striped a little over a mile of Guadalupe and Lavaca between Cesar Chavez and MLK, the most likely next step is to convert two vehicle travel lanes on Guadalupe from MLK to the Triangle (North Lamar at Guadalupe), a distance of 2.5 miles, for about $60 million. Of this, Austin’s share would be roughly $12 million, small enough to be found in current budget funds without going to the voters. Perhaps an even shorter segment, 1.5 miles to 38th Street, would be considered, where the local share would be only about $7 million.

While the downtown Guadalupe/Lavaca paint striping cost $270,000/mile, the dedicated lanes called for in the CAMPO 2040 plan are tear-up-the-street, fix-utilities, and pour 18 inches of concrete (very much like installing light-rail-dedicated reserved lanes) and cost about $24 million/mile for a lane in each direction. Of course, once the bus lanes are in, we couldn’t change our minds because (1) we’ll have spent a lot of federal dollars, and switching over to rail anytime soon would not get a hearing from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and (2) merchants and residents are not going to easily, willingly, or peacefully suffer urban street surgery twice. Currently the $38 million in Federal grants for MetroRapid in mixed traffic is mostly portable to another corridor (like Riverside, where it would be appropriate), and after seven years, buses are mostly amortized in the eyes of the FTA. Exclusive bus lanes at $350 million is another matter entirely, for something that can’t be moved.


Construction for dedicated bus lanes, rarely shown by "BRT" promoters, is very similar to that for LRT, as this example from San Bernardino demonstrates. Yet effective capacity, ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, TOD, and other benefits typically fall short of what LRT typically achieves. Photo: Omnitrans.org.

Construction for dedicated bus lanes, rarely shown by “BRT” promoters, is very similar to that for LRT, as this example from San Bernardino demonstrates. Yet effective capacity, ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, TOD, and other benefits typically fall short of what LRT achieves. Photo: Omnitrans.org. (Click to enlarge.)


Proceeding with major investment in bus infrastructure in Guadalupe-Lamar and other high-travel local corridors is a huge mistake. As I warned in the earlier article cited above, if you would prefer urban rail instead of a major dedicated bus lane project in Guadalupe-Lamar, “it’s essential to speak up and act. Let neighborhood groups and other community organizations know what official plans have in store for this corridor.” It’s also important to communicate to local agencies involved with planning and members of the Austin City Council “that you want to ride urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, running in reserved tracks, not just a souped-up bus service weaving in and out of special lanes.” ■

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Austin’s urban transport planning seems struck by catastrophic case of amnesia and confusion

29 March 2015
Graphic: Rich's Management Blog

Graphic: Rich’s Management Blog

The devastating befuddlement of Austin’s official-level urban transportation planning over the past five months has been nothing short of jaw-dropping. Especially when you consider this in context.

For two and a half decades, local officials and planners have explained why urban rail — affordable light rail transit (LRT), in Austin’s case — has been an absolutely essential component of the metro area’s mobility future. As our recent article «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps» describes, the logical starting point for an initial LRT route has been the central city’s heaviest-traveled central corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar.

Year after year, planning proceeded in some way for LRT. Even after 2003, while official planning was distracted and mis-directed toward potential routes more to the east of the central core city, the need for rail transit was still proclaimed. Austin had to have rail to maintain an adequate level of mobility into the future.

Beginning about 2006, an original streetcar “connector” rail transit concept emerged that gradually morphed into more ambitious “urban rail” — a full LRT system. An official blue-ribbon committee of civic leaders, the Transit Working Group (TWG), was hand-picked (first by State Sen. Kirk Watson, then by Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell) to guide rail planning. Extensive planning documents were finalized for a route scheme linking the Core Area with Seaholm, East Riverside, the East Campus, and Mueller — a rather deranged route, in our view, but rail nonetheless. The City then launched a full-fledged NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process (required for federal funding), with a series of “open houses” and other public events.

Activities of the TWG continued to heat up, primarily focused on planning for the urban rail line to Mueller. Route alternatives, cost issues, funding issues, organizational and management arrangements, and all kinds of associated issues were discussed exhaustively. A new consortium of public agencies, called Project Connect, was formed, mainly to coordinate rail planning and to produce a massive regional plan criss-crossed with proposed rail lines. Remember all this?

By 2013, the official establishment apparently felt urban rail needed the scrutiny of a special High-Capacity Transit study. So a special Project Connect team, headed by consultant Kyle Keahey, was formed, and virtually the second half of 2013 was consumed with “studying” (translation: justifying) and finalizing the need, size, and shape of an officially preferred urban rail plan. Mueller was sidelined, replaced by a desperate quest for a rail line from East Riverside to the former Highland Mall site. “Gotta get to Mueller! Mueller! Mueller!” became “Gotta get to Highland! Highland! Highland!”


Urban rail has been on the official planning agenda for decades. Throughout the first 10 months of 2014, the Highland-Riverside plan (envisioned in this simulated scene) was hyped incessantly. Graphic: Project Connect.

Urban rail has been on the official planning agenda for decades. Throughout the first 10 months of 2014, the Highland-Riverside plan (envisioned in this simulated scene) was hyped incessantly. Graphic: Project Connect.


As this blog, and a sizable segment of local transit advocates, insisted, the plan was conceived for the wrong reasons and fundamentally flawed. But for about the last two months of 2013, and ten months of 2014, the City administration, plus Capital Metro, plus the prevailing faction of local civic leaders, all insisted over and over that rail was absolutely, positively essential (although it had to be the peculiar Highland-Riverside plan officials had concocted). An expensive ad campaign, much of it financed from federal funds channeled through Capital Metro, bombarded the public via the Internet and virtually all major media outlets — reiterating the message that traffic congestion was a growing threat to the metro area and rail (the official plan of course) was the essential remedy. Mayor Leffingwell’s familiar aphorism was suddenly appearing and being heard everywhere: “Rail or Fail!

And then, on Nov. 4th, it all hit a wall, as voters said No to the puzzling, nonsensical, controversial, and fabulously expensive Project Connect plan that had been offered.

And all of a sudden, rail was erased, scrubbed, from official discourse. Despite all the years, decades, of documentation of the need for a rail transit system for the city, the official vision of transit became refocused on “becoming the best bus system we can be”; after years of explanations that reliance on further highway development wasn’t a realistic solution for preserving the city’s mobility, regional highway and tollway development has suddenly received a new surge of energy in official policy.

Meanwhile, rail transit planning has basically vanished from official planning. It’s just gone “Poof”. As David Orr has reported in his recent commentary «Austin’s “shadow government” (CAMPO) disappears light rail from local planning», all reference to urban rail has been expunged from the 2040 Transportation Plan of CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization), and replaced by line items for “bus rapid transit” (i.e., expansion of the MetroRapid limited-stop bus service).

Affirmed, until last November, as an absolutely essential component of Austin’s future mobility, light rail has now disappeared from public discourse, from the mainstream media, from the lips of politicians and civic leaders. Is it some kind of collective amnesia? Have the local planning and decisionmaking establishment all been struck with a strange disability, like the global mass blindness in Day of the Triffids? Or is the obliteration of rail a calculated excision, like the Soviet Stalin regime’s air-brushing elimination of political undesirables from photos, or the “Photoshopping” of group photos by some misguided religious media to “disappear” women?


Evaporation of Austin's light rail planning resembles a catastrophe of collective affliction, like the mass blindness portrayed in Day of the Triffids. Movie poster: IMDb.com.

Evaporation of Austin’s light rail planning resembles a catastrophe of collective affliction, like the mass blindness portrayed in Day of the Triffids. Movie poster: IMDb.com.


One wonders whether any of these Austin-area leaders and planners have given a thought as to how this plays in public perceptions of their own credibility and integrity. Were all the assurances and explanations of the need for urban rail to maintain Austin’s future mobility and vitality just deceptive hype, a marketing ploy for some kind of alternative agenda?

Maybe, but we believe the fundamental case for LRT in Austin has been grounded in truth — the higher capacity, greater ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, environmental benefits, unsurpassed magnetism to transit-oriented development and economic development, and other advantages of light rail are indeed essential for the future of this community. Mobility cannot be sustained of a continuing expansion of rivers of highways and tollways and a steadily rising flood of personal motor vehicles. Urban rail continues to be key to providing truly attractive public transit alternative, and shifting at least significant segments of the Austin metro to a sustainable alternative mobility lifestyle.


According data from Texas Transportation Institute, even with implementation of infrastructure expansion in CAMPO 2035 plan, Austin metro travel time would increase 80% due to traffic congestion. Graph: Austin Chamber of Commerce 2013 Mobility Report.

According to data from Texas Transportation Institute, even with implementation of infrastructure expansion in CAMPO 2035 plan, Austin metro travel time would increase 80% due to traffic congestion. Graph: Austin Chamber of Commerce 2013 Mobility Report. (Click to enlarge.)


And we have a strong suspicion that a preponderant number of local planners and officials actually continue to agree with this perspective. If so, they need to realize there’s a lot of community support for urban rail — from voters on both sides of last year’s debate — and they need to start stepping forward. They need to heed their sense of responsibility, find their mojo, or whatever it takes, to take the lead to get LRT planning back on track.

The groundwork, in terms of preliminary planning, is already there — and, in recent articles and other public information, Austin Rail Now along with other mass transit advocates have expanded on it.

Austin is waiting. We’re wondering who’ll take the first step. ■


LRT train on Portland's 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland’s light rail trains (in dedicated lanes) share 5th and 6th Avenue transit mall with buses as well as cars — a potential transit design model for Austin? Photo: L. Henry.