Archive for the ‘Road and highway issues’ Category

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TxDOT-CAMPO $8 billion I-35 expansion plan wastes money and robs transit

29 May 2019

TxDOT rendering of I-35 expansion project through downtown Austin. Screenshot from TxDOT video via Austin Chronicle.

Commentary 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.

As various news sources have reported, a major expansion of I-35 through Austin is back on the official agenda, particularly after the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) voted to approve a huge expansion plan on May 6th:

I-35 changes dramatically in TxDOT’s proposed $8 billion expansion

Some See A Plan To Expand I-35 As A Betrayal Of Austin’s Environmental Values

But that vote was followed a few days later by a basically contradictory vote on May 9th by the Austin City Council to endorse a “Green New Deal” for the city:

Austin throws support behind Green New Deal

Yes indeed, the political pressure to widen IH-35 is an important contradiction that puts Austin politicians who voted to widen it at the recent CAMPO meeting in a real bind. That starts with Mayor Steve Adler (a real estate property rights lawyer). The Green New Deal calls for a major policy shift toward transportation alternatives, and away from roads and cars.

The core problem here is that CAMPO, which Mayor Adler now chairs, has always been strongly supportive of the trend of adding more car-addictive suburban sprawl development to the area surrounding Austin. Because Austin is still gentrifying fast, that means that Austin’s lowly paid service workers, who seek to work in Austin, are being forced by low wages to commute from the surrounding suburbs. This is creating severe congestion on Austin’s primary commuting roads, like IH-35.

TxDOT and the local real estate lobby – like the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) and the Chamber of Commerce – want to keep this dysfunctional, unsustainable, anti-environmental Ponzi scheme going as long as possible because it is a win-win situation for both the suburban sprawl developers, and also the TxDOT road contractors that TxDOT hires to build its roads. Since TxDOT is like an 800-pound gorilla in terms of its political clout in Texas, no CAMPO politician is brave enough to say “no” when TxDOT demands $400 million dollars from local government, in return for doing dumb stuff like widening commuter highways, justified by the specious claim that this will reduce congestion. This is at a time when U.S. driving is stagnating and TxDOT is heavily in debt because Texas hasn’t raised its gas tax for 25 years!

Meanwhile TxDOT has no idea of how it is going to get the rest of the $8 billion needed to widen just this one road through central Austin. The era of easy low-interest credit from the Fed appears to be coming to an end, although this has been largely responsible for keeping high-tech jobs coming into the Austin area. (Austin has pretty much put all its future growth hopes into high-tech and tourism in recent years.)

The reality is that almost every politician, including those on CAMPO, is afraid of TxDOT, which has god-like discretion over local policy. That is why TxDOT almost always gets their way. And why Molly Ivins used to call TxDOT “the Pentagon of Texas”.

In this case CAMPO decided to pledge to help fund the road with local money despite TxDOT being mostly $8 billion short of what they envision being able to afford someday. Last year, Streetsblog posted a useful critique of Austin’s most infamous road which warned that “a proposal to add miles of new lanes will likely only exacerbate the problems that led to congestion in the first place. … Just as road expansions elsewhere in Texas have failed at reducing congestion — like Houston’s Katy Freeway expansion — any congestion benefits from widening I-35 will likely be short-lived.”

Highway Boondoggles: Interstate 35 Expansion in Austin

The article also highlights a further drawback:

An I-35 expansion would also drain money from other pressing transportation needs. In 2012 Austin adopted a city vision for limiting sprawl, expanding transportation choices, and creating more compact, connected communities. Achieving that vision will require a variety of projects. These include building better bike and pedestrian infrastructure downtown, like the improvements proposed for the Guadalupe Street Corridor that would cost $33.7 million. Various proposals have called for creating new light rail routes through the heart of Austin, at a cost of $400 million to $1.4 billion.

In other words, the $8 billion I-35 project would drain funds that could otherwise be used for “creating new light rail routes through the heart of Austin” – such as the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, now designated as the “Orange Line” option.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) would apparently require dedicated right-of-way, which would remove what are currently car lanes, while providing a lot of new bus capacity along the Lamar corridor in return. But experience elsewhere indicates that even that even frequent BRT capacity could be overwhelmed. The operating expenses would probably be higher than for light rail.

My thinking is that light rail could provide the highest level of capacity along part or all of this Orange Line corridor, perhaps through the downtown area and up Guadalupe past UT and into this already dense area.

Why not build rail as a shorter segment which would get the highest ridership and do the most good in satisfying mobility demand early on? If Austin’s current bonding capacity is big enough, we might consider approving bonds to build the highest-use light rail segment of the Orange line in November 2020. Then lengthen that rail segment later and phase out buses in accord with rising corridor ridership.

In any case, channeling public funding into urban rail and other major transit investments would seem to be a much better use of $8 billion – or even a fraction of that money.

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Road and rubber-tire transport plans thwarting urban rail? Seems to fit a pattern

30 January 2019

Construction of U.S. 183 South expressway. Source: Fluor..

As previous posts on this website have noted, for about 28 years – from 1989, when light rail transit (LRT) was identified by Capital Metro as the region’s Locally Preferred Alternative for its Major Investment public transport mode, until the first quarter of 2018 – urban rail held a central and absolutely key role in Austin-area mass transit planning, memorably exemplified by the “Rail or Fail” slogan in 2014. But just as the Project Connect planning process, in early 2018, was rendering a new proposal for LRT after more than two additional years of research, public input, and analysis, that process was thwarted and reversed by a new Capital Metro administration in consort with several local officials, all focused on rubber-tired, roadway/highway-based, and sprawl-driving alternatives to rail.

The reasons for this 180-degree change in policy remain somewhat obscure. But they do seem to fit a persistent pattern of trying to minimize public transport investments in order to divert local funding resources into major new roadway projects (such as a massive overhaul to I-35). This emphasis on vast new roadway investment has been documented in a series of our previous posts:

• Why spending $4.7 billion trying to improve I-35 is a waste of money [March 2016]
https://austinrailnow.com/2016/03/29/why-spending-4-7-billion-trying-to-improve-i-35-is-a-waste-of-money/

• City’s “Smart Corridor” Prop. 1 bond plan promising way more than it can deliver [Sep. 2016]
https://austinrailnow.com/2016/09/29/citys-smart-corridor-prop-1-bond-plan-promising-way-more-than-it-can-deliver/

• Austin — National model for how roads are strangling transit development [Oct. 2016]
https://austinrailnow.com/2016/10/31/austin-national-model-for-how-roads-are-strangling-transit-development/

• “Traffic Jam” to discuss “high capacity transit” becomes “bait & switch” push for road plans [March 2017]
https://austinrailnow.com/2017/03/26/traffic-jam-to-discuss-high-capacity-transit-becomes-bait-switch-push-for-road-plans/

• Urban Rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, Not I-35 “BRT” [July 2017]
https://austinrailnow.com/2017/07/31/urban-rail-on-guadalupe-lamar-not-i-35-brt/

• Officials boost roads and “Super BRT”, put urban rail on side track [Aug. 2017]
https://austinrailnow.com/2017/08/31/officials-boost-roads-and-super-brt-put-urban-rail-on-side-track/

• Why TxDOT-Capital Metro “BRT” plan for I-35 is a massive boondoggle [Oct. 2017]
https://austinrailnow.com/2017/10/01/why-txdot-capital-metro-brt-plan-for-i-35-is-a-massive-boondoggle/

• Why “Super BRT” in I-35 would betray Capital Metro’s member cities [Oct. 2017]
https://austinrailnow.com/2017/10/31/why-super-brt-in-i-35-would-betray-capital-metros-member-cities/

• Plans for Smart City could be dumb choice for Austin [Jan. 2018]
https://austinrailnow.com/2018/01/31/plans-for-smart-city-could-be-dumb-choice-for-austin/

• Capital Metro strikes three blows against Lamar-Guadalupe light rail [May 2018]
https://austinrailnow.com/2018/05/31/capital-metro-strikes-three-blows-against-lamar-guadalupe-light-rail/

• Reinstate Urban Rail in Austin’s Planning [Sep.2018]
https://austinrailnow.com/2018/09/19/reinstate-urban-rail-in-austins-planning/

Basically attempting to reboot the “derailed” Project Connect planning process, Capital Metro has has just issued a solicitation for engineering/planning services, to include performance of an Alternative Analysis of transit mode options. But this comes in the context of about seven months of aggressive top-level hyping of the supposed advantages of “bus rapid transit” (BRT) and a chimerical mode (currently “under development”) described as “autonomous rapid transit” (ART) – autonomous (robotic) buses theoretically capable of emulating the operation of LRT trains.

Capital Metro’s recent solicitation appears to focus on the proposed “Orange Line” corridor (basically the Tech Ridge-to-Slaughter Lane alignment that consists of the N. Lamar-Guadalupe and South Congress corridors), intended for implementation of “high-capacity transit” in “dedicated pathways”. Under pressure and criticism from various community leaders and Austin councilmembers, the solicitation specifies inclusion of “Dedicated Pathways Light Rail Transit (LRT)” in the mix of modes to be considered in the Alternatives Analysis.

Unfortunately, over many previous months several local officials favoring highways and buses have, in public statesments, claimed exaggerated costs for LRT and implied that this “high cost” makes such a system unaffordable for Austin. In occasionally similar major investment planning situations in other communities, it’s been suspected that key public officials have influenced their planning teams to skew “analysis” results toward their preferred results.

Light rail can have a broad range of costs and performance results depending on key design decisions and the competence of the planning team. Will evaluation of LRT be handled fairly in the forthcoming “high-capacity transit” study for the Orange Line corridor? Transit advocates would be well-advised to do their best to help ensure that it will be.

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Why TxDOT-Capital Metro “BRT” plan for I-35 is a massive boondoggle

1 October 2017

Rendering of rebuilt I-35 at MLK Blvd. with HOT lanes for use by “Super BRT” (shown in purple and yellow). Graphic: TxDOT.

The leadership of Austin’s Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CMTA, aka Capital Metro) seems to be rolling forward full-throttle to implement a dubiously described “bus rapid transit” (BRT) plan for Interstate Highway 35 pushed by by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to bolster the highway agency’s massive over-$4 billion I-35 upgrade project. This mammoth project was the focus of a March 2016 posting on this website by Roger Baker and Dave Dobbs headlined «Why spending $4.7 billion trying to improve I-35 is a waste of money» (with the secondary headline «Trying to widen Austin’s most congested road will only make congestion worse»).

As that article warned,

TxDOT is far short of sufficient funds to widen I-35 with its own resources, having identified only $300 million in-house out of $4.5 billion needed. That leaves TxDOT $4.2 billion short — over 90% deficient. In fact, the Travis County section of TxDOT’s My35 redesign is still $1.8 to $2.1 billion short, which should raise red flags for local property owners who could well be targeted for big tax increases.

During this period, Capital Metro resuscitated Project Connect – its major planning effort ostensibly tasked with evaluating possible rail and other forms of “high-capacity transit” – to supposedly sift through various corridors, types of service, and alternative transit modes, and develop recommendations for a package of major new “high-capacity transit” investments. The process has been performed nominally with the oversight of the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee (MCAC).

Mysterious new “Super BRT” project appears

For a while the Project Connect study appeared to stay mostly on track, still focused on corridors, and just starting an evaluation of transit modes. But then it seemingly began to take a detour this past summer, when reports began to reveal TxDOT’s sudden interest in obtaining Capital Metro’s commitment to a very specific transit decision: a mysterious new “bus rapid transit” project on I-35, proposed to use High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes planned for the huge reconstruction of the freeway. (See graphic rendering above.) In a June 27th article Austin Monitor reporter Caleb Pritchard noted some details about the BRT plan discussed at a Capital Metro board meeting the previous evening, including TxDOT’s efforts to muscle the transit agency “to fork over $123.5 million to cover the entire cost of the [bus project] transit infrastructure.” At this, reported Pritchard, Capital Metro had “balked”, but was negotiating with TxDOT on a “counter-offer” to “cough up approximately $18 million” toward such a project and to seek other agencies (such as the City of Austin) as partners.

According to the article, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, Todd Hemingson, revealed that the transit agency had “been talking with TxDOT for five years about the I-35 bus rapid transit plan.”

The department is planning a $4 billion overhaul of the highway and appears to be open to the agency’s insistence that the project include some dedicated allowance for transit. The formative vision for the bus rapid transit system includes a handful of stations built on bus-only lanes in the median of the interstate. Those stations, Hemingson said, would be paired with frequent-service bus routes on intersecting east-west corridors.

The initial ridership projects for the proposed route between Tech Ridge Boulevard in North Austin to State Highway 45 in South Austin is between 4,000 to 6,000 trips per day.

At the meeting, Multimodal Community Advisory Committee member Susan Somers (president of the AURA urban issues community group) “raised concerns about moves that appear to make a proposed bus rapid transit system on I-35 a predetermined outcome of the Project Connect process.”

TxDOT’s arm-twisting intensified. Within weeks, the highway agency was insisting that Capital Metro had better speed up and get with the BRT program to contribute its share to the big I-35 rebuild project. Pritchard captured the situation in a subsequent July 13th Austin Monitor report headlined: «TxDOT pressures Capital Metro to act fast on I-35 transit».

As Pritchard’s report elaborated, the BRT plan emerging from the shadows already had quite a bit of detail. TxDOT wanted money to cover the cost of right-of-way “for three bus rapid transit stations to be built in the middle of the highway.”

Those three stations would be near Tech Ridge Center, at Rundberg Lane and at Slaughter Lane. The bus line that would service those stations would operate in new express lanes that TxDOT is planning to add to the freeway. The stations would allow the buses to pull out of the travel lane to allow boarding and deboarding without interrupting traffic flow. The buses would also enter and exit the highway in downtown Austin, perhaps via dedicated transit ramps, and terminate in the south at a park-and-ride off State Highway 45 Southeast.

Capital Metro VP Hemingson had also revealed that the original plan for “BRT” had been even more extensive, but had to be scaled back because of funding limitations.

Hemingson told the board that his team originally proposed to TxDOT a “super bus rapid transit” model that would have included inline stations at 51st Street, Oltorf Street and William Cannon Drive, three roads whose intersections have seen recent infrastructure investments by the state agency.

“It was kind of met with a thud, that idea,” he reported, citing its estimated cost of $400 million, or 10 percent of the roughly $4 billion that TxDOT is planning to spend on the entire I-35 project.

TxDOT’s mounting pressure on Capital Metro was corroborated on July 24th by the Austin American-Statesman. In a news report with the headline «TxDOT: Cap Metro must pay to put buses on future I-35 toll lanes», the paper’s transportation reporter Ben Wear cited the $123 million cost for the “rapid bus stations” and noted that “The agency is pressing Capital Metro for $18 million now to buy land needed for those stations.” However, reported Wear, a “Cap Metro official says the full $123 million cost is beyond its means to pay in the coming years.”

But the benefits of that $123 million investment seemed to be steadily diminishing. An August 11th Austin Monitor news update by Caleb Pritchard aptly titled «TxDOT document reveals limp projections for I-35 bus plan» reported that TxDOT had “projected less than stellar ridership numbers” for the proposed “BRT” service – at most, 3,400 boardings a day. In ridership, that would place the “rapid transit” bus line ninth among the transit agency’s other routes, well behind an assortment of more ordinary and somewhat less spectacular street-based services without heavy investment.

This tends to reflect the major disadvantages of trying to install a viable, higher-quality transit operation within a freeway. Passenger access to and from the stations – especially pedestrian access – is a distinct problem. Transit-oriented development (TOD) – particularly residential development – ranges from poor to actively discouraged. Economic development goals are unfulfilled. Yet, because of the difficulties of construction and the high land values around a freeway or tollway, capital costs are inordinately extremely high.

Yet abruptly, after months of a supposedly impartial, rigorous process of laboriously pursuing data-led solutions … Project Connect and its parent agency Capital Metro were suddenly abandoning that rigorously defined exercise, bypassing the whole process, and embracing a plan for an approximately 20-mile, $123.5-million, 3-station “BRT” line in I-35 that had actually been in Capital Metro’s planning process, albeit at a very low profile, for the past five years.

Curiously, our website (ARN) had already reported hints of such a pre-planned outcome last November. In an article titled «Capital Metro — Back to 1986?» we observed that “Austin’s Capital Metro seems determined to return to the thrilling days of yesteryear – at least in its longrange transit system planning.” A key basis for our suspicion consisted of reports from longtime Austin-area transportation activist Mike Dahmus, together with “with confirmation from other participants”, making it “clear” that “”some implementation of ‘bus rapid transit’ (BRT) on I-35 is (in the words of one observer) a ‘foregone conclusion’.” ARN had noted that this was a “revival” of a nearly identical but “faulty 1986 plan from the agency’s past.”

And additional evidence that a “BRT solution” has actually long been slated for implementation (despite an ostensible “study” process) has continued to emerge. A commentary by David Orr in ARN’s posting of Aug. 31st revealed that a Connections 2025 brochure disseminated by Capital Metro listed the I-35 “Super BRT” plan as if it were already approved as a project in line for implementation.

Minneapolis “Orange Line BRT” — a faulty model

Much of Capital Metro’s case for the I-35 “Super BRT’ plan appears to use a somewhat similar HOV-lane nominally “BRT” operation in Minneapolis as a model. Dubbed the Orange Line, the 17-mile express-bus-on-highway project is currently under development for the metro area’s I-35W corridor. However, the Minneapolis Metro Orange Line project is significantly different from what TxDOT and Austin’s Capital Metro and Project Connect are proposing. (Information regarding the Orange Line project has been obtained via discussion with former Metro planner Aaron Isaacs as well as online material from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Metropolitan Council.)

First, it would seem that the status of I-35 in Austin (with almost imperceptible bus service) is nothing remotely like Minneapolis’s 45-year-old, mature, heavily used I-35W transit corridor, with 25 bus routes, 14,000 daily rider-trips, and substantial existing transit investment, proposed for upgrading into the Orange Line (including one in-line station)
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Minneapolis’s I-35W bus transit system dates from the early 1970s, when the administration of President Richard Nixon was encouraging investment in enhanced bus operations as an alternative to planning what it perceived as more expensive rail transit. In Minneapolis, this started with metered freeway ramps (controlling access to the freeway); beginning in 1972, HOV bypasses to the metered ramps were implemented, with more being added over the subsequent years. Metro also implemented bus-only shoulders on portions of I-35W and feeder highways 62 and 77.

Eventually this operation included HOV lanes (opened in 2009) used by buses. One “in-line” bus station is already in operation in the middle of I-35W.


Minneapolis Metro express-bus operation (slated for upgrade to Orange Line) has a single station in median of I-35W. Photo: Metro.


This program never produced ridership and benefit results anything close to what would be expected of a major rapid transit (or light rail) investment – a drawback that became a major factor persuading Minneapolis decisionmakers to proceed with the Hiawatha Avenue light rail transit (LRT) project (now the Blue Line) which opened in 2004. This raises the question whether it is prudent for Austin to follow a similar course of heavy bus transit investment in the I-35 corridor as its major transit option.

Secondly, the Orange Line is not intended to be Minneapolis’s heaviest major transit corridor. That role is already performed by the region’s two LRT routes – the Blue Line with 31,000 daily ridership and the Green Line with 37,000.

Third, in addition to the already-established heavy infrastructure involved in the Orange Line project, it’s relevant to note all the additional infrastructure in terms of surface dedicated lanes that exists and is being expanded with this project. Downtown Minneapolis already has an entire bus mall. This infrastructure is essential to support the heavy volumes of buses the transit agency channels through downtown Minneapolis. (Fortunately, LRT absorbs a huge portion of the total transit volume and handles this more efficiently with trains.) Are the City of Austin and Capital Metro prepared to include this level of downtown infrastructure investment in the project package in addition to the proposed “super BRT” on I-35?

Finally, it’s important to realize that a “BRT” project nearly identical to what Project Connect is now proposing was proposed and rejected in the late 1980s, in favor of LRT on a somewhat parallel route (including Guadalupe-Lamar). The main reason: the high capital cost of inserting this heavy infrastructure into the narrow I-35 freeway corridor. The proposed high volume of buses (with traffic implications for the Core Area) was also a factor in the elimination of this alternative.

Fake “BRT”, “Super” or otherwise

As one takes a broader view of this entire issue, it is legitimate to question whether it is valid to consider buses running in HOV or HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes as “bus rapid transit” (BRT) at all.

One of the key criteria specified for “true” BRT has been having a right-of-way or alignment clearly designated as exclusive for the bus-only operation. The basic argument behind this has been that to emulate rail systems, all of which have a defined trackway that passengers know identifies the rail line (especially surface LRT), the BRT operation must have a correspondingly uniquely identified alignment reserved for its exclusive use. This is important in order to (supposedly) impart a comparable sense to passengers and the general public of the presence of the route and where it goes – i.e., a crucial factor in orienting passengers and the general public to this service. An HOV tollway open to general mixed-use traffic does not provide this characteristic.

Furthermore, the TxDOT/CMTA proposal for I-35 “BRT” would have the “rapid transit” buses leave the freeway entirely to serve most stations off the “highspeed” facility. That certainly would seem to violate the concept of a readily understandable, visually clear “rapid transit” route. Not to mention putting a big dent in travel time.

And some final considerations: With three proposed “inline” stations over about 20 miles, the I-35 “BRT” would have an average station spacing of about 10 miles. What “rapid transit” line in the world has station spacing averaging 10 miles? BART (which has some of the function of a commuter rail as well as rapid transit) has an averaging spacing of about 2.8 miles, and that’s unusually long. The next in line, the Washington Metro, averages 1.4 miles.

Our own conclusion: What’s being promoted as “BRT” – bus-style “rapid transit” – on Austin’s I-35 would be basically just a commuter bus operation, with some added amenities.

LRT makes more sense

There’s a far more attractive, effective, workable, beneficial, and ultimately affordable public transport alternative to the TxDOT-Capital Metro-Project Connect express-bus plan packaged as “Super BRT”. This alternative is LRT – specifically, as ARN proposed in our July 31st article «Urban Rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, Not I-35 “BRT”» – a 21-mile LRT line paralleling I-35 but serving the center of Austin.

Running from Tech Ridge in the north to Southpark Meadows in the south, mainly via North Lamar, Guadalupe, and South Congress, such a line would offer dozens of stations and immensely greater accessibility, available mobility, attractiveness, ridership, and benefits to the community.


Proposed LRT running in Guadalupe-Lamar and South Congress corridors from Tech Ridge to Southpark Meadows, paralleling I-35. Graphic: ARN.


As our July 31st article indicated, the first segment should be a “starter line” in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor:

Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) is the center city’s 3rd-heaviest north-south corridor. In addition to major activity centers, the corridor serves a variety of dense, established neighborhoods, including the West Campus with the 3rd-highest population density in Texas. With Austin’s highest total employment density on Guadalupe-Lamar, an urban rail line could serve 31% of all Austin jobs.

An initial 6 or 7 mile LRT starter line from U.S. 183 or Crestview to downtown could serve as the initial spine of an eventual metrowide system, with branches north and south, northwest, northeast, east, southeast, west, and southwest.

This kind of investment in LRT would appear to represent a far greater value for money, with potential for a much higher ROI (return on investment), than even a lower-cost express-bus project such as that proposed by TxDOT and Capital Metro, and it surely deserves a fair and impartial evaluation through the legitimate Project Connect study process. The attempt to ram through a “rush to judgement” for TxDOT’s “Super BRT” plan (evidently aimed in part to obtain Capital Metro’s buy-in for the I-35 mega-project) deserves to be jettisoned.

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“Traffic Jam” to discuss “high capacity transit” becomes “bait & switch” push for road plans

26 March 2017

Graphic: Neonlink.com

By David Orr

David Orr, an Austin community activist involved with transportation issues, is a longtime environmental justice and transportation advocate.

Last year, during Austin’s prolonged community debate over the $720 million mainly roads-focused “Go Big” bond measure, supporters of an urban rail starer line in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor rallied behind a plan put forward by the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC). Unfortunately, Mayor Steve Adler (together with several city council members) insisted that the community wasn’t “ready” for such a plan – so a rail vote would have to wait. Many in the community are now wondering: Is there a current initiative to get rail back on the ballot?

Judging from recent events and statements by leading public officials, leadership for rail continues to appear close to nonexistent.

Take for example, the “workshop” at the Bullock Museum on Saturday March 4th sponsored by the reincarnated Project Connect and billed as a “Traffic Jam”. Supposedly a kickoff for a new planning process for “high capacity transit” systems, this event (which turned out to be a sort of “bait & switch” escapade) featured a panel consisting of Mayor Adler, Senator Kirk Watson, Rep. Celia Israel, Capital Metro Board chairman Wade Cooper, and CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) Executive Committee member Terry Mitchell.

At no time was “high capacity transit” even mentioned, let alone covered in any substantive way. The happy talk was all about how hard they worked at the legislature and all the compromises they gladly made only to see their efforts come to naught. The only specific comment Rep. Israel made was that we shouldn’t let the “perfect be the enemy of the good”, presumably by pushing high capacity transit, and that “tires” were what sells to local governments. As opposed to … rails?

Watson & Co. were all smiles about the more than $700 million allocated for facilities for cars – but no mention of funding for transit at all, except that it would be very difficult to get and it would be sought only at some point in the future.

Traffic Jam, indeed.


Promotional notice for “Traffic Jam” event at Bullock Museum, 4 March 2017.


Given this latest iteration of Project Connect, especially as revealed in this recent workshop at the Bullock Museum, I’d say that a rail ballot issue is farthest from the minds of Steve Adler as well as Celia Israel and Kirk Watson, all of whom spoke at some length on the virtues of more “tires” (as Israel put it)​ and of their pride and excitement at moving forward with road building following the bond passage last November.

Never mind that this meeting was supposed to be about planning for “high capacity transit” – there was near-ZERO discussion by these elected officials of any desire for, much less commitment to, building up Capital Metro infrastructure. Also on the stage, as noted above, were members of CapMetro’s board and of CAMPO’s board. The closest any of them came to discussing “high capacity transit” was to bemoan the lack of funding, as if to pre-empt any further talk of building high capacity transit – unless “you” (apparently meaning we the people in the audience and/or those in the general public at large who care about the matter) can find the big bucks required to do anything.

The only mention of expanding CapMetro service was Rep. Israel’s expressed desire to expand into Pflugerville, but this was in the context of her expressing that city’s desire to see service in their city. Her comment about “tires” was made in response to a point she was making about satisfying the demands of Pflugerville city council for action to implement fixed-route service. There were vague references to expanding farther, but they carefully avoided mentioning any other currently unserved/underserved outlying cities or counties, involving either urban or rural areas.

The only mention of actual plans for improved service was their agreement with CTRMA (Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, primarily a tollroad development agency) for allowing buses to use the high-occupancy/tolled “Lexus lanes” on Mopac (i.e., Loop 1, as well as perhaps on the TBA expanded I-35). Speakers touted their hard-bargaining negotiation with CTRMA, carefully couched in terms that made CTRMA look magnanimous rather than cold-hearted.

So to answer directly that question from the first paragraph, as posed by many in the community: I have huge skepticism whether Mayor Adler would ever commit to supporting rail. “BRT” perhaps, but I’d be surprised by even that.

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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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City’s “Smart Corridor” Prop. 1 bond plan promising way more than it can deliver

29 September 2016
Graph shows disparity between funds budgeted in "Smart Corridors" bond package and projected actual cost of these projects. (Graph: ARN.)

Graph shows disparity between funds budgeted in “Smart Corridors” bond package and projected actual cost of these projects. (Graph: ARN.)

In past postings we’ve roundly criticized the City of Austin’s “Mobility Bond” plan as a “non-mobility” proposal – there’s no transit project, and two-thirds of the funds are allocated for makeovers (“smart corridors”) of existing arterials. (With $101 million of “Regional Mobility” projects – highways and other major roads in the region – plus $26 million of other street and road improvements, the total allocation for roads comes to $609 million, or about 85% of the total $720 million “Mobility Bond” package.)

Now, according to a Sep. 25th exposé by Austin American Statesman transportation reporter Ben Wear, the bond proposal (now designated Proposition 1) falls appalling short of even fulfilling the “Smart Corridors” projects that it’s promising to voters.
http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/local/wear-austins-go-big-road-bond-not-big-enough-to-co/nsdkh/

The “Highlights” to Wear’s article pretty much say it all:

• The $720 million bond proposition’s greatest vulnerability is that it promises much more than it can deliver.

• The bond includes $482 million for corridor projects estimated to cost more than $1.56 billion.

As Wear elaborates:

The Austin City Council, when it passed an ordinance in August calling a $720 million bond election, was pretty specific about how $482 million of that money will be spent.

That slice of the money, the five-page law says, will pay for “implementation of corridor plans” for nine, or perhaps eight of nine, specific city streets: North and South Lamar, Burnet Road, Airport Boulevard, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, East Riverside Drive, Guadalupe Street, William Cannon Drive “and/or” Slaughter Lane. It doesn’t say “partial implementation” or “implementation of some of the following roads.”

So a voter could be forgiven for thinking that $482 million will do it all.

It won’t.

Not even close.

While just $482 million has been budgeted, reports Wear, according to staff estimates, “The total tab for the seven corridors that have a completed or in-progress study … would be $1.56 billion ….” He concludes:

You get the picture: The corridor money will pay for something between a quarter and a third of what the studies are recommending. But which quarter or third? Which corridors? What type of changes?

In other words, voters would be “buying” a “pig in a poke” … only that’s not what they’ve been told.

In the assessment of longtime community transportation activist and researcher Roger Baker (who has contributed several articles to this site),

This makes it pretty clear that 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.

Curiously, a group (seemingly anonymous) has been posting large signs around the city opposing Proposition 1 and denouncing it as “deceptive” as well as “destructive”. Given the shenanigans that Ben Wear has revealed, this kind of sentiment may spread. ■