Archive for the ‘Urban Rail’ 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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Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail needs to be included in Austin’s “mobility” bond package

27 July 2016
Ann Kitchen chairs City of Austin Mobility Committee meeting of June 14th. Photo: Sceenshot from ATXN video.

Ann Kitchen chairs City of Austin Mobility Committee meeting of June 14th. Photo: Sceenshot from ATXN video.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to a public meeting of the City of Austin’s Mobility Committee on 14 June 2016. Lyndon Henry is a transportsation planning consultant, a former board member of Capital Metro, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and a contributing editor to this website.

I urge you to include a measure for urban rail in the proposed $720 million “mobility” bond package now under consideration. I support the proposal for an affordable 5.3-mile light rail Minimum Operable Segment on North Lamar and Guadalupe from Crestview to downtown.

Currently 83% of the proposed $720 million package is devoted to road projects. Surely some of these road projects could be replaced with the $260 million to $400 million that would facilitate an urban rail project.


5.3-mile Minimum Operable Segment light rail line proposed by CACDC. Graphic: Screenshot from CACDC map.

Proposed 5.3-mile light rail transit starter line Minimum Operable Segment in Guadaluoe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: CACDC.


It’s absurd that the $720 million bond package you’re considering could be labeled a “mobility” package despite NO major initiative for transit, let alone urban rail, which has been studied and affirmed as a necessity for decades. This bond proposal stands in contradiction to the decades of official “green” rhetoric and policy initiatives such as Envision Central Texas and Imagine Austin that have verbally embraced public transportation and “high-capacity transit” as key “alternative mobility” measures necessary to “keep Austin moving”.

This road-focused $720 million package tries to address congestion by increasing “throughput” of vehicles. Unfortunately, experience and evidence suggest that this is a losing approach — trying to tweak more capacity to squeeze through more cars typically just induces more traffic. Furthermore, this influx of ever-growing vehicle traffic imposes more stress on congested areas such as Austin’s core.


Lyndon Henry presenting comments to City of Austin Mobility Committee on June 14th. Photo: Screenshot from ATXN video.

Lyndon Henry presenting comments to City of Austin Mobility Committee on June 14th. Photo: Screenshot from ATXN video.


In contrast, this light rail plan (and future expansions throughout Austin) removes traffic from roadways by attracting motorists to the transit service, adding the equivalent of four lanes of extra peak capacity to this corridor. Can the same be said for the current $720 million road-focused bond plan?

I suggest that urban rail — providing highly attractive rail transit service on its own dedicated tracks — makes far more sense as a solution for alleviating mobility congestion, than simply trying to squeeze more traffic onto the city’s crowded streets, roads, and parking spaces.

I’ve heard the argument that urban rail is “not ready” to be offered as a bond measure. Yet polls and other evidence indicate resounding support for public transit and urban rail, and the Austin community has gone through years of repeated outreach exercises familiarizing them with the technology and the issues. The public seems more ready than ever to support rail; it’s Austin’s civic leadership that seems to have cold feet.

Finally, whatever bond package you choose, I urge you to unbundle the roads bonds from the small proportion of bicycle and pedestrian bonds. This would allow the community at least to consider these alternative mobility elements separately. ■

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NOTE: As of this posting, the Mobility Committee and City Council have approved the $720 million roads-dominated bond measure, without provision for transit, as a bundled package.
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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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Capital Metro: Let’s have 2 1/2 more years of analysis paralysis

27 February 2016
Title slide of Capital Metro's CCCTA presentation to Austin City Council Mobility Committee on Feb. 3rd. Screen capture: ARN.

Title slide of Capital Metro’s CCCTA presentation to Austin City Council Mobility Committee on Feb. 3rd. Screen capture: ARN.

After months of preparation, organizing, bidding, and selection, with lots of fanfare Capital Metro at last launched its $3 million, 30-month (2.5-years) Central Corridor Comprehensive Transit Analysis (CCCTA) study. In a Jan. 25th news release, Capital Metro announced that its board of directors had selected engineering firm AECOM as the lead consultant to conduct the Central Corridor analysis.

To the uninitiated, inexperienced, and uninformed, this latest study might seem some kind of step forward for Austin’s transit development. After all, its elements include impressive-sounding goals like “An in-depth study of a variety of transportation modes and their potential for creating improved transit options within the corridor”, “A multimodal transportation plan that improves the feasibility of transit in the Central Corridor while effectively maximizing connections with regional routes in surrounding communities”, and “A realistic cost analysis for building, operating and maintaining the proposed sustainable and connected transit system”.


Capital Metro's planning chief Todd Hemingson explains CCCTA study to Austin Mobility Committee on Feb. 3rd. Photo: ARN screenshot from official video.

Capital Metro’s planning chief Todd Hemingson explains CCCTA study to Austin City Council Mobility Committee on Feb. 3rd. Photo: ARN screenshot from official video.


Analysis Paralysis gold medal

But, among grassroots public transportation advocates in Austin, it’s hard to find a transit supporter who’s enthusiastic about this study. The reason: All of these issues have already been exhaustively studied, and plans prepared and re-prepared, over and over and over and over again, for more than two decades. For Austin transit supporters, we’ve “been there, done that” — multiple times. It’s just one more repetitive “re-study of the re-studies of the re-studies ….”

To get a breathtaking idea of the time, resources, energy, and money Austin has sunk into planning for “high-capacity” public transport, just check out our February 2015 chronicle of studies and re-studies of light rail transit (LRT) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor: «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps». This central travel corridor’s high level of traffic, population and employment density, and crucial position accessing and connecting vital activity centers (like UT, the Capitol Complex, and downtown) with key established neighborhoods and extended commercial activity along the route have made it the focus of planning for rail transit for over three decades.

In terms of public transit, Austin clearly is a top contender for the Analysis Paralysis gold medal. And Capital Metro’s latest CCCTA study, as it’s currently designed, surely represents Exhibit A toward this dubious award. The confusion, misdirection, conflicting intentions, and lack of purpose underlying this “paralysis” were discussed in our March 2015 article «Austin’s urban transport planning seems struck by catastrophic case of amnesia and confusion».

Meanwhile, as meaningful public transport planning continues to languish, the Austin metro area is experiencing a veritable blitz of intensive highway development and construction, including at least three new tollways, massive projects on I-35, and assorted projects throughout the urban area. As the saying goes, “Roads get built, transit gets studied“.

Project Connect back from the dead?

But confusion and a continuation of “analysis paralysis” aren’t the only problems with the CCCTA study. As currently configured, the study seems little more than a rehash of Project Connect’s ill-fated “High-Capacity Transit Study” which elicited such intense community outrage beginning in 2013, the precursor to its ultimate resounding rejection by voters in November 2014. Indeed, the CCCTA project seems the first major effort to resuscitate Project Connect since its 2014 debacle.

Among the worst weaknesses of the Project Connect disinterment is the revival of the seriously flawed methodology of the earlier “analysis”. This includes ignoring actual, existing travel corridors — such as the pre-eminent Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — and instead mislabeling huge chunks and sectors of the city as “corridors”. (The methodology further subdivided the “Central Corridor” into “subcorridor” mini-sectors.) Thus, according to Capital Metro, per the CCCTA study, “The Central Corridor is defined as an area bordered on the south by Ben White (US-290), on the east by the Capital Metro’s Red Line, on the north by RM 2222/Koenig Lane, and on the west by MoPac Expressway, and includes downtown Austin.”

Not only is that vast glob of central Austin not a corridor, but (as in the 2013 activity) this approach slices and truncates actual travel corridors, particularly Guadalupe-Lamar, rather than analyzing them in terms of their suitability and potential for actually solving mobility problems with public transport (particularly urban rail). We analyzed the problems with this in our November 2013 article «Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors!»


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

Methodology of Project Connect study in 2013 labeled huge chunk of central city as a “corridor”, but severed actual intact travel corridors into meaningless pieces. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


Community skepticism about Capital Metro’s “corridor” methodology in the CCCTA study was illustrated as early as last September by Jace Deloney, a co-founder of the influential AURA group (involved with urban and transportation issues) and former chairman of the City’s Urban Transportation Commission and Capital Metro’s Customer Satisfaction Advisory Committee:

It’s very important that we advocate against using the previous subcorridor definitions for any future high capacity transit planning project. In my opinion, these subcorridor definitions were deliberately designed to end up with a Red River alignment recommendation.

Re-direct the CCCTA study!

Besides the exhaustive “saga” of studies of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor detailed in the ARN article cited and linked above, Austin Rail Now and other community stakeholders have presented LRT alternative alignment and design proposals that provide more than enough basis for quickly reaching a decision for an urban rail starter line. The most recent proposals are described in several ARN articles:

Plan for galvanizing Austin’s public transport development: Light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar (June 2015)

Another major Austin community recommendation for light rail transit in Guadalupe-Lamar (November 2015)

Another possible design for light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor (January 2016)

So far, in the absence of any sense of direction toward a major urban rail investment, Austin’s top political and civic leadership is vulnerable to pressure by highway interests (such as TxDOT) for municipal general obligation bond funding for a heavy local investment in a massive I-35 overhaul and other huge highway projects. To this, a major rail transit starter line investment might be counter-proposed as a far more effective and desirable alternative for city bond funding.

It would definitely seem time to end Austin’s decades of “analysis paralysis” and move forward quickly toward finalizing an urban rail plan for public approval — a strategy that could be expedited by re-directing Capital Metro’s CCCTA study. There is certainly sufficient planning and design preparatory work already in place to provide the voting public a basis on which to make a decision for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. The AECOM consultant team (widely respected in the public transportation industry, with experience with LRT in Portland, Minneapolis, and elsewhere) could simply update and tweak the major engineering studies that have already been done (e.g., those in 1993 and 2000) for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.


Proposed 6.8-mile "Plan B" light rail transit line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would have 17 stations and connect  the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S> 183 with Crestview, the Triangle, UT and the West Campus, the Capitol Complex, the CBD, and the Seaholm-Amtrak area. It's projected to serve 3 times the ridership of the Prop. 1 Highland-Riverside rail line at slightly over half the capital cost.

Austin Rail Now proposal is one of several possible configurations already suggested for light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: ARN.


This would likely require a major intervention by Austin City Council members to request Capital Metro to negotiate with its consultant team for a modification of the CCCTA work plan — eliminating the proposed 30-month “slow track” study, and re-directing the project into planning, design, and engineering of LRT for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as suggested above. This would have the aim of placing a measure on the ballot for bond funding (to be kept in escrow till further planning and Preliminary Engineering/Environmental Impact Study tasks are completed). Adequate cost estimates are already on hand for such a ballot measure.

According to Surinder Marwah, the former Capital Metro Senior Planner who secured federal funding for the MetroRapid bus project, this can be “a reasonable plan if the elected officials, business leaders and major stakeholders can come to an agreement” for the general Guadalupe-Lamar alignment corridor. “AECOM can update the preliminary cost estimates quickly and perform fatal flaw analysis for the alignment corridor within few months — by mid-late August to get this into [a] November ballot measure.”

Capital Metro’s currently contrived CCCTA study seems little more than a “holding pattern” reflecting the indecisiveness and lack of will of key public officials in regard to public transport policy. Re-directing this study as proposed above would at long last move Austin’s rail public transport development into a widely supported action phase and head it expeditiously toward the mobility quantum leap Austinites have so long been denied. ■

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Texas Tribune op-ed urges support for “Plan B” light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar

27 July 2015
TribTalk op-ed headline with photo of Houston light rail train. (Screenshot: ARN)

TribTalk op-ed headline with photo of Houston light rail train. (Screenshot: ARN)

The case for light rail transit (LRT) in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor just received a huge boost with the publication of an op-ed in TribTalk, the op-ed web page of the widely respected Texas Tribune.

“It may seem unlikely in Texas, but across the state, people are benefiting from rail transit” say William S. Lind and Glen D. Bottoms in their commentary (ARN emphasis added here and subsequently).

In Dallas, which now has the country’s largest light rail system, more than 100,000 Texans escape traffic congestion each day by riding Dallas Area Rapid Transit rail. In Houston, the light rail Red Line draws about 3,500 weekday boardings per mile, more than any other modern light rail operation in the country.

“Critics, many of whom call themselves conservatives (though most are really libertarians), predicted that both systems would fail because no one would ride them” they add.

Both writers are venerable, renowned veterans of the U.S. public transportation industry. Lind was also a close associate of the late conservative leader Paul Weyrich, a well-known advocate of rail transit among conservative circles.

In their op-ed, Lind and Bottoms note that “As conservatives, we find it odd that many people expect us to oppose public transportation, especially rail.”

In fact, high-quality transit, which usually means rail, benefits conservatives in a number of important ways. It spurs development, something conservatives generally favor, especially in Texas. It saves people, including conservatives, precious time, because those who ride rail transit can work or read on the train instead of wasting hours stuck in traffic. Transit of all kinds helps poor people get to jobs, which conservatives prefer over paying welfare. And rail transit, especially streetcars, helps support retail in downtowns by increasing the number of middle-class people on sidewalks.

Libertarians’ arguments against rail transit mostly boil down to one criticism: It’s subsidized. Yes, it is. So is all other transportation. Highway user fees now cover only 47.5 percent of the cost of highways. Nationally, rail transit of all types covers 50 percent of its operating costs from fares. It’s a veritable wash. In contrast, bus systems, which libertarians often favor over rail, cover only 28 percent of their operating costs from the farebox.

“Regrettably,” the writers caution, “conservatives’ tendency to accept libertarians’ arguments against rail transit (without checking their numbers) may deprive Texas conservatives of more chances to escape traffic congestion.”

As a case in point, they turn to Austin, explaining that it “may be different from other Texas cities in many ways, but not when it comes to traffic.”

The city’s rapidly growing population has packed its freeways at rush hours. And as other cities have found, building more freeways is not the answer. New lanes fill up as soon as they’re opened, and limited-access freeways in urban areas slice up and kill surrounding communities.

While they recount that “Austin voters last year rejected a poorly conceived light rail proposal that supporters said would help alleviate that congestion”, Lind and Bottoms argues that the failure of that plan nevertheless

…could be a good thing because it opened the door to a “Plan B” rail line that would serve the city better. A basic rule of rail transit planning is to “build it where people want to go,” and the alternative plan proposes a rail line that would run along Guadalupe Street and North Lamar Boulevard, Austin’s most heavily traveled urban corridor. We hope Austin conservatives will support “Plan B.”

Included in their commentary is a hyperlink to our own article from last October, «A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line». (Also see our recent article «Plan for galvanizing Austin’s public transport development: Light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar», which links to our series of articles for this alternative plan with “what, where, how, and how soon” details about the proposed project.

Lind and Bottoms also point to other opportunities for rail, such as the streetcar project in El Paso and the Texas Central Railway highspeed rail system proposed to connect Dallas and Houston. “A combination of high-speed rail connecting Texas cities and good light rail and streetcar systems in those cities would make Texas a national leader…” they say in their conclusion. ■

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Strong community support for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail continues — but officials seem oblivious

3 January 2015
Graphic: Midwest District Blog.

Graphic: Midwest District Blog.

While Project Connect’s disastrously flawed Highland-Riverside “urban rail” plan recedes into history — decisively rejected by voters on Nov. 4th — community support for a sensible, workable, affordable light rail transit (LRT) plan continues. For example, see:

A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line

Resume planning light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar!

As this website reported in a “post-mortem” analysis posted a day after the Nov. 4th rail vote, “…it’s clear that Austin is basically a very pro-rail city. Widespread community sentiment for urban rail — much of it for just about any rail line, anywhere — was palpably strong.”

The Highland-Riverside plan may be dead, but the campaign for a Guadalupe-Lamar light rail starter line is firing up. Light rail in this heavily traveled, high-density central corridor can become the basic spine of a far more effective and truly extensive urban rail system in the future for the city.

There’s already a strong constituency and base of support for light rail transit (LRT) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

Ironically, part of the evidence of community support for rail comes from the Nov. 4th election results themselves. While a majority voted to defeat the Highland-Riverside plan on the ballot, a tally of precincts suggests strong pro-rail sentiment in the heart of the city. This is shown in an interactive election results map provided by Travis County, illustrating precinct-by-precinct vote preponderance, with pro-rail sentiment indicated as light blue (or turquoise) and opposition to the measure as lavender or purple (screenshot below).


Screenshot of interactive map of Nov. 4th "urban rail" vote by precinct. Source: Travis County. (Click to enlarge.)

Screenshot of interactive map of Nov. 4th “urban rail” vote by precinct. Source: Travis County. (Click to enlarge.)


Although the central pro-rail precincts (blue in the above map) seem surrounded by a sea of precincts against the measure, it’s important to realize that those central precincts include some of the densest and most populous in the city. An analysis by veteran Guadalupe-Lamar LRT supporter Mike Dahmus suggests that these central-city precincts that voted for the rail measure did so less enthusiastically than in the 2000 LRT referendum — tending to corroborate the hypothesis that opposition from rail transit advocates and supporters played a major role in helping defeat the official Highland-Riverside plan, perceived as flawed and even “worse than nothing”. (Stronger core-city support could have outweighed opposition in suburban precincts.)

Conversely, this tends to bolster the plausibility that a sensible, widely supported light rail (“urban rail”) proposal could muster the majority of votes needed to pass. The prospect of an LRT starter line project in the crucial, central, high-travel Guadalupe-Lamar corridor has already mustered affirmations of support from adjacent neighborhood associations, the UT student government, and other community sources, and would seem to have strong potential to succeed as a ballot measure.

Kate Harrington, in an article posted by the Building ATX.com website on Nov. 11th, just a week after the Nov. 4th vote, reminded readers of Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s prediction that if the “urban rail” bond measure failed it “would mean that no new transit initiative would take shape for a decade or more.” But, Harrington observed, “Instead, it seems the issue is anything but dead. … Since voters decisively shot down the rail proposal last week, conversations about a possible ‘Plan B’ have sprung up all over the city.”

Most recently, via an interactive, annotated map (see screenshot below), the latest proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar LRT route has been publicized by Brad Parsons, a community activist involved with urban and transportation issues. Starting at the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S. 183, this route would follow North Lamar Blvd., Guadalupe St., Nueces St., San Antonio St., and finally Guadalupe and Lavaca St. past established central Austin neighborhoods and activity centers, through the West Campus, past the Capitol Complex, and into Austin’s CBD. Brad’s proposal underscores the fact that there’s a variety of ways that LRT can be fitted into this constrained but high-volume traffic corridor.


Map of Guadalupe-Lamar corridor light rail route proposed by Brad Parsons.

Map of Guadalupe-Lamar corridor light rail route proposed by Brad Parsons. (Click to enlarge.)


Throughout last year’s ballot measure campaign, supporters of the official rail proposal (led by Let’s Go Austin) continuously depicted “urban rail” as absolutely essential to secure and sustain Austin’s future mobility and livability. With the slogan “Rail or Fail”, Mayor Leffingwell himself repeatedly warned that Austin needed an urban rail transit system to maintain its economic vitality and mobility in the face of steadily menacing traffic “gridlock”. Furthermore, news reports and competent analyses emphasized that simply building more highways or adding more buses to the roadway grid was counterproductive.

But while much of the Austin public seem to perceive and even embrace the alternative of an urban rail “Plan B” starter line routed in Guadalupe-Lamar (where the population density, major employment and activity centers, and heavy local travel are), key public officials and former leaders of the Let’s Go Austin pro-rail campaign seem to have been struck blind and deaf, oblivious to the obvious feasibility of LRT in the city’s most central and heavily used local corridor. For instance, the City’s Guadalupe Street Corridor Study, suddenly awakened from apparent dormancy to hold its first widely publicized public event on Dec. 3rd discussing “how to improve” the Drag, has explicitly ruled out consideration of rail transit, according to project manager Alan Hughes.

For Capital Metro board chairman (and outgoing City Councilmember) Mike Martinez, who had been expounding for the past year that “urban rail” was absolutely essential, further study of an alternative LRT plan now is apparently inconceivable. Martinez’s new mantra — basically a variant of “my way or the highway” — is that “the voters have spoken”, rail is off the table, and “we have to become the best bus city in America.”

Evidently at Martinez’s behest, Capital Metro has been sifting about for other ways to spend nearly $3 million in planning funds previously scheduled for further “urban rail” study (on the now-defunct Highland-Riverside proposal). Re-allocate these funds to a resumption of planning for LRT in Guadalupe-Lamar (where urban rail would actually make overwhelmingly good sense)? Certainly not.


Capital Metro's "Heart of the City" latest projects propose to usurp millions in urban rail planning funds for other purposes. Screenshot from video of Dec. 15th Capital Metro board meeting.

Capital Metro’s “Heart of the City” latest projects propose to usurp millions in urban rail planning funds for other purposes. Screenshot from video of Dec. 15th Capital Metro board meeting.


Instead, at a Dec. 15th Capital Metro board meeting, Todd Hemingson, the agency’s head of strategic planning and development, outlined a “Heart of the City” list of potential study efforts (see photo of PowerPoint slide, above). Hemingson’s presentation made clear that even the two items seemingly most relevant to the central Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — “Guadalupe/Lavaca Transit Mall” and “Central Corridor Transit Entryways” — were actually focused merely on modest bus service expansion and infrastructure (including a possible tunnel for buses between the Loop 1 toll lanes and arterials leading into downtown).

Austin — supposedly the most “progressive” city in the “reddest” rightwing state of Texas — has a distinctive (read: notorious) reputation for dithering, dallying, and derailing in its public transport planning … while excluding the general public and making key decisions secretively behind closed doors. Surely the time has come to break this pattern. Will a new mayor and a new district-based 10-1 City Council provide an opportunity to scrap this modus operandi of failure and disaster, bring the community into authentic involvement in crucial decisions, and move forward with the first phase of LRT as a starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar?

We’re trying our hardest to help make that happen. ■


Light rail in Guadalupe and North Lamar could be modeled after San Francisco's N-Line route in Judah St., seen in this satellite view from Google Maps. Screenshot: Dave Dobbs.

Light rail in Guadalupe and North Lamar could be modeled after San Francisco’s N-Line route in Judah St., seen in this satellite view from Google Maps. Screenshot: Dave Dobbs. (Click to enlarge.)

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San Francisco’s N-Judah Muni Metro line shows design option for light rail in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

9 December 2014
N-Judah Line Muni Metro light rail transit (LRT) train running in raised median on San Francisco's Judah St. Alignment in this constricted 80-foot-wide arterial includes space for 2 dedicated light rail tracks, 4 vehicle lanes, and shared sidewalk for pedestrians and bicyclists. Similar alignment design could fit dedicated LRT tracks, 4 traffic lanes, and sidewalks into Austin's Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Photo (copyright) Eric Haas.

N-Judah Line Muni Metro light rail transit (LRT) train running in raised median on San Francisco’s Judah St. Alignment in this constricted 80-foot-wide arterial includes space for 2 dedicated light rail tracks, 4 vehicle lanes, and shared sidewalk for pedestrians and bicyclists. Similar alignment design could fit dedicated LRT tracks, 4 traffic lanes, and sidewalks into Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Photo (copyright) Eric Haas.

In recent years, critics of installing “urban rail” — i.e., a light rail transit (LRT) line — in the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor have endeavored to portray this potential project as an impossibly daunting task, contrary to many years of local planning to do just that. The predominant contention is that these two busy major arterials are simply too narrow to accommodate a double-track LRT alignment on dedicated lanes while maintaining adequate general traffic flow, and that introducing LRT would require either heavy civil works construction, or extensive, costly acquisition of adjacent property to widen the right-of-way (ROW), or both.

However, the G-L travel corridor — most central in the city — actually carries the heaviest travel flow of local arterials, serves the highest-density neighborhoods; and connects the most important activity clusters; thus, ultimately, given the inherent constraints of motor vehicle transportation, some type of high-quality, high-capacity public transport alternative is essential to maintain long-term mobility. Fortunately, there are LRT alignment designs that would facilitate fitting affordable, cost-effective, surface LRT into these arterials, while maintaining at least four lanes of general traffic capacity through most of the corridor.

While this corridor is characterized by an unusually narrow roadway structure — much of both North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe St. have total ROW (including sidewalks and curbs) just 80 feet wide — there appears to be adequate ROW width to install dedicated LRT lanes, within a 24-foot reservation, without additional ROW acquisition (easements), together with four traffic lanes (two 10-ft lanes per direction) for most of the alignment, plus sidewalks and curbs (8 fteet) on each side.


North Lamar traffic (several blocks north of the Triangle). Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor carries heaviest traffic flow of any local Central Austin arterial, serves residential concentration ranking among highest density in Texas, serves 31% of all Austin jobs — yet corridor was "dismembered" by Project Connect and excluded from "Central Corridor" study! Photo: L. Henry.

North Lamar Blvd. has unusually narrow right-of-way width for heavily traveled central local arterial street. Conditions of Guadalupe St. are similar. Photo: L. Henry.


For stations, relatively short segments of additional ROW would need to be acquired — approximately 20 feet of width for 300 feet (about one block) on each side of major intersections intended as station sites. Acquiring wider ROW would also be useful along sections of Guadalupe St. (particularly where the proposed LRT alignment runs adjacent to stretches of state-owned land). Within the Drag section of Guadalupe (W. 29th St. to MLK Blvd.), dedicated LRT lanes could remain in the center of the arterial, with some reconfiguration of traffic lanes and other facilities.

ROW constraints will impact the traction electrification system (TES) and overhead contact system (OCS) design in the G-L corridor. (OCS is the commonly used term for the overhead power wire system; it can be catenary or a simple, single-trolley-wire design.)

Appropriate design of the TES is critical to the narrow overall alignment design required in this corridor. Unlike many other modern new-start LRT installations, for OCS power wire suspension this alignment design would eschew TES center poles (masts) with bracket arms. Instead, to facilitate adequately narrow LRT ROW, this design would use an alternative design whereby the OCS would be carried by cross-span cables suspended from side poles inserted at curbside. Examples of this type of OCS suspension can be found in other LRT installations, such as in Houston, San Diego, and San Jose. (Whether OCS is simple trolley wire or catenary-type suspension would not affect this aspect of alignment design.)

The following schematic diagram illustrates a cross-section of this design for the majority of both North Lamar and Guadalupe, with LRT running in a dedicated reservation, two traffic lanes on each side, and sidewalks shared by pedestrians and bicyclists on each side.


Cross-sectional diagram of major arterials in corridor, showing center LRT reservation, traffic lanes, sidwalks, and side-mounted TES poles for suspending the OCS. Graphic: ARN.

Cross-sectional diagram of major arterials in corridor, showing center LRT reservation, traffic lanes, sidwalks, and side-mounted TES poles for suspending the OCS. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


For such a configuration of an LRT reservation within a major arterial, constrained by narrow ROW width, San Francisco offers perhaps the closest operating example with the N-Judah Line of the Muni Metro LRT system that branches westward from the city center. For a roughly 10-block section along Judah St., from about 9th Avenue to 19th Avenue, LRT tracks are laid in a raised dedicated reservation that isolates them from motor vehicle traffic; eliminating the need for additional barriers such as channelization buttons or other separation devices, this design has the benefit of minimizing horizontal clearance.

As the photo at the top of this post illustrates, despite a ROW constraint of just 80 feet, this configuration of the major Judah St. arterial is able to provide the raised LRT reservation plus 4 motor vehicle lanes plus parallel sidewalks. It should not be difficult to envision a similar design working in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

In the overhead view shown in the photo below, the top of a Muni Metro train can be seen in the center, running on the upper of the two tracks in the reservation. The different allocation of ROW space for traffic and sidewalk can be noticed — San Francisco provides an on-street parking lane and a traffic lane on each side of the arterial, plus sidewalks nearly 11 feet in width. In contrast, Austin Rail Now recommends that Guadalupe-Lamar would have 4 full traffic lanes of 10-ft width, no parking lanes, and 8-ft sidewalks.


Aerial view of Judah St. corridor segment, showing central reservation with Muni Metro LRT train, motor vehicle lanes on each side, and sidewalks on each side of arterial. Photo: Google Maps Satellite View.

Aerial view of Judah St. corridor segment near 10th Ave., showing central reservation with Muni Metro LRT train, motor vehicle lanes on each side, and sidewalks on each side of arterial. Photo: Google Maps Satellite View. (Click to enlarge.)


The following two photos at surface level showing Muni Metro trains in the Judah St. reservation further suggest how efficient LRT service can be installed in the relatively constrained arterial ROW of Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.


In this view of single-car train on slightly raised median near 16th Avenue, transverse spanwire that holds OCS power wire can be seen behind train, suspended between TES poles on either side of street. TES poles also serve as street light masts, a typical dual function. PHOTO: Peter Ehrlich.

In this view of single-car train on slightly raised median near 16th Avenue, transverse spanwire that holds OCS power wire can be seen behind train, suspended between TES poles on either side of street. TES poles also serve as street light masts, a typical dual function. PHOTO: Peter Ehrlich.


In this view of a train near 15th Avenue, the slightly raised center median reservation can be seen more clearly. Over the train, transverse spanwires holding OCS can be seen; other cross-wires are general utility cables. Photo (copyright) Eric Haas.

In this view of a train near 16th Avenue, the slightly raised center median reservation can be seen more clearly. Over the train, transverse spanwires holding OCS can be seen; other cross-wires are general utility cables. Photo (copyright) Eric Haas.


There are other alternatives for installing LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. To eliminate the need for TES poles, for example, there are “wireless” power options, but these tend to be proprietary, somewhat experimental technologies and substantially more expensive. Widening these arterials by acquiring more ROW is another option, but this also introduces greater expense. We believe that the raised-median design, with side-mounted TES poles, presented here, represents a particularly cost-effective, functional solution worth considering for G-L and other major Austin corridors. ■