Archive for the ‘Urban Rail’ Category

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Project Connect’s Orange Line operating cost assumptions seem to fail plausibility test

3 December 2019

Cover of Project Connect’s O&M cost methodology and assumptions report. Screen capture by ARN.


This analysis has been adapted and revised from comments originally posted to the #ATXTransit listserv by Lyndon Henry, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project and contributing editor to Austin Rail Now (ARN).

For approximately the past year, Capital Metro’s planning program, Project Connect, has been analyzing two travel corridors for major high-capacity rapid transit investment – the Orange Line (basically following the North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress corridor) and the Blue Line (roughly following the Red River-San Jacinto/Trinity corridor through downtown and then the Riverside corridor out to ABIA). A federally required Alternatives Analysis has been undertaken by a consulting team led by AECOM to recommend a modal system choice between light rail transit (LRT) and bus rapid transit (BRT), as well as other features and service characteristics such as vehicle types, station locations, alignments, and the capital costs and operating and maintenance (O&M) costs of each alternative.

Recently the agency released as public information selected details, including methodological procedures and cost assumptions. These have prompted scrutiny by community professionals and activists, particularly in regard to important O&M cost assumptions. In some cases these assumptions have been called into question.

For example, a 13 November posting by research analyst Julio Gonzalez Altamirano (JGA) on his Informatx.org website presented an extensive critical analysis. This resulted in two major findings:

• Project Connect’s BRT revenue hour cost estimate is lower than the national average by 26%. Project Connect does not explain its rationale for the methodological choices that lead to the lower rate.

• Project Connect’s use of a flat passenger car revenue hour rate to calculate LRT costs obfuscates the economies of scale associated with multi-car LRT trains. This is a change from the approach taken by Project Connect in 2013-2014. The new method makes Blue Line LRT appear more productive and Orange Line LRT less productive than an approach that recognizes the cost advantages of LRT scale (e.g. multi-car trains). Project Connect does not explain the rationale for the methodological switch or why its current approach will generate more accurate estimates.

These findings are broadly in line with the results of ARN’s own research into Project Connect’s O&M cost methodology and resultant assumptions, particularly with respect to the Orange Line surface LRT and BRT alternatives. Our analysis relied primarily on data for appropriate peer systems to Austin, reported in the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database (NTD).

Basically, we find that Project Connect’s cost per vehicle-hour assumptions consistently seem to overestimate LRT costs by more than 51% and underestimate BRT costs by over 26%. The bottom-line result is to skew Project Connect’s O&M cost assumptions as much as 70% in favor of the BRT alternative. This produces a relatively huge disparity in evaluating the alternatives, and challenges plausibility. Details of our analysis, plus conclusions and a recommendation, are presented below.

Methodology

Operational configurations and service cycles affect O&M costs, including costs per vehicle-mile. ARN’s methodology has differed somewhat from JGA’s. Most importantly, from the 2017 NTD (latest currently available), ARN selected seven new-start LRT “peer” systems based on both urban characteristics and surface-running alignment and operational configurations that we judged to more closely match those of Austin and the proposed Orange Line surface LRT: Denver, Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City. Although some have urban or suburban branches on exclusive alignments, all have significant segments in urban streets.

These seven systems have been selected in part for their urban, extensively on-surface, and in some cases predominantly street-routed character (similar to the alignment proposed for Austin’s Orange Line). Generally comparable urban population and density were also an important factor. As state capitals, Denver, Sacramento, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and St. Paul (included in the Minneapolis-St. Paul system) also make good peer cities for Austin. Other new-start LRT systems that might have some sections on city streets but operate predominantly over extensive regional lines or grade-separated alignments were not considered as fully comparable cost models.

In contrast to our peer-systems approach, Project Connect states that, via its own methodology, “O&M unit costs for LRT service reflect a weighted national average cost per revenue hour ….” [Orange Line Operating and Maintenance Costs, 30 Oct. 2019] Apparently these costs are based on NTD data.

However, if Project Connect calculated its average from national data of all LRT systems reported in the NTD, this would have included a widely disparate collection of O&M and other data, much of it starkly dissimilar to Austin’s demographics and proposed LRT operational conditions. For example, legacy systems (remnants of historic surface electric railways dating back to the late 19th or early 20th century) such as those in Boston, San Francisco, Newark, and Pittsburgh retain a variety of older operating characteristics (e.g., onboard fare collection by train operators) that drive their vehicle-hour costs significantly higher than the average of modern new-start systems.

Other problems with such an indiscriminate approach include differences in alignment engineering configuration. Accordingly, we assessed some modern new-start LRT systems to be less suitable O&M vehicle-hour cost models for Austin’s proposed street-routed LRT Orange Line, including several we excluded particularly because of their proportionately more extensive subway and elevated segments: Buffalo, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Dallas, Seattle.

Nevertheless, despite what appear to be serious weaknesses with its own methodological assumptions, Project Connect has calculated an O&M cost per vehicle-hour of $284.15 (2017) for its Orange Line LRT surface alternative.

As regards BRT, in our judgement eight of the operational configurations of BRT systems reported in the 2017 NTD seemed to conform to the Orange Line BRT surface operating proposal, and can be assumed to represent peer systems with respect to Austin. These BRT services – operating in Cleveland, Eugene, Ft. Collins, Grand Rapids, Hartford, Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Orlando – thus provide an appropriate basis for comparing and evaluating Project Connect’s Orange Line LRT and BRT scenarios. New York City was excluded because its exceptionally high density, population size, and vast multi-model transit system are far out of proportion to Austin’s conditions. Boston’s disconnected system, partly operating as a trolleybus subway, also seemed inappropriate as a peer system. Likewise the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s operation, a basically rural system more closely resembling a regional or intercity motor coach service than an urban transit service, was also excluded. Data for the eight peer systems were used to develop metrics for comparison with Project Connect’s assumed cost inputs.

For 2017 O&M cost per vehicle-hour for Project Connect’s Orange Line BRT surface alternative, Project Connect’s own assumptions (based on information from CMTA and NTD) amount to an effective estimate of $119.10, as JGA has converted from Project Connect’s 2028 estimates.

To calculate current national averages and metrics for comparison, we’ve totaled current costs and other relevant values for the target LRT and BRT peer groups from National Transit Database (NTD) profile data, then calculated averages from those totals. All costs discussed are presented in 2017 dollars.

Results

LRT: Average actual 2017 O&M cost per vehicle-hour for the seven peer LRT systems is $187.52, 34.0% lower than Project Connect’s assumed cost of $284.15 for the Orange Line surface LRT option.

BRT: Average actual 2017 O&M cost per vehicle hour for the eight peer BRT systems is $162.23, 36.2% higher than Project Connect’s assumed cost estimate of $119.10 for the Orange Line surface BRT option.

LRT vehicle-costs/hour are typically higher than for buses mainly because LRT cars are larger and stations are also usually larger, creating higher maintenance costs. (These characteristics generally stem from LRT’s higher capacity and propensity to attract greater passenger volumes.) The ratio of actual NTD-reported peer-system LRT to BRT costs is 1.16. However, Project Connect’s cost assumptions amount to an LRT:BRT ratio of 2.39 – in other words, approximately twice the cost ratio in actual operating experience. The disparity between Project Connect’s estimates and costs experienced in actual operations is illustrated in the graph below.


Graphic illustration of disparity between Project Connect’s O&M unit-cost estimates and actual reality of costs experienced by actual operations of comparable peer LRT and BRT systems. Graph: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


Conclusions and recommendation

Project Connect’s assumption for cost per vehicle-hour appears to substantially underestimate BRT and overestimate LRT – and this has dramatic consequences for the agency’s overall cost model results, seemingly skewing the evaluatory process and calling into question the plausibility and validity of the agency’s O&M cost analysis. The table below, presenting Project Connect’s comprehensive O&M cost calculations for the Orange Line alternatives, illustrates how the differential in O&M cost-per-vehicle-hour estimates translate into enormous differences of tens of millions of dollars in annual O&M cost assumptions.


Table of O&M cost calculations from Project Connect’s report. Screen capture by ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


We would strongly recommend that these assumptions and the overall O&M analysis of these alternatives be reviewed and revised – particularly by basing cost estimates on appropriate peer systems relevant to the LRT and BRT alternatives proposed by Project Connect for the Orange Line.

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Project Connect Orange Line: Unique Purpose and Potential

26 October 2019

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


Commentary by Dave Dobbs

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

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

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

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

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

15 August 2019

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


By Austin Rail Now

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

► Orange Line as primary corridor — Urban rail installation in the Orange Line alignment (N. Lamar-Guadalupe-Lamar-South Congress/NL-G-SC) must be prioritized. Positioned as Austin’s major central local corridor, between I-35 to the east and Loop 1 (MoPac) to the west, the Orange Line corridor is the center city’s 3rd-heaviest north-south travel corridor (after I-35 and MoPac). The City of Austin has repeatedly emphasized that this is the primary local traffic corridor in central-city Austin, with exceptionally heavy traffic at maximum capacity for over the past 2 decades. North Lamar alone is ranked by Texas Transportation Institute as one of the most congested arterials in Texas. With Austin’s highest total employment density on Guadalupe-Lamar, an urban rail line there alone could serve 31% of all Austin jobs. It would also serve the highest-density residential concentrations in the city — including the West Campus, ranking the 3rd-highest in residential neighborhood density among major Texas cities.
https://austinrailnow.com/2014/10/13/latest-tti-data-confirm-guadalupe-lamar-is-central-local-arterial-corridor-with-heaviest-travel/
http://centralaustincdc.org/transportation/austin_urban_rail.htm
https://austinrailnow.com/2019/07/29/future-proof-austins-mobility-with-urban-rail-not-infrastructure-for-techno-fantasies/

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

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

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

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

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“Future-Proof” Austin’s Mobility With Urban Rail — Not Infrastructure for Techno-Fantasies

29 July 2019

Orange Line (north-south route indicated within black outline) shown within Project Connect’s map of proposed regional system. Excerpted and edited by ARN.


By Austin Rail Now

Commentary originally produced by ARN and distributed (as one-page handout) to participants in Project Connect’s Orange Line Workshop at Austin Central Library, 17 July 2019.

♦ Light rail transit (LRT) — This well-proven, widely deployed, effective, affordable urban rail alternative has been proposed for the Orange Line (N. Lamar-Guadalupe-S. Congress) corridor for 30 years. Since selected as Capital Metro’s Locally Preferred Alternative in 1989, LRT has remained Austin’s premier major high-capacity transit vision. In early 2018, Project Connect 2’s proposal for LRT in the Orange Line corridor received widespread community acclaim. However, the proposal was subsequently quashed by Capital Metro, which proceeded to restart the Project Connect process.

As noted below, LRT has demonstrated numerous key advantages over bus rapid transit (BRT). And unlike many “gadget” alternatives, LRT is well-proven in public service, a readily available technology, and non-proprietary. (In contrast, “autonomous BRT” has been neither deployed commercially nor even tested.)

♦ Ridership — On average, light rail systems have excelled in attracting passengers, especially new riders who have access to a car but choose to ride LRT. Compared with buses, LRT systems are more user-friendly, more comfortable to access and ride, and perceived as safer and more reliable. On average, ridership on new LRT systems is 127% higher than on bus rapid transit (BRT).
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#ridershiphttp://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#mode-preference
APTA/NTD

♦ Affordability — Especially for a city of Austin’s size, light rail has typically provided an affordable capital cost opportunity to install urban rail (costs similar to “real” BRT), with significantly lower operating + maintenance cost per passenger-mile compared to buses. Average operating cost of new LRT systems is 10% lower than for BRT. The lower capital and operational costs of a predominantly surface LRT system make it the ideal affordable mode for future expansion of a rail transit network throughout the Austin metro area.
http://www.vtpi.org/bus_rail.pdfNational Transit Database


Average operational cost of LRT is 10% lower than for BRT. Average costs calculated by ARN from data reported to National Transit Database, 2016.


♦ Environment & energy — Evidence shows LRT systems have the lowest air pollution and noise impacts, preserve neighborhoods and urban quality of life, and reduce energy usage per passenger-mile compared with cars and buses. LRT especially avoids the energy-wasting effects of hysteresis and asbestos pollution of rubber-tire transport.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#environmental-impactshttp://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec145.pdf

♦ Urban benefits — In contrast to bus operations (including BRT), light rail systems have demonstrated a consistent, significant, superlative propensity to attract adjacent development and economic growth, and help shape and guide a changing urban landscape.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#urbanhttp://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/Conferences/2019/LRT/LyndonHenry.pdf

♦ Capacity — Compared to both buses and “gadget” modes, LRT has far higher capacity in normal service scenarios and greater capability to accommodate future demand.
https://www.thoughtco.com/passenger-capacity-of-transit-2798765

♦ Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor — Positioned as Austin’s major central local corridor, between I-35 to the east and Loop 1 (MoPac) to the west, G-L has repeatedly been regarded as ideal for an LRT surface starter line (with no need for major civil works) to create the key central spine for an eventually citywide and regional urban rail network. It’s the center city’s 3rd-heaviest north-south corridor. The City of Austin (COA) has repeatedly emphasized that G-L is the primary local traffic corridor in central-city Austin, with exceptionally heavy traffic at maximum capacity for over the past 2 decades. Texas Transportation Institute ranks North Lamar as one of the most congested arterials in Texas. Urban rail is essential to maintaining mobility in this crucial corridor.
https://austinrailnow.com/2014/10/13/latest-tti-data-confirm-guadalupe-lamar-is-central-local-arterial-corridor-with-heaviest-travel/

♦ Employment & population density — With Austin’s highest total employment density on Guadalupe-Lamar, an urban rail line could serve 31% of all Austin jobs. An urban rail line in this corridor would serve the highest-density residential concentrations in the city — including the West Campus, ranking as the 3rd-highest in residential neighborhood density among major Texas cities.
http://centralaustincdc.org/transportation/austin_urban_rail.htm

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Capital Metro strikes three blows against Lamar-Guadalupe light rail

31 May 2018

Graphic: Grace in the city

In a post this past February 28th, we reported on a surprising development coming from Capital Metro’s Project Connect planning process – the “conceptual” proposal of a 21-mile predominantly linear north-south light rail transit (LRT) corridor, running from Tech Ridge in North Austin, through the central heart of the city, to Slaughter Lane, near the Southpark Meadows area, in South Austin. The proposal particularly extolled the merits of a 12-mile-long segment, through the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, from Tech Ridge to downtown.

After over four decades of indecision, missteps, and delay, it seemed like the transit agency (and city leadership) might, amazingly, have turned a corner. Could this actually mean that, at long last, Capital Metro and Austin’s top leadership were prepared to move ahead with a plausible, workable light rail plan – implementing a long-awaited leap forward in urban mobility – for the city’s most important central corridor?

Unfortunately, no. Slightly over a month later, Capital Metro reversed itself, withdrew the LRT proposal, and reverted to the familiar decades-long pattern of indecision, confusion, dithering, and delay that has gripped Austin like a curse.

Instead of an actual, specific project for a new light rail system, with a starter line from Tech Ridge to Republic Square downtown, the proposal had dissolved into the clouds, becoming just another line on a map of “perhaps something, some day”. To explain the retreat, planning was now described as “mode agnostic” – in other words, reverting back to a kind of official daydreaming, without any modes (the things that people would actually ride) identified to define a real-world project.

Almost exactly a month later, Capital Metro’s board made another fateful decision. Whereas mode-specific recommendations from the Project Connect study were scheduled for June, the board delayed that back to late in the fall (or perhaps winter) – far too late to put any kind of actual, mode-specific project (such as the previous LRT proposal) on the November ballot for possible voter approval of bond funding. (At best, this would now delay voter approval of any hypothetical project until the 2020 election cycle.)

A third blow against LRT in the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor was struck on May 8th, when the Capital Area Mobility Planning Organization (CAMPO) approved a Capital Metro-sponsored plan (originally submitted Jan. 19th) to overhaul the N. Lamar Blvd.-Airport Blvd.-MetroRail intersection (adjacent to the Crestview MetroRail station) with a design – exclusively focused on accommodating and facilitating motor vehicle traffic, rather than public transport – that would impose enormous obstacles to LRT on North Lamar. Currently, community activists and urban rail advocates are endeavoring to prompt a redesign of this project.

For decade after decade, the Austin community has agonized, writhed, and wailed over its steadily mounting mobility crisis. Hundreds of miles of lanes and roads have been built and rebuilt, and even more vigorous roadbuilding is currently underway. Yet the mobility crisis continues to worsen – for many motorists, driving around the urban area increasingly feels like trying to swim through solidifying mud. Or, alternatively, slogging through a battlefield ….

Repeatedly, the need for light rail has been affirmed. (See «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps».) As we pointed out in a March 2015 post, “For two and a half decades, local officials and planners have explained why urban rail — affordable light rail transit (LRT), in Austin’s case — has been an absolutely essential component of the metro area’s mobility future.” («Austin’s urban transport planning seems struck by catastrophic case of amnesia and confusion».)

Capital Metro designated LRT in the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor as the region’s Locally Preferred Alternative in 1989. In 2000, Capital Metro hastily placed LRT on the ballot – but, in a poorly organized election campaign, it was defeated in the overall service area by a tiny margin (although it was approved by Austin voters). In 2014, another LRT plan was presented to Austin voters under the slogan “Rail or Fail” – but, proposed for the ridiculously weak Highland-Riverside corridor, the plan was resoundingly rejected. (See «Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead».)

Time and time again, Austin has demonstrated that it’s the national poster child for chronically muddled urban mobility planning. In a January 2015 post, we warned that “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 ….” («Strong community support for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail continues — but officials seem oblivious».) As our previously-cited March 2015 post went on to observe: “The devastating befuddlement of Austin’s official-level urban transportation planning … has been nothing short of jaw-dropping.”

Will Austin, and Capital Metro, ever manage to break out of this pattern of failure? Does hope still spring eternal?

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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.