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How Capital Metro’s planning keeps falling short

31 December 2017

Capital Metro’s proposed Connections 2025 map. Graphic: CMTA.

Commentary by Roger Baker

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

Capital Metro says it has a major renovation in its bus network underway. Perhaps, but in my opinion, Cap Metro is trying to do too much on too little money. In addition, the agency is politically manipulated, held on a tight city leash by long tradition, with top-down political forces in charge.

Being a big institutional cookie jar has become a practical barrier to developing really smart, compassionate policy, one that riders can depend on from year to year. For example, good Cap Metro planners should understand and hedge against the fact that Cap Metro sales tax revenues can fall as well as rise, depending on the quirky volatility of Austin’s tech-based economy.

This latest transit policy is the result of being forced to choose between two groups and types of service: trying to accommodate the scattered captive riders on the cheaper living-cost fringes, versus the more time-sensitive discretionary riders near the core.

One of the kinder, more compassionate resolutions of this dilemma would be a compromise. The most needy or most bus dependent nearby areas would have bus service that at least wouldn’t get any worse for the next five years, come hell or high water. That way it would be possible for these folks to often hold service jobs in Austin, and the transit service could motivate people who struggle to meet tight family budgets to migrate to these same transit-friendlier areas. At the same time, in the spirit of compromise, Cap Metro could offer a few less 15-minute bus routes serving the core area, but this promise of improved, higher-frequency core service would be equally firm.

But here’s another problem with that. Cap Metro suffers from an acute lack of transit planning that can stay on track for a time that exceeds the current management’s longevity and influence.

Overall, the core problem facing Austin transportation is getting from cheap suburban living to living-wage jobs via existing highways like I-35. Roads like this will never be able to affordably handle this level of peak mobility demand. We should learn to regard congestion as self-limiting in nature.

Insofar as this daily peak traffic is partly related to core retail commerce, will these jobs still be there in predicted numbers, after another five years of Amazon killing local retail? How did the planners at Cap Metro get in such trouble with their sales tax projections? Has that budgetary over-optimism been fixed?

In my opinion, focusing on short-term planning and compassionate meeting of current transit needs in the next few years should get top priority. Included in this category is a $400 million light rail starter line segment down the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, which is clearly needed today to unclog that corridor.

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Gentrification syndrome hurts transit

27 November 2017

Passenger using bicycle rack on front of Capital Metro bus, c. 2015. Photo: CMTA.

Commentary by Roger Baker

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

Fast growth over decades, together with a lack of Texas land use planning, leads to intractable peak-hour congestion, as we can readily see in Austin. Service workers try to commute from the cheaper-living suburbs to get to good core city jobs. If good transit were there, many would use it. How could things be otherwise, given a big difference in living costs inside and outside the core city, mediated by crowded highways?

Austin, as the most expensive major city in Texas nowadays, is a good example of the urban gentrification syndrome described in a recent Streetsblog story. As the author Angie Schmitt points out,

Bus ridership is declining in almost every U.S. city. Some reasons are fairly obvious: Lower gas prices combined with higher transit fares and service cuts make transit less appealing.

However, says Schmitt, other factors may also be involved – “rising housing costs, with higher-income residents displacing lower-income residents in neighborhoods that traditionally have had robust transit ridership” – and the article cites an analysis of Portland’s problems published in TransitCenter by two planners, Tom Mills and Madeline Steele, at Tri-Met (Portland’s transit agency). As the StreetsBlog article summarizes,

In surveys, many people told Tri-Met that they ride transit less because of a change of home or work address. This led Mills and Steele to take a closer look at the interplay of ridership changes and the housing market.

According to these analysts’ TransitCenter report,

We found substantial overlap between areas where real market home value increased and transit ridership decreased the most. These areas are concentrated in the same traditionally low-income, inner eastside neighborhoods that have experienced significant economic displacement. Correspondingly, transit ridership grew in areas that saw minimal increases in real market home values. These areas tended to be in the first ring suburbs where many low to moderate-income earners relocated after leaving the inner city.

These economic and demographic dynamics put our most loyal transit riders farther away from our best transit service, and strengthen the market for travel modes that are favored by high-income earning residents who may only use transit to commute.

In her conclusion, Schmitt emphasizes that “For transit agencies, any effective response requires coordination with the cities they serve.”

If transit-friendly Portland is losing bus ridership due to gentrification, what chance does Austin have here, where Capital Metro is treated like a reserve cash cookie jar? Austin takes a big part of Cap Metro’s tax money. For example, see page 33 of this link for the agency’s 2015 budget, describing “City of Austin mobility programs” which transferred $26 million out of Cap Metro’s funds to the City of Austin:

https://www.capmetro.org/uploadedFiles/Capmetroorg/About_Us/Finance_and_Audit/Approved%20FY%202016%20Budget.pdf

Recently TxDOT tried to charge Cap Metro a lot (about $18 million) to make I-35 a supposedly “BRT”-friendly highway, presuming it could be used that way a decade from now, if and when it gets widened. Since nobody can accurately predict population growth, or travel demand, or transit demand, even two years from now, let alone in 2045 as CAMPO is presuming to do, shouldn’t we focus on things that we can measure and see? Like vital transit needs right now. Like current bus problems, including the need to maintain useful service in the fringes, a lifeline as vital as Social Security (and other public assistance) for many old and low-income folks.

If we had a genuinely compassionate and liberal Austin City Council, I think they would say this: You know it is unfair to the voters who approved the full cent for Cap Metro transit in the first place for the City to then divert that money, for decades, and for their own projects. As if bus riders have a permanent obligation to make their personal sacrifice to fund weird city transportation projects. Like the focus on driverless cars which we already know will not improve congestion. Let’s urge the city to give back five or ten million a year of this big unfair mordida to improve fringe city lifeline bus service. It is the right thing to do in these hard times.

The core problem facing Austin transportation is getting people from cheap suburban living to livable-wage jobs using existing highways like I-35 – roads that will never be able to affordably handle this level peak mobility demand. We should learn to regard congestion as self-limiting in nature.

Insofar as this daily peak traffic is partly related to core retail commerce, will these jobs still be there in predicted numbers, after another five years of Amazon killing local retail? How did the planners at Cap Metro get in such trouble with their sales tax projections? Has that budgetary over-optimism been fixed?

In my opinion, focusing on short-term planning and compassionate meeting of current transit needs in the next few years should get top priority. Included in this category is a $400 million light rail segment down the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, which is clearly needed today to unclog that corridor. The fact that the City needs a fancy study like Project Connect to arrive at that conclusion is to me a major symptom of our core planning problem. If we could find some way to infuse Austin’s city leadership with more pro-transit leaders (such as those in cities like San Antonio and Nashville), maybe that would help significantly with this problem.

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Why “Super BRT” in I-35 would betray Capital Metro’s member cities

31 October 2017

Project Connect rendition illustrates how “SuperBRT” might use high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes alongside a highway such as I-35. But where are the stations? Graphic: CMTA online.

Commentary by Dave Dobbs

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

This website’s recent articles «Officials boost roads and “Super BRT”, put urban rail on side track» (Aug. 31) and «Why TxDOT-Capital Metro ‘BRT’ plan for I-35 is a massive boondoggle» (Oct. 1) explained how (under pressure from TxDOT) Capital Metro has been proposing to designate I-35 as Austin’s primary transit corridor, and to install a 21-mile express bus facility (“Super BRT”) in what is to be an overhauled freeway-tollway. “Politically aware” members of Capital Metro’s board ought to understand that providing scarce Capital Metro dollars for this “Super BRT” project – designed mainly to serve non-member cities like Round Rock (voted not to join the transit agency in 1985) and Pflugerville (withdrew in 2000) – is a betrayal of the original sales-tax-paying members of Leander, Jonestown, Lago Vista, Point Venture, Anderson Mill, Volente, San Leanna and Manor, all of which (except Manor and San Leanna) are located northwest, on the US 183 corridor.

Most importantly, with over 95% of Capital Metro’s local tax revenues coming from Austin sale taxes, I-35 Super BRT is a very poor use of limited resources from the benefit principle perspective. This is bad public policy and bad public finance with a negative ROI.

Capital Metro board members, other local officials, Austin’s civic leadership, and the metro area public at large need to consider: What does expending scarce transit agency funds on “Super BRT” to run in I-35 – i.e., funding a transit facility that primarily benefits non-member citizens – say to Capital Metro’s taxpayers?

In contrast, a Guadalupe-Lamar corridor light rail connection to MetroRail at Crestview would be highly advantageous to those who pay the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CMTA) 1¢ sales tax. In lieu of this, where’s the benefit to the citizens of Austin and six of the eight member cities who’ve the sales taxes for CMTA transit service from the start?

This is a serious public finance question. Jonestown, Lago Vista, Leander, Point Venture, Volente, Anderson Mill and vast areas in Austin’s northwest ETJ are entitled to any major transit fixed quideway investment on a first-priority basis over entities who never were or aren’t now Capital Metro members. Spending Capital Metro money on an IH35 “busway” is a complete rejection of the Benefit Principle.

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

1 October 2017

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

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

As that article warned,

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

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

Mysterious new “Super BRT” project appears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minneapolis “Orange Line BRT” — a faulty model

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Fake “BRT”, “Super” or otherwise

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

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

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

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

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

LRT makes more sense

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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Officials boost roads and “Super BRT”, put urban rail on side track

31 August 2017

Cross-section of one version of TxDOT’s plan for massive rebuild and expansion of I-35. Center tolled “express” lanes (at bottom center of diagram) are proposed for use by “Super BRT” project to be funded and operated by Capital Metro. Graphic: Mobility35. (Click to enlarge.)

Commentary by David Orr

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

Last month, on July 26th, Capital Metro’s Project Connect, together with several other regional agencies, sponsored another of their “Traffic Jam” community meetings to discuss possible options in the planning process. This mainly consisted of a panel of professionals and officials, some local, and some from elsewhere in the country, sitting on a stage in a chapel at Huston-Tillotson University explaining different transit issues to the audience.

I attended this event, but was extremely disappointed in what I saw for a number of reasons. For one, the talking heads were allowed to go over their allotted time (typical for politicians and agency officials), leaving only a half-hour of the two and a half hours of the originally scheduled event time for audience participation. This common practice is designed to minimize public input and maximize officials’ output (i.e., a PR effort).


Project Connect-sponsored “Traffic Jam” meeting on July 26th at Huston-Tillotson University. Opportunity for audience participation was truncated. Photo: L. Henry.


More importantly to our concerns, as was the case with the April “Traffic Jam”, the politicians never got specific about mass transit and talked instead mostly about how expensive transit is and how little money they have. At the same time they have been touting how much good they’re doing building new road capacity with the 2016 bond issue.

Capital Metro’s blog post on the recent “Traffic Jam” added little of substance, but in truth there was little offered by the consultants and local officials, so not much to report on. This event could have been much more effective had there been discussion of Austin’s specific needs, rather than dwelling on reports of what worked in other cities. There was no mention from the stage of what kind of new transit should be built here – and where. That was a glaring omission in the program agenda. It seemed a clear message that they’re seeking public (written) comment of the kind where officials will not be required to respond with any specificity, much less take a stand for or against. I hope I’m wrong, but to date the only messages we’ve received indicating openness to specific forms of new transit initiatives relate to what they’re calling “Super BRT” as if it were a done deal.

The “Super BRT” idea has been brought to public attention only within the last couple of months, bypassing Project Connect’s ongoing “high-capacity transit” study. A June 27th article by Caleb Pritchard in the Austin Monitor cited information from Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, Todd Hemingson:

… Hemingson told reporters that the agency has been talking with TxDOT for five years about the I-35 bus rapid transit plan. The department is planning a $4 billion overhaul of the highway and appears to be open to the agency’s insistence that the project include some dedicated allowance for transit. The formative vision for the bus rapid transit system includes a handful of stations built on bus-only lanes in the median of the interstate. Those stations, Hemingson said, would be paired with frequent-service bus routes on intersecting east-west corridors.

This “Super BRT” is really a “pseudo BRT” plan, since the buses would run with mixed traffic in HOV toll lanes (“HOT lanes”). Basically, it seems like just another express bus system with some added improvements.

At the July 26th “Traffic Jam” I was particularly disturbed by a glossy brochure being distributed from Capital Metro titled Connections 2025, which laid out in very concrete terms the agency’s “vision” for the next five years. Nowhere in this document was any rail expansion even mentioned as a possibility. In contrast, the I-35 “Super BRT” plan was mentioned twice, in both places identifying it as if it’s already approved as a project in line for implementation.


Capital Metro’s Connections 2025 brochure includes “Super BRT” as an assumed project. Graphic: CMTA. (Click to enlarge.)


There was no discussion at all of this “Super BRT” project on I-35 during any of the many presentations and speeches during the program, and the very abbreviated public Q&A at the meeting did not permit me to ask for clarification. The only mention in this document of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor was the continued development and expansion of MetroRapid 801 as well as 803 and additional routes. If they intend to continue to dump cash on the “rapid bus” projects in this corridor, that would effectively preclude serious discussion of a light rail transit (LRT) project in that corridor within the next decade at least.

In the Connections 2025 brochure, the “Super BRT” project was listed on the agency timeline for completion by 2023. Needless to say, it looks like the fix is in, at least as far as Capital Metro is concerned. However, I did ask a Project Connect staffer whether this was now a foregone conclusion, and he insisted it’s not. He also said that LRT is still on the table, but admitted that no one at the agency is really discussing it. That was an eye-opener.

Clearly this is a major challenge to those of us – transit advocates and a large contingent of neighborhoods and other community members – who have been backing LRT in Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L). Perhaps It’s time to request Capital Metro’s board for clarification on their plans for “Super BRT” and how their public input supports this major investment. Especially in view of the fact that this carries a huge opportunity cost for alternatives that might include LRT anywhere else in the city, much less on the G-L route. It’s clear that Capital Metro has been intentionally avoiding responding to the continuing public input they’re receiving in support of LRT and the lack of public support for this “Super BRT” notion.

It may also be necessary at some point to bypass Capital Metro and take this directly to the City Council. Council can make this happen even if they have to drag the transit agency off the “Super BRT” express bus.

However, there are other factors in play that may take the air out of the tires of this scheme. A July 24th article by Ben Wear in the American-Statesman quotes a TxDOT spokesperson regarding the request for money from Capital Metro for in-line stations on I-35. The TxDOT representative insists that “as far as financing goes, none of our funding sources will cover transit.”

Based on my reading of this news report, it seems TxDOT has given Capital Metro a clear signal that “Super BRT” will only happen if the transit agency pays for it. In the current situation, that’s actually very good news from the standpoint of proper planning and what kind of major transit improvement Austin truly needs – LRT.

If Capital Metro can’t raise the funds on its own to build this “Super BRT” – or even some scaled-back version of it – that will likely be the end of that bad dream. Presumably its proponents would have to get some bond money to fund it, but if that had to go before the voters it could turn out like the Prop 1 debacle which failed because the public support just wasn’t there. Capital Metro’s credibility would be pretty much destroyed. So maybe there is hope for a G-L LRT after all. From a politics standpoint, it’s usually easier to kill something controversial than it is to approve it.

A small but vocal opposition armed with facts could probably sink “Super BRT” if it came to a bond election. I suspect that politically aware members of Capital Metro’s board would be sensitive to sustained expressions of support for G-L LRT, and if there’s no evident support for Super BRT they may respond accordingly, if reluctantly.

We have every reason to doubt that Capital Metro will even be able to come close to providing the money demanded by TxDOT to build the “Super BRT” line, at least to whatever standards Capital Metro may determine will have a ghost of a chance in reaching reasonable ridership numbers. This would be a situation where the lack of agency funding could actually work to the benefit of truly effective transit – i.e., an urban rail alternative.

In any case, approval of G-L LRT will itself require a public vote. Nevertheless, supporters of this long-overdue project have good reason to believe it will pass if we can bring strong public support to the cause. We’ll have to win an election, and we need to start strategizing now.

My hunch is that funding “Super BRT” will kill off LRT for the next decade. Conversely LRT could do in this pseudo-BRT project. It’s a zero-sum game. So long as BRT is getting all the official attention our side is side-lined in the public’s eyes.

It’s been pointed out here that the likelihood of funding I-35 “Super BRT” through a public bond vote would be much less likely than is the case with LRT, which would run where people actually live and work. One of our most potent arguments is that high ridership depends on convenience and flexibility in options for future build-out/expansion. Yet “Super BRT” on I-35 is just a one-trick route, with few options for east-west routes. In contrast, LRT of course has many possibilities for eventual expansion.


Rendition of LRT on Drag from 2000. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.

Rendition of LRT passing UT campus on Guadalupe St. An initial starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would provide basic urban rail backbone for expansion into a citywide system. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.


This is the sort of discussion that Capital Metro should be facilitating as part of the Project Connect planning process. One bright spot I have seen recently in the process is the agency’s stated intention to respond on their website to written comments. This is an opportunity to find out how responsive the agency is to public interest and demands for specific proposals. At least Capital Metro has not so far ruled out anything.

Thus it is up to pro-rail transit advocates to submit written comments. It’s critical that the written public record reflect the breadth and depth of support for options on the table for consideration. Strong and persistent demonstrations of support for a G-L LRT starter line project may persuade Capital Metro to rethink some of their assumptions and give supporters of this plan a fair hearing, and a detailed response.

This would also be helpful in familiarizing more Austinites with the G-L LRT plan and the case that can be made on its behalf. Advocates of LRT – including the starter line LRT project in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor – have sufficient expertise and numbers behind this proposal to present a credible and persuasive concept that will be difficult to dismiss.

So long as positive expressions of support are received the transit agency must recognize the breadth and depth of support for urban rail. Hopefully some official heads can be persuaded.

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Urban Rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, Not I-35 “BRT”

31 July 2017

Map from Austin Rail Now/Our Rail leaflet distributed at July 26th “Traffic Jam” shows 21-mile light rail transit line proposed as a “high-capacity transit” alternative to the “BRT” line in I-35 advocated by TxDOT and other road proponents.

As our April 30th article «Reorganized Project Connect 2.0 opens up, reaches out» explained, Project Connect – the major planning effort -sponsored by Capital Metro, has been re-evaluating Austin-area corridors as possible candidates for rail and other forms of “high-capacity transit”. In recent months, the Texas Department of Transportation (seeking funding participation for its planned overhaul of Interstate Highway 35 through Austin) has been prodding the transit agency to allocate funding for a so-called “bus rapid transit” (BRT) service to be installed in the proposed reconstructed highway. This has become one of the de facto “high-capacity transit” alternatives competing with urban rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor for major local funding.

On July 26th, Project Connect, Capital Metro, and several other collaborating agencies sponsored a “Traffic Jam” community meeting, with invited panelists, to discuss possible options in the planning process. The following article is adapted from a leaflet published and distributed by Austin Rail Now, together with the Our Rail political action committee, at the “Traffic Jam” meeting, focusing on a proposed central 21-mile light rail transit (LRT) project, paralleling I-35 and Loop 1 (“MoPac”, Austin’s other north-south freeway), as an alternative to the I-35 “BRT” proposal.


Why not a true mobility option?

Alternative to I-35 and Loop 1 — A 21-mile urban rail line, running from Tech Ridge in the north to Southpark Meadows in the south, following the Loop 275 (North Lamar to South Congress) corridor, could provide alternative traffic relief to Austin’s major north-south freeways (I-35 and Loop1/MoPac).

Map at left illustrates the major neighborhoods and activity centers that would be served. Such a route could plausibly have a potential of attracting ridership of 100,000 a day.

Better option than I-35 “BRT” — Urban rail is a far better public transit option than a dubious, seriously handicapped “bus rapid transit” (BRT) line in I-35. Urban rail lines have demonstrated significantly greater potential to attract riders, guide adjacent development, improve commercial taxbase, and stimulate economic activity. It’s unlikely that buses running in an I-35 HOV toll lane would yield any of these benefits.

Affordable — Light rail transit (LRT), predominantly surface-routed, can most easily and affordably be installed to serve people where they live, work, and need to go. Decades of experience in other major U.S. cities demonstrates that light rail is substantially less costly to operate per passenger-mile than buses, and tends to create high-value taxbase around stops. This can significantly enhance public revenue for better city services, while at the same time helping stabilize or even lower property taxes.

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

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

BRT Reality Check — So-called “BRT” operations in other cities like Minneapolis and Cleveland typically fail to meet the ridership and urban benefit claims of their promoters. Minneapolis’s Orange Line, an upgrade of the city’s heaviest bus transit corridor in I-35W, with just 14,000 daily ridership on 25 routes after 45 years’ worth of facility investment, is no model for Austin. (In contrast, Minneapolis’s 2 LRT lines attract ridership of 68,000.) Cleveland’s Health Line carries ridership of 16,000 in the city’s historically busiest local corridor. Running both in reserved lanes and in mixed traffic, this line is more akin to Austin’s MetroRapid bus services than a “BRT” operation in I-35.

Community benefits — Compared with buses, LRT systems are more user-friendly, more comfortable to access and ride, and more reliable. G-L LRT would provide higher passenger capacity than the proposed I-35 “BRT”, while being more energy efficient, encouraging denser development and safer, more livable urban environments, and emitting less greenhouse gases.

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East Austin: Upscale gentrification worsens affordable housing crisis, avoids bona fide TOD

29 June 2017

Rendition of southeast portion of Plaza Saltillo development, now under construction. Higher-density gentrification is replacing affordable housing and business locations under guise of “TOD”. (Graphic: Plaza Saltillo project via Austin Chronicle.)

Commentary by David Orr

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

Appropriate increases in density can be beneficial, but in the case of East Austin increasing density has become a major contributor to the expanding economic (and racial) segregation recognized by the Census Bureau and others as the worst in the U.S. Notably, the primary locus of the new construction is along the city’s only light railway commuter route (MetroRail), which uses abandoned the abandoned right-of-way (ROW) of a freight-rail spur into downtown.

Rapid changes in certain neighborhoods today are accelerated by rapid growth and massive investment in upscale development in and near downtown. What’s been billed as the tallest residential skyscraper between the east and west coasts is going up in downtown right now. East Austin is separated from downtown by I-35 which was built in that location to keep the black and Latino populations on “their” side of town. But downtown is hemmed in, and the real estate values are through the penthouse roof, so the Eastside is obviously the prime target for massive development.

The biggest redevelopment project in the city’s history is centered around a rail station (Plaza Saltillo) in a former railroad marshaling yard that for many decades has been surrounded by public housing, homes built in the 1920s and 30s, and funky old bars and auto mechanic shops. These are systematically being razed – entire city blocks every month or two – to make way for newly arrived, millennial code warriors who work downtown and want the dense urban streetlife environment. Small groceries, trendy bars and restaurants, and lots of parking garages for those shiny BMWs (“transit-oriented development”!) are going in block by block. From an environmental policy standpoint this is progress, as it will reduce auto commutes (not necessarily the number of trips) … but it’s mostly aimed at new residents moving in from places like Silicon Valley, with all that cash, and does little to address the need to increase densities in other areas near major employment centers.

For example, Apple’s huge complex is out in the boonies and not even on a bus route. But they have a huge parking garage that serves only their own staff. So much for Apple’s commitment to environmental concerns. There’s plenty of space around Apple’s complex for high-density development that could support transit, but so long as their well-paid staff drives in to work (and parks for free) and lives miles away in gated communities, there’s little incentive to the company to “think different” about their transportation situation.

In other parts of the city, especially in older neighborhoods, there is resistance to more density because folks want to maintain the quiet and quaint character of their ‘hoods. I appreciate that, especially in the case of Austin being one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the U.S., and the desire of folks to stay in their (often historic and) well-maintained homes.

Meanwhile there are large swaths of lower-cost, low-density land in the “old” sprawl zones that should be targeted for high-density redevelopment, but were leapfrogged by developers building upscale projects in the fast-disappearing ranch lands in nearby rural areas. These older urban fringe areas are disdained in part because they’re near lower-income neighborhoods that were middle-class subdivisions only 20 years ago, and in part because the employment centers were allowed to build in the hinterlands, leaving these low-density, affordable areas largely bereft of investor interest. At least there are still some areas where low-income people can still afford housing, even if it is half their monthly income.

Property taxes in Texas are high, especially in high-income counties like ours, as the state has no income tax and deals with funding for poor counties’ schools by taking from the rich counties (i.e. forcing them to raise property taxes to support other counties) and redistributing the wealth to those counties with low tax bases. Thus property taxes in our (relatively “wealthy”) county are high – even for poor people – exacerbating economic pressures to sell private homes (many of which are paid off and/or rented to low-income residents) for big redevelopment. We might call this a Texas-Style 21st-century Urban Renewal program (a.k.a. “Negro Removal,” as the old urban removal programs were known to activists of the mid-20th century).

What does all this mean for transit development? It means real estate interests aren’t interested in it because they’re focused on adding Lexus Lanes to area freeways to accommodate (in their minds) wealthy commuters and tourists going downtown.

In addition to auto-oriented development, the state and anti-transit activists have made it difficult to build light rail at all, much less in areas where it’s needed most, but where redevelopment investment is low. Dallas now has more miles of light rail than any urban area in the U.S., and the so-called “green” city of Austin has only one piddling DMU two-car commuter line that can carry only a few hundred riders per hour at peak time, often leaving riders standing at the station to wait for the next train (headway around 1/2 hour). Bus routes offer infrequent service in most areas if they’re served at all, and provide few direct connections to two new express routes billed as “bus rapid transit” (BRT) but which operate almost entirely in congested auto traffic lanes. The city just passed a $750 million bond issue that will benefit road projects but provides near-zero funding for transit improvements.

Bottom line: Austin’s reputation as an “innovative” city is belied by its failure to implement effective, bona fide transit-oriented development (TOD) projects in areas that are ripe for redevelopment and that don’t negatively impact the limited supply of affordable housing stock (disproportionately occupied by people of color). The injustice is not only economic and social, it’s environmental.

It’s a joke to think of Austin as progressive when you see developers dictating land use to the city, and the city addressing the affordability crisis by allowing these developers to avoid incorporating affordability into new projects even as they demolish existing affordable neighborhoods. The powers that be control the transit agency’s board, dictating policy to Capital Metro, ensuring the agency won’t put up a fuss or make “unreasonable” demands – such as pushing the city to require redevelopment of the older sprawl zones before permitting new sprawl. Austin lags far behind many other cities in terms of equitable, environmentally sensible transportation services, and it doesn’t look as if that’s going to change any time soon.

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The case for urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar

30 May 2017

Top: Map of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail starter line minimal operable segment (MOS), proposed in 2016. (Map: CACDC.) Bottom: Salt Lake City light rail line at downtown station could resemble system proposed for Austin. (Photo: L. Henry.)

by Lyndon Henry

This post has been adapted from comments distributed to members of the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee (MCAC) at its meeting of 26 April 2017. Lyndon Henry is a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project and a contributing editor to the Austin Rail Now website.

Why light rail transit (LRT)?

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.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#ridership
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#mode-preference

Affordable — Especially for cities of Austin’s size, light rail has typically demonstrated an affordable capital cost and the lowest operating + maintenance cost per passenger-mile of typical urban transit modes.
http://www.vtpi.org/bus_rail.pdf

Environment & energy — Evidence shows light rail 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.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#environmental-impacts
http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec145.pdf

Urban benefits — In contrast to bus operations, light rail systems have demonstrated a consistent, significant propensity to attract adjacent development, stimulate economic prosperity, and help shape and guide a changing urban landscape.
http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#urban

Capacity — Compared to both buses and “gadget” modes like gondolas, LRT has far higher capacity in normal service scenarios and greater capability to accommodate future demand. Unlike many “gadget” alternatives, LRT is well-proven in public service, a readily available technology, and non-proprietary.
https://www.thoughtco.com/passenger-capacity-of-transit-2798765

Expandable — The lower capital cost of a predominantly surface LRT system makes it the ideal affordable mode for future expansion of a rail transit network throughout the Austin metro area.

Why the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor?

Travel density — Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) is 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. It’s the most logical location for an urban rail starter line.
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. Since, this corridor also has Austin’s highest population density, an urban rail line would serve the highest-density residential concentrations in the city – including the West Campus, ranking as the 3rd-highest neighborhood in residential density among major Texas cities.
http://centralaustincdc.org/transportation/austin_urban_rail.htm

Future expansion — As Austin’s primary central arterial access corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar is ideally positioned to become the spine and anchor for future expansion of LRT into an eventual citywide system.

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Reorganized Project Connect 2.0 opens up, reaches out

30 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Consultants — A new consultant team led by AECOM.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

26 March 2017

Graphic: Neonlink.com

By David Orr

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traffic Jam, indeed.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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Transit planning cabal-style

28 February 2017
Graphic: Marvel Database.

Graphic: Marvel Database.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Austin’s shaky economic growth presents challenge to “strategic mobility plan” remake

31 January 2017
Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (title slide from official presentation)

Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (title slide from official presentation)

By Roger Baker

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

Once more, Austin officials are floating the idea of producing another “Austin Strategic Mobility Plan”. As a Jan. 30th article titled «Economic forecast puts focus on transit, housing, jobs for 2017» reports, this effort is being resurrected by Austin Mayor Steve Adler: “Adler said City Council will work this year on a ‘regional strategic mobility plan’ that will eventually lead to an ambitious region-wide transit plan that could include rail”

Austin’s previous most ambitious effort at a Strategic Mobility Plan was soundly defeated in the Nov. 2014 bond package, but few know that.

One problem that Mayor Adler now faces, as a real estate lawyer dedicated to promoting maximum Austin and regional growth as policy, is a sharp decline in our regional economic growth due to the related factors of gentrification, decreasing mobility, and a correspondingly sharp decline in venture capital startups, since it locally peaked in early 2015.

Low job growth is bound to be a big story this year. According to a Jan. 5th report from the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, we now see an annual job growth rate of only 0.6% in the whole Austin region, according to the most recent Dallas Fed data. As the bank states in its report,

Austin jobs grew 0.6 percent annualized over the three months through November. Jobs in goods-producing sectors saw sharp decreases as manufacturing and construction have continued to shed jobs since the summer. Retail trade jobs continued to decline moderately, while wholesale trade fell sharply.

Austin faces another unique state economic problem due to lower state sales tax revenue needed to fund state workers, as compared to the previous biennial state budgets. A 2.9% revenue decline doesn’t sound like a lot until you add in two years of inflation.

A stagnant state budget and decline in tech job creation, too, put a big burden on the tourism sector to maintain the Austin economy. It seems to me that the Hotel Occupancy Tax increase is being primarily driven by hotels that want to expand the Convention Center again. They probably represent more than a billion dollars of local private hotel investments, so they have a lot of skin in the game.

A lot of total current US growth is now happening because of high-technology-related job creation. Depending on high tech job growth is a risky industrial policy because this sector is especially prone to booms and busts, as the 2001 Dotcom bubble showed in the Austin area. There is a lot of national tech job competition involved. Even Nashville is seriously competing with Austin for venture capital startups, a category of speculative asset bubbles that have been stimulated by nearly a decade of the Fed’s near-zero interest rates. Cheap money encourages risk.

Tech growth can often pay high wages, but over time it leads to gentrification and transportation problems. That is because major highways like Austin’s I-35 fill up with traffic comprised of lower-pay service workers trying to commute out to the cheaper suburbs to live affordably. Austin residents could use good rail and bus transit inside the city. More difficult is the fact that providing high-quality transit service is not very compatible with the doubling Austin MSA (metro area) population, and the low-density suburban development being planned by CAMPO.

These problems associated with a booming tech industry are discussed in a Jan. 26th Washington Post article:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/realestate/fast-growing-technology-sector-is-fueling-a-housing-boom-in-cities-across-america/2017/01/26/5c72c276-a5d8-11e6-8042-f4d111c862d1_story.html

As the WaPo article reports,

Silicon Valley isn’t the only place a tech boom is fueling rising home prices. From Nashville to Raleigh, N.C., Austin to Cambridge, Mass., thousands of high-paying technology jobs are lifting home prices and fueling a boom in construction…

Dwindling housing supply and an affordable housing crunch are perhaps the biggest challenges in many markets seeing rising tech growth.

Also relevant is a Jan. 28th article in Austin’s Community Impact paper, which reports that …

… if Adler had it his way, those using public transportation in the future will be heading to new jobs. “Our neighbors, fellow Austinites, need mid-income jobs,” said Adler. “We know who needs the jobs in our community. We know the kinds of jobs that employers most need to fill. Which, by the way are information technology, healthcare and skilled trades.”

Adler’s goal over the next five years will be to move 10,000 Austin residents out of poverty by getting them qualified for jobs in those targeted industries. “If we’re going to focus our efforts at bringing the right jobs to town, we need to do more to make sure people who live here and need these jobs are qualified to take them. That’s where the Community Workforce Master Plan comes in.”

One important thing to focus on now is CAMPO, because they have formal control of the regional state and federal money, and because they had planned extreme suburban sprawl in the CAMPO 2040 Plan, bankrolled by a hypothetical $35 billion in future funds, envisioned for Lone Star Rail, and from other sources.

CAMPO is now doing their new 2045 plan. But our regional growth is slowing, because of side effects of prolonged growth discussed above, led by real estate interests attracted to fast regional growth. The new CAMPO 2045 regional population growth distribution will help reveal the political picture. Lone Star rail was taken out, so how can they handle the numbers of commuters they anticipate from the tech job growth that they anticipate along the I-35 corridor to San Antonio?

It is getting hard to maintain that there will be as much money as CAMPO had claimed last time. I think it is impossible to predict toll road revenues decades in the future, as TxDOT and the CTRMA claim to be able to hire consultants to do. It is likely necessary to use bond money to widen I-35, so they find private consultants with proprietary travel demand models that we are not allowed to see or to question. The public can’t see the CAMPO models, either.

TxDOT is still $23 billion in debt, because Texas politicians haven’t raised the gas tax for a quarter-century, and neither has Congress. Denial has its limits – and that should make this year very interesting. ■

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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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Capital Metro — Back to 1986?

30 November 2016
Ottawa Transitway (BRT) bus congestion in downtown, 2011. Bus congestion has persuaded Ottawa to launch LRT project, now under construction. The possibility of severe bus overcrowding in downtown Austin led Capital Metro board to reject a proposed BRT line in I-35 in favor of LRT in 1989.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example, Mike reports:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Austin — National model for how roads are strangling transit development

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

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

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

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

For Austin, “green” means “green camouflage”

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

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

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

“Extravaganza” of roadway development

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

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

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

CAMPO boosts roads, dumps transit project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go Big” $720 million road bond measure

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Wear elaborates:

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

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

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

It won’t.

Not even close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Austin Council nixes light rail bond — But stay tuned for 2017 or 2018

31 August 2016
Austin City Council votes unanimously for proposed "Go Big" $720 million bond measure on Aug. 11th. Photo: Screen capture from ATXN video.

Austin City Council votes unanimously for proposed “Go Big” $720 million roads-focused bond measure on Aug. 11th. Photo: Screen capture from ATXN video.

Despite intense community support and effort, particularly by transit advocates, on August 11th the Austin City Council ignored pleas to include a nearly $400 million bond item for light rail transit (LRT) on the November 2016 ballot. The administration’s own so-called “mobility” bond proposal, a $720 million package dubbed “Go Big”, without any major transit projects included, was passed unanimously. The package is “five times larger than any transportation bond ever approved in the city” according to an August 18th report by the Austin American-Statesman’s veteran transportation reporter Ben Wear.

The community-proposed transit measure would have provided a local funding share for a 5.3-mile LRT starter line minimum operable system in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (See «Grassroots effort proposes small light rail starter project for an authentic “mobility bond” measure».)

However, the seeming unanimity of the preliminary Aug. 11th vote apparently masked conflicted attitudes and misgivings of several councilmembers, simmering just below the surface. During preliminary discussions on an earlier item dealing with a proposed commission to evaluate and recommend future bond items, Councilmembers Ann Kitchen (District 5) and Delia Garza (District 2) – both transit supporters who sit on the board of Capital Metro (the regional transit agency) – floated the possibility of a rail bond ballot item in 2017 or 2018.

As reported by Caleb Pritchard in the Austin Monitor, in the discussion of the current bond proposal for 2016, District 4 Councilmember Greg Casar raised the possibility of light rail, stating “I recognize that there is some real support for public transit in the $720 million plan currently on the table, but I think that given this presidential election, it would be great to do more.” Mayor Pro Tem (and District 9 Councilmember) Kathie Tovo also tried to open the door for an LRT bond measure, but she was alone in stating she would be favor such an action, “if that was the will of the Council.”

Pritchard’s report continued:

Council members Delia Garza, Pio Renteria and Kitchen, along with Adler, also all voiced support for light rail as a concept. However, each said that the timeline is not compatible with the formal planning needed. Each said they would support a renewed light rail effort in 2018.

As previously noted, the “Go Big” roads-focused bond measure was approved unanimously at the first reading on Aug. 11th. However, a week later, in the final Council vote on August 18th, at least some disagreements came clearly into the open when four councilmembers failed to support the measure – reportedly, an unprecedented fracturing with respect to a bond item, for which council votes have historically been unanimous. As the Statesman’s Ben Wear observed in an Aug. 19th followup story, “Having a split council vote on bond packages is not how these things go historically, and it doesn’t bode well for passage by voters.”

The nonsupportive votes broke down as three abstentions and one opposition. Although the “Go Big” package was primarily a roads measure (designed to “increase throughput” of traffic, according to its proponents), right-leaning pro-highway Councilmembers Don Zimmerman (District 6) and Ellen Troxclair (District 8) – who tend to be disdainful of public transit – abstained because of what they perceived as a lack of transparency with respect to the property tax impact.

District 2 Councilmember Delia Garza – as noted, a transit supporter – also abstained. As she explained, “I have concerns about the bond capacity, the bond fatigue in our community and that there are no direct improvements to public transit.” (Reported by the Austin Business Journal.)

The strongest opposition came from District 1 Councilmember Ora Houston. Houston, who is black, seemed particularly outraged at the lack of more diverse representation in the process of developing projects included in the bond package. “I am dismayed that a $720 million bond that is on the November ballot is a product of the way things have always been done …” she said, as quoted by Ben Wear in the Aug. 18th Statesman. “I feel like I’ve been bullied …” she added.


Councilmember Ora Houston in City Council meeting of Aug. 18th, during which she was only councilmember to vote against proposed "Go Big" bond package. Photo: Screen capture from ATXN video.

Councilmember Ora Houston in City Council meeting of Aug. 18th, during which she was only councilmember to vote against proposed “Go Big” bond package. Photo: Screen capture from ATXN video.


Wear further reported Houston’s view that “the studies that led to the ‘smart corridor’ projects arose from the old citywide-elected council and were heavily influenced by a core of central city activists rather than a more representative sampling of Austinites.” In his Aug. 19th article (previously cited above), Wear elaborated her complaint that “public input” on the content of “mobility bonds” presented to voters had been “the spawn of the bad old days of a council that was beholden to white, central city urbanites who dominated elections, and tended to cater to that clique’s policy desires.”

The roads-focused bond item now slated for the Nov. 8th ballot seems to have the role of an adjunct to TxDOT’s ambitious plans for a mammoth overhaul to I-35. As Roger Baker and Dave Dobbs pointed out on this website this past March in their critique «Why spending $4.7 billion trying to improve I-35 is a waste of money», at best, trying to “solve” congestion with more roadway facilities – thus encouraging more traffic – is a fool’s errand. And TxDOT, with local political allies, facing a daunting $4.7 billion potential cost, has been seeking to get Austin-area taxpayers on board. Particularly through some cost-shifting, the $720 million “Go Big” bond plan seems to have a role in this larger scheme.

Nevertheless, given evidence of nominal support for urban rail by Mayor Steve Adler and a majority of members of Austin’s City Council, advocates of an LRT starter line for Guadalupe-Lamar are looking hopefully to a possible rail bond measure in 2017 or 2018. But this may be a treacherous path, especially since Capital Metro board members/Austin Councilmembers Kitchen and Garza place a lot of stock in the “Central Corridor analysis” Capital Metro has in process. And once again, that “study” is positioned under the rubric of Project Connect – the same consortium of agencies that produced the disastrously flawed Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal resoundingly rejected by voters in November 2014.

Local community activists and transit advocates still have bitter memories of Project Connect’s “high-capacity transit study” process, particularly from the last five months of 2013 (and embellished during the bond vote campaign in 2014) – an exercise in subterfuge with its deeply flawed methodology (designed to justify a preordained agenda) and outrageous sham of “public involvement” (substituting “art galleries” and “clicker” feedback for bona fide meetings and involvement). For background information on that experience, see:

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

City Council to Austin community: Shut Up

In our article titled «Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead», and posted immediately after the 2014 defeat of Project Connect’s plan, Austin Rail Now warned :

This vote also represents not only a rejection of an unacceptable rail transit proposal, but also a protest against the “backroom-dealmaking” modus operandi that has characterized official public policymaking and planning in recent years — a pattern that included shutting community members out of participation in the urban rail planning process, relegating the public to the status of lowly subjects, and treating us all like fools. Leaping immediately into a process of community inclusion and direct involvement is now essential. The community must become re-connected and involved in a meaningful way.

So far, with their latest venture into a “Central Corridor” rail study, there is no evidence that Capital Metro administrators and planners have learned appropriate lessons from the 2013-2014 debacle. As this new study moves forward, community activists and public transport advocates deserve to be extremely wary, and to be prepared to do whatever they can to avoid a replay of that previous experience at all cost. ■

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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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Grassroots effort proposes small light rail starter project for an authentic “mobility bond” measure

11 June 2016
5.3-mile Minimum Operable Segment light rail line proposed by CACDC. Graphic: Screenshot from CACDC map.

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

An Austin “mobility” bond package without a single major transit project? That’s the current plan from the office of Austin Mayor Steve Adler – a $720 million bond bundle overwhelmingly (about 83%) concentrated on roadway projects, with a smattering of “alternative mobility” pedestrian and bicycle projects, and virtually no significant public transport improvements.

The current official bond package stands in stark contradiction to the decades of official “green” rhetoric verbally embracing public transportation and “high-capacity transit” as key components of the “alternative mobility” measures necessary to “keep Austin moving” – rhetoric also enshrined in major policy initiatives of recent decades such as Envision Central Texas and Imagine Austin. The “mobility” bond package also comes in contrast to a recent resurgence of competent studies and reports suggesting that continuing to emphasize further roadway development – because of effects such as encouraging suburban sprawl, creating further dependency on private car travel, and inducing even more traffic – is a losing game.

An affordable light rail starter line

In response, an outcry has arisen throughout the Austin community, calling for some major public transport elements to be included in the “mobility” bond measure. By far the most substantial alternative approach to the official roadwork-heavy bond offering is a proposal crafted by Scott Morris and Andrew Clements of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), a small nonprofit organization. Supported by a group of other community leaders, the proposal suggests that a light rail transit (LRT) Minimum Operable Segment (MOS) would be feasible, stretching 5.3 miles from Crestview (North Lamar at Airport Blvd.) south to Republic Square (West 4th St.) in downtown Austin (see maps above and further below). CACDC estimates daily ridership of 37,400 for the MOS.

The MOS is actually a subset of previous plans for the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor, such as Capital Metro’s 1994 plan, the agency’s 2000 plan, a 2013 proposal from Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT), an earlier, more extensive CACDC plan for the G-L corridor, and the 2014 “Plan B” proposal from Austin Rail Now (ARN).

In addition to previous design work by Capital Metro consultants from 1994, 2000, and the early 2000s, ARN has also suggested another design option for inserting LRT infrastructure into the corridor. See: «San Francisco’s N-Judah Muni Metro line shows design option for light rail in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor».


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 view of a possible design for LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: ARN.


CACDC’s capital investment cost estimate for the proposed MOS – $397.5 million – is based on an average of costs from 15 rail projects (LRT plus one diesel-powered light railway), as compiled by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and reviewed and analyzed by Andrew Clements. This renders an average of $68.3 million per mile (2016 dollars). Especially in light of past studies of LRT in the G-L corridor, as well as recent projects nationwide, the methodology certainly provides a competent and plausible basis for a “system-level” order-of-magnitude estimate suitable for presentation to voters and justification for further, more detailed planning.

CACDC is proposing that its year-2016 cost estimate ($397.5 million) be offered to voters in full as a ballot measure this coming November. CACDC believes the MOS project could be implemented via local funding and without assistance from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

A more methodologically conservative estimate of investment cost for the same proposed MOS by the Light Rail Now Project of Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT) accepts CACDC’s cost estimate but adds a higher allowance for contingency. As explained by Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant and technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project (and also a contributing editor to this website), there is a substantial component of “unknown” in most major rail transit projects. Therefore, best standard practice for capital investment cost estimates is to apply a contingency allowance (for surface LRT projects) averaging at least 25-30% of the total of all other costs – in effect, as a kind of “insurance”. Curiously, a cost estimate of “about $465 Million” reported in a May 12th KEYE-TV News segment covering the CACDC proposal, including an interview with Clements, appeared to incorporate such a contingency, amounting to about 28% added to the cost-per-mile average that Clements found from his analysis of FTA project data.

However, the actual project funding intended in a bond measure must also allow for the effects of inflation as the project proceeds. Thus standard practice is to escalate the given current-year investment cost estimate into YOE (year of expenditure) dollars. Otherwise project proponents, designers, and managers will either (a) be caught short or (b) need to go to voters again for enough money (or scrummage for some other source) to actually complete the project. The TAPT estimate assumes a 2.5% adjustment rate over a project span of four years.

In TAPT’s assessment, seeking FTA assistance (and thus collaboration and oversight) is important, particularly since TxDOT lacks a strong rail oversight program. The dangers of disdaining federal collaboration already became clear in some of the most serious missteps of Capital Metro’s MetroRail implementation, resulting in a significantly delayed opening, jeopardizing public support, and leading to expensive operational constraints and unexpected requirements, continuing to this day. FTA participation would also imply 50-50 sharing of the capital investment cost, significantly alleviating the funding burden borne by Austin taxpayers. Also, a design concept to implement a cross-platform transfer between LRT and MetroRail (under the aegis of the Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA) would invoke FRA involvement.

Based on all these factors, the TAPT capital investment cost estimate, with 28% contingency and YOE escalation at 2.5% per annum, totals about $520 million for this 5.3-mile MOS starter line. In TAPT’s FTA-funded scenario, a mobility bond measure of $260 million would be sufficient to provide a local 50% match for funding the project.


Wider-view map showing 5.3-mile LRT MOS route strategically serving busy local Guadalupe-Lamar corridor between Loop 1 (MoPac) and I-35. Graphic: ARN.

Wider-view map, in context of central-city Austin, showing 5.3-mile LRT MOS route strategically serving busy local Guadalupe-Lamar corridor between Loop 1 (MoPac) and I-35. Graphic: ARN.


Significant benefits

Assuming a 14-mph average speed for the 5.3-mile starter line, Henry calculates a 23-minute Crestview-to-Republic Square running time. This compares with 26-28 minutes by Capital Metro’s MetroRapid Route 801 “rapid transit” bus service. (And while MetroRapid buses often skip some stops because no passengers are waiting there, LRT trains make every stop and actually board passengers at each station because of the greater attractiveness of rail service.)

That differential may seem small, but, compared with buses, LRT brings additional advantages. Passengers have a greater sense of service reliability and safety, and greater orientation to where routes go and where stations are located. There’s a much greater sense of permanence. LRT railcars are more spacious, easier to board and deboard, and more comfortable to ride. Attributes like these combine to attract substantially higher ridership.

Based on past ridership estimates for this corridor, including a 2000 New Starts profile study approved by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Henry estimates a daily ridership of 30,000 for this MOS (within two years of opening). From the new rider data in the FTA study, Henry extrapolates that approximately 13,800 of these rider-trips would be new to transit in the corridor. By assuming that all these new rider-trips would otherwise be made by motor vehicle, this means that about 12,600 daily vehicle trips would be eliminated from these arterials (in addition to those already diverted to public transit). During peak travel periods, nearly 5,000 private vehicle trips would be eliminated, as former motorists would be attracted to the proposed new light rail service.

This also implies the elimination of approximately 1,300 peak vehicle trips per hour in the corridor — roughly equivalent to two arterial lanes of capacity. In other words, this LRT starter line would add the equivalent of two lanes of extra peak capacity to this corridor in each direction. As Henry pointed out in an E-mail memo to City Councilmembers (emphasis added),

The road-focused $720 million “mobility” bond package currently under consideration tries to address congestion and safety by increasing “throughput” of vehicles. Unfortunately, experience and a vast body of evidence suggest that this is a losing approach — trying to tweak more capacity to squeeze more traffic typically merely induces more traffic. Furthermore, this influx of ever-growing vehicle traffic simply imposes more stress on congested areas such as Austin’s core.

In contrast, our LRT proposal (and future expansions of LRT throughout Austin) removes traffic from roadways by attracting both drivers and passengers to the transit service

I would suggest that our approach — providing highly attractive rail transit service on its own dedicated tracks — makes far more sense and is far more sustainable as a long-term solution for alleviating mobility congestion, than those elements in the current official proposal that simply attempt to squeeze more traffic onto the city’s crowded streets, roads, and parking spaces.


Proposed citywide urban rail system. Map: Andrew Mayer.

Proposed MOS LRT starter line could serve as anchoring backbone for expansion into LRT network throughout metro area. Map: Andrew Mayer.


And those capacity projections are merely predicated on the initial base estimate of 30,000 daily ridership. The actual potential capacity of the line’s infrastructure, with additional railcars and minor upgrades (e.g., increased power supply), could be raised to 9,000 peak-period rider-trips per hour, corresponding to daily ridership of about 90,000. That’s ultimately equivalent to approximately ten freeway lanes (five per direction).

These capacity benefits are joined by an array of other benefits with LRT, such as:

• Reduction in unit cost of public transport operations compared with bus-only services

• Safer, more accessible neighborhoods

• Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and other motor vehicle pollutants

• Reduction in demand for parking spaces in areas served by LRT

• Safer, more reliable, lower-cost mobility for the public

• More accessible and more affordable public transportation to reinforce affordable housing policies

An authentic mobility bond measure

Over the past several decades, Austin has acquired notoriety for endless agonizing, hesitation, confusion, and indecision over urban rail. Dozens of “studies, re-studies, and re-studies of the re-studies” (in the words of Lyndon Henry) have been executed for LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, with no outcome other than further indecision. Now, in the face of excruciating congestion, and a mounting toll of bloody and fatal accidents, the prospect of a “mobility” bond package is on the table. CACDC’s proposal for a 5.3-mile Minimum Operable Segment (MOS) provides an opening path toward some truly realistic solutions.

A powerful case can be made that a substantial bond commitment for LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor can be inserted into the $720 million official “mobility package”. This can be accomplished by reducing some of the proposed roadway expenditures and substituting rail bonding.

The City Council has before it at least two alternative urban rail bond options, either of which can make urban rail actually happen. Each of these represents an alternative way of funding the same basic project:

• CACDC bond proposal — $397.5 million: this would provide (in our assessment) about three-fourths funding (and potential local match, with FTA assistance) of the proposed MOS starter line

• TAPT bond proposal — $260 million: this would provide 50% local match for the MOS starter line with 50% FTA assistance

Currently, $720 million is on the table — it’s now a question of “what’s in the package for that amount of money?” Ensuring that urban rail is included would bring authenticity of bona fide “mobility” to such a mobility bond package. ■

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Support grows to include urban rail in November “mobility” bond package

28 May 2016
J.D. Gins, member of Urban Transportation Commission, at May 10th meeting, argues for recommendation to Austin City Council to include rail transit in November bond package. ARN screenshot from COA video.

J.D. Gins, member of Urban Transportation Commission, at May 10th meeting, argues for recommendation to Austin City Council to include rail transit in November bond package. ARN screenshot from COA video.

On May 7th, Austin voters resoundingly defeated Proposition 1, an effort by “gig” taxi firms Uber and Lyft to exempt themselves from several regulatory measures applying to other taxi services operating in Austin. In response, Uber and Lyft have both suspended their operations in Austin.

An interesting result is that interest has surged in the possibility of an urban rail alternative – mainly focused on an electric light rail transit (LRT) starter line for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor – being added to a proposed package of “mobility” bond measures this coming November. In a May 12th news segment, for example, KXAN-TV News reporter Chris Sadeghi noted that “As Uber and Lyft leave the conversation on mobility options in Austin, it could provide urban rail the opportunity to re-enter it.”

At its regular meeting of May 10th, the City of Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission (UTC) unanimously passed a resolution presented by board member J.D. Gins (see photo at top of this post) recommending that “the City Council consider rail options including, but not limited to, a minimum operating segment as part of the 2016 bond proposal.” Reporting on this development, KXAN reporter Sadeghi interviewed UTC member Mario Champion. As Sadeghi related, “Because there have been studies and plans already conducted into the feasibility and design of rail projects, Champion said the commission is hopeful the process to getting an election item on the November ballot can move quickly.”

“We could dust off those plans and learn from the community what was good about them and what was not good about them” Champion told the reporter.


Resolution passed by Urban Transportation Commission recommends City Council consider including rail transit in November bond package. Screenshot by ARN from COA PDF.

Resolution passed by Urban Transportation Commission recommends City Council consider including rail transit in November bond package. Screenshot by ARN from COA PDF. (Click to enlarge.)


Also covering the UTC recommendation for putting rail on the ballot, KEYE-TV News reporter Melanie Torre interviewed Andrew Clements with the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC). “Clements has been pushing for an urban light rail for years, but where the rail goes is critical to its success” reported Torre. Clements and the CACDC had played a key role in providing information on urban LRT for UTC members.

“All along North Lamar and Guadalupe there’s already density that would support light rail” Clements told Torre, adding “We’ve known since probably the 1970s that’s the best place to put light urban rail first.” Torre explained that “Years down the road, rail construction could expand north toward Rundberg Lane, east down Riverside Drive and south down Pleasant Valley Road.”

According to the KEYE report, CACDC is proposing a first segment that would “span from Crestview Station to Republic Square Park in downtown” at an estimated cost of about $465 million (2016 dollars). (The CACDC route replicates nearly 80% of the “Plan B” proposal described in an October 2014 ARN posting.)

“Even though it’s expensive, the most efficient way is what we need to start dedicating our public right-of-ways to …” Clements insisted. It should be noted, however, that this is a bargain price for such a mobility investment, which could potentially remove as many as 2,700 motor vehicles each peak hour from major arteries in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

The $465 million investment cost also appears eminently affordable, if 50% Federal Transit Administration funding is assumed. Converting CACDC’s 2016 estimate to Year of Expenditure (YOE) dollars would imply a total project investment of $514 million over four years, and a local 50% match of $257 million – a budgetary allotment for Austin commensurate with other major capital investments in recent years.

A May 16th Austin Monitor article by Caleb Pritchard focused on the UTC vote and also put the urban rail possibility in the context of greater emphasis on alternative mobility opportunities, including expanded bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Pritchard notes that a funding package that would include the 2014 Bicycle Master Plan “as well as the construction of high-priority sidewalks around schools and transit stops” was already on the table in the amount of $411 million.

Miller Nuttle, representing Bike Austin, told the Monitor reporter: “I think rail should be a critical part of solving Austin’s long-term transportation crisis. I also think biking and walking are critical, too, and that’s something we can do now given that the plans have been thoroughly publicly vetted. All they need in order to be actualized is capital funding.”

Pritchard also quoted Clements in regard to the merits of CACDC’s $465 million proposal. “Of all the things that are being considered, I think light urban rail will have the most impact on mobility…” Clements stated. “I strongly support the bike master plan and the sidewalk plan, but I think that, at best, those are going to have single-digit impacts on ride-share mode splits. And I believe light urban rail will have the biggest bang for the buck.”

On May 17th, the City’s Zoning and Platting Commission included the UTC’s resolution “calling for funding the bicycle master plan, high priority sidewalks, and corridor plans that increase opportunities for high capacity transit, including the consideration of rail” in citing their basis to approve a resolution “calling on the city council to put a transportation bond proposal on the upcoming November ballot ….” according to a report from Fox 7 TV News.

Dick Kallerman, a longtime leader of the Travis County Sierra Club’s involvement in transportation issues, interviewed by Fox 7 News, suggested that “a better outreach campaign” might help convince more of the public to “get on board” with public transportation .

“If people start thinking in turns of urban, urban living, mass transit it part of it …” said Kallerman. ” If you get in a car it’s a contradiction, if you think you are an urbanite living in a city and you get in a car, it means you really don’t know what urban living is all about.” ■

Proposed LRT alignment in narrow segment of Guadalupe between 29th-38th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

One possible design for inserting light rail line into Guadalupe St. between W. 29th-W. 38th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)