Posts Tagged ‘Austin Texas’

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Project Connect’s urban rail forecasting methodology — Inflating ridership with “fudge factor”?

20 June 2014
Graphic: Watts Up With That blog

Graphic: Watts Up With That blog

By Susan Pantell

Recently Project Connect posted a Technical Memorandum dated 13 June 2014 from Alliance Transportation Group discussing what it describes as “Central Corridor Initial LPA Transit Ridership Forecasting Methodology and Summary Ridership Forecasts”. In this posting, researcher Susan Pantell provides a critical analysis of this memo.
Screenshot of page 1 of Alliance Transportation Group's Technical Memorandum on Project Connect's ridership forecasting methodology.

Screenshot of page 1 of Alliance Transportation Group’s Technical Memorandum on Project Connect’s ridership forecasting methodology.

This memo does not really provide data on their methodology since the model is secret. Beyond that, their documentation is largely hand-waving.

1. Most importantly, they did analysis only for 2030. FTA now requires current year ridership analysis. “Current year” is the most recent year for which data on the existing system and demographic data are available. An applicant may choose to also evaluate a 10-year or 20-year horizon, and, in that case, the current-year and future-year estimates will each count 50%. Current year ridership would be a lot lower because there is not the development around Highland or the eastern side of UT, but they did not do it.

2. They estimate 15,580 daily trips using the model, which they round up to 16,000. Then they say that on game or event days, ridership could be 20,000 or higher. So they conclude “the project team believes that the median value of 18,000 is a reasonable preliminary estimate of 2030 ridership.” At the end of the memo they explain that this is not based on their calculations, but on their assumption of a 10-15% increase in ridership based on future development (18,000 is a 15% increase).

Lyndon Henry says that is a reasonable assumption, and it may be, but it is not based on data or adequately documented in this memo. They don’t say how many days they predict ridership will be 20,000 or over. There are a lot of events in Austin, but not a lot with high ridership — only 8-9 game days for football and about 10 days for SXSW. If I assume 40 days with 21,000 ridership and 15,600 on the other days, the average comes to 16,300.

They are also accounting for the special event days by adding 25 to the annualization factor of 300 that FTA uses. In addition, they add 103,000 to the annual ridership figure to account for special events.

3. Note that they estimate that total trips for the Capital Metro system will increase by 10,700 in 2030, which is lower than the ridership estimate above because bus ridership will be reduced along the route. Based on that figure, bus ridership will go down by almost 5,000 trips.

4. “Transit fares were set at the equivalent Capital Metro fares for premium transit modes discounted to 2005 model base year dollars.”

Why are they estimating 2030 ridership based on 2005 fares? Because ridership is higher with lower fares. They are assuming $1.50 fare. Using an online calculator, $1.50 is $2.78 in 2030 dollars for a 2.5% inflation rate. (For 2020 it would be $2.02 – $2.34.) That’s assuming they don’t raise the rates beyond the inflation rate.

I calculated the ridership based on a 2030 fare of $2.78 and assuming a 0.4% decrease in transit ridership for every 1% fare increase [TCRP, Report 95, Transit Pricing and Fares, 2004, Chapter 12, p. 12-6. TCRP RRD #61, Traveler Response to Transportation System Changes, 2003, p.19]. I come up with a 2030 ridership of 12,300, as compared with their 15,580. If you add their 15% fudge factor, it comes out to 14,000. If you decrease the base ridership of 12,300 by the same percentage as they do to come up with the total system trips, it comes to 8,500 new trips for the system.

Is that worth $1.4 billion?

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Austin Business Journal guru slams Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal as “a very small plan benefiting a limited group of people”

6 June 2014
Because design and implementation dollars have been invested wisely, Denver’s light rail system increasingly resembles a network that’s expanding to serve more crucial corridors in the region. High ridership has also attracted transit oriented development (TOD) near stations, helping influence urban growth patterns. Map: RTD.

Because design and implementation dollars have been invested wisely, Denver’s light rail system increasingly resembles a network that’s expanding to serve more crucial corridors in the region. High ridership has also attracted transit oriented development (TOD) near stations, helping influence urban growth patterns. Map: RTD.

For the most part, Austin’s business and civic elite seem to have closed ranks around Mayor Lee Leffiingwell (“The Lee Team”) and his administration’s efforts to promote a very pricey 9.5-mile, $1.4-billion urban rail project widely suspected to be concocted more as a giveaway to the development ambitions of the University of Texas and a faction of private developers, and less as a remedy for alleviating Austin’s most serious mobility deficits. Included in this “business and civic elite” is virtually the entirety of the local media establishment.

Jan Buchholz. Photo: Austin Business Journal.

Jan Buchholz. Photo: Austin Business Journal.

But occasionally there are fractures in this ostensibly solid consensus, and one of these is represented by Jan Buchholz, an Austin Business Journal staff writer who seems to have the professional role of a de facto guru specializing in real estate market happenings. In a May 7th column, comparing urban development and transportation in Denver and Austin, she seems very favorably impressed with Denver, a model from which Austin, in her estimation, falls far short.

“Rejuvenated neighborhoods are cropping up across Denver and development is being defined in many instances by the evolution of public transit” she writes. But unfortunately, “This dynamic does not exist in Austin to any great degree, and there’s little evidence that transit will play a significant role here any time soon.”

The reason? Mainly that Project Connect’s urban rail plan is pretty crummy:

The latest rail plan rolled out … is a $1.4 billion project that will run from Highland Mall to East Riverside Drive. Already, folks are decrying its high cost, but I don’t think it’s the cost that’s the real issue. It’s the fact that it’s a very small plan benefiting a limited group of people. That makes this price tag hard to swallow.

One of Buchholz’s gripes is that the proposal, which runs a short way southeast, ends way short of the region’s ABIA airport. And while local politicians are talking about “sweetening” the urban rail ballot measure with some dollops of highway projects, Buchholz doesn’t feel the highway capacity element is enough. (For the record, Austin Rail Now believes the Austin area’s emphasis on highway expansion is excessive, and should be ended.)

In regard to Denver’s urban rail development, Buchholz admires how the Mile-High City has prudently and energetically installed and expanded its system:

During the past 20 years, the Denver Regional Council of Governments — with support from a wide spectrum of stakeholders from government officials to businesses and residents — has embraced a huge vision for transportation improvements across the five-county metro area. It was never an easy sell, but for the most part taxpayers have supported the expensive, time-consuming and often inconvenient plan.

… The light rail is fully built out to the south, southeast and western suburbs. Construction is in progress for the light-rail line from downtown Denver to Denver International Airport, and another line will be built to the northwest suburbs.

Rejuvenated neighborhoods are cropping up across Denver and development is being defined in many instances by the evolution of public transit.

This dynamic does not exist in Austin to any great degree, and there’s little evidence that transit will play a significant role here any time soon.

What’s critical to understand is that, from the start, Denver planners and political honchos realized that resources were scarce and that the region’s first light rail transit (LRT) — i.e., urban rail — starter line had to be located where it would get the proverbial “best bang for the buck”. And they also realized that, to influence developers’ decisions and encourage transit-oriented development (TOD), rail lines would need to be routed to maximize ridership.

Yes, most rail stations often do attract some adjacent development. But it’s the potential volume of ridership — i.e. the traffic on the line — that carries the most influence on private developers’ decisions. The more people, the more residents and customers at your development, which in turn becomes more attractive in the real estate market.

Opening day of Denver's West Line light rail extension to Golden, Colorado, April 2013. Photo: David Warner.

Opening day of Denver’s West Line light rail extension to Golden, Colorado, April 2013. Photo: David Warner.

Key to urban rail expansion is conserving financial resources and deploying them wisely. Relatively lower outlays in the initial installation and operation of a new system means more funding available for expansion. So Denver started with a minimalist, 5.3-mile route from a northeastern neighborhood, proceeding down a busy corridor, via both street-running and a railway alignment, through a major commercial district, into the CBD, including a multi-institution university complex.

In 1994, they did that for $115 million. In 2014 dollars, about $37 million a mile. Compare that with Project Connect’s extravagant plan, including a tunnel and below-ground station, plus a “signature” bridge, at $119 million a mile. And Project Connect’s plan doesn’t even serve a major travel corridor!

Partly because they’d conserved financial resources, and partly because of the “big bang for the buck” effect that galvanized popular support, Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) was able to embark on the vigorous urban rail expansion and TOD development program that so impresses Jan Buchholz. As a result, Denver’s light rail ridership mushroomed from 15,000 in 1994 to 86,900 a day by the end of 2013 — a nearly five-fold increase.

But Denver’s approach to urban rail has been virtually the polar opposite of Austin’s. Project Connect’s extravagantly wasteful billion-dollar starter line, with its peculiar, head-scratching route structure and high-dollar infrastructure, has divided potential urban rail supporters, pitting pro-rail community members and neighborhoods against one another in a way the pro-highway, anti-transit Road Warriors never could.

And the results are apparent in potential ridership. An alternative route for urban rail, long proposed for the heavily traveled, busy, dense Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, serving the high-density West Campus of the University of Texas, has been forecast to attract six times as much ridership as Project Connect’s meandering, peripheral line — at about 20% lower capital cost.

The prospects for voter approval of municipal bonds to finance Project Connect’s project are not sanguine. As Buchholz points out,

No one wants to be nickel and dimed to death for a mediocre and limited public transit system. Add to that the public perception that the MetroRail from Leander to downtown has been only marginally effective and has been fraught with issues from the get-go. Combine those two factors and this latest plan doesn’t have a chance for ever leaving the station.

If Austin has any hope of matching urban development and public transport successes like Denver’s it needs to start with an affordable urban rail starter line that makes sense. This notion seems to have “Lamar-Guadalupe-West Campus” written all over it.

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Project Connect’s wasteful plan — Ultra-pricey urban rail “decoration” in the wrong route

17 May 2014
Lyndon Henry speaking to Central Corridor Advisory Group, 16 May 2014. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

Lyndon Henry speaking to Central Corridor Advisory Group, 16 May 2014. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to Project Connect’s Central Corridor Advisory Group on 16 May 2014. At the meeting, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey revealed the agency’s estimates and proposals regarding operating & maintenance costs, property valuation and tax revenue increases, funding, phasing issues, and “governance” (oversight and administration) the proposed 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion line connecting East Riverside (southeast) with the old Highland Mall site (north), currently under development as a new Austin Community College campus.

For months, Project Connect and Austin civic leaders have been considering subways, elevated lines, and other extravagant investments way out of scale for an urban rail starter line in a city of Austin’s size and density. The result is a $1.4 billion plan for urban rail linking a weak corridor, East Riverside, with a non-existent corridor, so-called “Highland”.

Meanwhile, Project Connect and the city’s leadership appear to have virtually abandoned the core neighborhoods, and heaviest local travel corridor, in the central city – Guadalupe-Lamar, where urban rail is desperately needed. The problem isn’t $1.4 billion for urban rail, it’s investing this money on what amounts to a very pricey decoration instead of addressing congestion with essential mobility.

At $119 million per mile in current dollars, Project Connect’s urban rail plan for Austin would be the third most costly light rail starter line in U.S. history, in terms of cost per mile. Compared with the previous Guadalupe-Lamar light rail project, planned until 2003, Project Connect’s plan costs 29% more than what that project would cost today, yet provides 35% less route length, and 47% fewer riders.

LEFT: Capital Metro 2000 urban rail plan included initial minimum operable segment (MOS) running 14.6 miles down Capital Metro railway, Lamar, and Guadalupe to CBD, plus 5.4 miles of extension down South Congress to Ben White and branch into East Austin. Total 20.0 miles surface route (with adaptation of existing river bridge) would cost $1.2 million in current dollars ($60 million/mile). RIGHT: Project Connect plan proposes a 9.5-mile route from East Riverside, crossing river on new "signature" bridge, proceeding through east side of CBD, East Campus, along Dean Keaton and Red River to Hancock Center, then into open cut and tunnel, then along Airport Blvd. into Highland site.  Total cost: $1.1 billion ($119 million/mile) in current dollars.

LEFT: Capital Metro 2000 urban rail plan included initial minimum operable segment (MOS) running 14.6 miles down Capital Metro railway, Lamar, and Guadalupe to CBD, plus 5.4 miles of extension down South Congress to Ben White and branch into East Austin. Total 20.0 miles of surface route (with adaptation of existing river bridge) would cost $1.2 million in current dollars ($60 million/mile). RIGHT: Project Connect plan proposes a 9.5-mile route from East Riverside, crossing river on new “signature” bridge, proceeding through east side of CBD, East Campus, along Dean Keaton and Red River to Hancock Center, then into open cut and tunnel, then along Airport Blvd. into Highland site. Total cost: $1.1 billion ($119 million/mile) in current dollars.

Stretching over 14 miles from McNeil along what’s now the MetroRail corridor, then down Lamar and Guadalupe to the CBD, that original starter line in today’s dollars would cost roughly $878 million, or about $60 million per mile, for 54% more miles of route. Ridership for 2025 was projected at 37,400 per day – 87% higher than the “high” 20,000 for Project Connect’s plan.

The next phase involved expanding into a larger 20-mile urban rail system for roughly $320 million more in today’s dollars, also amounting to about $60 million per mile. But that’s through the heart of central and south Austin, with over twice as much rail as Project Connect’s plan. By serving Austin’s highest-traffic, most populated, densest inner-city corridors, ridership was projected at 51,000 a day.

Project Connect and Austin’s leadership seem to have abandoned all thought of cost-effectiveness and seeking the best value for spending taxpayers’ money. Now they’re playing a game of magic tricks with operating-maintenance costs and dreams of a bonanza of real estate valuation increases.

But many Austin voters realize that lower ridership means higher operating subsidies from taxpayers. And while a tax rate increase is real, projections of future tax revenues are just projections — in other words, hopes and dreams.

Judging from Project Connect’s flawed, fairytale projections from last fall’s study process, Austin voters should view these hopes and dreams with strong skepticism.

Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant, is a technical consultant for the Light Rail Now Project, and a former board member and data analyst for Capital Metro. He also writes an online column for Railway Age magazine.
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Project Connect’s Austin urban rail would be 3rd-most-pricey LRT starter line in U.S. history

8 May 2014

0_ARN_money-flying-away

Project Connect’s urban rail plan for Austin, if implemented, at $119 million per mile in current dollars, would be the third most costly light rail transit (LRT) starter line in U.S. history, in terms of cost per mile.

That’s a conclusion Austin Rail Now draws from results emerging from a recent study posted on the Light Rail Now blog, plus other available data. The LRN study, reported in an article titled New U.S. light rail transit starter systems — Comparative total costs per mile, researched the cost per mile of a dozen new “heavy-duty” (as opposed to streetcar-type) LRT starter lines installed since 1990. In 2014 dollars, these range in investment cost from $26.8 million per mile (Baltimore, opened 1992) to $185.6 million per mile (Seattle, opened 2009).

Project Connect’s urban rail proposal

Project Connect revealed their proposal for urban rail (see map below) at a meeting of the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) on May 2nd. The 9.5-mile project comes with a pricetag of $1.13 billion in current dollars, escalating to $1.38 billion in Year of Expenditure (YOE) dollars by 2020, for a projected ridership in the range of 16,000-20,000 per day.

Project Connect's proposed line, criticized for avoiding Austin's central axis and most serious mobility needs, would run 9.5 miles from the Highland site (north) to a terminus on East Riverside (southeast). Map: Project Connect.

Project Connect’s proposed line, criticized for avoiding Austin’s central axis and most serious mobility needs, would run 9.5 miles from the Highland site (north) to a terminus on East Riverside (southeast). Map: Project Connect.

The proposal invites comparison with the plan for light rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor (see Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route). When compared, Project Connect’s $1.4 billion plan can be seen to cost 29% more than the previous Guadalupe-Lamar line would cost today, yet provide 35% less route length, and 47% fewer riders.

To finance such a plan through general obligation bonds, according to an April 29th Austin American Statesman report, Austin homeowners would face a substantial increase in property tax, estimated to range between $77 to $153 per year for a “typical” $200,000 home. That estimate was based on financing a $965 million project, about 85% of the actual size of the project now on the table.

Even if the Federal Transit Administration agrees to fund half the project cost, city officials and civic leaders are considering “bundling” the rail proposal with several hundred million dollars for additional road projects. The result could be a substantial 67% increase in Austin’s debt load per capita.

Urban rail cost comparison

At the May 2nd CCAG meeting, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey assured his audience that the investment cost of the 9.5-mile proposal was quite comparable with recent similar projects, particularly in cost per mile, with the chart shown below as evidence:

3_ARN_ProCon_LRT-cost-comparison

However, there’s a serious problem with this comparison — it compares the proposed starter line for Austin with extensions of these several well-established LRT systems, each of them contending with the much more difficult urban and terrain conditions that are typically avoided and deferred in the process of selecting routes for original starter systems. A far more valid cost comparison would evaluate the cost of starter system projects, thus offering better “apples-to-apples” cost equivalence.

That’s because, in designing a starter line — the first line of a brand-new system for a city — the usual practice is to maximize ridership while minimizing costs through avoiding more difficult design and construction challenges, often deferring these other corridors for later extensions. In this way, the new system can demonstrate sufficient ridership and other measures of performance sufficient to convince both local officials and the public that it’s a success from the standpoint of being a worthwhile investment. Thus, comparing the cost of Project Connect’s 9.5-mile project with that of similar U.S. starter lines enables a better evaluation of the Project Connect project in terms of transit industry Best Practices.

Placing the per-mile cost of Project Connect’s proposed line in the cost listing from the recent LRN study affords such a comparison, as shown in the chart below (click to enlarge).

4_ARN_Chart_US-LRT-starter-lines-cost-per-mi_rev2

It’s evident from this comparison that Project Connect’s proposed project for Austin would rank as the second most costly U.S. starter line, in cost per mile, since 1990.

But several of these starter lines benefited from the less challenging, lower-cost advantage of being installed in existing railway rights-of-way. Project Connect’s 9.5-mile line would use predominantly paved trackage embedded in existing streets and arterials. Of the new systems tabulated since 1990, only Houston and Phoenix feature comparable in-street alignments.

To evaluate cost in terms of type of type of alignment, Austin Rail Now has compared Project Connect’s proposed line with these other two systems. The results are displayed in the chart below (click to enlarge).

5_ARN_Chart_US-LRT-starter-lines-in-street-cost-per-mi

It’s clear that Project Connect’s proposed line is significantly more expensive, in cost per mile, than either of these similarly constructed in-street starter lines in considerably larger urban areas than Austin.

Finally, how would Project Connect’s urban rail plan rank among all U.S. LRT starter lines for totally new systems in the modern rail transit era? By far, the most expensive LRT project has been Buffalo’s 6.4-mile Metrorail line, constructed 81% in subway and opened in 1985. Based on a cost analysis prepared by Alan Hoback for the 2008 Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board, the cost of Buffalo’s starter line can be calculated as $228.9 million per mile in 2014 dollars.

Thus, Project Connect’s proposed line, in cost per mile among modern systems, would rank as the third most expensive light rail transit starter line in U.S. history. ■

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Project Connect’s urban rail plan “costs way too much to do too little”

3 May 2014
Map of Project Connect's urban rail proposal, as shown by KEYE-TV. Despite blurry image quality, the convoluted, meandering character of the route, well to the east of central Austin and its core axis, can be seen. Screenshot: L. Henry.

Map of Project Connect’s urban rail proposal, as shown by KEYE-TV. Despite blurry image quality, the convoluted, meandering character of the route, well to the east of central Austin and its core axis, can be seen. Screenshot: L. Henry.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to Project Connect’s Central Corridor Advisory Group on 2 May 2014. At the meeting, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey revealed the agency’s proposal for a 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion line connecting East Riverside (southeast) with the old Highland Mall site (north).

I’m Lyndon Henry. I’m a transportation planning consultant, and am considered among the strongest rail transit advocates in Austin. Since I originally launched the notion of urban rail for this region over four decades ago, I’ve consistently made the case for urban rail as a crucial mobility alternative for Austin’s heaviest traffic, plus other benefits such as better urban development patterns.

Urban rail’s primary focus is mobility, to provide some relief for congestion – not to just enhance the value of real estate development or be a decoration for other public projects. Unfortunately, Austin’s political and civic leadership have lost this essential focus, and the result is Project Connect’s seriously misguided plan. Austin voters should reject it.

Austin voters are being asked to authorize a billion-dollar investment for this convoluted adornment for real estate interests and proposed developments — a line that bypasses the heart of the city and slowly meanders nine miles, from the East Riverside “Apartment City” area, through the backwater East Campus, up to Hancock, then through a tunnel and into the old Highland site. How many Austinites are traveling such a route? Installing a second rail line parallel to MetroRail along Airport Blvd. just squanders more money.

Furthermore, a vote for Project Connect’s plan is very likely a vote to lock out any hope of rail on Guadalupe-Lamar — our heaviest travel corridor — and lock in the MetroRapid bus replacement — so-called “BRT”. Project Connect has hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of dedicated bus lanes and other infrastructure planned for this corridor that would block rail, possibly for decades.

By depleting available financial resources on tunnels and other lavishly expensive construction, this wasteful urban rail plan limits the more effective expansion of rail regionally. Tunnels and subway stations are options way out of scale for an urban rail starter line for Austin or virtually any city this size.

Voter rejection of this plan is the better option, because it opens the possibility for a return to planning a basic north-south rail spine along the central Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Project Connect’s plan costs way too much to do too little, and Austin deserves better. Voters can opt for a better plan by saying No on November 4th.

Kyle Keahey, Project Connect's Urban Rail Lead (bottom row, center) during presentation to CCAG. Top row, facing, left to right: CCAG leading members Bill Spelman (Austin City Council), John Langmore (Capital Metro), Maypor Lee Leffingwell, Sid Covington (Lone Star Rail). Photo: L. Henry.

Kyle Keahey, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead (bottom row, center) during presentation to CCAG. Top row, facing, left to right: CCAG leading members Bill Spelman (Austin City Council), John Langmore (Capital Metro), Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Sid Covington (Lone Star Rail). Photo: L. Henry.

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Austin urban rail: Unfortunate revelations from Project Connect’s April 12th “workshop”

14 April 2014
At April 12th "public workshop", attendees watch presentation from Project Connect Urban rail Lead Kyle Keahey. Photo: L. Henry.

At April 12th “public workshop”, attendees watch presentation from Project Connect Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey. Photo: L. Henry.

By Lyndon Henry

On Saturday, April 12th, Project Connect held an event they described as a “Central Corridor Public Workshop” at a location on East Riverside Drive. The notice for the event stated that Project Connect team members would be available “to provide an overview of the issues under study, gather input on maps and final alternatives and answer questions. Input gathered from the workshop will help develop potential transit projects for further study.”

Prior to the event, I prepared a number of questions I would like to have answered. I also disseminated these among other Austin public transit activists.

My questions are presented below, followed by feedback — some of it troubling — that I was able to receive from Project Connect personnel.

 


 

• Why are the public (who are expected to vote ultimate approval) being allowed only these rare, occasional, highly constrained opportunities to review and select from a narrow assortment of choices determined by the Project Connect team and officials? Why aren’t the public, through an inclusive community-wide technical committee, being given the opportunity to be involved in reviewing the basic data, interacting with the consultants, and formulating the choices themselves?

One Project Connect representative seemed to recognize the value of “an inclusive community-wide technical committee” in broadening the pool of possible alternative solutions to challenging issues. He suggested that names of possible candidates for such a group could be forwarded to him.

• Why is Project Connect still going through the motions of a purported high-capacity transit “study” to determine alignment and mode, and seek CCAG and Council approval for an LPA (Locally Preferred Alternative), when it’s already submitted $1.6 billion of URBAN RAIL projects for inclusion in CAMPO’s 2040 plan — including $275mn already projected for an initial route to Hancock to open in 2020? If URBAN RAIL and its details are already a foregone conclusion, why is taxpayers’ money and the time and effort of CCAG, the City Council, and other bodies being wasted on this?

A Project Connect representative’s explanation (consistent with arguments already reported in a newspaper account) was that the “urban rail” data were submitted as “placeholders” in CAMPO’s preparatory process for its 2040 regional transportation plan. However, since Project Connect has supposedly “zeroed out” its previous urban rail plans for central Austin, and within the current “high-capacity transit” study process no mode or specific alignment has yet been formally determined, why were specific “urban rail” projects inserted as “placeholders”, and not a more generic “high-capacity transit” designation? “That’s a good question” was the response.

The dollar amounts were described as mere “updates” of previous Project Connect cost estimates from approximately 2012. But at that time, no “Hancock-Highland” route was planned, so where did the $91.4 million cost for this segment come from? This was “another good question”.

• Why is $190mn in “BRT” infrastructure being proposed for Guadalupe-Lamar? Won’t this be a barrier to future urban rail?

Including $12.9 million allocated to “BRT” infrastructure on Guadalupe and Lavaca, the total for Guadalupe-Lamar “BRT” amounts to $202.9 million. A Project Connect representative was unable to say what specific infrastructure items this included, nor whether these would present a physical barrier to future urban rail.

• Why is a Guadalupe-Lamar route omitted from the $1.6bn urban rail submission to CAMPO’s 2040 plan?

I didn’t have a chance to raise this question directly, but a Project Connect representative insisted that urban rail as well as “BRT” and possibly other modes would be evaluated for future needs in this corridor.

• Why is this plan proposing a slow, tortuous, meandering route from downtown, the least active part of the UT campus, and Hancock Center, to ultimately reach Highland/ACC? Where’s evidence of the travel demand in this route? Does this route carry as much travel as the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor?

The basic responses from a couple of Project Connect personnel at this event seemed to be that the situation has changed since the original “straight and simple” urban rail route in the Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress corridor was proposed in 2000. Issues of comparative travel demand and ridership weren’t addressed by the personnel. However, several Project Connect representatives seemed to regret that official attitudes no longer favor shifting existing street (and bridge) space from motor vehicle traffic capacity to urban rail.

• What’s the ridership projected for this route? (Wouldn’t that be considered in the decision to submit this to CAMPO?) How can Project Connect claim that this route would have more ridership than the 30,000+ daily ridership previously forecast for the Guadalupe-Lamar route?

A Project Connect representative emphasized that ridership figures for the current proposed line will be forthcoming. But Project Connect representatives seemed to regard previous assessments of the potential of urban rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as a moot issue.

• Why is a new $75mn bridge proposed to cross Lady Bird Lake, when either the Congress or S. First St. bridge could be retrofitted for urban rail at half the cost or less ($23-36mn)?

Project Connect Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey indicated that the option of retrofitting one of the existing bridges was presented to the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) but was rejected by the group. Accordingly, it has not been pursued further, so the only option has been to propose constructing a totally new bridge.

I pointed out that current officials and selected civic leaders in the CCAG and Transit Working Group (TWG) seem to have adopted a position that retrogresses from the general consensus of 2000 that traffic lanes in streets, arterials, and bridges should and would be reallocated from general traffic to rail transit. Thus, Austin’s leaders appear to have taken a big step backward in their mindset.

• Is a grade separation considered necessary for urban rail to cross the MetroRail line? Why? Dispatching is entirely under the control of CapMetro. Light rail already crosses heavy rail lines in Philadelphia and Tampa. (This issue would also be involved in the case of urban rail on N. Lamar and the MetroRail line.)

According to a couple of Project Connect personnel, because Capital Metro is converting MetroRail to full compliance with Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) heavy rail standards, the unfortunate (and disputable) assessment of Project Connect planners is that urban rail can no longer cross this line at grade, unlike general traffic. This has not specifically been discussed with either FRA or the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), but Project Connect doesn’t want to get involved with the FRA over this. This also means that, according to Project Connect, urban rail will not cross the MetroRail line at grade either downtown or on North Lamar.

I pointed out that this now encumbers any urban rail plan with an extra liability of tens of millions of dollars for constructing grade separations at any future crossing, but Project Connect and civic leaders now seem to exhibit an unfortunate willingness to accept this. The “Highland” urban rail route plan now includes options for tunnels with a cost range of $230 to $290 million for urban rail to access the north side of the MetroRail line and reach Airport Blvd. This would seem to push the total cost of just the downtown-Hancock-Highland/ACC segment close to $600 million (roughly $275 million + $90 million + $250 million).

As I pointed out to several Project Connect representatives, this entire “study” process (post-2004 through the creation of the Project Connect consortium) has resulted in morphing from a simple, relatively straight, affordable surface urban rail route through central Austin’s major activity centers and highest residential densities, with no need for any major civil works, into a meandering, convoluted, complicated route serving more marginal activity centers and less density, and requiring vast expense to build bridges and tunnels.

Urban rail (light rail transit) route proposed in 2000 was much straighter, simpler, cost-effective, and affordable, will no major civil works. Project was approved by majority of City of Austin voters, but failed in Capital Metro service area as a whole. Map: Light Rail Now library.

Urban rail (light rail transit) route proposed in 2000 was much straighter, simpler, cost-effective, and affordable, with no major civil works — and it served central Austin’s heaviest travel needs and highest population density. Project was approved by majority of City of Austin voters, but ballot measure very narrowly (<1%) failed in Capital Metro service area as a whole. Map: Light Rail Now library.

This seems to be the result of errors that are built upon previous errors — in a sense, a process whereby Project Connect is simply digging itself (and the Austin community) into a deeper and deeper hole. Perhaps they’ll begin to understand why I and so many other advocates of public transportation expansion in Austin have become so disgusted not only with Project Connect and its process, but also with the proposals that are emerging from it.

Apparently under pressure from City officials and various civic leaders, the Project Connect process unfortunately also seems to have departed from the goal of seeking a cost-effective, affordable urban rail network for metro Austin. In addition to the other revelations, this was indeed very disturbing. Ideally, the entire Project Connect process would be “reset” back to zero, and a totally new process, embracing once again this goal, would be re-launched.

Possibly, a rejection of Project Connect’s plan and quest for bond funding in November by voters would lead to such a “re-boot” of the urban rail planning process. Otherwise, if this approach to rail development goes forward, it would certainly seem that future rail transit infrastructure expansion in Austin would be severely constrained by the legacy of bad past decisions and design criteria that impose very heavy cost encumbrances.

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SXSW transit — MetroRail trains attracted crowds, excitement! MetroRapid buses? Nyah…

18 March 2014
Commuting passengers deboard a MetroRail train. During SXSW, passengers have jammed onto trains, setting new ridership records. Photo: L. Henry.

Commuting passengers deboard a MetroRail train. During SXSW, passengers have jammed onto trains, setting new ridership records. Photo: L. Henry.

For at least most of the past year, as this blog has been noting, Project Connect has gradually shifted away from promoting “urban rail” (light rail transit, LRT) and more into emphasizing the delights of an abstract, amorphous mode of travel they’re calling “high-capacity transit”, which can supposedly range from dressed-up buses running in mixed traffic (MetroRapid) to actual high-capacity trains or railcars running on tracks.

In Project Connect’s schema, the impression is conveyed that it’s all the same — rubber-tired buses running on the street, or trains running on tracks, either will do the same basic job. So, for the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor, where Capital Metro launched the first MetroRapid route this past January, the new bus service has been christened “bus rapid transit” (BRT).

This has occurred in the midst of Project Connect’s jaw-dropping campaign to forsake the City of Austin’s long-standing commitments of urban rail for core neighborhoods and commercial activities along the heavy-traffic Guadalupe-Lamar and the high-density West Campus, in favor of serving the much weaker East Riverside area and a virtually non-existent “corridor” connecting downtown, the relatively backwater East Campus, Hancock Center, and the old Highland Mall site (now becoming a major ACC campus). Curiously, more than half of the “Highland” route replicates the previous Mueller route that had already sparked enough controversy to force Project Connect to embark on its “study” charade last summer.

As the debate heated up over Project Connect’s very dubious “study” and subsequent decision to proceed with the Riverside-Highland route, neighborhood residents and other supporters of the G-L route found themselves repeatedly lectured that they should be satisifed with the spiffy new MetroRapid bus service they were getting — just like rail, but cheaper, it was implied. And in any case, these buses are so “permanent”, you can just forget any urban rail for decades, so just take it and accept it.

Meanwhile, after launching MetroRapid bus (accompanied by a rather low-key ceremony with invited guests) in late January, CapMetro encountered a swarm of new problems, mainly (1) widespread passenger irritation over the disruption and degradation of previous bus service in the corridor, (2) complaints over the tendency of MetroRapid buses (with no fixed schedule. but supposedly about 10 minutes apart at peak) to bunch up (leaving many passengers waiting 20 minutes), and (3) a decidedly unexcited public reception of the new service — prompting CapMetro to issue a steady stream of marketing pitches on Twitter and in other media attempting to persuade the public to try the service. And despite CapMetro’s hoopla, the fact remains that MetroRapid buses run almost entirely in mixed traffic, often congested, and it’s arguable that the actual level of service has been degraded, not improved. (Also see: Is Capital Metro’s New MetroRapid Service Leaving Bus Riders Behind?)

MetroRapid bus at a stop on the Drag. Passengers have not crowded aboard the new service as they have on MetroRail. Photo: L. Henry.

MetroRapid bus at a stop on the Drag. Passengers have not crowded aboard the new service as they have on MetroRail. Photo: L. Henry.

… Which brings us to Austin’s famous South by Southwest (SXSW) annual extravaganza March 7th-16th in the city’s core area. With a daunting array of street closures and street-fair-style activities, local transportation officials’ efforts to encourage people to leave their cars elsewhere and ride transit are virtually a no-brainer. And, by Project Connect’s schema, besides regular buses, visitors have had two major choices in “high-capacity transit” to choose from in getting downtown: the brand-new, MetroRapid service with its spiffy-looking, red-and-grey articulated (“bendy”) buses, and MetroRail, CapMetro’s “commuter” light railway with its large, comfortable, smooth-riding railcars, now in their fourth year of service.

The choices that SXSW transit riders have made, the object of media attention and other indications of public excitement, and reports from CapMetro via Twitter and other media have spoken volumes about what kind of “high-capacity transit” mode — rail or MetroRapid bus — generates real excitement and is most preferred by the public. And it ain’t MetroRapid bus.

Overwhelmingly, it’s been CapMetro’s MetroRail rail transit trains that have been crowded with passengers, and it’s been MetroRail that has gotten nearly all the focus of favorable news coverage and other attention. And that should give you some idea of why so many neighborhoods, UT students, and others along the G-L corridor are clamoring for urban rail, not a faux “bus rapid transit” substitute, to provide the high-quality transit service they need.

Typical of news coverage during SXSW was a KXAN-TV report Web-posted with the headline “Additional road closures during SXSW push more people to take MetroRail”.

“During South by Southwest, traffic jams are not unusual…” observed the reporter. “But for those who live here, trying to get to and from work can be even more frustrating than usual.”

One commuter, Shermayne Crawford, told the reporter: “I drove to work Monday and I think it took me an hour and a half to get home.” Because of that, explained the reporter, “She decided she would be using MetroRail for the rest of the week.”

“It’s worth taking it. It moves fast…” said Crawford. “It’s a little packed this week but overall I’ve been able to get a seat and enjoy myself on my way to work.”

According to a report by KUT-FM radio, MetroRail has been experiencing record ridership during the festival, with boardings “up from last year by almost 7,000” just in “the first several days” according to CapMetro. .

Capital Metro even had to operate an additional train after hours to carry more than 100 passengers still waiting on the platform. The trains on Saturday are starting at 10 a.m. – a few hours earlier than usual.

Perhaps nothing better highlights the enthusiasm of SXSW visitors for MetroRail’s train service than CapMetro’s own announcements and news bulletins. For example, on its website the agency posted:

Extended MetroRail Service
We know MetroRail is popular for traveling downtown during SXSW. We’re expanding our regular MetroRail service to help ease congestion:

Extra service on Saturday, March 8 and 15 (10 a.m. – 2 a.m.)
Additional trips all day, March 10-14
Monday – Tuesday, March 10-11: 6 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Wednesday – Thursday, March 12-13: 6 a.m. – 12:30 a.m.
Friday, March 14: 6 a.m. – 1 a.m.

Friday & Monday, March 7 & 17 – Regular schedule
No MetroRail service on Sunday, March 9 & 16
See the extended schedule tables below for exact times.
Our train is popular, so expect some crowding onboard. What can you do if the train’s full?

Cyclists encouraged to use at-station bike racks
Check our Trip Planner or station signage for alternative routes downtown, many bus routes accessible within a few blocks

As the crush of passengers on the trains grew, in some cases causing delays, CapMetro labored to keep riders informed and assured that the service was being maintained, via an avalanche of nearly frenzied Twitter news feeds. Here’s just a small sampling from the past several days:

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX 19h
It’s 2 AM & you still have one more chance to ride the #MetroRail during #SXSW. Last Northbound train from Downtown Station departs at 2:19.

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX 20h
MetroRail experiencing delays of approx. 20-25 mins. due to overcrowding & operating additional trains. Trains at capacity. #MetroRailAlert

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX 21h
Though the clock has hit midnight, #MetroRail is still going strong. Last Northbound train from the Downtown Station is at 2:19 AM.

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX 21h
MetroRail experiencing delays of approx. 15-20 mins. due to overcrowding & operating additional trains. Trains at capacity. #MetroRailAlert

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX 22h
MetroRail currently experiencing delays of approximately 10-15 minutes due to overcrowding & operating additional trains. #MetroRailAlert

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX 25h
MetroRail is currently experiencing delays of 15-20 minutes due to overcrowding. #MetroRailAlert

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX 26h
MetroRail experiencing delays of approximately 10-12 minutes due to overcrowding & operating additional trains. #MetroRailAlert

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX 28h
Be aware: Trains have been packed this #SXSW! It’s a great way to get around, but expect crowds and possible waits at platforms all day.

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX Mar 15
Parking and riding? Temp. #SXSW MetroRail parking available at Kramer at City Electric Supply on 2540 Brockton Dr.

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX Mar 15
Rail riders: MetroRail frequency being bumped up, service every 34 mins ALL DAY this SXSW Saturday to ease crowds: http://bit.ly/1lFtEH4

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX Mar 15
MetroRail is running on a 15-20 min. delay at this time. Thanks for your patience. #MetroRailAlert

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX Mar 15
MetroRail is currently operating on a 15-20 min. delay due to overcrowding. #MetroRailAlert

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX Mar 15
MetroRail is currently operating on a 15 min. delay due to overcrowding. #MetroRailAlert

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX Mar 15
FRI 3/14: See tonight’s MetroRail schedules here: http://www.capmetro.org/sxsw.aspx?id=3262#scheduletables …. #MetroRailAlert ^AP

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX Mar 14
MetroRail is experiencing 15 min delays due to crowds and running an extra train. #MetroRailAlert

To be fair, CapMetro’s buses have also seen strong ridership. As the above-cited KUT report recounts,

The bus service has also been popular. Capital Metro could not provide preliminary figures on ridership, but the transit company says many buses have been at full capacity.

However, next to no mention of the previously much-vaunted MetroRapid bus service. That new “bus rapid transit” operation? No reports of crowding, no extra service rollout, no media excitement. No frenzy of Twitter feeds or other media messages from CapMetro.

It’s trains, not dressy buses, that have drawn the crowds aboard and captured news media attention.

Keep in mind, however, that urban rail — using electric light rail transit trains — would be vastly superior even to MetroRail’s diesel-powered service. Instead of MetroRail’s circuitous “dogleg” around the heart of Austin and into lower downtown, urban rail trains would ride straight down Lamar and Guadalupe, able to make more stops and offer faster service because of their electric-powered acceleration. And they’d also be cheaper to operate.

As in this example from Houston's light rail system, urban rail would be powered by electricity and operate mainly in the street — in Austin's case, Guadalupe and Lamar. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

As in this example from Houston’s light rail system, urban rail would be powered by electricity and operate mainly in the street — in Austin’s case, Guadalupe and Lamar. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

However, MetroRail at least gives a taste of the advantages of rail transit. And the SXSW experience has provided a de facto “test case” of MetroRail and MetroRapid bus running more or less “head-to-head”, providing somewhat “parallel” transit service opportunities. And it certainly looks like the one rolling with steel wheels on steel rails wins.

That should give a clue as to why supporters of urban rail for Guadalupe-Lamar are far from satisified with being given a bus “rapid transit” substitute for bona fide LRT. One would hope that Project Connect, CapMetro, and City of Austin officials and transportation planners would get the message.

But even if they don’t, maybe Austin voters will.