Posts Tagged ‘bus rapid transit’


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

3 December 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Conclusions and recommendation

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

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

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


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

15 August 2019

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

By Austin Rail Now

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

► Orange Line as primary corridor — Urban rail installation in the Orange Line alignment (N. Lamar-Guadalupe-Lamar-South Congress/NL-G-SC) must be prioritized. Positioned as Austin’s major central local corridor, between I-35 to the east and Loop 1 (MoPac) to the west, the Orange Line corridor is the center city’s 3rd-heaviest north-south travel corridor (after I-35 and MoPac). The City of Austin has repeatedly emphasized that this is the primary local traffic corridor in central-city Austin, with exceptionally heavy traffic at maximum capacity for over the past 2 decades. North Lamar alone is ranked by Texas Transportation Institute as one of the most congested arterials in Texas. With Austin’s highest total employment density on Guadalupe-Lamar, an urban rail line there alone could serve 31% of all Austin jobs. It would also serve the highest-density residential concentrations in the city — including the West Campus, ranking the 3rd-highest in residential neighborhood density among major Texas cities.

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

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

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

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


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

30 January 2019

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

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

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

• Why spending $4.7 billion trying to improve I-35 is a waste of money [March 2016]

• City’s “Smart Corridor” Prop. 1 bond plan promising way more than it can deliver [Sep. 2016]

• Austin — National model for how roads are strangling transit development [Oct. 2016]

• “Traffic Jam” to discuss “high capacity transit” becomes “bait & switch” push for road plans [March 2017]

• Urban Rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, Not I-35 “BRT” [July 2017]

• Officials boost roads and “Super BRT”, put urban rail on side track [Aug. 2017]

• Why TxDOT-Capital Metro “BRT” plan for I-35 is a massive boondoggle [Oct. 2017]

• Why “Super BRT” in I-35 would betray Capital Metro’s member cities [Oct. 2017]

• Plans for Smart City could be dumb choice for Austin [Jan. 2018]

• Capital Metro strikes three blows against Lamar-Guadalupe light rail [May 2018]

• Reinstate Urban Rail in Austin’s Planning [Sep.2018]

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

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

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

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


Let’s Fast-track a Plan for Urban Light Rail — and Make It Happen

31 December 2018

Map and graphics from Project Connect’s Feb. 2018 proposal illustrates possible 12-mile initial light rail line from Tech Ridge (at left end of map) routed south down N. Lamar-Guadalupe corridor to Republic Square in CBD (map is rotated 90°, with north to left and south at right). Other graphics show alignment design options and station attributes. Yet Capital Metro leadership has now withdrawn plan and restarted study process for another two years. Graphics: Project Connect.

by Lyndon Henry

This post is a publication of comments made by Lyndon Henry to the Austin City Council on 13 December 2018. Henry is a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project and a contributing editor to the Austin Rail Now website.

For decades, Austinites have been suffering the agonies of a worsening mobility crisis. Help has never been far away – over the past 30 years, no less than six official studies have come to the same conclusion: light rail transit, interconnected with an extensive bus network, is what’s needed.

But time after time, Austin’s leadership has failed to bring a single one of these plans to successful fruition. Austin has become the national poster child of analysis paralysis.

And now Capital Metro and its Project Connect planning program have restarted us on another re-iteration of this same exhausting process for a seventh time and another two years.

Transit advocates appreciate that Capital Metro has revised its Vision concept by restoring light rail and some additional corridors. But much more is needed.

Instead of backsliding to zero again, Capital Metro and the City of Austin need to fast-track this process by building on the data, analysis, community input, and other resources that have already recommended a light rail system and enhanced bus network as the way out of our mobility quagmire.

The Vision plan needs to become a lot more visionary. It needs to preserve a lot more corridors for future dedicated transit lanes. It needs to envision more and longer routes reaching out to serve other parts of the urban area.

Light rail can make this possible. It’s an affordable, cost-effective, off-the-shelf electric transport mode that’s well-proven in hundreds of cities and, best of all, it’s here today – we don’t have to wait for some science fiction technology. Austin needs a solution that’s available now.

Urban light rail is the crucial linchpin of a mobility plan because it has the power to make the whole system work effectively. It’s shown it has the true capacity to cost-effectively handle and grow Austin’s heaviest trunk routes, freeing up buses and resources to expand service into many more neighborhoods citywide. This advantage is validated by solid evidence – in average ridership and cost-effectiveness, cities with urban rail have significantly outpaced cities offering bus service only.

Yet even before Study No. 7 has begun, some Capital Metro and other local officials have been hinting they favor bus rapid transit (BRT) – basically a repackaging of bus service with minimalist capital improvements and lots of fanfare. But it’s unlikely BRT will provide the breakthrough Austin so desperately needs.

On average, compared to BRT, new light rail systems are carrying over three times the ridership at 10% lower operating cost. They’ve shown they can spark adjacent economic development and help shape urban density and growth patterns. BRT has shown almost no such benefits. And light rail comes without the toxic pollution and other problems of rubber tires.

Let’s leave the paralysis behind, and put a light rail starter line on a fast track for a vote in 2020.

An even more affordable light rail starter line project has been proposed by Central Austin Community Development Corporation as a 5.3-mile Minimum Operable System extending from the Crestview MetroRail station (at N. Lamar/Airport) to Republic Square. For a surface alignment with no major civil works, estimated cost in 2016 was less than $400 million. Graphic: CACDC.


Reinstate Urban Rail in Austin’s Planning

19 September 2018

Project Connect slide illustrating “Autonomous Rapid Transit” technology at joint Capital Metro/City of Austin work session Sep. 14th represents currently hypothetical, undeveloped technology as question mark, yet proposes it for inclusion in new “Vision Plan”. Meanwhile, plan with proven, available modes including light rail transit (LRT), presented in February 2018, has been withdrawn. Graphic: Project Connect.

by Lyndon Henry

This post is a publication of comments made by Lyndon Henry to a public hearing held by the board of directors of Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority on 17 September 2018. (The remarks refer to a “presentation this past Friday” – made by Capital Metro’s Project Connect planning team to a Joint Capital Metro Board/City of Austin City Council Work Session on Friday 14 September.) Henry is a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project and a contributing editor to the Austin Rail Now website.

I’m Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant, former Capital Metro Board member, and currently a writer for Railway Age magazine.

Seven months ago, Project Connect at last presented a viable, attractive public transport plan, centered on a central light rail line from Tech Ridge to Slaughter Lane that would connect the city’s heaviest local travel corridors – Lamar-Guadalupe and South Congress. It was a plan that won substantial acclaim from the community and reflected what was already supported in public surveys.

Left: Project Connect draft system plan (presented in Feb. 2018) proposed multiple bus and rail routes, including long north-south light rail line (shown in purple north of the river and lavender to the south) stretching from Tech Ridge to Slaughter Lane. Right: Initial phase of LRT project (proposed Feb. 2018) would run from Tech Ridge to downtown at Republic Square, mainly following the North Lamar-Guadalupe corridor. Maps: Project Connect. (Click to enlarge.)

Astoundingly, within a month that plan was taken off the table, and apparently discarded. To judge from the presentation this past Friday, that realistic, workable plan has now been replaced by a question mark – literally. While Austin is facing a painful and mounting mobility crisis, we’re now informed that official planning is expunging rail from consideration, and has been re-focused on a buses-only operation predicated on visions of a totally untested, effectively imaginary technology (identified with a question mark in presentation slides).

This recent abrupt about-face in the direction of Austin’s public transport planning is extremely bad news – for urban public transport and the future mobility and livability of this entire metro area. Besides the trashing of the orderly planning process, the implications for Austin’s public transport are potentially far more seriously damaging.

Slide from Feb. 14th Project Connect presentation shows hypothetical “Autonomous Rapid Transit (ART)” as question mark. Since mode is currently imaginary, characteristics and performance claims for it in chart are apparently based on pure speculation. Does a currently fictional technology merit inclusion in a presentation of critical public transport options? Graphic: Project Connect.

It says a lot that, since the late 1970s, at least 19 North American cities have opened brand-new light rail systems, almost every one of which has decisively reversed previously declining ridership, increased public attraction to transit, improved urban livability, sparked economic development, and attracted real estate development to cluster near the rail stations. In contrast, the results for the handful of new BRT [bus rapid transit] and quasi-BRT operations have been spotty, and at best a pale shadow of light rail’s success.

In Austin, over the past 28 years, at least three multimillion-dollar publicly sponsored comparative studies have selected light rail as the superior mode to BRT, particularly in key features such as capacity, cost, and various community impacts.

While new technology can improve transit, it must be rigorously tested and proven. But in terms of demonstrated workability and performance, the latest “transit vision” of “a regional system of autonomous, electric-powered buses moving in platoons” is little more than a fantasy, and quite possibly a fraud. Four years ago, the Project Connect team rejected reliance on “Newer technology that does not have proven application”, and warned that “Unproven technologies have unforeseen costs”. Now those caveats have disappeared, replaced by assurances and hype.

Project Connect chart from 2014 includes warnings (annotated with red arrow) against “Unproven technologies”. Graphic: Project Connect.

But what proponents seem to be actually committing Austin to, in reality, is BRT for the region’s major “high-capacity” transit system. The idea seems to be to place all our hopes on an unproven hypothetical technology that will emerge – and be satisfied with BRT in the meantime.

Yet while the Austin region’s mobility crisis continues to worsen as I speak, light rail is available now, a well-proven mode with a long record of success. It’s out-performed BRT and proven far more affordable than subway-elevated alternatives. I urge you to reinstate that February plan with a central light rail spine so Austin can continue to move forward with a real-world solution to our mobility crisis.

Thank you for the opportunity to put these observations and warnings in the public record.


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 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.


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)
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.


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.


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.


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. ■


Stealth plans for “forced busing” in heavy local travel corridors may be wasteful barrier to light rail

30 March 2015
Consequences of investing in bus-based "rapid transit" (BRT) can be seen in Ottawa, where bus bunching and huge bus jams like this one reveal massive size of fleet necessary to support "rapid transit" levels of ridership — ridership far more efficiently accommodated by urban rail . Similar plans for expanded BRT infrastructure in Austin pose similar need for light rail transit (LRT) alternative. Photo: Flickr.

Consequences of investing in bus-based “rapid transit” (BRT) can be seen in Ottawa, where bus bunching and huge bus jams like this one reveal massive size of fleet necessary to support “rapid transit” levels of ridership — ridership far more efficiently accommodated by urban rail. Similar plans for expanded BRT infrastructure in Austin pose need for light rail transit (LRT) alternative. Photo: Flickr.

By Dave Dobbs

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

Recent developments in local metro area transportation planning, particularly in the aftermath of last November’s ill-conceived “urban rail” bond vote debacle, have made it evident to some of us that there’s a need for a grassroots collection of stakeholders to unite behind a new urban rail planning process, and getting it started ASAP. This is more urgent than most people realize.

It’s abundantly clear that, over the past several years, Project Connect and CAMPO planners and officials have been aiming toward “forced busing” on Austin’s best potential light rail routes, the heavy local travel routes where currently the big red MetroRapid buses run — Guadalupe/North Lamar, South Congress, and South Lamar. As I pointed out in an earlier article on this issue («No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes…»), it’s ironic that, for the past several years, while some public officials have piously insisted we can’t possibly convert car travel lanes to reserved rail lanes on Guadalupe/North Lamar, it seems that all along, since at least 2012, this has been in planning for MetroRapid — in effect, a “stealth” plan for incremental BRT.

Light rail/urban rail has simply vanished from CAMPO's 2040 Transportation Plan. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN.

CAMPO 2040 plan includes hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed “BRT” projects, including plans to construct dedicated lanes in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor in lieu of light rail. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

If, this coming May, the CAMPO 2040 plan is adopted with the Urban Transit Projects (2020 – 2040) currently in the plan, Capital Metro, perhaps together with the City, will have the green light to immediately pursue federal funding for concrete bus lanes on the above thoroughfares. And they will no doubt do so, as the 80% federal matching funds for buses are far more available than 50% federal matching funds for rail. Yet, even with the heavier federal proportion, this would be a disastrous waste in the longer term, since the ridership attractiveness, cost efficiency, more livable urban environment, stimulus for transit oriented development (TOD) and economic development, and other benefits for the community, far outweigh the advantage of a higher rate of federal bus system funding.

Total cost per passenger of urban rail becomes lower than "bus rapid transit" as ridership rises above about 10,000 per day. Graph: Project Connect.

Project Connect graph, presented in June 2012 to Transit Working Group, showed greater cost-effectiveness of urban rail (LRT) compared with BRT, as ridership increases. Screenshot: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

We should expect that the MetroRapid bus lane process will be similar to the Project Connect rail public process — i.e., art gallery open houses, boards and commission hearings and approvals, and finally, council and Capital Metro board approval … but no general public vote, because the the local 20% match will be small enough to construct discrete sections and can probably be found in a slush fund someplace. While 20% of the overall $442,861,656 Capital Metro has identified for dedicated MetroRapid bus lanes is around $88.6 million, it’s logical to expect a piecemeal approach, one section at a time, so as to avoid a citywide response over the loss of vehicle travel lanes. Divide and conquer.

For example, after having paint-striped a little over a mile of Guadalupe and Lavaca between Cesar Chavez and MLK, the most likely next step is to convert two vehicle travel lanes on Guadalupe from MLK to the Triangle (North Lamar at Guadalupe), a distance of 2.5 miles, for about $60 million. Of this, Austin’s share would be roughly $12 million, small enough to be found in current budget funds without going to the voters. Perhaps an even shorter segment, 1.5 miles to 38th Street, would be considered, where the local share would be only about $7 million.

While the downtown Guadalupe/Lavaca paint striping cost $270,000/mile, the dedicated lanes called for in the CAMPO 2040 plan are tear-up-the-street, fix-utilities, and pour 18 inches of concrete (very much like installing light-rail-dedicated reserved lanes) and cost about $24 million/mile for a lane in each direction. Of course, once the bus lanes are in, we couldn’t change our minds because (1) we’ll have spent a lot of federal dollars, and switching over to rail anytime soon would not get a hearing from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and (2) merchants and residents are not going to easily, willingly, or peacefully suffer urban street surgery twice. Currently the $38 million in Federal grants for MetroRapid in mixed traffic is mostly portable to another corridor (like Riverside, where it would be appropriate), and after seven years, buses are mostly amortized in the eyes of the FTA. Exclusive bus lanes at $350 million is another matter entirely, for something that can’t be moved.

Construction for dedicated bus lanes, rarely shown by "BRT" promoters, is very similar to that for LRT, as this example from San Bernardino demonstrates. Yet effective capacity, ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, TOD, and other benefits typically fall short of what LRT typically achieves. Photo:

Construction for dedicated bus lanes, rarely shown by “BRT” promoters, is very similar to that for LRT, as this example from San Bernardino demonstrates. Yet effective capacity, ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, TOD, and other benefits typically fall short of what LRT achieves. Photo: (Click to enlarge.)

Proceeding with major investment in bus infrastructure in Guadalupe-Lamar and other high-travel local corridors is a huge mistake. As I warned in the earlier article cited above, if you would prefer urban rail instead of a major dedicated bus lane project in Guadalupe-Lamar, “it’s essential to speak up and act. Let neighborhood groups and other community organizations know what official plans have in store for this corridor.” It’s also important to communicate to local agencies involved with planning and members of the Austin City Council “that you want to ride urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, running in reserved tracks, not just a souped-up bus service weaving in and out of special lanes.” ■


Austin’s “shadow government” (CAMPO) disappears light rail from local planning

26 March 2015


By David Orr

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

The more I learn about how the political sausage gets made around here nowadays, the more I’m convinced that CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) is Austin’s “shadow government“, at least so far as large-scale transportation-related land use decisions are concerned.

The CAMPO 2040 Plan is egregiously deficient in providing alternatives to automobile-based transportation. Indeed, it seems like the plan is designed — intentionally so — to ensure that development of efficient rail-transit infrastructure cannot occur.

From what I’ve read, there are exactly ZERO miles of light rail in the plan, whereas a decision has apparently been made to go all in on BRT (bus rapid transit). It’s not clear to me where, or by whom, the decision was made to pretend light rail is no longer an option, but the fact that this policy is embedded so deeply in CAMPO’s planning documents makes clear that the agency has a clear agenda.

CAMPO 2040 Plan includes hundreds of millions of dollars for additional investment in MetroRapid "BRT" operation. Such facilities could impose a barrier to urban rail in key corridors such as Guadalupe-Lamar. Photo: L. Henry.

CAMPO 2040 Plan includes hundreds of millions of dollars for additional investment in MetroRapid “BRT” operation. Such facilities could impose a barrier to urban rail in key corridors such as Guadalupe-Lamar. Photo: L. Henry.

Where is the political accountability for this? Have local governments adopted resolutions of support for BRT while unequivocally stating opposition to any further study of light rail?

It seems to me that citizens have to demand that the City of Austin and Travis County — the most populous city and county in the CAMPO region — respond to CAMPO’s 2040 Plan before it is finalized next month (April). Even though it seems that the majority of CAMPO’s board have made it clear that their priorities are not in synch with concerns of Austin and Travis County officials who would like to see less emphasis on highway construction, it should be incumbent on both local entities to stand up for the interests and concerns of the residents here.

If CAMPO adopts a plan that zeros out light rail for the next 25 years, that will greatly complicate any effort that we can marshal to promote a light-rail project. I’m not well-versed in U.S. DOT (Department of Transportation) and FTA (Federal Transit Administration) law and regulations, so I don’t know whether an Austin-based light-rail project would have to obtain CAMPO’s support to proceed, but the FTA surely would notice if CAMPO was not behind it. Another crucial question is whether the Austin City Council or the Travis County Commissioners would be inclined to object to the finalizing of the 2040 Plan.

Light rail/urban rail has simply vanished from CAMPO's 2040 Transportation Plan. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN.

Light rail/urban rail has simply vanished from CAMPO’s 2040 Transportation Plan. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

During CAMPO’s meeting on the night of March 9th, the agency’s director stated that they were required by federal rules to adopt this plan in the next month or two. If that’s true, such a requirement may make it impossible to stop this measure, but at least the city and/or county could register official displeasure (and preferably opposition?) at the lack of public input on so many key policies and plan provisions.

I encourage others to join me in expressing concern publicly. If you have a good relationship with friendly elected officials, it seems like this is a critical time to ask them to engage. ■


Project Connect’s urban rail plan is “worse than nothing”

21 July 2014
Project Connect's "urban rail" plan would not only absorb vast local financial resources, but would install "dedicated bus lanes" as an obstacle to urban rail where it's actually most needed — in Guadalupe-Lamar. Graphic: Adaptation by ARN from Project Connect map.

Project Connect’s “urban rail” plan would not only absorb vast local financial resources, but would install “dedicated bus lanes” as an obstacle to urban rail where it’s actually most needed — in Guadalupe-Lamar. Graphic: Adaptation by ARN from Project Connect map. (Click to enlarge.)

By Dave Dobbs and Lyndon Henry

For weeks now, Project Connect (with public tax money) has been carrying out a “saturation bombing” ad campaign promoting its $1.4 billion urban rail plan, primarily aimed at bolstering development plans and centered on the interests of private developers and the East Campus expansion appetites of the University of Texas administration.

It’s a “Pinocchio-style” campaign (and plan) packed with exaggerations contrived to try to sucker voter support. Perhaps the worst problem is the “city-wide system” deception that Project Connect is pushing in its ad blitz — the make-believe that an urban rail line on East Riverside through the East Campus to Highland will lead to rail in other parts of the city.

In fact, just the opposite will happen. The staggering cost will soak up available local funding for years to come — and that in itself will impede future rail transit development.

Not only will future voters see the resulting Highland-Riverside ridership as not worth the cost — a future political challenge — but, even worse, Project Connect’s plans to convert automobile travel lanes on the MetroRapid routes to dedicated bus lanes by 2025 will essentially block any expansion of rail in the crucial, high-travel, dense Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (See our recent article Project Connect’s $500 million plan for bus infrastructure — The Elephant in the Road on Guadalupe-Lamar that could block urban rail.)


The “Elephant in the Road” — a vote for Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside “urban rail” project is also a vote for a bus project on Guadalupe-Lamar that will block urban rail where it’s most needed. Image: ARN library.

Once they spend $28 million a mile for bus lanes using 80% federal grants (as stated in official plans) we’ll have to live with that investment for two to three decades. Essentially Guadalupe-Lamar, South Congress, and South Lamar, streets that need rail to handle the potential passenger volumes, will end up with MetroRapid in dedicated right-of-way with an automobile lane and perhaps a bike lane in each direction. Instead of buses being seen as shuttles to good city-wide train service, buses will continue to be seen, as former State Highway Engineer DeWitt Greer once expressed it, as suitable only for “a certain class of people” and a nuisance “in the way of my car.”

Austin has waited a long time for an urban rail system — but it’s far better to wait a bit longer to do it right than to rush into a plan (which includes flawed roadway projects as well) just because it’s “rail”. A plan that impedes good transit development and future system expansion is worse than nothing. ■


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.


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:

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: …. #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.


Project Connect data in 2012 showed urban rail beats “BRT” in cost-effectiveness

1 March 2014

Left: Urban rail simulation (Graphic: COA rev. ARN). Right: MetroRapid bus on the Drag (Photo: L. Henry).

As this blog has noted, it’s curious how, in recent months, Project Connect — at least in official statements — has been somewhat distancing itself from explicitly advocating “urban rail” (Mayor Leffingwell’s recent “rail or fail” rhetoric is an exception, but, then, he’s not officially a Project Connect official) and increasingly portraying its focus to be “high-capacity transit“, a generic term that seems to apply to virtually all surface public transport modes approximately above the capacity of a van.

Moreover, this “high-capacity” concept seems to consider just about everything somehow equal in function. Thus, bus routes and urban rail lines could, in this rather dubious schema, be interchanged or substituted in planning.

This, of course, is nonsense — there are huge differences between rail and bus in performance, attractiveness to the public, operational capabilities, environmental implications, longterm cost-effectiveness, and other attributes, with rail tending to lead. But Project Connect’s approach treating these modes as generally interchangeable seems to accord the agency at least two advantages:

(1) It gives Project Connect and other public officials some flexibility to put urban rail where they want it, MetroRapid (faux “bus rapid transit” or BRT) where they want it … and it helps alibi why some areas supposedly due for “high-capacity transit” end up getting just a fancy bus route (MetroRapid). With money tight, Project Connect can install perhaps a few miles of rail (or perhaps none), cover the rest with bus service, and claim they’re offering a vast “rapid transit” system to the Austin-area public (and voters).

(2) It has allowed City and Capital Metro officials, as well as Project Connect’s leadership, to designate the modest, minimal MetroRapid bus service in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as “high-capacity transit” and even “rapid transit” — for which, it’s implied, this key section of the central city should be profoundly grateful. And in any case, it’s all the “high-capacity transit” these core neighborhoods can expect to get for the foreseeable future — so be content with what you’ve got, while we all move on.

But Project Connect’s championing of generic “high-capacity transit” and the alleged marvels of MetroRapid stands in glaring contrast to the agency’s narrative and course of argument of the recent past. Just two years ago, and for the past six or so years before that, City planners and then Project Connect were hammering away incessantly about the need for Urban Rail — urban rail was absolutely essential, it was a must-have, it was the linchpin of the regional transit plan …

Of course, local officials and their planners insisted it had to run from downtown, through the relatively empty East Campus, to Mueller.

So … why not run just a good bus service?

Well, official planners have gone to great lengths to justify the need for rail. Rail, it’s argued, has an exceptional tendency to attract adjacent development, especially transit-oriented development. That’s true. Also true is their insistence that urban rail, particularly as ridership grows, is far more cost-effective than bus service over the longer term.

And that’s precisely the point succinctly made, for example, in a couple of neatly rendered data-visualization slides included in a presentation from Project Connect to the Transit Working Group (TWG) on 1 June 2012.

This first slide compares urban rail and “bus rapid transit” (i.e., bus upgraded transit of some kind) in total cost per passenger. The graph indicates that rail and bus become equal in total cost per passenger (presumably, rider-trip) at a ridership level of around 10,000 daily passengers. After that, urban rail becomes significantly lower.

Total cost per passenger of urban rail becomes lower than "bus rapid transit" as ridership rises above about 10,000 per day. Graph: Project Connect.

Total cost per passenger of urban rail becomes lower than “bus rapid transit” as ridership rises above about 10,000 per day. Graph: Project Connect.

In this second slide (below), Project Connect displays that the operating and maintenance (O&M) cost of urban rail is projected to be consistently less than that of “BRT”.

Operating & maintenance (O&M) cost per passenger-mile of urban rail is projected to be consistently lower than "bus rapid transit". Graph: Project Connect.

Operating & maintenance (O&M) cost per passenger-mile of urban rail is projected to be consistently lower than “bus rapid transit”. Graph: Project Connect.

So these projections from Project Connect raise intriguing questions:

• If urban rail is so much more cost-effective than “BRT”, doesn’t this mean that it would be more cost-effective than MetroRapid, which various Project connect, City, and Capital Metro spokesmen have repeatedly characterized as “BRT”?

• If urban rail is indeed so much more cost-effective than MetroRapid, why is the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor being consigned MetroRapid as its “high-capacity transit” solution — especially when ridership projections have forecast this corridor as having the highest ridership potential in the entire region?

• Put another way — Why is Guadalupe-Lamar — Austin’s heaviest center-city local traffic corridor, and its densest and most promising core neighborhoods and commercial districts — being saddled with a more costly MetroRapid service, less appropriate for needed capacity, while the heavy resources to install urban rail are being focused on a convoluted Rube Goldberg-style route scheme to serve the East Campus, Hancock Center, and (purportedly) an eastern access to the Highland/ACC site?


Science seems missing from Project Connect’s “scientific” transit planning

10 February 2014
Project Connect's proposed "high-capacity transit" alternative alignments for "Highland" sector.

Project Connect’s proposed “high-capacity transit” alternative alignments for “Highland” sector.

By Lyndon Henry

This past Saturday, Feb, 8th, I attended Project Connect’s “interactive workshop” event at the Highland ACC site with a specific mission in mind: raising questions to gather information and data. I particularly wanted to refrain from actually providing input into the process, because Project Connect seems to use this type of public feedback as evidence of popular validation of, and acquiescence to, their overall process, methods, and conclusions — and I wanted to avoid that as much as possible. I did strongly encourage other supporters of the Guadalupe-Lamar alignment proposed for urban rail to attend this event if at all possible.

The most recent documents on the topic of the event, as far as I knew, were the “alternative route” maps that Project Connect had made available online, as a PDF:

Through Project Connect’s presentations to the Transit Working Group and Central Corridor Advisory Group, and in other presentations and statements here and there, a multitude of questions had already been raised, and these maps raised even more issues. Much of my curiosity was motivated by unanswered questions associated with the “Phase 1” study process — supposedly a thoroughly “data-driven” study. Indeed, City Councilman (and Capital Metro chairman) Mike Martinez has emphasized that the route profiles selected by the Project Connect team are all based on a highly “scientific” process. So, in my view, it’s entirely valid to seek the “scientific” evidence that supposedly underpins the route alignment choices now being presented for public perusal.

At the Feb. 8th event, I didn’t have an opportunity to raise all my questions or obtain definitive answers to the ones I did raise, but I’m sharing much of what I did learn in this post. I’ll note that I mainly discussed these with a couple of volunteer Project Connect table moderators, and a couple of Project Connect consultants. I’ve categorized these questions into several sub-issues.

“Highland” issues

• The “Phase 1” study projected huge increases in population and economic activity in this sector by 2030. Where, exactly, would these increases occur?

Basically, the Project Connect representatives I discussed this with didn’t have an answer. They’re planning “high-capacity transit” routes on the basis of projections of enormous population and economic growth, but they seemed somewhat confused about whether there was any data indicating exactly where in this sector such growth would occur.

So, how could station locations be determined if you don’t know where the heaviest growth will be? Is there huge growth projected west of Red River, along the proposed Duval alignment? They couldn’t say.

• Do the proposed alignment alternatives take the actual locations of population and economic concentration into account? If so, how?

Basically, no — for the same reason as with the previous response.

However, I did overhear one of the consultants explain to another participant (who favored an alignment to the Mueller development area) that Project Connect was giving “major consideration” to the possibility that an alignment serving Hancock Center would “set you up” for an ultimate extension to Mueller.

• Of the routes within the “Highland” sector from the UT campus to Highland/ACC, I-35 is omitted. Yet heavy traffic on I-35 was included as a major factor in swaying the Phase 1 recommendation for this sector. So, why is this major travel artery not included as a possible “high-capacity transit” (HCT) alignment for this sector? Where’s the metrics-based evaluation to eliminate it?

The impression I got from discussing this is that there’s no “metrics-based” evaluation, just a sort of hunch that an alignment in or along I-35 would not be a good idea. So, if traffic volumes on I-35 were a major factor in selecting the “Highland” route, are there any park & ride sites in mind? I was told that the Highland/ACC site would be an excellent location for a P&R facility — and that seems a quite reasonable judgement.

However, there’s been no study of the relative attractiveness of such a P&R to I-35 motorists between access to the UT and core area via the eastern “Highland” routes or the more direct, western route via Lamar and Guadalupe.

• Duval and Red River are both capacity-constricted minor thoroughfares narrowing into 2-lane neighborhood streets. Are these routes appropriate for the mainline of a HCT service, particularly an urban rail alignment?

Project Connect is seriously considering rail on these streets, but other than that confirmation, I couldn’t get any evaluatory comments. One participant mentioned a possible streetcar-type alignment, and another argued that these were “three-lane” streets, which is hard to believe from the visual evidence. (To procure a third lane, you’d have to eliminate neighborhood street parking on Red River and bike lanes on Duval.)

Both Red River (left) and Duval (right) are narrow 2-lane neighborhood streets, with barely space for local parking on Red River and bike lanes on Duval. L. Henry screenshot from Google Maps streetview.

Both Red River (left) and Duval (right) are narrow 2-lane neighborhood streets, with barely space for local parking on Red River and bike lanes on Duval. L. Henry screenshot from Google Maps streetview.

I mentioned that “HCT” by Project Connect’s definition could mean MetroRapid bus service, but I was assured that, for reasons not explained, they have rail in mind for this route.

• To install HCT in these alignments, are property acquisitions for right-of-way (ROW) being considered?

I couldn’t get a clear answer on this.

• For these alignments, are elevated or subway alignments under consideration for urban rail? In the case of a subway, where would the portal be located (this generally takes most of a city block)?

Elevated and subway construction seems to be under consideration only in a very general way; I got the definite impression that Project Connect’s thinking is focused more on a surface alignment. I didn’t have a chance to raise the portal issue.

• Where would a storage-maintenance-operations site for rolling stock be located?

I didn’t have a chance to raise this issue. (Previous urban rail planning tended to locate an SMO facility on the Mueller site, or just north of it.)

• For the alignments along Airport Blvd., wouldn’t these duplicate MetroRail service?

A consultant explained that Project Connect doesn’t see duplication, because the HCT service (whatever it is) would have intermediate stops, unlike MetroRail. Apparently, in their minds, you only have duplication if you duplicate all or most of the parallel line’s stations. I found it rather peculiar that Project Connect planners would regard it as impermissible to replace MetroRapid bus service on Guadalupe-Lamar with urban rail, but quite acceptable to in effect duplicate rail transit service along Airport Blvd. with, possibly, another form of rail transit.

• Is Project Connect planning to replace a segment of MetroRail service with urban rail? If so, how would MetroRail connect from downtown to Crestview?

Apparently they’re not planning to replace MetroRail with urban rail in this phase of planning.

• If Project Connect is planning on FTA funding for urban rail, would this be possible with a line paralleling existing MetroRail service?

As discussed above, Project Connect doesn’t consider such a route along Airport Blvd. as duplicate service to MetroRail. I doubt, however, that — in the case of a major rail investment — the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) would readily agree with this, especially after their recent award of a TIGER grant to upgrade the MetroRail line.

Core area issues

• Various routes are proposed through the core area. On what specific core area metrics analyses are these based?

Project Connect representatives were somewhat confused by this question about core area metrics. Having followed the “Phase 1” HCT study process closely, I never saw evidence of any metrics-focused study of the core area (Core “sub-corridor”, i.e., sector). One consultant offered the University of Texas’s campus plan as a factor in the decision to follow the East Campus alignment along San Jacinto, but I explained that a plan is more like a wishlist, not a metrics-based analysis. I was told that maybe there was some kind of comparison of ridership, cost, etc. between the eastside and westside (Drag/West Campus) alignments, but nobody could produce one.

• Was a data-driven analysis of various alignments, evaluating ridership potential, cost, etc., ever performed for alternative routes through the core area?

Apparently there has been no metrics-based analysis that would guide alignments within the core area. Project Connect basically is taking major activity centers, such as the planned medical school, into account — but this is more based on whim rather than a “scientific” analysis evaluating data-based metrics.

• Was any kind of data-driven analysis of projected demographics, economic activity, etc., ever performed on the core area in the “Phase 1” study?

No, per the answer to the previous question.

• On what “scientific” data metrics-based rationale is the Drag excluded as an alignment through the core area?

Apparently none.

• On what data-driven basis is the crosstown alignment on 4th and 3rd Streets included?

I didn’t have a chance to raise this issue.

“East Riverside” issues

• The “Phase 1” study projected huge increases in population and economic activity in this sector by 2030. Where, exactly, would these increases occur?

As with the responses to similar questions in regard to “Highland” there seems to be no data for this.

• Do the proposed alignment alternatives take the actual locations of population and economic concentration into account? If so, how?

Again, apparently not, as with the previous responses. It would seem that much of the placement of alternatives is based on hunch and whim rather than a “scientific” evaluation of data elements.

• Why have other major potential alignments through this sector, such as Oltorf St., Congress Ave., and S. Lakeshore Blvd., been excluded? All of these were included in the original “ERC” sector in the “Phase 1” study. Is there data-based evidence for singling out East Riverside as the sole alignment?

Again, no one could explain this.

• Project Connect has repeatedly referred to MetroRapid, with buses running in normal general road traffic, as “high-capacity transit”. Why, then, are bridge options being considered for the “East Riverside” area? Could these buses not use existing traffic bridges?

Bridges are being considered for urban rail or possibly special bus-only use. But representatives agreed that, if MetroRapid is HCT, you could have Project Connect’s definition of “rapid transit” fulfilled by running MetroRapid buses in mixed traffic over existing bridges.


Project Connect’s “interactive workshop” event was tiny gesture toward democratic engagement

9 February 2014
Structured around issue-oriented tables, Project Connect's Feb. 8th "interactive workshop" finally managed to get dozens of community participants engaged in lively discussion.

Structured around issue-oriented tables, Project Connect’s Feb. 8th “interactive workshop” finally managed to get dozens of community participants engaged in lively discussion.

Project Connect’s Feb. 8th “interactive open house-workshop” event was interesting both in the information to be learned (discussed in another posting) and in the way it was structured — at last, an opportunity in an event, open and publicized to the public, for community participants to actually raise questions and discuss issues in a small-group community environment.

In that sense, it can be regarded as at least a minuscule gesture toward actually democratic community engagement. One can only imagine how the outcome might have been different — in terms of the process of selecting routes — if even this very minimal kind of “interactive workshop” event, rather than the art-gallery-style “open houses” and highly managed shut-up-and-click-on-the-choices-we give-you “clicker workshops”, had been deployed in the “Phase 1” process of this “high-capacity transit study” process.

With at least dozens of people in attendance, the event was structured mainly around small-group tables discussing various issues, such as mode and alignment, for the proposed “high-capacity transit” services along routes selected in “Phase 1”. At these tables, questions could, at last, be asked in a group setting. This facilitated a more earnest discussion of issues, and allowed community members to interact more effectively with one another — learning things, encountering different viewpoints, exchanging new perspectives and information.

This, however, is a very long way from what’s needed for a fully democratic process with effective community oversight (along the lines of the precedence of years ago). Instead of seeking validation and acquiesence from poorly informed and misled participants, an authentic community involvement process would have one or more ongoing, widely accessible oversight committees, meeting with Project Connect staff and receiving reports — somewhat like the so-called CCAG (“Central Corridor Advisory Group”) or TWG (“Transit Working Group”), but with some members well-seasoned in the issues and armed with expertise to enable them to ask the really crucial and trenchant questions, and raise far more critical issues.

General community meetings would dispense with Project Connect’s “lecture-and-clicker” approach, and allow short presentations by staff followed by open public questions and comments at an open mike. These would be supplemented by true workshops and charettes (for which the Feb. 8th event gave a small taste of how this could work).

But don’t hold your breath — Project Connect’s leadership all along has seemed to have a firm idea of what it wants this process to propose, and doesn’t appear to be prepared to allow community input to divert it from its course.


Viewpoint: Community action must clean up public agencies’ transportation planning mess

1 February 2014
Traffic congestion on North Lamar on morning of Jan. 27th, first day of full MetroRapid service. MetroRapid "rapid transit" bus can be seen in far distance at rear of traffic queue. Photo: Steve Knapp.

Traffic congestion on North Lamar on morning of Jan. 27th, first day of full MetroRapid service. MetroRapid “rapid transit” bus can be seen in far distance at rear of traffic queue. Photo: Steve Knapp.

By Mary Rudig

Mary Rudig is a Gracy Woods Neighborhood Association coach and editor of the North Austin Community Newsletter.

While I honestly don’t think it’s intentional, what I see in the recent developments with Project Connect is that Capital Metro and our transportation “experts” are continuing the same pattern government entities have always followed. Somebody at the top gets fixated on an idea, and that becomes the top-down policy for everything to do with transportation. Any thinking outside of the box is strongly discouraged.

When I moved to Austin in 1992, there was a fixation on downtown and all policy was designed to support this. Every bus route had to go downtown, and cross-connections, going around downtown to better connect destinations, and supporting the jobs/growth in the outer ring, were discouraged. This was followed by a series of other fixations — there was a change at the top, and Capital Metro became fixated on rail, going from one plan to another plan. Then came the fixation with the park-and-rides, and the Domain, and moving people from one activity node to another activity node (remember those days?). Then the fixation switched back to moving people to downtown. Again.

Now we have Project Connect, and the latest fixation is with bus rapid transit (BRT) and New Urbanism. New Urbanism will magically create a boom of jobs and housing east of I-35 very, very soon. BRT is the magic pixie dust that City Council has been looking for to fix all our woes. And all this is great — until 2015 when the new City Council takes over and another idea is put forward to be the new magic pill.

The problems though, are the same.

North Lamar/Guadalupe, the backbone of our city, is congested and constrained.

• The outer ring of neighborhoods don’t want to go to downtown, they want to go to their jobs and make cross-connections.

• The other cities in Central Texas need to get people into Austin, in a cost-effective way that won’t put a too high burden on them, because they are struggling to balance their growth needs with a tax base that just isn’t big enough yet.

• Large employers are not being held responsible for assisting with transportation solutions, such as providing shuttles and park and ride space, scheduling shifts away from peak times, flexing workers to work from home/remote offices, etc.

• The high-tech/IT jobs at the north end need more mixed transportation, and most of that transportation need is east-west.

• Many service workers are living either east of I-35 or moving to outlying communities because of the lack of affordable housing, and these populations need better transportation to get to their jobs, which again, are usually not downtown.

• We have huge gaps in how we are serving student populations outside of UT. We have absolutely no idea what the students at our vocational and smaller colleges need in the way of transportation because nobody has asked. ACC’s idea — to rotate campus populations in and out of Highland, so they can close and remodel other campuses — is both brilliant, and a transportation nightmare waiting for a place to happen.

• We are a city of small businesses, but we have barely cracked the shell with what this population needs. 80% of the city works for small business. Think about that — we don’t honestly know where 80% of our workers want to go, transportation-wise. The only study I know of that touches on this issue is the 2012 transportation study by Austin Chamber of Commerce.

• We must connect the urban core in North Austin to the urban core downtown, while figuring out a better way to shuttle people in and out of both of these cores.

Major North Austin neighborhoods. Map:

Major North Austin neighborhoods. Map:

I think Scott Morris (Central Austin Community Development Corporation) and Lyndon Henry (Light Rail Now Project) have made a good start — pick the spine, explore if we can fix it with rail or not, and then maybe we can use the coalition we have built to begin to address these other issues.

Capital Metro and CAMPO and the rest are never going to get their act together, people, because they are too busy worrying about the latest directive from the top. So it’s up to us to fix the mess they have made.


Contradicting local official claims, FTA says it “would consider request” for urban rail on North Lamar

1 February 2014
MetroRapid bus (left) and simulation of urban rail (right). Actual FTA view expresses openness to consider replacing MetroRapid service with urban rail in North Lamar corridor. Photo: L. Henry; simulation: COA.

MetroRapid bus (left) and simulation of urban rail (right). Actual FTA view expresses openness to consider replacing MetroRapid service with urban rail in North Lamar corridor. Photo: L. Henry; simulation: COA.

On December 12th, in the course of a contentious meeting, the Austin City Council endorsed Project Connect’s recommendation to pursue “high-capacity transit” in East Riverside and a narrow swath of area mostly northeast of the UT campus, dubbed the “Highland sub-corridor”. (See City Council to Central Austin: Drop Dead.) Present at this meeting was a long queue of critics of the proposal, and proponents of an alternative urban rail route in the “backbone” West Campus-Guadalupe-Lavaca corridor.

Over previous months, Project Connect and its partisans had repeatedly insisted that Capital Metro’s new MetroRapid bus service in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor – because it was funded by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) – was an impenetrable barrier to urban rail. In recent days, the argument had intensified, with solemn declarations that even raising the issue of replacing MetroRapid bus with urban rail might so incense FTA that all future federal funding could be jeopardized.

Thus, in this context, earlier in the December 12th Council meeting, anticipating a barrage of criticism over the rejection of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, Councilman Mike Martinez (also chairman of Capital Metro) took the opportunity to make a special announcement, evidently intended to steal a march on Guadalupe-Lamar proponents. Word from the FTA had just come in, he intoned, that the agency considered Metro Rapid an absolutely “permanent” investment, and therefore a daunting obstacle to its replacement by rail.

From the City of Austin transcript, the following are Councilman Martinez’s remarks (for readability, edited for spelling, grammar, and punctuation):

I wanted to read a response from FTA that Capital Metro received this afternoon in a meeting with them in Fort Worth. This is an FTA official that … his response to the question about the high-capacity transit that is already going in, the BRT in the Lamar corridor.

His response was: BRT in the North Lamar corridor is a priority transit project. The project was supported by the region through CAMPO. Capital Metro and FTA signed a contract to this effect. FTA sees their investment as permanent.

It is important to consider that there are many demands for federal funds on new starts and small starts [projects]. and FTA made a permanent investment in this [corridor]. If Capital Metro were to come back to FTA and indicate there is a change in priorities or new need in this corridor, Capital Metro, CAMPO and the community would need to go through the entire planning process again to show that urban rail is the highest priority for this corridor.

That to me is a pretty definitive statement from FTA that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to go back through the process and receive new start money in that corridor. They view the current investment as permanent.

City of Austin transcript excerpt with Councilmember Mike Martinez's Dec. 12th remarks on FTA, MetroRapid, and urban rail for North Lamar. Screenshot: L. Henry.

City of Austin transcript excerpt with Councilmember Mike Martinez’s Dec. 12th remarks on FTA, MetroRapid, and urban rail for North Lamar. Screenshot: L. Henry.

While the FTA statement, as read orally, seemed less of a definitive and absolute rejection of an urban rail alternative in the Lamar corridor than Councilman Martinez portrayed it, as it turned out, further examination or evaluation of the statement was not immediately possible because a printed copy was not made available to the public for scrutiny. Instead, it took a Public Information Request by Scott Morris of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation, and over 40 days, before the actual FTA statement was made available, in the original form provided to Councilman Martinez.

The FTA’s views, as communicated orally to Capital Metro’s representative Ken Cartwright, are summarized by Capital Metro in an internal document available by download from ARN. As this document indicates, Capital Metro raised the issue: “We have been approached about the possibility of putting an urban rail investment in the North Lamar corridor where we already have the BRT investment.”

FTA’s oral (“verbal”) response is summarized:

The Austin community decided that bus rapid transit in the North Lamar corridor was a priority and the next need. The project was supported by the region through CAMPO. Capital Metro and FTA signed a contract to this effect. FTA sees their investments as permanent. However, if the Austin community were to come back to FTA and indicate that there has been a change in priorities or a new need in this corridor, FTA would consider the request. Before making this request, Capital Metro and the community would need to go through the entire planning process again to show that urban rail is the highest priority in this corridor. It is important to consider that there are many demands on federal funds for New Starts and Small Starts projects, and FTA has already made a permanent investment in this corridor.

Of particular interest is FTA’s assurance that “FTA would consider the request” for urban rail if Capital Metro and the Austin community were able “to show that urban rail is the highest priority in this corridor.”

FTA's actual statement, summarized in CMTA memo provided to Councilmember Martinez. Screenshot from PDF by L. Henry.

FTA’s actual statement, summarized in CMTA memo provided to Councilmember Martinez. Screenshot from PDF by L. Henry.

Clearly, the FTA’s actual statement on the issue of replacing MetroRapid service with urban rail is considerably more encouraging than the interpretation verbalized by Councilmember Martinez during the highly polemical Dec. 12th City Council debate on rejecting the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor and endorsing Project Connect’s recommendation for a less centrally located route for “high-capacity transit”. This basically corroborates the position expressed by Austin Rail Now.


MetroRapid bus service should be a precursor to urban rail, not an obstacle!

Why the MetroRapid bus project currently is NOT an obstacle to urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar

Bottom line: FTA’s actual statement offers a far more propitious prospect for FTA support of urban rail in this crucial core-city corridor.