We're in danger of making yet another wrong turn on Austin's long road to a rail transportation system. Since the 1980s the city has stumbled from one detour to another. The latest is a light rail line from Highland Mall to Riverside via downtown. I don't think this will be good for the city.
I've been a supporter of urban rail since the 1970s. Steel wheels on rail are more efficient than rubber tires on concrete. Rail moves more people per acre of right-of-way than cars or buses. Transit is safer than the hazards of thousands of individual drivers. Rail reinforces the city plan. I still support it. But, I'm distressed by the rail plan now on a fast track to the ballot box.
The first detour for our rail aspirations was the creation of Capitol Metro in the 1980s. I supported it, because I thought it would bring rail. Unfortunately, the early board didn't get the memo. They squandered their mandate on multitudes of big buses and who knows what. When the first board chairman boasted to me that “We're awash in cash!” I sensed disaster ahead.
Disaster and more detours below the jump.Sure enough, disaster came, in the forms of empty buses, accusations of financial mismanagement, and suspicions of corruption. I had the pleasure of sitting in a council meeting when another Capitol Metro chairman carried on a dialog with a councilmember about how there's nothing wrong with insider-dealing. Then came the Texas legislature to fix our wagon.
The second detour was the 2000 election to build rail. In that case, Capitol Metro put a good line-the right route- up to the voters, and it lost by only a fraction of a percent. It went off the rails in the face of a coalition of the short-sighted, the self-centered, and the distrustful. The line was bound to face an uphill grade against those who prefer cars and those who are afraid that a rail line nearby will raise their rent. But the switch was thrown by those who just didn't think that Capitol Metro could do anything right.
The third detour came when Capitol Metro invited voters to build a commuter rail from Leander to downtown on existing track. It was cheap. It was easy. It was approved. Like a lot of people, I supported it, because I just wanted to see some rail get done. But could someone please explain to me how this is a successful rail line, because I just can't see it. Neither can most of Austin.
Now here comes the fourth detour. It's the rail from Riverside to Highland Mall! Are you kidding me? Where's the demand? What problem does this solve? How does this reinforce our city plan?
Some people support rail because it's cool, and some support rail because it does cool things. The first group are looking for somewhere- anywhere- to put a rail line. If they can just find a route where no one is going to complain too loudly, they'll put the line there and hope someone will ride it. The second group is harder to please. They know where there's a problem, and they know where there's an opportunity, and they think that problem will be solved and that opportunity will be met by a rail line. At this point, I'm in that second group.
To put the rail line in the place where there's a problem, and the place where there's an opportunity, we should put it along the number one bus line. North Lamar, Guadalupe, and South Congress. That's where the most people are traveling now. That's where they need better service. And that's the route that will give us the biggest return on investment.
The opportunity of the number one route is not just yielding the biggest return in ridership and mobility and farebox receipts. It is also the opportunity to reinforce the fundamental structure of our city, as identified forty years ago in the Austin Tomorrow Plan. That plan identified the north-south orientation of our city, basically along the number one bus line, as the best shape for the city for numerous reasons. That basic structure still holds true today.
Now we're told that we can't put rail on the number one bus line because we are putting rapid bus on that route, and if we convert to rail, we may have to pay back our federal grant. I've advocated rapid bus on the number one line, but as a transition to rail, not an obstacle. Right now we're building a lot of boarding platforms along the number one route, and if those are not sited to serve an eventual rail line, then I will just despair. We would deserve to have our grant pulled.
Besides, the so-called rapid bus now under construction is the weakest of halfway measures. Rapid buses should run in dedicated right-of-way, but these will be stuck in traffic. Before we put in the rail line proposed, we ought to buy all the right-of-way to put the number one buses in dedicated lanes. Then we'll be ready for rail, and on the right route.
Focus, people! Our first real urban rail line should reinforce the basic shape of the city. It should solve an existing problem. It should serve people riding now.