Rail Should Shape the City, Solve Problems, and Serve the Riders

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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.


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  1. We Need Rail Now, Not in 10-20 years
    I have to disagree.  While there is a lot to like about a Guadalupe/Lamar route.  The specifics are really challenging.

    – Constrained ROW.  The biggest challenge is the limited right-of-way along Guadalupe from 29th – 35th.  There is no room for dedicated lanes in this stretch, and it isn't clear how construction could occur without causing major disruptions.  The only way to obtain additional ROW would be through eminent domain and tearing down buildings, an expensive and politically challenging alternative.  This was also a problem in 2000, and development along the corridor since then has only made it more challenging.  It is possible that if we had succeeded with the 2000 light rail vote that it would have only set up a big fight over how to build it through this stretch.  

    – Unclear Destination.  Where would a rail line coming out of Downtown along G/L go?  The Triangle?  Probably too short, and we'd need to find a location for a service yard.  Crestview?  Kind of far, and it offers a poor connection to the Red Line with limited benefit.  183?  Expensive to go that far.

    – Metro Rapid.  We have a new service starting on Lamar and South Congress in six weeks.  Metro Rapid will run all of the way from Parmer to Southpark Meadows.  Why should we double down on transit investments in only one corridor?  As urban rail would only serve a portion of the corridor, how would you make it work with Metro Rapid service along the rest of the corridor?

    – Federal Funding.  If we're going to build rail, we'll need federal funding to do it.  And, as we've received federal funds to build Metro Rapid, it will likely be awhile, a decade or more, before we can go to them to replace Metro Rapid.

    For these reasons, arguing that Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress is the one, true way for urban rail is arguing for delay.  Do we really want to punt again and delay making a decision on rail for another decade?

    There are a lot of benefits to an East Riverside-Highland alignment which have been identified through the rail planning process, and how it will benefit people in making the north-south movements that characterize traffic in Austin.  There are also benefits in waiting to look at how we might run rail along G/L.  First, is that Phase 2 of the planning process, which will run from January – June, will include a study of potential modes, including subways.  The experience with digging the Waller Creek tunnel has led some to suggest that building a subway in Austin could be less expensive than estimated.  A subway is one way to get through the congestion between MLK and 35th, and the planning process should give us some better numbers on what a subway might cost.

    The second benefit is on where a G/L line might run to.  Connecting through the Triangle to a Lone Star Rail station at 35th/45th could be an interesting route.  As Lone Star moves forwards with its planning, it could offer us a better alternative for where to run a G/L line.

    We need to deal with traffic today.  We need to give people a new alternative for getting into Downtown.  We can't wait until G/L is someday maybe ready for rail.

    • One and done.
      A bad rail line means we don't get any more – for another generation. This Highlandmueller line is that line; the kind of 6,000 – 8,000 boardings/day line that Capital Metro and their shills will desperately claim is a success, next to examples from other cities where decent lines start at 20,000 boardings/day and go up from there.

      East Riverside is in there to make the whole package look better; it'll get dropped in the next phase as they rediscover how hard it is to cross the river. Depending on who you believe, “Highland” is either to the mall (very unlikely given the lack of a good path) or “Mueller lite” – in other words, exactly what was proposed before Project Connect promised to go back to the drawing board.

      Metro Rapid is a joke – it's not a transit improvement compared to existing 1/101 service and will cost more. More importantly, not only did nobody ever really ask the Feds the exact question that's necessary here regarding funding, the Project Connect people flat-out promised at the beginning of the process (as well as years earlier in their roles as Capital Metro staff) that Rapid Bus would in no way serve as an impediment to urban rail. So, they were either lying then, or they're lying now.

      Jeb, the community deserves better than uncritical, fawning, support of whatever plan is crapped out by Capital Metro and the city (because they can't afford embarassment related to Metro Rapid).

      • These points are tired
        Comeon Jeb, people are tired of hearing it'll be at least a decade before we can “replace MetroRapid” and why shouldn't “double down” all regarding MetroRapid. You've got to come up with something new.

        Who in their right mind has ever said we'd be replacing all of MetroRapid with light rail in 10 years? Heck, even 20 or 40 years? No one. We're talking about light rail on North Lamar and Guadalupe where, yes, MetroRapid will exist in a few weeks. No, we're not talking about the entire system. Your point is tired. Give the world something new to chew on. “We'd be considering replacing approximately 20% of the MetroRapid service, the parts where it overlaps…” is a better talking point for you. Albeit, still not a point anyone is presenting. Moving on…

        “Double down” needs to be retired also. Can y'all come up with something new? If you're implying there will be too much transit on that corridor because of MetroRapid buses snailing through, well CapMetro is solving that for you because they're removing the 101 as the 1L buses. So if “double down” means “maybe break even” at your casino, you're betting at the wrong card game.

        I'll give you the “unclear destination” is new, but please, how is that even a thing? And why is Crestview a bad transfer for the MetroRail? Southbound commuter trains have a least 80% of their boardings by that point. Do you have a better MetroRail transfer point in mind? Oh, I see, swing by 35 and airport an pickup the 15 extra people who boarded at Crestview and Highland?

        Time to move on from the tired points man. Give us some beef to chew on. Or tofurkey, this is Austin.  

  2. On the wrong rail
    I'm sure the Guadalupe/N Lamar route has its challenges, I'm sure the construction will cause disruption, I'm sure thousands of people will complain about disruption, I'm sure many businesses will claim loss of income; I'm sure sure also that it will have a much higher ridership; I'm sure it will have many more useful boarding points and I'm sure it will go places people want to go, in a time that will make it practical to take the train.

    I'm also sure that if we blow this opportunity we will not get another for a very long time, if ever.


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