Austin Proceeds with Light Rail Project Even as Commuter Line Stalls

Austin Light Rail Map» New problems in the development of rail services between downtown and the northern suburbs delay commuter rail opening by another few months.

When Austin voters agreed to finance a new 32-mile downtown-to-Leander commuter rail line in 2004, Capital Metro claimed the project would open in spring 2008. Vehicle delivery problems, track issues, and non-compliance between commuter and freight trains on the rails delayed the opening until spring 2009, but the FRA intervened, saying the project was not yet ready to open. Yesterday, the city got even more bad news, with the FRA claiming that the “vital logic” of the train signals was out of whack, causing further delay. Austin, to say the least, is having a hard time welcoming rail into the city.

Even so, the city itself is embarking on its own rail project — a tramway between northwest Austin, downtown, and the airport. Capital Metro, mired in its own deficiencies, is not leading the project, as it has enough major difficulties to deal with now. Preliminary engineering on the new line, costing around $6 million, would be complete by spring 2010 if all goes as planned and voters would be asked to approve the project that fall.

The light rail project would be mostly street running, but its $600 million estimated cost seems low, because the city will have to build at least three new bridges along with the line. The corridor would hit all the important stops in the U.S.’ 15th-largest city, with a focus on the University of Texas and the Capitol complex. Recent development along the riverfront would be served by a spur to Seaholm.

Needless to say, the light rail line seems more relevant than the Capital Metro commuter line, which will only run 9.5 six round trips a day and provide service to distant and sprawled-out parts of the region.

But the failures of Capital Metro’s project could put a significant dent in any hope that voters will agree to sponsor yet another rail program in a currently rail-less region. While the city may have all the best intentions in pursuing its own project, it seems unlikely that the electorate will see the matter that way. It would be unsurprising if the project were shot down in its tracks next fall.

American cities, so deprived of good pubic transportation today, do not have much of a margin of error when spending hundreds of millions of dollars investing in new capital programs. Transit agencies that have difficulty constructing their first line are likely to see intense criticism, because most people won’t understand the corridor’s benefits until it is up and running. Even worse, Austin’s project — poorly planned as a starter line — will serve so few commuters that when it opens, even the presence of trains may do little to excite the city’s population about future service.

A proposal for another project, even if it makes plenty of sense, will be dismissed as another boondoggle before it has the chance to gain support for more funding.

If Capital Metro’s line opens to acclaim and high ridership before November 2010, however, voters could be racing to the polls in favor of new service. Considering that the commuter line has a maximum capacity of 1,200 people in each direction per day in a city of 750,000, though, that seems unlikely.

Image above: Austin Light Rail link, from The Statesman

6 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • AlexB

    Having gone to school at UT, I remember voting for the first light rail line proposal that failed 49 to 51. That line would have been very useful and attracted a lot of riders, but would have cost close to a billion dollars. The commuter rail line was meant to be skimpy because Capital Metro wanted to proceed with something simple and cheap that the voters would approve. The commuter line budget was around 100 million, paltry for such a long line. If it is successful, the capital expenditure per rider would be very low. It has already spurred TOD at a few stations along its route. As much as I would have preferred the original plan, the voters in Austin didn’t give Capital Metro much choice and I think they did the best they could with what they were given. This is a link to the original proposal, it was basically a combination of the commuter light rail and the street running light rail described in this post. http://www.lightrail.com/maps/austin/austin_light_rail_map.gif

    One of the things I never understood about the current proposal is why there are no transfers between the commuter rail and the tramway. It is easy to imagine someone wanting to live in the suburbs and commute to school or anywhere along the tramway route, where there is a lot of activity. Either the tram should run down MLK east of UT or the commuter train should stop at Manor. The proposed bus connection from the train to UT is not nearly as nice or helpful. Also, the commuter train runs on the street into downtown. Why not just continue it along 4th St to stop at Congress, Guadalupe and Seaholm? The (eventual) heavy commuter rail from San Antonio will stop at Seaholm, and the Amtrak station is a block away, so it makes a lot of sense to make that the rail transit hub of the city. Seaholm is a beautiful building and the views of the river there are classic Austin, a great way to enter the city.

    Even though they are planning for three round trips/day, I am sure if there is demand, they will increase service. The problem is that the train is slower than a car, except during rush hour, and the train does not really go to the heart of downtown Austin. There simply are not that many people that live near the 6 or so stops north of downtown that commute to the Convention Center area. The 6th and Congress area is walkable, but the capital area is not. Like I said earlier, the commuter rail really was the most they could do with what the Austin voters gave the city.

  • Woody

    Maybe Austin voters will be more influenced by favorable developments in Texas’ bigger cities. Austin and San Antonio voted against light rail at about the same time. Dallas and Houston voters have supported light rail.

    Now Houston has the nation’s single most successful light rail line, through downtown and the museum district out to the medical center and the Astrodome area. Funding is in place for three more light rail routes with some prep work underway.

    Dallas already has a rail system “bigger than Dallas” with work on-going to double it to total some 90 miles. Next month a line opens to connect the existing system and downtown to the State Fairgrounds and the Deep Elum entertainment district. In a year or two later the line will connect to Southwest’s hub at Love Field and later DFW Airport.

    Now San Antonio is talking streetcars, and Fort Worth too.

    Funny how Austin, often described as “green” or “blue in a sea of red” or even “pink”, is plagued with toll roads and traffic jams, while its bigger and more conventional neighbors are showing how to do rail-based public transit.

  • Adam

    Some fact checking is in order here:
    1) Voters did not agree to “finance” this rail project. There was not a bond election. Because of a unique legislative requirement, Capital Metro was required to have a referendum simply to build and operate the line. Yes, Capital Metro’s main funding source is sales tax, but to suggest that voters approved some sort of financing plan is not accurate.
    2) The rail line will not operate “only six round trips per day.” The draft schedule includes a total of 19 daily trips (9 southbound and 10 northbound).
    3) The rail system does not have a “maximum capacity of 1,200 people.” Some people have tried to calculate the maximum capacity by multiplying the maximum number of people who can fit on a train by the number of daily trips. But that’s a flawed calculation because it doesn’t account for passengers boarding and alighting at various stations along the way.

  • Adam –
    Thanks for your points. The proposed schedule, according to this article, suggests that there will be 9.5 round trips daily, as you said. Sorry about that mistake.
    You’re very much right also about capacity — I shouldn’t have included that number in the post, as it’s inaccurate.

  • Adam, you’re really reaching; there’s zero chance any significant number of people will be disembarking and being replaced by new passengers in the middle of the route.

    Folks, I’ve been covering this debacle since 2003 at my blog (category archive: http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/cat_dont_hurt_us_mr_krusee_well_do_whatever_you_want.html)

    In short, Austin is attempting to ignore the Red Line as much as possible while planning an urban light rail start – which is exactly the right thing to do, as not very many people will be interested in the 3-seat-ride (car, commuter rail, streetcar) from far northwest reaches; and the commuter rail line doesn’t actually serve the urban area of the city at all.

  • Sorry, the close paren messes up that link. The category archive is here:

    http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/cat_dont_hurt_us_mr_krusee_well_do_whatever_you_want.html

    (I was on the Urban Transportation Commission in 2003 and got an early preview of this Austin-screwing light-rail-destroying debacle; that’s how I got started blogging in the first place. Don’t be fooled; this is not urban rail; it’s not light rail; and never will be; it’s a disastrous route that eliminates the possibility of running trains on the 2000 proposed route, which more closely matches actual success stories in other regions).

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