Austin Contemplates Urban Rail, but Skepticism is in the Air

» A year after the opening of a commuter rail line to the city’s northern suburbs, Austin dedicates funding to planning a light rail line that focuses on the inner city.

In 2000, Austin came within 2,000 votes of approving a $2 billion, 52-mile light rail system that would have run through the city and its suburbs along east-west and north-south corridors. The first stage, estimates suggested, would attract more than 30,000 daily riders and serve the city’s most prominent destinations, including downtown and the University of Texas.

The failure of that referendum, however, forced those plans to be abandoned. Local transit proponents replaced it with the much less ambitious 32-mile Capital MetroRail, which opened in 2010 for a cost of about $100 million. Like many similar commuter rail lines built over the past few years, MetroRail’s limited frequencies and poor downtown connectivity have limited ridership to less than 1,000 boardings a day on average in the nation’s 14th-biggest city of 800,000 inhabitants. A bus rapid transit line is also in the works in a similar right-of-way as the 2000 light rail line, though that project is likely to be less-than-rapid, since it will have no dedicated lanes.

Now the city’s back with a new project — a 16.5-mile plan that would cost $1.3 billion to construct. It has been in development at least since fall 2009. But for some local writers, the city’s plans could be yet another disappointment for the capital of the Lone Star State. Their biggest concern: Half of the project’s tracks would operate in the road right-of-way, alongside automobiles. Though the project is still being planned, it would be submitted to voters in the City of Austin in November 2012, according to current plans by Mayor Lee Leffingwell. Municipal residents approved the 2000 project, though their suburban counterparts did not.

Because of its street-running nature, the light rail line would be a pseudo streetcar, a rail corridor with reserved lanes only along the outside stretches that connect to the new airport to the south and to a redevelopment of the old Mueller Airport northeast of the state capitol complex. Downtown, trains would get stuck in traffic like everyone else.

This has infuriated local transit advocates like Chris Bradford, who writes at Austin Contrarian. Mr. Bradford argues that streetcars may actually increase congestion and provide inadequate incentive for people to take the train instead of driving. Indeed, especially for trips across the city — not ending downtown — light rail that gets stuck behind traffic lights will be uncompetitive when people can drive on freeways and avoid downtown traffic altogether. Why spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a line that would hardly improve speeds over existing buses?

The alternative, however, isn’t nearly as simple to implement as critics of this new project seem to be implying.

In theory, it wouldn’t cost much more to provide reserved lanes for the light rail on the 4- and 6-lane streets along which it would run. All that would be required would be a few curbs that prevented cars from entering the train’s right-of-way.

The problem, unfortunately, is that removing lanes from car traffic and dedicating them to transit is never an easy proposition. In Los Angeles, for instance, the proposed Crenshaw light rail line is facing criticism from neighborhood advocates who argue that a surface-level project would destroy the local business community. Their suggestion: Spending hundreds of millions more on an entirely underground alignment.

Car drivers, who of course predominate in a city like Austin, see dedicating lanes to transit in the middle of downtown as an affront to their rights to mobility. Whether or not their argument is persuasive, a politician cannot simply dismiss their concerns as irrelevant. That could cost a mayor an election.

The city has been discussing this project or one like it for years, so much so that those who are developing the Mueller Airport have actually included a corridor for the future rail line in their site plans. The new airport is eager to provide its customers direct transit service to and from downtown. And a rail service that actually serves the University of Texas and the busiest areas of the center city — not true of the existing MetroRail — would be quite appealing.

Austin’s response to these difficulties has been been transforming its “light rail” program into a streetcar project, which will require a more limited investment than a subway and which would stimulate less opposition than a more typical light rail line. In terms of increasing the number of people using transit for their daily trips, this will guarantee fewer riders and ensure that those who are using the system get a lower quality of service.

Are these political compromises worth it just to get a rail project rolling? If Austin proposes to fund the line in a vote next year, should transit proponents support it or oppose it?

Image above: Downtown Austin, from Flickr user Jorge Michel (cc)

57 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Ocean Railroader

    The high gas prices will clear out the streets and roads for the streetcars over the next few years if we want it or not. The City of Richmond VA is activly planning out removing two car lanes on Broad Street to have two bus rappid only lanes on a six lane wide major road. They have marked off some of the lanes already in downtown Richmond for the regular type buses and plan to slowly push these bus only lanes west along Broad Street.

  • Max Wyss

    It is kind of “funny” to hear that whining of the “local businesses” to “lose business with the light rail line”. I think we heard that in each and every city introducing light rail within the last 20 years or so.

    And the reality? Businesses are doing better than ever…

    There are possibilities to gradually make dedicated lanes for traffic. But it would require for one, a dedication to a long term plan; by banning the private automobiles from the center lanes piece by piece.

    In many cities, the transit lane is also opened for emergency vehicles (pretty much obvious), but also taxis (although some stretches have been closed for taxis again when they did not behave properly, and there are also issues with traffic lights preference for transit.

    So, there are possibilities, and such a project should be supported.

    • Express buses seem a more reasonable co-user than taxis ~ low floor buses can even use modern low floor streetcar platforms, as long as its a rightside platform system.

      It would also offer a means of spreading the regional extent of the direct benefit, helping to attract more political allies in the difficult fight to offer drivers more parking spaces downtown (as to why its hard to give a benefit to motorists, failure of communication is all that comes to mind).

    • Sorry to divert this Austin thread to comment on an LA topic, but I suspect Austn transit advocates will have to deal with the same subject.

      Max Wyss wrote,
      “It is kind of “funny” to hear that whining of the “local businesses” to “lose business with the light rail line”. I think we heard that in each and every city introducing light rail within the last 20 years or so.”

      The linked article from the TTP post incorrectly slants the sentiment of Crenshaw Line advocates in Los Angeles. A strong group among the advocates includes Leimert Park Village Merchants Association (LPVMA) representing one the largest collection of African American shops and galleries in the nation. I personally spoke to their president on 4/23/11 and was told they WANT the Light Rail. The just want it underground for safety reasons and a stop at Leimert Park Village. They also support expansion of the Light Rail northward to Wilshire Blvd and beyond.

      The LPVMA has good reason to want Crenshaw Line underground because their political reps seen have years of accident data on the at-grade, unfenced Blue Line passing by so many residential neighborhoods in South LA. It is also why those wise advocates are holding up the Expo Line due to at-grade crossing at Farmdale Street next to Dorsey High School and Rancho Cienega Recreation Center surrounded by a residential neighborhood, see MAP
      http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&geocode=&q=4343+Crenshaw+Blvd,+Los+Angeles&sll=34.005406,-118.331457&sspn=0.010957,0.012274&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=4343+Crenshaw+Blvd,+Los+Angeles,+California+90008&ll=34.023454,-118.346668&spn=0.008794,0.011008&z=17

      A more accurate portrayal of what’s going on is that LA rail transit advocacy is maturing.

      They want grade-seperated rail transit more like BART and DC Metro, even though the latter are Heavy Rail. And if you think its just Crenshaw advocates, wait until the Expo Line approaches Santa Monica and the proposal to extend the Crenshaw Line north up either LaBrea or Fairfax to West Hollywood and Hollywood. Then it will be obvious that no business/residential district in LA wants at-grade Light Light passing thru at 40 mph.

      At-grade Streetcars traveling 10-15 mph receive a warmer welcome because they are safer and tend to address different objectives.

      • Max Wyss

        It may be a cultural difference, but I don’t see problems with streetcars running at 50 km/h in shared lanes (because that’s the European speed limit within towns), or 65 km/h on segregated right of way.

        The rules are quite simple. The rail vehicle has always the right of way, and it is stronger than you, even if you are in a UAV.

        In other words, when a car is involved, it is always the car driver’s fault. (on the other hand, I could now start ranting about the capabilities of USAn car drivers…).

        So, maybe I am unjust towards that organization, but it looks to me like NIMFY-ism.

  • Brad Absalom

    I live in Austin and this plan is really frustrating. One of the most congested sections of the route is along Congress from 11th to 1st, but there is perpendicular parking along both sides of this street. They could easily remove the parking and have more than enough space for dedicated lanes with a median in the middle for the stops without having to lose any lanes for actual traffic. I know they’re afraid to make the plan too ambitious since the Red Line has gone so poorly, but if they don’t set this up correctly in the beginning it will be nearly impossible to improve it in the future.

  • dw

    Unless Capital Metro can come up with a plan with a segregated right of way, the voters will not approve the plan. The fact that the red line has done so poorly on ridership, and because of all the problems it had opening, will result in further voter skepticism. If Austin is able to market the line as a “green” line, it will help appeal to Austin’s common environmental psyche. But then they will also have to appeal to commuter’s self interest as well, thus my remark about the segregated right of way. Austin needs more of a metro-like light rail like the one in Dallas-Fort Worth, not the streetcar-lrt hybrid that is run in Houston. Probably better for them to continue developing a real streetcar and THEN sell light rail to the voters.

  • Danny

    There is a middle proposal that I have seen all over San Francisco that seems to work well. The right lanes on some roads are reserved as bus lanes during rush hour, with the exception of cars that are making right turns. During non-peak times, all vehicles can use the lane.

    It is a solution that increases the capacity of the roads while decreasing the impact on the cars that aren’t contributing to congestion.

    • The best practice is to put the transit mall in the median, so that there’s no conflict with cars that want to park, get out of the parking lane, or turn right.

      In New York, when they painted right-hand bus lanes on 1st and 2nd as well as instituted off-board fare collection, the speed improvement was small.

      • Adirondacker12800

        and how vigorously do the Brownies enforce it?

      • Car traffic one way facing the opposite direction to the exclusive transit lane is a better solution, as it does not waste space on a central median that could be used to expand the sidewalk on the transit lane side.

        • Meh. Contraflow lanes have safety issues, and couplets compromise service identity. For BRT the standard is operation in the median, with anything else used only when there’s no space (see e.g. the ITDP standards, or Delhi’s raving about how much better median buses are than curb buses, or even Jane Jacobs’ rant against one-way pairs in Manhattan). For LRT it’s the same, but variations are much rarer.

          On a 100′ wide road, it should be as follows:

          Sidewalk (18′)
          Parking lane (9′)
          Car lane (11′)

          Transit (12′)
          Transit (12′)

          Car lane (11′)
          Parking lane (9′)
          Sidewalk (18′)

          If bike lanes are desired, they should come out of narrower car lanes and sidewalks; there’s ample space even for lanes that satisfy the Dutch standard of 4 meters for a two-way lane and 1.5 meters of physical separation from cars.

          • Safety issues! How many crashes are there between left (Australian right) turning cars across the tramline?

            • Adirondacker12800

              It’s not like traffic in the same direction never has any accidents.
              I’m hoping the Houstonians have figured it out

          • You are, however, correct in reporting that the fashion of the day is median alignments.

            The best outcome for cyclists is the one that minimizes turning interactions with motorists. As far as car / light rail crashes, minimizing turning interactions is key to reducing that risk as well.

            As far as safety dangers of contraflow, rising bollards are a lovely training tool for the death cagers.

            • The safety is for pedestrians.

              And for the record, between Zurich, Geneva, Bern, and Basel, there are zero couplets. One tram line in Basel ends in a largish one-way loop. I don’t know if they use contraflow lanes or median running (Max?) or curb running, but both directions run on the same street.

              • Max Wyss

                As you asked directly…

                Median is more frequent, but at least in Zürich, there is also a trend for having the segregated right of way on one side of the street. The latter is mainly in “suburban” areas, and crossing of the streetcar lines is protected with signals.

                Although there are “specialists” in Switzerland too, as this shows (note that the article may no longer beaccessible within a few days). In this case, the police is investigating whether the signal worked properly.

                The loop you talk about in Basel is (if I think that’s the one) in a mainly pedestrian-only zone, and car traffic is very local (or deliveries).

                Zürich has one quite intersting stretch of a street, where ordinary traffic is one-way on one lane, and the other lane is a bi-directional bus lane. “unpleasant encounters” between buses are prevented with signalling — and I haven’t heard of any such encounters.

              • Max Wyss

                As you asked, another one…

                Genève has a considerable loop in the Cornavin station area. The streets are one-way streets, and the tram is running in the general flow. In one direction, it is left of the car lanes, in the other it is right of them.

                And right now, there is one place where there is a barrier with a roller that can be opened by the tram vehicle, but not by any other. But then, you better don’t try to pass on there, as it is a construction site, and the tracks are on 30 cm high blocks; to get out of that place with your car (even if you have an UAV), you will need a crane (and a very big purse for the fine and the compensation to the TPG…)

                When we come to barriers, in suburban Zürich, there are a few barriers which can only be opened by buses; this is in order to prevent non-local car traffic searching a shortcut. The barriers are triggered with the “sesam”, the system used to get priority at traffic lights.

                About the bollards: I have seen such things in Aix-en-Provence, protecting the old town (with very narrow streets). The microbus drivers do have keys for them, and if you are a local business, you may get keys as well, so you can access, but it is completely restricted for others (in particular tourists; those types have a pair of feet to use in the old town…).

              • A segregated ROW on one side of the street avoids the “standing in the middle of the street” effect as well.

              • Max Wyss

                Actually, the segregated ROW on one side of the street provides a great potential for making that street much more “livable”. If the ROW is not to be used by tyred-vehicles, it is possible to create a lawn around the tracks, which makes the whole thing a lot greener, and also absorbs noise pretty well. So, ideal for residential areas. And if fences are needed, make them in form of hedges.

    • Danny. The curb transit+right turn lane works passably for buses, because buses can merge into the adjacent lane when the curb lane is blocked. What you describe is a classic example of how streetcars in mixed traffic can be slower and less reliable than buses would be.

      • There is no car right turn lane if there are no cars passing that direction. There is a facing car left turn lane, and the left turn light has transit lane occupancy detection.

  • Nathanael

    The difference between shared lanes and segregated lanes is PAINT, for God’s sake. If there’s at least one auto-only lane each way, it costs NOTHING, except politically.

    Hell, maybe that’s what Austin planners are betting on. Build the shared lanes, then kick the autos out when gas prices shoot through the roof, traffic drops, and everyone starts demanding faster streetcars. :shrug:

  • Dexter Wong

    Well, from what I’ve been reading on the subject, streetcars are good for slow-speed circulation in a developed area like a downtown district, and light-rail is for moving people between a suburban area and a developed area at higher speeds by using a reserved right-of-way. To try to get a streetcar line to do light-rail work may ultimately please no one. The trip may be as long as a bus might take plus the road will dirupted during installation of the tracks.

    • Max Wyss

      With all due respect, but this differentiation between “streetcar” and “light rail” is purely artificial. It is essentially the same system. And the vehicles are in many cities the same.

      That means that switching between “streetcar” and “light rail” zones is seamless, and is implemented in many cities.

      Why else would the tram-train systems be so successful?

      • Dexter Wong

        Jarrett Walker believes otherwise, also the website of Sumitomo Rail has a graph illustrating the differences between the different types of rail cars they sell.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Amtrak trains run in the middle of the street all over the West. They ain’t anything close to light. South Shore, the line that shares track with Metra Electric runs in the street in places. Streetcars that are designed for higher speeds when they are on separate ROW, can run in the street, they used to be called Interurbans.

        • Max Wyss

          It may very well be that Jarrett Walker and I have different cultural backgrounds, which would explain the differentiation. And this differentiation may be a north american thing (assuming that you refer to the Sumitomo pages aimed at north american customers).

          But then, when I take the Zürich line 10 from Hauptbahnhof to the airport, I don’t have to change from the streetcar Cobra to the light rail cobra anywhere on the way… it is all the same Cobra.

          Or when I am in Lyon and take RhônExpress Tango from the Gare Part Dieu to the airport, I don’t have to change anywhere, but I encounter many Lyon Tram Citadis…

          And then, what are tram-train vehicles?

          • They’re mostly for smaller regional centers, where the tram is upgraded to run on the heavy rail network. The one in Karlsruhe (sp?) had a tram with declining ridership and a regional rail service with declining ridership and turned it around with a single seat ride along the regional rail route into the tramline.

            There are some projects in Germany, France and Belgium. Alstom, for example, offers a version of their main tram line with dual power, tramline and then either higher voltage DC, 25kV AC, or diesel.

            • Max Wyss

              Which gets us to the rather interesting situation in Mulhouse. It is a small regional center, agreed.

              In this case, the tram-train corridor is actually operated by city-tram (you may call them streetcars), the tram-train trams (you may call them light rail), and heavy rail.

              The city tramway network (line) serves the main station as well, and then gets on the same right of way as the SMCF line, but does not share tracks. At the end point fo the city tram line, you will find the connection to the SNCF tracks, which is used by the tram-train vehicles, which also switch power, signalling system etc. That place is also (if I remember correctly) the first stop of the heavy rail services. The tram-trains continue on the SNCF line with some stops only served by them, but not the heavy rail vehicles (which can kind of be considered to be “express”) until the end point. From there, the heavy rail vehicles continue as locals until their end of the line. Sounds a bit complex, but so far, it seems to work quite well. Of course, tickets are valid on all levels (thanks to zone fares).

              Vehicle types used:

              City tram: Alstom Citadis 302
              Tram-train: Siemens Avanto U25500
              SNCF: X73500 (diesel railcar)

      • EngineerScotty

        There are numerous parameters by which “light rail” and “streetcar” may vary, only some of which have to do with the vehicle type:

        * Streetcar class vehicles are shorter (~20m long), somewhat narrower, and present axle loads similar to busses or heavy trucks; and are thus more likely to be able to operate on a roadbed designed for automobiles (including trucks). Many of ‘em also have things like turn signals, brake lights and other external indicators which are familiar to motorists.

        * Light rail vehicles are generally longer (~30m), slightly wider, and with heavier axle loads–generally, LRT vehicles cannot run on standard roadbeds without causing damage. (They’re still about half has heavy per linear foot compared to FRA compliant rolling stock in the US).

        * Streetcars often run in the street in mixed traffic. LRT vehicles seldom do. On the opposite side of the coin, many streetcar-class vehicles have trouble with high-speed operation, and are thus not really suitable for “metro” levels of service.

        * Both vehicle types generally offer low-platform or curb-level boarding.

        When one speaks of streetcars, one might be referring to the vehicle type, or the mode of operation–it’s important to determine which. (And of course, the above are all generalizations which may not apply to your community’s transit service).

        • Max Wyss

          This can be used as a differentiation. However, we can come up with many examples proving the opposite…

          It may make more sense to differentiate between operating modes:

          • Streetcar mode: street running, lanes more or less shared with others; grooved rails. Train length below 50 meters (normally determined by the station length). Nowadays mainly low-floor, or at least 80% low floor. The German language term for that would be “Strassenbahn”.

          • Light rail mode: segregated right of way, vignoles rails. Train length up to 100 meters. High-floor or low floor. Some signal-controlled operation. The German language term for this would be “Stadtbahn”.

          Of course, in many places there would be switching between modes.

          I guess the “short” vehicles are the US-style “streetcars”, essentially an extrapolation of the “two rooms and a bath” type (as it has been shown for Washington DC). But there is also the single-articulatd type which is also around 20 meters long. Such types are very often operated in sets of two, even as streetcars. However, the current trend is towards articulated trains (mainly because of the 100% low-floor requirements).

          On the other hand, the light rail types are tendentially towards one or two articulations, and, as said, very often mu-ed.

          But then, again… The Lyon Citadis are longer than the RhônExpress Tangos. The above mentioned Mulhouse Citadis have the same axle load as the Siemens Avantos. Budapest has 56 meter long Combino XXLs.

          So, it is really difficult to “compartementalize” those systems. Is it necessary? Probably, because the differentiation between operation modes may be too complicated for the public, the media and the politicians.

    • Have two distinct systems, you need an interchange, and quite often the entirety of the time “gained” by the light rail running to the interchange “fast” is lost waiting for the streetcar.

      Better to improve the speed of the streetcar by giving them the sidewalk lane going one way facing car traffic facing the other, and let the streetcar just run through from the segregated right of way to the street right of way.

      ====sidewalk==========
      / / / / /parking/ / / / / /
      ————car———–>
      ————car———–>
      <———-cycle———–
      <——-streetcar———-
      ====sidewalk==========

      Buses and jitney cabs can also run on the streetcar lane.

      • Per above, the following is also fine:

        ====sidewalk==========

        - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

        ====sidewalk==========

        (NB. Cycle one lane width divided)

        The bollards are between the car lanes and everyone else.

        • ====sidewalk==========
          ————car———–…
          …————car———–
          ———-cycle———–…
          …———-cycle———–
          ——-streetcar———-…
          …——-streetcar———-
          ====sidewalk==========

  • I think I’d like to see how Capital Metro will pay for the line before I could oppose or support it, considering the financial mess the commuter rail line has put them in. Even Salt Lake City is proposing reducing bus service in order to be able to afford their new light rail lines. I wouldn’t want to see bus service cut overall just for one line.

    I feel that installing the BRT first and nursing an increase in corridor ridership before installing the rail is the way to go. Vancouver, BC has been doing this and I think it should become an industry best practice. Once the Lamar/Congress BRT becomes popular I think there will be much more support for public transit expansion.

    In regards to what Texas city Austin should emulate, I think Houston is better than Dallas. Austin is much smaller than Dallas, and the distance from the outlying suburbs to the center of Austin is smaller than the same distance in Dallas. I also like how Houston seems to be focusing more on the dense inner city rather than trying to serve everywhere, although I don’t think that is DART’s fault because of the political makeup of the system.

    • Brad Absalom

      I’ve was sort of thinking the same thing. Before we committ to spending all this money, give the BRT a dedicated lane and see where that goes. I would love it if grows enough to justify the expense, but without the deciated lanes on Guadalupe, Congress, etc, the BRT or the Urban Rail won’t work.

  • dw

    What works in California may not work in Texas. Just have a look at Houston’s light rail. There is a Youtube video called Metro’s Greatest Hits which answers this question quite well.

    Each city has it’s owm metro-psyche that needs to be addressed in order for a plan to work. I think the Red Line needs to be successful in order for another rail line to have popular support. Without popular support, even the best systems have failed, and many good ones have been killed in the planning stages. People here are tired of tax increases to fund public projects, and this could very well doom this proposal. And for those who argue that the funds would come from elsewhere, know that most Texans are skeptical of those types of claims, because when they have believed them, they usually get dinged through the back door.

    On the other hand, a “show me” situation could work wonders. Austin should refine what it has before going on to the next project. Then the voters may give Capital Metro a chance with this, or a similar, project. Credibility is an amazing thing.

    • dw,

      Austin, Houston, Dallas, LA, San Diego, Sacramento, Phoenix, St. Louis, Seattle and Denver voters have to decide how much safety, speed and schedule dependability they want in their Light Rail expansion, rule of thumb cost estimates:

      20% cost/mile of Heavy Rail, at grade: Houston
      33% cost/mile of Heavy Rail, some grade separation: San Francisco
      50% cost/mile of Heavy Rail, grade separated: Green Line in Los Angeles

      • AlexB

        None of those systems are heavy rail. They are all light rail (unless you are talking about the BART instead of the MUNI).

  • AlexB

    The link that connects to the ridership estimate of 32,000 people refers to a year 2000 project that is totally different from the one that is discussed in the Statesman article this post is based on. The 2000 plan was a good one, as it basically replaced the #1, #1L, and #101 buses – far and away the most ridden – with fast, clean and modern light rail vehicles. If that project were built today, after a decade of torrid growth along that corridor (Lamar/Guadalupe/Congress), ridership would be much much higher.

    While I would welcome the streetcar plan from the Statesman article as an improvement of sorts, it’s terribly underwhelming and most likely not worth $1.3 billion. The streetcars would be nice and cute, but likely no faster than the buses they’d replace. It would go to the Mueller development, a new new-urbanist development, but it’s ignoring where most of the growth in Austin is occurring and doesn’t even connect to the brand new “red line,” unless they are planning to add a stop. The other branch would run up Red River – not nearly as built up as Guadalupe. It’s as though the people who came up with this plan are totally unfamiliar with the city. Downtown, there are at least 2 miles of redundant track on parallel streets only a couple blocks apart. The line that goes to the airport takes a good route, but then it apparently stops at the lake and doesn’t cross into downtown, except along a “possible route.” It’s so dumb it looks like something a planner did on the back of a napkin while drunk.

    When I went to school in Austin, I had a car but rode my bike everywhere or took the bus. Parking was difficult and everything I needed was typically less than 2-3 miles away. I lived in West Campus, the densest neighborhood near school, and upzoned 6 years ago for 6+ story apartment buildings with reduced parking requirements – unique in Austin outside of downtown. This proposed streetcar system would not be useful for West Campus, although it does hit a number of hospitals, dormitories and connects the football stadium to the downtown entertainment areas. It if existed when I was in school, I would have used it only rarely and it certainly wouldn’t save any time over a bicycle or bus – the transit modes of choice for most UT students.

    Build a high capacity North-South light rail line down Lamar/Guadalupe/Congress with its own right of way (subway?) and run the trains very frequently. THEN, build feeder streetcars or have new frequent buses that run East-West through the middle of the densest areas near downtown. A streetcar along 51st street, connecting to this theoretical service would probably get residents at Mueller to downtown faster than a direct streetcar, depending on how easy the transfer would be. That would be very successful and a good use of cash. Austin would start to look like Toronto the way everything centers on Yonge St.

    • Brad Absalom

      Hey Alex,
      I agree the routes are strange. But they are planning on building a stop on the red line where ever the Urban Rail meets it on its way to the Mueller development. I personally like the Red Rive route to get to the Mueller better than Manor.

      There’s no doubt that the 2000 plan who kill this one, and it really sucks that it was shot down by such a slim margin, but it sort of is what it is.

      To me, the worst thing about this current plan is right now they’re refusing to have dedicated lanes through the busiest part of down. It’s nice that it will on Riverside, but the traffic isn’t that bad out there.

    • Alex, we can now never (for reasonable values of never) build the 2000 plan – because people didn’t listen to yours truly (only pro-rail guy that opposed the Red Line) back in 2004. There is no way to justify taking the lane on Guadalupe/Lamar when it’s only part of a 1-transfer route to the suburbs – the disruption to motor vehicle capacity is SO extreme that only the extraordinarily high prospective ridership of the FULL plan justifies it.

      Guadalupe between 27th and 30th had room for just one motor vehicle lane with 2 tracks. Not one each way; one TOTAL. Side streets were to be used in the last plan I saw back in 2003 (when it was still a live topic, before Krusee made CM the Offer They Should Have Refused).

  • I’m in a PMP class all week with little time to comment, but a couple of things that need to be addressed during a break.

    1. This isn’t Capital Metro.
    2. This was originally conceived as a way to rescue rail DESPITE the Red Line, and has morphed, through a lack of political courage, into a Red Line circulator with a bit extra.
    3. We are fighting for reserved guideway, but those who would vote for any rail no matter what make this a difficult endeavor since the lack of political courage mentioned above means they’ve only planned for reserved guideway where it wouldn’t reduce motor vehicle lanes.
    4. This thing is likely doomed – it’ll either get passed as shared guideway (and be awful) or get voted down due to lack of strong political will.

    and

    5. the recent distinction that light rail should be for ‘line haul’ is ridiculous. People don’t WANT to be circulated in slow, stuck-in-traffic, vehicles, or they would flock to existing bus service. Likewise, people don’t want to transfer, or they would have flocked to the Red Line.

    The BEST light rail lines in this country do BOTH line haul AND urban running – and they do both in their own lane (or own off-street guideway). Nobody has EVER succeeded with this stupid idea that trains going nowhere useful but fast are the first step and then trains going useful places but stuck behind everybody else’s car should be the second. Even in Portland, it took multiple light rail lines (good) PLUS cancelling free bus service downtown to get their streetcar ridership up to the level of a BAD light rail line.

    Jebus.

    • Brad Absalom

      But would it be possible for the Urban Rail cars to share Cap Metro’s corridor from Lamar to Kramer or Howard or is that technologically not feasible. If it was possible, couldn’t they use it, and then did shared running from Airport/Lamar to 45th/Guadalupe and then had a reserved guide way from there. I’m trying to remember for sure, but I think there is parking on Guadalupe from there that they could remove to make room for the reserved lanes. Forget the politics of it, I know that is virtually impossible, but is it technically possible? If they could do that, while it’s not perfect, it’s close to the 2000 plan.

      • Brad Absalom

        No to water down my own idea, but I looked a Google maps and the parking on Guadalupe doesn’t really start in earnest until 26th street, not 45th, and it’s only on one side. I still think it would beneficial to remove the parking and use the additional lane for transit, but it’s not exactly as I remember it.

        • Not feasible – you could theoretically make it work in fantasyland (which is what jerks like JMVC will tell you so you don’t oppose the Red Line’s expansion plans), but it would never happen in reality.

          And yeah, parking on Guadalupe is not the issue – the most constrained stretch is 4 narrow lanes with no parking. South of 27th or so and north of 30th, it would have been like most of Houston’s corridor – 1 vehicle lane each way and 1 train track each way.

          • Brad Absalom

            I can see why it’s politically very difficult/impossible, but is it technically possible, from a pure engineering point of view for the Red Line and the Urban Rail to share? That’s what I was driving at?

            The street car could share a lane with cars for that section of Lamar from Airport to UT. I know that’s far from ideal, but if they had reserved guide way downtown, then it could be ok. If they removed the parking on Guadalupe, they could use the additional space to create median stops, which will help speed up the shared guide way section. I will admit that I don’t know a lot about the engineering of these systems; hence the question above, so maybe this is more difficult that I realize.

            What’s extra frustrating about this is when you compare to Dallas. The DART system isn’t perfect, but they took an entire street (Pacific) away from cars downtown for the light rail lines that go through there. In Austin, we can’t even take away parking to create reserved lanes. Downtown Dallas is a lot different that Austin, very few people hang out down there outside of work hours, but I thought Austin was supposed to be the progressive city and Dallas was the “more conservative” one?

            • No, it is not technically possible for them to share the same rails. The corridor itself is not wide enough in the most important parts for three or four sets of tracks; and the stations are not compatible. You could not run Red Line trains underneath caternary wire, so even though the physical tracks could technically be shared (not legally, though), the power issue would still prevent it from happening.

              And again, the constrained part of the Guadalupe route is 27th to 30th (roughly) – no parking involved there – and no, it would not be remotely tolerable with shared running.

              • Brad Absalom

                Well, that’s disappointing, but I can see what you mean on the stops and the overhead wires. What if the urban rail was elevated? I know the Green Line in Dallas is mostly elevated with some sections still having operational freight tracks below. They could elevator the urban rail and use elevators to connect the red line and urban rail stops. Of course, if that’s technically possible, it would be very expensive (The green line was like $60 million a mile), and I’m sure the neighborhood groups would throw a hissy fit, but they’re going to throw a hissy fit over anything. I understand you’ve said that that corridor is gone forever, and you’re probably right, but I’m just hoping it can be recovered, if even it would be expensive.

                Maybe the better route in the future would be up and down Lamar, but they’ll never take a lane away from traffic all the way to Anderson or 183, so the only other option would be to put it underground and that would insanely expensive, and the save the Barton Springs salamander at all costs type groups would come out and oppose it.

                Has there been any discussion with the urban rail line sharing the corridor through south Austin that Amtrak uses and the future LSTAR is supposed to use? I’m guess it would have some of the same issues.

            • There is quite literally no way to recover anything like the 2000 route once the Red Line exists – this is why I made such a huge deal about it in 2004, urging everybody to vote against it on those grounds among others. Unfortunately, a lot of people continue to believe that any kind of negative objection to anything is just bile or ‘rants’ or naysaying, and that you can always build anything incrementally (which is quite obviously not true – some decisions take you down a path that turn out to be a dead end).

              Again, to be clear, there is no way to recover the 2000 route now, period. The only way we’ll ever get rail on Guadalupe is 20-30 years down the road if the urban rail line being discussed turns out to be a smash hit beyond our wildest dreams, and gas is 10 bucks a gallon in today’s dollars, to justify the huge disruption on Guad just north of UT.

  • Austinite

    Only the City Council and some special interest groups want light rail. Like the unwanted Commuter Rail hardly anybody will ride light rail.
    Light rail will take away several roads now used by cars, like cummuter rail did doentown.
    The first leg from downtown to the airport is a farce and at 500 million estimate for that short stint alone would be better spent building roads. More miles of roads can be built with that money.
    Commuter rail was said to not going to cost the taxpayers a dime but ended up costing the taxpayers just under 135 MILLION and counting.
    Commuter rail also backs up some busy roads as well when it crosses, crossing guards go down three to five minutes before a train comes (sometimes no train comes at all)but go up quickly after the near empty and sometimes empty (except the driver) train passes. This causes, during rush hour up to 100 or more cars each direction to pile up, cars that otherwise would be several miles down the road.
    It is not faster nor cheaper than driving either. Even with a monthly pass it still would cost me double in fares than I spend on gasoline in a month. It would also take 45 minutes riding time, not counting travel to the station, wait time for the train, and so on. I drive the 15 miles to work mostly on 183 S in rush hour in 25 minutes, more if there was a bad accident.
    The City Council does what it wants and voters do nothing about it.
    Nobody voted for the cummuter rail, what was on the ballot was should Cap Metro explore alternate transportation ideas. It did not state build anything, explore ideas is not build something but that is exactly what the city did.
    Nobody wanted those rental shoe boxes with wheels either so hardly anybody used those things so the city now has city workers and such use them. There is another million dollars a year down the toilet.
    People do not want to ban plastic shopping bags either yet the city is doing it and despite claiming to be broke manages to find 2 million dollars to give to a company to educate the people of Austin on the plastic ban.
    Then there are the toll roads but that is way too much writing to do today.

    • Nathanael

      Actually, lots of people in Austin want light rail, as M1EK says…

      …But not where City Council is planning to put it.

      Austin has managed to make very bad design choices over and over again, including the really terribly designed Red Line, which have soured people’s attitude towards rail — “The Overhead Wire” blog recently did a three part series on the topic. Sad and awful.

  • Ah well there’s the key. Mobility! Make the mobility argument.

    Even if Austin’s leadership created dedicated lanes on the Urban Rail corridor, what would be the impact, really? How much daily use are you going to generate? What’s the mobility gain there?

    The BRT Lamar/Guadalupe alignment has the best chance to replace daily auto trips due to its proximity to both the densest population and job centers. Make east-west links to this central spine to add ridership. With more use to serve, the argument for dedicated lanes starts to sell itself and builds political momentum for dedicated lanes. Once folks starts to see it work for them, mobility wise.

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