» 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)