Austin Light Rail Streetcar

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)

Austin Commuter Rail

With Modest Expectations, Austin Opens Rail Line After Years of Delays

» Diesel Multiple Unit vehicles will make trip between downtown and Leander just a few times a day, with the goal of attracting more than 1,000 daily riders.

For a city that is noted for its progressivism, especially as compared to the state that surrounds it, Austin’s transit politics are notoriously backwards. Unlike Houston and especially Dallas, which have pushed forward with light rail systems at a rapid pace over the past few decades, the capital of Texas is getting modern rail service for the first time only today, despite its large and growing population. And with a cost of $105 million and with trains only running at peak times, the Capital MetroRail Red Line is a humble project that will attract few riders.

When voters approved the project in a referendum 2004, it was promoted as a demonstration line, to be implemented cheaply along an existing rail corridor using just six diesel multiple unit vehicles stopping at nine small stations. “Ride, then decide,” proponents suggested: People would be exposed to the advantages of rail service, and then want to invest much more in it.

But the 32-mile project, which saw its first passengers at 5:25 this morning, is two years late and over budget: it’s hard to see the system as a model for future major capital investment in transit in the Austin region. The route between Leander and downtown Austin, passing through northern parts of the city, was supposed to be complete in early 2008, at a cost of $90 million. Instead, its cost eventually escalated to $105 million, not including affiliated parking, bus service, and other amenities. The trains provide slower service than competing buses within the urban core and have incredibly spread-out frequencies, arriving just every 35 minutes during rush hour and not at all other times. The terminal station is separated from the downtown business core and far from the University of Texas.

If this is what people in Austin are expected to experience as efficient rail, it’s hard to envision them pushing for more beneficial forms of transit, like frequent light rail operating in the city’s denser zones.

That is, if they experience it at all: Capital Metro expects 1,700 to 2,000 daily riders for the line in a city of 750,000. The MetroRapid bus rapid transit system the city hopes to open by 2012 (and which recently received promises of a federal funding commitment), for instance, will provide service to a far larger swath of the city, more frequently and faster.

Even if the line does become exceedingly popular — a very remote possibility — the corridor can only handle 3,800 daily boardings, maximum. That’s because only 11% of the line has two tracks, so the number of trains able to run back and forth is quite limited. Cost-cut stations are too short for trains made up of more than one car. Readying the Red Line for a capacity upgrade would cost hundreds of millions of dollars Capital Metro does not have.

In the run-up to the project’s opening, the City of Austin had basically given up hope on the advantages of the Capital Metro project. Municipal leaders recently committed to pushing an inner-city light rail or streetcar project that may be put up to another citizen referendum in November next year. That project could cost up to $1 billion, but a route has yet to be confirmed. Despite the significant technological and experiential differences between the proposed light rail and the now-open commuter rail line, though, locals seem unlikely to approve a major funding program if the Red Line project is seen as ineffective, especially for inner-city residents who will continue to rely on the bus for almost all commutes.

Nonetheless, Central Texas has had a troubled experience with rail implementation over the years, so the opening of anything at all should probably be seen as a coup in itself. Capital Metro has been around since January 1985, when voters approved plans for a $500 million light rail system after a decade of on-and-off discussions about whether to implement such a project. Various studies performed in the 1990s concluded in a 52-mile, $1.9 billion project proposed to the electorate in 2000 in a measure rejected 51-49%. So the Red Line, as limited as it is, was seen as a politically feasible compromise and voters agreed to it in 2004.

At only $90 million, the project was never meant to emulate the success of other cities’ much more expensive light rail systems, and on a per-passenger-mile basis, it would have fallen at the median in cost-effectiveness of similar projects built in the United States over the past 10 years. At only $4 million a mile, the line was relatively cheap to build. Yet cheap does not always mean effective. The Portland Westside Express and the Nashville Music City Star, the most equivalent projects in the country, have both suffered from ridership vastly lower than foreseen in initial estimates.

But the real mistake has been Capital Metro’s complete mismanagement of the project’s implementation. The understaffed agency — with virtually no experience in rail operations — signed a contract with private operator Veolia that turned into a disaster once it became evident that no one knew how to make a freight rail corridor into an operable passenger line. The Federal Railroad Administration delayed the start of services repeatedly because of signal problems and safety violations, and Veolia was replaced with Herzog Transit Services last year.

It’s too late to sound the alarm about this rail line’s problems; on the other hand, it’s been obvious that the line has been ill-fated from the start, victim to an attempt to get rail service at the lowest cost possible, no matter the limitations. Electoral support for future rail expansion in the Austin region will be difficult to assemble if the populace isn’t impressed by what it gets, and the Red Line just won’t provide many benefits to very many people. Starting too small is sometimes problematic: other cities should learn from Austin’s mistakes here.

Image above: Austin Capital MetroRail train, from Capital Metro

Austin Light Rail

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


What's Taking Austin So Long?

Capital Metro was originally supposed to start operations in November 2008.

Austin would have been Texas’ third city to offer its citizens light rail service had Capital Metro opened its new MetroRail line as planned last November. But serious safety and operations difficulties have led the FTA and local authorities to repeatedly delay the corridor’s opening, and now the city is afraid to make any estimate about when trains will begin running. In four weeks, the project might enter service, but no one’s sure. Has Austin cost-cut its project to death?

Capital MetroRail is intended to connect downtown Austin to Leander in the northern suburbs along 32 miles of existing freight tracks. Trains are planned to run every thirty minutes during rush hours on weekdays — 10 daily round trips. Unsurprisingly, only about 2,000 people are expected to take advantage of the service everyday. Yet the city envisions the line as the potential backbone of an entire network.

What’s interesting about Austin’s experience is that it demonstrates some of the potential problems of attempting to use existing freight tracks to build a functional rail transit system. Most the operating delays for the project have been a result of problems with implementing train control systems that are designed to ensure that trains don’t butt into one another. But those would not have occurred had the tracks been built brand-new for the use of commuter trains alone, as they are for most new light rail systems. The fact is that it’s difficult to improve a freight line to passenger use standards without putting operations on hold. Shared operations between freight and passenger trains on a mostly single-track system aren’t exactly ideal, either.

Austin wanted to save money; it was unwilling to put in the sort of large investment made by its peers in Dallas or Houston, which are in the process of developing huge light rail systems. The result is not only a nonfunctional train line but also one that will serve very few of the city’s commuters at very inconvenient frequencies.

You get what you pay for.