Since the early 1970s — when I originally proposed urban rail for Austin — I’ve emphasized that rail transit would be essential to maintain adequate public mobility and livability. But urban rail must be primarily designed to solve the city’s most severe mobility problems, starting in its heaviest corridors.
By far, Guadalupe-North Lamar Boulevard has remained at the top of the list as Austin’s heaviest local travel corridor. In fact, throughout the City of Austin’s spring 2011 urban rail public meetings, this primary corridor was emphasized as being at maximum capacity for more than two decades. The Texas Transportation Institute lists it among the most congested roadways in Texas.
So, if Guadalupe-Lamar’s heavily congested traffic flow is a justification for rail transit, why has the city (and its Project Connect joint planning effort with Capital Metro) been proposing a totally different top-priority route for its urban rail plan (with an estimated 2012 cost of $550 million for 5.5 miles) in an easterly non-corridor between downtown and the Mueller development site? Good question.
Austin’s urban rail concept actually began as an afterthought to Capital Metro’s voter-approved 2004 All Systems Go plan, including MetroRail between Leander and downtown. A major problem with MetroRail’s Red Line is that the route bypasses the heart of Austin’s core area — thus the need for a so-called “enhanced circulator” system to connect key locations like downtown, the Capitol Complex, the University of Texas and the Mueller development.
Over several years, this small “circulator” idea grew into tHe city’s much larger urban rail plan.
Meanwhile, many of us in the Austin community question the official premise that an urban rail starter line — the highest-priority investment in a light rail transit system — should ignore the congested, high-traffic Guadalupe-Lamar corridor and instead meander along San Jacinto Boulevard through the relatively quiet UT East Campus and then onto constricted Red River Street to access Hancock Center and, ultimately, squeeze under Interstate 35 to Mueller. Where’s the heavy traffic flow to Mueller along this route?
In contrast, Guadalupe-Lamar is where thousands of people are actually traveling daily — a real corridor that direly needs rail transit — plus a far greater concentration of population and employment. The West Campus, for example, has the fourth-highest residential density of all major Texas city neighborhoods. And, contrasting starkly to the sleepy East Campus, the Drag is a focal point of commercial activity.
But, assert city officials, for the foreseeable future, “high-capacity” transit in Guadalupe-Lamar will be provided by Capital Metro’s new MetroRapid limited-stop bus operation. The foremost problem with this is that running buses in mixed traffic hardly constitutes equivalent service to urban rail — buses are slower, less predictable, slower to board and less attractive to passengers. Furthermore, any growth in ridership would require many more buses than trains, potentially creating peak-hour bus traffic jams.
Plus, doesn’t the city’s approach stand common sense (and sound planning) on its head? Why put a lower-capacity, lower-quality bus service in your heaviest, most congested corridor, while you invest hundreds of millions for high-capacity, high-quality rail in your weakest location, where there’s no real corridor at all?
In a 2012 report, the American-Statesman’s Ben Wear reported that the new $47.6 million “rapid bus” system on Guadalupe-Lamar would yield only “minimal time savings” compared with existing transit. Apparently as a remedy, Project Connect planners in May 2012 estimated an additional investment of $500 million in an effort to speed up the new MetroRapid bus system with reserved lanes and other measures.
Conservatively, that probably means extra bus infrastructure totaling at least $150 million (2012 dollars) for Guadalupe-Lamar. Add that to the $550 million projected for the official urban rail plan to Mueller, adjust for inflation to 2013 and the tally comes to $715 million.
Various community groups, leaders and experts believe this kind of money could be invested far more sensibly, for a lot more urban rail, with a Guadalupe-Lamar backbone expandable to serve the entire city. Among several alternatives are a loop configuration proposed by the Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT) — developed by Dave Dobbs and myself — and a plan developed by Scott Morris of the Central Austin Community Development Corp. (CACDC).
TAPT proposes a 14.7-mile teardrop-shaped system, with two branches meeting at the Crestview MetroRail station (Lamar at Airport), where there’d be a cross-platform transfer with Red Line trains connecting to Leander. From Crestview, a west side branch would travel south down the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, serving Hyde Park and other established neighborhoods, UT and West Campus, the Capitol Complex and downtown.
An east branch would be created by converting MetroRail southeast of Crestview into electric light rail transit. This would follow the current Red Line route to downtown and westward past the Convention Center, meeting the west branch at Guadalupe and Lavaca Street. To serve Mueller, a short connector would branch from the east line at Manor Road, run north on Airport Boulevard and enter the Mueller area at Aldrich Street. Trains, 7.5 minutes apart at peak times, would run in both directions.
Our estimated capital cost of TAPT’s plan is $715 million in current dollars — close to the city’s Mueller/MetroRapid proposal, but for nearly three times as much rail line and 40,000 daily urban rail rider-trips, compared to 11,000 estimated by city planners for the official urban rail plan. TAPT’s plan is also more cost-effective — trains would operate at about a quarter of the cost per passenger-mile as the Mueller line, with about twice the farebox recovery.
CACDC’s 6.8-mile plan basically resembles TAPT’s west branch along Guadalupe-Lamar, plus an extension to the North Lamar Transit Center and a westerly extension to the site. The plan proposes to serve Mueller via a branch from MetroRail.
Finally, much of the city’s argument for its urban rail plan has focused on stimulating economic activity and attracting transit-oriented development, with a major aim of increasing commercial property tax base. But on these criteria, Guadalupe-Lamar again surpasses the city’s Mueller route.
Developers build where the people — and transit passengers — are. It’s surely reasonable to assume that urban rail along Guadalupe-Lamar, with three to four times the ridership of the Mueller route, would offer far more economic development market potential.
What about UT’s planned medical school at the Centennial Park site near Red River and 15th streets? With fewer than 200 students, this will be one of the smallest such schools in the country, certainly not enough potential ridership to justify selecting an East Campus route over urban rail on the Drag and West Campus.
But with predominantly public and nonprofit development already, and more expected, the Mueller line would traverse an extended non-taxable “dead zone” of mainly government property, bordering about a third of the city’s planned route through the Capitol Complex and San Jacinto, to East Dean Keeton Street. Since Mueller is already almost fully developed, that leaves a stretch downtown, a few niches on the north side of Dean Keeton and along Red River, and Hancock Center where tax base might be gained.
In contrast, Guadalupe-Lamar teems with potential for development and tax base — particularly in segments near Lamar/Koenig Lane, the Triangle near Guadalupe and West 45th Street, and Guadalupe/Martin Luther King Boulevard. The leap in rail service quality from converting MetroRail to light rail transit east of Crestview (the TAPT proposal) would also provide better rail capacity for even more new development such as near the emerging ACC campus at Highland station.
Bottom line: Urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar would mean a far wiser investment of tax dollars than the city’s Mueller plan — and a far better prospect for achieving the city’s own stated goals.
Lyndon Henry, a former board member and data analyst for Capital Metro, is a transportation planning consultant for the Texas Association for Public Transportation and his own firm, Urban Rail Today. He has been promoting rail transit in Austin since 1973. He also writes a blog column for Railway Age magazine.