Austin’s urban rail loss boosts push for new light rail Plan B

Proposed alternative Plan B for Austin's Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would also have branch serving re-purposed Seaholm power plant site and Amtrak station. Graphic: Project Connect.

Proposed alternative Plan B for Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would also have branch serving re-purposed Seaholm power plant site and Amtrak station. Graphic: Project Connect.

By Lyndon Henry

Austin, Texas — Sometimes there are rail transit plans (and other urban development proposals) that are just plain misguided and potentially deleterious to a city’s best interests. That was the case with the urban rail scheme proposed for Austin, resisted by some of the city’s most dedicated and savvy rail advocates, and rejected by voters on Nov. 4th by a 14-point margin, 57% Against to 43% In Favor.

Counterintuitive though it may seem, this was not only a huge success for transit advocacy but also a major victory for rail development in Austin. The official plan, developed via a disastrously flawed study by a multi-agency consortium called Project Connect, would have committed $1.4 billion to a 9.5-mile “urban rail” line (a local proxy term for light rail transit, or LRT) in a virtually non-existent corridor, running from a northern site called Highland through the east side of the city’s core, across the Colorado River, to a southeastern terminus on East Riverside Drive. (The Nov. 4th ballot measure asked voters to approve $600 million of General Obligation bonds for the urban rail plan, with the assumption that the remainder would be covered by federal grants and other sources.)

Not only was it a seriously flawed route, but it was also seriously over-designed (I called it “gold-plated”). Encountering formidable alignment challenges (e.g., constricted rights-of-way, sharply tortuous curves, a river crossing, and an in-roadway crossing over I-35), the proposal called for a pricey “signature bridge” and a $230 million subway for which the need was in dispute. As a result, the plan would have calculated as the third most expensive LRT starter line in U.S. history. And that massively wasteful encumbering of local funding capability would have, in effect, “sucked the oxygen” from local resources and strangled further rail development and expansion.

But high cost wasn’t the worst problem with the Highland-Riverside proposal (after all, even a good, cost-effective plan could have a high pricetag). Instead, mobility needs were virtually sidelined in deference to local development objectives (and these were basically misguided). Fundamentally, the plan ignored the city’s most central heavy-traffic local corridor, defined by two major arterials named North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe St., which funnels major travel from the northwest, north, and northeast through several miles of activity concentrations and finally into the Core Area — the University of Texas, state Capitol Complex, and Central Business district (CBD).

Potential daily LRT ridership serving this corridor has been assessed in the range of 30,000 to 40,000 — roughly 2-3 times that of the now-defunct Highland-Riverside plan. And this relates directly to urban development: By and large, developers will invest and build where the ridership is. Mobility is the key — provide a solid mobility project, and development will follow.

In any case, urban rail must first and foremost make bona fide mobility sense as well as meet appropriate urban development needs. Urban rail shouldn’t be intended as just a pricey amenity to enhance urban development.

That’s where Project Connect’s rail plan fell way short. But, in contrast, what has all the hallmarks of a real winner of an extremely cost-effective alternative plan is emerging to take its place, this time in the crucial Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Currently referred to as Plan B, the latest version of this alternative proposes a 6.8-mile LRT starter line running from the major North Lamar Transit Center at U.S. 183 into the Core Area. Along the way, the line would connect with Austin’s existing MetroRail regional passenger rail service and serve a spectrum of major commercial and residential developments, established neighborhoods, and activity centers — plus the West Campus, with the third-highest residential density in Texas. All of this was missed by Project Connect’s plan. See: A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line.

Plan B LRT line would stretch 6.8 miles from a major transit center on the north to the CBD, with a branch west to the Seaholm-Amtrak development site. Map: Austin Rail Now.

Plan B LRT line would stretch 6.8 miles from a major transit center on the north to the CBD, with a branch west to the Seaholm-Amtrak development site. Map: Austin Rail Now.

This version of Plan B LRT for Guadalupe-Lamar also includes a branch from downtown west to a major development site at the city’s former Seaholm power plan, adjacent to the Amtrak train station (a connection originally proposed by Project connect but missing in the final 9.5-mile highland-Riverside plan).

In addition to striking the right balance between meeting mobility needs cost-effectively and catalyzing desirable development, there’s an additional major lesson to be gleaned from Austin’s recent urban rail planning and voting experience: Connect with the grassroots community.

Much of the Austin community’s discontent with Project Connect’s “study” process (mainly from June through December 2013) resulted from a sense of alienation from the process and the proposed plan that emerged from it. Project Connect claimed a vigorous “public participation” program, with dozens and even hundreds of “meetings”. But, rather than true community meetings, facilitating bona fide discussion and community decisionmaking, and enabling various segments of the community to interact with one another, the official “participation” process mainly involved presentation events, with project personnel unveiling decisions reached in seclusion by the project team. Members of the community, excluded from this process, were typically given the opportunity merely to select among a handful of choices; meanwhile, the major structure and contours of the plan were determined by political officials and project team staff.

Hopefully, this will change substantially — particularly with a new, expanded City Council, elected via a new district structure. Community activists and rail transit advocates have been interacting with new political leaders in an effort to institute a more democratic process with grassroots representation and participation directly in the development of plans.

Perhaps this kind of grassroots process will materialize in a way to shape and advance the prospects of Plan B light rail for Guadalupe-Lamar.

For more analysis of Austin’s recent urban rail planning and vote, see the following articles:

Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead

Lessons of the Austin rail bond defeat

Austin urban rail vote fails, alternative light rail plan proposed

Austin: After urban rail plan failure, opponents spar over a “Plan B”

Austin urban rail plan: Behind voters’ rejection

Austin: As urban rail vote fails, campaign for Plan B light rail rises

Detroit’s M-1 modern streetcar project gets under way

Artist's rendition of how the streetcar operation may look on Woodward Avenue when it's completed. Graphic: M-1 Rail.

Artist’s rendition of how the streetcar operation may look on Woodward Avenue when it’s completed. Graphic: M-1 Rail.

Detroit, Michigan — As tracklaying begins on this city’s key central arterial, Woodward Avenue, the M-1 Rail project at last seems to actually be getting under way.

2_URT_det-lrt-stc-map-prop-rte_M-1-ProjThe 3.3-mile, $136 million project, financed by a combination of government and private sources, would in effect restore a tiny fragment of Detroit’s once-extensive urban streetcar system. The Woodward line carried the heaviest ridership in the system.

At a Sep. 15th ceremony announcing an additional $12.2 million federal grant for the project, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx hailed Detroit’s determination and its urban rail project as a major step forward in helping Detroit get back on its feet (reported in CBS Detroit):

What we saw with this M1 project … was again the strength, determination and mettle of a great city that has a vision not only of a transportation asset that takes people to jobs, but in fact one that brings jobs to the people by revitalizing a critical part of Detroit.

Even Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a conservative Republican, applauded the project as “an opportunity partnership”, affirming that “This is an opportunity to strengthen the city and the state by creating something that is going to bind midtown and downtown together in a fabulous way.”

Following those remarks, M-1 Rail officials announced a list of major sponsors for stations planned along Woodward. These included such well-known corporate names as the Henry Ford Health System, Penske, the Ford Motor Corp., the Chrysler Foundation, JP Morgan Chase & Co., Chevrolet, the BlueCross BlueShield Association, and Quicken Loans. ■

Atlanta: Streetcar testing begins in dead of night

First Siemens streetcar being readied for testing in the dead of night to minimize traffic disruption. Photo via Atlanta Curbed website.

First Siemens streetcar being readied for testing in the dead of night to minimize traffic disruption. Photo via Atlanta Curbed website.

In the wee morning hours of Saturday Aug. 16th, Atlanta’s 2.7-mile modern streetcar line experienced the first actual streetcar rolling over its tracks.

In a test, towed by a large truck, one of the first Siemens S70 streetcars to arrive in the city completed its initial test without power. The test checked clearances at all 12 streetcar stops as well as track alignments throughout Atlanta’s downtown.

Subsequent tests will be conducted with rolling stock under power from the 750-volt overhead contact system (OCS) — in this case, a simple trolley wire.

Opening of the line is targeted for some time later this year. The first three months of public service will be provided free of fares to help build ridership. ■

Thanks to news reports from WXIA-TV and WSB-TV, and summary information from Ed Havens posted on the LRPPro Internet forum.

Tucson Sun Link streetcar opens, meets ridership goal

Tucson's new Sun Link streetcar passes sidewalk cafe during opening day festivities. Photo: Ed Havens.

Tucson’s new Sun Link streetcar passes sidewalk cafe during opening day festivities. Photo: Ed Havens.

With dancing bands, a street festival, and plenty of other hoopla, Tucson’s new Sun Link modern streetcar system made its debut on Friday, 25 July, and by all accounts, the 3.9-mile, $198.8 million line was a huge hit. Over three days of free rides, a total of 60,000 rider-trips was recorded, with 25,000 boarding on Saturday the 26th. Automatic passenger counting (APC) door sensors on the cars tallied all the passengers.

Among those celebrating Tucson’s project was Urban Rail Today co-principal John Schneider, credited with spearheading the new streetcar project in Cincinnati. John was in Tucson for several days to ride and photograph the new streetcar system there.

Tucson’s streetcar starter line has 18 stops and 8 streetcars (manufactured by Oregon Iron Works/United Streetcar of Portland, Oregon), each with a capacity of about 150 passengers. At 10-minute headways, that means an approximately 50% increase in the people-moving capacity of each street lane.

As described by Inside Tucson Business, the nearly 4-mile-long route connects the University of Arizona, Main Gate Square, the Fourth Avenue business district, downtown Tucson, and the Mercado area west of Interstate 10. It’s “the city’s largest, most complex construction project ever,” says the paper, adding that it’s been funded with dollars from the Regional Transportation Authority, other local sources, and federal grants.

Jubilant crowd lines track for photo-op moment as Tucson's first modern streetcar approaches inauguration banner on opening day. Photo: Ed Havens.

Jubilant crowd lines track for photo-op moment as Tucson’s first modern streetcar approaches inauguration banner on opening day. Photo: Ed Havens.

Shellie Ginn, the City of Tucson’s streetcar project manager, highlighted more than $800 million of public and private investment already along the line “that’s occurred basically since we received our federal funding in 2010.” Quoted by Arizona Public Media (the umbrella organization of University of Arizona AM-FM-TV), Ginn continued:

I know that there’s multiple hundreds of millions of dollars of projects that are now going to be coming up soon, so that’s going to be increasing over the $1 billion mark. That’s one of the markers we have for how successful this project is going to be.

The streetcar project seems to be having a perceptible impact on real estate activity, such as student housing complexes that, as the Arizona Public Media article notes, have opened on the east end of downtown over the past year. Furthermore, an increase in retail and entertainment activity seems to be another result, as “new and existing restaurants are harder to get into on weekend evenings without a wait.”

Most riders among the opening-weekend crowds radiated enthusiasm about the new line. ABC TV affiliate KGUN interviewed several.

“It’s just great to see the vibrancy that’s happening in Tucson after graduating here several years ago” enthused Hillary Foose, described as “the first person in line at one of the downtown stops”. “We’ve seen it in Phoenix and we’ve seen what the streetcar will be for Tucson it will mean great things …” she added.

Another rider, Andrew Greeley, told the reporter: “We go downtown to shop and what not, we’ll park somewhere and we’ll just take this. It beats parking.”

Arizona State Senator Steve Farley, widely recognized as the “godfather” of Tucson’s streetcar project since he began campaigning for light rail in the early 2000s as a leader of Tucsonans for Sensible Transportation, was quoted by KGUN as he spoke at the inaugural ceremony and joined a number of streetcar rides. “That’s what’s so exciting…” he said, “when people who have never been on a light-rail or streetcar or anything like that before, it’s amazing the response.”

The first day of fare-paying service, Monday the 28th, was also a whopping success, with 3,500 rider-trips carried. According to State Senator Farley, that figure Monday was almost exactly what planners hoped to achieve after one year of operation. ■

Beware the “BRT” snake oil


Just about anyone who’s raised the possibility of light rail transit (LRT, the most popular form of urban rail) for their community has probably encountered a familiar pitch for “bus rapid transit” (BRT): Why not try “BRT” instead? It’s just like light rail, but cheaper…

The problem with this isn’t that better bus service is a bad idea. Upgraded buses, upgraded bus stops, traffic signal priority, high-tech innovations such as “next bus” passenger information systems at bus stops and onboard wi-fi, and other improvements, are all important ways to attract more ridership to public transport.

But the problem is that a collection of “BRT” promoters — from the motor bus industry to highway enthusiasts to some self-proclaimed transit supporters, have been claiming that, somehow, “BRT” has all the advantages of urban rail at much lower cost. And that’s just plain wrong. It’s false, and in many, perhaps most, cases, it’s deceptive. In effect, it’s a kind of snake oil being peddled in the field of urban transit.

An awful lot of cities and transit systems worldwide that have been vigorously installing new LRT systems (including streetcars) haven’t been ignorant or oblivious to the “BRT” option. Instead, they’ve reviewed and analyzed the pros and cons of this and other alternatives, and concluded that, for their own needs, LRT — and other forms of urban rail — is the best choice.

Let’s briefly consider a few of the most familiar claims that “BRT” proponents try to promulgate.

► “BRT” is truly “rapid transit” — Mostly nonsense. The “BRT” promotion campaign typically presents images of buses on special exclusive guideways (the so-called “Gold Standard” of BRT) to seduce public support (mainly from local civic leaders). But the reality of most purported “BRT” systems is … buses running mostly in mixed traffic like “regular” buses, but perhaps in limited-stop modes, with somewhat fancier stations … but a far cry from fully grade-separated rapid transit.

This has become an issue in Austin, Texas with perhaps the most recently opened so-called “BRT” system (funded as “BRT” under the federal Small Starts program). Called MetroRapid, the system is being widely ridiculed in the community for attracting daily ridership of only 6,000 and resulting in a net ridership loss of 11% in the corridor it serves. See: Why MetroRapid bus service is NOT “bus rapid transit”.

Austin's MetroRapid "BRT" systems runs in mixed traffic, and has become the object of local ridicule. Photo: L. Henry.

Austin’s MetroRapid “BRT” systems runs in mixed traffic, and has become the object of local ridicule. Photo: L. Henry.

► “BRT” is a lot cheaper than LRT — Well maybe, maybe not. When total lifecycle costs, expressed as annualized capital costs, plus operating and maintenance (O&M) costs are considered, LRT is often the more cost-effective investment, particularly through the essential metric of cost per passenger-mile.

This issue is analyzed in a number of articles on the Light Rail Now website; see, for example:

Light Rail Lowers Operating Costs

How Light Rail Saves Operating Cost Dollars Compared With Buses

Streetcar vs. Bus: Operating cost comparison

“Free” buses vs. “expensive” rail?

Portland: New Yellow Line LRT on Interstate Ave. covers capital investment from operating cost savings and benefits

Brisbane Reality Check: The high cost of “cheap” busways

► “BRT” attracts as many riders as LRTCertainly not on average. Overall, LRT systems beat all types of bus systems in meeting ridership goals and attracting “choice” riders (who have the option of using private motor vehicles). Some evidence is provided in the following articles:

Rail Transit vs. “Bus Rapid Transit”: Comparative Success and Potential in Attracting Ridership

Research Study: Riders Prefer Light Rail to “Bus Rapid Transit”

Motorists prefer light rail over buses, reports UK poll

► “BRT” has the capacity of LRTDefinitely not in terms of ultimate potential capacity. As “BRT” systems attempt to cope with increasing ridership (which may happen not because “BRT” systems are so attractive, but because of rising population and the increasing costs and congestion of private motor vehicle systems), the number of buses required to try to provide capacity starts to overwhelm road systems and station passenger-handling capacity.

Massive bus traffic jam in Brisbane, Australia illustrate problem of fitting "BRT" into a high-capacity application. Photo: James Saunders.

Massive bus traffic jam in Brisbane, Australia illustrate problem of fitting “BRT” into a high-capacity application. Photo: James Saunders.

► “BRT” attracts development, just like LRTFalse. This claim by “BRT” advocates is based predominantly on cases in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, In both cities, the real estate development attributed to “BRT” was overwhelmingly attracted by rail transit systems, both existing and planned.

► “BRT” is just like LRT, but cheaperDefinitely, totally false. Basically, you get what you pay for. “BRT” fails to offer the speed (for similar routes and station spacing), ride comfort, reliability, accessibility, lower energy consumption, lower environmental impact, cost-effectiveness, and urban livability of LRT. Here are some articles that provide evidence for this:

New light rail projects in study beat BRT

Reality Check: Breakthrough Technologies Institute’s Dubious Claims on “Bus Rapid Transit”, Electric Rail, and Global Warming

LA’s “Orange Line” Busway – “Just Like Rail, But Cheaper?” A Photo-Report Reality Check

There are other issues in this comparison which merit being covered. We’ll examine some of them in future posts. ■

Phoenix light rail transit (LRT, left); Los Angeles Orange Line "bus rapid transit" (BRT, right). Photos: L. Henry.

Phoenix light rail transit (LRT, left); Los Angeles Orange Line “bus rapid transit” (BRT, right). Photos: L. Henry.

Urban rail vote loses? Try, try again



Losing a rail transit ballot measure doesn’t have to mean the end of a community’s hopes and dreams for urban rail, according to a recent study by the Light Rail Now Project. What it takes, though, is the will to hang in there, respond to reasonable public concerns, tweak the rail plan as needed, and submit it for another vote.

This actually doesn’t happen often. In some cases, the urban rail possibility just evaporates because local decisionmakers and planners just throw in the cards and move on to other, less ambitious transit proposals.

However, the Light Rail Now study examined the six cases since 2000 where a rail transit vote initially failed, but the local transit agency or civic leadership kept their eyes on the prize, continued to recognize the benefits of rail transit, and resubmitted a proposal in a ballot measure that succeeded in getting voters’ endorsement. This has happened in Austin (Texas), Kansas City, Cincinnati, Tucson, Seattle, and St. Louis.

The time delay between the initially failed vote and the ultimately successful re-vote was a particular focus of the study. So, how much of a time gap was found between rejections and approvals?

Overall, the average delay in these six cases was 3.8 years. However, the delay seemed significantly shorter (1.5 years) in the two cities (St. Louis and Seattle) that already were operating some form of rail transit. In the other cities, where the attractiveness and benefits of rail transit were not generally experienced, there was a longer time average gap (5 years). Light Rail Now illustrates this with a graph:

Left bar: Average years of delay in cities already operating rail transit. Right bar: Average delay in cities with no current rail transit. Graph: Light Rail Now.

Left bar: Average years of delay in cities already operating rail transit. Right bar: Average delay in cities with no current rail transit. Graph: Light Rail Now.

Light Rail Now speculates that winning ultimate public support for rail transit may hinge on the determination of local leaders:

The process of re-submitting a rail transit measure to a vote may depend not so much on public attitudes but on the determination of sponsoring officials, their responsiveness to public input, and their willingness to re-craft specific project details to more closely conform to public needs and desires.

In other words, if you have local transit officials or civic leaders willing to hang in there and go the course, chances are you can ultimately succeed.

Kansas City streetcar procurement “piggybacks” on Cincinnati’s CAF order

CAF Urbos 3 streetcar for Kansas City. Graphic: CAF.

CAF Urbos 3 streetcar for Kansas City. Simulation: CAF.

Kansas City — By “piggybacking” its order for streetcar rolling stock on Cincinnati’s order, Kansas City has probably saved at least several million dollars in the cost of its streetcar project.

This past October, Kansas City took advantage of the “piggybacking” opportunity and awarded a $22 million contract to CAF USA, a subsidiary of Spain’s Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles S.A., for five streetcars to provide service over its 2.2-mile downtown streetcar starter line, now under construction. (For background, see Kansas City — Another new downtown streetcar project starts to take shape.)

The Urbos 3 streetcars, costing a relatively bargain price of roughly $4.4 million each, will be assembled at CAF’s plant in Elmira, N.Y. The order follows (and is linked to) CAF USA’s contract with Cincinnati, which also involves five streetcars. (Thanks to Railway Age for details.)

Via a Twitter message link from John Schneider, here’s a look at CAF’s Urbos 3 streetcar running in Spain:

Hopefully, within a few years we’ll see a very similar model running on the streets of Cincinnati and Kansas City.