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