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

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.

Cincinnati: “Our city confirmed its will to continue along path to a balanced transportation system”

Cincinnati: Simulation of streetcar running downtown. Graphic: City of Cincinnati.

Cincinnati: Simulation of streetcar running downtown. Graphic: City of Cincinnati.

By John Schneider

This commentary has been adapted from a December 19th statement by the author to supporters of the campaign to continue Cincinnati’s streetcar project, immediately after the favorable vote by the City Council.

With the City Council’s vote on December 19th to resume Cincinnati’s streetcar project, our city confirmed its will to continue along the path to a balanced transportation system. Our path has been up and down with lots of twists and turns and leaps of faith that took us to unknown places. But we soldiered-on, and now the path is wider, flatter, and clearly marked for others to follow, not only in Cincinnati but in other cities that want to gain more citizens and become more competitive.

There are so many people to thank, but first and foremost, I want to thank former Mayor Mark Mallory, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, and City Manager Milton Dohoney. Even though we reached our goal on December 19th, we wouldn’t have even been in the game were it not for their leadership of the Cincinnati Streetcar over many years. Their support cost them dearly, and we should be forever grateful.

And to our long-time champions on City Council — Chris Seelbach, Yvette Simpson and Wendell Young whose eloquence and persistence following the election, working with PG Sittenfeld, brought their colleagues, Vice Mayor David Mann and Councilmember Kevin Flynn, along to enable us to continue along our path.

Immediately after the December 19th vote, Mayor John Cranley was very gracious in offering his congratulations to me and to others. I hope this period of divisiveness now passes and that we can all join with him and Christopher Smitherman, Charlie Winburn, and Amy Murray to foster the city we all want to have.

Were it not for Ryan Messer, who parachuted-in to lead this effort in early November, we would not have succeeded. The kind of leader who emerges every ten years or so here, he brought new energy to our movement. Early-on, he recruited our attorney, Paul DeMarco, who used his contacts at the highest level of our nation’s government to bring about the results we achieved, to assure the Feds we knew where we were going. Early-on, without a hint of hesitation, Karen Blatt volunteered our spiffy campaign office, and Ryan hired Scott Allison to execute the flawless campaign to gather signatures. Others including Jean-Francois Flechet, Sean Lee, Rob Richardson, Jr, Margy Waller and Brad and Karen Hughes did whatever had to be done and were the wisest advisors and best team-players anyone could have.

There are so many others that contributed so much to this effort that I cannot mention them all but they are all strongly appreciated. Suffice it to say that this effort could not have been sustained over all these years without all the people who have been involved.

Eric Avner of the Haile Foundation raised $9,000,000 in a little over 48 hours, enough to make City Council comfortable that the cost of operating the streetcar was assured for the first ten years. This was the keystone of the plan to save the streetcar.

There were many memorable moments in this campaign. One I’ll never forget was the December 10th meeting at First Lutheran Church near 12th and Race, where 450 people showed up to sign-out their petitions. Chris Heckman and Kristen Myers are members of the congregation, and they quickly arranged for the church to open its doors twice to us. I’m certain this set the tone for the whole campaign.

John Schneider photo

John Schneider, Cincinnati’s “Mr. Streetcar”. Photo:

Speaking of the campaign, we now have 11,000 Cincinnatians’ names and addresses for our efforts going forward. The planning and execution of the signature-gathering was orchestrated with great precision by The Strategy Group and its able leader, Ian James, who made a critical judgment that the number and intensity of our volunteers was more than adequate to gather the signatures. We wouldn’t need paid signature-gatherers. Plus, it gave us all an opportunity to tell the streetcar’s story in the way we know it. And by the way, we registered a bunch of streetcar supporters to vote in the process.

Our thanks go well beyond Cincinnati to the many people in many cities who have been watching our project intently, including especially Portland’s mayor, Charlie Hales and his wife Nancy, who have joined us on many of our trips there over the years. When he was in the private sector, Charlie helped plan the Cincinnati Streetcar, and he has been a guiding light for me. We’re not finished with the Portland trips. They have an early spring there.

Most of all, we should all thank our spouses, families, employers and co-workers for tolerating our absences over the past days and nights. They were soldiers in this too.

I hope that in this new year everyone will continue to work harder than ever to bring more diverse transportation choices to our city, Cincinnati, or to whatever city where you live.

Merry Christmas, Cincinnati! Streetcar project resumes work

Cincinnati streetcar on order from builder CAF. Simulation: City of Cincinnati.

Cincinnati streetcar on order from builder CAF. Simulation: City of Cincinnati.

For supporters of urban rail, it’s been a clenched-teeth political action movie in Cincinnati, as newly elected Mayor John Cranley tried to implement his campaign promise to pull the plug on the city’s streetcar project — even though construction was well under way, tracks had already been laid in the street, and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) was threatening to demand repayment of of millions of dollars in grants if the project were cancelled.

Besides the new mayor, the election of three new councilmembers meant a council majority against the rail project, and on December 4th, the council voted to “pause” further work pending an independent audit by consulting firm KPMG. In response, the FTA issued an ultimatum: Resume the project by Dec. 19th, or forfeit the federal grant and pay back funds already transferred.

Meanwhile, the prospect of scuttling an ongoing project and wasting funds already invested sparked a local grassroots rebellion involving not just rail project supporters but a wider spectrum of Cincinnatians. A powerful mobilization for a referendum on a city charter change to require completion of the rail project collected roughly twice the number of signatures required — also attracting national media attention. This show of force seems to have helped in starting to move councilmembers’ leanings.

Recently laid Cincinnati streetcar trackage in Elm St. on Nov. 8th. Original granite pavers are being reinstalled to restore historic appearance. Photo: Travis Estell (Flickr).

Recently laid Cincinnati streetcar trackage in Elm St. on Nov. 8th. Original granite pavers are being reinstalled to restore historic appearance. Photo: Travis Estell (Flickr).

In addition, as described by a New York Times article (Dec. 22nd), “KPMG’s audit showed that completing the line would cost the city $68.9 million; canceling would run between $16.3 million and $46.1 million, not including the potential costs of litigation, which could be astronomical.” Thus, noted the Times, streetcar proponents were able to argue that “The city could spend millions of dollars and have a streetcar with the potential for return on investment, or have nothing to show for it while facing a tangle of lawsuits ….”

On the brink of the Dec. 19th deadline, the project was also reprieved by a written commitment, honchoed by the Haile U.S. Bank Foundation and involving roughly 15 private-sector backers, to cover as much as $9 million of the line’s operating costs over its first decade, if necessary.

On Dec. 19th, just hours from the FTA deadline, the Cincinnati city council voted 6-3 to resume the project. “We’re going to have a streetcar” Mayor Cranley announced at an afternoon news conference with new Councilman Kevin Flynn, who had spent days helping forge the private financing agreement.

It represented an amazing victory for the broad swath of Cincinnati streetcar supporters, who had turned out by the hundreds to gather many thousands of signatures on the referendum petition. It’s also recognized as a huge victory for rail advocacy and for urban livability, and a terrific model for communities throughout North America.

According to the Cincinnati Business Journal (Dec. 23rd), Work on the project resumes on Dec. 26th, with delivery of an additional set of rails on Elm St., and “The installation of rails will be underway again on Friday, as crews restart their jobs north of Findlay Market.”

More details on this issue are summarized in a recent online article on the Railway Age magazine website:

Cincinnati streetcar survives political turmoil

Another Railway Age article by Urban Rail Today co-principal Lyndon Henry draws a parallel between citizens’ efforts for urban rail in Austin, Texas and those in Cincinnati:

Cincinnati and Austin: Community urban rail proponents challenge City Hall

Winning transit ballot measures via good community outreach



by Lyndon Henry

It’s one thing to pull together a good, plausible, workable, affordable plan for a new urban rail transit system in your community. But that’s only the first hurdle. The next big hurdle is pulling in public support — voter support — behind your proposed project.

Addressing that challenge was the focus of a paper I presented a few years back to the June 2007 Transit Initiatives and Communities Conference sponsored by the Center for Transportation Excellence (CFTE), a major national U.S. public transit advocacy organization.

Based mainly on my experience with rail transit ballot measures in six different cities over roughly a seven-year period, the paper is titled Advancing Transit Improvement Measures Through Effective Community Outreach (click to access full paper in .DOC format).

My PowerPoint version can still be accessed at the CFTE website here:

From the PowerPoint presentation, here are some excerpts that summarize particularly crucial issues:

Rail Transit Ballot Measures Are Very Different!

• Not like most electoral campaigns
• Rail (and sometimes Quality Bus) is usually unfamiliar
• Rail conjures images of freight trains
• Prominent – attracts intense scrutiny
• Impacts an entire corridor of neighborhoods
• Unites diverse range of opponents
• Well-funded brigade of professional critics

3 Main Allies in Transit Improvement Efforts

• Grassroots pro-transit groups
• Transit agency leadership and staff
• Local civic leadership

Transit Coalition Strategy

• Transit agency’s image is important
• Make sure accomplishments are emphasized
• Don’t miss opportunities
• Don’t promise the impossible (“Rail project will solve congestion”)
• Emphasize value of real-world, achievable goals (“Rail line will carry 30% of peak travel in the Lamar corridor by 2020”)
• Always assume it’s an uphill struggle
• Grassroots organizers critical – it’s not all mass media and official forums
• GOTV – and don’t forget early voting!

Responding to Critics

• Don’t ignore them
• Don’t miss opportunities, including debates (“ostrich” tactic doesn’t work)
• Don’t echo opponents’ slogans (They say “Transit Sucks!” We say “No!”)
• Don’t try to respond to every single detail
• Avoid confusing, mind-numbing “numbers trivia“
• Focus on refuting 2-3 critical points to establish credibility – try using humor
• Supporters’ credibility vs. opponents’
• Keep larger vision and message in view
• Beware late-campaign “bombshells” (endorsements, “research reports”, etc.)

Here are summaries of the paper’s conclusions:

Grassroots Pro-Transit Groups

• Major role in informing, “educating”, and mobilizing the public
• Valuable source of ideas and information for transit agency
• Need to avoid adversarial role with transit agency
• Need to understand dynamics of transit agency
• Need to learn art of persuasion

Transit Agency

• Need to respect & listen to grassroots input
• Transit agency’s image is important
• Make sure accomplishments are emphasized
• Provide facts & figures
• Avoid “answer panic”
• Be aware of informational resources

Civic Leadership

• “Grand Vision” important – but so are facts
• Public & voters expect some solid answers
• Focus on 2-3 most critical or vulnerable issues
• Don’t echo opponents’ slogans
• Don’t miss opportunities, including debates (“ostrich” tactic doesn’t work)
• Organize & coordinate campaign and message – ensure everyone “on the same page”

And there’s more! So if you’re involved in promoting urban rail for your community, I strongly encourage you to access both the paper and the PowerPoint presentation and check out all of this valuable information.