Commuter Rail Is Not Light Rail, Part 851

Or: A letter I just wrote to the Statesman which they probably won’t publish:

Many of your readers and a significant number of public boosters of the commuter rail proposal on the ballot November 2nd appear to be confused as to the nature of the project. Referring to cities such as Salt Lake City and Portland as rail success stories is misleading in this context, since those cities are succeeding with LIGHT RAIL (like we narrowly voted down in 2000), not COMMUTER RAIL. The only recent example of a system like the one we’re voting on comes from South Florida – it relies exclusively on “high-frequency circulators” (shuttle buses) while all the success stories mentioned have stations within walking distance of existing offices and shops. South Florida’s line has been an unmitigated disaster that after 15 years still carries only 12,000 passengers a day on a far longer corridor than the one we’re contemplating building.

A Yes Vote for this plan kills Light Rail, Part XII

In early versions of the All Systems Go literature, the Rapid Bus line on Lamar/Guadalupe was described as a “placeholder for possible future urban rail”. This corridor is the only one in our area which has sufficient existing residential density to support urban rail (light rail or otherwise).
Many of the people who are holding their nose and voting yes on the commuter rail plan appear to still think that they can get light rail on this corridor even if this commuter rail plan passes. I’ve discussed on several occasions the technical problems with that idea – in short: the original 2000 route would be out due to vehicle/track incompatibilities, and a route continuing north on Lamar instead of bending northwest would be out due to speed and demographics (far fewer northeast Austin residents work at downtown/UT/capitol than do northwest residents).
More simply, though, one can simply look at the language of Capital Metro themselves. The current version of the ASG plan drops the “placeholder” phrase entirely – and recent quotes from Fred Gilliam are particularly damning:

What Capital Metro does not intend to do, at least in the foreseeable
future, is have lanes of city streets dedicated solely to bus traffic. When
that occurs, the system is called “bus rapid transit.” Lacking those lanes,
Capital Metro calls its proposal rapid bus. But Gilliam made it clear he’d
like to reverse those two words in the long run.
“My hope is that . . . eventually we will get to bus lanes,” Gilliam said. “But
our plan is not designed around having to have them.”

Back when Fred took over from Karen Walker, he made some pro-BRT and anti-LRT statements which I have been unable to locate. Thankfully his recent comments remove the need for me to do so – it’s pretty clear which way Fred intends to go for Lamar/Guadalupe, and it’s going to be Bus Rapid Transit.
What is Bus Rapid Transit, you ask? Well, it’s Rapid Bus with bus lanes. You get most of the reliability and speed of light rail, but you get none of the comfort, perceived quality (suburbanites don’t like buses, remember?), and perceived permanence. Studies in this country have shown pretty conclusively that you get redevelopment and infill with rails that you don’t get with buses – even Rapid Buses. If that doesn’t make sense to you, consider what it takes to move Rapid Bus service to a different road versus moving rail service.

Reason to vote no on commuter rail

The picture below is my son, Ethan. He wanted me to tell you that by the time he’s ten, he wants urban rail service (dedicated right-of-way; not streetcars) running down the real urban rail corridor (Lamar/Guadalupe), not “Rapid Bus”. He also wanted me to add that if you vote for commuter rail, and his dad is right about the negative effects, he’s coming for you.

If I were you, I’d do what he wants.

8 down, 19992 to go

My wife and I voted (early) on Sunday. And this weekend, Jonathan Horak endorsed this blog’s position. Also, Chip Rosenthal declared his opposition and used very similar reasoning to that used by this author.
In the meantime, Ben Wear wrote about commuter rai again on Sunday in the Statesman, this time using my colleague Patrick Goetz for the lone pro-transit and oh-my-god-does-this-plan-really-stink perspective. I think I’ve fallen permanently off his radar.
Finally, in the twenty minutes or so since I submitted this post, a blog I’ve not read before called Grits For Breakfast added their endorsement, and the author made a very good general point about how perplexing it is that Austin voters don’t fight these Austin-bashing initiatives harder.

Which possible outcome should scare you more?

a response to Dave Dobbs on the austin-bikes list, in which Dave ended with:

There will be no options if this doesn’t pass.

In fact, it will be difficult to defend Capital Metro’s money if this election doesn’t pass. However, it will be even MORE difficult to defend Capital Metro’s money if this election does pass, and the rail service meets my expectations (matching the performance of South Florida’s Tri-Rail, the only other new start rail plan relying exclusively on shuttle buses for passenger distribution). At that point, we will have SHOWN that “rail doesn’t work in Austin”, and the long-term justification for at least 1/4 cent of Capital Metro’s money will be gone.
The position, however, that we will definitely lose the money after an election failure fails to compel on two counts:
1. We didn’t permanently lose the money in 2000
2. Even if we do ‘lose’ the money, it’s going to be easier to get it back if we don’t have a pathetically poor rail line on the ground SHOWING people that “rail doesn’t work in Austin”.
Keep in mind, if you doubt me that commuter rail won’t work, that:
1. Most of the people in 2000 who said they wanted light rail get no rail service from the starter line, and most of that most don’t get rail service in the long-range plan either.
2. The people who ARE being delivered rail service are the people who, in 2000, were most against light rail.
3. Those lucky few being delivered rail service are precisely the people who have been the LEAST WILLING to ride buses, and yet in order to use this rail line, they’re going to have to ride a bus every single day.
4. In order to improve this line in any way, shape, or form, a follow-on election must be held. Does anybody think that’s going to be easy to sell, what with the pro-rail PAC telling everybody that we’re following a “vote on every step” plan so they can evaluate rail’s performance each time before approving more?
At worst, I urge all of you to remember the Great Shoal Creek Debacle Of Aught-Aught. Is anybody willing to argue with me NOW that I was wrong back then? Want to bet against me again?

If I win, what do we do

Phil Hallmark from the austin-bikes email list asked for a clear description of what my “next referendum” would look like, since I’m asking people to vote no on this one. A good point; while I’ve made some recommendations scattered through this blog, I haven’t ever written it down in one place.
My referendum would be, legally, the same language as this one (since ballot language just says “operaton of a rail system”) but the notice of election would state that the starter line would be a light rail line running from Leander to downtown Austin (sound similar?). I don’t know if it’s even legal to state “running past UT and the Capitol”, but I’d give it a whirl.
The difference is that the routing would follow the 2000 election’s route. I would drop South Congress completely from the long-range plan; the starter line would use the existing rail right-of-way from the northwest; entering Lamar Blvd at its intersection with Airport Blvd (as in 2000); switching to Guadalupe; running by the Triangle, Central Park, West Campus. It would run next to UT on Guadalupe.
The line would transition to Congress Ave. around 11th; then run down Congress to 4th St., terminating there (for the time being). The long-range plan would continue that line west to Seaholm and then south on the UP right-of-way into south Austin (this solves the South Congress opposition in 2000). (Is there enough space for the train to turn on/off Congress at 4th? I think so; but I’m not sure).
The long-range plan would also include spurs to Mueller and Bergstrom. But as wth commuter rail, you only vote on the starter line.
Isn’t this a small change? Well, my position on the 2000 election is that you could put the EXACT SAME PACKAGE up for a vote again, and there’d be a 60% chance of passage (with Dubya voters energized in 2000, it lost by less than 1%). With the South Congress change made to avoid opposition from that sector, I’d estimate an 80% chance of success with my plan.
Shouldn’t Capital Metro have tried something like this? Any one of a few changes could have brought the 2000 light rail line over the top, after all (another option is avoiding Crestview/Wooten). Well, as I’ve said, they weren’t motivated by the voters, but by one particular state legislator.
If this sounds good to you, you’d better vote against commuter rail; because light rail on this corridor is effectively precluded by the implementation of commuter rail.

Another opinion

In the spirit of “get something posted today with a minimum amount of time”, I also present an email from a friend of mine who works in the business (transit) who commented a while back to me on Capital Metro’s plan. Note that he’s more sanguine about streetcars than am I; he also mentioned in a follow-on that streetcars on both 4th and Congress wouldn’t necessitate a transfer in all cases, since there are models out there that could easily navigate that turn.
Here’s his note to me (this was a couple of months ago):

Hey M1EK,
Good stuff about the Cap Metro plan. I agree with you: it’s flawed.
The transfer penalty for choice riders is significant regardless of the type
of transfer – if it’s not a one-seat transit ride to work, it’s usually not
going to compete, in the mind of the choice rider, with driving to work.
Some folks will tolerate having to transfer between trains (which is how
commuter rail generally works), but much fewer will tolerate transferring
from a bus to a train to get to work. For example, the park and ride bus
that used to run from north Houston to the Texas Medical Center was
truncated when the rail line opened, and people who used to ride the bus all
the way to the TMC are now forced to transfer to the train in downtown.
Needless to say, ridership on that route has fallen.
As you correctly note, almost nobody will tolerate a rail-to-bus transfer to
get to work.
About eight or so years ago, when TxDOT was doing the Major Investment Study
on the Katy Freeway (I-10 west), they looked at using the existing MKT
railroad right-of-way running parallel to the freeway as a possible commuter
rail corridor. It would have been a quick and smooth trip into the central
city, but there was no way to distribute the passengers to major activity
centers such as downtown or the Texas Medical Center once they got there
(because Bob Lanier the highway lobby whore was still mayor, the Main Street
rail line wasn’t even on the drawing board at the time). Passengers would
have been forced to get off the train at the Amtrak station just northwest
of downtown Houston and continue their journeys by bus. Even if the bus trip
from the train station into downtown was relatively short, you can imagine
what the ridership models looked like when the transfer penalty was factored
in. The commuter rail idea was dropped and the MKT right-of-way was used to
expand the freeway itself instead.
What kind of ridership predictions is Cap Metro making for this system?
The streetcar idea intrigued me. This plan might work if a downtown
streetcar network were implemented to distribute passengers. People might
not transfer from trains to shuttle buses, but they’ll transfer from trains
to streetcars. Such is the nature of mode preference.

The real danger

I’ve been busy at work and playing landlord, so I haven’t had time to write any new material, but I will share a response I just wrote to Fred Meredith on the austin-bikes list. Fred’s among the people who wants good mass transit in this area, but believes that voting yes on commuter rail is the best way to do it.
Fred Meredith wrote:

I will vote for this plan for the following basic reasons.
1.) We need a “first step” project in order to have any further advancement in mass transit through consideration of rail or other option to the single-occupant motor vehicle that increasingly gridlocks Austin. It may not be the best beginning, but it would be a beginning rather than a mandate to keep all rail plans off the horizon and just throw money at more lanes of concrete in a misguided attempt to overcome congestion. Once a first step is taken, I feel it is more likely that better plans can be brought to bear on the issue. I think it is a foot-in-the-door situation.

I don’t know how many more times I can take this argument without assuming that I’ve become invisible or inaudible (fat chance, huh?), but I’ll try to remain calm once more.
The danger here is that a starter line that is bad ENOUGH will completely destroy the momentum among the public (that actually WANTS rail right now by at least a slim margin, in Austin itself). This is what happened in South Florida with a system which is identical in every way that matters to the one proposed by Capital Metro. (Their demographics are a bit more liberal than ours, if you include the entire Capital Metro service area, but still far more conservative than Seattle or Portland).
Aspects of Tri-Rail’s service which are important:

  1. It doesn’t go anywhere people actually want to go, but relies on high-frequency circulators (shuttle buses) to take people to their final destinations.
  2. What happened was that people who were potential new transit customers stayed away, in droves, when they heard about the shuttle-bus transfer. (This transfer makes the entire trip noncompetitive with the private automobile – i.e. not even close).
  3. Hundreds of millions have been spent and are being spent to double-track the corridor, but now after 15 years of no real penetration among new transit customers, the people in charge are finally talking about moving or adding service to a far better rail corridor which actually goes through the major downtowns. (This is in their new long-range plans – meaning next decade or two).
  4. In the meantime, nothing else could be done (in terms of transit) for 15 years, and for at least another 10-15.
  5. Transit-oriented development has been pursued vigorously along Tri-Rail’s corridor for at least ten years now with no results whatsoever (no construction; only some plans, most of which died on the vine).

Compare (and contrast if you can) to Austin. Here’s the danger:

  1. We’re exactly the same as Tri-Rail. Unless you think drivers in Leander are in love with transfers to shuttle buses. I don’t.
  2. Capital Metro comes back to the voter in 2008 with plans to “expand” (either build the next commuter line down Mopac; build a streetcar system downtown; or if you don’t believe me that commuter rail precludes light rail, even rail down Lamar/Guadalupe).
  3. The voters, who were told in no uncertain terms back in 2004 that they should evaluate the line’s actual performance before voting on extensions/expansions, see that basically the commuter rail line is handling the old express bus riders (Capital Metro closed down the 183-corridor express buses in 2007 as commuter rail came online).
  4. The voters come to the (understandable) conclusion that “we tried rail, and it didn’t work; so we’re not going to spend any more money on it”.

So no, the position that “Once a first step is taken, I feel it is more likely that better plans can be brought to bear on the issue. I think it is a foot-in-the-door situation” is not an accurate representation of what we face. It’s more like “once a first step is taken on rail, it is very unlikely that better plans can be brought to bear on the issue unless the first step is a success in the minds of the voters. It is an out-on-a-limb situation”.