My final pre-election note

(Thank God, say the readers)

Sent by me a moment ago to the austin-bikes email list:

David Dobbs wrote:

> At 08:25 -0600 11/1/04, pills Mike Dahmus wrote:
>> So I don’t buy the argument that the money’s only going back if the election fails. I think the money’s also going back if the election succeeds but the starter line fails.
> Well, clearly we can be virtually certain that, save for a half-cent bus system, Capital Metro’s funding will be gone if commuter rail doesn’t pass tomorrow.

No, clearly we can’t be virtually certain of that.

I expect the 1/4 cent diversion to local governments to continue if Capital Metro were to lose the election. This diversion is easily rectified, unlike the permanent diversion that would happen if they win the election and build the virtually guaranteed failure of a commuter rail stub.
The fact that the ROAD guys aren’t fighting this very hard should tell you all you need to know about their feeling on the matter. But if you don’t believe THAT, consider the fact that this plan comes from Mike Krusee, no friend of Austin and definitely no friend of public transportation. He and Fred Gilliam have come up with the cheapest possible way to show once and for all that rail “doesn’t work in Austin” – at which point I’m sure their common cause evaporates as Krusee seeks road funds and Gilliam seeks bus rapid transit. Either way, central Austin in particular gets nothing but the back of the hand.
There is no way I can see in which urban rail can be salvaged if this election passes. David is parroting the dubious party line that this commuter rail line can be turned into “light rail” by running the trains more often and through TOD – ignoring the fact that TOD won’t occur if nobody is riding the line when it opens (real estate developers will shy away from such development if the line looks like a failure AS HAPPENED IN SOUTH FLORIDA). And NOBODY has explained how Austin is going to be SO DIFFERENT from South Florida that the shuttle-bus liability won’t be a huge problem here for building choice commuter ridership. High-frequency shuttle buses waiting for you when you get off the train? Check. Speedy rail portion of commute? Check. Cheap because they used existing track? Check. Now planning on shifting emphasis over the next decade to a much better rail corridor after 15 wasted years? One down, one to go.

Let’s recap:

  • This line delivers rail + shuttle-bus commutes to Leander and far northwest Austin. It does not deliver ANYTHING to central Austin. It does not deliver rail service to ANY OF THE THREE major attractors (downtown*, UT, Capitol). It will be relying on far-out suburbanites to form the bulk of the daily ridership – and those are PRECISELY the people who are LEAST likely to accept a shuttle-bus as part of their daily commute. The progressive parts of town where residential density is at its highest get nothing but bus service under the LONG-RANGE plan (NOT just being skipped by the starter line, but SKIPPED ENTIRELY).
  • The idea that the plan can then be saved by streetcar is also naive and foolish. While streetcars are more attractive than buses for a single transit trip:
    1. The transfer penalty still applies. A three-leg trip (car, train, shuttle-bus) is much much worse than a two-leg trip (car, light rail) or a one-leg trip, as a Hyde Park resident could have had with 2000 LRT.
    2. Unlike light rail (and the rail portion of the ASG commute), streetcars are stuck in traffic just like shuttle buses. You lose so much speed and reliability that the private car becomes competitive again.
    3. Streetcars (and any other rail extensions or expansions) must be voted on under the same rules – only in November, only an even-numbered year, and they won’t be ready to take it to a vote in 2006 since they’ve committed to a long study process. November 2008 would be the first chance to VOTE on these saviours, at which point the daily ridership numbers of the initial line WITH SHUTTLE BUSES will be public knowledge.
  • The reason we’re not getting to vote on light rail this time around has NOTHING to do with light rail’s viability. EVERY CITY THAT HAS SUCCEEDED WITH RAIL IN THE LAST 20 YEARS HAS DONE SO WITH A LIGHT RAIL STARTER LINE, NOT COMMUTER RAIL. Light rail in 2000 was forced to the polls early by Mike Krusee, and still only narrowly lost in an election where suburban turnout was disproportionately high. The idea that we couldn’t have taken out some of the objectionable parts of the 2000 LRT proposal and gotten a winning result is just a COMPLETE AND UTTER LIE.

I can’t believe so many intelligent people fell for this snow-job pulled on you by Krusee, who hates Austin with a passion, and Fred Gilliam, who wants bus rapid transit and is pushing commuter rail as a way to get it. If I’m still living here in Austin in 2008, I expect to see many more comments a la Shoal Creek of:

” I am dismayed that Mike Dahmus was so damned right about this whole debacle from the very beginning.”
– MD

* – by the 1/4 mile rule, no major downtown office buildings are within walking distance of the “downtown station”. Nearly every major office building downtown, as well as the Capitol, UT, West Campus, most of North University and Hyde Park, and 38th/Guadalupe would have been within 1/4 mile of a light-rail station in 2000.

Commuter Rail #48: It’s Not Light Rail, No Matter What You Say

I had a good lunch with Dave Dobbs about two weeks ago. Dave’s a stand-up guy who is really working hard to get more mass transit on the ground in Texas cities, including Austin. So, any disagreements exposed in this article are honest ones; both Dave and I want more mass transit, not less. In fact, we both want more rail transit, too.

One of the things being floated in the face of center-city opposition to Cap Metro’s new long-range plan is the idea that commuter rail is practically the same thing as light rail, except cheaper, so why would any of you light-rail guys oppose it anyways. Dave, in particular, was exasperated by my insistence in calling this plan “commuter rail” and comparing it to other commuter rail lines, such as Tri-Rail’s disaster in South Florida. Let’s analyze the things that were good about light rail, and see if that holds up:

The primary positive aspects of the 2000 light rail proposal, in my opinion, are (were):

  • Very short headways (initially only moderately short; but double-tracking the entire length of the corridor meant it would be easy to go to very short headways).
  • Opportunity for dense transit-oriented redevelopment in the Robinson Ranch, the Burnet/Metric corridor, and the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor
  • Electrified runningway (means that the vehicle can accelerate and stop fairly well, runs fairly quietly, and does not pollute at source).

In addition, the light rail route would have alloed for pickup and delivery of passengers via pedestrian arrivals (i.e. less than a ten-minute easy walk to or from the station) at all of the following major attractors (north-south):

  • Park and Rides in far northwest Austin and suburban areas
  • Robinson Ranch
  • Metric Blvd / Burnet Rd tech employers (including IBM)
  • University of Texas Pickle Research Campus
  • Huntsman site (near Airport/Lamar)
  • Central Market / Central Park (38th/Lamar)
  • 38th St medical complex
  • University of Texas main campus
  • State Capitol complex
  • Congress Avenue
  • City Hall / CSC
  • South Congress

Evaluating the commuter rail proposal on the same metrics, we have:

  • Very long headways initially (every 30 minutes). Most bus routes in the city operate this frequently or more frequently, and yet one of the most common complaints from passengers is that they have to wait too long for a bus. This is unlikely to improve without double-tracking the whole corridor, and even then, I doubt whether headways could be improved beyond 15 minutes due to the performance characteristics of commuter rail vehicles.
  • Dave thinks the same opportunities for redevelopment exist (of course, in different corridors in some cases). l disagree – in no city in the USA has commuter rail ever resulted in the type of transit-oriented redevelopment you see with light rail, and it’s not a simple terminology difference. I’ll address this component in a later article. Even if Dave is right, the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor (and hence the near-UT areas which would be most obviously ripe for transit-oriented development due to their demographics) are not served by this plan.
  • These vehicles are going to be diesel locomotive-driven. At best, they might be similar to the RegioSprinter which was run around town a few years ago for a demonstration. These vehicles are likely to be far noisier, more polluting, and have worse acceleration and deceleration characteristics than would a typical light-rail vehicle.

And for pickup/delivery, we have:

  • Park and Rides in far northwest Austin and suburban areas
  • Robinson Ranch
  • Metric Blvd / Burnet Rd tech employers (including IBM)
  • University of Texas Pickle Research Campus
  • Huntsman site (near Airport/Lamar)
  • Convention Center

Some might argue that Cap Metro’s map shows this line going to Seaholm, and that a station at 4th and Congress is likely. I disagree:

  • Adding commuter rail trackway in the street is much more difficult than it would have been to built a LRT runningway. It will also interfere with plans for the Lance Armstrong Bikeway. Expecting this rail to be built anytime soon is a fool’s hope. And if reasonable headways (less than 30 minutes) are to be delivered, this will require double-tracking the entire downtown stretch. Keep in mind that this rail will be wider than the light rail trackway would have been.
  • Even when built, the idea that downtown can hang its hopes on a station that will definitely be at 4th and Congress is foolish. That’s too close to the station at Seaholm to be feasible (ironically, this is true even though the station at Seaholm is too far away to make pedestrian access to Congress feasible for most – IE, it’s too close for the vehicle but too far away for people).

Unfortunately, instead of opposing the plan on its (lack of) merits, most of the center-city people are wasting their time pushing for a quicker path to Seaholm (again, on the questionable principle that they can get a station on Congress by doing so). They then make this extraordinary claim:

“A rail line through the middle of downtown would allow a high
frequency circulator to quickly and efficiently carry commuters north,
to the Capitol complex and the University of Texas, and south, to the
South Congress District.”

We have that high-frequency circulator already. It’s called the Dillo, and nobody who has free or cheap parking ever uses it, because it’s dog-slow, because it’s stuck in the same traffic as your car would be.