Today’s panel

Some observations from today’s panel at the LBJ school:

I was the only one talking about the actual alignment of the route, the location of the stations, and unimportant stuff like that, for obvious reasons.

I did not enjoy my exchanges with Scott Polikov(from the pro-commuter rail contingent, a former Capital Metro board member). Jim Skaggs was his usual self, and Jim Walker was about the same as he was at the Austin Neighborhoods Council panel a few weeks ago.

David Foster (with whom I shared a panel last week at the UT planning school as well as the first panel at the Austin Neighborhoods Council) understands that I want rail and just have some experience which leads me to believe that we should be even more scared of a successful election + unsuccessful ridership than we should of an unsuccessful election (he disagrees, but he at least keeps it on that level). He and Jim Walker both admit that this plan is about as far from ideal as you can get while still calling it “rail”; they disagree with me about the idea that it precludes light-rail down the original corridor, but they do it honestly; David a little more than Jim. If I could summarize their position as charitably as possible, it would be “they know we need rail, and they think that this is the only way to get it”. I think David would honestly summarize my position, and I hope Jim would as well.

Scott, not so much.

One of Scott’s points was that it was unfair to compare this starter line to Tri-Rail as I’ve done, because this line “enters downtown” and is only “4 blocks from Congress Avenue”. He scored a point on me here since this ended up as a “gotcha” comeback to my quote that Tri-Rail’s first route was a stupid idea because “Unlike most commuter rail systems, it doesn’t serve even one downtown area.”

This ended up being my biggest missed opportunity today. I failed to point out that in their own literature the pro-RAIL PAC talks about shuttle buses downtown, and not only that, has a picture of a shuttle bus with the sign “DOWNTOWN” on it, at the supposed downtown rail station. If they expect that downtown workers will think that a station at the Convention Center is close enough to walk to their office, why do they need a shuttle-bus at all? Why talk up the “quick and easy transfer”?

Take a look at their literature – the picture on the front cover is a rendition of the Convention Center stop (“downtown”), illustrating the “quick and easy transfers” to shuttle buses. Note the second bus back (on the right) is labelled DOWNTOWN.

This is still burnin’ my biscuits even tonight. I’m sure David thinks I’m crazy for being more scared of B than A when everybody else is more scared of A than B, but he presents his position honestly without misrepresentation. Scott, not so much.

More on our Commuter Rail Model, Tri-Rail

http://www.browardpalmbeach.com/2004-04-15/news/next-stop-nowhere/

Again, this system is about the closest analogue out there to what Mike Krusee’s puppets at Capital Metro are proposing this time around. It serves primarily suburban areas; doesn’t reach any downtowns or other activity centers; has high-frequency “circulators” at every station; etc.

One key difference, though: Tri-Rail’s 15-year experiment with the horrible route doesn’t preclude them, at least technically, from going to a much better route (down the FEC railroad which DOES run through the major actviity centers of the region). In Austin’s case, if commuter rail is built, you can’t technically OR politically build light-rail on the 2000 corridor, and I don’t think you can even do it on the modified “keep going north on Lamar” corridor proposed briefly in 2003. In other words, we’re worse off – if we’re making a mistake here, we not only waste a decade or more and a hundred million bucks, we ALSO prevent ourselves from building the rail right.

Excerpts:

A week’s worth of trips on the Tri-Rail, South Florida’s poky, 15-year-old commuter railway, recently confirmed the conventional rat-racing wisdom: The train serves not the region’s most populated areas but the fringes. It doesn’t offer riders destinations they truly need or desire, nor convenient times to get there. It’s underutilized, even during rush hour. It’s not located where people like Nick — an unemployed construction worker who says he’s “between cars” — are most likely to use it.

[…]

Since its start, Tri-Rail has operated on the CSX tracks, west of I-95. After about $1 billion of expenditures on its current line, transportation officials are considering shifting their main focus to the more desirable Florida East Coast Railway line, which links the region’s coastal city centers. The FEC, long resistant to the idea, now says it’s willing, maybe. The state has applied for $5 million in federal funds to analyze options along the FEC corridor where, critics say, Tri-Rail should have been located all along.

“Was this the best investment?” asks Steve Polzin, director of public transit research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “You wonder what could have been accomplished if they had not rushed into it. If, for example, they’d waited a few years and bought the FEC.” Tri-Rail began operating in January 1989 to alleviate traffic during construction on I-95. As the highway project continued unabated, though, the commuter train became a permanent fixture. But Tri-Rail officials never took their eyes off the far-preferable downtown route — even now, in the midst of its largest overhaul ever, including the construction of a second track along the 72-mile line and a new bridge over the New River, both of which are under way to the tune of $340 million.

Is a second track to nowhere really the answer? “It’ll be nice to have,” Polzin concedes. “There’s value in having a corridor in good condition with double-track capacity. But is it worth that much money, especially if something happens with the rail farther to the east? When you think of the expenditure, you could argue that a marginal demand necessitated it.”

Joseph Giulietti, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, acknowledges that the new plan may render the current Tri-Rail obsolete. “But when you’ve invested a little over a billion dollars to make this one functional — which it is,” he says, “you have to look at how to support that function.”

[…]

Tri-Rail runs through a metropolitan strip that’s now home to 5.2 million people. In February, it carried just 10,151 passengers a day (the highest average since April 1994). Unlike most commuter rail systems, it doesn’t serve even one downtown area. “It’s unique nationally in the sense that it doesn’t penetrate a downtown,” Polzin notes. “It’s an anomaly. You scratch your head and ask, ‘Could they have done more with it?'”

[…]

But Polzin isn’t quite ready to call Tri-Rail a failure. “It’s certainly not a raving success,” he says, “but the community seems comfortable with it. At least you feel good that you tried. But you have to ask how much additional investment, if any, makes sense. Perhaps there will be a greater appreciation for commuter rail in the future, but it’s not a slam-dunk by any stretch of the imagination.”

Tri-Rail wants to boost ridership to 68,000 a day by 2015, which would reduce the cost per rider from a current $8.81 to $5.06. Back in 1999, the agency’s then-director, Linda Bohlinger, gave the commuter system five years to accumulate 20,000 riders a day, opining that if that goal weren’t reached, “either we don’t know what we’re doing or the public doesn’t really need it.”

Again, this is what Mike Krusee wants for Austin: a rail line which requires that you transfer to shuttle buses if you want to get anywhere, and that doesn’t go anywhere near the densest residential parts of the city. Does this sound like a good idea to anyone?

Lessons from South Florida

I can’t believe it took me this long to find this link, but I finally got it.
http://www.floridacdc.org/articles/030930-1.htm
Excerpts:

Some South Florida leaders are itching to introduce something new to the region’s commuter rail service: a train that takes people somewhere they want to go.
As it stands, Tri-Rail rides on tracks beside Interstate 95. The agency’s trains go through no downtowns, and provide only indirect service to the region’s airports. Getting where you want to go generally involves a second trip via bus, bike, taxi or Metrorail.

The CSX line currently being used by Tri-Rail requires transfers to shuttle buses to get anywhere useful, just like the proposed Austin commuter rail line.

This article also talks about efforts to get Tri-Rail service on another existing rail line which actually runs through the downtown areas of the major cities in the region (allowing people to walk to offices, basically).

Another excerpt:

In a telephone interview, Winton said the FEC line would offer a serious alternative to driving for the growing number of people who commute between counties.

Now, a Broward commuter who works in downtown Miami would have to drive to a Tri-Rail station, take the train to a Metrorail station, take Metrorail to downtown, and possibly take Metromover after that.

In contrast, a passenger service on the FEC line would link downtown Miami with, for example, downtown Fort Lauderdale, which has thousands of new apartments and condominiums either built or on the way.
In hindsight, the decision to put Tri-Rail on the CSX track was probably unwise, Winton said.
”I think it was a huge mistake,” he said. “It doesn’t seem logical to me. It clearly hurts ridership by a ton.”