Why can’t MetroRail be extended to Seaholm?

Don't gimme no crappy transit, <a href=website like this hemorrhoids fool!”>
So the Statesman and the good folks at Austinist are falling prey to the hype about the TOD around the new commuter rail line. Let’s see how attractive the “T” component of the “TOD” will be for Crestview Station, purchase the one the Statesman most recently covered. Remember that without high-quality transit, you don’t achieve the true benefits of TOD.
First, let’s consider Paula Professor. She lives at Crestview and works at UT. The first map below (click for expanded version) shows her ride on the commuter rail train. So far so good! She’s able to walk to the train station, and even though the trains only run every half-hour, that’s not that big a deal on this end of the trip; she just plans ahead. The train ride is quick; and is not held up by traffic.

But wait! Why is the train stopping out here off of MLK, way out in East Austin? Paula wanted to go to UT; her office is between Guadalupe and San Jacinto near 24th street. Well, the signs at the station inform her that this is the UT stop, so she gets off. Ah, here we go: a shuttle bus marked “UT”. Well, she’s rather committed now, so might as well get on and see. Here we go:

The shuttle bus took 15 minutes to travel about two miles. Stuck in traffic behind the cars of all the people that drove to work. “What a pain in the ass,” thinks Paula, “if I was going to be stuck in traffic on the bus anwyays, why didn’t I just take the #1, or better still, the #101 express, which go straight where I want to go? Or better yet, just drive. Maybe in 2006 2007 2008 2010, I’ll just take the Rapid Bus there”.

On the way home from work, Paula missed her shuttle bus by five minutes, and ended up having to wait 25 minutes for the next one, which again took her back through heavy traffic, very slowly, to the commuter rail station. “What happens,” Paula wondered, “if my shuttle bus misses the train departure because it’s stuck in traffic? This thing only runs every half-hour during rush hour and not very late into the evening”
Paula ain’t gonna ride this thing again, folks.
Now on to a worker at the Capitol, who I’ll call Steve Staffer. Steve does the same thing as Paula; he walks to the train station. So far, so good! He rides the train, just like she did. Great! But at this station off MLK way out in east Austin, he sees that Capitol workers are supposed to depart, just like UT workers. Hmmm. Well, on to the shuttle bus:

“Wow,” said Steve, “I didn’t believe Paula when she told me how lame this ride on this slow, jerky, stuck-behind-cars shuttle bus was. Now I do.”
What’s Steve’s better option?

Wow. Looks just like the 2000 light rail proposal, doesn’t it?
Finally, Larry Lawyer, even after hearing the complaints of Paula and Steve, decided to ride the train anyways and catch up on his paperwork. “Wow,” he thought, “this is a lot more comfortable than the bus – and easier to work, but why the heck have I gone so far out to the east only to loop back here to this corner of downtown where there’s nothing but bums and the blank wall of the Convention Center?”

“I got off the train,” Larry explained later, “and there was a shuttle bus there that said ‘downtown’, but I already was supposed to be downtown, since that’s what this station is called! So I just started walking. I walked. And walked. And walked. By the time I got to my office on Congress Avenue, I had walked half a mile. More than I ever wanted to walk from the train station. I thought this thing was supposed to be right in the middle of downtown? On the way home, I took the shuttle bus instead. Not much better – a ten minute tour of downtown on a herky-jerky bus just like that Dillo that I tried once a few years ago and never went back to. I think tomorrow I’ll just take the Lexus straight in. Isn’t there a better way to do this?”

The common thread in all three of these “direct” pictures, in case you missed it, is that they all precisely match the expected route from the 2000 light rail proposal, which is now impossible to build thanks to commuter rail. We may get higher-density development at these spots simply because City Council upzones them to closer to what the market would like to provide in Central Austin, but it’s pretty darn clear that most “choice commuters” (people who can afford to drive to work, and, obviously, afford to live in these developments) will just be driving to work as usual unless we deliver transit service which doesn’t require a stupid shuttle-bus or even streetcar transfer. Go back to the the link from VTPI about the difference between TOD and “transit-adjacent development”, and pay particular attention to this item:
Transit service is fast, frequent, reliable, and comfortable, with a headway of 15 minutes or less.
Even if we run commuter rail trains more often, a trip which relies on a shuttle bus travelling through mixed traffic for the last two miles or so will never be reliable or comfortable. This is why our friends at Tri-Rail have egg on their faces year after year after year as the promised TOD around stations never materializes. Here in Austin, we’re likely to get at least medium-density development at Crestview Station, but the residents still aren’t going to be enjoying the true benefits of TOD, and neither is the city.

Isn’t this worse than lying about a blowjob? If not, steroids why not?
Speaking as somebody who never voted Democratic for a high-level office until 2000 (passed on Clinton both times), drugs I find myself wondering if I can ever again consider the Republicans until they disavow this current bunch of clowns. I can’t be the only one. Do you guys seriously not get this?

Just thought I’d better write this down since I composed it twice only to lose most of it due to a stupid typepad/austinist interaction. Guys? Don’t use AJAX where input can be lost, order OK?
In the annals of Transit Stupidity, this will be one of the top entries. Read on.
MetroRail can’t feasibly be extended to Seaholm because it would have to run on 4th street all the way to the creek, and then get a brand new, very expensive, diagonal (long) bridge to transition to the 3rd street alignment the Seaholm project roughly abuts. (See image, source city’s OnTrack newsletter; click if it appears cut off). The DMUs we picked are too heavy and clunky to corner in the intersections available before that – so despite the fact that 3rd was the preferred rail corridor, we’re stuck with tearing up a ton of 4th street to do this project or just cutting through the middle of a downtown block – not gonna happen. (Go to page 3 of that PDF). Combine that with the fact that the Feds would be extremely unlikely to kick in one lousy penny due to low ridership and low cost/benefit rating for service like this, and it’s not going to happen. Note that Capital Metro didn’t get any federal funding for the commuter rail starter line, fairly obviously because of extremely low ridership projections.

Note that all of the “Seaholm and rail” planning from the people who actually have any say on this issue has to do with a streetcar connection to UP at the Seaholm site, NOT any extension of the starter line west to there.
And, even if by some miracle we did get commuter rail to Seaholm, it couldn’t continue up or down that Union Pacific line, because the DMU is not, by rule, allowed to run with freight rail. Cap Metro solved this by getting a “temporal separation” agreement ratified which promises that freight will only run in the wee hours of the morning, but UP would never agree to this. So, ironically, this DMU that we picked because it’s supposed to be so much cheaper than real light rail is too heavy to run where we need it to run in the street, but too light to run on existing rail which might be better suited for transit-oriented development opportunities than our starter line is.
Who screwed up here? Well, of course, Capital Metro did, if you assume that they cared about rail transit (I don’t think they do; I think their post-Karen-Rae leadership wanted to prove, with Mike Krusee’s assistance, that “rail doesn’t work”). But the more correct answer is: the credulous center-city pro-rail-transit people who assumed that we could ‘fix’ the plan by adding things to it later despite commentary all along from yours truly that it wasn’t going to be possible.
Addendum: I finally found the full Seaholm station report. According to them, the DMU Capital Metro is using for the starter service has a turning radius of 300′, which is way too high, but even at the more often heard 135′ or so, it will, as I expected, never be able to turn a corner in the street (see city’s OnTrack newsletter link above for more on that). The east-to-south curve being preserved only supports a turning radius of 100′ – meaning these DMUs will never be able to cross the river from here to South Austin. If we somehow convinced UP to abandon freight operations on this line, there is no physical obstacle to DMUs continuing west and then north up the Mopac line, but again, for all the practical reasons detailed above and then some, this will never happen.

  • Christof Spieler

    To amplify Cap Metro’s short-sightedness:
    Southern New Jersey has a diesel light rail line. It’s another project that was built where it was easy to build (rather than where people want to go) but at least it offers fairly frequent all day service.
    In Downtown Camden, NJ, the line runs down city streets for blocks and makes multiple sharp turns to do it. An example:
    http://www.ctchouston.org/blogs/christof/wp-content/camden%20dmu.jpg
    This isn’t even the sharpest turn; two are 90 degrees within street intersections.
    The kicker: New Jersey’s vehicle was built by the same company as Austin’s.
    In other words, Austin ordered the wrong model.
    Regardless, question: why isn’t the line being extended at least as far as Congress in 4th street? No turns are needed to do that, and it would get at least some people within walking distance of their job.

  • Christof,
    Thanks for commenting. With the contradictory information about turning radii depending on who you talk to, it may be that there are some intersections in Austin where this thing could turn (I trust the city staff over anything Capital Metro says at this time, however; they’ve been wrong a lot less often in the past).
    Is it possible the intersections in Camden are wider? The image you posted is a bit confusing – the angle on the right side of the turn is a bit off, implying that the street being turned onto doesn’t meet the original street at a 90 degree angle?

  • Christof Spieler

    I didn’t have a photo of one of the 90 degree turns — this one is about a 45.
    The Camden intersections are no wider than a typical Austin intersection, probably narrower.
    I do know for sure that the Cap Matro vehicle is different than the New Jersey vehicle — same manufacturer, different model. They may well have different specifications.
    Here’s one of the 90 degree turns:
    http://local.live.com/default.aspx?v=2&cp=qnr0z58r5tsp&style=o&lvl=2&tilt=-90&dir=0&alt=-1000&scene=7121563&encType=1
    the left hand track cuts the corner in order to be able to run curbside, but the right hand track makes its turn entirely in the intersection

  • That does look like it’s as narrow or narrower than our intersections, but it also kinda looks like BOTH tracks are cutting the corner (?) Remember that the Austin curve to be negotiated is to transition from 4th to 3rd, i.e., two of these turns in short succession.
    The route that the 2000 light rail proposal would have taken goes by a lot of corners where cutting the corner would not have been an option.

  • Can’t believe I’ve never looked at this satellite image before. Very interesting – it does look like it cuts every single corner (except for the 45 degree turn), and the lots on the blocks it cut are derelict (surface parking, apparently abandoned buildings).
    Interestingly, it looks like they’re running on the right sides of the street – with car lanes in the middle. Are these true reserved-guideway or are they sharing a lane with cars?