Don’t Kid Yourself: Commuter Rail Precludes Light Rail

A lot of the effort to mollify center-city people like me who are disappointed that Capital Metro’s All Systems Go plan does nothing for the densest residential neighborhoods of the city and doesn’t deliver passengers to the two largest potential attractors (UT and state capitol) has gone into two messages:

The first message is “commuter rail is just like light rail” – relatively few people have bought this, outside the suburbs, since they know that rail going down Airport Blvd. isn’t going to do anything for any corridors where there’s any real density today or where density in the future is even remotely attractive. This has morphed into “once we double-track and build more stations, you center-city folks can just catch a quick bus to or from the commuter rail station” which I have a hard time believing is fooling anybody, but you never know. I’ve talked a bit about this and plan on doing more in a later article, but not today.

Capital Metro’s words are:

Commuter Rail
Urban Service
Operating on existing freight tracks, this line from Leander to Downtown could provide convenient service for both suburban and central city passengers.

The second message, and the one I’ll talk about today, is the idea that we can get light rail in the urban core “later” if we approve this plan now. The genius of this message is that it does a fairly good job of lumping opponents like me in with kooky pie-in-the-sky non-pragmatists who are unwilling to get something running on the ground because of the pursuit of the perfect solution.

The problem is that this message is misleading at best, and a lie at worst. The reason to oppose this plan is because it’s deadly to future transit operations in this city. IE, not just because it doesn’t do enough right away, but because it will actively prevent more effective solutions from ever happening.

Two of the strongest constituencies for ridership in the original (2000) rail plan (which was destroyed primarily through legislative manuevering by Mike Krusee) were state workers and university people. With the 2000 plan, the state workers who live anywhere in the northwest corner of the metro area could have driven to a station, boarded the rail, and rode it straight to the Capitol. Roughly the first 2/3 of the length of this trip would have been on what is now the commuter rail line; i.e., completely separate right-of-way. The remaining third would have followed the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor with prioritization far exceeding that which the new Rapid Bus will get.

The university was going to be a huge attractor for ridership in two ways. Like state workers, university workers (or students) could board anywhere along the route and get delivered directly to the destination (at least, on Guadalupe St., which is close enough to walk to anywhere at UT). A second group of riders would be travelling to the UT satellite campus on Burnet Rd. north of US 183. The mere fact that a rail link would exist between the two campuses (again, walking distance on both ends) was going to provide a powerful core of riders on day one.

The current commuter rail plan, for reference, requires both of these constituencies to transfer to shuttle buses to reach their final destination. This, as I’ve pointed out before, means that anybody who has a car and can afford parking will never ride this route.The shuttle transfer kills the performance of the transit trip to the point where only people who don’t own cars or have difficult parking situations would consider it, as is the case with today’s express bus lines.

So what about a future light rail line, as Capital Metro winks and nods might someday fill this gap? There are at least three obvious reasons why this won’t happen (at least, in a way which solves these constituencies’ travel problems).

  1. A new light rail line down Guadalupe/Lamar, if commuter rail is built, cannot follow the original 2000 path northwest on the current rail right-of-way. The two vehicles have completely incompatible trackage, even if scheduling issues could be resolved. In fact, I have a hard time believing it’s feasible to even have a light rail line on this corridor cross the commuter rail line, making even transfers an incredibly difficult proposition. Thus, the areas where we were counting on the most long-distance residential travel cannot be served even if we get a new light rail line down the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor.
  2. The operation of the commuter rail line, in my opinion, will swamp Capital Metro with enough additional operating costs that they will be unable to resume saving even 1/4 cent of their sales tax money (as they could today). See previous articles by me for why I think this system is not going to attract significant ridership compared to the light rail model – in short, no area like us in the last ten years has started with commuter rail for a very good reason: they saw what happened in South Florida.
  3. The investment in the so-called rapid bus vehicles is going to be difficult to abandon, both financially and politically. There aren’t many corridors in Austin where these vehicles could be shifted (physical constraints). The pressure to keep this crappy part of the system running is going to be very very hard to beat.

So, I think anybody who’s tempted to vote for this plan with the ‘understanding’ that we can come back later and solve the needs of actual Austin residents rather than pandering to Cedar Park ought to think twice.



6 thoughts on “Don’t Kid Yourself: Commuter Rail Precludes Light Rail

  1. Several excellent points. However, light rail crossing the commuter rail line should be no problem due to common ownership.
    There have been several problems with streetcars crossing freight rail tracks due to attitudes from Norfolk Southern & CSX. However, the FRA does not prohibit this (with reasonable precautions).
    Light Rail crossing with commuter rail should be easy, IMO.
    Is there enough width in the owned ROW for a second and even 3rd track ?
    That seems to be the “best” solution to running light rail to the NW.

  2. Alan,
    My comments referred to LRT crossing commuter rail at the Lamar/Airport intersection. The LRT is running in the median of Lamar and continuing northwards (as was briefly proposed in 2002-2003). The commuter rail line is crossing to the northwest as this point.
    Having both cross through the intersection of Lamar and Airport would basically shut down this intersection for cars for large amounts of the day – this would not be technically or politically feasible.

  3. If the object of light rail is to allieviate automobile use and, by extension, congestion, isn’t there a concern that, based on the ‘All Systems Go’ plan that most light rail riders would be existing bus riders?

  4. Drew,
    Let’s be clear:
    I think the commuter rail line now proposed is non-competitive with the car because of the transfer to shuttle-bus at the end of the trip. This is marginally more appealing than current bus trips, at least to downtown, and will have a hard time picking up anybody who (a) has a car and (b) doesn’t have to pay a lot to park. (Those constituencies form most of the current express-bus ridership on the same corridor).
    I do NOT think the 2000 light rail line would have just attracted bus riders. I think it would have followed the results in Dallas, Denver, Portland, Salt Lake, etc. in attracting NEW people to transit – those who chose to leave their car at home because transit was BETTER, not because they simply didn’t want to pay a lot to park. Suburbanites AND inner-city residential patrons could have had a very competitive trip (compared to their car) on that system.

  5. Where can ‘All Systems Go’ info be found? Their site contains very sparce, fluffly stats and facts; not much hard data or research. I was also googling and found some info about the AMP (Monorail). What’re you thoughts on that? Is it as expensive as critics say?

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