A Post-Urban Rail Transit Agenda

Over the past few weeks, quite a few people connected to city politics have told me that they don’t think the urban rail proposal will pass in November. With the current property tax unrest and questionable merits of this operationally risky, $1.4 billion urban rail project, I believe it would be careless for Mayor Leffingwell to continue pushing for this project to be on the November 2014 ballot.


Photo by John Anderson

During Mayor Leffingwell’s State of the City Address earlier this year, he went so far as to threaten that if Austin did not pass a rail bond this year, we would fail as a city. This level of simplistic thinking and fear mongering on a complex city issue like public transit is not only wrong, it is extremely unproductive to transit politics. We deserve more from our elected officials.

How We Got Here

Mayor Leffingwell obviously did not come up with the “Rail or Fail” soundbite by himself. It came from a group of people within the establishment who think that any rail project is better than no rail project at all. This group’s perspective is largely framed by the failed 2000 light rail election, which lost by only a very small margin.


Photo by Austin Rail Now

Since then, this small group of well-intentioned-but-misinformed urbanists have slowly and half-heartedly pushed for a rail investment that follows a path of least resistance. Their rationale for not pushing for another proposal on the most favored, heavily traveled, and comparatively more dense Guadalupe/Lamar corridor is based on the fear that it is politically unfeasible to take a lane away from automobile traffic. They have instead favored a proposal on San Jacinto that would seek to use transit primarily to encourage urban development at Mueller (and most recently at Highland Mall) where it currently does not exist.

I am sympathetic to those that are frustrated with the merits of this specific urban rail proposal, yet are worried that we may never get another opportunity to put rail on the ballot. After all, I used to be one of them! Their position is summed up here by fellow Urban Transportation Commissioner Rich MacKinnon and rebutted here by ex-AURA Executive Committee Member Julio Gonzalez Altamirano. (I really encourage everyone to read those two posts. It is a good example of the current state of affairs among Austin’s transit community. For brevity’s sake, I chose to skip a more in depth explanation.)

I ultimately changed my mind about this proposal a few years ago when I realized how operationally inefficient and risky this project was actually going to be. Contrary to what the public is being told by Project Connect, there are actually very few corridors in Austin with the land use and density needed for rail to make financial sense; that is, where it is actually more cost-effective to run rail than buses. The arbitrary Highland Sub-Corridor outlined by Project Connect simply does not have sufficient densities to support rail at this time.

A lot of people are wondering what will happen if rail ends up failing. Obviously Leffingwell’s “Rail or Fail” saying isn’t true. If the proposal ends up failing in the November election, life–and Austin’s transit system–will simply go on. A much more desirable outcome from an advocacy standpoint, however, would be for Mayor Leffingwell to give up on this project altogether. No matter what happens with urban rail this year, the majority of Austinites utilizing public transit will continue doing so on a bus for the foreseeable future. And I will see them there.

Lessons Learned

So, with more than five years of going back and forth over the many iterations of this fundamentally flawed urban rail proposal, what lessons have we learned?

For almost a decade, the obsession with urban rail as a symbol of a “world class city” has stood as an impediment to addressing the real problems with Austin’s transit system. I believe that one of the biggest lessons throughout all of this is that we need to stop talking about transit in only “rail vs bus” terms. Outside of CapMetro and City Hall circles, very few people care whether they’re on a bus or a train. What they do care about, however, is how good their transit system is at providing freedom of movement throughout our city. In many cases, the vehicle type matters very little when it comes to providing that freedom. For example, put a rail vehicle in the same environment as a “slow” bus & you’ll see how absurd technology discussions really are. What matters most to improving service in Austin is infrastructure.

In 2012, I wrote the following in an email to the Alliance for Public Transportation leadership after Mayor Leffingwell decided to postpone putting the urban rail bond on the ballot:

“Going forward, I would encourage us to focus less on transit technology (rail or bus) and more on level of transit service (frequency, speed, span, etc). Jarrett Walker, a public transit consultant and author of Human Transit, believes regions should focus “on mobility outcomes, and use whatever technology best delivers those outcomes in each corridor.”

This particular lesson cannot be overstated. We have to understand that what is important to attracting global talent in the 21st Century isn’t shiny rail vehicles, but the actual freedom that transit service gives to those wanting to live a carfree lifestyle. In the future, let’s focus less on the wrapper and more on the substance of transit service.

Where We Are Going

It is time to start building a new narrative about transit that brings Austin’s transit community together. Below is a list of things that I will be focusing on over the next two years:

  • Get good leadership with a real understanding of transit on the CapMetro Board and on City Council
  • Establish a frequent service bus network for Austin similar to the Houston proposal
  • Improve MetroRapid by expanding the transit priority lanes, increasing frequency and addressing the fare issue
  • Develop better transit cost-effectiveness and equity measures for CapMetro’s service guidelines and standards
  • Implement policies that allocate public right of way based on actual transportation modeshare studies
  • Improve the way CapMetro collects, delivers, and presents data, information, and alerts to the public
  • Integrate extensive public outreach and community involvement within the CapMetro decision-making process
  • Build a stronger transit constituency in Austin by connecting grassroots and grasstops leadership
  • Grow a culture of transit in Austin through the use of new media and other unconventional campaigns

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a blog post dedicated specifically to each of the ideas outlined above.

Help Wanted

If there is one thing I have learned over the past year, it is that I cannot do any of this by myself. Do you have other ideas on how to make Austin’s transit system better? Please share them with me on Twitter and Facebook! I will be compiling our ideas and will eventually host a public workshop to develop more concrete ideas on how to go about achieving each goal.


12 thoughts on “A Post-Urban Rail Transit Agenda

  1. As long as we don’t make any more ‘BRT’ [sic] investments on any corridor we later envision for rail, sign me up for the whole agenda above. I no longer have any trust in our decision-makers saying something will be a placeholder for later rail when they just tried to convince us at the last second that it was instead an obstacle.

    Rail vs bus does matter in some cases – on a few of our corridors, its greater capacity and comfort matters a great deal.

  2. Completely agree. I would prefer to see light rail in a dense corridor where it will successful rather than a politically feasible corridor where it will not attract enough ridership (but still cost a huge amount of public money). I guess we could call that second option “rail and fail”.

  3. Tony Huffman says:

    The huge (and in my mind essentially insurmountable) problem that does not seem to have been acknowledged by AURA and other supporters of the Lamar/Guadalupe subcorridor is that the University of Texas has said many times (through Pat Clubb and others) that they will NOT support rail on Guadalupe.

    The center of the UT campus and focus is shifting east. The medical school and for the first time new proposed classroom buildings east of I-35 are evidence of that. They want the rail to run through the center of campus, not the western edge. Even Highland alignment opponents acknowledge that 25-30 years from now the San Jac/Red River corridor is going to look a lot different than it does now.

    But, you say, “it’s City of Austin right of way, and UT isn’t even paying for it”? Ha. UT could make a rail project it doesn’t support virtually impossible to get built — in all sorts of ways. Rejoicing when the bond fails in November thinking that it moves us closer to rail on Guadalupe is hopelessly naive — unless and until you get Clubb and the folks in the big tower to support an alignment that they have so far demonstrated no support for.

    • Tony, I’d give this a lot more weight if:

      1. UT was paying anything for the line (in fact, their students/faculty will continue to ride free, while their employer ‘pays’ much less than cost for the service)

      2. UT had demonstrated this eastward shift in anything but words. All you have to do is look at recent construction and plans for the near future to realize San Jacinto is not the center of campus even 10 or 20 years from now. It’s a fantasy.

      3. We had something of similar density to West Campus or the Triangle to make up for not serving either (ever) by building the Highland alignment. No, the Smallest Medical School In The Country isn’t worth it. Nor is the “Innovation District”; nor is a big community college campus. All of those put together are worth less riders than the Triangle is all by itself.

      • Tom Terkel says:

        Mike, as fond as I am of the Triangle, at full build out, it will have 750 residential units and approximately 1,100 +/- residents. Even allowing for some trips generated by the 120,000 SF of retail, I am not sure that ACC and even a small Med school would generate less than the several hundred that the Triangle will create.

        That said, and to your point, the Triangle has an existing Park and Ride facility and was designed with an eventual rail line in mind, so it is set up to facilitate rail.

      • Tom, we have demonstrated ridership from the Triangle to downtown – most people moving there are moving there because of access to UT and the core. The same is not true for a community college campus at a dead mall; we have no idea where those people are going to be commuting from; or where the (far fewer!) people living in the small apartment complexes they intend to build will work.

  4. Tom says:

    Great essay. I would urge you to add planning a transit system built for a city of 4,000,000 + to your list of things to focus on. My largest concern with the current proposal is the lack of an underground service through the CBD inherently constraining service to 2-car trains. Seems like planning for 2,000,000 people, not where we’ll be in a decade or two.

    • Sorry, Tony! I’m still getting used to approving comments on this blog. I’m just going to go ahead and auto-approve everything from now on.

      To respond to your statement that no one is acknowledging that UT is basically determining this project’s route, I disagree. We have all known for years hat Pat Clubb and others have been very stubborn when it comes to this project. Because they see this project primarily as a development tool, they want it to aid their master planning efforts (which, as you point out, is shifting focus eastward).

      But let’s not forget that UT is only one of many stakeholders of this project. The primary goal of any mobility bond should be to improve access and freedom of movement within our city. I find it odd that you would correctly identify UT as the main political driver of this poorly chosen route, then put regular Austin citizens at fault for not accepting what is essentially blackmail. Let me remind you that UT Student Government passed a resolution supporting a Lamar/Guadalupe urban rail route.

      Like I said, there are actually very few corridors in Austin with the land use and density needed for rail to make financial sense. The lightly traveled Red River corridor is not one of them.

      Maybe you misunderstood me, but I’m not opposing this route because I have a dream of one day putting rail on Guadalupe. I am opposing this route because its high operating subsidies could end up taking transit service away from other parts of the city. Sometimes a ‘No Build’ option actually becomes the optimal choice if, for example, the project could end up jeopardizing our fiscal capacity and political will to build out the entire system.

  5. Pingback: Should urban rail be Austin's focus at all?Austin Light Rail, Urban Rail, and Mobility

  6. ashly85jones says:

    I feel that these projects are essential to Los Angeles moving forward in terms of urban transportation. We really have no choice. And we are at a juncture-right now-where an aggressive approach to project completion needs to be made. I hope that, God willing, Measure R funding will be extended and other needed, indeed, crucial projects are built.

  7. Houston also has one of the nation’s most productive (least subsidized, most heavily ridden) light rail lines. They are viewed in transit circles as a hero for just going ahead and doing what needed to be done despite heavy political headwinds at the time (they had to fund the Main Street line with purely local money because of interference from suburban legislators, among other things).

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