Rail Options

This week, the Project Connect staff and consultants are starting to put the finishing touches on their mode and alignment recommendation to the Mayor’s Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG).   CCAG will then stamp some version of that recommendation with its approval (the final vote will likely be on Friday, June 13th) and pass it on to Council for designation as the locally-preferred alternative (LPA).

The unanimous Council vote this past December on the CCAG sub-corridor recommendation indicates that the support exists on Council for CCAG’s eventual LPA selection. The conventional wisdom is that some rail plan is going to get placed on the November ballot.

For those of us interested in a quality plan, what are the available advocacy options?

“Yay! We need to do something. Anything.”

There is a small group of Austinites that recently had a party to kick-off the creation of a group (“Austin Goes Around” I believe “Austin Gets Around”) to advocate the November ballot language. Like a lot of Austinities, it seems that they believe it’s time to “do something” badly enough and the details are not important enough to wait for.  If you are ready to go, that’s an effort worth looking up.

“Kill it! Try Gudadalupe/Lamar in 2016.”

The Guadalupe-Lamar (GL) transit route is clearly the strongest candidate for an initial rail sequence based on potential ridership and existing residential development.  CCAG discarded it. Council shied away from resurrecting it. The basic reason is a lack of political leadership to work with the FTA to move the existing MetroRapid bus investment ($36 million in federal funds) to make way for the first sequence of urban rail ($400-$800 million total investment).

A grassroots effort to put it on the ballot does not appear to have traction. Therefore, GL won’t be on the ballot this November.

Some argue that Austinites should already start opposing the details-yet-to-be-finalized rail route. The reasoning behind this sentiment is that GL is best, hence it must go first to ensure the strongest system. On top of that, they add a sweetener: we can try and vote for GL in 2016.

The available data indicate that a successful East Riverside (ER) to medical district route is possible. By “successful” I mean: (1) enough ridership that  per-rider subsidy is lower than bus a few years after the service starts and (2) car-ownership is lower than expected in the census tracts served. ER already exceeds the minimum residential density and the zoning is already in place there for even more.   Two of the major regular bus routes (the 7 and 20) serve similar needs as an ER-to-downtown-and-UT sequence.


Now, waiting two years for GL has its appeal. But the reality is that if the November 2014 rail referendum fails, it’s not automatic that there’s a successful rail election in 2016. Looking at some repeatedly cited examples of rail-vote-failure turnarounds indicates the wait time is likely to be longer than two years.


Is the utility from the GL enough to justify taking the risks from killing any other proposal? Given current data, I’d answer no.  In Spring of 2013, the 1 and 101 (proxies for GL route) had about 17,000 weekday boardings. The 7, 20, and 100 (partial, back-of-the-envelope proxies for the route CCAG is considering) had about 13,000 weekday boardings. Clearly, each corridor has some relatively uncontroversial pros and cons in terms of the potential for utility delivery (say super-dense West Campus versus the median on East Riverside, different growth prospects, different underlying impact on economic justice concerns).

Given these facts, a segment like ER-to-medical-district is maybe 20% lower in public value to GL. But not 2000% (20x) lower. And that matters once you start to assess the risk of a November 2014 defeat significantly delaying rail and other public transportation investments in a similar fashion to the 2000 defeat. If GL is 20% better at providing public value than ER-to-downtown, that means every year of delay requires four years of payback for lost utility.

This is critical, so let’s go through an example. If we delay two years of ER utility (80 utility ‘points’ per year) to get GL utility (100 points), it will take GL eight years to payback the lost utility. The math is straightforward: 160 units from 2 years of ER operation that are lost in seeking a 2016 vote/20 unit-per-year bonus from GL.   If rail gets delayed 4 years, that’s 16 years of of payback time; if it gets delayed 8, that’s 32 years of payback. And the further out the payback crossover happens, the less certain we can be that GL would continue to hold a utility advantage in perpetuity. It makes sense to hold out for GL if its advantages are vast (20x) or ER is unworkable (like standalone Highland). But given the actual size of the differences in value and the political risks, I don’t view a diehard GL position as the optimal advocacy direction for this November.

“Kill it! I don’t want anything pointing to Highland.”

Others argue that while the East Riverside to downtown part of a longer East Riverside-downtown-Hancock/Highland is appealing, it is not enough to justify the entire line. This makes sense to me given the potential Hancock tunnel costs. Going north of the medical district where there is less demand and higher costs than than the ER segment doesn’t make sense given scarce fiscal capacity for capital and operating costs. Phasing also gives us the option to go back to GL as MetroRapid buses wear out.

Others go a bit farther and argue that even if we just start with East Riverside to downtown, it’s still not worthy of being supported because it creates path dependency to Highland, which in turn might preclude GL because it will duplicate service for certain stretches north of the University of Texas. Again, I think the above phasing is the right approach. Moreover, it seems that pushing for the engineering to remain open to either connection towards Seaholm as well as compatibility with Riverside connecting with a future GL line must be a part of the LPA. So instead of killing it for pointing North, I’d urge we make sure it can (and does) point West.

“Kill it! It doesn’t use the existing bridges.”

The Project Connect staff is not conducting an analysis on the traffic impact from refurbishing either the Congress or South 1st bridges for rail. Ultimately, it seems the Mayor has prioritized preserving existing car traffic flow to avoid the resentment and political repercussions from angry drivers.

Some argue that any new bridge or tunnel should be opposed since it protects car-first policy. Personally, there’s too much utility left on the table to reject an ER-to-medical district proposal on this issue alone. I would have liked to have seen the numbers on traffic and made a decision then, but this is the leadership we’ve got from the Mayor and the Project Connect staff.

Between a bridge and a tunnel, the limited information released to the public indicates minimal impact on ridership numbers; hence I prefer the cheaper option to boost political viability and leave fiscal capacity for other infrastructure. That said, new data on costs or ridership modeling might make me change my mind on the tunnel versus bridge option. I am not opposed to a tunnel per se. Instead, at this time, I can’t justify a preference for tunneling if we are optimizing for ridership and reducing car-dependence. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the hit to political viability from using up roadways that a long tunnel might solve.  I just haven’t seen any data that makes me think that will be a significant voter concern.

Others oppose the creation of a bridge because of the aesthetic impact on the Lake Area. While it will modestly change the Lake’s aesthetics near the core, a rail bridge supports a type of living and development pattern that is more environmentally sustainable. It’s a trade-off green-minded Austinites should make.

“This is all a risky mess. Let’s just do BRT.”

While the ER-to-medical district has a good chance at success, there’s no way the whole ER-Highland concept makes fiscal sense either on capital or on-going operating cost grounds. If CCAG wants to provide certainty about transit to shape growth at Highland/Airport, as well as take the next step in providing transit for those using the 7-20-100, then it makes much more sense to use real Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) with dedicated lanes. It will be much cheaper on the capital side for the first decade (buses are cheaper and run on existing roads), less of a fiscal risk on the operating side (buses have lower fixed costs, though their variable costs like labor can add up), and would mirror the choice made for GL.

To be absolutely clear: the data render ER-to-medical district line a superior public investment than BRT for the entire ER-HL stretch.  But the entire stretch having BRT delivers more public value than nothing. An initial rail sequence with the Hancock tunnel that serves only the areas North of the medical district would destroy significant amounts of public value and is inferior to nothing.

Some Swing Voters Like Specifics

To conclude, it is quite likely that CCAG and Council are not in the mood to consider any alternative viewpoints besides something that is a descendant of the Red Line-supporting circulator concepts of the past.  The urge to ‘do something’ is too great, the desire to shape growth to Airport given the core’s NIMBY forces is the path of least resistance, and the institutional alignment around rail serving the future planned employment hubs of UT provides a useful source of elite support (and campaign money).

Luckily, there’s plenty of time between June and November to criticize and defeat a poor plan.

To most effectively savage a bad plan, I’ve found it useful to be able to tell a story of constructive ideas rejected as a result of hubris. Not every voter cares for alternatives – many prefer simple dichotomies.  But in a close election, every sliver counts, and there’s certainly a set of voters that will want to reject a bad plan after hearing a concrete explanation that something better was possible and their ‘no’ vote is part of going back to that better plan.

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17 Responses to Rail Options

  1. North Austin says:

    lnteresting to see yet another blog advocating for people to support Austin Gets Around, considering they are most likely just another arm of the current political machinev


    As for the NIMBYs being part of the problem with transportation? I’d have to argue that its the NIMBYs who are trying to find solutions to the current mess:


    -Mary Rudig
    editor, North Austin Community Newsletter

    • Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

      The broader trends driving regional growth can’t be stopped by preserving suburban land use in the core of the region. The status quo NIMBY-infused land use just pushes the growth farther from the core, towards Wilco, as well as southern and eastern periphery. Our suburban friends still have lawns (and probably bigger ones since they are relatively cheap), so NIMBYism doesn’t help with water efficiency. And sadly, those suburban residents don’t live in communities that are dense enough to productively deploy limited transit dollars. Unfortunately, sprawl creates a political base that pushes for transit funds to ameliorate suburban commuting (e.g. Red Line, this circulator flavoring to this urban rail proposal). NIBMY planning and zoning victories make it very hard for transit to do its job effectively.

  2. Rob Parsons says:

    To provide clarity to Julio’s analysis above the transportation advocacy group is called Austin Gets Around (https://www.facebook.com/austingetsaround). We are advocates for better transportation options in Austin.

    The details absolutely do matter. Details that Julio shows above showing how missed opportunities can have a cumulative effect. In the fourteen years since the failed 2000 election we have missed countless opportunities to shape better landuse through transportation, improve mode share and make bold strides towards a better city.

    The chart above showing the first and second votes of rail referenda have an unsettling commonality – the initial plan is followed up by a very much watered down second plan. The data shows that by defeating transit efforts with the intent of holding out for a more perfect solution – the result is actually the opposite.

    Austin is not fully living up to its reputation as a livable city we must ask ourselves if we are happy with the missed opportunities of the past 14 years. Are we are willing to continue to create divisions around all the various minutia or start to think about ways to set aside preferences and do the hard work of building towards a more functional transportation system?

    -Rob Parsons

    • Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

      The ‘details’ I was referring to were about the route and phasing. Building ‘excitement for rail’ makes sense if it’s a good design with reasonable capital and operational/maintenance costs given expected ridership. Bad rail soaks up fiscal capacity for other transit through high per-rider subsidies. If the LPA is an initial sequence that includes the Hancock tunnel, that destroys so much value that it is worth waiting 4 to 10 years for another try. During that post-Highland-defeat interim, we can work on making MetroRapid true BRT, make the 7 and 20 BRT, use new sales tax revenue (not wasted propping up a bad rail route) to increase bus frequency throughout. And we can fix our land use.

  3. mdahmus says:

    It’s curious how Austin Gets Around had the money for a logo contest and a well-attended kickoff party at a fairly expensive place, loaded with consultants, real estate interests, and city council and missing anybody I’d recognize as a transit advocate; yet somehow claims to be grassroots, isn’t it?

    The “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” trope is something we all reject, as it’s almost always used to defend a project which isn’t actually good, and prevents good projects in the future. That’s the case here – Highland rail, even if it’s a ridership success, means we never get Guadalupe. Too close for the FTA to fund or for local politics to accept (three rail lines in what people perceive as north-central Austin would never sell to voters).

    If it’s a ridership failure, as we all expect it to be, we never get extensions anywhere else (for reasonable values of ‘never’; say, a couple decades). We wouldn’t be able to afford the operating costs of a second Red Line, which is what Hancock/Highland will be.

    I agree somewhat with Julio that East Riverside is defensible, but IF AND ONLY IF it is developed in a way that the natural extension is Guadalupe/Lamar, not Hancock/Highland.

  4. I don’t disagree that a ER-Downtown rail line seems reasonable, but I have some doubts about comparing it to the 7, 20, and 100.

    The 7 is a strong route, to be sure, but is it a good proxy for ER-Downtown? Do they get a lot of their boardings from the parts south of Riverside or north of campus? If so, that probably wouldn’t be traffic that would go to an ER-Downtown rail line.

    Also, for both the 7 and the 20, how’s the trend line for ridership been looking over time? We’ve seen a concentration of students from all over Austin into West Campus, which seems to be ongoing. If a lot of these transit trips were students getting to and from campus, that concentration could hurt ridership. (Of course, students will certainly like the idea of riding the train to school more than the bus, so we might see a renaissance of student housing on Riverside moving forward.)

    Do we know how much 100 traffic is actually to and from the airport? When my friends and I ride it’s almost alway just to get around Austin, but if they actually are largely airport traffic that won’t be served by an ER-Downtown rail line (or at least, it probably shouldn’t).

    • mdahmus says:

      Devil’s advocate, though, some of that #1 ridership in the graph is south of the river too, where GL rail wouldn’t help.

    • Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

      This is an important set of questions to answer; Project Connect will issue its own estimate. But I think if we want to create a civic culture that is rigorous, many different folks have to build their own models. I encourage you to request the data from PC over twitter, as well as to encourage fellow Aura members to get the details.

      I used to ride the 20 and 100 all the time; so I have an anecdata bias to say that indeed, the demand is between ER and a quarter-mile of the Trinity/Red River alignment. I don’t use/never used the 7, but looking at the residential density and route, it seems that Riverside and Dove Springs to the core is where the boardings are given Project Connect’s previously released ‘boardings bubbles’ map. So, I’d say maybe a third of the boardings happen in a stretch that’s a quarter-mile from an ER-to-medical district route.

      My back-of-the-envelope attempt here was focused on establishing the scale of difference between GL and ER starters. Sometimes the 2000 vision of GL (and its associated ridership estimates) gets imported into discussions about contextualizing the benefits of ER. This is a problem because if we were doing GL in this political climate, or in 2016 or 2018, I suspect we would be doing a more modest starter sequence. So, yes, the best sequence in ER to downtown may be only 5,000 weekday boardings at the start compared to 7,000 for a realistic, present-day starter based on the 1. Not as a good as GL, but a scale that makes the utility lost from delay much harder to justify.

  5. Alan Hampton says:

    Thanks for this Julio. I’ve been out of town and hadn’t seen the tunnel costs in the link to Dan’s blog. That’s a lot of moola.

    • Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

      It really is. I am hoping that they figure out some technology-based solution to avoiding collisions that is much cheaper and restores it to its previous status as a potentially cheap option play on shaping growth towards Airport and Mueller. I wouldn’t take that bet personally, but at least a modeling would show it’s not completely value destroying. These new costs revealed to CCAG for the tunnel just seem to dig an incredibly deep financial hole on the capital side from which to hope to extract value. Sadly, it sounds the tunnel is a regulatory-driven requirement. We’ll see.

      • mdahmus says:

        Which is another really good reason to point ER towards GL on a western bridge crossing; that way you don’t have to cross the Red Line until Crestview.

  6. el_longhorn says:

    I am really not seeing anything worth voting for here. The line north of the river is a total disaster. Trinity is a long stretch of parking garages and will be for decades to come. Then it passes by the football stadium. Whoop tee do – that makes it useful for 6 days a year! And then it goes up Red River, another street that really doesn’t have much on it. Then it runs parallel to an already existing rail on Airport. Oh and we have to build a $220 million tunnel so it can cross Metrorail at 45th! Wow. The tunnel is ridiculous and a total waste of money.

    The East Riverside line is somewhat better, because East Riverside is just a better corridor. But why in the world would you stop at Grove? Why not just go the extra couple of miles to the airport? Especially since the portion of the rail on airport property could be built using airport fees, right?

    I just don’t get this at all. And the $220 million tunnel is going to be a prime target for opponents. And they will have a very good point. From an advocacy standpoint, I would say the focus should be on building the East Riverside line all the way to the airport and killing the north of the river part of the line. The question then becomes where will it cross into downtown.

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