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M1EK's Way Forward

This comes up from time to time, usually in other forums where people aren't familiar with the long history of rail in Austin:

Why don't you tell us what your (positive) plan is for improving rail in Austin?

Well, the only one that would work is to immediately stop the commuter rail project; cancel contracts for the rail vehicles; and build a light rail starter segment following most of the 2000 proposed route. Not real likely, folks.

Then there's the shorten rail transit's dark ages plan. Not real attractive, but I'm sad to say, the only one likely to have any impact. And it's what I've done so far, of course. During the Dark Ages, those monastaries that saved a bunch of literature and preserved some knowledge from the Greeks and Romans weren't helping anybody for quite a while, remember, they just made the Renaissance start a bit sooner / be a bit more effective, depending on who you ask.

During the past several years, many other people have come up with some other 'positive' plans, which I'll briefly describe below:

  1. Run light rail on a completely different route. (i.e. run up from downtown, by the Capitol and UT, but then shift over to Burnet Road, or stay on Lamar the whole way up to 183). Not gonna happen, folks - the reason the '00 route was favorable to the Feds is that it did what most successful rail starts do: run in exclusive right-of-way out in the suburbs and then transitioning to (slower) in-street running for only the last N miles where necessary. Running in-street all the way is a recipe for low ridership (slow trains). Plus, the residential catchment areas on North Lamar and Burnet Road are just awful.
  2. Improve streetcar - folks originally got suckered by Capital Metro into thinking we'd be delivering streetcar to central Austin residential areas as part of Future Connections. Of course, we're not, but it doesn't matter; streetcar is really no better than the bus for daily commuters. And, topic for future post, you can't turn streetcar into light rail later on - light rail runs in the middle of the street in its own lane; streetcar will run in the right lane, shared with cars & buses. You can't run a reserved-guideway mode on the right side of a street.
  3. Run light rail on commuter rail tracks, then branch off and go down the '00 route at Lamar. Pushed by a subset of the next group, mostly disingenuously - having a rail branch off at Lamar/Airport would basically shut down this intersection for cars, and the technologies are incompatible - the commuter rail vehicles we bought cannot feasibly run in the street for long distances (due mostly to station height).
  4. The most odious of all - Lyndon Henry and his cadre of misleaders - telling us that once we start running trains more often (and add more stops), the commuter rail line will magically become light rail. It still doesn't go anywhere worth going; Airport Boulevard is never going to turn into Guadalupe; and running trains more often to your shuttle bus transfer won't help ridership one lousy bit.

So, those who want to see more positive discussion - use this as a launching point. Let me know what you think. Come up with some positive direction that's not in the list above, or tell me why one of the above WILL work.

Some Selected Background (chronological, oldest at top):

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Don't Hurt Us Mr. Krusee, We'll Do Whatever You Want , I Told You So , Republicans Hate Poor People , Republicans Hate Public Transportation , Republicans Hate The Environment , Texas Republicans Hate Cities , Transit in Austin , Transportation


What's your theory for why Leffingwell & McCracken (as CapMetro Bd Members) support commuter rail? I'm not being skeptical, I'm really just trying to understand their angle. NYMBIsm? Do you think they genuinely believe it will be successful?

It seems to me that if anything's to be done, it's got to start with those two.

Both probably fall into the "if we don't build this, we never get anything" camp, and both are clearly in the "if we build it, they'll ride it no matter how bad it is" macrotransportation camp. Beyond that? Maybe they have reasons they're not sharing.

(macrotransportation = build stuff without thinking about the passenger use case; microtransportation = more like my use case analyses).

I don't have any personal experience with McCracken. But Leffingwell seemed down-to-earth when I've seen him speak. And he had someone in the MONAC audience last night, which is a good sign.

I don't have any better options besides trying to get the current plans shut down or trying to accellerate growing the system into something that will actually work. Voter education seems to be key. If the media continue to fail at this, other choices seem to be taking it directly to folks at their neighborhood association meetings, taking out adds in the local papers, etc. What seems to get people's attention these days, even in hippyville, is feeling like their taxes are being wasted. If some cost/benefit summaries for cities across the US were added to your use cases on travel times I think you'd have a pretty good package to get folks riled up. [Our system's going to suck compared to Minnesota? Those damn yankees?!?] As belts continue to be tightened, the 1-cent sales tax goes from "whatever" to "that's huge!"

This isn't a simple bipolar scale here - the "down to earth" folks are likely to fall prey to the "well, why don't we just run buses more often" fallacy, or be intellectually incurious in other ways.

Off topic, but will interest you: http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20060913/hl_nm/bikes_dc

Certainly there are some simple ways to improve the commuter rail. For example, what if the commuter rail tracks were extended to meet the street car tracks that would continue up congress. The commuter train would stop at the convention center, but the street car could continue East to Featherlight.

Then you could add additional stops in East Austin. This would provide the reserved right of way that you desire until you get downtown.

The truth is, downtown traffic in Austin is never that bad and it would only take 5-10 min to get from the convention center to the capital, even with frequent stops.

I admit some of the East Austin groups are opposed to additional density, but so are the folks with backyards on the 2000 map.

East Austin may not be as dense as west campus, but it is one of the denser areas of Austin, and the New Urbanist development currently occuring on 6th street is rapid and intense (1305 Lofts, Pedernales, Saltillo Lofts, Sixth and Brush, Villas on 6th, 2124, and more). In addition there are several large tracts and planned developments (Saltillo, Featherlight, East End Lumber)

In short, the 2000 plan was the best idea. We voted, we lost. Capital Metro seem unresponsive and well on their way to a return to the crooked, out of touch ways of a decade or so ago.

But there are still plenty of things we can do now to make the current plans better.


No, that doesn't remotely help. Still no service to the dense residential parts of town (a few lofts in East Austin notwithstanding, the Guadalupe corridor has 10x the people as the areas around the rail line); still no one-seat service to UT or the Capitol. And no, a transfer to streetcar isn't much better than a transfer to a shuttle bus.

People seem to want very badly to believe that Austin commuters are so very pure that they'll do what commuters in other cities _won't_ do when presented with a new transit mode - accept transfer penalties. It's not going to happen here, either.

So, tell me what we can do to make the current plans 'better'. Try again, paying special attention to where residential density exists and to the path people would take to UT and the Capitol.

I think you missed the key point in my suggestion. Street cars running on commuter rail lines in East Austin. A street car that ran from 7th street to the Capitol would have reserved right of way in the residential section and not get caught in traffic.

And Guadalupe does not have 10 times the density as East Austin. Below are some numbers from the US Census Website:

Typical East Austin Block

Block Group 3, Census Tract 9.02, Travis County, Texas
8,897 Persons/Sq Mile

Typical Guadalupe Block

Block Group 4, Census Tract 5, Travis County, Texas
Value: 9,529 Persons/Sq Mile

These numbers were from 2000, before any of the dense development I mentioned. Sure there have been dense developments on Guadalupe as well, but outside of the Triangle, most of those serve the University directly. They may add to density, but students in the new dorms and apartments at the corner of 30th and Guadalupe aren't going to pay a dollar each way to take a light rail when they can walk or take a UT Shuttle for free.

The point is, if you put you mind to it, could you think of ways to make the current system better. I know that I could, and I don't have near the experience or expertise that you do.

If you mean, run the streetcar in between runs of the commuter rail line, it ain't gonna happen. The vehicles won't be compatible; the stations won't be compatible; and the logistics would be impossible.

As for residential density - starting in 2000, east Austin was far behind the Guadalupe corridor, and since then, the Guad corridor has skyrocketed to an even bigger lead. Yes, I mean the Triangle. And the lofts at 31/Guad. And the West Campus buildings.

Yes, students are some of the potential consumers of light rail - they would have ridden it in '00 (from Triangle to UT, for instance). Or from West Campus to downtown at night.

Are you telling me that street cars and commuter rail run on different scale tracks? If not, they can run together. The commuter rail plans to be very infrequent.

A street car wouldn't need to stop at the same stations. I would hope a street car could have more frequent stations at street level. For example, the commuter rail will stop at Saltillo Plaza, a street car could stop at 501 Studios, Saltillo Lofts, Villas in 6th, East End lumber and more. It could go as far as Manor making a complete loop.

You are right. Hyde Park is denser than East Austin, but not to such a great degree. From the 2000 Census:

Hyde Park (Census Tract 3.02)
6,480 Persons/Sq Mile

East Sixth Street (Census Tract 9.01)
5,459 Persons/Sq Mile

And those figures were before the recent redevelopment:


All these projects are either completed or underway. There are also a bunch of planned projects on large tracts of land including Saltillo, Featherlight and more.

Most of the real density on the Guadalupe route is on the UT campus and in West Austin. These students might ride a light rail once in a while to renew thier drivers licenses, but not to go to class every day.

My point is, there are changes that we can make to the ideas being implemented by Cap Metro that will turn a boondogle rail for a few greenies in Leander to something that will serve the folks in Austin. The people buying condos on 6th want to take the street car downtown. They want a dense urban, walkable lifestyle. We can provide that at almost no additional cost to what is being planned now.

Track scale - likely not the same; but not completely a lost cause.

Vehicle height - definitely not the same. So, yes, you wouldn't be able to use the same stations.

So the sum total of this proposal, if I get this correctly, is to just run the streetcar farther 'back', overlapping with the commuter rail route? The only benefit here would be that the few people in East Austin riding would be able to ride to UT/Capitol without transferrring - but they'd still be stuck in traffic for the last 2/3 of their ride.

The Guadaluple density was a big part of the Feds rating the 2000 light rail line fairly high. Students living in the Triangle would definitely ride it to class; and West Campus residents would ride to 6th street. You're pretty hung up on this (false) idea that students wouldn't ride the thing.