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Push the rail back on track

A letter I just wrote to the three councilmembers on the CAMPO TWG (I think Mike Martinez is among them, at least):

Councilmembers and Mayor,

After returning from a long vacation, I finally read the report from city staff to the CAMPO TWG about the rail proposal and am alarmed at some apparent backsliding on the issue of reserved guideway, and some indications that previous understanding of how important this would be has diminished. For instance, it now appears that the city will not seek reserved guideway on Congress in addition to the Manor segment.

Comments by city staff in this report make two seemingly contradictory claims:

1. That the downtown 'core' segment is critical, and must support frequent headways
2. That this same segment will be operating in 'circulator' mode (as opposed to some 'express' mode label for the Riverside segment), so reserved guideway is less important because stops will be more frequent.

Allow me to vigorously disagree. Reserved guideway is actually most critical on Congress. If you spend any significant time on buses running through downtown in this corridor (#1 or #5, say), you will see that simple signal pre-emption as proposed would be nearly useless during periods of heavy congestion - holding the light green doesn't help you when traffic is backed up from the next 5 intersections ahead. In other words, I would trade reserved guideway on Riverside for Congress in a heartbeat - the signal-holding device would actually do some good on Riverside.

This smacks a bit of the same kind of pennywise/poundfoolish thinking that brought us the impending underwhelming disaster of the Red Line (just because we own this track means we should keep the train running on it the whole way instead of running to where people actually want to go). While I understand the logic behind running in shared space on Manor, the bullet must be bit on Congress if this plan is to succeed (and it is nearly impossible to switch from shared-running to reserved-guideway later on, by the way).

Mike Dahmus

Page 14:

The Urban Rail project is proposed to include both independent rail right-of-way, and mixed flow operations. Streetcar vehicles would operate in mixed traffic (with automobiles) in areas where it is essentially serving as a circulator mode (collecting and distributing passengers frequently). In the northern part of the corridors (University of Texas and Manor Road corridor) there are limited locations where the system could operate in a dedicated right-of-way (see description of alignment in following section). In the Riverside Corridor, where street rights-of-way are typically wider, there is generally sufficient room to create a dedicated right-of-way by widening the overall street to the outside to provide new auto capacity and then converting inside lanes for transit use. In the central downtown and Capitol Complex, options exist for providing either a dedicated right-of-way or shared use track way. The preferred method for operation in these two latter districts requires detailed planning and engineering that will be completed during the early design phase of the program.

This, folks, is dangerous - it's basically hedging previous claims that the service would be mostly reserved guideway, and now, effectively, saying "well, we'll give it a shot". And "circulator mode" is the most important part of the route. The transit spine, if you will. You don't run your transit spine in "mixed flow".

Note that the report later says "Options are also being examined for providing dedicated running ways for
the rail along Congress Avenue and other Downtown streets." (page 45). However, the groundwork is clearly being laid for shared running on Congress, with the nonsense about "circulator mode" and other silliness in section 2D-2 (hint: the streetcar needs to be delivering people to work, not worrying about how they get to lunch; and if you give them a shared-lane running streetcar that's bogged down on Congress just like the buses are, you're not going to get many converts. City staff must have been instructed to come up with some real fancy footwork to explain how "time-certain" wasn't torpedoed by shared-lane operations here; I can't believe they really believe this stuff about how circling for parking at lunch makes shared-lane operations sufficiently time-certain).

Additional support for this position would be really helpful from my readers, assuming you agree.

This entry was posted in the following categories: 2008 Light Rail , Austin , PS: I am not a crackpot , Transit in Austin , Transportation , Urban Design


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If reserved guideway is a problem on Congress, wouldn't it be better simply to run it up Brazos? Why would staff resist that?

As I recall from old discussions about moving buses off Congress, the grades on Brazos may be too great.

Huh? It's just one block over.

One advantage of running it Brazos is that it keeps Congress from being cluttered with the overhead wires (the wires, not the person :). Congress had them way back, but I like the clean look.

And I know this is off the table, but can you explain to me for the fifth time why Guadalupe is no longer suitable? I don't think I understood it the first 4 times.

Just repeating what I remembered - Brazos does have a substantial hill or two that Congress lacks (I don't know why).

As for Guadalupe, taking a lane away from cars there was (barely) justifiable with the 46,000 predicted people/day in the 2000 LRT plan (from both suburban park-and-ride and urban residential pedestrians). The initial ridership on this smaller line is too low to justify removing that much car capacity on that corridor (nowhere near as many people would be willing to ride commuter rail to Lamar/Airport and then transfer to streetcar to go the rest of the way, in other words).

This line is far better than the initial Capital Metro shared-lane circulator proposal because it's (mostly) reserved guideway, and because it pays lip service to commuter rail but is primarily seeking to deliver residential passengers from Mueller and East Riverside. Obviously I have a low opinion of how much potential ridership will arrive via transfer from the Useless Red Line, so the addition of East Riverside is kind of a big deal.

Oh, I assume there you meant Guadalupe up by UT; if you meant Guadalupe/Lavaca through downtown, it's arguable - they could probably snag a lane, and there are at least some offices all the way over there, but Congress is obviously better overall for proximity.

Welcome back and thanks for the heads up on this issue. It is hard for me to believe that Austin has botched their rail plans this badly, especially when you look at how well Houston is moving along. Penny-wise, pound-foolish is an apt description of Austin's entire rail philosophy.

Houston didn't labor against the state legislature - they only had to fight a couple of local US congressmen. And they didn't need an election to build their first line, either.

I've solved all problems with my own, superior route. ;)

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