This article sketches out a rail referendum proposal for Austin in 2020, explaining why elevated rail is a better transit option. (I’l go into the politics of elevated vs. surface in a subsequent post.) My 2020 proposal would consist of five principal items: 1) a closed system of elevated, autonomous rail from Republic Square to the North Lamar Transit Center; 2) pedestrian and bike platform(s) using the same supports— that is, a planned High Line; 3) City of Austin ownership of everything not directly connected to running trains or collecting fares; 4) a phase two that would continue those elements across Lake Lady Bird to Riverside Drive at least as far as Congress; and 5) money and authorization for CapMetro to buy land along future high capacity corridors with an eye toward capturing increased land value. The capital costs of elevated are typically 2 or 2.5 times as much as surface LRT, but I’d assume 3 times as much to include the elevated pedestrian and bike infrastructure.
Closed System of Elevated, Autonomous Rail. This is basically the Higher Investment option outlined in CapMetro’s flip books and boards on the North Lamar corridor, except that it would be a closed system as far as the North Lamar Transit Center. Rather than continuing surface LRT to Tech Ridge, for now we’d feed buses into NLTC. (Note that the “Comparing Options” graphic compares Bus Rapid Transit to a rail line that would be elevated south of Crestview. There’s no entirely surface light rail investment in that graphic— hint, hint.) Surface LRT combines BRT’s travel times and elevated’s annual Operations & Maintenance, which you can see here. CapMetro’s estimates show elevated with lower Operations & Maintenance costs on a per passenger basis because elevated would be more popular with riders than surface LRT. The capital investment, which the feds usually contribute to, is higher but performance afterwards, when CapMetro will be paying for everything, is much stronger.
Elevated rail is also much, much safer than surface rail. The research comparing urban rail modes for fatalities is skimpy, but it points in one direction. (European research on trams is surveyed here.) Street-running LRT is more dangerous on a passenger miles basis than bus or grade-separated and may be more dangerous than urban auto trips. Grade-separated rail with platform screen doors to prevent accidents and suicides is the Vision Zero for transit. Platform screens would also make it possible to air condition roofed waiting areas. Every LRT accident involving pedestrians, bikes or cars also delays the system, usually by about an hour, as bodies and debris are cleared from the tracks. If a bus gets in an accident, other buses can go around; no so with light rail.
Besides safety, the big advantage for elevated is speed. Austin’s elevated probably wouldn’t need to reach the same top speed expected for Honolulu’s planned elevated line (55 mph), but we’re probably looking at around 16 minutes travel time from the North Lamar Transit Center to Republic Square, including stops, instead of 23 minutes for surface rail. Because autonomous trains have lower marginal costs per train— no driver to pay— it’s easier to afford shorter headways and longer hours. Vancouver, for instance, gets headways down to about 2 minutes. Closed system autonomous rail has decades of proven success while automation of surface rail is probably a couple decades off. This combination of shorter headways and faster speeds will tend to save riders about 10 minutes over the 6+ mile span I’m proposing. Elevated’s expected higher ridership figures are attributable to the time saved.
Pedestrian and Bike Platform(s). As far as I know, no city has attached ped/bike platforms to an elevated rail line— except maybe some bridges. With our own High Line, we’d be able to walk or bike, often in shade, from NLTC to Republic Square without the obstacles of traffic lights or danger from cars. This would be a UVP (Unique Value Proposition) for Austin. Seems easy technically. Probably adds about $300 million to the price tag. And this makes it easier to argue for City of Austin ownership of much of the infrastructure.
City of Austin Infrastructure Ownership. The aesthetics of the elevated stations are going to be a challenge. Supports and platforms are ugly from underneath. On the other hand, transit agencies haven’t really tried very hard to make them beautiful. If CapMetro owns the stations, they’re going to be run with efficiently-operated transit in mind. (Although I do have to give CapMetro credit for the Art Boxes at select MetroRapid stops.) But if the City owns the stations, they’ll be designed and maintained and eventually upgraded with a broader set of goals. The unit of government that pulled off the New Central Library just might be up to this design challenge. The neighborhoods around these stations will have much more political pull with the City than with the transit agency.
Phase Two. The Guadalamar corridor is far and away the best choice for such a large transit investment. With Downtown, the Capitol, and the University of Texas, this corridor will have the strongest transit ridership as far as the eye can see. Elevated rail from Republic Square to the North Lamar Transit Center would function as most of the spine for high capacity transit, but going across the river is essential. Phase Two should include elevated rail from Republic Square to Auditorium Shores and then east at least to Congress Avenue. With that elevated spine in place from NLTC to Congress at Riverside, CapMetro would have plenty of options for its next rail segment.
Breaking a rail plan into phases has important advantages. Obviously, it gives CapMetro some flexibility for the later phases, with respect to both mode and geography. But we also don’t want to get caught in a Honolulu-type bind. At the trough of the last recession, they priced a 21-mile elevated line at $5 billion and secured federal support for $1.55 billion. The project was hit with delays and the post-recession market price for building materials increased substantially. The project may end up costing $10 billion, but federal funding is frozen at $1.55 billion. And here’s the kicker— that federal funding is dependent on project completion as promised, so they can’t trim costs by cutting stations. If we do Republic Square to NLTC as an initial segment, we’ll have a better idea what extensions will cost.
Land Purchases to Fund Operations in Future High-Capacity Corridors. CapMetro should buy parcels where it might build rail or BRT in
the future. These acquisitions will make it easier to erect stations or other transit infrastructure like bus stops, rail & bus yards, and transit centers. But mostly, the land would be leased to profit-making enterprises with an eye toward filling CapMetro’s coffers and achieving social purposes like building affordable housing. Once rail or BRT is in place, those parcels would increase in value and CapMetro would capture some of that increase with higher land rents. Until that happens, it’s not actually necessary for CapMetro to demolish whatever’s currently on the parcel; CapMetro could buy the land and lease back to the current owner for a suitable price and time period.These leases would help provide operations resources.
Most of the really compelling corridors would connect to that elevated rail spine from NLTC to Congress at Riverside. These would include South Congress, Riverside to the Airport, South Lamar, Manor Road (via Dean Keaton), and NLTC to Tech Ridge. CapMetro needs to get across that those corridors won’t be ignored, but mode will depend on a corridor’s projected ridership and the preferences of neighbors. This spine of elevated rail from the North Lamar Transit Center to Republic Square and then across Lady Bird Lake along Riverside could complement a number of future modes: more elevated LRT, surface light rail, bus rapid transit, conventional fixed route buses, virtual trains, or even just function as a transfer point for autonomously-driven vans.
In another article, I’ll get into the politics of surface vs. elevated rail, but, in short, a bike/pedestrian platform would add additional constituencies for the project and many people overestimate both Hyde Park’s opposition to elevated, as well as that neighborhood’s heft in a referendum.