Austin’s Urban Rail has Many Unanswered Questions

By Jim Skaggs, COST, May 20, 2013 – Updated July 13, 2014

COST Commentary: More than three years ago, Austin’s Mayor Leffingwell published 30 excellent questions which he suggested needed to be answered prior to proceeding with urban rail. Additional questions were posed by COST following the Mayor’s questions and the Austin Chamber of Commerce developed a list of questions and comments. The Mayor’s questions, COST’s questions and the Chamber’s questions/comments are below. There are some overlapping areas in the three sets.

COST agrees with the Mayor that his questions, as well as the other important questions need to be answered before proceeding with urban rail. Unfortunately, the City’s pursuit of light rail has proceeded with little recognition of the vast majority of questions or the importance of the answers.

COST’s assessment is that most of the questions currently remain unanswered and the millions of dollars spent on planning urban rail do not seem to be focused on first answering the key questions. In fact, a few of the most important questions on the list should have been answered long before spending many millions of taxpayer dollars. With increasing city property taxes, energy rates, water rates, etc., it is vital that taxpayer funds be spent as effectively as possible.

As the plan has unfolded, we also see the troubling decision by Cap Metro and the City for the urban rail operation to be to be assumed by Cap Metro. Cap Metro’s transit effectiveness has already been significantly degraded by their Red Line commuter rail and will face further major degradation assuming the financial obligations to operate the urban rail. This will siphon taxpayer funds from the backbone bus system and Cap Metro reports it will require them to assume bond debt to purchase buses. Texas law does not allow Cap Metro to assume long term bond debt without voter approval. This will, likely, further reduce the agency’s ability to improve its bus effectiveness and can result in higher bus fares just as occurred with the Red Line. This will disproportionately have negative impacts on low income citizens who need transit in their daily lives and have no alternative.

Disappointing, if not unconscionable, were facts revealed in a rail presentation to the Mayor’s Transit Working Group (TWG) in 2013. It essentially indicated the rail planning effort had done little in the previous 2 years to answer the key questions below. Basically, the planning was restarted with the stated goal of a “Comparative Evaluation of Alternatives.” This ‘Alternatives Analysis should have been the first step several years ago before spending millions of tax dollars on much wasted planning effort. Unfortunately this “restart” did not result in an independent and competent ‘Alternatives Analysis.’ As of this date this key step has not been completed. Basically the rail study started with the question: Where should the rail route be placed?

COST has made the point many times that urban rail was a “predetermined solution to an ill-defined problem” and that a responsible ‘Alternative Analysis’ had not been performed (see: Austin Transit Working Group Meetings: Critique and Comment) . There can be no federal funding without a federally approved Alternatives Analysis. The overwhelming level of government funding requests and the poor condition of the federal budget makes it unlikely Austin will receive significant assistance. Cap Metro promised voters but received no funds from the Federal government for their commuter rail.

A competent alternatives analysis and answers to the many important, unanswered questions below can take up to two years. This makes it irresponsible for the city to proceed with an urban rail bond referendum for the November, 2014 election as being promoted by the Mayor. This election schedule suggests a strongly predetermined conclusion that urban rail is the solution and an unbiased, objective analysis will not be conducted. All those responsible for overseeing and planning urban rail have a strong, vested interest.

Once again, Urban Rail is the beginning of spending billions of tax dollars resulting in significant tax increases and no congestion benefit. COST believes there has not been a problem thoroughly defined which justifies this “highest cost project in the history of Austin” and that this wasteful spending of billions of tax dollars will substantially degrade the quality of life of all Austin citizens.

Although these rail questions remain unanswered by the City, there are many real experiences and comprehensive studies which basically answer most of the key questions as discussed in articles on the COST web site.

The article “24 Key “Guiding Principles” for Austin Area Transportation and Mobility” directly relates to this article by providing proven, guiding principles which are important to follow in order to avoid further careless spending of taxpayer funds while pretending to answer the questions below when those leading the effort have already determined the rail outcome. Almost none of these key principles are being followed in the Urban Rail evaluation process.

Mayor Leffingwell’s 30 Questions April, 2011

1. What will be the exact route, including the river crossing of phase one of the urban rail system?
2. What about phase two?
3. What is the anticipated route of subsequent expansions?
4. How much will construction of phase one cost?
5. Of Phase Two?
6. How much are subsequent expansions expected to cost on a per mile basis?
7. How will construction costs of phase one be financed?
8. Of phase two?
9. Of subsequent expansions?
10. What entity will operate the system?
11. What will phase one cost to operate on an annual basis?
12. What about phase two?
13. What are subsequent phases expected to cost to operate annually?
14. How will the capital costs be financed?
15. How will the operational costs be financed?
16. What will it cost to ride?
17. What are the ridership projections for phase 1?
18. For phase?
19. For subsequent expansions?
20. Will the system help reduce traffic congestion Downtown?
21. What about outside of Downtown?
22. Will it reduce traffic congestion traveling in and out of Downtown?
23. What are the other benefits of the urban rail system to Austin and the region?
24. If approved in November 2012, when would construction of phase two begin?
25. If approved in November 2012, when would phase one be operational?
26. When would construction of phase two begin?
27. When would phase two be operational?
28. When would subsequent expansions be expected to begin?
29. What are the plans to mitigate the impact on vehicle traffic and local businesses during construction?
30. What are the major unknown factors that could significantly impact the answer to any of these questions?
COST’s 30 Additional urban rail questions:

1. How does Austin expect to achieve more effective train transit and cost-effective service than that experienced by almost all cities which have implemented rail transit?
a. A sub question is: Many cities have hit a “financial wall” when it is time to replace worn-out train systems because they have no source of funds. Question: How would Austin plan to fund the billions to replace aging train systems and federal assistance is not likely?

2. What will be the increase in local taxes to fund transit due to establishment of “duplicate” transit agency overheads at Cap Metro and the city? Other Texas city regions and cities in other states have implemented transit limited to one-penny sales tax. The City’s urban rail will be a major transit cost increase to the one-penny Cap Metro spends. Cap Metro is essentially bankrupt at this point.

3. Have the priority, and any major secondary, purposes and objectives of the Urban Light Rail system been clearly articulated such that performance measures can be established?

4. What are acceptable performance measures for the system?

5. What will provide the confidence that the urban rail will perform better than the transit systems of Dallas, Houston and Austin as the three have spent billions of dollars to increase transit ridership and implemented significant train transit, but, the total ridership is less today than 15 years ago?

6. Has a thorough and objective “alternatives analysis’ been conducted to determine the most effective transportation method to achieve the stated purposes and objectives?

7. Is each phase of the Light Rail system financially sustainable for the capital/implementation and for long term operations?

8. What is the cost effectiveness of each phase of the Light Rail system and what are the taxpayer subsidies for the system’s capital and implementation and for its operation? For each phase, there should be a minimum of the following including capital/ implementation and operating costs:
a. The average cost and taxpayer cost subsidy for an average rider.
b. Cost and taxpayer subsidy per passenger mile & per trip.
c. The marginal cost to add one more transit rider.

9. How many new transit riders are added to the current transit system by the proposed new Light Rail?

10. What is the impact of urban rail on overall social equity? Will it have similar impacts as Cap Metro’s Red Line commuter rail which increased fares and reduced the backbone bus service for mostly low income riders who do not have alternatives in favor of higher income train riders who mostly have alternatives? Will transit dependent citizens disproportionately bear the burden of this expensive rail and basically subsidize those higher income citizens who have a transportation choice?

11. What is the cost of the bus shuttle system which will be required to support the train? Cap Metro has buses stationed at several RED Line commuter stops to shuttle people to or nearer their destinations.

12. Where will the parking lots/structures be located to collect people coming to downtown so they can park, catch a train, and complete their trip into and out of downtown?

13. What is the cost of these parking facilities and what is the planned parking capacity and fee structure.

14. Will the Light Rail system enhance or degrade transit service and costs for citizens depending on daily service and primarily without alternatives?

15. Does the Light Rail’s operation on the street, mingling with people and street vehicles, increase or decrease safety hazards?

16. Will the system reduce congestion and enhance or decrease mobility for most Austin citizens?

17. Will the system carry more people faster, more reliably and more cost effectively than alternatives?

18. Does the system enhance Austin’s visual environment or result in unsightly views of poles, wires, rigs connecting trains to power wires and boarding platforms such as will be viewed up Congress Avenue to the Capital?

19. Will the system enhance or degrade neighborhoods it passes through: view, noise, safety, congestion?

20. Will the system disrupt or eliminate the use of downtown streets, such as Congress Avenue, for traditional civic and charity events?

21. Does the system effectively enhance development goals for the community’s greater good or is it wasteful subsidizing of developers by taxpayers?

22. How will the system integrate with Cap Metro’s transit system regarding service and fares?

23. At realistic ridership numbers, does the system have an air quality benefit or detriment? The Red Line Commuter was promoted as an air quality benefit but is a significant detriment.

24. Does the system enhance or detract from Austin’s desirability from a citizen and visitor viewpoint?

25. This rail will be the largest project in Austin’s history. How do we assure its funding and sustainability in a way which does not degrade overall quality-of-life by reducing fundamental, priority city services.

26. Previously the city has indicated they may gamble by paying and risking the full cost of the initial urban rail segment and expect major Federal Government funding for following segments. The Federal Government has indicated a desire for cities to use Bus Rapid Transit in many cases where it will do an equal or better job because it has many times the request for transit money than will be available. With major national budget issues and proposed bills which preclude the level of federal participation assumed by Austin, is this a reasonable risk for the city to take? The down-side of the Federal Government not participating as assumed is very ugly for Austin. It leaves a very ineffective rail segment and a strained city budget with the possibility of a similar “bankruptcy” to that which Cap Metro ended up with at the end of the track. All citizens will suffer.

27. How do current and future developments and trends impact the ability of outdated train technology to provide effective transit mobility which is cost-effective? Consider:
a. The fastest growing “mode” of work trips is working at home or telecommuting.
b. The 2010 census indicates a trend in reduced density for central urban cores and increased density for outer urban areas.
c. New transportation technology and approaches are being developed and studied such as:
1. Smarter and even driverless cars.
2. Demand response transit such as Cellular Mass Transit which can more cost-effectively
serve a much higher percentage of the communities transit needs.
d. There is a continuing decline in the percentage of a region’s jobs located in the urban core. Less than 10% of a regions jobs are in the average US city core. Austin is a little higher due to the concentration of State and UT employees, but the core percentage is declining.
e. Many people promote train transit as a 50-100 year “investment,” but it seems certain this 19th century technology will become even more outdated with each passing year, denying investment in the real American Dream.

28. Recognizing current trends and those expected to continue, are hub and spoke transit models appropriate for the future? Today’s transit routes are primarily focused on the “spokes” which take people from their living areas to the central city “hub”. Growing needs are from suburban population centers to suburban employment locations and centers.

29. Has Austin fully considered the reasons that a wave of recent cities have rejected urban rail transit systems in favor of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)? Due to major reductions in funding availability, the Federal Transit Administration has also encouraged cities to look carefully at BRT as it cost much less and can perform just as well as trains for most applications.

30. Isn’t the inflexible and very difficult to move nature of rail transit incompatible with an adolescent city like Austin where development patterns are not really known at this stage. For example: The new Waller Creek waterway area will probably become a major activity area and the current train transit routes will not serve it well.

Austin Chamber of Commerce Questions and Comments about urban rail:

1. Have we sufficiently identified the problem we are attempting to solve?

2. What are the city’s criteria for success?

3. How do we measure cost effectiveness or community benefit?

4. Is this the best use of the limited transportation funds? Would we as a community be better off investing in the Lone Star Rail Project?

5. What has the city done and what is the city doing to make sure land uses are compatible with and support the Urban Rail Program?

6. Urban rail should be accessible by current jobs, but not impede future growth.

7. How does this project proactively plan for intermodal connections?

8. In Texas we don’t have the legal framework (authority) to plan. We think land use will adapt to our infrastructure investment. How patient are we willing to be, how long are we willing to wait to see how the market reacts to our investment?

9. Cheap and widely available parking negatively impacts transit use.

10. Is it possible to have dedicated ROW along the entire route?

11. If we had dedicated ROW along the entire route:
a. What is the cost of the system?
b. What is the ridership on the system?
c. What are the headways?
d. How does this impact vehicular travel times? Other impacts?
e. How does this impact development opportunities?

12. If we had shared ROW along the entire route:
a. What is the cost of the system?
b. What is the ridership of the system?
c. What are the headways?
d. How does this impact vehicular travel times? Other impacts?
e. How does this impact development opportunities?

13. How would connecting Urban Rail to the Red Line during the first phase impact ridership of the Red Line and the Urban Rail Project?

14. How would connecting Urban Rail to the Red Line during later phases impact ridership of the Red Line and the Urban Rail Project?

15. What would it cost to extend the Red Line further into downtown and connect to the Urban Rail Project closer into the urban core? How would this impact ridership on both systems?

16. How does the urban rail project connect to the Lone Star Rail project? How does this impact the ridership on both systems? Does this impact ridership on the Red Line?

17. Is there a cheaper alternative (rubber tired better bus on fixed guide way) that can be the Phase 1 for the project?

18. What peripheral support system would be required to make the system successful?

19. If we retrofit an existing bridge to cross Lady Bird Lake, would all or part of the bridge have to be closed to vehicular traffic during construction? How long would all or part of the bridge have to be closed to vehicular traffic? What travel time delays would vehicular traffic experience due to a partial or complete closure of a bridge?

20. Is Map A an additional route or in place of another route?

21. How do the multiple stations near/on the Red Line impact capital costs, operational costs, ridership, and potential development opportunities for both systems?

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