On Friday, Project Connect staff will create a formal recommendation on which part of the city may receive consideration for a new light rail system. This is the fourth and final article in a series examining a mode of transport that carries great promise for the future mobility of our city.
Light Rail: The Choice
Should current ridership be the determining factor in where urban rail is built, or should shaping future growth in the city be the overriding factor in deciding where light rail goes? Both are important, but a successful system will maximize what a transportation system does best: carry the most people for the maximum benefit of all in our city. With a referendum planned for November 2014, there is an emerging optimism in the community that the time is right for light rail.
Future Austinites will look back at the last 40 year period and ask why did we wait so long, worry so much, and argue so forcefully about this first step? The city must come together for this first investment decision. For that to happen, people need to take ownership of the planning behind the very question itself, and not merely grant informed consent to a plan developed on their behalf. If it is the right decision, we will know it, and engineers will be planning extensions to the system before the first trains roll. If we get the alignment wrong, it could be the last rail project that is built in our lifetimes.
The Costs of Failure
It will be very difficult to add on extensions if the first line is a financial burden due to poor ridership. The ridership numbers on the first line need to hit it out of the park. The higher the ridership of a light rail system, the greater percentage of its operational cost will be covered at the farebox. The opportunity costs of failing to serve the densest travel corridors of the city are incalculable and include things like lost productivity to congestion, environmental damage, and the cost of diesel fuel in year 2034 for all the MetroRapid buses Capital Metro purchased as an alternative to rail.
It would also mean that without an effective mass transit system, the fuel costs of the daily commute will soar to unmanageable levels for people living outside the core. Working class displacement and suburban poverty are already staggeringly high, and single passenger vehicles will simply become too expensive to use in the future. The political implications of the failure to plan and deliver transportation equity to all our citizens, both in and out of the core, will be profound and will become the legacy of current leadership.
The consequences of losing consideration for light rail for specific routes like Guadalupe and North Lamar will mean they will be served by those MetroRapid buses for at least 20 years. In a May 2012 presentation of the Project Connect system’s financial plan, planners proposed allocating $500 million to create dedicated lane busways in our streets for 40% of the MetroRapid system. Failing to implement light rail now may make permanent busway infrastructure more likely.
Our region and our city deserve a first investment alignment of the highest class, an expandable north-south backbone of environmentally friendly mass transit. Forming a competitive FTA grant application is an absolute imperative. A great proposal will score high and help us quickly move up a funding waiting list of systems.
Failing to choose is also a choice, and the stakes are high for the future of our community and for our city.
Petition for Light Rail on Guadalupe-North Lamar:
Petition for Light Rail to Mueller/NE Austin:
Austinites for Urban Rail Action:
Central Austin Community Development Corporation Alignment Proposal:
Texas Association of Public Transportation Alignment Proposal
Project Connect Website:
Central Austin Community Development Corporation