Two views on rail - please click read more for entire article
Better traffic: Can’t get there from here
Rail in wrong place, won’t solve anything
Austinites have a palpable frustration with our transportation infrastructure and a justifiable desire to do something — maybe anything — to fix it. But the city’s proposal to spend $1 billion doubling down on highways and highway-oriented urban rail is worse than doing nothing. Austin voters should join with grass-roots public transportation advocates in rejecting it in November and working toward real solutions.
Yes, that’s right — many of the city’s staunchest public transportation proponents oppose the road-rail bond package as a threat to the city’s transportation future and a setback for walkable urbanism in Austin. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to see why.
The first $400 million of the bond project would go toward highways. Here, AURA agrees with Project Connect’s initial position that “building roads only encourages more single occupancy vehicle use and increases congestion and pollution,” canceling out the possible benefits of urban rail.
But even the $600 million earmarked for public transportation will be used on the wrong route, selected for the wrong reasons. Instead of a straightforward, straight-shot route serving areas of high transit usage to provide more reliable and efficient public transportation, the route will meander through areas selected for their economic development potential.
Economic development is the wrong reason to build a rail route. Central Austin does not need help from rail in order to develop economically. Much of the route has low transit ridership today, precisely because it is in areas in which it is difficult to walk or ride public transportation. The Highland and Hancock stations are in the shadow of Interstate 35, making walking to or from the stations across the highway difficult, dangerous and unpleasant.
Even the stations located outside of the highway’s shadow are placed along Austin’s back door (e.g. next to state parking garages or in the single-family-oriented Hancock neighborhood rather than transit-rider-rich West Campus). This back-door route further cements public transportation as a second-class option in Austin.
When you plan a rail route around development instead of riders, you threaten the funding of the entire public transportation system. Rail is more cost-efficient than buses at high ridership levels. But at the proposed ridership levels, the operating costs would exceed what we spend moving the same riders on buses today.
Project Connect has already begun looking through the couch cushions for ways to pay these increased operating costs.
Once we look past the slogan “rail or fail,” we find numerous examples that show that, when done wrong, public transit investments do fail. The Red Line commuter rail, whose ridership is far below initial projections, currently moves about 2 percent of the system’s riders while using up about 6 percent of its costs. And since MetroRapid’s introduction, combined ridership on the local and express version of the city’s flagship No. 1 route has fallen 11 percent.
We will be living with the consequences of our first urban rail line for
generations. A well-designed route can offer a tremendous opportunity to improve our quality of life and affordability, while a heavily compromised route could force generations after us to clean up our mistakes.
Austinites would be better off building a system our city is proud of and is eager to keep investing in rather than spending the next 20 to 40 years fixing what we got wrong.
DENTON IS A BOARD MEMBER AND URBAN RAIL COMMITTEE CO-CHAIR OFAURA, A GRASS-ROOTS URBANIST ORGANIZATION.
TERRY MITCHELL AND MARTHA SMILEY
Beloved city on road to nowhere if we don’t add urban rail to mix
Austin is a wonderful place. We Austinites are a motley crew — we come from a lot of different places, and we stay here for many different reasons.
But we share an affection for our city. We’re proud of this place we’ve created, and we love the opportunity, fun and friendship it offers.
There’s something else we share: We hate the traffic.
It chews up our time — up to 40 hours a year, by some measures — and keeps us from doing the things we want, going where we need to be and seeing our friends and families. It comes up again and again: Horrible traffic is ruining this place we love.
So we share a special, shared responsibility to take on this problem. We can start with a rail line that will offer a true alternative to our clogged roads.
Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in America. We need a new rail line: It will relieve some of the traffic congestion we have now, help us avoid additional traffic we know is coming and get us started on the comprehensive rail system Austin needs.
Make no mistake — roads are part of the answer. As part of a comprehensive transportation referendum in November that would include rail, the city is considering asking voters to get started relieving traffic on Loop 360, RM 2222, Parmer Lane and RM 620. Improvements up and down Interstate 35, along with improvements to RM 1826, are also on tap.
Those all are great and very important.
They simply aren’t enough.
Buses aren’t the only an swer, either, because, unless they are in express or dedicated lanes, they’re subject to the same traffic that the rest of us are. In most of Austin, getting on a bus at rush hour won’t keep you out of traffic. If you’re going very far, it will probably take you even longer to get there — even at rush hour.
Buses and roads are essential parts of the transportation system our growing city needs. Roads especially need to be part of any transporta tion referendum that goes before voters.
But they’re parts we already have — parts we’ve had for a very long time.
It would be a very expensive mistake to simply double-down on modes and strategies that we know aren’t keeping up now.
We need something new. We need — and the drivers around us need — a true alternative to the traffic that’s choking this place we love.
That alternative begins with a 9.5-mile, high-frequency rail line separated from cars, trucks and buses — a line recommended in Project Connect, a regional transit system plan that was carefully developed by a citizen advisory committee to create a comprehensive transportation system connecting Austin’s suburbs and neighborhoods with the core of our city and the airport.
The line would run up Riverside Drive and across Lady Bird Lake; through downtown by the Convention Center, Capitol complex, new medical complex and the UT campus; then north along Airport Boulevard past Koenig Lane/2222 to the ACC flagship at Highland Mall.
This route presents numerous alternatives for current commuters and future Austinites who would live in developments that exist and will grow along the rail line.
But more than that, it’s a first step.
Project Connect ensures that everyone will be part of this system someday. More than that, it’s our generation’s chance to invest in Austin and its future. It will benefit people today and generations to come.
We have to start somewhere. This first phase of the rail proposal will remove 10,000 cars from Austin roads each day. Regardless of who rides the rail, everyone will benefit.
We owe it to ourselves, our city and our future to build a great transit system that gets more people out of our cars.
Again, Austin is a wonderful, special place. It’s up to all of us to keep it that way.
MITCHELL IS PRESIDENT OF MOMARK DEVELOPMENT LLC, AN URBAN LEAGUE INSTITUTE FELLOW AND RECENT MEMBER OF THE CAPITAL METRO BOARD. SMILEY IS A TRANSIT WORKING GROUP MEMBER, CENTRAL CORRIDOR ADVISORY GROUP MEMBER AND VICE CHAIR FOR REGIONAL MOBILITY FORAUSTIN CHAMBER 2012-13.
The American-Statesman steps back and invites contributors to present two points of view on an issue that affects our readership.
To read Austin American Statesman's last piece on pros and cons of rail, please see: