On Friday, Project Connect staff will create a formal recommendation on which part of the city may receive consideration for a new light rail. This is the second in a series of articles examining a mode of transport that could add significant improvements to the mobility of our city.
What is Light Rail?
The American Public Transportation Association defines light rail as,
"An electric railway with a 'light volume' traffic capacity compared to heavy rail. Light rail may use shared or exclusive rights-of-way, high or low platform loading and multi-car trains or single cars." The vehicle's size is smaller than a typical rapid transit subway car, but larger than a streetcar. Light rail typically has a low floor, enabling boarding at curb level. Light rail cars can accommodate over 200 people and cars can be strung together increase capacity as needed. Unlike its smaller cousin the streetcar, light rail uses discrete stations that are generally no farther apart than 1/2 mile, but can be much closer to serve dense areas like UT and the Central Business District. It can run in its own dedicated lane, be dual track, single track, interlaced track, but also has the ability to share street lanes with cars in places where that is needed. System control within a street grid is achieved with traffic lights. With station stops the average speed of a light rail vehicle in the system can be 25-30 mph.
How is It Powered?
Light rail is electrically powered from overhead wire. This reduces the environmental impact, the carbon footprint, and exposure to the cost volatility of fossil fuels. Newer vehicles have energy recovering systems as vehicles brake, similar to those of hybrid cars. Electrically powered transportation will have a distinct environmental advantage by leveraging the benefits of Austin Energy's shift to solar and wind powered grid. Peak oil occurred several years ago. Planning to move the population on electric power allows us to get by with fewer cars, becoming a social, economic, environmental imperative.
What Are The Capital Costs?
The system costs to install light rail at ground level run average $35 million per mile nationally, but may be higher in portions for Austin's dense urban core. Austin will not have to foot the bill alone. The Federal Transit Authority offers a New Starts federal funding grant program that matches local contributions on a 1-to-1 basis. The local portion could come from any combination of a bond referendum, donated right of way land, or funds accrued from value capture for commercial property around stations. Any system proposal must be rated based on a number of FTA criteria. 50% of all evaluative criteria are comprised of the soundness of the financial plan and includes passing a local referendum for the proposal. Retiring the bond debt is accelerated by the increased economic activity and productivity gains the system enables. The economic activity of a healthy core is taxed at the cash register and will help fund the city's unrelated operations. In this regard, even people who never ride the system benefit from it.
What Are The Operational Costs?
Today, the operational cost for electric light rail is around $0.69 per passenger mile, where rubber tired systems like are currently on the order of $0.89 ppm. The savings are made up from lower energy costs, lower labor costs, longer vehicle life, and much simpler and more durable propulsion system on the train. The higher the ridership of a light rail system, the greater percentage of its operational cost will be covered at the farebox. Maximizing ridership allows the users of the system, not the taxpayers, to support it financially.
Central Austin Community Development Corporation