AURA Response to the Project Connect Vision Plan

AURA, a grassroots organization that believes in an Austin for Everyone, got our start doing transit advocacy. In 2014, we worked to improve the previous Project Connect plan. Unfortunately, our data-driven input wasn’t accepted, which led us to oppose the overall 2014 bond because it would unsustainably increase the per-rider cost and would lead to an overall reduction in ridership. We’ve hoped that this round of Project Connect goes better, and so far it is. We appreciate the data and analysis that went into the corridor selection, that there has been more transparency in general, and particularly that the Orange Line seems like it could be a transformative high-capacity transit line.

Our approach to Project Connect this go-around is to call for strong corridor selection, careful selection of mode, and a focus on more sustainable future for Capital Metro by limiting unproductive and inequitable expenses while increasing the transit agency’s income. A key way to do this is by focusing on reducing the per-rider cost for new investments, which frees up funds to accommodate more riders. A focus on a high-quality transit network for Capital Metro will increase equity, focus the fight on climate change, and improve the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Project Connect Corridors

In general, we support the draft corridor map released as a part of Project Connect. We’re particularly pleased at the inclusion of the Pleasant Valley corridor and that the Orange Line goes from Tech Ridge to Slaughter. A true BRT on Pleasant Valley would serve parts of Austin that are not well-served today and contribute to the overall equity of the system. The extensive Orange Line under study would provide a clear benefit to most of Austin — and we hope to see significant investment to have an Orange Line spine that serves as much of Austin as possible. If studies suggest that extending the Orange Line north of 183 would be beneficial to transit, we hope to work with Capital Metro and others to secure right-of-way from TxDOT to build such an extension as early as possible.

The major concern with the corridor map that continues to worry us as transit activists is the Green Line. We believe the Green Line has very poor performance in any fair scoring — primarily because the potential ridership is very low, making the cost per rider very high — in the range of $40+ per ride when annualized capital costs and operating costs are considered. For comparison, the cost per rider for our poorly performing Red Line is “only” $24. By contrast, the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor was estimated to cost on the order of $4-5 per rider. Because one of the most important metrics in transit planning is cost per rider, the proposed Green Line’s combination of low ridership and high operating costs is simply unsustainable. Perhaps it can be included in a future, built out system, where walkable urban communities have been developed along the proposed route, but that would require further study. Alternately, if sources of funds outside of Capital Metro’s limited revenue sources were available, it might be possible to develop a Green Line along this corridor in a way that would benefit transit riders. But any such alternative source of funds would have to include ongoing operating costs, since the Green Line has among the highest operating costs of any of the investments under consideration.

We also are concerned about the seemingly-last minute addition of several new lines, particularly Parmer and Cameron/Dessau. Added less than two weeks before the CapMetro board will vote on the plan, transit advocates have been scrambling to process this new information. A few of the lines are simply restorations of corridors that were highlighted on the early draft map and seem to be positive additions. The reconnection of Pleasant Valley is a particularly exciting prospect. However, Parmer and Cameron/Dessau are areas of great concern. Although these roads are heavily trafficked, the land use is fragmented and low-density. The roads themselves are high-speed and wide, and will be a hazard to transit users. Their highway-like nature makes them a poor choice for a major mass transit investment. Furthermore, they do not not seem to have been subjected to the same data-oriented analysis that the other corridors were. We hope that data will be provided to justify a final decision on building these lines. If there is a need for a northern east-west corridor, and it is not too late to add new corridors, we strongly suggest CapMetro consider Rundberg and/or Braker as a BRT Light corridor instead of Parmer.

Possible Map Amendments

It would be helpful to hear detailed public consideration of the "wishbone alignment" proposed by Dan Keshet, where the blue and orange lines intersect and cross the same bridge and haves “six golden miles” of overlap from Crestview to Auditorium Shores between the Orange and rerouted Blue Lines. As discussed on Keshet’s blog (refer to link above), this stretch would have very high frequency and would greatly simplify transfers. In this map, the northern segment of the proposed Blue Line would be the Keshet Gold Line instead and have only a medium priority. We hope that this configuration will get more careful study. However, even without this specific proposal, we need early planning on how connections between the proposed Blue and Orange Lines will happen across downtown. We are glad that the late-breaking “Central Austin V3” map seems to give consideration to these ideas. Transit advocates have been confused by the U-shaped Gold Line on the V3 map and we need clarification about what the V3 map shows. Will we have the option to run a service from East Riverside to North Lamar Transit Center? For now, we need to preserve all our options and make sure that we are able to minimize transfers and create the most flexible services possible. Downtown is such an essential part of Austin — we need to make sure we get transit right.

In regards to the connecting to the airport, It may also be worth considering using airport and/or Hotel Tax revenue to connect from the last eastern stop on the Blue Line to ABIA — many people see themselves as taking the train to the airport, and often look for this feature in the map. While ridership alone may not justify the connection, if revenue outside CapMetro’s core budget were available, it would probably increase the public support for the level of transit investments being considered.

Tradeoffs in Transit Modes

We support a mode-neutral study of the various corridors — but we hope close scrutiny is applied to the newly proposed mode called autonomous rapid transit (ART). ART is an unproven technology deployed in only a few circumstances. It promises to have “robot buses” that can queue behind a lead bus and act like a train without the need for investing in installing rail or a train maintenance facility. ART could be very cheap and effective compared to other modes. It might let us get many more miles of “train like” service than we could with other investments. But we have questions that we’d like to see answered before we go “all in” on a bet on ART. Those questions include data about the cost per mile, operating costs, successful deployments, and any risk analyses that have been performed on the technology. Even information like the length of ART vehicles, which is crucial to a federally-required environmental study, is not yet available. If Capital Metro can’t answer these questions effectively, we will be skeptical of a large deployment of ART. Rail has been an effective investment for hundreds of years. When it comes to big investments that we know can help hundreds of thousands of people, fight climate change, and deliver on past-due changes to help mitigate traffic, we need to be sure it will work.

For corridors where our transit need is the greatest, even gold standard Bus Rapid Transit, (BRT), which dedicates lanes and stations to buses, may not be enough. High capacity transit is a way to accommodate more riders on the most productive and important routes in a city. For these lines, such as the 1/801, even the gold-standard BRT may not be sufficient for ridership. Dwell times for buses will still cause backup and “traffic” in dedicated right-of-way after several years of use, and BRT vehicles generally carry fewer riders than LRT vehicles. This makes the decision around ART or trains especially important. If ART looks high risk or infeasible in the timeframe proposed, then the default for our best transit corridors should be rail, not BRT, and any preliminary design and engineering needs to be able to be quickly repurposed for rail.

A good mix of corridors will inevitably have different preferred modes for different corridors. We hope that this network of corridors will have well-planned transfers and be designed from the beginning with the rider experience in mind. Off board fare collection, well-sheltered stops, and a safe network of dedicated lanes for transit, bike lanes and sidewalks will all be essential to effective transit options. As we called for in our Transit Vision report, amenity-filled stops at Republic Square and West Mall will benefit many riders — today.

The most important transit mode consideration is that regardless of mode, our transit must be in dedicated right-of-way and be generally center-running. Dedicated right-of-way will simplify transit massively and AURA calls for the dedication of the largest-possible amount of right-of-way for buses and trains. We must be a city that fights climate change, so this isn’t a choice — it’s an imperative. Center-running, dedicated right-of-way will also make every transit decision easier for each person in Austin for decades to come.

Funding

Besides funding a network that is a mix of high-capacity modes, we also believe it’s essential to work on the experience getting to and from the transit stop. For AURA, that means significant new spending for sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and affordable housing, most of which will have to be City of Austin investments. Sidewalks and bicycle lanes will help thousands of Austinites get to and from the station without a car and affordable housing in transit-rich areas will allow people of all incomes to live a short distance from the station. Fully funding the Bicycle Master Plan and all high priority sidewalks is an imperative. From an equity perspective, it’s important to use the recommendations in the Sidewalk Master Plan, which specifically considers equity. Spending “equally” in each district sounds fair but ignores the reality of equitable investment needs that staff and the council have recognized are important when writing and approving the plan. If Austin wants a “transit future” where a car is a option instead of a necessity, we must make it easy for hundreds of thousands of people to easily access our transit network without one.

Intentionally allowing growth near existing and future potential high capacity transit areas will make every transit decision easier in the future. More people seeing direct benefits from investments in transit will build support for future transit investments in a virtuous circle. More people using transit will reduce our community’s carbon footprint. A higher tax base inside of Austin instead of in the sprawling suburbs will make bonds for future transit investments much easier. Market rate and affordable housing co-located a short walk from our transit system must be a part of Austin’s plans for transit — the tax base benefits alone will pay dividends for our transit bonds.

The long-term financial viability of Capital Metro is essential in this vision. That’s why all funding options should be on the table for Capital Metro’s financial future. The City and Capital Metro should explore whether Capital Metro has options for additional tax authority and whether operating and maintenance cost could be reduced for Capital Metro if the City owns the lines and equipment instead of the agency. The City could also invest annually in ongoing expenses, or pay for specific projects, like bus stops or placemaking around train stations. There has also been talk of asking the state legislature to authorize a local option tax to fund transit. While AURA would be supportive of a local option, we recognize the inherent challenges with relying on the Texas legislature to support transit. If a local option is not forthcoming, we should be laser-focused with allocating our bonding capacity on transportation options that fight climate change: transit, sidewalks, and bike infrastructure.

The 2020 transit bonds have the opportunity to alter our trajectory as a city, address our traffic problems, fight climate change, and improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Or, the bonds could go down in ignominy or have only mild improvements in transit for just a few more people, stalling future investment while we figure out “what went wrong.” Let’s get this right and resolve the technical details quickly, so we can all unify in our call for the best future for Austin — together.

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