Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Austin urban rail plan: Behind voters' rejection

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Austin urban rail plan: Behind voters' rejection

Nov. 4, 2014 (U.S. national election day) was bad news for some important transit ballot measures, but in Austin, Tex., voters' rejection of a seriously flawed "urban rail" (light rail) plan — by nixing a $600 million General Obligation bonds measure — was a major victory for rail transit.

How can this be? To understand, first it will help if you review several of my previous blog posts on this issue, which explain why the plan was so bad, and why so many local rail advocates (including yours truly) opposed it:

Austin LRT plan criticized ... by rail advocates

Bus Rapid Transit: Precursor to rail, or obstacle?

Should rail advocates never oppose a rail project?

Basically, even without the ferocious opposition of the city's most ardent and savvy rail advocates, this proposal (developed by a consortium of public agencies called Project Connect) would have been a hard sell in any case. It was a phenomenally weak, even puzzling, route — lots of voters, gazing at the proposed route, might well be imagined to have scratched their heads and said "What?" The line, connecting points useful to very few in the community, was aptly described as a "non-corridor."

On top of that, the project (9.5 miles of line for a completion-year cost of $1.4 billion) was grossly over-designed and overpriced — a drawback captured in a commentary I presented to one of the planning groups, with the revealing title "Project Connect's gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off course."

Add in that energetic opposition from pro-rail community leaders and neighborhood groups, and procuring voter approval became a daunting challenge. There was, of course, the usual opposition of the anti-rail, pro-highway faction, which poured money into an ad campaign that effectively rebuffed the months-long media ad blitz supporting the official plan. All in all, even though the official project campaign outspent adversaries by more than 2-to-1, the efforts of rail supporters opposing the project probably tipped the balance to rejection.

Feeding widespread and irate community hostility to the plan was a sense of disenfranchisement from the process that had concocted the 9.5-mile plan. Many transit supporters, in particular, felt that Project Connect's "public outreach" program was a sham, effectively shutting them out from the real planning and decision-making activity, which seemed aimed at reaching a foregone conclusion. Memo to planners: Don't underestimate the desire of community members to be authentically involved in your project.

Where do we go from here? The most determined coalition of rail supporters (who opposed the official project) are continuing a struggle for light rail in the city's most heavily traveled central local corridor, marked by two major arterials, Guadalupe St. and North Lamar Blvd. That high-traffic, high-density corridor has seen more than three decades of scrutiny and more than $30 million worth of public evaluation.

Hopefully, a Guadalupe-Lamar light rail project (as depicted in image above) will be rising from the ashes of this election, and will make a lot more sense to voters.

For more analysis on this curious case of Austin's urban rail ballot failure as a great step forward for rail transit, I'd recommend a couple of articles:

Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead

Austin urban rail vote fails, alternative light rail plan proposed

 My greatest hope is that lessons can be learned from this experience that will help well-planned rail projects, wherever they are, move forward to success.

Lyndon Henry

Lyndon Henry is a writer, editor, investigative journalist, and transportation consultant currently based in Central Texas. He holds a Master of Science in Community & Regional Planning, with a focus in Transportation, from the University of Texas at Austin, 1981. From 1973 to 1989 he was executive director of the Texas Association for Public Transportation, and presented the original proposals and feasibility studies for light rail that led to the inclusion of rail transit in the Austin-area planning process.. From 1981 to 1985 he served as a transportation consultant to the Hajj Research Centre at King Abdul Aziz University, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has also served as a transportation planning consultant on several other transit projects in the USA. In 1983-84 he was a member of the Austin-Travis County Transit Task Force which recommended a transit authority for the Austin area. That agency, eventually named Capital Metro, was created in 1985. From 1989 to 1993, Mr. Henry served as a board member and vice-chairman of Capital Metro. From 1990 to 1992 he was an Adjunct Faculty member at St. Edwards University, teaching a course in public policy. Since 2000 he has served as a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and from 2002 to late 2011 he served as a Data Analyst for Capital Metro in Austin. He is also a member of APTA’s Streetcar and Heritage Trolley Subcommittee and Light Rail Transit Technical Subcommittee.

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