Should rail advocates never oppose a rail project?

Written by Lyndon Henry
austin map

Back about 30 months ago I explained why I, and a number of other rail transit supporters, were critical of a plan for "urban rail" then taking shape from the official planning process here in Austin, Texas. (See Austin LRT plan criticized ... by rail advocates.)

Since then, the planned route for “urban rail” (the local term for light rail transit, LRT) got even worse. As a result, the urban rail proposal (and the “high-capacity transit study” process that engendered it) has sparked something close to a local revolt. Our small band of intrepid rail advocates has been augmented by thousands of neighborhood residents and community activists throughout the city, who would otherwise support rail, but oppose the official proposal.

Add in the usual pro-highway forces, now running major media ads opposing rail, and the urban rail ballot measure, dubbed Proposition 1 and slated for a bond funding approval vote on Nov. 4, 2014, is in deep trouble.

austin mapThis leads me to focus on the main topic of this blog post: Are rail transit advocates always duty-bound to support any rail transit project, whatever its merits or lack thereof?

I don’t think so. On the contrary, I think we’re duty-bound to support projects that make sense, and similarly obligated to oppose those that don’t. In my own case, especially as a transportation planning consultant, I feel my professional integrity and credibility are involved.

Austin’s Prop. 1 urban rail plan isn’t the first “rail” type plan I’ve opposed. I (and the Light Rail Now Project for which I’m a technical consultant) also opposed Seattle’s “Green Line” monorail project in the early 2000s (I assessed it as mainly a ploy to divert local resources from the region’s major Link LRT project). The monorail, whose projected total cost had ballooned to $1 billion a mile, was finally canceled by voters in late 2005.

The case for supporting the Prop. 1 urban rail proposal can be accessed at the website of Let’s Go Austin, the official campaign group supporting the bond measure (which asks approval for $600 million in municipal general obligation bonds plus $400 million for road projects, funded from undisclosed sources, required before the rail bonds can be issued).

You can also access the case against this urban rail plan at several sites, particularly:

Austin Rail Now;

Our Rail Political Action Committee;

Central Austin Community Development Corp.;

Worse Than Nothing; and

Austinites for Urban Rail Action.

I’ll just sum up my own criticism of the Prop. 1plan by saying that I’ve consistently seen it as a sort of “urban jewelry” approach to rail transit — in this case, primarily an expensive amenity for a faction of local real estate developers, plus expansion ambitions by the University of Texas administration — rather than a bona fide effort to address real mobility needs and traffic congestion. For that, our alternative plan, routed in a central corridor defined by major arterials called North Lamar and Guadalupe St., seems a far better option. As a recent article in Austin Rail Now explains, a route serving that corridor would likely cost half as much as the official $1.4 billion, 9.5-mile plan, while offering the prospect of three times as much ridership. (See “A ‘Plan B’ proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line.”)

Sometimes, an official rail plan might be a really bad idea. I see Prop. 1 as a proposal that would offer relatively little actual benefit while consuming a lot of available resources, and “soaking up the oxygen” of funding for future rail in our city.

Sometimes, rail advocates may be faced with a project they must refuse. This is one of those cases.