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map of proposed Austin, Texas light rail system

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Light Rail Now and Walkable Neighborhoods (LRN) can be contacted at:

Light Rail Now!
107 W. Eighth
Austin, Texas 78701
Phone: (512) 494-9841


Campaign Grows for Light Rail in Austin
-- © Light Rail Progress - 10 May 2000

A mobility and environmental improvement of truly massive scale for the Austin, Texas area is coming up for voter approval.

Austin's first light rail transit (LRT) project is finally scheduled to be submitted to a popular vote on November 7th ... and the campaign to secure this goal --- sought for decades --- has begun.

LRT is a modern reincarnation of the electric streetcars and interurban railway systems that once permeated American cities, until they were almost totally ripped out more than 5 decades ago --- precipitating a steep decline in mass transit ridership that only in recent years has begun to be reversed. Light rail typically causes a revitalization of public transit service, and is the key to making transit a truly viable alternative for urban-area travel. For Austin, it would mean a dramatic upgrade to the region's quality of life.

Electric rail transit provides a major alternative to roadway congestion, and can be an important tool in addressing the problems of air pollution, and access into compact areas. Additionally, LRT has shown its potential to play a strong role in helping to shape and maintain urban development as it constrains sprawl. These effects can be augmented if expansion and improvement of mass transit works hand-in-hand with other policies, such as New Urbanism policies which emphasize the preservation and livability of established neighborhoods, and effective land-use management.

map of proposed Austin, Texas light rail systemCapital Metro's first-stage Austin plan has lines running from downtown to the northwest, into South Austin, into East Austin, and to the new ABIA airport. Metro's initial "Red- Green" route would use mostly reserved tracks in streets to go from downtown, through the Capitol Complex and UT area, up Guadalupe and Lamar Blvd., to the Austin & Northwestern Railroad right-of-way owned by Capital Metro. It would then follow the railroad alignment from Airport Blvd. north to Howard Lane.
[Click to view large map]

The initial route is about 14.6 miles in length and has 16 stations. While very preliminary official estimates have projected the cost at more than $640 million, some technical experts contend that LRT could be installed at substantially less cost than that --- especially if techniques such as the relatively new "shallow slab" street construction were used, as is being done with Portland's new Central City Streetcar System which will open in December of this year.

Capital Metro's starter line is projected to carry over 32,000 daily person-trips, with peak ridership enough to eliminate the need for approximately 4 freeway lanes.

Modern light rail cars, comfortably holding perhaps 125 passengers, are exceedingly quiet, fast, and attractive to the public. Metro would initially run 2-car trains at headways possibly as close as 5 minutes. Buses would interconnect with the LRT system and provide new crosstown routes.

The typical impact is a tremendous boost to transit ridership systemwide. In Sacramento, for example, since LRT was introduced in 1987, total annual ridership on both bus and LRT has steadily increased, nearly doubling by last year. Most new systems report similar spectacular results.

In addition to environmental and ridership advantages, there are cost benefits as well. Although the initial capital cost is high, there's a big payoff in lower operating costs. Since a single train operator can do the work of 2 to 9 bus drivers, LRT systems from Dallas to San Diego to Baltimore have seen sharp drops in their transit system operating costs per passenger-mile. And in terms of functionality and life cycle, 1 light rail trolley car is equivalent to at least 11 buses. On top of those cost benefits, there are benefits in terms of time savings for travelers, deferred highway and street expansion, deferred parking facilities, and reduced accidents. When everything is added up, LRT is a bargain for Austin and other urban areas.

From its inception, the notion of LRT for Austin has been a grassroots effort, originating with a local community group in 1973 and picked up by an array of neighborhood, environmental, and transportation activists. Opposition to the idea has developed only recently, and is mainly represented by a group calling itself ROAD (Reclaim Our Allocated Dollars), whose alternative (not surprisingly) is roadways and automobiles, not transit.

Funneling money to the anti-LRT effort is a San Antonio group, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), funded by a multi-millionaire supporter of various extremist, far-right causes.

The TPPF sponsors the work of self-styled "consultant" Wendell Cox, an anti-transit, pro-roadways activist who specializes in producing a barrage of largely questionable numbers attacking transit and rail in particular. According to Cox's website, only 5 cities in the world --- Tokyo, New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong --- apparently meet Cox's stringent criteria for any kind of rail transit.

ROAD and its allies, like the TPPF, explicitly argue against New Urbanism concepts and in favor of sprawl. A recent ROAD handout disparages "The urban planners' idea of 'superior form'" which it claims "is counter to the values of the populace" and proceeds to explain that containing sprawl means "giving up usable, valuable close-in green space to prevent development in outlying areas that most residents never see." interestingly, Wendell Cox proudly proclaims on his website that his name is included on the blacklist of the environmental group Sprawl Watch.

In addition to sprawl, automobiles and freeways are also celebrated by the anti-LRT zealots. High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes are their favorite "transit alternative" to LRT, and to provide more roadways, Cox and others promote "urban freeway tunnels", since cutting more freeway swaths through valuable city land has become increasingly unpopular.

One of the favorite Old Wives' Tales publicized by LRT opponents claims that LRT planners make "serious overestimates" of ridership and the projects have major cost "overruns". In reality, most new LRT systems have been completed on time and within budget, and meet or exceed their ridership forecasts.

The final completion costs of Salt Lake City's brand-new TRAX light rail line, for example, are millions of dollars under budget. And, with 20,000 riders a day, TRAX is exceeding the original ridership targets by more than 40%. And 44% of those LRT riders are totally new to transit!

In fact, the percentage of riders diverted from automobiles to LRT is phenomenal --- more than 30% in Dallas, for example, and about 70% in St. Louis. In Portland, 92% of riders using the MAX LRT service own autos, but choose light rail for recreational trips and work commutes because of its convenience.

To promote LRT in Austin, several campaign groups have emerged. The official campaign committee is the Citizens' Alliance for Transportation Solutions (CATS). Another major pro-light rail committee is Getting Around Austin. A third group, Light Rail Now and Walkable Neighborhoods (LRN), was also recently formed to pull together grassroots support from neighborhoods, environmental groups, and other sections of the Austin community.

Supporters point out that the initial LRT line won't solve all of Austin's traffic problems (our city, after all, has over 5000 miles of streets and more than 500,000 cars) or make congestion and pollution miraculously disappear --- but it's a first step, and you have to start somewhere. While the trips diverted from Austin's congested streets by the proposed LRT starter line may be small at first, there's lots of room for growth, and the basic building blocks would be in place to start to shape urban development patterns --- while making sure the environment and livability of established, stable neighborhoods are preserved and enhanced. Bicycling and walking throughout the city core will once again become possible as we connect neighborhoods on a human scale and reduce the need to drive.

Dallas's new DART LRT line has already attracted over $800 million in new development --- in areas where that's appropriate --- and is now considered to be a decisive force in shaping development in the corridors where it runs, while strengthening adjacent neighborhoods. And DART's LRT ridership has been surging above 40,000 riders a day.

DART's electric trolleys running quietly and smoothly down Pacific Avenue have attracted pedestrian traffic and stimulated the restaurant district in the West End of downtown Dallas with high-capacity access and environmentally friendly ambience. That's the kind of cultural, physical, and economic impact that LRT backers expect to see in Austin, particularly in the alignments where LRT trains run in the street.

It's an appealing vision to many Austinites --- but it depends on the outcome of the vote on Nov. 7th. Supporters face an uphill struggle against public misconceptions about light rail, the pervasive dependency on cars, and the concerted campaign of fear and deception waged by opponents. But for LRT proponents, it's a prize worth fighting for.


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