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Austin's Light Rail: Tough Questions, Sober Answers

Special Report by Light Rail Progress

© Light Rail Progress – August 2000

The following interview with Karen Rae, general manager of Austin's Capital Metro transit agency, which appeared on 16 August in the Austin American-Statesman, contains some exceedingly honest, sober, and realistic answers to some very tough questions on light rail.

The interview is followed by some additional analysis of the traffic congestion issue by Light Rail Progress.

The latest on light rail

Q&A with Karen Rae

Austin American-Statesman
Wednesday, August 16, 2000

Karen Rae, general manager of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, spoke with Maria Henson, deputy editorial page editor, recently about the latest developments in advance of the Nov. 7 vote on light rail in the Austin area. The agency unveiled 20 possible routes that run mainly in the corridor between MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and interstate 35. Public hearings about the routes will be later this month.

Q: Will the public know what they're going to be buying when they vote in November?

A: They'll know more about what they'll be buying. But will there be a final, detailed alignment . . . every "i" dotted and "t" crossed – (such as) station location? No. Will they have much more idea about a narrowing of the alternatives and in general station locations? Yes. And they'll have updated capital costs information as well. . . . They won't have a final, final because that's another full year of exchange.

Q: Will voters know whether they're voting for light rail or busways in November?

A: I think the Cap Metro board by then will be moving ahead with the final technology choice. The answer is yes. I think they will know if we're proposing an entire light-rail system for the whole 20 miles. . . .

Q: People who live in South Austin look at the routes and say "Why should we vote for this? it won't help me if I'm at William Cannon Boulevard or in places like Oak Hill."

A: The response is that's the first leg into South Austin. It is intended to extend farther south to Slaughter Lane. On top of that, part of the money that Cap Metro is advancing to the regional transportation initiative would help fund high-occupancy vehicle lanes into those areas. . . . The good news here is Cap Metro is committed to improving our bus service as well as advancing a light-rail system. The building of HOV lanes makes a major impact on our ability to run express bus service from places such as Oak Hill. . . . We're already talking about significantly increasing express bus service from Oak Hill, both into the city and cross-town over and hooking into the rail line.

Q: Merchants on South Congress Avenue fear disruption of their businesses if light rail runs on their street. Will they lose parking? Will there be disruptions, and over what period of time?

A: There will be disruption; however our initial conversations with our engineers who've done these all over the country ... Indicate that even during peak of construction, we would still keep one lane of traffic going both directions, ensure access to those businesses. Long-term, we can put in two lanes of light rail and after construction have four lanes of traffic, two in each direction. There would be some reduction of parking; however, we've got consultants to go in and come up with other alternatives, (such as) can we buy some lots and basically replace street parking with parking on the end of a block? There have been examples of how you can be in and out of there in six months of actual construction. So it's not, as I've heard from some people, a three-year project.

Q: Some city leaders want a spur to the airport, and that's not on the map. Why not?

A: The airport line has never been in the initial phase. I think the question is: Where does it fit in the buildout? There is increasing discussion about getting to the airport sooner rather than later, but that's not part of the preliminary engineering piece nor was it ever part of the $919 million number that we had.

Q: With such strong urging, why not include it?

A: I think we're absolutely moving in the direction ... to make it a prime candidate right on the heels of this initial buildout. But until we build the core, the airport line's success will be dependent on being able to feed people into that line.... I think the real discussion is how quickly can we move that up? Or can we either move to the north end and the south at the same time? in other words, Phase 2 might be north to Leander and south to the airport.

Q: Why not be like Atlanta and do a loop rail around the city with spokes to feed people into the center city?

A: The whole system has been designed around offering high capacity where we know there are existing trips.... We're trying to actually build the system where we know there is a huge demand. That's one of the reasons we got a good federal ranking. We're building where there is already density, where there is already demand and where there's not much more capacity from a city-street perspective to move folks. We also expect heavy usage on both the north and the south through park-and-rides....

Our central business area still houses between the university and the state more than 28 percent of the jobs.... If you look for one other place (here) within a 20-block segment where you have 28 percent of the employment, that still is only in the urban core of Austin.

Q: Will light rail relieve congestion, and how much?

A: My observation is nothing we do will reduce congestion. As long as this region continues to grow, all we can do is hope to have an impact on the growth of congestion. We have a proposal into the federal government where clearly we identify ridership that would come in part from MoPac and I-35 and the corridors feeding those two major highways. If our numbers that were sent to the federal government are correct, and we believe they absolutely are and have had signoff by the federal government, then that could take as many as 20,000 cars a day off those two major highways.... I think the only other option that removes cars from those congested highways is telecommuting. Nothing we do, whether it be Texas 130, whether it be signalization or anything, will reverse the trend on the congestion in this community. Everything we do can have an impact on reducing the growth of that congestion.

Congestion, Light Rail, and Hard Reality

By Light Rail Progress

Light rail opponents are gleefully brandishing Karen Rae's sober assessment of the potential impact of light rail transit (LRT) on congestion. When asked by the Austin American-Statesman, "Will light rail relieve congestion, and how much?" Rae responded: "My observation is nothing we do will reduce congestion. As long as this region continues to grow, all we can do is hope to have an impact on the growth of congestion."

This has prompted rail opponents virtually into dancing jigs. As one "Junior Road Warrior" exulted on the online discussion board, "There you have it folks, need I say, Vote No On Rail."

What light rail opponents and some sections of the public seem to have a hard time understanding is that road congestion is here to stay. In fact, some roadway enthusiasts themselves have argued that congestion is inevitable, and that it just goes along with any big urban area.

Building roads "to relieve congestion" is the pretext of choice for the traditional highway boosters, not only in the Austin area, but nationwide. indeed, a related policy thrust is the effort to appropriate transit money to build yet more roads -- using the familiar subterfuge of "relieving congestion".

This is not to say that increasing roadway capacity should be abandoned. But TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) and transportation planners at all levels seem long since to have come to the conclusion that nothing will eliminate congestion. indeed, there is substantial evidence that suggests building new roads simply compounds the congestion problem (especially since the development that it stimulates tends to generate even more traffic).

Michael Aulick, executive director for the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), recently expressed the prevailing pessimism: "As fast as we are growing, nothing is going to reduce congestion. Nothing. Not rail, not (Texas) 130, not U.S. 183-A." [Source: Austin American-Statesman August 6, 2000]

A kind of reality-conscious sobriety has begun to emerge. Apparently, all that planners can hope to do is to somehow keep up with the rate of congestion (basically what Karen Rae said) by adding bits of extra capacity here and there and especially by providing alternatives to travel by private car.

Light rail is one of the most effective of those alternatives. It attracts riders from automobiles, thus taking cars off the road and out of the competition for parking space. Carpools don't do that. Buses do, to an extent, but they also take up scarce roadway capacity.

The aim of light rail is not to eliminate or even "relieve" congestion. That's a phoney goal pushed by Road Warriors and rail opponents, because they know that it will be forever unachievable, no matter what we do. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is the price of travelling in urban areas by car. We can deliver aspirins, but not a cure.

Thus, the real goal for light rail is to provide an alternative to that congestion -- an alternative way to get around. it won't work for all of us all the time, for every single trip. But it will work a lot of the time. And it will work better and better the more it's extended, and the more the bus system is expanded.

Perhaps the Road Warriors and other light rail opponents will continue to dance their jigs -- because they think the public are incurably gullible and will forever swallow their "solving congestion" subterfuge. But the public may be waking up to the fact that the promised miracle never seems to happen, and that finding alternative forms of mobility like light rail may be our best bet.

Rev. 00/08/19

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