Questions and Answers about "All Systems Go"

Check back occasionally as this document will be growing over time.

This document explains some of the reasons why, from a performance and equity perspective, one might oppose the Capital Metro "All Systems Go" plan.

Didn't the area reject Light Rail in 2000?

I'll be working on a timeline next, but the short answer is that yes, by 200 votes, the service area rejected light rail in 2000. Some other facts about that election:
The key point is the support among the residents of the city of Austin. And almost any improvement to the package could have taken it over the top, since the margin was so small. In fact, most cities which eventually endorsed light rail opposed it by higher margins than this during its first election.

Isn't Rapid Bus just as good as Light Rail?

Capital Metro's Rapid Bus proposal runs down some of the same route as its 2000 light rail proposal (probably) would have. That light rail line would have joined Lamar Blvd. at its intersection with Airport Blvd.; then travelled down Lamar and Guadalupe past the University of Texas, then travelling down Congress Avenue through downtown. The Rapid Bus route proposed in the 2004 plan will be the only service improvements for major destinations such as the University of Texas, the state Capitol Complex, the medical complex at 38th, and the nexus of office buildings downtown at 6th and Congress.

So what's the problem? Well, the "rapid bus" proposed by Capital Metro could also be described as "stick two 101 buses together and hold a few green lights". This line does not include any dedicated right-of-way (which light rail had). Therefore, if traffic is congested in this corridor, the "rapid" bus will not be "rapid" at all - it will be a normal, slow, city bus.

Wouldn't it make sense to start with Rapid Bus, demonstrate demand, and then go for Light Rail?

Most of the spending on the Rapid Bus line in Capital Metro's proposal will be for new vehicles - articulated buses, basically. The lifetime of these vehicles is roughly 8-10 years. No major investment in infrastructure along this route (such as train-like boarding platforms) is planned. No expansion of right-of-way (such as bus lanes) is planned.

If Rapid Bus were to be considered a feasible intermediate step towards rail transit in this corridor, it would have to be as more of a true "bus rapid transit" solution - including dedicated right-of-way, permanent infrastructure upgrades at stations, and possibly electrification.

As it stands, the effect of approving this Rapid Bus line will be to commit this corridor to no improvements other than Rapid Bus for at least a decade, due to the life of the vehicles (which could not be used on many other Austin corridors due to their length).

Isn't Commuter Rail going to be better for Austin than Light Rail?

The commuter rail line proposed in the first phase of the plan runs down part of the 2000 light rail route - following existing rail right-of-way to Lamar Blvd at Airport Blvd. Where the light rail line would have turned south on Lamar, this commuter rail line continues along Airport Blvd, across I-35, through near east Austin, and back into the far southeastern edge of downtown just west of I-35 at 4th St.

There are no major employment destinations within a few blocks of the rail terminus. (The Convention Center and Hilton Hotel are the only large buildings in the area).

This line will not drop off passengers within walking distance of any of the following destinations: University of Texas, 38th St. medical complex / Central Park, State Capitol Complex, 6th and Congress, South Congress retail strip. Light rail, as proposed in 2000, would have had stations within a short walk of all of those destinations.

The current plan for distributing passengers downtown (unclear if this applies to the Capitol or UT) is to utilize shuttle buses, which will operate in mixed traffic (i.e. no dedicated lanes). This means that whatever time savings a commuter from Leander obtained by taking commuter rail are likely to be overwhelmed by a jerky stop-and-go shuttle loop on an uncomfortable bus.

Doesn't Commuter Rail work as a "starter line" in other cities, and couldn't it work here?

Every city of our relative age viewed as a transit success story (Dallas, Portland, Denver, Salt Lake) started rail transit with a light rail line. Some later added commuter rail. The Dallas-Fort Worth commuter rail, in fact, utilizes Dallas' light rail system as a distributor; and would likely not have been as much of a success had light rail not been on the ground first.

In contrast, South Florida offers a cautionary tale. Rail transit outside Miami is limited to the Tri-Rail commuter line, running down the I-95 corridor from northern Palm Beach county to Miami. This line relies heavily on shuttle buses for passenger distribution (since it does not go near any dense office nodes) and has proved a failure at attracting passengers who could have chosen to drive instead. The system also is currently finishing an expensive decade-long double-tracking project which proved necessary to ameliorate nearly constant reliability problems caused by interactions with freight traffic. (Capital Metro's line will not be double-tracked).

Capital Metro's commuter line, because it must rely on shuttle buses to distribute passengers, is likely to fail to attract many new "choice" commuters (people who could have driven to work without paying exorbitant parking charges). While the rail trip itself is likely to be fairly quick and fairly reliable compared to the automobile, the transfer to a shuttle bus will introduce typical bus characteristics which will make the whole trip unattractive to most suburban residents.

Aren't Rapid Bus and Commuter Rail likely to cause redevelopment which could improve these lines' popularity?

In most cities which have changed zoning to allow for more density near light rail stations (Portland, Denver, Salt Lake, etc.), the market has responded quite well by producing good-quality transit-oriented development. This positive feedback loop results in more transit ridership.

On the other hand, no city has experienced this type of densification, whether encouraged by city code or not, near commuter rail lines. This is because commuter rail typically runs on infrequent headways, does not travel to other attractors, and/or only operates during certain times of the day.

Capital Metro's commuter rail plan will be no exception. It will run about every half-hour through rush hours; which is not frequent enough to spur development. It will not have stops near any other Austin attractions (such as UT, South Congress, etc.). It will be noisy (compared to light rail).

So what about Rapid Bus? It goes by UT and the Capitol, certainly. But bus lines (even high-quality bus rapid transit) have also never attracted redevelopment in American cities. This makes sense when you consider that a new building's lifespan is measured not in years, but in decades. The same flexibility often cited as an advantage for buses works against them here - if I'm making a 50-year-investment in a new building, I want to know that the transit line I'm relying on for parking reduction isn't going to be shifted a half-mile to the west 5 years down the road.

Aren't these plans fair to the area?

Capital Metro's commuter rail line delivers most of its benefits to the far northwestern suburbs, most of which are not in the Capital Metro service area (and do not, therefore, pay Capital Metro taxes). A resident of Cedar Park can easily drive a mile into Austin, park at the new park-and-ride, and ride this train downtown (if they're willing to put up with the shuttle bus on the other end). On the other hand, residents of the urban core of Austin will not be able to use this line - while the 2000 light rail line would have gone right through these dense residential neighborhoods. Those same residents overwhelmingly approved of the 2000 light rail plan, and have provided disproportionate support both financially and politically over the years to Capital Metro.

What is the reward for those urban core residents? Minor improvements to the existing 101 bus route. No thanks.

What is the likely outcome if these plans are implemented?

The commuter rail line is likely to be underwhelming in ridership, even if some solution to the shuttle distribution problem is found (unlikely, as it would require dedicated bus lanes and signalization - i.e., true "rapid bus", except operating throughout downtown). Operating costs per rider are thus likely to be fairly high. Since the line goes nowhere near the University of Texas, its faculty and staff will continue to drive (and a few will still take express buses).

The rapid bus line is likely to attract only existing bus customers. No component of this plan makes more than a trivial improvement in the service reliability or performance along this corridor.

The combination of both lines is likely to dramatically increase Capital Metro operating costs (due to low farebox revenues) - eating into the nest egg which might otherwise be able to provide real urban rail transit in the future.

Compare to the 2000 light rail proposal - which would have:

  1. Connected the University of Texas to the Pickle Research Campus (built-in ridership)
  2. Dropped off passengers within walking distance of the medical complex / Central Park, the University of Texas, the State Capitol, and Congress Avenue
  3. Provided reliability and performance improvements to the densest residential neighborhoods
  4. Provided reliability and performance improvements to the northwest suburbs
  5. Spurred redevelopment, particularly along Lamar and Guadalupe