Austin, Texas — Where does transportation planning go from here? Following Austin voters’ resounding Nov. 4 rejection of city officials’ proposal for $600 million in bonds to support “urban rail”, partisans from both sides of the issue have come out swinging with alternative new proposals. The main faceoff is between former supporters of the now-defunct rail plan, and transit advocates who opposed the plan as a misguided waste of money.
Two leaders of the defeated rail bonds campaign now seem to be proposing greater focus on roadway expansion and bus alternatives. In a Nov. 18 op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman, John Langmore (a former vice-chairman of the local Capital Metro transit agency and member of several official transit planning committees) affirmed that “Central Austin wants and needs rail transit”, but emphasized “additional roadways coupled with improved bus service” for Austin’s suburbs.
“That is the mobility package that should be constructed and put to voters by the city, Travis County and Capital Metro in conjunction with CAMPO sooner rather than later…” recommends Langmore, who had served as a spokesman for Let’s Go Austin, the central campaign organization promoting the rail bonds measure. (Austin is located in Travis County; CAMPO, the Capital Area Mobility Planning Organization, oversees transportation development in the multi-county region.)
In a Nov. 19 rebuff via Twitter, Amy Hartman, a leader of the pro-transit AURA (Austinites for Urban Rail Action) group — which had campaigned against the official urban rail bond proposition — responded that “Langmore is directly responsible for coming up with a plan that was a complete failure, politically AND for transit ….” Referring to speculation about the possibility of developing a “Plan B” for a better public transport proposal, Hartman commented: “I hope that John Langmore will be kept as far away from any power to shape a Plan B as possible.”
Austin Chronicle columnist Michael King, who had championed the official urban rail plan and ballot proposition to the point of attracting criticism for abandoning journalistic objectivity and serving as a de facto publicist for the Let’s Go Austin campaign, seems to typify former partisans of the rail bonds proposition who have now become dismissive of the prospects for rail in Austin. “As for the future of rail …” he wrote in a Nov. 7 column, “…that’s a ‘big city’ idea whose Austin time remains in Never-Never Land.” King also cited the view of Councilman Mike Martinez, another pro-bonds campaign leader, chairman of Capital Metro, who now seems focused on a “back to buses” perspective such as “more bus rapid transit”.
But the prospects for the rise of a “Plan B” rail plan — centered on a central, heavy-traffic corridor defined by two major local arterials, North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe St. — may have legs. Kate Harrington, reporting on Nov. 11 for the BuildingATX.com website, referred to a prediction by the city’s outgoing mayor, Lee Leffingwell, that a failure of the official rail plan “would mean that no new transit initiative would take shape for a decade or more.”
“Instead,” Harrington reports, “it seems the issue is anything but dead. Since voters decisively shot down the rail proposal last week, conversations about a possible ‘Plan B’ have sprung up all over the city.”
And advocates of the Lamar-Guadalupe light rail idea emphasize they’ve had a “Plan B” on the table for years. In an Oct. 5 article, A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line, the Austin Rail Now website emphasizes that “Light rail transit (LRT, a.k.a. urban rail) for the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor has been in various stages of planning since the late 1980s…”, with ridership potential assessed “in the range of 30,000-40,000 a day….”
Observing that there are “various design alternatives”, the website suggests a 6.8-mile light rail transit route in the corridor, estimating the investment cost at $586 million. If 50% federal funding is assumed, says the website, the burden on local taxpayers would be just $293 million. Such a project, asserts the article, “would serve Austin’s most heavily travelled inner-city arterial corridor, one of the state’s densest neighborhoods, the city’s highest-density corridor, and a number of Austin’s most established center-city neighborhoods — neighborhoods that have anticipated and planned for light rail for well over a decade.”
Furthermore, says the website, “by investing dollars wisely and conservatively in an affordable initial starter line project, Austin will be in a position to budget for a vigorous expansion of LRT lines in other potential corridors citywide ….” The article lists eight other corridors throughout the city that it says could branch out from the original Guadalupe-Lamar line.
Discussion, debate, and the consideration of new public transit options are only just beginning to catch the attention of Austin’s newly elected city council. Will this “Plan B” for light rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor capture popular support? Watch this space.
(Disclosure: This reporter, a transportation planner, also serves as a technical consultant to one of the pro-transit groups that opposed the official plan, and is a contributing editor to Austin Rail Now.)