Wheel Deal

John Laycock, AURA Transit Committee


Re: Wheel Deal Proposal

To the wheel deal team:

While I am excited by the idea of a generational investment in transit capacity paired with a generational investment in active infrastructure, I am concerned that the projected costs of the blue and orange lines may be too large to allow both. This memo advocates for a fiscally restrained version of the deal that funds the orange and blue lines, bus expansions a bike network, and pedestrian and shade infrastructure around the station areas. It is conceptual and I have not attached dollar figures to my policy proposals.

Orange Line: Surface Light rail from Tech Ridge to Auditorium Shores (Auditorium Shores to Slaughter a potential extension)

Blue Line: Surface Rail from the Airport to downtown (Downtown to UT a possible extension.)

Surface light rail transit seems to be a balance from cost, service, and political feasibility. Surface light rail represents a huge upgrade over existing service on these corridors, even if it slower than elevated rail. And although elevated rail is faster, difficulties with elevators can make it inaccessible to wheelchair users. There is also less in the way of place-making potential than at-grade stations. The example of the Houston Red Line shows that a well-implemented light rail line can be highly effective.

Rail is also politically more popular than BRT, even though I would support BRT.

The justification for segments is that Tech Ridge to Downtown reaches Austin’s densest job centers and some of its densest and most transit-rich neighborhoods. Going to Tech Ridge gives access to a park n ride and will allow commuters to use the Orange Line as well. (This is also politically popular). Extending the line across the river will remove a transit bottle neck and allow connecting south Austin routes to transfer without busses getting stuck in traffic crossing the bridge.

Political resistance is already expected from the South Congress business district, who are opposed to disruption from construction and fear the potential loss of parking spaces. Beyond South Congress, South Austin does not seem dense enough to support light rail. In a fiscally constrained scenario, that is the better section to postpone to later.

For the same reasons outlined by the Wheel Deal authors, I support a Blue Line that runs from the Airport to downtown. I urge the authors and the city to do whatever they can to secure commitments from the Airport, which operates as an enterprise fund, to fund the segment from Riverside and 71 to the airport itself.

MetroRapid and Local Bus Investment - this is a critical component that should be funded to the full $280m. In addition, approximately $25 million should be made available for local bus amenities, such as improved shelters, and new buses. (CapMetro can currently only afford to replace its bus fleet, when it needs to be expanding it.)

Bike Network - The figure of $2m/mile is a good ballpark figure for urban trails but not for on-street protected bike lanes, which can cost $10,000-500,000 per mile depending on the form of protection used. Therefore, I think the remainder of the All Ages and Abilities (AAA) network can be funded far more cheaply than the $648 m proposed by the Wheel Deal. Staff seems to be implementing the AAA deliberately but slowly; it would also be good to clarify whether it is a lack of capital or staff that is creating the bottle neck. In addition, I think staff may be waiting for general maintenance cycles to implement the protected bike lanes on major corridors. This means that policy, not cash, could be holding back desperately needed safety improvements.

Land Investment Fund - I share reservations expressed by Jay Crossley and Mike Nahas that this measure may not work as well as the authors expect. Rather than speculative land purchases, I think the city can (and should) use existing affordable housing bond money to purchase low-income apartment complexes near the light rail lines and hold them in perpetuity.

Sidewalks and Shade – The citywide deficit in sidewalks is too great to address entirely with a bond measure that is also funding an entire high capacity transit system. Rather than 1,000 miles of sidewalks, I propose sidewalks being funded in the quarter mile radius around the stations to enhance connectivity from the station to the local neighborhood. Note that this will still entail a significant investment in sidewalks – the only bus stops in the entire city that have an intact sidewalk network within ¼ mile are on the UT campus.