Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 

 FACT SHEET No 109

DECEMBER 2000 

AUSTIN (TEXAS), STUCK AT THE TRANSIT CROSSROADS

INTRODUCTION

The amazing pace of light rail expansion in the USA (1) has inspired Austin, the state capital of Texas, to risk a further skirmish with its road orientated, members of the community in the hope of gaining acceptance and funding for a tiny foothold with a rail based transit mode.

NATIONAL LIGHT RAIL CONFERENCE

Inspiration also came from the 1995 Light Rail Conference held in Baltimore (2) which included a lengthy paper, "Dallas Area Rapid Transit Experience" (3). This paper helped with some fundamental yet profound observations on many of the technical problems associated with light rail, and more importantly, how Dallas overcame them.

Although no one mode of transit proposed for Austin has stood out as the best of many alternatives in the actual corridors studied, light rail was recognised at an early stage as possessing some significant advantages in many applications. A unique feature was its flexibility, versatility, and ability to expand incrementally in difficult topographical conditions. Despite legal setbacks from a car orientated population, and with many convinced that infrastructure spending is best channelled into highway projects, Austin is attempting to emulate "big brother" Dallas with a moderate scheme.

AN OPPORTUNITY TO DECIDE

Early November 2000 was the crucial time when voters in and around Austin were faced with a ballot to settle the issue. There was a fear though that voters would be overwhelmed, not only by the sums of money involved, but by the intensity of the squabbling between the opposing factions. A decade ago congestion levels in Austin were nothing like those in either Dallas or Houston but today that has all changed. Austin now finds itself the 25th most congested City in the nation.

DOWN THE "PATH" OF ROAD EXPANSION:

Houston's 88-mile system of high-occupancy vehicle lanes (or carpool lanes) is considered as one of the nation's best and is often quoted at transport meetings in Austin as an example to follow. Nevertheless, many Houston residents are known to believe that the carpool lane system has not been as successful as the transit planners have proclaimed. A strong but logical statement in a Texan study (4) was that areas that build more roads and keep pace with traffic growth have less increase in congestion, or to put it another way, a slow down in the increase in congestion. Research by the University of Texas concluded with some interesting facts : when road miles are doubled, the number of trips taken on those roads each day will grow 30 to 70% within a decade, probably as little as 5 years, but it will not be 100% growth. Another fact, somewhat negative in its message, is that the, faster trips are made possible with more lanes, the more passengers can be attracted away from bus services.

ROAD OR RAIL, OR MAYBE A COMPROMISE?

This vexed question has provoked media attention (5) as well as a suggested need to either look north and embrace Dallas type light rail or east and choose the Houston approach. This argument has continued over many years, one faction claiming the long "plod" by rail planners with long drawn out studies justifies the quicker road "spend" before turning to light rail. The opposite view follows the growing body of research and its conclusion that cities cannot concentrate on roads alone and must work towards a combined approach of better transit as well as expanding highways. The Central Texas political realities of only a limited pot of dollars is forcing this combined approach onto the public.

EXPERIENCES FROM OTHER PLACES IN USA

Lessons from San Diego (California) (6) were that it is not possible to build your way out of traffic problems by spending all your money on highways. Politically though, the balance of joint planning has helped to get both road and rail projects through "squeamish electorates" or "tight fisted governments". It is no longer automobile versus transit when choices have to be made (7), it is more quality of life, particularly in my Community. Experience gained from Dallas though was that the electorate in general, somewhat hard to convince, eventually realised that spending on light rail held many advantages, after all it was the Texas bastion of the automobile (8).

CONCLUSION

With traffic researchers agreeing that building more roads does create more traffic, even if it gives a short-term release to some of the jams, the voters in Austin will have been faced with a difficult choice (9). The Choice has been made more difficult by claims made by an anti-light rail group, (10) that the real issue is an existing but inadequate road system. This has to a certain extent been counterbalanced by a pro-light rail group (11) suggesting that Carpool lanes take longer to build than would a light rail system. Meanwhile, money is being put aside to start work on whatever the voters approve.

REFERENCES

  1. There are now 21 light rail systems, many with extensions planned or under construction. As many as 100 more cities have been at some stage of planning LRT - Tony Young - Tramways and Urban Transit - December 2000.
  2. The Seventh National Conference on Light Rail Transit, held in Baltimore, Maryland, during November 1995, was sponsored by The Transportation Research Board, American Public Transit Association.
  3. Presented by Stephen L Salin - Wendy Lopez and Associates, Inc. and Douglas A Allen - Dallas Area Rapid Transit.
  4. Tim Lomax Institute of Texas Transportation Annual Study.
  5. Does Central Texas Need Roads, Rail or Both? - Kelly Daniel - Austin American Statesman - Monday September 4th 2000.
  6. James Mills - a former Californian state Senator - wrote the. actual law that cleared the way for the San Diego Trolley Light Rail System.
  7. Alan Vulkan - a Parsons Brinckerhoff consultant.
  8. Railway Gazette International - December 1998 (page 871).
  9. The article commented on the "arm-wrestling" between Houston and Los Angeles over the title,"of the nation's smoggiest city", a distinction held by Houston but recently taken back by Los Angeles.
  10. "ROAD" - an anti-light rail campaign group.
  11. "LIGHT RAIL NOW" - a group supporting the referendum.
NOTE:

The Austin light rail proposal was lost by a slight margin.

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