The Austin Precedent: Bus improvements block rail

The discussion on where Austin’s first urban rail route should run has switched tracks.  The Friday meeting of the mayor’s advisory group did not open with a discussion of the questions which have occupied this blog lately: which area of central Austin would best support an urban rail route (or vice-versa).  Instead, many advisory group members addressed emails from the public supporting studying a Lamar route by discussing what has been an elephant on the tracks: FTA funding for bus improvements.

Starting in January, Austin’s #1 bus route will see various improvements paid for by the FTA: longer buses, real-time information on bus location, wifi, longer spacing between stops.  Another bus route will see many of the same improvements a few months later.   As a frequent bus rider, I’m happy to see buses improve!  It’s a modest improvement–the buses will still get stuck in traffic through much of their routes.  But its benefits will not be limited to the #1 and #3 routes: the restricted-car lanes through downtown will eventually be used by most routes.  The heaviest costs of the real-time bus information system is setting up the system itself;  once the grant has paid for the upfront IT costs, Cap Metro will be able to expand it relatively inexpensively to the rest of the fleet.   Even the most expensive part of the system–the buses themselves–will save Cap Metro the cost of replacing the existing buses.  FTA is not funding *additional* buses along the #1 route, merely the routine cost of replacing buses, although the buses it’s replacing them with are nicer and more expensive than the buses Cap Metro would otherwise have bought.  Viewed this way, the FTA grant is less a massive upgrade to a couple of bus routes and more a clever way for the federal government to help pay for incremental improvements in Austin’s bus system, to be first deployed on Austin’s most popular bus route, the #1.

But was it too clever?  The argument at the mayor’s advisory group made was that FTA’s funding for these improvements would need to be paid back and reapplied for on a different route before the FTA would agree to upgrade a portion of the #1 bus to rail.  Furthermore, the FTA would not look kindly on Austin for applying for a larger, better rail project in an area they have already received funding and probably refuse to fund the rail.  Friend-of-the-blog Niran Babalola offers an interesting comment (via e-mail):

This example will be used around the country to demonstrate that investments in better buses push off rail for decades. This is counter to both the city of Austin’s interests (where MetroRapid in other corridors will probably be a good idea, but won’t be supported) and the FTA’s interests (who want cities to make bus investments until the money for rail appears, but will face more reluctance with this example).

So is it FTA policy that using FTA grants to improve your bus service endangers your ability to get funding for rail?  I don’t know; the most definitive piece of evidence on this question at the meeting was a sidebar conversation at a conference.  Julio believes this couldn’t possibly be right.   I hope an enterprising reporter can get the FTA to answer the question for us.  It’s a question with importance beyond Austin.

(In case it sounds like this is a novel worry; it’s not.  The furthest back I could find comment on this issue was Mike Dahmus’ blog posts from 2004, when the system was first proposed.)

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The Austin Precedent: Bus improvements block rail

13 thoughts on “The Austin Precedent: Bus improvements block rail

  1. There’s been an argument forever by BRT proponents that BRT is a precursor to rail. But if this Rapid Bus line stops rail, it will certainly be the first time that their continued hype will be shot down. In San Francisco along Geary, there has been discussion on how to make it “Rail Ready” but that won’t happen because it will take too long to build. Here actual BRT won’t be running until 2019 or after, even though we started planning it in 2005 or before.

    What really gets me going on this line of thought for Lamar though is that the rail line will only cover a portion of the total investment in the one and three. And over time the whole #1 corridor should turn into rail to make it more cost effective from an operations standpoint. That’s one of the reasons to build rail. But effectively, the FTA is saying FU, one investment per corridor, even though a high density corridor like Lamar could have numerous service and still be ok. They could even leave the Rapid Bus line there, it’s not duplicating rail service which will likely have more stops due to its urban nature.

    They aren’t thinking outside of the box, and I’m imagining that the FTA isn’t being told the whole story.

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    1. Do we know what the FTA has actually been saying? At CCAG, the strongest evidence of FTA’s thoughts was Bill Spelman’s sidebar conversation with an FTA employee at a conference. As far as I know, there has been no official correspondence between Project Connect or the city and the FTA.

      Also, we’ve been trying pretty hard to hold the line about using the “BRT” phrase (MetroRapid scores 36 points on the ITDP scale) http://storify.com/mdahmus/is-capital-metro-s-metrorapid-brt-and-did-anybody Personally, I’ve been calling it “premium bus service” because it is going to cost more to ride.

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      1. Novacek says:

        >>MetroRapid scores 36 points on the ITDP scale

        that scoring seems a little inaccurate:

        3 points for POP on the routes (the buses have PoP, the scoring doesn’t officially preclude also having other payment methods).
        4 points for 2 corridors
        1 point for peak frequency
        We’ll do 2 points for express/limited as before (though I’m unclear if this is accurate)
        2 points for the control center (I think the only thing we’d be missing is tracking alightings)
        2 points for top 10 corridor
        2 points for late night and weekend
        2 points multi-corridor
        1 point for corridor configuration as before
        1 point for the transit priority lane
        3 points intersection treatments
        4 points for passing lanes. Nothing in the scoring states that they have to be bus-exclusive or physically separated.
        4 points for clean diesel (EPA 2010 certified engine utilizes the cleanest technology available for diesel engines http://www.capmetro.org/metrorapid-vehicles.aspx)
        for station setbacks, I’ll do 1 point as before, as I’m unsure how many stations meet the setback requirements.
        1 point for pavement
        For platform level boarding, looking at pictures it really does look like the front entrance is platform level (http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/kut/files/201311/20131112CapMetroRapidBusPreview_MG_7346x.JPG). Especially since it’s handicap accessible. This would be 4 points (though if anyone has seen the buses in person and can correct me, feel free).
        1 points for stations, as before
        3 points for doors
        3 points for branding
        2 points for passenger info
        3 points for ADA compliance
        3 points for integration. It’s a very short walk from the train to the mr at crestview. physical integration for local buses is even better.
        2 points for pedestrian. Access is there, and improvements are being made continually (great streets improvements, etc.)
        1 point for bike parking
        I’ll stick with 1 point for bike lanes, but it’s really close. There usually is a parallel bike route (guadalupe and woodrow paralleling Lamar, etc.)

        By my scoring, that’s 56, and Bronze.

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  2. Novacek says:

    It’s a red herring. People keep making comments like ” Furthermore, the FTA would not look kindly on Austin for applying for a larger, better rail project in an area they have already received funding and probably refuse to fund the rail. ”

    “Look kindly” is not a policy. It would be _illegal_ for the FTA to use criteria other than their published grant criteria for ranking applications. They can’t be subjective in the process, otherwise they open themselves up to lawsuits whenever they deny an application in the future.

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    1. Yes, I find it particularly odd that people working for one government agency have a model of another working entirely based on these rather personal and emotional criteria, rather than just applying the law.

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  3. I presume Spellman was told that we wouldn’t be able to just relocate the BRT anywhere we would like without filing a new application, which makes sense to me–they would want to see that their investment is being used in a way that is cost-effective, and this equation would change if it is now serving a different corridor. I don’t see this as precluding Austin from, say, applying to relocate the BRT infrastructure in parallel with applying for funding for rail on G/L. Also, Spellman specifically said that he didn’t ask about building rail on top of the existing BRT line.

    What’s mattering in this case is that decision-makers see applying for rail on G?L as a risk, and, anyhow, it’s a good point that it has implications beyond Austin, so having some guidance from the FTA would be nice.

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  4. Novacek says:

    As an update, CCAG may be saying one thing, but Project Connect is still saying another.

    “Nothing related to Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) funding of MetroRapid was considered in the evaluation. The project team wanted to do a ‘fair’ comparison of all of the sub-corridors, and was prepared to have that difficult discussion if Lamar, for instance, would have performed better than the rest.”

    http://www.projectconnect.com/connect/project-connect-blog

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  5. […] the general anti-transit political climate is.  To take my perceptions: I believe MetroRapid is a decent project that found federal money to make incremental improvements to all buses in Austin, even if its badly oversold and may have played a lamentable role in preventing what would’ve […]

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  6. I missed this the first time around. It’s important to note that NO users of the 801 on Guadalupe/Lamar see any improvements, viewed realistically.

    Current users of the 101 will see a small increase in frequency, no increase in speed, and a large fare increase.

    Current users of the 1 will lose half their frequency; or have to walk a much longer way to take a bus they already choose not to take, at a much higher cost.

    Neither set of users are better off – the 1 users are likely MUCH worse off.

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    1. Novacek says:

      Current users of the 101 will see:

      A significant increase in frequency, especially in the section where the 801 and 803 overlap.

      an increase in speed on most segments of the route (updated numbers will probably show increases on all segments, given the signal priority and transit priority lanes).

      No fare increase (metrorapid is the same price as limited/flyer routes).

      improved boarding

      arrival timing at stations

      on-board wifi

      larger capacity

      greatly extended operating hours

      weekend service

      lighted stations

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      1. As usual, you’re carrying water for bad guys here.

        We’re talking specifically about the 801; not the 803, which may happen a year from now.

        Capital Metro’s own presentations show no speed increase over the 101 from NLTC to downtown. It’s amazing you would continue to argue this. Makes me wonder who’s paying you.

        Fare increase is obvious. The fares are going up quite a bit compared to the existing 101 fare. It’s a huge increase compared to the existing 1 fare.

        The rest of this nonsense? Why would I care about arrival timing on a service that’s supposed to be so incredibly frequent that I don’t need to check a schedule? On-board wifi has been available on the express routes for years. Capacity is an issue only because this is such an overwhelmingly popular route – that’s an argument for rail, or HIGHER frequency overall, not the same frequency with bendy buses at almost twice the cost!

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      2. Novacek says:

        >>We’re talking specifically about the 801; not the 803, which may happen a year from now.

        In discussions about rail systems that at best will happen 8-10 years out, if not 20, I think we can consider service starting within a year as a given. As for “may happen a year from now”, it’s late summer 2014. https://www.capmetro.org/metrorapid.aspx

        >>Capital Metro’s own presentations show no speed increase over the 101 from NLTC to downtown.

        Yes, their 3 year old presentations show no speed increase in that segment (while increases in the other two). I acknowledged that by stating “most segments”. Though I expect they’re being overly conservative, and that in practice there will be an improvement at least in the worst case (given the addition of signal priority and priority lanes).

        >>Makes me wonder who’s paying you.

        Ah yes, the standard Mike Dahmus deflection. If someone points out a false statement on your part, accuse them of being on the take. As I’ve stated before, I have no connection to CapMetro or any financial interest with them. I’m just a private citizen who is looking forward to riding the metrorapid (on Burnet, 15-20 years before Burnet would ever get rail, if ever).

        >>Fare increase is obvious. The fares are going up quite a bit compared to the existing 101 fare.
        _Existing fare_ being the operative word. If MetroRapid had never been constructed, the 101 would still be going up to 1.50 next year (the same as metrorapid) along with all the other express/flyer routes.

        >>Why would I care about arrival timing on a service that’s supposed to be so incredibly frequent that I don’t need to check a schedule?
        On-peak, it’s a nice-to-have. During off-peak frequency (which is still significantly improved) it’s really convenient to know if it’s coming in 2 minutes or 20 minutes.

        >>Capacity is an issue only because this is such an overwhelmingly popular route – that’s an argument for rail, or HIGHER frequency overall, not the same frequency with bendy buses at almost twice the cost!
        They are giving it higher frequency.
        I’m confused though, isn’t that one of the rail advantages _you’re_ always touting, the increased capacity per vehicle without increasing the expense of the driver?

        Are you conceding the increased hours, mid-day service, and weekend service improvements?

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