In light of Hancock tunnel, whole northern segment of rail needs rethink

I was appalled by the sticker price for a tunnel to get rail part of the way north from the Hancock Center to the Highland Mall.  This sticker price has come down: from a range of $230-290M to $220M.  But it is still truly appalling: the capital costs for that short tunnel alone would be about twice the capital cost of the entire MetroRail system which is forcing a tunnel in the first place and more than 4 times the capital cost of the entire MetroRapid bus improvements that led planners to rule out a route west of the University. It would cost more than going from Travis Heights all the way to 15th Street, including a brand new signature rail/bike/pedestrian bridge over Lady Bird Lake and tracks through dense downtown.

I wasn’t alone in being appalled. At a Transit Forum hosted by Austin Monitor and KUT, I asked a question of Council Member (and CapMetro board member) Mike Martinez on the Hancock tunnel via twitter, and he said that if we had to tunnel (as Project Connect says we must), the costs go up “exponentially.” Mayor Leffingwell has said in the press that he’d like to see the $1.4B price tag for the whole route be brought down to $1B. The Hancock tunnel is an obvious first place to cut. Many early supporters of Project Connect’s plans are now cautioning against including a Hancock tunnel on the ballot. And in project lead Kyle Keahey’s testimony, he sounded almost desperate to find a way to avoid the costs of a Hancock tunnel.  Even if decision makers hold their noses and vote to advance the entire $1.4B project, there’s little reason to believe that voters will do the same in November.

In light of this setback, we have to rethink more than just the tunnel, but rather the entire northern segment of the urban rail. Originally, Highland was sold as a low-cost segment with room for growth in the Highland Mall redevelopment, the old Concordia site, and along the newly re-zoned Airport Blvd Transit Corridor. Whatever you thought about the potential for these destinations to encourage ridership on a rail line (and I was skeptical), rail reaches none of them without the tunnel. Instead, it would merely run along a street not designated as a Transit corridor, through a neighborhood of mostly single-family homes that have largely struggled against becoming another University-adjacent density hotspot like West Campus, and then come to an ignominious end at a golf course and an auto-oriented strip mall.  Without the Hancock tunnel, the whole raison d’etre of this route goes away.

If that were all, that would be disappointing. A medium-cost, low-ridership train is not great.  But this low-ridership segment of the route threatens far worse: it could make future rail plans with higher opportunity impossible. This has happened to Austin twice already.  The low-ridership, low-cost MetroRail ended up badly hemming in this route, forcing a tunnel that cost twice as much as the system itself, something that few could’ve foreseen when MetroRail was being approved.  The low-cost MetroRapid gave planners reason to fear placing this rail route along the city’s most productive transit corridor.  A low-ridership segment from UT to Hancock could do immense damage to future flexibility in laying rail lines.  Funding a rail line that hits a hard stop before it reaches its density could end up preventing funding for parallel rail lines along more dense parts of Austin as “duplicative.”  And for what?  Unless city planners have a secret plan to get rid of MetroRail, we will face the same high tunneling costs next time we look into extending rail.  We will have essentially backed ourselves into a dead-end that will be very difficult and expensive to get out of.  Even for those who believe that rail should go to Mueller, this would remove routing flexibility from any planning efforts.

The best thing for CCAG and City Council to do is say that, in light of the new information they have on the costs of the Hancock tunnel, they will forego a vote on the more controversial, risky, poorer-thought-out northern segment of the route, advance the southern segment on its own, and come back to revisit the question of the northern route later.

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In light of Hancock tunnel, whole northern segment of rail needs rethink

14 thoughts on “In light of Hancock tunnel, whole northern segment of rail needs rethink

  1. Novacek says:

    ” the capital costs for that short tunnel alone would be about twice the capital cost of the entire MetroRail system which is forcing a tunnel in the first place”

    ” The low-ridership, low-cost MetroRail ended up badly hemming in this route, forcing a tunnel that cost twice as much as the system itself, something that few could’ve foreseen when MetroRail was being approved.”

    I’m pretty sure this is inaccurate. Even if the metrorail had never been built, the rail corridor (with freight) would still be there. I expect that it’s the freight which is really driving the need/desire for a tunnel.

    At least my assumption is that the urban rail is intended to be an all-day, late night, weekend service system. It’s going to run at times that freight is running. Even if the FRA/FTA would waive a possible intersection between the DMUs/light urban rail vehicles, it’s the freight trains that are orders of magnitude larger that would raise the safety concern (in their bureaucratic minds at least). Even absent the safety concerns, an intersection with the freight rail means that the urban rail would waiting at that intersection for 5 minutes or so (not as an infrequent event, but as a possibly daily occurrence), playing hell with schedules.

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    1. Good point. Not sure it’s planned to be all night, but either way, it’s probably the freight driving the biggest concerns.

      How was this not anticipated earlier?

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      1. Novacek says:

        I wasn’t assuming all night (though that would be great). Till 2 would be great, but even if only until midnight, that only leaves a few hours until it starts running again(before 6 AM?).

        As for not anticipated, I’m not so sure that it wasn’t. Above, you assert that Highland was “sold as low cost”, but that has never been my impression of the official communications. Early in the process, I explicitly asked about costs, and was told that expense wasn’t in the evaluation matrix (they were looking for the “right” first corridor). My concern at the time was that they might use the expense of the G/L corridor to eliminate it early (designed to these same criteria, it would be even more expensive than this), but they assured me that wasn’t the case.

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      2. Cost was one of the factors under “System and Constraints”. They discussed the ” constraints” field as a proxy for cost, and just tallied the # of crossings they’d have to make, of highways and bodies of water. Railroads weren’t one of the things they tallied. Highland scored tops as “fewest constraints.”

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      3. Novacek says:

        Actually, it does look like they included it.
        http://www.projectconnect.com/connect/sites/default/files/PCCC_Sub-Corridor_Evaluation_Data_131127.xlsx

        on the physical constraints page of the spreadsheet.

        In fact, the Lamar corridor may have gotten off light, since it wasn’t assessed the red line constraint (even though it has it, assuming you run it as far north as Crestview, which you probably want to support intermodal transfers).

        Now, the weightings of those constraints could be up for discussion (and may be wrong), but it doesn’t appear like it’s something so simple as “they forgot about it”.

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      4. The Lamar ‘subcorridor’ only went up as far as Crestview despite attempts by people in OurRail to get it further north (to pick up more #1 boardings). One could argue the line could START at Crestview, then, and not actually require a crossing of the Red Line.

        I myself would not want to advocate a crossing at Crestview right away; I think it would be far more effective to go south down Congress than further north at that point.

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  2. Doug says:

    “Railroads weren’t one of the things they tallied. Highland scored tops as ‘fewest constraints.'”

    Frightening how incompetent Project Connect is! Hopefully this means back to the drawing board!!!

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  3. Highland was indeed pushed as low-cost. Novacek, perhaps you could cease this act, please; most of the people you’re arguing with went to a ton of Project Connect meetings, and I don’t remember seeing you at any of them.

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  4. As for me, I suspect this is being used as a convenient excuse to stop at Hancock, just like the pre-Project-Connect plan did. Oops, we can’t go to Highland; time to jog over to Mueller instead.

    The flaw in my genius theory is that they’d still have to cross the Red Line to get over to Mueller, but maybe they can elevate going that direction (cheaper and much less risky than tunnel). But I’m only 50/50 on this at this point.

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    1. The other flaw with the theory is that if they only do the northern route, they need the operations center on Airport. So they can stop at Hancock only if paired with the Red River route.

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      1. I always suspected the first phase would stop at Hancock, just enough to get a Red Line connection… but now I’m not so sure.

        The proposed Hancock station would be underground, which requires a tunnel… and they wouldn’t tunnel without continuing past Hancock, right?

        Though, why would I try to apply logic to this process?

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