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Pro-rail people should oppose Cap Metro this time

For all two of you who read my blog but haven't seen this elsewhere, you really need to go look at Mike Dahmus' ongoing argument against Cap Metro's ballot proposition for November 2nd.

I like Mike's blog but I'll agree that it's an acquired taste -- he's simultaneously a wonk and a pit bull. As I understand his argument, here it is in the minimum number of bullet points:

The last point has been the hardest for me to understand. Like most people, I don't quite get the difference between "commuter rail" and "light rail" and tend to assume that rail is rail. Here's the difference as explained in the Wikipedia:

Light rail: "Light-rail systems can handle steeper inclines than heavy rail, and curves sharp enough to fit within street intersections... They are typically built in urban areas, providing frequent service with small, light trains or single cars."

Regional (or commuter) rail: "Commuter trains are usually optimized for maximum passenger volume... differing from light rail or metro systems by being larger; having (in most cases) a lower frequency of service; having scheduled services (i.e. trains run at specific hours rather than at specific intervals); serving lower-density areas, typically by connecting suburbs to the city centre; sharing track and/or right-of-way with intercity and/or freight trains."

So light rail goes where you want it to go, when you want it to go. Commuter rail will get people from Leander to one distant corner of downtown, not from where the most people live to where the most people work, and won't accommodate other uses like running errands at off-peak hours or going out in the evening. Once you've put in commuter rail on a certain corridor you can't switch to light rail later because the tracks are incompatible. Not to mention that once voters have invested $100 million in commuter rail they won't be willing to start over with light rail!

So to sum up: if we vote yes on Nov. 2nd we'll be stuck with a rail system that doesn't work and never get one that does.

(A suggestion to Mike: how about a FAQ on rail in Austin? And another on toll roads? With a one-line summary of each in a sidebar on your blog? That would help us late arrivals get up to speed much more quickly.)

austin 2004.10.10 link


One problem I have with my own conclusion above: Mike is very good at explaining the horrible political sabotage that got us into this mess. But I haven't seen him explain any plausible political path that will get us to a good outcome.

If Austin votes down rail again are we sure we'll get any more chances? Is this really a vote between a bad rail system and the possibility of a future good one? Or a vote between a bad rail system and no rail system at all?

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2004.10.10
Prentiss, you have (in your comment) stated my exact concerns with regards to the current light rail debate.

Jonathan Horak [jonathan cxe anotherpointless punkto com] • 2004.10.10
Well, Jonathan, supposing this were our last chance to get rail, then which way should we vote? Is a bad rail plan (or this particular bad rail plan) better than no rail at all? I'm not sure...

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2004.10.11
Neither am I. I should've noted my initial response was to the second paragraph of your first comment.

Like you, I'm not sure whether to vote against a plan that I am unimpressed by and hope for a new, better one. But what happens if one isn't proposed? In which case, we'd be better with some form of light rail.

Jonathan Horak [jonathan cxe anotherpointless punkto com] • 2004.10.11
My city is going through the exact same situation. They are putting in a tram that is no better than a bus and far worse than a car because the government and the contractor argue that people shouldn't go where they want to go but where they should want to go.

One of my friends thinks they are driving us to cars because the local transit authority is just a front for car dealerships and oil companies.

And my municipal government tricked people into not voting for the logical choice; after the vote the mayor turned around and made it seem like we were voting not on proposed routes as the ballots stated but on types of transportation.

So we're getting a cheap new tram line using the route everyone voted out and the new route will take longer than with a car. Plus, they are implementing parking fees even in the suburbs to pay for something everyone in my city is protesting against.

Ugh. I wish the mayor would take the bus for a few days and sees how nasty it is.

Maktaaq [maktaaq cxe hotmail punkto com] • 2004.10.11

Thanks very much for the link and kind words. I'll try to fit in time to start a FAQ about rail and toll roads (I had embryonic versions of FAQs on rail and rapid bus - links provided below, and I wrote a few articles on toll roads, but no FAQ). Both fact sheets need updating - I haven't touched them in a couple of months; I might take a stab at that tomorrow during lunch.

Commuter Rail fact sheet:
Rapid Bus fact sheet:
Toll articles can be found here:

I've only been writing about tolls when the mood strikes - I don't think my input is needed much there, since the political establishment is backing it. Unfortunately for us, I'm basically the biggest guy holding the "pro-rail and anti-commuter-rail" position, and I'm pretty darn small, so that's where I've been spending my time.


M1EK [mdahmus cxe io punkto com] • 2004.10.12
Someone on my neighborhood mailing list recommended this discussion and list of resources: Deciphering Rail Transit Options for Austin by Jacci Howard Bear.

One of the links on that page is to a piece by Tom Denney which shares many of Mike Dahmus's doubts about the current proposal.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2004.10.13
I'm sure you've already seen this. I was reading through the Chronicle's endorsements for the election, and they said yes to Cap Metro's plan. Vote yes on this cruddy plan, or Cap Metro will die. Now I'm really confused.

Elizabeth [newsyoucanuseornot cxe gmail punkto com] • 2004.10.15

I think they're right to be scared of Cap Metro losing their money to the ROAD guys if they lose this election.

I just happen to believe that they should be even MORE scared of losing their money for a much LONGER TIME if they win the election, build this thing, and few people leave their cars at home to ride it because they don't want to accept the shuttle-bus transfers, and because it doesn't run through the neighborhoods with the people who actually WANT to use rail.

David Foster, who I have now presented with twice, understands this. He disagrees about which to be more afraid of, but he gets it. Most of the pro-commuter-rail people, unfortunately, do not - they're stuck in the "if we build something, it must be better than building nothing" mindset. But I know from experience with South Florida that if you build something bad enough, it can prevent you from building something better for a very very very long time.

M1EK [mdahmus cxe io punkto com] • 2004.10.15
Ah, but you see, the point of rail-line politics is to "make the market" in terms of what people's destinations are; to change the landscape rather than to accomodate the system to an existing landscape. Cui bono? I know nothing of the Austin situation, but I would immediately check how many local real estate tycoons are writing checks for the TV ads.

Here it's the Second Avenue Subway. Republican mayors support it because it would serve the Upper East Side, that enclave of international plutocrats with its $5,000 a month rents (that's on the cheap side) and its scurrilous neoconservative riposte to the Village Voice: The New York Sun.

My ongoing local beef: Signage programs. You want to encourage tourism? Have a map of the system on EVERY platform. And for god's sake, I've lived here for eight years and even I still get lost at Times Square and other kludged-together megajunctions. My favorite: the sign in the precise middle of the platform that tells you that the passage to the train you're looking for is at "the other end of the platform."

Who designed these things? Daedalus?

And here's a tip: though obscure, Nevins Street in Brooklyn is actually the best easside-wesside switch in the best buckin' borough: the only one where you can jump off a 4-5, walk across the platform, and jump on a 2-3. Or verse vice-a.

Colin from Bklyn [cbrayton cxe gmail punkto com] • 2004.10.17
Yes, of course, but you don't have to be a robber baron to intend to change the landscape with rail. Transit advocates state up front that redevelopment and changing land use are key goals of their rail proposals.

Part of the idea is that if you provide convenient, reliable mass transit, some people will choose to live more densely and hence reduce sprawl. That not only means fewer auto trips per day but shorter auto trips, having a multiplier effect in favor of clean air.

And part of the idea is that by placement of stations you can revitalize neighborhoods. Theoretically it's done for the benefit of small businesses more than real estate tycoons, but we know how that goes. In my book giving moribund neighborhoods a shot in the arm is at least in part a good thing even if some people make big bucks off of it.

One interesting note for me personally: I'm hoping (dreaming?) of buying a house in 2005. As I shop around I see that a many of the houses that might barely be within reach back onto railroad tracks. I'm predicting that if this thing passes those houses will precipitously drop in price by a few thousand while the neighborhoods a block or so away will go up. If it fails there may be a smaller inverse effect. Depending on how it goes, I may be blogging with the roar of commuter trains in my ears a couple of years down the road.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2004.10.17
I'm in the process of buying a house in Austin right now, and my buyer's agent (Dan Birchman, and he's *really* good.. has consistently shooed me away from looking at property within a block of a railline, just for that reason.

On the other hand, I lived in a rental property backing onto the missouri-pacific line for a few years, and after awhile, you just learn not to hear the trains.

I understand Mike's argument, but the house I'm actually getting is out in the north-west 183/Parmer corridor. I'd be more than happy to see people brought in from Leander on rail, especially given how much that area is going to grow over the next 10-15 years.

Keep in mind, Light Rail that goes on surface streets has problems all of its own.. if you've got a traffic jam downtown, Light Rail cars that are having to transit the area on the surface streets can get stuck too. Having dedicated rail lines that aren't subject to surface traffic delays mean that the trains are much faster and much more consistent in their timing, which can make them much more useful, especially over long distances.

It broke my heart when light rail failed in 2000, much more so than the presidential race, even, but it would break my heart more to see Austin with nothing but increased automotive congestion, and I think if Cap Metro were to fail with two successive rail proposals, that is indeed what we'd be stuck with. Commuter rail as an alternative to additional congestion on the north west austin road system is appealing to me, and I hope that it gets the nod on Nov. 2.

Jonathan Abbey [jonabbey cxe ganymeta punkto org] • 2004.10.17
1. The neighborhoods through which this rail line goes are not pedestrian-oriented and will likely not become so during our lifetimes. These are 1950s suburbs like Crestview - fundamentally, it's not going to be a plus for those folks, whether it be light rail or commuter rail. (It's unlikely you'll have a station within walking distance anyways).

2. Jonathan, you really need to read my site. I understand the fear that an election failure will result in a money-grab; but a failed starter rail system is EVEN WORSE because the money will still be grabbed, and you'll have a much longer recovery phase. Now, whether you agree with me that the starter line will fail depends on your opinion of the willingness of suburban car owners to take shuttle-buses every day from the train station to their job. Wanna make a bet?

M1EK [mdahmus cxe io punkto com] • 2004.10.18
3. (whoops) - street-running light rail is NOT subject to traffic jams. What you're thinking of is streetcars, which share lanes with cars.

The situations in which street-running light-rail can be affected negatively by cars boil down to:

a. accidents (also true with commuter rail at grade-crossings but less so)

b. gridlock (only enforceable with huge fines).

Note that overall traffic congestion does NOT hurt street-running light-rail unless you have cars stopping across the tracks. Light rail does not share a lane with cars, by definition; it has its own lane.

M1EK [mdahmus cxe io punkto com] • 2004.10.18
Oops... I voted yes. I just wanted to be able to get to work... and they said it would have wireless!


wiley wiggins [weevil cxe wileywiggins punkto com] • 2004.11.03
anything they try to sneak in at the end of the ballot is bad. plus everyone i know is against it and has made very good points. i voted no to that sucka!

kristen renae [underjoyed cxe hotmail punkto com] • 2004.11.03
As a recent resident of Austin I am extremely happy to see Public Rail (of any kind) come to Austin. This country has been incredibly far behind its European counterpart in public transportation. Cap Metro offered us a choice: 1. Commuter Rail -or- 2. No Commuter Rail. In this country, take what rail you can, when you can. Cap Metro already owns the rail lines, has upgraded them to passenger rail and there will only be 8-9 stops (hence minimal noise/traffic/ disruption). They also conducted relatively intensive public meetings to elicit comment and even changed the proposed line to include more east Austin stops as a result. Conversely, Light Rail is much more expensive because you actually have to build the line, conduct ridiculous environmental studies and incorporate it into existing traffic. (Refer to Houston Metro's record breaking collision stats on their 7.5 mile light rail).

Trust me: Ridership will increase (Cedar Park which opted out of CapMetro involvement some time ago, has already expressed working to establish a station near their downtown), interest will increase, and more rail will be forthcoming (reference the Trans Texas Corridor -- which Perry has already won approval to bypass some of the tedious environmental process and begin contracting).

Kudos to Public Rail ;-)

Pauro Desu [pdkaman cxe yahoo punkto com] • 2004.11.04
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