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Why Can't Austin Have This Elaborate Subway System?

Image by Transit Authority Figures

Update (June 17, 2014):  This story from 2011 is enjoying a second-life on the Austin Reddit page.After being posted there it inspired a discussion with over 160 comments. For more on a potential Austin subway, see this report from StateImpact Texas: Why Texas Doesn't Have Subways.

While there are no plans for a subway, Austin's plans for Urban Rail are proceeding rapidly. See KUT's combined reporting on Urban Rail here. And read our latest reporting:

Original story:  A piece of wall art making the rounds online depicts a subway system for Austin that would put this city’s public transit system on par with densely populated cities in the Northeast. The creation is produced and sold by Transit Authority Figures, based in Northampton, Massachusetts.

The poster had many people wondering aloud why Austin couldn’t just go ahead and build a world class subway system. We called up Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development Todd Hemingson and asked him ourselves.

KUT News: Why can’t we have an amazing subway system like this in Austin?

Todd Hemingson: I’d love to do this. Who wouldn’t want a world class transit system that is grade separated, which means it doesn’t have to fight traffic congestion, and runs very frequently and covers a good swath of the central city and beyond. Any transit planner would love to do something like this.

My first reaction was, one, it’s kind of clever. It’s a neat idea. But two, it’s frustrating in a sense because it’s going to get people thinking, “Well why can’t we do this?” when in my point of view it would be much more productive to focus on what I would term realistic possibilities and not fantasy land.

KUT News: So the biggest obstacle is cost?

Hemingson: Far and away, above anything else. If money were no object, if we had unlimited resources, we would do a ton of this stuff. The challenge we make every day is trying to make our system as good as it can be.

We would love, even on a simpler scale, to run 15 minute or better bus service on every route in the system all day long. That would be a game changer in terms of making the transit system more attractive, getting more people to use it, and building ridership and building our public credibility and so on.

There’s plenty of evidence that better quality service achieves much greater ridership. There’s also plenty of evidence that if you can get to this 15 minute threshold, then you’re delivering service at a level that people aren’t scheduling their life around it. They can basically walk out to the nearest stop and know that a bus is coming in the next few minutes.

The reason we can’t do that is, again it comes back to money, but it’s also land use. Land use doesn’t support that level of service for the vast majority of our service area. There’s only a few places where the ridership warrants that level of service.

Maybe this is a circular argument of sorts, but it’s all interrelated. If you can’t justify the service based on ridership, and you don’t have the money to provide the service regardless of ridership, what you wind up doing is either providing a lesser quality of service that matches the demand, or you constrict your service and only operate in very few places.

Fundamentally, again, it comes back to resource constraints.

KUT News: Money aside, would it be technically difficult to engineer a subway system in Austin? Would the chalk or limestone underground make it more difficult?

Hemingson: That is not true, to my understanding. In fact, my boss, [Capital Metro Executive Vice President and Chief Development Officer] Doug Allen, worked up in Dallas, and they have the same Austin Chalk that they’ve drilled through to build segments of their light rail line that do run underground.

The experts that he talked to when he was working up there said the Austin Chalk is actually the best material in the world for doing tunneling in.  But even so, the cost of building underground systems, the reason nobody does it except for limited circumstances in very dense cities, is because it’s prohibitively expensive.

KUT News: How much would the subway system in the poster cost to build, ballpark figure?

Hemingson: Oh my gosh. If it were all underground, I would guess upwards of $10 billion.

KUT News: That’s a lot of money.

Hemingson: Yes.

KUT News: So what should public transit users realistically hope for?

Hemingson: I think there’s a lot of promise in the urban rail initiative and future extensions to that. And then we’re doing an effort with the City of Austin, CAMPO [the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization] and Lone Star Rail [District] to really take a look at this level of system but with a longer timeframe and a little more realistic expectations in terms of financing.

We’re looking at what we call high capacity transit, meaning either passenger rail in its various forms, or bus rapid transit like the MetroRapid lines we’re doing, or busses on managed lanes, as their called – meaning busses in lanes where there’s a travel time advantage to the general purpose automobile.

We’ll be doing this study over the next year or so to really look at what would a comprehensive system of high capacity transit look like for Austin.

It’s probably going to have some lines that are not dissimilar from what you see on this map here. I doubt you’re going to see the big circle, because generally speaking, loop routes of that nature are not what a transit planner would come up with, unless they’re running in both directions, which could make it feasible.

KUT News: Thanks for your time.

Hemingson: Sure, I could talk about this kind of thing all day.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion-dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on X @KUTnathan.
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