Sen. Watson touts “virtual trains” over light rail

Virtual train prototype, sorta

State Sen. Kirk Watson signaled last week that light rail may not be in Austin’s future.

Speaking to the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects at the group’s annual summer conference on Thursday, Watson spent nearly thirty minutes outlining his vision for improving public transit across the region.

“We should all be calling on Capital Metro to lead our community into the next decade with a forward-looking plan for a truly regional electric transit system that fits our community and positions us to take advantage of new technologies,” he said. “That may not — I’ll just say it out loud — be rail in the traditional sense. Frankly, I’m not sure that it is.”

Watson’s sudden skepticism about rail comes just two months before Capital Metro planners are scheduled to reveal their long-awaited mode recommendations for Project Connect’s proposed high-capacity transit corridors identified earlier this year.

It also comes nearly 18 years after voters narrowly rejected a light rail referendum Watson championed during his stint as mayor. He expressed his lasting regret over that outcome in his remarks on Thursday.

“By passing rail in 2000, I believe we would have forestalled the displacement and gentrification that’s taken place over the last two decades, and a myriad of other problems,” he said, adding that Central Austin housing prices in part reflect the premiums people are willing to pay to live closer to where they work.

Nonetheless, Watson said proponents of transit should look beyond specific mode preferences and keep their eyes instead on outcomes.

“Forget the scar tissue of yesterday. Forget the old fights,” he said. “The evolution of technology moves at a mind-blowing pace and that pace of change is coming to mobility in a major way.”

Echoing comments made by Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke, Watson suggested the possibility of automation technology that could allow self-driving buses to platoon behind a lead bus driven by a human to create what the senator dubbed “virtual trains.”

That notion is still in the realm of science fiction, though the trucking industry has been exploring platooning technology in recent years. No other major cities appear to be banking on a similar idea, though in May, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg backed off his previous support for light rail in favor of a plan that doesn’t seem dissimilar to the vision put forth by Watson.

The senator listed several characteristics of what he said would be a practical transit solution.

It would have to be affordable, regional, and “relatively quick to implement,” he said.

Watson added, “It appeals to riders who need transit and attracts those who choose it. We can pay for it. It can be grown as need, desire, and population changes. It’s minimally disruptive to vehicle traffic. It positively impacts tax base. It gets people where they need to be. It helps families reduce their transportation costs. It gives people back time and it improves quality of life for our city.”

Indeed, forgoing light rail in favor of true bus rapid transit operating in dedicated right-of-way could, in theory, take years off of Project Connect’s construction timeline while also shaving billions of the final price tag. With statutorily restricted financing options and a Federal Transit Administration in no hurry to fund transit projects, it’s easy to imagine that the effort will rely on potential property tax hikes for a chunk of its funding, a scenario that puts a special urgency on planners to keep costs low.

But choosing rubber over steel wheels could also anger Austin’s small but committed contingent of rail supporters who have otherwise maintained an invisible profile 2014’s failed light rail referendum.

However, members of that faction might be reassured to know that they could have company if Capital Metro releases a plan in line with Watson’s vision. When an audience member asked the senator to share his thoughts on gondolas, Watson replied that he’s “somewhat agnostic” about the aerial cable cars but reiterated his urge to focus on goals rather than specific modes.

“So if you’re a gondola zealot… but you can be shown that the goals that you want to achieved can be achieved more reliably, safer, certainly less expensive, and in a quicker time frame, I would pray that what would do is say, ‘Oh, I can go that way because what i’m really after is the outcomes.’”