I just want to point to Lee Nichols' Chronicle article yesterday on Austin's urban rail plan. He features Randal O'Toole's criticisms of rail and Mike Dahmus's rebuttal. (It was just coincidence that I wrote about O'Toole yesterday.)
But he also gave Lee Leffingwell and Rob Spillar a chance to explain why in-street rail is better than buses. Judging from their evasiveness, they don't have an explanation:
And what about the actual operational design? Spillar cites the problem of buses getting stuck in traffic as an argument in favor of rail, and yet, much of the proposed rail route would share lanes with cars. Big mistake, says Dahmus. Asked if Austin really wants more rail, Dahmus says: "We want more rail if it's any good. The only way the rail is good is if it has its own lane." Otherwise, he says, you have something that's worse than buses – a rail car caught in traffic, without even a bus' ability to change lanes.
Spillar and Leffingwell show little concern over the contradiction and defend the streetcar/light rail mix that is urban rail. "Obviously it's true that if somebody messes up the track, you have to stop until it gets fixed," Leffingwell says. "The question is how often does that happen? You'd have to look around the country and ask cities that have had rail a long time what the incidence of that is, and my guess is that it would be pretty low, to the point of being a nonfactor." Spillar said his department had no stats on that, "but people tend to stay out of the way of rail vehicles." Taking away an entire auto traffic lane for Downtown, he says, is simply not a good option, for the same reason that the Downtown roads can't be expanded – there's no more room.
But streetcars can't dodge congestion. Leffingwell and Spillar's ipse dixit doesn't cut it.