2015 Honesty Agenda on Transportation: What is honesty?

Honesty Agenda 2015 – Part Two

This is going to seem a bit disjointed because I ended up writing the main draft in the middle, very cramped, seat of a very delayed flight to Atlanta for a business trip; and

Made With Notepad because paying for wifi for an hour of personal use seemed unwise. So here we go.

Refer back to Part 1 of the Honesty Agenda on Austin transportation for the introduction.

What do I mean when I say honesty?

Honesty is more than simply “technically telling the truth”. A good place to start, but just to start, is the oath people take when testifying in court. So let’s at least look at those three parts:

The truth

Don’t say something which is obviously false. This is the easiest thing in the world to do, yet Capital Metro has gotten this wrong in the past (ref Todd Hemingson’s claim about the projection he made and then tried to claim he didn’t make, about first year Red Line ridership). The simplest attention by the media ought to catch our transit agency and city in this one, yet they rarely do (KUT being one very rare exception here).

The whole truth

Don’t say something which, while true, leads people to think they now know what’s going on, when you’ve actually kept a portion of the ‘whole truth’ behind so that they come to the conclusion you want them to. For instance, Capital Metro claims we’re going to have a new, exciting, frequent transit network (buses arriving at least every 15 minutes). If Capital Metro knows we used to have that, at least on the #1 route, and they don’t say so, they haven’t told the whole truth. Or, let’s say, if Capital Metro says ridership on MetroRapid is growing! (comparing 801 ridership six months ago to 801 ridership today), but overall ridership on the corridor is significantly below what it was before MetroRapid launched and staying stagnant since the initial drop, have they told the whole truth? Put another way:

Would “the 801 is doing better” be enough information without “but the overall 1/801 ridership is going nowhere and significantly below the old 1/101 ridership” for our elected leaders to make smart decisions?

Those aren’t even the most important examples though. During transit planning, this is far more critical. When the 801 was proposed, Capital Metro talked about how much faster it was going to be than the 1, while hiding the fact that it wasn’t going to be much, if any, faster than the existing limited-stop 101. It’s technically true that the 801 is faster than the 1. But it’s not the whole truth. It’s not useful in making decisions; the far more useful fact is the difference compared to the 101’s speed when it ran (and it turns out, there’s no difference except for that attributable to the downtown transit lane, which made the 1 faster and would have made the 101 faster too).

Nothing but the truth

Don’t add things that might (misleadingly) shade people away from the truth. Don’t talk about highway subsidies to try to mislead people away from a serious discussion on transit operating subsidies (the subsidy on a given highway might be higher than the Red Line, but it is irrelevant to a discussion of whether we can afford the Red Line subsidy as it currently exists).

But that’s not enough for me. Public agencies, funded by tax dollars, should meet a higher standard even than the above (which, after all, is just the oath people take when in an often adversarial relationship in court, to which the punishment for noncompliance is charges of perjury). Public agencies should educate taxpayers – in a way which does not lead taxpayers to a given conclusion, but allows them to make their own educated judgements. By this I do NOT mean the opinion pieces often approving cited, referenced, or retweeted by Capital Metro employees which are actually in direct conflict with their own actions without ever noting the problem. That’s fundamentally DIShonest.

Don’t Obfuscate

I also don’t mean Project Connect’s “data theater” exercises. “Showing your work” via PDF files, with ‘zones’ chosen and then changed, arbitrarily, by the people running the project in ways transparently obviously designed to make some projects rise to the top and others, uh, not; is not honest. Project Connect should have functioned as an open data source by which decision-makers (and the public) could make educated choices, but none of us who participated in that effort would describe it as anything except the exact opposite. In most other cities, Project Connect would have been a straight-up comparison between a few corridors (not this ‘subcorridors which are really zones which were purposefully drawn to make the route they knew they had to compete against look bad’ nonsense). Then, once a corridor was chosen, phase 2 would have been a straight-up comparison of ROUTES.

Don’t Be Disingenuous

disingenuous

This is a big one. It happens all the time. Most of the time you know your audience and you know what they know, so don’t pretend they’re talking about something they really aren’t (don’t oversimplify or misrepresent their argument).

For instance: “There are winners and losers with any change” is not an honest answer to a detailed explanation that points out that the frequency of the combined 1/801 is no higher than the frequency of the 1/101 was – which if honestly addressed, leads to the conclusion that every single local bus rider on the MetroRapid corridor is much worse off now that the new service came along, and the old express riders are for all intents and purposes paying a little more for a little more frequency, the same speed, and the same reliability (i.e. best case = no better off). The person making that statement about ‘winners and losers’ knows it’s not honest; but they know it’s technically true also – it’s just that the ‘winners’ were Capital Metro themselves, and the losers were, uh, all the riders. The public who pays your salary deserves better than being purposefully misled. Likewise, when Project Connect published ‘data’ from a ridiculous model that was essentially predicting almost three million daily transit riders in East Riverside alone and then tried to pretend it didn’t matter because it was just sort of a starting point, that’s disingenuous. If it didn’t really matter, throw that model out of the equation completely and use something that everybody agrees on (common basis). Because when it was left in, it provided significant confirmation for the theory among participants in the process that the data were being cherry-picked and/or made up to support a predetermined plan.

Offer All Sorts Of Data Without Prejudicial Conclusions

Why doesn’t Capital Metro publish their ridership numbers – and on the rare occasions when they do, why never in a form that can be processed by the public? The MTA in New York does.

Why don’t they publish their operating subsidies by mode (or even by line)? They haven’t done this at all since September of 2013, and if you think it’s because the Red Line subsidy figures would have damaged the public case for Proposition 1, you’re probably right! Yes, there’s arguments over methodology that would come into play in either case – but those arguments could be had in the open light of day. Instead, we assume that Capital Metro hides behind the firewall of freedom-of-information requests because they have something to hide (in many cases they do – for instance, recent word on the fare recovery ratio of MetroRapid is pretty awful). While I appreciate Ben Wear’s efforts in seeking this information (most media outlets don’t even try), it should be published every month on Capital Metro’s website so guys like me can analyze it. No excuses. If the data tells a bad story, then have a conversation about it with people who understand how transit works instead of hiding behind meaningless platitudes that prevent any transit project from ever being declared ‘bad’.

In future chapters I will explain in more detail, with many more specific examples, where we have fallen short on these metrics; and then what an honest Project Connect would have looked like. What an honest Capital Metro would look like. And what an honest City of Austin would look like. Because if we’re ever going to see real progress, that’s what we all need.

For 2015: An Honesty Agenda for Capital Metro (and others): Prelude

Right now, in order to get ridership numbers from Capital Metro, you practically have to file a freedom of information request.  That’s not the case in New York City;. In fact, Capital Metro stopped even publishing subsidy numbers more than a year ago.

Right now, whenever Capital Metro is asked about what’s next on rail, they mention a few possibilities, but pointedly do not mention the one route for which the transit activists and experts in Austin have continuously expressed a preference..

Right now, whenever Capital Metro is asked what they intend to do about local buses, they mention ideas for a ‘new’ ‘frequent’ network, and neither they, nor the media, bring up the inconvenient truth that Capital Metro used to have such a network, which they destroyed in order to make Rapid Bus look good less bad.

Right now, we’re coming off a rail campaign in which Austin’s transit advocates and experts rallied around defeating a rail proposal brought to them by a corrupt, dishonest, temporary agency comprised of mostly Capital Metro and some of the City of Austin. Said temporary agency is now pivoting even further towards suburban transit. In that rail campaign, our local media ranged from merely OK to outright cheerleaders for the establishment they claim to oppose. It’s clear that whichever side you fell on, you at least agree that Austin sustained a significant black eye.

Right now, the city of Austin is continuing a Guadalupe corridor study in which the overwhelming expressed preference of the people at the forum and via survey was for transit priority (either light rail or bus lanes), yet ongoing communications from the city mention neither.

Is anybody happy about this?

It’s time for a change. In following posts I will be laying out the 2015 Honesty Agenda on transportation. Most of the items will apply to Capital Metro (big shock). A few will apply to the City of Austin. A few will apply to the media. And a few will apply to my fellow transit activists. They are all things that should happen, if you want to feel good about what you’re pushing to the public (I’m being optimistic in presuming that even the worst offenders actually don’t like what happened at the end of 2014).

Join me on a new way forward – be honest about transportation and we’ll win more battles, and what’s more, the battles we win will be ones that were for things worth fighting for.

The mayoral runoff

Why you should consider Martinez: He understands transit a lot for one of our city council, which is admittedly a low bar. He has made some good urbanist choices in the past on the dais.

Also consider Martinez if: you believe he can, by himself, stop the (bad policy) 20% homestead exemption. Even though the impact of this is much smaller than most people would think (the city’s portion of your tax bill is relatively small; this doesn’t affect AISD or the county or ACC), it’s a move in the wrong direction.

Also consider Martinez if: you’re under the mistaken impression this is a strong mayor city. He makes good decisions sometimes and is not afraid to fight sometimes instead of compromise — which would be useful if our form of government had, let’s say, a mayoral veto. It doesn’t, though.

What should give you pause about Martinez: He hasn’t disavowed Project Connect at all. Despite being a ‘fighter’ he’s never fought any bad thing coming out of Capital Metro. He’s likely to produce bad transit plans in the future that don’t listen to anybody. He has made some really bad ads about Adler that verge on gaybaiting (the opera one) and incredibly misleading Koch-tying (the recent ones) and lying (the even more recent ones alleging Adler never did any public service, basically).

Why you should consider Adler: He seems to be a compromiser, and a facilitator, and likely to get along with everybody, which seems to be important given the clusterf**k the rest of the Council is looking like. In our system of government, remember, the mayor is just a council member with only a few non-ceremonial powers like running meetings. He seems interested in learning in areas where he is weak (which, sadly, transit is first and foremost). His ads promise to make it easier to redevelop your property, which implies a less than slavish adherence to the ANC (don’t tell them though). His ads have not been dirty and not been negative (and the one dumb thing his campaign did was from the campaign treasurer, see below). I have a hard time believing Adler would have been craven enough to behave as shamefully as all of our city council did with regards to Project Connect. He actually said he thought the PC process was bullshit, something which is fundamentally true. Some former city council members I respect have endorsed him.

Also consider Adler if: the 20% HEx is really important to you and you don’t care about renters or less affluent homeowners. It’s gonna be a big break over in Tarrytown, but not as big as people think.

What should give you pause about Adler: He’s said many dumb things about transit and transportation. Remember, anybody who puts “telecommuting” and “staggered work hours” and “traffic light synchronization” high on their list is either pandering or knows nothing about transportation. His campaign treasurer is a charity-industrial-complex socialite-type who has been nasty to me in the past and has also said dumb things about transit and transportation and unreservedly trusts people like JMVC. He supports the awful policy of the 20% homestead exemption. He doesn’t ever get specific on anything (I hate this). Even though he’s going to be 1 of 11 with some ceremonial extras, I still want to know specifics about what he would do and how he would vote (I expect this from any city council candidate and am often disappointed). Leffingwell endorsed him although this may be due to sour grapes.

Who should you vote for? Make your own choice. I lean Adler, for the top reasons of (council-wrangling) and (hasn’t been evil wrt Project Connect); and offered Adler’s campaign a possible endorsement if they wrote me back on a simple question, but they didn’t bother in time. So technically no endorsement here. Unlike some of my friends in AURA, I’m not going to say you’re crazy if you go the other way from me. I recognize that Adler’s lack of a record is an unfair advantage here, but Martinez’ campaign has made me grit my teeth, and frankly, I don’t think people should be able to get away with what they all did with Project Connect with no negative consequences.

Endorsements, if anybody cares

Everybody except Mayor is here. I’ll write some thoughts on mayor next, but short of endorsement.

D1: DeWayne Lofton (served on UTC with me for a time if I remember correctly).

D3: Pio Renteria, because Almanza is a disaster. Nothing to do with transit or land use; she’s just a disaster overall.

D4: Greg Casar. Interested in transportation and doesn’t have any dumb ideas. Pressley is an embarassment, as are those who endorsed her despite FLUORIDE.

D6: Jimmy Flanigan. Exactly the same as above except substitute Zimmerman for Pressley and SUE EVERYBODY for FLUORIDE.

D7: Pool. Yes, I know Jeb is an urbanist. Supposedly. But he’s also been aggressively an asshole on Proposition 1, and has been unrepentant in it. It’s just amazing to me that AURA falls all over themselves to endorse a guy who called them whiny foot-stomping babies. Why would you trust a guy who played along with the liars to do what he says he’s going to do later anyways?

Oh, and he hired a guy from the Prop 1 disaster to be his campaign manager. I almost want to move to District 7 just to vote in this one.

D8: Scruggs. I still think a Circle C environmentalist is an oxymoron, but it’s better than a Hays County type.

D10: Dealey, reluctantly. She’s an ANC tool but not as much as Tovo will be, but that’s still better than the candidate endorsed by Austin’s awful old sprawl-subsidizin’ CoC mayors like Cooke and Todd.

Mayor later – with some back and forth.

Central Austin boxes: 2014 versus 2000

I’ve started this spreadsheet (read-only link; you can save and edit as you like) of mostly strong pro-rail boxes in 2000 (basically central Austin, until I hit the part of town where it started to lose – so a few non-yes precincts are included for geographic completeness). I didn’t go as far south as some people would; I consider central Austin to stop at Oltorf and go no further north than approximately Koenig. I did include some of lower East Austin.

Screenshot sample here:

20141115railspreadsheetpicture1

2014 results: http://traviselectionresults.com/enr/contest/display.do?criteria.electionId=20141104&contestId=71

2000 results: http://www.centralaustincdc.org/images/Rail_2000.pdf

So far, it looks like in extreme central Austin alone, a 2000 margin in the 2014 boxes would have yielded around a 5600 swing in votes (2800 nos changing to yeses, essentially). This is not yet sufficient to change the balance of the 2014 election (margin was about 27,000), but it is clearly a major portion of the swing.

Some key notes:

I have excluded Mueller because nobody lived there in 2000, so we can’t assign a reasonable value for their margin. The “mostly Mueller” precinct went for by 64% (1580/2470) – if I was forced to guess how they would have voted on the 2000 plan, I’d say 70%+. I also excluded one precinct on Auditorium Shores where 1 guy voted.

The 2000 report only has ranges for precinct margins. You can change the assigned value for each range in your copy of the spreadsheet if you want. I chose 75% for the “over 70%” boxes, 65% for the “60-70%” boxes, etc.

The precincts do not line up exactly. A few shifted boundaries, some were combined, numbers changed, etc. I have noted which precincts in 2000 I considered the most relevant for 2014. Again, you can save the spreadsheet yourself and change this if you wish. If more than one 2000 precinct was used for comparison, I averaged their assigned values first.

Will pull some interesting nuggets out of here later today as I get to them. I’m sick as a dog and at my kid’s chess tournament all day today, and my battery in my phone, being used for access, is dying fast.

 

How pro-Proposition-1 establishment figures try to get away with it

Dave Sullivan, for months, on the CCAG, at meetings like this one:

“Nobody will show me the data! Show me the data!”

AURA, yesterday, released the latest paper, with data on why Highland/ERC will cripple our transit system and prevent any future rail lines from being built.

20141020auracover

This is the same argument, with data, presented over the last few months by Julio Gonzalez-Altamirano. Dave Sullivan has been pointed to him on multiple occasions, by many people, including yours truly; with no response. Example:

20131204mikelettertodavesullivan

A contemperaneous post by Julio that I was hoping Dave would read: “Highland Score”, November 2013.

Did he ever stop saying “show me the data! Why won’t anybody show me the data?”?

No, he didn’t. Now we move forward to last week.

Dave Sullivan, 10/13/2014:

20141013sullivancomment

Any questions?

Being too nice is how the liars will win.

Lots of people on ‘my side’ of the Prop1 debate believe you can’t call lies lies and can’t call liars liars.

Folks, that’s how they win. Have you never observed politics before? To the uninformed voter, they just see both sides arguing and will go with the one with the loudest megaphone or tallest podium (most credibility, even if completely unearned).

One recent example here. I have highlighted the parts that demonstrate a willingness to lie:

cecilcomments

The person who made this comment knows that those of us on the other side from him firmly believe that Highland saps all possible finances for any extensions anywhere. Yet he still makes this argument as if we are only upset because Guadalamar (or other route) isn’t going first.

This is a lie, people.

What more is it gonna take? Do you want to be nice, and lose, again, as in 2004? (Yes, I was nicer than this in 2004, but others were far nicer still; making lots of reasoned counterarguments, and what they got in return for their forebearance from being mean and calling people liars was the Red Line, bus cuts, and 10 years without any rail planning of note).

If you’re not willing to identify lies as lies, and you continue to treat liars as if they are arguing in good faith, you will lose. There is no way around this – I’ve been around long enough to know better. This does not mean that every argument on the pro Prop1 side is a lie, although a lot of them are; it means you should identify those that are lies and those that are not, and identify those who are willing to lie and those who do not; and treat them differently. You don’t engage in good faith with somebody who isn’t doing so in good faith themselves.

A very accurate summary of where we are

I don’t claim to know Leffingwell’s motivation, but everything else in this short post from Dave Dobbs via twitlonger is accurate:

“Austin’s Proposition One is a poison pill for democracy and the new 10-1 council.

My view is that when Mayor Leffingwell found himself on the losing end of the 10-1 vote, he decided to make his prediction that such a council so constituted couldn’t function by saddling that future council with enormous debt and a totally non sequitur urban rail plan that doesn’t go where most people go, doesn’t address congestion, has far too few riders for far too much cost, will see too little fare box return and that will negatively impact bus service. Additionally, the convoluted rail ballot language politically encumbers the new council with certificates of obligation (CO) for $400 million in roads that will do nothing for Austinites, while at the same time authorizing bonds for a rail proposal that the FTA is not likely to put high on the list. And because Austin changed the original destination from Mueller to Highland ACC, another three years of federal planning (and more money) will be necessary to even get on the list for federal funding.

The bottom line here is that if Austin’s Proposition 1 passes, a new council, awash with voter mandated debt, will have it’s hands tied; subject to the charge that it’s not carrying out the voter’s wishes if it doesn’t spend the money. In short, passage of the rail bonds and the problematic road CO’s associated with those bonds is going to create endless static in council chambers for years. How can anything productive come out of that?”

Dave Dobbs,
Texas Association for Public Transportation

Where did the Highland alignment come from?

A short interlude from the “urbanists, seriously, the rail election is important” thread:

As somebody who was involved in the Project Connect Phase 1 process, I can tell you that the inclusion of Highland as a high-scoring choice for the final projects to move forward into Phase 1 was a complete surprise to all of us. Highland is an awful segment of the route. It only works if you ignore every bit of good advice about how to build urban rail – it assumes park-and-rides on the highway for suburbanites are how we fill trains for an urban service. Nobody who was involved in Project Connect Phase 1 liked Highland.

Except, apparently, the Chamber of Commerce.

I’ve made the case lately that the Highland alignment was flat-out chosen for us BY the Chamber of Commerce, based on circumstantial evidence (what other reason could there be?) – and please don’t quote me Project Connect statistics; that entire process was a complete joke. It’s certainly not a good choice on transit grounds (see “urban rail should be urban” series underway at another great blog – CarFree Austin). But when I’ve suggested that the Chamber picked this line, I’ve been attacked by people at the Chamber and told it’s nonsense.

Huh.

Then I got an anonymous tip.

I wonder if you guys would like to see a video.

This is an excerpt from Citizens Communications from 6/13/2014 at the CCAG meeting. The speaker is Beth Ann Ray from the Chamber of Commerce. The full video of the meeting is here at the City, I suggest you click on “Item 5″ on the right and then advance to about 15:30.

Transcript of this section, by me:

based on our input, from Project Connect, and the meetings and workshops that we have had with the project staff, you have an LPA that our committee (our transportation committee) selected actually, way back in the beginning in the first workshop we did, and a few weeks ago, that same committtee recommended to our board that they consider supporting the entire LPA from Grove all the way up to ACC’s flagship campus up at Highland redevelopment

Let’s look at that transcript again, with some added emphasis:

based on our input, from Project Connect, and the meetings and workshops that we have had with the project staff, you have an LPA that our committee (our transportation committee) selected actually, way back in the beginning in the first workshop we did, and a few weeks ago, that same committtee recommended to our board that they consider supporting the entire LPA from Grove all the way up to ACC’s flagship campus up at Highland redevelopment

Hmmm. I suppose it’s just a coincidence that nobody except the Chamber liked Highland, and Highland ended up being picked, right?

What now for VMU?

In yesterday’s post, I showed that transit service along our best VMU corridor (Lamar/Guadalupe) has been significantly degraded by the introduction of Rapid Bus. Along this corridor, you used to be able to count on “show up and go” local service, but now you absolutely cannot.

The vast majority of tracts directly abutting the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor are eligible for VMU development like the one I used as an example in yesterdays post, based on an ordinance passed back in 2008.1 The arguments in favor of VMU on core transit corridors, made by people including yours truly, rested on the premise that because there was frequent, useful, transit there, we should allow denser development and reduce parking requirements for that development. Since we could assume that a larger percentage of tenants of those buildings would be willing to use transit than for the city as a norm, in other words, we would not listen to the complaints of the nearby neighborhoods that they’d all be driving on Lamar and Guadalupe every day making their lives more miserable.

Now it’s 2014, and this statement:

On this VMU corridor, transit is frequent and useful

is NO LONGER TRUE.

If we were debating the set of attempts by neighborhoods along Guadalupe and Lamar to opt-out of the VMU ordinance today, in other words, it would not be honest to make the statement above.

So what, you say? Well, remember, the VMU ordinance and the approval/rejection of the opt-in and opt-outs were not unanimously done by committed urbanists. The council at the time had one committed urbanist, one urbanist with some checkered history, one anti-urbanist, and four moderates.

Four. Moderates.

Do you know what sold those four on VMU? Over the objections of neighborhood associations that tried to opt out of almost everything? After all, Hyde Park’s neighborhood association attempted to opt out of essentially all of Guadalupe!

So what worked with those four moderates? It was this:

On this VMU corridor, transit is frequent and useful

Note that we do not need to count how many people in apartments on Lamar/Guadalupe use transit to understand this point. Politically speaking, the presence of useful frequent transit allowed those moderates to make what we urbanists consider the “right decision” and not only pass this ordinance but expend political capital to reject attempts by Hyde Park and other neighborhood associations to wiggle out of it.

So now that the useful, frequent, service is gone, what happens? Most VMU projects along Lamar/Guadalupe are still very attractvie, of course; developers will pretty much build to the maximum entitlements on these corridors today given the vast demand for rental housing. But when neighborhoods find pretextual objections (and they will; nothing is ever cut and dry), future councils will be more likely to side with the neighborhoods than the urbanists, because, once again, transit service on Lamar and Guadalupe is no longer ‘frequent and useful’.

What are we likely to see instead, assuming the neighbors win more of those battles, and since we’ve decided to destroy local bus service on Lamar/Guadalupe in favor of more expensive but less useful express service? Hello, Steven Zettner’s vision of density ONLY near the major intersections (where the rapid bus stops happen to be located). No longer will we see 4 or 5 story VMU buildings along the entire corridor; instead, we’ll see 4 or 5 story buildings near the Rapid stops, and decaying single-story strip malls in the rest.2 The ‘moderates’ in the future city council will vote the neighborhood association’s way when in doubt, because, again, useful and frequent transit is no longer part of the equation.

Core Transit Corridors map from 2007 Austin Chronicle
Core Transit Corridors map from 2007 Austin Chronicle

To the right is the “Core Transit Corridors” map used to kick off VMU planning back in 2007. Note the complete absence of Highland, by the way. Honestly, only the two Rapid Bus corridors have seen any significant VMU development (East Riverside is starting to show some signs, with major flaws).

Thus, this affects not only Lamar/Guadalupe, but also South Congress and Burnet/South Lamar (which were the other corridors that got nearly completely zoned VMU mostly over neighbors’ objections).

Does that sound important to you yet? Well, we’re getting there. Next up: Urban rail.

  1. I was hoping to have found a map of properties along this corridor eligible for VMU, but they may have aged off, and I’m not particular good with the city’s GIS. If somebody feels like doing some work, let me know. []
  2. Don’t be foolish enough to think we can upzone near the rapid stops to make up for the decline of the whole corridor, in other words; we’re not going to get 20 story buildings around the stops there to make up for 1 story elsewhere; we’ll be lucky if we can get 4 or 5 []

After 14 years of this, you'd be even testier than I am.