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Lessons from the Shoal Creek debacle

Michael Bluejay, who runs the largest and most comprehensive site on bicycling in Austin, wrote a letter which appears in this week’s Chronicle. The letter refers to the infamous Shoal Creek debacle.

Lessons can be learned here.

Lesson 1: Don’t bet against Mike Dahmus. He’ll lose, but he’ll be right. :+) This comment comes from an anonymous contributor whose missive is stored for posterity on Michael’s site on the Shoal Creek debacle:

I am dismayed that Mike Dahmus was so damned right about this whole debacle from the very beginning. Although originally, I was very hopeful that a community consensus could be reached that could benefit everyone (and possibly even improve relations amongst the diverse users of SCB), I see now that I was completely naive. What we have now is little better than what we had originally: parking in bike lanes. I’m still hopeful that traffic will be a little calmer, but I doubt that drivers will remain in their lanes, and cyclists riding near the stripe will be at risk of being struck.
Any possibility that a mutually beneficial result could emerge from a consensus-based process — however slight — was completely dashed when the whole process was hijacked by Paul Nagy. There was a point where Gandy had hood-winked everyone into thinking a panacea solution existed, when he should have known better that his “solution” would never make it past city engineers. (I actually don’t feel bad at being deceived by this snake oil, as so many others — except Dahmus — were also taken in, including many from the bike community.) I place full blame for that on Gandy for playing politics by trying to please everyone when it’s clear that that is impossible. We hired him as an “expert,” and clearly he is not.

Lesson 2: Don’t negotiate away your core positions. On Shoal Creek, car-free bike lanes should have been non-negotiable. (They were, for me).

Lesson 3: Don’t dig yourself in a hole. The Shoal Creek neighbors successfully (against my vote) got Shoal Creek downgraded to a residential collector (from a minor arterial) which then made it easier for them to make misleading claims like “this is a residential street so we have to have on-street parking on both sides of the street”. (“residential collector” is not the same thing as “residential street” in technical terms – the former is expected to maintain traffic flow and access over parking). Shoal Creek is, by objective measures, a minor arterial (it’s almost 5 miles from 38th st to Foster, the length which was downgraded; and has no intersections where cross-traffic does not stop or have a light). So in an effort to be nice, the UTC supported the downgrade, which made it easier later on to mislead some people into thinking that restricting parking on the road was an unreasonable imposition.

Applications to the current commuter rail situation:

1. Obvious. :+)

2. Non-negotiable positions should be that at least one and preferrably two major employment attractors should be reached within walking distance without a transfer. IE, no change to shuttle-bus; no change to streetcars. Center-city folks should have fought Capital Metro when it came to running rail down corridors where people wanted it in ’00 rather than where Mike Krusee wants it in ’04. This is the most critical error in my estimation – people who really want rail to succeed in Austin got snookered into thinking that they could negotiate it with Capital Metro when Capital Metro already had its own non-negotiable position (i.e. do what Mike Krusee wants). The result was: no rail to Mueller; no rail to Seaholm; transfers to all major attractors; no service in the center-city residential areas.

3. Mike Krusee won here, big-time. Capital Metro’s allies should have fought the early election he forced in 2000 (making CM go to the polls with a rail plan they weren’t really ready to discuss – they hadn’t even figured out what streets it would run on downtown yet; they were clearly shooting for a timeframe of May 2001 or so until Krusee wrote the infamous bill).

Now, for the big finish:

What damage was done?

This isn’t a silly question. There are those who think that the Shoal Creek debacle didn’t do any harm, since we started out wth parked cars in bike lanes and are ending up with parked cars in marked shoulders.

Damage in the Shoal Creek case: Precedent was set that car-free bike lanes can be vetoed by neighborhoods. The previous bike coordinator had already made it city policy not to build new (or support existing) bike lanes on residential streets; and it was commonly understood BEFORE this debacle that any city changes to collectors and arterials would, while soliciting neighborhood INPUT, NOT be subject to an implicit VETO. IE, collectors and especially arterials serve the needs of far more than the immediate residents.

Now, not so much. Notice that Michael correctly points out that the media now thinks the SCB process was a model of new consensus-based charette-including everybody-holding-hands everybody-won neighborhoods-centric bike-friendly delicious-candy-flavored planning that resulted in sunshine and butterflies for all.

In addition, at the city level, because so many smart people in the bicycle community were part of this process (snookered by it, you might say), the city thinks that the end-result was what the cyclists and the neighbors wanted. Basically, the cycling community (except yours truly) is now implicitly linked to this plan, in the minds of the people who matter.

In short: their names are on this piece of garbage.

As for commuter rail – the same lesson holds. The groups who lobbied so hard to work WITH Capital Metro before the final ballot proposal was set were fighting very hard for some minor improvements to the ASG plan, but made it clear from the beginning that they’d support it anyways. Now, these center-city groups are linked to this plan irrevocably – if I’m right, and it doesn’t attract riders, then they’ll have been on the record as supporting a plan which will have been found to be a stupid failure. Do you think that’ll affect their future credibility?

Don’t sign on to something you can’t support. The end.

Don't Hurt Us Mr. Krusee, We'll Do Whatever You Want

The pro-commuter-rail covering fire gets closer

I just had to write a response to a note written by former light-rail advocate Lyndon Henry in the Yahoo Group “LightRail_Now” in which I was mentioned in a patronizing and dismissing fashion. I’ve stored it here as well to guard against the possibility that the posting will not make it through the moderation process.

Here it is:

— In, Nawdry wrote:
> One LRT proponent (a bicycle activist) has emerged as an opponent of the
> regional rail proposal.
Lyndon, I’m disappointed that you would do this.
He’s referring to me, folks. What Lyndon left out is that I’m a member of the Urban Transportation Commission in Austin; and a frequent user of transit. Our commission, by the way, was so underwhelmed with this proposal by Capital Metro that we unanimously voted to ask the City Council’s members to force them to hold a referendum at the same time on alternative and additive plan elements (two or three additional or improved rail services of various types).
My opposition to this plan is not based on Neanderthal-thinking like that put forward by the Jim Skaggs’ of the world (rail transit bad; highwas good) but rather based on the fact that no urban area in this country has succeeded with a starter rail line which required nearly every passenger to transfer to shuttle buses at the work end of the journey. In other words, I WANT rail, but I want rail that people will actually ride (which the 2000 LRT proposal would have been) so that public perception of the system will be positive (see Dallas, Portland) rather than negative (see South Florida, Buffalo).
And the lack of other opposition to this plan is based firmly in the theory (obviously one with which I disagree) that once we pass this very very bad starter line, that we can go back and “fix it” later but that if it doesn’t pass, that we’re out of attempts (obviously untrue since the 2000 loss didn’t prevent a different plan being floated this year). I’ve expounded on many of the reasons why that’s fundamentally untrue in my blog ( if anybody’s interested.
Lyndon, please don’t descend to the level of the Jim Skaggs’ of the world. I have a lot more in common with you than I do with them; and I’d like to continue to respect you more than I do them.
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission

Austin Don't Hurt Us Mr. Krusee, We'll Do Whatever You Want Transit in Austin

First pro-rail lie of the campaign

I had hoped the pro-rail guys wouldn’t sink to the depths of the ROAD wingnuts from the ’00 election, but am rapidly being disabused of that notion.

From the news page of New Ways To Connect, the pro-commuter-rail PAC:

Q. What does the Urban Commuter Rail Line do for the Central City?
Transit supports pedestrian-friendly communities. Eight of the nine stops are in the City of Austin ; five of these are in the Central City. It provides the backbone of a system that includes nine stations where commuters can connect to fast shuttle service to get to popular destinations around Austin . In addition, Capital Metro’s All System’s Go proposal calls for more bus and express bus routes, as well as the introduction of 133 miles of new rapid bus technology to help get people to popular destinations quickly. There are advantages for the entire community.


NONE of the stops are near high-density residential areas commonly referred to as the central city (NO, AIRPORT BOULEVARD IS NOT CENTER-CITY AUSTIN). NONE of the stops are in pedestrian-oriented areas. NONE of the stops are in areas which have indicated through neighborhood planning that they are willing to accept additional infill (in fact, the stations in what passes for dense areas in this plan are in neighborhoods which are vigorously fighting infill). NONE of the stops are within walking distance of the biggest pockets of transit-oriented development in this city both present and future (Mueller, West Campus, Triangle, Hyde Park, 38th corridor).

Rapid Bus is nothing more than modest improvements to existing Limited service on the true urban corridor (Guadalupe/Congress). It’s not what ANYBODY asked for. Shuttles aren’t “quick”; they’re stuck in traffic just like existing buses. And requiring people to transfer in order to get anywhere useful (which this system does) does not attract people who can choose whether or not to drive.

This is almost, but not quite, as bad as the ’00 ads run by Skaggs and Company which misled voters into thinking that Capital Metro was still under a cloud with the Feds (by putting up old Statesman articles while not making it clear how old they were).

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Clarifying future of rail

A lot of the people who, like me, are disgusted with the pitiful attempt at a rail network being foisted on ys by Capital Metro have decided, tactically, that their best course of action is to hold their nose, vote yes, and then work to extend and improve the plan after the starter line is built. This basically sums up the positions of the two guys who presented on the panel with me last Wednesday at the Austin Neighborhoods’ Council meeting.

They believe that if this package is supported, that we can then go back and get real urban rail service down the real urban rail corridor – that being Lamar/Guadalupe. And of course we’ll get rail to Mueller (which is being touted as a transit-oriented development). And probably to Seaholm and the Capitol while we’re at it.

I’m going to demolish that idea right now, as if you couldn’t guess.

1. Capital Metro is no longer even pretending that light-rail will ever happen on that corridor. Early versions of the All Systems Go press included comments that Rapid Bus could be a “placeholder for future rail service”. This is no longer being said, not even off the record. I’ve mentioned before that there are practical obstacles to implementing light-rail in this corridor if commuter rail is built, even up the Lamar corridor to northeast Austin, and that’s nowhere near as good a line as the initial 2000 path would have been (and of course THAT path is absolutely precluded by commuter rail).

2. Building the entire ASG network does nothing for urban Austin that the starter line doesn’t already do (that being nearly nothing). The additional commuter line down Mopac won’t have any stations near any walkable residential areas – in fact, it’s even worse than the starter line in that regard.

3. Other proposed improvements such as downtown streetcars will only make a minor dent in the transfer problem. Keep in mind that streetcars don’t get their own lane – so if a lane is full of cars, the streetcar is going to be going just as slowly as your shuttle bus. Some naive pro-transit people think they can solve the “three attractors” problem with streetcar as well as ’00 light rail would have – but you’re still stuck with a 3 (or even 4, if you need to go to the Capitol or UT) seat ride; and it’s still stuck in traffic.

4. None of the proposed expansions or improvements bring rail to any of the high-density residential areas in town. Not to Mueller. Not to West Campus. Not to South Congress. Not to Hyde Park.

Folks, I can’t make this any clearer: if you vote for this plan, you are voting AGAINST rail for Hyde Park, for North University, for West Campus, for South Congress. You are voting AGAINST rail to the University of Texas, to the State Capitol, and to the center of downtown.

What you’re voting FOR is rail from Leander to the Convention Center. If that seems like a good idea to you in isolation, go for it. But don’t hang your hat on winks and nods; the fact is that even if Capital Metro WANTED to help you, they’re not going to be able to do it.

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Two more comments

from David Nunez’ site:

(in response to the typical “we have to pass this now, it’s our only hope for light rail in the future” argument):

Commuter rail PRECLUDES light rail.

It’s a nice fantasy that if we get commuter rail passed, we can go back and get light rail down Lamar/Guadalupe. The problem is that even CM isn’t hinting at that anymore because they know it’s not practical.

  1. You couldn’t put LRT on its original ’00 alignment (up Guadalupe/Lamar to Airport and then following existing track to the northwest) because commuter rail is ALREADY THERE.
  2. You couldn’t CROSS these tracks without turning Lamar/Airport into a nightmare. Thus, you aren’t going to be able to run light rail further up Lamar.
  3. If you run LRT from JUST Lamar/Airport to the downtown area, you’re losing 1/2 of the residential component of the ’00 line (FOLKS, LISTEN TO ME: MOST CAR DRIVERS WILL _NOT_ ACCEPT A TRANSIT TRIP IF IT INVOLVES TRANSFERS – NOT EVEN TO OTHER RAIL LINES). You also lose the connection between the two UT campuses which would have provided an automatic hundreds-of-passengers-per-day.

I can’t be any more clear here: Vote on ASG. Don’t vote on phantom light-rail which Capital Metro won’t even hint at anymore – they originally called Rapid Bus a “placeholder” for rail, but they have since removed this language.

ALL you will get with this vote is the starter line – running from Leander to the Convention Center. NO STREETCARS. NO RAIL DOWN MOPAC. This is IT.

(now, in response to a section which talked about Dallas’ combination of commuter rail from Fort Worth, DART light rail, and a heritage streetcar):

Your example, Dallas:

  1. They built DART _FIRST_. It ran from suburbs into downtown and stopped within walking distance of most riders’ final destinations.
  2. They had a streetcar running for other purposes; and only AFTER building DART did anybody use the streetcar for anything other than tourism; even then it’s an extension to a part of town which isn’t traditionally office-oriented.
  3. Commuter rail was added AFTER the light-rail urban spine.

Compare and contrast to Austin.

We’re contemplating building the commuter line first, and requiring that people get on shuttle buses to get to their offices. Not to go to bars, or football games, as with the Dallas lines.
Dallas commuters get on light-rail to go to work; very few daily workers use commuter rail there. The same will be true here – people who can drive will be willing to hop on a shuttle bus if it’s to a UT game or to 6th St., but if you have to do that as part of your DAILY WORK COMMUTE, it’s a deal-killer.

This is not conjecture, folks. This is what happened in South Florida with a system that couldn’t be any more identical to Capital Metro’s proposal.

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ANC meeting notes

outline from Austin Neighborhoods Council panel, which included myself (in opposition), Sam Archer from Cap Metro, David Foster and Jim Walker on the pro-plan side, and ROAD guy Jim Skaggs also in opposition (but presenting the Neanderthal anti-rail-yes-even-light-rail opposition):

  1. Didn’t get to use half-bridge analogy. Time was my enemy.
  2. Pro-transit people continue to swallow the “if we don’t pass this we’ll never get another chance” kool-aid – mention 2000 failed and we’re here in ’04, so obviously a different rail plan could be put up in ’06 or ’08
  3. Despite that, preparing for loss and documenting historical record (ala Shoal Creek) to try to slightly reduce rail’s forthcoming dark ages in Austin
  4. Feeling very very dirty at sharing a podium with Jim Skaggs and getting occasional nods from Gerald Daugherty, whose bald-faced lies contributed to light rail’s 00 defeat. Their ability to good-ole-boy it up with the pro-transit guys reminds me of why I’ll never succeed at a higher-level in politics.

More to come when I eat lunch at desk.

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A combination of small pieces from comments on another site

David Nunez started talking about transit, and I wrote a few comments there which might have general utility. Here they are, with some additional context provided where necessary.

Doesn’t have to be complicated.

I can sum up the entire thing in one sentence:
If your starter line for a rail network is really bad, you will never get a chance to build your full network, so you’d better make sure your starter line is attractive to a lot of people.
All of the rest of the talk is just explaining WHY this system doesn’t qualify (and the 2000 light rail line DID). (For instance, transfers to shuttle buses to get to downtown, UT, capitol = unattractive).

Transfers and whatnot

Experience in other cities has shown that requiring a bus transfer at the end of a rail trip drastically reduces the number of “choice” commuters who will take the transit trip. This is something that’s well-enough known in transit circles that arguing with it is akin to asking a geographer to prove that the Earth isn’t flat. (In other words, it’s common-enough knowledge that people don’t even bother to prove it anymore).

The current express buses are, to me, a bit BETTER than the ASG plan. Yes, they’re stuck in traffic on both Mopac AND the city streets; but they allow two-seat travel (car, then bus). The ASG plan is a three-seat trip (car, then train, then bus) *AND* the last portion is stuck in traffic.
It’s important to emphasize again that your transit “spine” (i.e. the highest-capacity route) must deliver a bunch of passengers to within walking distance of their destination to be successful. Once you have a few of these, you can start talking transfers, but even then, the transfers to shuttle-bus will always do much worse than transfers to light-rail (for instance, Dallas’ commuter rail line from Fort Worth ties into the DART light-rail system. Since DART’s been on the ground for a long time now attracting its own choice commuters, people are more willing to transfer to it than they would have been to shuttle-buses or even a brand-new rail line).

The “incented somehow” talk is basically the point of using rail – get around the traffic rather than being stuck in it in a bus. That’s why the 2000 light-rail plan was such a good starter line (and note: the citizens of Austin passed it; which is something that almost never happens the first time in a rail election) – it used existing separate rail ROW up to Lamar/Airport; then travelled in-street for the last 4 miles or so in order to drop people off where they actually want to go.
In this political climate, the only “incentive” you can promise with transit is reliability/speed – and the ASG plan craps all over this with the shuttle transfer.

(David asks for clarification on three points – #1 being that I support building the light-rail spine first and then commuter rail to the ‘burbs; #2 being that Cap Metro is operating on a “build as much as we can afford and hope they will come” philosophy; and #3 being that my point is that if the first line is bad, that ends everything)

I’d say you’re right on the first and right on the third. On the first I’d also add that it’s incredibly stupid to provide rail to the people who hated the idea of rail in 2000 while providing buses to the people who loved the idea of rail in 2000. (This plan, even if it ever makes it to its completed state with all of the expansions and whatnot, delivers nothing more than slightly enhanced BUS SERVICE to the densest parts of town – you know, where in most cities you’d be delivering the RAIL service).

Capital Metro’s real reason for doing the second is political – and it’s spelled Mike Krusee. I think I have some backstory on this in my blog; let me know if you want a condensed version.
They also suffer from the typical disease here of overreliance on macroanalysis and underreliance on microanalysis. By this I mean that, like with air quality initiatives, they think you can “encourage” people to do something; but they never look at individual choices and the existing structures of incentives/taxes/whatever that lead to the behavior we observe today. Like how they do press releases touting the fact that Motorola or IBM are going to encourage carpooling – this doesn’t do anything in the real world since the individual’s incentive to carpool is still negligible.

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Anti-toll people are communists

I find it hilarious that so many suburban conservatives are up in arms over the toll plan. These are the same people who attack all sorts of supposed creeping socialism and proclaim that the market should solve all of these problems – and yet when it comes to a problem that actually affects them, all of the sudden they go weak on the orthodoxy. Of particular note are their vehement attacks on mass transit – which, unlike roads, requires a direct user payment at time of service (no, folks, gas taxes don’t count – the analogue here is tolls).

The fact is that “free” roads (no, folks, gas taxes don’t pay anywhere near the full bills) share more with communism than with capitalism. The trick here is to remember how the two systems handle “scarcity” (demand exceeding supply).

If the demand for a good, let’s say, TVs, exceeds its supply, the “solution” in the Soviet Union was a combination of rationing and simple long lines. People in Soviet Russia might have had to pay very little for TVs, but they were quite often unavailable and when they were available, they had to wait a long time to get them. In other words, the way that supply and demand are balanced in a command economy like the one the Soviets had is by making people stand in very long lines.

In a capitalist economy, however, if the demand for a good outstrips its supply, the market solves this problem by raising the price of the good until supply matches demand (usually by demand dropping; sometimes by supply increasing as additional production becomes more profitable). The trick here is that the capitalist solution (higher prices) is unquestionably more efficient in the long-run since it allows people to make rational decisions based on cost. (Maybe they buy a cheaper kind of TV; maybe they use their old TVs longer; whatever).

Note that both of these equations hold even if 1/4 of the cost of producing TVs is borne by the government through taxes, even when they’re specific taxes on people who watch TV. This means that the double-taxation argument is not welcome here, in other words.

Now, apply this to road space, which is a “good” provided in this area for which demand drastically exceeds supply at certain times of day.

In Communist Texas, everybody pays for highways in one way or another. Some of the funding comes from the gas tax (which you pay even if you’re driving on a big city street like Braker Lane which doesn’t get any money from this tax – I’ll start indignantly calling this Triple Taxation someday). Some more funding comes from property and sales taxes (much more than people think). None of it comes from tolls.

How is the demand-supply imbalance handled in Communist Texas? By long lines (congestion).

How is it handled with the new toll plan? By requiring people to pay if they want to use facilities for which demand exceeds supply. While there are no initial plans to change the amount of the toll by the time of day, that could be done fairly easily (it’s already done on a couple of HOT facilities in other parts of the country). This also means that there’s at least a small economic benefit to carpooling (finally).

What this also means is that instead of letting people be stuck in line on existing “free” highways until we gather the hundreds of billions of dollars necessary to double and triple-deck everything so we can temporarily handle the demand for free roadway space, it would be a lot more efficient (again, from the capitalist perspective) to price even existing roadway space. And don’t cry double-taxation to me as I fail to get a dime back on my property or sales taxes being used for roadway and highway construction and maintenance on the days I ride my bike or walk.

So it ought to be very clear by now that if you support the current “free” highway regime over the far more capitalist “toll” highway plan, you have more in common with Communists than you do with free-marketers. Cognitive dissonance is alive and well in modern suburbia.

Austin Don't Hurt Us Mr. Krusee, We'll Do Whatever You Want Transit in Austin When Neighborhoods Go Bad

Response to naive person

A well-meaning but critically naive person wrote in response to a post on one of the many local discussion groups that the attacks on Capital Metro were not fair. I’ve posted my response there and here:

In, (Cap Metro defender) wrote:
I think it’s great that there is so much discussion going on around
the commuter rail proposal. but the information included in Tom’s
message is not accurate […]

In fact, most of Tom’s information was fairly accurate.

Ridership it will serve: estimated 17,000 by 2025 based on the
federally required and created ridership model that does not account
for reverse commute,

This will only happen if the system is drastically expanded, which it
cannot be without an additional election. Our leadership have declared
“let’s ride and then decide” – so if the initial line doesn’t do well,
there will be no expansions, because the voters have been instructed
to watch the performance of the first route (with only rush-hour
one-way trips ending in shuttle-bus distributors).

Length of time for the trip: 55 minutes (it takes over an hour in
the car during peak time according to a friend that makes the samem
commute daily during peak commute time)

This does not include the shuttle-bus transfer, which will be highly
unreliable (some days it might be fast; others quite slow). It also
does not include drive-time to the park-and-ride and waiting time at
the station.

Will people ride it if it takes this long? the ridership model takes
into consideration length of trip, as well as many other factors

Capital Metro has not modeled ridership on this route in the way that
most people would consider appropriate – that being a direct
comparison to an individual’s car trip.

Number of riders to break even: fact of life – all transportation
modes are subsidized, including roads, buses and rail
Will fares cover the operating costs? see above

One needs to ask this question, and not accept the answer glibly given
above. Note: I’m a strong supporter of light rail (i.e. a starter
system which delivers passengers where they actually want to go
instead of to a shuttle-bus), so the typical response won’t work
against me.
The subsidy per rider on Tri-Rail’s South Florida commuter line and
Seattle’s commuter railroad is huge compared to that on recent
successful light rail systems. Guess which one this ASG plan is more like?

Also, there are 9 stations, 8 of which are IN THE CITY OF AUSTIN.

This is true but extremely misleading. There are no stations in the
urban core of Austin; and most of the stations within the city limits
will function as drop-off only (i.e. there aren’t a lot of people
within walking distance of the station, and they won’t have big
parking lots for drive-in commuters).
Realistically, the major stations where people will get on in the
morning are at the big northwestern park-and-rides. Since this ride
doesn’t go near any dense residential areas such as West Campus or
Hyde Park, virtually nobody will be walking to the station – and
nobody who can choose to drive will accept taking a bus to the rail
station just to ride the rail a couple of miles back around to
downtown only to get on ANOTHER bus to get to where they’re going.
And remember that reverse commutes aren’t going to be an option
without further expansion of the system (i.e. the initial line only
runs inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening).
This line is nearly useless for Austin, especially for the urban core.

And yes, I hope that people from Cedar Park and Williamson county
ride it in droves, less people on 183 and MoPac (no matter who they
are) is good in my book.

This is a good thing if those people are willing to get back into
Capital Metro and pay the sales tax. If they’re not, I don’t think
it’s appropriate to subsidize their transit at the expense of the city
of Austin, which has always been a strong supporter of transit both
economically and at the ballot-box.

Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission

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The Wrong Track

The former and current mayors, along with notable light-rail-killer Mike Krusee, were filmed yesterday by anybody and everybody for the launch of their pro-commuter-rail PAC “The Right Track”. KXAN actually did a bit of digging and came up with one opponent of commuter rail other than the knuckle-dragging ROAD Neanderthals.

Let’s go to the video tape