Two down

Adam Rice, another of Austin’s best bloggers and a fellow center-city cyclist, has kindly linked to this blog with an endorsement.

So I’ve won two votes so far – only about 20,000 to go! Well, also, since my cousin, wife, and father-in-law said they liked my presentation at the LBJ school last week, I probably have their votes too. My mom would probably also have liked my presentation, so there you go.
Adam also came up with a great title – All Systems Whoa. If I wasn’t running my quixotic campaign on a budget of exactly zero, I’d go buy the domain name allsystemswhoa.org to match the monorail guys at allsystemsno.org (not an endorsement by me – remember I support light rail, which runs in the street and would also be hated by these guys).

How you’ll use commuter rail

Or won’t, if like most people you don’t like shuttle buses.

At the last panel at which I spoke (LBJ school), Scott Polikov claimed that the commuter rail line DOES stop within walking distance of most of downtown. I’ve cut and pasted the image off the flier for showing the downtown station for commuter rail. Notice the labels on the shuttle buses on the right. From front: CAPITOL, DOWNTOWN, UT

This also marks the first post to this blog where I’ve included a picture. Man, I’m slipping.

Chronicle mention

Today’s Chronicle has a piece by Mike Clark-Madison which to its credit remembers that there are people (well, A person anyways) willingly to publically oppose the ASG plan on the grounds that it’s a crappy rail system, rather than the Neanderthal view pushed by Skaggs & Company that we need to build more freeways instead.

Unfortunately, the tone of the article basically matches the endorsement at the front, that being that you Must Vote Yes Or Capital Metro Will Die.

This ties into my yet-as-unwritten piece which explains why this very real fear should not make you vote Yes this time around – because the fear that an implemented starter line which doesn’t pull in any new transit customers will be even worse for the long-term future of rail transit in this city.

I’ve not had any trouble making this case in public – with the exception of Scott Polikov, I think the pro-ASG guys treat it with respect and not with the disdain showed in the endorsement section today. Unfortunately, that’s not making enough headway to win the day. The approach currently proposed by the pro-ASG-but-we-know-it-sucks crowd is to pass it and then work to fix it. That falls short in two ways:

  1. As I keep saying, this commuter rail line precludes light rail in the urban Lamar/Guadalupe corridor so the only “fix” you could do would be streetcars, which aren’t enough of a fix to make any difference
  2. Since this plan has been sold as an isolated step, after which all expansions involving rails must come up for additional votes, the poor performance of the initial line (unless I’m wrong and suburbanites fall in love with shuttle buses) will make it impossible to even get #1 off the ground.

The end.

What do we do about this?

Two people so far have commented on the “why Mike Krusee and I aren’t going to be hoisting beers together” screed.

Addressing both of them:

Clockwork Orange is right. Most of the people who should be fighting Mike Krusee haven’t yet realized that he HASN’T turned into their friend, and as a result, he’s winning. I’m a friggin’ flea compared to this guy and the people he’s snowed, and yet I’m the most prestigious pro-rail-transit but anti-commuter-rail guy that people are able to find to speak at these panels. THIS DOES NOT BODE WELL! I’m no heavyweight, folks, I’m just the heaviest one who was willing to fight.

Jonathan is right too. What do we do? My tack is to keep fighting so that the historical record is NOT “everybody liked this and we built it and it failed so obviously rail doesn’t work”. At a MINIMUM, I need to replicate the Shoal Creek experience and have it be “at least Mike Dahmus wasn’t snowed by Mike Krusee; he pointed out how STUPID this plan was, and he was right”. This might shave a couple of years off the Dark Ages For Rail that South Florida went through because of the Tri-Rail debacle.
MORE PEOPLE SAYING THIS PLAN IS DUMB FROM A PRO-RAIL PERSPECTIVE WOULD HELP DRAMATICALLY! Right now, it’s way too easy for the Capital Metro guys to say “he’s the only one” or “he’s a crackpot” or “he’s on crack and pot”. And the media, with the exception of KXAN, has bought into the even worse theory that only Jim Skaggs’ band of anti-transit fund-raiders opposes this plan. Even the Austin Chronicle hasn’t done well here, which is truly disappointing.

I’m basically spending all of the forty-eight cents of political capital I have on this – since my councilmember wouldn’t return my emails after the very FIRST time I even started talking about this plan, I’m 99% sure that I’m not going to be reappointed in January. It would be helpful if people with more than my slightly-more-than-squat amount of power would speak up, but that’s not the world we’re living in. It would also be helpful if regular citizens would start to ask informed questions of the media here – like “how exactly is an individual going to get from point A to point B under this plan” and then when “high-frequency circulators” are mentioned, they’ll at least have had to say it.

At least I know that at the end of this process, I’ll have one more night a month free to do what I like!

The Mike Krusee Story

Adam asked in comments for some background on Mike Krusee. Here it is:

In 2000, Capital Metro was preparing for a push for light-rail on a corridor which, on objective measures, was the best suited for an urban rail starter line in this city. It would have hit all three major attractors, ran through the densest residential neighborhoods, and hit the big suburban park-and-rides. The FTA loved this line. It would have given transit service to Leander as well as urban Austin, and it would have been competitive enough with the car to be a successful starter line for a future rail network, based on similar experience in cities like Dallas, Denver, Portland, and Salt Lake City.

Mike Krusee did not like this.

Capital Metro was, in my opinion based on our meetings with them at the time, preparing for an election in 2001, possibly in May.

Mike Krusee did not like this.

Virtually none of Capital Metro’s constituents are in Mike Krusee’s district.

This did not stop Mike Krusee.

Mike Krusee forced an election in November, 2000 on light rail. This was:

  • Too early – Capital Metro hadn’t finished figuring out what roads it would run on, or how much support there would be for various parts of the route (for instance, in retrospect, running on South Congress was a non-starter and should have been dropped, but there wasn’t time to figure this out well enough beforehand; others complained that it was impossible to evaluate the proposal since CM still had five or six proposed routes through downtown).
  • Bad timing – Dubya was running for President, which pulled in a disproportionate number of suburban voters disinclined to give transit a chance.

That election failed, by the closest margin ever seen in a rail ballot. In fact, it passed inside Austin, and passed overwhelmingly in central Austin. The cities now viewed as light-rail success stories generally had to run multiple votes after their first vote failed by a much larger margin than did Austin’s. This should have demonstrated a mandate in favor of rail, within the city limits of Austin.

This wasn’t enough for Mike Krusee.

He then wrote a bill which was passed by the state Legislature which required that Capital Metro only hold rail elections in November of even-numbered years (basically stacking the deck against transit – common local issue elections typically happen in May and would draw out people more interested in local issues than national ones; Krusee forced the reverse).

Again keep in mind that most of Mike Krusee’s constituents do not pay taxes to Capital Metro.

This restriction was not placed on transit systems in general (i.e. Dallas’ DART system, Houston’s METRO system, or proposed VIA rail system in San Antonion). It was placed only on Capital Metro.
The people of Austin demonstrated they wanted rail, and Mike Krusee made sure they wouldn’t get it.

Now, fast forward to 2004. The guiding force behind Capital Metro’s switch to commuter rail is….. Mike Krusee. Capital Metro is understandably scared to death of Mike Krusee, since he holds some powerful levers at the State. Mike Krusee wants commuter rail instead of urban rail, and that’s what Capital Metro is giving him.
Why does Mike Krusee support this plan? Take a look at the long-range plan. Where does the second commuter rail line go?

Round Rock and Georgetown.

Where do Mike Krusee’s constituents live?

Round Rock and Georgetown.

Who doesn’t pay Capital Metro taxes?

Round Rock and Georgetown.

Who DOES pay 93% of Capital Metro taxes?

Those Dirty Hippies In Urban Austin.

Who gets NO RAIL under the All Systems Go plan? Not with the starter line, not with the full system, (and definitely NOT with wink-wink we-don’t-mention-it-but-we’re-gonna-give-it-to-you light rail, since if you’ve been reading my blog, you know that it’s precluded by the construction of this commuter rail system)?

Those Dirty Hippies In Urban Austin.

Mike Krusee is not a friend of Austin. He’s not a friend of Capital Metro. He’s not a friend of rail transit. He’s getting transit service for his constituents (who don’t pay) at the expense of the people of Austin who have been consistently demanding urban rail service for decades. Yes, at the expense of the same people who consisently subsidize suburban sprawl through property taxes, sales taxes, and gas taxes. People in Austin now get to pay for BOTH the roads AND the transit of Round Rock, while they get nothing more than a glorified express bus for the actual sensible rail corridor in Austin.

This is why I don’t like Mike Krusee.

Any questions?

Today’s panel

Some observations from today’s panel at the LBJ school:

I was the only one talking about the actual alignment of the route, the location of the stations, and unimportant stuff like that, for obvious reasons.

I did not enjoy my exchanges with Scott Polikov(from the pro-commuter rail contingent, a former Capital Metro board member). Jim Skaggs was his usual self, and Jim Walker was about the same as he was at the Austin Neighborhoods Council panel a few weeks ago.

David Foster (with whom I shared a panel last week at the UT planning school as well as the first panel at the Austin Neighborhoods Council) understands that I want rail and just have some experience which leads me to believe that we should be even more scared of a successful election + unsuccessful ridership than we should of an unsuccessful election (he disagrees, but he at least keeps it on that level). He and Jim Walker both admit that this plan is about as far from ideal as you can get while still calling it “rail”; they disagree with me about the idea that it precludes light-rail down the original corridor, but they do it honestly; David a little more than Jim. If I could summarize their position as charitably as possible, it would be “they know we need rail, and they think that this is the only way to get it”. I think David would honestly summarize my position, and I hope Jim would as well.

Scott, not so much.

One of Scott’s points was that it was unfair to compare this starter line to Tri-Rail as I’ve done, because this line “enters downtown” and is only “4 blocks from Congress Avenue”. He scored a point on me here since this ended up as a “gotcha” comeback to my quote that Tri-Rail’s first route was a stupid idea because “Unlike most commuter rail systems, it doesn’t serve even one downtown area.”

This ended up being my biggest missed opportunity today. I failed to point out that in their own literature the pro-RAIL PAC talks about shuttle buses downtown, and not only that, has a picture of a shuttle bus with the sign “DOWNTOWN” on it, at the supposed downtown rail station. If they expect that downtown workers will think that a station at the Convention Center is close enough to walk to their office, why do they need a shuttle-bus at all? Why talk up the “quick and easy transfer”?

Take a look at their literature – the picture on the front cover is a rendition of the Convention Center stop (“downtown”), illustrating the “quick and easy transfers” to shuttle buses. Note the second bus back (on the right) is labelled DOWNTOWN.

This is still burnin’ my biscuits even tonight. I’m sure David thinks I’m crazy for being more scared of B than A when everybody else is more scared of A than B, but he presents his position honestly without misrepresentation. Scott, not so much.

Quickie

While replying to somebody who was nice enough to give feedback from the ANC meeting I spoke at a couple of weeks ago, I ended up with this chestnut:

“Trying to fix this plan with streetcars is like trying to fix a gaping chest wound with a band-aid”.

Meaning: It’s still going to be a 3-seat ride (or even a 4-seat ride if you don’t take an extremely charitable interpretation of the route proposal); the last part of it will still be stuck in traffic; and the dense residential neighborhoods of West Campus and Hyde Park still won’t have any service of any kind whatsoever beyond the ludicrously misnamed Rapid Bus.

Shine On, You Crazy Diamonds.

Readers encouraged to comment

Is anybody actually reading this thing? I’ve been spending a lot of time writing here, nd it would be nice to know that it’s not been a wasted effort. Certainly today’s Statesman fluff-piece was disappointing, since I’ve fallen back off the radar with Ben Wear.

Comments and suggestions encouraged, if for nothing else than to establish that this hasn’t been a waste of time.

More on our Commuter Rail Model, Tri-Rail

http://www.browardpalmbeach.com/2004-04-15/news/next-stop-nowhere/

Again, this system is about the closest analogue out there to what Mike Krusee’s puppets at Capital Metro are proposing this time around. It serves primarily suburban areas; doesn’t reach any downtowns or other activity centers; has high-frequency “circulators” at every station; etc.

One key difference, though: Tri-Rail’s 15-year experiment with the horrible route doesn’t preclude them, at least technically, from going to a much better route (down the FEC railroad which DOES run through the major actviity centers of the region). In Austin’s case, if commuter rail is built, you can’t technically OR politically build light-rail on the 2000 corridor, and I don’t think you can even do it on the modified “keep going north on Lamar” corridor proposed briefly in 2003. In other words, we’re worse off – if we’re making a mistake here, we not only waste a decade or more and a hundred million bucks, we ALSO prevent ourselves from building the rail right.

Excerpts:

A week’s worth of trips on the Tri-Rail, South Florida’s poky, 15-year-old commuter railway, recently confirmed the conventional rat-racing wisdom: The train serves not the region’s most populated areas but the fringes. It doesn’t offer riders destinations they truly need or desire, nor convenient times to get there. It’s underutilized, even during rush hour. It’s not located where people like Nick — an unemployed construction worker who says he’s “between cars” — are most likely to use it.

[…]

Since its start, Tri-Rail has operated on the CSX tracks, west of I-95. After about $1 billion of expenditures on its current line, transportation officials are considering shifting their main focus to the more desirable Florida East Coast Railway line, which links the region’s coastal city centers. The FEC, long resistant to the idea, now says it’s willing, maybe. The state has applied for $5 million in federal funds to analyze options along the FEC corridor where, critics say, Tri-Rail should have been located all along.

“Was this the best investment?” asks Steve Polzin, director of public transit research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “You wonder what could have been accomplished if they had not rushed into it. If, for example, they’d waited a few years and bought the FEC.” Tri-Rail began operating in January 1989 to alleviate traffic during construction on I-95. As the highway project continued unabated, though, the commuter train became a permanent fixture. But Tri-Rail officials never took their eyes off the far-preferable downtown route — even now, in the midst of its largest overhaul ever, including the construction of a second track along the 72-mile line and a new bridge over the New River, both of which are under way to the tune of $340 million.

Is a second track to nowhere really the answer? “It’ll be nice to have,” Polzin concedes. “There’s value in having a corridor in good condition with double-track capacity. But is it worth that much money, especially if something happens with the rail farther to the east? When you think of the expenditure, you could argue that a marginal demand necessitated it.”

Joseph Giulietti, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, acknowledges that the new plan may render the current Tri-Rail obsolete. “But when you’ve invested a little over a billion dollars to make this one functional — which it is,” he says, “you have to look at how to support that function.”

[…]

Tri-Rail runs through a metropolitan strip that’s now home to 5.2 million people. In February, it carried just 10,151 passengers a day (the highest average since April 1994). Unlike most commuter rail systems, it doesn’t serve even one downtown area. “It’s unique nationally in the sense that it doesn’t penetrate a downtown,” Polzin notes. “It’s an anomaly. You scratch your head and ask, ‘Could they have done more with it?'”

[…]

But Polzin isn’t quite ready to call Tri-Rail a failure. “It’s certainly not a raving success,” he says, “but the community seems comfortable with it. At least you feel good that you tried. But you have to ask how much additional investment, if any, makes sense. Perhaps there will be a greater appreciation for commuter rail in the future, but it’s not a slam-dunk by any stretch of the imagination.”

Tri-Rail wants to boost ridership to 68,000 a day by 2015, which would reduce the cost per rider from a current $8.81 to $5.06. Back in 1999, the agency’s then-director, Linda Bohlinger, gave the commuter system five years to accumulate 20,000 riders a day, opining that if that goal weren’t reached, “either we don’t know what we’re doing or the public doesn’t really need it.”

Again, this is what Mike Krusee wants for Austin: a rail line which requires that you transfer to shuttle buses if you want to get anywhere, and that doesn’t go anywhere near the densest residential parts of the city. Does this sound like a good idea to anyone?