Category Archives: Austin

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?

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 []

Rapid Bus has degraded bus service overall

camden-lamar-heights

This VMU on Lamar at North Loop (google maps link; as of 9/5/2014 the streetview picture is from construction) is open now. I like it. It has a bus stop right in front of it! Streetscape is good. There’s actually a new Taco Cabana across North Loop from it, unfortunately with a drive-thru, where the pretty image to the right has a grassy field1. The property to the south of the Taco Cabana appears ripe for redevelopment soon as another VMU; I’d be surprised not to see it go that way within a couple of years.

052512_wheatsville_1479950a

Let’s imagine the resident of one of these new apartments wants to take the bus to Wheatsville Co-Op, an urban grocer located at about 31st and Guadalupe. Lots of people used to ride the bus to Wheatsville last I checked.

For background, the VMU ordinance was enacted as a quid-pro-quo for the McMansion ordinance – the logic was that we would build tall apartments (for Austin, anyways) over walkable retail on corridors where transit frequencies and usefulness was high. Lamar/Guadalupe definitely fit that bill, at least originally.

Before the implementation of “Rapid Bus”, the #1 ran about every 13 minutes during peak periods on this route. Google maps says that the bus portion of this trip takes 8 minutes on the #1. Note that Google doesn’t even consider the 801 a viable option for this trip, unlike Capital Metro themselves. We’ll get to that in a minute.

We can use the same “show up and go” calculations from this post to come up with this graph. Short summary: If transit service is to be truly useful as a replacement for the car, it needs to be frequent enough that you don’t bother to check a schedule; you just show up at the stop and a bus comes pretty soon (and by the way this was one of the big marketing points for the #801; so this isn’t just a condition I’m placing on them to be mean). Note that the walking time on either end for the #1 trip is essentially zero – there are bus stops for the #1 (but not the #801) directly in front of the VMU building and the grocer.

Originally, when frequency was every 13 minutes, a trip to the grocery store would involve a 0 minute walk, an average 6.5 minute wait (half of frequency), and a 8 minute trip on the bus, for an expected trip time of 14.5 minutes. Not bad.

However, in the world we live in now, Capital Metro has cut half of the #1s and imposed instead the #801 in place of the #101, stealing the local frequency for the express. How does that service work for our apartment resident?

Same calculations as above – we end up with an expected wait of 13 minutes (it runs every 26 minutes during peak)2. Total trip time is now 21 minutes, if you can get a seat on this bus, which has been a problem ever since the 801 change happened.

But surely the 801 made up for this drop in service, right?

Again, Google won’t even give this as a trip; but Capital Metro’s trip planner does.

20140905capmetrotripplanner1

Huh. Cap Metro expects the user of this ‘service’ to walk about a half mile north to the “Brentwood Station”, wait (12 minute frequencies during peak), ride the bus to the “Hyde Park Station” (7 minutes), then walk about a half mile south to Wheatsville. Hey Google, how long will those walks take? Google says 8 minutes each, roughly.

So let’s graph those new trips, shall we?

20140905stackchart

The results show that, and all of this is compared to the conditions before the #801 started (“old #1″ in the graph), a resident of this apartment building can now either pay the same amount of money for a much less frequent service (#1) that will now take about 50% longer to get where they want to go, or they can pay double the price for a reasonably frequent service (#801) that will take more than twice as long to go where they want to go. People boarding a bus at this stop and travelling to Wheatsville have seen a significant degradation in quality of bus service.

What’s the conclusion? Well, even if you are foolish enough to think a 26 minute frequency local service still qualifies as “show up and go”, the residents of this VMU and many others in the area are unquestionably much worse off after the implementation of MetroRapid. And what’s worse – the developments resulting from the VMU ordinance were sold to surrounding neighborhoods as less of an impact on their daily lives because we all assumed many of its residents would ride the bus.

Still true? Doubt it.

More to come.

  1. Chris Bradford bait []
  2. most people would not consider this “frequent” and thus probably wouldn’t even consider the ‘show up and go’ approach, but let’s keep going []

Update on FTA and Lamar

A comment by Roger Cauvin, originally on facebook and then made to this post about Lamar/Guadalupe and the FTA which deserves promotion, immediately following:

In the debate around the proposed urban #rail plan in #Austin, one of many areas where I see unfortunate speculation pertains to Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funding. Some advocates of the current plan contend that the already-approved FTA funding of #MetroRapid on the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor precludes such funding for #rail on the same corridor.

A Capital Metro memo (see attached image of memo obtained through an open records request by the Central Austin Community Development Corporation) attempts to summarize its correspondence with the FTA on the issue. Unfortunately, people have different interpretations of the memo and perhaps no knowledge of the actual contents of the correspondence.

Yet this memo was used as a sort of “trump card” to put to rest further consideration of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor for the initial rail investment.

Fast forward to August 25, when I attended a press conference covering the #MetroRapid 803 launch. Bob Patrick, the regional administrator for our region, as well as Gail Lyssy, the deputy regional administrator, attended the event.

It occurred to me that, if so much speculation is swirling around the issue of FTA funding, why not just ask these FTA administrators directly, and in person? So I did. Would existing MetroRapid funding by the FTA preclude funding Austin’s first light #rail investment on the same corridor?

Bob’s response (paraphrasing): “As far as I know, one wouldn’t preclude the other, but I’d need to check with Washington.” But he then referred me to Gail Lyssy as someone who could give me a more definitive answer.

Gail’s verbatim reply, after I asked her the same question: “Absolutely not. We’d work it out.”

Now, I don’t think these informal exchanges, by themselves, put to rest speculation about FTA funding. But they do suggest the issue merits further exploration through direct contact with the FTA instead of continued speculation.

My speech from last night

I ripped up one of the copies I had and gave a short excoriation of the lack of meaningful public input, as this KUT story indicates. Here’s the outline of the speech I was going to give (4 people had donated me time; I’m not sure I could have fleshed this out to 15 minutes if I tried).

Unlike some people who spoke with most or all of their time, I thought it more important to indicate that we didn’t agree with the decision to limit testimony (at the only real public hearing this thing was ever going to get).

1. Background
a. Member of AURA (founding member of the new version; supporter of the old)
b. UTC 2000-2005
i. Mention PG, modern UTC opposition in JD, MDG
c. Writing on transportation since 2003
d. On corner in 2000 supporting LRT with Eric Anderson (LAB)
e. Opposed Red Line in 2004 due to high operating subsidy and low benefit to Austinites
i. (mention this has borne out – operating subsidy ‘down’ from 35 to 18 after cancelling buses; census from rider at Lakeline showing 80% Cedar Park)
2. PC Process
a. In it since beginning.
b. Assured LG on table. No obstacles. (Also assured of this years ago when Rapid Bus was pushed).
c. Process clearly designed with thumb on scales
i. Subcorridors instead of routes
ii. West Campus into Core
iii. I35 ridership into Highland but neither I35 nor 183 ridership into Lamar
iv. Various ‘errors’ all of which hurt GL
v. Bad flier – canvassed at my house with flier designed to fool old people into dropping opposition to plan. No real plans for rail on Guadalupe!
d. At end, people still didn’t know what was best for them!
i. Repeated, strong, unbending preference for Lamar ‘subcorridor’
e. So we brought up the FTA out of the blue
i. Disputed by the guy in charge of Rapid Bus!
ii. Either lying now or lying at beginning.
iii. Getting mixed messages – we’ll do LG right after election but LG can’t ever be done because of traffic but we’ll do it next anyways.
f. Nobody in Austin should trust the output of a process this corrupt. You’re being fed a line about transparency that doesn’t hold up. None of our local transit activists who aren’t connected to the machine believe this.
i. National commentators:
1. Christof Spieler: "It's amazing: Austin, the self-proclaimed progressive city, could have had the best rail system in Texas but has the dumbest."
2. Steven Smith: "Austin light rail is becoming more of a joke by the minute. Textbook example of politics getting in the way of good transit planning."
3. Jeff Wood, Reconnecting America: "I'm going to use this as a bad transit planning example forever"
4. Others at the time ranging from “What A Sham” to “What A Shame”.
5. Honestly have not seen a single national transit person approve this plan.
3. The output
a. High operating subsidies even WITH assumed out of reality growth at Highland Mall
b. No way to tell whether new residents around Highland will work along rail line
i. Mention Mueller – people work all over the city
ii. Birds in hand on a good bus line are worth more than ten birds in bush (working all over city)
c. Theory pushed by Chamber of Commerce that people will hop off I-35, go to park and ride, look for space, walk to station platform, wait for train, ride slow meandering train downtown instead of riding
i. Park and rides DO work but only at far end of quicker, straighter, lines.
ii. Or like in Houston where parking is very very expensive.
d. Urban rail should be urban.
i. Walk to stations from dense residential areas, not apartments in a sea of parking
ii. Entire Airport Blvd segment a waste – only one side can ever be developed; no good crossings to other side and low-density over there
iii. Hancock area – residential only, not as walkable as we need; no opportunity for redevelopment more urban.
e. Respond to density instead of create it
i. Christof Spieler – density wants to be near other density (fill in gaps rather than greenfield)
ii. Most of our supposed TODs underperform compared to background conditions
iii. Remember the TOD up in Leander that was going to help the Red Line?
iv. Crestview Station <<< The Triangle
v. Not going to get high quality development in the planning straitjacket around Highland Mall (also remember birds in hand argument)
f. Even with their bogus assumptions
i. 18,000 boardings/day would be a bad light rail line. BAD.
ii. Houston around 35,000/day. Phoenix above 40,000.
g. Precludes expansions ANYWHERE else if line isn’t packed
i. Operating subsidy argument
ii. Horrible spine – slow, windy makes bad backbone.
h. Precludes expansions on GL forever even if line is good
i. We don’t trust you now after Project Connect Phase 1
ii. FTA reluctant to fund two early lines in ‘same’ area
iii. Local politics makes funding 3rd line apparently in NCentralAustin a nonstarter
iv. Are they promising Guadalupe or “Lamar subcorridor”?
1. Ridiculous longrange map proposes Guadalupe served after MLK but we suspect grade too high on MLK; doesn’t go south into core of downtown. Why not just stay on Guadalupe/Lavaca?
2. We don’t believe you anyways.
4. Conclusion
a. Bad rail line can end system rather than start it
b. Don’t mischaracterize our arguments. Highland is not just not our favorite line; it is a BAD line. Never get a chance to build system if you use up all your capital on a second high-operating-subsidy line.

Project Connect Phase 1 Lie Number 2

“We can’t ask the Federal government to fund urban rail on Lamar/Guadalupe because they already paid for Rapid Bus, and they told us they wouldn’t pay for it, and would instead demand all the BRT money back” or variations of same.

This one has legs. I even believed it myself to an extent, once. It’s a little complicated, because nobody at the FTA is truly going to go on the record, but there’s a couple of angles here that are clearly about Project Connect misleading the public (i.e. misinforming; even lying).

In 2004, though, the project was originally marketed to voters as a “possible placeholder for future urban rail”. Unfortunately, this was before I learned I needed to save images of anything put up by Capital Metro, so you’re going to have to trust my memory on this one. Suffice to say I didn’t find it compelling back then as I believed this was an attempt to get central Austin voters to support the plan but that Capital Metro had no interest in actually following through with the “first rapid bus, then rail” angle. They took down that language right after the election, by the way.

Fast forward, then, to Project Connect in 2012.

The first angle – was it ever on the table?

At the beginning of the Project Connect process, we were told that Lamar/Guadalupe was on the table and would be fairly evaluated. We were also told for years, in no uncertain terms, that Rapid Bus should not be stopped because it was not an obstacle to urban rail there. Now, granted, I didn’t always believe this myself – note that in this very blog, back in 2006, I approvingly linked to a Statesman article about Leffingwell and McCracken halting (for a time!) Rapid Bus because they correctly determined that wasting our best rail corridor on buses no better than current #101 service was incredibly stupid.

Capital Metro and Project Connect employees went to great pains to tell people (in person) that Lamar/Guadalupe was not precluded from the urban rail corridor selection process by the presence of Rapid Bus. This is the only reason I bothered to get involved with the process! People like Jace Deloney were told by people like John-Michael Vincent Cortez that there was no obstacle to Guadalupe getting trains on it. Cortez spent the better part of an hour dissembling at an Urban Transportation Commission meeting to Deloney’s questions about Rapid Bus – saying variants of “well, we could put urban rail there, but why would you ever want to, because Rapid Bus is going to be so great”.

Put a pin in this – we’ll get back to this later.

Project Connect Phase 1 went through their ridiculous, contrived, process which was obviously designed to produce justification for the predetermined rail route to Hancock. I think most of us have finally settled on that characterization by now. But one of the most irritating things, at least to Project Connect, about this process was their failure to convince the public to abandon the Guadalupe corridor as their #1, by far, choice. Despite the flawed (on purpose) design of the study; despite all the shenanigans, people still preferred Guadalupe by large margins to either of the corridors Project Connect wanted them to prefer. People still weren’t choosing the corridors Project Connect had been designed to get them to prefer! Those ungrateful wretches!

So at the very end of the phase, Project Connect and their lapdogs  went on a full-court press to explain to people why, despite massive continuing public preference, we would not be studying Lamar/Guadalupe in Phase 2. The claim was made that they had back-channel correspondence with the FTA that indicated they would not look kindly on ripping out MetroRapid right as it was starting just to put in urban rail. Which is where we get to the next angle. But first:

This is where I really got pissed off.

A lot of people spent a lot of time on the premise that our best rail corridor was, in fact, on the table. I took time away from my job and my family to do so. Many others took much more time away from their jobs and their personal lives. So it’s incumbent on Project Connect to tell us why they lied at the beginning, or why they’re lying now, because it has to be one or the other. Either Guadalupe was on the table, in which case they lied at the end; or it was never on the table, in which case they lied at the beginning. We are owed an explanation for this. I explained that last bit in a note I sent over my Thanksgiving holiday, for god’s sake, and nobody ever even attempted to resolve this at Project Connect or at the CCAG.

The second angle – did they even ask the FTA the right question?

Any urban rail project won’t be tearing up streets right away, even if it passes in November of 2014. The first time you’d see jackhammers and bulldozers would be at least 3 or 4 years further down the road – so let’s say 2017. Additionally, as pointed out by numerous people on both sides of the issue, the proposed alternative urban rail alignment (starter) for Lamar/Guadalupe only overlaps the middle quarter or third of the Rapid Bus alignment. Finally, nobody proposed eliminating Rapid Bus immediately, although I think we can all agree that running buses like that through a construction zone on the Drag would really suck. Slightly worse than running them through normal Drag traffic!

So did they ask the FTA “What would you do if we started upgrading the middle part of the Rapid Bus corridor to urban rail in 2017 or 2018?”

Nope. According to their public statements, they asked the FTA “How about if we immediately stop Rapid Bus1 and start working on urban rail here. How would you guys feel about that?”

Of COURSE the FTA said “you’d have to pay us back our Rapid Bus money”. To that question, why would you expect anything else? But even if we had to pay back the Rapid Bus money, it’s still peanuts compared to how much money we’re going to spend on Urban Rail, both Federal and local.

To equate “Can we just immediately stop Rapid Bus right now” with “Would you mind if we started upgrading the middle part of the corridor 3 or 4 years after service begins, probably continuing to run Rapid Bus as-is on the north and south ends of the corridor” is disingenuous. Misleading. Dishonest. Some might even say – a lie. To say nothing of the fact that during this phase of planning, we’re supposed to be talking about ‘corridors’, not ‘streets’; and some people like “OurRail” are proposing running urban rail a block off the Drag anyways, further reducing the area of supposed conflict to just a mile or two.

Finally, we heard from the guy at Capital Metro who planned the whole Rapid Bus project. Surely he’d set all of the Lamar/Guadalupe partisans right. Surely he’d line up with the fine leaders of the political machine on this one. Right?

The third angle: The guy in charge of Rapid Bus planning

I watched a CCAG meeting where Surinder Marwah spoke, and have been on a lot of email threads where he was CC’ed. He responded in onethread to a question by me of whether John Langmore had ever been forced to explain why the Rapid Bus project manager would support rail on Guadalupe (this is an edit from early versions of this post – I missed it the first time around). His response had a bunch of good technical detail about the FTA, useful life of bus projects, the definition of “permanence”, etc. which I’d have to go seek permission to repost.

However, Lyndon Henry has already done the legwork on this one. From an article in Railway Age:

Indeed, Surinder Marwah — the Capital Metro planner who originally designed the MetroRapid project and helped secure FTA Small Starts funding — corroborates MetroRapid’s role as a precursor to urban rail, and disputes that the project was ever intended to block rail in the G-L corridor. Marwah ranks as a strong and knowledgeable advocate of urban rail in the corridor.

Oops. Well, surely the FTA itself can be trusted to back up the leaders of our local political machine?

The fourth angle: The FTA’s Actual Public Response

Posted by the Central Austin CDC and others, this is the actual content of the response from the FTA to requests for information about this issue:

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What the FTA says here is that they would consider funding urban rail in this corridor as if it was any other corridor; but they might want some of the BRT money back (because, of course, they were asked the wrong question – listed above).

Even when asked a leading question implying a complete abandonment of the “BRT” investment, the FTA said they’d still be willing to fund urban rail in this corridor. They didn’t promise they would; but for the leaders of our political machine to characterize this, as they have, as “the FTA won’t pay for urban rail there because they already paid for Rapid Bus there” is a LIE.

pantsonfire-animated

That’s all the time I have for now. Look for edits as I get more.

 Further reading

  1. two months BEFORE the buses were to start running []

Keep It Simple, Stupid

I almost made this response on the twitter but thought it should be more permanent.

Trying to figure out where to put a rail line in a city where you have lots of unmet transit demand and an inadequate funding stream to do everything you want to do? IE, you live in the real world?

PUT YOUR RAIL LINE WHERE IT REQUIRES THE LEAST POSSIBLE OPERATING SUBSIDY.

kiss

It’s just that simple.

Don’t talk about disrupting traffic. Don’t talk about TOD. Don’t talk about bridges or tunnels.

If you put your rail line where it requires a very large operating subsidy, you end up having to cut bus service to make up the budgetary impact. This is what Capital Metro had to do during the early days of the Red Line. Both the best 98x buses and the 9 bus were cancelled to make up for operating subsidy overruns from the Red Line. Only today is the operating subsidy anywhere close to the original budget (and it’s still monstrously high – something like $20/ride). We’d have more buses running more routes today if the Red Line had never been built, in other words. The presence of the Red Line means that the people of Austin have less transit today than they otherwise would have. This is how you can tell it was a BAD RAIL LINE.

If you put your rail line where it requires a very small operating subsidy (ideally less than existing bus service1, you end up having MORE money to spend on more buses elsewhere, or on the next rail line. The best way to find that corridor is to find a corridor where a ton of people ride the bus, and where research indicates even more people would ride the train (because it’s more comfortable and reliable than the bus is today).

Anybody who wants to make it more complicated than that is trying to confuse you and get you to support a rail line that you should not support.

Hey, you ask. What about my second rail line?

Go back to the beginning of this post and repeat. The same, simple, formula works for every single rail line your city will ever build. Pick the corridor where the rail line will have the lowest possible operating subsidy. Rinse. Repeat.

Third rail line? Is it more complicated yet? NO. GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING OF THIS POST AGAIN.

Fourth? Fifth?

NO. NO. GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING. This simple process works for every rail line – it tells you which one you should do next.

This is how you build an actual network instead of a struggling disaster like we have in Austin. Again, anybody who tells you it’s not this simple is trying to fool you into supporting something that’s not in your best interest. They have ulterior motives, like, for instance, being on the board of a community college which took over a decaying mall2. Or wanting to make a medical school look shinier.

By the way, if you follow this process, you don’t need to lie about your conversations with the Federal Transit Administration either. Hint.

Now I’m off to Germany. Where they actually use logic like the above. Which is why their rail networks actually, you know, work.

parksandrec_micdrop

  1. One way you can tell whether your city is ready for rail at all is whether you can find a corridor where rail would lower the operating subsidy compared to existing bus service. If you have no such corridor, you might not be a good candidate for rail, yet! []
  2. Hello Highland Mall!). Or, for instance, not wanting to be politically embarassed about previous bad decisions ((The real reason for no G/L is this embarassment. Future blog post will show comments about the Federal Transit Administration are misleading at best; lies at worst []