Monthly Archives: September 2006

Rail transit dies in Austin, thanks to one final cut

Here’s what I sent to the Alliance for Public Transportation, upon seeing their official launch and noting that their platform is basically “push for Capital Metro’s full plan, quicker”, despite alleging to be an “Independent Voice for Transportation”. Note that this will probably signify a great reduction in posts from here on out – as there’s really nothing more to say; the remaining pro-rail forces which could have fought for rail for central Austin have instead fully backed Krusee’s plan. There’s nobody left.
This means that rail down Guadalupe is dead. This means that Hyde Park, West Campus, and the Triangle will never have light rail. This means that central Austinites who pay most of Capital Metro’s bills will never, ever, get served with rail transit. This means that even downtown Austin, the University, and the Capitol will never get anything better than a slow, stuck-in-traffic, shared-lane streetcar which doesn’t work any better than a bus.
Here’s my note. I’ve already gotten a short, snarky, response from Glenn Gadbois which basically said “We’ll accept this as an announcement that you won’t be joining”. IE: they aren’t interested in fighting for real light rail at all.

I see the site is finally unveiled. It’s worth noting that there’s
absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Austin commuters are going to be
significantly more willing than those in other new rail start cities to
accept a transfer as part of their daily commute – which means that nothing
short of reserved-guideway, one-seat, transit will be enough to attract a
significant number of choice commuters.
IE: transfer to “urban core circulator” is going to be completely useless -
it’s no better than transferring to a shuttle bus, as people will very
quickly figure out, since the streetcar will likewise be stuck in traffic
(no reserved guideway); and in no city in this country has a new rail start
which relies on shuttle distribution been anything other than a huge
disappointment.
You can’t fix this plan with enhanced circulators. (Even a
reserved-guideway circulator, such as true light rail running through
downtown, would be a significant disincentive to ridership – areas where
rail transit is just beginning can’t afford to make the trip any more
difficult than absolutely necessary – reports from New York or Chicago or
San Francisco are thus irrelevant here).
We’re not using Minneapolis or Portland or St. Louis or Denver or Salt Lake
or Dallas as our model. They all built light rail on reserved guideway
which went directly to major employment centers without requiring transfers
to shuttle buses – and all have succeeded. (Most did what we would have
done with the 2000 plan: use some existing right-of-way, and transition to
the street where necessary to get directly where they needed to go).
We’re instead doing what South Florida did with Tri-Rail, which is:
implement rail service on the cheapest, most available, existing track; and
hope people will be willing to ride shuttle buses the last mile or two to
their office every single day through congested traffic. It failed, despite
the shuttles being there to “whisk passengers to their final destination”.
Pushing further for this plan only takes us further out on a limb which is
guaranteed to break. If we ever want real rail for central Austin, the only
path forward is to point out that this plan is not going to work and cannot
be made to work; and that we need reserved-guideway rail transit running
through the urban core NOW.

The McMansion Ordinance Doesn’t Hurt 9300 Square Foot Lots, You Idiots

Today’s article in the Statesman is making me breathe fire. Of course this couple can build a big house – they have a 9300 square foot lot! That’s a very large lot for Central Austin. And, of course, they’re a family of 3.
Try running the same calculation on a more-typical lot of 7000 square feet, or on my lot of 6000 square feet. The impact of this ordinance is that families like mine (4) and my next-door neighbor (5) must choose between a normal second-story on the same footprint as the existing small house, and a garage apartment (which they already have; and I’d someday like to have). It’s going to drive families out of the urban core neighborhoods; exactly the opposite of what we should be encouraging.
AustinContrarian is posting an excellent series about this ordinance. He’s up to Reason 7 to hate the McMansion Ordinance as of today. Highly recommended.

Somebody Finally Gets It

Whether through coincidence or because their aides have read this crackplog, Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken have stood up and finally asked the $100,000 question about Rapid Bus, namely, “why are we spending all this money for something that’s not likely to be any better than the #101 bus and won’t generate any transit-oriented development“, and what’s more, they’re apparently doing it from a pro-rail perspective. A rare bit of good news.

My fear is, though, that it’s already too late. Where were you guys in 2004 when I was saying this stuff? Frankly, I don’t think we can get light rail down this corridor once commuter rail is built — as I’ve commented before, it would be nigh-impossible to continue the light rail route northwest on the existing right-of-way from the intersection of Lamar and Airport (since commuter rail will already be there, and the vehicles are mostly incompatible), but if you don’t, you give up about half of the ridership which would have made the 2000 route a success.

(I originally misattributed Lee Leffingwell as Lee Walker; I apologize for taking so long to realize this and correct it).

Definition of ‘disgrace’

My alma mater is playing a 1-AA team this weekend. I’ll be rooting against them. There’s never ever ever any excuse for a major 1-A program to schedule 1-AA. A road game (with no return) at Pitt would be better than this. In fact, pick any 1-A team in a part of the country we haven’t been to in a while, and schedule a visit. The money’s not worth the stain on our record, you retards. And this stuff about needing seven home games to support the other programs is a sham. We’d make more money in the long-run due to the recruiting benefit of playing an away game in one of the parts of the country we don’t visit very often. And some year down the road, some other 1-A school would return the favor.
Or, the NCAA could grow a pair and just outlaw 1-A vs. 1-AA games. What’s the point of having divisions, otherwise? Should the Astros get to play a real (non-exhibition) game against the Round Rock Express, too?
Simply, absolutely, pathetic.

Tying together two forms of crackpottery

A Bush-apologist economist I occasionally read keeps talking about how the EITC is more effective than the minimum wage at providing incentives for the very poor to work. I just added the following comment:

You misunderstand the point.
Group A advocates that we increase the minimum wage. They’re serious. They’re really trying to do it.
Group B says “that’s stupid; just raise the EITC instead”. They’re not serious. They have no intention of raising the EITC.
Group B, when in power, did and continues to do nothing to raise the EITC. Hence, disingenuous.
Even if raising the EITC worked as well as its proponents claim, today, it’s just a stalking horse, because its proponents have no intention at all of doing it.
Parallels abound. For instance, in most cities planning light-rail lines, you always end up with a group pushing for fully elevated transit – and if you dig hard enough you find that the guys who don’t want any transit at all form about half of that group.

It’s not just Austin where this happens, but of course, Austin is where we live. I’d say about half of the impetus behind the “build elevated transit, not grade-level transit” (whether grade-level is bad streetcar, good light-rail, or mediocre commuter-rail) comes from road warriors who find the naive but well-meaning monorail crew useful cover. Not to say that there aren’t people on the monorail side who really believe it’s what we need – my former colleague Patrick Goetz is certainly one of them – but whenever discussions come up of the “why would we build rail on the ground?” type, you can always dig a bit deeper and find some guys who really don’t want any rail transit at all.

M1EK’s Way Forward

This comes up from time to time, usually in other forums where people aren’t familiar with the long history of rail in Austin:
Why don’t you tell us what your (positive) plan is for improving rail in Austin?
Well, the only one that would work is to immediately stop the commuter rail project; cancel contracts for the rail vehicles; and build a light rail starter segment following most of the 2000 proposed route. Not real likely, folks.
Then there’s the shorten rail transit’s dark ages plan. Not real attractive, but I’m sad to say, the only one likely to have any impact. And it’s what I’ve done so far, of course. During the Dark Ages, those monastaries that saved a bunch of literature and preserved some knowledge from the Greeks and Romans weren’t helping anybody for quite a while, remember, they just made the Renaissance start a bit sooner / be a bit more effective, depending on who you ask.
During the past several years, many other people have come up with some other ‘positive’ plans, which I’ll briefly describe below:

  1. Run light rail on a completely different route. (i.e. run up from downtown, by the Capitol and UT, but then shift over to Burnet Road, or stay on Lamar the whole way up to 183). Not gonna happen, folks – the reason the ’00 route was favorable to the Feds is that it did what most successful rail starts do: run in exclusive right-of-way out in the suburbs and then transitioning to (slower) in-street running for only the last N miles where necessary. Running in-street all the way is a recipe for low ridership (slow trains). Plus, the residential catchment areas on North Lamar and Burnet Road are just awful.
  2. Improve streetcar – folks originally got suckered by Capital Metro into thinking we’d be delivering streetcar to central Austin residential areas as part of Future Connections. Of course, we’re not, but it doesn’t matter; streetcar is really no better than the bus for daily commuters. And, topic for future post, you can’t turn streetcar into light rail later on – light rail runs in the middle of the street in its own lane; streetcar will run in the right lane, shared with cars & buses. You can’t run a reserved-guideway mode on the right side of a street.
  3. Run light rail on commuter rail tracks, then branch off and go down the ’00 route at Lamar. Pushed by a subset of the next group, mostly disingenuously – having a rail branch off at Lamar/Airport would basically shut down this intersection for cars, and the technologies are incompatible – the commuter rail vehicles we bought cannot feasibly run in the street for long distances (due mostly to station height).
  4. The most odious of all – Lyndon Henry and his cadre of misleaders – telling us that once we start running trains more often (and add more stops), the commuter rail line will magically become light rail. It still doesn’t go anywhere worth going; Airport Boulevard is never going to turn into Guadalupe; and running trains more often to your shuttle bus transfer won’t help ridership one lousy bit.

So, those who want to see more positive discussion – use this as a launching point. Let me know what you think. Come up with some positive direction that’s not in the list above, or tell me why one of the above WILL work.
Some Selected Background (chronological, oldest at top):

Build Greater Austin and Capital Metro

A quick hit – since I missed this story due to scaling back to weekend-only service, I never got to comment on this piece:

So the budget released last Monday for the 2007 budget year, which begins Oct. 1, eliminated the $6.6 million Austin portion (and a tiny amount that would have gone to Leander).
Left undisturbed, at the request of Capital Metro board member Fred Harless, was $1.1 million for the suburban communities in Capital Metro’s service area that won’t have rail stops.
Austin City Council Member Jennifer Kim has been agitating for Capital Metro to keep giving Austin $2.4 million of the $6.6 million. The city says it’s been falling behind on routine street maintenance and Kim’s request would fill that gap.

Councilmember Kim is exactly right, albeit for the wrong reasons. If it’s justifiable to leave the suburban money in there, Austin should keep a big chunk of its money too, since this commuter rail project barely serves Austin at all compared to Leander. It doesn’t go anywhere near central Austin residential areas, nor to UT, the Capitol, or downtown, so the only practical beneficiaries of this line are Leander residents who don’t mind riding shuttle buses.
In short, the people who pay Capital Metro’s bills (i.e. central Austinites) aren’t getting rail stations – and, therefore, should probably be keeping this BGA money; or at least, most of it. And thanks to the fact that Austin gets screwed by having to maintain a much, much larger percentage of major roads than do our suburban friends, we already have less money to spare on things like sidewalks, which is why the BGA money was so darn useful.
I’ll try to get around to writing a new, updated, version of “M1EK’S SUPER-POSITIVE HAPPY FUN PLAN” in response to comments on the last posting sometime this week.

Chronicle remains credulous

In today’s story about the new effort to align CAMPO dollars to Envision Central Texas goals, not once, in the entire story, was this fact mentioned:
The three biggest “nodes”, now and in the future, by orders of magnitude, are UT, the Capitol, and downtown; none of which are served by commuter rail, and not well by streetcar. If you live at Mueller and work at the Capitol, you can take the streetcar to work, but it’ll be as slow as the bus is today, and that’s the only use case that makes sense. All existing residential density in the city continues to be provided with nothing but slow, stuck-in-traffic, buses (mislabelled as “Rapid” though they may be).
Summary: Until the elephant in the tent is addressed (those three nodes), all of this is just useless ego-stroking wastes of time.

“Please do what we want, or we’ll ask nicely again!”

This group is a perfect example of what I was talking about in my last crackplog: the survey is a complete waste of time; simply gathering support for all of Capital Metro’s long-range plans while never asking “hey, shouldn’t we be telling Capital Metro to build some reserved-guideway transit for the densest parts of Austin”?
There’s a kickoff event happening in October for this group (or another one with the same name; hard to tell) in which the mayors of Austin and Leander will be participating. Note: Leander already got their reserved-guideway transit. The obviously much less important Central Austin got squat.
People will get co-opted by this group, just like they did by the useless public meetings in which critical things like the canopy style for commuter rail stations were hashed out, and as a result, there’s no counterbalance to Mike Krusee telling Capital Metro what to do.
If Mayor Wynn is truly serving the interests of Austin residents and taxpayers, he’ll end this now by using this group’s forum to push for what Austin needs – but I doubt very much that he will; otherwise he wouldn’t be falling prey to the false promise of regionalism here (the note just reeks of it). As pointed out by another blog I read and trust, regionalism is often the enemy of good public transportation. Leander has no real interest in making sure that Austin taxpayers get real rail transit; they already GOT theirs.

Please join me for the kickoff event to launch the Alliance for Public Transportation. The Alliance is the initiative of Mayors Will Wynn and John Cowman of Leander. Several months ago, they asked a group of people to come together and figure out whether we needed an entity that would consider transportation issues from a regional perspective and across the array of interest groups affected by public transportation and its potential in the Austin area. We said we do!
Please come to our kickoff celebration on October 19th at 6 pm at Nuevo Leon. An invitation is attached with all the details, along with another document that describes the Alliance. I’d also like to take this opportunity to invite you or your organization to become a member and be acknowledged at the event as a “groundbreaker”.
This is going to be an exciting event, with Mayors Wynn and Cowman present, as well as other elected officials and people who care about transportation and the community. I also think the creation of this organization will provide a valuable voice for neighborhoods as we consider public transportation in our region over the coming years.

Hand-holding consensus exercises play into the hands of the Bad Guys

NUPro’s frustration echoes with me, obviously. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that the problem here in Austin is that the “good guys” are serious about gathering public input, and the “bad guys” are very good at gathering public input about things that fundamentally don’t matter, and in the process getting exactly what they want.
Take Capital Metro’s worthless public meetings about commuter rail, for instance. (Before the election, I mean). The topics were basically “where should we put an extra station or two on this line we’ve already settled on”, and “hey, would you like any other bus lines turned into Rapid Bus?”. Capital Metro never really wanted public input on anything that mattered, like the actual routing of the line, but they successfully fooled a whole lot of people into going to these meetings and wasting their time. By doing this, Capital Metro satisfied the basic requirements the Feds would have put on them (if CM had kept their promise and actually applied for Federal funding, that is), and fooled a lot of naive people into giving them a free pass.
But please remember: Capital Metro’s All Systems Go plan isn’t the result of community input, folks. It’s a result of Mike Krusee’s command.
On the other hand, Envision Central Texas (the group which many Good Guys view as their platform for pushing positive change) is paralyzed by paroxysms of uselessness because they actually try to get public input about things more consequential than the color of the station platform’s roof. And, of course, if you ask these neighborhood groups for input, they’ll gladly fill your ear with mostly-ignorant mostly-useless stuff that the average bus-riding third-grader could have come up with on the way to school last week (about the recent streetcar meetings in which, again, the route is already decided; the technology is already decided; the sharing-lane-with cars is already decided; etc). Likewise, other urbanist politicians are too unwilling to say “this is what we need to do; now, I’m willing to accept input on these issues, but no others:…”. Envision Central Texas has, as a result, contributed absolutely nothing other than PR fluff. They’ve completely failed at pushing their agenda; the few wins the Good Guys have seen in the last few years have been the result of actions by politicians who would have acted the same way with or without the useless blessing of ECT.
If I could say anything to folks like that, it’s this: you never win by back-door compromise, and you never win by charette-driven consensus exercises. Mike Krusee won by making Capital Metro do what he wanted them to do. He didn’t negotiate with them. He didn’t gather their input. He told them what to do, and they did it, because the other side didn’t even try to stop him; because they were too busy holding meetings and wasting their time listening to a bunch of neighborhood nitwits.