A quick thought for tonight’s exercise

to which I do not know how much energy I shall devote as it appears to be oriented towards an effort to get buy-in from the more general public who doesn’t even understand transit rather than correcting their horrible process so far. But consider this a cry for reinforcements, and an argument against civility at the expense of policy. I don’t know if I’ll even be involved this time.

Tonight SHOULD be about the citizens of Austin telling the planners that you see through this bullshit exercise in expensive obfuscation that the machinery of the city1 and Capital Metro2 have collectively foisted on you to try to make previous plans look less stupid. It SHOULD be impossible for the ringleaders to successfully pull off a propaganda coup. But are enough of you going to be willing to fight; to be uncivil?


Me, right now, I’m rapidly becoming disillusioned about the prospects of anything improving life in Austin as even most of the people on ‘my side’ of the rail debate in Austin continue to be more interested in staying friends with the gladhanding jackasses who got us to this point than doing the right thing3 . Yes, there are still far too many people who think JMVC is their buddy; who trust the lying smile from the guy paid to mislead you more than the asshole who tells the truth, because the paid misleader shakes your hand once a week and is at all the right meetings and all the right events, while the asshole is just an unpaid hobbyist you mostly hear from on the internet who can’t devote significant time to the meetingocracy as he continues to fail to find a job downtown4 and must, therefore, ‘participate’ almost exclusively electronically from his desk near godawful Westlake High.5 There are still far too many people who won’t go out on a limb in public beyond modestly suggesting ‘this is slightly less than optimal’ while thanking the people who produced the misleading propaganda for their hard work; and then attack the manners of those like me who keep wanting to point out the Emperor’s bare ass. And there are still far too many theoretically pro-transit people who will line up behind an unquestionably bad policy decision because they think it’s good politics.


Why thank Project Connect for all their hard work when it was done in the service of a transparently obviously rigged process designed to subvert good planning and the will of the people? If you’re a Democrat, do you go thank George Bush’s staff for working so hard to help him achieve his goals, when you disagree with both the goal and the method? I’m struggling to find better analogies but I find this incomprehensible – lots of people do hard work for bad actors; do they really deserve our THANKS in the process? When they KNOW they’re doing bad work and misleading people? (This is not an opinion, people; there’s no other rational explanation for some of PC’s whoppers. When the reaction of people who watch transit planning all over the country is “#WhatASham” or “I’m going to use this as an example of bad transit planning forever”, does anybody honestly expect thanks?)

That being said, it brings up an interesting parallel – there were many people in Congress who worked to pass Obamacare knowing it was the politically wrong thing to do but it was the right thing for the country. Many of these people were warned it might serve as the end of their political career. It certainly burned up all of Obama’s political capital.

As I recall, though, more than one was uncharacteristically honest about it – “if not for this, then why are we here?” at least one said. Why bother to accumulate the political power if it only leads to attempting to maintain or enhance said power, instead of doing the things that you were sent to do? Doesn’t mean you die on every hill; but if you’re not willing to die on ANY hill, why are you even there?

“But what if people are embarassed? Never mind; I’d better just sit down and play along.”

The same is true here. What good is it to remain friends with the consultantocracy and the gladhanding jackasses if, at the end, the big payoff is a rail line to Highlandmueller with 8,000 boardings/day, and it’s 2040 before we can start to have another rail conversation?

Waiting for urban rail on the corridor that makes sense
Waiting for urban rail on the corridor that makes sense

If you’re falling in line because it’s good politics, in what world do you think we get to build a second urban rail line before those of us my age are dead, when the first line has 8,000 boardings a day? When we need somewhere in the low 20,000s to be considered a moderate success worth building off of?

Was the Red Line worth this very same compromise, which so many took in 2004 and urged me to take? I’d argue you’d be an idiot to think so today, but in fact, many still think so, despite the fact that it’s reached its ceiling at a whopping 2000 boardings/day; despite the fact that its monstrously high operating subsidies to mostly non-Austinites from mostly non-taxpaying cities have led to cuts in bus service for the people who pay >90% of Capital Metro’s bills. How was that a good policy decision, if it didn’t lead to another serious rail conversation until 2014; and if even then, we can’t have an honest POLICY decision about the next rail line – we still have to play idiot politics so certain people don’t look stupid about overselling the reality of Rapid Bus or Mueller? And how can those people think they made the right decision back in 2004? Hell if I know; I’m just a guy who can spend an hour every other week on this, but it sure seems obvious to me. Why is this so goddamn hard?

After I gave my short speech at the CCAG, I was actually lectured by a well-connected insider / former neighbor; and then later by a UT VP; that the fault for any lack of rail on Guadalupe/Lamar is mine, presumably for daring to continue to have contrary opinions on this and voicing them publically, which is Bad Form, instead of swallowing my objections and joining the meetingocracy.6 That it’s my fault that they have not been convinced – or in another sense, that the job in Westlake; raising three kids; trying to keep a company afloat and a couple of teams from being laid off; that these are all not valuable things to these people; and thus their inability to be convinced of what every transit professional from around the country finds inherently obvious is my fault because I haven’t quit those other responsibilities and spent months producing essentially the same research other allies already have only to have it ignored in favor of the continuous examples of ‘mistakes’, other faulty data and the rigged analysis produced by full-time people being paid to mislead the public.

Pictured: Project Connect
Pictured: Project Connect

I don’t have much more energy for this; and I’m not optimistic. At the end of this, I expect most of my putative allies on the G/L side to say “well, we tried” and go back to the consultantocracy, welcomed with open arms because they didn’t fight too hard.

Fuck that. Either fight hard or sell out; but don’t tell me you’re doing the first when you’re really doing the second. And you can’t fight at this point by staying friends with Project Connect; they are now the enemy. The place we have to win now is the City Council, because the CCAG has already made up their minds, and if we don’t get the City Council to FORCE them to change, it’s a done deal for Highlandmueller. This is going to require fighting to various degrees – Project Connect is a lost cause. If you could convince me of a rational path which includes “continuing to treat Project Connect like rational actors who are doing a good job and not trying to mislead people” and ends with victory, you’d have done so by now.

Your pal,

  1. curiously, not city council itself, which has been to this point almost completely uninvolved in this process beyond the Mayor; see the end of the post for more []
  2. somewhat likewise as with the city, although their leadership is a little more bought-in to this than the city’s is []
  3. some will chide me that I give people like this guy way too much importance; that they aren’t decision-makers. True in a sense; but they are constantly in the ears of the decision-makers, and constantly in the ears of the media (except for one or two notable exceptions, and in one case, he’s actually convinced everybody on the pro-transit side that the media member was the problem to the point where I’m pretty sure I’m the only rail advocate who will even talk to the guy). Or they may say that nothing is served by fighting guys like that, but I firmly disagree; because NOT fighting guys like that gives him his power, which he then uses to co-opt you into providing legitimacy for this illegitimate process that will produce the predestined result. I say wait until this gladhanding jackass in question has convinced some members of the media and some council staff that you’re a troll before you judge me for caring about this too much. []
  4. note: it would have been a lot easier to do this if we had GOOD rail heading downtown and it wasn’t so ridiculous for non-single-website heavier-duty software companies to locate there []
  5. yes, this is part of the reason for the bile. God, I hate Westlake so much. []
  6. these are people who actually believe, or profess to believe, that you get rail on Guadalupe right after you build a massive failure to Highlandmueller; and thus if you push too hard now you’ll not get rail on Guadalupe, which is ridiculous as rail on Highlandmueller, guaranteed failure that it is, assures we won’t see rail on Guadalupe/Lamar until I’m long dead []

Reaction from around the dial

Going backwards; reaction from around the country to the Project Connect rec and the Mayor’s endorsement of the process and the result:

Stephen Smith at Next City has just published Transit Advocates None Too Pleased About Austin’s Light Rail Corridor Selection in which I am quoted as well as several friends-of-the-crackplog.

Pretty much every urbanist/transitophile in Austin came out of the woodwork last night and contested JMVC’s spin on Project Connect, for which I am eternally grateful as I was tied up learning how to be a BB-gun rangemaster and then trying to sleep off this cold before the campout this weekend.

In Fact Daily (subscription) published a story yesterday in which I square off against the mayor quote for quote.

Friend-of-the-crackplog from LA “Let’s Go LA retweeted me: “.@JimmyFlannigan If the first line isn’t a slam dunk, overflowing with people, we never get to build line 2. Rigged process = dumb decision.”

Several folks from twitter who work in transit around the country that I mentioned during my speech on Friday included Jeff Wood from Reconnecting America (“I’m going to use this as an example of bad transit planning forever”) and Patrick McDonough from RTP (“Be on lookout for “design alternatives” under study in EIS to see if original Mueller alignment has “lower impacts.” #WhatASham”)

So far, not one single person outside of Austin with any history on transit has said they agree with this recommendation.

The outline of the speech I didn’t give

Back when I thought the order was communications, THEN decision; the speech I was going to give in outline form:

  • Introduce self, name, AURA supporter, UTC, blog
  • Mention letter from AURA & agree with points but here to talk about…
  • Is Rapid Bus really an impediment to rail on Lamar?
  • KK says so sometimes in public
  • AURA and others trusted claims made by staff of Cap Metro and Proj Connect that everything was on the table
  • Why shouldn’t rapid bus be in the way?
  • Others have made points: Depreciation, timeframe, movable ‘investment’
  • Mine based on QUALITY of improvement – all points apply only to 801 north of river
    • If you ride a 101 today:
      • No faster
      • More expensive
      • Couple more trips per hour (shift from local to express)
    • If you ride a 1 today:
      • Lose half frequency or have to walk much further & likely pay more
    • You may gain: GPS (next bus). Not that useful considering argument in favor of MR is that you won’t care about the schedule.
  • NOT BRT – refer to ITDP standards and Jace’s scoring; not even close.
  • Circle back – used Cap Metro’s OWN DATA which trumps marketing / soft features
  • Just today? Linda Watson called it “Austin’s densest corridor”.
  • Conclude

Summary of yesterday

Update: The video’s already up; you can see my speech here (click on Citizens Communications to jump to me).

I spoke in citizens’ communication yesterday to the CCAG. Gave up a half day to do so (had to be there to sign up at 1:15; limited slots; ended up getting there shortly after noon to make sure I got my spot). Found out as the meeting started that citizen communication is the LAST thing. Uh-oh.

My original speech was going to be about why Rapid Bus should not preclude rail in the Lamar ‘subcorridor’. Since I ended up giving my speech AFTER the ridiculous announcement that it’s going to be Highland ‘and ERC’; I ended up rewriting my speech into an indictment of the process, which has been gradually revealed to have been designed to generate the predestined conclusion that Mueller (i.e. Not Lamar) should be the initial route. (Note that Highland is, as I’m calling it, “Mueller in drag”; Kyle Keahy made sure to mention many times that it takes you right to the edge of Mueller).

Amazingly, Scott Gross had the gall to put up a slide showing an overwhelming citizen preference for Lamar over the next closest two alternatives; and then proceeded to argue it meant nothing; that their made-up or mangled data which led to misleading conclusions was somehow more valid than the opinion of the transiterati in this town. Well, he just implied that; they never went back and mentioned the overwhelming vote for Lamar again.

My thoughts on the reason for this choice largely mirror Chris Bradford, aka the Austin Contrarian, who made this excellent comment in response to Julio’s blog post:

I don’t agree with B-.

We all agree that ERC should be part of a fully built-out urban rail system. It is highly unlikely that it will be built first, though. The obstacles are just too high. Building another bridge over LBL is very tricky, and very expensive. Then they will have to lay a mile of track and get across I-35 just get to East Riverside’s western edge. Given that any initial starter line will (and should) connect downtown and UT, the next logical phase is to keep heading north. Heading across the lake and then down East Riverside for the first phase will require a really high initial bond amount, giving voters sticker shock.

If ERC isn’t a genuine first-phase option, then why was it named? I believe it is being dangled out there to prevent the Highland opponents from mobilizing for a fight. It will be pulled back as a true first-phase option at the last possible moment.

And we shouldn’t lose sight of this: Highland will be first. Going up to Highland Mall through UT’s eastern edge and Red River (or some route even further east) is a bad route. It’s a waste of money. And, yes, it will foreclose rail on Guadalupe/Lamar indefinitely. It will do so for a couple of reasons: (1) it will have relatively low ridership, which will dampen public support for further investments; and (2) although it is too far from Guad/Lamar to serve the dense neighborhoods on that route, it is too close to justify another investment on Guad/Lamar until other parts of town have been served.

I see their announcement of Highland/ERC as a cynical political strategy to dampen opposition until it’s too late. That deserves an “F,” not a B-.

If they put forward a plan to build ERC first, I’ll switch to B. But I don’t think that will happen.

WTB a new Cap Metro.

ERC is not going to be built in the first phase; this is the city staff being aware enough to group it with Highland so people will say “well, at least they hit SOME density (in ERC)”. It’s going to be Highland, which takes you right to the edge of Mueller, and then, oops, we’re right back to that predetermined conclusion that we should do exactly what the plan was in 2010.

These look so very very different.
These look so very very different. (Image courtesy @jacedeloney)

The meeting will go up soon on the city channel 6 site. I’m told I was viewed as “intense”.

Tried to make my 3 minutes at 3:00 count, but there was no reaction from the CCAG; except that afterwards I was cornered by a UT VP and lectured for not having provided them much data. Sorry, ma’am, I got a job and a family; it ought to be the job of the people you PAY TO DO THIS to provide honest data. Oh, and Dave Sullivan got mad because I didn’t mention the GPS stuff in Rapid Bus as an improvement. Dave, it was in the earlier draft. Trust me.

The Rapid Bus post will have to wait. The time I was going to spend at this chess tournament writing it up turned out to be burned up by running around after my 4 year old, although I did get to talk to Councilmember Spelman for ten minutes before Sophie insisted that enough was enough.

How do I feel? Despite popular conception, I’m apparently not completely cynical as I was surprised at how embarassingly shameless this con-job ended up being. Thrown for enough of a loop that I ended up throwing bile all over twitter last night of a caliber that the world hasn’t seen in many years. Worrying-the-coworkers level, here.

I’m most upset, though, I think, at the fact that the AURA people were conned by people like friend-of-the-blog JMVC into thinking that Rapid Bus did not, in fact, preclude urban rail. Those folks then proceeded to invest a huge amount of their time in this process, when the fix had been in since the very beginning; and they ended up giving Project Connect relevance and respect it didn’t deserve in the process. Had people been honest from the beginning, we might have been able to have an adult conversation about “why aren’t we doing more for Guadalupe than this shitty bus service that makes things worse for most people north of the river anyways?”. Now we never will. I wasted a couple of days of vacation time. The AURA executive committee spent ten times as much, each.

As for where we go from here? I will see what the AURA guys end up doing. If they continue to be suckered into believing, or even just acting like JMVC and his pals driving Project Connect are their friends rather than the obstacles they really are, then we’ll be parting ways. I said at the beginning of this process that if a non-Guadalupe route was recommended through an honest process using legitimate data and reasonable assumptions that I’d support it. THAT’S NOT EVEN CLOSE TO WHAT WE GOT.

And I don’t agree with Julio that we’ve made incredible progress. ‘We’ forced Project Connect to come up with bad data, bad analysis, and bad conclusions to justify their predetermined route, sure; but the route is still bad – it’s the same goddamn route as before – with the same 0% chance of being full-enough-of-riders to lead to a full system of urban rail instead of another RedLine-esque generation-losing one-and-done.

I definitely won’t be voting for a Highland/”ERC but really no just Mueller” alignment the way things stand now, nor should you.

West Campus, UT, and “The Core”

So I spent about three hours around lunch yesterday for a 1.75 hour meeting moderated by AURA where we could ask questions of Project Connect staff. One of my questions was following up Lyndon Henry by complaining that the size of the subcorridors (or in Lyndon’s better term, “sectors”) was ludicrous and pushing us away from a more sensible decision-making process.

At one point later on, a very good pal of mine who is working on the program answered John Lawler (UT student government)’s question about why that decision was made to suddenly include UT and West Campus with the Core with a blistering diatribe about how inappropriate and offensive it was to be so cynical about the motives behind said change, while occasionally looking right at yours truly. Message received, loud and clear. (Not just by me; others asked me if I thought you were speaking to John or to me when you went there).

Before I link to my brand new slide deck you just motivated me to write this morning, know this: Before this meeting, I only mentioned this change in an aside in a couple of places. I never talked to the University Area Partners or Mr. Lawler; they didn’t get their complaints from me. If anything, I may actually have heard about it from them, indirectly. I was like the tenth person in the scene to even notice the change.

But by incorrectly assuming that just because it was a complaint, it must have been only from me, or by trying to score points by making an attack about it by tying it to me, whom you presumed was held in low regard by the room, you just brought me into it. Congratulations, now I’m all-in.

If your (paid to do this) feelings were hurt by the implication that the motivation for the change might have been less than aboveboard, consider the converse: I took vacation time to spend my lunch hour only to get attacked by you (who, again, unlike me, is getting paid to do this).

Click the little expanders in the lower right to embiggen.



The last gif is animated in my version but not on slideshare. Imagine Colbert sarcastically clapping, or don’t.