“Austin’s Proposition One is a poison pill for democracy and the new 10-1 council.
My view is that when Mayor Leffingwell found himself on the losing end of the 10-1 vote, he decided to make his prediction that such a council so constituted couldn’t function by saddling that future council with enormous debt and a totally non sequitur urban rail plan that doesn’t go where most people go, doesn’t address congestion, has far too few riders for far too much cost, will see too little fare box return and that will negatively impact bus service. Additionally, the convoluted rail ballot language politically encumbers the new council with certificates of obligation (CO) for $400 million in roads that will do nothing for Austinites, while at the same time authorizing bonds for a rail proposal that the FTA is not likely to put high on the list. And because Austin changed the original destination from Mueller to Highland ACC, another three years of federal planning (and more money) will be necessary to even get on the list for federal funding.
The bottom line here is that if Austin’s Proposition 1 passes, a new council, awash with voter mandated debt, will have it’s hands tied; subject to the charge that it’s not carrying out the voter’s wishes if it doesn’t spend the money. In short, passage of the rail bonds and the problematic road CO’s associated with those bonds is going to create endless static in council chambers for years. How can anything productive come out of that?”
Texas Association for Public Transportation
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.
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.
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.
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. [↩]
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 [↩]
I’ve just seen a leader of the getalong gang use that phrase twice in short succession. Cut that shit out.
1. Highland rail is NOT GOOD. It will, we believe, spend all remaining available local capital funds on a service which will increase rather than decrease operating costs. It’s the equivalent of using your last savings to buy into a new business which costs you money instead of making you money.
2. Guadalupe rail is NOT PERFECT. The perfect rail system is like these dumb subway maps floating around, or Patrick Goetz’ ideal of elevated rail through the whole city. Most cities build a Guadalamar surface line precisely because it’s good, not perfect; but good is affordable.
But primarily, can we all agree now that almost everybody who uses the phrase “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” is trying to snooker you into thinking that something bad is actually good? “We have to start somewhere” is meaningless if the thing you start on turns out to end everything because you ran out of money on a low ridership speculative development line.
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).
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.
A letter I just sent to the City Council and Capital Metro board.
Mayor, council members, and board members:
Please oppose the Project Connect Locally Preferred Alternative presented to you tomorrow. This project, far from being the start of a worthy system, will ensure we are never able to develop a strong rail backbone for our area.
Many of you have heard complaints about the Project Connect process. Suffice to say that it’s a nationwide laughingstock at this point. Far from lauding them for their transparency, you should be asking yourselves why the most knowledgeable transit advocates here (and some from outside Austin as well) are opposing this proposal when in most cities, your best transit advocates are the most enthusiastic supporters of a rail proposal.
Despite what you hear from Project Connect, this is not simply a matter of wanting rail on Guadalupe and Lamar first. Those of us involved in transit advocacy for the longest time here in Austin and that have the most experience observing other cities have come to the conclusion that for a couple of reasons, building rail on the Highland route means we will never get rail on our best corridor.
The choice of a low ridership route to serve development interests means we will have large operating subsidies for riders compared to existing bus service on that corridor, which will lead to service cuts – a death spiral for transit rather than the virtuous circle we hope rail transit will be when applied to our best corridors. We will have used up our scarce remaining financial and political capital on a line that never pays us back. Rail should be built where it provides operating cost advantages over existing bus services – not where it will cost even more to run.
In addition, there exists substantial doubt among transit advocates that the FTA would ever fund rail on Guadalupe/Lamar if they already funded Highland, due to the proximity of the corridors. Of course, we’d also face political headwinds in building what voters would perceive as a 3rd rail line serving north central Austin.
Please do the right thing and reject this LPA before we organize the voters to do it. I stand with many strong local transit advocates in promising that we will oppose this line if it is placed on the ballot in November, and we will do our best to make sure it does not pass. I hope you do not allow it to come to this.
(Urban Transportation Commission 2000-2005).
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.
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.
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.
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! [↩]
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 [↩]
What you need to know is that this REDUCES frequency for current 1/101 riders north of the river, because the 1L is being eliminated along with the 101. If you’re boarding at a stop served by both the 1 and 101 today, the same total number of 1 and 801 buses will stop there in the future; the mix will just change to fewer 1s. If you’re boarding at a stop served only by the 1L/1M today, you’re going to lose half your buses.
What you need to know is that this was projected to be no faster than the 101 in early plans, and now data sent to google maps actually shows it being slower than the 101 (not sure if this is legitimate or a hiccup, but it’s not a good sign).
And finally, what you need to know is that this will cost riders a lot more to ride. Despite the fact that the 1 route was quite likely the least subsidized bus route in the city before this change, fares are going up due to this change (the 801 will cost quite a bit more than the 1 did).
On days like this where I have no time it’s so nice that others have picked up the slack. I’m just going to republish their comments to Langmore’s disingenuous and mendacious letter to the Chronicle. It is just horrible that a guy like Langmore, a rail consultant responsible for many horrible projects that have set back transit for years due to low ridership and huge operating subsidies, has this kind of soapbox and power.
First, from Chris Lazaro:
One of my biggest problems with Mr. Langmore’s letter is not that he misinterpreted our call to consider Lamar/Guadalupe as a call to pull the plug on MetroRapid (which is not true, by the way). Rather, my biggest issue here is this data that he and others are so quick to trust, despite warnings from trustworthy professionals in the transportation field that the data is both flawed and incomplete.
I can tell you that, as a transportation planner myself, garbage in absolutely equals garbage out–and that is precisely what is happening here. Frankly, some of the metrics used by the Project Connect team to evaluate the transit sub-corridors is laughable and, at the least, should not have been given nearly as much weight as they were. The team can pretend that they altered weights and still identified Highland as the #2 route, but when some of the appropriate datasets are ignored altogether, how can we trust that we have been given the complete picture?
And, beside all of that, Langmore and other Council members have spent all this time defending the Highland sub-corridor that East Riverside (a corridor that we all agree makes sense) is quickly falling by the wayside. It is becoming evident that the Mayor wanted Highland to move into the Phase 2 study, regardless of what else was going on.
At the very least, Langmore, Leffingwell, and the rest of City Council needs to come clean about their intentions for Austin’s next transit investment. If it is to serve the interests of ACC and the Seton Medical Center, then they need to admit that. Hiding behind threats of lost funding and lost support from the FTA will not suffice.
Last, but not least, cities across this country sell Bus Rapid Transit to its residents as an interim solution until rail is affordable along a particular corridor. In other words, cities invest in BRT because they believe it is viable for fixed rail (streetcar, light rail, etc.) and that the system can later be upgraded. If Austin instead wants to argue that its pseudo-BRT system actually precludes future rail investment, then we MUST stop using this upgradability as a selling feature. Period.
It’s time that Langmore, the Mayor, the rest of Council and the Project Connect team be honest about what is happening.
Second, from Cory Brown:
t’s not the least bit unreasonable to question the institutional support of organizations that brought us MetroRail, and its expensive rider subsidies.
It’s also not unreasonable to question the claims of Mr. Langmore, who has chosen to publicly ignore the truth. The next person Mr. Langmore can name as suggesting we “pull the plug on a $48 million investment the month before it opens” will be the first.
If Mr. Langmore & CapMetro can’t be truthful regarding advocates who merely disagree with one facet of their proposal, how can we trust them when it comes to operational costs & ridership estimates?
Third, from Niran Babaloa:
John Langmore’s willingness to misrepresent the arguments of the folks he disagrees with is insulting. Who said we should “pull the plug on a $48 million investment the month before it opens”? The message he has heard from the citizens who disagree with him is clear: do not build a rail line to Highland before putting rail on Lamar. Either start with a line on Lamar and move MetroRapid when the rail line opens a decade from now, or start with East Riverside so Lamar can come second.
As an exercise for the reader, how often do you find yourself needing to head to places on Guadalupe and Lamar? How often for Red River? If you’re like most of the Austinites that are forced to waste their time stuck in traffic on the Drag each day, it’s clear that there are tons of people who want to go places along the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor. We should put rail there.
The question before us is timing. Ideally, we’d start with Lamar, which has the jobs and housing that make it the highest transit ridership already. A good plan B would be starting with East Riverside, where ridership is high, and the zoning allows for enough density for the ridership to be even higher. Highland, however, doesn’t have the density of people or jobs to make for a blockbuster first line, which endangers our chances of building a second and a third.
The biggest issue with Highland is that there is no way voters will approve rail down Lamar once there’s a line to Highland. A second line through Hyde Park before the rest of the city has seen any rail won’t seem fair to most people, and I don’t blame them. Rail to Highland means rail on our best transit corridor won’t happen until the middle of the century. If the places that people want to go can only be reached by buses stuck in traffic, people will stay in their cars, traffic will stay terrible, and we won’t become a city where it’s normal to take transit for decades.
This is the future that the citizens who have been paying attention are trying to avoid. We’re not trying to “pull the plug” on MetroRapid. We’re trying to avoid making the mistake of allowing the backbone of our transit system to remain slow for decades. Join us, and tell city council that if they put a rail line to Highland on the ballot, you’ll vote against it.
if you parse Langmore’s comments it makes me think he was asking them about cancelling the project now (rather than moving the middle third in 8 years); and Project Connect staff were vocal and public at the beginning of the process that Lamar/Guadalupe was on the table and that we should not act as if rapid bus precluded urban rail there.
They either lied then or they’re lying now. Personally, I believe they lied then in order to try to get more buy-in for this process (I myself believed Rapid Bus effectively precluded urban rail and was convinced to believe it might not by those staff members); but it could be now, too; the mixed messages last night about the FTA maybe considering Rapid Bus ‘permanent’ versus what the City Council eventually threw in as a fig leaf is just one obvious indicator.
The fact that the guy who ran the Rapid Bus project at Capital Metro came up and spoke in favor of Lamar and said he doesn’t buy the FTA argument should tell you something.
No, the Riley fig leaf last night changes nothing – it does not commit to a fair evaluation of the Lamar/Guadalupe ROUTE against whatever is shat out for Highlandmall or Highlandmueller; and it does not force a real answer about the FTA’s opinion about moving Rapid Bus in 2020 or 2022 or whenever (instead of John Langmore’s claims that made it pretty clear he implied to them he wanted an opinion on cancelling it today, in 2013). Its only tangible effect would be an attempt to delay opposition until it’s too late.
I’m continuing to urge all transit advocates to vote AGAINST the bond referendum in 2014.
After 14 years of this, you'd be even testier than I am.