Tag Archives: economic ignorance

Andy Cantú and the Austin Chamber of Commerce are dishonest, ignorant, or both.

Chamber says land reform is top transportation priority

That interest in return on investment opens the chamber up to critics who drubbed the 2014 light rail proposal as a suboptimal choice of projects. Its huge price tag and relatively low ridership projections – due in part to a route that bypassed some of the city’s densest neighborhoods – could have drastically cut into the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Agency’s operating budget, which could in turn have hurt the agency’s bus service, those critics argued.

“I don’t think I would characterize the 2014 bond proposal as a bad plan or a bad investment,” Cantú said in the chamber’s defense. “It might not have been the perfect plan. And I think a lot of people and groups in Austin are looking for perfection, and perfection is the enemy of good enough.”

He either doesn’t know the concept “worse than nothing” or knows it and doesn’t care. Ignorant or dishonest. You pick.

And, yes, this is important. The Chamber essentially picked that disastrous route for us, because the Mayor didn’t know anything about transportation and listened to their (bad) advice.

If the Chamber’s ‘new approach’ that identifies sprawl as bad does not include radical honesty about how bad the 2014 light rail plan was (instead extolling I-35 ‘improvements’ and more state highway ‘investment’), then they have learned nothing; we are all dumber for having listened to them. I award them no points; and may god have mercy on their souls.


A very accurate summary of where we are

I don’t claim to know Leffingwell’s motivation, but everything else in this short post from Dave Dobbs via twitlonger is accurate:

“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?”

Dave Dobbs,
Texas Association for Public Transportation

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.

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?



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.


  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 []

Great responses to John Langmore

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.

Finally, Mark Cathcart expresses his concerns in a separate post

Oh, and I’m giving John a rare Worst Person In Austin award. Well done.

No sir, I don’t buy it.

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.

The ceiling for the Red Line

is very low.

I keep having to drag up this old Chronicle article so much I finally thought I’d better link to it AND excerpt the relevant parts in case it ever disappears down the memory hole.

February 25, 2000 in the Chronicle:

The prevailing wisdom has been that a project in Smart-Grown Austin, serving major trip generators like UT and the Capitol complex, supported by Cap Met’s ample sales tax revenue, would be a slam dunk for a “highly recommended” rating. (Conversely, the original Red Line, which had far lower ridership and — even though it was on existing rail right of way — only marginally lower projected costs, was headed, Cap Met insiders say, for a “not recommended” kiss-of-death rating, which is why the transit authority switched tracks at the 11th hour.)

The key here is that from about 1997-1999, Capital Metro’s plan of record was to take the entire Red Line (what we use now for commuter rail), build two new tracks, put up electric wire, and run light rail trains on it all day long at high frequencies.

The Federal government said the ridership would be low, negligibly higher than what we’re seeing today, and hinted to Capital Metro that they would not fund that line. Capital Metro quickly switched to what became the 2000 light rail proposal – the “Red/Green” line, using the Red Line’s ROW only from Leander to Airport/Lamar, then going in the street from there.

You can use the 1997 proposal as, effectively, a ceiling for what can be accomplished with further investment in the Red Line we have today. Nothing has truly changed since then – Capital Metro anticipated infill then around the stations in the far northwest, and they anticipate it now, and it still turns out to be low-density crap if it ever gets built. No more jobs have moved to be close to the MLK station instead of at UT.

Folks, there isn’t that much more that can be accomplished with a train that doesn’t go very many places worth going. The real action is, as it always has been, around Congress Avenue downtown (not the Convention Center); at the University of Texas (preferably its front door on Guadalupe), and at the Capitol; and no, you aren’t going to convince suburbanites to transfer to a shuttle-bus(*) to get to those places (as we’ve finally, I hope, proven by now).


This is why further investment in the Red Line is best characterized as wasting money trying to disprove the sunk cost fallacy. There’s very little new ridership there, even if the train gets a little faster, or runs a few more hours on the weekend.

* – no, urban rail doesn’t help either. Suburbanites own cars. Two train trips in our commuting environment, even if the second one goes closer to where they want to go, is fundamentally uncompetitive. Believe me, or not, but remember: I’m the guy who predicted the Year 1 ridership correctly, and called that nobody would want to ride shuttlebuses when everybody else said they would.

A message I just posted to the Hyde Park NA list

In response to this site and calls to support it. Some links added as I find them. The post to which I replied, paraphrased, is something like “We believe in urban density but not these boarding houses / dorm duplexes”. Don’t want to quote without permission, but that was the gist.

My response was:

So I too believe in urban density, and these buildings stink. I’m eager to meet new converts to the cause! Having lived for years on E 35th next to a big duplex and across an alley from a small apartment complex, I can tell you that even with a wonderful, responsive, landlord; the apartments beat the duplex hands-down for being good neighbors.

In the past, both Hyde Park NA and NUNA fought VMU on Guadalupe and then retreated to a position of demanding no parking reductions when the first battle was ‘lost’ (which effectively prevents all but the most high-dollar developments from materializing). The neighborhood plans call for minimal increases in density (in NUNA, it would be impossible to even rebuild some of the older apartment complexes on Speedway, for instance). NUNA fought the Villas on Guadalupe. Apartments and renters are demonized on this list. On and on and on.

So, I’m assuming those against these ‘dorm-style duplexes’, which are catering to an unmet-for-decades demand for student housing close enough to ride bikes to UT are going to be in favor of increased MF development not only on the edges of our neighborhood but on good transit corridors such as Speedway and Duval, right? New morning and all?