Tag Archives: Fact Check

Bill Spelman was a bully.

The week before last, when I ripped one on the radio, I took hours off from work and family to go downtown to give a speech before the City Council in what was supposed to finally be the one and only chance to give meaningful public input on the Project Connect plan.

I had this outline ready to speak to – planned at a minimum of 3-6 minutes but expandable to the full 15 minutes that I apparently had to use thanks to others’ donations.

As you probably know, at the last second, council voted 5-2 (at Mayor Leffingwell and Mike Martinez’ seeming direction, with Councilmember Bill Spelman’s vote in favor) to limit testimony. Roughly 2 hours of anti-plan testimony had been signed up by then and roughly 30 minutes of pro-plan testimony. Each side was given 30 minutes; and the anti-plan side ended up with more like 20 due to interference by Leffingwell.

As I was walking back from the podium after my abbreviated speech, Spelman called out from the dais something like “I don’t remember seeing Mr. Dahmus or Mr. Morris at any CCAG meetings”.

This was bullying, people. We already have a significant and obvious (and appropriate) power imbalance. But to make it worse by trying to color perception of my short speech by calling my credibility into question was beyond the pale.

As a matter of fact, I gave a speech at the November CCAG (again having to take hours off of work and family obligations) – and Spelman didn’t hear that speech because he arrived late. And I know Scott Morris did so on at least one occasion as well. But this is also not the only time we’ve talked on this. His kid and my kid were in the same chess tournament last fall – and both Mr. Morris and myself talked with him at length on that occasion about our concerns.

After Spelman made that comment, I attempted to answer from the back of the room “I spoke in November” but was cut off by the mayor with “No speaking from the gallery”. Mr. Spelman did not ask me a question; he just let the perception stand that I had shown up at the last second and had no idea what I was talking about when I said there were no true opportunities to shape the plan.

I gave Mr. Spelman more than a week to communicate with me (I emailed him, attached below). He has not done so. The only conclusion I can come to now is that despite his public image as the affable wonk, Bill Spelman is every bit the bully as the mayor has already proven himself to be.

Sent on June 27th, to no response:

This message is from Mike Dahmus. [ mike@dahmus.org ]
Mr. Spelman, Regarding last night’s council meeting, I’m not sure you heard my response as the mayor immediately cut me off. I didn’t find your comment appropriate but am not sure you even heard the answer either. In fact, I gave a speech at the November CCAG (to which you arrived late). Like most of the people in the true grassroots, I have to take time off from work to speak to you in virtually any venue. Despite this, I also participated 4 or 5 times in Project Connect events. Kyle Keahy and Scott Gross have spent enough time talking to me that they know me well by now. My comments about public involvement are from experience. I’d like to give you a short window to respond and correct this misunderstanding before I open up. I’m quite angry still about last night, and I want to make sure you’re not included if you don’t deserve to be. Please let me know soon. Thanks, Mike Dahmus mike@dahmus.org

It’s July 9th. Nothing came back. I’ve waited long enough for an apology. Bill, you used to be one of my most admired Austin politicians, but at the end you were a bully. Austin deserved better than this.

spelman

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:

20131212ftalettertocapmetro

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 []

Project Connect Phase 1 Document Revealed!

I discovered this today, and it clearly shows Project Connect did, in fact, rate the top four options against each other (and some others we hadn’t heard of) in a tournament, of sorts, to get to where we are now. It’s a shame it took this long for this proof to be revealed; I regret all my complaints up to this point. Click on the image for the full-size version.

20140320ProjectConnectBracket

MetroRapid: What you REALLY need to know

A comment I posted to this PR fluff piece by Movability:

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).

The FTA and last night

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 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.

A bird in the hand should be worth ten in the bush.

I may add some links and pictures to this later; trying to get this out before I start work.

You may see a lot of people talking about how it’s important to serve future growth with rail transit – and what that means in Austin is that we’re doing that instead of serving current density. No, you can’t do both.

So they want to make it a decision about serving one current person in existing density versus one future person in future development. But is that reasonable?

Consider the fact that the speaker after me a couple of Fridays ago was from Catellus, and bragged that with rail, Mueller can add 5,000 new residents. Sounds like a lot. That 5,000 would be a good start to getting 15,000 riders on the train (30,000 boardings/day, which would make it a success).

And hey, the #1 corridor only has like 15,000 boardings/day today (7500 riders), so Mueller’s almost going to be as good today and much better tomorrow, right?

Wrong.

Let’s take those 5,000 people and look at them analytically.

Some of those people will be children, who will not take the rail (except maybe to downtown on the weekend, but, oops, we moved the Childrens Museum to Mueller, so maybe not). Cut out 25% of the original total and we’re down to 4,000 non-children.

Some of those people will be stay-at-home-ers. Especially in Mueller where the proportion of young families is relatively high. Let’s say 5% of those who remain, as a conservative estimate. We’re down to 3800 potential transit riders.

Some of those people will work in the core, but many will not.1  Last I recall the employment share for the core versus the rest of town was something like 20 or 25%. Let’s be optimistic and say 25%. So we’re down to 950 potential transit passengers.

Then, finally, we have to adjust for those who will be willing to take transit. No, not everyone will be; many of the people living at Mueller who work downtown or at UT are driving today instead of taking the bus, and will continue to drive instead of taking the train; so many of the newcomers will be the same way. Let’s be incredibly optimistic about transit here (for such a low-density, suburban, area) and say that 50% of the people for whom transit is a reasonable option will decide to use it. So we’re down to 475 potential transit passengers.

Well.

If we build rail to Mueller, we can get 475 more people to move in and take rail.

Feel free to run the same kinds of calculations on the additional expected population in Mueller (the amount yet to move in with or without the extra rail bonus). You’re still not going to get up to a ton of potential transit passengers.

Meanwhile, remember that statement upstream about the #1 ridership? Let’s apply the same filters to it.

Approximately 15,000 boardings/day (7500 people) on this corridor today (existing bus service which would logically be folded into light rail there if we built it).

Do we have to adjust down for children? No, these are people who are already taking the bus to work or UT; those children are already factored out before we got to that 7500 number.

Do we have to adjust for stay-at-home’ers? No, these are people who are already taking the bus to work or UT; those people staying at home are already factored out before we got to that 7500 number.

Do we have to adjust for where they work? No, these are people who are already taking the bus to work or UT; people who work in the suburbs are already factored before we got to that 7500 number.

Finally, do we have to adjust for “willing to use transit”? Yes, we doeven more people than the original 7500 would be willing to use rail. We’d have to go back to the population figures within a given distance of the line to calculate how many new riders we could reasonably expect – but it’s pretty much a given that you can exceed the baseline bus ridership in a corridor with a decent rail line. (Note above with Mueller where I said optimistically 50% of people who could reasonably ride transit might take it? On the #1 corridor it’s nowhere near that high today even though the buses are pretty good. Take it up to 50% with good rail and you’d see thousands more riders every day).

What’s the lesson here?

A proven bird in the hand (actual riders in corridor A) should count for more than ten future birds in the future bush (people moving in to corridor B).

  1. I happen to know for an anectdotal fact that many Muellerites work all over the place – from personal experience with them – they don’t all work downtown or UT; far from it; many moved there to get a nice house, relatively cheap, NOT because of where they work []

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