Tag Archives: Red Line

2015 Honesty Agenda on Transportation: What is honesty?

Honesty Agenda 2015 – Part Two

This is going to seem a bit disjointed because I ended up writing the main draft in the middle, very cramped, seat of a very delayed flight to Atlanta for a business trip; and

Made With Notepad because paying for wifi for an hour of personal use seemed unwise. So here we go.

Refer back to Part 1 of the Honesty Agenda on Austin transportation for the introduction.

What do I mean when I say honesty?

Honesty is more than simply “technically telling the truth”. A good place to start, but just to start, is the oath people take when testifying in court. So let’s at least look at those three parts:

The truth

Don’t say something which is obviously false. This is the easiest thing in the world to do, yet Capital Metro has gotten this wrong in the past (ref Todd Hemingson’s claim about the projection he made and then tried to claim he didn’t make, about first year Red Line ridership). The simplest attention by the media ought to catch our transit agency and city in this one, yet they rarely do (KUT being one very rare exception here).

The whole truth

Don’t say something which, while true, leads people to think they now know what’s going on, when you’ve actually kept a portion of the ‘whole truth’ behind so that they come to the conclusion you want them to. For instance, Capital Metro claims we’re going to have a new, exciting, frequent transit network (buses arriving at least every 15 minutes). If Capital Metro knows we used to have that, at least on the #1 route, and they don’t say so, they haven’t told the whole truth. Or, let’s say, if Capital Metro says ridership on MetroRapid is growing! (comparing 801 ridership six months ago to 801 ridership today), but overall ridership on the corridor is significantly below what it was before MetroRapid launched and staying stagnant since the initial drop, have they told the whole truth? Put another way:

Would “the 801 is doing better” be enough information without “but the overall 1/801 ridership is going nowhere and significantly below the old 1/101 ridership” for our elected leaders to make smart decisions?

Those aren’t even the most important examples though. During transit planning, this is far more critical. When the 801 was proposed, Capital Metro talked about how much faster it was going to be than the 1, while hiding the fact that it wasn’t going to be much, if any, faster than the existing limited-stop 101. It’s technically true that the 801 is faster than the 1. But it’s not the whole truth. It’s not useful in making decisions; the far more useful fact is the difference compared to the 101’s speed when it ran (and it turns out, there’s no difference except for that attributable to the downtown transit lane, which made the 1 faster and would have made the 101 faster too).

Nothing but the truth

Don’t add things that might (misleadingly) shade people away from the truth. Don’t talk about highway subsidies to try to mislead people away from a serious discussion on transit operating subsidies (the subsidy on a given highway might be higher than the Red Line, but it is irrelevant to a discussion of whether we can afford the Red Line subsidy as it currently exists).

But that’s not enough for me. Public agencies, funded by tax dollars, should meet a higher standard even than the above (which, after all, is just the oath people take when in an often adversarial relationship in court, to which the punishment for noncompliance is charges of perjury). Public agencies should educate taxpayers – in a way which does not lead taxpayers to a given conclusion, but allows them to make their own educated judgements. By this I do NOT mean the opinion pieces often approving cited, referenced, or retweeted by Capital Metro employees which are actually in direct conflict with their own actions without ever noting the problem. That’s fundamentally DIShonest.

Don’t Obfuscate

I also don’t mean Project Connect’s “data theater” exercises. “Showing your work” via PDF files, with ‘zones’ chosen and then changed, arbitrarily, by the people running the project in ways transparently obviously designed to make some projects rise to the top and others, uh, not; is not honest. Project Connect should have functioned as an open data source by which decision-makers (and the public) could make educated choices, but none of us who participated in that effort would describe it as anything except the exact opposite. In most other cities, Project Connect would have been a straight-up comparison between a few corridors (not this ‘subcorridors which are really zones which were purposefully drawn to make the route they knew they had to compete against look bad’ nonsense). Then, once a corridor was chosen, phase 2 would have been a straight-up comparison of ROUTES.

Don’t Be Disingenuous


This is a big one. It happens all the time. Most of the time you know your audience and you know what they know, so don’t pretend they’re talking about something they really aren’t (don’t oversimplify or misrepresent their argument).

For instance: “There are winners and losers with any change” is not an honest answer to a detailed explanation that points out that the frequency of the combined 1/801 is no higher than the frequency of the 1/101 was – which if honestly addressed, leads to the conclusion that every single local bus rider on the MetroRapid corridor is much worse off now that the new service came along, and the old express riders are for all intents and purposes paying a little more for a little more frequency, the same speed, and the same reliability (i.e. best case = no better off). The person making that statement about ‘winners and losers’ knows it’s not honest; but they know it’s technically true also – it’s just that the ‘winners’ were Capital Metro themselves, and the losers were, uh, all the riders. The public who pays your salary deserves better than being purposefully misled. Likewise, when Project Connect published ‘data’ from a ridiculous model that was essentially predicting almost three million daily transit riders in East Riverside alone and then tried to pretend it didn’t matter because it was just sort of a starting point, that’s disingenuous. If it didn’t really matter, throw that model out of the equation completely and use something that everybody agrees on (common basis). Because when it was left in, it provided significant confirmation for the theory among participants in the process that the data were being cherry-picked and/or made up to support a predetermined plan.

Offer All Sorts Of Data Without Prejudicial Conclusions

Why doesn’t Capital Metro publish their ridership numbers – and on the rare occasions when they do, why never in a form that can be processed by the public? The MTA in New York does.

Why don’t they publish their operating subsidies by mode (or even by line)? They haven’t done this at all since September of 2013, and if you think it’s because the Red Line subsidy figures would have damaged the public case for Proposition 1, you’re probably right! Yes, there’s arguments over methodology that would come into play in either case – but those arguments could be had in the open light of day. Instead, we assume that Capital Metro hides behind the firewall of freedom-of-information requests because they have something to hide (in many cases they do – for instance, recent word on the fare recovery ratio of MetroRapid is pretty awful). While I appreciate Ben Wear’s efforts in seeking this information (most media outlets don’t even try), it should be published every month on Capital Metro’s website so guys like me can analyze it. No excuses. If the data tells a bad story, then have a conversation about it with people who understand how transit works instead of hiding behind meaningless platitudes that prevent any transit project from ever being declared ‘bad’.

In future chapters I will explain in more detail, with many more specific examples, where we have fallen short on these metrics; and then what an honest Project Connect would have looked like. What an honest Capital Metro would look like. And what an honest City of Austin would look like. Because if we’re ever going to see real progress, that’s what we all need.

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 []

I endorse this product and/or service

My work situation is going to prevent me from making much effort on this today so please assume I endorse this product and/or service 100%.

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.

It’s time to talk about Rapid Bus again.

So the PR machine is out in force trying to make Rapid Bus sound great so people are distracted from the fact that the densest, most active, most vibrant corridor in the city – not only now but 40 years from now – isn’t going to get rail until the 2040s, if then. In the meantime, we’re planning on building another hugely subsidized line to suburbs that don’t pay any Capital Metro taxes; and an urban rail line to a “new urban” development that is new, but isn’t urban; and even when fully built out will have far less people and far less travel demand to the core than Guadalupe/Lamar do today.

Was that sentence long enough? I pay by the period.

Anyways, so Rapid Bus? Snakes like JMVC are pitching the hell out of it and talking about it in the same breath as light rail and commuter rail as “high capacity transit” – which is a way to make people in Central Austin think they’re getting equal or nearly-equal quality.

This is bullshit.

So apparently I need to do this again – and this time, for the maximum possible fairness, I’m going to start with the BEST POSSIBLE CASE for Rapid Bus – the Burnet/Lamar corridor, where no express service currently exists.


Thought Experiment

JMVC says this, paraphrased, a lot, and in fact, I completely agree with him:

“Rather than moving to the suburbs and expecting transit to be delivered to you, you should move to areas that are effectively served by transit already, because we’ll never be able to afford to serve all of the suburban sprawl with transit.”

Why, then, does he support rail decisions like these:

Instead of making that investment on places like Guadalupe and Lamar, where the areas are today that are dense – where people like me moved specifically so they could be served cheaply and effectively by transit? Where transit demand is so overwhelming today that the #1 bus which runs the most frequent service in town (requiring the smallest possible subsidy on the entire system) is overloaded and standing-room-only?

Why would we continue to invest in $20-plus-per-ride operating subsidies for people who knowingly chose to live in Cedar Park and Round Rock, who don’t even pay Capital Metro taxes, instead of making far more cost-effective capital investments in the core which could allow cheaper (operating cost, anyways) bus service to be spread out to more lower-density areas instead? Shouldn’t we logically give the people who chose to live in low-density the buses and the people who chose to live in high-density the trains?

Why doesn’t he walk the talk? Why doesn’t Capital Metro?

Capital Metro and Rail Demand, Part The Deux

As always, click to embiggen.

According to our buddy John-Michael Vincent Cortez, this area justifies rail service:

Lakeline "station"
Do the Cedar trees make it urban?

but this location does not:

NB Guadalupe near 27th
Clearly there’s no demand here.

But surely I must have taken a bad picture of the first location. Let’s spin around and take a couple more shots:

Lakeline "station" looking west-ish?
Lakeline "station" looking east-ish?

One last one, to the north-ish, showing development happening any day now which will turn this into an urban paradise:

Lakeline "station", looking north-ish
Man, that screams “future TOD”, don’t it?

Oops, looks like suburban homebuilder signs. Well, still, if he says that this area justifies rail service:

Lakeline "station", looking north-ish
Man, that screams “future TOD”, don’t it?


Lakeline "station" looking east-ish?


Lakeline "station" looking west-ish?


Lakeline "station"
Do the Cedar trees make it urban?

and this does not:

Guadalupe near 27th, looking south
Desolate low-density wasteland with no urban activity, obviously

who are we to argue?


(All Lakeline pictures taken during a serendipitous Saturday morning trip from my kid’s chess tournament up in Cedar Round Rock Park to the Super Awesome Target to buy a camp chair, in which I coincidentally (yes, coincidentally) drove right by the ‘station’. Austin pictures horked from Google streetview, which were obviously snapped during a slow period. Posted with some pain to bookface because RRISD blocks that, and IMAP/SMTP, but NOT tworter for some reason, so Round Cedar Park Rock punks should please plan on getting tworter accounts posthaste).

Spin alert: Back to our buddy

From his twitter last night:

JMVC on twitter, 1/15/2013
JMVC on twitter, 1/15/2013

Huh. Interesting this survey has not been published. Meanwhile, I refer again back to my three posts on the specific issue of who’s riding from where:


First, in Who Is Riding The Red Line, Part One?, I showed that the overwhelming majority of Red Line passengers are boarding at the three park and rides on the northern end of the line; NOT from the stations most people would think of as “in Austin”.

In Who Is Riding The Red Line, Part Two?, I showed that it was expected that most riders at the Lakeline and Howard stations would not be from the City of Austin due to simple geography (i.e. of the people for whom it would make sense to drive a reasonable distance in the correct direction to the station, the overwhelming majority would be outside the Capital Metro service area and the city of Austin).

In Who Is Riding The Red Line, Part Three?, a rider from up north verified that most passengers getting on board at the Lakeline Station (within Austin city limits, but just barely) are actually from Cedar Park, and pay zero Capital Metro taxes when in their home jurisdictions (no, the one or two lunches a week they might do in Austin don’t amount to a hill of beans).

So, back to today: If JMVC is asserting that most riders are from Austin, he has a duty to share his survey methodology and results with the public. If legitimate, I’ll cheerfully append them to each and every post above. Let’s see what he’s got.

Capital Metro and rail demand

According to Capital Metro, this spot has enough demand to justify rail:

Leander "station"
Leander “station”

But this spot does not:

24th and Guadalupe during a slow period
24th and Guadalupe during a slow period