Letter to 590 KLBJ morning show guys

I just sent this letter to the 590 KLBJ morning show.

Mark and Ed,

I heard the interview of Councilmember Slusher this morning and had a couple of comments for you to keep in mind if you talk to him again. (I’ve been on your show twice now – I’m the guy from the Urban Transportation Commission – actually, I’m Slusher’s appointee, and he’s not real happy with me these days for obvious reasons).

I know you guys usually attack this from an anti-transit perspective, and I’m firmly pro-transit (and especially pro-rail transit). Most people in the media are inaccurately depicting this as a repeat of 2000 – where central Austin transit people voted overwhelmingly in favor of light rail, and the suburban voters voted overwhelmingly against. That’s not going to be the split this time – a lot of people who know and support transit are not happy with this plan from a pragmatic perspective.

Ed, you tried to raise a good point with the question about lack of service to south and central Austin. When Mr. Slusher responded with the Highland Mall (and other Austin stations), I think he knows that’s not what most people mean by “central Austin” – we mean “the highest density residential areas” such as West Campus, North University, Hyde Park, etc. None of the places where there exists sufficient density to support rail transit are being served by this plan.

I’m also disappointed that nobody brought up the biggest problem with this plan – the fact that it requires riders to transfer to shuttle buses to get to UT, the Capitol, or downtown office buildings. In other cities in this country, it is very clear that your first rail line must deliver most of its passengers to stations which are within WALKING DISTANCE of their final destination, if you want to attract any new passengers to public transportation. People who can choose whether or not to drive (i.e. they own a car and don’t have to pay a lot of money for parking) will not ride a service which sticks them on shuttle buses for the last leg of their journey. This is why South Florida’s commuter rail line, after a decade, is viewed as an expensive failure.

Even without stops in Central Austin, the line could be a moderate success if it delivered passengers to at least one of those three big destinations without a shuttle-bus transfer (this is why so many center-city people were pushing so hard for the line to be immediately extended to the Seaholm power plant with a stop at 4th and Congress).

Without any modifications, the anti-transit people should be very happy with this rail plan, because after people see empty trains running down this route, it will become conventional wisdom that rail can’t work in Austin. In fact, I believe that if this plan passes, it’s going to be the end of rail transit for the area for a generation or two, as it was for South Florida.

Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission

Letter to Editor

This letter was just sent today to the Statesman (registration required to view):

In Monday’s column, Ben Wear places the population in two categories – those who oppose rail transit in general, such as Gerald Daugherty, and those who support Capital Metro’s current plan. However, it’s my experience that a growing number of urban Austinites, after taking a look at the plan, are realizing that it’s a poor attempt at a starter system that will be, as a colleague on the Urban Transportation Commission aptly described it, a “finisher” system rather than a starter line.

Any first attempt at rail transit for a metropolitan area must deliver passengers to stations within walking distance of their office in order to attract a non-trivial number of people who can choose whether or not to use transit. Capital Metro’s plan requires nearly all riders to transfer to shuttle buses for the final portion of their journey and will therefore, like South Florida’s Tri-Rail line, doubtllessly be a huge disappointment from day one.

The Urban Transportation Commission at its last meeting unanimously voted to ask Capital Metro to include a referendum on the rail ballot asking the voter to indicate their preference among a set of 4 options, including several plans which solve the “circulator” problem.

In the future, please do not pigeonhole the entire area into the categories of “against all rail transit” and “for Capital Metro’s ‘finisher’ system”. The residents of the city of Austin (who voted FOR light rail in 2000, by the way) deserve better.

Michael E. Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission