Libertarians and Public Highways

Yesterday, local pseudo-libertarian Jeff Ward was speaking out on his show against the recently passed toll road plan. I’m not going to talk about whether the plan is good or bad (In my role on the Mostly Ignored Transportation Advisory Commission, I voted for it as a lesser of two evils myself with some amendments to handle some things I didn’t like), but about something which is increasingly common these days – that being Libertarians Who Love Them Some Good Old Fashioned Government Pork As Long As It’s In The Form Of Suburban Highways. (LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSH for short).
And just a minute ago, two winger-leaning cow orkers came over to get an education on toll roads. They also fall into this category.

So, one would assume that libertarians would be strongly in favor of toll roads. After all, gas taxes (and worse, property taxes) are a very blunt instrument. People pay who don’t even use the facilities that get the money (for instance, people who drive on major arterials in the city of Austin are usually not on roads that get any state gas tax money, which by state law can only go to state highways). The money isn’t even remotely related to the facility you’re on (drive on I-35 and you’re funding construction of Mopac North). And with our own dysfunctional funding scheme here in Austin, you pay (via property and sales taxes) for not only major arterials such as Lamar Blvd, but also for right-of-way for state highway expansions even if you don’t own a car.

So when I turned on the radio, I would logically have expected Jeff Ward, he of the “show me the business plan for transit” theory, to be strongly in favor of toll roads. After all, the funding is more directly related to the use (you use, you pay; you don’t use, you don’t pay). Ths is Libertarian 101.

You can guess, however, from where this is going that he doesn’t believe that way.

No, Jeff, like most self-identified libertarians I’ve met, loves our Socialist Highway System. Because, you see, he uses it every day, so it must be an example of Good Big Government. And he never gets to talk to any of the people who use Capital Metro every day, so that’s obviously Bad Big Government.

Those LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSHers love to complain that transit is bad because it gets most of its money out of a tax that most of us pay which is not related to our use (zero, some, or lots) of the system. They like to point out how little of the cost of one trip on the system is paid for at the time of boarding by the rider. Well, guess what, LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSHers? The same damn thing is true for road funding, at a much larger scale. I pay property taxes and sales taxes to Austin, which uses them to build and maintain most of its major arterials with no contribution from the gas tax. I get no rebate on the days I don’t drive. When I do drive, I drive most of my trips on those roads that Austin pays for; so my gas taxes go mainly out to the ‘burbs, where a much higher percentage of their major infrastructure receives gas-tax funding.

You know, I don’t like these roads being built either way. But I know damn well that having them built and having the people who chose to live out in the hinterlands pay some of the costs of their destructive choices is far superior than having them built and having us all pay out of generic gas taxes and property taxes and sales taxes. At least this way, when Joe Suburbia goes looking for houses, he’ll have to think of the cost of his choice.
I guess that makes me a better libertarian than Jeff Ward.

And please don’t talk to me about any of the following winger talking points on either side:

  1. We paid for them already. (No, you didn’t. Mostly, people in the urban core paid the bills for you).
  2. Double-taxation is wrong. (I don’t care. From an efficiency perspective – i.e. moving the most people for the least cost, you absolutely must use some form of congestion pricing, even if it’s the blunt instrument of tolls which don’t change by the time of day).
  3. You’re paving the Springs (Yes, but the other alternative was building these same roads as free roads, which would have been even worse as an incentive for sprawl over the aquifer).

Addendum

This morning I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway (near Lamar). I boarded the 983 express bus, and paid a “toll” of $1.00 (actually 50c since I bought discount tickets a while back). I was “double-taxed” since I also pay for Capital Metro with my sales tax dollars. Oh, the humanity.

Cap Metro Almost Lies

This presentation incorporates some responses to people (including myself) who have yet to swallow the “building commuter rail for people who don’t pay into Capital Metro while giving the center city a rapid bus line” plan.

The most egregious is on this page, where Cap Metro makes this claim:

“Could serve central city passengers, as well as suburban passengers in our northwest service area”

WRONG. No “central city passengers” will live anywhere near a station proposed for the initial route of this line, by the accepted definition of “central city”. Airport Blvd. is not “central city”. Hyde Park is “central city”. Rosedale and North University and West Campus are “central city”. Only somebody living out in Round Rock would look at the 1960s era neighborhoods of Crestview that the line slices through and consider it “central city”.

This line does not go anywhere near the densest residential parts of Austin, unlike the 2000 light rail route. Nobody living along Lamar or Guadalupe is going to hop a bus to go north to the commuter rail station (if one is built anywhere between Mopac and I-35) only to ride the commuter rail back downtown only to hop a shuttle bus to their ultimate destination.

And then, they make this claim:

“Over time, more stations and service in urban areas”

MISLEADING. This rail line isn’t going anywhere it doesn’t currently go. Yes, Capital Metro could knock down a bunch of businesses and homes to build more stations in the ‘central city’ by their generous definition, but even then, not enough residential density exists near those stations to make them feasible.

Commuter Rail #48: It’s Not Light Rail, No Matter What You Say

I had a good lunch with Dave Dobbs about two weeks ago. Dave’s a stand-up guy who is really working hard to get more mass transit on the ground in Texas cities, including Austin. So, any disagreements exposed in this article are honest ones; both Dave and I want more mass transit, not less. In fact, we both want more rail transit, too.

One of the things being floated in the face of center-city opposition to Cap Metro’s new long-range plan is the idea that commuter rail is practically the same thing as light rail, except cheaper, so why would any of you light-rail guys oppose it anyways. Dave, in particular, was exasperated by my insistence in calling this plan “commuter rail” and comparing it to other commuter rail lines, such as Tri-Rail’s disaster in South Florida. Let’s analyze the things that were good about light rail, and see if that holds up:

The primary positive aspects of the 2000 light rail proposal, in my opinion, are (were):

  • Very short headways (initially only moderately short; but double-tracking the entire length of the corridor meant it would be easy to go to very short headways).
  • Opportunity for dense transit-oriented redevelopment in the Robinson Ranch, the Burnet/Metric corridor, and the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor
  • Electrified runningway (means that the vehicle can accelerate and stop fairly well, runs fairly quietly, and does not pollute at source).

In addition, the light rail route would have alloed for pickup and delivery of passengers via pedestrian arrivals (i.e. less than a ten-minute easy walk to or from the station) at all of the following major attractors (north-south):

  • Park and Rides in far northwest Austin and suburban areas
  • Robinson Ranch
  • Metric Blvd / Burnet Rd tech employers (including IBM)
  • University of Texas Pickle Research Campus
  • Huntsman site (near Airport/Lamar)
  • Central Market / Central Park (38th/Lamar)
  • 38th St medical complex
  • University of Texas main campus
  • State Capitol complex
  • Congress Avenue
  • City Hall / CSC
  • South Congress

Evaluating the commuter rail proposal on the same metrics, we have:

  • Very long headways initially (every 30 minutes). Most bus routes in the city operate this frequently or more frequently, and yet one of the most common complaints from passengers is that they have to wait too long for a bus. This is unlikely to improve without double-tracking the whole corridor, and even then, I doubt whether headways could be improved beyond 15 minutes due to the performance characteristics of commuter rail vehicles.
  • Dave thinks the same opportunities for redevelopment exist (of course, in different corridors in some cases). l disagree – in no city in the USA has commuter rail ever resulted in the type of transit-oriented redevelopment you see with light rail, and it’s not a simple terminology difference. I’ll address this component in a later article. Even if Dave is right, the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor (and hence the near-UT areas which would be most obviously ripe for transit-oriented development due to their demographics) are not served by this plan.
  • These vehicles are going to be diesel locomotive-driven. At best, they might be similar to the RegioSprinter which was run around town a few years ago for a demonstration. These vehicles are likely to be far noisier, more polluting, and have worse acceleration and deceleration characteristics than would a typical light-rail vehicle.

And for pickup/delivery, we have:

  • Park and Rides in far northwest Austin and suburban areas
  • Robinson Ranch
  • Metric Blvd / Burnet Rd tech employers (including IBM)
  • University of Texas Pickle Research Campus
  • Huntsman site (near Airport/Lamar)
  • Convention Center

Some might argue that Cap Metro’s map shows this line going to Seaholm, and that a station at 4th and Congress is likely. I disagree:

  • Adding commuter rail trackway in the street is much more difficult than it would have been to built a LRT runningway. It will also interfere with plans for the Lance Armstrong Bikeway. Expecting this rail to be built anytime soon is a fool’s hope. And if reasonable headways (less than 30 minutes) are to be delivered, this will require double-tracking the entire downtown stretch. Keep in mind that this rail will be wider than the light rail trackway would have been.
  • Even when built, the idea that downtown can hang its hopes on a station that will definitely be at 4th and Congress is foolish. That’s too close to the station at Seaholm to be feasible (ironically, this is true even though the station at Seaholm is too far away to make pedestrian access to Congress feasible for most – IE, it’s too close for the vehicle but too far away for people).

Unfortunately, instead of opposing the plan on its (lack of) merits, most of the center-city people are wasting their time pushing for a quicker path to Seaholm (again, on the questionable principle that they can get a station on Congress by doing so). They then make this extraordinary claim:

“A rail line through the middle of downtown would allow a high
frequency circulator to quickly and efficiently carry commuters north,
to the Capitol complex and the University of Texas, and south, to the
South Congress District.”

We have that high-frequency circulator already. It’s called the Dillo, and nobody who has free or cheap parking ever uses it, because it’s dog-slow, because it’s stuck in the same traffic as your car would be.

Statesman on board?

Today’s Statesman featured a sidebar on page 1 of the Metro section which picked up on the “running a poorly designed commuter rail system to suburban areas which don’t pay Cap Metro taxes may increase operatng costs to the point where the urban core will never be able to get rail service” meme I’m working so hard on.

relevant excerpt:

A figure of $1 a ride, identical to what it costs now to ride express buses, has been kicked around but is by no means certain. But the train line probably would create a new operating deficit to add to the red ink.

With all that in mind, the Capital Metro staff has been looking at its entire fare structure. Staff members, with the aid of graduate students from the University of Texas, have been running economic models to see how higher fares might affect services, looking to find the number that optimizes revenue. The staff will make a recommendation to the Capital Metro board in July.
What emerges will no doubt still be a bargain. The board will not want to give its mostly urban bus riders — and rail election voters — the impression that they are subsidizing suburban train riders.

Cap Metro update

My motion last night failed for lack of a second. This is less than I expected (I thought I’d likely lose 6-2 or 7-2). Like I said, long uphill battle (most people are willing to take Cap Metro’s word on performance rather than thinking critically and/or looking at peer cities).

Oh, and even though Cap Metro didn’t bother to send somebody to talk about the long-range plan, not one other commissioner had the guts to go out on a limb and call them on this plan’s lack of support for Austin’s needs. Rather disappointing.

I’ve now finished a rough draft of some Qs and As about my opposition to this plan. More to come when I get spare moments.

Bus Reliability

This morning, after I finished a short interview with KLBJ-AM’s morning news show (despite being well-meaning in their attempts to cover local issues, the format isn’t very helpful – I only spoke about ten sentences total), I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway. Since I was up extra early, my choices were to take the #3 bus at 7:16 (arriving up near my office at 7:44) or take the more comfortable and quicker express bus at 7:48 (arriving near my office at 8:08).

I arrived at the bus stop about 5 minutes early (late for me), and waited. And waited. And waited. The bus finally showed up at about 7:30.

It’s now 8:03 and I’m finally at my desk. And by the way, thanks to the motorists on Jollyville who were relatively understanding of my slow cycling due to the water. I didn’t get splashed once.

The bus wasn’t late because it makes a lot of stops. That’s factored into the schedule.

The bus wasn’t late because it travels on city streets instead of the freeway. That’s factored into the schedule.

The bus was late because of unpredictable traffic downtown. And because there’s no transit priority (bus lanes or other) anywhere downtown, the bus suffers when cars jam the streets.

Now, compare and contrast to Capital Metro’s so-called “rapid bus” proposal. Their bus would run through downtown in shared lanes with cars, just like today’s #3 did. In downtown and through UT, it is unlikely that it would have been able to hold any lights green (without destroying the sequencing of the lights on that corridor). It would have been able to hold a few lights green outside downtown (but, when I got on the bus at 38th/Medical, we didn’t hit more than 2 red lights all the way up to my stop at Braker and Jollyville – and at one of those, we had stopped to pick up passengers anyways).

In short: the “rapid” bus wouldn’t have been any more reliable than the city bus I took this morning. And that’s not good enough for the taxpayers of Austin.

Game On

Today’s Statesman (registration required) contains the first non-gushing comment about Capital Metro’s plan to screw the center city in favor of Cedar Park and Round Rock (who don’t even pay Capital Metro taxes) in order to curry favor with Mike Krusee.

But the agency will have to win over some lukewarm Austinites.
“I absolutely reject it on its own merits because of the benefits for people who don’t pay and the lack of benefits for people who do pay, said Mike Dahmus, a member of the Urban Transportation Commission, an advisory board for the Austin City Council.

He said the plan would shortchange the large number of city residents who provide the agency’s tax base in order to serve residents of the suburbs. Plus, he added, “the commuter rail doesn’t go anywhere near the University of Texas or the densest urban core.”

The bulk of Capital Metro’s budget comes from a 1-cent sales tax levied in Austin and a few surrounding communities that are part of the agency’s service area.

News 8, on the other hand, interviewed current bus passengers. Even Capital Metro isn’t quite stupid enough now to think that the opinions of current bus users should shape a rapid transit line, although they’re still attacking the issue from the angle of cost, which is not a winner with rail or bus.

Today during lunch, I hope to get the first fact page up (this one about the proposed rapid bus line). This will be an uphill struggle at best.

It’s Rapid Bus, Folks

Short entry: I went down to Cap Metro at 11 for a briefing on the new different long-range transit plan (they’re not ready for open-records stuff yet so they were only willing to talk to 4 people from our commission at a time) and yes, the urban core of Austin is getting screwed. Rail for people in the densest parts of town is now gone; replaced with “rapid bus” lines, which do not include plans for any knd of prioritization beyond the “keep the green light a few seconds longer”.

In other words, the far suburbs, many of whom don’t pay taxes to Cap Metro, are getting commuter rail; and the urban core, where most of the money comes from, is getting a slightly better version of the #101.

Cap Metro just got a new worst enemy. I don’t expect to have any influence over the outcome, but I can and will make the people responsible for this decision as miserable as possible.

Proof of Yesterday’s Entry

Yesterday, I gave a hypothetical example which showed why suburbanites might only see empty buses, and incorrectly assume that all buses are always empty.
It took exactly one day to prove the hypothetical.

This morning, I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway intending to take the express bus into work as usual. However, I got there a bit early due to green lights, and the #3 bus showed up right as I pulled in. I thought I’d give it a whirl, since it ends up arriving up here at about the same time as the express bus, and has the added advantage of dropping off at Braker rather than Balcones Woods, which allowed me to more easily deposit some rent checks at the ATM.

There were 24 people on the bus, including me, when we pulled away from the bus stop. Note that this stop is about a quarter of the northbound length away from downtown, i.e., if you rode from the central point of the route to its far northern end, this stop is about 1/4 of the way up.

We puttered up Medical Parkway and Burnet, stopping at about 60% of the stops, usually to let people off; occasionally to pick people up. By the time we got to US 183 and Burnet, there were about 10 people still on the bus.

At Braker and Mopac, there were 4 people left, includng me.

At my stop on Braker between 183 and Jollyville, one other guy left the bus with me. That left 2 people to go to the end of the northbound route at the Arboretum (actually a loop end-point; it’s technically south of where I got off, but still before the layover point).
So if you had seen the bus between downtown and Burnet at 183, you would have thought: “that’s a pretty full bus” (nearly every seat was taken). If you had seen the bus at the Randall’s on Braker, on the other hand, you would have said “that bus is empty”.

And if you were as stupid as most suburbanites, that would be ammunition for you to run around and claim that Capital Metro wastes your money because all they do is run empty buses.

PS: The ride stunk. Bumpy and jerky. Hard to read. Not worth the 50 cent savings. I’ll wait for the express bus next time.