ANC meeting notes

outline from Austin Neighborhoods Council panel, which included myself (in opposition), Sam Archer from Cap Metro, David Foster and Jim Walker on the pro-plan side, and ROAD guy Jim Skaggs also in opposition (but presenting the Neanderthal anti-rail-yes-even-light-rail opposition):

  1. Didn’t get to use half-bridge analogy. Time was my enemy.
  2. Pro-transit people continue to swallow the “if we don’t pass this we’ll never get another chance” kool-aid – mention 2000 failed and we’re here in ’04, so obviously a different rail plan could be put up in ’06 or ’08
  3. Despite that, preparing for loss and documenting historical record (ala Shoal Creek) to try to slightly reduce rail’s forthcoming dark ages in Austin
  4. Feeling very very dirty at sharing a podium with Jim Skaggs and getting occasional nods from Gerald Daugherty, whose bald-faced lies contributed to light rail’s 00 defeat. Their ability to good-ole-boy it up with the pro-transit guys reminds me of why I’ll never succeed at a higher-level in politics.

More to come when I eat lunch at desk.

A combination of small pieces from comments on another site

David Nunez started talking about transit, and I wrote a few comments there which might have general utility. Here they are, with some additional context provided where necessary.

Doesn’t have to be complicated.

I can sum up the entire thing in one sentence:
If your starter line for a rail network is really bad, you will never get a chance to build your full network, so you’d better make sure your starter line is attractive to a lot of people.
All of the rest of the talk is just explaining WHY this system doesn’t qualify (and the 2000 light rail line DID). (For instance, transfers to shuttle buses to get to downtown, UT, capitol = unattractive).
Regards,
MD

Transfers and whatnot

Experience in other cities has shown that requiring a bus transfer at the end of a rail trip drastically reduces the number of “choice” commuters who will take the transit trip. This is something that’s well-enough known in transit circles that arguing with it is akin to asking a geographer to prove that the Earth isn’t flat. (In other words, it’s common-enough knowledge that people don’t even bother to prove it anymore).

The current express buses are, to me, a bit BETTER than the ASG plan. Yes, they’re stuck in traffic on both Mopac AND the city streets; but they allow two-seat travel (car, then bus). The ASG plan is a three-seat trip (car, then train, then bus) *AND* the last portion is stuck in traffic.
It’s important to emphasize again that your transit “spine” (i.e. the highest-capacity route) must deliver a bunch of passengers to within walking distance of their destination to be successful. Once you have a few of these, you can start talking transfers, but even then, the transfers to shuttle-bus will always do much worse than transfers to light-rail (for instance, Dallas’ commuter rail line from Fort Worth ties into the DART light-rail system. Since DART’s been on the ground for a long time now attracting its own choice commuters, people are more willing to transfer to it than they would have been to shuttle-buses or even a brand-new rail line).

The “incented somehow” talk is basically the point of using rail – get around the traffic rather than being stuck in it in a bus. That’s why the 2000 light-rail plan was such a good starter line (and note: the citizens of Austin passed it; which is something that almost never happens the first time in a rail election) – it used existing separate rail ROW up to Lamar/Airport; then travelled in-street for the last 4 miles or so in order to drop people off where they actually want to go.
In this political climate, the only “incentive” you can promise with transit is reliability/speed – and the ASG plan craps all over this with the shuttle transfer.

(David asks for clarification on three points – #1 being that I support building the light-rail spine first and then commuter rail to the ‘burbs; #2 being that Cap Metro is operating on a “build as much as we can afford and hope they will come” philosophy; and #3 being that my point is that if the first line is bad, that ends everything)

I’d say you’re right on the first and right on the third. On the first I’d also add that it’s incredibly stupid to provide rail to the people who hated the idea of rail in 2000 while providing buses to the people who loved the idea of rail in 2000. (This plan, even if it ever makes it to its completed state with all of the expansions and whatnot, delivers nothing more than slightly enhanced BUS SERVICE to the densest parts of town – you know, where in most cities you’d be delivering the RAIL service).

Capital Metro’s real reason for doing the second is political – and it’s spelled Mike Krusee. I think I have some backstory on this in my blog; let me know if you want a condensed version.
They also suffer from the typical disease here of overreliance on macroanalysis and underreliance on microanalysis. By this I mean that, like with air quality initiatives, they think you can “encourage” people to do something; but they never look at individual choices and the existing structures of incentives/taxes/whatever that lead to the behavior we observe today. Like how they do press releases touting the fact that Motorola or IBM are going to encourage carpooling – this doesn’t do anything in the real world since the individual’s incentive to carpool is still negligible.

Response to naive person

A well-meaning but critically naive person wrote in response to a post on one of the many local discussion groups that the attacks on Capital Metro were not fair. I’ve posted my response there and here:

In ANCtalk@yahoogroups.com, (Cap Metro defender) wrote:
I think it’s great that there is so much discussion going on around
the commuter rail proposal. but the information included in Tom’s
message is not accurate […]

In fact, most of Tom’s information was fairly accurate.

Ridership it will serve: estimated 17,000 by 2025 based on the
federally required and created ridership model that does not account
for reverse commute,

This will only happen if the system is drastically expanded, which it
cannot be without an additional election. Our leadership have declared
“let’s ride and then decide” – so if the initial line doesn’t do well,
there will be no expansions, because the voters have been instructed
to watch the performance of the first route (with only rush-hour
one-way trips ending in shuttle-bus distributors).

Length of time for the trip: 55 minutes (it takes over an hour in
the car during peak time according to a friend that makes the samem
commute daily during peak commute time)

This does not include the shuttle-bus transfer, which will be highly
unreliable (some days it might be fast; others quite slow). It also
does not include drive-time to the park-and-ride and waiting time at
the station.

Will people ride it if it takes this long? the ridership model takes
into consideration length of trip, as well as many other factors

Capital Metro has not modeled ridership on this route in the way that
most people would consider appropriate – that being a direct
comparison to an individual’s car trip.

Number of riders to break even: fact of life – all transportation
modes are subsidized, including roads, buses and rail
Will fares cover the operating costs? see above

One needs to ask this question, and not accept the answer glibly given
above. Note: I’m a strong supporter of light rail (i.e. a starter
system which delivers passengers where they actually want to go
instead of to a shuttle-bus), so the typical response won’t work
against me.
The subsidy per rider on Tri-Rail’s South Florida commuter line and
Seattle’s commuter railroad is huge compared to that on recent
successful light rail systems. Guess which one this ASG plan is more like?

Also, there are 9 stations, 8 of which are IN THE CITY OF AUSTIN.

This is true but extremely misleading. There are no stations in the
urban core of Austin; and most of the stations within the city limits
will function as drop-off only (i.e. there aren’t a lot of people
within walking distance of the station, and they won’t have big
parking lots for drive-in commuters).
Realistically, the major stations where people will get on in the
morning are at the big northwestern park-and-rides. Since this ride
doesn’t go near any dense residential areas such as West Campus or
Hyde Park, virtually nobody will be walking to the station – and
nobody who can choose to drive will accept taking a bus to the rail
station just to ride the rail a couple of miles back around to
downtown only to get on ANOTHER bus to get to where they’re going.
And remember that reverse commutes aren’t going to be an option
without further expansion of the system (i.e. the initial line only
runs inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening).
This line is nearly useless for Austin, especially for the urban core.

And yes, I hope that people from Cedar Park and Williamson county
ride it in droves, less people on 183 and MoPac (no matter who they
are) is good in my book.

This is a good thing if those people are willing to get back into
Capital Metro and pay the sales tax. If they’re not, I don’t think
it’s appropriate to subsidize their transit at the expense of the city
of Austin, which has always been a strong supporter of transit both
economically and at the ballot-box.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission

The Wrong Track

The former and current mayors, along with notable light-rail-killer Mike Krusee, were filmed yesterday by anybody and everybody for the launch of their pro-commuter-rail PAC “The Right Track”. KXAN actually did a bit of digging and came up with one opponent of commuter rail other than the knuckle-dragging ROAD Neanderthals.

Let’s go to the video tape

Empty Buses Part Three

I put my bike on the 7:36 AM #3 bus at the 38th and Medical Parkway stop. There were 27 passengers, counting me. (I took the #3 instead of the express because of my experience last time and because I was a bit early, so I could choose to sit outside for 10 more minutes or just get on the bus).

When passing underneath US 183 on Burnet Rd., there were 10 passengers, counting me.

When passing underneath US 183 on Braker Lane, there were 5 passengers, counting me.

And you wonder why you suburbanites only see empty (or in this case, near-empty) buses?
The End!

Half A Bridge

A reasonable person replied to a posting I made about Capital Metro’s commuter rail plan (in particular to its requirement that shuttle buses be used for the last leg of their journey):

“A very good point Mike, and important one.
Isn’t this something that will be phased in as ridership grows, if possible.”

This pretty much sums up the reason Capital Metro has succeeded so far in maintaining what urban support they currently have. Most people aren’t looking at the rail system as a potential passenger – they’re buying into the “build anything and people will use it” theory pushed so ineffectively in voluntary air-quality agreements that always end up with the same set of city officials behind them. If you believe some non-trivial set of people will ride it just because it’s there, then this attitude makes sense.

However, there’s another way to look at the line (and its extension to Congress Avenue). Let’s suppose that we decide to build a new bridge halfway across Town Lake. Why only halfway? Well, the first half of the bridge is going to be pretty cheap because a bunch of old but serviceable pylons (supports) happen to already be there – all we need to do is lay decking on top of them. (The pylons for the second half of the bridge do not currently exist). Certain unidentified crackpot transportation writers claim that this isn’t enough; and that nobody will use the bridge (except for a couple of people who like to dive into the water for the end of their commute).

Would you say that building such a bridge is a good idea, just because it’s so cheap? Would you say that we should build the first half, and then see how many people use it, before we bother to build the second half? “Let’s ride and then decide” indeed.

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.

Regards,
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.

Regards,
Michael E. Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission

Rapid Bust: The R Still Stands For Un”R”eliable

Metablog: I’m now posting entries on the temporary location for this blog, maintained by a friendly cow orker, until I get my hosting situation resolved.

After dropping off my wife’s old car at the Jiffy Lube, I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway. I had planned on picking up the 983 (express) bus if I made it in time for the 7:48, since this is a much more comfortable ride than the other option (the #3 herky-jerky).
This 983 bus has some of the characteristics of the proposed Rapid Bus solution which is all that the urban core of Austin is ever going to get out of the All Systems Go plan (longer article on last weeks’ happenings coming possibly later today or tomorrow).

So I got there at 7:42 and noticed that the usual suspects (2 other bikers who ride this bus every day , far up the 183 corridor, as far as I can tell) were still there. Good sign. A #3 showed up right about then (the 7:36 running late). l passed.

7:55 rolled around and the next #3 showed up. l passed again (if the first #3 was running late, maybe the #983 was stuck too).

8:15 rolled around. No next #3. 8:30 rolled around. No #3 or #983. The first cyclist waiting for the 983 gave up and pedalled away, to where I have no idea (both of these guys stay on the bus long after I disembark, so the #3 isn’t an option for them).

Finally at about 8:40, I got on the 8:36 #3 and herky-jerkied my way (late) up to work. The 983 never showed. The other biker had called somebody on the phone but was still stuck there.

Need I say: This Doesn’t Happen (Well, Hardly Ever) With Rail?