Last Best Chance For Urban Rail In Austin Is Here

My neighborhood‘s latest newsletter contains some thrilling sour grapes about VMU:

In June 2007, more about abortion at the request of the City without any help the City staff, NUNA and the rest of the Neighborhood Planning area (CANPAC, the official planning team for the whole area) which includes Eastwoods, Hancock, Heritage, NUNA, Shoal Crest Caswell Heights, and UAP (University Area Partners) submitted the mandated application for VMU (Vertical Mixed Use). Vertical Mixed Use is applied to commercial zoning (CS) only; it must have a commercial and residential component on the ground floor and subsequent floors, respectively. Vertical MIxed Use does NOT affect height or height limits imposed on a neighborhood/area. VMU was based on the UNO overlay in the West Campus area, except it seems to be a watered down version of this overlay. In a sense, our planning area, CANPAC, was ahead of the “curve” here. VMU is something which not all areas of the City had, so this concept/zoning tool was intended to be applied widespread. The VMU ordinance was conceived by Council Member Brewster McCracken.

The determining factor for VMU was the location of properties primarily along major, transportation corridors. VMU is a fine concept which would help eliminate urban sprawl and make neighborhoods more “user friendly” with amenities such as restaurants and shops within walking distance of a neighborhood. VMU combines two uses on a property- retail or office usually on the ground floor and a residential component on the other floors. There are other benefits for VMU such as a percentage of affordable housing units, a reduction in parking requirements, setbacks, FAR and site area requirements. In NUNA, Guadalupe Street was the only major transportation corridor (determined by bus routes).

The NUNA Planning Team, which is separate from the officially recognized planning team for our area, CANPAC, carefully reviewed the maps and properties foisted on us by the City for VMU consideration. Then, the CANPAC Planning Team held many subcommittee meetings and submitted a completed application for the whole planning area to the City by the mandatory, designated deadline in June 2007.

Fortunately, NUNA has an NCCD (Neighborhood Conservation Combining District) which is a zoning ordinance that has more flexible tools for redevelopment and is more compatible to this older (unofficially historic) area of town. The other benefit of the NCCD, in the particular case concerning VMU, is that the zoning tools in an NCCD (which are more detailed than an regular neighborhood plan) trump any VMU. NUNA’s NCCD will protect the careful planning we did during the neighborhood planning process in 2004. Nonetheless, we were required by the City to submit a VMU application.

The question arose within our planning area (CANPAC) and also with Hyde Park, our adjoining neighbor, which also has an NCCD, how does one determine fairly what might constitute VMU? The NUNA Planning Team along with the Heritage Neighborhood, our neighbor across Guadalupe, figured out that no property which abuts a residential use (single family or multifamily) would be considered from VMU. Also, NUNA decided that none of the bonuses such as a reduction in parking requirements, etc. would be granted to any property which we would designate for VMU. We were also advised by ANC and the City that we must opt in some properties in our application, otherwise we would be punished and forced to have properties considered for VMU. With that kind of threat looming over our planning team’s shoulder, we very carefully included some properties for VMU status in our application.

NUNA already had on the ground ( already built) some VMU projects. For example, the “controversial” Villas of Guadalupe have a commercial component- Blockbuster Video on the ground floor, and then have a residential component on the other floors. The Venue at 2815 Guadalupe has a similar makeup with commercial uses on the bottom floor and residential suites/condos above. The best part about the Venue is the underground parking arrangement which includes a parking spot per bed- more parking than the City requirement!

NUNA was requested by the City to file an application to opt in or out properties primarily along Guadalupe Street for VMU status which could also grant additional dimensional standards, reduction in parking requirements, and additional ground floor uses in office districts. NUNA opted in properties from 27th to the north side of 30th Street along the east side of Guadalupe since these properties for the most part were built as “VMU” – a commercial use on the ground floor and a residential component on the upper floors, but we did not opt for the additional bonuses such as reduction in parking requirements, etc. for any properties. Our application will be considered in a public hearing in front of the Planning Commission February 12 along with the other neighborhoods in CANPAC (Eastwoods, Hancock, Heritage, NUNA, Shoal Crest, Caswell Heights, and UAP-University Area Partners). There will be no staff recommendation for this application.

In accordance with Hyde Park, another NCCD, we decided that we would prefer to consider individual, commercial project proposals on a case by case basis. In short, NUNA has given nothing away to the City in our application for VMU; we would like first to evaluate each project to see if it is compliant and compatible with our NCCD regulations.

Here’s the response I sent to the neighborhood list; which is currently stuck in moderation:

I see in the most recent newsletter a fair amount of sour grapes about VMU which may lead people to become misinformed. For instance:

“Also, NUNA decided that none of the bonuses such as a reduction in parking requirements, etc. would be granted to any property which we would designate for VMU.”

The entire point of VMU is to put density where the highest frequency transit service already exists, so that it might attract residents without cars; households with fewer cars than typical; shoppers who take the bus; etc.

“We were also advised by ANC and the City that we must opt in some properties in our application, otherwise we would be punished and forced to have properties considered for VMU. With that kind of threat looming over our planning team’s shoulder, we very carefully included some properties for VMU status in our application.”

The purpose of “opt-out” and “opt-in” is being misrepresented here as well. The operating assumption was that because you folks got McMansion, which will result in less density on the interior (fewer housing units, since it so severely penalizes duplexes and garage apartments), that you would support more density on the transit corridors. This wasn’t you being FORCED to accept this density – it was part of the bargain you accepted in return for lowering density on the interior, and now you (and Hyde Park) are trying to back out of your end of the deal.

There is no transit corridor in the city more heavily used than Guadalupe on the edge of our neighborhood. There is no place in the city better suited for VMU than this one. It’s irresponsible to continue to pretend that the city’s asking for something unreasonable here, since you got what you wanted on McMansion.

And, by the way, there was a guy here on this list telling you that the VMU application you were submitting was a big mistake quite some time ago. Ahem.

– MD

And my follow-up:

Argh. As is often the case, I see when reading my own post that I left out something important; I said that the point of opt-in and opt-out was either missed or misrepresented, but I never said what the point was supposed to be.
Opt-out was supposed to be for extraordinary circumstances that the neighborhood was aware of that the city might not be – not generalized “opt out everywhere because we think we’ve already done enough”. For one instance, a difficult alley access (like behind Chango’s) might be something that would justify an opt-out.
If you opt out more than a few properties, you’re doing it wrong.
Opt-in was supposed to be for additional properties outside the main corridor – NOT for “here’s the only places we’ll let you do VMU”. IE, my old neighborhood of OWANA might decide to opt-in for VMU on West Lynn at 12th, even though it’s not a major transit corridor (the bus only runs once an hour there).
If you think “opt-in” is for the few places you pick to allow VMU on the major transit corridor, you’re doing it wrong.

Dear libertarian ideologues: If you mainly see buses on the ends of their routes in the godforsaken burbs, stomach and they’re NOT empty, sildenafil Capital Metro would be doing something wrong. Morons.
The right place to measure ridership is along the whole route – but if you have to pick just one spot, order pick somewhere in the middle and you will invariably find a very different story than the typical suburban idiot narrative of “the buses are always empty”. Try standing-room-only, at least in the morning rush. (I took the 2-bus trip to my awful new office twice in a row in late March and on both mornings, I had to stand on the #5; I never wrote up the TFT because I was too busy, but maybe I ought to).
And, dear disabled friends, media coverage of our very low FRR ratio thanks in large part to your gold-plated taxi-limo service is eventually going to kill the rest of the system – which will also kill your golden goose. Think long and hard about what you do next.
Also, dear bus-riding friends, if you keep opposing modest, long-overdue fare increases, sooner or later the majority of voters (who, sad to say, don’t ride the bus) will cut the sales tax support, one way or another. You may think people like you are the majority – but there’s 5 people who drive and never take the bus, not even once a year, for every one of you. Seriously.

I swear there’s no conspiracy regarding the lateness of this posting – my gracious host happened to perform an apache upgrade which messed with Movable Type. Here’s what I wrote this morning, prostate Made With Notepad!

At 4:30 PM yesterday, medstore I left my thumb +austin,+tx&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=30.268266,59.0625&ie=UTF8&ll=30.276284,-97.817674&spn=0.008042,0.01442&z=16&iwloc=addr&om=1″>lovely suburban office and walked through lovely suburban Westlake to the awful bus stop at Walsh Tarlton and Pinnacle. After broiling in the hot sun for a few minutes, I decided to walk up to the next stop at Walsh Tarlton and Pinnacle; where there was also no shade. This did not bode well; but things got better.

The bus arrived on time (5:08ish) and was thankfully very well air conditioned. I read a book until I was dropped off quite a long walk from Texas Center (I should have taken the earlier stop). Went inside; saw Jonathan Horak and Kedron Touvell; introduced myself to both (how creepy is it that I knew what they looked like even though we’d never met; but they didn’t recognize me? Pretty creepy, I think). Just on time.

Will Wynn gave a speech which emphasized how much he wants rail downtown. He got in the weeds a bit, first talking about how we were growing faster than everybody else in the world, then talking about how this decade’s growth is actually slower than all previous decades back to the 1880s (huh?), but then eventually came back on track and handed the reins over to Brewster McCracken.
McCracken introduced ROMA; ROMA gave a nice presentation which I’ll summarize in bullet points below. No surprises, really, if you read Ben Wear or the print article beforehand. My quick comments in italics. I will go into more depth on many of these in the upcoming several weeks.

  • Terminology: The system is going to be called “ultra-light rail”. ROMA mentions that streetcars usually run in shared lanes (where I got the sinking feeling ROMA believes a bit much in the magic fairy dust theory of streetcars).
  • Technology: As mentioned, most likely streetcar vehicles. Possibility of more of a standard light rail vehicle if a decision point goes a certain way (see: Routes: doubling-back-to-the-east).
  • Runningway: Usually the center of the street; almost always dedicated lanes. This is a big win over Capital Metro’s previous plans, and everybody who cares about rail transit should be grateful that McCracken and Wynn understand how critical this is to success.
  • Routes: Defined as three or four subroutes even though the service may not operate that way. They didn’t actually say “downtown to” on all of these; some were Seaholm or something else; but realistically they’d all converge on Congress.
    1. Downtown to airport: Using Congress, East Riverside; reserved guideway (dedicated lanes, center of road). Alternative presented is a very unlikely extension of commuter rail to the airport. I’m very pleased we didn’t try to run on the right side of Riverside. Big win here for business travellers to the airport, and we can pull in a lot of residential out there to hopefully fill trains.
    2. Downtown to Mueller: using Congress (possibility of San Jac or Brazos as fallback), 9th/10th/11th transition to San Jacinto, north to/through UT, Dean Keeton/Manor out to Mueller. Slight possibility of still going out there via MLK. It’s not Guadalupe, and we probably won’t get reserved guideway through UT without a lot of arm-twisting, but I think Guadalupe’s a lost cause for right now. With this technology and route, though, we can eventually get there; whereas commuter rail is a complete dead end. The Manor vs. MLK issue is, I feel, largely settled for Manor unless UT makes going through campus prohibitively difficult – the only pro to MLK is the commuter rail TOD, which I obviously don’t believe in anyways; and cons are many – have to deal with TXDOT; don’t get even the half-assed acccess to UT that San Jac provides; etc.
    3. Downtown to Long Center and Zilker area: less likely at first, using West Riverside past Lamar, cutting over to Toomey after that. Alternative using Barton Springs would get you all the way to Zilker but no reserved lanes. I think these are unlikely to make it for the first cut anyways but it would be nice to be able to tell tourists they could take the train to Barton Springs Pool, wouldn’t it?
  • Financing – ROMA didn’t talk about this but McCracken did – combination of TIFs and some other mechanisms (including requiring that some portion of Cap Metro’s budget be under the control of the city or CAMPO for capital spending, which I heartily endorse
  • Future – wide arrows going north and south. Again, this system can be expanded – although it’ll never become anything as good as 2000’s LRT line; it at least can grow into something better – whereas commuter rail is a dead end.
  • Bone-throwing – Elgin commuter rail spur thrown in to try to get some suburban votes (even though we really ought to be doing better for the urban folks who provide most of Capital Metro’s funds and essentially all of their support; we apparently still need to pander to the burbs – disappointing).

That’s all for right now. Expect expanded analysis of all of the above coming soon. But here’s the kicker:

You MUST support this plan if you ever want any urban rail in Austin. Unlike how 2004’s commuter rail election was incorrectly framed, this truly is our last best chance for rail so although I obviously would prefer rail running up Guadalupe, I’m going to be supporting this plan whole-heartedly and urge every reader of this post to do the same.

Humorous snippets: I introduced myself to Ben Wear, and even though he wrote an article with my name in it a year or two ago, and I’ve emailed back/forth with him 5 or 6 times, I don’t think he had any idea who the hell I was. Also, Jeff Jack (future Worst Person In Austin nominee? told me I should cut out the blogging until I know what I’m talking about.

34 Replies to “Last Best Chance For Urban Rail In Austin Is Here”

  1. So do you think this will make the November ballot? And if so, do you think it *should* be on the November ballot (enough time to educate people), or be a year from now (May 2009)?

  2. Sorry if this is an obvious question, but what would you suggest we do to support this? Is it going to be something we can vote for directly, or should we be calling city council members or the mayor or whatever? (I have no clue how Austin politics work.)

  3. I don’t believe this has adequately been explained: who will run this line? Cap Metro had the old ideas, of course, but are they going to be given the reins on this particular one? (Obviously, I’d prefer anyone but them, but I’ll take what I get in this case.)
    In any case, my thought is that for this to have the best chance of passing, it should not be on the November ballot. It seems to be that it would be better paired with the mayoral election in May.

  4. Do you think that rail has to emulate existing heavily traveled commuter paths in order to be successful? By that I’m thinking about the hordes of people that are on I35 and MoPac, Lamar, 290, 2244, etc. This plan does nothing for any of those existing commuters, to say nothing of the student ghetto at Far West. Perhaps I’m wrong. But this idea seems like the quintessential, “if we build it, they will come” think-process, as opposed to scooping off riders from an existing commute pattern.
    I guess that’s it…I look at the rail map and wonder about who this thing would serve. It seems to me it would be just a really small handful.
    An airport extension always sounds great but would probably be the least “profitable,” route they could come up with, to use the term extremely loosely. Especially the portion between Riverside apartments and the airport…

  5. I think the Riverside leg will be heavily used, and not just by airport travellers. There are quite a few people in that area who are likely to benefit from taking the train in to downtown, either as their final stop or as a transfer.

  6. Went to the DANA forum tonight. All the candidates who showed up were asked whether they supported putting it on the November ballot. (Leffingwell wasn’t there, but all the other majors were there; Kim showed up late but just in time to answer this question).
    Enthusiastic supporter of November ballot:
    Really, just Galindo. When asked if he supported putting it on the Nov. ballot he said “Yes. What do I do with the rest of my time?” He did acknowledge he consequences of losing — no chance of light rail for a long time.
    Morrison: extremely skeptical of November ballot, unclear whether she even supports light rail.
    Shade: skeptical of November ballot, but sounds like she supports light rail. (Although, if I remember right, she said it was a good thing it wasn’t going down South Congress. My apologies to Randi if I’ve gotten this wrong).
    Kim: noncommittal about November ballot, sounds like she supports light rail, though. (She said that to get it on November ballot, businesses affected by construction must be placated or else they’ll organize opposition).
    Cravey: (again, spotty memory here, so sorry Robin if I’m not getting this quite right) noncommittal about November ballot, supportive of light rail in general terms, made a plea for better bus service.
    Jennifer Gale opposes light rail! So does Ken Weiss.
    The candidates have a fair amount of room to equivocate, given the suddenness of this proposal. I think they’re still feeling it out, which they’re entitled to do. The only one I saw with Wynn/Brewster levels of enthusiasm was Galindo.

  7. Mike, I didn’t recognize you because your hair wasn’t blue. 🙂
    That’s funny that you tussled with Jeff Jack. He yelled at me as well for some pro-Galindo comments I made on BOR. I like Jeff a lot, though, even if I disagree with him on some development items. And it seems like I get hammered by every Democratic activist in town who reads the blogs for something I posted way back when. Can’t please everyone.
    Regarding this plan, I agree we have to get behind it. Daugherty’s going to oppose it on the CAMPO TWG, I wonder if Krusee’s deathbed conversion will hold?

  8. Mangler, actually “profit” is one of the main reasons they decided to go down Riverside. In order to fund this with “no new taxes” as Brewster says, they need to do heavy TIF financing. Riverside has the largest potential of redevelopable properties, so it’s the best candidate for the TIF. That’s strictly a money play. Going up Guadalupe or North Lamar is better for moving people but worse for funding the line without new taxes (yes, the tif is a tax but it is more like profit-sharing than a straight tax). Operational fares will almost certainly never cover the initial investment cost.
    Snowed in, CapMetro will run the line but with “adult supervision” from the city and surrounding jurisdictions. As Brewster said, “no-one else knows how to do that.” Of course, CapMetro isn’t that good at it, either. The important thing, though, is the work in planning, financing, and constructing which is out of CapMetro’s hands.
    ghettoimp, you don’t need to call the Mayor’s office, you need to vote for the proposal and convince all your friends and family to vote for it. Most of the pols seem to be on board, although we’ll get a better picture of that when this gets in front of CAMPO and other jurisdictions. I’m optimistic, that with gas prices so high and “green fever” at such a pitch that this will succeed.
    Oh, and I think the Mayor chose a November election because he didn’t want this be the dominant campaign issue, plus that gives him some time to work on it before he leaves office next May. I have no solid evidence for this opinion, but he delayed the 2006 bond to November for similar reasons.

  9. I don’t really know what to think of this. San Jac is such an awful route. I might be convinced, but the starter needs to have killer ridership. The Riverside section fits the bill, but going through downtown and up Manor doesn’t really do that. Now I know that Manor needs to happen at some point, and Mueller has been trying to get rail forever, but I think you need to destroy any argument against the line at the start of operations.
    As for the election, there are a few things that need to be done though to push this. First folks need to get tough with Jim Skaggs.
    They are going to bring back the “Costs too much, does too little” Meme they used in 2000. Someone needs to get out front of that by using it against them before they start using it again. Start framing this as VMT reduction, energy savings, affordability issue, larger long term system etc. Gotta start soon, get ahead of the game if you’re behind this line.

  10. I guess I wasn’t clear. Yes, Riverside to downtown is an acceptable route, but not all the way out to the airport. From the end of the apartments on Riverside out to the airport would be incredibly underutilized and a huge waste of money.

  11. Thanks for all the comments, folks.
    1. In addition to telling your friends and family to vote for it, tell your city council members and especially your state representatives and county commissioners.
    2. Reasons for November election: a) don’t piss off the lege by violating Krusee’s law (although we theoretically could hold it some other time since Cap Metro won’t be building the line, that’s a bit of a loophole) b) pick up energized local pro-rail voters (electioneering – opposite of the 2000 problem; we may actually get more young progressives at the box in November this year than May next.)
    3. San Jac route is required by the fact that we’ve got to get good ridership BUT we can’t take away street lanes on major roads (yes, I agree this sucks – but it’s commuter rail that put us in this pickle – we now can’t possibly get enough prospective travellers to justify taking a lane on Guadalupe).
    More later from me – I’ll probably just start expanding each bullet point into its own point.
    Thanks again all for your comments.

  12. Morrison being skeptical pretty much shows that the old-school ANC crowd are more enemies than friends on this stuff. She, like many of them, are rich enough (or got their big central house/lot early enough) that they just drive downtown and are rich/connected enough not to have to worry about where to park, and of course, underemployed enough to not have to worry about the time it takes.

  13. predm, not gonna happen now. There’s a vague arrow pointing north from the Dean Keaton/San Jac corner, and a vague arrow pointing south from the South Congress / Riverside corner; but not a vague arrow heading west from Mueller – but they are vague. Definitely nothing happening in initial phase.

  14. San Jacinto is not that bad. That is where all the state parking garages are and provides good connectivity to virtually all the state office buildings, the Capitol, and UT – the east side of campus is ripe for redevelopment anyway.
    One question – how does the light rail cross the commuter tracks on manor? I thought I read here that crossing tracks was not possible or prohibitively expensive? If we can cross the tracks there, why not at Lamar and Airport?

  15. el, addressing both in order:
    1. Running next to state parking garages is a bug, not a feature. Nobody’s going to be able to park in those garages and then ride the train – the state doesn’t open them up to general use, and state workers themselves will just continue to walk. It does, however, prevent there being any future increases in ridership on that section due to redevelopment, because the state simply won’t, most of the time (no tax incentive to do so).
    2. My claim that we wouldn’t want to have LRT crossing CR at Airport/Lamar is based on both LRT being heavier than streetcar (requiring more signal interaction) and much higher traffic load there. The CR/ULR crossing at Manor wouldn’t be at another major intersection (i.e. not right on Airport Blvd), so it’s already way ahead there, and Manor even when Mueller is built out won’t carry the load that Lamar does.

  16. To support the light rail:
    Another thing that could be done (and probably will be done) is the establishment of a Political Action Commitee (PAC) to raise money to support the light rail initiative through advertising etc. I say anyone who wants to/plans to do that needs to let folks know on this site and others and get some good- and early support out there.

  17. To support the light rail:
    Another thing that could be done (and probably will be done) is the establishment of a Political Action Commitee (PAC) to raise money to support the light rail initiative through advertising etc. I say anyone who wants to/plans to do that needs to let folks know on this site and others and get some good- and early- support out there.

  18. I realized I never answered a question here:
    Riverside apartments to airport helps in 2 ways:
    1. They can get some money from the airport (the airport has a lot of money and a lot of financial weight to bring to bear)
    2. It sounds good to people who won’t want to ride daily but might want to take it to the airport
    Remember that for transit, the primary obstacle (one that roads never ever face) is the tendency of those who won’t use it every day to vote against it. Nobody ever votes down Mopac because they commute regularly on I-35, in other words, because they can see they might use Mopac someday. A line to the airport can do the same thing for a guy who drives into work downtown but might say “I could leave my car in my company’s garage and take the train to the airport on a business trip”.

  19. One more question – why not clip the line at the north end of UT? Just run it from the airport through downtown to UT. If you clip the rest of the line you reduce the cost of the project and make it easier to fund. How much could the city take from airport funds to finance this thing? Could the whole thing be financed through airport fees and/or a surcharge?

  20. Re. Riverside apartments to the airport…the airport’s funding is dedicated by federal law and there is no way that it will be of any use to a light rail plan. No way. The FAA, airlines and airports everywhere are fiercely determined to protect the solitary dedication of Passenger Facility Charges to airports. It’s pure folly for the city to think otherwise.

  21. One problem is the fact that a major source of ridership on the northern end, Windsor Park, is cut off from walking/biking to Mueller from any route except Berkman. Therefore, seems like it’d make more sense to either:
    a) set the northern terminus of the starter line at Berkman/51st rather than Mueller Blvd/51st… or
    b) set the northern terminus at Berkman/290, which might make park n ride easier for northern austinites.
    (I hope I’m not too late in this conversation to get some feedback on those ideas)

  22. Sadly, no; can’t upgrade (the difference is in the depth of the trackbed – “ultra-light” is shallower and able to be put right on top of some existing utilities).
    Streetcar is 100-ish per car if I remember correctly; LRT can be a couple to many hundreds depending on how many cars in a train.

  23. 60 foot articulated bus is 100 per vehicle. Streetcar is 150. Streetcars can be coupled like light rail vehicles meaning a two car train could carry 300. So three 60 foot buses for every two streetcars. Also, streetcar designs are modular. You can have longer streetcars than the ones that Portland has. I know its a bad picture but check out the link I put in here for modular tram sizes.

  24. There are three modern streetcars recently built in the United States. That is hardly enough of a sample to say its the norm not to couple cars. The reason Portland doesn’t have couplers is because they wanted to keep one car trains between blocks. Two car trains would have taken up their small 200 foot blocks.
    Muni in San Francisco couples cars, MBTA in Boston couples cars. SFs LRVs just a little longer than Portland’s. Streetcars are just smaller LRVs. I don’t understand why that wouldn’t work.

  25. Just chiming in to double-confirm that the T (Green line) couples cars, although they do only a maximum of two. To increase capacity beyond that they just run more trains, which has to do with the branching tree of Green line routes.

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