M1EK’s Way Forward

Spending my customary half-assed effort, gastritis sanitary I’ve redone my blogroll to better promote other blogs which cover similar subjects to this one, healing upon adding a new and promising entry: the Austin Contrarian. Chris, the author, started his own blog after participating frequently in comments on New Urban Prospect whose author apparently decided to stay in Vancouver. Not that anybody blames her…

NUPro’s frustration echoes with me, bronchi obviously. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that the problem here in Austin is that the “good guys” are serious about gathering public input, sales and the “bad guys” are very good at gathering public input about things that fundamentally don’t matter, sick and in the process getting exactly what they want.
Take Capital Metro’s worthless public meetings about commuter rail, for instance. (Before the election, I mean). The topics were basically “where should we put an extra station or two on this line we’ve already settled on”, and “hey, would you like any other bus lines turned into Rapid Bus?”. Capital Metro never really wanted public input on anything that mattered, like the actual routing of the line, but they successfully fooled a whole lot of people into going to these meetings and wasting their time. By doing this, Capital Metro satisfied the basic requirements the Feds would have put on them (if CM had kept their promise and actually applied for Federal funding, that is), and fooled a lot of naive people into giving them a free pass.
But please remember: Capital Metro’s All Systems Go plan isn’t the result of community input, folks. It’s a result of Mike Krusee’s command.
On the other hand, Envision Central Texas (the group which many Good Guys view as their platform for pushing positive change) is paralyzed by paroxysms of uselessness because they actually try to get public input about things more consequential than the color of the station platform’s roof. And, of course, if you ask these neighborhood groups for input, they’ll gladly fill your ear with mostly-ignorant mostly-useless stuff that the average bus-riding third-grader could have come up with on the way to school last week (about the recent streetcar meetings in which, again, the route is already decided; the technology is already decided; the sharing-lane-with cars is already decided; etc). Likewise, other urbanist politicians are too unwilling to say “this is what we need to do; now, I’m willing to accept input on these issues, but no others:…”. Envision Central Texas has, as a result, contributed absolutely nothing other than PR fluff. They’ve completely failed at pushing their agenda; the few wins the Good Guys have seen in the last few years have been the result of actions by politicians who would have acted the same way with or without the useless blessing of ECT.
If I could say anything to folks like that, it’s this: you never win by back-door compromise, and you never win by charette-driven consensus exercises. Mike Krusee won by making Capital Metro do what he wanted them to do. He didn’t negotiate with them. He didn’t gather their input. He told them what to do, and they did it, because the other side didn’t even try to stop him; because they were too busy holding meetings and wasting their time listening to a bunch of neighborhood nitwits.

This group is a perfect example of what I was talking about in my last crackplog: the survey is a complete waste of time; simply gathering support for all of Capital Metro’s long-range plans while never asking “hey, neuropathist shouldn’t we be telling Capital Metro to build some reserved-guideway transit for the densest parts of Austin”?
There’s a kickoff event happening in October for this group (or another one with the same name; hard to tell) in which the mayors of Austin and Leander will be participating. Note: Leander already got their reserved-guideway transit. The obviously much less important Central Austin got squat.
People will get co-opted by this group, doctor just like they did by the useless public meetings in which critical things like the canopy style for commuter rail stations were hashed out, link and as a result, there’s no counterbalance to Mike Krusee telling Capital Metro what to do.
If Mayor Wynn is truly serving the interests of Austin residents and taxpayers, he’ll end this now by using this group’s forum to push for what Austin needs – but I doubt very much that he will; otherwise he wouldn’t be falling prey to the false promise of regionalism here (the note just reeks of it). As pointed out by another blog I read and trust, regionalism is often the enemy of good public transportation. Leander has no real interest in making sure that Austin taxpayers get real rail transit; they already GOT theirs.

Please join me for the kickoff event to launch the Alliance for Public Transportation. The Alliance is the initiative of Mayors Will Wynn and John Cowman of Leander. Several months ago, they asked a group of people to come together and figure out whether we needed an entity that would consider transportation issues from a regional perspective and across the array of interest groups affected by public transportation and its potential in the Austin area. We said we do!
Please come to our kickoff celebration on October 19th at 6 pm at Nuevo Leon. An invitation is attached with all the details, along with another document that describes the Alliance. I’d also like to take this opportunity to invite you or your organization to become a member and be acknowledged at the event as a “groundbreaker”.
This is going to be an exciting event, with Mayors Wynn and Cowman present, as well as other elected officials and people who care about transportation and the community. I also think the creation of this organization will provide a valuable voice for neighborhoods as we consider public transportation in our region over the coming years.

In today’s story about the new effort to align CAMPO dollars to Envision Central Texas goals, youth health not once, this in the entire story, clinic was this fact mentioned:
The three biggest “nodes”, now and in the future, by orders of magnitude, are UT, the Capitol, and downtown; none of which are served by commuter rail, and not well by streetcar. If you live at Mueller and work at the Capitol, you can take the streetcar to work, but it’ll be as slow as the bus is today, and that’s the only use case that makes sense. All existing residential density in the city continues to be provided with nothing but slow, stuck-in-traffic, buses (mislabelled as “Rapid” though they may be).
Summary: Until the elephant in the tent is addressed (those three nodes), all of this is just useless ego-stroking wastes of time.

A quick hit – since I missed this story due to scaling back to weekend-only service, diet I never got to comment on this piece:

So the budget released last Monday for the 2007 budget year, no rx which begins Oct. 1, generic eliminated the $6.6 million Austin portion (and a tiny amount that would have gone to Leander).
Left undisturbed, at the request of Capital Metro board member Fred Harless, was $1.1 million for the suburban communities in Capital Metro’s service area that won’t have rail stops.
Austin City Council Member Jennifer Kim has been agitating for Capital Metro to keep giving Austin $2.4 million of the $6.6 million. The city says it’s been falling behind on routine street maintenance and Kim’s request would fill that gap.

Councilmember Kim is exactly right, albeit for the wrong reasons. If it’s justifiable to leave the suburban money in there, Austin should keep a big chunk of its money too, since this commuter rail project barely serves Austin at all compared to Leander. It doesn’t go anywhere near central Austin residential areas, nor to UT, the Capitol, or downtown, so the only practical beneficiaries of this line are Leander residents who don’t mind riding shuttle buses.
In short, the people who pay Capital Metro’s bills (i.e. central Austinites) aren’t getting rail stations – and, therefore, should probably be keeping this BGA money; or at least, most of it. And thanks to the fact that Austin gets screwed by having to maintain a much, much larger percentage of major roads than do our suburban friends, we already have less money to spare on things like sidewalks, which is why the BGA money was so darn useful.
I’ll try to get around to writing a new, updated, version of “M1EK’S SUPER-POSITIVE HAPPY FUN PLAN” in response to comments on the last posting sometime this week.

This comes up from time to time, diagnosis usually in other forums where people aren’t familiar with the long history of rail in Austin:
Why don’t you tell us what your (positive) plan is for improving rail in Austin?
Well, the only one that would work is to immediately stop the commuter rail project; cancel contracts for the rail vehicles; and build a light rail starter segment following most of the 2000 proposed route. Not real likely, folks.
Then there’s the shorten rail transit’s dark ages plan. Not real attractive, but I’m sad to say, the only one likely to have any impact. And it’s what I’ve done so far, of course. During the Dark Ages, those monastaries that saved a bunch of literature and preserved some knowledge from the Greeks and Romans weren’t helping anybody for quite a while, remember, they just made the Renaissance start a bit sooner / be a bit more effective, depending on who you ask.
During the past several years, many other people have come up with some other ‘positive’ plans, which I’ll briefly describe below:

  1. Run light rail on a completely different route. (i.e. run up from downtown, by the Capitol and UT, but then shift over to Burnet Road, or stay on Lamar the whole way up to 183). Not gonna happen, folks – the reason the ’00 route was favorable to the Feds is that it did what most successful rail starts do: run in exclusive right-of-way out in the suburbs and then transitioning to (slower) in-street running for only the last N miles where necessary. Running in-street all the way is a recipe for low ridership (slow trains). Plus, the residential catchment areas on North Lamar and Burnet Road are just awful.
  2. Improve streetcar – folks originally got suckered by Capital Metro into thinking we’d be delivering streetcar to central Austin residential areas as part of Future Connections. Of course, we’re not, but it doesn’t matter; streetcar is really no better than the bus for daily commuters. And, topic for future post, you can’t turn streetcar into light rail later on – light rail runs in the middle of the street in its own lane; streetcar will run in the right lane, shared with cars & buses. You can’t run a reserved-guideway mode on the right side of a street.
  3. Run light rail on commuter rail tracks, then branch off and go down the ’00 route at Lamar. Pushed by a subset of the next group, mostly disingenuously – having a rail branch off at Lamar/Airport would basically shut down this intersection for cars, and the technologies are incompatible – the commuter rail vehicles we bought cannot feasibly run in the street for long distances (due mostly to station height).
  4. The most odious of all – Lyndon Henry and his cadre of misleaders – telling us that once we start running trains more often (and add more stops), the commuter rail line will magically become light rail. It still doesn’t go anywhere worth going; Airport Boulevard is never going to turn into Guadalupe; and running trains more often to your shuttle bus transfer won’t help ridership one lousy bit.

So, those who want to see more positive discussion – use this as a launching point. Let me know what you think. Come up with some positive direction that’s not in the list above, or tell me why one of the above WILL work.
Some Selected Background (chronological, oldest at top):

11 Replies to “M1EK’s Way Forward”

  1. What’s your theory for why Leffingwell & McCracken (as CapMetro Bd Members) support commuter rail? I’m not being skeptical, I’m really just trying to understand their angle. NYMBIsm? Do you think they genuinely believe it will be successful?
    It seems to me that if anything’s to be done, it’s got to start with those two.

  2. Both probably fall into the “if we don’t build this, we never get anything” camp, and both are clearly in the “if we build it, they’ll ride it no matter how bad it is” macrotransportation camp. Beyond that? Maybe they have reasons they’re not sharing.
    (macrotransportation = build stuff without thinking about the passenger use case; microtransportation = more like my use case analyses).

  3. I don’t have any personal experience with McCracken. But Leffingwell seemed down-to-earth when I’ve seen him speak. And he had someone in the MONAC audience last night, which is a good sign.
    I don’t have any better options besides trying to get the current plans shut down or trying to accellerate growing the system into something that will actually work. Voter education seems to be key. If the media continue to fail at this, other choices seem to be taking it directly to folks at their neighborhood association meetings, taking out adds in the local papers, etc. What seems to get people’s attention these days, even in hippyville, is feeling like their taxes are being wasted. If some cost/benefit summaries for cities across the US were added to your use cases on travel times I think you’d have a pretty good package to get folks riled up. [Our system’s going to suck compared to Minnesota? Those damn yankees?!?] As belts continue to be tightened, the 1-cent sales tax goes from “whatever” to “that’s huge!”

  4. This isn’t a simple bipolar scale here – the “down to earth” folks are likely to fall prey to the “well, why don’t we just run buses more often” fallacy, or be intellectually incurious in other ways.

  5. Certainly there are some simple ways to improve the commuter rail. For example, what if the commuter rail tracks were extended to meet the street car tracks that would continue up congress. The commuter train would stop at the convention center, but the street car could continue East to Featherlight.
    Then you could add additional stops in East Austin. This would provide the reserved right of way that you desire until you get downtown.
    The truth is, downtown traffic in Austin is never that bad and it would only take 5-10 min to get from the convention center to the capital, even with frequent stops.
    I admit some of the East Austin groups are opposed to additional density, but so are the folks with backyards on the 2000 map.
    East Austin may not be as dense as west campus, but it is one of the denser areas of Austin, and the New Urbanist development currently occuring on 6th street is rapid and intense (1305 Lofts, Pedernales, Saltillo Lofts, Sixth and Brush, Villas on 6th, 2124, and more). In addition there are several large tracts and planned developments (Saltillo, Featherlight, East End Lumber)
    In short, the 2000 plan was the best idea. We voted, we lost. Capital Metro seem unresponsive and well on their way to a return to the crooked, out of touch ways of a decade or so ago.
    But there are still plenty of things we can do now to make the current plans better.

  6. “Chop”,
    No, that doesn’t remotely help. Still no service to the dense residential parts of town (a few lofts in East Austin notwithstanding, the Guadalupe corridor has 10x the people as the areas around the rail line); still no one-seat service to UT or the Capitol. And no, a transfer to streetcar isn’t much better than a transfer to a shuttle bus.
    People seem to want very badly to believe that Austin commuters are so very pure that they’ll do what commuters in other cities _won’t_ do when presented with a new transit mode – accept transfer penalties. It’s not going to happen here, either.
    So, tell me what we can do to make the current plans ‘better’. Try again, paying special attention to where residential density exists and to the path people would take to UT and the Capitol.

  7. I think you missed the key point in my suggestion. Street cars running on commuter rail lines in East Austin. A street car that ran from 7th street to the Capitol would have reserved right of way in the residential section and not get caught in traffic.
    And Guadalupe does not have 10 times the density as East Austin. Below are some numbers from the US Census Website:
    Typical East Austin Block
    Block Group 3, Census Tract 9.02, Travis County, Texas
    8,897 Persons/Sq Mile
    Typical Guadalupe Block
    Block Group 4, Census Tract 5, Travis County, Texas
    Value: 9,529 Persons/Sq Mile
    These numbers were from 2000, before any of the dense development I mentioned. Sure there have been dense developments on Guadalupe as well, but outside of the Triangle, most of those serve the University directly. They may add to density, but students in the new dorms and apartments at the corner of 30th and Guadalupe aren’t going to pay a dollar each way to take a light rail when they can walk or take a UT Shuttle for free.
    The point is, if you put you mind to it, could you think of ways to make the current system better. I know that I could, and I don’t have near the experience or expertise that you do.

  8. If you mean, run the streetcar in between runs of the commuter rail line, it ain’t gonna happen. The vehicles won’t be compatible; the stations won’t be compatible; and the logistics would be impossible.
    As for residential density – starting in 2000, east Austin was far behind the Guadalupe corridor, and since then, the Guad corridor has skyrocketed to an even bigger lead. Yes, I mean the Triangle. And the lofts at 31/Guad. And the West Campus buildings.
    Yes, students are some of the potential consumers of light rail – they would have ridden it in ’00 (from Triangle to UT, for instance). Or from West Campus to downtown at night.

  9. Are you telling me that street cars and commuter rail run on different scale tracks? If not, they can run together. The commuter rail plans to be very infrequent.
    A street car wouldn’t need to stop at the same stations. I would hope a street car could have more frequent stations at street level. For example, the commuter rail will stop at Saltillo Plaza, a street car could stop at 501 Studios, Saltillo Lofts, Villas in 6th, East End lumber and more. It could go as far as Manor making a complete loop.
    You are right. Hyde Park is denser than East Austin, but not to such a great degree. From the 2000 Census:
    Hyde Park (Census Tract 3.02)
    6,480 Persons/Sq Mile
    East Sixth Street (Census Tract 9.01)
    5,459 Persons/Sq Mile
    And those figures were before the recent redevelopment:
    http://www.1305lofts.com/
    http://www.saltillolofts.com/home.html
    http://thepedernales.com/
    http://www.twentyone24.com/
    http://www.villasonsixth.com/retail.html
    http://www.austinurbandigs.com/property_stats.php?id=6
    All these projects are either completed or underway. There are also a bunch of planned projects on large tracts of land including Saltillo, Featherlight and more.
    Most of the real density on the Guadalupe route is on the UT campus and in West Austin. These students might ride a light rail once in a while to renew thier drivers licenses, but not to go to class every day.
    My point is, there are changes that we can make to the ideas being implemented by Cap Metro that will turn a boondogle rail for a few greenies in Leander to something that will serve the folks in Austin. The people buying condos on 6th want to take the street car downtown. They want a dense urban, walkable lifestyle. We can provide that at almost no additional cost to what is being planned now.

  10. Track scale – likely not the same; but not completely a lost cause.
    Vehicle height – definitely not the same. So, yes, you wouldn’t be able to use the same stations.
    So the sum total of this proposal, if I get this correctly, is to just run the streetcar farther ‘back’, overlapping with the commuter rail route? The only benefit here would be that the few people in East Austin riding would be able to ride to UT/Capitol without transferrring – but they’d still be stuck in traffic for the last 2/3 of their ride.
    The Guadaluple density was a big part of the Feds rating the 2000 light rail line fairly high. Students living in the Triangle would definitely ride it to class; and West Campus residents would ride to 6th street. You’re pretty hung up on this (false) idea that students wouldn’t ride the thing.

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