Working on brevity

From a comment I just made to this poll on News 8:

This isn’t light rail. Light rail would have worked (projected 43,000 riders per day) since it would have gone directly to UT, the capitol, and the part of downtown where people actually work.
This commuter rail line, on the other hand, requires that people who won’t ride the bus today will suddenly fall in love with buses when you stick the word “shuttle” in front of them.

Pretty short. Does it hit the important notes? I did leave out the ridership estimate of 1000-1500 for the new service (2000 maximum capacity).
THANKS, KRUSEE!

More on the gas tax

Been posting to the blog Hammer of Judgement in comments, but thought I ought to excerpt the last comment here too:

#1: It doesn’t matter WHY they drive less, if you’re just measuring the regressivity of the gas tax. Whether it’s because they don’t have to, don’t want to, or CAN’T is irrelevant.
#2: Texas “highway system” comprises only roads with route shields on them, and even then, substantial donations in the form of property and sales taxes are required these days to get anything built. In addition, in Texas, most major arterials inside cities are NOT part of the state highway system, and thus get ZERO gas tax dollars.
This is not something you want to dispute me on, it’s the closest thing to a specialty I have. Here’s some starter links for you:
http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000173.html
http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000164.html
http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000122.html
pictures:
http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000117.html
entire category:
http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/cat_funding_of_transportation.html
#3: On anectdotes – the studies I cited aren’t available in their full form on the web (to me or you), but they go WAY beyond anectdotal data, since there are real studies behind those quotes, unlike most of the people who assert the gas tax’ regressivity.
#4: I don’t know where the 15% figure comes from; but even if true, the STATED REASON most people harp on the supposed regressivity of the gas tax is concern for the poorest people, not the middle class. Thus, showing that it’s regressive across middle and high incomes but NOT low incomes serves to refute the essential point.

Note that I cover the topic of roadway funding extensively in this category, including “what roads get gas taxes and what don’t”, “how do we pay for major roads”, “why does the state effectively subsidize the suburbs through the gas tax”, etc.

On rail success and how not to get there

Excerpted from a post I just made to the excellent Cyburbia Forums:

Actually, Austin’s development pattern was nearly ideal for a successful light rail line – the one which would have gone straight down Guadalupe past UT and the Capitol, I mean. Huge suburban catchment area served well by big park-and-rides followed by transition through inner-city residential neighborhoods with thousands of residents within walking distance followed by three mega-employment-centers (UT, capitol, downtown) all with parking issues which encourage transit as long as transit is reasonably competitive.

The reason commuter rail won’t work is that it doesn’t run through those inner-city neighborhoods (you know, the ones where people actually LIKE mass transit) _AND_ it requires a shuttle-bus transfer for UT and Capitol and most downtown employees. You can’t come up with a better way to shoot yourself in the foot than to first lose your best customers (inner-city people) and then tell your remaining customer base of skeptical suburbanites that the last mile or two of their trip is going to be on a shuttle-bus stuck in traffic with everybody else’s car.

My final pre-election note

(Thank God, say the readers)

Sent by me a moment ago to the austin-bikes email list:

David Dobbs wrote:

> At 08:25 -0600 11/1/04, pills Mike Dahmus wrote:
>
>> So I don’t buy the argument that the money’s only going back if the election fails. I think the money’s also going back if the election succeeds but the starter line fails.
>
>
>
> Well, clearly we can be virtually certain that, save for a half-cent bus system, Capital Metro’s funding will be gone if commuter rail doesn’t pass tomorrow.

No, clearly we can’t be virtually certain of that.

I expect the 1/4 cent diversion to local governments to continue if Capital Metro were to lose the election. This diversion is easily rectified, unlike the permanent diversion that would happen if they win the election and build the virtually guaranteed failure of a commuter rail stub.
The fact that the ROAD guys aren’t fighting this very hard should tell you all you need to know about their feeling on the matter. But if you don’t believe THAT, consider the fact that this plan comes from Mike Krusee, no friend of Austin and definitely no friend of public transportation. He and Fred Gilliam have come up with the cheapest possible way to show once and for all that rail “doesn’t work in Austin” – at which point I’m sure their common cause evaporates as Krusee seeks road funds and Gilliam seeks bus rapid transit. Either way, central Austin in particular gets nothing but the back of the hand.
There is no way I can see in which urban rail can be salvaged if this election passes. David is parroting the dubious party line that this commuter rail line can be turned into “light rail” by running the trains more often and through TOD – ignoring the fact that TOD won’t occur if nobody is riding the line when it opens (real estate developers will shy away from such development if the line looks like a failure AS HAPPENED IN SOUTH FLORIDA). And NOBODY has explained how Austin is going to be SO DIFFERENT from South Florida that the shuttle-bus liability won’t be a huge problem here for building choice commuter ridership. High-frequency shuttle buses waiting for you when you get off the train? Check. Speedy rail portion of commute? Check. Cheap because they used existing track? Check. Now planning on shifting emphasis over the next decade to a much better rail corridor after 15 wasted years? One down, one to go.

Let’s recap:

  • This line delivers rail + shuttle-bus commutes to Leander and far northwest Austin. It does not deliver ANYTHING to central Austin. It does not deliver rail service to ANY OF THE THREE major attractors (downtown*, UT, Capitol). It will be relying on far-out suburbanites to form the bulk of the daily ridership – and those are PRECISELY the people who are LEAST likely to accept a shuttle-bus as part of their daily commute. The progressive parts of town where residential density is at its highest get nothing but bus service under the LONG-RANGE plan (NOT just being skipped by the starter line, but SKIPPED ENTIRELY).
  • The idea that the plan can then be saved by streetcar is also naive and foolish. While streetcars are more attractive than buses for a single transit trip:
    1. The transfer penalty still applies. A three-leg trip (car, train, shuttle-bus) is much much worse than a two-leg trip (car, light rail) or a one-leg trip, as a Hyde Park resident could have had with 2000 LRT.
    2. Unlike light rail (and the rail portion of the ASG commute), streetcars are stuck in traffic just like shuttle buses. You lose so much speed and reliability that the private car becomes competitive again.
    3. Streetcars (and any other rail extensions or expansions) must be voted on under the same rules – only in November, only an even-numbered year, and they won’t be ready to take it to a vote in 2006 since they’ve committed to a long study process. November 2008 would be the first chance to VOTE on these saviours, at which point the daily ridership numbers of the initial line WITH SHUTTLE BUSES will be public knowledge.
  • The reason we’re not getting to vote on light rail this time around has NOTHING to do with light rail’s viability. EVERY CITY THAT HAS SUCCEEDED WITH RAIL IN THE LAST 20 YEARS HAS DONE SO WITH A LIGHT RAIL STARTER LINE, NOT COMMUTER RAIL. Light rail in 2000 was forced to the polls early by Mike Krusee, and still only narrowly lost in an election where suburban turnout was disproportionately high. The idea that we couldn’t have taken out some of the objectionable parts of the 2000 LRT proposal and gotten a winning result is just a COMPLETE AND UTTER LIE.

I can’t believe so many intelligent people fell for this snow-job pulled on you by Krusee, who hates Austin with a passion, and Fred Gilliam, who wants bus rapid transit and is pushing commuter rail as a way to get it. If I’m still living here in Austin in 2008, I expect to see many more comments a la Shoal Creek of:

” I am dismayed that Mike Dahmus was so damned right about this whole debacle from the very beginning.”
– MD

* – by the 1/4 mile rule, no major downtown office buildings are within walking distance of the “downtown station”. Nearly every major office building downtown, as well as the Capitol, UT, West Campus, most of North University and Hyde Park, and 38th/Guadalupe would have been within 1/4 mile of a light-rail station in 2000.

The Crappy Is The Enemy Of The Good

Jeb Boyt throws back one of the most effective sound bites on commuter rail. I’m disappointed he didn’t have the guts to link to me; I will certainly allow you to read his own words directly and make up your own mind.
I responded in his comments with:

Again, I disagree. Rail systems which attempt to provide starter line service by requiring shuttle bus transfers are universally failures at pulling people out of their cars (unlike light rail lines in the last two decades).

And Guadalupe/Lamar was completely feasible – the 2000 election lost by such a small margin that any number of minor changes to the plan, or heck, even a more concrete plan (remember we voted without knowing the downtown routing!) could have put it over the top.
The spin that Guadalupe/Lamar is impossible comes straight from Fred Gilliam, who DOESN’T WANT RAIL AT ALL. Hint: He’s teamed up with Mike Krusee here to build commuter rail because it’s the cheapest way to show that it “doesn’t work”.
And it “won’t work” because it doesn’t run through neighborhoods where people actually want to use it, and the only people who COULD use it are precisely those who would be the LEAST willing to take shuttle buses every day.

The real problem here, folks, is that a starter line which is this horrible will be, as one of my colleagues on the Urban Transportation Commission put it, a “finisher line”. It will end rail transit in this area for decades. Please don’t fall for this baloney that the commuter rail line is good enough for a start, and that we can work on improving it later. As Jeb’s entry points out, Lamar/Guadalupe is not even under consideration as one of the possible “improvements” anyways, even if I end up wrong and suburbanites eagerly flock to daily shuttle-bus trips as part of their Leander-to-Austin commute.

“Pass commuter rail and then work for light rail”

Excerpted from a comment I made on David Nunez’ site:

I’ve explained a couple of times why you can’t get light rail after this plan is passed. From the technical obstacles (incompatible trackage prevents original ’00 route up the existing rail ROW to northwest areas) to the political (a revised northeasterly route continuing purely in-street up Lamar would suck for speed AND would necessitate essentially shutting down the intersection of Lamar and Airport).
Please don’t keep misleading people, whomever you are.

As for the success of the starter line – again, every first line which has succeeded in this country has delivered people within walking distance of their destinations. Once you have the choice commuters used to using rail transit, you can start hitting them with transfers, but NOT at first; they’ll stay in their cars.

Here’s the rub: If this first line, with shuttlebuses and all, doesn’t pull a lot of car-drivers out of their cars, THERE WILL NOT BE ANY MORE RAIL IN THIS AREA IN OUR LIFETIMES. The voters will vote down any expansions of a system which already “showed” that people “don’t want to ride trains in Austin”.

I can’t make this any more clear, folks. The starter line absolutely MUST pull in a bunch of choice commuters for it to succeed. Buffalo and Miami showed what happens when it relies on transfers – car owners stay away, and then voters aren’t interested in more rail.

Two more comments

from David Nunez’ site:

(in response to the typical “we have to pass this now, it’s our only hope for light rail in the future” argument):

Commuter rail PRECLUDES light rail.

It’s a nice fantasy that if we get commuter rail passed, we can go back and get light rail down Lamar/Guadalupe. The problem is that even CM isn’t hinting at that anymore because they know it’s not practical.

  1. You couldn’t put LRT on its original ’00 alignment (up Guadalupe/Lamar to Airport and then following existing track to the northwest) because commuter rail is ALREADY THERE.
  2. You couldn’t CROSS these tracks without turning Lamar/Airport into a nightmare. Thus, you aren’t going to be able to run light rail further up Lamar.
  3. If you run LRT from JUST Lamar/Airport to the downtown area, you’re losing 1/2 of the residential component of the ’00 line (FOLKS, LISTEN TO ME: MOST CAR DRIVERS WILL _NOT_ ACCEPT A TRANSIT TRIP IF IT INVOLVES TRANSFERS – NOT EVEN TO OTHER RAIL LINES). You also lose the connection between the two UT campuses which would have provided an automatic hundreds-of-passengers-per-day.

I can’t be any more clear here: Vote on ASG. Don’t vote on phantom light-rail which Capital Metro won’t even hint at anymore – they originally called Rapid Bus a “placeholder” for rail, but they have since removed this language.

ALL you will get with this vote is the starter line – running from Leander to the Convention Center. NO STREETCARS. NO RAIL DOWN MOPAC. This is IT.

(now, in response to a section which talked about Dallas’ combination of commuter rail from Fort Worth, DART light rail, and a heritage streetcar):

Your example, Dallas:

  1. They built DART _FIRST_. It ran from suburbs into downtown and stopped within walking distance of most riders’ final destinations.
  2. They had a streetcar running for other purposes; and only AFTER building DART did anybody use the streetcar for anything other than tourism; even then it’s an extension to a part of town which isn’t traditionally office-oriented.
  3. Commuter rail was added AFTER the light-rail urban spine.

Compare and contrast to Austin.

We’re contemplating building the commuter line first, and requiring that people get on shuttle buses to get to their offices. Not to go to bars, or football games, as with the Dallas lines.
Dallas commuters get on light-rail to go to work; very few daily workers use commuter rail there. The same will be true here – people who can drive will be willing to hop on a shuttle bus if it’s to a UT game or to 6th St., but if you have to do that as part of your DAILY WORK COMMUTE, it’s a deal-killer.

This is not conjecture, folks. This is what happened in South Florida with a system that couldn’t be any more identical to Capital Metro’s proposal.

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.