should have been no surprise. If you follow me on twitter, and why wouldn’t you,1 you’ve been hearing about this ever since my meeting with Clarke at the end of May. If you missed the news, try Caleb’s run-down.
The angle nobody is covering so far is that while a bond election is probably required to pay for the infrastructure bills involved, no technical “rail referendum” is necessary. So Cap Metro buys themselves a lot of wiggle room here – asking the city to hold a bond election in a low turnout time if they choose to, for instance.
As for the rest of it: it’s over. AURA, FAN, #atxrail – they were all warned; and they all stayed silent in a stupid naive attempt to fix things with the back-channel communications that never meant anything, and as a result, we’re never getting light rail in Austin.
Today’s “worst person in Austin” award goes to Randy Clarke, who is just a more effective liar than the old leadership. Nobody in the community asked for robot buses as a fig leaf for BRT, but that’s what he’s claiming the community wants and needs. That’s enough for ten awards, but one will have to suffice. But honorable mention “worst person in Austin” awards go to the credulous nitwits in those groups above, who were all warned back when there was time to make enough fuss to possibly change this2, and chose yet again to disregard my warnings.
If this is sufficiently well-received I may fill in more later.
This post is in response to a request from Friends of Austin Neighborhoods, an organization of which I am a member, for some transit talk leading up to a position / plan from them. My key elements follow, in outline form, with links to old writing where feasible. I expressed my concerns that this would be a waste of time due to the alliance of FAN with AURA and Evolve Austin but was assured this was not an issue, so here we go.
Above all else, be skeptical of Capital Metro
Cap Metro’s record for honesty is bad and not improving. Lately, they mislead people about Connections 2025 (selling it as a “ridership over coverage” redesign, but in reality, it’s cutting service to our densest areas and rebalancing towards more suburban service). Under this we have details like conflating Rapid Bus with local service; using 1/2 mile or larger catchment zones when 1/4 mile is the industry standard, etc. Project Connect 1.0 was an unmitigated disaster due to a lack of honesty about constraints and aims by the people leading it, and they have never been held to account for it. We will not make any real progress for transit in Austin until these agencies act with transparency and honesty. FAN should demand better governance of, and leadership at, Capital Metro. My basic recommendation would be that board members need to at least ride transit sometimes and have a deep fundamental understanding of what actually raises and lowers transit ridership; and top leadership must be honest and ethical. Neither of those standards is met today by any board members or anyone in top leadership of the agency.
Watch the diversion of service dollars to the suburbs
Even AURA is on board with the Red Line being a bad investment, and I-35 BRT being a horrible idea. But that’s not where it ends.
The service just introduced for Round Rock is a horrible deal. Cap Metro is being misleading about it being a “contracted service”. Round Rock doesn’t pay overhead that supports Cap Metro’s structure in general, and their passengers can continue onto mainline routes despite not having paid taxes to support them. They’re getting a sweetheart deal in return for not paying into the system. This is bad for Austin.
Likewise, park and rides placed near the edge of the city limits or the edge of the service area are obviously going to tend to attract patrons from jurisdictions that don’t pay to support the agency. While you might want to supply them with transit anyways, this is a zero-sum game or worse. Every $25 operating subsidy paid so somebody from Cedar Park can ride the train despite not paying taxes to support it results in 5-10 Austinites not getting to ride a bus that their city did pay taxes to support.
We should not be subsidizing the suburbs’ road network and also subsidizing their transit. If we don’t get to cut one, cutting the other is not only good but necessary. Again, in Austin, transit is a zero-sum game; we have no ability to increase operating funds, so every dollar we blow on somebody in Cedar Park is taken away from a prospective rider in Austin. Friends of Austin Neighborhoods should be about supporting Austin’s interests first against so-called predatory regionalism.
The Panglosses kept at it, assuring us that infill stops would be added any day now. It’s now looking like 2018 or later for two infill stops, and even with those infill stops, Hyde Park will still have worse service than it did in 2011. Connections 2025 will make it even worse than that!
Rapid Bus is also a suburban subsidy although it’s more of a subsidy to the worst land use INSIDE Austin (i.e. low-density sprawl inside far north and far south Austin gets better service now, by speed, than does Hyde Park). AURA hasn’t opposed Rapid Bus primarily because their president lives close to an 803 stop and saw personal benefit from the service change that screwed thousands of others. I think FAN needs to be more honest and transparent than that, and hope you agree.
Watch out for things that don’t pass the BS test
Don’t ask a transit rider if the grid redesign’s requirement to add transfers will increase or reduce ridership. They have no idea; they’re already riding. Ask somebody who has a long history of being right about service changes’ impact on ridership. Ask somebody who is transit-positive but has to drive to work.
The fact is that the Connections 2025 redesign cuts local service even further for the areas of Austin with some of the highest modeshare, and yet, Evolve Austin and AURA have bought into the Big Lie from Capital Metro. I shouldn’t have to keep explaining this, but in 2011, you could pick up a #1 on Guadalupe in Hyde Park every 10-12 minutes during peak and a #101 every 20 minutes or so. Now there is a local every 30 minutes, and the distance to walk to ‘rapid’ (fancy 101) is too long to make up for the increased frequency. Actual riders are worse off today; and yet Connections 2025 proposed making that even worse under the guise of improving things. (Eliminating local service on Speedway, and originally proposing eliminating the remaining locals on Guadalupe too!)
Friends of Austin Neighborhoods generally promotes urbanist ideals. Having a transit agency which cuts service to the areas that buy into urbanism inevitably leads to pushback in the future for land-use changes as people become justifiably skeptical that new residents of infill developments will use transit at non-trivial levels.
If you say you want ridership over coverage, be serious about it
Ridership, ridership, ridership. This is a public investment; we need our transit dollar to go as far as it possibly can.
That’s all the time I can spend now. Let’s see if FAN was serious about taking this seriously before I invest any more.
So I went to a Project Connect 2.0 presentation on Tuesday night, organized by Friends of Hyde Park. As is my wont, I also asked some pointed questions. You can get the original notes and detailed tweetstorm in yesterday’s post. Today’s is about the general things I noticed. “Javier” is Javier Arguello, “Jackie” is Jackie Nirenberg. So, here we go:
Their top ‘lesson learned’ from 2014 was: “we didn’t have long enough to convince people that the Highland/EastRiverside line was good”.
(My paraphrase). I did pointedly and directly ask this question and was unsatisfied with the response. A member of the CAG has confirmed to me in private that they keep asking this question and keep getting this deeply unsatisfying response, so it is clear to me that Capital Metro will admit to no wrongdoing in Project Connect 1.0 despite the vast majority of transit activists eventually agreeing that their process was corrupt and, in the end, publicly opposing their proposal. (I interrupted at one point and reminded them how unprecedented that was – I’m not aware of any other case in the entire country where a major transit proposal was so publically opposed by such a large group of transit activists from that city).
They keep claiming nothing is decided, but it’s clearly decided in some ways.
The framework for discussion has been set in a way that heavily disfavors Guadalupe/Lamar rail. There are three ‘segments’ of travel they put up on the screen; as well as a slide which shows “previous HCT studies”. Guadalupe/Lamar is not in the top slide (most important service), nor is it listed in “previous HCT studies”. It is instead consigned to the second group, called “connector corridors”, implying that Capital Metro has already decided that it cannot be the spine of the transit network. The images they chose to prove that they are ‘mode-neutral’ are, in order, a bad modern streetcar stuck in traffic, a bad BRT system that has proved far less than advertised (Cleveland), and a bad freeway BRT proposal (Minneapolis). I directly asked Javier why they chose these images, and he claimed it was just random chance. Sure it was.
They keep claiming they’re not going to waste a ton of time on more planning, because “the plans are already on the shelves”
yet they are ignoring the 2000 light rail plan, as shown above. In fact, later in the night, Javier tried to claim we didn’t know what people would or wouldn’t support, so I asked him directly “what corridor got the most support in Project Connect 1.0”, and to his credit, he finally answered directly: “Guadalupe/Lamar”.
They really want to triple down on the Red Line.
Javier claimed at one point that reputable people believe they can get 32,000 boardings per day by making more investments in that corridor. Not actual extensions of the line, mind you. He claims that they believe they can get as many riders as a below-average light rail line by simply adding more double-tracked segments and buying more train cars. This is, of course, complete bullshit.
They really want to play up investment in freeway transit.
Javier talked up Mopac express lanes on numerous occasions, which are sort-of OK in my book (many riders of express buses actually pay taxes to Capital Metro, unlike the median Red Line rider). But they’re not actual transformative transit in the land use perspective, for sure. I-35 BRT is a different animal. They envision stations in the freeway corridor – and then, see the next point, they envision circulating passengers off that presumed spine with another bus trip, ignoring the fact that people with actual choices don’t typically take 2-bus rides to work every day.
They have learned that “last-mile problem” is a get out of jail free card for bad transit.
I blame every other transit advocate in Austin for continuing to enable this excuse. As I often say, if your transit provider spends a lot of time talking about their last mile problem, you have a bad transit system. No, not every location can be served without lots of transfers. But when the majority of your passengers on your theoretical ‘spine’ have to transfer, YOU HAVE A BAD SPINE, DAWG. Spines need to go down the middle and get to the good stuff. And especially on the ‘work end’ of the trip (not the ‘home end’): if a large percentage of your riders have to transfer off the spine, you’ve chosen poorly.
For Houston, the strategy meant building a light rail through the city’s primary urban corridor, where lots of people already live and work.
Cities often shy away from that approach because it’s more expensive and disruptive to lay tracks in such populated locations. But the factors that make it difficult to build light rail there were exactly the things that made it the right place to have light rail.
“Often, light rail is driven by people saying, ‘we need light rail somewhere,’ and the political process will tend to put it where it doesn’t upset anyone, where it isn’t in the way of anything,” said Spieler, who is also the head of planning for Houston-based architecture firm Morris. “That is generally not a high ridership corridor. The congested places are the places people are trying to go.”
And since transit riders are almost always pedestrians on each end of their trip, you can only expect riders to walk to destinations within a quarter mile of a station. That makes it especially important to have stations right in the center of the action, not just near it.
“If you propose transit and no one is against it, it’s a bad project,” Spieler said. “Do you build it where it’s needed, or where it’s easy? That’s the central tension in U.S. cities, and too often they make decisions based on what’s easy.”
They have also learned that “we have to fix land use” is another get out of jail free card for bad transit.
They are still treating public input as a charade.
Both Javier and Jackie asked me to keep participating and keep giving input, and Javier expressed frustration at how many times he has heard versions of “you guys lied during Project Connect 1.0, why should we trust you now”. There was also one unsubtle dig during the Q&A period. The most fun part of the night for me was when Javier tried to turn around my “so what did you learn from the 2014 election loss” question at me and asked me why the 2000 rail plan lost. I think people around me saw my eyes turn to saucers and drool start to drip from my mouth at that spicy meatball, which I of course answered with a 60-second version of this old post1.
Oh, and also: I didn’t have the presence of mind to remind them of a pretty important part of the public involvement process that one of their predecessors accomplished…
Thanks to the Friends of Hyde Park, I got presented at last night by Project Connect (2.0, now more than ever, etc etc). Here are my notes from the event, followed by a storify of the livetweets. Next post will be a next-day summary.
Trying to downplay urban rail component and talk up regional plan
New "focus area" 183 mopac BW
CBD defined 15 BS/R Lamar 35
3 examples of HCT are KC streetcar, Cleve BRT, shitty Minn 35 BRT
"Tired of planning", want our input from the beginning
2.real solutions for real problems - tier 2 tech eval 14-18m
3. Path to implementation - Lpa selection 4-6m
Bragging about talking to COA, TXDOT, CTRMA
MENTIONING GL but hedging with references to city having to give ROW and "people still want to drive" clearly shaping expectations away from there already.
Phase 1 notes mention "not doing corridor planning", taking things done in the past. One input shown as "recommendations from previous plans".
Output is draft list of projects and transit corridors
Vetted with public and stakeholders
Draft tier 1 screening criteria (also claim vetted with public and stakehold)
CMTA Financial Capability Analysis
Looking over next 25 years at just cap metro financial capacity but assume some help on top
Mentions park and rides are a bad investment
Takes a long convoluted way to explain "need to move more people in less space"
Claims Red Line isn't finished. Only 4 cars, corridor can support 14!
Claims Red Line would have 32000 trips per day if they got enough infrastructure. And op subsidy would go down from $22 to 7.
Their map of corridors studied for hCT in the past does not include GL. GL at same level as RR now in 2nd class map of "connector corridors"...
Also mentions obliquely Elgin Line (other rail lines they own).
Last mile connections. Drink!
New slide draft enhancement projects - where they talk up MR and RL.
Downtown entryways talks up priority treatments at i35 and river crossings and then C2025
Bunch of bullshit about mobility hubs
Map asking for priority lanes on SL, SC. North of river focus on a new RL station, and some useless MR crap.
Public involvement process schedule shows they're already 3/4 done with "listen and inform" phase but "haven't done anything" meaning no decisions. Major event on Feb 4. Public launch Jan to feb through mar 2017.
Now Annick jumps in to talk strategic mobility plan on whiteboard
Compact and connected. Drink!
Response to my comment asking specifically for 2014 failure was that they didn't have enough time to 'compare' to Guadalupe and Lamar. Then some bullshit about lack of regional.
That interest in return on investment opens the chamber up to critics who drubbed the 2014 light rail proposal as a suboptimal choice of projects. Its huge price tag and relatively low ridership projections – due in part to a route that bypassed some of the city’s densest neighborhoods – could have drastically cut into the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Agency’s operating budget, which could in turn have hurt the agency’s bus service, those critics argued.
“I don’t think I would characterize the 2014 bond proposal as a bad plan or a bad investment,” Cantú said in the chamber’s defense. “It might not have been the perfect plan. And I think a lot of people and groups in Austin are looking for perfection, and perfection is the enemy of good enough.”
He either doesn’t know the concept “worse than nothing” or knows it and doesn’t care. Ignorant or dishonest. You pick.
If the Chamber’s ‘new approach’ that identifies sprawl as bad does not include radical honesty about how bad the 2014 light rail plan was (instead extolling I-35 ‘improvements’ and more state highway ‘investment’), then they have learned nothing; we are all dumber for having listened to them. I award them no points; and may god have mercy on their souls.
I don’t post very much, as the state of urbanist and transit advocacy in Austin has depressed it out of me, but as a reminder, I’m still alive, if barely, and you can get a lot of updates on facebook in #atxfreedomurbanists or on twitter.
Two important facebook comments in a thread fighting against a member of the establishment I thought it worth copying here and cleaning up before I go. Blockquotes (italics in most themes) are my words; things in quotes are the guy I was responding to).
I have my honesty and my integrity, which are worth a lot. It means that in the future, when I say something, people don’t have to think “does he really mean that?”. Or “is he exaggerating for the benefit of somebody or something else and doesn’t really know what he’s talking about?”
And the second (most of it):
“At least you have ideological purity in snaky Facebook posts, that is even better than a seat at the table for sure.”
Playing along with the bad guys is what the Alliance for Public Transportation did. They got nothing out of it. I fought them. I won. I beat a bad project which would have made things worse. And the people who were dishonest and disingenuous in service of Proposition 1 have to live with that. People should take what they say in the future with many grains of salt, as they were willing to be dishonest in the service of power. I’m not.
Show me why it’s worth my while to change. Show me an example of somebody like me who played along and was able to change the power structure instead of getting subsumed by it (or just having nothing good happen). Then I might listen, if the example is good enough and compelling enough. Until then, you’re wasting your time and everyone else’s.
“but no one in a position of power or authority gives a rats ass about what you say, because of how you present your opinion and maintain your relationships. ”
is a personal attack, by the way, and it’s also dishonest. The people who say substantively the same things but in a nicer way also get nowhere. The people who modify their message enough to get heard in this political environment are modifying it to the point where it is no longer substantively *true*. IE, the A4PT may have gotten listened to, but they did by basically lying to the public and to themselves. What good did that do anybody?
And of course remember again that the A4PT got listened to by lying to the public and to themselves, and then LOST. Don’t forget. Never forget.
Hey you remember when the North decided to be way too nice to the South and the result was that generations of kids down here grew up being taught that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, here that slaves were better off for being slaves, drugs that Robert E Lee didn’t want slaves / chose to set them free / was a big ole softy? But that the truth was he inherited some from his father-in-law, neuropathist delayed setting them free, and ordered that their wounds from being whipped be bathed in brine?
So yeah. The losers got to write the history, in that case.
Fast-forward to January and February 2016. Two of the last three days, posts like the one pictured below have shown up on pages of people I sort-of follow, who are semi-respected and big parts of the ecosystem locally. Anybody see any parallels? Hint: “The FTA wouldn’t fund rail on Guadalupe/Lamar1” is the equivalent to “IT WAS ABOUT STATES’ RIGHTS!!!!1”
The ‘winners’ once again let the losers write the history. And when that happens, we all lose.
The original facebook post tagged Roger Cauvin and gave him credit for doing a bunch of legwork to get public statements from the FTA that directly contradict the claims made in 2014 by many people associated with the project. Suffice to say, the claim about the Feds in the picture is as best dishonest, and at worst a bald-faced lie ↩
The insiders who messed up Proposition 1 still haven’t come to terms with what they did, so I’m not going to let it sit either. Here’s something not to forget; when certain political actors try to pretend there was some kind of consensus behind the choice that got spanked at the polls instead of the one that was never allowed to be studied: