(I had this ready to post to #atxfreedomurbanists, Austin’s only urbanist group that doesn’t suck, but facebook has been down all day and I’m tired of waiting).
In 2015, I wrote a series of posts about pushing for honesty in our transportation agencies. I promoted this effort in atxurbanists and internally at AURA, and was mocked and belittled by the leadership of AURA for my trouble. Today, it appears that Project Connect is now repeating history so convincingly that even Julio has had enough. Too bad he didn’t think so in 2015. Follow the two links for details.
From vast experience in this community, the engagement method you suggest (one-on-one private conversations) affords executive staff & policymakers unnacountable discretion. My – apparently ignored – request was for a public explanation of changes & formal public version control.— Julio Gonzalez Altamirano (@juliogatx) March 13, 2019
Tweet by Julio Gonzalez Altamirano, just earlier today
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.
Last fall, I made this post in which I attended a Friends Of Hyde Park briefing on Project Connect in which I took major issue with Javier Arguello defending a supposed I-35 BRT project in Minneapolis as a successful high-capacity-transit investment (it wasn’t and still isn’t actually running yet, and will suck if it ever gets built), and then using a bad sort-ofBRT project and a bad mixed-traffic streetcar project as the other two pictures, cooking the books against people considering light-rail transit in the center of an arterial roadway. Hey, here’s a picture of what I wrote last fall!
A friend of the crackplog reports that the picture below was just used yesterday, May 3, 2017, to brief City Council about the progress, showing examples of successful high-capacity transit investments.
That’s OK, though. Let’s check with our local urbanist org, Austinites For Urban Rail Action:
Oh good, they’re on the MCAG and have been since last fall! Let’s check to see how they have reacted. I’m sure there’s lots of stuff they’ve written since last fall, using this board seat to good ends. I’m sure they have spoken truth to power; afflicted the comfortable; etc etc. Here, I’ve loaded up everything they have said in public about Project Connect 2.0 for your persual:
In an article in today’s Austin Monitor, the inimitable Caleb Pritchard reports that the plan to resurface the right lane in concrete is Moving Right Along. This plan is part and parcel of this other plan which has won the support of the curiously named Austinites for Urban Rail Action. Image follows.
I’m shocked, amazed, truculent, etc that it falls to me, and only me, yet again to call Capital Metro on their bullshit. Clearly they have long since decided that whatever Project Connect 2.0 spits out, it will not include rail running in the center of Guadalupe (and thus obviously Lamar as well). Otherwise, their partners at the city1 wouldn’t be doing what they are doing right now.
Where is Austinites for Urban Rail Action throughout all this?
Oh yeah. They sold you out for a seat on the MCAG, with which they apparently intend to make sure they don’t do anything to stop this.
Key things to remember in case you’re tempted to Well This Ain’t So Bad me on this:
No city has ever converted bus lanes to LRT and retained any of the original infrastructure. One city I’m aware of has sort-of converted BRT to LRT by tearing the entire thing up and starting over.
No city with half a brain would run LRT on the right side of a two-way street with lots of right turns. So this isn’t an approach to put rails in the bus lanes later anyways.
Cap Metro plans to increase ‘stations’ on the 80x this year anyways – which will be further obstacles, legitimate or merely political, for LRT on this corridor.
There is no path which ends with light rail on Guadalupe within the next couple of decades which starts with what you see above, with what AURA is supporting today. Do not be fooled.
they can’t wait three seconds without telling us how joined-at-the-hip they are these days, after all ↩
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.