Circulators don’t work

Fresh on the heels of yesterday’s post, Christof from Houston weighs in that rail service that depends on circulators rather than pedestrian traffic isn’t likely to succeed in garnering so-called “choice commuters” (those who you’re trying to attract away from their cars).

Unfortunately,it appears that the same lesson which was learned from watching Tri-Rail’s abject failure in South Florida has to keep getting re-learned all over the country, since we keep pushing these stupid commuter rail projects which reuse existing track but don’t go anywhere worth going rather than building light rail which DOES.
So, care to guess how you’re going to get from the Capital Metro commuter rail station to your office in downtown, the Capitol, or UT?

Brewster et al, I Told You So

Especially Brewster, but also some others are finally, now that it’s long too late, beginning to question the wisdom of continuing to give Capital Metro $160 million / year when they turn around and spend all the rail money on a plan which screws Central Austin and provide useless Rapid Bus service as the “thanks for 92% of our tax revenue” gift. Kudos to Kimberly for coverage of this issue.

Let’s set the wayback machine to May of 2004. I wrote a post on that day referring to a resolution I floated; the text is below. While Brewster from all accounts thinks I’m a troll, the irony of seeing him come pretty darn close to my 2004 position is just really really delicious. Of course, I’d trade it in a second for some actual movement on this issue.

WHEREAS the City of Austin does not receive adequate mobility benefits from the currently proposed Long Range Transit Plan due to its reliance on “rapid bus” transit without separate right-of-way
and
WHEREAS a “rapid bus” line does not and cannot provide the necessary permanent infrastructure to encourage mixed-use pedestrian-oriented densification along its corridor
and
WHEREAS the vast majority of Capital Metro funds come from residents of the City of Austin
and
WHEREAS the commuter rail plan proposed as the centerpiece of this plan delivers most of its benefits to residents of areas which are not within the Capital Metro service area while ignoring the urban core which provides most Capital Metro monies
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Urban Transportation Commission recommends that the City Council immediately reject Capital Metro’s Long-Range Transit Plan and begin working towards a plan which:
A. delivers more reliable and high-performance transit into and through the urban core, including but not limited to the University of Texas, Capitol Complex, and downtown
B. requires additional user fees from passengers using Capital Metro rail services who reside in areas which are not part of the Capital Metro service area
C. provides permanent infrastructure to provide impetus for pedestrian-oriented mixed-use redevelopment of the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor
IF CAPITAL METRO will not work with the City of Austin on all items above, THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the UTC advises the City Council to begin preparations to withdraw from the Capital Metro service area and provide its own transit system in order to provide true mobility benefits to the taxpayers of Austin.

It died for lack of a second. Since then, two fellow commissioners expressed their regret at their decision to not at least second the motion so we could have gone on the record, after seeing how the plan unfolded pretty much as I predicted way back then.

Hand-holding consensus exercises play into the hands of the Bad Guys

NUPro’s frustration echoes with me, 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, and the “bad guys” are very good at gathering public input about things that fundamentally don’t matter, 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.

Oppose the “McMansion Ordinance”

Just sent this to Council:

Council members: My name is Mike Dahmus; I own a condominium unit in Old West Austin and currently live in a house I own in the North University neighborhood. I’d like to ask you to oppose the “McMansion ordinance” at Thursday’s meeting. I will be brief.
I’ve corresponded extensively with the task force on their bulletin boards, but frankly, there was little common ground to be had. Like many “smart growth” people, I think restricting residential density is exactly the wrong way to go. There wasn’t any room to compromise with these people – because, frankly, I’d prefer to go in the entirely opposite direction.
In my own case, these rules will force me to choose between a garage apartment (every other lot on my block has at least 2 dwelling units) or the second floor we’d like to build someday for our family of 4 (currently living in 1200 square feet). My next-door neighbors, about to be a family of 5, face having to tear down an existing garage apartment so they could build their second floor under these proposed rules.
The most ghastly thing about all this, though, is that the task force members themselves are comprised mainly of two groups: childless couples living in small houses, and people who are living in very large homes which violate the spirit (but not quite the letter) of the proposed regulations. Two examples: (name), in my neighborhood, lives in a two-story home which, thanks to an incompatible front setback, ‘towers’ over the backyards of her neighbors (who have small one-story homes which are set much closer to the street, and are much more pedestrian-friendly). (name) lives in a home with 3600 square feet on a corner in Hyde Park; her immediate neighbors live in tiny, tiny bungalows.
The same people who opposed every single multifamily project in the urban core for decades with drastic unintended consequences like the explosion of single-family-homes converted into rental properties for students now want you to do even more to prevent the market from responding efficiently to the demand for urban housing.
What unintended consequences could one predict from _these_ rules? I can think of a couple: a net decline in central housing units (due to dilemnas like the one my neighbor and I will face), and a net INCREASE in impervious cover (it will now be even more proportionally difficult to build up rather than back).
Please do the right thing, and stand up to these irresponsible neighborhood groups for the good of the city and for the rights of property owners.
Thanks for your time,
Mike Dahmus

and this to some neighborhood groups in response to some pro-ordinance politicking:

The task force’s work stands to destroy the rights to develop property for
families like myself and especially my neighbors – forcing them to
either tear down an existing garage apartment or move, since they’re
about to become a family of 5 in about 1050 square feet.
There are plenty of people opposing these regulations who don’t want
to build McMansions and aren’t developers. I’d like to eventually have
what every other property on my lot already has – a secondary dwelling
unit, while still maintaining the right to develop a second floor.
The task force’s work absolutely precludes me from doing so.
Like previously foolhardy opposition to all multifamily development in
the urban core, this ordinance will likely have unintended
consequences which will be worse than the problem they tried to solve
– for instance, one could easily predict a decline in net affordable
housing units as people like my neighbor now must tear down their
garage apartments in order to expand their home to what was previously
allowed. One could also predict quite easily that the new ‘building
envelope’ rule will lead to a net INCREASE in impervious cover and
concomittant drainage problems, since it further incents property
owners to expand back rather than up.
My block consists of 6000 square foot lots – every single lot except
mine has multiple dwelling units on it already; and on one side of me
is a duplex full of undergrads – who are attracted to rental housing
like that because many of the same people who formed this task force
succeeded until recently in preventing the market from providing real
multifamily housing close to UT. If I want to build up AND build my
garage apartment, I can’t see any reason why I should be forced
through the hostile variance process just to do what everybody else on
the block already _has_ done; but the task force sees no problem here.
This ordinance goes exactly the wrong direction for Austin in so many
ways. If you have any concern for families like ours, please express
your opposition.

You can’t fix a bad route.

My cow orker threatened to do nasty things, partially to himself, if I didn’t crackplog before he left on his trip. I’m in the middle of yet another attempt to stop Lyndon Henry from rewriting history on the lightrail_now yahoo group; and went looking for Tri-Rail news and found this letter which explains why Tri-Rail is still, for sale 20 years later, a complete and utter failure at attracting ‘choice commuters’ in South Florida.

Read carefully. Does any of this sound familiar?

Take the Delray Beach Tri-Rail station, for instance. It’s located way west of downtown, languishing between Linton Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue. Now, where can one walk from that location? The whole point of public transit is to create an alternative to driving. Yet, the thriving popular downtown area of Delray Beach is far removed from the poorly planned station location. Thus, you still have a downtown clogged with cars, because the Tri-Rail station is beyond walking distance.

Remember this discussion?
Then, there’s this gem:

I have ridden on Metrorail, on the other hand, and it is a joy compared to the mess that Tri-Rail is. Metrorail actually goes places, near neighborhoods, and other places people actually go, and it doesn’t share its tracks with 8,000 mile-long freight trains. That’s why it works.

Tri-Rail is viewed as a failure in South Florida because nearly nobody who has the choice between driving and taking it will leave their car at home. We’re headed down the same path here in Austin, because people like Lyndon Henry didn’t stand up and fight for Austin’s interests against those of Mike Krusee.
For shame.
Those who continue to nicely but naively ask us to ‘work together to fix it’ don’t get it: there ISN’T ANY WAY TO FIX THIS DEBACLE. More stations won’t help. Nice streetcar circulators won’t help. You can’t recover from deciding to run your trains on existing tracks instead of where the people are who might like to ride and where the places are they definitely want to go.
We’re turning dirt on a rail line which will ‘prove’ to most on-the-fence Austinites that ‘passenger rail doesn’t work’ – the same thing that happened in South Florida with Tri-Rail. Only now, 20 years after the thing was planned, have many people started to change their tune from “rail doesn’t work” to “maybe we screwed up in how we built it”. Can Austin wait that long?
Continuing to misrepresent this thing as urban ‘light’ rail only makes it worse – at some point a decade from now, we’re going to have to pick up the pieces from this disaster and try to sell rail again to the public. And part of that is clearly identifying what went wrong, and who led us down the wrong path. I ain’t gonna stop anytime soon.

FUH GUH BUH

My cow orker‘s IM just reminded me to crackplog in short about this quote in this puff piece about the McMansion ordinance:

People, like Karen McGraw, who live in smaller homes, say bigger homes mean more residents — and more cars. They also worry about drainage and trees. McGraw is also a member of the Hyde Park Planning Association.

MCGRAW LIVES IN 3600 SQUARE FEET IN HYDE PARK, DAMMIT. That’s HUGE compared to her neighbors. In the meantime, my neighbor will likely face the ‘choice’ between demolishing the garage apartment in his backyard or foregoing the second floor on his house (current size: 1010 square feet; family about to grow to 5).
Also, this, again from McGraw:

“Trees are actually retention devices and help to retain a lot of water that otherwise might run off. So, we’re very concerned with losing tree cover,” said McGraw.

The most likely effect of FAR regulations on my family’s eventual expansion plans is that we will build back rather than up. Hence, MORE IMPERVIOUS COVER. LESS TREES.

Letter to Planning Commission – McMansion Ordinance

Just sent the following to the Planning Commission, which is the most likely place for a rebuke to the ridiculous McMansion people. (My bet is that the City Council will be more afraid of angering center-city neighborhood associations).

Dear Planning Commissioners:
My name is Mike Dahmus; I served on the city’s Urban Transportation Commission for about 5 years, and I live and own property in two central city neighborhoods. As a resident of OWANA, I chaired the transportation subcommittee for our neighborhood plan, and remain to this day very proud of the work we all (especially Dave Sullivan, who chaired the zoning subcommittee) did in making sure our neighborhood answered the question “where do you want your additional density” with a more responsible answer than “NO”.
Since then, many other central neighborhoods have failed in their responsibility to identify appropriate infill and have instead attempted to stand athwart the market and yell “stop”, as the saying (sort-of) goes. Today, you find yourselves considering yet another attempt to artificially retard the market from solving our housing problems for us — all under the guise of a so-called “drainage emergency”. The same neighborhoods that prevented and delayed multi-family housing from being built anywhere in or near their neighborhoods for so long (resulting in a plague of superduplexes and other rental housing as the unstoppable demand for close-in living by students could not be denied) now want you to further restrict residential development at precisely the time when we should, in fact, be allowing more density and more infill. And, of course, these same groups claim to be against sprawl.
Consider our case – I have a family of four living in a 1250 square-foot house on a 6000 square-foot lot in NUNA. My next-door neighbor is about to have a new addition, raising their family to 5, in a house about 1050 square feet. We’re both presumably the kind of people who you’d rather have in center-city neighborhoods than party houses full of rowdy undergraduates; but we’re precisely the ones who will be most hurt by these overreaching regulations. In fact, both of us bought our houses assuming that we would eventually build up; and yes, even the supposed compromise engineered by the working group will drastically affect both of us – likely making it financially impossible to expand our homes. We both have detached garages (his with an apartment overtop) and we both have narrow lots. The task force’s “solution” to cases like ours is to build a basement, or seek a variance. Fat chance.
My family will probably stay, although our rights to develop will be unfairly eliminated. My neighbor, on the other hand, probably won’t. Neither of us would seek to build a McMansion, but we (especially they) need more space to be comfortable – even my grandparents’ family of 12 had more square feet per person than my neighbors will without building up.
The beauty of this is that I already live next to a duplex – built “straight up from the 5 foot setback line” on the other side of my home.
The drainage emergency itself is a joke – yes, there are real drainage problems, but notice that the only item in the regulations which could possibly have a direct effect on drainage is OPTIONAL (impervious cover changes). And, of course, regulations which only apply to new homes can’t be said to be a fair response to a drainage problem which older homes of course contribute to. I’ve mentioned several times on the group’s discussion board that there’s a trivially simple way to address drainage problems – simply change the utility’s drainage billing to a formula based on the square feet of impervious cover. That way, old houses which cover too much of their lot will have to pay more to solve the problem, and so will new houses.
Finally, the task force itself is a joke – it’s staffed by people who mainly fall into two groups – 1: those who already have big homes which violate the spirit, if technically not the letter, of the new regulations, see footnote below; and 2: those who have small families, i.e., childless couples.
The only correct answer to this group is “NO”. Instead of further restricting center-city development, we need to be allowing more small-scale multifamily infill to relieve the demand for close-in living. We need to make it easier, not harder, for families to stay in the city for the sake of center-city schools. And we need to make it clear that those who have been irresponsible in the past by obstructing worthwhile projects ought not be rewarded now for their bad works.
I chose not to become engaged with this group despite Chris Allen’s invitation because I firmly believe that you do not negotiate over how MUCH to drag your city in precisely the wrong direction – you simply say “NO. That’s the wrong way”. I hope you’ll join me in opposing this plan on those grounds.
Thank you for your time.
Regards,
Mike Dahmus
1: (member), NUNA, on Laurel Lane – lives in a home with an ‘incompatible’ front setback, and her second story ‘towers over the backyards of her neighbors’. (member), Hyde Park, lives in a huge house which dwarfs its neighbors. Several other task force members live in huge houses, albeit on bigger lots than the two mentioned specifically, and I haven’t seen them personally.

Why Krusee Supported Rail, Part One

Round Rock doesn’t pay Capital Metro taxes. They decided a long time ago that they didn’t want to be part of the system. Great. I wish we Austinites could similarly exempt ourselves from paying taxes which build their roads for them, but here we are.

So where does Krusee and rail come into this, then?

CAMPO is about to approve using Federal money to build an “intermodal transit center” in downtown Round Rock, which will include a new bus line which connects to a Capital Metro Park-n-Ride in far North Austin.

Let me repeat again: Citizens of Austin subsidize bus rides on Capital Metro by paying a 1% sales tax. Citizens of Round Rock pay nothing to Capital Metro.

These park and rides (and the express buses which stop there) are fairly attractive today for a small subset of commuters who have to pay money to park at their office (mainly UT employees; a few folks downtown). So some people, even when not in the Cap Metro service area, drive to the park and ride and then hop the bus (paying the same low fare as an Austin resident would). Until recently, the main places this ‘freeloading rider’ problem occurred were Pflugerville (which voted themselves out of the system – Cap Metro responded by moving their park and ride what seemed like 500 feet further down the road towards Austin) and Cedar Park (who can freeload on either Leander or Austin).

Now we’ve just opened one of these at the far north fringe of the service area (near Howard Lane).

I have asked Cap Metro in the past (when I was on the UTC) whether they realized that building more park-and-rides at the far fringes of their service area would lead to this ‘freeloading rider’ problem; and they said, yes, it would, and no, they didn’t intend to do anything about it.

So now, to add insult to injury, we’re using area-wide tax revenue to build a project which will make it easier for Round Rock residents to ride Capital Metro, where they will be heavily subsidized (far more than Austin riders) by Austin taxpayers. This will further drive down Cap Metro’s fairly abyssmal “farebox recovery ratio”. And Cap Metro is enthusiastic about this.

Is Round Rock going to institute a 1% sales tax to pay for Capital Metro service? Hell no. They can’t, even if they wanted to; they’re maxed out. Is Cap Metro going to demand that passengers provide proof of residence inside the service area before getting the heavily discounted fare? Hell no. They won’t, even if they wanted to.

But could Capital Metro build light rail for urban Austin where most of their tax revenue comes from? No, that was ‘too expensive’. If you’re appropriately slavish in your praise, Kaiser Krusee might deign to bless you with some streetcars which are stuck in traffic behind his constituents’ cars. Just don’t point out that by the time we’ve built a bunch of worthless commuter rail lines and a streetcar loop, we might as well have just built the 2000 light rail plan – it would have been no more expensive and far more effective.

Anybody see anything wrong with this picture?

More to come.

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.