Project Connect and Capital Metro need to answer some serious questions, right now

In the last several weeks, many people, most notably Central Austin CDC, have pointed out a series of errors in the “Map Book” presented as data in various public meetings by Project Connect. I myself found and commented on several at a public meeting downtown, which seemed designed to make the Mueller route look far more attractive than the facts would merit.

But the most egregious ‘error’, by far, though, was apparently discovered a day or so ago by Jace Deloney and then confirmed by the CACDC. It has to do with the “here’s how many people currently board the bus at various locations” map, which is a key baseline for anticipated rail ridership (which is, quite frankly, the most important map of all).

First, let’s see the Project Connect version.

Project Connect Map Book version of 'bus ridership 2011', courtesy Jace Deloney
Project Connect Map Book version of ‘bus ridership 2011’, courtesy Jace Deloney

If you were a novice to civic affairs trying to make up your mind, or a city staffer or council member who doesn’t ride the bus and trusts the information they’re receiving, this map makes it look like bus ridership in the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor is of roughly the same magnitude as currently exists in the corridors heading out to Mueller. But if you read this blog, or spend time on the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor, you would tend to think that can’t possibly be right, could it?

Well, it’s not. They left out the ridership from the #1L, the #1M, and the #101; three little routes that between them comprise the most heavily used lines in the entire Capital Metro system at 17,000 boardings/day. 8.5 times the boardings achieved by the Red Line, by the way. Oops.

Here’s a more accurate depiction of ridership, courtesy of Jeff Wood in a blog post last year:

Jeff Wood's visualization of bus ridership in the core (also density), courtesy Jace Deloney
Jeff Wood’s visualization of bus ridership in the core (also density), courtesy Jace Deloney

With an error this egregious, one might expect an IMMEDIATE response like “this is unacceptable. We’re going to pull the maps and do them all over again.” If, that is, you cared about giving the correct data to support an actual data-driven decision-making process, and it had been an actual error; rather than, oh, I don’t know, a willful continuation of past transparent attempts to mislead people into thinking Lamar/Guadalupe isn’t worlds ahead of Mueller in terms of existing and potential ridership.

The only actual response from people at Project Connect, so far, at the time this post was written 24 hours later, has been this one response in two tweets immediately after being confronted for the second time yesterday:

Screen shot 2013-10-18 at 12.36.05 PM

Friend-of-the-blog JMVC was asked on twitter and just said he’d look into it. 24 hours later, and nothing’s been heard from either party.

Yes, you heard right. It’s just a minor issue of the 2011 ridership being “less complete”. Yes, leaving out the top line(s) in the city on this map, but somehow leaving in the lesser ones, was just a minor blip.

Jennifer-Lawrence-ok-thumbs-up

If you want to do something about this – tell your city council member that you see what’s going on, and you don’t approve of the wool being pulled over your eyes by people who are supposed to be giving us the data to make an educated decision about what to pursue. Or sign yesterday’s petition. Or both. I’m going to SeaWorld.

Update – let me frame this more clearly: Either:

1. This is a ‘mistake’ and the people at Project Connect and Capital Metro think it of so little importance that they view it as just ‘incomplete data’, which calls into question their judgement, their commitment to the process, and, frankly, their intelligence; OR

2. This is not a ‘mistake’ but a ‘plausible deniability’ kind of scenario, and the fix is in (as I’ve thought with some of the other map issues I’ve brought up with them).

Note that others’ feedback about the map issues they’ve found has resulted in zero information back (not even confirmation) over the past few weeks from Connect Central Texas. Zero. This, in what’s supposed to be a transparent, open, public, data-driven, process. So it’s not just mean old M1EK with his crazy crackpot ways getting this treatment. Bear that in mind.

The Other Shoe Begins To Drop

A comment I just left at Capital MetroBlog’s entry full of people insisting that the train is successful now or will succeed soon:

So it turns out Capital Metro isn’t going to wait any longer for us to “clap louder or Tinkerbell will die”; in the January service change, they will cancel many 984 and 986 bus runs in order to attempt to boost MetroRail ridership.

Some of those people currently riding those far superior express buses will switch; some will go back to driving.

The key here is that when you build a GOOD rail line, most people switch from redundant bus lines willingly – because the train is better than the bus. Only awful trains require you to force-march passengers away from what they choose to ride; and this only works for captive riders, and only for a while.

Once again, M1EK was right – and those of you defending Capital Metro were wrong.

Capital Metro is about to learn the difference between “captive rider” and “choice commuter” (and the rest of us are going to learn how many of each comprised the ridership of these express bus routes).

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.

Letter to Chronicle about FC

Just sent this:


Many well-intentioned people, including most of the staff of the Chronicle, advised Central Austinites to hold their nose and vote "yes" on the All Systems Go commuter rail plan, despite the fact that it goes nowhere near existing and proposed residential density, and nowhere near minor employment centers like the University of Texas or the Capitol Complex (to say nothing of most of downtown). In fact, the pro-rail-transit but anti-stupid-rail position fell all the way down to me, whose sole qualification was serving on the UTC for a few years. I was attacked quite viciously for daring to suggest that perhaps the right response was to vote No, as in "No, this isn't the right rail plan; come back with something like the 2000 plan, scaled back to get us over the top".

Well, now, the other shoe has dropped. The "Future Connections Study", on which those credulous folks based their hopes for adding back rail for central Austin, has released their draft technology review, which has now ruled out any mode requiring a reserved guideway. Meaning: no light rail; no bus rapid transit. You get either a shuttle bus or a streetcar; but either way you're going to be stuck in the same traffic you would be if you just drove.

More on my blog at: (blog link)

The majority of the pro-transit establishment owes Austin an immediate apology for being part of this snowjob.

More Future Connections Stuff Is Up

The “Library” has a bunch of documents up from the most recent set of meetings for the Future Connections study, i.e., the “let’s pretend like we considered rail to get central Austin off our back for screwing them with a commuter rail plan that doesn’t go anywhere near them or minor destinations like UT and the Capitol Complex” exercise.

I’m only partway through and don’t have time for full analysis now, but I will note that it is disappointing (but not surprising) that NONE of the objectives for this service include the simple one:
make it MORE ATTRACTIVE to ride transit than it is today, i.e., close at least some of the gap between the private automobile and public transportation in one or more of the following: (reliability, speed, comfort).

These guys still don’t get it – you can’t just rest your hopes on build it and they’ll come; you also have to make sure that what you build is GOOD. And shuttle buses operating in mixed traffic aren’t “good” unless you’re somebody who can’t afford their own car. Capital Metro already owns all of THAT market.
Update: One thing I notice is that in the Draft Technologies Report, they have already eliminated light rail and any other technology which uses a reserved guideway. I have to admit I’m not surprised at this decision (which I believe was made before this study even started), but AM surprised at the speed at which they’ve come to admit it semi-publically.

The real danger

I’ve been busy at work and playing landlord, so I haven’t had time to write any new material, but I will share a response I just wrote to Fred Meredith on the austin-bikes list. Fred’s among the people who wants good mass transit in this area, but believes that voting yes on commuter rail is the best way to do it.

Fred Meredith wrote:

I will vote for this plan for the following basic reasons.
1.) We need a “first step” project in order to have any further advancement in mass transit through consideration of rail or other option to the single-occupant motor vehicle that increasingly gridlocks Austin. It may not be the best beginning, but it would be a beginning rather than a mandate to keep all rail plans off the horizon and just throw money at more lanes of concrete in a misguided attempt to overcome congestion. Once a first step is taken, I feel it is more likely that better plans can be brought to bear on the issue. I think it is a foot-in-the-door situation.

I don’t know how many more times I can take this argument without assuming that I’ve become invisible or inaudible (fat chance, huh?), but I’ll try to remain calm once more.

The danger here is that a starter line that is bad ENOUGH will completely destroy the momentum among the public (that actually WANTS rail right now by at least a slim margin, in Austin itself). This is what happened in South Florida with a system which is identical in every way that matters to the one proposed by Capital Metro. (Their demographics are a bit more liberal than ours, if you include the entire Capital Metro service area, but still far more conservative than Seattle or Portland).

Aspects of Tri-Rail’s service which are important:

  1. It doesn’t go anywhere people actually want to go, but relies on high-frequency circulators (shuttle buses) to take people to their final destinations.
  2. What happened was that people who were potential new transit customers stayed away, in droves, when they heard about the shuttle-bus transfer. (This transfer makes the entire trip noncompetitive with the private automobile – i.e. not even close).
  3. Hundreds of millions have been spent and are being spent to double-track the corridor, but now after 15 years of no real penetration among new transit customers, the people in charge are finally talking about moving or adding service to a far better rail corridor which actually goes through the major downtowns. (This is in their new long-range plans – meaning next decade or two).
  4. In the meantime, nothing else could be done (in terms of transit) for 15 years, and for at least another 10-15.
  5. Transit-oriented development has been pursued vigorously along Tri-Rail’s corridor for at least ten years now with no results whatsoever (no construction; only some plans, most of which died on the vine).

Compare (and contrast if you can) to Austin. Here’s the danger:

  1. We’re exactly the same as Tri-Rail. Unless you think drivers in Leander are in love with transfers to shuttle buses. I don’t.
  2. Capital Metro comes back to the voter in 2008 with plans to “expand” (either build the next commuter line down Mopac; build a streetcar system downtown; or if you don’t believe me that commuter rail precludes light rail, even rail down Lamar/Guadalupe).
  3. The voters, who were told in no uncertain terms back in 2004 that they should evaluate the line’s actual performance before voting on extensions/expansions, see that basically the commuter rail line is handling the old express bus riders (Capital Metro closed down the 183-corridor express buses in 2007 as commuter rail came online).
  4. The voters come to the (understandable) conclusion that “we tried rail, and it didn’t work; so we’re not going to spend any more money on it”.

So no, the position that “Once a first step is taken, I feel it is more likely that better plans can be brought to bear on the issue. I think it is a foot-in-the-door situation” is not an accurate representation of what we face. It’s more like “once a first step is taken on rail, it is very unlikely that better plans can be brought to bear on the issue unless the first step is a success in the minds of the voters. It is an out-on-a-limb situation”.

Jeff Ward, Fred (Gilliam?) and Commuter Rail

Yesterday’s Jeff Ward show which I caught about an hour of was a predictable frenzy of transit-bashing, with a cameo by Fred, a Capital Metro board member who I assume is Fred Gilliam.

Some easy softballs to whack which were pitched by both sides on that show:

  1. (from a caller) “The 986 express bus already takes about 50 minutes to get downtown, so why would we need a rail line?”. Answer: First of all, it takes a lot longer than 50 to get from Leander to downtown even in non-rush-times. The route the caller mentioned only runs at 6, 6:20, and 6:30 AM, by the way. According to the 986 schedule, in those severely off-peak times it takes 62 minutes to reach downtown.
    A more representative line, the 987, which doesn’t hit the inner park-and-rides either, takes 75 minutes to reach downtown (Guadalupe and 8th). The 983, which is the only route which has a departure time from Leander after 7:20ish, takes 85 minutes to reach downtown.

  2. (from Fred): (paraphrased): “Well, Jeff, you’re a genius for noting that people won’t walk 5 miles from the drop-off at the Convention Center to get to their job at the Capitol or UT, so we’ve designed this great distributor service which will run at very high frequencies and take you straight there”. This “high-frequency distributor” exists today; it’s called The Dillo, and it’s dog-slow.

From experience with other areas which have tried the approach of building a rail line where it happens to be convenient to lay tracks (or use existing tracks) and then distributing via shuttle buses, most people won’t be willing to take this transfer. In Tuesday’s posting I noted that the city is as skeptical as I am of Capital Metro’s idea that this won’t drastically hurt ridership.

For comparison, the 2000 light rail plan would have taken passengers from the same park-and-rides up in Leander and NW Austin, but it would have dropped UT passengers off at Guadalupe (without a transfer). It would have dropped state passengers off within a block of the Capitol (without a transfer). And it would have dropped downtown office workers off within a block of Congress Avenue (without a transfer).

This plan is nothing more than Capital Metro’s attempt to build what they think Mike Krusee will let them get away with. It serves only far suburban passengers, and it serves them poorly.
3. (from Jeff and others): (paraphrased): “people won’t leave their cars behind for transit, or they’d be doing it now”. Baloney. Cities which develop rail systems which are competitive (not even faster, just close) on time with the automobile and are reliable (same time every day) always siphon away a lot of car drivers. This has been the experience in Portland, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Salt Lake City, etc. Rail does things that buses can’t, namely, get out of traffic, and provide a comfortable ride. None of those cities were experiencing any success with getting people out of their cars with their bus systems (which were more extensive than ours), but all of them are now (with rail) delivering people to their jobs via transit who actually had the choice of driving and chose not to.

The problem is that this rail plan won’t do it. Capital Metro, again, is building what Mike Krusee will let them build rather than building what needs to be built.

Don’t Kid Yourself: Commuter Rail Precludes Light Rail

A lot of the effort to mollify center-city people like me who are disappointed that Capital Metro’s All Systems Go plan does nothing for the densest residential neighborhoods of the city and doesn’t deliver passengers to the two largest potential attractors (UT and state capitol) has gone into two messages:

The first message is “commuter rail is just like light rail” – relatively few people have bought this, outside the suburbs, since they know that rail going down Airport Blvd. isn’t going to do anything for any corridors where there’s any real density today or where density in the future is even remotely attractive. This has morphed into “once we double-track and build more stations, you center-city folks can just catch a quick bus to or from the commuter rail station” which I have a hard time believing is fooling anybody, but you never know. I’ve talked a bit about this and plan on doing more in a later article, but not today.

Capital Metro’s words are:

Commuter Rail
Urban Service
Operating on existing freight tracks, this line from Leander to Downtown could provide convenient service for both suburban and central city passengers.

The second message, and the one I’ll talk about today, is the idea that we can get light rail in the urban core “later” if we approve this plan now. The genius of this message is that it does a fairly good job of lumping opponents like me in with kooky pie-in-the-sky non-pragmatists who are unwilling to get something running on the ground because of the pursuit of the perfect solution.

The problem is that this message is misleading at best, and a lie at worst. The reason to oppose this plan is because it’s deadly to future transit operations in this city. IE, not just because it doesn’t do enough right away, but because it will actively prevent more effective solutions from ever happening.

Two of the strongest constituencies for ridership in the original (2000) rail plan (which was destroyed primarily through legislative manuevering by Mike Krusee) were state workers and university people. With the 2000 plan, the state workers who live anywhere in the northwest corner of the metro area could have driven to a station, boarded the rail, and rode it straight to the Capitol. Roughly the first 2/3 of the length of this trip would have been on what is now the commuter rail line; i.e., completely separate right-of-way. The remaining third would have followed the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor with prioritization far exceeding that which the new Rapid Bus will get.

The university was going to be a huge attractor for ridership in two ways. Like state workers, university workers (or students) could board anywhere along the route and get delivered directly to the destination (at least, on Guadalupe St., which is close enough to walk to anywhere at UT). A second group of riders would be travelling to the UT satellite campus on Burnet Rd. north of US 183. The mere fact that a rail link would exist between the two campuses (again, walking distance on both ends) was going to provide a powerful core of riders on day one.


The current commuter rail plan, for reference, requires both of these constituencies to transfer to shuttle buses to reach their final destination. This, as I’ve pointed out before, means that anybody who has a car and can afford parking will never ride this route.The shuttle transfer kills the performance of the transit trip to the point where only people who don’t own cars or have difficult parking situations would consider it, as is the case with today’s express bus lines.

So what about a future light rail line, as Capital Metro winks and nods might someday fill this gap? There are at least three obvious reasons why this won’t happen (at least, in a way which solves these constituencies’ travel problems).

  1. A new light rail line down Guadalupe/Lamar, if commuter rail is built, cannot follow the original 2000 path northwest on the current rail right-of-way. The two vehicles have completely incompatible trackage, even if scheduling issues could be resolved. In fact, I have a hard time believing it’s feasible to even have a light rail line on this corridor cross the commuter rail line, making even transfers an incredibly difficult proposition. Thus, the areas where we were counting on the most long-distance residential travel cannot be served even if we get a new light rail line down the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor.
  2. The operation of the commuter rail line, in my opinion, will swamp Capital Metro with enough additional operating costs that they will be unable to resume saving even 1/4 cent of their sales tax money (as they could today). See previous articles by me for why I think this system is not going to attract significant ridership compared to the light rail model – in short, no area like us in the last ten years has started with commuter rail for a very good reason: they saw what happened in South Florida.
  3. The investment in the so-called rapid bus vehicles is going to be difficult to abandon, both financially and politically. There aren’t many corridors in Austin where these vehicles could be shifted (physical constraints). The pressure to keep this crappy part of the system running is going to be very very hard to beat.

So, I think anybody who’s tempted to vote for this plan with the ‘understanding’ that we can come back later and solve the needs of actual Austin residents rather than pandering to Cedar Park ought to think twice.