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Lessons of the Austin rail bond defeat

20 November 2014
Campaign sign from OurRail PAC, which advocates light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, but strongly opposed City's Highland-Riverside urban rail plan and the $600 million bond proposition to fund it.

Campaign sign from OurRail PAC, which advocates light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, but strongly opposed City’s Highland-Riverside urban rail plan and the $600 million bond proposition to fund it.

By Roger Baker

Roger Baker, a longtime Austin transportation, energy, and urban issues researcher and community activist, presented these comments to the November 10th meeting of CAMPO (the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization).

1. A top lesson is that with “affordability” taking the lead in Austin politics, it is getting risky to expect property taxpayers to fund road or rail projects without a lot of grassroots community buy-in. Transportation planners apparently plan for this funding shift onto local taxpayers to continue, despite its obvious unpopularity.

2. Putting a lot of roads and rail on the same complex bond package was a mistake. While technically legal, this was confusing and helped make the issue politically divisive.

3. Expecting voters to approve using up all our enviable AAA debt bonding capacity just before a new council takes office is not only bad policy, but it is likely to be distinctly unpopular with the new council candidates.

4. One lesson of this bond election is that the Austin voting public is probably smarter than many politicians give them credit for. The billion dollars offered little traffic congestion relief to most voters, since it was heavily geared toward future growth rather than existing residents. A slogan like “With roads and rail we cannot fail” couldn’t overcome the lack of much plausible benefit for most Austin voters.

5. It is probably bad policy to let private special interest groups like RECA [Real Estate Council of Austin] dictate the terms of bond elections like this one, simply because it doesn’t look very good when word gets out.

6. It was a mistake to assume that promoting a weak rail corridor designed to serve hypothetical growth would not hurt the proposal. Anti-rail, pro-road sentiment is relatively constant. Meanwhile, Austin has a sizable and active community of smart transit activists, many of them young and actively into social media, where information, both pro and con, travels fast. We already do have a Plan B, in the form of the currently much stronger and cheaper North Lamar/Guadalupe rail corridor.

7. Putting all our eggs in one planning basket, second-guessing the voters, and assuming that the bond promoters could win an election with over a million dollars’ worth of advertising and high-profile political endorsements didn’t work. This shows money power cannot reliably overcome smart, well-organized voter power. ■

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Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead

5 November 2014
Election night graphic on KXAN-TV News showed heavy loss for Highland-Riverside urban rail bonds proposition. Final tally was 57%-43%. Screenshot by L. Henry.

Election night graphic on KXAN-TV News showed heavy loss for Highland-Riverside urban rail bonds proposition. Final tally was 57%-43%. Screenshot by L. Henry.

On November 4th, Austin voters resoundingly defeated the seriously flawed Highland-Riverside urban rail plan and $600 million bond proposition by a wide 14-point margin. The final tally is 57% against vs. 43% in favor of the bond measure.

Significantly, this was the first rail transit ballot measure to be rejected by Austin voters. In 2000, a proposed 14.6-mile light rail transit (LRT) running from McNeil down the Capital Metro railway alignment to Crestview, then south on North Lamar and Guadalupe to downtown, received a narrow majority of Austin votes — but the measure failed in the broader Capital Metro service area because of rejection by many suburban voters. In 2004, Capital Metro voters, including Austin, approved the 32-mile “urban commuter rail” plan from downtown Austin to Leander, subsequently branded as the MetroRail Red Line.

So why did this proposal fail? We believe it’s because Austin’s most dedicated, most experienced — and most knowledgeable — rail advocates opposed the official Highland-Riverside urban rail plan. These included long-established pro-transit organizations like the Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT) and its Light Rail Now Project; the nonprofit Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC); AURA (Austinites for Urban Rail Action); the Our Rail Political Action Committee; and an array of important north and central Austin neighborhood and community groups.

Our own reasons for so intrepidly opposing this plan are presented in numerous articles throughout this website; for a representative summary of several of our key criticisms, see Project Connect’s gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off course.

Opposition from rail advocates and otherwise pro-rail organizations and neighborhood groups throughout the community seems to have thrown preponderant voting weight against the disastrously misguided rail plan, and thus, together with the usual pro-road and anti-tax opponents, tipping the balance toward majority voter rejection. As we wrote in Let’s Go Austin — Tea-baiting from an awfully glass house,

Of course, highway proponents, anti-taxation activists, and, yes, some Tea Party sympathizers have emerged to oppose this rail bonds proposition — but wouldn’t they do so in any case? What’s surely revved them up, and encouraged them to pour exceptionally heavy resources into this fracas, is undoubtedly the leading role of rail supporters disgusted and outraged at the corruption and distortion of the rail transit planning process and de facto disenfranchisement of the wider community from involvement.

But it’s clear that Austin is basically a very pro-rail city. Widespread community sentiment for urban rail — much of it for just about any rail line, anywhere — was palpably strong. This has been an uphill struggle to convince pro-rail voters that a very bad rail plan could actually be worse than nothing. (See Project Connect’s urban rail plan is “worse than nothing”.) That’s one major reason why we believe this community can move forward quickly to a sensibly designed, cost-effective light rail plan in a strong, logical route — a Guadalupe-Lamar starter line.

Nevertheless, channeling pro-rail sentiment into a vote against this terrible project has been a challenge. And added to that was the additional challenge that our side was a relatively small David against a very powerful Goliath — a fairly solidly unified political and civic elite, heavily bankrolled, backed by influential business and real estate interests with a stake in the proposed rail route, able to muster media support, and assisted by a network of various community and professional organizations (environmental, New Urbanist, technical, real estate, and others) seemingly motivated into an almost desperate embrace of the urban rail plan. And let’s not forget the 800-lb gorilla in Goliath’s corner — the University of Texas administration, dead-set on a San Jacinto alignment to buttress their East Campus expansion program.

So, against this Goliath, how did David win this? A lot of this victory is due to the broad public perception of just how appallingly bad the Highland-Riverside rail plan was. And with a staggering $1.38 billion cost that required a staggering local bond commitment, which in turn required a hefty property tax rate increase. And all that in the context of recent homeowner property tax increases and utility rate increases. So, would voters really want to approve over a billion dollars for even a mediocre rail project, much less a terrible one?

That message was disseminated widely through the community — not by pricey media advertising (rail advocacy groups and their followers didn’t have big bucks for that, anyway), but by a vast network of activities involving social media, Email messages, excellent blog-posted information, and community meetings. But traditionally anti-transit, pro-highway groups also weighed in, with big bucks to fund effective advertising (with a message focused predominantly on the shortcomings of the particular Highland-Riverside plan) to rebuff the months-long, heavy ad and media blitz from the Project Connect/Let’s Go Austin forces backing the official proposal.

This vote also represents not only a rejection of an unacceptable rail transit proposal, but also a protest against the “backroom-dealmaking” modus operandi that has characterized official public policymaking and planning in recent years — a pattern that included shutting community members out of participation in the urban rail planning process, relegating the public to the status of lowly subjects, and treating us all like fools. Leaping immediately into a process of community inclusion and direct involvement is now essential. The community must become re-connected and involved in a meaningful way.


Minneapolis-area community meeting on proposed Southwest light rail project. Photo: Karen Boros.

Real community involvement in the planning process means real community meetings with community members having a direct say in planning and policy decisions, as in this meeting in Minneapolis area. Photo: Karen Boros.


On election night, as the defeat of the Highland-Riverside rail bonds proposition became evident, Scott Morris of the Our Rail PAC issued the following statement:

Tonight’s results are gratifying, but the work remains. With this vote, Austin has rejected a bad urban rail plan. It was the wrong route and it was formed by values that were not shared by our community. What we do share with those who supported this measure is a resolve in moving forward with true mobility solutions that make transit a ubiquitous part of life in our growing city.

01_ARN_ourrail9 Today, Austin delivered a strong statement, that transit must serve the existing population first. Transit planning should not be subordinated for the purpose of shaping future development to the exclusion of ridership, cost effectiveness and efficiency. This is a mandate that any first investment in urban rail must serve the community first. If we put service to people first, it will be built and operated in a cost efficient way. The citizens did not accept the argument that a defeat would create a long delay until the next opportunity to vote on rail. Austin is ready to get the right plan on the ballot as soon as possible, with true citizen involvement in shaping that plan.

This election is just one more step in the process. As a grassroots organization, we’re committed to work hard for a solution. Tonight is the first step in a new direction. Austin has a new plan to create and a strong case to build for rail, and we think it will succeed. We will support and work with our transit agency, Capital Metro; to develop a plan for rail that is cost effective, open, fair and transparent with strong community input. It will need the community’s full support and engagement to preserve and enhance its basic services, especially to transit dependent populations, as it adjusts to a growing city.

The people have assumed a new leadership role in determining the future of transit. With this action, they have also assumed a strong responsibility for guaranteeing its future.

Let’s take a breath and get back to work.

The Highland-Riverside plan may be dead, but the campaign for a Guadalupe-Lamar light rail starter line is firing up. Light rail in this heavily traveled, high-density central corridor can become the basic spine of a far more effective and truly extensive urban rail system in the future for the city.

There’s already a strong constituency and base of support for light rail transit (LRT) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. But the majority of Austinites don’t want another 14 years of top-level dithering and wavering — they’re ready to move forward with a workable, sensible urban rail plan. And certainly — especially with a new political leadership — we do face an exciting challenge informing the entire community and explaining why rail transit is essential, why it’s a cost-effective, crucial mobility solution, and why central-city street space needs to be allocated for dedicated transit, including light rail as well as improved bus service.

We’re already rolling up our sleeves. ■


Passengers waiting to board train at Dryden/TMC station Photo: Brian Flint.

Houston’s MetroRail shows how dedicating street lanes to light rail transit can dramatically improve urban mobility. MetroRail has highest passenger ridership per route-mile of any U.S. light rail transit system. Photo: Brian Flint.


This article has been slightly revised since its original posting.

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The fraudulent “study” behind the misguided Highland-Riverside urban rail plan

4 November 2014
Infographic shows how Project Connect’s methodology segmented Guadalupe-Corridor into nonsensical pieces, and summarizes numerous other major problems. (Click to enlarge.)

Infographic map shows several major flaws of Project Connect methodology, applied to a portion of “study” area. Result was to skew results (and urban rail route) toward desired sectors of central city. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

Few local issues have been more divisive than the City of Austin’s 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion urban rail plan. Envisioned for a route that meanders from the Highland ACC area on the north to the East Riverside area on the southeast, the proposal is now on the Nov. 4th ballot as a $600 million municipal General Obligation bonds measure that would help fund slightly less than half of the projected investment cost.

Community skepticism — and puzzlement — about this rail project is widespread, but sponsors and supporters of it have repeatedly endeavored to bolster its credibility by describing it as the product of a “scientific”, “data-driven”, or “data-based” effort, a “high-capacity transit study” pursued by the Project Connect transportation agency consortium roughly between June and December 2013. However, as this website and numerous other critical sources have exhaustively documented, that “study” was basically a fraud.

It’s useful to review and summarize the origins of this seriously flawed rail plan as election day has come upon us. In particular, it’s important to keep in mind that the Project Connect “study” represents an object lesson in how not to conduct a study for a New Start rail transit project. This review will rely primarily on previous articles published contemporaneously on this website during the “study” exercise.

From Mueller to Riverside to Highland

As our recent article Derailing the Mueller urban rail express — Preamble to Project Connect’s 2013 “High-Capacity Transit Study” recounted, for years, local streetcar and then “urban rail” planning had focused on a starter line to the Mueller redevelopment project. There, the major urban development enterprise Catellus had been promised a rail transit link to help raise density limits, attract more property investors and homebuyers, and thus boost profits. Important also were the desires of the small but growing community of Mueller residents who expected a rail connection to jobs and other destinations.

However, for years the question had been repeatedly raised: Since the North Lamar-Guadalupe corridor was recognized as the city’s heaviest local arterial corridor, with the heaviest congestion — even used to justify the very need for urban rail in official presentations and documents — why was out-of-the-way Mueller targeted for the initial starter line investment? This inconsistency was the focus of our March 2013 article Why abandon Austin’s major corridor and congestion problem? which presented the following graphic, originally contained in a 27 January 2012 commentary by Lyndon Henry (now a contributing editor to this website):


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Graphic from 2012 suggested official emphasis on urban rail line to Mueller was misplaced, when real mobility need was in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Infographic: L. Henry.


As our “Derailing…” article, cited above, further recounts, the City of Austin/Project Connect pretext for continuing to plan an easterly, East Campus urban rail starter line to Mueller began to fall apart when the competency of a 2010 “Route Alternatives Evaluation” — the nominal basis for the plan then current — was questioned. Possibly other factors may also have begun to come into play (such as business community interest in exploring other development opportunities that could affect urban rail route planning).

In any case, the direction of rail planning shifted significantly. As our article noted,

In early 2013, Kyle Keahey was hired as Urban Rail Lead to head a new “High-Capacity Transit Study”, tasked with supposedly re-evaluating everything, racing through a process (with a presumably more competent and defensible methodology) that would result in a recommendation by the end of 2013.

Summary assessments of Project Connect “study”

Personnel associated with Austin Rail Now, the Light Rail Now Project, and other pro-rail organizations were involved intimately in following the planning activities of the “high-capacity transit” exercise from midsummer through the early winter of 2013. A number of our articles, particularly beginning in early November, chronicled revelations and realizations about the planning process as they emerged at the time.

However, a reasonable overview of the fundamental problems with the Project Connect exercise is provided in two of our articles in particular, each of them based on major commentaries by Lyndon Henry addressed to the Central Corridor Advisory Council (a group of community leaders hand-picked by Mayor Lee Leffingwell to review and approve work of the “study” team). These two articles, from early December 2013, together represent in essence an indictment of the competency and indeed the very legitimacy of the Project Connect exercise:

Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector

Project Connect Needs an Overhaul

What emerges is the sense of a process that was corrupted and skewed to render what, in hindsight, appears to be predetermined results — results seemingly contrived to justify a routing scheme for the proposed urban rail starter line project contrived to fulfill the aims and desires of City of Austin policy and various special interests. As our article Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place (17 November 2013) assessed the process, Project Connect’s “study” seemed to have

… numerous hallmarks of having been rigged, from a peculiarly contrived methodology that departs from longstanding professional practice, to cherry-picking of a highly questionable set of data elements and the exclusion of data indicators far more appropriate for such an ostensible “corridor study”. (And, one might add, a highly secretive and insular process that immunized the ProCon team and their study procedures from public scrutiny and oversight.)

Thus the basic flaw in ProCon’s data analysis can be boiled down to one word: GIGO (“Garbage In, Garbage Out”). In effect, this appears to have been a process that involved limiting the focus to gerrymandered data sources, and then playing games with gerrymandered data.

The task facing Kyle Keahey and the Project Connect team was daunting. The prevalent public sentiment strongly favored the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor for the urban rail starter line. Most Austinites sensed that Guadalupe-Lamar carried the heaviest traffic, served the highest density, and accessed the most key activity centers in the central city. Yet the City of Austin administration, Project Connect political leadership, and a major segment of local political and civic leaders desired a “study” outcome that would validate their economic and real estate development objectives. Project Connect’s effort would therefore have to try to convince the community, “Don’t believe your lying eyes.”


PowerPoint slide in Nov. 2013 Project Connect public presentation shows audience's overwhelming preference for "Lamar" — a proxy for the Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor. Photo: Workingbird Blog.

PowerPoint slide in Nov. 2013 Project Connect public presentation shows audience’s overwhelming preference for “Lamar” — a proxy for the Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor. Photo: Workingbird Blog.


Critical failings of the Project Connect “study” charade can be grouped into categories of practices. The following summaries of these practices include references to various ARN articles that may further illuminate these issues.

► Failure to examine travel corridors

Rather than zooming in on, and analyzing, actual travel patterns and density of travel in actual travel corridors within central Austin, the “study” instead carved out a great square of the central city, dubbed it the “Central Corridor” (although it contained multiple corridors in every direction), and then further subdivided this into a series of ten component sectors, some sprawling over considerable expanses of urban real estate. Since virtually the entire central city had been designated a “corridor”, these sectors were then dubbed “sub-corridors” — a kind of camouflage verbiage that masked the actual nature of what were in effect city neighborhoods or districts, not travel corridors. The “sub-corridor” designation also imparted a veneer of “transportation study” truthiness.

Our first analysis of this methodological problem, Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors! noted that Project Connect’s subdivision of the study area in this way thus

… created an array of balkanized sectors that are analyzed more as autonomous geographic-demographic “islands” than as components essential to work together as a whole. As a result, actual, realistic, workable travel corridors have been obscured by all this.

Our article included a detailed explanation, with examples, of what urban travel corridors actually are, and how they should be treated and evaluated in a bona fide transportation corridor study. But, rather than corridors, Project Connect’s sectors (“sub-corridors”), we pointed out at the time, “resemble, to some extent, rather large travel analysis zones (TAZs, also called traffic analysis zones or transportation analysis zones).”

But, rather than TAZs for legitimate analysis purposes, we pointed out,

Project Connect’s sectors, in contrast, seem more designed to pit one part of the city against another — to function more as neighborhood enclaves to be assessed for their isolated demographics and “level of misery” (poverty, congestion, etc.) in a competitive showdown within a game of “Which sector deserves the urban rail prize?” It’s astounding that this charade is presented as a form of officially sponsored urban transportation planning.

Together with the agency team’s “seemingly heedless” segmentation of travel routes, their “treatment of adjacent sectors as insular, isolated enclaves, whose demographics and other characteristics apply only to themselves” was equally harmful to proper analysis. “Likewise travel characteristics are treated in isolation, as if the population in all these different ‘enclaves’ confine themselves to the sector boundaries that ProCon planners have established for them.”

Throughout the “study” process, we repeatedly returned to this problem. Our article Questions for Project Connect (3 December 2013), publishing questions which we raised in a “data dig” with Project Connect team members, asked “Why has this study avoided performing an actual corridor study, and instead spent its time (and taxpayers’ dollars) confined to undertaking a de facto inventory (and ‘beauty contest’) of various urban sectors in isolation?”

In our Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector (5 December 2013) we noted that “The basic methodology of focusing on sectors (so-called ‘sub-corridors’) meant that the study failed to study a single actual potential travel corridor in the study area.”

► Gerrymandered “study” sectors

Our Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors! article, pointing out the peculiar boundaries applied to Project Connect’s weirdly sprawling sectors, described them as “gerrymandered”, and further experience confirmed this assessment. Our 17 November 2013 article Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place observed that

rather than performing a bona fide study of actual alternative corridors, ProCon embarked on what amounted to an inventory of highly filtered attributes of basically gerrymandered sectors, dubbed “sub-corridors”, devolving into a kind of “beauty contest” among sectors of the city, while distorting as well as ignoring the actual travel corridors that should have been the focus.

The article provides the example of the highly contrived “Highland” sector:

It should be noted that the “Highland” sector bears very little resemblance to the actual Highland neighborhood, delineated by both the Highland Neighborhood Association (see Highland Neighborhood Association endorses Guadalupe-Lamar for urban rail) and the Highland Neighborhood Planning Area defined by the City of Austin (COA). While the actual Highland neighborhood and planning district includes North Lamar Blvd. (mostly as its western boundary) all the way from Denson Drive to U.S. 183, ProCon’s “Highland” sector studiously avoids Lamar, and never reaches U.S. 183; instead, the sector incorporates I-35 (never even touched by the real Highland), and droops down far south of the actual neighborhood to include Hancock Center and the northern edge of the UT campus — thus overlapping the long-proposed Mueller route for urban rail. In this sense, “Highland” appears to be manipulated here as a kind of “proxy” for the COA’s original plan, functioning as a precursor of a full route to Mueller.

► Severed and segmented travel corridors

This was perhaps the single most serious fault of the Project Connect exercise — not only failing to examine actual corridor travel patterns, but essentially destroying intact corridors, such as Guadalupe-Lamar, simply because they crossed boundaries of the arbitrary sectors. As we first noted in Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors!

Perhaps the most serious flaw in ProCon’s urban rail study methodology — actually, catastrophic, because it fundamentally impairs the integrity of the whole process — is that the actual travel corridors are not only basically ignored as workable corridors, but also are truncated and segmented by ProCon’s arbitrary slicing up of the urban area.

If you’re evaluating a travel corridor, you must evaluate the corridor as a whole — what it connects from, to, and in between; what the populations and densities along the corridor are; what activity centers it connects; and so on. All those are important, because they’re critical to what makes a transit line in that corridor actually feasible and worth investing in.

The results for the Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor were basically fatal, as we pointed out:

the Guadalupe-Lamar route is severed just north of the UT-West Campus area at W. 29th St. In other words, most of this potential route is cut off from its highest-density population district as well as its most productive destinations in the core of the city!

What’s left is a “rump” route, from a few blocks south of U.S. 183 to W. 29th St., that seems to have little purpose beyond perhaps some kind of “shuttle” along this isolated route segment. If there were a prize for idiotic public transport planning, surely Project Connect would be very high on the candidate list.

This problem also was repeatedly underscored. In our article Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector (5 December 2013) we warned that “The basic methodology of focusing on sectors (so-called ‘sub-corridors’) meant that the study failed to study a single actual potential travel corridor in the study area”, and added:

This methodology also segmented an otherwise viable corridor such as Guadalupe-Lamar into nonsensical pieces, severing the corridor from its most logical destination (West Campus and core area), and thus creating an arbitrary “rump” route (29th St. to south of U.S. 183) that goes from nowhere to nowhere.

Likewise, in Project Connect Needs an Overhaul (7 December 2013), we reiterated: “Project Connect’s methodology segmented the outstanding Guadalupe-Lamar corridor into nonsensical pieces, severing it from its most logical destination (the West Campus and core area), thus creating an arbitrary ‘rump’ route that goes from nowhere to nowhere.” These warnings, of course, were ignored.

► Excluding student and other nonwork travel patterns

While specific travel corridor trips were not examined in the “study”, Project Connect did include tabulations of total travel in each sector and estimates of trips between sectors and the Core Area. However, a particularly breathtaking aspect of the project’s Evaluation Matrix (also called the Comparison Matrix) was the exclusion of all trips except home-based work trips. In other words, non-work trips — including student trips — were omitted from consideration.

As we asked in our “data dig” Questions for Project Connect, “Why has this study’s assessment of “travel demand” from each sector to the core ignored home-based non-work (HBNW) trips — including UT student trips and recreational trips — in a college city with the largest university in Texas in its core area?”

This omission was repeatedly emphasized in subsequent articles. In our Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector, we pointed out:

As a measure of “Travel Demand” from each sector to the core, non-work trips such as UT student trips and recreational trips (e.g., to restaurants, bars, etc.) have been EXCLUDED — dismissing not only the enormous importance of non-work trips (which are heavy in the off-peak) for more cost-effective transit service, but especially the huge significance of student and recreational trips in a city with the largest university in the state (and located in its core).


Student travel was omitted from Project Connect's evaluation process, although their ultimately recommended route connected UT, the state's largest university, with ACC, the city's major community college. Photo via UTRugby.com.

Student travel was omitted from Project Connect’s evaluation process, although their ultimately recommended route connected UT, the state’s largest university, with ACC, the city’s major community college. Photo via UTRugby.com.


And similarly, in Project Connect Needs an Overhaul, we asked:

Extremely important non-work trips such as UT student trips and recreational trips have been EXCLUDED as a measure of “Travel Demand” from each sector to the core. How could they do this in a city whose core contains the largest university in the state?

In hindsight, the omission of student travel from the Evaluation Matrix is especially ironic in light of the fact that travel between UT and ACC would ultimately be a major component of the purported ridership of the final route presented by Project Connect.

► Manipulation of implausible projections

Skepticism about Project Connect’s heavy reliance on dubious projections began to emerge as the pace quickened toward a “recommendation” from the project team. In our 3 December 2013 article related to the “data dig”, Questions for Project Connect, we asked: “Why has this study used such speculative projections based on procedures that maximize all possible development for targeted areas (such as ‘ERC’, ‘Mueller’, and ‘Highland’), rather than using conservative projections based on conditions closer to reality?”

Local researchers and analysts such as software developer and research analyst Dan Keshet and management consultant Julio Gonzalez Altamirano had exposed serious weaknesses in the array of data projections being deployed by the project team — especially the conversion of what were in effect development “wish lists” into hard projections of future development, population, and employment that were being plugged into Project Connect’s model (an Excel-based “Evaluation Matrix” designed to competitively score the various sectors and render a winner). Their conclusions and other problems of the project’s data projections are discussed in our article What’s with Project Connect’s “2.9 million daily ridership” projection? (16 December 2013). As this article noted,

The question of projections has been an extremely contentious issue in Project Connect’s urban rail “study”. For many critics, the agency’s “projections” have represented de facto fantasies about what they would like to see, rather than the solidly reliable output of competent predictive analytics.

While projections were critical in any process of forecasting future developments and especially public transit ridership, we explained, “…there’s a vast distinction between developing conservative, reliable, and plausible forecasts, and producing exaggerated, fantasy-like projections, as Project Connect has done, heavily skewed toward certain geographical areas.”


Many of Project Connect's "data projections" for 2030 were based on "wish lists" of development, population, employment, and other demographic features — leading critics to ridicule them as "fantasy". Graphic via ARN.

Many of Project Connect’s “data projections” for 2030 were based on “wish lists” of development, population, employment, and other demographic features — leading critics to ridicule them as “fantasy”. Graphic via ARN.


In the 17 November 2013 article Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place, we expressed skepticism about “the selection of a predominantly questionable array of data elements as the basis for ‘evaluation’ of the various sectors. Leaving their ‘weighting’ aside, in the aggregate the evaluatory elements themselves are inappropriate.”

As the article explained,

ProCon relies very heavily on projections of future conditions for their basic measures. As the rail advocacy group AURA (Austinites for Urban Rail Action) has explained in its evaluation guide, projections themselves are basically unreliable, risky, flaky, whereas, in contrast, “We believe use of the real-world, recently-observed data gives the more accurate and reliable picture of potential ridership, as well as the greatest viability for federal funding.”

… Beyond a roughly five-year horizon, projections for specific neighborhoods and similar chunks of real estate basically become unreliably speculative — which seems to be what we’ve actually been dealing with … a significant dollop of real estate speculation, given a kind of veneer of “techiness” by CAMPO and their land use/travel demand model package.

For decades, public transportation advocates have warned repeatedly about the “self-fulfilling prophecy” syndrome in this kind of transportation planning process. In the past, it’s been applied mainly to highway development — justifying “future growth” in just the right places where developers want to build, so as to rationalize huge investments in new freeways and other roads. And, lo and behold, these very projections somehow materialize after the transportation facilities are built, thus “proving” the “validity” of the projections!

Today, in Austin, this process may be at work justifying speculative land development in certain areas of the central city (i.e., the central study area — “Central Corridor”), this time with the added drawback of ignoring or dismissing opportunities for redevelopment of areas in the heart of the core city, particularly centered along the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

As an example, in our article “Highland” sector favored by Project Connect — but where’s the travel demand? (19 November 2013) we noted that Project Connect’s presentation of CAMPO travel demand data in their own Map Book contradicted the claims of high travel demand in the “Highland” sector — one of the key underpinnings for their “recommendation” of a route to serve this fabricated sector. Thus, we warned, “since Project Connect based its assessment significantly on this data, the results presented, and the contrary evidence of very strong travel demand in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, contradicting Project Connect’s own stated conclusions, should at the very least raise questions about the competency and integrity of the study process.”

As we summarized the pattern in What’s with Project Connect’s “2.9 million daily ridership” projection?

Another way of saying this is that Project Connect’s planners have converted their own wishful thinking into actual data inputs, that are then deployed to make their evaluation. Wishes are used to try to make the wishes come true.

► Applying subjectively derived scores

Despite the characterization by supporters that Project Connect’s efforts were thoroughly “data-driven” and “scientific”, some components of their “study” were not even camouflaged as “projections” or externally derived data, but instead were presented merely as subjective judgements of the project team. In our 3 December 2013 “data dig” Questions for Project Connect, we asked

Project Connect’s “Physical Constraints” metric appears to be based on totally subjective value assessments, and no information has been given as to how these value judgements have been developed. Where’s the factual basis for this?

The response was that these scores were based purely on the team’s “professional judgement”. We highlighted this on our article Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector:

The study has assigned an extremely high “Constrained Right-of-Way” penalty to the “Lamar” sector, but not to the “Highland”, “Mueller”, “ERC” sectors — apparently implying that Project Connect considers there to be no “Constrained Right-of-Way” problems for “Highland”, “Mueller”, and “ERC”. This also is implausible, and this penalty seems to be arbitrarily applied to sectors (“sub-corridors”) that the Project Connect team dislikes (e.g., “Lamar”), but withheld from sectors they seem to prefer (e.g., “ERC”, “Highland”, “Mueller”).

► Selective manipulation of data

Another practice skewing Project Connect’s “study” results was their “cherry-picking” of data categories and their selective manipulation of their own methodology — pre-eminently, the Transit Orientation Index model they appropriated from Portland. As we explained in our analysis What’s with Project Connect’s “2.9 million daily ridership” projection? (16 December 2013):

Apparently in an attempt at a gesture toward some kind of prediction of future transit ridership, one of the metrics Project Connect decided to use in their Comparison Matrix is a “Transit Orientation Index” (TOI), a ridership demand assessment model developed in 1997 by consultants for Portland, Oregon’s TriMet transit agency. …

According to the documentation, the TOI metric is envisioned to assess transit ridership demand at the level of a small analysis zone …. Project Connect planners, however, have applied the model to considerably larger sectors covering several square miles with hundreds and even thousands of acres.

We’d previously summarized the astounding problem with the TOI model in our Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector, which warned that, when key projections, already embedded in the Evaluation Matrix, were plugged into the TOI,

… the results are extremely implausible — e.g., for the “ERC” (East Riverside) sector, Project Connect calculates high total daily transit ridership of 2.9 million, about equal to the total citywide daily ridership of Chicago and Philadelphia combined. (Their “low estimate” for that single sector is higher than the total citywide ridership of entire cities like Denver and Seattle.) This strongly tends to corroborate other evidence that Project Connect’s projections have been seriously exaggerated and are utterly implausible.

Likewise, in Project Connect Needs an Overhaul we observed:

Rather than developing conservative, reliable, and plausible forecasts, Project Connect has produced exaggerated, highly questionable projections, heavily skewed toward certain geographical areas. When these same projections are plugged into Project Connect’s own Transit Orientation Index (TOI), the results are ridiculously unbelievable. For the single “ERC” sector, the low-end prediction of daily transit ridership is higher than the total system daily ridership of entire cities like Denver and Seattle. On the high end, it’s about equal to the total system daily ridership of Chicago and Philadelphia combined.

These implausible outputs from the TOI were jaw-dropping. When the projections of Year-2030 population, employment, and other data items that were mainstays of their Evaluation Matrix were fed into the model, even the low-end results were absurd. For the “ERC” (East Riverside) sector, for example, as we pointed out in our What’s with Project Connect’s “2.9 million daily ridership” projection? analysis, “… the low-end figure — daily ridership of 492,682 (493K) — is equally preposterous, exceeding the total system daily ridership of entire large cities.” These cities included Portland, Seattle, Denver, and Atlanta.

As for the Highland sector, TOI results were likewise other-worldly. As we noted,

…the TOI model results for 2030 are similarly off the scale. Whereas current 2013 ridership is about 5K (5100/day), the “low” TOI prediction for 2030 is about 127K — an increase of 2,440%. The “high” prediction (no need for upper-bound substitution in this case) is 279K — a predicted increase of 5,480%.

Put another way, to meet the lower-end ridership suggested by the demographic and economic projections, average daily ridership in the “Highland” sector would have to exhibit sustained average daily ridership growth of about 7,200 each year for 17 years.

Curiously, while the project team excluded such embarrassing outputs from the TOI model from their matrix, they were selectively using other aspects of the TOI as inputs for the same matrix. As we noted,

… Project Connect’s matrix does use the TOI, itself based on the same dubious projection inputs, to render a metric score to bolster their preferred sectors (“sub-corridors”) in the competition they’ve set up. …

But, even more importantly, the TOI for 2030, dependent as it is upon Project Connect’s “projections” (de facto fantasies), exposes their absurdity. No wonder Project Connect and its entourage don’t want these used … no wonder they attempt to distance themselves from them!

It’s very simple — plug Project Connect’s own projections into this otherwise fairly realistic model, and you get bizarrely, unbelievably exaggerated results. Maybe a hint that the original projections are bizarrely unbelievable?

In effect, the TOI is performing here somewhat like a “canary in the coalmine” — telling Project Connect, and all of us, that something is terribly wrong with their demographic and economic projections for 2030.

Big Picture: Fraud

The impact of all these seemingly disconnected errors, missteps, omissions, and methodological shenanigans on a single portion of the “study” area is illustrated by the infographic at the top of this post, which focuses on several of the sectors surrounding the Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor. (The so-called “Lamar” sector was widely misinterpreted as this corridor itself, but it was actually just a wide swath of urban real estate, stretching as far west as Shoal Creek Blvd., and embracing Burnet Road to the west as well as a segment of Guadalupe-Lamar in its eastern half — and neither of these two major travel corridors was examined.) As this graphic makes clear, the ground rules and methodology of Project Connect’s “study” very effectively prevented meaningful evaluation of this key, heavily traveled, central corridor.

From this grab-bag of colossal problems, your first assessment might be that Project Connect’s team was the rail planning equivalent of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Unfortunately, it’s worse. What actually emerges out of all this, from the vantage point of a year of hindsight, is a much more troubling image than mere ineptitude — by connecting the dots, the outline of a deliberate effort to deceive and to manipulate the “study” becomes unmistakable.


Kyle Keahey promoting "high-capacity transit" route selected by Project Connect, Nov. 2013. Photo: YouTube screengrab.

Project Connect Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey presenting “recommendation” of Highland-Riverside urban rail route, Nov. 2013. Photo: YouTube screengrab.


Contradictory as it might seem, it’s entirely plausible that otherwise technically competent members of the Project Connect team, drawn into the “trees” of the exercise, were unaware of the implications of the larger “forest”. Also the mind, with its ability to rationalize, justify, and alibi, can be a very mysterious apparatus.

In any case, the motives for tailoring the proposed urban rail route to the needs of development policies and interests are also very clear. These are described particularly in three of our articles:

Who are those guys? Real estate development interests and Austin’s urban rail boondoggle

UT should pay for East Campus urban rail — not Austin taxpayers

Derailing the Mueller urban rail express — Preamble to Project Connect’s 2013 “High-Capacity Transit Study”

So there’s motivation. There’s an amazing assortment of jaw-dropping methodological botch-ups. And it all fits together to promote the desires of the sponsors of the exercise.

The Big Picture we see of this whole process is dominated by a bright red fluorescent flashing sign. The sign says: Fraud. This is definitely a model of rail planning for other communities — a model to avoid at all costs. ■

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Why Austin is faced with a “Worse-Than-Nothing” urban rail plan

2 November 2014
Graphic via Blip.tv

Graphic via Blip.tv

By Dave Dobbs

The pro-transit group AURA (Austinites for Urban Rail Action) is owed a strong acknowledgement of thanks for posting their exposé pointing out the Republican origins of the money behind Let’s Go Austin’s campaign to try to paint all the opponents of the City’s urban rail bond proposition as captives of the Tea Party. Special thanks are due to the AURA author(s) and researcher(s) who did the homework. (Also see: Let’s Go Austin — Tea-baiting from an awfully glass house.)

One person commenting recently to a local rail discussion forum made some interesting observations about Let’s Go Austin’s tactics:

I expect they’ve taken this angle because their polling says the most popular way to portray the bond is “progressive.” … I think the best chance for defeating Prop 1 is sowing doubt among the self-identified “progressives.”

I think these comments are absolutely right about sowing doubt with progressives about the forces behind the Project Connect Riverside-Highland rail bonds. AURA’s blog post reminds us of Deep Throat’s advice to Woodward and Bernstein in All The President’s Men: “Follow the money!” and Ben Bradlee’s recent death reminds us that this advice still holds today.

Uncovering the money trail reinforces my belief that the Austin rail bonds are really about maintaining “business as usual” with as little disruption as possible. In answer to “Why” Austin has a “Worse-than-Nothing-is-Doing-Stupid-Things” rail plan, I’ve offered the following analysis.

I believe that the powers-that-be chose this approach because it is the approach that does as little as possible to disturb the status quo, while at the same time tying up Capital Metro’s assets far into the future with a faux solution that benefits some of the folks in the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) and Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce tent (emphasis here on “Greater”). This satisfies certain city developer insiders who see the rail line as their ticket to access and greater densities, while at the same time perpetuating the business-as-usual-sprawl-ever-outward real estate speculators who need more and more roads to realize their investments on the urban fringes.

Generally, city developers and suburban developers are natural enemies, and this is the compromise to keep order in the house. An ineffectual rail start contingent upon the new city council issuing $400 million in certificates of obligation for road improvements before the bonds can be used, is a pretty clear indication of priorities. So is the fact that the city continues to collect a quarter of Capital Metro’s one-cent sales tax that is mostly spent on roads.

This explains why Guadalupe-Lamar, where light rail would be a smashing success with 40,000 riders daily, was never considered, because a G-L rail line would totally change Capital Metro from “cash cow” to a recognized indispensable tool for bringing growth into city neighborhoods sans the traffic impacts that choke the densities necessary for a more productive tax base, while at the same time creating a demand for more train service in other parts of Austin. It would also build bus ridership because buses would be shuttles to train service for people who would not otherwise use buses. And, in turn, this would create greater public demand to spend more money on public transit, bikes, and pedestrians and less for bigger, wider roads.

Given this reality, fringe-area developers and their political surrogates who control the political process want to minimize the market availability for the alternative lifestyles that many retirees and millennials are seeking. In order to do that, Capital Metro must remain an impotent dog at the heals of Austin’s road warrior masters and suburban real estate investors. (That”s polite talk for “land speculators”.) ■

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Derailing the Mueller urban rail express — Preamble to Project Connect’s 2013 “High-Capacity Transit Study”

2 November 2014
Urban rail concept started as a plan for a streetcar "circulator" system, shown in this early map from 2006. Map adapted from Austin Chronicle.

Urban rail concept started as a plan for a streetcar “circulator” system, shown in this early map from 2006. Map adapted from Austin Chronicle.

To understand the roots of the Highland-Riverside urban rail plan on the ballot today, you need to understand how an official “express train” planning process, aiming to lock in an urban rail line to the Mueller redevelopment site, got derailed and sidetracked by community intervention. Here’s a very abbreviated version of the story.

Austin’s current “urban rail” planning arose ca. 2005-2006 following the November 2004 voter approval of Capital Metro’s “urban commuter rail” project, in a package (including “rapid bus” service) called All Systems Go proposing the operation of DMU (diesel multiple-unit) railcars between downtown and the suburb of Leander. The previous light rail (i.e., urban rail) plan for a line on Guadalupe, North Lamar, and the railway alignment northwest as far as McNeil had been shelved in mid-2003 in favor of the cheaper, but very bare-bones, DMU plan.

Since the newly approved DMU line ran on a railway alignment that bypassed most of the heart of the city, ending only at the southeast corner of the CBD, officials and planners realized they needed some way to connect passengers with key activity points, including UT and the Capitol Complex. The answer they devised was a “circulator” system using streetcar technology, which would intersect with the DMU line (eventually rebranded as MetroRail) and connect to downtown Austin, the east side of the Capitol Complex, the East Campus of UT, and the Mueller development site. (See map at top of post.)

But, critics asked, what about the dense West Campus neighborhood and the busy commercial district on The Drag? What about the original plan for light rail along Guadalupe and Lamar? The “rapid bus” service included in the All Systems Go package, intended as a precursor to rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, was then viewed only as a temporary “fix”, and it seemed clear that rail needed to be planned for that corridor as well.

Within Capital Metro, Lyndon Henry (then a Data Analyst with the transit agency) pressed the case for at least an initial rail line to serve The Drag and West Campus, and at public meetings on the proposed “circulator” Henry and others continued to raise the issue. In this period, as problems emerged with the MetroRail project, Capital Metro’s involvement in the streetcar project was superseded by the City, which assumed control. When Henry’s supervisor Matt Curtis left Metro to become an aide to Mayor Lee Leffingwell, for a brief period a West Campus spur did appear in City of Austin planning maps for the proposed streetcar. (Henry is currently a contributing editor to this website.)

In 2008, as a line on East Riverside to ABIA, with a bridge over the river into the CBD, was proposed, planners became convinced that capacity and speed required fullsize light rail transit (LRT) rolling stock. However, apparently to distinguish the emerging plan from the original, centrally routed Guadalupe-Lamar line, and to retain some of the supposed lower-cost ambience of streetcar technology, the expanded system was dubbed “urban rail”, supposedly a hybrid between a streetcar and a rapid LRT system. By 2010, the Central Austin Transit Study (CATS), prepared by a consortium headed by URS Corporation, recommended a system that stretched from the Mueller site, down Manor Rd. and Dean Keeton to San Jacinto, then south through the East Campus, across the river, and out East Riverside to ABIA. Alternative alignments were suggested, and spurs to Seaholm and the Palmer Auditorium area were also proposed as later extensions.

As the project made its way through the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process, and afterward, the route structure gradually solidified; for a connection to Mueller, a preference was emerging to move the alignment from Manor Rd. to a route via Red River and Airport Blvd. But even the gesture of a spur connection to the West Campus began to vanish, prompting Lyndon Henry and the Light Rail Now Project to call attention to the need for urban rail in the “Missing Link” — the gap between MetroRail’s station at Crestview and North Lamar, and its terminus downtown. Because of that gap, not only were passengers inconvenienced by having to transfer to buses to access their destinations along the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, but also Capital Metro was running costly bus shuttles to connect MetroRail stations on the east side to the UT campus and the Capitol Complex. See: Give priority to “Missing Link”.


MetroRail Red Line (red) skirts entire heart of central Austin, illustrated by "Missing Link" through Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Urban rail would provide the crucial connections to core neighborhoods, UT West Campus, and Capitol Complex missed by MetroRail. Infographic Map by Light Rail Now.

“Missing Link” urban rail (green), in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, would provide the crucial connections to core neighborhoods, UT West Campus, and Capitol Complex missed by MetroRail (dashed red line). Infographic Map by Light Rail Now.


But why had the West Campus, and Guadalupe-Lamar, disappeared from the official urban rail plan? As Henry, Dave Dobbs, Andrew Clements, Roger Baker, and others persistently raised this issue, mainly at meetings of the Transit Working Group (a blue-ribbon committee of civil leaders nominally attached to CAMPO, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization), planners and officials under the aegis of the Project Connect public agency consortium pointed to a Route Alternatives Evaluation Process included in the 2010 CATS project that had supposedly ruled out a “University of Texas (UT) to North Central Austin (Hyde Park)” route, instead giving top scores to routes serving Mueller, East Riverside, and Seaholm — basically, what City policy actually wanted.

Scrutinizing the “Route Alternatives Evaluation”, Henry identified serious methodological drawbacks and summarized these in a commentary, City’s Urban Rail “alternatives analysis” omitted crucial Lamar-Guadalupe corridor! presented to the TWG on 27 April 2012. These problems are also discussed in our article City’s 2010 urban rail study actually examined corridors! But botched the analysis… (26 November 2013). Basically, the 2010 “evaluation” totally ignored the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, and “evaluated” an array of alternatives with subjective ratings of 1, 2, or 3. Thus, voila! The preferred official routes, including the route to Mueller, won the “competition”!


CATS map of actual potential rail corridors studied. Map: COA and URS.

CATS map of potential rail corridors studied — but Guadalupe-Lamar was omitted! And subjective scoring system facilitated ratings that favored City’s desired route plan. Map: COA and URS.


In what seemed like an Urban Rail Express to Mueller, by May 2012, the official urban rail proposal had gelled into a Phase 1 project running 5.5 miles from downtown, through UT’s East Campus via San Jacinto, then northeast via Red River St., 41st St., and Airport Blvd. into the Mueller site. The total investment cost was estimated to be $550 million.


Finalized in May 2012, 5.5-mile, $550-million Phase 1 urban rail starter line was proposed to connect downtown, UT East Campus, Hancock Center, and Mueller site. Graphic: Project Connect.

Finalized in May 2012, 5.5-mile, $550-million Phase 1 urban rail starter line was proposed to connect downtown, UT East Campus, Hancock Center, and Mueller site. Graphic: Project Connect.


But the constant pounding by community critics — especially Lyndon Henry’s exposé of the outrageously dubious Route Alternatives Evaluation from 2010 — was taking its toll. The result was that Project Connect placed the Mueller Phase 1 plan on hold and shifted course dramatically. In early 2013, Kyle Keahey was hired as Urban Rail Lead to head a new “High-Capacity Transit Study”, tasked with supposedly re-evaluating everything, racing through a process (with a presumably more competent and defensible methodology) that would result in a recommendation by the end of 2013.

To some, it seemed a new beginning and a possibly more hopeful and fair approach to analyzing travel corridors, particularly the heavily traveled, high-density, and widely popular Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Unfortunately, that was not to happen. As it proceeded, it became increasingly clear that the much-vaunted “High-Capacity Transit Study” was actually a fraud. The highlights of this process will be summarized in a subsequent report. ■

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Let’s Go Austin — Tea-baiting from an awfully glass house

30 October 2014
Tea Party activist. Photo: Alternet.org.

Tea Party activist. Photo: Alternet.org.

They’re at it again — Let’s Go Austin, the heavily funded elite outfit established to campaign for the official Highland-Riverside urban rail plan and $600 million in City bonds to fund it, are continuing their preferred tactic of trying to smear tar over their opposition to make them seem like something they aren’t. And in this case, the tar is made from Tea.

As Austin Rail Now explained in our post of Oct. 27th,

It’s become clear that a prominent, desperate tactic of the “Let’s Go Austin” campaign to promote the urban rail bonds ballot measure is to “Tea-bait” the opposition — to try to smear all of us, “progressives”, liberals, leftists, rail transit advocates, transit critics, moderates, conservatives, neighborhood associations, and other opponents of this misguided proposal — as homogeneous minions of the rightwing Tea Party. …

Project Connect leaders and the Let’s Go Austin campaign know very well that this is not only a fraud, it’s an absurd fraud. Ironically, what’s made this light rail ballot battle especially newsworthy — even on a national scale — is that rail supporters and “progressive” community leaders and neighborhoods have been in the forefront of criticizing and opposing the official planning process and its ultimately selected route plan since the beginning.

Reality and truth be damned — Let’s Go Austin plows ahead with this same theme in their latest mailer (“Which Will It Be?”), claiming “The Austin Tea Party and a millionaire road maintenance contractor are behind the misleading campaign against Prop. 1.” (Actually, it’s not “Prop. 1″ anymore; on the ballot, it’s “Proposition, City of Austin“. But anyway…)

Obviously driving this “fear & smear” propaganda is the need to obfuscate the inconvenient truth that Austin’s strongest rail supporters have spearheaded the opposition to this corrupt, misguided rail proposal from the get-go. These have included eminently pro-transit groups like the Light Rail Now Project, AURA (Austinites for Urban Rail Action), the nonprofit Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), Our Rail, and important core-city neighborhood groups that have a firmly established record of supporting urban rail, and yet have also been at the forefront of the criticism of, and eventual opposition to, the whole thrust of Austin’s urban rail planning since its inception the mid-2000s. And it’s been these groups in particular that have continued to spearhead opposition ever since the Highland-Riverside proposal was solidified late last year.


Proposed 6.8-mile "Plan B" light rail transit line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would have 17 stations and connect  the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S> 183 with Crestview, the Triangle, UT and the West Campus, the Capitol Complex, the CBD, and the Seaholm-Amtrak area. It's projected to serve 3 times the ridership of the Prop. 1 Highland-Riverside rail line at slightly over half the capital cost.

Light Rail Now, CACDC, Our Rail PAC, and other groups strongly support urban rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.


And the anti-rail opposition? Of course, highway proponents, anti-taxation activists, and, yes, some Tea Party sympathizers have emerged to oppose this rail bonds proposition — but wouldn’t they do so in any case? What’s surely revved them up, and encouraged them to pour exceptionally heavy resources into this fracas, is undoubtedly the leading role of rail supporters disgusted and outraged at the corruption and distortion of the rail transit planning process and de facto disenfranchisement of the wider community from involvement.

But, in a Democratic Party-leaning city with a substantial base of “progressive” voters, Let’s Go Austin clearly deems it useful to try to paint the opposition as a monolithic Tea Party chimera. And, by strong-arming a preponderant chunk of the local business community, the local civic leadership have managed to lead much of the major local media to buy into this contrived portrayal of the urban rail controversy and the bonds debate as merely a faceoff between conservative roads and anti-tax partisans, hostile to rail transit, versus future-looking, rational “progressives” favoring the official urban rail proposition.

This deception is pretty brazen. But it gets worse — how about some real chutzpah?

Recent research by AURA, with results posted Oct. 21st on their website, seems to have caught Let’s Go Austin (LGA) with some very embarrassing underwear exposed. AURA summarizes what it describes as “an important finding” about LGA’s campaign for the bonds proposition (which, like LGA, AURA refers to as “Prop 1″):

a review of the LGA PAC’s latest campaign finance report reveals that much of its funding comes from major donors to Republican Party candidates and causes. The LGA PAC’s portrayal of Prop 1 as a progressive choice thus appears to be another in its series of deliberate efforts to distract and mislead Austin voters. Frankly, it would be fairer to describe Prop 1 as a plan for “Republican Rail.”

Citing LGA’s campaign funding of nearly half a million dollars, with an average donation of over $6,000 (“A grassroots campaign this is not”), AURA’s study found that some of LGA’s largest donors were also major donors to the Texas Republican Party. You know, the one controlled for much of the past decade by the … Tea Party?

For example, the Downtown Austin Alliance contributed over a quarter-million dollars to LGA; its own treasurer, “also an individual donor to the LGA PAC”, happens to be “managing partner of McCall, Parkhurst & Horton, L.L.P., a law firm with an extensive history of large donations to statewide Republicans, including more than $75,000 to Greg Abbott.”

AURA’s study also focuses on LGA’s third largest donor, the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA),

which contributed $25,000. RECA also has a long history of contributing to Republicans, including $50,000 to Rick Perry and more than $63,000 to David Dewhurst. A quick search of RECA’s history in the Texas Tribune’s campaign finance database finds at least $180,000 in contributions to major Republicans.

AURA also discovered that, even lower on the food chain, the bankrolling of the Tea Party-connected GOP was in full swing:

The Republican donor trend continues with individuals, corporations, and PACs that donated to the LGA PAC in the $1,000–$5,000 range. A set of eight donors who gave $36,500 to the LGA PAC (almost 30% of the funds we have not yet detailed here) also contributed more than $700,000 to a veritable Who’s Who of the Texas Republican Party.

All told, the LGA PAC’s donors and DAA board members have contributed more than a million dollars to Republican campaigns. If you were to apply the Let’s Go Austin PAC’s preferred campaign strategy, you’d say that a vote for Prop 1 is a vote for Dan Patrick!

Summarizing all this, AURA delivers a stinging assessment:

Given this funding base, perhaps it’s no wonder Prop 1 sacrifices the rest of Austin’s transit system to benefit a handful of private business owners and real estate developers. Funneling taxpayer money into private hands is the very essence of the Texas Republican Party’s ‘business friendly’ agenda, and a similar agenda is at the center of the Let’s Go Austin PAC’s campaign. Just follow the money.

There’s nothing particularly reprehensible in major donors to a rail transit campaign also having contributed to the Republican Party. But in this case, some of Let’s Go Austin’s most generous funders have been pumping huge amounts of money to a Texas GOP that not only has staunchly resisted state funding for mass transit and instead favored highway expansion, but is dominated by the Tea Party. You know — the same Tea Party that LGA is using as a bogeyman to frighten Austin voters against listening to the “progressives”, liberals, leftists, and transit advocates telling them to oppose this urban rail bonds proposition.

Now, that’s chutzpah. On steroids.

And you know the saying, “People living in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”? AURA’s investigation suggests that Let’s Go Austin is inhabiting a very fragile glass house. ■

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Who are those guys? Real estate development interests and Austin’s urban rail boondoggle

28 October 2014
Map of urban rail line proposed for bond funding in November shows major private development interests and property owners that stand to benefit from selected route. Graphic: ARN.

Map of urban rail line proposed for bond funding in November shows major private development interests and property owners that stand to benefit from selected route. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

For years, the Light Rail Now Project, public transport advocates such as Dave Dobbs, Lyndon Henry, and Andrew Clements, and researchers and journalists such as Roger Baker have been criticizing Austin’s official urban rail planning process. In particular, they’ve been calling attention to the distortion of planning to avoid addressing bona fide mobility needs and instead defer to the needs and interests of real estate development.

In his analysis Connecting some dots on Austin’s urban rail planning, Baker revealed how planning for urban electric light rail was shifted away from a focus on crucial travel patterns in the heart of the city, and remade to promote development goals in more peripheral areas: “The dots in this case were partly the political momentum behind a new hospital district, combined with a new Opportunity Austin/Chamber-of-Commerce-recommended Austin growth policy.” Thus, “… in 2008, a city consultant, ROMA, recommended that the proposed light rail corridor be moved east to the San Jacinto Corridor (ultimately connecting several years later to the Red River corridor), as opposed to the previously-assumed Lamar Corridor alignment.”

Similarly, in their commentary Project Connect’s urban rail plan is “worse than nothing”, Dobbs and Henry explain how the official urban rail plan ignores the travel problems of the city’s core Lamar-Guadalupe axis in preference for catering to real estate and economic development development objectives. Now on the November ballot to seek voter authorization for General Obligation bonds to fund a 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion line strangely wandering from East Riverside Drive over a series of disparate, otherwise disconnected roadways to the former Highland Mall site, the proposed project, they say, is “primarily aimed at bolstering development plans and centered on the interests of private developers and the East Campus expansion appetites of the University of Texas administration.”

Rail transit and economic development

There’s certainly nothing wrong with efforts to site or cluster new development around or near rail transit stations. On the contrary, transit agencies, modern planning policy, and the transit industry all encourage and seek such development, often in the form of transit-oriented development (TOD) or transit-adjacent development – typically, synergistic residential development and activity center patterns that promote transit ridership, reduce dependency on personal motor vehicles, and help minimize urban-area sprawl.

But as the current controversy illustrates, a huge problem arises when rail planning forsakes serious mobility needs in deference to a predominant quest by political officials and civic leaders for obsessively desired real estate and economic development. Neglecting mobility function in favor of embellishing or promoting real estate development not only is a disservice to overall community needs, but also can be harmful to cost-effectiveness and other critical performance characteristics of good rail transit. Furthermore, rail transit can be a magnet for development, but this happens more or less in direct correlation with mobility effectiveness – i.e., rail transit in a heavily traveled, high-ridership corridor will tend to attract much more land and economic development than lower ridership in a weaker corridor.

But it’s precisely this faulty course of focusing overwhelmingly on coveted real estate and economic development possibilities, rather than crucial mobility priorities, that Austin’s political and civic leadership have taken. While private development interests obviously perceive that rail transit can bolster their real estate ventures, City of Austin planners and officials are clearly consumed by the prospect of higher property valuations and property tax revenues.

This was underscored at a 27 April 2012 meeting of the Transit Working Group (TWG) — the hand-picked “blue ribbon” circle of civic leaders then chaired by Austin’s Mayor Lee Leffingwell — that was dedicated almost totally to examining the prospects for real estate and economic development along what was then envisioned as an East Riverside-to-Mueller route for urban rail. (See video of meeting.)

Kevin Johns, director of the City’s Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services office, moderated a panel of key players in property development and development planning that extolled the potential for lucrative “return on investment” from the ripening urban rail plan. Significantly, the interaction of such development possibilities with actual mobility patterns and needs was not on their radar.

A major portion of this event included a PowerPoint presentation by Scott Polikov, principal of Gateway Planning, a development consultancy based in Ft. Worth and evidently under contract to the City of Austin. Polikov focused on several projects his firm was involved in, detailing other major players, future projects, projected valuations and tax revenues, and other aspects.


Scott Polikov of urban planning and development firm Gateway Planning gives presentation to TWG, 27 April 2012. Screenshot from COA video.

Scott Polikov of urban planning and development firm Gateway Planning gives presentation to TWG, 27 April 2012. Screenshot from COA video.


And what about the role of the University of Texas? As Lyndon Henry’s commentary UT should pay for East Campus urban rail — not Austin taxpayers points out, the UT administration has played its own role in distorting Austin’s planning process – mainly by demanding an eastside rail alignment, forsaking the high-density West Campus and major commercial activity on the Drag in favor of embellishing UT’s ongoing East Campus expansion program (and most recently, the development of a relatively small medical teaching facility just south of the main campus).

But UT’s influence is primarily political — the influence of being the proverbial “800-pound gorilla” that happens to sit on well over 40 acres of prime central Austin real estate (tax-exempt, nonetheless), and also happens to hold powerful connections to the Texas state government (and let’s not neglect to mention the UT system’s vast oil & gas holdings). Leaving UT aside, evidence is substantial that private business interests — property development interests in particular — have represented a major economic influence swaying the urban rail planning and decisionmaking of City officials.

Earlier planning for East Riverside and Mueller

For years, City planners and various public officials have repeatedly referred to the economic development potential and taxbase implications of their urban rail plans. An entire project — the City’s East Riverside Corridor Project — has focused on encouraging development and “revitalization” of the East Riverside area, historically a haven of medium to high-density, lower-cost, more affordable housing for both students and a segment of Austin’s lower and lower-middle-income workers and their families.

These development plans and policies, and their impact on East Riverside residents, were chronicled as early as 2007 by a landmark Austin American-Statesman in-depth examination. Dated 6 Aug. of that year, the story, titled “Banking on Riverside”, carried the ominous sub-ledes “Neighborhood in Transition” and “As explosive growth nears, where will longtime residents go?”

Statesman reporter Susannah Gonzales described the area as “one of the city’s largest concentrations of apartment complexes … home to thousands of immigrants and college students drawn by the lower rents and public transportation.” However, she noted, massive change was on the way. “Several plans for new development are under way in the vicinity.” Gonzales portrayed a determined effort by the City administration to expunge cheaper, affordable residential facilities and replace them with upscale condos, offices and retail outlets in a process of densification and gentrification.

Those early signals of East Riverside development, and subsequently the official corridor project, provide critical clues as to the thrust of City of Austin policy. And urban rail planning has been molded to support this policy, not just in East Riverside but in other areas deemed lucrative for both private development interests and City taxbase enhancement goals.

The Mueller development site also fits into this pattern. Since the early 2000s, the private development giant Catellus has proceeded, under City authority, to replace this former primary airport site with a 700-acre, mixed-use development envisioned to include 4,900 residences, over 650,000 square feet of retail space, and some 4.2 million square feet of office/commercial space. Until insider desires shifted in the course of the Project Connect urban rail “study” a year ago — reflecting development appetites eyeing the Highland ACC site — urban rail was planned to be routed into the Mueller project area. And Catellus has been assured that the current Red River-Hancock Center alignment will facilitate an eventual urban rail connection if the proposal on the November ballot is approved by voters. Indeed, “urban rail” planning actually began (c. 2005) as a streetcar “circulator” plan aimed at linking Mueller to UT’s East Campus and the Core Area.

Private interests that stand to gain

From a variety of reliable sources, Austin Rail Now has been able to compile a fascinating listing of many of these private property and economic development interests that stand to gain from the proposed Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal — ranging from property owners that might benefit from upward valuations to major development firms with projects already completed or under way. While some of these business interests undoubtedly have contributed to election campaigns of some councilmembers, our assessment is that City policy has been dominated by expectations of increased economic development and elevated property values, leading to expansion of taxbase and increases in property tax revenues. (The pitfalls of basing urban rail planning on such expectations have already been noted, above.) In any case, a number of these interests can be considered major players in the evolution of City urban rail planning and policy decisions. (Also see infographic at top of this post.)

East Riverside corridor — The Statesman article of 6 August 2007 listed ten specific developer or property-holder interests with projects either planned, under construction, or completed in this area. These included:


Development interests in East Riverside area as of 2007. From Austin American-Statesman report, 2007/08/06.

Development interests in East Riverside area as of 2007. From Austin American-Statesman report, 2007/08/06.


The 2007 article included a map and key of the specific developments:


Map and key of East Riverside developments as of August 2007. Screenshot of scan of Statesman map by Dave Dobbs.

Map and key of East Riverside developments as of August 2007. Screenshot of scan of Statesman map by Dave Dobbs. (Click to enlarge.)


South Shore — This area, also called the South Bank, just across the river (Lady Bird Lake) from Austin’s CBD, seems to be regarded as especially lucrative because of the availability of high-dollar river views for office buildings and condominiums. It was featured in Scott Polikov’s 2012 presentation to the TWG, which indicated how a new urban rail bridge across the river would benefit existing property owners, and help open up the area for a future development boom:


Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed adjacent South Shore property owners that stood to benefit.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed adjacent South Shore property owners that stood to benefit.


Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible future South Shore development boom.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible future South Shore development boom.


The Gateway presentation also described the possible economic payoff from South Shore development stimulated by urban rail:


Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible economic and tax benefits of urban rail plan in South Shore area.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible economic and tax benefits of urban rail plan in South Shore area.


In summary, major current beneficiaries of the proposed urban rail project through the South Shore area would include:


Development interests in South Shore area.

Development interests in South Shore area.


Eastside CBD — This area lies generally between Congress and I-35, from the river north to the UT campus. Information on development interests has been compiled from the Downtown Austin Alliance Emerging Projects listing, the Gateway 2012 TWG presentation, and a knowledgeable political consultant speaking on background. According to this last source, several major developers and speculators are acquiring large property holdings (entire blocks in some cases) along and near the East 6th St. area in anticipation of the valuation effects of urban rail as well as the Waller Creek project.

Based on these sources, some major beneficiaries of the proposed urban rail project through the east side of the CBD include:


Development interests in east side of CBD.

Development interests in east side of CBD.


The Gateway 2012 TWG presentation also zeroed in on a possible development boom, bolstered by the proposed urban rail alignment, engulfing the Rainey St. neighborhood, in the southeast corner of the CBD:


Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible future Rainey St. development boom.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible future Rainey St. development boom.


Hypothetical economic benefits were also listed:


Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible economic and tax benefits of urban rail plan in Rainey St. neighborhood.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible economic and tax benefits of urban rail plan in Rainey St. neighborhood.


Airport Blvd. corridor and Highland ACC area — Information on development interests in these segments of the City’s proposed urban rail route has been derived from a 28 Aug. 2011 article in the Austin American-Statesman, the 2012 TWG presentation by Gateway Planning (which has been involved in recommending and projecting economic and real estate development for the Airport Blvd. corridor), and a 2 Nov. 2012 article from the Austin Business Journal.

Reportedly, planners and officials envision a “new urbanist” redevelopment with classroom facilities, administrative offices, “and a mix of residential, retail and other commercial development.” (Statesman) The RedLeaf development is aimed to be “a thriving public-private complex with perhaps 1,250 residential units”. Major private development players cited in these sources include:


Development interests in Highland ACC and Airport Blvd. area.

Development interests in Highland ACC and Airport Blvd. area.


Along and east of the Highland site, the Airport Blvd. corridor is proposed for a massive overhaul. Giving some visualization of what the character of development along this corridor could look like, the Gateway 2012 TWG presentation provides a slide showing a proposed transit-oriented development (TOD) project in the Fiskville neighborhood along the corridor:


Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed rendering of possible TOD in Fiskville corridor near Airport Blvd.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed rendering of possible TOD in Fiskville corridor near Airport Blvd.


As this post has already emphasized, there’s nothing illicit or irregular with private development interests seeking opportunities to locate new projects near rail transit stations. But in the case of the urban rail plan now proposed for bond funding via a proposition on this November’s ballot, considerations of economic and real estate development potential — and expectations of increased property valuations and tax flows for local government budgets — seem to have trumped essential mobility priorities and thoroughly distorted the planning process and the proposed rail plan.

Likewise, it should be noted that there’s no assumption that interests listed in this post that stand to benefit from the routing of urban rail have directly intervened to influence urban rail planning. However, it is known that some real estate and development interests have been listed as contributors to the semi-official Let’s Go Austin campaign leading the effort to advocate passage of the bond funding measure. ■

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