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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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Lloyd Doggett — Dupe, or accomplice in rail bonds campaign’s “Tea-baiting”?

27 October 2014
Campaign mailer from Let's Go Austin publicizes Rep. Lloyd Doggett's backing of urban rail bonds proposition in Nov. 4th election. Was Rep. Doggett duped or "strong-armed" into supporting this seriously flawed proposition?

Campaign mailer from Let’s Go Austin publicizes Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s backing of urban rail bonds proposition in Nov. 4th election. Was Rep. Doggett duped or “strong-armed” into supporting this seriously flawed proposition?

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. Most recently, apparently in an effort to drop a late-campaign “bombshell”, they’ve managed to enlist liberal Democratic U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett in this smear campaign.

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.

Whether Rep. Doggett was aware of any of this is dubious. In any case, it’s apparent that, to corral both political and business support into (at least nominally) backing their lemon of an urban rail plan, supporters of the urban rail plan and ballot proposition have been engaging in a whole lot of strong-arming. Businesses, for example, are vulnerable to this because they need City of Austin permits for expansion or other commercial needs, or perhaps they’re angling for a public contract. Not only has there been a kind of “bandwagon” effect, but top officials and civic leaders have seemed to require allegiance to the Highland-Riverside rail plan as virtually an article of faith, akin to “kissing the royal ring”.

Similarly intense has been the political pressure from the local Democratic Party elite to extract lockstep fealty to the urban rail bonds proposition from the Democratic fold — both elected officials as well as wanna-bes. This now has apparently included the “bombshell” of Lloyd Doggett’s endorsement — first with his participation in a Let’s Go Austin rally on Oct. 19th (the day before the start of early voting), and now by being featured in a Let’s Go Austin campaign mailer (see graphic at top of this post).

Is a Congressional representative really vulnerable to being “strong-armed” by mere local and state-level party officials? It’s certainly plausible, since U.S. elected representatives depend on strong local party support in their home districts to help them at re-election time. And with Texas state GOP gerrymandering that has been moving the boundaries of his district, Rep. Doggett probably feels especially vulnerable. Keeping good relations with the local elite is a must.

In any event, whether this is a case of being duped or being a willing accomplice, for Rep. Doggett — and a large segment of his “progressive-liberal” supporters who are dismayed by his alliance with the Let’s Go Austin forces — his emergence into public support of this widely unpopular ballot proposition is very unfortunate. And eroding a major segment of voter support is surely not helpful to Rep. Doggett’s political security.

Neutrality probably was an option, and definitely would have been a choice preferred by many of Rep. Doggett’s most ardent supporters in the community. ■

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Urban rail bonds proposal is not Prop. 1 anymore — it’s just “Proposition”

22 October 2014
Excerpt from Travis County's sample ballot for Nov. 4th shows that the urban rail bonds measure will be titled just "Proposition, City of Austin". Screenshot by L. Henry.

Excerpt from Travis County’s sample ballot for Nov. 4th shows that the urban rail bonds measure will be titled just “Proposition, City of Austin”. Screenshot by L. Henry.

For months, the City of Austin’s urban rail bonds proposal has been designated “Proposition 1″, and that’s how it’s been referred to by all sides in this dispute. Apparently on the basis of information from city representatives, media reporters have been referring to it that way since about the first week of August.

But heads up — on the ballot, it’s designated somewhat differently: “Proposition, City of Austin“. (See excerpt from sample ballot at top of this post.)

A copy of the full sample ballot can be accessed via the following link:

http://www.traviscountyclerk.org/eclerk/content/images/sample_ballots/2014.11.04/2014.11.04_G14_CITY.pdf

As this sample shows, on the ballot the urban rail bonds proposition is presented after all the choices for mayor and council.

It’s important that this new designation, and the position of the “Proposition, City of Austin” measure, is made clear to voters. Anecdotal evidence suggests that anti-rail bonds voters are more motivated in this election, so confusion works to the benefit of the Let’s Go Austin campaign to support the urban rail bonds and the seriously flawed Highland-Riverside line they’re intended to finance.

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Latest TTI data confirm — Guadalupe-Lamar is central local arterial corridor with heaviest travel

13 October 2014
Heavy peak-hour traffic on North Lamar. Guadalupe-Lamar is Austin's most heavily travelled inner-city central corridor, long seen as top priority for urban rail. Photo: L. Henry.

Heavy peak-hour traffic on North Lamar. Guadalupe-Lamar is Austin’s most heavily travelled inner-city central corridor, long seen as top priority for urban rail. Photo: L. Henry.

For years, many Austin public transit activists have been insisting that the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor is the central inner city’s most heavily travelled local travel route, and should be the first priority for installing urban rail. In this blog’s first posting, in the spring of 2013, we described how City of Austin planners were proposing an urban rail starter line to connect downtown and the east side of the University of Texas with the Mueller development site, but “Lamar-Guadalupe is the ‘Missing Link’ in their plan.”

Ironically, COA has also been emphasizing that Lamar-Guadalupe is the primary local traffic corridor in central-city Austin, and even identified this corridor in the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) scoping meetings, held throughout Austin in spring 2012, as being at maximum capacity for over the past 2 decades.

In a posting just this past August, we summarized the case for Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) in a single sentence:

Guadalupe-Lamar is the outstanding corridor to start urban rail — among the top heavy travel corridors in Texas, a long-established commercial district, with major activity centers, the city’s core neighborhoods, and the West Campus, having the 3rd-highest residential density in Texas.

By far, the heavy travel flow in this corridor one of that most compelling features that cry out for the capacity, public attractiveness, and cost-effectiveness of urban rail (light rail transit, LRT). Study after study has documented the fact that this is the most intensely traveled inner-city local corridor — the only major corridor serving the city’s central axis between I-35 and Loop 1 (MoPac).

Now, the latest annual report of the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), endorsed by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) not only strongly corroborates these assessments, but provides data that further emphasize the key importance of the G-L corridor. The report tabulates both vehicular traffic (measured as daily vehicle-miles travelled, or VMT) and congestion (measured as annual person-hours of delay) for each major roadway included in the list.

TTI’s complete statewide listing of major roadways, in an Excel XLSX spreadsheet, can be downloaded from this link:
http://tti.tamu.edu/documents/umi/most-congested-in-texas-final.xlsx
Selected data from Austin (Travis County) is summarized (webpage text) at this link:
http://mobility.tamu.edu/most-congested-texas/austin/

Certainly, as north-south highways, I-35 and Loop 1 (MoPac) remain at the top of the list in terms of traffic flow and congestion (person-hours of delay). But these are primarily intercity-regional highways, flanked by frontage roads and sprawling, motor-vehicle-oriented development, mostly commercial. As potential transit corridors, they are physically inappropriate as alignments for regional passenger rail, and definitely unsuitable for urban-suburban light rail, which is ideal for interconnecting points along an inner-city corridor.

Guadalupe-Lamar is ideal for urban rail, since it channels incoming suburban travel from both I-35 and Loop 1 and distributes it to inner-city destinations. And it interconnects those same activity centers as well as many of Austin’s most established central-city neighborhoods.

The TTI data underscore the high-traffic primacy of Guadalupe-Lamar. Since these data a presented for segments of the total corridor, we’ve consolidated these segments to show flow in the entire corridor.

We’ve created graphic comparisons to contrast Guadalupe-Lamar with other major inner-city north-south corridors, both in terms of traffic flow (daily VMT) and congestion (annual person-hours of delay). Data for South Congress, South First, and Manchaca have similarly been consolidated to highlight each of these corridors in its entirety. (Data for South Lamar and Burnet Road were not similarly segmented in the TTI report.)

Graph illustrates that traffic flow in Guadalupe-Lamar is more than twice that of any other inner-city north-south corridor.

Graph illustrates that traffic flow in Guadalupe-Lamar is more than twice that of any other inner-city north-south corridor.

Graph illustrates that congestion (person-hours of delay) in Guadalupe-Lamar is nearly twice that of the next highest inner-city north-south corridor, South Congress.

Graph illustrates that congestion (person-hours of delay) in Guadalupe-Lamar is nearly twice that of the next highest inner-city north-south corridor, South Congress.

We also compared the Guadalupe-Lamar data with TTI data for the officially proposed Highland-Riverside (H-R) urban rail route. H-R data were consolidated from available arterial data provided in the TTI report, which included the entire Riverside Drive alignment from South Lamar to S.H. 71, plus Airport Blvd. from North Lamar to I-35. (Other arterials in the Highland-Riverside route, such as Trinity, San Jacinto, and Red River, apparently register too little traffic and congestion to even qualify for inclusion on TTI’s listing.)

Graph illustrates that traffic flow in Guadalupe-Lamar is at a volume about 2.4 times that of arterials in the Highland-Riverside route.

Graph illustrates that traffic flow in Guadalupe-Lamar is at a volume about 2.4 times that of arterials in the Highland-Riverside route.

Graph illustrates that congestion (person-hours of delay) in Guadalupe-Lamar is nearly three times that of arterials in the Highland-Riverside route.

Graph illustrates that congestion (person-hours of delay) in Guadalupe-Lamar is nearly three times that of arterials in the Highland-Riverside route.

This comparison suggests that, in terms of both traffic flow and congestion (which can be interpreted as a proxy for travel density), the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor far outpaces the H-R corridor proposed for urban rail by Project Connect, and offered for public endorsement (i.e., bond funding authorization) in Proposition 1 on November 4th. (It’s worth noting that Project Connect’s much-vaunted “scientific” and “data-based” exercise a year ago, portrayed as a “study”, failed to evaluate a single actual travel corridor, let alone with this kind of data comparison.)

The logical conclusion: Overwhelmingly, in both traffic and mobility congestion, Guadalupe-Lamar trumps not only the official Highland-Riverside line, but every other alternative corridor as well. Good sense suggests that Guadalupe-Lamar remains the top-priority corridor for an urban rail starter line. ■

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How soon to get Austin’s urban rail on track after Nov. 4th?

11 October 2014
Graphic: LifeHacker.com

Either the Highland-Riverside urban rail plan or a Guadalupe-Lamar plan will need several years to be ready for federal approval. Graphic: LifeHacker.com

By Dave Dobbs

How quickly can Austin get another rail proposal on the ballot if Proposition One fails on Nov. 4th? Pass or fail, I think any rail proposition that would be ready for federal funding is at least three years out — i.e., 2018, considering that the new 10-1 council gets up and running early in 2015.

If Proposition One passes, the new council would have to deal with the political mandate of $400 million of road funding — most likely, in Certificates of Obligation (COs). And given the nature of COs, meant for emergencies, not for general obligation (GO) situations, the oxygen in council chambers is going to be consumed as new council members (a) hear from the public pro and con and (b) recognize that large city indebtedness limits their ability to expend funds for many other needed things (particularly their own priorities and campaign promises), while at the same time setting the stage for even more debt for a controversial rail project that will surely necessitate giving up a quarter cent of Capital Metro’s sales tax they now collect.

Assuming that the issue of COs could be settled in a year’s time and the city could begin selling bonds to fund the detailed planning necessary to qualify for federal funding, it will still take two to three years for the federally mandated steps necessary to get back into line for federal funding. Remember, when Project Connect switched the destination from Mueller to Highland, the current project on the ballot lost its place in line. (Council members knew this when they placed Proposition One on the ballot.) Considering that federal funding is highly competitive, with something like 50 U.S. cities doing some kind of urban rail planning in pursuit of federal dollars, Austin’s current project (supposedly with 18,000 daily riders) for $1.4 billion is simply not cost-effective or cost-competitive.

Now if Project Connect still has some funds left from the $5 million allocated from CAMPO’s SMP-MM grant and what the Council provided in 2013, and Prop. One passes, then rail planning for Highland/Riverside could go on while council thrashes about trying to deal with the $400 million in COs. Nonetheless, it would still be 2018 before any Project Connect plan would be ready for federal consideration and the ridership and the project won’t be any better.

If Proposition One fails, then the new 10-1 council will be able to get organized and set its own priorities, one of which would be to disconnect Project Connect, along with its funding, and then assess where the community goes with Capital Metro, transit priorities, rail planning, and what role the city, itself, has in all this. Hopefully, any funding that is left from Project Connect could be held in abeyance until Council agrees to set up a new public study process that has real public input and gives public stakeholders ownership. Right now, Capital Metro has been so poorly used by politicians and the private political agendas the politicians represent, that we need to have a community discussion about what transit’s role is in the future and who does what.

The city and the transit authority, after all, have to agree upon how to use the limited assets we call the public streets. We have to decide whether streets are for people (pedestrians, bikes, and transit) or sewers for cars. While some of our elected officials piously claim we can’t give up automobile travel lanes for rail on Guadalupe and Lamar, the CAMPO plan (its Capital Metro elements) projects dedicated bidirectional busways for MetroRapid on all of the best potential rail routes in the city by 2025.

Overhead view of MetroRail on Main St. at Preston. Photo: Houston Metro.

Houston’s MetroRail light rail transit system runs on dedicated tracks on Main St., re-allocated from traffic lanes. Photo: Houston Metro.

Given the undeniable need, now becoming patently obvious to most of the attentive public, that something must be done in the core along the Guadalupe/North Lamar corridor, the new Council will be under enormous pressure from most of the Project Connect supporters and the loyal opposition pro-rail supporters to begin anew looking at a rail proposal that has the right combination of route, ridership, capital cost, and O&M numbers that gets the most bang for the buck. Again, we’re looking at 2018 before any plan could be completed and eligible for Federal Transit Administration funding.

The difference between passing and failing is, of course, funding — i.e., Austin’s local match for a federal grant. While both Proposition One proponents and the loyal opposition pro-rail supporters agree that a local match is essential, the contention that a November bond failure means “another 14 years” before we can visit the issue again, or that a 10-1 council will be unable to agree on where to begin, are arguments for people with an agenda and those who are flying backward to see where we’ve been. ■

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A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line

5 October 2014
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.

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. (Click to enlarge.)

Supporters of the Proposition 1 urban rail proposal have been issuing dire warnings that “there’s no Plan B” if Prop. 1 — with its Highland-Riverside rail line — is rejected by voters on Nov. 4th.

Apparently, they’re willfully ignoring that there definitely is a “Plan B”. All along, there’s been an alternative urban rail project on the table … and it’s ready to replace the Project Connect/Prop. 1 plan if it fails.

Light rail transit (LRT, a.k.a. urban rail) for the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor has been in various stages of planning since the late 1980s. The ridership potential has been assessed in the range of 30,000-40,000 a day (see Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route).

There are various design alternatives (see, for example An alternative Urban Rail plan and Another alternative urban rail plan for Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.)

In this particular proposal, including elements in both alternative G-L plans listed above, we present a plausible and fairly simple option for an LRT starter line aimed at minimizing design and cost while providing an attractive service with adequate capacity. Like the Prop. 1 plan, this would require re-allocation of some traffic lanes to dedicated rail transit use, some intermittent property acquisition, and streetscape amenities including pedestrian and bicycle provisions. Our plan would route LRT entirely on the surface; thus there are no major civil works (although there is a bridge included over Shoal Creek and rebuilding of the pedestrian interface).

We assume a 6.8-mile line starting at the North Lamar Transit Center (NLTC, Lamar and U.S. 183) on the north, running south down North Lamar and Guadalupe, then Guadalupe and Lavaca to the CBD, then west on 4th and 3rd Streets to a terminus to serve the Seaholm development and Amtrak station at Lamar. (See map at top of post.) We’ve assumed 17 stations, but have not proposed specific locations except for the termini at NLTC and Seaholm-Amtrak.

As a starter line for urban rail, this plan would serve Austin’s most heavily traveled inner-city corridor (North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe St.) plus the West Campus, Texas’s third-densest residential neighborhood — both totally ignored by the seriously flawed Prop. 1 plan. Our plan would also serve the Seaholm-Amtrak area. All these crucial residential and activity areas are missed by Prop. 1’s proposed line.

At Crestview, we’ve assumed a track diversion into and through the mixed-use development to facilitate interchange with the MetroRail Red Line; the tracks would return into N. Lamar at each end of the development. There are other options for achieving this transit interface, including a major overhaul of the entire intersection of N. Lamar, Airport Blvd, and the Red Line.

Through the West Campus area, to serve this dense neighborhood and the University of Texas campus, we’ve assumed a simple route on Guadalupe. However, several other options are possible, such as a split-directional alignment with one track on Guadalupe and another on Nueces.

We assume 30,000 to 40,000 as a plausible potential ridership range for this proposal, based on previous forecasts for this corridor plus factors such as the interconnection with MetroRail service at Crestview, and extensions both to U.S. 183 and to the Seaholm-Amtrak site. Our “horseback” design and cost assessment (generally similar to a typical “systems-level” engineering estimate) envisions sufficient rolling stock to accommodate this volume of daily passenger-trips in 3-car trains at 10-minute headways. We’ve estimated average schedule speed at 16 mph and a round trip of roughly an hour.

On this basis, we’ve assumed a fleet of 30 LRT railcars, including spares. Storage, maintenance, and operations facilities would be located at the NLTC, which would also provide expanded park & ride facilities.

As presented in the table below, we’ve estimated the capital investment cost of this project at $586 million. We believe this is a far more affordable investment for an initial LRT starter line than the daunting $1.1 billion ($1.4 billion in year of completion) estimated for the Highland-Riverside proposal in Prop. 1. With 50% Federal Transit Administration funding assumed, this would mean a local share of $293 million, most likely financed from local City of Austin bonds and possibly other sources.

Line installation includes right-of-way acquisition, trackwork and running way construction, minor civil works, electric power supply and distribution, signal and communications system, stations and facilities, and streetscape amenities, including sidewalks and bicycle lanes. Rolling stock is assumed as “short” low-floor LRT cars similar to those recently procured in Salt Lake City and Atlanta; a storage, maintenance, and operations facility is included. Total cost includes a 25% contingency and a 15% administrative/engineering allowance.

2_ARN_PlanB-G-L-urban-rail-altv-est-cost

Unit capital cost of this “Plan B” project calculates to about $87 million per mile — roughly 73% of the cost per mile of the Prop. 1 proposal. Total cost is 52% of the Prop. 1 Highland-Riverside plan. Thus, for just over half the cost of the Prop. 1 plan, this proposal would render about three times the ridership. We’d expect this high ridership (as well as high passenger-mileage) to translate to signficantly lower operating & maintenance (O&M) unit costs compared with the Prop. 1 rail proposal, as well as lower unit subsidies.

In addition, it would serve Austin’s most heavily travelled inner-city arterial corridor, one of the state’s densest neighborhoods, the city’s highest-density corridor, and a number of Austin’s most established center-city neighborhoods — neighborhoods that have anticipated and planned for light rail for well over a decade. It would also serve centers of development such as the Triangle area, clusters of major new development emerging in various segments along the corridor, and much of the very high-density residential and commercial development booming in the western section of the CBD.

Hopefully, by investing dollars wisely and conservatively in an affordable initial starter line project, Austin will be in a position to budget for a vigorous expansion of LRT lines in other potential corridors citywide, such as:

• South Congress
• North Lamar to Parmer Lane
• Northwest to Lakeline Transit Center
• South Lamar
• East Riverside to ABIA
• Mueller development and northeast Austin
• Lake Austin Blvd.
• West 38th St.

Plan B — possibly this design or something similar to it — is definitely ready and waiting. Hopefully, it will move forward vigorously if Proposition 1 is rejected on Nov. 4th. ■

Portland's light rail transit line on 4-lane Interstate Avenue gives an idea of how urban rail could operate in reservation in G-L corridor. (Photo: Peter Ehrlich)

Portland’s Yellow Line LRT on Interstate Avenue serves a corridor similar to Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar. (Photo: Peter Ehrlich)

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