h1

Project Connect’s urban rail plan is “worse than nothing”

21 July 2014
Project Connect's "urban rail" plan would not only absorb vast local financial resources, but would install "dedicated bus lanes" as an obstacle to urban rail where it's actually most needed — in Guadalupe-Lamar. Graphic: Adaptation by ARN from Project Connect map.

Project Connect’s “urban rail” plan would not only absorb vast local financial resources, but would install “dedicated bus lanes” as an obstacle to urban rail where it’s actually most needed — in Guadalupe-Lamar. Graphic: Adaptation by ARN from Project Connect map. (Click to enlarge.)

By Dave Dobbs and Lyndon Henry

For weeks now, Project Connect (with public tax money) has been carrying out a “saturation bombing” ad campaign promoting its $1.4 billion urban rail plan, 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.

It’s a “Pinocchio-style” campaign (and plan) packed with exaggerations contrived to try to sucker voter support. Perhaps the worst problem is the “city-wide system” deception that Project Connect is pushing in its ad blitz — the make-believe that an urban rail line on East Riverside through the East Campus to Highland will lead to rail in other parts of the city.

In fact, just the opposite will happen. The staggering cost will soak up available local funding for years to come — and that in itself will impede future rail transit development.

Not only will future voters see the resulting Highland-Riverside ridership as not worth the cost — a future political challenge — but, even worse, Project Connect’s plans to convert automobile travel lanes on the MetroRapid routes to dedicated bus lanes by 2025 will essentially block any expansion of rail in the crucial, high-travel, dense Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (See our recent article Project Connect’s $500 million plan for bus infrastructure — The Elephant in the Road on Guadalupe-Lamar that could block urban rail.)

Graphic: Panoramio.com

The “Elephant in the Road” — a vote for Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside “urban rail” project is also a vote for a bus project on Guadalupe-Lamar that will block urban rail where it’s most needed. Image: ARN library.

Once they spend $28 million a mile for bus lanes using 80% federal grants (as stated in official plans) we’ll have to live with that investment for two to three decades. Essentially Guadalupe-Lamar, South Congress, and South Lamar, streets that need rail to handle the potential passenger volumes, will end up with MetroRapid in dedicated right-of-way with an automobile lane and perhaps a bike lane in each direction. Instead of buses being seen as shuttles to good city-wide train service, buses will continue to be seen, as former State Highway Engineer DeWitt Greer once expressed it, as suitable only for “a certain class of people” and a nuisance “in the way of my car.”

Austin has waited a long time for an urban rail system — but it’s far better to wait a bit longer to do it right than to rush into a plan (which includes flawed roadway projects as well) just because it’s “rail”. A plan that impedes good transit development and future system expansion is worse than nothing. ■

h1

Project Connect’s tax-funded urban-rail-campaign ad blitz raises red flags

14 July 2014
Graphic excerpted from Project Connect's ad blitz currently running on local TV outlets. Graphic: Screenshot.

Graphic excerpted from Project Connect’s ad blitz currently running on local TV outlets. Graphic: Screenshot.

For months, Project Connect (with public tax-based funding largely funneled through Capital Metro) has been conducting an ad blitz with the clear de facto objective of soliciting voters’ support for the widely discussed urban rail bond funding measure expected to be placed on the ballot this coming November.

Within the last couple of weeks, this political ad campaign has been expanded to include television advertising and, this past Friday (July 11th), a front-page ad in the Austin American Statesman. For example, here’s one of Project Connect’s 30-second TV commercials, titled Learn more about Project Connect: Urban Rail.

Here’s the text of this obviously promotional TV pitch:

110 people a day move to Central Texas, making Austin traffic even worse.

But urban rail could help. The newest proposal from Project Connect, urban rail will arrive every 10 to 15 minutes, seven days a week and feature 16 stations and four park & rides.

It will connect the Convention Center, downtown businesses, entertainment areas, the new medical school, UT, and lots of neighborhoods, and would be part of a growing system with connections to bus and commuter rail.

Urban rail could expand to serve even more of Austin in the future. Learn more at Project Connect dot com

As usual, Project Connect blithely bulldozes forward, willing to discard the decades of work and tens of millions of dollars that have been invested in identifying the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as the pre-eminent candidate for Austin’s urban rail starter line. They continue to ignore the widespread barrage of community bafflement, criticism, and anger provoked by their arrogant, “damn-the-torpedoes” Blitzkrieg, aimed at rewarding real estate developer interests and the UT administration’s East Campus expansion aims, instead of addressing the true mobility needs of the Austin community.

With this ad initiative, Project Connect, Capital Metro, and possibly other members of the Project Connect consortium seem to be skating very close to the edge of what may be legally permissible (and definitely over the edge of what could be construed as political abuse of public tax funding). Here’s an excerpt relevant to “Unlawful Use Of Public Funds for Political Advertising”, quoted from the Texas Election Code, Title 15. Regulating Political Funds and Campaigns, Chapter 255. Regulating Political Advertising and Campaign Communications:

Sec. 255.003. UNLAWFUL USE OF PUBLIC FUNDS FOR POLITICAL ADVERTISING. (a) An officer or employee of a political subdivision may not knowingly spend or authorize the spending of public funds for political advertising.
(b) Subsection (a) does not apply to a communication that factually describes the purposes of a measure if the communication does not advocate passage or defeat of the measure.
(b-1) An officer or employee of a political subdivision may not spend or authorize the spending of public funds for a communication describing a measure if the communication contains information that:
(1) the officer or employee knows is false; and
(2) is sufficiently substantial and important as to be reasonably likely to influence a voter to vote for or against the measure.
(c) A person who violates Subsection (a) or (b-1) commits an offense. An offense under this section is a Class A misdemeanor.
(d) It is an affirmative defense to prosecution for an offense under this section or the imposition of a civil penalty for conduct under this section that an officer or employee of a political subdivision reasonably relied on a court order or an interpretation of this section in a written opinion issued by:
(1) a court of record;
(2) the attorney general; or
(3) the commission.
(e) On written request of the governing body of a political subdivision that has ordered an election on a measure, the commission shall prepare an advance written advisory opinion as to whether a particular communication relating to the measure does or does not comply with this section.

Project Connect’s aggressive political campaigning — using taxpayers’ money to try to persuade voters to approve more taxpayer money to finance the highly controversial (and, in the view of many, flawed and wasteful) urban rail proposal — has disturbed and outraged many citizens within the Austin community. On July 11th, Austinites for United Rail Action (AURA) — a group mainly composed of young professionals that support urban rail but dislike Project Connect’s proposal — issued a public statement, addressed to the the Capital Metro board and titled “AURA Questions the Project Connect Marketing Campaign“.

Here’s the basic content of that statement:

As you know, Project Connect has been running — and continues to run — an aggressive marketing campaign on behalf of your policy efforts. While some advertisements seem intended to convey basic information, others (such as the radio campaign) seem like political advocacy on behalf of the Regional Mobility Plan’s controversial recommendations.

As taxpayers and transit advocates, we are concerned about the expenditure of public money for this campaign-related advertising. While the words “vote for the bond package” are not included in any of the advertisements, this sort of technicality prioritizes form over substance: since the rest of the content makes no mention of opposing viewpoints or data, this advertising campaign is public relations, not genuine engagement.

It is possible that we are misunderstanding these efforts. We are hoping that your body can answer the following questions:

1. What entity is paying for existing Project Connect-related advertising?
2. How large is the purchase and how long will it last?
3. Who determines the content and themes featured in the advertising?
4. What standards has the Board provided to ensure that advertisements do not cross over into advocacy and remain firmly within the engagement realm?

Thank you for your attention to the matter. While Austinites may disagree on the best path forward for transit, we all agree that using taxpayer funds for political campaigning is unethical.

While these questions deserve answers, Austin Rail Now fully expects that AURA’s objections will be met with claims by Capital Metro and Project Connect that, by their own interpretation, no laws are being violated by the ad campaign. But it’s one thing to split legal hairs over legal violations, and quite another to commit a breach of faith and violate public trust over such a fractious and contentious issue. The alibi that this is merely an “educational” campaign is evidently intended for (1) the Project Connect faithful and (2) the hopelessly stupid.

And, by heavily investing tax dollars in commercial media advertising buys to advance this ballot measure, is Project Connect attempting to cultivate friendly media attention and treatment?

Pouring tax dollars into this ad blitz, aimed at subsidizing the dreams of a small assortment of private developers and the UT administration, discredits Project Connect and legitimate public transport planning as well. Community leaders and activists concerned with the future of democratic and fair process in this city should demand a stop to it — now.

h1

Why Project Connect’s “Highland” urban rail would do nothing for I-35 congestion

9 July 2014
I-35 is the most congested roadway in Texas. But is this really the main travel corridor for commuters from "Highland-Riverside" neighborhoods to the Core Area? And would Project Connect's proposed urban rail line have any perceptible impact? Photo source: KVUE-TV.

I-35 is the most congested roadway in Texas. But is this really the main travel corridor for commuters from “Highland-Riverside” neighborhoods to the Core Area? And would Project Connect’s proposed urban rail line have any perceptible impact? Photo source: KVUE-TV.

By Dave Dobbs and Lyndon Henry

Lately, Project Connect representatives have been trying to claim that their meandering urban rail route proposed from Highland, through Red River and San Jacinto, to East Riverside, somehow addresses the problem of congestion on … I-35.

Really?

Leaving I-35 at the Highland site to ride a slow train to downtown doesn’t make any sense when, at Highland ACC, you are almost at the Core Area. By the time you leave the freeway, park your car, walk to the station, wait for the train, and ride downtown, you might as well have stayed on the freeway.

The I-35 traffic jam actually begins way north of Highland — at the confluence of Howard Lane, North Lamar, and I-35 — and that’s where people would park and ride a train if it were there. But first we have to build urban rail in the right place — up Guadalupe and North Lamar.

You have to put your transit station, with park & ride (P&R) access, near the outer end of the traffic jam. You don’t have to be a transportation savant to figure this out.

After all, as the public transit planning profession knows very well, P&R facilities need to be provided well upstream of the heavy congestion on a highway facility. There’s very little hope of attracting travelers off the highway if they already have to travel through severe congestion to access the transit station.

Project Connect’s claim of “congestion relief” is especially implausible when you further consider that they’re expecting prospective urban rail passengers to slog their way through the I-35 congestion, then, just a few minutes from their destination, to exit the freeway, hassle with parking, wait for a train, and then take a long, slow, sinuous train ride into the Core Area — a route that includes entering Airport Blvd., navigating through mixed traffic on Red River St., then winding through San Jacinto Blvd. and other streets comprising this tortuous “Highland” route.

What about the the hints from Project Connect that I-35 may be a major artery that neighborhood commuters themselves, along the proposed “Highland” rail route, supposedly use to reach the Core Area? To believe this speculation, you’d have to accept a vision of about 260 commuters per peak hour from these neighborhoods, currently driving, on average, about 6 blocks to then pack themselves onto a severely congested I-35 (#1 on TxDOT’s list of the state’s most congested roads) to then travel an average 28 blocks into the Core. And doing this when they have at least four other important but much less congested local arterials, including Guadalupe-Lamar, to use instead.

Commuters on I-35 would need to drive through miles of heavy congestion to reach Project Connect's proposed urban rail P&R at Highland ACC  — thus, little potential for "congestion relief". In contrast, Capital Metro's Tech Ridge P&R is located upstream of I-35 congestion. Alternative Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail plan would have North Lamar Transit Center P&R at US 183, upstream of congestion. Future urban rail extension up North Lamar to Howard Lane could provide another P&R upstream of I-35 congestion. Infographic map by ARN based on Google Maps.

Commuters on I-35 would need to drive through miles of heavy congestion to reach Project Connect’s proposed urban rail P&R at Highland ACC — thus, little potential for “congestion relief”. In contrast, Capital Metro’s Tech Ridge P&R is located upstream of I-35 congestion. Alternative Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail plan would have North Lamar Transit Center P&R at US 183, upstream of congestion. Future urban rail extension up North Lamar to Howard Lane could provide another P&R upstream of I-35 congestion. Infographic map by ARN based on Google Maps. (Click to enlarge.)

Maybe, but this is a scenario that similarly invites powerful skepticism. And is it worth over a billion dollars for an urban rail alignment that would lure perhaps about 65 motorists off I-35 in a peak hour (assuming about 25% modal split for Project Connect’s urban rail)?

Instead, as an authentic urban rail alternative to either I-35 or MoPac into the Core Area, you have to travel through the actual heart of the central city and its core neighborhoods on an actual travel corridor where you actually travel to and get off close to your destination. And a lot more of those destinations are within walking distance of Guadalupe-Lamar. That’s why there are 23,000 bus riders daily in this corridor today.

Some transit planner a quarter century ago put it something like this at an Austin public meeting: “All transit studies show that people will climb high mountains and/or swim deep rivers to access good rail service if it’s far enough out and is easily accessible by another mode (i.e., beyond the traffic jam), providing that their final destinations are within a quarter mile of a stop.”

The MetroRail Red Line demonstrates this wisdom; after Howard Lane, for passengers riding inbound AM peak trains, it’s standing-room only. And don’t expect a seat outbound in the evening rush until Howard Lane.

However, the Red Line’s biggest fault is that while it’s quite long enough, it fails to “connect the dots”. It misses serving the heavy-traffic Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, and bypasses core central-city neighborhoods, the UT campus, the Capitol Complex, and most of downtown (while providing virtually useless service for East Austin en route).

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.

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.

In bypassing the heart of the city and the Core Area, the Red Line does indeed miss the big dots, but people hate US 183. Before the freeway to Lakeway and beyond, the bumper sticker read: “Pray for me, I drive 183!” Nothing has changed except that we have a much bigger road, even more traffic, more stress. longer drive times, and only a glimmer of a solution around it.

And by far the biggest part of any solution is urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar.

Summing up: Most I-35 travelers are not going to get off the freeway at the proposed Highland station when the real traffic jam starts to form at Howard Lane. The current bus park & ride, Tech Ridge Transfer Center, for AM commuters to the Core, is located where it makes most sense — much further north (upstream) from Highland, at Howard near I-35.

Again, it comes back to the real alternative: Urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, which could serve a P&R station at the North Lamar Transit Center (upstream of the congestion on North Lamar) — with a clear path for further extension north — and interface with train service to the northwest (initially MetroRail, eventually an extension of electric urban rail) serving outlying P&R facilities such as Howard and Lakeline.

We think that’s a “congestion relief” plan that actually makes sense. ■

h1

City Council to Austin community: Shut Up

1 July 2014
After squelching public input, Austin City Council votes unanimously on June 26th to endorse Project Connect's Highland-Riverside urban rail plan as Locally Preferred Alternative. Photo: L. Henry.

After squelching public input, Austin City Council votes unanimously on June 26th to endorse Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside urban rail plan as Locally Preferred Alternative. Photo: L. Henry.

The Austin City Council really doesn’t want to hear from you. They’re tired of having to listen to you at all, and want you to just keep your thoughts to yourself, and shut up.

They’re exhausted, they’re bored, they’re busy, and besides, they know what’s best for the city, and for the movers and shakers they deal with, and you’re just getting in the way.

This is the message that came across loud and clear at the last Council meeting on Thursday, June 26th, when the Council voted to cut off dozens of speakers prepared to criticize Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal, allowing only a relative few from “each side”.

Trouble is, the side opposing Project Connect’s plan is not a single “side”, but factions representing several major, different viewpoints, from virulent opponents of rail transit altogether, to strong urban rail supporters (such as the sponsors of this blog) who just think the Project Connect plan is a bad idea. No matter — Off With All Their Heads. Time to move on.

And “move on” they did, voting unanimously on June 26th to embrace the seriously corrupt and flawed Project Connect plan as the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) as a prerequisite for federal funding being sought. (In so doing, they actually re-designated the LPA from the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor to the current Highland-Riverside alignment.)

Prior to the final vote, several opponents of the measure among the handful allowed to speak ditched their prepared remarks and assailed the suppression of democratic speech.

Scott Morris, representing the Our Rail Political Action Committee (OurRail PAC), angrily noted that “This plan is opposed by groups that represent or serve over a hundred thousand Austinites, and you’re giving them 30 minutes of time.”

We have patiently waited through numerous — through scores — of work sessions where Project Connect has been given unfettered access to your attention. We have patiently waited through scores of briefings that have no citizen communication. And now we’re ready to say: Enough of this. We’re fed up. This plan does not fly. … You need to listen to the citizens of Austin ….

OurRail PAC leader Scott Morris denounces Council's action to constrict debate. Photo: COA video screenshot.

OurRail PAC leader Scott Morris denounces Council’s action to constrict debate. Photo: COA video screenshot.

Longtime rail transit supporter Mike Dahmus likewise expressed outrage at the Council’s squelching of citizen input:

You’ve chosen … to eliminate all meaningful opportunities for public input, as has Project Connect before you. We will make sure the FTA [Federal Transit Administration] is aware of this”

Also discarding his prepared comments, Lyndon Henry (a contributing editor to this blog) denounced the Council meeting as “a travesty”, adding:

This issue cries out for a public hearing. Instead, you subvert the democratic process and proceed with the agenda of special interests. … You should be ashamed.

Far from unique, the Council’s stifling of democratic process continues a pattern among various Austin public agencies in recent years of excluding community participation in planning major public projects. Public hearings have almost totally disappeared from the scene for at least a decade or more.

For over a decade, Austin public agencies have shut out and gagged the community from authentic participation in planning major projects.

For over a decade, Austin public agencies have shut out and gagged the community from authentic participation in planning major projects.

And not just the Austin City Council, but Capital Metro and Project Connect itself have been leading offenders. As this blog observed last December, in our post Will Project Connect continue to gag the public?

In response to community prodding, going into the recent “high-capacity transit” study process, Project Connect representatives gave seemingly earnest assurances of much greater “transparency” and “openness” in their “study” process. Instead, the Project Connect team made their closed-door activities more opaque and insulated from community interaction than ever. …

Instead of public participation, it’s been more like public prohibition — exclusion of the community at large from any real role in the process, with Project Connect instead delivering decisions as faits accomplis for public acquiescence rather than an authentic process of involving community members in a bona fide process of actually studying, analyzing, evaluating, and participating in decisions.

To present a semblance of “public input”, Project Connect has staged “open houses” (where individuals are allowed to view posters, maps, and other presentations of official decisions) and so-called “workshops” (where small groups clustered at tables are asked to approve predetermined choices via electronic “clickers”). Authentic community meetings, with discussions and comments from the public in a large-group setting, have been avoided like the threat of an infectious disease.

Following the Council’s action ramrodding of the urban rail plan on July 26th (strong-armed by Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell), longtime local community affairs activist Bill Oakey warned:

The level of insensitivity and lack of respect for the citizen speakers displayed by Mayor Leffingwell marks the darkest day for this lame duck Council. His actions essentially guarantee the defeat of the bond proposition. Austin is a community that places high value on citizen involvement. The Council should have held a public hearing soon after Project Connect announced their final proposal. Today the promise of no limit on the number of speakers was broken, after two days of planning by several groups to come and speak. The resulting lack of trust will contribute to the failure of the bonds. We will look to the new Council with a spirit of hope for respect, transparency and inclusiveness.

Changing the LPA to identify the Highland-Riverside alignment is just one of the steps the Project Connect consortium must follow in moving the official urban rail project forward. In August, the Council is expected to consider — and likely approve — placing approximately $600 million of bond funding on the November ballot for a public vote. How Austin voters will weigh in on this issue remains to be seen.

h1

Project Connect’s $500 million plan for bus infrastructure — The Elephant in the Road on Guadalupe-Lamar that could block urban rail

21 June 2014
Graphic: Panoramio.com

Graphic: Panoramio.com

As this blog has been warning, there’s substantial evidence that the Project Connect consortium has plans in mind for major investments in bus infrastructure for the MetroRapid bus routes, including Guadalupe-Lamar — infrastructure that would have the effect of a de facto barrier to installing urban rail.

From various recent statements by local officials, Project Connect personnel, and supporters of their current Highland-Riverside urban rail plan, it also seems likely that such a so-called “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT) infrastructure program for Guadalupe-Lamar would be initiated if their rail proposal receives public approval. Thus, our predictive analysis that “a vote for Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside urban rail project is a vote for a bus project on Guadalupe Lamar.” In effect, this is the Elephant in the Road shadowing all the debate over Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal.

Context of cumulative evidence

The evidence for this is hard to miss. For example:

• Project Connect’s stated plans — As our article No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes… has previously reported, in a PowerPoint presentation to the 25 May 2012 meeting of the Transit Working Group (TWG), the Project Connect team envisioned a “Preferred System Phase 1″ program of projects, to be implemented within “0 to 10 years”, that included $500 million (2012 dollars) targeted for the MetroRapid “BRT” system then under development in four major corridors (and now in operation in the Guadalupe-Lamar and South Congress corridors). This half-billion-dollar investment would include covering the “Cost of 40%-50% dedicated lanes”.

Excerpt from Project Connect presentation in May 2012 indicating planned $500 million package for MetroRapid "BRT" facilities, including Guadalupe-Lamar. Graphic: Project Connect.

Excerpt from Project Connect presentation in May 2012 indicating planned $500 million package for MetroRapid “BRT” facilities, including Guadalupe-Lamar. Graphic: Project Connect, with annotations by Dave Dobbs.

This was proposed in the context of Project Connect’s plan for urban rail (aka light rail transit, LRT) to serve UT’s East Campus, Red River, and Hancock Center, and at that time, the Mueller site … plus a clear rejection of proposals by Lyndon Henry, Dave Dobbs, Andrew Clements, and others that the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor had far more potential for an urban rail starter line. (The line to Mueller has, at least for now, been replaced by a proposed line to the former Highland Mall site.) So, in effect, even then, Project Connect envisioned a somewhat beefed-up, more heavily invested version of what they called “BRT” as the mode of “high-capacity transit” planned for Guadalupe-Lamar well into the future.

• Framing MetroRapid as an obstacle — Starting in the spring of 2012, Project Connect representatives and members of the Transit Working Group began portraying the Small Starts MetroRapid project as a “bus rapid transit” replacement for urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar, and thus an obstacle to any urban rail alternative in the corridor. Moreover, it was hinted that any effort to switch from MetroRapid to urban rail would sour Austin’s relationship with the FTA and jeopardize future funding for any projects of any mode in the Austin area.

Supporters of urban rail for the G-L corridor have responded that not only was the FTA investment — and the project itself — very minimal, but MetroRapid was originally intended, and should be regarded as, a precursor to urban rail in the corridor, not a barrier. See:

MetroRapid bus service should be a precursor to urban rail, not an obstacle!

Why the MetroRapid bus project currently is NOT an obstacle to urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar

Why MetroRapid bus service is NOT “bus rapid transit”.

MetroRapid bus stops are currently designed to be modular and movable, and could be relocated to other routes or to use by urban rail. But civic officials and Project Connect representatives portray MetroRapid bus service as "permanent" form of "rapid transit" that "blocks" urban rail. Photo: L. Henry.

MetroRapid bus stops are currently designed to be modular and movable, and could be relocated to other routes or to use by urban rail. But civic officials and Project Connect representatives portray MetroRapid bus service as “permanent” form of “rapid transit” that “blocks” urban rail. Photo: L. Henry.

Nevertheless, in the spring of 2012, national transportation legal and policy consultant Jeff Boothe was hired by the city to reinforce the offical argument. In various public statements, including a presentation to a City Council work session on 22 May 2012, Boothe claimed that the minimalist Small Starts MetroRapid bus service would pose a daunting barrier to urban rail on Guadalupe and Lamar for decades. Asked by Councilman Bill Spelman how long this supposedly “BRT” operation would need to run in the corridor before urban rail could be substituted, Booth claimed “At least a minimum of 20 years. . . .That is FTA’s expectation.” (This assertion has subsequently been debunked; see, for example, Contradicting local official claims, FTA says it “would consider request” for urban rail on North Lamar.)

This theme continued in the fall of 2013 as Project Connect representatives Kyle Keahey, Linda Watson, and others portrayed the MetroRapid project as an obstacle, particularly citing the FTA’s “commitment” to “BRT” in this corridor. During the crucial final decisions by the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) and Austin City Council leading to an endorsement of Project Connect’s “Highland-Riverside” recommendation, the same argument was repeatedly brandished prominently by public officials such as Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Councilman Bill Spelman, Capital Metro Chairman Mike Martinez, and Capital Metro board member John Langmore as a compelling reason to rule out urban rail for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

While these specious claims of the “permanence” of “BRT” in this corridor, and the supposed intransigence of the FTA, in themselves don’t explicitly include detailed plans to install a G-L “BRT” infrastructure, they certainly bolster a strong suspicion of intent to proceed with the $500 million program already announced by Project Connect.

• Public statements — Not only have officials, Project Connect representatives, and supporters of their program made it clear that they see MetroRapid “BRT” as the “rapid transit” system “permanently” allocated to Guadalupe-Lamar, but Project Connect representatives have also indicated intent to install more substantial infrastructure for this operation. For example, at a Project Connect “Data Dig” on 3 December 2013, team representatives acknowledged that MetroRapid, running almost entirely in mixed traffic, fell short of “rapid transit”. In response, Project Connect staff assured participants that “dedicated lanes” were among the measures being considered to speed MetroRapid buses in the corridor.

MetroRapid buses running in mixed traffic are portrayed as central Austin's "rapid transit" — but this has become local joke. Photo: L. Henry.

MetroRapid buses running in mixed traffic are portrayed as central Austin’s “rapid transit” — but this has become a target of local jokes. Photo: L. Henry.

In the context of a proposed $500 million “dedicated lane” program, it’s extremely unlikely that mere paint-striping of transit lanes is what’s under consideration here. Technical issues of operational needs, safety, and other factors, plus “Best Practices” in the industry, all strongly point to a much more robust infrastructure investment than mere paint-striping to render a safe, efficient dedicated-lane facility.

And in the context of repeated affirmations of “commitment” to “BRT” in the G-L corridor, it’s entirely reasonable to expect that any further MetroRapid-related investments — even paint-striped lanes — would be regarded as a further reinforcement of the “permanence” of “BRT” in this corridor.

• “North Corridor BRT” integration — Project Connect has concocted a “regional” plan for the so-called “North Corridor” (in effect, a vast sector with multiple travel corridors located north of the core city) that consists almost entirely of bus operations, including “BRT”. In various presentations, Project Connect representatives such as Kyle Keahey have indicated that this “North Corridor BRT” system would connect neatly with “high-capacity transit” in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

Project Connect's North Corridor plan includes "BRT" extensions of MetroRapid (shown in green) into northern suburbs. Map: Project Connect.

Project Connect’s North Corridor plan includes “BRT” extensions of MetroRapid (shown in green) into northern suburbs. Map: Project Connect.

While no explicit proposals for specific facilities have been presented publicly, it seems reasonable to infer that, within the previously described context, this plan for a northern “BRT” connection would encourage and bolster the “Preferred System Phase 1″ vision for “40%-50% dedicated lanes” in the G-L corridor.

Concrete vs. painted lanes

But if merely paint-striping reserved lanes on Lavaca and Guadalupe Streets downtown is adequate there, why can’t this be applied north of downtown, through the Drag, and on north, up Guadalupe and North Lamar?

The answer is that there’s a qualitative difference between separating slower-moving, congested downtown street traffic from bus lanes, and separating dedicated lanes designed for buses traveling 35-45 mph. As we’ve already noted, operational features (such as providing for general traffic turning movements), right-of-way constraints, and safety considerations virtually mandate much “more robust” — and thus expensive — facilities, not just striped-off lanes. In addition, heavy bus use typically requires construction of reinforced paveways for the running lanes.

All that implies pouring concrete and asphalt, not just brushing stripes with paint. And as we’ve also noted, given recent history, virtually any further capital improvements — no matter how minimal — for MetroRapid will be used to reinforce the contentions of a faction of Austin’s civic leadership that MetroRapid is too “permanent” to be relocated to permit the installation of urban rail.

Reinforced paveway on San Bernardino's sbX "BRT" Green Line shows that adequately "dedicated" bus lanes require more than just paint striping. Photo: TTC Inland Empire blog.

Reinforced paveway on San Bernardino’s sbX “BRT” Green Line shows that adequately “dedicated” bus lanes require more than just paint striping. Photo: TTC Inland Empire blog.

“BRT” funding and implementation options

Some skeptics question how Project Connect’s $500 million project for partially “dedicated lanes” on Guadalupe and Lamar would be funded and implemented. Austin Rail Now suggests it would probably be done incrementally, perhaps in route segments, rather than implemented as a single large program. And, besides possible right-of-way acquisition, it might involve an array of bus-traffic-related measures, from demarcated and reinforced running lanes, fully new paveways, reversible center bus lanes, queue-jumper lanes, and other options. But in any case, it would involve a substantial overhaul of these major arterials.

FTA Section 5307 or 5309 funds might cover 80%, with the local 20% share coming perhaps from a variety of sources, such as the quarter-cent contractual transfer from Capital Metro to the City of Austin (COA); COA funds possibly remaining for non-specific mobility improvements in North Lamar and Guadalupe; and even COA’s ongoing public works maintenance budget. Project segments and funding allocations could be added to CAMPO’s annual Transportation Improvement Program as Project Connect is ready to proceed with them.

However the details might materialize, Austin Rail Now is convinced that the preponderance of the evidence overwhelmingly points to desires and intentions on the part of the city administration and Project Connect to pursue this kind of massive program to “permanentize” MetroRapid “BRT” facilities in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — and that these facilities would effectively reinforce official contentions that urban rail is blocked as an option. Thus, we underscore our warning that a vote for Project Connect’s urban rail plan is also a vote to institute major bus infrastructure as an impediment to urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar. ■

Passenger stations of Kansas City's MAX "BRT" (left) and Houston's MetroRail LRT (right) illustrate significant design differences between bus and LRT facilities. Thus major infrastructure, from running ways to stations, installed for "BRT" must be removed or reconstructed for LRT — a substantial expense and thus obstacle to rail. Photos: ARN library.

Passenger stations of Kansas City’s MAX “BRT” (left) and Houston’s MetroRail LRT (right) illustrate significant design differences between bus and LRT facilities. Thus major infrastructure, from running ways to stations, installed for “BRT” must be removed or reconstructed for LRT — a substantial expense and thus obstacle to rail. Photos: ARN library.

h1

Project Connect’s urban rail forecasting methodology — Inflating ridership with “fudge factor”?

20 June 2014
Graphic: Watts Up With That blog

Graphic: Watts Up With That blog

By Susan Pantell

Recently Project Connect posted a Technical Memorandum dated 13 June 2014 from Alliance Transportation Group discussing what it describes as “Central Corridor Initial LPA Transit Ridership Forecasting Methodology and Summary Ridership Forecasts”. In this posting, researcher Susan Pantell provides a critical analysis of this memo.
Screenshot of page 1 of Alliance Transportation Group's Technical Memorandum on Project Connect's ridership forecasting methodology.

Screenshot of page 1 of Alliance Transportation Group’s Technical Memorandum on Project Connect’s ridership forecasting methodology.

This memo does not really provide data on their methodology since the model is secret. Beyond that, their documentation is largely hand-waving.

1. Most importantly, they did analysis only for 2030. FTA now requires current year ridership analysis. “Current year” is the most recent year for which data on the existing system and demographic data are available. An applicant may choose to also evaluate a 10-year or 20-year horizon, and, in that case, the current-year and future-year estimates will each count 50%. Current year ridership would be a lot lower because there is not the development around Highland or the eastern side of UT, but they did not do it.

2. They estimate 15,580 daily trips using the model, which they round up to 16,000. Then they say that on game or event days, ridership could be 20,000 or higher. So they conclude “the project team believes that the median value of 18,000 is a reasonable preliminary estimate of 2030 ridership.” At the end of the memo they explain that this is not based on their calculations, but on their assumption of a 10-15% increase in ridership based on future development (18,000 is a 15% increase).

Lyndon Henry says that is a reasonable assumption, and it may be, but it is not based on data or adequately documented in this memo. They don’t say how many days they predict ridership will be 20,000 or over. There are a lot of events in Austin, but not a lot with high ridership — only 8-9 game days for football and about 10 days for SXSW. If I assume 40 days with 21,000 ridership and 15,600 on the other days, the average comes to 16,300.

They are also accounting for the special event days by adding 25 to the annualization factor of 300 that FTA uses. In addition, they add 103,000 to the annual ridership figure to account for special events.

3. Note that they estimate that total trips for the Capital Metro system will increase by 10,700 in 2030, which is lower than the ridership estimate above because bus ridership will be reduced along the route. Based on that figure, bus ridership will go down by almost 5,000 trips.

4. “Transit fares were set at the equivalent Capital Metro fares for premium transit modes discounted to 2005 model base year dollars.”

Why are they estimating 2030 ridership based on 2005 fares? Because ridership is higher with lower fares. They are assuming $1.50 fare. Using an online calculator, $1.50 is $2.78 in 2030 dollars for a 2.5% inflation rate. (For 2020 it would be $2.02 – $2.34.) That’s assuming they don’t raise the rates beyond the inflation rate.

I calculated the ridership based on a 2030 fare of $2.78 and assuming a 0.4% decrease in transit ridership for every 1% fare increase [TCRP, Report 95, Transit Pricing and Fares, 2004, Chapter 12, p. 12-6. TCRP RRD #61, Traveler Response to Transportation System Changes, 2003, p.19]. I come up with a 2030 ridership of 12,300, as compared with their 15,580. If you add their 15% fudge factor, it comes out to 14,000. If you decrease the base ridership of 12,300 by the same percentage as they do to come up with the total system trips, it comes to 8,500 new trips for the system.

Is that worth $1.4 billion?

h1

Austin pro-rail group declares war on Project Connect urban rail plan

15 June 2014
Julie Montgomery, AURA leader, was sole member of Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) to vote against Project Connect's urban rail plan. Photo: L. Henry.

Julie Montgomery, AURA leader, was sole member of Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) to vote against Project Connect’s urban rail plan. Photo: L. Henry.

In a 13-1 vote this past Friday (June 13th), a key mayor-appointed review committee, the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG), approved recommending Project Connect’s urban rail proposal to the Austin City Council. If (as expected) the council endorses the plan as the city’s Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for urban rail, it could set the basis for approving, perhaps in August, a ballot measure for bond funding in the November 4th election.

The CCAG vote context on this controversial project was far from placid, with public comments criticizing the plan as well as supporting it (the usual speakers’ limit of five was obligingly expanded to allow two extra supporters, while an opponent was turned away). The first speaker, Marcus Denton, representing a major pro-rail group, Austinites for Urban Rail Action (AURA), announced the organization’s opposition. AURA’s constituency includes a significant segment of particularly influential and technologically savvy young professionals in the Austin community.

Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant and former Capital Metro board member (and currently a contributing editor for Austin Rail Now), noted that the Project Connect plan fell short of serving the University of Texas West Campus, one of the densest neighborhoods in Texas. He suggested that a rail line in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — backed by many community groups and individuals — could include branches serving both the West and East Campuses, but called for UT’s administration to take “responsibility for funding its fair share of what it wants.”

CCAG member Julie Montgomery, one of AURA’s top leaders (see photo at top), was the sole member of CCAG to vote against endorsing Project Connect’s urban rail plan, particularly questioning the validity of the data, methodology, and projections on which it’s based.

AURA immediately issued a media release (below), now posted on the AURA website.

Marcus Denton announces AURA's opposition to Project Connect plan at CCAG meeting. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

Marcus Denton announces AURA’s opposition to Project Connect plan at CCAG meeting. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

Following today’s vote by the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) recommending a $1.4 billion Riverside-to-Highland urban rail line, AURA announced the route would act as a long-term barrier to a comprehensive, efficient transportation system and urged Austin City Council not to put it on the November ballot.

“We’ve worked for months – some of us years – trying to get an urban rail route we could support, but unfortunately this is worse than no rail,” AURA board member Steven Yarak said. “Squandering scarce funds on a second low-ridership rail line would set back public support for more effective public transit investments for decades.”

AURA’s Project Connect Central Corridor Committee co-chair Brad Absalom noted that, “While we’re supportive of the more cost-effective Riverside segment, we’re very worried the northern section will block rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, our most productive corridor, indefinitely, even as it drains funds from buses.”

AURA urged City Council not to place a Riverside-Highland urban rail bond proposition on the November ballot. Susan Somers, AURA board member, described AURA’s transportation agenda going forward: “Step one in building a better transportation system is preventing this urban rail bond from making the ballot, and defeating it if it does. As we continue lobbying for an urban rail line we can support, we’ll be pushing hard for improvements to Austin’s bus, cycling, and pedestrian infrastructure.”

AURA is a grassroots urbanist organization focused on building an Austin for everyone by improving land use and transportation through policy analysis, public involvement, and political engagement.

AURA leaders indicated they would actively campaign to defeat a bond measure for Project Connect’s rail plan, while striving to substitute a new urban rail plan, more effectively meeting community needs, together with broader public transport and other alternative mobility initiatives. ■

Majority of CCAG votes to endorse Project Connect urban rail plan. AURA leader Julie Montgomery, at table at left in photo, voted No. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)

Majority of CCAG votes to endorse Project Connect urban rail plan. AURA leader Julie Montgomery, at table at left in photo, voted No. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.