Archive for November, 2013

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TILT! Project Connect’s gerrymandering and data fiddling ignite public skepticism, pushback

30 November 2013
"Don't believe your lying eyes." At Nov. 26th "Community Conversation", Project Connect study director Kyle Keahey shows bar chart indicating overwhelming public support for "Lamar" sector, yet proceeded to justify study team's selection of "ERC" and "Highland". Photo: Julie Montgomery.

“Don’t believe your lying eyes.” At Nov. 26th “Community Conversation”, Project Connect study director Kyle Keahey showed bar chart indicating overwhelming public support for “Lamar” sector, yet proceeded to justify study team’s selection of “ERC” and “Highland”. Photo: Julie Montgomery.

Suddenly, the leadership of Project Connect’s urban rail study have scheduled, out of the blue, a “Public Data Dig”. On Tuesday, Dec. 3rd, from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm in the Capital Metro boardroom, the agency promises to provide “an interactive review of the approach, process, methodology, data, and evaluation results.”

And it’s not for the faint-hearted or the techno-wimpish: “WARNING: this will not be a layman’s discussion; this is an in-depth data-dig and technical review.” It’s hard to tell whether that’s a warning to intimidate the public and scare off the masses, or an effort to impress potential attendees with the daunting and immutable rectitude of Project Connect’s study efforts and final product.

But why have the study team suddenly decided to start publicly “digging into the data” now, setting a date 2.5 weeks after they made their decision (Nov. 15th) about where they wanted to put urban rail? Why didn’t they open these kinds of critical assumptions and methodological decisions to public discussion months ago?

Maybe they sense the mounting community outrage and anger at being treated like yokels by a flim-flam artist? And perhaps they’re starting to realize how seriously their credibility (and that of public officialdom generally) are being impugned by the barrage of savvy, insightful critical scrutiny of their shenanigans that has emerged, bolstering that community pushback.

That scrutiny has materialized in a veritable barrage of technically competent and even wonkish analyses that have been dissecting all the basic pillars of Project Connect’s wobbly “approach, process, methodology, data, and evaluation results”. From apparent gerrymandering of the study sectors (“sub-corridors”) to cherry-picking of data to peculiar fiddling of calculations, the agency’s procedures have deepened skepticism. For example, here’s a selection of community-generated analyses:

Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors!
https://austinrailnow.wordpress.com/2013/11/11/project-connects-corridor-study-without-corridors/

Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place
https://austinrailnow.wordpress.com/2013/11/17/surprise-mayor-and-project-connect-select-same-routes-they-wanted-in-the-first-place/

A little oddity in Project Connect Evaluation Criteria
http://austinonyourfeet.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/a-little-oddity-in-project-connect-evaluation-criteria/

Project Connect’s Sub-Corridor Recommendation
http://jacedeloney.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/project-connects-sub-corridor-recommendation/

Highland Score
http://keepaustinwonky.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/highland-score/

A quick thought for tonight’s exercise
http://m1ek.dahmus.org/?p=914

Project Connect Reality Check: “Lamar” vs. “Highland” sector ridership comparison FAILS
https://austinrailnow.wordpress.com/2013/11/24/project-connect-reality-check-lamar-vs-highland-sector-ridership-comparison-fails/

“Highland” sector favored by Project Connect — but where’s the travel demand?
https://austinrailnow.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/highland-sector-favored-by-project-connect-but-wheres-the-travel-demand/

Lying with Maps
http://yarak.org/2013/11/lying-with-maps/

Welcome to Project Dis-connect!
http://www.icontact-archive.com/gV8wd5ityKfvqoWQQdiDT8IG1WNL1sIh?w=3

Huge problems cited with Project Connect’s urban rail study data
https://austinrailnow.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/huge-problems-cited-with-project-connects-urban-rail-study-data/

Another Rail Petition worth signing
http://highlandneighborhood.com/another-rail-petition-worth-signing/

Austin Rail Now encourages everyone interested in this crucial study and the need for urban rail (electric light rail transit) in Austin to attend this crucial event on Dec. 3rd. Project Connect’s announcement assures “We really want to take the time to answer all of your detailed questions….”

That sounds a bit like they’re approaching this as an exercise in explaining the complexities of their arcane brilliance to us benighted peons. After all, that’s pretty much the way they’ve conducted their so-called “public participation” process. Despite all their assurances of “transparency”, they’ve conducted this study with about the transparency of peat moss, keeping their most critical deliberations virtually locked within a reinforced bunker.

Let’s hope community participants at Tuesday’s meeting will be able to drill somewhat into that bunker.

Even more importantly, Project Connect’s urban rail program needs to be put on Pause. It took the wrong track back there, and has not only some explaining to do, but some reversing as well.

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City’s 2010 urban rail study actually examined corridors! But botched the analysis…

26 November 2013
Closeup of City's Central Austin Transit Study map, showing core, potential rail corridors, and City's version of route to "North Central Austin" (Hyde Park via Speedway). Guadalupe-Lamar was avoided. Map: Snip from COA document.

Closeup of City’s Central Austin Transit Study map, showing core, potential rail corridors, and City’s version of route to “North Central Austin” (Hyde Park via Speedway). Guadalupe-Lamar was avoided. Map: Snip from COA document.

By Lyndon Henry

In this blog and other forums, for months I’ve been making the case that Project Connect’s urban rail study has not been considering actual travel corridors, but rather large tracts of urban land more aptly described as sectors. Actual travel corridors haven’t just been ignored, they’ve been severed and segmented, so that effective evaluation of them for rail transit routes has been impossible. (The best example is Guadalupe-Lamar, for which Project Connect cut off the head — the core area — and then severed the legs — any extensions north of Crestview.)

Project Connect has supposedly been focusing on possible urban rail routes in the center of the city, so it designated a huge central-city study area — implausibly calling it the “Central Corridor”, although it had none of the characteristics of an actual urban travel corridor. (See Project Connect’s “corridor” study ­ without corridors!)

Project Connect's "Central Corridor" (study area) with "sub-corridors" (i.e., sectors). (Click to enlarge.)

Project Connect’s “Central Corridor” (study area) with “sub-corridors” (i.e., sectors). (Click to enlarge.)

As one can see in the map above, within this huge central study area, Project Connect then carved up a number of major study districts — which it then labeled “sub-corridors” (since the entire center of the city was now labeled a “corridor”). Rather than actual travel corridors — which are what you’d need to study fixed transit facilities like urban rail — these subdivisions are, in effect, huge, sprawling sectors of the center-city, mostly comprising several square miles. “Mueller”, for example, reaches out of the Mueller development site to reach central neighborhoods west of I-35, and north to gulp up most of Northeast Austin.

But local officials definitely know what real corridors are. As recently as 2010, the City of Austin, in collaboration with its consultant URS Corporation, produced the Central Austin Transit Study (CATS) — the pre-eminent initial feasibility study for a central Austin urban rail system. And, as the map below shows, they didn’t dither around with huge, arbitrary, misnamed blobs of urban land … they examined actual corridors:

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

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

However, then, as now, the basic aim was to justify a Phase 1 urban rail route through the east side of the UT campus and on out to the Mueller redevelopment site. So the study and the map of selected corridors were cleverly contrived to confine and steer the study in the “proper” direction.

In particular, notice how the City planning team studiously avoided the most obvious route going north from the campus — up Guadalupe and North Lamar. Instead, Corridor #11 is fashioned as “University of Texas (UT) to North Central Austin (Hyde Park)”, and directed up Speedway (a minor arterial that’s almost a neighborhood street) as far as 51st St. And of course, it’s purpose is to make a connection to … Mueller!

But manipulating the routes was only half the game. The other half was manipulating the evaluatory methodology.

For the 2010 study, that was a lot simpler than now. Instead of “gerrymandering” data, playing with projections and hypothetical growth rates, and assigning heavy freeway traffic to relatively quiet neighborhoods, the City and URS team in 2010 just devised a simple, subjective 1-2-3 rating system that allowed them to assign a subjective “score” at whim to the various corridors. And whaddaya know … Mueller won!

But the point is that more or less real travel corridors were studied in 2010, although they were shaped and located to fit the outcome desired by top officials. So local planners do know what real corridors should look like.

And it’s real travel corridors that Project Connect’s urban rail study should have been scrutinizing and evaluating all along. That’s what the Austin community deserves. Instead, what Austin has gotten so far is another exercise in smoke-and-mirrors “planning” intended again to achieve a desired outcome.

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Project Connect Reality Check: “Lamar” vs. “Highland” sector ridership comparison FAILS

24 November 2013
Despite Project Connect's startling claim, "Lamar" sector has significantly higher ridership than "Highland". Graph: ARN, from Project Connect data matrix.

Despite Project Connect’s startling claim, “Lamar” sector (left) has significantly higher ridership than “Highland” (right). Graph: ARN, from Project Connect data matrix.

During Project Connect’s somewhat eyebrow-raising rollout of the urban rail study team’s much-vaunted route decision at the Central Corridor Advisory Group meeting of November 15th, study director Kyle Keahey valiantly was attempting to combat considerable skepticism surrounding the project by highlighting some of the team’s supposed “findings”.

Perhaps in an effort to demonstrate even-handedness, Keahey had already shown a bar chart illustrating overwhelming popular support for the “Lamar” sector (“sub-corridor” in Project Connect parlance), totaled from public input, but he undoubtedly realized he needed to reveal the team’s “evidence” for their contrary decision. So, trying to justify the selection of the “ERC” (East Riverside) and “Highland” sectors, Keahey assured the audience that “Lamar” (a huge sector of over 4.5 square miles, stretching from east of North Lamar west to Shoal Creek) just didn’t have the desired characteristics.

The Guadalupe-Lamar corridor is well-known for its relatively high transit ridership (after all, it was the top choice for the MetroRapid special bus service planned to open in 2014), so apparently the study team has been hard-pressed to disparage the “Lamar” sector on its strongest points.

So Keahey unveiled a jaw-dropping claim — “Lamar” really doesn’t have the strongest ridership at all, but instead, “actual ridership is highest in East Riverside and Highland ….”

There are several problems with this comparison, starting with the fact that Project Connect has utterly failed to evaluate actual travel corridor ridership (and any other data, for that matter). Instead, the ridership figures (apparently obtained from Capital Metro) apply to all transit ridership, going in all directions. But wasn’t this a study of travel from these sectors to the core area?

One of the problems with this is that those sectors (which include “Highland” and “ERC”) that happen to encompass major transit route interchange hubs suddenly seem to have far more ridership than a sector (like “Lamar”) distinguished for its heavy corridor ridership. This is almost certainly a clear advantage of the “ERC” sector, with clusters of crosstown routes interchanging with UT shuttlebus routes serving student housing and other general routes linking to the core area.

While higher ridership is tallied for “ERC”, this does seem to correlate somewhat with the service level. Altogether, the “ERC” sector has a total of 37 routes, according to Project Connect’s evaluation matrix, compared with 26 for the “Lamar” sector — a ratio of 1.42. This is close to the ratio in “Total Existing Transit Ridership”: “ERC” with 9,648, “Lamar” with 6,990 — a ratio of 1.35. This suggests that ridership may be driven somewhat by the level of service (i.e., number of routes) provided to the sector.

But what about the “Highland” sector? Keahey’s claim that “Highland” currently exhibits higher ridership than the “Lamar” sector was quite shocking, even leaving aside the major interchange at the ACC Highland hub.

And it turns out this claim simply isn’t true — by Project Connect’s own evaluation data matrix.

Project Connect: Central Corridor Sub-Corridor Comparison Matrix

Here’s a screenshot of the page with the transit ridership data:


Project Connect Evaluation Data Table page with ridership data.

Project Connect Evaluation Data Table page with ridership data.


This screenshot zooms in on the ridership data cells for the “Lamar” and “Highland” sectors:


Closeup of matrix data for "Lamar" and "Highland" sectors.

Closeup of matrix data for “Lamar” and “Highland” sectors.


The actual data, above, seem clearly to contradict and refute Keahey’s “bombshell” claim that transit ridership in “Highland” beats that in the “Lamar” sector. By the “Total Existing Transit Ridership” metric, “Lamar” has 6,990, vs. “Highland” with 5,628 — leaving “Lamar” 24% higher (see bar graph at top of post). By the “Average Daily Bus Ridership” metric, Lamar” has 6,736, vs. “Highland” with 5,174 — leaving “Lamar” 30% higher.

Thus, this would seem to be a “bombshell” claim that fizzles

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Crestview Neighborhood Association endorses Guadalupe-Lamar for urban rail

20 November 2013
Crestview Neighborhood Association's eastern boundary lies along North Lamar Blvd. Map: CNA.

Crestview Neighborhood Association’s eastern boundary lies along North Lamar Blvd. Map: CNA.

Still another major neighborhood association has jumped on board the effort to designate the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor as its preferred route for urban rail (light rail transit).

On Nov. 12th, the Crestview Neighborhood Association (CNA) voted to express its belief “that any first investment in light rail must serve as an expandable backbone of rapid transit, and such an alignment is most suited along North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe Street and terminated at or near the North Lamar Transit Center ….”

As indicated in the map at the top of this post, Crestview is a basically rectangular neighborhood bordered on the east by North Lamar Blvd., west by Burnet Rd., north by Anderson Lane, and south by Justin Lane. Encompassing the Crestview MetroRail station near Airport Blvd., the neighborhood touches the intersection of Lamar and U.S. 183 at its northeast corner, near the North Lamar Transit Center.

Like other neighborhoods in the corridor, the Crestview Neighborhood Association in its resolution underscores its participation in and ratification of the intensive planning for light rail that has already occurred in the corridor. In particular, the resolution notes that Crestview was “a signatory of the Crestview-Wooten Combined Neighborhood Plan, City of Austin Ordinance 040513-30, in which Crestview residents took part in extensive light rail planning for specific alignment and station placement along North Lamar Blvd. up to the North Lamar Transit Center and providing for light-rail to commuter rail transfers at Crestview station …

It goes on to point out that “several other neighborhood plans have planned light rail along the Guadalupe-North Lamar corridor such as the Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan, City of Austin Ordinance 040826-56, Brentwood-Highland Combined Neighborhood Plan, City of Austin Ordinance 040513-30, Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan, City of Austin Ordinance 000413-63, and the North Loop Neighborhood Plan, City of Austin Ordinance 020523-30 ….”

Furthermore, “… the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, City of Austin Ordinance 20120614-058 incorporates the aforementioned existing neighborhood plans and designates North Lamar Blvd and Guadalupe Street as High Capacity Transit Corridors in its Growth Concept Map .…”

In addition to the previously noted endorsement of light rail as “an expandable backbone of rapid transit”, the Crestview measure also affirmed that the neighborhood association “supports a phase one locally preferred alternative to include light rail service that connects the densely populated and diverse communities of North Central Austin to the cultural, residential, and employment centers of the University of Texas, the Capitol Complex, and Downtown Austin ….”

Image of Crestview Neighborhood Association resolution supporting urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

Image of Crestview Neighborhood Association resolution supporting urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor (click to enlarge).

The full resolution in PDF format can be accessed here:

Crestview Neighborhood Association — Resolution in Support of Light Rail on North Lamar Boulevard

The Crestview endorsement is an especially noteworthy action because many Crestview residents had generally weighed in as opponents of light rail during both the initial presentation of a Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail plan in the early 1990s, and also during the campaign for a ballot measure to authorize a light rail system that narrowly failed in 2000. This new emergence of strong support is an indicator of the powerful community momentum for an urban rail alignment that has been building among neighborhoods in this corridor.

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“Highland” sector favored by Project Connect — but where’s the travel demand?

19 November 2013
Closeup of data visualization of 2035 travel demand projection focusing on "Highland" sector. Snip by L. Henry of Project Connect infographic.

Closeup of data visualization of 2035 travel demand projection focusing on “Highland” sector. Snip by L. Henry of Project Connect infographic.

As this blog recently reported, on Nov. 15th, Project Connect — newly empowered by Austin’s Mayor Lee Leffingwell to make the de facto final decision on urban rail — selected the “ERC” sector (with the somewhat daunting East Riverside corridor) in South Austin and the “Highland” sector (suspected to be a proxy for the western “Mueller” sector) in central Austin.

Project Connect's anointed sectors ("sub-corridors") for urban rail, selected on Nov. 15th. Map: Project Connect.

Project Connect’s anointed sectors (“sub-corridors”) for urban rail, selected on Nov. 15th. Map: Project Connect.

While the significant and growing Highland campus of Austin Community College (ACC) has been profusely brandished as a major activity center justifying “Highland” (in effect, a “gerrymandered” sector fabricated from pieces of the actual Highland and several other core-city neighborhoods), there seems very little likelihood that a rail route in the “Highland” sector itself would actually reach Highland ACC anytime soon or possibly even … ever.

It’s likely that urban rail is intended only to reach Hancock Center (per the previous Mueller plan), then to take the same previously planned northeasterly route (through the Hancock property, then crossing Red Line tracks, then under I-35 via Airport, and into Mueller via Aldrich). Very daunting right-of-way constraints almost certainly will remain an obstacle to extending urban rail to Highland ACC.

Besides the physical constraint of virtually no clear street right-of-way for an urban rail alignment to the core area, Project Connect’s chosen “Highland” sector presents another serious problem: extremely weak travel demand!

This is revealed in the data visualization of travel demand forecast for 2035 by sector and displayed in Project Connect’s Map Book (v.5), p. 43, based on projections from CAMPO’s own travel demand model. Two JPG snips of this visualization (showing travel demand activity as vectors and intra-zonal travel as bubbles) are shown below, one for the study area as a whole, and the other a closer focus on the central core city.

Travel demand in 2035 shows zero (or very weak) travel activity involving "Highland" sector. Infographic: CAMPO and Project Connect.

Travel demand in 2035 shows zero (or very weak) travel activity involving “Highland” sector. Infographic: CAMPO and Project Connect.

Closeup of projected travel demand in central core city.

Closeup of projected travel demand in central core city.

In comparison with “Highland”, the infographics shown above seem to indicate significantly more projected travel demand not just in the rather large “Lamar” sector but all along the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor specifically. There’s also significant travel to what seems to represent a centroid just northwest of the boundaries of the “Lamar” sector, which it’s arguable is logically in the ridership catchment area for an urban rail line on Guadalupe-Lamar.

A closeup of this visualization for a portion of the “Highland” sector (including the Highland ACC area) is shown at the top of this posting. In contrast to the seemingly intense travel demand involving the Guadalupe-Lamar, the “Highland” sector seems to have zero travel demand centroids or origin-destination points indicated, and there’s a total absence of “data bubbles” represent intra-zonal trips.

This seemingly total lack of projected transit demand in for the “Highland” sector is actually rather puzzling. It’s reasonable to assume some degree of future travel demand between this area bordering the west side of I-35 and the core area. In any case, the data visualization suggests a projection by the CAMPO model that that this area is astoundingly weak in this respect compared to Guadalupe-Lamar — certainly contradicting the claims and conclusions of Project Connect’s top decisionmakers, including Kyle Keahey, who have emphasized the greater travel demand potential of “Highland” (and “ERC”) over the “Lamar” sector (and, implicitly, the actual Guadalupe-Lamar corridor). Basically, the evidence for this — in this presentation of CAMPO 2035 projection results — is simply not there.

In fact, on the basis of this infographic, both the “Highland” and “MLK” sectors appear to have the weakest travel demand projected in the CAMPO travel demand model — possibly suggesting a deficiency in the model. In any case, since Project Connect based its assessment significantly on this data, the results presented, and the contrary evidence of very strong travel demand in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, contradicting Project Connect’s own stated conclusions, should at the very least raise questions about the competency and integrity of the study process.

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Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place

17 November 2013

0_ARN_shocked-guy-with-questions-cartoon

By Lyndon Henry

This past Friday, Nov. 15th, to a meeting of the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG), the Project Connect (ProCon) team presented their “recommendation” of sectors (misnamed “sub-corridors”) for the first urban rail route(s) — a combination of “Highland” (a proxy to facilitate city officials’ desired route to Mueller) and “ERC” (containing the East Riverside Corridor, which the City has been heavily promoting as a development district).

Tilting the playing field

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

Project Connect's "recommendation" revealed on Nov. 15th. Photo: ProCon.

Project Connect’s “recommendation” revealed on Nov. 15th. Photo: ProCon.

Just a few days prior to Friday’s meeting, COA Mayor Lee Leffingwell cancelled plans to bring the selection of a sector for urban rail to both the Capital Metro board and the entire City Council for a vote. Instead, in what’s being portrayed by critics as a kind of “palace coup”, the mayor has ditched plans for such votes and authorized Project Connect to make its own decision about a sector (which in effect clinches the basic route decision). Thus, ProCon’s Nov. 15th “recommendation” amounts to the actual decision to start planning urban rail routes — lo and behold, the same basic routes the city administration, Project Connect, and an assortment of real estate development interests have wanted all along.

And all from a process that repeatedly seems to have rigged the game, and tilted the playing field.

Data flaw: Garbage In, Garbage Out

Kyle Keahey presented ProCon’s justification to the CCAG and the audience in the classic maneuver of a “data blitz” — a rapid PowerPoint barrage of tables of values, bar graphs, and bullet points almost guaranteed to dazzle and overwhelm. Assuring the CCAG attendees that his team had been busy slicing, dicing, and splicing the data approximately six different ways, including subjecting all that abundant data to a “sensitivity analysis”, Keahey wrapped up his case for basically the original official route plan (a line leading from downtown through UT’s East Campus to Hancock Center and eventually to the Mueller site, plus a route to bolster real estate and other commercial development along East Riverside).

But this picture of a fair, balanced, scrupulously diligent evaluation process is being greeted with considerable skepticism in the community. ProCon’s study has numerous hallmarks of having been rigged, from a peculiarly contrived methodology that departs from longstanding professional practice, to cherry-picking of a highly questionable set of data elements and the exclusion of data indicators far more appropriate for such an ostensible “corridor study”. (And, one might add, a highly secretive and insular process that immunized the ProCon team and their study procedures from public scrutiny and oversight.)

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

Along the way, from the rather soft-focus Map Book “data visualizations” made available, a wide array of serious data errors and omissions were identified by various stakeholders. See, for example:

Huge problems cited with Project Connect’s urban rail study data

Sub-Corridor Selection Scoreboard

Three Suggestions for the Project Connect Sub-Corridor Survey

“Beauty contest”, not corridor analysis

But the core problems with ProCon’s exercise go far deeper. In addition to the numerous data anomalies (and the lack of public access to the raw data being used), there are serious methodological faults. Perhaps the most troubling involves the fundamental concept and approach of the study itself, discussed in Austin Rail Now’s article Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors!

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

This involved the selection of a predominantly questionable array of data elements as the basis for “evaluation” of the various sectors. Leaving their “weighting” aside, in the aggregate the evaluatory elements themselves are inappropriate. Here’s why:

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

Snippet of ProCon's evaluation matrix shows preponderant emphasis on hypothetical future projections rather than current factual data.

Snippet of ProCon’s evaluation matrix shows preponderant emphasis on hypothetical future projections rather than current factual data.

This is especially true in regard to locational projections, i.e., projections of future developments in specific geographical locations. Beyond a roughly five-year horizon, projections for specific neighborhoods and similar chunks of real estate basically become unreliably speculative — which seems to be what we’ve actually been dealing with … a significant dollop of real estate speculation, given a kind of veneer of “techniness” by CAMPO and their land use/travel demand model package.

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

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

(2) Percentages and growth rates — Obviously, percentages (of poverty, transit dependency, etc.) and growth rates can be somewhat useful indicators, but relying on them overwhelmingly, as ProCon’s methodology does, can skew the planning process. Neither actual population, nor actual transit ridership in an actual corridor between any sector and the core, is considered as a measure!

Percentages can be deceptive, especially when it comes to forecasting transit ridership. Area A may have a population of 100, of which 50 are transit-dependent — 50% transit dependency. Area B may have 10,000 population, of which 2,000 are transit-dependent — 20% transit dependency. If you have a rating system that awards the higher score to the higher rate, then you’re giving a higher score to an area that will yield you only 50 potential transit-dependent riders, vs. an area that will yield you 2000!

Likewise with growth rates. If Area A is projected to grow over 20 years from 100 to 1000 residents, that’s a 900% growth rate. Meanwhile, much larger Area B is projected to grow from 40,000 to 50,000 — a 25% growth rate. Again, if your rating system awards scores based on growth rate, Area A will get the overwhelmingly higher rating. Yet Area A provides only 1,000 residents as a market for your transit line, whereas Area B provides 50,000!

ProCon’s evaluation methodology measures have over a dozen of this type of potentially fallacious characteristic. And ProCon’s growth rates, by presuming the validity of 2030 projections of land use and travel demand, compound the possible errors associated with the first category discussed, Projections.

(3) Black Box — For all their assurances of “transparency”, ProCon’s methodology for integrating and manipulating all these evaluation measures, and merging them into a model to render ratings, remains totally mysterious. Here and there are other occult items, such as the “Transit Orientation Index” (whazzat?), which seems to be rendering ratings for 2010 and 2030. If documentation of these model processes is available on the ProCon website, they sure have it well-concealed. So far, it’s either absurdly difficult or impossible to find anything either on their website or through Google searches.

Botched analysis

How could a study, from fallacious basic concept to botched data analysis, go so wrong?

Rush, rush, rush — From the outset, the ProCon team, apparently goaded by an impatient COA administration, has been puzzling both participants and observers of the study by their unprecedented breakneck race to wrap up an exceptionally complicated study — on an inordinately brief timeframe — and jump to a conclusion.

De facto objective — Suspicions are now rampant that the real aim, all along, behind the scenes, has been to find a way to deploy data “truthiness” (i.e., creatively selective collection and manipulation of data and advantageous “projections”) to justify the original rail route preferences of a small clique of powerful local political leaders and real estate interests to bolster and enhance somewhat speculative real estate investments in certain sectors of Austin.

Muzzling the public — As I said in my own Citizen Communication remarks, the ProCon team have pretty much operated in a kind of bell jar, insulating and isolating themselves from effective interaction and cooperation with the public, so I’ve really never had an opportunity for a substantive discussion of these issues.

Among some critics, ProCon’s ostensible selection of East Riverside and the so-called “Highland” sector is seen as basically camouflage for a stratagem focused on developing the desired line from downtown to Hancock Center, which was being considered by ProCon anyway for months prior to the start of the “study”. The expensive East Riverside line (requiring heavy investment in a new bridge across the Colorado as well as a rebuilding of the grade separation with I-35) would likely be put on hold until the Mueller line as far as Hancock is completed; the final Mueller link could be added later.

Both critics and many community observers, favoring urban rail but increasingly skeptical of ProCon and their methods, are planning to ratchet up their opposition to this ill-conceived plan. In effect, Project Connect seems to be preparing to push Austin toward a vote for an expensive rail investment in what would typically be an uphill struggle, but now with the added challenge of having made enemies out of its strongest pro-rail allies in the heart of the core city.

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Highland Neighborhood Association endorses Guadalupe-Lamar for urban rail

15 November 2013
Highland Neighborhood Association bundaries. Map: HNA.

Highland Neighborhood Association bundaries. Map: HNA.

On November 4th, the effort to designate the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor as the preferred route for urban rail (light rail transit, LRT) received yet another powerful surge of support with the endorsement of the Highland Neighborhood Association (HNA). As the map at top shows, the western boundary of the Highland Neighborhood is mostly North Lamar Boulevard and Midtown Commons; its northern boundary is U.S. 183; and its southern boundary includes both Denson Drive and a segment of Airport Boulevard encompassing the Highland campus of Austin Community College.

Highland is an important component of the ridership “watershed” for public transportation on the east side of North Lamar, and this would include the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) route proposed for urban rail (light rail transit). The Highland neighborhood should not be confused with Project Connect’s “Highland” sector (“sub-corridor”), which usurps the name but has only a very minimal geographical relationship.


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Images of HNA resolution endorsing Guadalupe-Lamar corridor for urban rail.

Images of HNA resolution endorsing Guadalupe-Lamar corridor for urban rail.


The HNA’s endorsement resolution includes a number of “whereas” clauses that spell out the case for endorsing the G-L corridor as the priority route for urban rail. For example, it states, “residents of the Highland Neighborhood are often deprived of access to the employment, cultural, and educational centers along the Guadalupe – North Lamar Corridor due to traffic congestion ….”

The resolution goes on to document the HNA’s legal and regulatory authority for taking its position on urban rail:

… the Highland Neighborhood Association is a signatory of the Brentwood-Highland Combined Neighborhood Plan, City of Austin Ordinance 040513-30, a planning area with a population of 11,738, in which Highland residents took part in extensive light rail planning for specific alignment and station placement along North Lamar Blvd. up to the North Lamar Transit Center and providing for light-rail to commuter rail transfers at Crestview station;

… several other neighborhood plans have planned light rail along the Guadalupe-North Lamar corridor such as the Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan, City of Austin Ordinance 040826-56, Crestview-Wooten Combined Neighborhood Plan, City of Austin Ordinance 040513-30, Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan, City of Austin Ordinance 000413-63, and the North Loop Neighborhood Plan,
City of Austin Ordinance 020523-30

… the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, City of Austin Ordinance 20120614-058 incorporates the aforementioned existing neighborhood plans and designates North Lamar Blvd and Guadalupe Street as High Capacity Transit Corridors in its Growth Concept Map …

HNA presents as its justification for officially endorsing Guadalupe-Lamar “a poll taken of Highland residents on the HNA website on September 22…” posing the question, “Should Urban Rail hit the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor or Mueller?” The resolution notes that the results were “a 97% response for Guadalupe Lamar and 3% for Mueller ….”

With this background of procedural and factual substantiation, the HNA board comes down irmly on the side of a “first investment in light rail” that “must serve as an expandable backbone of rapid transit”, which means “an alignment is most suited along North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe Street” with a northern terminus “terminated at or near the North Lamar Transit Center….” This, the resolution makes clear, definitely means “a phase one locally preferred alternative” with light rail service connecting “the densely populated and diverse communities of North Central Austin to the cultural, residential, and employment centers of the University of Texas, the Capitol Complex, and Downtown Austin”:

BE IT RESOLVED, the Highland Neighborhood Association believes that any first investment in light rail must serve as an expandable backbone of rapid transit, and such an alignment is most suited along North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe Street and terminated at or near the North Lamar Transit Center; and,

BE IT RESOLVED, the Highland Neighborhood Association supports a phase one locally preferred alternative to include light rail service that connects the densely populated and diverse communities of North Central Austin to the cultural, residential, and employment centers of the University of Texas, the Capitol Complex, and Downtown Austin; and,

BE IT RESOLVED, the Highland Neighborhood Association supports light rail planning to utilize the area under elevated 183 for transit purposes including and not limited to the maintenance of a park and ride, and to stimulate Transit Oriented Development along its service roads.

This extremely significant endorsement of central Austin’s most important potential corridor for urban rail by one of the city’s most important neighborhood associations also has political implications that hopefully will not go unnoticed by local officials and decisionmakers.

The full resolution can be found here:

Highland Neighborhood Association Resolution in Support of Light Rail on North Lamar Boulevard

Related endorsements:

Central Austin Combined Neighborhoods Planning Team endorses Guadalupe-Lamar for urban rail

UT Student Government backs West Campus, Guadalupe-Lamar route for first phase of urban rail