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.


1_ARN_Highland-NA-G-L-endorsement-p1

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

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Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors!

11 November 2013
Project Connect's central Austin study area (so-called "Central Corridor")

Project Connect’s central Austin study area (so-called “Central Corridor”)

Coming soon, on November 15th, is the momentous day when the Project Connect (ProCon) “team” (however that’s defined) is scheduled to make its recommendation for an inner-city sector (“sub-corridor”) for urban rail — i.e., a light rail transit (LRT) starter line. This is supposed to be the result of a study purportedly aimed at identifying just the right “corridor” for an urban rail line connecting to the core area of the city. However that recommendation may go, the fact remains that ProCon’s urban rail study has been fundamentally flawed by disastrous faults, weaknesses, and errors.

Even leaving aside all the data errors and anomalies (see Huge problems cited with Project Connect’s urban rail study data), what seems to be the program’s really catastrophic conceptual fault is its approach in (1) defining a huge Central study area (“Central Corridor” — see map above) and then (2) because this huge “Central Corridor” is so unwieldy, subdividing it into sectors (which they must call “sub-corridors”) that are effectively treated in isolation from one another.

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.)

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

What’s a travel corridor, anyway?

So, what exactly is an urban travel corridor? Until now, there’s usually been no dispute in Austin — as per widely accepted transportation planning practice, travel corridors in Austin (and virtually all other metro areas) have typically been laid out as fairly narrow swaths following travel patterns (and, almost always, some kind of existing transportation right-of-way) and encompassing population and employment in fairly long, narrow strips of the urban area. Wikipedia provides a particularly succinct and useful definition:

A transportation corridor is a generally linear tract of land that contains lines of transportation like highways, railroads, or canals. Often, new transport lines are built alongside existing ones to minimize pollution.

A possibly even better idea of urban travel corridors can be derived from how they’re depicted in maps. Below are several examples of corridor planning maps from several other communities.


LEFT: Houston urban corridor planning map (City of Houston). RIGHT: Portland high-capacity transit (HCT) planning map (Transport Politic).

LEFT: Houston urban corridor planning map (City of Houston). RIGHT: Portland high-capacity transit (HCT) planning map (Transport Politic).

Both of these maps (Houston left, Portland right) show urban travel corridors as very elongated bands following major transportation features such as arterials and rail lines.

Note that in each case, the core is not designated as a “corridor” — in Houston, it’s the Core Pedestrian District; in Portland it’s simply the Central City.


LEFT: Travel corridor in Cleveland (FHWA). RIGHT: Travel corridor in Loveland, Colorado (City of Loveland).

LEFT: Travel corridor in Cleveland (FHWA). RIGHT: Travel corridor in Loveland, Colorado (City of Loveland).

Multiple urban corridors can be designated for study, or the focus can be on individual corridors. In these cases, individual corridors have been selected for more intensive study — one in Cleveland, left, and one in Loveland, Colorado, right. But note that these corridors are still elongated, narrow, and shaped to comform to predominant travel flow patterns.


LEFT: Denver — planned transit corridors (RTD). RIGHT: Kansas City — Proposed streetcar expansion corridors (NextRail-KC).

LEFT: Denver — planned transit corridors (RTD). RIGHT: Kansas City — Proposed streetcar expansion corridors (NextRail-KC).

Once again, transit corridors are typically designated as fairly narrow, often shaped around existing travel facilities (roadways or railways). They do this because they are designed to designate travel movement patterns, i.e., traffic flows. The adjacent areas are often regarded as “watershed” for ridership, i.e., the “travel market” from which ridership to the proposed transit services could be attracted. It’s the demographics and other characteristics in these corridors that are important, not areas of huge urban sectors remote from these corridors.


LEFT: Washington — potential transit study corridors (WMATA). RIGHT: Sacramento — Designated commercial corridors (City of Sacramento).

LEFT: Washington — potential transit study corridors (WMATA). RIGHT: Sacramento — Designated commercial corridors (City of Sacramento).

What’s significant in these cases (Washington, DC left, Sacramento right) is the addition of arrows to the corridor designations on the maps to emphasize that these are travel corridors.


ProCon’s “sub-corridors” = isolated enclaves

Yet Project Connect’s “sub-corridors” resemble none of these actual case examples — maybe because they’re actually urban districts or sectors, not true travel corridors. Indeed, these sectors have virtually nothing to do with actual travel corridors following traffic patterns. Instead, in the way they’re used by ProCon, they resemble, to some extent, rather large travel analysis zones (TAZs, also called traffic analysis zones or transportation analysis zones).

LEFT: Baltimore TAZ map (Baltimore Metropolitan Council). RIGHT: Minneapolis TAZ map (Metropolitan Council).

LEFT: Baltimore TAZ map (Baltimore Metropolitan Council). RIGHT: Minneapolis TAZ map (Metropolitan Council).

But ProCon’s sectors (“sub-corridors” — see map at beginning of post) weren’t intended to be TAZs, and they don’t function that way at all. TAZs (typically based on small geographic units such as census tracts or electoral precincts) are designed to be the basic geographic components to provide data inputs for a coordinated, integrated, metro-area-wide transportation network.

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

Rather than tracking existing, logical corridors, almost all of these sectors sprawl over vast stretches of the inner city. The “Lamar” sector, for example, extends westward as far as Shoal Creek — approximately 1.5 miles from the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor, and up to two miles wide — and encompasses over 2,900 acres, about 4.6 square miles. It includes both Shoal Creek Blvd. and Burnet Rd. as well as Guadalupe-Lamar. Yet, curiously, despite all this stretching of the corridor, ProCon planners have stopped the boundaries of the “Lamar” sector short of Loop 1 (MoPac Freeway) and, even worse, they’ve ruled out a logical extension as far as U.S. 183.

The “Mueller” sector, widening to approximately 2.5 miles in girth, sprawls even further, encompassing a chunk of the Hancock neighborhood, north of UT, and then most of northeast Austin, as well as the relatively small Mueller development site, in almost 4,000 acres, more than 6.2 square miles.

Not only have the sectors been gerrymandered, the data Project Connect is attributing to them has been gerrymandered as well. The “study” purports to be focused on getting the proper routes (through the proper sectors, of course) to the “Core” sector (from which all other sectors are banned) … yet in not one single sector have the actual travel-related conditions of a major potential transit route corridor been even mentioned, much less tallied, examined, or analyzed.

The existence of corridor travel patterns, and particularly of available physical corridors (e.g., fairly wide arterials in sectors such as “Lamar”, “ERC”, and “MLK”), are critical factors that nevertheless seem immaterial to ProCon planners. Thus, rather than assessing corridors to the core, the Map Book provides (for each sector in the study area map) a chaotic riot of “congested” streets (using dark and bright red colors designating “congested” and very congested” conditions), in virtually every direction. It doesn’t matter if a roadway heads the wrong way — everything counts in registering a sector’s score in the “congestion” misery index.

LEFT: Congestion by sector in 2015. RIGHT: Congestion by sector in 2035.

LEFT: Congestion by sector in 2015. RIGHT: Congestion by sector in 2035.

Some of this demographic and “misery” data could be relevant — if it were focused on actual travel corridors. The walking-distance “ridership watershed” of an inner-city transit corridor is usually about a mile either side of the the center of the corridor (which is usually a likely right-of-way for the proposed transit facility); this assumes an average pedestrian access of a half-mile to stations (within a 0 to one-mile range). Total population, density, employment, transit-dependency, income level, poverty, traffic congestion (especially in the directional flow pattern), and other indicators are all relevant within this travel corridor for assessing its potential.

Catastrophic methodological fault

However, there’s a much more fundamental (and disastrous) problem than either the configuration or the function of Project Connect’s designated sectors. Perhaps the most serious flaw in ProCon’s urban rail study methodology — actually, catastrophic, because it fundamentally impairs the integrity of the whole process — is that the actual travel corridors are not only basically ignored as workable corridors, but also are truncated and segmented by ProCon’s arbitrary slicing up of the urban area.

If you’re evaluating a travel corridor, you must evaluate the corridor as a whole — what it connects from, to, and in between; what the populations and densities along the corridor are; what activity centers it connects; and so on. All those are important, because they’re critical to what makes a transit line in that corridor actually feasible and worth investing in. For example, relevant to the “ERC” (“East Riverside Corridor”) sector is the eventual potential of an urban rail route to extend further east to the ABIA airport — but that’s not considered in this study.

Likewise, the possibility of extensions of a proposed Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail line further north on Lamar and northwest on the Capital Metro railway (i.e., converting MetroRail to electric urban light rail transit) would be crucial ingredients to the evaluation of a basic inner-city starter line. But this is prohibited by ProCon’s arbitrary sectionalization of the city (areas north of the “Central Corridor” belong to other “corridors”).

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

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

Added to this seemingly heedless route segmentation is ProCon’s treatment of adjacent sectors as insular, isolated enclaves, whose demographics and other characteristics apply only to themselves. Likewise travel characteristics are treated in isolation, as if the population in all these different “enclaves” confine themselves to the sector boundaries that ProConn planners have established for them. Is it realistic to believe that residents of the “Highland” sector wouldn’t be allowed to hop a train on a Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail line, or that residents in the “West Austin” sector would be prohibited from catching a G-L train north to the Triangle area or Crestview?

Project Connect’s deformed “study”

Some of the most egregious problems with ProCon’s planning approach are summarized in the infographic below.

This inforgraphic summarized numerous major problems with Project connect's methodology.

This infographic summarizes numerous major problems with Project connect’s methodology. (Click to enlarge.)

As Austin Rail Now has noted previously, on Nov. 15th, the ProCon planning team are scheduled to recommend a sector (“sub-corridor”) as the basis for further urban rail planning. Given the dubious and even bizarre aspects of their methodology (and the occult nature of their process), predicting what their conclusion will be is somewhat like trying to predict whom the College of Cardinals would elect as a new pope.

In any case, this small analysis underscores that a truly realistic, rational urban rail study would want to look at the population, density, and other key indicators along Guadalupe-Lamar and other entire corridors. And furthermore, that a far more effective methodology for transportation corridor analysis needs to be implemented. So far, Project Connect seems to have made a mess of this process.

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Guadalupe-Lamar is highest-density corridor in Austin — according to Project Connect’s own data!

9 November 2013
Closeup of Project Connect's central Austin map of population density for 2010 shows intense clusters of density in West Campus, along Guadalupe above W. 29th St., and in Triangle area. Map: Rev. by LH from Project Connect.

Closeup of Project Connect’s central Austin map of population density for 2010 shows intense clusters of density in West Campus, along Guadalupe above W. 29th St., and in Triangle area. Map: Rev. by LH from Project Connect.

Even from the peculiarly selective and distorted data exhibited visually in Project Connect’s Map Books, it’s clear that the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor currently has by far the highest concentration of population density within Austin central study area (and almost certainly the highest in the entire metro area). And this density appears predicted to persist in ProCon’s projection for 2030!

This density (pointed out decades ago by Lyndon Henry and Dave Dobbs as a pre-eminent justification for rail transit in this corridor) is shown in the following map graphics excerpted from the latest version (v. 5) of ProCon’s Map Book.


Central study area view

Population density in 2010 (G-L corridor spine in yellow). Map: Rev. by LH from Project Connect.

Population density in 2010 (G-L corridor spine in yellow). Map: Rev. by LH from Project Connect.

The map above shows the central-city study area (mislabeled by ProCon as a “Central Corridor”) with various sectors (mislabeled as “sub-corridors”) in 2010. The arterial spine of the G-L corridor (the most likely alignment for urban rail) is shown by a yellow line. Notice that heavy concentrations of high population density are clustered around the G-L corridor, particularly in the West Campus area, and just north of the campus, bordered by Guadalupe on the west and W. 29th St. on the south.


Population density projected for 2030 (G-L corridor spine in yellow). Map: Rev. by LH from Project Connect.

Population density projected for 2030 (G-L corridor spine in yellow). Map: Rev. by LH from Project Connect.

The map above shows the same study area and sectors, with population density concentrations projected for 2030. While these projections are far more subjective and tentative than actual current reality-based data, they do reflect speculation that extremely high density will not only intensify in 2030 in the same areas as it was located in 2010, but is expected to expand to other segments of the G-L corridor.


Guadalupe-Lamar focus

Composite of zoomed-in snips of Project Connect maps of population density. LEFT: 2010. RIGHT: 2030. Rev. by LH from Project Connect.

Composite of zoomed-in snips of Project Connect maps of population density. LEFT: 2010. RIGHT: 2030. Rev. by LH from Project Connect.

This composite focuses on population density the G-L corridor, showing density concentrations in 2010 on the left, and in 2030 on the right. Again, the probable alignment for urban rail is shown by a yellow line. This makes both the existing density and its projected intensification in the future even more obvious.


Conclusion

These data visualization maps clearly indicate that not only does the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor currently have extremely high levels of population density (as much as 30,000 persons per square mile in the West Campus) sufficient to support urban rail, but it surpasses all other corridors in the city! Furthermore, even in ProCon’s flawed analysis, this density is projected to intensify by 2030.

But this kind of bona fide corridor analysis counts for absolutely nothing in Project Connect’s “study”, because they’re not evaluating travel corridors such as Guadalupe-Lamar! They’ve been wasting taxpayer money on largely irrelevant studies of demographics and other conditions in isolated sectors while largely ignoring actual travel patterns in corridors into the core area, along with the demographics and other critical features along these actual corridors, such as G-L.

On Nov. 15th, the ProCon team are due to announce their “recommendation” for a sector (“sub-corridor”) as the location for urban rail … and it’s anybody’s guess as to what is the basis for their evaluation. But this small analysis we’ve just presented illustrates the actual kind of analysis of a travel corridor that official planners should be performing, and we suggest it as a far more effective model for the type of urban rail study this community actually should be supporting.

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

3 November 2013
Central Austin Combined Planning Area. Map: CANPAC.

Central Austin Combined Planning Area. Map: CANPAC.

On October 21st, the effort to designate the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor as the preferred route for urban rail (light rail transit, LRT) received a powerful boost with the endorsement of the Central Austin Combined Neighborhoods Planning Team (known as CANPAC), designated by the City of Austin to serve as the official neighborhood plan contact team for the Central Austin Combined Planning Area, involving seven major neighborhood associations:

  • West University Neighborhood Association
  • Hancock Neighborhood Association
  • Eastwoods Neighborhood Association
  • North University Neighborhood Association
  • Shoal Crest Neighborhood Association
  • Heritage Neighborhood Association
  • University Area Partners

These neighborhood associations are among the longest-established and most influential in the city.

The endorsement also emphasized that, unlike the G-L corridor, Red River St. — a link in the proposed semi-official route between downtown and the Mueller redevelopment site — lacks the projected future density necessary to adequately support light rail service. In contrast, density is considerably higher along the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, especially in the West Campus neighborhood, which ranks variously as either the third or fourth-highest density residential area of major Texas cities.

CANPAC also notes that it is commissioned both by City ordinance and its own bylaws to implement Ordinance No. 040826-56, the Central Austin Combined Plan.

As CANPAC reported in an October 29th memo to Austin Mayor Lee Leffinwell, on October 21st the Central Austin Neighborhood Plan Advisory Committee passed the following resolution:

The Plan Team for the Central Austin Combined Neighborhoods Planning Area (CANPAC) has reviewed the two routes under consideration for the proposed light rail system through Central Austin, both of which pass through our combined planning area. We urge that placement of the routes be made where density already exists, along the Guadalupe-Lamar Corridor, as stated in our 2004 Central Austin Combined Neighborhoods Plan, and not along Red River, which is a residential area not projected for future density adequate to support light rail.

Image of memo conveying G-L endorsement from CANPAC to Austin Mayor Leffingwell.

Image of memo conveying G-L endorsement from CANPAC to Austin Mayor Leffingwell.

This is an extremely important endorsement of central Austin’s most important potential corridor for urban rail, and G-L supporters are strongly urged to convey news of this and other major endorsements to the Austin City Council and other important political and civic leaders.

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

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

3 November 2013
Cover of Project Connect's Map Book version 4. Screen capture: L. Henry

Cover of Project Connect’s Map Book version 4. Screen capture: L. Henry.

One of the most serious flaws in Project connect’s urban rail study process — in which top-level officials and planners are trying to rush to a selection of an Austin city sector for an urban rail starter line on or about November 15th — is problems with data inaccuracy and outright omissions. Focused on designated alternative city sectors (misnamed “sub-corridors”), the study team has been compiling purported data on demographic and transportation features of each sector (such as population, density, transit ridership, etc.) in a series of data-visualization “Map Books” (each new one an update of the previous one).

Map Books rife with data problems

Meanwhile, as this blog reported in a previous posting, Scott Morris, head of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC) has been relentlessly and tediously scrutinizing each volume of Map Book data. As we’ve noted “Scott has performed amazingly detailed and well-supported research into these data issues, and he has found and pointed to a lengthy array of dozens of mostly serious errors. A handful of these have been quietly rectified.”

By far, as the Oct. 27th article Project Connect admits major data error in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor study highlighted, “One of the most serious data anomalies that Scott has recently detected is the “disappearance” of virtually all the ridership for Capital Metro’s routes #1M/L and #101, the heaviest-ridership transit routes in the system, serving the G-L corridor as well as South Congress.” As the article reports, Project Connect has publicly admitted that error and corrected it in the next Map Book edition.

Map Book errors go uncorrected

However, an unacceptable large number of similar errors — predominantly erroneous data or outright omissions — remain. The following are just some of the most egregious problems in Map Book v. 2, still carried into v. 4, that Scott has found and cited in a listing submitted by CACDC to the Project Connect urban rail study team:

ARN1_CACDC_Prj-Con-MapBook4-errors1

Partial listing of major errors in Project Connect Map Book and other material identified by CACDC. Screen image: L. Henry.

Partial listing of major errors in Project Connect Map Book and other material identified by CACDC. Screen image: L. Henry.

New error problems with Map Book 4

Scott has appended a listing of major new problems appearing in Map Book Version 4; here’s a summary:

• All “B” Pages and Definition Packages
West University NPA/University Neighborhood Overlay Removed From Defined Sub-Corridors A large, dense city area to the west of the UT campus and Guadalupe Street was moved out of the North Lamar and Mopac Sub-Corridors by the Project Team in response to a request to include UT in the core. This change was made in the current map. We understand the reasoning in placing UT in the core, however the manner in which surrounding non-UT areas were moved with it will create large, unintended impacts on the sub-corridor evaluation process. That area is not a part of UT, nor in the opinion of West Campus residents, can it be adequately served by a San Jacinto alignment on the UT Campus. West University is the densest planning area of our city that also employs over 5,000 people (Non-UT). The area west of Guadalupe anchors the Guadalupe-North Lamar Sub-Corridor and includes the University Neighborhood Overlay and 3 residential neighborhoods that are components of a City of Austin Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Planning Area. West Campus is the largest population differentiator in our city for the purposes of sub-corridor analysis. In our opinion, it should not be considered a common element to the core joining the CBD, UT, and the Capitol Complex, unless it receives a similar commitment to service. In the end, if it is desired to count West Campus as part of the core, we should also count on serving it directly as part of the definition of the core.

• Page 13 Employment Density with Major Employers
The State of Texas in the North Austin Complex has been omitted. It is the center of over 16,000 jobs within a 1/2 mile radius of 49th and N. Lamar. There is no purple symbol. Girling Healthcare is a small office, yet shows 2,225 employees in place of the TX Dept of Health.

• Page 28 Poverty, Vehicles, Affordable Housing
Hundreds of units of affordable housing in West Campus is not identified with the correctly-sized circle.

• Pages 36-37 Bus Ridership 2011
The North Lamar Transit Center has been cropped out of the frame. Much of the bus system for the northern half of the city has boardings there.

• Pages 55-59 Sub-Corridor Definition Package Lamar
Population Studies are not provided for North Lamar sub-corridor definition package.

• Pages 15-16. Employment Growth
Austin State Hospital should show >100% Growth. This is an identified P3.

• Pages 18-19 2010 Retail Employment Density
The Triangle is not identified as retail density.

• Pages 18-19 2010 Retail Employment Density
Koenig and N Lamar is not identified as retail employment density.

• Page 26 Population Growth 2010-2030
The growth projections that occur in an area north of 32nd St. South of 45th St east of Waller Creek, and west of Red River are too high. Per that neighborhood plan and numbers reflected in the zoning capacity studies, population growth should be a more modest 41% for the described area. This includes SF-3 zoning and the Hancock Golf Course, a dedicated park. http://centralaustincdc.org/land_use/Zoning_and_Capacity_Redev_Analysis_v11.pdf

• Page 30 Selected Land Use 2010
Adams Hemphill Park straddling 30th not identified as open space.

CACDC also provides data references as the basis for these corrections.

Summary

It’s understandable that some data problems will be encountered in almost any major study of this kind. What’s astounding, however, is the high number of problems in Project Connect’s urban rail study. Even worse is that almost all of them — even when identified — seem to be going uncorrected!

This seriously compromises the competency of this entire study process (and there are even more fundamental issues involved, as this blog will address). The data problem is especially threatening because data analysis is supposedly the foundation for decisionmaking to select an urban rail corridor; the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG, whose recommendation is a key part of the process) is being led through a process of data scrutiny and analysis by Project Connect staff. Yet the Project Connect team — under duress from high-level local officials eager to force a quick decision on urban rail, and apparently overwhelmed by the need to rush to an imminent recommendation for the Austin City Council — seem merely to be “dumping” volumes of data with little regard for its reliability or relevance to the basic goal of selecting an urban rail route.

All of this calls into question just how “fair and balanced” — and accurate, reliable, and truly data-based — the process of comparatively evaluating alternative urban rail corridors and plans actually is.

What the final outcome will be, and whether its integrity will be accepted by the Austin public and voters in particular, remains to be seen.