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.
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.
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.
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.