Archive for December, 2013

h1

Dobbs: “Why are we squandering our best asset?”

22 December 2013
North Lamar traffic (several blocks north of the Triangle). Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor carries heaviest traffic flow of any local Central Austin arterial, serves residential concentration ranking among highest density in Texas, serves 31% of all Austin jobs — yet corridor was "dismembered" by Project Connect and excluded from "Central Corridor" study! Photo: L. Henry.

North Lamar traffic (several blocks north of the Triangle). Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor carries heaviest traffic flow of any local Central Austin arterial, serves residential concentration ranking among highest density in Texas, serves 31% of all Austin jobs — yet corridor was “dismembered” by Project Connect and excluded from “Central Corridor” study! Photo: L. Henry.

By Dave Dobbs

The following post has been slightly adapted and edited from a letter posted by the author to members of the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) on December 6th. Later that day, CCAG voted 14-1 to endorse Project Connect’s official “ERC-Highland” recommendation.

Dear CCAG members,

Eighteen months ago The Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT) offered a comprehensive urban rail plan to the Transit Working Group and to CAMPO that largely fulfilled most of the goals public officials said they wanted from a phase one project.  During the last two years of TWG meetings, it became clear that phase one urban rail would need to meet a constrained budget between $275 and $400 million locally that aimed at a 50% federal match for a total project cost of $800 million or less that included Mueller.

The most important elements to reach that goal are summarized on page 42 of the Urban Land Institute’s Daniel Rose Fellowship presentation made at Austin City Hall, Friday February 22, 2011.

Excerpt from ULI  presentation.

Excerpt from ULI presentation.

Rather than take a presumptive speculative sketch-planning approach to what might be 17 years from now, somehow somewhere in the city, TAPT’s plan relied on reality, decades and tens of millions of dollars of past rail planning that culminated in the comprehensive detailed 18-month long Federal Transit Administration (FTA) sanctioned and funded 2000 Preliminary Engineering/Environmental Impact Study (PE/EIS) that forecast 37,400 riders on the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor in the year 2025.

Compare that number to Project Connect’s year 2030 forecast of 2.9 million daily [transit] riders in the East Riverside Corridor (ERC).  This is more daily [transit] riders than [in] any US city except New York.  Even the low 2030 ERC forecast of 492,682 riders daily is 17% more daily riders than San Francisco’s 104-mile BART heavy rail system, one of the best rail systems in America.

As Mr. Keahey explained at last Wednesday’s [Dec. 4th] Alliance for Public Transportation meeting, a PE/EIS goes way beyond and is far more detailed than the kind of planning his team is currently engaged in, and as a transit [professional], I concur completely.

2_ARN_aus-urb-map-pop-density-G-L-corridor_ProCon-Mapbookv5

Excerpt from infographic in Project Connect’s Map Book v. 5. Data presented shows Austin’s highest population density clustered around West Campus-Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — but this travel corridor was omitted from Project Connect’s study! Green line on Lamar-Guadalupe represents MetroRapid bus route 801, green squares represent MetroRapid stations. In upper left of map, note that MetroRapid route 803 (primarily serving Burnet Rd. corridor) joins Guadalupe at E. 38th St. and shares route with #801 into core area.

The 2000 PE/EIS recognized that most of Austin’s growth has been North and Northwest and that’s likely to continue well into the future because that is where we’ve made most of the regional infrastructure and transportation investments for decades; e.g., IH-35, Loop 1, US 183, US 183A, SH45, etc.  For a host of reasons, future growth will almost surely be more clustered, more village-like with less single-family dwellings on detached lots and it will be located with access to frequent high capacity transit if (and only if) we provide for it.

When I moved here in 1969 the population of Leander was about 300 people, while today it is over 30,000.  Cedar Park, same story. In 1970 it had a population of 125; today Cedar Park is 58,000 plus.  These twin towns combined are only 17% smaller than Round Rock (107,000) and have been growing many times faster.  Bus ridership and MetroRail ridership reflect this reality, and if we want the most “bang for the buck”, we will put our first phase urban rail where the greatest employment is, where the congestion is, and where the people are, and are constrained to use alternatives because, in that corridor, urban rail is a more competitive choice than their automobile.  As former Capital Metro board chairman Lee Walker put it when he led the 2000 rail referendum, “We’ve got a meltdown in the core and we’ve got to fix it.”

Though we lost that election by a half percent, the situation hasn’t changed.  We still have a highly constricted, congested core fed by three main north/south arteries, only one of which is practical and affordable to meaningfully [expand] within the likely funds we can muster at this point in time.  And its name is not “Highland”, it’s North Lamar.  (Highland is a neighborhood bounded by North Lamar, US183, IH35 and Denson Drive and it has endorsed rail on Guadalupe/Lamar.)  Even “sliced and diced”, Project Connect’s own mapbook data shows that Guadalupe/Lamar is the highest density travel corridor in Austin.  Reconnecting America’s Jeff Wood, former Austinite with a UT Master’s degree on Austin’s rail history and leading authority on urban rail impacts says, “Rail line(s) extend existing market gravities, but do not create new ones … development corresponds with proximity to major employment. Ultimately, what matters is proximity to employment as to whether denser transit oriented development will happen. The major employment is along Guadalupe Lamar.”  Wood bases his remarks on “Rails to Real Estate Development Patterns along Three New Transit Lines”.

So Guadalupe-Lamar is the bird in our hand, so why strangle it hoping for two birds in the bush 17 years in the future?  Why are we squandering our best asset based on fantasy data derived by misusing a growth model from Portland, a city with the strongest land-use laws in the country?  Reinforcing what we have with a well-designed cost-effective “most bang for the buck” first phase rail line is the only way to provide the driving synergism necessary to build future support for extensions.  As Moody’s recent SH130 credit downgrade so dramatically illustrates, just because you build it doesn’t mean they will come.

And, please, let’s dispense with the fiction that MetroRapid is a substitute for rail, because, in fact. it’s just a nicer bigger bright red replacement for bus 101; no faster unless we tear up the street and install expensive dedicated concrete bus lanes, which is, in fact, the proposed plan, but the Project Connect team doesn’t talk about that unless they are specifically asked. (See “No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes…”)

Which brings me back to where I started. Why have those in charge of the process never given TAPT’s urban rail loop plan the same hearing opportunity before decision-makers that, say, Gateway Planning received in the spring of 2012 before the TWG?  We, after all, are the oldest urban rail stakeholders in the city, a Texas non-profit corporation, dedicated to promoting public transit and rail transit since 1973, drafting Austin’s first rail proposals in the early seventies, instrumental in the creation of Capital Metro in the 1980’s, playing a major role in formulating CMTA’s original service plan and whose leaders are widely recognized and known in the rail transit industry.  Lyndon is a former data analyst and planner with Capital Metro and served 4 years as a board member in the early 1990’s.  He was the first person (in 1975) to recognize the value and promote acquisition of the current MetroRail line from Southern Pacific in the mid 1980’s.

Both Lyndon and I have served on the APTA Streetcar Subcommittee for the last seven years and we have spent countless hours researching, riding, evaluating, photographing and writing about and promoting rail transit here and abroad for last 35-40 years.  Our transit professional list-serve is a constant daily source of transportation information from around the world and we know from traffic analysis that our website, www.lightrailnow.org, is heavily used by transit professionals and advocates and is highly regarded for the accuracy of its content, approximately ten thousand pages in size.

So why has this valuable free local resource been neglected for so long by those in charge of the process?  Perhaps the attached image from ROMA’s downtown planning circa 2008 says it all.  Note that Austin’s proposed (Project Connect) urban rail plan, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars spent since then, has not changed significantly at all.  It’s still Downtown to Mueller past DKR Memorial Stadium and an East Riverside Corridor line. Amazing!  But please note the Mueller-only line is now called “Highland.”

Original urban rail "circulator" system in 2008 map of ROMA consulting team plan, contracted by City of Austin.

Original urban rail “circulator” system in 2008 map of ROMA consulting team plan, contracted by City of Austin.

Attached, is TAPT’s urban rail loop plan in a one-page pdf that you may have seen in a simpler format on our Austin Rail Now blog.  Just like the City’s plan above (Project Connect) our plan was peer-reviewed by transit professionals, people who have actually worked here in Austin on light rail projects in the past.

TAPT proposes "loop" line, with routes on both Guadalupe-Lamar and eastide through converting the MetroRail line to electric light rail — plus a spur to Mueller.

TAPT proposes “loop” line, with routes on both Guadalupe-Lamar and eastside through converting the MetroRail line to electric light rail — plus a spur to Mueller.

Thank you for your service to the community.

Sincerely,

Dave Dobbs

Executive Director, TAPT
Publisher,  LightRailNow!
Texas Association for Public Transportation

h1

Will Project Connect continue to gag the public?

20 December 2013

0_ARN_gagged-woman_aclu

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

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

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

See:

Meetings, “open houses”, workshops … and democratic process

Back to “art galleries”! Project Connect reneges on community meetings

Issues of process and organizational structure can be terribly boring. But Project Connect’s efforts to eliminate or gag bona fide community participation have undoubtedly performed a major role in allowing key insiders to rig the “high-capacity transit” study process, skewing the results and allowing officials to endorse the same basic route structure they wanted in the first place. Supporters of the Central Austin “backbone” corridor (West Campus-Guadalupe-Lamar) have been outraged by the blatant corruption of a purported “study” and its procedures.

See:

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

Gaudy mendacious suckfish

City Council to Central Austin: Drop Dead

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

Welcome to Project Dis-connect!

Lying with Maps

And, unless there’s effective community intervention to change the game, the same kind of thing could happen all over again in this upcoming “Phase 2” of the “study” (which seems more an exercise in adroitly skewing and manipulating the playing field than an actual study).

Some community activists are hopeful that the so-called “Riley amendment” — a provision successfully added to the City Council’s recent endorsement of Project Connect’s “ERC-Highland” route plan — may offer an opportunity to keep the West Campus-Guadalupe-Lamar “backbone” corridor issue alive within the current Project Connect process. Dan Keshet has posted the full text of the amendment on his Austin on Your Feet blog.

While Councilmember Riley probably intended the amendment as a kind of “sweetener” in hopes of wooing some Central Austinites into (perhaps begrudgingly) supporting the Project Connect plan, it is possible to construe it as opening a small crack in the door to possibly more major changes to the plan:

The City Manager is directed to work with Project Connect to identify future funding needs and potential sources to prioritize and continue critical Central Corridor project definition and development activities in the remaining identified sub-corridors, including the Lamar, Mueller, and East Austin sub-corridors, and report back to Council by August 1, 2014.

Further, reads the amendment, “The City Manager is directed to work with Project Connect and CMTA to continue cultivating a relationship with our regional Federal Transit Administration officials to cooperatively prepare for any future high-capacity transit investments in the Lamar sub-corridor.”

While the Riley amendment may indeed be viewed as a small compromise possibly helpful to the momentum to re-focus urban rail planning on the crucial West Campus-Guadalupe-Lamar “backbone” corridor, opening the tiny crack presented by that opportunity within Project Connect’s highly rigged process will remain dauntingly difficult, especially as long as Project Connect continues to insulate itself from real community engagement, managing and muzzling community input in a caricature of authentic “public participation”.

So back to “process”: Free, open, unconstrained community meetings are essential. There needs to be a groundswell of community pushback against the gagging. Project Connect needs to open up the community input process to full and free discussion, and the Austin community needs ongoing opportunities to be heard.

And that doesn’t mean just handing out clickers.

h1

Bus paveways on Guadalupe-Lamar — Project Connect’s “elephant in the room”

17 December 2013
MetroRapid bus, southbound on N. Lamar, nears Koenig Lane during testing on Dec. 10th. By dumping urban rail for this corridor, Project Connect would be free to proceed with plan to install specially paved bus lanes instead of rails. Photo: L. Henry.

MetroRapid bus, southbound on N. Lamar, nears Koenig Lane during testing on Dec. 10th. By dumping urban rail for this corridor, Project Connect would be free to proceed with plan to install specially paved bus lanes instead of rails. Photo: L. Henry.

By Dave Dobbs

The Elephant in the Room within the Project Connect (COA) urban rail plan (first to Mueller via East Campus, etc. and then out the East Riverside Corridor) is the official proposal to build 40% to 50% dedicated bus lanes, roughly 15-18 miles, within the 37-mile MetroRapid system. This $500 million expenditure appears as a near-term (within 10 years) investment, 80% of which would come from the Federal Transit Administration. Lyndon Henry and I have documented this and explained how it might work in an October 18th article entitled No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes….

When I spoke with Project Connect’s Scott Gross about the nature of this a few weeks ago, he said that the dedicated bus lane plan was one that included both right-of-way acquisition and exclusive bus lanes. The math here says that these lanes would be far more extensive than paint-on-paving such as we are about to see on Guadalupe and Lavaca between MLK and Cesar Chavez, 1.4 miles at a cost of $370,000.

Here’s the math …

$500,000,000 ÷ 18 miles = $27.8 million ÷ 2 lanes = $13.9 million per lane-mile

This figure points to a heavy-duty reinforced concrete bus lane in each direction, 18 inches thick, similar to the bus pads at bus stops we see along major bus routes. This would require tearing up the street as severely as a light rail installation would, with all the other utility improvements therein that might be accomplished at the same time.

While my cost-per-lane mile is a simple mathematical one, the result is consistent with what Ben Wear reports for building SH-130, 90 miles from Georgetown to Sequin, for $2.9 billion, or about $8 million a lane-mile. Construction costs in the middle of a very congested street, e.g., South Congress or North Lamar, would be significantly higher than a highway over farmland. That and ROW acquisition costs could easily account for $5.9 million dollars of difference.

These bus lanes, planned in the next decade, would definitely be an obstacle to further FTA investment for 20 to 30 years wherever they are installed. The question we ought to be asking is: What kind of “high capacity transit” do we want on our heaviest-traveled streets?

h1

What’s with Project Connect’s “2.9 million daily ridership” projection?

16 December 2013

0_ARN_Alice-through-the-looking-glass-2

By far, perhaps the most controversial and eyebrow-raising element of Project Connect’s self-styled “study” to select a route for “high-capacity transit” has been the heavy use of projections. Crucial data inputs involved projections of population, employment, economic activity, travel, and congestion, mostly for the year 2030, 17 years into the future.

All of these, plus some current data, appear in a large Excel-based “Sub-Corridor Comparison Matrix” which forms the basic data foundation for justifying Project Connect’s route (“sub-corridor”) decision — the “Highland” and “ERC” sectors — which, amazingly, happen to be almost exactly the very route profile local officials wanted in the first place. (See: Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place.)

As Dan Keshet, a local software developer and research analyst, has shown, Project Connect’s own evaluation calculations have relied overwhelmingly on these questionable projections of key mobility-related factors rather than current factual data. (See, e.g., A first glance at Project Connect data.)

Similarly, Julio Gonzalez Altamirano, an Austin management consultant, has conducted his own analysis of Project Connect’s selection of the “Highland” sector (“sub-corridor”):

Highland Score

On the basis of his quite comprehensive analysis, Julio concludes that “it is clear that Highland’s score is the result of speculative assumptions about the nature of development in the sub-corridor.” His explanation seems to imply that, because planners would like to see certain types of development in certain areas, they just go ahead, assume it will happen, and voila! these become the projected inputs in the “evaluation” matrix.

Julio summarizes some of the key problems with Project Connect’s “projections” this way:

The bottom-line is that the methodology awards points to larger parcels that are relatively undeveloped and (seemingly?) car-dependent based on an optimistic outlook on future land-use variances being granted. It is not a prediction of how parcels will behave in the future given what similarly-zoned parcels have done in the past. It is not a sophisticated statistical model of what is likely to be that uses historical data to forecast. Instead, it is scoring based on where the methodology-designers would like development to go that uses a proven statistical technique to classify the parcels into different bins based on parcel attributes. The methodology has not been validated, so we don’t know if it actually predicts anything.

The public reasoning presented to CCAG by the PC team for Highland’s score is ‘significant future development’. Obviously, projects such as the ACC Highland Mall redevelopment and Austin’s evolving medical scene will have an impact on employment and residential density in the sub-corridor. But it also appears that the methodology selected assigns significant points to the type of parcels available in the sub-corridor. Needless, to say, the presence of certain types of parcels we’d like to see developed in a sub-corridor does not mean development will happen. Worse, it doesn’t mean they exist in a contiguous stretch that make sense for a transit route.

Another way of saying this is that Project Connect’s planners have converted their own wishful thinking into actual data inputs, that are then deployed to make their evaluation. Wishes are used to try to make the wishes come true.

In an effort to deflect criticism, Project Connect and some of its backers have mounted a “straw man” defense, trying to portray critics as absurdly renouncing the role of projections in planning major projects. But there’s a vast distinction between developing conservative, reliable, and plausible forecasts, and producing exaggerated, fantasy-like projections, as Project Connect has done, heavily skewed toward certain geographical areas.

The question of projections has been an extremely contentious issue in Project Connect’s urban rail “study”. For many critics, the agency’s “projections” have represented de facto fantasies about what they would like to see, rather than the solidly reliable output of competent predictive analytics.

So, where do the “2.9 million daily trips in East Riverside” come in? This is the result of plugging Project Connect’s demographic and economic projections for 2030 into their own transit ridership prediction model.

Apparently in an attempt at a gesture toward some kind of prediction of future transit ridership, one of the metrics Project Connect decided to use in their Comparison Matrix is a “Transit Orientation Index” (TOI), a ridership demand assessment model developed in 1997 by consultants for Portland, Oregon’s TriMet transit agency. To explain their use of the Transit Orientation Index (TOI), Project Connect has posted some documentary material:

http://www.projectconnect.com/connect/sites/default/files/TRIMET_PTN_STUDY_1997_TOI.pdf

The TOI model evidently was developed in conjunction with travel demand planning in Portland for the target year of 2015. The documentation describes its intent as “an effort to quantify the dependence of transit demand on land use variables …. The purpose is to develop a means of assessing transit demand for transportation zones in 2015, based on land use projections.”

The documentation also makes clear that the ultimate objective is to render a prediction of daily transit trips: “For the purposes of this assessment, the transit demand in a Regional Transportation Zone (RTZ) is represented by weekday transit trip productions per acre….”

According to the documentation, the TOI metric is envisioned to assess transit ridership demand at the level of a small analysis zone (Regional Transportation Zone), apparently a travel analysis zone (TAZ, described in the ARN posting Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors!) Project Connect planners, however, have applied the model to considerably larger sectors covering several square miles with hundreds and even thousands of acres.

Whether it’s a small zone or a much larger area such as one of Project Connect’s study sectors (“sub-corridors”), the ultimate output of the model is (1) a “Transit Orientation” index (TOI) which, applied to the acreage in the zone for which it’s calculated, renders (2) both a low-end and high-end ridership prediction. Simply put, the TOI is calculated from three basic inputs:

• Household density (households per acre)
• Retail employment density (retail employment/acre)
• Total employment density (total employment/acre)

These are related in a formula, with various coefficients, analytical relationships, etc., developed by the Portland researchers, to calculate the TOI, which is then intended to predict daily transit trips for zones or sectors (based on trips per acre). Incidentally, it’s worth noting that the TOI was designed to predict ridership potential for an entire urban network, not to evaluate discrete corridors or disparate areas of a city in a competition for a major transit investment.

For Austin’s near-current (2010) data, the TOI model yields ridership levels that seem fairly plausible and reasonably close to actual experience. But when Project Connect’s own long-term future projections (i.e., fantasies) are plugged in — into its own model — the resulting daily transit ridership predictions (for both the “low” and “high” ends of the prediction range) are nothing short of jaw-dropping.

Much of the controversy has focused on the ridership predictions for the two sectors chosen by Project Connect (and embraced by both its “Central Corridor Advisory Group”, CCAG, and, most recently, the Austin City Council) — “ERC” (associated loosely with the East Riverside Drive travel corridor) and “Highland” (a heavily gerrymandered sector nestled next to I-35 north of the UT campus, then ballooning at its north end to encompass the Highland ACC site).

The “ERC” ridership predictions for 2030 have been targets of especial ridicule. These are shown in the snippet below from the Project Connect “evaluation” matrix.

Snippet from Project Connect's "evaluation" matrix shows implausibly high year-2030 daily ridership projections, both low and high, for the "ERC" sector.

Snippet from Project Connect’s “evaluation” matrix shows implausibly high year-2030 daily ridership projections, both low and high, for the “ERC” sector.

The high-end daily ridership prediction of 2.9 million, it’s been pointed out, roughly equals the combined daily transit system ridership of the cities of Chicago and Philadelphia.

However, Project Connect’s planners called Foul on this figure. For the top TOI index achieved by this sector, they point out that the TOI model yields an “infinite” multiplier to calculate the high-end ridership prediction. So Project Connect, with an index result predicting “infinitely” high ridership, decided to bring it down somewhat closer to Planet Earth’s reality by substituting an upper-bound value of 999 as the acreage multiplier to calculate ridership … and produced the “2.9 million” figure.

However, the low-end figure — daily ridership of 492,682 (493K) — is equally preposterous, exceeding the total system daily ridership of entire large cities. For example:

• Portland, 332K
• Seattle, 476K
• Denver, 324K
• Atlanta, 453K

Remember — 493K is the low-end predicted ridership for one single small segment of the Austin area. Currently, Capital Metro’s daily ridership for the entire service area is about 120K.

For the “Highland” sector, the TOI model results for 2030 are similarly off the scale. Whereas current 2013 ridership is about 5K (5100/day), the “low” TOI prediction for 2030 is about 127K — an increase of 2,440%. The “high” prediction (no need for upper-bound substitution in this case) is 279K — a predicted increase of 5,480%.

Put another way, to meet the lower-end ridership suggested by the demographic and economic projections, average daily ridership in the “Highland” sector would have to exhibit sustained average daily ridership growth of about 7,200 each year for 17 years.

To most reasonable analysts concerned with the accuracy of their forecasts, such wildly implausible predictions would surely prompt a re-evaluation of the basic data inputs — i.e., the projections. But not Project Connect’s planners, who have simply hunkered down and circled the wagons around the inviolability of their projection methodology.

Project Connect personnel, and at least one City Councilman, have attempted to disparage this criticism by noting that the actual ridership predictions have not been used as a metric in Project Connect’s “evaluation” matrix.

But that sidesteps the main issue! First, Project Connect’s matrix does use the TOI, itself based on the same dubious projection inputs, to render a metric score to bolster their preferred sectors (“sub-corridors”) in the competition they’ve set up. For the 2030 metric it gives a score of 1.00 to the “ERC” sector, and 0.65 to “Lamar”, in a points system where every hundredth of a point does count.

But, even more importantly, the TOI for 2030, dependent as it is upon Project Connect’s “projections” (de facto fantasies), exposes their absurdity. No wonder Project Connect and its entourage don’t want these used … no wonder they attempt to distance themselves from them!

It’s very simple — plug Project Connect’s own projections into this otherwise fairly realistic model, and you get bizarrely, unbelievably exaggerated results. Maybe a hint that the original projections are bizarrely unbelievable?

In effect, the TOI is performing here somewhat like a “canary in the coalmine” — telling Project Connect, and all of us, that something is terribly wrong with their demographic and economic projections for 2030.

Obviously, it’s a message that Project Connect, and a certain segment of Austin’s civic leadership, don’t want to hear.

h1

City Council to Central Austin: Drop Dead

16 December 2013
Growth Concept Centers and Corridors Map from COA's Imagine Austin plan. Numbers indicate proposed "centers", increasing in assumed importance as color becomes redder. Note orientation toward major freeways and highways, and trend to promote development to east of central city.

Growth Concept Centers and Corridors Map from COA’s Imagine Austin plan. Numbers indicate proposed “centers”, increasing in assumed importance as color becomes redder. Note orientation toward major freeways and highways, and trend to promote development to east of central city. (Click to enlarge.)

With its 7-0 unanimous vote on December 12th, endorsing Project Connect’s deeply flawed plan for an initial urban rail line, the Austin City Council made it clear it wasn’t just abandoning good sense and a reliance on sound, fact-based planning — unfortunately, the Council vote continued a pattern of recent policies by the City of Austin (COA) aimed at abandoning Central Austin itself and the core neighborhoods in the heart of the city, concentrating instead on predominantly promoting peripheral areas mostly to the east. In effect, the Council’s action was a vote that said to Central Austin: Drop Dead.

This pattern appears to reveal a major switch from past policies, which have aimed at strengthening the central core city and addressing mobility problems in the city’s major local traffic arteries, Guadalupe St. and Lamar Blvd. For example, urban rail plans in both 1993 and 2000 focused on this corridor, and Guadalupe-Lamar-South Congress was a major focus of the “rapid bus” plan (now MetroRapid).

Project Connect's proposed urban rail route profile forms a crescent emphasizing more eastern sectors of city and avoiding heart of central city along West Campus-Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Note how "Central Corridor" study area is skewed well to east of core area, encompassing large tracts of developable real estate.

Project Connect’s proposed urban rail route profile forms a crescent emphasizing more eastern sectors of city and avoiding heart of central city along West Campus-Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Note how “Central Corridor” study area is skewed well to east of core area, encompassing large tracts of developable real estate.

This switch in policy is borne out not just by the Council’s Dec. 12th vote, and not just by the efforts of Project Connect and its supporters to depict Central Austin and its “backbone” travel corridor (West Campus-Guadalupe-Lamar) as more or less “withering away” demographically and economically (in complete disregard for the factual evidence). The pattern of neglecting the central heart of the city has become increasingly clear from COA’s preferential policy emphasis — expressed through tax incentives, infrastructure investment, long-range planning, and special projects focused exclusively on encouraging development in peripheral areas such as Mueller and East Riverside.

While the core area itself (downtown, Capitol Complex, UT campus) has been the focus of densification and new public development initiatives (e.g., Seaholm, Waller Creek project, proposed UT medical teaching facility), most of the city’s established core neighborhoods, both north and south of the core area, have been virtually written off in recent years.

This is well illustrated by the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, adopted by the City Council in June 2012. The pattern is particularly evident in the Growth Concept Centers and Corridors Map, Appendix D, pp. A-29 through A-31, shown in the graphic below. (The relative impact of “centers” proposed in the Imagine Austin plan was an important metric in Project Connect’s carefully rigged “evaluation” matrix.)

COA's Imagine Austin Growth Concept Centers and Corridors Map, with legend.

COA’s Imagine Austin Growth Concept Centers and Corridors Map, with legend. (Click to enlarge.)

Each proposed center is identified in the main document (linked above) by a number, with red indicating major “regional” centers, orange indicating “town” centers, and yellow demarcating “neighborhood” centers. It can be seen that, outside the core area itself (a “regional” center), and the former Highland Mall area (now a major ACC site), most of the central inner city, following the traditional linear growth pattern along Guadalupe-Lamar and South Congress-Manchaca Rd., is comparatively very lightly targeted for “centers” development — there’s just one small “town” center at the Crestview MetroRail station, and a “neighborhood” center in the vicinity of St. Edward’s University (South Austin).

Despite the lofty rhetoric by COA officials promising to “bolster the city’s core” and so on, the really large-scale, influential pattern revealed in this “wish list” map is to emphasize outlying development, mainly associated with major freeways or highways (e.g., U.S. 183, I-35, U.S. 290), and peripheral development areas such as East Riverside and the “close-in suburb” of Mueller. There’s also a decidedly eastward skew to this plan, with major “centers” planned as far as SH 130 and even east of it.

The Imagine Austin plan in fact has a “suburbanization” emphasis uncomfortably reminiscent of the suburbanization policies of both federal and local governments following World War 2 which encouraged the sprawling, private-motor-vehicle-dependent form of development that is yielding such toxic fruit today. In fact, the COA itself, in a document discussing major demographic trends, warns of the threat of “Intensifying urban sprawl”:

The Austin region will continue to experience intense urban sprawl …. Although there is an enormous amount of residential development currently underway within the urban core and in downtown Austin, the thousands of new units being created there will be only a drop in the regional bucket of total residential units created. There simply are very few land availability constraints in the territory surrounding Austin.

And yet this is not to say that the positive effects of new urbanism and Smart Growth policies won’t be felt inside the city, it is rather to say that even with the success of the many enlightened urbanizing efforts currently afoot in Austin, urban sprawl and its footprint will have an enduring presence in central Texas.

This abandonment of the central city and its core neighborhoods is evident in the map segment below, zoomed-in from the larger map. For these core neighborhoods and commercial areas north of the core area — particularly the area circled in blue — there are no “centers” in COA’s vision — despite major activities and opportunities in areas such as Guadalupe-38th St.-Lamar (Central Market, medical facilities), the Triangle (multi-use development), and Koenig at Lamar (major opportunity of for redevelopment as a major center). Similar sites further north (e.g., North Lamar Transit Center area) and south (SoCo area, Manchaca/Stassney, etc.) are also ignored.

Central inner city and established neighborhoods immediately north of core area. Circled area indicates absence of planned "centers", despite abundant opportunities.

Central inner city and established neighborhoods immediately north of core area. Circled area indicates absence of planned “centers”, despite abundant opportunities. (Click to enlarge.)

Central Austin’s core neighborhoods and commercial areas should take heed. Project Connect’s willingness to scrap the future of these crucial areas, and its plan for urban rail to bypass the central city and its established neighborhoods in preference for stimulating outlying development, should cause major concern to Austinites as a whole. Far from confined to Project Connect, it’s apparently merely the latest move in an insidious emerging policy by the COA administration itself.

h1

Project Connect Needs an Overhaul

7 December 2013
Lyndon Henry, technical consultant for Texas Association for Public Transportation, making presentation to CCAG on Dec. 6th. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

Lyndon Henry, technical consultant for Texas Association for Public Transportation, making presentation to CCAG on Dec. 6th. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

By Lyndon Henry

These comments were presented to the December 6th meeting of the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG), just prior to their voting 14-1 to approve the official recommendation (favoring the “Highland” and “ERC” sectors for so-called “high-capacity transit” — generally perceived as camouflage-speak for urban rail). Extemporaneous verbiage included during the oral presentation has been added to the version posted here.

 

To Central Corridor Advisory Group:

 

• Project Connect’s “High-Capacity Transit” study needs either to be paused and reviewed, or for Phase 2 to be expanded to include actual travel corridors in both the “Lamar” and “Mueller” sectors.

• The way this study was conducted has been shameful — an unprecedented rush in a context of pressure from political officials and special interests, ignoring actual travel corridors, gerrymandering city areas for study, cherry-picking data, manipulation of data, substituting value judgements for facts, public manipulation, muzzling community input, isolation from effective community review. However it may go forward, this process needs a major overhaul.

• Contradictory though it may seem, this does not mean I’m impugning the basic honesty or competency of the Project Connect team. While I do believe this study has been skewed, I continue to believe that the Project Connect personnel are fundamentally honest and competent. In my view, there’s a tragedy that good, decent, honest, competent professionals are influenced by external political pressures to make unwise decisions on crucial methodological and procedural issues.

• The problems in this study are way too numerous to detail here, so I’ll just note a few of the most outrageous.

• Project Connect’s methodology segmented the outstanding Guadalupe-Lamar corridor into nonsensical pieces, severing it from its most logical destination (the West Campus and core area), thus creating an arbitrary “rump” route that goes from nowhere to nowhere.

Infographic shows how Project Connect’s methodology segmented Guadalupe-Corridor into nonsensical pieces, and summarizes numerous other major problems. (Click to enlarge.)

Infographic shows how Project Connect’s methodology segmented Guadalupe-Corridor into nonsensical pieces, and summarizes numerous other major problems. (Click to enlarge.)

• Extremely important non-work trips such as UT student trips and recreational trips have been EXCLUDED as a measure of “Travel Demand” from each sector to the core. How could they do this in a city whose core contains the largest university in the state?

• Rather than developing conservative, reliable, and plausible forecasts, Project Connect has produced exaggerated, highly questionable projections, heavily skewed toward certain geographical areas. When these same projections are plugged into Project Connect’s own Transit Orientation Index (TOI),  the results are ridiculously unbelievable. For the single “ERC” sector, the low-end prediction of daily transit ridership is higher than the total system daily ridership of entire cities like Denver and Seattle. On the high end, it’s about equal to the total system daily ridership of Chicago and Philadelphia combined.

Do you really expect the Austin public at large to believe these kinds of results?

These shenanigans, and treatment of the community as if they were fools, have been a slap in the face to central Austin’s core neighborhoods, that have remained among urban rail’s strongest supporters, have been promised a rail line, and have spent many hours of time crafting neighborhood rail station plans.

Guadalupe-Lamar remains at the heart of the city, where all the core neighborhoods are, and where a Phase 1 urban rail line should start and provide a spine or anchor for outward extensions. And it provides both the demographics and the “opportunity assets” at the least cost for doing so.

I urge you to do the right thing and help to move this process in a very different direction.

h1

Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector

5 December 2013

0_ARN_Pause Button

By Lyndon Henry

This Email was sent on December 5th to members of the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG). While the memo indicates an assumption that Citizens Communications would be allowed at the end of the CCAG meeting, the posted agenda, in a departure from past practice, now indicates that Citizens Communications will take place in the middle of the meeting, prior to “Discussion & Action”.

To Members of the Central Corridor Advisory Group:

I am writing to urge you either to hold off voting on a recommendation on the Phase 1 urban rail project, or to recommend including the “Lamar” sector (“sub-corridor”) for further evaluation in the next phase of Project Connect’s study.

"Lamar" sector ("sub-corridor") includes a portion of Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Map: Project Connect.

“Lamar” sector (“sub-corridor”) includes a portion of Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Map: Project Connect.

As the Project Connect team has started releasing some of their methodology and basic data, an ever-widening array of problems has become evident, and questions from the community continue to multiply.

From the outset, this urban rail study (now a “High-Capacity Transit” study) has been inexplicably rushed, in clear violation of Best Practices within the transit industry and cities across the country. Even Kyle Keahey has repeatedly admitted that, ordinarily, this kind of study would require 12 to 18 months. Yet Project Connect has raced to a decision in less than five months of actual study.

This is not a sound or propitious basis for rallying community and voter support behind such a major public transportation investment. This project should preferably be put on Pause; barring that, the “Lamar” sector should at least be added for further consideration.

As I’ve mentioned, the list of problems and anomalies identified in this study is sizable, and continues to grow. Here are just a few of the most egregious that I’ve identified:

• The basic methodology of focusing on sectors (so-called”sub-corridors”) meant that the study failed to study a single actual potential travel corridor in the study area.

• This methodology also segmented an otherwise viable corridor such as Guadalupe-Lamar into nonsensical pieces, severing the corridor from its most logical destination (West Campus and core area), and thus creating an arbitrary “rump” route (29th St. to south of U.S. 183) that goes from nowhere to nowhere.

• As a measure of “Travel Demand” from each sector to the core, non-work trips such as UT student trips and recreational trips (e.g., to restaurants, bars, etc.) have been EXCLUDED — dismissing not only the enormous importance of non-work trips (which are heavy in the off-peak) for more cost-effective transit service, but especially the huge significance of student and recreational trips in a city with the largest university in the state (and located in its core).

• Rather than developing conservative, reliable, and plausible projections, Project Connect has produced bizarrely exaggerated and highly implausible projections that are heavily skewed toward certain geographical areas such as East Riverside and the so-called “Highland” sector.

• When these same projections are plugged into the Transit Orientation Index (TOI), the results are extremely implausible — e.g., for the “ERC” (East Riverside) sector, Project Connect calculates high total daily transit ridership of 2.9 million, about equal to the total citywide daily ridership of Chicago and Philadelphia combined. (Their “low estimate” for that single sector is higher than the total citywide ridership of entire cities like Denver and Seattle.) This strongly tends to corroborate other evidence that Project Connect’s projections have been seriously exaggerated and are utterly implausible.

• The study has assigned an extremely high “Constrained Right-of-Way” penalty to the “Lamar” sector, but not to the “Highland”, “Mueller”, “ERC” sectors — apparently implying that Project Connect considers there to be no “Constrained Right-of-Way” problems for “Highland”, “Mueller”, and “ERC”. This also is implausible, and this penalty seems to be arbitrarily applied to sectors (“sub-corridors”) that the Project Connect team dislikes (e.g., “Lamar”), but withheld from sectors they seem to prefer (e.g., “ERC”, “Highland”, “Mueller”).

In reality, “Highland”, “Mueller”, and “ERC” not only face serious problems of constrained ROW, but daunting problems of major civil works (e.g., a river bridge, grade-separations with I-35, etc.). In contrast, the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would encounter no necessity for major civil works.

For Project Connect’s recent “Data Dig” meeting, I submitted a longer and more detailed list of problems and anomalies which is available online here:

Questions for Project Connect

The following article from the Austin Rail Now blog discusses even more problems, and includes links to a number of online posts from several other researchers, analysts, and transit advocates in the community:

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

The Austin public is certainly not stupid, yet Project Connect’s peculiar methods and rationales have made many in the community feel as if they’re being treated like fools. Contrary to Project Connect’s claims that their public participation process has been “robust” and “open”, it’s a serious departure from past democratic norms.

This is exemplified by the fact that public communications to CCAG were opened only in the very final stages of the study process, and just the last meeting before Project Connect made its decision. And now, since Citizens Communications comes at the conclusion of your Dec. 6th meeting, speakers will not even have a chance to address your meeting until after the recommendation issue has been dealt with.

Further problems with Project Connect’s community involvement are discussed in detail here:

From community participation then … to community exclusion today

Persuading the public to understand the need for urban rail in Austin, and to vote approval of bonds to fund it, will be an enormous challenge. This will be an even more difficult challenge if Project Connect persists in alienating the core neighborhoods in the heart of the central city — and West Campus and student population — by rushing to decisions based on implausible and dubious analyses, and a cavalier attitude toward bona fide community involvement.

Please give your strongest consideration to either pausing this process, or including the “Lamar” sector in Phase 2 of the study process so that it can be more adequately and fairly evaluated.

Lyndon Henry
Technical consultant
Light Rail Now Project
Texas Association for Public Transportation

h1

Questions for Project Connect

3 December 2013
Project Connect's data visualization of congestion in 2035 for study area sectors shows congestion in every direction. But wasn't this supposed to be a study to determine best travel corridor to serve core area, not a "beauty contest" among "competing" sectors of the city?

Project Connect’s data visualization of congestion in 2035 for study area sectors shows congestion in every direction. But wasn’t this supposed to be a study to determine best travel corridor to serve core area, not a “beauty contest” among “competing” sectors of the city?

By Lyndon Henry

[These are some of the questions about the urban rail study that I hope to raise today at Project Connect’s “Data Dig” (Capital Metro boardroom, 11:30am-1:30pm).]

Why has Project Connect’s urban rail study failed to study a single actual potential travel corridor in the study area?

Why has this study avoided performing an actual corridor study, and instead spent its time (and taxpayers’ dollars) confined to undertaking a de facto inventory (and “beauty contest”) of various urban sectors in isolation?

• Why has this supposed “corridor” study segmented an otherwise viable corridor such as Guadalupe-Lamar into non-sensical pieces, severing it from its most logical destination (core area), and thus creating an arbitrary “rump” route (29th St. to south of U.S. 183) that goes from nowhere to nowhere?

• Why has this study failed to evaluate another logical route plan — the “loop” route using both Guadalupe-Lamar and the Red Line (converted to urban rail), with a spur line into the Mueller site?

• Why has this study used such speculative projections based on procedures that maximize all possible development for targeted areas (such as “ERC”, “Mueller”, and “Highland”), rather than using conservative projections based on conditions closer to reality?

• These same projections have produced bizarrely implausible transit ridership projections — e.g., 2.9 million daily rider-trips for the “ERC” (East Riverside) sector. That’s about as many trips in that single sector of Austin as the total urban ridership of Chicago and Philadelphia combined. That’s the output of the study’s main predictor of transit ridership. With results like that, why hasn’t Project Connect more intensely questioned its own demographic and economic assumptions and projections?

• Why have travel and congestion on major freeways (I-35, Loop 1, U.S. 290) — which are roadway arteries used throughout the urban area — been treated as if they affected only the sectors (“sub-corridors”) they happen to pass through? Why has their congestion been “assigned” only to the “inventory” for those sectors?

• Why has this study’s assessment of “travel demand” from each sector to the core ignored home-based non-work (HBNW) trips — including UT student trips and recreational trips — in a college city with the largest university in Texas in its core area?

• Why has this study, in determining the potential of a specific sector (“sub-corridor”) for supporting an urban rail line from that sector to the core, considered “Regional Trips Passing through Sub-Corridor to Core” — i.e., pass-through trips — as relevant?  Why have “Regional O-D Trips Beginning or Ending in Sub-Corridor” been considered relevant to a study focused on trips from a given area to the core? How does this provide any meaningful assessment of need or potential ridership for an urban rail line from any sector (“sub-corridor”) to the core area? Is it plausible that any significant number of motorists traveling from, say, the “Highland” sector to Round Rock or San Marcos would use urban rail to the core for part of the trip?

• Why has this study, for these trips whose validity and relevance for this study is far more dubious, nevertheless included all types of trips — including UT student and recreation trips —  while excluding them for the much more valid and plausible trips from each sector to the core (and intra-sector)?

Does this metric have any purpose other than to produce a particularly high score in this category for the “Highland” sector?

• Why does this study assign an extremely high “Constrained Right-of-Way” penalty to the “Lamar” sector, but not to the “Highland”, “Mueller”, “ERC” sectors? Is Project Connect saying that there are no “Constrained Right-of-Way” problems for “Highland”, “Mueller”, “ERC”? The “Constrained Right-of-Way” penalty seems to be arbitrarily applied to sectors (“sub-corridors”) that the Project Connect team dislikes (e.g., “Lamar”), but withheld from sectors they seem to prefer (e.g., “ERC”, “Highland”, “Mueller”).

• Project Connect’s “Physical Constraints” metric appears to be based on totally subjective value assessments, and no information has been given as to how these value judgements have been developed. Where’s the factual basis for this?

• Because, theoretically, Project Connect hasn’t actually selected an alignment, how can they assign “constraints” to anything? Isn’t this “Physical Constraints” metric premature, since the study is dealing not with actual corridors, but with great, huge, sprawling sectors (“sub-corridors”) in which routes could presumably be considered anywhere?

• For each sector, the study has tallied ridership for Capital Metro transit routes in every direction. How is this relevant in assessing ridership from each sector to the core?

• What is the breakdown of ridership (boardings) for each of the Capital Metro transit routes in each sector included in the total?

h1

From community participation then … to community exclusion today

1 December 2013
As democratic involvement and real meetings have disappeared, public participation at Project Connect's events, such as this "open house", has withered. Photo: Project Connect.

As democratic involvement and real meetings have disappeared, public participation at Project Connect’s events, such as this “open house”, has withered. Photo: Project Connect.

By Lyndon Henry

This posting has been excerpted, adapted, and expanded from a personal Email sent by the author to someone involved with Austin’s urban rail study, in response to an inquiry.

The lack of bona fide democratic discussion and participation by the public has been seen by many in the Austin community as an ongoing problem with Project Connect’s “community outreach” and “public participation” procedures. However, the current problem merely continues and intensifies a policy tendency, over approximately the last dozen or so years, among some local Austin-area public bodies — particularly involved with transportation and urban planning issues — to discourage and suppress authentic community involvement in planning such proposed projects and services.

This stands in stark contrast to the vibrant, lively public involvement of the 1970s through early 2000s, where popular input was encouraged and solicited in the form of participatory community meetings and personal involvement of a widely representative array of individuals in actual planning committees.

Finding a suitable model for implementing true democratic discussion today in Project Connect and other programs would be simple — reinstating the types of outreach, public participation programs, and community discussion activities that were typical of Austin-area transportation planning up until the early 2000s. These types of participatory processes have gradually been attenuated in recent years.

A fully democratic and effective process of community participation and discussion is essential, particularly so that community participants feel they have true involvement, engagement, and a stake in the planning process. At least as important, critical planning issues are effectively scrutinized and analyzed, and additional professional expertise (in architecture, engineering, planning, finance, etc.) in the community is accessed and brought to bear on various aspects of the project.

Almost certainly, the lack of such oversight and engagement of community expertise has been a major factor in the array of serious methdological and data problems that have characterized Project Connect’s urban rail study process and impugned its credibility. See, for example, the wide range of problems and community discontent documentted in this blog’s recent posting TILT! Project Connect’s gerrymandering and data fiddling ignite public skepticism, pushback.

Public participation process of the past

Ongoing citizen advisory committees used to be (and should be now) much larger, with multiple members typically appointed by each councilmember, Capital Metro board member, etc. In the late 1980s, Capital Metro’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee involved over a hundred members, with at least several dozen typically attending a given meeting. Professionals with transit-industry expertise and community activists on transportation issues were often appointed to these bodies, rather than specifically excluded, as they are now.

My longtime friend and professional colleague Dave Dobbs and I served on several such committees through the development of the regional transportation plan by the Austin Transportation Study (precursor to CAMPO) and the creation of Capital Metro (we both served on the Austin-Travis County Mass Transportation Commission that recommended creation of a regional transit authority for the Austin metro area). Another particularly important example of our community participation involvement was the advisory committee to the Transitway Corridor Analysis Project (TCAP), in the late 1980s. The TCAP committee had at least several dozen members, including interested stakeholders like Alan Kaplan and Roger Baker, and met regularly with the Capital Metro personnel and consultants directly involved with evaluating either a busway or light rail transit (LRT) for a fixed transit line from the core area to the northwest, possibly using U.S. 183, the railway alignment, I-35, or a combination of these alignments.

The democratic involvement of highly interested and technically savvy community members was critical to the final outcome of the TCAP study. Dave and I and other committee members questioned or challenged assumptions and methodology point by point, in a democratically interactive process that altered the course of the study. The original intent had seemed to be to justify a busway in this corridor, and if this had prevailed, buses would probably be rolling along through Crestview, Wooten, and other neighborhoods on a paveway in the Capital Metro railway right-of-way today instead of MetroRail DMU railcars. But instead, the advisory committee and consultants ultimately recommended LRT, and this was selected by the board as the Locally Preferred Alternative.

Trend from democratic involvement to “democratic” pretense

There has been nothing comparable to this kind of democratic community interactive planning within roughly the past decade.

Community meetings have likewise virtually disappeared. I recall open, fully democratic meetings, with large attendance, in various areas of the Capital Metro service area when I was on the authority’s board during the original LRT study in the early 1990s. Board members like me, and top officials like General Manager (CEO) Tony Kouneski, would attend these meetings. Participants weren’t just given clickers to respond to the contrived choices presented by Capital Metro — they were free to voice their opinions, ask questions, even respond to other views expressed in the meetings. New views, new options, could be voiced. The community members learned things from one another and felt a far greater sense of involvement in the process that is totally missing today.

Real community meetings, such as this one focused on transit options in Toronto, allow free and open discussion and facilitate questions and comments from the attendees. In contrast, Project Connect's events have squelched community discussion and sought to manage and muzzle discussion. Photo: Torontoist.

Real community meetings, such as this one focused on transit options in Toronto, allow free and open discussion and facilitate questions and comments from the attendees. In contrast, Project Connect’s events have squelched community discussion and sought to manage and muzzle discussion. Photo: Torontoist.

During the LRT study process in 1999-2000, numerous small community meetings were held all over the city to explain the LRT plan and alternatives, and receive real input, freely voiced, from the community. Then-General Manager Karen Rae herself typically led these meetings, usually accompanied by one or more staff personnel. This interaction helped fine-tune the eventual alignment that was proposed.

Even after the LRT referendum narrowly failed, in 2001-2003 democratic public meetings continued, involving both smaller meetings around the city and larger public meetings, including charettes. Attendees had the opportunity to speak, voicing comments or criticism and asking questions, at all meetings.

Workshops in past periods previously were far different and more democratic than the recent ones sponsored by Project Connect. The groups, often subdivided by particular topics, would discuss an issue for perhaps 20-40 minutes. A participant was also free to visit other groups at other tables and inject comments, suggestions, etc. Each table group (“workshop”) would select one member to summarize the group’s conclusions, or controversial issues, to the entire meeting in a summation period. Individual group members had a chance to clarify points covered in the discussion.

In contrast, Project Connect’s recent “workshops” seemed more like mechanisms to contain and squelch discussion rather than facilitate it. Discussion was confined to each individual small group, for perhaps 5-10 minutes at most. Only very narrow topics — basically, “choices” presented by Project Connect — were presented for discussion within each table group … with no real opportunity for alternatives and questions to be presented. Project Connect staff members, present at each table, then filtered and briefly summarized some of the discussion to the larger group.

Similarly, “open houses” are not public “meetings” but mechanisms to fragment and granularize public involvement into one-to-one interactions with project representatives, who can “listen” and then rationalize official decisions to individual participants. Attendees are expected to wander through the room, viewing the results of project decisions previously made by the project bureaucracy, results that are typically presented with lots of graphics — prompting me to describe these as “art galleries”. But these are definitely not democratic community meetings. See:

Back to “art galleries” Project Connect reneges on community meetings

Meetings, “open houses”, workshops … and democratic process

In contrast to the Transit Working Group (TWG) meetings, which at least allowed a few 3-minute “citizen communications” at the end of each meeting, Project Connect abolished even such minimal community input at meetings of its successor, the Central Corridor Advisory Committee (CCAG), until the last one before Project Connect made its decision on urban rail sectors. In other words, CCAG could not formally be presented with alternative views, ideas, and proposals, or criticism of the official methodology, throughout the critical period when decisions were being made and ratified by CCAG.

In sum, Project Connect’s overall “public involvement” exercises have seemed more like a gesture at public involvement as a CYA effort to fulfill federal requirements.

Outline for bona fide community participation program

What would a more truly democratic public involvement program look like? For starters, here are some thoughts, based on examples and experience from the past:

• A general advisory group that is large and inclusive, with representatives appointed by all councilmembers, Capital Metro board members, and possibly other public bodies — rather than a small group hand-picked by the mayor. This advisory committee would also be able to co-opt additional members to itself. It would provide a forum to consider both official proposals and alternative proposals and ideas from the community, while seeking a consensus with the official project team.

• Numerous smaller meetings (covering several sectors with several neighborhood areas per sector) at least every couple of months, where participants could voice their alternative ideas, concerns, questions, criticisms, and other comments to the meeting group — thus sharing and disseminating alternative views and approaches within the general community as well as among project staff.

• At least a couple of charettes, open to the public at large, over the course of the project. These would focus on key issues particularly needing public input. The emphasis would be on the voicing of ideas and assessments, not just clicking choices among prescribing alternatives.

Major public meetings, every 3-4 months, in a “hearing” format, where community members could at least have a chance to voice their views.

In contrast with this kind of open process from past times, the new model of “public involvement” by public agencies, exemplified by Project Connect’s process, seems designed mainly to muzzle the public, procure some kind of very shallow public acquiescence for official decisions, and thus allow project officials to claim validation. It also ensures that officials can proceed with planning effectively isolated and insulated from democratic community scrutiny and input — thus (as I’ve characterized it) operating “inside a bell jar”.

Neighborhood groups and other community organizations need to make it clear they’ve had enough of this sham pretense at “public participation”. They need to demand a reinstatement of at least the level of democratic participation that was the norm in the past.