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Plans for Smart City could be dumb choice for Austin

31 January 2018

Austin’s “Smart City” vision is still mainly about cars and buses and roads. Graphic: Austin Tech Alliance.

Commentary by Roger Baker

Roger Baker is a longtime Austin transportation, energy, and urban issues researcher and community activist. The following commentary has been adapted and slightly edited from his comments recently posted by E-mail to multiple recipients.

Austin Transportation Dept. Director Robert Spillar has a vision of the city’s transportation future, and how high tech can solve Austin’s notorious transportation congestion, working along the lines of the Smart City Challenge Austin was trying to win last year. As a recent Governing article discloses, this Smart City vision is still mainly about cars and buses and roads and Austin becoming a “Smart City”, with driverless electric cars steadily displacing gas vehicles.

Another major component of Austin’s Smart City application will be put into place thanks to a voter-approved bond measure from November that included $482 million for up to nine “smart corridors” in the city. The improvements along those arterial roads will include a mix of old and new technology: turn lanes, bus bays and sidewalks will go in along with traffic and weather sensors and connected traffic lights.

The sensors will help traffic engineers better respond to changing conditions, as well help motorists and improve road networks. Texas universities, for instance, will use the information to improve traffic projections and troubleshoot the road network. The city has already done something similar using Bluetooth signals, which led officials to change a downtown street from one-way to two-way during major events to reduce traffic.

There are other components of the Smart City concept which may introduce other drawbacks. As local public transit advocate David Orr has pointed out, “one extremely problematic aspect of the auto-dependent Smart City craze is the proliferation of ride-hailing vehicles which increase congestion and VMT [vehicle miles traveled].”

So far as I know, the latest (2017) Austin city marching orders on transportation are publicized in its Smart Mobility Roadmap. The large PDF document gives the barest of mentions of the terms “light rail” on page 40 and “light rails” on page 71 of this 141 page document!!

The rest of this document is about how driverless electric cars and data collection everywhere are going to change our lives as part of the Smart City of the future – pure distilled essence of Robert Spillar, reading like science fiction, but expressed as certainty. Since Austin outranks Capital Metro in every political sense, the new Director at Metro had better get friendly with this new Austin-cratic transportation policy agenda. Since the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce just hired two road transportation enthusiasts, Phil Wilson and Brian Cassidy, as top leaders, I imagine that things can only get worse.

A major financing notion being floated in connection with these Smart Mobility plans are PPPs, or Public-Private-Partnerships. But PPPs commonly depend on assuming decades of speculative municipal (or other governmental) bond indebtedness. In this category, the toll roads already built, using high-yield bonds being promoted by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), and then unsuccessfully promoted on IH-35, would be some leading examples.

Now that the top legal architect behind the local CTRMA toll roads, Brian Cassidy, is working for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, could he be convinced to shift his legal focus to transit? Maybe toward promoting PPP-financed rail on Guadalupe, and as the only way short of a much costlier subway to unclog this important corridor between UT and the Capitol?

Unfortunately, the Wall Street needs be sold on at least the possibility for good returns. Rocky Mountain Institute seems to have sold Rob Spillar on the startup potential for Smart Car technologies, which is the hook there. Uber is for occasional use or for tech guys with money, but of little interest for the average commuters that jam up our big roads at peak.

Whereas toll roads can be profitable, especially under conditions of rapid sprawl growth and while fuel is cheap, transit is almost never profitable. I think Capital Metro only gets about 8% return from the fare box (i.e., operating revenues cover only 8% of costs). Where does the profit to attract private investment then come from?

Why would anyone expect “unprofitable” light rail to attract PPP investment money? Any more than our totally “unprofitable” and poorly maintained sidewalks would do?

The strong increased driving trend that took off with the 2014 oil price collapse may be starting to weaken. Low-wage service workers don’t drive as much as they used to do unless they need to commute for work.

In my opinion, this nationally weakening driving trend, plus rising global fuel costs yet to come, are likely to create a swing in public sentiment, if not actual dollars, toward transit. A need when buses can no longer be scaled up adequately to do the job on Guadalupe, nor serve the suburbs adequately either. We have forgotten how to make hard but realistic choices, or come up with compassionate solutions.

The public needs to experience and see basic civic needs for libraries, sidewalks, and roads as being appropriate when applied to transit. Modest solutions scaled to solving current problems rather than big-bond-package urbanist visions should be the rule. I like the Strong Towns approach which basically says we need to concentrate on solving our current problems in a modest way, as opposed to grand and expensive bond debt lasting decades to deal with future hypothetical growth problems. See, for example, the following articles:

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/9/the-real-reason-your-city-has-no-money

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/6/14/greatest-hits-the-growth-ponzi-scheme

We could do wonders with a half-billion-dollar light rail line down the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, but it may be some time until the stars line up right. That should have a much higher priority in a world that makes sense. As compared with TxDOT’s crazy obsession with widening I-35 in a futile battle against congestion – reality-denial which only delays doing the really smart stuff like running light rail past UT. ■

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