Archive for the ‘Alternative Urban Rail Plan’ Category

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Why Project Connect’s urban rail plan would remove just 1,800 cars a day — not 10,000

22 August 2014
Project Connect's Highland-Riverside alignment would have negligible impact on I-35 congestion. Photo via Austin.CultureMap.com.

Congested I-35 traffic has Austinites desperate for a solution, but Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside alignment would have negligible impact. Photo via Austin.CultureMap.com.

Project Connect representatives have been claiming an array of hypothetical benefits they say would result from their proposed Highland-Riverside urban rail project. Among these is “congestion relief”.

For the most part, this sweeping claim has been blurry, undefined, unquantified, and widely dismissed as ridiculous. (See Why Project Connect’s “Highland” urban rail would do nothing for I-35 congestion.)

But in promotional presentations, Project Connect personnel and supporters have repeatedly touted one specific, numerically quantified purported benefit — the claim that their urban rail project “takes 10,000 cars off the road every weekday”.


Screenshot from Project Connect slide presentation claiming Highland-Riverside rail plan would remove "10,000 cars" a day.

Screenshot from Project Connect slide presentation claiming Highland-Riverside rail plan would remove “10,000 cars” a day. (Click to enlarge.)


This figure invites scrutiny. Project Connect has also been touting a 2030 ridership projection of “18,000 a day” — although this appears to rely on flawed methodology. (See our recent analysis Project Connect’s urban rail forecasting methodology — Inflating ridership with “fudge factor”? which, adjusting for apparent methodological errors, suggests that total ridership of 12,000 per weekday is more plausible.)

In any case, of its projected total weekday ridership, Project Connect also claims that only 6,500 are “new transit riders” for the urban rail line. (Project Connect also claims “10,000 new transit riders to system” — but typically these new “system” boardings represent the combination of the new rail rider-trips plus the same passengers using feeder bus routes to access the rail.) This is consistent with industry experience, since a sizable proportion of the ridership of new rail services consists of passengers that had previously been bus transit riders.

But this “new transit riders” figure, while plausible, immediately diminishes the plausibility of the claim of “taking 10,000 cars off the road”. How could 6,500 riders, boarding trains, eliminate 10,000 cars from the road?

Furthermore, the estimate of 6,500 rider-trips (i.e., boarding passengers) actually doesn’t equal 6,500 individual passengers, i.e., persons. Why? Because (as is commonly known and accepted in the industry) a very large percentage of those trips are made by the same, individual passengers — mainly round trips, or extra trips during lunch hour, and so on.

The count of daily “boardings”, or rider trips — i.e., ridership — is actually a tally, in U.S. industry parlance, of unlinked trips. These are the string of trips on transit made over a day by the same individual person; they might include trips on a feeder or connector bus to a rail transit train, possibly other trips during the day by transit, and perhaps that person’s return trips back home by the same modes.

So, how to figure how many individual passengers (persons) are actually involved in a given ridership figure? The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) suggests a conversion factor: “APTA estimates that the number of people riding transit on an average weekday is 45% of the number of unlinked transit passenger trips.”

Thus, applying that 45% factor to those 6,500 “new rider” trips, we realize that figure represents roughly 2,925 actual passengers projected to ride the proposed urban rail line, new to the transit system.

However, we cannot assume that every one of those new passengers would have used a motor vehicle rather than riding transit. On average, about 75% have access to a car. So 2,925 passengers X 75% = 2,194 passengers that could be assumed to leave their cars off the road to ride transit. (It’s pretty much a cinch that these hypothetical transit passengers wouldn’t be driving, on average, more than four cars a day!)

To estimate more realistically how many cars would be affected, we need to factor in average car occupancy of 1.2 persons per car (to account for some carpooling). That final calculation yields 1,828 — or (by rounding for level of confidence) roughly 1,800 cars removed from the road by Project Connect’s proposed urban rail plan.

That 1,800 is an all-day figure. Using an industry rule-of-thumb of 20%, about 400 of those cars would be operated during a peak period, or roughly 100, on average, during each peak hour. As our article on I-35 congestion, cited above, indicates, the impact on I-35 traffic would be very minimal. Most of the effect of that vehicle traffic elimination would be spread among a number of major arterials — particularly Airport Blvd., Red River St., San Jacinto Blvd., Trinity St., and Riverside Drive. This impact on local arterial congestion would be small — but every little bit helps.

While the removal of 1,800 cars from central Austin roads is a far cry from 10,000, once again, every incremental bit helps. And there’s also the decreased demand for 1,800 parking spaces in the city center.

But the point is that $1.4 billion (about $1.2 billion in 2014 dollars) is a huge investment to achieve so little. For many cities, ridership at the level of 12,000 a day typically isn’t so bad, but when you’re missing the potential of 35,000-45,000 a day, plus incurring such a high cost for this level of payoff, you need to reconsider the deal. (For example, see Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route.)

For less than half of Project Connect’s urban rail investment cost, a “backbone” urban rail line on Guadalupe-Lamar (with a branch to the Seaholm-Amtrak area) could plausibly be expected to generate at least three times as much ridership — and eliminate roughly 5,600 cars a day from central-city streets and arterials.


Summary chart compares Project Connect's claim of taking "10,000 cars off the road every weekday" vs. (1) ARN's analysis of probable actual number of cars removed by Highland-Riverside line and (2) projected number of cars that would be removed from Austin's roadways by alternative Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail plan.

Summary chart compares Project Connect’s claim of taking “10,000 cars off the road every weekday” vs. (1) ARN’s analysis of probable actual number of cars removed by Highland-Riverside line and (2) projected number of cars that would be removed from Austin’s roadways by alternative Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail plan. (Click to enlarge.)


Now, that’s some “congestion relief” worth paying for.

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Why Project Connect’s “Highland” urban rail would do nothing for I-35 congestion

9 July 2014
I-35 is the most congested roadway in Texas. But is this really the main travel corridor for commuters from "Highland-Riverside" neighborhoods to the Core Area? And would Project Connect's proposed urban rail line have any perceptible impact? Photo source: KVUE-TV.

I-35 is the most congested roadway in Texas. But is this really the main travel corridor for commuters from “Highland-Riverside” neighborhoods to the Core Area? And would Project Connect’s proposed urban rail line have any perceptible impact? Photo source: KVUE-TV.

By Dave Dobbs and Lyndon Henry

Lately, Project Connect representatives have been trying to claim that their meandering urban rail route proposed from Highland, through Red River and San Jacinto, to East Riverside, somehow addresses the problem of congestion on … I-35.

Really?

Leaving I-35 at the Highland site to ride a slow train to downtown doesn’t make any sense when, at Highland ACC, you are almost at the Core Area. By the time you leave the freeway, park your car, walk to the station, wait for the train, and ride downtown, you might as well have stayed on the freeway.

The I-35 traffic jam actually begins way north of Highland — at the confluence of Howard Lane, North Lamar, and I-35 — and that’s where people would park and ride a train if it were there. But first we have to build urban rail in the right place — up Guadalupe and North Lamar.

You have to put your transit station, with park & ride (P&R) access, near the outer end of the traffic jam. You don’t have to be a transportation savant to figure this out.

After all, as the public transit planning profession knows very well, P&R facilities need to be provided well upstream of the heavy congestion on a highway facility. There’s very little hope of attracting travelers off the highway if they already have to travel through severe congestion to access the transit station.

Project Connect’s claim of “congestion relief” is especially implausible when you further consider that they’re expecting prospective urban rail passengers to slog their way through the I-35 congestion, then, just a few minutes from their destination, to exit the freeway, hassle with parking, wait for a train, and then take a long, slow, sinuous train ride into the Core Area — a route that includes entering Airport Blvd., navigating through mixed traffic on Red River St., then winding through San Jacinto Blvd. and other streets comprising this tortuous “Highland” route.

What about the the hints from Project Connect that I-35 may be a major artery that neighborhood commuters themselves, along the proposed “Highland” rail route, supposedly use to reach the Core Area? To believe this speculation, you’d have to accept a vision of about 260 commuters per peak hour from these neighborhoods, currently driving, on average, about 6 blocks to then pack themselves onto a severely congested I-35 (#1 on TxDOT’s list of the state’s most congested roads) to then travel an average 28 blocks into the Core. And doing this when they have at least four other important but much less congested local arterials, including Guadalupe-Lamar, to use instead.

Commuters on I-35 would need to drive through miles of heavy congestion to reach Project Connect's proposed urban rail P&R at Highland ACC  — thus, little potential for "congestion relief". In contrast, Capital Metro's Tech Ridge P&R is located upstream of I-35 congestion. Alternative Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail plan would have North Lamar Transit Center P&R at US 183, upstream of congestion. Future urban rail extension up North Lamar to Howard Lane could provide another P&R upstream of I-35 congestion. Infographic map by ARN based on Google Maps.

Commuters on I-35 would need to drive through miles of heavy congestion to reach Project Connect’s proposed urban rail P&R at Highland ACC — thus, little potential for “congestion relief”. In contrast, Capital Metro’s Tech Ridge P&R is located upstream of I-35 congestion. Alternative Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail plan would have North Lamar Transit Center P&R at US 183, upstream of congestion. Future urban rail extension up North Lamar to Howard Lane could provide another P&R upstream of I-35 congestion. Infographic map by ARN based on Google Maps. (Click to enlarge.)

Maybe, but this is a scenario that similarly invites powerful skepticism. And is it worth over a billion dollars for an urban rail alignment that would lure perhaps about 65 motorists off I-35 in a peak hour (assuming about 25% modal split for Project Connect’s urban rail)?

Instead, as an authentic urban rail alternative to either I-35 or MoPac into the Core Area, you have to travel through the actual heart of the central city and its core neighborhoods on an actual travel corridor where you actually travel to and get off close to your destination. And a lot more of those destinations are within walking distance of Guadalupe-Lamar. That’s why there are 23,000 bus riders daily in this corridor today.

Some transit planner a quarter century ago put it something like this at an Austin public meeting: “All transit studies show that people will climb high mountains and/or swim deep rivers to access good rail service if it’s far enough out and is easily accessible by another mode (i.e., beyond the traffic jam), providing that their final destinations are within a quarter mile of a stop.”

The MetroRail Red Line demonstrates this wisdom; after Howard Lane, for passengers riding inbound AM peak trains, it’s standing-room only. And don’t expect a seat outbound in the evening rush until Howard Lane.

However, the Red Line’s biggest fault is that while it’s quite long enough, it fails to “connect the dots”. It misses serving the heavy-traffic Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, and bypasses core central-city neighborhoods, the UT campus, the Capitol Complex, and most of downtown (while providing virtually useless service for East Austin en route).

MetroRail Red Line (red) skirts entire heart of central Austin, illustrated by "Missing Link" through Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Urban rail would provide the crucial connections to core neighborhoods, UT West Campus, and Capitol Complex missed by MetroRail. Infographic Map by Light Rail Now.

MetroRail Red Line (red) skirts entire heart of central Austin, illustrated by “Missing Link” through Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Urban rail would provide the crucial connections to core neighborhoods, UT West Campus, and Capitol Complex missed by MetroRail. Infographic Map by Light Rail Now.

In bypassing the heart of the city and the Core Area, the Red Line does indeed miss the big dots, but people hate US 183. Before the freeway to Lakeway and beyond, the bumper sticker read: “Pray for me, I drive 183!” Nothing has changed except that we have a much bigger road, even more traffic, more stress. longer drive times, and only a glimmer of a solution around it.

And by far the biggest part of any solution is urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar.

Summing up: Most I-35 travelers are not going to get off the freeway at the proposed Highland station when the real traffic jam starts to form at Howard Lane. The current bus park & ride, Tech Ridge Transfer Center, for AM commuters to the Core, is located where it makes most sense — much further north (upstream) from Highland, at Howard near I-35.

Again, it comes back to the real alternative: Urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, which could serve a P&R station at the North Lamar Transit Center (upstream of the congestion on North Lamar) — with a clear path for further extension north — and interface with train service to the northwest (initially MetroRail, eventually an extension of electric urban rail) serving outlying P&R facilities such as Howard and Lakeline.

We think that’s a “congestion relief” plan that actually makes sense. ■

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Project Connect’s wasteful plan — Ultra-pricey urban rail “decoration” in the wrong route

17 May 2014
Lyndon Henry speaking to Central Corridor Advisory Group, 16 May 2014. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

Lyndon Henry speaking to Central Corridor Advisory Group, 16 May 2014. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to Project Connect’s Central Corridor Advisory Group on 16 May 2014. At the meeting, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey revealed the agency’s estimates and proposals regarding operating & maintenance costs, property valuation and tax revenue increases, funding, phasing issues, and “governance” (oversight and administration) the proposed 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion line connecting East Riverside (southeast) with the old Highland Mall site (north), currently under development as a new Austin Community College campus.

For months, Project Connect and Austin civic leaders have been considering subways, elevated lines, and other extravagant investments way out of scale for an urban rail starter line in a city of Austin’s size and density. The result is a $1.4 billion plan for urban rail linking a weak corridor, East Riverside, with a non-existent corridor, so-called “Highland”.

Meanwhile, Project Connect and the city’s leadership appear to have virtually abandoned the core neighborhoods, and heaviest local travel corridor, in the central city – Guadalupe-Lamar, where urban rail is desperately needed. The problem isn’t $1.4 billion for urban rail, it’s investing this money on what amounts to a very pricey decoration instead of addressing congestion with essential mobility.

At $119 million per mile in current dollars, Project Connect’s urban rail plan for Austin would be the third most costly light rail starter line in U.S. history, in terms of cost per mile. Compared with the previous Guadalupe-Lamar light rail project, planned until 2003, Project Connect’s plan costs 29% more than what that project would cost today, yet provides 35% less route length, and 47% fewer riders.

LEFT: Capital Metro 2000 urban rail plan included initial minimum operable segment (MOS) running 14.6 miles down Capital Metro railway, Lamar, and Guadalupe to CBD, plus 5.4 miles of extension down South Congress to Ben White and branch into East Austin. Total 20.0 miles surface route (with adaptation of existing river bridge) would cost $1.2 million in current dollars ($60 million/mile). RIGHT: Project Connect plan proposes a 9.5-mile route from East Riverside, crossing river on new "signature" bridge, proceeding through east side of CBD, East Campus, along Dean Keaton and Red River to Hancock Center, then into open cut and tunnel, then along Airport Blvd. into Highland site.  Total cost: $1.1 billion ($119 million/mile) in current dollars.

LEFT: Capital Metro 2000 urban rail plan included initial minimum operable segment (MOS) running 14.6 miles down Capital Metro railway, Lamar, and Guadalupe to CBD, plus 5.4 miles of extension down South Congress to Ben White and branch into East Austin. Total 20.0 miles of surface route (with adaptation of existing river bridge) would cost $1.2 million in current dollars ($60 million/mile). RIGHT: Project Connect plan proposes a 9.5-mile route from East Riverside, crossing river on new “signature” bridge, proceeding through east side of CBD, East Campus, along Dean Keaton and Red River to Hancock Center, then into open cut and tunnel, then along Airport Blvd. into Highland site. Total cost: $1.1 billion ($119 million/mile) in current dollars.

Stretching over 14 miles from McNeil along what’s now the MetroRail corridor, then down Lamar and Guadalupe to the CBD, that original starter line in today’s dollars would cost roughly $878 million, or about $60 million per mile, for 54% more miles of route. Ridership for 2025 was projected at 37,400 per day – 87% higher than the “high” 20,000 for Project Connect’s plan.

The next phase involved expanding into a larger 20-mile urban rail system for roughly $320 million more in today’s dollars, also amounting to about $60 million per mile. But that’s through the heart of central and south Austin, with over twice as much rail as Project Connect’s plan. By serving Austin’s highest-traffic, most populated, densest inner-city corridors, ridership was projected at 51,000 a day.

Project Connect and Austin’s leadership seem to have abandoned all thought of cost-effectiveness and seeking the best value for spending taxpayers’ money. Now they’re playing a game of magic tricks with operating-maintenance costs and dreams of a bonanza of real estate valuation increases.

But many Austin voters realize that lower ridership means higher operating subsidies from taxpayers. And while a tax rate increase is real, projections of future tax revenues are just projections — in other words, hopes and dreams.

Judging from Project Connect’s flawed, fairytale projections from last fall’s study process, Austin voters should view these hopes and dreams with strong skepticism.

Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant, is a technical consultant for the Light Rail Now Project, and a former board member and data analyst for Capital Metro. He also writes an online column for Railway Age magazine.
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Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route

4 May 2014
Capital Metro's 2000 MOS (dashed line) and full Phase 1 light rail plan. Map: FTA.

Capital Metro’s 2000 MOS (dashed line) and full Phase 1 light rail plan. Map: FTA.

Throughout the debate over urban rail for Austin, and especially Project Connect’s self-styled “central corridor study”, transit advocates who’ve insisted that the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor offers a far better route alignment than the more easterly alignment preferred by Project Connect have emphasized the salient advantages of G-L — the core city’s heaviest local arterial traffic flow, vibrant and long-established commercial activity, numerous major activity centers, the very densely populated West Campus — as reasons for anticipating an extremely effective, affordable, and successful urban rail project in this corridor.

These expectations are supported in key official documents produced in the period 1999-2000. In addition, in a comparison of equivalent metrics with the Project Connect plan, the superiority of a Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail alignment is clear. Austin Rail Now is making these two critical documents available as PDF files linked in this posting:

Capital Metro – Annual Report on New Starts – Executive Summary (November 10,1999)

This important document was formerly available on Capital Metro’s website, but apparently has been removed. This PDF was created from a hardcopy in the possession of Lyndon Henry.

Federal Transit Administration – Austin Light Rail Corridors – Austin, Texas (November 1999)

This document no longer remains available as a webpage at the FTA’s site. For convenience, Austin Rail Now has posted a PDF on this site. (Note: This has been updated since original posting.)

Project Connect’s plan, at last revealed on May 2nd to a meeting of the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG), proposes an easterly alignment running about 9.5 miles from the Highland/Austin Community College site, through the East Campus of the University of Texas, through the east side of downtown, across the Colorado River, to Grove Blvd. on East Riverside Drive. The investment cost was estimated at about $1.4 billion (about $145 million per mile), yielding projected ridership of 16,000 to 20,000 per day (average weekday).

In contrast, the official documents cited above for Capital Metro’s 2000 light rail plan in the Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress (SoCo) corridor provide an authoritative basis for a comparison. Capital Metro’s proposal was sectioned into two parts — a shorter Minimum Operable Segment (MOS), running from McNeil Rd. in north Austin — using railway right of way (now used by today’s MetroRail), then Lamar-Guadalupe — to the CBD, and a full Phase 1 plan, which added a line down South Congress to Ben White, and another branch on Capital Metro’s railway right of way to Pleasant Valley Rd. (See map at top.)

Capital Metro's 2000 light rail plan envisioned urban rail running through the SoCo area. Simulation: Capital Metro.

Capital Metro’s 2000 light rail plan envisioned urban rail running through the SoCo area. Simulation: Capital Metro.

As you can see from the information in these documents, the 2000 route plan benefited from the heavy travel densities in these key central corridors, the plethora of major activity centers, and the higher population densities, especially in the West Campus area.

MOS (McNeil Rd. to CBD) — This 14.6-mile initial starter line segment was projected to cost $739.0 million in 2007 (Year of Expenditure) dollars. In 2014 dollars, this comes to roughly $878 million, or about $60 million per mile — about 41% of the per-mile cost of the Project Connect plan. That’s for about 54% more miles of route. Ridership for the forecast year (2025) was projected at 37,400 per day — 87% higher than Project Connect’s “high” estimate of 20,000 for their own plan.

Phase 1 (full MOS, East Austin, SoCo) — The full 20.0-mile Phase 1 plan carried a projected cost of $1,085.8 million in 2010 (YOE) dollars. In 2014 dollars, this tallies to about $1,198 million, or (again) about $60 million per mile and about 41% of the unit cost of the Project Connect plan. And that’s for more than double the route-mileage. Yet ridership for the 2025 forecast year was projected at 51,000 per day — over 2.5 times higher than Project Connect’s “high” estimate of 20,000.

Thus, as these documents reveal, for a dramatically lower cost per mile, and total cost, either the “starter line” MOS plan or the full Phase 1 plan centered on the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor delivered strikingly higher ridership, in comparison with the proposal offered by Project Connect and Austin’s current leadership. In other words, far more bang for the buck.

Why would Austin citizens want to invest in Project Connect’s plan, which costs so much more for so much less ridership? This question, and these comparisons, should be kept well in mind by both Austin decisionmakers and the public at large as they continue to ponder the Project Connect plan vs. alternatives for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. ■

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Austin urban rail: Unfortunate revelations from Project Connect’s April 12th “workshop”

14 April 2014
At April 12th "public workshop", attendees watch presentation from Project Connect Urban rail Lead Kyle Keahey. Photo: L. Henry.

At April 12th “public workshop”, attendees watch presentation from Project Connect Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey. Photo: L. Henry.

By Lyndon Henry

On Saturday, April 12th, Project Connect held an event they described as a “Central Corridor Public Workshop” at a location on East Riverside Drive. The notice for the event stated that Project Connect team members would be available “to provide an overview of the issues under study, gather input on maps and final alternatives and answer questions. Input gathered from the workshop will help develop potential transit projects for further study.”

Prior to the event, I prepared a number of questions I would like to have answered. I also disseminated these among other Austin public transit activists.

My questions are presented below, followed by feedback — some of it troubling — that I was able to receive from Project Connect personnel.

 


 

• Why are the public (who are expected to vote ultimate approval) being allowed only these rare, occasional, highly constrained opportunities to review and select from a narrow assortment of choices determined by the Project Connect team and officials? Why aren’t the public, through an inclusive community-wide technical committee, being given the opportunity to be involved in reviewing the basic data, interacting with the consultants, and formulating the choices themselves?

One Project Connect representative seemed to recognize the value of “an inclusive community-wide technical committee” in broadening the pool of possible alternative solutions to challenging issues. He suggested that names of possible candidates for such a group could be forwarded to him.

• Why is Project Connect still going through the motions of a purported high-capacity transit “study” to determine alignment and mode, and seek CCAG and Council approval for an LPA (Locally Preferred Alternative), when it’s already submitted $1.6 billion of URBAN RAIL projects for inclusion in CAMPO’s 2040 plan — including $275mn already projected for an initial route to Hancock to open in 2020? If URBAN RAIL and its details are already a foregone conclusion, why is taxpayers’ money and the time and effort of CCAG, the City Council, and other bodies being wasted on this?

A Project Connect representative’s explanation (consistent with arguments already reported in a newspaper account) was that the “urban rail” data were submitted as “placeholders” in CAMPO’s preparatory process for its 2040 regional transportation plan. However, since Project Connect has supposedly “zeroed out” its previous urban rail plans for central Austin, and within the current “high-capacity transit” study process no mode or specific alignment has yet been formally determined, why were specific “urban rail” projects inserted as “placeholders”, and not a more generic “high-capacity transit” designation? “That’s a good question” was the response.

The dollar amounts were described as mere “updates” of previous Project Connect cost estimates from approximately 2012. But at that time, no “Hancock-Highland” route was planned, so where did the $91.4 million cost for this segment come from? This was “another good question”.

• Why is $190mn in “BRT” infrastructure being proposed for Guadalupe-Lamar? Won’t this be a barrier to future urban rail?

Including $12.9 million allocated to “BRT” infrastructure on Guadalupe and Lavaca, the total for Guadalupe-Lamar “BRT” amounts to $202.9 million. A Project Connect representative was unable to say what specific infrastructure items this included, nor whether these would present a physical barrier to future urban rail.

• Why is a Guadalupe-Lamar route omitted from the $1.6bn urban rail submission to CAMPO’s 2040 plan?

I didn’t have a chance to raise this question directly, but a Project Connect representative insisted that urban rail as well as “BRT” and possibly other modes would be evaluated for future needs in this corridor.

• Why is this plan proposing a slow, tortuous, meandering route from downtown, the least active part of the UT campus, and Hancock Center, to ultimately reach Highland/ACC? Where’s evidence of the travel demand in this route? Does this route carry as much travel as the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor?

The basic responses from a couple of Project Connect personnel at this event seemed to be that the situation has changed since the original “straight and simple” urban rail route in the Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress corridor was proposed in 2000. Issues of comparative travel demand and ridership weren’t addressed by the personnel. However, several Project Connect representatives seemed to regret that official attitudes no longer favor shifting existing street (and bridge) space from motor vehicle traffic capacity to urban rail.

• What’s the ridership projected for this route? (Wouldn’t that be considered in the decision to submit this to CAMPO?) How can Project Connect claim that this route would have more ridership than the 30,000+ daily ridership previously forecast for the Guadalupe-Lamar route?

A Project Connect representative emphasized that ridership figures for the current proposed line will be forthcoming. But Project Connect representatives seemed to regard previous assessments of the potential of urban rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as a moot issue.

• Why is a new $75mn bridge proposed to cross Lady Bird Lake, when either the Congress or S. First St. bridge could be retrofitted for urban rail at half the cost or less ($23-36mn)?

Project Connect Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey indicated that the option of retrofitting one of the existing bridges was presented to the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) but was rejected by the group. Accordingly, it has not been pursued further, so the only option has been to propose constructing a totally new bridge.

I pointed out that current officials and selected civic leaders in the CCAG and Transit Working Group (TWG) seem to have adopted a position that retrogresses from the general consensus of 2000 that traffic lanes in streets, arterials, and bridges should and would be reallocated from general traffic to rail transit. Thus, Austin’s leaders appear to have taken a big step backward in their mindset.

• Is a grade separation considered necessary for urban rail to cross the MetroRail line? Why? Dispatching is entirely under the control of CapMetro. Light rail already crosses heavy rail lines in Philadelphia and Tampa. (This issue would also be involved in the case of urban rail on N. Lamar and the MetroRail line.)

According to a couple of Project Connect personnel, because Capital Metro is converting MetroRail to full compliance with Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) heavy rail standards, the unfortunate (and disputable) assessment of Project Connect planners is that urban rail can no longer cross this line at grade, unlike general traffic. This has not specifically been discussed with either FRA or the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), but Project Connect doesn’t want to get involved with the FRA over this. This also means that, according to Project Connect, urban rail will not cross the MetroRail line at grade either downtown or on North Lamar.

I pointed out that this now encumbers any urban rail plan with an extra liability of tens of millions of dollars for constructing grade separations at any future crossing, but Project Connect and civic leaders now seem to exhibit an unfortunate willingness to accept this. The “Highland” urban rail route plan now includes options for tunnels with a cost range of $230 to $290 million for urban rail to access the north side of the MetroRail line and reach Airport Blvd. This would seem to push the total cost of just the downtown-Hancock-Highland/ACC segment close to $600 million (roughly $275 million + $90 million + $250 million).

As I pointed out to several Project Connect representatives, this entire “study” process (post-2004 through the creation of the Project Connect consortium) has resulted in morphing from a simple, relatively straight, affordable surface urban rail route through central Austin’s major activity centers and highest residential densities, with no need for any major civil works, into a meandering, convoluted, complicated route serving more marginal activity centers and less density, and requiring vast expense to build bridges and tunnels.

Urban rail (light rail transit) route proposed in 2000 was much straighter, simpler, cost-effective, and affordable, will no major civil works. Project was approved by majority of City of Austin voters, but failed in Capital Metro service area as a whole. Map: Light Rail Now library.

Urban rail (light rail transit) route proposed in 2000 was much straighter, simpler, cost-effective, and affordable, with no major civil works — and it served central Austin’s heaviest travel needs and highest population density. Project was approved by majority of City of Austin voters, but ballot measure very narrowly (<1%) failed in Capital Metro service area as a whole. Map: Light Rail Now library.

This seems to be the result of errors that are built upon previous errors — in a sense, a process whereby Project Connect is simply digging itself (and the Austin community) into a deeper and deeper hole. Perhaps they’ll begin to understand why I and so many other advocates of public transportation expansion in Austin have become so disgusted not only with Project Connect and its process, but also with the proposals that are emerging from it.

Apparently under pressure from City officials and various civic leaders, the Project Connect process unfortunately also seems to have departed from the goal of seeking a cost-effective, affordable urban rail network for metro Austin. In addition to the other revelations, this was indeed very disturbing. Ideally, the entire Project Connect process would be “reset” back to zero, and a totally new process, embracing once again this goal, would be re-launched.

Possibly, a rejection of Project Connect’s plan and quest for bond funding in November by voters would lead to such a “re-boot” of the urban rail planning process. Otherwise, if this approach to rail development goes forward, it would certainly seem that future rail transit infrastructure expansion in Austin would be severely constrained by the legacy of bad past decisions and design criteria that impose very heavy cost encumbrances.

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West Campus is where the students are!

26 March 2014
Rendition of LRT on Drag from 2000. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.

Rendition of urban rail on Drag from 2000. From the late 1980s until the mid-2000s, Guadalupe-Lamar was recognized as the primary major corridor for an urban rail starter line. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.

For at least the past 8 years, City of Austin and Capital Metro officials, and the planners and engineers following their bidding, have insisted on plotting a route for urban rail (light rail transit, LRT) along San Jacinto Street, through the relatively quiet, marginal East Campus of the University of Texas campus. Meanwhile they’ve continually dismissed and avoided the high-activity West Campus area, with the busy commercial activity center along the Drag, plus the third-highest-density residential population in Texas, and the intense Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) travel corridor, ranking as the highest-traffic local arterial corridor in central Austin.

Where urban rail needs to be is emphasized in the following map graphic, based on 2010 Census data and prepared by the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), a nonprofit headed by Scott Morris (Scott also leads the separate Our Rail coalition promoting voter support for urban rail in the G-L corridor).

Large cluster of red sections illustrates residents in age cohort 18-24 years old, overwhelmingly located in West Campus neighborhood just west of the Drag and the UT campus. Additional high-density clusters can be seen on campus, as well as north along and near Guadalupe. Density enclave along San Jacinto (bulge in southeast corner of campus) is small fraction of West Campus concentration. Map: CACDC.

Large cluster of red sections illustrates residents in age cohort 18-24 years old, overwhelmingly located in West Campus neighborhood just west of the Drag and the UT campus. Additional high-density clusters can be seen on campus, as well as north along and near Guadalupe. Density enclave along San Jacinto (bulge in southeast corner of campus) is small fraction of West Campus concentration. Map: CACDC. (Click to enlarge.)

It can be seen that the overwhelming preponderance of typically college-student-aged population (18-24) is concentrated in the West Campus neighborhood, on the west side of the campus itself, and along or near the G-L corridor north of the campus. As CACDC explains on its website, UT’s Student Government (UTSG) — described as “the official voice of 52,000 students” — has made clear its preference for a West Campus urban rail alignment:

On April 23, 2013, and October 1, 2013 the University of Texas Student Government Assembly passed Resolution AR-5 and Resolution AR-15 respectively, unanimously calling for the Guadalupe-North Lamar Alignment to connect West Campus to Downtown as Austin’s first rail alignment priority. UT students want a connection to their downtown from their homes, not from the east side of campus.

At the time of the first UTSG vote, a Daily Texan editorial emphasized the importance of connecting urban rail to the West Campus:

According to new census data, the UT campus and West Campus are among the most densely populated census tracts in the state. Failing to link these neighborhoods to a new rail system would be a disservice to the students who live there — all of whom contribute to the city’s property tax revenue every time they mail their sky-high rent checks.

The editorial noted that the UTSG resolution voiced concerns about the official plans “for rail to run through the UT campus along San Jacinto Boulevard, a route that is too far from the density of activity and residents along the western edge of campus.”

Instead, reports the Texan, “The resolution endorses a rail line along or near Guadalupe that would ‘directly serve students in their home communities, by building through the heart of residential student density.'”

It’s clear that the East Campus route using San Jacinto fails to meet this need. But instead of serving its students — and the desperately more pressing mobility needs of Austin’s population as a whole — UT’s administration has focused on demanding urban rail as a kind of embellishment to its own East Campus expansion plans. This began with envisioning rail as a campus circulator following the decision in the early 2000s to relocate the major campus shuttlebus hub from the Speedway/21st St. area at Jester Center to the East Fountain on San Jacinto near Memorial Stadium. Since then, UT has become increasingly insistent that Austin’s rail planners heed their bidding and keep urban rail’s route planned for San Jacinto. In repeated public statements, UT’s Vice-President for University Operations, Pat Clubb, has emphasized the University’s plans for museums, administration buildings, and other facilities that administrators would like to have served by rail in the East Campus.

But an urban rail starter line cannot go everywhere and serve every “nice to have” location or activity point. Particularly for a New Start project, it’s crucial for the line to go where the people actually are, where the density is, and especially where the public have been demonstrating, with their own behavior, they want to go. That’s the West Campus and the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

So here’s a couple of suggestions for UT and Project Connect: (1) Launch a nice MetroRapid Bus Upgraded Transit service for the Trinity-Jacinto corridor and East Campus (current MetroRapid buses could even be relocated for that purpose as urban rail is installed in Guadalupe-Lamar); and (2) If UT’s administration are desperate for urban rail to complement their East Campus development plans, how about they fund and install an eastside branch of urban rail themselves?

Just sayin’…

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SXSW transit — MetroRail trains attracted crowds, excitement! MetroRapid buses? Nyah…

18 March 2014
Commuting passengers deboard a MetroRail train. During SXSW, passengers have jammed onto trains, setting new ridership records. Photo: L. Henry.

Commuting passengers deboard a MetroRail train. During SXSW, passengers have jammed onto trains, setting new ridership records. Photo: L. Henry.

For at least most of the past year, as this blog has been noting, Project Connect has gradually shifted away from promoting “urban rail” (light rail transit, LRT) and more into emphasizing the delights of an abstract, amorphous mode of travel they’re calling “high-capacity transit”, which can supposedly range from dressed-up buses running in mixed traffic (MetroRapid) to actual high-capacity trains or railcars running on tracks.

In Project Connect’s schema, the impression is conveyed that it’s all the same — rubber-tired buses running on the street, or trains running on tracks, either will do the same basic job. So, for the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor, where Capital Metro launched the first MetroRapid route this past January, the new bus service has been christened “bus rapid transit” (BRT).

This has occurred in the midst of Project Connect’s jaw-dropping campaign to forsake the City of Austin’s long-standing commitments of urban rail for core neighborhoods and commercial activities along the heavy-traffic Guadalupe-Lamar and the high-density West Campus, in favor of serving the much weaker East Riverside area and a virtually non-existent “corridor” connecting downtown, the relatively backwater East Campus, Hancock Center, and the old Highland Mall site (now becoming a major ACC campus). Curiously, more than half of the “Highland” route replicates the previous Mueller route that had already sparked enough controversy to force Project Connect to embark on its “study” charade last summer.

As the debate heated up over Project Connect’s very dubious “study” and subsequent decision to proceed with the Riverside-Highland route, neighborhood residents and other supporters of the G-L route found themselves repeatedly lectured that they should be satisifed with the spiffy new MetroRapid bus service they were getting — just like rail, but cheaper, it was implied. And in any case, these buses are so “permanent”, you can just forget any urban rail for decades, so just take it and accept it.

Meanwhile, after launching MetroRapid bus (accompanied by a rather low-key ceremony with invited guests) in late January, CapMetro encountered a swarm of new problems, mainly (1) widespread passenger irritation over the disruption and degradation of previous bus service in the corridor, (2) complaints over the tendency of MetroRapid buses (with no fixed schedule. but supposedly about 10 minutes apart at peak) to bunch up (leaving many passengers waiting 20 minutes), and (3) a decidedly unexcited public reception of the new service — prompting CapMetro to issue a steady stream of marketing pitches on Twitter and in other media attempting to persuade the public to try the service. And despite CapMetro’s hoopla, the fact remains that MetroRapid buses run almost entirely in mixed traffic, often congested, and it’s arguable that the actual level of service has been degraded, not improved. (Also see: Is Capital Metro’s New MetroRapid Service Leaving Bus Riders Behind?)

MetroRapid bus at a stop on the Drag. Passengers have not crowded aboard the new service as they have on MetroRail. Photo: L. Henry.

MetroRapid bus at a stop on the Drag. Passengers have not crowded aboard the new service as they have on MetroRail. Photo: L. Henry.

… Which brings us to Austin’s famous South by Southwest (SXSW) annual extravaganza March 7th-16th in the city’s core area. With a daunting array of street closures and street-fair-style activities, local transportation officials’ efforts to encourage people to leave their cars elsewhere and ride transit are virtually a no-brainer. And, by Project Connect’s schema, besides regular buses, visitors have had two major choices in “high-capacity transit” to choose from in getting downtown: the brand-new, MetroRapid service with its spiffy-looking, red-and-grey articulated (“bendy”) buses, and MetroRail, CapMetro’s “commuter” light railway with its large, comfortable, smooth-riding railcars, now in their fourth year of service.

The choices that SXSW transit riders have made, the object of media attention and other indications of public excitement, and reports from CapMetro via Twitter and other media have spoken volumes about what kind of “high-capacity transit” mode — rail or MetroRapid bus — generates real excitement and is most preferred by the public. And it ain’t MetroRapid bus.

Overwhelmingly, it’s been CapMetro’s MetroRail rail transit trains that have been crowded with passengers, and it’s been MetroRail that has gotten nearly all the focus of favorable news coverage and other attention. And that should give you some idea of why so many neighborhoods, UT students, and others along the G-L corridor are clamoring for urban rail, not a faux “bus rapid transit” substitute, to provide the high-quality transit service they need.

Typical of news coverage during SXSW was a KXAN-TV report Web-posted with the headline “Additional road closures during SXSW push more people to take MetroRail”.

“During South by Southwest, traffic jams are not unusual…” observed the reporter. “But for those who live here, trying to get to and from work can be even more frustrating than usual.”

One commuter, Shermayne Crawford, told the reporter: “I drove to work Monday and I think it took me an hour and a half to get home.” Because of that, explained the reporter, “She decided she would be using MetroRail for the rest of the week.”

“It’s worth taking it. It moves fast…” said Crawford. “It’s a little packed this week but overall I’ve been able to get a seat and enjoy myself on my way to work.”

According to a report by KUT-FM radio, MetroRail has been experiencing record ridership during the festival, with boardings “up from last year by almost 7,000” just in “the first several days” according to CapMetro. .

Capital Metro even had to operate an additional train after hours to carry more than 100 passengers still waiting on the platform. The trains on Saturday are starting at 10 a.m. – a few hours earlier than usual.

Perhaps nothing better highlights the enthusiasm of SXSW visitors for MetroRail’s train service than CapMetro’s own announcements and news bulletins. For example, on its website the agency posted:

Extended MetroRail Service
We know MetroRail is popular for traveling downtown during SXSW. We’re expanding our regular MetroRail service to help ease congestion:

Extra service on Saturday, March 8 and 15 (10 a.m. – 2 a.m.)
Additional trips all day, March 10-14
Monday – Tuesday, March 10-11: 6 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Wednesday – Thursday, March 12-13: 6 a.m. – 12:30 a.m.
Friday, March 14: 6 a.m. – 1 a.m.

Friday & Monday, March 7 & 17 – Regular schedule
No MetroRail service on Sunday, March 9 & 16
See the extended schedule tables below for exact times.
Our train is popular, so expect some crowding onboard. What can you do if the train’s full?

Cyclists encouraged to use at-station bike racks
Check our Trip Planner or station signage for alternative routes downtown, many bus routes accessible within a few blocks

As the crush of passengers on the trains grew, in some cases causing delays, CapMetro labored to keep riders informed and assured that the service was being maintained, via an avalanche of nearly frenzied Twitter news feeds. Here’s just a small sampling from the past several days:

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX 19h
It’s 2 AM & you still have one more chance to ride the #MetroRail during #SXSW. Last Northbound train from Downtown Station departs at 2:19.

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX 20h
MetroRail experiencing delays of approx. 20-25 mins. due to overcrowding & operating additional trains. Trains at capacity. #MetroRailAlert

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX 21h
Though the clock has hit midnight, #MetroRail is still going strong. Last Northbound train from the Downtown Station is at 2:19 AM.

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX 21h
MetroRail experiencing delays of approx. 15-20 mins. due to overcrowding & operating additional trains. Trains at capacity. #MetroRailAlert

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX 22h
MetroRail currently experiencing delays of approximately 10-15 minutes due to overcrowding & operating additional trains. #MetroRailAlert

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX 25h
MetroRail is currently experiencing delays of 15-20 minutes due to overcrowding. #MetroRailAlert

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX 26h
MetroRail experiencing delays of approximately 10-12 minutes due to overcrowding & operating additional trains. #MetroRailAlert

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX 28h
Be aware: Trains have been packed this #SXSW! It’s a great way to get around, but expect crowds and possible waits at platforms all day.

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX Mar 15
Parking and riding? Temp. #SXSW MetroRail parking available at Kramer at City Electric Supply on 2540 Brockton Dr.

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX Mar 15
Rail riders: MetroRail frequency being bumped up, service every 34 mins ALL DAY this SXSW Saturday to ease crowds: http://bit.ly/1lFtEH4

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX Mar 15
MetroRail is running on a 15-20 min. delay at this time. Thanks for your patience. #MetroRailAlert

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX Mar 15
MetroRail is currently operating on a 15-20 min. delay due to overcrowding. #MetroRailAlert

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX Mar 15
MetroRail is currently operating on a 15 min. delay due to overcrowding. #MetroRailAlert

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX Mar 15
FRI 3/14: See tonight’s MetroRail schedules here: http://www.capmetro.org/sxsw.aspx?id=3262#scheduletables …. #MetroRailAlert ^AP

Capital Metro ‏@CapMetroATX Mar 14
MetroRail is experiencing 15 min delays due to crowds and running an extra train. #MetroRailAlert

To be fair, CapMetro’s buses have also seen strong ridership. As the above-cited KUT report recounts,

The bus service has also been popular. Capital Metro could not provide preliminary figures on ridership, but the transit company says many buses have been at full capacity.

However, next to no mention of the previously much-vaunted MetroRapid bus service. That new “bus rapid transit” operation? No reports of crowding, no extra service rollout, no media excitement. No frenzy of Twitter feeds or other media messages from CapMetro.

It’s trains, not dressy buses, that have drawn the crowds aboard and captured news media attention.

Keep in mind, however, that urban rail — using electric light rail transit trains — would be vastly superior even to MetroRail’s diesel-powered service. Instead of MetroRail’s circuitous “dogleg” around the heart of Austin and into lower downtown, urban rail trains would ride straight down Lamar and Guadalupe, able to make more stops and offer faster service because of their electric-powered acceleration. And they’d also be cheaper to operate.

As in this example from Houston's light rail system, urban rail would be powered by electricity and operate mainly in the street — in Austin's case, Guadalupe and Lamar. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

As in this example from Houston’s light rail system, urban rail would be powered by electricity and operate mainly in the street — in Austin’s case, Guadalupe and Lamar. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

However, MetroRail at least gives a taste of the advantages of rail transit. And the SXSW experience has provided a de facto “test case” of MetroRail and MetroRapid bus running more or less “head-to-head”, providing somewhat “parallel” transit service opportunities. And it certainly looks like the one rolling with steel wheels on steel rails wins.

That should give a clue as to why supporters of urban rail for Guadalupe-Lamar are far from satisified with being given a bus “rapid transit” substitute for bona fide LRT. One would hope that Project Connect, CapMetro, and City of Austin officials and transportation planners would get the message.

But even if they don’t, maybe Austin voters will.

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Northfield Neighborhood Association: “First investment of light rail” should be Guadalupe-Lamar!

11 March 2014
Left map shows Northfield Neighborhood Association (shaded brown) in central-city context, between North Lamar and I-35. Right map zooms in on the association's boundaries, with the MetroRail Red Line (labeled as "Austin and Northwestern"), albeit with no stations, cutting through its easten side. "University of Texas" section just southwest of Northfield is UT's Intramural Fields property, which has been used for athletics and a park & ride facility for UT shuttlebuses. Maps: Northfield NA.

Left map shows Northfield Neighborhood Association (shaded brown) in central-city context, between North Lamar and I-35. Right map zooms in on the association’s boundaries, with the MetroRail Red Line (labeled as “Austin and Northwestern”), albeit with no stations, cutting through its easten side. “University of Texas” section just southwest of Northfield is UT’s Intramural Fields property, which has been used for athletics and a park & ride facility for UT shuttlebuses. Maps: Northfield NA.

They just keep piling up — community and neighborhood endorsements of urban rail (light rail transit, LRT) for the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor as a key public transport “backbone” for the heart of the central core city.

This time it’s a resolution passed unanimously late last month by the Northfield Neighborhood Association (NA), basically located along the east side of North Lamar just south of the Highland NA. According to the association’s website, the boundaries of Northfield Neighborhood Association are defined by 51st, Lamar, Airport, and Koenig (see map at top).

There are approximately 1,400 households in the neighborhood. … There is also a thriving local business scene on North Loop Blvd and two of our border streets: Airport Blvd and Lamar Blvd.

Screenshot of Northfield NA resolution supporting light rail transit on Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (Click to enlarge.)

Screenshot of Northfield NA resolution supporting light rail transit on Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (Click to enlarge.)

Emphasizing that “light rail would improve the quality of life of our residents by giving them a new and efficient transportation choice and reducing dependency on cars of those of those who use our area’s roads to commute …,” the resolution proceeds to note that

…the Northfield Neighborhood Association is a signatory of the North Loop Neighborhood Plan, City of Austin Ordinance 020523-30, a planning area with a 2010 population of 5,814, in which Northfield 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, providing for light-rail to commuter rail transfers at Crestview station, and a future commuter rail line on Airport Boulevard corridor ….

As the resolution also points out,

…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 Brentwood-Highland Combined Neighborhood Plan, City of Austin Ordinance 040513-30 ….

This underscores the long record of cooperation by Austin’s core central neighborhoods with the planning objectives and assurances given to them by the City of Austin — now basically being shredded by Project Connect and the current city council, which are proceeding to forsake these commitments and discard rational, data-supported planning in preference for fabricating a rigged “high-capacity transit” plan aimed at fulfilling the needs of private developers and pushing Austin’s center of gravity away from the core city and further eastward. (See: City Council to Central Austin: Drop Dead.)

In contrast, the Northfield resolution focuses squarely on the clear and obvious public transportation priority for the city, affirming that

…the Northfield 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]

…the Northfield 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….

This strong endorsement of central Austin’s top-priority local travel corridor as a potential urban rail starter line, provided by another of Austin’s most important central-neighborhood associations, has political implications that should send a pointed message to local officials and decisionmakers. As Scott Morris — head of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation and leader of the Our Rail coalition — has observed, this action by Northfield “is a major milestone.”

Not only is Northfield “a dual-alignment neighborhood” (i.e., served both by North Lamar and the MetroRail Red Line), Morris points out, but the association’s constituency “have had tremendous exposure to the Red Line operations, and have participated directly in the Airport Corridor Initiative.”

Of particular significance, Morris notes, is that the resolution action “came weeks after council action” — emphasizing that, despite the pretense of planning “derived from the Project Connect process”, the momentum in favor of Guadalupe-North Lamar “is not going away.” With Northfield’s formal support through its resolution endorsing the G-L corridor, Morris emphasizes, “it is now possible to walk from MLK to 183 by only passing through communities that support rail on Guadalupe-North Lamar.”

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Project Connect data in 2012 showed urban rail beats “BRT” in cost-effectiveness

1 March 2014
xxxxxx

Left: Urban rail simulation (Graphic: COA rev. ARN). Right: MetroRapid bus on the Drag (Photo: L. Henry).

As this blog has noted, it’s curious how, in recent months, Project Connect — at least in official statements — has been somewhat distancing itself from explicitly advocating “urban rail” (Mayor Leffingwell’s recent “rail or fail” rhetoric is an exception, but, then, he’s not officially a Project Connect official) and increasingly portraying its focus to be “high-capacity transit“, a generic term that seems to apply to virtually all surface public transport modes approximately above the capacity of a van.

Moreover, this “high-capacity” concept seems to consider just about everything somehow equal in function. Thus, bus routes and urban rail lines could, in this rather dubious schema, be interchanged or substituted in planning.

This, of course, is nonsense — there are huge differences between rail and bus in performance, attractiveness to the public, operational capabilities, environmental implications, longterm cost-effectiveness, and other attributes, with rail tending to lead. But Project Connect’s approach treating these modes as generally interchangeable seems to accord the agency at least two advantages:

(1) It gives Project Connect and other public officials some flexibility to put urban rail where they want it, MetroRapid (faux “bus rapid transit” or BRT) where they want it … and it helps alibi why some areas supposedly due for “high-capacity transit” end up getting just a fancy bus route (MetroRapid). With money tight, Project Connect can install perhaps a few miles of rail (or perhaps none), cover the rest with bus service, and claim they’re offering a vast “rapid transit” system to the Austin-area public (and voters).

(2) It has allowed City and Capital Metro officials, as well as Project Connect’s leadership, to designate the modest, minimal MetroRapid bus service in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as “high-capacity transit” and even “rapid transit” — for which, it’s implied, this key section of the central city should be profoundly grateful. And in any case, it’s all the “high-capacity transit” these core neighborhoods can expect to get for the foreseeable future — so be content with what you’ve got, while we all move on.

But Project Connect’s championing of generic “high-capacity transit” and the alleged marvels of MetroRapid stands in glaring contrast to the agency’s narrative and course of argument of the recent past. Just two years ago, and for the past six or so years before that, City planners and then Project Connect were hammering away incessantly about the need for Urban Rail — urban rail was absolutely essential, it was a must-have, it was the linchpin of the regional transit plan …

Of course, local officials and their planners insisted it had to run from downtown, through the relatively empty East Campus, to Mueller.

So … why not run just a good bus service?

Well, official planners have gone to great lengths to justify the need for rail. Rail, it’s argued, has an exceptional tendency to attract adjacent development, especially transit-oriented development. That’s true. Also true is their insistence that urban rail, particularly as ridership grows, is far more cost-effective than bus service over the longer term.

And that’s precisely the point succinctly made, for example, in a couple of neatly rendered data-visualization slides included in a presentation from Project Connect to the Transit Working Group (TWG) on 1 June 2012.

This first slide compares urban rail and “bus rapid transit” (i.e., bus upgraded transit of some kind) in total cost per passenger. The graph indicates that rail and bus become equal in total cost per passenger (presumably, rider-trip) at a ridership level of around 10,000 daily passengers. After that, urban rail becomes significantly lower.

Total cost per passenger of urban rail becomes lower than "bus rapid transit" as ridership rises above about 10,000 per day. Graph: Project Connect.

Total cost per passenger of urban rail becomes lower than “bus rapid transit” as ridership rises above about 10,000 per day. Graph: Project Connect.

In this second slide (below), Project Connect displays that the operating and maintenance (O&M) cost of urban rail is projected to be consistently less than that of “BRT”.

Operating & maintenance (O&M) cost per passenger-mile of urban rail is projected to be consistently lower than "bus rapid transit". Graph: Project Connect.

Operating & maintenance (O&M) cost per passenger-mile of urban rail is projected to be consistently lower than “bus rapid transit”. Graph: Project Connect.

So these projections from Project Connect raise intriguing questions:

• If urban rail is so much more cost-effective than “BRT”, doesn’t this mean that it would be more cost-effective than MetroRapid, which various Project connect, City, and Capital Metro spokesmen have repeatedly characterized as “BRT”?

• If urban rail is indeed so much more cost-effective than MetroRapid, why is the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor being consigned MetroRapid as its “high-capacity transit” solution — especially when ridership projections have forecast this corridor as having the highest ridership potential in the entire region?

• Put another way — Why is Guadalupe-Lamar — Austin’s heaviest center-city local traffic corridor, and its densest and most promising core neighborhoods and commercial districts — being saddled with a more costly MetroRapid service, less appropriate for needed capacity, while the heavy resources to install urban rail are being focused on a convoluted Rube Goldberg-style route scheme to serve the East Campus, Hancock Center, and (purportedly) an eastern access to the Highland/ACC site?

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Contradicting local official claims, FTA says it “would consider request” for urban rail on North Lamar

1 February 2014
MetroRapid bus (left) and simulation of urban rail (right). Actual FTA view expresses openness to consider replacing MetroRapid service with urban rail in North Lamar corridor. Photo: L. Henry; simulation: COA.

MetroRapid bus (left) and simulation of urban rail (right). Actual FTA view expresses openness to consider replacing MetroRapid service with urban rail in North Lamar corridor. Photo: L. Henry; simulation: COA.

On December 12th, in the course of a contentious meeting, the Austin City Council endorsed Project Connect’s recommendation to pursue “high-capacity transit” in East Riverside and a narrow swath of area mostly northeast of the UT campus, dubbed the “Highland sub-corridor”. (See City Council to Central Austin: Drop Dead.) Present at this meeting was a long queue of critics of the proposal, and proponents of an alternative urban rail route in the “backbone” West Campus-Guadalupe-Lavaca corridor.

Over previous months, Project Connect and its partisans had repeatedly insisted that Capital Metro’s new MetroRapid bus service in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor – because it was funded by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) – was an impenetrable barrier to urban rail. In recent days, the argument had intensified, with solemn declarations that even raising the issue of replacing MetroRapid bus with urban rail might so incense FTA that all future federal funding could be jeopardized.

Thus, in this context, earlier in the December 12th Council meeting, anticipating a barrage of criticism over the rejection of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, Councilman Mike Martinez (also chairman of Capital Metro) took the opportunity to make a special announcement, evidently intended to steal a march on Guadalupe-Lamar proponents. Word from the FTA had just come in, he intoned, that the agency considered Metro Rapid an absolutely “permanent” investment, and therefore a daunting obstacle to its replacement by rail.

From the City of Austin transcript, the following are Councilman Martinez’s remarks (for readability, edited for spelling, grammar, and punctuation):

I wanted to read a response from FTA that Capital Metro received this afternoon in a meeting with them in Fort Worth. This is an FTA official that … his response to the question about the high-capacity transit that is already going in, the BRT in the Lamar corridor.

His response was: BRT in the North Lamar corridor is a priority transit project. The project was supported by the region through CAMPO. Capital Metro and FTA signed a contract to this effect. FTA sees their investment as permanent.

It is important to consider that there are many demands for federal funds on new starts and small starts [projects]. and FTA made a permanent investment in this [corridor]. If Capital Metro were to come back to FTA and indicate there is a change in priorities or new need in this corridor, Capital Metro, CAMPO and the community would need to go through the entire planning process again to show that urban rail is the highest priority for this corridor.

That to me is a pretty definitive statement from FTA that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to go back through the process and receive new start money in that corridor. They view the current investment as permanent.

City of Austin transcript excerpt with Councilmember Mike Martinez's Dec. 12th remarks on FTA, MetroRapid, and urban rail for North Lamar. Screenshot: L. Henry.

City of Austin transcript excerpt with Councilmember Mike Martinez’s Dec. 12th remarks on FTA, MetroRapid, and urban rail for North Lamar. Screenshot: L. Henry.

While the FTA statement, as read orally, seemed less of a definitive and absolute rejection of an urban rail alternative in the Lamar corridor than Councilman Martinez portrayed it, as it turned out, further examination or evaluation of the statement was not immediately possible because a printed copy was not made available to the public for scrutiny. Instead, it took a Public Information Request by Scott Morris of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation, and over 40 days, before the actual FTA statement was made available, in the original form provided to Councilman Martinez.

The FTA’s views, as communicated orally to Capital Metro’s representative Ken Cartwright, are summarized by Capital Metro in an internal document available by download from ARN. As this document indicates, Capital Metro raised the issue: “We have been approached about the possibility of putting an urban rail investment in the North Lamar corridor where we already have the BRT investment.”

FTA’s oral (“verbal”) response is summarized:

The Austin community decided that bus rapid transit in the North Lamar corridor was a priority and the next need. The project was supported by the region through CAMPO. Capital Metro and FTA signed a contract to this effect. FTA sees their investments as permanent. However, if the Austin community were to come back to FTA and indicate that there has been a change in priorities or a new need in this corridor, FTA would consider the request. Before making this request, Capital Metro and the community would need to go through the entire planning process again to show that urban rail is the highest priority in this corridor. It is important to consider that there are many demands on federal funds for New Starts and Small Starts projects, and FTA has already made a permanent investment in this corridor.

Of particular interest is FTA’s assurance that “FTA would consider the request” for urban rail if Capital Metro and the Austin community were able “to show that urban rail is the highest priority in this corridor.”

FTA's actual statement, summarized in CMTA memo provided to Councilmember Martinez. Screenshot from PDF by L. Henry.

FTA’s actual statement, summarized in CMTA memo provided to Councilmember Martinez. Screenshot from PDF by L. Henry.

Clearly, the FTA’s actual statement on the issue of replacing MetroRapid service with urban rail is considerably more encouraging than the interpretation verbalized by Councilmember Martinez during the highly polemical Dec. 12th City Council debate on rejecting the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor and endorsing Project Connect’s recommendation for a less centrally located route for “high-capacity transit”. This basically corroborates the position expressed by Austin Rail Now.

See:

MetroRapid bus service should be a precursor to urban rail, not an obstacle!

Why the MetroRapid bus project currently is NOT an obstacle to urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar

Bottom line: FTA’s actual statement offers a far more propitious prospect for FTA support of urban rail in this crucial core-city corridor.

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University Area Partners’ endorsement of Guadalupe-Lamar corridor underscores West Campus support for “backbone” urban rail

13 January 2014
West Campus neighborhood, primarily represented by University Area Partners. Map: The Galileo, rev. by ARN.

West Campus neighborhood, primarily represented by University Area Partners. Map: The Galileo, rev. by ARN.

Back in November, in the midst of all the uproar over problems with Project Connect’s “Central Corridor” study and forthcoming route “recommendation”, this blog missed reporting that yet another major neighborhood association had jumped on board the effort to designate the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor as the preferred starter-line route for urban rail (light rail transit).

On Nov. 12th, the University Area Partners (UAP) neighborhood association 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 ….”

The University Area Partners is a neighborhood organization representing business, institutions, and property owners in the University of Texas area, encompassing most of West Campus, UT-Austin, and The Drag area.

According to UAP member John Lawler, reasons the UAP board decided to support the G-L alignment include:

• Prioritizing urban rail along the G/L corridor would better serve the steadily growing and already dense West Campus neighborhood
• UAP wants to support the UT Student Government position, as students are the primary residents in the area
• CANPAC, the planning area UAP is an original member of, has endorsed the plan
• BRT is not a solution for the Drag’s traffic congestion and the neighborhood has repeatedly encouraged rail development for the past several decades

The endorsement of this influential neighborhood organization is especially important because, in terms of residential density, the West Campus ranks as the third or fourth-highest neighborhood among major Texas cities.

Yet, while Project Connect’s recent “Central Corridor” study used the metrics of Guadalupe and the West Campus area in its justification and analysis, its proposed “sub-corridor” configuration would effectively bypass this crucial area, instead planning an alignment on San Jacinto, one-half to three-quarters of a mile east of the Drag and West Campus neighborhood.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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?

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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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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.