Archive for the ‘Austin urban development issues’ Category

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East Austin: Upscale gentrification worsens affordable housing crisis, avoids bona fide TOD

29 June 2017

Rendition of southeast portion of Plaza Saltillo development, now under construction. Higher-density gentrification is replacing affordable housing and business locations under guise of “TOD”. (Graphic: Plaza Saltillo project via Austin Chronicle.)

Commentary by David Orr

David Orr, an Austin community activist involved with transportation issues, is a longtime environmental justice and transportation advocate.

Appropriate increases in density can be beneficial, but in the case of East Austin increasing density has become a major contributor to the expanding economic (and racial) segregation recognized by the Census Bureau and others as the worst in the U.S. Notably, the primary locus of the new construction is along the city’s only light railway commuter route (MetroRail), which uses abandoned the abandoned right-of-way (ROW) of a freight-rail spur into downtown.

Rapid changes in certain neighborhoods today are accelerated by rapid growth and massive investment in upscale development in and near downtown. What’s been billed as the tallest residential skyscraper between the east and west coasts is going up in downtown right now. East Austin is separated from downtown by I-35 which was built in that location to keep the black and Latino populations on “their” side of town. But downtown is hemmed in, and the real estate values are through the penthouse roof, so the Eastside is obviously the prime target for massive development.

The biggest redevelopment project in the city’s history is centered around a rail station (Plaza Saltillo) in a former railroad marshaling yard that for many decades has been surrounded by public housing, homes built in the 1920s and 30s, and funky old bars and auto mechanic shops. These are systematically being razed – entire city blocks every month or two – to make way for newly arrived, millennial code warriors who work downtown and want the dense urban streetlife environment. Small groceries, trendy bars and restaurants, and lots of parking garages for those shiny BMWs (“transit-oriented development”!) are going in block by block. From an environmental policy standpoint this is progress, as it will reduce auto commutes (not necessarily the number of trips) … but it’s mostly aimed at new residents moving in from places like Silicon Valley, with all that cash, and does little to address the need to increase densities in other areas near major employment centers.

For example, Apple’s huge complex is out in the boonies and not even on a bus route. But they have a huge parking garage that serves only their own staff. So much for Apple’s commitment to environmental concerns. There’s plenty of space around Apple’s complex for high-density development that could support transit, but so long as their well-paid staff drives in to work (and parks for free) and lives miles away in gated communities, there’s little incentive to the company to “think different” about their transportation situation.

In other parts of the city, especially in older neighborhoods, there is resistance to more density because folks want to maintain the quiet and quaint character of their ‘hoods. I appreciate that, especially in the case of Austin being one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the U.S., and the desire of folks to stay in their (often historic and) well-maintained homes.

Meanwhile there are large swaths of lower-cost, low-density land in the “old” sprawl zones that should be targeted for high-density redevelopment, but were leapfrogged by developers building upscale projects in the fast-disappearing ranch lands in nearby rural areas. These older urban fringe areas are disdained in part because they’re near lower-income neighborhoods that were middle-class subdivisions only 20 years ago, and in part because the employment centers were allowed to build in the hinterlands, leaving these low-density, affordable areas largely bereft of investor interest. At least there are still some areas where low-income people can still afford housing, even if it is half their monthly income.

Property taxes in Texas are high, especially in high-income counties like ours, as the state has no income tax and deals with funding for poor counties’ schools by taking from the rich counties (i.e. forcing them to raise property taxes to support other counties) and redistributing the wealth to those counties with low tax bases. Thus property taxes in our (relatively “wealthy”) county are high – even for poor people – exacerbating economic pressures to sell private homes (many of which are paid off and/or rented to low-income residents) for big redevelopment. We might call this a Texas-Style 21st-century Urban Renewal program (a.k.a. “Negro Removal,” as the old urban removal programs were known to activists of the mid-20th century).

What does all this mean for transit development? It means real estate interests aren’t interested in it because they’re focused on adding Lexus Lanes to area freeways to accommodate (in their minds) wealthy commuters and tourists going downtown.

In addition to auto-oriented development, the state and anti-transit activists have made it difficult to build light rail at all, much less in areas where it’s needed most, but where redevelopment investment is low. Dallas now has more miles of light rail than any urban area in the U.S., and the so-called “green” city of Austin has only one piddling DMU two-car commuter line that can carry only a few hundred riders per hour at peak time, often leaving riders standing at the station to wait for the next train (headway around 1/2 hour). Bus routes offer infrequent service in most areas if they’re served at all, and provide few direct connections to two new express routes billed as “bus rapid transit” (BRT) but which operate almost entirely in congested auto traffic lanes. The city just passed a $750 million bond issue that will benefit road projects but provides near-zero funding for transit improvements.

Bottom line: Austin’s reputation as an “innovative” city is belied by its failure to implement effective, bona fide transit-oriented development (TOD) projects in areas that are ripe for redevelopment and that don’t negatively impact the limited supply of affordable housing stock (disproportionately occupied by people of color). The injustice is not only economic and social, it’s environmental.

It’s a joke to think of Austin as progressive when you see developers dictating land use to the city, and the city addressing the affordability crisis by allowing these developers to avoid incorporating affordability into new projects even as they demolish existing affordable neighborhoods. The powers that be control the transit agency’s board, dictating policy to Capital Metro, ensuring the agency won’t put up a fuss or make “unreasonable” demands – such as pushing the city to require redevelopment of the older sprawl zones before permitting new sprawl. Austin lags far behind many other cities in terms of equitable, environmentally sensible transportation services, and it doesn’t look as if that’s going to change any time soon.

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Austin’s shaky economic growth presents challenge to “strategic mobility plan” remake

31 January 2017
Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (title slide from official presentation)

Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (title slide from official presentation)

By Roger Baker

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

Once more, Austin officials are floating the idea of producing another “Austin Strategic Mobility Plan”. As a Jan. 30th article titled «Economic forecast puts focus on transit, housing, jobs for 2017» reports, this effort is being resurrected by Austin Mayor Steve Adler: “Adler said City Council will work this year on a ‘regional strategic mobility plan’ that will eventually lead to an ambitious region-wide transit plan that could include rail”

Austin’s previous most ambitious effort at a Strategic Mobility Plan was soundly defeated in the Nov. 2014 bond package, but few know that.

One problem that Mayor Adler now faces, as a real estate lawyer dedicated to promoting maximum Austin and regional growth as policy, is a sharp decline in our regional economic growth due to the related factors of gentrification, decreasing mobility, and a correspondingly sharp decline in venture capital startups, since it locally peaked in early 2015.

Low job growth is bound to be a big story this year. According to a Jan. 5th report from the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, we now see an annual job growth rate of only 0.6% in the whole Austin region, according to the most recent Dallas Fed data. As the bank states in its report,

Austin jobs grew 0.6 percent annualized over the three months through November. Jobs in goods-producing sectors saw sharp decreases as manufacturing and construction have continued to shed jobs since the summer. Retail trade jobs continued to decline moderately, while wholesale trade fell sharply.

Austin faces another unique state economic problem due to lower state sales tax revenue needed to fund state workers, as compared to the previous biennial state budgets. A 2.9% revenue decline doesn’t sound like a lot until you add in two years of inflation.

A stagnant state budget and decline in tech job creation, too, put a big burden on the tourism sector to maintain the Austin economy. It seems to me that the Hotel Occupancy Tax increase is being primarily driven by hotels that want to expand the Convention Center again. They probably represent more than a billion dollars of local private hotel investments, so they have a lot of skin in the game.

A lot of total current US growth is now happening because of high-technology-related job creation. Depending on high tech job growth is a risky industrial policy because this sector is especially prone to booms and busts, as the 2001 Dotcom bubble showed in the Austin area. There is a lot of national tech job competition involved. Even Nashville is seriously competing with Austin for venture capital startups, a category of speculative asset bubbles that have been stimulated by nearly a decade of the Fed’s near-zero interest rates. Cheap money encourages risk.

Tech growth can often pay high wages, but over time it leads to gentrification and transportation problems. That is because major highways like Austin’s I-35 fill up with traffic comprised of lower-pay service workers trying to commute out to the cheaper suburbs to live affordably. Austin residents could use good rail and bus transit inside the city. More difficult is the fact that providing high-quality transit service is not very compatible with the doubling Austin MSA (metro area) population, and the low-density suburban development being planned by CAMPO.

These problems associated with a booming tech industry are discussed in a Jan. 26th Washington Post article:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/realestate/fast-growing-technology-sector-is-fueling-a-housing-boom-in-cities-across-america/2017/01/26/5c72c276-a5d8-11e6-8042-f4d111c862d1_story.html

As the WaPo article reports,

Silicon Valley isn’t the only place a tech boom is fueling rising home prices. From Nashville to Raleigh, N.C., Austin to Cambridge, Mass., thousands of high-paying technology jobs are lifting home prices and fueling a boom in construction…

Dwindling housing supply and an affordable housing crunch are perhaps the biggest challenges in many markets seeing rising tech growth.

Also relevant is a Jan. 28th article in Austin’s Community Impact paper, which reports that …

… if Adler had it his way, those using public transportation in the future will be heading to new jobs. “Our neighbors, fellow Austinites, need mid-income jobs,” said Adler. “We know who needs the jobs in our community. We know the kinds of jobs that employers most need to fill. Which, by the way are information technology, healthcare and skilled trades.”

Adler’s goal over the next five years will be to move 10,000 Austin residents out of poverty by getting them qualified for jobs in those targeted industries. “If we’re going to focus our efforts at bringing the right jobs to town, we need to do more to make sure people who live here and need these jobs are qualified to take them. That’s where the Community Workforce Master Plan comes in.”

One important thing to focus on now is CAMPO, because they have formal control of the regional state and federal money, and because they had planned extreme suburban sprawl in the CAMPO 2040 Plan, bankrolled by a hypothetical $35 billion in future funds, envisioned for Lone Star Rail, and from other sources.

CAMPO is now doing their new 2045 plan. But our regional growth is slowing, because of side effects of prolonged growth discussed above, led by real estate interests attracted to fast regional growth. The new CAMPO 2045 regional population growth distribution will help reveal the political picture. Lone Star rail was taken out, so how can they handle the numbers of commuters they anticipate from the tech job growth that they anticipate along the I-35 corridor to San Antonio?

It is getting hard to maintain that there will be as much money as CAMPO had claimed last time. I think it is impossible to predict toll road revenues decades in the future, as TxDOT and the CTRMA claim to be able to hire consultants to do. It is likely necessary to use bond money to widen I-35, so they find private consultants with proprietary travel demand models that we are not allowed to see or to question. The public can’t see the CAMPO models, either.

TxDOT is still $23 billion in debt, because Texas politicians haven’t raised the gas tax for a quarter-century, and neither has Congress. Denial has its limits – and that should make this year very interesting. ■

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Why spending $4.7 billion trying to improve I-35 is a waste of money

29 March 2016

Trying to widen Austin’s most congested road will only make congestion worse


I-35 traffic congestion — bad and predicted to get much worse. Source: Culturemap.com.

Austin’s I-35 traffic congestion — bad and predicted to get much worse. Photo: Culturemap.com.


By Roger Baker and Dave Dobbs

The purpose of this analysis is to document the strong case against widening roads like I-35 (Interstate Highway 35, aka IH-35) to relieve congestion, especially when there are much smarter ways to use the same public money to solve transportation problems. This concept is important to understand because TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) is now actively planning to increase the lane-miles and vehicle capacity of I-35 along the San Marcos to Georgetown stretch of I-35 at a cost of $4.7 billion. This road section is ranked as the most congested corridor in Texas.

There is now a near-consensus by transportation experts that trying to relieve congestion by building and widening roads in very congested cities, like Austin, will actually worsen congestion. Severe congestion throughout a city during peak hour means that traffic will seek out and fill up any new freeway capacity as fast as it can be added. As discussed in a report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG), the Katy Freeway in Houston, I-10 demonstrates this fact.

In Texas, for example, a $2.8 billion project widened Houston’s Katy Freeway to 26 lanes, making it the widest freeway in the world. But commutes got longer after its 2012 opening: By 2014 morning commuters were spending 30 percent more time in their cars, and afternoon commuters 55 percent more time.

In fact, it has been known for some time that building and widening roads doesn’t relieve congestion, but with urbanization, economic prosperity, and easy-guaranteed credit reinforced by automobile-centric federal transportation policy, the familiar American car-based suburban sprawl land pattern happens automatically. Rings of suburbs ever further from a city’s core inevitably lead to severe traffic congestion in every major USA city, Austin being no exception.

For decades, the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) at Texas A&M University has effectively functioned as a pro-road think tank friendly to TxDOT and the Texas road beneficiaries. Understandably, until recently, TTI has been reluctant to admit that building more roads didn’t actually relieve congestion, which is a counter-intuitive outlook. However, using TTI’s own data, the reform-minded Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) was able to document this situation back in 1998:

By analyzing TTI’s data for 70 metro areas over 15 years, STPP determined that metro areas that invested heavily in road capacity expansion fared no better in easing congestion than metro areas that did not. Trends in congestion show that areas that exhibited greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn’t, yet ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, wasted fuel, and travel delay. The STPP study shows that on average the cost to relieve the congestion reported by TTI just by building roads could be thousands of dollars per family per year. The metro area with the highest estimated road building cost was Nashville, Tennessee with a price tag of $3,243 per family per year, followed by Austin, Orlando, and Indianapolis.


TTI Roadway Congestion Index (Mean) shows that roadway congestion has continued to rise despite intensive investment in capacity expansion. Source: STPP.

TTI Roadway Congestion Index (Mean) shows that roadway congestion has continued to rise despite intensive investment in capacity expansion. Graph: STPP.


David Dilworth, in a 2012 posting, did the following review of the basic reasons why you can’t pave your way out of congestion, and what happens when you attempt it anyway.

1) There is now overwhelming evidence, including a nationwide study of 70 metropolitan areas over 15 years (Texas Transportation Institute), and another California specific study (Hansen 1995, which included Monterey County) that when an area is congested – additional lanes or roads do not provide congestion relief.
2) It is also well documented that additional lanes increase traffic, and that new highways create demand for travel and expansion by their very existence.
3) Further experience shows “When road capacity shrinks — So Can Traffic”; traffic congestion goes down!

So, when a road is congested, adding more lanes or roads will not relieve congestion, but will likely increase traffic.
When a road is congested the only way to relieve congestion is not by building more roads, but by reducing land use – or paradoxically by closing roads.

Closing roads and reducing land use clearly implies that planners will need to rethink mobility, i.e., moving people rather than cars, and finding ways to reduce travel distances so that walking, biking, and transit become the preferred alternatives.

Nowadays, even TTI has admitted that I-35 can’t be fixed in any meaningful sense. True, some lane capacity can be added, and an urban-friendly design could mitigate its impact on the center city. However, nothing will significantly address congestion as the following excerpts taken from a recent TTI report indicate.

…This modeling research demonstrates that Central Texas cannot “build its way out of congestion” on IH 35. Examination of the initial set of scenarios demonstrates that, as capacity is added to IH 35, traffic moves to IH 35 from other streets and roads that operate with even worse congestion, in essence “re-filling” the road. As described above, Central Texas drivers fill any capacity added to IH 35. Therefore, additional capacity provides little relief to peak-hour IH 35 general purpose lane congestion. And, because population and jobs are projected to grow so much in the corridor, any open road space created by new lanes is quickly filled. …

The study team concluded that this effort demonstrates a very unlikely future. That is, the levels of congestion predicted for IH 35 — in fact, the Central Texas region — will be unacceptable for local residents and business. In discussions with the MIP Working Group regarding these technical results, there is heightened concern that the levels of congestion demonstrated by this study would dampen the area’s growth in population and employment because people and businesses will quite simply not move here if the transportation infrastructure is insufficient to avoid this level of congestion. Therefore, with impacts predicted to be this substantial to quality of life and economic health, such levels of congestion will likely be unacceptable to future residents and businesses, so that the area’s growth is in fact, unsustainable….


I-35 congestion, considered worst in Texas. Texas Transportation Institute has concluded that "additional capacity provides little relief...". Source: TTI.

I-35 congestion, considered worst in Texas. Texas Transportation Institute has concluded that “additional capacity provides little relief…”. Photo: TTI.


Despite this, TxDOT is greenlighting the My35 Capital Corridor project even though it has no clear idea of where most of the money to widen I-35 will come from, and likewise the Texas Transportation Commission is authorizing funds piecemeal to construct parts of the full-blown I-35 vision in TxDOT’s District 14, Austin, where $158 million has been allocated for this year (as reported by the Austin American-Statesman).

This question remains. Why should we be planning a traffic solution which we know in advance will make I-35’s daily bumper-to-bumper congestion a lot worse, and which will make us more dependent than ever on fossil fuels, even while knowing that the money to do this isn’t there? And why would we rush to judgement in November, at least for I-35, when the major construction benefits, if there are any, won’t happen for years?

It seems like government spending on old solutions that don’t work well anymore has become almost the standard operating procedure. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) have both been made chronically underfunded and paralyzed by partisan infighting in Congress, which has led to a series of national transportation funding extensions, rather than common-sense reforms. The refusal of either Texas or the federal government to raise the fuel tax for the past 20 years is sufficient evidence for how unworkable and out-of-touch our current policies really are.

Trying to promote an expensive policy that is known in advance not to work is bad enough, but proceeding to do that while having no idea of where to get most of the money requires real chutzpah, a shameless audacity. If any Texas state agency has the history, credentials, and political clout to try make that work anyhow, it is TxDOT. To understand why, we need to take a more detailed look at TxDOT and the history of Texas transportation politics.

Texas road politics

Let us start with trying to understand how daily Austin congestion on I-35 and MoPac (State Loop 1) ever got to the point that now a lot suburban drivers who get to work on these roads dread a nerve-jangling daily commute. The reality is that Austin’s peakhour congestion has gradually progressed from tolerable to notoriously bad for decades. Nothing unusual, but the sort of end result you should expect when you try to keep building roads to maintain unsustainable transportation and land-use trends for too long.

Governments by their nature try to encourage economic growth. In Texas, as with most Sunbelt cities, cars, trucks, and roads have all become essential components of urban growth. The Texas fuel tax money is comparable to TxDOT’s oxygen supply. This state and federal fuel tax revenue can fund roads, but not transit under Texas law. Transit is left largely on its own, obliged to rely mostly on local funds and a shrinking level of federal transit funds.

Given the current lack of state land-use regulation outside the city limits of Texas cities, there is the potential opportunity to shift to greater land-use regulation. As data from the Texas Comptroller’s Office shows, more than 86% of the total Texas population is now urban and has outgrown our rural heritage.

These major metropolitan areas, the glowing patches you see from a jet plane at night, function as coherent economies. Ideally these metro areas should be governed as such, without the burden of conflicting and overlapping layers of city and county government.

Austin’s regional congestion is aggravated by a combination of rapid regional population growth and unregulated suburban sprawl development. Over time, unregulated sprawl growth leads to decreasing urban mobility, increasing city-core land prices, and gentrification that drives out the city’s lower-paid service workers into suburban commutes, thus increasing traffic congestion even more. This has been particularly true for Austin’s African-American population, who for a variety of reasons have moved on to the suburbs, such as Pflugerville. (Source: Texas Tribune.)

As a University of Texas study observed “All told, the combined effects of, concentrated segregation and concentrated, gentrification of Austin’s historic African-American district provide a partial, explanation for the rapid decline in African-American residents between 2000 and 2010.”


Official transportation and land-use policies have encouraged Austin-area sprawl development patterns. Photo: Mopacs, via Skyscraperpage.

Official transportation and land-use policies have encouraged Austin-area sprawl development patterns. Photo: Mopacs, via Skyscraperpage.


Given these trends and the increasingly longer, more severe peakhour congestion periods in Austin today, a different approach beyond widening roads might be expected. But here in Texas, powerful political special interests continue to block meaningful transportation reform. TxDOT has great institutional power and this is still focused on providing roads to serve an exponential increase in cars and trucks. In the Austin area, TxDOT is supporting the CAMPO 2040 plan, which anticipates ever more roads, cars, and congestion — in other words, business as usual for as long as possible.

In 1974, when the first energy crisis hit the USA, Griffin Smith, Jr. wrote an excellent, well-researched account of how there came to be the Texas road lobby, the wide network of political allies devoted to building roads, and the effort to make roads and driving a permanent aspect of Texas lifestyle and culture. See «The Highway Establishment and How it Grew and Grew and Grew». So it was in Texas then, during the first energy crisis, and so it has been in Texas for the more than forty years since, without great change. Legendary Texas newspaper columnist Molly Ivins used to call TxDOT “the Pentagon of Texas” (see «Roger Baker: The Texas Road Lobby Meets Peak Oil»).

Over the years an established pattern of money and politics developed, whereby Texas governors as political favors appoint businessmen to be heads of state agencies. If a governor stays in office a long time, as Rick Perry did, he can (and he did) appoint all the Texas Transportation Commissioners (TTC, the five-person body that has the authority to decide when and where to build the state roads). With their overlapping six-year terms, TTC members even stay influential for a while after a governor leaves office.

It should come as no surprise, then, that highways and roads often tend to benefit the land developers, road contractors, and special interests who reward the governor and legislators with campaign contributions. According to Texans for Public Justice (TPJ), reviewing campaign contributions from 2003-2008, the special interests tied to the $175 billion Trans-Texas Corridor project “contributed $3.4 million to Texas candidates and political committees — a significant increase in their political activity.” You can see a comprehensive breakdown of those contributions at: http://info.tpj.org/watchyourassets/ttc/

Looming large in the background are federal housing and real estate policies that favor home ownership, especially detached single-family homes on individual lots, with generous tax write-offs and government-backed credit that largely favors suburban living. It’s an exploitative pattern of income redistribution from the city to the suburbs made possible by TxDOT’s publicly funded roads. (See «Starving the cities to feed the suburbs» in The Grist, 9 Jan. 2013.)

The CAMPO transportation planners who make the funding decisions for the Austin region are expected to ignore state, national, and global economic trends. Known resource limits like global warming, fuel costs, and water constraints are never considered in CAMPO’s growth and travel demand models.

Presently there is no transportation alternative — no “Plan B” — for the 2040 CAMPO plan, as there was in the region’s previous CAMPO 2035 five-year plan. The planners do not provide an alternative future that thinks longterm and which does not subsidize suburbs at city taxpayers’ expense. The 2040 CAMPO Plan states that even if our region finds the money (highly unlikely) to implement in the approved regional CAMPO 2040 Plan perfectly and in full, Austin-area congestion will keep getting worse until 2040.

Austin’s officially adopted longrange transportation plan aims at spending $35 billion dollars to maintain the current sprawl-based regional development trends, while doubling the population and putting 70% of this future growth, not just outside Austin, but well beyond Travis County. Absurd as the unaffordable nightmarish outcome might seem, it is the officially adopted plan. Lots of future sprawl is now Austin’s officially adopted future in both state and federal law, for regional transportation funding purposes.

As already noted, the biggest reason for this flagrant disregard of likely funding constraints and/or undesirable future outcomes is the special interests who profit in the short term from bad public policy. To give just one local example, as reported by the Austin Business Journal, Canadian land speculation investment group Walton Development owns about 15 square miles of raw land in the Austin area.

Walton Development and Management is preparing to make a big splash in Central Texas even though the company has had boots on the ground here since 2007. The Canadian-based land investor and master-planned community developer has seven communities in the pipeline in Central Texas, following years of researching the market and building relationships with consultants and government officials. Collectively, Walton owns 83,000 acres in Canada and the U.S. — and has quietly amassed about 10,000 acres in Central Texas…

The Calgary, Alberta-based company has been assessing numerous U.S. markets in the wake of the subprime mortgage meltdown and the Great Recession. Central Texas, predominantly south and east of Austin, has risen to the top of its hot list, as well as Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Orlando, Fla.; Dallas; Phoenix; Tucson, Ariz.; and Southern California.

TxDOT’s dedicated funding source — from motor fuel taxes and licensing fees for roads-only as specified by the Texas constitution — virtually guarantees an all-the-roads-as-fast-as-possible policy to address traffic increases. If I-35 is the state’s most congested corridor, the agency’s reflexive response is to spend whatever it takes to get whatever additional capacity is possible, the cost-benefit results notwithstanding.

Recognizing I-35’s strategic regional importance against an increasing inability to cope with increasing population, local officials created what’s called the “Mobility35” (My35) partnership in 2011. Several studies, hundreds of public meetings, and $12 million later, courtesy of Austin taxpayers, what has emerged is a call for billions from local governments to fix the problem TxDOT’s way.

TxDOT is really broke and its credit lines look shaky

These are not business-as-usual times. The politics (and government funding) in support of cars and roads is so firmly entrenched and TxDOT is so politically powerful that its major threat is its money running out. TxDOT’s funding shortfalls have been growing and it probably now regrets ever having gotten into the unprofitable toll road business. That is why TxDOT invented Regional Mobility Authorities (RMAs) like the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) — to try to shift the road-funding burden onto the private sector with toll road municipal bond debt. (See Roger Baker’s article «Risky business in Central Texas: The toll road bond gamble».)

There can be little doubt that TxDOT has a serious solvency challenge (see «Roger Baker: Can TxDOT Avoid Financial Disaster? / 2»). We see a state agency that has to spend a big part of its total yearly income just to pay interest on its massive accumulation of road debt. (Source: http://www.collierfortexas.com/2015/02/25/txdot-addicted-debt/.)

The Texas Department of Transportation just issued its audited financial statements for 2014. They’ve rung up a debt balance of $19 billion. It was only $4 billion back in 2006. That’s when Rick Perry went on his debt binge. Of the $7.3 billion tax revenues TxDOT will take from Texans in 2016-2017, more than $2.4 billion will go to making debt payments.

TxDOT is far short of sufficient funds to widen I-35 with its own resources, having identified only $300 million in-house out of $4.5 billion needed. That leaves TxDOT $4.2 billion short — over 90% deficient. In fact, the Travis County section of TxDOT’s My35 redesign is still $1.8 to $2.1 billion short, which should raise red flags for local property owners who could well be targeted for big tax increases.

When deciding what to do about I-35, should Austin taxpayers subsidize a highly politicized state agency, TxDOT, which has been steadily sinking relentlessly farther and farther into debt? TxDOT’S debt is now so bad that it has helper agencies, the RMAs (such as the Austin area’s local CTRMA), that can borrow even more to build privatized toll roads, supposedly shifting debt to the private sector; but when these efforts fail, the taxpayers will have to bail them out. Banks are not the only institutions “too big to fail”.

A rush-job November 2016 transportation bond election to widen I-35?

Some local officials already appear to be supporting TxDOT’s plans to widen I-35 in the name of relieving congestion. Austin’s influential state senator, Kirk Watson, has publicly registered his approval for TXDOT’S I-35 plans and seems to believe that it is possible for TxDOT to relieve I-35 congestion by widening the road. A Jan 28th Community Impact article titled «TxDOT targets I-35 in Austin for $158.6 million in congestion relief funding … State’s most congested roadways to get $1.3 billion» reports:

“Relieving traffic congestion is essential for our economy and our quality of life,” state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said in a news release. “I’m pleased this initiative has put the emphasis on I-35, which is the most pressing congestion problem for Central Texas as well as the state. We’ve worked hard and successfully to develop a plan for reducing congestion on I-35 and this investment is key to moving that plan forward.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler has been a vocal proponent of a November 2016 bond election for transportation. Adler has been talking about the need for a November 2016 transportation bond election, instead of waiting until the next bond cycle in 2018. As reported in the Austin American-Statesman, here is what Mayor Adler has said about the justification for a November bond election tied to I-35:

We need to do some significant movement with respect to mobility and transportation in 2016… It wouldn’t surprise me if we weren’t coming to the voters in November with some capital expenditures associated with transportation. We know there have been some proposals with respect to I-35 that include increasing capacity that include putting in managed lanes so that we can have buses traveling at 45 miles per hour regardless of traffic so as to encourage people to get out of their cars, and depressing lanes so that (there is) a visual connection of the east and west sides of I-35. And I think there might be an opportunity to do something regionally in that respect. Why not try for that? There are also road corridors in the city that have gone through corridor studies… Lamar, Airport Boulevard, MLK, I think. People are looking for some movement on (Loop) 360 and other roads that are in the southwest and northwest. I would think that we need to take a really hard look at doing those things.

In another Statesman article, Austin’s Assistant City Manager Robert Goode explains why speeding up a bond election for next November would be difficult at best:

Goode said there could be an “accelerated path” of 10 to 12 months, with the first two phases tightened up. But, remember, there are only nine months left until November 8, and phase one hasn’t even begun. So Goode, cognizant that Mayor Steve Adler (with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce nudging in the background) has been pushing to do something in November, offered one more timeline: the “aggressive path.”

In other words, getting to a November 2016 bond election would mean serious compression of Austin’s existing standard bond review process in the name of addressing traffic congestion, without a sufficient vetting of what voter-approved debt would accomplish or how much would be needed — a political pig-in-a-poke labeled “Trust us!” that commits the city to a course of action that only TxDOT controls.

Maybe Austin planners and public officials should first find out in advance how much of the $4.5 billion TxDOT is willing and able to fund, and why TxDOT doesn’t fully pay for its roads like it used to do. Committing local funds to a “borrow and spend” agency billions in debt for a project with little positive outcome at some indefinite time in the future — bus lanes in ten years, at best; a depressed freeway covered with great streets; completion date and local costs, unknown and unknowable — ought to be setting off alarm bells, especially when TxDOT and Austin city management folks talk about “partnerships” and “partners”.

Public works projects, in particular big highway projects, have a history of long delays and large cost overruns. Boston’s 3.5-mile “Big Dig“, a tunnel under Beantown to eliminate the old elevated freeway through the city core, is a cautionary tale with similarities and problems we should expect here in Austin.

Scheduled to be finished in seven years at a cost of $2.8 billion, the Big Dig took sixteen years to complete and cost $14.6 billion; when adjusted for inflation — a 190% cost overrun, not including the $7 billion in interest required to pay off the debt incurred. As the Boston Globe headlined in 2008, a year after the project was completed, “Big Dig’s red ink engulfs state.”


Boston's "Big Dig" under construction past city's CBD. Project re-routed I-93 Central Artery into a central-city tunnel. Source: Imaginerpe.com.

Boston’s “Big Dig” under construction past city’s CBD. Project re-routed I-93 Central Artery into a central-city tunnel. Photo: Imaginerpe.com.


With TxDOT is already engulfed in debt, the I-35 My35 “partnership” should be seen as a plan to similarly engulf and encumber Austin’s taxpayers, thereby subordinating city finances to a condition of impotency to do little else but pay down debt on a state project that has little or no positive outcomes or predictable future except for the contractors and planners employed to pursue it.

Some of the details of this scheme were revealed in a Feb. 3rd TxDOT presentation to the Austin City Council’s Mobility Committee, chaired by Councilmember Ann Kitchen. The presentation can be viewed online in the video of the meeting, available from the City of Austin’s video archive, in the segment labelled “Items 7 & 8”.

About 23 minutes into the “Items 7 & 8” segment, TxDOT’s new District 14 Engineer, Terry McCoy, explains to the Austin City Council Mobility Committee what’s planned for I-35. Along with a lot of talk about “partnership” with the city, TxDOT, McCoy says, plans to spend about $4.3-4.6 billion on I-35 between San Marcos and Georgetown upgrading the “most congested corridor” in Texas. Around 35 minutes into the video clip there is a series of slides on parts of the project expected to start between 2016 and 2019, assuming that funding can be found.

TxDOT slide showing projected cost of proposed I-35 upgrade project. Source: ARN screen capture of TxDOT slide.

TxDOT slide showing projected cost of proposed I-35 upgrade project. Graphic: ARN screen capture of TxDOT slide.

TxDOT’s message to Austin here is clear. In the partnership assumed by TxDOT’s McCoy and Austin’s Assistant City Manager Goode, TxDOT is the senior partner who makes the rules and if Austin wants anything beyond TxDOT’s basic least expensive, most lanes-for-the-bucks design, such as a “cut and cap” proposal to bury I-35 downtown, it’s going to cost local taxpayers a lot of money. As the Austin Business Journal has reported,

…One goal of the effort is to improve east-west connectivity across the thoroughfare in the urban core. The possibilities include intersection and access redesigns and adding bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure to cross the highway. “We’re adopting an ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach to I-35,” McCoy said. That includes either modifying the downtown section of I-35 along its current double-decker form or depressing all of the lanes, which would drop them below ground level. If city leaders and state transportation officials agree to lowering I-35, McCoy noted local funds could be used to then cover it up and put the new real estate to use in some way.

“Once you depress the main lanes of I-35, then you have the potential to build caps. What you do with those cap sections is up to the locals,” he said. “But from TxDot’s perspective…it is an amenity, so it would be a local cost item to pick up. TxDOT is essentially saying we cannot participate in the cost of constructing those caps.”…

(More information is disclosed in the Q & A session, about 40 minutes into that video segment.)

According to Assistant City Manager Goode, speaking in the same clip, Austin is behind about $4.5 billion in needed funds for its own City of Austin transportation needs over the next 30 years, a billion of that just for sidewalks.

A grassroots architect and planning coalition, ReconnectAustin.com, has been promoting a depressed I-35 design developed by UT Austin architect Sinclair Black. They have been trying for years to get TxDOT support for a sunken, capped, and covered-over I-35 along the east edge of downtown Austin. However, this is a concept that conflicts with TxDOT’s traditional design standards. (See, for example, «Reconnect Austin: Part Two … It’s a beautiful vision, but could it work?» Austin Chronicle, 31 Jan. 2014.)


Rendition of Reconnect Austin's proposed "fully depressed" alternative design for I-35. Source: KUT Radio.

Rendition of Reconnect Austin’s proposed “fully depressed” alternative design for I-35. Graphic: KUT Radio.


Pro forma, TxDOT defines I-35 improvements as squeezing the most possible cars onto its failing roads at the lowest cost. Economies of scale dictate elevated lanes on I-35 through downtown, and adding them onto MoPac South across the river. These are least-expensive road designs that ignore community plans and desires for connections, city space, and economic revitalization as well as returns from improved transportation infrastructure — goals that TxDOT simply doesn’t share.

TxDOT’s plans to add elevated lanes on MoPac South are proceeding despite organized resistance from environmentalist groups like the Save our Springs Association. How to distribute increased amounts of inbound commuter traffic into downtown is still unresolved, but that’s the city’s problem, not TxDOT’s.

It will take TxDOT another two years to complete the NEPA federal study process on the downtown section of I-35. Depressing I-35 through downtown as opposed to TxDOT’s standard design would cost about $300 million extra, and capping it over at least as much, but the cap is a feature TxDOT won’t pay for. Toll lanes with express lanes for buses on I-35 that Mayor Adler mentions could not be implemented for perhaps a decade, and that depends on another billion or so in public money which isn’t there now.

If ever there was a time to stop and look at alternatives to expanding I-35, that time is now, before we commit scarce local money for vague allusions to an urban-friendly freeway design unlikely to be delivered and toll-lane-only congestion relief, which TTI calls a “limited option.”

November bonds to widen I-35 will be a hard sell once it’s widely known that real congestion relief is not possible for any price, especially when a decade or more of detours and disruption — and yes, even more congestion — will be required to fix the unfixable. The bottom line is that I-35 cannot be decongested in any meaningful sense, not with Mucinex or for any amount of money. That even when completed, I-35 cannot be made into a less frustrating driving experience than it is today and that is what the A&M’s TTI has been saying.

Austin could choose its own future, as Houston is trying to do

On January 28, 2016 Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told The Texas Transportation Commission — the body that governs TxDOT — that he wants a paradigm shift in transportation planning that makes better sense for cities. Given Turner’s long record of leadership in the Texas House of Representatives and now, as Houston Mayor, we can only hope that other Texas big city mayors take note and follow suit. (Source: Streetsblog.org.)

Here is some of what Sylvester Turner said:

…We’re seeing clear evidence that the transportation strategies that the Houston region has looked to in the past are increasingly inadequate to sustain regional growth… The region’s primary transportation strategy in the past has been to add roadway capacity. While the region has increasingly offered greater options for multiple occupant vehicles and other transportation modes, much of the added capacity has been for single occupant vehicles as well… It’s easy to understand why. TxDOT has noted that 97% of the Texans currently drive a single occupancy vehicle for their daily trips. One could conclude that our agencies should therefore focus their resources to support these kinds of trips. However, this approach is actually exacerbating our congestion problems. We need a paradigm shift in order to achieve the kind of mobility outcomes we desire…

Turner went on to make three recommendations:

…We need a paradigm shift in how we prioritize mobility projects. Instead of enhancing service to the 97% of trips that are made by single occupant vehicles, TxDOT should prioritize projects that reduce that percentage below 97%. TxDOT should support urban areas by prioritizing projects that increase today’s 3% of non-SOV trips to 5%, 10%, 15% of trips and beyond. Experience shows that focusing on serving the 97% will exacerbate and prolong the congestion problems that urban areas experience. We need greater focus on intercity rail, regional rail, High Occupancy Vehicle facilities, Park and Rides, Transit Centers, and robust local transit. As we grow and densify, these modes are the future foundation of a successful urban mobility system. It’s all about providing transportation choices.

Imagine Austin, where some brave politician stands up and speaks up like Houston Mayor Turner did, and declares independence from TxDOT’s highway idolatry — the simplistic view that somehow, someway we can build roads faster than Detroit et al. can build cars. Surely not all of our leaders believe that widening I-35 should be our top transportation priority for our limited resources — perhaps a billion dollars in AAA bonding capacity to bankroll a bankrupt state highway department. My35 alone could consume everything we could put up and more; but, in all fairness, we could easily use up all of our debt capacity widening non-state roads inside Austin, and that would also discourage alternatives and make congestion worse, too.

Whatever we decide about funding I-35 — beyond the $12 million we’ve already spent for planning — will say a lot about where we intend to go as a city. Any additional local money for the My35 project is a slippery slope, a probable Point of No Return. After all, “in for a penny, in for a pound”. Eventually, at some unknown time in the future, after years of construction disruption, the freeway would carry more vehicles, but congestion overall would be worse, not better. Transit, bike, and pedestrian benefits promised in the project are longterm and incidental, and could better be achieved through direct spending elsewhere.

Healthy cities need integrated transportation and land-use planning, the latter unrecognized and unacknowledged in TxDOT’s institutional mindset. Cost-effective, efficient transportation is the direct result of integrated transportation and land-use planning from the outset, using tools like Smart Growth and transit-oriented development (TOD) to maximize mobility at an affordable cost. Cities are almost by definition congested, but urban mobility goes beyond movement, and is heavily dependent upon destination proximity and modal choice.

Inside the city of Austin alone, there are billions of dollars in existing, but neglected, road, bike, and sidewalk needs. But for a real game changer, Austin needs a Guadalupe-North Lamar light rail line from downtown to some point past the North Lamar Transit Center.


Rendition of LRT train on Guadalupe (the Drag) passing UT campus. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.

Rendition of LRT train on Guadalupe (the Drag) passing UT campus. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.


Running in-between and parallel to our two most congested roads, I-35 and MoPac, these trains would reinforce and complement the transit-friendly land uses that have existed in this corridor since the days streetcars plied these same streets. (See «Austin’s First Electric Streetcar Era».) Urban rail in reserved lanes on the street would deliver 40,000 riders a day to and from the city core, while experience elsewhere says that this small beginning would generate billions of dollars’ worth of new tax base for an investment of less than $750 million, half of which would likely come from the Federal Transit Administration.

Compared to rebuilding I-35 from Georgetown to San Marcos, a Guadalupe-North Lamar light rail project is a relatively simple transportation endeavor. It is a project we’d build, we’d own, we’d control, we would pay for with identified funds, and would benefit from directly — compatible with buses, biking, and walking. Plus, it would be built on a relatively predictable schedule of less than five years with an extremely high potential for payback within a decade of opening, while setting the stage for better-funded, more frequent, and more comprehensive public transit throughout the city and the region.

If 2016 is Austin’s year of mobility bonds on November’s ballot, a Guadalupe-North Lamar light rail line should be the first priority. A plan for this could be quickly assembled from at least four official past rail studies done on this corridor since 1984 — the last, a full Preliminary Engineering/Draft Environmental Impact Statement from 2000. Furthermore, it could be accomplished using the well-known competent national consulting team, AECOM, already hired by Capital Metro to essentially study the same corridor.

What’s needed now is political leadership to get it done. With our backs literally up against TxDOT’s wall of debt for an insanely risky My35 rebuild, the facts speak for themselves.

Rail References

Ridership

• Light Rail Corridor. Austin, Texas (November 2000) — Federal Transit Administration New Starts summary
https://keepaustinwonky.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/fta-new-starts_small-starts-austin-texas_light-rail-corridors.pdf

Billions in new tax base

The two best examples of initial light rail lines with similar characteristics, i.e., Big Dot connections and high ridership, are Houston and Phoenix.

• Houston METRO — $324 million to construct, opened 2004
$8 billion in economic development on initial 7.5 mile Main Street line since 2004
http://www.planetizen.com/node/81699/texas-cities-see-mass-transit-path-economicdevelopment

• Phoenix METRO — $1.351 million to construct, opened 2008
$8.2 billion in economic development on 19.6 miles Phoenix to Tempe since 2008
http://www.bizjournals.com/phoenix/news/2015/07/28/valley-metro-development-alonglightrail-tops-8.html

Other examples with more mature systems

• Dallas DART — 157% ROI, 85 miles, 61 stations
https://www.dart.org/about/economicimpact.asp

• Portland MAX (TriMet) — $4.66 billion (adjusted to 2015 $) to construct 59.7 miles of light rail with 97 stations, yielding ROI of $11.5 billion of economic development within walking distance of stations since 1986.
http://trimet.org/business/

• Salt Lake City TRAX and FrontRunner — $3.6 billion to construct 45 miles light rail and 88 miles of regional (commuter) rail, yielding ROI of $7 Billion economic development since 1999.
http://www.sltrib.com/csp/mediapool/sites/sltrib/pages/printfriendly.csp?id=2665260

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Austin’s competing growth factions both continuing on road to worsening congestion

25 October 2015
CAMPO's 2040 regional roadway plan emphasizes expanding web of roadways catering to real estate development, intensifying addiction to private motor vehicle travel, and accelerating sprawl. Map: CAMPO 2040 Draft Plan.

CAMPO’s 2040 regional roadway plan emphasizes expanding web of roadways catering to real estate development, intensifying addiction to private motor vehicle travel, and accelerating sprawl. Map: CAMPO 2040 Draft Plan.

By Roger Baker

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

Most Austin folks still don’t know it (and how could they without much good investigative reporting?) but there is actually a behind-the-scenes struggle being conducted by two Austin-area real estate coalitions with quite different visions — a contest conducted through the agency of our federally mandated transportation planning body, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Authority, or CAMPO.

For the time being, the more influential growth alliance which benefits from roads and more roads to serve Austin-area sprawl development has won out. There is also a distinctly different group of landed beneficiaries centered around a transition to high-level transit as the future mode choice. This policy difference is basically a long-lasting political battle between two politically influential real estate development coalitions doing normal business under somewhat unique circumstances.

Texas is a “property rights” fundamentalist state, in which unregulated land development is the rule in about the only U.S. state without county zoning. In light of this fact, it is easy to imagine why this land development policy difference would arise. Sometimes the development strategies of these coalitions coincide and at other times they don’t. But they are in complete solidarity when it comes to their support for maintaining maximum Austin-area tech-job-led population growth forever. The impossibility of doing that, as is now being planned by CAMPO, makes Texas politics all the more colorful and interesting.

Let us call these development coalitions first the “sprawler growthers” more closely allied with RECA (Real Estate Council of Austin), and with fast land deal profiteering their uppermost consideration. The other policy bloc is the “transit growthers“, more allied with the Chamber of Commerce and Project Connect, based on somewhat more of a long-term sustainable growth vision. The latter transit-supportive, somewhat smarter-growth coalition recognizes that with congestion becoming a major challenge to maintaining Austin’s tech-based growth, and buses caught up in the same congestion, this leaves only old-fashioned, high-level rail to serve on travel corridors like Lamar/Guadalupe. There is no other way to maintain what still remains of Austin’s severely degraded peak hour travel mobility.

Former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell was forced by RECA, which is the more sprawl oriented development coalition, to include $400 million in roads into his rail bond package, which ballooned it to a full billion dollars, using up all the city’s remaining high-grade bonding ability, and likely priming it for defeat. With the defeat of the billion-dollar bond package election in November 2014, and with the recent approval of the heavily sprawl-oriented CAMPO plan favored by TxDOT and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), the sprawl-growth faction now has the upper hand. They are proceeding to build and widen roads as fast as their increasingly limited finances allow, as I’ve recently reported in a Rag Blog article:

http://www.theragblog.com/roger-baker-metro-risky-business-in-central-texas-the-toll-road-bond-gamble/

The recent Travis County support for bringing the Rocky Mountain Institute into the Austin area planning process to tackle Austin congestion can’t change this unhappy reality very much. Nothing can solve problems that really stem from decades of anarchistic sprawl development, and at this late stage in the urban development process.

Now that Uber has created and promoted software that undermines certain traditional inefficiencies of the taxicab industry, there isn’t much to be done there. Capital Metro has gotten a new app that makes it possible for riders to track buses, but these buses are still largely trapped in congestion at peak, which remains their main problem. Squeezing what advantages are left to develop through wider use of telecommuting to eliminate physical travel might help some, but new breakthroughs in that area are getting hard to find.

Much slower regional growth will no doubt win out as the obvious resolution in the end. When things can’t go on any longer, they don’t. ■

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Plan Now for Light Rail in South Lamar!

29 April 2015
South Lamar corridor. Map: City of Austin.

South Lamar corridor. Map: City of Austin.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments, adapted here to webpage format, were distributed to attendees at a public event sponsored by the City of Austin’s South Lamar Boulevard Corridor Study project on 10 December 2014. Lyndon Henry is a transportation planning consultant, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and a contributing editor to Austin Rail Now. His comments highlight the vision of Austin Rail Now and other transit advocates that light rail is justified in, and needs to be planned for, a number of the Austin area’s major travel corridors.

► South Lamar light rail transit line makes sense

• In terms of both travel density and traffic congestion, South Lamar Blvd. ranks high among Austin’s major travel corridors (see Latest TTI data confirm — Guadalupe-Lamar is central local arterial corridor with heaviest travel). Current travel density plus rapidly increasing population density plus commercial growth in this corridor all indicate that planning for light rail transit (LRT) should long since have been under way.

• A South Lamar surface LRT line, possibly using an alignment design such as is illustrated below, needs to be a major part of an eventual citywide system branching north, south, east, and west throughout our region from an initial central spine in the Guadalupe-North Lamar corridor.


Cross-sectional diagram showing how center LRT reservation could be inserted in South Lamar, maintaining traffic lanes and sidwalks. Design would use side-mounted traction electrification system poles for suspending the overhead contact system for LRT electric propulsion. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

Cross-sectional diagram showing how center LRT reservation could be inserted in South Lamar, maintaining traffic lanes and sidwalks. Design would use side-mounted traction electrification system poles for suspending the overhead contact system for LRT electric propulsion. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


• The South Lamar Corridor Improvement Program should be reconfigured to include planning for LRT as a crucial focus of this project. Planners and traffic engineers need to ensure that any “improvements” in this corridor facilitate dedicated transit lanes for future light rail, and certainly should not impose obstacles to it. It’s way past time to scrap the practice of proceeding with major projects with little if any thought to the future.

► Form a Community Policy & Technical Oversight Committee

• Planning should involve the Austin community as a whole, and this means forming a broad, inclusive community committee to oversee policy and technical decisions, including a comprehensive transit-focused mobility plan for Austin and its surrounding region. No more secretive project teams meeting in a virtual “bunker”, then emerging to tell us what they’ve decided for us! Authentic public participation means including representatives of neighborhood and other community groups, plus others with applicable expertise within the Austin community at large.


Current view of traffic on South Lamar. Photo: Austin Mobility.

Current view of traffic and urban development on South Lamar. Photo: Austin Mobility.


► Dedicate street lanes for light rail transit

Light rail can carry many more peak passengers than private cars, and attract many more riders than buses (both “regular” and MetroRapid). Austin needs to start re-allocating street space from traffic lanes to transit lanes, and the South Lamar corridor must be included. Smart design could install LRT in this corridor while retaining at least 4 lanes of traffic (see diagram in first section, above). ■

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Baker: CAMPO’s 2040 plan = “prescription for intense and auto-addictive suburban sprawl development far into future”

16 February 2015
Suburban highways, freeways, and tollways like Loop 1 (MoPac) have driven suburban sprawl, forcing dependency on personal motor vehicles for nearly all local transportation. CAMPO's planning continues to be focused mainly on promoting suburban growth through further roadway expansion. Photo: CTRMA.

Suburban highways, freeways, and tollways like Loop 1 (MoPac) have driven suburban sprawl, forcing dependency on personal motor vehicles for nearly all local transportation. CAMPO’s planning continues to be focused mainly on promoting suburban growth through further roadway expansion. Photo: CTRMA.

By Roger Baker

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

On February 9th, CAMPO (the federally sanctioned Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) held its monthly meeting, as usual to discuss regional planning policies. Although these tend to resemble (and to some extent overlap with) the City of Austin’s own planning issues, CAMPO’s anti-environmental, pro-sprawl policy governs state policy and the disposition of federal money, and thus tends to overrule Austin’s policies. So Austinites involved in local urban planning and transportation issues should take some interest.

Following is a link to the CAMPO agenda. I’d recommend reviewing Items 6A and 6B in particular, which discuss the new long-range 2040 CAMPO plan. When approved in May, this will lock-in regional funding and construction priorities policy for this new $32 billion 2040 plan:

http://www.campotexas.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/TPB-Agenda-February-9-2015.pdf

This CAMPO plan currently in the works, and nearing approval as our top regional infrastructure policy, seeks to double the Central Texas population to about 4 million, while putting most of the future population increase In Hays and Williamson Counties. This amounts to a prescription for intense and auto-addictive suburban sprawl development far into the future.

If you feed the projected sprawl-related commuter demand into CAMPO’s secretive travel demand model, you get nightmare-ish congestion throughout the region in 2040, as CAMPO has had to admit. I wrote about that here (my apologies for the misspelling of “congestion”):

http://changeaustin.org/2014/11/campos-congetion-nightmare/

This nightmare presents CAMPO with a political problem — trying to explain how it makes sense to spend $32 billion in fanciful future money only to see congestion get much worse than now, and what happens to congestion without this optimistic funding.

The CAMPO politics of planning policy assumes that the special interests tied to land development proceed as usual. The whole effort amounts to damage control. Congestion is treated like a dragon to be slayed mostly by roads, a process unconstrained by rational land use planning.

One response to CAMPO’s political problem of horrible modeled congestion is to use various behavior change assumptions to make future travel demand disappear, effectively by edict, by a united proclamation of the travel modelers and politicians.

The CAMPO planners have now managed to generate enough driver trip demand assumptions that they make more than 50% of the total Austin’s travel demand disappear as if by magic. This process is called Transportation Systems Management, which makes Austin’s future congestion picture, if still bad, look a lot better, despite CAMPO’s huge predicted level of sprawl development ringing Austin.

According to agenda Item 6A in the agenda linked above:

Staff is developing an analysis section similar to the analysis conducted by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce for their 2013 Mobility Report. This analysis will quantify the estimated congestion reduction benefit achieved by implementing 2040 Plan projects as well as additional travel demand management (telework, peak-shift and mode-shift) and transportation system management (operational improvements) strategies. Staff is also preparing a qualitative analysis of the CAMPO activity centers as a land use strategy.

And according to Item 6B:

PURPOSE AND EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

CAMPO staff and modeling consultants are developing a needs analysis for the draft CAMPO 2040 Plan which is similar to the analysis conducted by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce 2013 Mobility Report. The analysis will quantify the estimated congestion reduction benefit achieved by implementing 2040 Plan projects as well as additional travel demand management (telework, peak-shift and mode-shift) and transportation system management (operational improvements) strategies. Staff and consultants developed assumptions regarding the implementation rates of the strategies so that the analysis will reflect reasonable results. Staff is requesting that the TAC review and provide input on the assumptions.

However, you won’t find this miracle of congestion reduction anticipation spelled out in CAMPO’s agenda. You would have to know just where to look. Here is where you can go to find the details:

http://www.campotexas.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/TAC-Presentation-January-2015.pdf

Scroll down to slide #29 where the future improvements contributing to future traffic flow are quantified in a tiny blurry side box as follows:


Assumed capacity impacts of Transportation System Management measures. Table: CAMPO Technical Advisory Committee.

Assumed capacity impacts of Transportation System Management measures. Table: CAMPO Technical Advisory Committee.


Grand total = 51.15% (assumed) total future trip demand reduction!

You can see these assumed policies/impacts also by going to the end of section 4B “Assumptions for Needs Analysis”, or scrolling down to page 55 of this other PDF file, and finding the list of policies in a box:

http://www.campotexas.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/TAC-Agenda-January-28-2015.pdf

Also see the same info at my Google link here:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B9kg5NdhKh8RSGhvVjg3aTBRb28/view

All this begs the question of why, assuming these congestion reduction policies can really work as claimed, CAMPO doesn’t put the highest policy priority on reducing our traffic demand 50% in these various ways immediately, instead of waiting any longer.

Are there really examples of this much telecommuting-led travel demand reduction on this scale, or this much voluntary peak travel time shifting? Are there local engineering reports to add credibility to the claimed travel reductions from the various suggested signal policies? How credible is CAMPO’s claim of over 50% demand reduction? If we do this stuff, will we still need rail that bad, or is it already assumed in the “Intermodal Transportation Projects” share of demand reduction?

Bottom line:

Business as usual. Sprawl land developers make no sacrifices, while taxpayers and drivers do all the heavy lifting and funding, and supposedly change their behavior enough to make more than half the projected travel demand go away.


Barton Creek Resort development near Loop 360. Lower-density suburban development, facilitated by publicly funded highway expansion, is virtually impossible to serve effectively and affordably by mass transit — and this leads to near-total dependency on personal motor vehicles for mobility. Photo: Mopacs, via Skyscraperpage.

Barton Creek Resort development near Loop 360. This kind of lower-density suburban development, facilitated by publicly funded highway expansion, and widespread throughout the Austin region, is virtually impossible to serve effectively and affordably by mass transit — and this leads to near-total dependency on personal motor vehicles for mobility. Photo: Mopacs, via Skyscraperpage.

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Who are those guys? Real estate development interests and Austin’s urban rail boondoggle

28 October 2014
Map of urban rail line proposed for bond funding in November shows major private development interests and property owners that stand to benefit from selected route. Graphic: ARN.

Map of urban rail line proposed for bond funding in November shows major private development interests and property owners that stand to benefit from selected route. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

For years, the Light Rail Now Project, public transport advocates such as Dave Dobbs, Lyndon Henry, and Andrew Clements, and researchers and journalists such as Roger Baker have been criticizing Austin’s official urban rail planning process. In particular, they’ve been calling attention to the distortion of planning to avoid addressing bona fide mobility needs and instead defer to the needs and interests of real estate development.

In his analysis Connecting some dots on Austin’s urban rail planning, Baker revealed how planning for urban electric light rail was shifted away from a focus on crucial travel patterns in the heart of the city, and remade to promote development goals in more peripheral areas: “The dots in this case were partly the political momentum behind a new hospital district, combined with a new Opportunity Austin/Chamber-of-Commerce-recommended Austin growth policy.” Thus, “… in 2008, a city consultant, ROMA, recommended that the proposed light rail corridor be moved east to the San Jacinto Corridor (ultimately connecting several years later to the Red River corridor), as opposed to the previously-assumed Lamar Corridor alignment.”

Similarly, in their commentary Project Connect’s urban rail plan is “worse than nothing”, Dobbs and Henry explain how the official urban rail plan ignores the travel problems of the city’s core Lamar-Guadalupe axis in preference for catering to real estate and economic development development objectives. Now on the November ballot to seek voter authorization for General Obligation bonds to fund a 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion line strangely wandering from East Riverside Drive over a series of disparate, otherwise disconnected roadways to the former Highland Mall site, the proposed project, they say, is “primarily aimed at bolstering development plans and centered on the interests of private developers and the East Campus expansion appetites of the University of Texas administration.”

Rail transit and economic development

There’s certainly nothing wrong with efforts to site or cluster new development around or near rail transit stations. On the contrary, transit agencies, modern planning policy, and the transit industry all encourage and seek such development, often in the form of transit-oriented development (TOD) or transit-adjacent development – typically, synergistic residential development and activity center patterns that promote transit ridership, reduce dependency on personal motor vehicles, and help minimize urban-area sprawl.

But as the current controversy illustrates, a huge problem arises when rail planning forsakes serious mobility needs in deference to a predominant quest by political officials and civic leaders for obsessively desired real estate and economic development. Neglecting mobility function in favor of embellishing or promoting real estate development not only is a disservice to overall community needs, but also can be harmful to cost-effectiveness and other critical performance characteristics of good rail transit. Furthermore, rail transit can be a magnet for development, but this happens more or less in direct correlation with mobility effectiveness – i.e., rail transit in a heavily traveled, high-ridership corridor will tend to attract much more land and economic development than lower ridership in a weaker corridor.

But it’s precisely this faulty course of focusing overwhelmingly on coveted real estate and economic development possibilities, rather than crucial mobility priorities, that Austin’s political and civic leadership have taken. While private development interests obviously perceive that rail transit can bolster their real estate ventures, City of Austin planners and officials are clearly consumed by the prospect of higher property valuations and property tax revenues.

This was underscored at a 27 April 2012 meeting of the Transit Working Group (TWG) — the hand-picked “blue ribbon” circle of civic leaders then chaired by Austin’s Mayor Lee Leffingwell — that was dedicated almost totally to examining the prospects for real estate and economic development along what was then envisioned as an East Riverside-to-Mueller route for urban rail. (See video of meeting.)

Kevin Johns, director of the City’s Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services office, moderated a panel of key players in property development and development planning that extolled the potential for lucrative “return on investment” from the ripening urban rail plan. Significantly, the interaction of such development possibilities with actual mobility patterns and needs was not on their radar.

A major portion of this event included a PowerPoint presentation by Scott Polikov, principal of Gateway Planning, a development consultancy based in Ft. Worth and evidently under contract to the City of Austin. Polikov focused on several projects his firm was involved in, detailing other major players, future projects, projected valuations and tax revenues, and other aspects.


Scott Polikov of urban planning and development firm Gateway Planning gives presentation to TWG, 27 April 2012. Screenshot from COA video.

Scott Polikov of urban planning and development firm Gateway Planning gives presentation to TWG, 27 April 2012. Screenshot from COA video.


And what about the role of the University of Texas? As Lyndon Henry’s commentary UT should pay for East Campus urban rail — not Austin taxpayers points out, the UT administration has played its own role in distorting Austin’s planning process – mainly by demanding an eastside rail alignment, forsaking the high-density West Campus and major commercial activity on the Drag in favor of embellishing UT’s ongoing East Campus expansion program (and most recently, the development of a relatively small medical teaching facility just south of the main campus).

But UT’s influence is primarily political — the influence of being the proverbial “800-pound gorilla” that happens to sit on well over 40 acres of prime central Austin real estate (tax-exempt, nonetheless), and also happens to hold powerful connections to the Texas state government (and let’s not neglect to mention the UT system’s vast oil & gas holdings). Leaving UT aside, evidence is substantial that private business interests — property development interests in particular — have represented a major economic influence swaying the urban rail planning and decisionmaking of City officials.

Earlier planning for East Riverside and Mueller

For years, City planners and various public officials have repeatedly referred to the economic development potential and taxbase implications of their urban rail plans. An entire project — the City’s East Riverside Corridor Project — has focused on encouraging development and “revitalization” of the East Riverside area, historically a haven of medium to high-density, lower-cost, more affordable housing for both students and a segment of Austin’s lower and lower-middle-income workers and their families.

These development plans and policies, and their impact on East Riverside residents, were chronicled as early as 2007 by a landmark Austin American-Statesman in-depth examination. Dated 6 Aug. of that year, the story, titled “Banking on Riverside”, carried the ominous sub-ledes “Neighborhood in Transition” and “As explosive growth nears, where will longtime residents go?”

Statesman reporter Susannah Gonzales described the area as “one of the city’s largest concentrations of apartment complexes … home to thousands of immigrants and college students drawn by the lower rents and public transportation.” However, she noted, massive change was on the way. “Several plans for new development are under way in the vicinity.” Gonzales portrayed a determined effort by the City administration to expunge cheaper, affordable residential facilities and replace them with upscale condos, offices and retail outlets in a process of densification and gentrification.

Those early signals of East Riverside development, and subsequently the official corridor project, provide critical clues as to the thrust of City of Austin policy. And urban rail planning has been molded to support this policy, not just in East Riverside but in other areas deemed lucrative for both private development interests and City taxbase enhancement goals.

The Mueller development site also fits into this pattern. Since the early 2000s, the private development giant Catellus has proceeded, under City authority, to replace this former primary airport site with a 700-acre, mixed-use development envisioned to include 4,900 residences, over 650,000 square feet of retail space, and some 4.2 million square feet of office/commercial space. Until insider desires shifted in the course of the Project Connect urban rail “study” a year ago — reflecting development appetites eyeing the Highland ACC site — urban rail was planned to be routed into the Mueller project area. And Catellus has been assured that the current Red River-Hancock Center alignment will facilitate an eventual urban rail connection if the proposal on the November ballot is approved by voters. Indeed, “urban rail” planning actually began (c. 2005) as a streetcar “circulator” plan aimed at linking Mueller to UT’s East Campus and the Core Area.

Private interests that stand to gain

From a variety of reliable sources, Austin Rail Now has been able to compile a fascinating listing of many of these private property and economic development interests that stand to gain from the proposed Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal — ranging from property owners that might benefit from upward valuations to major development firms with projects already completed or under way. While some of these business interests undoubtedly have contributed to election campaigns of some councilmembers, our assessment is that City policy has been dominated by expectations of increased economic development and elevated property values, leading to expansion of taxbase and increases in property tax revenues. (The pitfalls of basing urban rail planning on such expectations have already been noted, above.) In any case, a number of these interests can be considered major players in the evolution of City urban rail planning and policy decisions. (Also see infographic at top of this post.)

East Riverside corridor — The Statesman article of 6 August 2007 listed ten specific developer or property-holder interests with projects either planned, under construction, or completed in this area. These included:


Development interests in East Riverside area as of 2007. From Austin American-Statesman report, 2007/08/06.

Development interests in East Riverside area as of 2007. From Austin American-Statesman report, 2007/08/06.


The 2007 article included a map and key of the specific developments:


Map and key of East Riverside developments as of August 2007. Screenshot of scan of Statesman map by Dave Dobbs.

Map and key of East Riverside developments as of August 2007. Screenshot of scan of Statesman map by Dave Dobbs. (Click to enlarge.)


South Shore — This area, also called the South Bank, just across the river (Lady Bird Lake) from Austin’s CBD, seems to be regarded as especially lucrative because of the availability of high-dollar river views for office buildings and condominiums. It was featured in Scott Polikov’s 2012 presentation to the TWG, which indicated how a new urban rail bridge across the river would benefit existing property owners, and help open up the area for a future development boom:


Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed adjacent South Shore property owners that stood to benefit.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed adjacent South Shore property owners that stood to benefit.


Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible future South Shore development boom.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible future South Shore development boom.


The Gateway presentation also described the possible economic payoff from South Shore development stimulated by urban rail:


Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible economic and tax benefits of urban rail plan in South Shore area.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible economic and tax benefits of urban rail plan in South Shore area.


In summary, major current beneficiaries of the proposed urban rail project through the South Shore area would include:


Development interests in South Shore area.

Development interests in South Shore area.


Eastside CBD — This area lies generally between Congress and I-35, from the river north to the UT campus. Information on development interests has been compiled from the Downtown Austin Alliance Emerging Projects listing, the Gateway 2012 TWG presentation, and a knowledgeable political consultant speaking on background. According to this last source, several major developers and speculators are acquiring large property holdings (entire blocks in some cases) along and near the East 6th St. area in anticipation of the valuation effects of urban rail as well as the Waller Creek project.

Based on these sources, some major beneficiaries of the proposed urban rail project through the east side of the CBD include:


Development interests in east side of CBD.

Development interests in east side of CBD.


The Gateway 2012 TWG presentation also zeroed in on a possible development boom, bolstered by the proposed urban rail alignment, engulfing the Rainey St. neighborhood, in the southeast corner of the CBD:


Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible future Rainey St. development boom.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible future Rainey St. development boom.


Hypothetical economic benefits were also listed:


Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible economic and tax benefits of urban rail plan in Rainey St. neighborhood.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed possible economic and tax benefits of urban rail plan in Rainey St. neighborhood.


Airport Blvd. corridor and Highland ACC area — Information on development interests in these segments of the City’s proposed urban rail route has been derived from a 28 Aug. 2011 article in the Austin American-Statesman, the 2012 TWG presentation by Gateway Planning (which has been involved in recommending and projecting economic and real estate development for the Airport Blvd. corridor), and a 2 Nov. 2012 article from the Austin Business Journal.

Reportedly, planners and officials envision a “new urbanist” redevelopment with classroom facilities, administrative offices, “and a mix of residential, retail and other commercial development.” (Statesman) The RedLeaf development is aimed to be “a thriving public-private complex with perhaps 1,250 residential units”. Major private development players cited in these sources include:


Development interests in Highland ACC and Airport Blvd. area.

Development interests in Highland ACC and Airport Blvd. area.


Along and east of the Highland site, the Airport Blvd. corridor is proposed for a massive overhaul. Giving some visualization of what the character of development along this corridor could look like, the Gateway 2012 TWG presentation provides a slide showing a proposed transit-oriented development (TOD) project in the Fiskville neighborhood along the corridor:


Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed rendering of possible TOD in Fiskville corridor near Airport Blvd.

Slide from 2012 Gateway presentation to TWG showed rendering of possible TOD in Fiskville corridor near Airport Blvd.


As this post has already emphasized, there’s nothing illicit or irregular with private development interests seeking opportunities to locate new projects near rail transit stations. But in the case of the urban rail plan now proposed for bond funding via a proposition on this November’s ballot, considerations of economic and real estate development potential — and expectations of increased property valuations and tax flows for local government budgets — seem to have trumped essential mobility priorities and thoroughly distorted the planning process and the proposed rail plan.

Likewise, it should be noted that there’s no assumption that interests listed in this post that stand to benefit from the routing of urban rail have directly intervened to influence urban rail planning. However, it is known that some real estate and development interests have been listed as contributors to the semi-official Let’s Go Austin campaign leading the effort to advocate passage of the bond funding measure. ■