Archive for the ‘Ballot measure campaign and issues’ Category

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City’s “Smart Corridor” Prop. 1 bond plan promising way more than it can deliver

29 September 2016
Graph shows disparity between funds budgeted in "Smart Corridors" bond package and projected actual cost of these projects. (Graph: ARN.)

Graph shows disparity between funds budgeted in “Smart Corridors” bond package and projected actual cost of these projects. (Graph: ARN.)

In past postings we’ve roundly criticized the City of Austin’s “Mobility Bond” plan as a “non-mobility” proposal – there’s no transit project, and two-thirds of the funds are allocated for makeovers (“smart corridors”) of existing arterials. (With $101 million of “Regional Mobility” projects – highways and other major roads in the region – plus $26 million of other street and road improvements, the total allocation for roads comes to $609 million, or about 85% of the total $720 million “Mobility Bond” package.)

Now, according to a Sep. 25th exposé by Austin American Statesman transportation reporter Ben Wear, the bond proposal (now designated Proposition 1) falls appalling short of even fulfilling the “Smart Corridors” projects that it’s promising to voters.
http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/local/wear-austins-go-big-road-bond-not-big-enough-to-co/nsdkh/

The “Highlights” to Wear’s article pretty much say it all:

• The $720 million bond proposition’s greatest vulnerability is that it promises much more than it can deliver.

• The bond includes $482 million for corridor projects estimated to cost more than $1.56 billion.

As Wear elaborates:

The Austin City Council, when it passed an ordinance in August calling a $720 million bond election, was pretty specific about how $482 million of that money will be spent.

That slice of the money, the five-page law says, will pay for “implementation of corridor plans” for nine, or perhaps eight of nine, specific city streets: North and South Lamar, Burnet Road, Airport Boulevard, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, East Riverside Drive, Guadalupe Street, William Cannon Drive “and/or” Slaughter Lane. It doesn’t say “partial implementation” or “implementation of some of the following roads.”

So a voter could be forgiven for thinking that $482 million will do it all.

It won’t.

Not even close.

While just $482 million has been budgeted, reports Wear, according to staff estimates, “The total tab for the seven corridors that have a completed or in-progress study … would be $1.56 billion ….” He concludes:

You get the picture: The corridor money will pay for something between a quarter and a third of what the studies are recommending. But which quarter or third? Which corridors? What type of changes?

In other words, voters would be “buying” a “pig in a poke” … only that’s not what they’ve been told.

In the assessment of longtime community transportation activist and researcher Roger Baker (who has contributed several articles to this site),

This makes it pretty clear that Adler’s bond package is essentially top-down, business as usual road politics. This as opposed to a cost-effective engineering solution to some well-defined transportation problem or approach. Austin can’t possibly pave its way out of congestion by raising property taxes, and a truly smart city wouldn’t try.

Curiously, a group (seemingly anonymous) has been posting large signs around the city opposing Proposition 1 and denouncing it as “deceptive” as well as “destructive”. Given the shenanigans that Ben Wear has revealed, this kind of sentiment may spread. ■

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Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail needs to be included in Austin’s “mobility” bond package

27 July 2016
Ann Kitchen chairs City of Austin Mobility Committee meeting of June 14th. Photo: Sceenshot from ATXN video.

Ann Kitchen chairs City of Austin Mobility Committee meeting of June 14th. Photo: Sceenshot from ATXN video.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to a public meeting of the City of Austin’s Mobility Committee on 14 June 2016. Lyndon Henry is a transportsation planning consultant, a former board member of Capital Metro, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and a contributing editor to this website.

I urge you to include a measure for urban rail in the proposed $720 million “mobility” bond package now under consideration. I support the proposal for an affordable 5.3-mile light rail Minimum Operable Segment on North Lamar and Guadalupe from Crestview to downtown.

Currently 83% of the proposed $720 million package is devoted to road projects. Surely some of these road projects could be replaced with the $260 million to $400 million that would facilitate an urban rail project.


5.3-mile Minimum Operable Segment light rail line proposed by CACDC. Graphic: Screenshot from CACDC map.

Proposed 5.3-mile light rail transit starter line Minimum Operable Segment in Guadaluoe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: CACDC.


It’s absurd that the $720 million bond package you’re considering could be labeled a “mobility” package despite NO major initiative for transit, let alone urban rail, which has been studied and affirmed as a necessity for decades. This bond proposal stands in contradiction to the decades of official “green” rhetoric and policy initiatives such as Envision Central Texas and Imagine Austin that have verbally embraced public transportation and “high-capacity transit” as key “alternative mobility” measures necessary to “keep Austin moving”.

This road-focused $720 million package tries to address congestion by increasing “throughput” of vehicles. Unfortunately, experience and evidence suggest that this is a losing approach — trying to tweak more capacity to squeeze through more cars typically just induces more traffic. Furthermore, this influx of ever-growing vehicle traffic imposes more stress on congested areas such as Austin’s core.


Lyndon Henry presenting comments to City of Austin Mobility Committee on June 14th. Photo: Screenshot from ATXN video.

Lyndon Henry presenting comments to City of Austin Mobility Committee on June 14th. Photo: Screenshot from ATXN video.


In contrast, this light rail plan (and future expansions throughout Austin) removes traffic from roadways by attracting motorists to the transit service, adding the equivalent of four lanes of extra peak capacity to this corridor. Can the same be said for the current $720 million road-focused bond plan?

I suggest that urban rail — providing highly attractive rail transit service on its own dedicated tracks — makes far more sense as a solution for alleviating mobility congestion, than simply trying to squeeze more traffic onto the city’s crowded streets, roads, and parking spaces.

I’ve heard the argument that urban rail is “not ready” to be offered as a bond measure. Yet polls and other evidence indicate resounding support for public transit and urban rail, and the Austin community has gone through years of repeated outreach exercises familiarizing them with the technology and the issues. The public seems more ready than ever to support rail; it’s Austin’s civic leadership that seems to have cold feet.

Finally, whatever bond package you choose, I urge you to unbundle the roads bonds from the small proportion of bicycle and pedestrian bonds. This would allow the community at least to consider these alternative mobility elements separately. ■

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NOTE: As of this posting, the Mobility Committee and City Council have approved the $720 million roads-dominated bond measure, without provision for transit, as a bundled package.
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Grassroots effort proposes small light rail starter project for an authentic “mobility bond” measure

11 June 2016
5.3-mile Minimum Operable Segment light rail line proposed by CACDC. Graphic: Screenshot from CACDC map.

5.3-mile Minimum Operable Segment light rail line proposed by CACDC. Graphic: Screenshot from CACDC map.

An Austin “mobility” bond package without a single major transit project? That’s the current plan from the office of Austin Mayor Steve Adler – a $720 million bond bundle overwhelmingly (about 83%) concentrated on roadway projects, with a smattering of “alternative mobility” pedestrian and bicycle projects, and virtually no significant public transport improvements.

The current official bond package stands in stark contradiction to the decades of official “green” rhetoric verbally embracing public transportation and “high-capacity transit” as key components of the “alternative mobility” measures necessary to “keep Austin moving” – rhetoric also enshrined in major policy initiatives of recent decades such as Envision Central Texas and Imagine Austin. The “mobility” bond package also comes in contrast to a recent resurgence of competent studies and reports suggesting that continuing to emphasize further roadway development – because of effects such as encouraging suburban sprawl, creating further dependency on private car travel, and inducing even more traffic – is a losing game.

An affordable light rail starter line

In response, an outcry has arisen throughout the Austin community, calling for some major public transport elements to be included in the “mobility” bond measure. By far the most substantial alternative approach to the official roadwork-heavy bond offering is a proposal crafted by Scott Morris and Andrew Clements of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), a small nonprofit organization. Supported by a group of other community leaders, the proposal suggests that a light rail transit (LRT) Minimum Operable Segment (MOS) would be feasible, stretching 5.3 miles from Crestview (North Lamar at Airport Blvd.) south to Republic Square (West 4th St.) in downtown Austin (see maps above and further below). CACDC estimates daily ridership of 37,400 for the MOS.

The MOS is actually a subset of previous plans for the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor, such as Capital Metro’s 1994 plan, the agency’s 2000 plan, a 2013 proposal from Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT), an earlier, more extensive CACDC plan for the G-L corridor, and the 2014 “Plan B” proposal from Austin Rail Now (ARN).

In addition to previous design work by Capital Metro consultants from 1994, 2000, and the early 2000s, ARN has also suggested another design option for inserting LRT infrastructure into the corridor. See: «San Francisco’s N-Judah Muni Metro line shows design option for light rail in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor».


Cross-sectional diagram of major arterials in corridor, showing center LRT reservation, traffic lanes, sidwalks, and side-mounted TES poles for suspending the OCS. Graphic: ARN.

Cross-sectional view of a possible design for LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: ARN.


CACDC’s capital investment cost estimate for the proposed MOS – $397.5 million – is based on an average of costs from 15 rail projects (LRT plus one diesel-powered light railway), as compiled by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and reviewed and analyzed by Andrew Clements. This renders an average of $68.3 million per mile (2016 dollars). Especially in light of past studies of LRT in the G-L corridor, as well as recent projects nationwide, the methodology certainly provides a competent and plausible basis for a “system-level” order-of-magnitude estimate suitable for presentation to voters and justification for further, more detailed planning.

CACDC is proposing that its year-2016 cost estimate ($397.5 million) be offered to voters in full as a ballot measure this coming November. CACDC believes the MOS project could be implemented via local funding and without assistance from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

A more methodologically conservative estimate of investment cost for the same proposed MOS by the Light Rail Now Project of Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT) accepts CACDC’s cost estimate but adds a higher allowance for contingency. As explained by Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant and technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project (and also a contributing editor to this website), there is a substantial component of “unknown” in most major rail transit projects. Therefore, best standard practice for capital investment cost estimates is to apply a contingency allowance (for surface LRT projects) averaging at least 25-30% of the total of all other costs – in effect, as a kind of “insurance”. Curiously, a cost estimate of “about $465 Million” reported in a May 12th KEYE-TV News segment covering the CACDC proposal, including an interview with Clements, appeared to incorporate such a contingency, amounting to about 28% added to the cost-per-mile average that Clements found from his analysis of FTA project data.

However, the actual project funding intended in a bond measure must also allow for the effects of inflation as the project proceeds. Thus standard practice is to escalate the given current-year investment cost estimate into YOE (year of expenditure) dollars. Otherwise project proponents, designers, and managers will either (a) be caught short or (b) need to go to voters again for enough money (or scrummage for some other source) to actually complete the project. The TAPT estimate assumes a 2.5% adjustment rate over a project span of four years.

In TAPT’s assessment, seeking FTA assistance (and thus collaboration and oversight) is important, particularly since TxDOT lacks a strong rail oversight program. The dangers of disdaining federal collaboration already became clear in some of the most serious missteps of Capital Metro’s MetroRail implementation, resulting in a significantly delayed opening, jeopardizing public support, and leading to expensive operational constraints and unexpected requirements, continuing to this day. FTA participation would also imply 50-50 sharing of the capital investment cost, significantly alleviating the funding burden borne by Austin taxpayers. Also, a design concept to implement a cross-platform transfer between LRT and MetroRail (under the aegis of the Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA) would invoke FRA involvement.

Based on all these factors, the TAPT capital investment cost estimate, with 28% contingency and YOE escalation at 2.5% per annum, totals about $520 million for this 5.3-mile MOS starter line. In TAPT’s FTA-funded scenario, a mobility bond measure of $260 million would be sufficient to provide a local 50% match for funding the project.


Wider-view map showing 5.3-mile LRT MOS route strategically serving busy local Guadalupe-Lamar corridor between Loop 1 (MoPac) and I-35. Graphic: ARN.

Wider-view map, in context of central-city Austin, showing 5.3-mile LRT MOS route strategically serving busy local Guadalupe-Lamar corridor between Loop 1 (MoPac) and I-35. Graphic: ARN.


Significant benefits

Assuming a 14-mph average speed for the 5.3-mile starter line, Henry calculates a 23-minute Crestview-to-Republic Square running time. This compares with 26-28 minutes by Capital Metro’s MetroRapid Route 801 “rapid transit” bus service. (And while MetroRapid buses often skip some stops because no passengers are waiting there, LRT trains make every stop and actually board passengers at each station because of the greater attractiveness of rail service.)

That differential may seem small, but, compared with buses, LRT brings additional advantages. Passengers have a greater sense of service reliability and safety, and greater orientation to where routes go and where stations are located. There’s a much greater sense of permanence. LRT railcars are more spacious, easier to board and deboard, and more comfortable to ride. Attributes like these combine to attract substantially higher ridership.

Based on past ridership estimates for this corridor, including a 2000 New Starts profile study approved by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Henry estimates a daily ridership of 30,000 for this MOS (within two years of opening). From the new rider data in the FTA study, Henry extrapolates that approximately 13,800 of these rider-trips would be new to transit in the corridor. By assuming that all these new rider-trips would otherwise be made by motor vehicle, this means that about 12,600 daily vehicle trips would be eliminated from these arterials (in addition to those already diverted to public transit). During peak travel periods, nearly 5,000 private vehicle trips would be eliminated, as former motorists would be attracted to the proposed new light rail service.

This also implies the elimination of approximately 1,300 peak vehicle trips per hour in the corridor — roughly equivalent to two arterial lanes of capacity. In other words, this LRT starter line would add the equivalent of two lanes of extra peak capacity to this corridor in each direction. As Henry pointed out in an E-mail memo to City Councilmembers (emphasis added),

The road-focused $720 million “mobility” bond package currently under consideration tries to address congestion and safety by increasing “throughput” of vehicles. Unfortunately, experience and a vast body of evidence suggest that this is a losing approach — trying to tweak more capacity to squeeze more traffic typically merely induces more traffic. Furthermore, this influx of ever-growing vehicle traffic simply imposes more stress on congested areas such as Austin’s core.

In contrast, our LRT proposal (and future expansions of LRT throughout Austin) removes traffic from roadways by attracting both drivers and passengers to the transit service

I would suggest that our approach — providing highly attractive rail transit service on its own dedicated tracks — makes far more sense and is far more sustainable as a long-term solution for alleviating mobility congestion, than those elements in the current official proposal that simply attempt to squeeze more traffic onto the city’s crowded streets, roads, and parking spaces.


Proposed citywide urban rail system. Map: Andrew Mayer.

Proposed MOS LRT starter line could serve as anchoring backbone for expansion into LRT network throughout metro area. Map: Andrew Mayer.


And those capacity projections are merely predicated on the initial base estimate of 30,000 daily ridership. The actual potential capacity of the line’s infrastructure, with additional railcars and minor upgrades (e.g., increased power supply), could be raised to 9,000 peak-period rider-trips per hour, corresponding to daily ridership of about 90,000. That’s ultimately equivalent to approximately ten freeway lanes (five per direction).

These capacity benefits are joined by an array of other benefits with LRT, such as:

• Reduction in unit cost of public transport operations compared with bus-only services

• Safer, more accessible neighborhoods

• Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and other motor vehicle pollutants

• Reduction in demand for parking spaces in areas served by LRT

• Safer, more reliable, lower-cost mobility for the public

• More accessible and more affordable public transportation to reinforce affordable housing policies

An authentic mobility bond measure

Over the past several decades, Austin has acquired notoriety for endless agonizing, hesitation, confusion, and indecision over urban rail. Dozens of “studies, re-studies, and re-studies of the re-studies” (in the words of Lyndon Henry) have been executed for LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, with no outcome other than further indecision. Now, in the face of excruciating congestion, and a mounting toll of bloody and fatal accidents, the prospect of a “mobility” bond package is on the table. CACDC’s proposal for a 5.3-mile Minimum Operable Segment (MOS) provides an opening path toward some truly realistic solutions.

A powerful case can be made that a substantial bond commitment for LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor can be inserted into the $720 million official “mobility package”. This can be accomplished by reducing some of the proposed roadway expenditures and substituting rail bonding.

The City Council has before it at least two alternative urban rail bond options, either of which can make urban rail actually happen. Each of these represents an alternative way of funding the same basic project:

• CACDC bond proposal — $397.5 million: this would provide (in our assessment) about three-fourths funding (and potential local match, with FTA assistance) of the proposed MOS starter line

• TAPT bond proposal — $260 million: this would provide 50% local match for the MOS starter line with 50% FTA assistance

Currently, $720 million is on the table — it’s now a question of “what’s in the package for that amount of money?” Ensuring that urban rail is included would bring authenticity of bona fide “mobility” to such a mobility bond package. ■

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Support grows to include urban rail in November “mobility” bond package

28 May 2016
J.D. Gins, member of Urban Transportation Commission, at May 10th meeting, argues for recommendation to Austin City Council to include rail transit in November bond package. ARN screenshot from COA video.

J.D. Gins, member of Urban Transportation Commission, at May 10th meeting, argues for recommendation to Austin City Council to include rail transit in November bond package. ARN screenshot from COA video.

On May 7th, Austin voters resoundingly defeated Proposition 1, an effort by “gig” taxi firms Uber and Lyft to exempt themselves from several regulatory measures applying to other taxi services operating in Austin. In response, Uber and Lyft have both suspended their operations in Austin.

An interesting result is that interest has surged in the possibility of an urban rail alternative – mainly focused on an electric light rail transit (LRT) starter line for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor – being added to a proposed package of “mobility” bond measures this coming November. In a May 12th news segment, for example, KXAN-TV News reporter Chris Sadeghi noted that “As Uber and Lyft leave the conversation on mobility options in Austin, it could provide urban rail the opportunity to re-enter it.”

At its regular meeting of May 10th, the City of Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission (UTC) unanimously passed a resolution presented by board member J.D. Gins (see photo at top of this post) recommending that “the City Council consider rail options including, but not limited to, a minimum operating segment as part of the 2016 bond proposal.” Reporting on this development, KXAN reporter Sadeghi interviewed UTC member Mario Champion. As Sadeghi related, “Because there have been studies and plans already conducted into the feasibility and design of rail projects, Champion said the commission is hopeful the process to getting an election item on the November ballot can move quickly.”

“We could dust off those plans and learn from the community what was good about them and what was not good about them” Champion told the reporter.


Resolution passed by Urban Transportation Commission recommends City Council consider including rail transit in November bond package. Screenshot by ARN from COA PDF.

Resolution passed by Urban Transportation Commission recommends City Council consider including rail transit in November bond package. Screenshot by ARN from COA PDF. (Click to enlarge.)


Also covering the UTC recommendation for putting rail on the ballot, KEYE-TV News reporter Melanie Torre interviewed Andrew Clements with the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC). “Clements has been pushing for an urban light rail for years, but where the rail goes is critical to its success” reported Torre. Clements and the CACDC had played a key role in providing information on urban LRT for UTC members.

“All along North Lamar and Guadalupe there’s already density that would support light rail” Clements told Torre, adding “We’ve known since probably the 1970s that’s the best place to put light urban rail first.” Torre explained that “Years down the road, rail construction could expand north toward Rundberg Lane, east down Riverside Drive and south down Pleasant Valley Road.”

According to the KEYE report, CACDC is proposing a first segment that would “span from Crestview Station to Republic Square Park in downtown” at an estimated cost of about $465 million (2016 dollars). (The CACDC route replicates nearly 80% of the “Plan B” proposal described in an October 2014 ARN posting.)

“Even though it’s expensive, the most efficient way is what we need to start dedicating our public right-of-ways to …” Clements insisted. It should be noted, however, that this is a bargain price for such a mobility investment, which could potentially remove as many as 2,700 motor vehicles each peak hour from major arteries in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

The $465 million investment cost also appears eminently affordable, if 50% Federal Transit Administration funding is assumed. Converting CACDC’s 2016 estimate to Year of Expenditure (YOE) dollars would imply a total project investment of $514 million over four years, and a local 50% match of $257 million – a budgetary allotment for Austin commensurate with other major capital investments in recent years.

A May 16th Austin Monitor article by Caleb Pritchard focused on the UTC vote and also put the urban rail possibility in the context of greater emphasis on alternative mobility opportunities, including expanded bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Pritchard notes that a funding package that would include the 2014 Bicycle Master Plan “as well as the construction of high-priority sidewalks around schools and transit stops” was already on the table in the amount of $411 million.

Miller Nuttle, representing Bike Austin, told the Monitor reporter: “I think rail should be a critical part of solving Austin’s long-term transportation crisis. I also think biking and walking are critical, too, and that’s something we can do now given that the plans have been thoroughly publicly vetted. All they need in order to be actualized is capital funding.”

Pritchard also quoted Clements in regard to the merits of CACDC’s $465 million proposal. “Of all the things that are being considered, I think light urban rail will have the most impact on mobility…” Clements stated. “I strongly support the bike master plan and the sidewalk plan, but I think that, at best, those are going to have single-digit impacts on ride-share mode splits. And I believe light urban rail will have the biggest bang for the buck.”

On May 17th, the City’s Zoning and Platting Commission included the UTC’s resolution “calling for funding the bicycle master plan, high priority sidewalks, and corridor plans that increase opportunities for high capacity transit, including the consideration of rail” in citing their basis to approve a resolution “calling on the city council to put a transportation bond proposal on the upcoming November ballot ….” according to a report from Fox 7 TV News.

Dick Kallerman, a longtime leader of the Travis County Sierra Club’s involvement in transportation issues, interviewed by Fox 7 News, suggested that “a better outreach campaign” might help convince more of the public to “get on board” with public transportation .

“If people start thinking in turns of urban, urban living, mass transit it part of it …” said Kallerman. ” If you get in a car it’s a contradiction, if you think you are an urbanite living in a city and you get in a car, it means you really don’t know what urban living is all about.” ■

Proposed LRT alignment in narrow segment of Guadalupe between 29th-38th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

One possible design for inserting light rail line into Guadalupe St. between W. 29th-W. 38th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

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Lessons of the Austin rail bond defeat

20 November 2014
Campaign sign from OurRail PAC, which advocates light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, but strongly opposed City's Highland-Riverside urban rail plan and the $600 million bond proposition to fund it.

Campaign sign from OurRail PAC, which advocates light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, but strongly opposed City’s Highland-Riverside urban rail plan and the $600 million bond proposition to fund it.

By Roger Baker

Roger Baker, a longtime Austin transportation, energy, and urban issues researcher and community activist, presented these comments to the November 10th meeting of CAMPO (the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization).

1. A top lesson is that with “affordability” taking the lead in Austin politics, it is getting risky to expect property taxpayers to fund road or rail projects without a lot of grassroots community buy-in. Transportation planners apparently plan for this funding shift onto local taxpayers to continue, despite its obvious unpopularity.

2. Putting a lot of roads and rail on the same complex bond package was a mistake. While technically legal, this was confusing and helped make the issue politically divisive.

3. Expecting voters to approve using up all our enviable AAA debt bonding capacity just before a new council takes office is not only bad policy, but it is likely to be distinctly unpopular with the new council candidates.

4. One lesson of this bond election is that the Austin voting public is probably smarter than many politicians give them credit for. The billion dollars offered little traffic congestion relief to most voters, since it was heavily geared toward future growth rather than existing residents. A slogan like “With roads and rail we cannot fail” couldn’t overcome the lack of much plausible benefit for most Austin voters.

5. It is probably bad policy to let private special interest groups like RECA [Real Estate Council of Austin] dictate the terms of bond elections like this one, simply because it doesn’t look very good when word gets out.

6. It was a mistake to assume that promoting a weak rail corridor designed to serve hypothetical growth would not hurt the proposal. Anti-rail, pro-road sentiment is relatively constant. Meanwhile, Austin has a sizable and active community of smart transit activists, many of them young and actively into social media, where information, both pro and con, travels fast. We already do have a Plan B, in the form of the currently much stronger and cheaper North Lamar/Guadalupe rail corridor.

7. Putting all our eggs in one planning basket, second-guessing the voters, and assuming that the bond promoters could win an election with over a million dollars’ worth of advertising and high-profile political endorsements didn’t work. This shows money power cannot reliably overcome smart, well-organized voter power. ■

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Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead

5 November 2014
Election night graphic on KXAN-TV News showed heavy loss for Highland-Riverside urban rail bonds proposition. Final tally was 57%-43%. Screenshot by L. Henry.

Election night graphic on KXAN-TV News showed heavy loss for Highland-Riverside urban rail bonds proposition. Final tally was 57%-43%. Screenshot by L. Henry.

On November 4th, Austin voters resoundingly defeated the seriously flawed Highland-Riverside urban rail plan and $600 million bond proposition by a wide 14-point margin. The final tally is 57% against vs. 43% in favor of the bond measure.

Significantly, this was the first rail transit ballot measure to be rejected by Austin voters. In 2000, a proposed 14.6-mile light rail transit (LRT) running from McNeil down the Capital Metro railway alignment to Crestview, then south on North Lamar and Guadalupe to downtown, received a narrow majority of Austin votes — but the measure failed in the broader Capital Metro service area because of rejection by many suburban voters. In 2004, Capital Metro voters, including Austin, approved the 32-mile “urban commuter rail” plan from downtown Austin to Leander, subsequently branded as the MetroRail Red Line.

So why did this proposal fail? We believe it’s because Austin’s most dedicated, most experienced — and most knowledgeable — rail advocates opposed the official Highland-Riverside urban rail plan. These included long-established pro-transit organizations like the Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT) and its Light Rail Now Project; the nonprofit Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC); AURA (Austinites for Urban Rail Action); the Our Rail Political Action Committee; and an array of important north and central Austin neighborhood and community groups.

Our own reasons for so intrepidly opposing this plan are presented in numerous articles throughout this website; for a representative summary of several of our key criticisms, see Project Connect’s gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off course.

Opposition from rail advocates and otherwise pro-rail organizations and neighborhood groups throughout the community seems to have thrown preponderant voting weight against the disastrously misguided rail plan, and thus, together with the usual pro-road and anti-tax opponents, tipping the balance toward majority voter rejection. As we wrote in Let’s Go Austin — Tea-baiting from an awfully glass house,

Of course, highway proponents, anti-taxation activists, and, yes, some Tea Party sympathizers have emerged to oppose this rail bonds proposition — but wouldn’t they do so in any case? What’s surely revved them up, and encouraged them to pour exceptionally heavy resources into this fracas, is undoubtedly the leading role of rail supporters disgusted and outraged at the corruption and distortion of the rail transit planning process and de facto disenfranchisement of the wider community from involvement.

But it’s clear that Austin is basically a very pro-rail city. Widespread community sentiment for urban rail — much of it for just about any rail line, anywhere — was palpably strong. This has been an uphill struggle to convince pro-rail voters that a very bad rail plan could actually be worse than nothing. (See Project Connect’s urban rail plan is “worse than nothing”.) That’s one major reason why we believe this community can move forward quickly to a sensibly designed, cost-effective light rail plan in a strong, logical route — a Guadalupe-Lamar starter line.

Nevertheless, channeling pro-rail sentiment into a vote against this terrible project has been a challenge. And added to that was the additional challenge that our side was a relatively small David against a very powerful Goliath — a fairly solidly unified political and civic elite, heavily bankrolled, backed by influential business and real estate interests with a stake in the proposed rail route, able to muster media support, and assisted by a network of various community and professional organizations (environmental, New Urbanist, technical, real estate, and others) seemingly motivated into an almost desperate embrace of the urban rail plan. And let’s not forget the 800-lb gorilla in Goliath’s corner — the University of Texas administration, dead-set on a San Jacinto alignment to buttress their East Campus expansion program.

So, against this Goliath, how did David win this? A lot of this victory is due to the broad public perception of just how appallingly bad the Highland-Riverside rail plan was. And with a staggering $1.38 billion cost that required a staggering local bond commitment, which in turn required a hefty property tax rate increase. And all that in the context of recent homeowner property tax increases and utility rate increases. So, would voters really want to approve over a billion dollars for even a mediocre rail project, much less a terrible one?

That message was disseminated widely through the community — not by pricey media advertising (rail advocacy groups and their followers didn’t have big bucks for that, anyway), but by a vast network of activities involving social media, Email messages, excellent blog-posted information, and community meetings. But traditionally anti-transit, pro-highway groups also weighed in, with big bucks to fund effective advertising (with a message focused predominantly on the shortcomings of the particular Highland-Riverside plan) to rebuff the months-long, heavy ad and media blitz from the Project Connect/Let’s Go Austin forces backing the official proposal.

This vote also represents not only a rejection of an unacceptable rail transit proposal, but also a protest against the “backroom-dealmaking” modus operandi that has characterized official public policymaking and planning in recent years — a pattern that included shutting community members out of participation in the urban rail planning process, relegating the public to the status of lowly subjects, and treating us all like fools. Leaping immediately into a process of community inclusion and direct involvement is now essential. The community must become re-connected and involved in a meaningful way.


Minneapolis-area community meeting on proposed Southwest light rail project. Photo: Karen Boros.

Real community involvement in the planning process means real community meetings with community members having a direct say in planning and policy decisions, as in this meeting in Minneapolis area. Photo: Karen Boros.


On election night, as the defeat of the Highland-Riverside rail bonds proposition became evident, Scott Morris of the Our Rail PAC issued the following statement:

Tonight’s results are gratifying, but the work remains. With this vote, Austin has rejected a bad urban rail plan. It was the wrong route and it was formed by values that were not shared by our community. What we do share with those who supported this measure is a resolve in moving forward with true mobility solutions that make transit a ubiquitous part of life in our growing city.

01_ARN_ourrail9 Today, Austin delivered a strong statement, that transit must serve the existing population first. Transit planning should not be subordinated for the purpose of shaping future development to the exclusion of ridership, cost effectiveness and efficiency. This is a mandate that any first investment in urban rail must serve the community first. If we put service to people first, it will be built and operated in a cost efficient way. The citizens did not accept the argument that a defeat would create a long delay until the next opportunity to vote on rail. Austin is ready to get the right plan on the ballot as soon as possible, with true citizen involvement in shaping that plan.

This election is just one more step in the process. As a grassroots organization, we’re committed to work hard for a solution. Tonight is the first step in a new direction. Austin has a new plan to create and a strong case to build for rail, and we think it will succeed. We will support and work with our transit agency, Capital Metro; to develop a plan for rail that is cost effective, open, fair and transparent with strong community input. It will need the community’s full support and engagement to preserve and enhance its basic services, especially to transit dependent populations, as it adjusts to a growing city.

The people have assumed a new leadership role in determining the future of transit. With this action, they have also assumed a strong responsibility for guaranteeing its future.

Let’s take a breath and get back to work.

The Highland-Riverside plan may be dead, but the campaign for a Guadalupe-Lamar light rail starter line is firing up. Light rail in this heavily traveled, high-density central corridor can become the basic spine of a far more effective and truly extensive urban rail system in the future for the city.

There’s already a strong constituency and base of support for light rail transit (LRT) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. But the majority of Austinites don’t want another 14 years of top-level dithering and wavering — they’re ready to move forward with a workable, sensible urban rail plan. And certainly — especially with a new political leadership — we do face an exciting challenge informing the entire community and explaining why rail transit is essential, why it’s a cost-effective, crucial mobility solution, and why central-city street space needs to be allocated for dedicated transit, including light rail as well as improved bus service.

We’re already rolling up our sleeves. ■


Passengers waiting to board train at Dryden/TMC station Photo: Brian Flint.

Houston’s MetroRail shows how dedicating street lanes to light rail transit can dramatically improve urban mobility. MetroRail has highest passenger ridership per route-mile of any U.S. light rail transit system. Photo: Brian Flint.


This article has been slightly revised since its original posting.

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Why Austin is faced with a “Worse-Than-Nothing” urban rail plan

2 November 2014
Graphic via Blip.tv

Graphic via Blip.tv

By Dave Dobbs

The pro-transit group AURA (Austinites for Urban Rail Action) is owed a strong acknowledgement of thanks for posting their exposé pointing out the Republican origins of the money behind Let’s Go Austin’s campaign to try to paint all the opponents of the City’s urban rail bond proposition as captives of the Tea Party. Special thanks are due to the AURA author(s) and researcher(s) who did the homework. (Also see: Let’s Go Austin — Tea-baiting from an awfully glass house.)

One person commenting recently to a local rail discussion forum made some interesting observations about Let’s Go Austin’s tactics:

I expect they’ve taken this angle because their polling says the most popular way to portray the bond is “progressive.” … I think the best chance for defeating Prop 1 is sowing doubt among the self-identified “progressives.”

I think these comments are absolutely right about sowing doubt with progressives about the forces behind the Project Connect Riverside-Highland rail bonds. AURA’s blog post reminds us of Deep Throat’s advice to Woodward and Bernstein in All The President’s Men: “Follow the money!” and Ben Bradlee’s recent death reminds us that this advice still holds today.

Uncovering the money trail reinforces my belief that the Austin rail bonds are really about maintaining “business as usual” with as little disruption as possible. In answer to “Why” Austin has a “Worse-than-Nothing-is-Doing-Stupid-Things” rail plan, I’ve offered the following analysis.

I believe that the powers-that-be chose this approach because it is the approach that does as little as possible to disturb the status quo, while at the same time tying up Capital Metro’s assets far into the future with a faux solution that benefits some of the folks in the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) and Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce tent (emphasis here on “Greater”). This satisfies certain city developer insiders who see the rail line as their ticket to access and greater densities, while at the same time perpetuating the business-as-usual-sprawl-ever-outward real estate speculators who need more and more roads to realize their investments on the urban fringes.

Generally, city developers and suburban developers are natural enemies, and this is the compromise to keep order in the house. An ineffectual rail start contingent upon the new city council issuing $400 million in certificates of obligation for road improvements before the bonds can be used, is a pretty clear indication of priorities. So is the fact that the city continues to collect a quarter of Capital Metro’s one-cent sales tax that is mostly spent on roads.

This explains why Guadalupe-Lamar, where light rail would be a smashing success with 40,000 riders daily, was never considered, because a G-L rail line would totally change Capital Metro from “cash cow” to a recognized indispensable tool for bringing growth into city neighborhoods sans the traffic impacts that choke the densities necessary for a more productive tax base, while at the same time creating a demand for more train service in other parts of Austin. It would also build bus ridership because buses would be shuttles to train service for people who would not otherwise use buses. And, in turn, this would create greater public demand to spend more money on public transit, bikes, and pedestrians and less for bigger, wider roads.

Given this reality, fringe-area developers and their political surrogates who control the political process want to minimize the market availability for the alternative lifestyles that many retirees and millennials are seeking. In order to do that, Capital Metro must remain an impotent dog at the heals of Austin’s road warrior masters and suburban real estate investors. (That”s polite talk for “land speculators”.) ■