Archive for the ‘City of Austin issues’ Category


Plans for Smart City could be dumb choice for Austin

31 January 2018

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

Commentary by Roger Baker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Austin — National model for how roads are strangling transit development

31 October 2016
Central Texas Roadway System – brand-new highways (mostly tollways) under construction and planned. Map: CTRMA.

Central Texas Roadway System – brand-new highways (mostly tollways) under construction and planned. Map: CTRMA. (Click to enlarge.)

For decades, Road Warriors (aggressive proponents of roadway expansion) and other transit critics have disparaged America’s urban public transportation for its daily ridership levels amounting to just a small fraction of total metro area trips. In contrast, the vigorous ongoing expansion of urban roadway systems, outwardly sprawling development patterns, and levels of motor vehicle ownership has eclipsed transit development.

Of course, it’s widely recognized that much of the value of public transit resides in its function as a relief for the heavily congested passenger flows during daily peak hours and at other times, such as during special events – and this is where the high capacity of rail transit certainly excels. Nevertheless, it’s true that urban public transport needs to perform as much more than merely a subsidiary mode for peak traffic relief. Transit development has remained stunted in U.S. cities for decade after decade, well behind its role in comparable cities abroad, such as those in Europe, Asia, and Australia.

For Austin, “green” means “green camouflage”

Why is this? Public policy in Austin – a city that touts itself as embracing “green” principles and a commitment to public transport – illustrates how (despite decades of verbiage) the municipal and regional civic leadership and political establishment have maintained a commitment to prioritizing motor vehicle transport and roadway expansion.

From the Austin Tomorrow program of the 1970s to Envision Central Texas in the early 2000s to the more recent Imagine Austin community planning programs, community forums, official resolutions, and dozens of reports and pronouncements have solemnly affirmed a supposed dedication to more modern urbanist principles and public transport to provide the infrastructure for them. Yet time and time again, actual policy has funneled the heavy funding and other resources into further roadway development, and the continuation of suburban and rural sprawl development patterns.

The reality is: For Austin, “green” means green camouflage for major policies that are de facto harmful to the environment and quality of life. Austin actually serves as a model of how this commitment to prioritizing roads is strangling the development of adequate and fully effective public transport.

“Extravaganza” of roadway development

Ongoing roadway expansion doesn’t mean merely the addition of more lanes to existing highways. For the past half-century or more, it would be difficult to find a period in the Austin area when brand-new major highways have not been under construction.

This incessant extravaganza of roadway development includes: I-35 and then its double-decking; the “MoPac” (Loop 1) freeway; the development of the Ed Bluestein expressway; the conversion of Research Blvd. into a new freeway; the development of the Loop 360 expressway; the conversion of Ben White Blvd. into a new freeway; the development of the U.S. 290 East freeway. In more recent years, the construction of the SH 130 tollway; the 183-A tollway; the SH 45 tollway (north). And currently, the “MoPac” (Loop 1) reconstruction and tollway (HOT lanes) project; the 183 South (Bergstrom Expressway) tollway and expressway expansion project; the SH 45SW tollway; the SH 71 Express tollway project (between ABIA and SH 130); and the “MoPac” (Loop 1) South reconstruction and tollway (HOT lanes) project. And, of course, much more to come later – such as the mammoth overhaul of I-35 being planned by TxDOT. (See map at top of post.)

Meanwhile, over the entire lifetime of Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, since the agency’s inception in the mid-1980s, the one major capital investment transit project implemented has been MetroRail, currently operating a relatively tiny six-car system carrying less than 3,000 rider-trips a day. And in that same roughly 30-year period, the City of Austin and other local agencies have been siphoning off funds out of the transit agency’s basic revenue stream (generally ranging between 10-25%) to pay for roadway projects. For example, CMTA funding paid for most of the Build Greater Austin urban roadway program (over $93.4 million) and contributed heavily ($29.5 million) to the purchase of tollroad right-of-way for SH 45 and MoPac (Loop 1) into Williamson County north of Parmer Lane. (See Note at end of post.)

CAMPO boosts roads, dumps transit project

A powerful influence in the skewing of transportation policy toward road-focused priorities undoubtedly lies with the region’s major transportation planning body. Today, most large-scale transportation project funding decisions are made by CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization), now heavily biased in its structure toward suburban, exurban, and rural segments of the metro area.

In public comments to a Sep. 12th meeting of the agency, veteran transportation researcher and activist Roger Baker criticized CAMPO for being “heavily skewed to the suburban areas.” Another community activist, Jay Blazek Crossley, provided CAMPO board members with copies of a study he had completed highlighting disparities in democratic and demographic representation within CAMPO. As described in a report by Caleb Pritchard in the Sep. 15th Austin Monitor,

Crossley found that Travis County residents make up 57 percent of CAMPO’s six-county population. However, only 45 percent of TPB members come from Travis County communities.

More details of Crossley’s report can be found in the Streetsblog article «How Unrepresentative Is Your Regional Planning Agency?»

But in what almost was an act of chutzpah, at that same Sep. 12th meeting the CAMPO board voted to even further reduce Austin and Travis County representation in the strategic Technical Advisory Committee. Baker denounced the action as a “step backwards”.

While reorganizing itself to accelerate its programs for highway expansion and further regional sprawl development (see Roger Baker’s Feb. 2015 analysis), the CAMPO board moved to cancel its support for the region’s single new rail passenger project, Lone Star Rail (LSTAR). For approximately the past 15 years, this project had spent millions of dollars planning a regional rail passenger line to connect Round Rock, Austin, San Marcos, New Braunfels, and San Antonio with fast regional commuter-style trains.

The ultimate plan involved a swap with the Union Pacific Railroad (UP), which would sell its right-of-way and infrastructure to LSTAR in exchange for the agency providing new right-of-way and track along a route miles to the east. In addition to high-quality regional rail transit service, the plan would have eliminated the rail transport of hazardous cargo through the heart of center-city Austin.

But the plan was jeopardized when the UP reneged on its agreement in early 2016. Rather than stepping up to campaign for LSTAR and bring pressure on the UP to reinstate the deal, local officials – including those on CAMPO – did basically nothing, leaving LSTAR to hang by itself. In the end, even supposedly “progressive” liberal representatives from Austin and Travis County essentially sat on their hands, allowing the UP and CAMPO destruction of LSTAR to proceed without a fight. No champion, “progressive” or otherwise, stepped forward to tangibly defend the agency and this vital project. In the final CAMPO vote to withdraw support, there was not a single vote in opposition.

“Go Big” $720 million road bond measure

This background of a road-focused urban and regional mobility perspective is the context for the City of Austin’s “Go Big” campaign for a $720 million “Mobility Bond” package (to be financed by a hefty increase in local property taxes). This past summer, several “progressive” members of the City Council virtually led the charge to thwart efforts to add an urban rail starter line project to the package.

To sweeten the package in hopes of seducing some community support, the City added a smattering of funding for “alternative mobility” sidewalk and bicycle projects, and tried to portray the “Smart Corridors” road projects as somehow models of New Urbanism. The sweeteners worked – a number of community pro-pedestrian, cycling, neighborhood, and New Urbanist-aligned groups have jumped on board to support the bond campaign. (To her credit, liberal District 1 Councilmember Ora Houston has steadfastly opposed the bond package.)

But the basic thrust of the bond proposal has always been road expansion and improvements to facilitate motor vehicle traffic. From the outset, the program was sold as a way to “increase traffic throughput”. The ads for the bond package sponsored by Move Austin Forward (the primary campaign organization) focus on the benefits to cars, with slogans like “Cut Travel Time” and “Move Traffic Faster”.

TV ad promoting "Mobility Bond" package focuses on benefits for private motor vehicle traffic.  Graphic: Screenshot of Move Austin Forward TV ad.

TV ad promoting “Mobility Bond” package focuses on benefits for private motor vehicle traffic. Graphic: Screenshot of Move Austin Forward TV ad.

Noting recent news reports that the City hopes to procure federal matching grants to balloon the road bond funding into a massive $1.5 billion roadbuilding mega-program, Roger Baker commented

This makes it pretty clear that [Austin Mayor] 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.

This unceasing emphasis on unending roadway development continues to receive the overwhelming majority of funding. Especially on the local level, massive bond funding measures for roads such as the current $720 million “Mobility Bond” proposal have the effect of using up more and more of the available funding “oxygen” in the region and the city.

The Austin area’s continual expansion of roadways simultaneously fosters greater dependency on personal motor vehicles for local travel, and encourages more and more outwardly sprawling development patterns. These development patterns in turn necessitate increasing dependency on personal motor vehicle transportation. In a vicious spiral, taken together, more motor vehicles, greater dependency on them, and spreading sprawl further contribute to strangling the potential of public transport and opportunities to extend services and make them more effective.

Altogether, transit continues to be strangled, with no relief in sight. And if you wonder why transit ridership continues to be surpassed by traffic – despite mounting congestion – perhaps you can better understand a big part of the reason why.

Another TV ad screenshot promoting "Mobility Bond" package promises that bonds will "Move Traffic Faster".  Graphic: Screenshot of Move Austin Forward TV ad.

Another TV ad promoting “Mobility Bond” package promises that bonds will “Move Traffic Faster”. Graphic: Screenshot of Move Austin Forward TV ad.

NOTE: This article as originally posted stated that Capital Metro funds were used to purchase right-of-way for the SH 130 tollroad. However, ARN has not been able to verify this. Instead, evidence definitely indicates that Capital Metro funds were allocated to other tollroad projects, as indicated in the text.


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.)


Austin is a village of villages — and they need to be connected by rail

29 August 2015
City of Austn's Imagine Austin "Centers and Corridors" map shows "regional centers", "town centers", neighborhood centers" and "activity centers". Center-city has three de facto villages, aka "town centers", that align in almost a perfectly straight line down the city's spine. Map excerpt: City of Austin.

City of Austn’s Imagine Austin “Centers and Corridors” map shows “regional centers”, “town centers”, neighborhood centers” and “activity centers”. Center-city has three de facto villages, aka “town centers”, that align in almost a perfectly straight line down the city’s spine. Map excerpt: City of Austin.

By Mary Rudig

Mary Rudig is a Gracy Woods Neighborhood Association coach and editor of the North Austin Community Newsletter. The following commentary has been adapted and slightly edited from her comments recently posted to selected recipients.

Right now, there is a very logical and straightforward way to create a solid transportation system in Austin — but it starts with all of us in this community having to realize that Austin, like most cities in the Southwest, is a village of villages. Most people don’t want to go downtown, they want to go to the next village.

We need to go back to the Imagine Austin plan and start by truly connecting the major activity centers through rail, going down the spine of the city. Rundberg/Lamar down to the North Lamar Transit Center down to the Triangle, then into campus, then through downtown to Seaholm. Add rapid bus systems to connect the Parmer/Mopac tech employment hub, drop more rapid buses along Parmer so you can add density in the Techridge area to the Northeast, add another rapid bus system into Highland Mall/ACC, and another rapid bus into Riverside and down into Slaughter. Eventually those rapid systems will build enough ridership to justify more legs and spurs to the main rail line.

Proposed 6.8-mile "Plan B" light rail transit line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

Light rail transit starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor could serve as basic spine for eventual urban rail system together with other transit modes connecting metro area “villages”.

Second, we need to tear apart the PUD (Planned Unit Development) ordinance and basically make PUDs temporary TIFs (Tax increment Financing districts) — I would suggest twenty years. So to pay for the infrastructure, sidewalks, and other things to create this massive transportation plan, we could encourage neighborhoods to allow PUDs to be built, but the revenue and some of the property tax from each PUD would then go back into an account that can only be used for transportation and park/greenbelt/trails in the immediate area.

Third, we would need to force developers to stop building massive parking garages every time they put in another apartment complex and insist, instead, that they have to come up with some matching funds to put in sidewalks and hike & bike trails that connect their development into the surrounding neighborhoods. Sure, the developers will howl, but we just need to tell them sweetly, but firmly, that sidewalks and hike & bike trails are actually far cheaper than parking garages, and we are no longer buying the idea that an apartment complex is truly “compact AND connected”, unless it has very few parking spots and a whole ton of, you know, actual connectivity into surrounding neighborhoods. If we can get enough PUDs generating some funds, then there will be plenty of cash on hand to match the developers’ funds.

As for the idea (being promulgated by some community activists) that all of us in the outer ring of neighborhoods are living in “suburbs” where everybody is wealthy and low-density, that’s an interesting theory — let’s test it.

Let’s see, even though the City includes the Walnut Creek Metro Park into their density calculations, my neighborhood is still over 1200 people per square mile denser than the average density in Austin (4700 versus the typical 3500), and we have a ton of fairly affordable duplexes and older apartments. Oh, and I live in a 960-square-foot bungalow, on a street that is surrounded by duplexes, and we have the Domain two blocks away. Did I mention that I walk to work, my husband walks to work, my nextdoor neighbor bikes to work, and the neighbor next to him also walks to work?

In fact, my area of town (north of U.S. 183) has nearly 90,000 people packed into 13 square miles — so we have downtown beat when it comes to density. We also have neighborhoods to the east of me where 15% of the population doesn’t have cars, versus the 3-5% that is typical in most of Austin. (The official planners have never studied my neighborhood, so I haven’t a clue where we stand on this, but we have a lot of families that do exist happily on one (1) vehicle, instead of the typical family armada)

The truth is, the development crowd in this town keeps the myth of low-density outer suburbs going because they don’t want anybody to clue into the fact that the developers are — yup, actually building sprawl. A super-dense development carefully built to hide a massive parking garage, with a sidewalk that goes nowhere tacked on as a nod to “connectivity”? That’s a vertical gated suburban community that caters to the car culture, folks — and each one of these that gets built is pushing us a little further away from the goal of Austin having good mass transit and walkable, bikable connectivity.

And just to be super-transparent … Yes, I am one of those awful “anti-growth”, “anti-density”, “ANCer” “neighborhood NIMBYs” that both well-heeled real estate groups and some “liberal” community activist groups warn you about. Because I want stuff like rail and walkability, and I don’t think car-culture sprawl and gated communities are good for Austin. Huh. ■


Baker: Connecting some dots on Austin’s urban rail planning

24 August 2014
Graphic by ARN.

Graphic by ARN.

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 posted by E-mail to multiple recipients in June.

How did Project Connect come up with their $1.4 billion rail plan? Let’s take some known facts, and connect the dots. 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.

We know that 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. See, for example:

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

ROMA streetcar circulator map from 2008, precursor of urban rail (light rail transit) plan. Map: ROMA, via Austin Chronicle. (Click to enlarge.)

Next, we know that State Sen. Kirk Watson in 2012 announced a plan to develop about $4 billion of future medical facilities and training in the area of Brackenridge and the newly announced Dell medical training center, which would be along this same San Jacinto-Red River corridor. It is pretty obvious that to meet this ambitious goal, to handle this scale of future anticipated development, the existing roads along this corridor could not meet the projected travel demand. I pointed that out in an earlier article here:

How did the urban rail plan get to Riverside? Here is a downloadable audio clip with Project Connect personnel pointing out that the city sees itself as having an unfunded mandate to provide rail on the Riverside alignment in order to meet the city’s future growth goals in that area:

East Riverside development plan, promoted by City, is a bonanza for powerful real estate development interests. Gentrification is replacing lower-cost affordable apartments with expensive condos and upscale commercial and office developments, many with premium river views. Map: City of Austin via Goodlife Realty.

East Riverside development plan, promoted by City, is a bonanza for powerful real estate development interests. Gentrification is replacing lower-cost affordable apartments with expensive condos and upscale commercial and office developments, many with premium river views. Map: City of Austin via Goodlife Realty. (Click to enlarge.)

Another problem for the medical district was that Texas state funding could not pay for the medical center without a big boost from local Travis taxpayers. This demanded the promotion of a hospital district tax. See, for example:

…Ever since Austin state Sen. Kirk Wat­son first unveiled the idea at a Real Estate Council of Austin event last September, regional agencies and governments have scrambled to find funding possibilities for the massive project, which could run the involved parties (all told) as much as $4.1 billion over 12 years. At last check, the University of Texas is on board for at least a $25 million annual contribution that would climb to $30 million over the first eight years of the school’s existence. Central Health, according to the Statesman, would cough up about $35 million annually over 12 years – or a total of $420 million. The Seton Healthcare Family expects to provide nearly $2 billion, including $250 million that would ultimately result in a replacement of its aging but centrally located Brackenridge hospital facility…

But to make it all work, Central Health is asking for a tax increase, to be placed before voters on Nov. 6. Watson asked for a raise of five cents per $100 of property valuation; Central Health’s board obliged, endorsing that increase, which would bring the district’s rate to just over 12 cents for every $100 of property valuation. In dollar figures, that would mean (if voters approve) that someone who lives in a home valued at $200,000 would see an increase of $100 on their annual tax bill…

Simulation of future UT medical school development, providing expansion opportunities for University of Texas, Seton medical interests, and other real estate development investors. Graphic via

Simulation of future UT medical school development, providing expansion opportunities for University of Texas, Seton medical interests, and other real estate development investors. Graphic via (Click to enlarge.)

We know from the following document that the city of Austin is bending over backwards to maximize Austin area growth through relocation, and jobs recruitment to the Austin area.

As we can see, the City has a very well-developed industrial recruitment policy outlined in this document, which coordinates with the Chamber of Commerce, targets key industries to recruit, and gives tax breaks when certain criteria are met. The city takes its lead from the “Council Special Committee on Economic Incentives”, which in turn takes its lead from Opportunity Austin, and the Austin Chamber of Commerce, as we see in this lengthy presentation. It begins by lamenting Austin’s slow growth!

We now see unsigned blogs promoting the same maximum Austin growth recruitment as official policy:

What are the specifics of Austin growth recruitment policy? The policy is to prefer that at least 25% of the jobs recruited into this area go to Austin residents, but if not, it is no deal breaker. Jobs that pay at least $11 an hour would be nice, but this too is considered optional. This is taken from page 9.


Motion #5:

Change the Threshold for Extraordinary Economic Impact within the Firm-Based Matrix to include other items

The Threshold for Extraordinary Economic Impact has been used within the Firm-Based Incentive Matrix as a means for providing additional economic incentives for significant economic development projects.

Currently, if a company meets one of the four criteria within this section of the matrix, then the company is eligible for an economic incentive of up to 100% of the property tax generated by the project (see Exhibit A, Section 3 and Section 4).

Current threshold criteria include these four items:

• The firm is in a targeted industry;
• The firm is involved in leading edge technology;
• State economic development funds are available for the firm; or
• The firm will generate 500 jobs or more.

The threshold criteria allow flexibility for various economic incentive options to be considered for projects that have an extraordinary economic impact. The flexibility allows Austin to remain competitive for highly sought after projects. Examples of prior significant economic development projects include Samsung and Apple. In both cases, the Austin City Council approved 100% property tax rebates for a prescribed number of initial years…

This is all predicated on the perpetuation of the Austin tech bubble, which is really a regional manifestation of a national tech bubble. Continuing Federal Reserve stimulus is leading to asset bubbles, which are reflected in the NASDAQ’s mostly-tech growth in particular. How long before the tech bubble driving Austin’s current feverish growth and gentrification deflates is anyone’s guess, as Fortune recently pointed out:

I have recently pointed out and discussed in detail the unsustainable nature of Austin’s currently-booming growth here:

This accumulation of material may help to provide a plausible political basis behind Project Connect’s rail plan. I personally have little doubt that Austin is in the midst of an unsustainable high tech growth bubble, and that the future travel demand numbers that Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) feeds Project Connect to justify its rail corridors are largely wishful thinking. Demographic forecasting, like economic forecasting, exists to make astrology look good by comparison. ■


Project Connect’s gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off course

15 August 2014


By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to the City of Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission on 10 June 2014 regarding Project Connect’s proposed 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion urban rail starter line connecting East Riverside (southeast) with the Highland ACC site now under development (north). In the end, the commission voted, with minor amendments, to recommend Project Connect’s proposal to the City Council.

There are three huge problems with Project Connect’s proposal:

(1) It spends $1.4 billion to put urban rail in the wrong place.

(2) It will hinder and constrain future rail development.

(3) A vote for this flawed plan is also a vote to permanentize lower-capacity MetroRapid bus service in our strongest, densest travel corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar.

Guadalupe-Lamar is the outstanding corridor to start urban rail — among the top heavy travel corridors in Texas, a long-established commercial district, with major activity centers, the city’s core neighborhoods, and the West Campus, having the 3rd-highest residential density in Texas.

In contrast, Project Connect proposes to forsake the central city’s heaviest and densest local corridor and instead connect a weak corridor, East Riverside, with a non-existent travel corridor through the East Campus, Hancock, and Highland. By wasting over a billion dollars on urban rail in this meandering, misguided route, Project Connect will divert scarce funds from future rail development.

Project Connect’s Riverside-East Campus-Hancock-Highland plan comes “gold-plated” with a new $130 million “signature bridge” over the river and a $230 million tunnel at Hancock. But it runs in mixed street traffic from UT to Hancock. This is a proposal that costs too way much for too little value.

And it’s the third most pricey urban rail starter line, by cost per mile, in U.S. history. City officials now routinely propose a major property tax increase to finance the local share of Project Connect’s plan.

Per mile of route, proposed Highland-Riverside urban rail plan would be second most expensive light rail starter line since 1990, and third most expensive in U.S. history.

Per mile of route, proposed Highland-Riverside urban rail plan would be second most expensive light rail starter line since 1990, and third most expensive in U.S. history. Graph: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

Voting for Project Connect’s urban rail plan for East Riverside to Highland also means voting to pour concrete for bus lanes and other bus facilities on Guadalupe and Lamar that will prevent an urban rail alternative in our heaviest, neediest corridor for decades. The current MetroRapid bus service on Guadalupe, Lamar and South Congress carries 6,000 daily riders, less than one-eighth of the 51,000 forecast for light rail in that same corridor.

According to a report yesterday from a private meeting of urban rail “stakeholders” at Capital Metro, representatives of both Project Connect and Capital Metro admitted that Phase 1 of this project, which conjured up Looney-Tunes voodoo and passed it off as “scientific” projections, was “too fast and not at a pace they would typically have proceeded.”

In contrast to major rail planning in the past, the public has basically been cut out of this process. Now Mayor Leffingwell and his administration announce they’re tossing in a dollop of road projects that even some councilmembers criticize as failing to fit into the Imagine Austin concept of a walkable, dense city. In effect, they’re packaging a dubious, wasteful rail project with questionable road projects, and wrapping a “congestion relief” ribbon around it.

This is a planning process that’s gone off course and out of control. This commission needs to do the right thing, and say as much to the city council. ■

Related links:
Project Connect’s $500 million plan for bus infrastructure — The Elephant in the Road on Guadalupe-Lamar that could block urban rail
Project Connect’s Austin urban rail would be 3rd-most-pricey LRT starter line in U.S. history
Roger Baker: Austin’s ‘Strategic Mobility Plan’ — smart planning or a billion dollar boondoggle?

Official urban rail plan bulldozed to ballot — in bulging bundle

11 August 2014
City Council's Aug. 7th urban rail ballot measure was included in massive bundle with other disparate items. Graphic:

City Council’s Aug. 7th urban rail ballot measure was included in massive bundle with other disparate items. Graphic:

With about as much suspense and excitement as, well, making sausage, the Austin City Council this past Thursday, Aug. 7th, finally rammed through the official (and seriously flawed) Highland-Riverside urban rail plan to the next big step — a ballot item placed up for voters’ approval (or rejection) this coming Nov. 4th.

While Austin transportation officials and some Project Connect representatives have tried to radiate a public image of “openness”, “transparency”, “fairness”, sweetness, and cooperation in their pursuit of their urban rail agenda, the machinations, subterfuges, and intrigues involved with this Council vote expose a more troubling reality. This consistently ruthless, damn-the-torpedoes, bulldoze-the-opposition functional style for well over a year has dismayed, outraged, disgusted, and angered a wide swath of the Austin community who have consistently felt shut out of bona fide participation in the public transportation planning process. (See, for example: City Council to Austin community: Shut Up; Will Project Connect continue to gag the public?; City Council to Central Austin: Drop Dead; Meetings, “open houses”, workshops … and democratic process.)

Another move to gag public criticism

The Council’s Aug. 7th vote shenanigans seemed to draw from this same playbook. Perhaps the most salient indication of this is the City administration’s bundling of the urban rail bond measure in a single ordinance with the totally unrelated authorization of the vote for the new “10-1” Council. Item #17 on the council’s Aug. 7th agenda proposed to

Approve an ordinance ordering a general municipal election to be held in the City of Austin on November 4, 2014, for the purpose of electing a Mayor (at large) and City Council Members (single member districts) for District 1, District 2, District 3, District 4, District 5, District 6, District 7, District 8, District 9, and District 10; ordering a special election for the purpose of authorizing the issuance of general obligation bonds; providing for the conduct of the election; authorizing the City Clerk to enter into joint election agreements with other local political subdivisions as may be necessary for the orderly conduct of the election; and declaring an emergency.

By packaging all this — in effect, the basic election of the new Council itself — in a single “kitchen sink” ordinance, the smooth operators of the current administration thus set up the ordinance so that if a current councilmember would vote against the urban rail/transportation proposals (highly unlikely in any case, given all the strong-arming behind the scenes), he/she would also be voting against calling the election for the new council. Most likely, the real intent of this maneuver was probably to place community opponents of the urban rail bond plan in the awkward position of calling for a No vote to the election of the new council if they called for a No vote against putting the bonds on the ballot. Thus, the tactic seemed yet another method of suppressing criticism and opposition. Machiavelli would surely be proud.

But the urban rail ballot ordinance wasn’t just “bulging” with the entire new Council vote authorization thrown into the package. The Aug. 7th ordinance also includes authorization for Capital Metro — the sales tax-supported transit authority — to allocate its own funds to an urban rail project with lots of amorphous pieces and blurry edges:

As contemplated by the Locally Preferred Alternative contained in the 2014 Strategic Mobility Plan approved by Council on June 26, 2014, the fixed rail transit system is expected to consist of a 9.5 mile urban rail double-tracked, electrified route in mostly dedicated guideways. The general location of the proposed route of the fixed rail transit system is expected to run along a route that will serve the East Riverside Corridor, downtown Austin, the State Capitol complex, the Medical School complex, the University of Texas, Hancock Center, Austin Community College Highland campus, and surrounding neighborhoods. The general description of the form of the fixed rail transit system, including the general location of the proposed route, is provided herein pursuant to Section 451.071, Texas Transportation Code, to authorize Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority to participate and to spend its funds in building, operating and maintaining the fixed rail transit system. The final alignment of the route may be adjusted to accommodate any required governmental approvals and to maximize service characteristics, including stop spacing, speed, frequency, and reliability. Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority shall participate in building, operating and maintaining the fixed rail transit system to the extent and pursuant to such terms and conditions as shall be mutually acceptable to the City and Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Road projects potentially dwarf rail

However, the really huge, disjointed component of this ballot package has been the focus of leaks, news reports, and small dollops of information for weeks. As is now widely known, a hefty assortment of major roadway projects were included in a cumbersome, disparate hodgepodge hastily contrived and christened the “2014 Strategic Mobility Plan”.

According to leaks and hints in news reports, bundling hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of road projects with the rail proposal had been demanded by major pro-highway business interests as a condition for their support and the contribution of a million dollars to the prospective war chest for Project Connect’s ballot initiative campaign. The result was the “2014 Strategic Mobility Plan” (SMP), reportedly designed to appease the prevailing leadership of groups such the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and Real Estate Council of Austin with $400 million of politically selected road project sweeteners.

Council's ballot measure makes urban rail funding contingent on road construction projects potentially more expensive than rail. Photo: Robert Miller, via

Council’s ballot measure makes urban rail funding contingent on road construction projects potentially more expensive than rail. Photo: Robert Miller, via

Another “sweetening” factor: Federal funding match for road projects is typically far higher than for transit; for Interstate highway system projects, the nominal Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) match is 90%. Thus, the $240 million of I-35 projects listed in the SMP could well facilitate projects of $2.4 billion in actual magnitude. And the other federal-system road projects in the SMP could also receive outsized FHWA matching grants. Plus contributions by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

In contrast, the rail project is expected, at best, to qualify for just 50% Federal Transit Administration match, implying a maximum project of about $1.2 billion. Thus, under the “green” facade of “urban rail”, the SMP package is a rubber-and-asphalt-oriented concoction in which the potential highway projects grotesquely dwarf the rail component.

City's "2014 Strategic Mobility Plan" is packed with road projects that must be funded before urban rail bonds can be issued. Potential cost dwarfs cost of rail. ("Future Phases of Urban Rail" dashed lines on map are likely just sucker bait to lure support from gullible voters; fine print specifies merely "high-capacity transit" which could mean "bus rapid transit", term used to describe MetroRapid bus service.) Map: Screenshot from SMP.

City’s “2014 Strategic Mobility Plan” is packed with road projects that must be funded before urban rail bonds can be issued. Potential cost (including federal and state match) dwarfs cost of rail. (“Future Phases of Urban Rail” dashed lines on map are likely just sucker bait to lure support from gullible voters; fine print specifies merely “high-capacity transit” which could mean “bus rapid transit”, term used to describe MetroRapid bus service.) Map: Screenshot from SMP. (Click to enlarge.)

As City of Austin officials endeavored to craft the ballot language for the “roads + rail” bond package, they at first envisioned a combined $1 billion package ($600 million rail + $400 million roads). However, they hit a snag: Texas law forbids the bundling of such bonds. To avoid a deal-killer with the pro-road interests, a peculiar work-around was conceived — zap the bond proposal for the roads component, but make the rail bonds contingent on “providing” $400 million of unspecified road works funding! We’re not kidding!

At first most news media reporters and journalists were fooled, reporting the Council’s Aug. 7th ordinance as placing “a one-billion-dollar bond package” on the ballot. But their stories were quickly revised to report a $600 million rail bond package, plus the cumbersome, contingent road funding component, as they read the actual ballot language more closely:

The issuance of $600,000,000 bonds and notes for rail systems, facilities and infrastructure, including a fixed rail transit system to be operated by Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (which may spend its funds to build, operate and maintain such system) servicing the East Riverside Corridor, downtown Austin, the State Capitol complex, the Medical School complex, the University of Texas, Hancock Center, Austin Community College Highland campus, and surrounding neighborhoods, and roadway improvements related to such rail systems, facilities, and infrastructure; provided that the City may not issue bonds or notes to pay costs of the fixed rail transit system (other than expenditures for planning, designing and engineering) unless (i) the City obtains grant or match funding for the cost of the fixed rail transit system from the Federal Transit Administration or one or more other federal or state sources and (ii) the City provides funding in an amount not less than $400,000,000 to pay costs of roadway improvement projects of regional significance that are designed to relieve congestion, enhance mobility and manage traffic in the I-35, US 183, SH 71, RM 620, RM 1826, RM 2222, FM 734 (Parmer), Lamar Boulevard, and Loop 360 corridors; and the levy of a tax sufficient to pay for the bonds and notes.

More debt, but without public vote?

So where might this mysterious $400 million in road funding come from? Unless the City has a hidden cache of $400 million tucked away somewhere, almost surely this would require some form of debt financing. One option could be to place another bond measure on a future ballot asking voters to approve $400 million in additional City debt for these road projects.

However, as Austin community transportation activist and researcher Roger Baker has pointed out, other debt financing options are available that don’t require public votes, as do bonds. For example, there are Certificates of Obligation (COs), Anticipation Notes, and Time Warrants. Useful descriptions of such public funding alternatives can be found online in a “Public Finance Handbook” published by the Texas Association of Counties and a “Public Finance Issues” guide posted by Thomas M. Pollan with Austin-based Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP.

Of these alternatives, COs may be the leading choice for City of Austin and Project Connect leaders in their quest for a $400 million road project funding solution that avoids a risky and awkward public vote. As the Handbook cited above relates, “Unlike G.O. Bonds that always require an election, the CO’s do not require an election unless at least 5% of the registered voters in the county submit a valid petition protesting the issuance.” (Emphasis added.)

Often, the public entity may desire to sell the COs for cash “in order to have funds to pay contractors, equipment suppliers, and costs of issuance.” But there’s a catch — “The list for which CO’s may be sold for cash with only a tax pledge is limited…”, including fairly extraordinary situations such as “it is necessary to preserve or protect the public health of the residents” of the district holding the COs. (Emphasis added.)

Well, whaddaya know — lo and behold, the Austin City Council’s humongous hodgepodge ordinance, authorizing the new Council election, the urban rail bond election, and the kitchen sink, just happens to contain a Part 13 that — hold on to your chair — stipulates the following:

The Council finds that the need to immediately begin required preparations for this election constitutes an emergency. Because of this emergency, this ordinance takes effect immediately on its passage for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, and safety. [Emphasis added.]

Hefty property tax rate increase

So how much would all this debt to preserve our “peace, health, and safety” cost us? Part 7 of the ordinance itself details the bad news:

As reported in the 2014 Strategic Mobility Plan, applying the assumptions used in the General Obligation Bond Capacity Analysis dated April 29, 2014, which includes forecasted growth in taxable assessed values, City financial staff has determined that, if the bonds and notes are issued, the City’s total tax rate would increase by $0.0625 per $100 of taxable assessed valuation (as compared to the City’s total tax rate as of the date of adoption of this ordinance) …

Even for fairly lower-middle-income and low-income homeowners, that implies an annual property tax bill increase of at least over $100. For average-income and homeowners and those at higher levels, it almost surely means an additional tax bite of at least several hundred dollars — an additional body-blow to taxpayers already seriously financially stressed with steep home valuation hikes, other prospective property tax increases, and hikes in electric and water service rates. Meanwhile, local officials continue to dispense seemingly endless giveaways from the public treasury to corporate interests (in exchange for dubious and largely undefined and untracked benefits).

Austin homeowners and other residents are steadily burdened with higher taxes and utility rates, with the rationale of vague "projections" of local "new jobs" and other benefits whose validity is never reliably tracked. Are massive subsidies to real estate developers, projects like the F1 racetrack, UT's East Campus expansion plans, the Medical Center development, a largely "showpiece" urban rail line, and other ventures worth this sacrifice?

Austin homeowners and other residents are steadily burdened with higher taxes and utility rates, with the rationale of vague “projections” of local “new jobs” and other benefits whose validity is never reliably tracked. Are massive subsidies to real estate developers, projects like the F1 racetrack, UT’s East Campus expansion plans, the Medical Center development, a largely “showpiece” urban rail line, and other ventures worth this sacrifice? Graphic: Active Rain website.

If what’s proposed were a worthwhile new urban rail line, cautiously implemented and cost-effective, that actually addressed true mobility problems, would local voters consider that a beneficial project worth paying for? Maybe.

But it may be hard for many voters to perceive any way the Highland-Riverside alignment proposed by the City of Austin on November’s forthcoming ballot solves, or even addresses, any real mobility needs or congestion problems. Particularly since it misses the city’s densest, most heavily traveled central corridor (Guadalupe-Lamar), with its string of major activity and employment centers plus the West Campus.

So, Austin voters need to ask themselves: Is this proposed line useful enough, and beneficial enough, to justify the cost to us? Are the land development goals of local real estate interests, and the East Campus expansion aims of the University of Texas, worthy of this much taxpayer subsidy?

The answer to those questions will come on November 4th. ■