Archive for the ‘David Orr’s postings’ Category

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

29 June 2017

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

Commentary by David Orr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Traffic Jam” to discuss “high capacity transit” becomes “bait & switch” push for road plans

26 March 2017

Graphic: Neonlink.com

By David Orr

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

Last year, during Austin’s prolonged community debate over the $720 million mainly roads-focused “Go Big” bond measure, supporters of an urban rail starer line in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor rallied behind a plan put forward by the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC). Unfortunately, Mayor Steve Adler (together with several city council members) insisted that the community wasn’t “ready” for such a plan – so a rail vote would have to wait. Many in the community are now wondering: Is there a current initiative to get rail back on the ballot?

Judging from recent events and statements by leading public officials, leadership for rail continues to appear close to nonexistent.

Take for example, the “workshop” at the Bullock Museum on Saturday March 4th sponsored by the reincarnated Project Connect and billed as a “Traffic Jam”. Supposedly a kickoff for a new planning process for “high capacity transit” systems, this event (which turned out to be a sort of “bait & switch” escapade) featured a panel consisting of Mayor Adler, Senator Kirk Watson, Rep. Celia Israel, Capital Metro Board chairman Wade Cooper, and CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) Executive Committee member Terry Mitchell.

At no time was “high capacity transit” even mentioned, let alone covered in any substantive way. The happy talk was all about how hard they worked at the legislature and all the compromises they gladly made only to see their efforts come to naught. The only specific comment Rep. Israel made was that we shouldn’t let the “perfect be the enemy of the good”, presumably by pushing high capacity transit, and that “tires” were what sells to local governments. As opposed to … rails?

Watson & Co. were all smiles about the more than $700 million allocated for facilities for cars – but no mention of funding for transit at all, except that it would be very difficult to get and it would be sought only at some point in the future.

Traffic Jam, indeed.


Promotional notice for “Traffic Jam” event at Bullock Museum, 4 March 2017.


Given this latest iteration of Project Connect, especially as revealed in this recent workshop at the Bullock Museum, I’d say that a rail ballot issue is farthest from the minds of Steve Adler as well as Celia Israel and Kirk Watson, all of whom spoke at some length on the virtues of more “tires” (as Israel put it)​ and of their pride and excitement at moving forward with road building following the bond passage last November.

Never mind that this meeting was supposed to be about planning for “high capacity transit” – there was near-ZERO discussion by these elected officials of any desire for, much less commitment to, building up Capital Metro infrastructure. Also on the stage, as noted above, were members of CapMetro’s board and of CAMPO’s board. The closest any of them came to discussing “high capacity transit” was to bemoan the lack of funding, as if to pre-empt any further talk of building high capacity transit – unless “you” (apparently meaning we the people in the audience and/or those in the general public at large who care about the matter) can find the big bucks required to do anything.

The only mention of expanding CapMetro service was Rep. Israel’s expressed desire to expand into Pflugerville, but this was in the context of her expressing that city’s desire to see service in their city. Her comment about “tires” was made in response to a point she was making about satisfying the demands of Pflugerville city council for action to implement fixed-route service. There were vague references to expanding farther, but they carefully avoided mentioning any other currently unserved/underserved outlying cities or counties, involving either urban or rural areas.

The only mention of actual plans for improved service was their agreement with CTRMA (Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, primarily a tollroad development agency) for allowing buses to use the high-occupancy/tolled “Lexus lanes” on Mopac (i.e., Loop 1, as well as perhaps on the TBA expanded I-35). Speakers touted their hard-bargaining negotiation with CTRMA, carefully couched in terms that made CTRMA look magnanimous rather than cold-hearted.

So to answer directly that question from the first paragraph, as posed by many in the community: I have huge skepticism whether Mayor Adler would ever commit to supporting rail. “BRT” perhaps, but I’d be surprised by even that.

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Austin’s “shadow government” (CAMPO) disappears light rail from local planning

26 March 2015
Graphic: PEHUB.com

Graphic: PEHUB.com

By David Orr

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

The more I learn about how the political sausage gets made around here nowadays, the more I’m convinced that CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) is Austin’s “shadow government“, at least so far as large-scale transportation-related land use decisions are concerned.

The CAMPO 2040 Plan is egregiously deficient in providing alternatives to automobile-based transportation. Indeed, it seems like the plan is designed — intentionally so — to ensure that development of efficient rail-transit infrastructure cannot occur.

From what I’ve read, there are exactly ZERO miles of light rail in the plan, whereas a decision has apparently been made to go all in on BRT (bus rapid transit). It’s not clear to me where, or by whom, the decision was made to pretend light rail is no longer an option, but the fact that this policy is embedded so deeply in CAMPO’s planning documents makes clear that the agency has a clear agenda.

CAMPO 2040 Plan includes hundreds of millions of dollars for additional investment in MetroRapid "BRT" operation. Such facilities could impose a barrier to urban rail in key corridors such as Guadalupe-Lamar. Photo: L. Henry.

CAMPO 2040 Plan includes hundreds of millions of dollars for additional investment in MetroRapid “BRT” operation. Such facilities could impose a barrier to urban rail in key corridors such as Guadalupe-Lamar. Photo: L. Henry.

Where is the political accountability for this? Have local governments adopted resolutions of support for BRT while unequivocally stating opposition to any further study of light rail?

It seems to me that citizens have to demand that the City of Austin and Travis County — the most populous city and county in the CAMPO region — respond to CAMPO’s 2040 Plan before it is finalized next month (April). Even though it seems that the majority of CAMPO’s board have made it clear that their priorities are not in synch with concerns of Austin and Travis County officials who would like to see less emphasis on highway construction, it should be incumbent on both local entities to stand up for the interests and concerns of the residents here.

If CAMPO adopts a plan that zeros out light rail for the next 25 years, that will greatly complicate any effort that we can marshal to promote a light-rail project. I’m not well-versed in U.S. DOT (Department of Transportation) and FTA (Federal Transit Administration) law and regulations, so I don’t know whether an Austin-based light-rail project would have to obtain CAMPO’s support to proceed, but the FTA surely would notice if CAMPO was not behind it. Another crucial question is whether the Austin City Council or the Travis County Commissioners would be inclined to object to the finalizing of the 2040 Plan.

Light rail/urban rail has simply vanished from CAMPO's 2040 Transportation Plan. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN.

Light rail/urban rail has simply vanished from CAMPO’s 2040 Transportation Plan. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

During CAMPO’s meeting on the night of March 9th, the agency’s director stated that they were required by federal rules to adopt this plan in the next month or two. If that’s true, such a requirement may make it impossible to stop this measure, but at least the city and/or county could register official displeasure (and preferably opposition?) at the lack of public input on so many key policies and plan provisions.

I encourage others to join me in expressing concern publicly. If you have a good relationship with friendly elected officials, it seems like this is a critical time to ask them to engage. ■