Archive for the ‘Public involvement process’ Category

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Dobbs: Council’s Feb. 9th “Data Dig” is “wasteful ill-advised exercise of top-down insider back-room-deal-making trying to con the public”

9 February 2015
Graphic: MovieZeal.com

Graphic: MovieZeal.com

By Dave Dobbs

The following comments, slightly edited and adapted here to webpage format, were distributed via Email to members of the Austin City Council on 9 February 2015, prior to a “Data Dig” workshop session on transportation and mobility scheduled for later in the day. Dave Dobbs is Executive Director of the Texas Association for Public Transportation and publisher of the Light Rail Now website.

Once again this afternoon [9 Feb. 2015] Austin will see the kind of insider staff behavior that led voters in November 2012 to choose our current 10-1 city council format in the hope of more open government and real community input. Alas, it seems that staff has learned nothing from the failed Project Connect Urban Rail debacle after pro-rail advocates spent five years, starting in September 2009 with the COA [City of Austin] Transportation staff, warning the staff, the council, the Transit Working Group (TWG), and the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) that the pre-determined Downtown Austin Plan 2008 streetcar proposal (note 1), that essentially became Project Connect’s (PC) Urban Rail plan, and the gerrymandered planning process to justify it that was devoid of true public input, would be a failure at the bond ballot box.

Repeatedly we pointed out, three minutes at a time, with handouts and on several websites, that any new urban rail starter line had to utilize the Guadalupe-North Lamar (G/L) corridor to get the ridership required to justify the capital investment and operating costs of urban rail. And we had Federal Transit Authority (FTA) and Texas Transit Institute (TTI) data to support it. (Notes 2 and 3) Additionally, we offered well-thought-out detailed G-L alternatives that were far more cost-effective — only to be ignored.

Today you will not hear a balanced assessment of Austin’s transportation situation or get many real solutions to address our problems because staff has ensured that the deck is stacked against it.

Please note that there is no backup material posted with today’s agenda and no list of participants, but of the ten speakers I am told will be present, eight either publicly endorsed the Project Connect Rail Bond Package and/or represent organizations that endorsed, or were complicit in, this wasteful ill-advised exercise of top-down insider back-room-deal-making trying to con the public into tying your hands as new council members with an issue you need more time to study and digest.

Imagine where this council would be if the Project Connect Rail Bonds had passed and you were politically mandated to issue $400 million in Certificates of Obligation (COs). There wouldn’t be any air left in council chambers, today or any other day as special interests clamored continuously for a piece of asphalt public pie.

Only Jim Skaggs of COST and Julio Gonzalez Altamirano of AURA represent the public that prevailed November 4th. On election day 58% of the public said No to the Project Connect Proposition, and yet today 80% of your speakers will be de facto representatives of the minority position.

You should ask why you’re not hearing from former Capital Metro board member and former CMTA [Capital Metro] planner, Lyndon Henry, the person who first brought the light rail concept to Texas, the man most responsible for creating Capital Metro in the early 1980s, and who has, since 1970, made urban rail for Austin and better public transit his life work. Many of his papers for implementing rail in our capital city can be found at the Austin History Center. Mr. Henry holds a Master’s Degree from UT in Urban and Regional Planning, is well represented in professional papers peer-reviewed and accepted by the Transportation Research Board, National Academy of Sciences, writes for Railway Age, and led the public opposition to the PC bond package in public meetings and through our blog, AustinRailNow.com. If you want to know who, what, when, where, which, how and why about Austin transit, Lyndon Henry is an invaluable resource for elected officials wanting to understand our city’s mobility issues.

Another person who should be on your agenda is Scott Morris, Director of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), who early on recognized that city management and the previous council were abandoning the core neighborhoods with rail plans primarily to benefit developers, rather than to provide essential rail transit to keep the city’s congested core alive and growing. Scott’s PAC [political action committee], OurRail.org, played a major role in organizing rail advocates and core neighborhoods to support a Guadalupe-Lamar rail plan and to oppose the Project Connect package voters rejected November 4th. Mr. Morris can offer council considerable political insight and knowledge about Central Austin housing, jobs, and transportation issues and needs, and I recommend his counsel highly.

Mr. Henry and Mr. Morris are two of many who could give council a far better public-interest perspective about transportation than the viewpoints provided by self-serving interlocking private and public special interests. However, as long as city management decides who will be heard and when they will be heard with last-minute agenda postings sans real substance, not much will change. So much for 10-1. In the words of Tammany Hall’s Boss Tweed, “I don’t care who does the electing as long as I get to do the nominating.”


Notes:

(1) “New Rail Plan Rolled Out The latest line on streetcars”
By Katherine Gregor, Austin Chronicle, Fri., April 25, 2008
http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2008-04-25/616178/

(2) FTA [Federal Transit Administration], Austin, Texas/Light Rail Corridors (November 2000)
http://www.fta.dot.gov/12304_3104.html

(3) CAMPO TWG meeting TTI presentation (PDF), January 13, 2012, page 15
https://txprojectconnect.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/twg-jan-13_ver10_no-video.pdf

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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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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: Glogster.com.

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

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 TexasFreeway.com.

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


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. ■

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City Council to Austin community: Shut Up

1 July 2014
After squelching public input, Austin City Council votes unanimously on June 26th to endorse Project Connect's Highland-Riverside urban rail plan as Locally Preferred Alternative. Photo: L. Henry.

After squelching public input, Austin City Council votes unanimously on June 26th to endorse Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside urban rail plan as Locally Preferred Alternative. Photo: L. Henry.

The Austin City Council really doesn’t want to hear from you. They’re tired of having to listen to you at all, and want you to just keep your thoughts to yourself, and shut up.

They’re exhausted, they’re bored, they’re busy, and besides, they know what’s best for the city, and for the movers and shakers they deal with, and you’re just getting in the way.

This is the message that came across loud and clear at the last Council meeting on Thursday, June 26th, when the Council voted to cut off dozens of speakers prepared to criticize Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal, allowing only a relative few from “each side”.

Trouble is, the side opposing Project Connect’s plan is not a single “side”, but factions representing several major, different viewpoints, from virulent opponents of rail transit altogether, to strong urban rail supporters (such as the sponsors of this blog) who just think the Project Connect plan is a bad idea. No matter — Off With All Their Heads. Time to move on.

And “move on” they did, voting unanimously on June 26th to embrace the seriously corrupt and flawed Project Connect plan as the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) as a prerequisite for federal funding being sought. (In so doing, they actually re-designated the LPA from the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor to the current Highland-Riverside alignment.)

Prior to the final vote, several opponents of the measure among the handful allowed to speak ditched their prepared remarks and assailed the suppression of democratic speech.

Scott Morris, representing the Our Rail Political Action Committee (OurRail PAC), angrily noted that “This plan is opposed by groups that represent or serve over a hundred thousand Austinites, and you’re giving them 30 minutes of time.”

We have patiently waited through numerous — through scores — of work sessions where Project Connect has been given unfettered access to your attention. We have patiently waited through scores of briefings that have no citizen communication. And now we’re ready to say: Enough of this. We’re fed up. This plan does not fly. … You need to listen to the citizens of Austin ….

OurRail PAC leader Scott Morris denounces Council's action to constrict debate. Photo: COA video screenshot.

OurRail PAC leader Scott Morris denounces Council’s action to constrict debate. Photo: COA video screenshot.

Longtime rail transit supporter Mike Dahmus likewise expressed outrage at the Council’s squelching of citizen input:

You’ve chosen … to eliminate all meaningful opportunities for public input, as has Project Connect before you. We will make sure the FTA [Federal Transit Administration] is aware of this”

Also discarding his prepared comments, Lyndon Henry (a contributing editor to this blog) denounced the Council meeting as “a travesty”, adding:

This issue cries out for a public hearing. Instead, you subvert the democratic process and proceed with the agenda of special interests. … You should be ashamed.

Far from unique, the Council’s stifling of democratic process continues a pattern among various Austin public agencies in recent years of excluding community participation in planning major public projects. Public hearings have almost totally disappeared from the scene for at least a decade or more.

For over a decade, Austin public agencies have shut out and gagged the community from authentic participation in planning major projects.

For over a decade, Austin public agencies have shut out and gagged the community from authentic participation in planning major projects.

And not just the Austin City Council, but Capital Metro and Project Connect itself have been leading offenders. As this blog observed last December, in our post Will Project Connect continue to gag the public?

In response to community prodding, going into the recent “high-capacity transit” study process, Project Connect representatives gave seemingly earnest assurances of much greater “transparency” and “openness” in their “study” process. Instead, the Project Connect team made their closed-door activities more opaque and insulated from community interaction than ever. …

Instead of public participation, it’s been more like public prohibition — exclusion of the community at large from any real role in the process, with Project Connect instead delivering decisions as faits accomplis for public acquiescence rather than an authentic process of involving community members in a bona fide process of actually studying, analyzing, evaluating, and participating in decisions.

To present a semblance of “public input”, Project Connect has staged “open houses” (where individuals are allowed to view posters, maps, and other presentations of official decisions) and so-called “workshops” (where small groups clustered at tables are asked to approve predetermined choices via electronic “clickers”). Authentic community meetings, with discussions and comments from the public in a large-group setting, have been avoided like the threat of an infectious disease.

Following the Council’s action ramrodding of the urban rail plan on July 26th (strong-armed by Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell), longtime local community affairs activist Bill Oakey warned:

The level of insensitivity and lack of respect for the citizen speakers displayed by Mayor Leffingwell marks the darkest day for this lame duck Council. His actions essentially guarantee the defeat of the bond proposition. Austin is a community that places high value on citizen involvement. The Council should have held a public hearing soon after Project Connect announced their final proposal. Today the promise of no limit on the number of speakers was broken, after two days of planning by several groups to come and speak. The resulting lack of trust will contribute to the failure of the bonds. We will look to the new Council with a spirit of hope for respect, transparency and inclusiveness.

Changing the LPA to identify the Highland-Riverside alignment is just one of the steps the Project Connect consortium must follow in moving the official urban rail project forward. In August, the Council is expected to consider — and likely approve — placing approximately $600 million of bond funding on the November ballot for a public vote. How Austin voters will weigh in on this issue remains to be seen.

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Austin pro-rail group declares war on Project Connect urban rail plan

15 June 2014
Julie Montgomery, AURA leader, was sole member of Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) to vote against Project Connect's urban rail plan. Photo: L. Henry.

Julie Montgomery, AURA leader, was sole member of Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) to vote against Project Connect’s urban rail plan. Photo: L. Henry.

In a 13-1 vote this past Friday (June 13th), a key mayor-appointed review committee, the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG), approved recommending Project Connect’s urban rail proposal to the Austin City Council. If (as expected) the council endorses the plan as the city’s Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for urban rail, it could set the basis for approving, perhaps in August, a ballot measure for bond funding in the November 4th election.

The CCAG vote context on this controversial project was far from placid, with public comments criticizing the plan as well as supporting it (the usual speakers’ limit of five was obligingly expanded to allow two extra supporters, while an opponent was turned away). The first speaker, Marcus Denton, representing a major pro-rail group, Austinites for Urban Rail Action (AURA), announced the organization’s opposition. AURA’s constituency includes a significant segment of particularly influential and technologically savvy young professionals in the Austin community.

Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant and former Capital Metro board member (and currently a contributing editor for Austin Rail Now), noted that the Project Connect plan fell short of serving the University of Texas West Campus, one of the densest neighborhoods in Texas. He suggested that a rail line in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — backed by many community groups and individuals — could include branches serving both the West and East Campuses, but called for UT’s administration to take “responsibility for funding its fair share of what it wants.”

CCAG member Julie Montgomery, one of AURA’s top leaders (see photo at top), was the sole member of CCAG to vote against endorsing Project Connect’s urban rail plan, particularly questioning the validity of the data, methodology, and projections on which it’s based.

AURA immediately issued a media release (below), now posted on the AURA website.

Marcus Denton announces AURA's opposition to Project Connect plan at CCAG meeting. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

Marcus Denton announces AURA’s opposition to Project Connect plan at CCAG meeting. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

Following today’s vote by the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) recommending a $1.4 billion Riverside-to-Highland urban rail line, AURA announced the route would act as a long-term barrier to a comprehensive, efficient transportation system and urged Austin City Council not to put it on the November ballot.

“We’ve worked for months – some of us years – trying to get an urban rail route we could support, but unfortunately this is worse than no rail,” AURA board member Steven Yarak said. “Squandering scarce funds on a second low-ridership rail line would set back public support for more effective public transit investments for decades.”

AURA’s Project Connect Central Corridor Committee co-chair Brad Absalom noted that, “While we’re supportive of the more cost-effective Riverside segment, we’re very worried the northern section will block rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, our most productive corridor, indefinitely, even as it drains funds from buses.”

AURA urged City Council not to place a Riverside-Highland urban rail bond proposition on the November ballot. Susan Somers, AURA board member, described AURA’s transportation agenda going forward: “Step one in building a better transportation system is preventing this urban rail bond from making the ballot, and defeating it if it does. As we continue lobbying for an urban rail line we can support, we’ll be pushing hard for improvements to Austin’s bus, cycling, and pedestrian infrastructure.”

AURA is a grassroots urbanist organization focused on building an Austin for everyone by improving land use and transportation through policy analysis, public involvement, and political engagement.

AURA leaders indicated they would actively campaign to defeat a bond measure for Project Connect’s rail plan, while striving to substitute a new urban rail plan, more effectively meeting community needs, together with broader public transport and other alternative mobility initiatives. ■

Majority of CCAG votes to endorse Project Connect urban rail plan. AURA leader Julie Montgomery, at table at left in photo, voted No. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)

Majority of CCAG votes to endorse Project Connect urban rail plan. AURA leader Julie Montgomery, at table at left in photo, voted No. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)

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

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

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

By Lyndon Henry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant, is a technical consultant for the Light Rail Now Project, and a former board member and data analyst for Capital Metro. He also writes an online column for Railway Age magazine.
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Project Connect’s urban rail plan “costs way too much to do too little”

3 May 2014
Map of Project Connect's urban rail proposal, as shown by KEYE-TV. Despite blurry image quality, the convoluted, meandering character of the route, well to the east of central Austin and its core axis, can be seen. Screenshot: L. Henry.

Map of Project Connect’s urban rail proposal, as shown by KEYE-TV. Despite blurry image quality, the convoluted, meandering character of the route, well to the east of central Austin and its core axis, can be seen. Screenshot: L. Henry.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to Project Connect’s Central Corridor Advisory Group on 2 May 2014. At the meeting, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey revealed the agency’s proposal for a 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion line connecting East Riverside (southeast) with the old Highland Mall site (north).

I’m Lyndon Henry. I’m a transportation planning consultant, and am considered among the strongest rail transit advocates in Austin. Since I originally launched the notion of urban rail for this region over four decades ago, I’ve consistently made the case for urban rail as a crucial mobility alternative for Austin’s heaviest traffic, plus other benefits such as better urban development patterns.

Urban rail’s primary focus is mobility, to provide some relief for congestion – not to just enhance the value of real estate development or be a decoration for other public projects. Unfortunately, Austin’s political and civic leadership have lost this essential focus, and the result is Project Connect’s seriously misguided plan. Austin voters should reject it.

Austin voters are being asked to authorize a billion-dollar investment for this convoluted adornment for real estate interests and proposed developments — a line that bypasses the heart of the city and slowly meanders nine miles, from the East Riverside “Apartment City” area, through the backwater East Campus, up to Hancock, then through a tunnel and into the old Highland site. How many Austinites are traveling such a route? Installing a second rail line parallel to MetroRail along Airport Blvd. just squanders more money.

Furthermore, a vote for Project Connect’s plan is very likely a vote to lock out any hope of rail on Guadalupe-Lamar — our heaviest travel corridor — and lock in the MetroRapid bus replacement — so-called “BRT”. Project Connect has hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of dedicated bus lanes and other infrastructure planned for this corridor that would block rail, possibly for decades.

By depleting available financial resources on tunnels and other lavishly expensive construction, this wasteful urban rail plan limits the more effective expansion of rail regionally. Tunnels and subway stations are options way out of scale for an urban rail starter line for Austin or virtually any city this size.

Voter rejection of this plan is the better option, because it opens the possibility for a return to planning a basic north-south rail spine along the central Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Project Connect’s plan costs way too much to do too little, and Austin deserves better. Voters can opt for a better plan by saying No on November 4th.

Kyle Keahey, Project Connect's Urban Rail Lead (bottom row, center) during presentation to CCAG. Top row, facing, left to right: CCAG leading members Bill Spelman (Austin City Council), John Langmore (Capital Metro), Maypor Lee Leffingwell, Sid Covington (Lone Star Rail). Photo: L. Henry.

Kyle Keahey, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead (bottom row, center) during presentation to CCAG. Top row, facing, left to right: CCAG leading members Bill Spelman (Austin City Council), John Langmore (Capital Metro), Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Sid Covington (Lone Star Rail). Photo: L. Henry.