Archive for the ‘Public involvement process’ Category


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

26 March 2017


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.


Transit planning cabal-style

28 February 2017
Graphic: Marvel Database.

Graphic: Marvel Database.

In recent weeks, within Austin’s transit advocacy community, rumors have been circulating of some kind of “package” of major transit projects possibly being compiled, perhaps for the November 2018 election cycle. While details are murky – concocted behind the veil of a resuscitated Project Connect and the tightly shuttered enclaves of the high-level leadership consortium of Capital Metro, City of Austin, plus some Travis County and state officials – it is whispered that such a plan might include a “Guadalupe-Lamar project” as well as an expansion of the MetroRail regional railway, a highway-routed bus “rapid transit” (BRT) line, and other possible projects.

A “Guadalupe-Lamar project” sounds great – a starter light rail transit (LRT) line in the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor would represent the crucial linchpin of an eventual LRT (urban rail) network for the entire metro area. But there’s no guarantee that LRT is the “project” behind the dark curtain. Whatever concrete details of these wisps of plans may exist seem to be closely guarded secrets. For the G-L corridor, officials, planners, and their consultants may be envisioning urban rail, or they might just as plausibly be concocting more investment in the pathetic MetroRapid faux-“BRT” operation … or a cable-gondola line … or some other scheme.

The problem is that this top-level methodology of secrecy is now the routine modus operandi of most of Austin’s major public transport planning. And this, in an era of so-called “transparency”.

In fact, a lot of this methodology comes close to the definition of a cabal: “the contrived schemes of a group of persons secretly united in a plot ….” While it doesn’t have the cohesiveness of a bona fide cabal – and it certainly isn’t motivated by evil intent – today’s transport planning process nevertheless feels enough like a behind-the-scenes cabal to merit this unfortunate comparison. (And that’s why we’ve dubbed it “cabal-style”.)

Local planning wasn’t always this Machiavellian. Back in the early days of the Austin Transportation Study (predecessor of CAMPO) and Capital Metro, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, planning was upfront; plans were on the table for public review, discussion, and debate. Community activists were intimately involved in the planning process; public participation was vigorous and vibrant. Meetings of advisory bodies such as Capital Metro’s Citizens Advisory Committee and Transitway Corridor Analysis Project Advisory Committee were frequent and well-attended, often by participants in the dozens. Plan proposals were not only clearly on view, but were shaped and fine-tuned by direct community input.

That process has, in recent years, been squelched. Interactive public meetings have been replaced by “open houses” and “workshops” where actual full discussion among all participants is excluded. Austin Rail Now has analyzed and criticized this deleterious process in considerable detail – see the numerous articles collected in the category Public involvement process.

Bona fide, free-speaking, freely attended, full public meetings are a critical component of democratic process. That’s how ideas are raised, shaped, tweaked, finalized – via discussion within groups of participants with a diversity of expertise, backgrounds, viewpoints, insights.

You can be sure that these occult, mysterious transit plans we’ve been referring to have been hatched by vigorous interactive meetings … not of the public, but of a relatively tiny, cabal-like huddle of officials, planners, and consultants sheltered from public view and involvement. A carefully assembled community body like the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee is allowed an occasional glimpse of what’s already been decided elsewhere … and then, only every few months or so. Back in the days of the directly involved and intensely active public advisory committees, meetings were held several times a month (especially in the final stages of formulating plans).

Even through this dark, distorted process, perhaps acceptable plans will emerge that will be embraced by the Austin community. But don’t hold your breath. The absence of direct, intimate, ongoing, adequately engaged, fully democratic public participation seriously increases the risk of flawed outcomes and political problems.


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


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, 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],, 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.”


(1) “New Rail Plan Rolled Out The latest line on streetcars”
By Katherine Gregor, Austin Chronicle, Fri., April 25, 2008

(2) FTA [Federal Transit Administration], Austin, Texas/Light Rail Corridors (November 2000)

(3) CAMPO TWG meeting TTI presentation (PDF), January 13, 2012, page 15


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.


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. ■


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.


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.)