Archive for the ‘Public involvement process’ Category

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Huge problems cited with Project Connect’s urban rail study data

3 November 2013
Cover of Project Connect's Map Book version 4. Screen capture: L. Henry

Cover of Project Connect’s Map Book version 4. Screen capture: L. Henry.

One of the most serious flaws in Project connect’s urban rail study process — in which top-level officials and planners are trying to rush to a selection of an Austin city sector for an urban rail starter line on or about November 15th — is problems with data inaccuracy and outright omissions. Focused on designated alternative city sectors (misnamed “sub-corridors”), the study team has been compiling purported data on demographic and transportation features of each sector (such as population, density, transit ridership, etc.) in a series of data-visualization “Map Books” (each new one an update of the previous one).

Map Books rife with data problems

Meanwhile, as this blog reported in a previous posting, Scott Morris, head of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC) has been relentlessly and tediously scrutinizing each volume of Map Book data. As we’ve noted “Scott has performed amazingly detailed and well-supported research into these data issues, and he has found and pointed to a lengthy array of dozens of mostly serious errors. A handful of these have been quietly rectified.”

By far, as the Oct. 27th article Project Connect admits major data error in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor study highlighted, “One of the most serious data anomalies that Scott has recently detected is the “disappearance” of virtually all the ridership for Capital Metro’s routes #1M/L and #101, the heaviest-ridership transit routes in the system, serving the G-L corridor as well as South Congress.” As the article reports, Project Connect has publicly admitted that error and corrected it in the next Map Book edition.

Map Book errors go uncorrected

However, an unacceptable large number of similar errors — predominantly erroneous data or outright omissions — remain. The following are just some of the most egregious problems in Map Book v. 2, still carried into v. 4, that Scott has found and cited in a listing submitted by CACDC to the Project Connect urban rail study team:

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Partial listing of major errors in Project Connect Map Book and other material identified by CACDC. Screen image: L. Henry.

Partial listing of major errors in Project Connect Map Book and other material identified by CACDC. Screen image: L. Henry.

New error problems with Map Book 4

Scott has appended a listing of major new problems appearing in Map Book Version 4; here’s a summary:

• All “B” Pages and Definition Packages
West University NPA/University Neighborhood Overlay Removed From Defined Sub-Corridors A large, dense city area to the west of the UT campus and Guadalupe Street was moved out of the North Lamar and Mopac Sub-Corridors by the Project Team in response to a request to include UT in the core. This change was made in the current map. We understand the reasoning in placing UT in the core, however the manner in which surrounding non-UT areas were moved with it will create large, unintended impacts on the sub-corridor evaluation process. That area is not a part of UT, nor in the opinion of West Campus residents, can it be adequately served by a San Jacinto alignment on the UT Campus. West University is the densest planning area of our city that also employs over 5,000 people (Non-UT). The area west of Guadalupe anchors the Guadalupe-North Lamar Sub-Corridor and includes the University Neighborhood Overlay and 3 residential neighborhoods that are components of a City of Austin Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Planning Area. West Campus is the largest population differentiator in our city for the purposes of sub-corridor analysis. In our opinion, it should not be considered a common element to the core joining the CBD, UT, and the Capitol Complex, unless it receives a similar commitment to service. In the end, if it is desired to count West Campus as part of the core, we should also count on serving it directly as part of the definition of the core.

• Page 13 Employment Density with Major Employers
The State of Texas in the North Austin Complex has been omitted. It is the center of over 16,000 jobs within a 1/2 mile radius of 49th and N. Lamar. There is no purple symbol. Girling Healthcare is a small office, yet shows 2,225 employees in place of the TX Dept of Health.

• Page 28 Poverty, Vehicles, Affordable Housing
Hundreds of units of affordable housing in West Campus is not identified with the correctly-sized circle.

• Pages 36-37 Bus Ridership 2011
The North Lamar Transit Center has been cropped out of the frame. Much of the bus system for the northern half of the city has boardings there.

• Pages 55-59 Sub-Corridor Definition Package Lamar
Population Studies are not provided for North Lamar sub-corridor definition package.

• Pages 15-16. Employment Growth
Austin State Hospital should show >100% Growth. This is an identified P3.

• Pages 18-19 2010 Retail Employment Density
The Triangle is not identified as retail density.

• Pages 18-19 2010 Retail Employment Density
Koenig and N Lamar is not identified as retail employment density.

• Page 26 Population Growth 2010-2030
The growth projections that occur in an area north of 32nd St. South of 45th St east of Waller Creek, and west of Red River are too high. Per that neighborhood plan and numbers reflected in the zoning capacity studies, population growth should be a more modest 41% for the described area. This includes SF-3 zoning and the Hancock Golf Course, a dedicated park. http://centralaustincdc.org/land_use/Zoning_and_Capacity_Redev_Analysis_v11.pdf

• Page 30 Selected Land Use 2010
Adams Hemphill Park straddling 30th not identified as open space.

CACDC also provides data references as the basis for these corrections.

Summary

It’s understandable that some data problems will be encountered in almost any major study of this kind. What’s astounding, however, is the high number of problems in Project Connect’s urban rail study. Even worse is that almost all of them — even when identified — seem to be going uncorrected!

This seriously compromises the competency of this entire study process (and there are even more fundamental issues involved, as this blog will address). The data problem is especially threatening because data analysis is supposedly the foundation for decisionmaking to select an urban rail corridor; the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG, whose recommendation is a key part of the process) is being led through a process of data scrutiny and analysis by Project Connect staff. Yet the Project Connect team — under duress from high-level local officials eager to force a quick decision on urban rail, and apparently overwhelmed by the need to rush to an imminent recommendation for the Austin City Council — seem merely to be “dumping” volumes of data with little regard for its reliability or relevance to the basic goal of selecting an urban rail route.

All of this calls into question just how “fair and balanced” — and accurate, reliable, and truly data-based — the process of comparatively evaluating alternative urban rail corridors and plans actually is.

What the final outcome will be, and whether its integrity will be accepted by the Austin public and voters in particular, remains to be seen.

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Project Connect admits major data error in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor study

27 October 2013
Snippet of Project Connect's much larger "Central Corridor" map (actually, the central-city study area) shows "Lamar" sector (in orange, dubbed a "sub-corridor" in Project Connect's peculiar nomenclature) plus several adjacent sectors. Actual Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor includes both the Lamar and Core sectors, but each sector is being evaluated in isolation.

Snippet of Project Connect’s much larger “Central Corridor” map (actually, the central-city study area) shows “Lamar” sector (in orange, dubbed a “sub-corridor” in Project Connect’s peculiar nomenclature) plus several adjacent sectors. Actual Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor includes both the Lamar and Core sectors, but each sector is being evaluated in isolation.

The Project Connect urban rail planning team has been conducting a nominal study of designated alternative “sub-corridors” for urban rail (they’re actually not “corridors”, but sectors of the central-city study area). In the process, the agency has been compiling purported data (covering key indicators for each “corridor”, or study sector, such as population, density, transit ridership, etc.) in a series of so-called Map Books (each one an update of the previous one).

Meanwhile, tirelessly and tediously scrutinizing each volume of Map Book data has been the self-appointed task of Scott Morris, head of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), which, together with Texas Association for Public Transportation, has been advancing the case for the Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor as the most effective alignment for Austin’s proposed urban rail starter line. Scott has performed amazingly detailed and well-supported research into these data issues, and he has found and pointed to a lengthy array of dozens of mostly serious errors. A handful of these have been quietly rectified.

One of the most serious data anomalies that Scott has recently detected is the “disappearance” of virtually all the ridership for Capital Metro’s routes #1M/L and #101, the heaviest-ridership transit routes in the system, serving the G-L corridor as well as South Congress. This was cited in a listing of nearly three dozen data problems submitted by CACDC to the Project Connect urban rail study team:

v4 Comment 29 High
Pages 36-37 Bus Ridership 2011
According to the 2020 service plan in January 2010, the #1 North Lamar and the #101 had over 17,000 daily boardings combined. But, this chart seems to omit nearly all boardings for the Guadalupe-North Lamar Corridor.

At last, Project Connect has publicly admitted at least one of the numerous errors that have been published in the series of Map Books. Responding mainly to criticism by Jace Deloney, one of the leaders of Austinites for Urban Rail Action (AURA, which supports a transparent, open, and fair route evaluation process), on October 22nd Project Connect issued a statement acknowledging the erroneous ridership data, which it says resulted from “populating” the map (data visualization graphic) with the “wrong data field”. A screen capture of the statement is shown below.

Project Connect statement admits major error in transit ridership data for Lamar-Guadalupe corridor.

Project Connect statement admits major error in transit ridership data for Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

Data errors, in particular large ones like this, are especially serious because the selection of a “corridor” (actually, a sector of the huge central-city study area) depends critically on key data factors, including existing transit ridership in a given corridor.

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Here’s what a real public meeting on rail transit looks like … in San Antonio

18 October 2013
Kyle Keahey, Project Connect's Urban Rail Lead and a consultant to San Antonio's VIA Metropolitan Transit, speaks during a VIA public meeting discussing San Antonio's modern streetcar plans this past July.

Kyle Keahey, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead and a consultant to San Antonio’s VIA Metropolitan Transit, speaks during a VIA public meeting discussing San Antonio’s modern streetcar plans this past July.

As this blog has been reporting, despite promises and assurances to local community leaders and activists who’ve been asking for bona fide public meetings to discuss local urban rail planning, Project Connect can’t seem to make one happen. Instead of real meetings, the Austin community has been offered “open houses”, which we’ve compared to “art galleries”, where people can walk through a room of “pretty pictures” (maps, charts, renderings, etc.), supposedly admiring and considering them and submitting comments or questions to the “guards” (planning personnel standing around). See: Back to “art galleries”! Project Connect reneges on community meetings and Meetings, “open houses”, workshops … and democratic process.

But while urban planners here in Austin haven’t been able to pull together a true public meeting, San Antonio has been holding real meetings — such as the one shown in the photo at the top of this post. And Kyle Keahey, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead, is also the lead rail planning consultant to San Antonio’s VIA Metropolitan Transit — and there he is, speaking to a San Antonio community meeting on urban rail!

San Antonio streetcar simulation. Graphic: VIA, from Rivard Report.

This was a meeting sponsored by VIA on 30 July 2013 at San Antonio’s Temple Beth-El to discuss the agency’s downtown modern streetcar project. According to a July 31st report in the San Antonio Express-News, “VIA officials gave more details about the possible streetcar routes, including two new ones ….” As the report noted, the two additional route alternatives “resulted from input from many directions — stakeholders along the route, movers-and-shakers and comment sheets from everyday citizens.” The paper also quotes VIA’s chief development officer’s assurance that “The process is to provide public input.”

And, in contrast to Austin, what has San Antonio got going for it — other than a far more realistic timeframe for decisionmaking, and an authentic official commitment to encouraging community participation?

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Meetings, “open houses”, workshops … and democratic process

1 October 2013

ARN0_PrjCon_mbrs-logo-xx

In ARN’s previous blog entry, Back to “art galleries”! Project Connect reneges on community meetings, we noted that “In a sudden reversal — and what appears to be a breach of trust and a breach of a de facto agreement with many in the Austin community”, Project Connect (the current ongoing rail planning consortium) had abruptly changed its forthcoming Urban Rail Central Corridor public involvement events from meetings into so-called “Open Houses”.

Our commentary went on to point out that

Meetings are fundamental to truly democratic process. They allow for community interactive input, i.e. community discussion along with the project personnel. They bring members of the entire community together, allow them to hear ideas and views from one another, allow them to interact on the public record (or at least with public witnesses) with officials present, force official representatives to deal with and respond to difficult questions and issues, and allow officials and participants to get a sense of community attitudes expressed in a community manner. One person’s question or comment may give ideas or motivation to other participants.

It should be noted that Project Connect is also deploying other means of communication with the public, in addition to “open house” events — a webinar was held this past Friday, and project staff are also considering workshop-style small-group activities. Plus the team are outreaching through individual meetings with various community groups.

However, while these are worthy activities, they still don’t substitute for the fully democratic process inherent in full, multi-group, diverse community meetings. To repeat our previous observations: Community meetings enable community interactive input; they “bring members of the entire community together, allow them to hear ideas and views from one another, allow them to interact on the public record (or at least with public witnesses) with officials present, force official representatives to deal with and respond to difficult questions and issues, and allow officials and participants to get a sense of community attitudes expressed in a community manner.”

Project Connect, the City of Austin, Capital Metro, and other public agencies have a crucial responsibility to facilitate these kinds of cross-community, cross-demographic, cross-organizational, fully diverse, fully democratic public meetings. So far, they seem to be trying to avoid them like the flu.

Austin Rail Now will continue to support efforts to reinstate the truly democratic public meeting process as Project Connect moves forward with its planning activities.

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Back to “art galleries”! Project Connect reneges on community meetings

25 September 2013
Community meeting (left) vs. art gallery (right)

Community meeting (left) vs. art gallery (right)

In our article of Sep. 17th, If you support urban rail for Guadalupe-Lamar, attend these community meetings! Austin Rail Now reported that

… Project Connect has scheduled some upcoming meetings (and a “webinar”) between Sep. 4th and Oct. 2nd (details below) that seem to offer a bona fide opportunity for the public to meet in a community fashion, both discussing the issues and interacting with one another.

Unfortunately, the prospect of bona fide public meetings “for the public to meet in a community fashion, both discussing the issues and interacting with one another” no longer seems valid.

In a sudden reversal — and what appears to be a breach of trust and a breach of a de facto agreement with many in the Austin community — Project Connect has abruptly stopped describing the forthcoming Urban Rail Central Corridor public involvement events as meetings, and instead is now promoting them as so-called “Open Houses”.

The Sep. 23rd edition of the Austin Mobility Go! Email newsletter from the City of Austin’s Transportation Department now describes the activities this week as “open houses”, not meetings. This was confirmed in Email comments from Capital Metro/Project Connect community outreach specialist John-Michael Cortez:

It is labeled as an Open House because that connotes that people are free to show up at any time, unlike a public meeting or workshop, which usually has a set agenda and starting time, thus limiting full participation to those who are able to show up at the start of the meeting. These meetings will be more of a hybrid open house/workshop. Participants can come at whatever time they choose and be able to see exhibits and speak directly to agency staff to have their questions answered, and formal input will be gathered through questionnaires and encouraging participants to draw and make comments on sub-corridor maps.

This is a crucial point, and one that many community activists involved with the urban rail planning process thought had been settled — in favor of community meetings.

Meetings are fundamental to truly democratic process. They allow for community interactive input, i.e. community discussion along with the project personnel. They bring members of the entire community together, allow them to hear ideas and views from one another, allow them to interact on the public record (or at least with public witnesses) with officials present, force official representatives to deal with and respond to difficult questions and issues, and allow officials and participants to get a sense of community attitudes expressed in a community manner. One person’s question or comment may give ideas or motivation to other participants.

This community interactivity is lost in the individual, one-on-one format of “Open Houses”, which have no set agenda, no community public speaking, and involve agency personnel displaying graphics of their pre-determined plans and chatting individually with the occasional community members that might attend the event. Transportation consultant Lyndon Henry (an Austin Rail Now contributor) has compared these events to wandering through an art gallery, with the chance to chat individually with the gallery guards (agency personnel). There’s no opportunity for real interactive community involvement.

In the view of local Austin researcher and transportation activist Roger Baker,

The major problem I see is that while Open Houses usually have lots of big impressive maps, these meetings commonly tend to evolve toward little unstructured conversation clusters, with an official at their center, near a map, and with others standing around, trying to hear, waiting to ask their own questions. Every citizen can come in and ask the same question as those who came earlier, and these exchanges are essentially rambling private discussions that tend to go on and on without clearly answering certain important policy questions. Usually there is no record of the questions asked, nor the responses given. These events tend to become a succession of unrecorded one to one exchanges.

In a comprehensive explanation and analysis of public involvement, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) explains that

Meetings provide a time and place for face-to-face contact and two-way communication-dynamic components of public involvement that help break down barriers between people and the agencies that serve them. Through meetings, people learn that an agency is not a faceless, uncaring bureaucracy and that the individuals in charge are real people. Meetings give agencies a chance to respond directly to comments and dispel rumors or misinformation.

Far from being passive gatherings, meetings are interactive occasions when people discuss issues of consequence to them and their neighbors, listen to opposing viewpoints on the issues, and work together for the common good. Agency staff people who handle public meetings need to be trained in skills that encourage interaction and also keep the process focused and productive.

In contrast, says FHWA,

An open house is an informal setting in which people get information about a plan or project. It has no set, formal agenda. Unlike a meeting, no formal discussions and presentations take place, and there are no audience seats. Instead, people get information informally from exhibits and staff and are encouraged to give opinions, comments, and preferences to staff either orally or in writing.

Is the planning and decisionmaking process really that important to the kind of plan that emerges? You bet it is.

Vigorous, authentic community involvement is absolutely critical, particularly in injecting new ideas and perspectives, raising special concerns, scrutinizing and evaluating official approaches and decisions, safeguarding the project from the influence of special interests and extraneous political issues, and generally keeping the official planners and decisionmakers “honest”.

Furthermore, voters are far more inclined to support ballot measures for major rail projects if they have a sense of ownership through opportunities for bona fide participation in the process.

Project Connect’s seemingly abrupt decision to downgrade the format of these public events from meetings to “art galleries” (“open houses”) suggests more of a desire to minimize, or squelch, rather than maximize, public involvement and dialogue in the urban rail planning process. This would also appear corroborated by Project Connect’s rather puzzling lack of publicity for these public events.

As Lyndon Henry recently warned, in comments Emailed to a list of community transportation activists,

The consistent and steady pattern by local public agencies (particularly involved in public transportation issues) of degrading the bona fide democratic public participation process over the past period has been alarming, and I did speak out about this when I worked at Capital Metro. Individual chats between individual community members and official personnel do not represent a democratic process of community participation, and I’ve personally seen the level of such participation decline significantly over the past couple of decades. It’s very troubling to see this same policy now being carried forward and rationalized despite assurances made otherwise.

Despite these efforts by Project Connect to discourage public participation, Austin Rail Now continues to urge supporters of a Phase 1 urban rail starter line in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor to attend these events and vigorously express their views.