Posts Tagged ‘austin transportation planning’

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Did Austin’s new Smart Mobility agenda kill light rail?

28 March 2019

Left: Passengers preparing to board Houston’s Metro light rail. Have “Smart City” visions scuttled Austin’s hopes for urban rail? Right: Simulation of “Smart City” traffic with autonomous and “connected” vehicles. Sources: L. Henry; Propmodo.com.

Commentary by Roger Baker

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

On March 2, 2017 the Austin City Council passed a resolution that called for a major policy Austin transportation policy shift toward a future of electric and automated vehicles (EV/AV) based on public-private partnerships (P3s), ride-sharing, and other factors. This effort arose out of Austin’s Smart City Challenge entry, which it had lost to Columbus, Ohio. [1]

This big shift away from business as usual obviously required a new plan with a lot of detail. The City Manager was ordered to draft a New Mobility EV/AV Plan by June 15, 2017. One part of this policy shift was to get people within the Austin Transportation Department (ATD) to help promote this shift. Two of the top ATD people responsible for this are now Karla Taylor, in charge of all ATD staff, and Jason JonMichael who knows about wiring “Smart Cities”, stuff like getting all the vehicles and street intersections and other vehicles to talk to one another, and persuading the public to accept the shift.

This new industrial development policy reportedly is meant to help generate startups and assist in the new programs developed by mobility tech leaders like Google, Tesla, Uber. And even Ford, which wants to move in the same electric and alternative transportation direction. The new wave of sharable scooters and bikes fits right into this new city perspective.

It is true that light rail transit (LRT) is electric, but currently it is only rarely autonomous. Since high-level corridor LRT service handles so many people with one driver, there is not such a great need for rail to operate autonomously.

On the other hand, autonomous vehicles like Uber cars, trucks, and buses would be a different story since the big mobility providers could maybe save money two ways. They can save on transportation fuel cost by shifting to electric, and supposedly also by possibly eliminating driver labor.

Moving urban rail off the table

In order to get everyone moving in the same direction, and shift to the new transportation agenda, Capital Metro had to be brought on board. Aside from its penny sales tax, Cap Metro can’t issue bonds using city resident’s property, but the city can do so. Without much state funding and with federal funds uncertain, a lot of the cost is probably now going to fall on local taxpayers.

This shift was also made by hiring a new transit czar, Randy Clarke, who understands that his new marching orders include things like new autonomous and electric buses. Of course this also meant making a big shift in the nearly complete Project Connect planning process, which was supposed to be finished in September 2018 after years of work. But in mid-2018 the Project Connect process, now falling under autonomous-friendly management, was extended to December 2018 for an additional $600,000. As a result, we should see a new rapidly revised version of the Project Connect plan soon, with more than just lines on map.

For its part, the City of Austin (COA) focused on creating a new Smart Mobility plan. The City Manager missed an original June 2018 deadline, but did finally come up with the City’s new 141-page Smart Mobility Roadmap on October 5, 2017. See:

https://austintexas.gov/smartmobilityroadmap
https://austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Smart_Mobility_Roadmap_-_Final.pdf

In my opinion, light rail will probably not be allowed to get in the way of “reinventing” transportation, no matter what transportation experts might think or advocate, primarily because it doesn’t have the high-tech startup potential that the City’s new marching orders require. Autonomous has already been proclaimed to be Austin’s future. You can see it from the Smart Mobility autonomous vehicle agenda, where the public-private partnerships have decided that the Austin’s transportation future is autonomous and “smart”, and as certified by the tech gurus the city hires. And don’t forget that new fleets of electric autonomous buses will supposedly help save us from global warming,

High-tech deliverance?

The executive summary from the Smart Mobility Roadmap gives an overview of what city leaders have in mind. [2] As this excerpt from the document lays out, the City of Austin and Capital Metro’s Smart Mobility Roadmap comprises five key areas:

• Shared-Use Mobility
• Electric Vehicles and Infrastructure
• Autonomous Vehicles
• Data and Technology
• Land Use and Infrastructure


City of Austin’s Smart Mobility Roadmap.


The Mobility Roadmap makes a series of recommendations for implementing, accommodating, and facilitating EV/AV vehicles in “Smart City” style:

1. Engage citizens, businesses and visitors on how this technology can meet their needs and address community issues
2. Hire an Executive level Officer of EV/AV Transportation
3. Develop a Master Plan roadmap for emerging electric-connected and autonomous vehicle (E-CAV) technologies
4. Create an interdisciplinary AV Work Group
5. Create an infrastructure task force to examine electric, technology and land use infrastructure requirements
6. Test Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC) technology for vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) reciprocal safety messages
7. Test 5G technology for vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) reciprocal safety messages; compare to DSRC 8. Increase public awareness of electric autonomous (E-AV) shuttles in various Austin locations through EV/AV pilots
9. Increase public awareness of last mile E-AV delivery robots
10. Establish an EV/AV Commercialization Opportunities/ Economic Development Work Group
11. Create Shared/EV/AV focused team
12. Increase public awareness of electric and autonomous vehicle benefits
13. Create a regional New Mobility Workforce Training task force for new job training and educational opportunities for those with legacy occupations

We all know, or should know by living in our high-tech city, that all kinds of automated and electric vehicles are destined for our future. Scooters, autonomous vehicles, rental “Smart Cars”, and incredible stuff like fleets of autonomous connected buses will be shuffling throughout Austin, supposedly solving our congestion problems as they go.

In addition to its rental scooters, Lime is making a foray into services with larger vehicle. Last May, Bloomberg News reported that Lime was ramping up its mobility-rental efforts by launching a car-sharing in Seattle, aiming to with ultimately 1,500 distribute Lime-branded “free-floating” rental cars around the city. Lime is also testing vehicles it calls “transit pods,” resembling “enclosed golf carts or electrified rickshaws”, according to Bloomberg, with a top speed of about 40 miles per hour. [3]

It’s not hard to foresee these “pods” adding to the mix of new modes gushing onto the streets and sidewalks of Austin. By adopting the Smart Mobility roadmap as official city policy, Austin has made it pretty clear that whatever the tech giants like Lime want to do will get a friendly reception here.

High-capacity transit vs. laboratory experiment

The strategy here is apparently to make Austin a kind of Petri dish – in effect, a laboratory experiment – to incubate and give birth to all kinds of innovative high technology startups, such as the recent invasion of rentable electric scooters (which incidentally are not permitted in Seattle due to safety considerations). Also included here is Cap Metro’s vision of autonomous, electrified bus rapid transit (so far, not operating anywhere as far as anyone knows). From this permissive support for high-tech innovation, the benefits are supposedly going to trickle down to average Austin residents, who will end up paying an unknown share of the final cost.

But how can Austin continue to manage to deny the need for a very high-capacity corridor transit system (only rail has the adequate capacity) running roughly between our highly congested road corridors of I-35 and MoPac? Even now, nearly twenty years after such a reasonable system was narrowly defeated, we still try to ignore the obvious under city-level political pressure, as usual based on using average homeowner-based property tax revenue to benefit private real estate development interests. This defies all logic, and to me is yet more evidence of the continuing special interest influence over Austin’s transportation planning.

At some point we need to bite the bullet and admit that public funding is limited and requires hard choices, not only involving mode choice but also geographical areas. CAMPO’s outlook is that we can have both “guns and butter”, that unlimited roads plus lots of transit are somehow affordable. The fact that neither the state nor federal gas taxes have been raised for 25 years is clear proof of our continuing denial of economic reality and our inability to make hard choices until something breaks.


Attractive high-capacity light rail transit is changing mobility patterns, boosting economic development in cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul. Photo via Transit for Livable Communities.


Reference Notes

[1] http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=272885

[2] https://austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Smart_Mobility_Roadmap_Executive_Summary_-_Final_with_Cover.pdf

[3] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-11-13/lime-wants-to-spread-1-500-shared-cars-around-seattle?srnd=premium

Related: Plans for Smart City could be dumb choice for Austin

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Let’s Fast-track a Plan for Urban Light Rail — and Make It Happen

31 December 2018

Map and graphics from Project Connect’s Feb. 2018 proposal illustrates possible 12-mile initial light rail line from Tech Ridge (at left end of map) routed south down N. Lamar-Guadalupe corridor to Republic Square in CBD (map is rotated 90°, with north to left and south at right). Other graphics show alignment design options and station attributes. Yet Capital Metro leadership has now withdrawn plan and restarted study process for another two years. Graphics: Project Connect.

by Lyndon Henry

This post is a publication of comments made by Lyndon Henry to the Austin City Council on 13 December 2018. Henry is a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project and a contributing editor to the Austin Rail Now website.

For decades, Austinites have been suffering the agonies of a worsening mobility crisis. Help has never been far away – over the past 30 years, no less than six official studies have come to the same conclusion: light rail transit, interconnected with an extensive bus network, is what’s needed.

But time after time, Austin’s leadership has failed to bring a single one of these plans to successful fruition. Austin has become the national poster child of analysis paralysis.

And now Capital Metro and its Project Connect planning program have restarted us on another re-iteration of this same exhausting process for a seventh time and another two years.

Transit advocates appreciate that Capital Metro has revised its Vision concept by restoring light rail and some additional corridors. But much more is needed.

Instead of backsliding to zero again, Capital Metro and the City of Austin need to fast-track this process by building on the data, analysis, community input, and other resources that have already recommended a light rail system and enhanced bus network as the way out of our mobility quagmire.

The Vision plan needs to become a lot more visionary. It needs to preserve a lot more corridors for future dedicated transit lanes. It needs to envision more and longer routes reaching out to serve other parts of the urban area.

Light rail can make this possible. It’s an affordable, cost-effective, off-the-shelf electric transport mode that’s well-proven in hundreds of cities and, best of all, it’s here today – we don’t have to wait for some science fiction technology. Austin needs a solution that’s available now.

Urban light rail is the crucial linchpin of a mobility plan because it has the power to make the whole system work effectively. It’s shown it has the true capacity to cost-effectively handle and grow Austin’s heaviest trunk routes, freeing up buses and resources to expand service into many more neighborhoods citywide. This advantage is validated by solid evidence – in average ridership and cost-effectiveness, cities with urban rail have significantly outpaced cities offering bus service only.

Yet even before Study No. 7 has begun, some Capital Metro and other local officials have been hinting they favor bus rapid transit (BRT) – basically a repackaging of bus service with minimalist capital improvements and lots of fanfare. But it’s unlikely BRT will provide the breakthrough Austin so desperately needs.

On average, compared to BRT, new light rail systems are carrying over three times the ridership at 10% lower operating cost. They’ve shown they can spark adjacent economic development and help shape urban density and growth patterns. BRT has shown almost no such benefits. And light rail comes without the toxic pollution and other problems of rubber tires.

Let’s leave the paralysis behind, and put a light rail starter line on a fast track for a vote in 2020.


An even more affordable light rail starter line project has been proposed by Central Austin Community Development Corporation as a 5.3-mile Minimum Operable System extending from the Crestview MetroRail station (at N. Lamar/Airport) to Republic Square. For a surface alignment with no major civil works, estimated cost in 2016 was less than $400 million. Graphic: CACDC.

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Let’s Put Austin’s Urban Rail Planning Back on Track

29 November 2018

Light rail starter line using N. Lamar-Guadalupe corridor from Tech Ridge to downtown was key element of Project Connect comprehensive regional plan presented in February 2018. Despite a three-year data-driven process with community participation, it was subsquently overruled and aborted by Capital Metro officials – setting back planning process another two years.

This post publishes the text of a handout distributed to a “Community Conversation” meeting sponsored by Project Connect in Council District 5 on 17 November 2018.

No more backsliding – Finalize a plan!

Last February (2018), Capital Metro’s Project Connect planning program, with public input, was finally nearing the end of a two-year process to devise a regional public transport proposal with urban rail and other “high-capacity” transit. On the table was a widely acclaimed, tentative plan for a viable, attractive public transport system, centered on a north-south light rail line from Tech Ridge to Slaughter Lane to link the city’s heaviest local travel corridors and provide a spine for ultimate rail extensions to other sections of the city. It was conceivable that details could be finalized to place a starter line on the November ballot for bond funding.

But that wouldn’t happen. Just over a month later, CapMetro’s new incoming CEO, with the blessing of the board, discarded the plan and reset the whole process back to zero – thus adding another two years to the seemingly endless effort to forge a transit remedy to Austin’s worsening mobility crisis.

While this destructive action was unprecedented and outrageous, for Austin it nevertheless fit a pattern of transit system plans aborted, botched, or abandoned by top leaders of CapMetro and the city’s political power elite, persisting over the past three decades. That’s a graveyard of at least six – count ‘em, 6 – urban rail planning efforts, totaling tens of millions of dollars, that have died because of official disinterest or misleadership, prolonging Austin’s mobility crisis pain and misery by 30 years. This delay needs to end – Austin needs to finalize and implement an urban rail system ASAP!

Real-world light rail, not science fiction dreams

In official studies from 1989 to 2018, light rail transit (LRT) has repeatedly been validated as Austin’s best choice for an attractive, cost-effective high-capacity transit system and the centerpiece of a regional system.

In recent decades, at least 19 North American cities have opened brand-new, affordable light rail systems that have typically excelled in attracting passengers, provided essential capacity and cost-effectiveness, and stimulated economic development that has more than repaid the public investment. Yet Austin’s official planning has recently been re-focused on visions of a totally untested, speculative technology (a “Smart Mobility roadmap” and ”Autonomous Rapid Transit”) – i.e., substituting science fiction for realistic, workable planning.

This seems basically a cover for dumping bona fide rapid transit and embracing a rebranded buses-only operation – bus rapid transit (BRT) – contradicting not only the recently aborted Project Connect process, but at least three official comparative studies over the past 28 years that have selected LRT as superior to BRT, particularly in key features such as capacity, ridership, cost, and economic development impacts. Disappeared from planning now are critical goals such as creating livable, transit-friendly, pedestrian-friendly streets and neighborhoods, and shaping public transit to guide growth and create economic investment.

Plans for urban rail should be fast-tracked

Austinites have long been suffering the pain of this region’s prolonged and worsening mobility crisis. We need real-world, proven, effective solutions nownot speculative visions of the possibilities of high-tech toys and autonomous vehicles. For sure, while prudently assessing new technology, we must not let our city be turned into a “Smart Mobility” Petri dish in lieu of installing a well-proven mass transit system such as LRT.

Austin’s mobility planning needs to be re-focused on developing an extensive, attractive, affordable, accessible, cost-effective public transport system with urban rail that can enhance livability, reduce total mobility cost, help guide growth, and encourage economic development that can recoup the public investment. To make up for time lost through delays and top-level debacles, rail planning should be fast-tracked, particularly by reinstating the results and community-participated planning decisions already achieved.

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Capital Metro strikes three blows against Lamar-Guadalupe light rail

31 May 2018

Graphic: Grace in the city

In a post this past February 28th, we reported on a surprising development coming from Capital Metro’s Project Connect planning process – the “conceptual” proposal of a 21-mile predominantly linear north-south light rail transit (LRT) corridor, running from Tech Ridge in North Austin, through the central heart of the city, to Slaughter Lane, near the Southpark Meadows area, in South Austin. The proposal particularly extolled the merits of a 12-mile-long segment, through the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, from Tech Ridge to downtown.

After over four decades of indecision, missteps, and delay, it seemed like the transit agency (and city leadership) might, amazingly, have turned a corner. Could this actually mean that, at long last, Capital Metro and Austin’s top leadership were prepared to move ahead with a plausible, workable light rail plan – implementing a long-awaited leap forward in urban mobility – for the city’s most important central corridor?

Unfortunately, no. Slightly over a month later, Capital Metro reversed itself, withdrew the LRT proposal, and reverted to the familiar decades-long pattern of indecision, confusion, dithering, and delay that has gripped Austin like a curse.

Instead of an actual, specific project for a new light rail system, with a starter line from Tech Ridge to Republic Square downtown, the proposal had dissolved into the clouds, becoming just another line on a map of “perhaps something, some day”. To explain the retreat, planning was now described as “mode agnostic” – in other words, reverting back to a kind of official daydreaming, without any modes (the things that people would actually ride) identified to define a real-world project.

Almost exactly a month later, Capital Metro’s board made another fateful decision. Whereas mode-specific recommendations from the Project Connect study were scheduled for June, the board delayed that back to late in the fall (or perhaps winter) – far too late to put any kind of actual, mode-specific project (such as the previous LRT proposal) on the November ballot for possible voter approval of bond funding. (At best, this would now delay voter approval of any hypothetical project until the 2020 election cycle.)

A third blow against LRT in the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor was struck on May 8th, when the Capital Area Mobility Planning Organization (CAMPO) approved a Capital Metro-sponsored plan (originally submitted Jan. 19th) to overhaul the N. Lamar Blvd.-Airport Blvd.-MetroRail intersection (adjacent to the Crestview MetroRail station) with a design – exclusively focused on accommodating and facilitating motor vehicle traffic, rather than public transport – that would impose enormous obstacles to LRT on North Lamar. Currently, community activists and urban rail advocates are endeavoring to prompt a redesign of this project.

For decade after decade, the Austin community has agonized, writhed, and wailed over its steadily mounting mobility crisis. Hundreds of miles of lanes and roads have been built and rebuilt, and even more vigorous roadbuilding is currently underway. Yet the mobility crisis continues to worsen – for many motorists, driving around the urban area increasingly feels like trying to swim through solidifying mud. Or, alternatively, slogging through a battlefield ….

Repeatedly, the need for light rail has been affirmed. (See «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps».) As we pointed out in a March 2015 post, “For two and a half decades, local officials and planners have explained why urban rail — affordable light rail transit (LRT), in Austin’s case — has been an absolutely essential component of the metro area’s mobility future.” («Austin’s urban transport planning seems struck by catastrophic case of amnesia and confusion».)

Capital Metro designated LRT in the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor as the region’s Locally Preferred Alternative in 1989. In 2000, Capital Metro hastily placed LRT on the ballot – but, in a poorly organized election campaign, it was defeated in the overall service area by a tiny margin (although it was approved by Austin voters). In 2014, another LRT plan was presented to Austin voters under the slogan “Rail or Fail” – but, proposed for the ridiculously weak Highland-Riverside corridor, the plan was resoundingly rejected. (See «Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead».)

Time and time again, Austin has demonstrated that it’s the national poster child for chronically muddled urban mobility planning. In a January 2015 post, we warned that “Austin – supposedly the most ‘progressive’ city in the ‘reddest’ rightwing state of Texas – has a distinctive (read: notorious) reputation for dithering, dallying, and derailing in its public transport planning ….” («Strong community support for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail continues — but officials seem oblivious».) As our previously-cited March 2015 post went on to observe: “The devastating befuddlement of Austin’s official-level urban transportation planning … has been nothing short of jaw-dropping.”

Will Austin, and Capital Metro, ever manage to break out of this pattern of failure? Does hope still spring eternal?

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North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress light rail plan seems back on the table

28 February 2018

Project Connect’s latest draft system plan envisions multiple bus and rail routes, including the long, linear north-south light rail line (shown in purple north of the river and lavender to the south) stretching from Tech Ridge to Slaughter. Map: Project Connect.

The stream of Twitter posts on Feb. 12th from Steven Knapp, attending a meeting of the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee (MCAC), came like a bombshell – forwarding snapshots of an apparent conceptual proposal, by Capital Metro’s Project Connect planning body, for a light rail line not merely in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, but stretching all the way from Tech Ridge in North Austin, southward down North Lamar, and Guadalupe, through the Core Area, and on down South Congress to the Southpark Meadows area in far South Austin.

The route, originally proposed by local transportation activist Dave Dobbs in 2014, incorporates sections initially proposed by transportation planner and local activist Lyndon Henry in 1989, plus the portion of Capital Metro’s 2000 plan taking light rail transit (LRT) from the Crestview area (N. Lamar/Airport Blvd.) as far south as the Ben White freeway. Dave’s extensions north to Tech Ridge and south to Southpark Meadows have created a highly plausible north-south linear alignment, offering a central alternative to both I-35 and the MoPac (Loop 1) freeway, that has caught the public’s imagination and attention.


Initial phase of LRT project would run from Tech Ridge to downtown at Republic Square, mainly following the North Lamar-Guadalupe travel/development corridor. Map: Project Connect.


While Capital Metro insists that the idea at this stage is just “a draft for internal review”, LRT in the city’s most important central corridor – North Lamar-Guadalupe – plus South Austin’s most venerable central corridor – South Congress Avenue – does seem to be garnering particularly serious interest. According to Project Connect’s Feb. 12th MCAC presentation,

The North Lamar/Guadalupe Corridor has been one of the most critical transportation arteries in Austin for over a century. Phase 2 of Project Connect considered the 12 miles of the corridor stretching from Tech Ridge in North Austin to Republic Square in Downtown. The corridor connects many of Austin’s most important destinations, including Downtown, the State Capitol, University of Texas, and several major state agency offices between 38th and Crestview.

A graphic emphasizes this corridor’s potential even more:


Table shows demographic and other data bolstering potential of LRT in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: Project Connect.


It should be noted that these improved prospects for Guadalupe-Lamar LRT come into ascendancy just as the alternative scheme for an I-35 “Super BRT” – buses running in future toll lanes in the Interstate highway – have been placed “on hold”. (See «Why TxDOT-Capital Metro “BRT” plan for I-35 is a massive boondoggle».) Reportedly, toll-based highways are being rejected by top Texas officials, particularly in light of prohibitions by Texas voters against using relatively new road revenue streams to finance them.

Yet even if LRT is suddenly, truly on the official table, moving forward with an an actual project is not without challenges. First, Project Connect’s planning methodology is still encumbered with unfortunate flaws, a few of them somewhat similar to several within the 2013 planning process. These include dubious and implausibly rigid “corridor” criteria, as well as questionable evaluation criteria. (See «The fraudulent “study” behind the misguided Highland-Riverside urban rail plan».)

But by far the biggest challenge will be how to pay for such an ambitious plan, especially in view of the Trump administration’s evidently skeptical and parsimonious attitude toward public transport funding. But there’s a saying worth keeping in mind: “Who wills the end, wills the means.” Austin could, like Houston, rely on local bonds to fund its own LRT starter line project – if it’s designed (and kept) sufficiently modest and affordable. And some level of federal funding is not necessarily totally out of the question.

In any case, Project Connect appears at least to have taken an official step toward putting LRT back on a sound path for planning and, hopefully, implementation. And that may signal real progress. ■

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Plans for Smart City could be dumb choice for Austin

31 January 2018

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

Commentary by Roger Baker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/9/the-real-reason-your-city-has-no-money

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/6/14/greatest-hits-the-growth-ponzi-scheme

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

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How Capital Metro’s planning keeps falling short

31 December 2017

Capital Metro’s proposed Connections 2025 map. Graphic: CMTA.

Commentary by Roger Baker

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

Capital Metro says it has a major renovation in its bus network underway. Perhaps, but in my opinion, Cap Metro is trying to do too much on too little money. In addition, the agency is politically manipulated, held on a tight city leash by long tradition, with top-down political forces in charge.

Being a big institutional cookie jar has become a practical barrier to developing really smart, compassionate policy, one that riders can depend on from year to year. For example, good Cap Metro planners should understand and hedge against the fact that Cap Metro sales tax revenues can fall as well as rise, depending on the quirky volatility of Austin’s tech-based economy.

This latest transit policy is the result of being forced to choose between two groups and types of service: trying to accommodate the scattered captive riders on the cheaper living-cost fringes, versus the more time-sensitive discretionary riders near the core.

One of the kinder, more compassionate resolutions of this dilemma would be a compromise. The most needy or most bus dependent nearby areas would have bus service that at least wouldn’t get any worse for the next five years, come hell or high water. That way it would be possible for these folks to often hold service jobs in Austin, and the transit service could motivate people who struggle to meet tight family budgets to migrate to these same transit-friendlier areas. At the same time, in the spirit of compromise, Cap Metro could offer a few less 15-minute bus routes serving the core area, but this promise of improved, higher-frequency core service would be equally firm.

But here’s another problem with that. Cap Metro suffers from an acute lack of transit planning that can stay on track for a time that exceeds the current management’s longevity and influence.

Overall, the core problem facing Austin transportation is getting from cheap suburban living to living-wage jobs via existing highways like I-35. Roads like this will never be able to affordably handle this level of peak mobility demand. We should learn to regard congestion as self-limiting in nature.

Insofar as this daily peak traffic is partly related to core retail commerce, will these jobs still be there in predicted numbers, after another five years of Amazon killing local retail? How did the planners at Cap Metro get in such trouble with their sales tax projections? Has that budgetary over-optimism been fixed?

In my opinion, focusing on short-term planning and compassionate meeting of current transit needs in the next few years should get top priority. Included in this category is a $400 million light rail starter line segment down the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, which is clearly needed today to unclog that corridor.