Posts Tagged ‘austin transportation planning’

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Gentrification syndrome hurts transit

27 November 2017

Passenger using bicycle rack on front of Capital Metro bus, c. 2015. Photo: 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.

Fast growth over decades, together with a lack of Texas land use planning, leads to intractable peak-hour congestion, as we can readily see in Austin. Service workers try to commute from the cheaper-living suburbs to get to good core city jobs. If good transit were there, many would use it. How could things be otherwise, given a big difference in living costs inside and outside the core city, mediated by crowded highways?

Austin, as the most expensive major city in Texas nowadays, is a good example of the urban gentrification syndrome described in a recent Streetsblog story. As the author Angie Schmitt points out,

Bus ridership is declining in almost every U.S. city. Some reasons are fairly obvious: Lower gas prices combined with higher transit fares and service cuts make transit less appealing.

However, says Schmitt, other factors may also be involved – “rising housing costs, with higher-income residents displacing lower-income residents in neighborhoods that traditionally have had robust transit ridership” – and the article cites an analysis of Portland’s problems published in TransitCenter by two planners, Tom Mills and Madeline Steele, at Tri-Met (Portland’s transit agency). As the StreetsBlog article summarizes,

In surveys, many people told Tri-Met that they ride transit less because of a change of home or work address. This led Mills and Steele to take a closer look at the interplay of ridership changes and the housing market.

According to these analysts’ TransitCenter report,

We found substantial overlap between areas where real market home value increased and transit ridership decreased the most. These areas are concentrated in the same traditionally low-income, inner eastside neighborhoods that have experienced significant economic displacement. Correspondingly, transit ridership grew in areas that saw minimal increases in real market home values. These areas tended to be in the first ring suburbs where many low to moderate-income earners relocated after leaving the inner city.

These economic and demographic dynamics put our most loyal transit riders farther away from our best transit service, and strengthen the market for travel modes that are favored by high-income earning residents who may only use transit to commute.

In her conclusion, Schmitt emphasizes that “For transit agencies, any effective response requires coordination with the cities they serve.”

If transit-friendly Portland is losing bus ridership due to gentrification, what chance does Austin have here, where Capital Metro is treated like a reserve cash cookie jar? Austin takes a big part of Cap Metro’s tax money. For example, see page 33 of this link for the agency’s 2015 budget, describing “City of Austin mobility programs” which transferred $26 million out of Cap Metro’s funds to the City of Austin:

https://www.capmetro.org/uploadedFiles/Capmetroorg/About_Us/Finance_and_Audit/Approved%20FY%202016%20Budget.pdf

Recently TxDOT tried to charge Cap Metro a lot (about $18 million) to make I-35 a supposedly “BRT”-friendly highway, presuming it could be used that way a decade from now, if and when it gets widened. Since nobody can accurately predict population growth, or travel demand, or transit demand, even two years from now, let alone in 2045 as CAMPO is presuming to do, shouldn’t we focus on things that we can measure and see? Like vital transit needs right now. Like current bus problems, including the need to maintain useful service in the fringes, a lifeline as vital as Social Security (and other public assistance) for many old and low-income folks.

If we had a genuinely compassionate and liberal Austin City Council, I think they would say this: You know it is unfair to the voters who approved the full cent for Cap Metro transit in the first place for the City to then divert that money, for decades, and for their own projects. As if bus riders have a permanent obligation to make their personal sacrifice to fund weird city transportation projects. Like the focus on driverless cars which we already know will not improve congestion. Let’s urge the city to give back five or ten million a year of this big unfair mordida to improve fringe city lifeline bus service. It is the right thing to do in these hard times.

The core problem facing Austin transportation is getting people from cheap suburban living to livable-wage jobs using existing highways like I-35 – roads that will never be able to affordably handle this level 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 segment down the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, which is clearly needed today to unclog that corridor. The fact that the City needs a fancy study like Project Connect to arrive at that conclusion is to me a major symptom of our core planning problem. If we could find some way to infuse Austin’s city leadership with more pro-transit leaders (such as those in cities like San Antonio and Nashville), maybe that would help significantly with this problem.

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Why “Super BRT” in I-35 would betray Capital Metro’s member cities

31 October 2017

Project Connect rendition illustrates how “SuperBRT” might use high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes alongside a highway such as I-35. But where are the stations? Graphic: CMTA online.

Commentary by Dave Dobbs

Dave Dobbs is publisher of LightRailNow.com. This commentary has been adapted and expanded from original private Email comments.

This website’s recent articles «Officials boost roads and “Super BRT”, put urban rail on side track» (Aug. 31) and «Why TxDOT-Capital Metro ‘BRT’ plan for I-35 is a massive boondoggle» (Oct. 1) explained how (under pressure from TxDOT) Capital Metro has been proposing to designate I-35 as Austin’s primary transit corridor, and to install a 21-mile express bus facility (“Super BRT”) in what is to be an overhauled freeway-tollway. “Politically aware” members of Capital Metro’s board ought to understand that providing scarce Capital Metro dollars for this “Super BRT” project – designed mainly to serve non-member cities like Round Rock (voted not to join the transit agency in 1985) and Pflugerville (withdrew in 2000) – is a betrayal of the original sales-tax-paying members of Leander, Jonestown, Lago Vista, Point Venture, Anderson Mill, Volente, San Leanna and Manor, all of which (except Manor and San Leanna) are located northwest, on the US 183 corridor.

Most importantly, with over 95% of Capital Metro’s local tax revenues coming from Austin sale taxes, I-35 Super BRT is a very poor use of limited resources from the benefit principle perspective. This is bad public policy and bad public finance with a negative ROI.

Capital Metro board members, other local officials, Austin’s civic leadership, and the metro area public at large need to consider: What does expending scarce transit agency funds on “Super BRT” to run in I-35 – i.e., funding a transit facility that primarily benefits non-member citizens – say to Capital Metro’s taxpayers?

In contrast, a Guadalupe-Lamar corridor light rail connection to MetroRail at Crestview would be highly advantageous to those who pay the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CMTA) 1¢ sales tax. In lieu of this, where’s the benefit to the citizens of Austin and six of the eight member cities who’ve the sales taxes for CMTA transit service from the start?

This is a serious public finance question. Jonestown, Lago Vista, Leander, Point Venture, Volente, Anderson Mill and vast areas in Austin’s northwest ETJ are entitled to any major transit fixed quideway investment on a first-priority basis over entities who never were or aren’t now Capital Metro members. Spending Capital Metro money on an IH35 “busway” is a complete rejection of the Benefit Principle.

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Officials boost roads and “Super BRT”, put urban rail on side track

31 August 2017

Cross-section of one version of TxDOT’s plan for massive rebuild and expansion of I-35. Center tolled “express” lanes (at bottom center of diagram) are proposed for use by “Super BRT” project to be funded and operated by Capital Metro. Graphic: Mobility35. (Click to enlarge.)

Commentary by David Orr

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

Last month, on July 26th, Capital Metro’s Project Connect, together with several other regional agencies, sponsored another of their “Traffic Jam” community meetings to discuss possible options in the planning process. This mainly consisted of a panel of professionals and officials, some local, and some from elsewhere in the country, sitting on a stage in a chapel at Huston-Tillotson University explaining different transit issues to the audience.

I attended this event, but was extremely disappointed in what I saw for a number of reasons. For one, the talking heads were allowed to go over their allotted time (typical for politicians and agency officials), leaving only a half-hour of the two and a half hours of the originally scheduled event time for audience participation. This common practice is designed to minimize public input and maximize officials’ output (i.e., a PR effort).


Project Connect-sponsored “Traffic Jam” meeting on July 26th at Huston-Tillotson University. Opportunity for audience participation was truncated. Photo: L. Henry.


More importantly to our concerns, as was the case with the April “Traffic Jam”, the politicians never got specific about mass transit and talked instead mostly about how expensive transit is and how little money they have. At the same time they have been touting how much good they’re doing building new road capacity with the 2016 bond issue.

Capital Metro’s blog post on the recent “Traffic Jam” added little of substance, but in truth there was little offered by the consultants and local officials, so not much to report on. This event could have been much more effective had there been discussion of Austin’s specific needs, rather than dwelling on reports of what worked in other cities. There was no mention from the stage of what kind of new transit should be built here – and where. That was a glaring omission in the program agenda. It seemed a clear message that they’re seeking public (written) comment of the kind where officials will not be required to respond with any specificity, much less take a stand for or against. I hope I’m wrong, but to date the only messages we’ve received indicating openness to specific forms of new transit initiatives relate to what they’re calling “Super BRT” as if it were a done deal.

The “Super BRT” idea has been brought to public attention only within the last couple of months, bypassing Project Connect’s ongoing “high-capacity transit” study. A June 27th article by Caleb Pritchard in the Austin Monitor cited information from Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, Todd Hemingson:

… Hemingson told reporters that the agency has been talking with TxDOT for five years about the I-35 bus rapid transit plan. The department is planning a $4 billion overhaul of the highway and appears to be open to the agency’s insistence that the project include some dedicated allowance for transit. The formative vision for the bus rapid transit system includes a handful of stations built on bus-only lanes in the median of the interstate. Those stations, Hemingson said, would be paired with frequent-service bus routes on intersecting east-west corridors.

This “Super BRT” is really a “pseudo BRT” plan, since the buses would run with mixed traffic in HOV toll lanes (“HOT lanes”). Basically, it seems like just another express bus system with some added improvements.

At the July 26th “Traffic Jam” I was particularly disturbed by a glossy brochure being distributed from Capital Metro titled Connections 2025, which laid out in very concrete terms the agency’s “vision” for the next five years. Nowhere in this document was any rail expansion even mentioned as a possibility. In contrast, the I-35 “Super BRT” plan was mentioned twice, in both places identifying it as if it’s already approved as a project in line for implementation.


Capital Metro’s Connections 2025 brochure includes “Super BRT” as an assumed project. Graphic: CMTA. (Click to enlarge.)


There was no discussion at all of this “Super BRT” project on I-35 during any of the many presentations and speeches during the program, and the very abbreviated public Q&A at the meeting did not permit me to ask for clarification. The only mention in this document of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor was the continued development and expansion of MetroRapid 801 as well as 803 and additional routes. If they intend to continue to dump cash on the “rapid bus” projects in this corridor, that would effectively preclude serious discussion of a light rail transit (LRT) project in that corridor within the next decade at least.

In the Connections 2025 brochure, the “Super BRT” project was listed on the agency timeline for completion by 2023. Needless to say, it looks like the fix is in, at least as far as Capital Metro is concerned. However, I did ask a Project Connect staffer whether this was now a foregone conclusion, and he insisted it’s not. He also said that LRT is still on the table, but admitted that no one at the agency is really discussing it. That was an eye-opener.

Clearly this is a major challenge to those of us – transit advocates and a large contingent of neighborhoods and other community members – who have been backing LRT in Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L). Perhaps It’s time to request Capital Metro’s board for clarification on their plans for “Super BRT” and how their public input supports this major investment. Especially in view of the fact that this carries a huge opportunity cost for alternatives that might include LRT anywhere else in the city, much less on the G-L route. It’s clear that Capital Metro has been intentionally avoiding responding to the continuing public input they’re receiving in support of LRT and the lack of public support for this “Super BRT” notion.

It may also be necessary at some point to bypass Capital Metro and take this directly to the City Council. Council can make this happen even if they have to drag the transit agency off the “Super BRT” express bus.

However, there are other factors in play that may take the air out of the tires of this scheme. A July 24th article by Ben Wear in the American-Statesman quotes a TxDOT spokesperson regarding the request for money from Capital Metro for in-line stations on I-35. The TxDOT representative insists that “as far as financing goes, none of our funding sources will cover transit.”

Based on my reading of this news report, it seems TxDOT has given Capital Metro a clear signal that “Super BRT” will only happen if the transit agency pays for it. In the current situation, that’s actually very good news from the standpoint of proper planning and what kind of major transit improvement Austin truly needs – LRT.

If Capital Metro can’t raise the funds on its own to build this “Super BRT” – or even some scaled-back version of it – that will likely be the end of that bad dream. Presumably its proponents would have to get some bond money to fund it, but if that had to go before the voters it could turn out like the Prop 1 debacle which failed because the public support just wasn’t there. Capital Metro’s credibility would be pretty much destroyed. So maybe there is hope for a G-L LRT after all. From a politics standpoint, it’s usually easier to kill something controversial than it is to approve it.

A small but vocal opposition armed with facts could probably sink “Super BRT” if it came to a bond election. I suspect that politically aware members of Capital Metro’s board would be sensitive to sustained expressions of support for G-L LRT, and if there’s no evident support for Super BRT they may respond accordingly, if reluctantly.

We have every reason to doubt that Capital Metro will even be able to come close to providing the money demanded by TxDOT to build the “Super BRT” line, at least to whatever standards Capital Metro may determine will have a ghost of a chance in reaching reasonable ridership numbers. This would be a situation where the lack of agency funding could actually work to the benefit of truly effective transit – i.e., an urban rail alternative.

In any case, approval of G-L LRT will itself require a public vote. Nevertheless, supporters of this long-overdue project have good reason to believe it will pass if we can bring strong public support to the cause. We’ll have to win an election, and we need to start strategizing now.

My hunch is that funding “Super BRT” will kill off LRT for the next decade. Conversely LRT could do in this pseudo-BRT project. It’s a zero-sum game. So long as BRT is getting all the official attention our side is side-lined in the public’s eyes.

It’s been pointed out here that the likelihood of funding I-35 “Super BRT” through a public bond vote would be much less likely than is the case with LRT, which would run where people actually live and work. One of our most potent arguments is that high ridership depends on convenience and flexibility in options for future build-out/expansion. Yet “Super BRT” on I-35 is just a one-trick route, with few options for east-west routes. In contrast, LRT of course has many possibilities for eventual expansion.


Rendition of LRT on Drag from 2000. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.

Rendition of LRT passing UT campus on Guadalupe St. An initial starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would provide basic urban rail backbone for expansion into a citywide system. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.


This is the sort of discussion that Capital Metro should be facilitating as part of the Project Connect planning process. One bright spot I have seen recently in the process is the agency’s stated intention to respond on their website to written comments. This is an opportunity to find out how responsive the agency is to public interest and demands for specific proposals. At least Capital Metro has not so far ruled out anything.

Thus it is up to pro-rail transit advocates to submit written comments. It’s critical that the written public record reflect the breadth and depth of support for options on the table for consideration. Strong and persistent demonstrations of support for a G-L LRT starter line project may persuade Capital Metro to rethink some of their assumptions and give supporters of this plan a fair hearing, and a detailed response.

This would also be helpful in familiarizing more Austinites with the G-L LRT plan and the case that can be made on its behalf. Advocates of LRT – including the starter line LRT project in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor – have sufficient expertise and numbers behind this proposal to present a credible and persuasive concept that will be difficult to dismiss.

So long as positive expressions of support are received the transit agency must recognize the breadth and depth of support for urban rail. Hopefully some official heads can be persuaded.

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Reorganized Project Connect 2.0 opens up, reaches out

30 April 2017

Guadalupe-Lamar corridor places at top of Project Connect’s table of corridor rankings shown in slide at April 26th MCAC meeting. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)

Has Austin’s public transportation planning and decisionmaking establishment turned a new leaf?

That’s yet to be fully determined. But … if Project Connect – the Capital Metro-sponsored major planning effort in charge of evaluating possible rail and other forms of “high-capacity transit” – offers any indication … there may be signs of a changed focus.

The original Project Connect earned intense distrust from Austin’s most ardent transit advocates because of its role leading the 2013-2014 High-Capacity Transit study that produced the disastrously flawed $600 million Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal (defeated by voters in November 2014). In contrast, the current planning agency (“Project Connect 2.0”) appears to have actually undergone a makeover in some important respects.

Personnel — A totally new planning team, with completely different personnel from the original Project Connect.

Consultants — A new consultant team led by AECOM.

Methodology — A focus on actual travel corridors rather than the original Project Connect study’s method of slicing up central Austin into districts and sectors and mislabeling them “corridors” and “subcorridors” … plus analytics that seem more accurate in evaluating and prioritizing corridors for a comprehensive plan.

Public involvement — What seems to be a much more sincere effort than in the past to solicit and engage actual involvement by key members of the community in the nuts and bolts of the planning process.

Included in this outreach have been strong advocates of urban rail for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Invited to an April 17th consultory meeting, representatives of the Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT, sponsor of the Light Rail Now Project and this website) and the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC) were presented an overview of Project Connect’s planning process and its current status, which appeared to represent a new direction in goals and methodology and a somewhat new approach to public involvement.

Currently Project Connect is completing what it designates as Phase 1 of its overall analysis – concentrating mainly on evaluating and selecting corridors as candidates for possible “high-capacity transit”. Phase 2, according to the agency, about to begin, will focus on selecting modes (i.e., types of “vehicle” systems), identifying funding mechanisms, determining “the best set of solutions”, and recommending Locally Preferred Alternatives (LPAs).

At the April 17th meeting, the attendees were told that the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor was ranking quite high in the evaluation. They were encouraged to attend a public meeting of the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee (MCAC), set for April 26th, where the major results of Phase 1 would be presented.

And indeed, at the April 26th MCAC meeting, Project Connect team members, via a slide presentation led by the project’s Director of Long Range Planning Javier Argüello, revealed the study’s conclusion: Guadalupe-Lamar had emerged as the study’s top-ranked corridor. (At top of this post, see closeup of slide of ranking table.)


Project Connect’s table of corridor rankings shown in slide at April 26th MCAC meeting. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)


From here, according to the study timetable, the focus will narrow on possible modes (rail modes, buses, others) and comparative costs. Obviously, there’s no guarantee that light rail transit (LRT) on Guadalupe-Lamar – the center of substantial community interest for decades – will make the final cut.

Unfortunately, it’s possible that an evaluation could be impaired or skewed by false assumptions. For example: Buses in dedicated lanes may rate as a “high-capacity” mode, but they have not shown that they can attract passengers to utilize that capacity at a rate or level comparable to LRT. Also, LRT has shown a much higher propensity to attract adjacent development – particularly transit-oriented development, or TOD – than “high-capacity” bus services such as MetroRapid. And there are other significant performance and operational issues to consider.*

*See:
New light rail projects in study beat BRT
LRT or BRT? It depends on the potential of the corridor

Nevertheless, despite an array of critical differences, study methodologies and planning models frequently treat rail and bus modes as if they’re totally interchangeable in key features such as attracting ridership, accommodating future ridership growth, and stimulating economic development.

So will an adequate, fair, accurate comparison be conducted? Are local public transport planners actually starting to move in a new direction? The jury’s still out. But Austin’s staunchest transit advocates are watching … and hoping.

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

26 March 2017

Graphic: Neonlink.com

By David Orr

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traffic Jam, indeed.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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As Austin wobbles into 2017, peer cities breeze past with urban rail

31 December 2016
New-Start light rail transit (LRT) systems have proliferated in cities across USA while Austin urban rail planning has languished. LEFT: Norfolk's new LRT line opened in 2011. (Photo: D. Allen Covey.) RIGHT: Tucson's new SunLink streetcar opened in 2014. (Photo: Tyler Baker.)

New-Start light rail transit (LRT) systems have proliferated in cities across USA while Austin urban rail planning has languished. LEFT: Norfolk’s new LRT line opened in 2011. (Photo: D. Allen Covey.) RIGHT: Tucson’s new SunLink streetcar opened in 2014. (Photo: Tyler Baker.)

Heading into 2017, in the face of a relentless and steadily worsening mobility crisis, the Austin metro area seems guaranteed to retain its notorious status as the national (and perhaps global?) Poster Child for indecision, confusion, and phenomenally incompetent transportation planning. Not only has this crisis been getting more severe … but even worse, policy decisions by local officials and planners have been reinforcing and expanding the underlying problems of suburban sprawl, a weak public transport system, and near-total dependency on personal motor vehicle transport. These have constituted the primary generators of congestion and the incessant tsunami of motor vehicle traffic engulfing the metro area … increasingly exposing the Austin-area public to hardship and danger.

Despite years of “politically correct” affirmations of the need for public transport (including urban rail) and more livable development patterns, local public policy has consistently maintained a central focus on expansion of the roadway system and encouragement of outwardly widening sprawl. This transportation and urban development policy has been and continues to be the region’s de facto dominant, obsessive aim.

The main mechanism for formulating and implementing this objective has been CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization), the metro region’s federally certified mandatory transportation planning agency, with representatives from Austin, Travis County, and five other surrounding counties. In concert with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), policy has been dominated by suburban and rural officials, assisted by the acquiescence of “progressive” political leaders representing Austin and Travis County.

In 2015, articles posted on Austin Rail Now by Roger Baker and David Orr described how CAMPO’s planning process not only implemented a determined focus on expanding roadways and suburban sprawl, but also removed light rail transit (LRT) from consideration. (Most recently, CAMPO also discarded the Lone Star regional rail plan that would have connected Georgetown, Round Rock, Austin, San Marcos, New Braunfels, and other towns and small cities with San Antonio.)

• «Baker: CAMPO’s 2040 plan = “prescription for intense and auto-addictive suburban sprawl development far into future”»

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

For Austin-area public transport, the result has been a malicious triple whammy: (1) A pervasive, growing network of widely available, easily accessed roadways continues to attract travel away from relatively slower, weaker public transit. (2) Sprawling roadways encourage and facilitate sprawling land-use patterns that virtually require personal motor vehicle ownership for access to jobs and essential services such as grocery shopping. (3) The enormous expense of constructing, maintaining, and expanding roadways (and associated infrastructure such as traffic signals, street lights, drainage facilities, and utilities to serve ever-spreading sprawl development) absorbs available public funds and restricts and diverts funding from public transport.

These impacts were described in our article «Austin — National model for how roads are strangling transit development» posted this past October, which also highlighted the role of the “progressive” city administration’s huge “Go Big” $720 million “mobility” bond package as an accelerant to the region’s ongoing road expansion agenda.


I-35 traffic congestion — bad and predicted to get much worse. Source: Culturemap.com.

Relentless, obsessive focus on highway expansion by CAMPO and TxDOT contiinues to induce increasing traffic and to worsen congestion. Source: Culturemap.com.


Within this environmental and policy context of continual, ferociously aggressive roadway expansion and sprawl development, how has public transit policy fared? Within roughly the past 15 years, the answer is … miserably. The pursuit of a rational, viable LRT project (i.e., affordable urban rail) in Austin’s busiest, densest central local corridor – an effort that lasted from the last 1980s until the early 2000s – has basically been abandoned in official planning.

While MetroRail (which was initially proposed in the late 1990s to demonstrate the efficacy of rail transit, and serve as a precursor to electric LRT) was endorsed by voters and eventually launched in 2010, Austin’s regional transit agency, Capital Metro, has never attempted to expand its potential. Instead, the agency has locked in MetroRail’s role as a small “commuter” line, and has ditched the original vision of conversion to LRT. The rail operation remains a relatively tiny adjunct to Capital Metro’s system, with (mainly because of low ridership) the highest operating and maintenance costs per passenger-mile of any comparable rail systems in the country.

Despite a significant legacy of planning for LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor (see «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps») and enduring community support for a starter LRT line in the corridor, Austin and Capital Metro officials have persistently either avoided consideration of LRT, or have pursued plans in other, far less viable corridors such as the once-favored route to the Mueller development area. (See «Derailing the Mueller urban rail express — Preamble to Project Connect’s 2013 “High-Capacity Transit Study”».)

By far, of course, the preeminent example of this has been the ridiculous Project Connect-sponsored “High-Capacity Transit” study of 2013 (see «The fraudulent “study” behind the misguided Highland-Riverside urban rail plan») and resultant absurd recommendation of a $1.4 billion Highland-Riverside urban rail “line to nowhere”. Fortunately, Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside critically flawed “urban rail” proposal was resoundingly defeated by voters in November 2014. (See «Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead».)

A concomitant fiasco has been Capital Metro’s effort to portray its MetroRapid limited-stop bus service as “rapid transit”, evidently intended in part to try to deflect community interest in urban rail for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. So how’s that effort worked out?

As the Austin American-Statesman’s transportation reporter Ben Wear pointed out this past July in an article titled «Pondering Cap Metro’s ridership plunge», “It hasn’t gone well.” Wear notes that, despite the introduction of supposed “rapid transit” service, ridership in the corridor has dropped by a third over the past four years.


Capital Metro and Austin officials have touted MetroRapid bus service as "rapid transit". Photo: L. Henry.

Capital Metro and Austin officials have touted MetroRapid bus service as “rapid transit”. Photo: L. Henry.


Likewise, in an Oct, 26th KXAN-TV news story titled «MetroRapid ridership lags along North Lamar and South Congress», reporter Kevin Schwaller noted that current North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress Route 801 MetroRapid boardings, at 13,000 a day, are running about 7,000 short of the 20,000 a day projected when the service was launched in 2014.

Capital Metro, it seems, remains astonishingly clueless. As our article «Capital Metro — Back to 1986?» pointed out last month, Capital Metro’s current planning seems essentially an effort to revive plans for “bus rapid transit” on I-35 rejected back in the late 1980s.

Meanwhile, as Austin (which has been considering LRT since the mid-1970s) has been mired in decades of indecision, confusion, fantasizing, and diddling, other comparable metro areas have been moving forward vigorously in their mobility, particularly by installing and expanding new modern urban light rail transit (LRT) systems (including streetcars, which can readily be upgraded to fullscale LRT). (Dates shown below indicate year new system was opened for public operation.)

Largest Western and Southwestern cities — The largest metro areas in America’s West and Southwest now all have LRT systems in operation. These include: San Diego (1981), Los Angeles (1990), Dallas (1996), Houston (2004), Phoenix (2008), Seattle (2009). It should also be noted that San Francisco has a legacy LRT system, based on its original streetcar system operating since the 19th century, and modernized to LRT beginning in the 1970s.

Peer cities — This category consists of a sampling of systems in metro areas that can be regarded as peer cities to Austin, in terms of size, demographics, and other relevant features). These include: Buffalo (1985), Portland (1986), San Jose (1987), Sacramento (1987), Baltimore (1992), St. Louis (1993), Denver (1994), Salt Lake City (1999), Tacoma (2003), Charlotte (2007), Norfolk (2011), Tucson (2014), Kansas City (2016), Cincinnati (2016). We should note that Oklahoma City also has a modern streetcar project under way.


With its LRT system, opened in 1999, Salt Lake City is one of many peer cities that have sped past Austin in their public transport development. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

With its LRT system, opened in 1999, Salt Lake City is one of many peer cities that have sped past Austin in their public transport development. Photo: Dave Dobbs.


Other new LRT systems — It should also be noted that new modern LRT systems have also been opened in northern New Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen corridor (2000) and Minneapolis (2004).

All in all, particularly in the face of this progress in rail transit development from coast to coast across the country, Austin’s aptitude for dithering and stagnation is breathtaking. ■