Posts Tagged ‘community meeting’

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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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Resume planning light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar!

11 December 2014
Guadalupe St. at W. 24th St., looking south. The Drag, passing one of the densest residential neighborhoods in Texas and busy commercial district, is major segment of high- travel-density Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Photo: Google Maps Streetview.

Guadalupe St. at W. 24th St., looking south. The Drag, passing one of the densest residential neighborhoods in Texas and busy commercial district, is major segment of high-
travel-density Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Photo: Google Maps Streetview.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments, adapted here to webpage format, were distributed to a public event sponsored by the City of Austin’s Guadalupe Transportation Corridor Project on 3 December 2014. Lyndon Henry is a transportation planning consultant, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and a contributing editor to this website.

► Guadalupe-Lamar light rail transit starter line makes most sense

• A light rail transit (LRT) starter line for the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor has been studied for 40 years, with at least $30 million invested. (Source: AustinRailNow.com) This is a plan that makes sense, and it’s time to move forward with it!

• G-L is Austin’s most central north-south corridor, with by far the heaviest travel and congestion. A starter line from the North Lamar Transit Center to downtown, serving this busy corridor, established neighborhoods, the high-density West Campus, the Capitol Complex, and the central business district, with a branch to the Seaholm-Amtrak development area, is estimated to carry 30,000-40,000 rider-trips a day. (Source: AustinRailNow.com)

Proposed 6.8-mile "Plan B" light rail transit line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would have 17 stations and connect  the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S> 183 with Crestview, the Triangle, UT and the West Campus, the Capitol Complex, the CBD, and the Seaholm-Amtrak area. It's projected to serve 3 times the ridership of the Prop. 1 Highland-Riverside rail line at slightly over half the capital cost.

6.8-mile starter line, proposed by Austin Rail Now, could launch electric LRT service in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor for less than $600 million. Proposal includes dedicated lanes for rail, 4 traffic lanes, and sidewalks. Map: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

• A surface starter line like the one shown at left (6.8 miles) could be installed for less than $600 million. With affordable, cost-effective design, this would become the central spine of an eventual citywide system branching north, south, east, and west throughout our region.

• The Guadalupe Transportation Corridor Project should be reconfigured to focus on development of this long-deferred LRT project, along with the $2.5 million of previous funding for the now-defunct Highland-Riverside urban rail plan, now held by Capital Metro. Re-purpose urban rail planning to focus on light rail transit for G-L!

► Form a Community Policy & Technical Oversight Committee

• Planning should involve the Austin community as a whole, and this means forming a broad, inclusive committee to oversee policy and technical decisions. No more secretive project teams meeting in a virtual “bunker”, then emerging to tell us what they’ve decided for us! Authentic public participation means including representatives of neighborhood and other community groups, plus others with applicable expertise within the Austin community at large.

► Dedicate street lanes for light rail transit

Light rail can carry many more peak passengers than private cars, and attract many more riders than buses, MetroRapid included. Austin needs to start re-allocating street space from traffic lanes to transit lanes, and G-L is the ideal corridor to start in! Smart design could install LRT in this corridor while retaining at least 4 lanes of traffic for most of the route. For more information, check out: http://austinrailnow.com

At Dec. 3rd Guadalupe Transportation Corridor Project public event, project manager Alan Hughes (center, in checkered shirt) discusses project issues over table with Drag corridor maps. At far right in photo is Roberto Gonzalez of Capital Metro's Planning Department. Photo: L. Henry.

At Dec. 3rd Guadalupe Transportation Corridor Project public event, project manager Alan Hughes (center, in checkered shirt) discusses project issues over table with Drag corridor maps. At far right in photo is Roberto Gonzalez of Capital Metro’s Planning Department. Photo: L. Henry.

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Austin urban rail: Unfortunate revelations from Project Connect’s April 12th “workshop”

14 April 2014
At April 12th "public workshop", attendees watch presentation from Project Connect Urban rail Lead Kyle Keahey. Photo: L. Henry.

At April 12th “public workshop”, attendees watch presentation from Project Connect Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey. Photo: L. Henry.

By Lyndon Henry

On Saturday, April 12th, Project Connect held an event they described as a “Central Corridor Public Workshop” at a location on East Riverside Drive. The notice for the event stated that Project Connect team members would be available “to provide an overview of the issues under study, gather input on maps and final alternatives and answer questions. Input gathered from the workshop will help develop potential transit projects for further study.”

Prior to the event, I prepared a number of questions I would like to have answered. I also disseminated these among other Austin public transit activists.

My questions are presented below, followed by feedback — some of it troubling — that I was able to receive from Project Connect personnel.

 


 

• Why are the public (who are expected to vote ultimate approval) being allowed only these rare, occasional, highly constrained opportunities to review and select from a narrow assortment of choices determined by the Project Connect team and officials? Why aren’t the public, through an inclusive community-wide technical committee, being given the opportunity to be involved in reviewing the basic data, interacting with the consultants, and formulating the choices themselves?

One Project Connect representative seemed to recognize the value of “an inclusive community-wide technical committee” in broadening the pool of possible alternative solutions to challenging issues. He suggested that names of possible candidates for such a group could be forwarded to him.

• Why is Project Connect still going through the motions of a purported high-capacity transit “study” to determine alignment and mode, and seek CCAG and Council approval for an LPA (Locally Preferred Alternative), when it’s already submitted $1.6 billion of URBAN RAIL projects for inclusion in CAMPO’s 2040 plan — including $275mn already projected for an initial route to Hancock to open in 2020? If URBAN RAIL and its details are already a foregone conclusion, why is taxpayers’ money and the time and effort of CCAG, the City Council, and other bodies being wasted on this?

A Project Connect representative’s explanation (consistent with arguments already reported in a newspaper account) was that the “urban rail” data were submitted as “placeholders” in CAMPO’s preparatory process for its 2040 regional transportation plan. However, since Project Connect has supposedly “zeroed out” its previous urban rail plans for central Austin, and within the current “high-capacity transit” study process no mode or specific alignment has yet been formally determined, why were specific “urban rail” projects inserted as “placeholders”, and not a more generic “high-capacity transit” designation? “That’s a good question” was the response.

The dollar amounts were described as mere “updates” of previous Project Connect cost estimates from approximately 2012. But at that time, no “Hancock-Highland” route was planned, so where did the $91.4 million cost for this segment come from? This was “another good question”.

• Why is $190mn in “BRT” infrastructure being proposed for Guadalupe-Lamar? Won’t this be a barrier to future urban rail?

Including $12.9 million allocated to “BRT” infrastructure on Guadalupe and Lavaca, the total for Guadalupe-Lamar “BRT” amounts to $202.9 million. A Project Connect representative was unable to say what specific infrastructure items this included, nor whether these would present a physical barrier to future urban rail.

• Why is a Guadalupe-Lamar route omitted from the $1.6bn urban rail submission to CAMPO’s 2040 plan?

I didn’t have a chance to raise this question directly, but a Project Connect representative insisted that urban rail as well as “BRT” and possibly other modes would be evaluated for future needs in this corridor.

• Why is this plan proposing a slow, tortuous, meandering route from downtown, the least active part of the UT campus, and Hancock Center, to ultimately reach Highland/ACC? Where’s evidence of the travel demand in this route? Does this route carry as much travel as the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor?

The basic responses from a couple of Project Connect personnel at this event seemed to be that the situation has changed since the original “straight and simple” urban rail route in the Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress corridor was proposed in 2000. Issues of comparative travel demand and ridership weren’t addressed by the personnel. However, several Project Connect representatives seemed to regret that official attitudes no longer favor shifting existing street (and bridge) space from motor vehicle traffic capacity to urban rail.

• What’s the ridership projected for this route? (Wouldn’t that be considered in the decision to submit this to CAMPO?) How can Project Connect claim that this route would have more ridership than the 30,000+ daily ridership previously forecast for the Guadalupe-Lamar route?

A Project Connect representative emphasized that ridership figures for the current proposed line will be forthcoming. But Project Connect representatives seemed to regard previous assessments of the potential of urban rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as a moot issue.

• Why is a new $75mn bridge proposed to cross Lady Bird Lake, when either the Congress or S. First St. bridge could be retrofitted for urban rail at half the cost or less ($23-36mn)?

Project Connect Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey indicated that the option of retrofitting one of the existing bridges was presented to the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) but was rejected by the group. Accordingly, it has not been pursued further, so the only option has been to propose constructing a totally new bridge.

I pointed out that current officials and selected civic leaders in the CCAG and Transit Working Group (TWG) seem to have adopted a position that retrogresses from the general consensus of 2000 that traffic lanes in streets, arterials, and bridges should and would be reallocated from general traffic to rail transit. Thus, Austin’s leaders appear to have taken a big step backward in their mindset.

• Is a grade separation considered necessary for urban rail to cross the MetroRail line? Why? Dispatching is entirely under the control of CapMetro. Light rail already crosses heavy rail lines in Philadelphia and Tampa. (This issue would also be involved in the case of urban rail on N. Lamar and the MetroRail line.)

According to a couple of Project Connect personnel, because Capital Metro is converting MetroRail to full compliance with Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) heavy rail standards, the unfortunate (and disputable) assessment of Project Connect planners is that urban rail can no longer cross this line at grade, unlike general traffic. This has not specifically been discussed with either FRA or the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), but Project Connect doesn’t want to get involved with the FRA over this. This also means that, according to Project Connect, urban rail will not cross the MetroRail line at grade either downtown or on North Lamar.

I pointed out that this now encumbers any urban rail plan with an extra liability of tens of millions of dollars for constructing grade separations at any future crossing, but Project Connect and civic leaders now seem to exhibit an unfortunate willingness to accept this. The “Highland” urban rail route plan now includes options for tunnels with a cost range of $230 to $290 million for urban rail to access the north side of the MetroRail line and reach Airport Blvd. This would seem to push the total cost of just the downtown-Hancock-Highland/ACC segment close to $600 million (roughly $275 million + $90 million + $250 million).

As I pointed out to several Project Connect representatives, this entire “study” process (post-2004 through the creation of the Project Connect consortium) has resulted in morphing from a simple, relatively straight, affordable surface urban rail route through central Austin’s major activity centers and highest residential densities, with no need for any major civil works, into a meandering, convoluted, complicated route serving more marginal activity centers and less density, and requiring vast expense to build bridges and tunnels.

Urban rail (light rail transit) route proposed in 2000 was much straighter, simpler, cost-effective, and affordable, will no major civil works. Project was approved by majority of City of Austin voters, but failed in Capital Metro service area as a whole. Map: Light Rail Now library.

Urban rail (light rail transit) route proposed in 2000 was much straighter, simpler, cost-effective, and affordable, with no major civil works — and it served central Austin’s heaviest travel needs and highest population density. Project was approved by majority of City of Austin voters, but ballot measure very narrowly (<1%) failed in Capital Metro service area as a whole. Map: Light Rail Now library.

This seems to be the result of errors that are built upon previous errors — in a sense, a process whereby Project Connect is simply digging itself (and the Austin community) into a deeper and deeper hole. Perhaps they’ll begin to understand why I and so many other advocates of public transportation expansion in Austin have become so disgusted not only with Project Connect and its process, but also with the proposals that are emerging from it.

Apparently under pressure from City officials and various civic leaders, the Project Connect process unfortunately also seems to have departed from the goal of seeking a cost-effective, affordable urban rail network for metro Austin. In addition to the other revelations, this was indeed very disturbing. Ideally, the entire Project Connect process would be “reset” back to zero, and a totally new process, embracing once again this goal, would be re-launched.

Possibly, a rejection of Project Connect’s plan and quest for bond funding in November by voters would lead to such a “re-boot” of the urban rail planning process. Otherwise, if this approach to rail development goes forward, it would certainly seem that future rail transit infrastructure expansion in Austin would be severely constrained by the legacy of bad past decisions and design criteria that impose very heavy cost encumbrances.

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Project Connect’s “interactive workshop” event was tiny gesture toward democratic engagement

9 February 2014
Structured around issue-oriented tables, Project Connect's Feb. 8th "interactive workshop" finally managed to get dozens of community participants engaged in lively discussion.

Structured around issue-oriented tables, Project Connect’s Feb. 8th “interactive workshop” finally managed to get dozens of community participants engaged in lively discussion.

Project Connect’s Feb. 8th “interactive open house-workshop” event was interesting both in the information to be learned (discussed in another posting) and in the way it was structured — at last, an opportunity in an event, open and publicized to the public, for community participants to actually raise questions and discuss issues in a small-group community environment.

In that sense, it can be regarded as at least a minuscule gesture toward actually democratic community engagement. One can only imagine how the outcome might have been different — in terms of the process of selecting routes — if even this very minimal kind of “interactive workshop” event, rather than the art-gallery-style “open houses” and highly managed shut-up-and-click-on-the-choices-we give-you “clicker workshops”, had been deployed in the “Phase 1” process of this “high-capacity transit study” process.

With at least dozens of people in attendance, the event was structured mainly around small-group tables discussing various issues, such as mode and alignment, for the proposed “high-capacity transit” services along routes selected in “Phase 1”. At these tables, questions could, at last, be asked in a group setting. This facilitated a more earnest discussion of issues, and allowed community members to interact more effectively with one another — learning things, encountering different viewpoints, exchanging new perspectives and information.

This, however, is a very long way from what’s needed for a fully democratic process with effective community oversight (along the lines of the precedence of years ago). Instead of seeking validation and acquiesence from poorly informed and misled participants, an authentic community involvement process would have one or more ongoing, widely accessible oversight committees, meeting with Project Connect staff and receiving reports — somewhat like the so-called CCAG (“Central Corridor Advisory Group”) or TWG (“Transit Working Group”), but with some members well-seasoned in the issues and armed with expertise to enable them to ask the really crucial and trenchant questions, and raise far more critical issues.

General community meetings would dispense with Project Connect’s “lecture-and-clicker” approach, and allow short presentations by staff followed by open public questions and comments at an open mike. These would be supplemented by true workshops and charettes (for which the Feb. 8th event gave a small taste of how this could work).

But don’t hold your breath — Project Connect’s leadership all along has seemed to have a firm idea of what it wants this process to propose, and doesn’t appear to be prepared to allow community input to divert it from its course.

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Here’s what a REAL urban rail public involvement planning meeting looks like

10 January 2014
Minneapolis-area community meeting on proposed Southwest light rail project. Photo: Karen Boros.

Minneapolis-area community meeting on proposed Southwest light rail project. Photo: Karen Boros.

While Project Connect has been doubling down in its determination to squelch true public involvement (and substituting a process of rigidly controlled public manipulation portrayed as “community input”), a recent community meeting in the Minneapolis area gives an idea of what bona fide public involvement should look like (see lead photo, above).

The focus was the Southwest Light Rail Transit plan proposed by Minneapolis’s Metropolitan Council. About 14 miles long, connecting downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul with the suburban community of Eden Prairie, the line would be (after the Central Corridor project now under way) the next major extension of the metro area’s highly successful Hiawatha light rail line (named after a major highway corridor it uses for much of its route).

On January 8th, as reported by an article in the mostly online MinnPost, over 200 people filled the gym of a large recreation center (as shown above) to discuss and debate the project. Unlike Project Connect’s charade of “public participation” (where “meetings” consist of either personal one-on-one conversations with official representatives, or “opportunities” to approve predetermined choices with clickers), the Minneapolis event provides an example of a real community meeting, where participants were actually able to ask questions, voice comments, raise alternative approaches, and maybe come up with ideas and options the official planners hadn’t considered.

That’s the kind of robust community involvement process that in the past was typical here in Austin, until roughly a decade ago.

Project Connect, keeping its advisory committees in a kind of bell jar, and keeping itself in a virtual underground bunker, isolated from authentic public oversight, has been making extremely dubious decisions — including rigging a phony “Central Corridor” plan for “high-capacity transit” based in part on fantasy data.

In continuing to isolate and insulate itself from bona fide community involvement and oversight, it’s highly likely that Project Connect will continue to fashion plans that ignore authentic community needs, misplace resources, and squander taxpayers’ money. Provoking public disgust and anger — even among strong public transportation supporters — is surely not a prudent strategy for building a voting constituency for major rail transit projects.

“Stakeholders” cannot feel they have much “stake” when they’re excluded and manipulated. Will some members within Austin’s civic leadership have the strength and fortitude to recognize this, and demand an open, fully democratic, and authentic community involvement process?

Revision: 2014/01/12 — The second paragraph of this posting has been revised to clarify information about Minneapolis’s proposed Southwest light rail project.
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Will Project Connect continue to gag the public?

20 December 2013

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

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

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

See:

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

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

Issues of process and organizational structure can be terribly boring. But Project Connect’s efforts to eliminate or gag bona fide community participation have undoubtedly performed a major role in allowing key insiders to rig the “high-capacity transit” study process, skewing the results and allowing officials to endorse the same basic route structure they wanted in the first place. Supporters of the Central Austin “backbone” corridor (West Campus-Guadalupe-Lamar) have been outraged by the blatant corruption of a purported “study” and its procedures.

See:

Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place

Gaudy mendacious suckfish

City Council to Central Austin: Drop Dead

TILT! Project Connect’s gerrymandering and data fiddling ignite public skepticism, pushback

Welcome to Project Dis-connect!

Lying with Maps

And, unless there’s effective community intervention to change the game, the same kind of thing could happen all over again in this upcoming “Phase 2” of the “study” (which seems more an exercise in adroitly skewing and manipulating the playing field than an actual study).

Some community activists are hopeful that the so-called “Riley amendment” — a provision successfully added to the City Council’s recent endorsement of Project Connect’s “ERC-Highland” route plan — may offer an opportunity to keep the West Campus-Guadalupe-Lamar “backbone” corridor issue alive within the current Project Connect process. Dan Keshet has posted the full text of the amendment on his Austin on Your Feet blog.

While Councilmember Riley probably intended the amendment as a kind of “sweetener” in hopes of wooing some Central Austinites into (perhaps begrudgingly) supporting the Project Connect plan, it is possible to construe it as opening a small crack in the door to possibly more major changes to the plan:

The City Manager is directed to work with Project Connect to identify future funding needs and potential sources to prioritize and continue critical Central Corridor project definition and development activities in the remaining identified sub-corridors, including the Lamar, Mueller, and East Austin sub-corridors, and report back to Council by August 1, 2014.

Further, reads the amendment, “The City Manager is directed to work with Project Connect and CMTA to continue cultivating a relationship with our regional Federal Transit Administration officials to cooperatively prepare for any future high-capacity transit investments in the Lamar sub-corridor.”

While the Riley amendment may indeed be viewed as a small compromise possibly helpful to the momentum to re-focus urban rail planning on the crucial West Campus-Guadalupe-Lamar “backbone” corridor, opening the tiny crack presented by that opportunity within Project Connect’s highly rigged process will remain dauntingly difficult, especially as long as Project Connect continues to insulate itself from real community engagement, managing and muzzling community input in a caricature of authentic “public participation”.

So back to “process”: Free, open, unconstrained community meetings are essential. There needs to be a groundswell of community pushback against the gagging. Project Connect needs to open up the community input process to full and free discussion, and the Austin community needs ongoing opportunities to be heard.

And that doesn’t mean just handing out clickers.

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From community participation then … to community exclusion today

1 December 2013
As democratic involvement and real meetings have disappeared, public participation at Project Connect's events, such as this "open house", has withered. Photo: Project Connect.

As democratic involvement and real meetings have disappeared, public participation at Project Connect’s events, such as this “open house”, has withered. Photo: Project Connect.

By Lyndon Henry

This posting has been excerpted, adapted, and expanded from a personal Email sent by the author to someone involved with Austin’s urban rail study, in response to an inquiry.

The lack of bona fide democratic discussion and participation by the public has been seen by many in the Austin community as an ongoing problem with Project Connect’s “community outreach” and “public participation” procedures. However, the current problem merely continues and intensifies a policy tendency, over approximately the last dozen or so years, among some local Austin-area public bodies — particularly involved with transportation and urban planning issues — to discourage and suppress authentic community involvement in planning such proposed projects and services.

This stands in stark contrast to the vibrant, lively public involvement of the 1970s through early 2000s, where popular input was encouraged and solicited in the form of participatory community meetings and personal involvement of a widely representative array of individuals in actual planning committees.

Finding a suitable model for implementing true democratic discussion today in Project Connect and other programs would be simple — reinstating the types of outreach, public participation programs, and community discussion activities that were typical of Austin-area transportation planning up until the early 2000s. These types of participatory processes have gradually been attenuated in recent years.

A fully democratic and effective process of community participation and discussion is essential, particularly so that community participants feel they have true involvement, engagement, and a stake in the planning process. At least as important, critical planning issues are effectively scrutinized and analyzed, and additional professional expertise (in architecture, engineering, planning, finance, etc.) in the community is accessed and brought to bear on various aspects of the project.

Almost certainly, the lack of such oversight and engagement of community expertise has been a major factor in the array of serious methdological and data problems that have characterized Project Connect’s urban rail study process and impugned its credibility. See, for example, the wide range of problems and community discontent documentted in this blog’s recent posting TILT! Project Connect’s gerrymandering and data fiddling ignite public skepticism, pushback.

Public participation process of the past

Ongoing citizen advisory committees used to be (and should be now) much larger, with multiple members typically appointed by each councilmember, Capital Metro board member, etc. In the late 1980s, Capital Metro’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee involved over a hundred members, with at least several dozen typically attending a given meeting. Professionals with transit-industry expertise and community activists on transportation issues were often appointed to these bodies, rather than specifically excluded, as they are now.

My longtime friend and professional colleague Dave Dobbs and I served on several such committees through the development of the regional transportation plan by the Austin Transportation Study (precursor to CAMPO) and the creation of Capital Metro (we both served on the Austin-Travis County Mass Transportation Commission that recommended creation of a regional transit authority for the Austin metro area). Another particularly important example of our community participation involvement was the advisory committee to the Transitway Corridor Analysis Project (TCAP), in the late 1980s. The TCAP committee had at least several dozen members, including interested stakeholders like Alan Kaplan and Roger Baker, and met regularly with the Capital Metro personnel and consultants directly involved with evaluating either a busway or light rail transit (LRT) for a fixed transit line from the core area to the northwest, possibly using U.S. 183, the railway alignment, I-35, or a combination of these alignments.

The democratic involvement of highly interested and technically savvy community members was critical to the final outcome of the TCAP study. Dave and I and other committee members questioned or challenged assumptions and methodology point by point, in a democratically interactive process that altered the course of the study. The original intent had seemed to be to justify a busway in this corridor, and if this had prevailed, buses would probably be rolling along through Crestview, Wooten, and other neighborhoods on a paveway in the Capital Metro railway right-of-way today instead of MetroRail DMU railcars. But instead, the advisory committee and consultants ultimately recommended LRT, and this was selected by the board as the Locally Preferred Alternative.

Trend from democratic involvement to “democratic” pretense

There has been nothing comparable to this kind of democratic community interactive planning within roughly the past decade.

Community meetings have likewise virtually disappeared. I recall open, fully democratic meetings, with large attendance, in various areas of the Capital Metro service area when I was on the authority’s board during the original LRT study in the early 1990s. Board members like me, and top officials like General Manager (CEO) Tony Kouneski, would attend these meetings. Participants weren’t just given clickers to respond to the contrived choices presented by Capital Metro — they were free to voice their opinions, ask questions, even respond to other views expressed in the meetings. New views, new options, could be voiced. The community members learned things from one another and felt a far greater sense of involvement in the process that is totally missing today.

Real community meetings, such as this one focused on transit options in Toronto, allow free and open discussion and facilitate questions and comments from the attendees. In contrast, Project Connect's events have squelched community discussion and sought to manage and muzzle discussion. Photo: Torontoist.

Real community meetings, such as this one focused on transit options in Toronto, allow free and open discussion and facilitate questions and comments from the attendees. In contrast, Project Connect’s events have squelched community discussion and sought to manage and muzzle discussion. Photo: Torontoist.

During the LRT study process in 1999-2000, numerous small community meetings were held all over the city to explain the LRT plan and alternatives, and receive real input, freely voiced, from the community. Then-General Manager Karen Rae herself typically led these meetings, usually accompanied by one or more staff personnel. This interaction helped fine-tune the eventual alignment that was proposed.

Even after the LRT referendum narrowly failed, in 2001-2003 democratic public meetings continued, involving both smaller meetings around the city and larger public meetings, including charettes. Attendees had the opportunity to speak, voicing comments or criticism and asking questions, at all meetings.

Workshops in past periods previously were far different and more democratic than the recent ones sponsored by Project Connect. The groups, often subdivided by particular topics, would discuss an issue for perhaps 20-40 minutes. A participant was also free to visit other groups at other tables and inject comments, suggestions, etc. Each table group (“workshop”) would select one member to summarize the group’s conclusions, or controversial issues, to the entire meeting in a summation period. Individual group members had a chance to clarify points covered in the discussion.

In contrast, Project Connect’s recent “workshops” seemed more like mechanisms to contain and squelch discussion rather than facilitate it. Discussion was confined to each individual small group, for perhaps 5-10 minutes at most. Only very narrow topics — basically, “choices” presented by Project Connect — were presented for discussion within each table group … with no real opportunity for alternatives and questions to be presented. Project Connect staff members, present at each table, then filtered and briefly summarized some of the discussion to the larger group.

Similarly, “open houses” are not public “meetings” but mechanisms to fragment and granularize public involvement into one-to-one interactions with project representatives, who can “listen” and then rationalize official decisions to individual participants. Attendees are expected to wander through the room, viewing the results of project decisions previously made by the project bureaucracy, results that are typically presented with lots of graphics — prompting me to describe these as “art galleries”. But these are definitely not democratic community meetings. See:

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

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

In contrast to the Transit Working Group (TWG) meetings, which at least allowed a few 3-minute “citizen communications” at the end of each meeting, Project Connect abolished even such minimal community input at meetings of its successor, the Central Corridor Advisory Committee (CCAG), until the last one before Project Connect made its decision on urban rail sectors. In other words, CCAG could not formally be presented with alternative views, ideas, and proposals, or criticism of the official methodology, throughout the critical period when decisions were being made and ratified by CCAG.

In sum, Project Connect’s overall “public involvement” exercises have seemed more like a gesture at public involvement as a CYA effort to fulfill federal requirements.

Outline for bona fide community participation program

What would a more truly democratic public involvement program look like? For starters, here are some thoughts, based on examples and experience from the past:

• A general advisory group that is large and inclusive, with representatives appointed by all councilmembers, Capital Metro board members, and possibly other public bodies — rather than a small group hand-picked by the mayor. This advisory committee would also be able to co-opt additional members to itself. It would provide a forum to consider both official proposals and alternative proposals and ideas from the community, while seeking a consensus with the official project team.

• Numerous smaller meetings (covering several sectors with several neighborhood areas per sector) at least every couple of months, where participants could voice their alternative ideas, concerns, questions, criticisms, and other comments to the meeting group — thus sharing and disseminating alternative views and approaches within the general community as well as among project staff.

• At least a couple of charettes, open to the public at large, over the course of the project. These would focus on key issues particularly needing public input. The emphasis would be on the voicing of ideas and assessments, not just clicking choices among prescribing alternatives.

Major public meetings, every 3-4 months, in a “hearing” format, where community members could at least have a chance to voice their views.

In contrast with this kind of open process from past times, the new model of “public involvement” by public agencies, exemplified by Project Connect’s process, seems designed mainly to muzzle the public, procure some kind of very shallow public acquiescence for official decisions, and thus allow project officials to claim validation. It also ensures that officials can proceed with planning effectively isolated and insulated from democratic community scrutiny and input — thus (as I’ve characterized it) operating “inside a bell jar”.

Neighborhood groups and other community organizations need to make it clear they’ve had enough of this sham pretense at “public participation”. They need to demand a reinstatement of at least the level of democratic participation that was the norm in the past.