Posts Tagged ‘public involvement’


Transit planning cabal-style

28 February 2017
Graphic: Marvel Database.

Graphic: Marvel Database.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dobbs: Council’s Feb. 9th “Data Dig” is “wasteful ill-advised exercise of top-down insider back-room-deal-making trying to con the public”

9 February 2015


By Dave Dobbs

The following comments, slightly edited and adapted here to webpage format, were distributed via Email to members of the Austin City Council on 9 February 2015, prior to a “Data Dig” workshop session on transportation and mobility scheduled for later in the day. Dave Dobbs is Executive Director of the Texas Association for Public Transportation and publisher of the Light Rail Now website.

Once again this afternoon [9 Feb. 2015] Austin will see the kind of insider staff behavior that led voters in November 2012 to choose our current 10-1 city council format in the hope of more open government and real community input. Alas, it seems that staff has learned nothing from the failed Project Connect Urban Rail debacle after pro-rail advocates spent five years, starting in September 2009 with the COA [City of Austin] Transportation staff, warning the staff, the council, the Transit Working Group (TWG), and the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) that the pre-determined Downtown Austin Plan 2008 streetcar proposal (note 1), that essentially became Project Connect’s (PC) Urban Rail plan, and the gerrymandered planning process to justify it that was devoid of true public input, would be a failure at the bond ballot box.

Repeatedly we pointed out, three minutes at a time, with handouts and on several websites, that any new urban rail starter line had to utilize the Guadalupe-North Lamar (G/L) corridor to get the ridership required to justify the capital investment and operating costs of urban rail. And we had Federal Transit Authority (FTA) and Texas Transit Institute (TTI) data to support it. (Notes 2 and 3) Additionally, we offered well-thought-out detailed G-L alternatives that were far more cost-effective — only to be ignored.

Today you will not hear a balanced assessment of Austin’s transportation situation or get many real solutions to address our problems because staff has ensured that the deck is stacked against it.

Please note that there is no backup material posted with today’s agenda and no list of participants, but of the ten speakers I am told will be present, eight either publicly endorsed the Project Connect Rail Bond Package and/or represent organizations that endorsed, or were complicit in, this wasteful ill-advised exercise of top-down insider back-room-deal-making trying to con the public into tying your hands as new council members with an issue you need more time to study and digest.

Imagine where this council would be if the Project Connect Rail Bonds had passed and you were politically mandated to issue $400 million in Certificates of Obligation (COs). There wouldn’t be any air left in council chambers, today or any other day as special interests clamored continuously for a piece of asphalt public pie.

Only Jim Skaggs of COST and Julio Gonzalez Altamirano of AURA represent the public that prevailed November 4th. On election day 58% of the public said No to the Project Connect Proposition, and yet today 80% of your speakers will be de facto representatives of the minority position.

You should ask why you’re not hearing from former Capital Metro board member and former CMTA [Capital Metro] planner, Lyndon Henry, the person who first brought the light rail concept to Texas, the man most responsible for creating Capital Metro in the early 1980s, and who has, since 1970, made urban rail for Austin and better public transit his life work. Many of his papers for implementing rail in our capital city can be found at the Austin History Center. Mr. Henry holds a Master’s Degree from UT in Urban and Regional Planning, is well represented in professional papers peer-reviewed and accepted by the Transportation Research Board, National Academy of Sciences, writes for Railway Age, and led the public opposition to the PC bond package in public meetings and through our blog, If you want to know who, what, when, where, which, how and why about Austin transit, Lyndon Henry is an invaluable resource for elected officials wanting to understand our city’s mobility issues.

Another person who should be on your agenda is Scott Morris, Director of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), who early on recognized that city management and the previous council were abandoning the core neighborhoods with rail plans primarily to benefit developers, rather than to provide essential rail transit to keep the city’s congested core alive and growing. Scott’s PAC [political action committee],, played a major role in organizing rail advocates and core neighborhoods to support a Guadalupe-Lamar rail plan and to oppose the Project Connect package voters rejected November 4th. Mr. Morris can offer council considerable political insight and knowledge about Central Austin housing, jobs, and transportation issues and needs, and I recommend his counsel highly.

Mr. Henry and Mr. Morris are two of many who could give council a far better public-interest perspective about transportation than the viewpoints provided by self-serving interlocking private and public special interests. However, as long as city management decides who will be heard and when they will be heard with last-minute agenda postings sans real substance, not much will change. So much for 10-1. In the words of Tammany Hall’s Boss Tweed, “I don’t care who does the electing as long as I get to do the nominating.”


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

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

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


Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead

5 November 2014
Election night graphic on KXAN-TV News showed heavy loss for Highland-Riverside urban rail bonds proposition. Final tally was 57%-43%. Screenshot by L. Henry.

Election night graphic on KXAN-TV News showed heavy loss for Highland-Riverside urban rail bonds proposition. Final tally was 57%-43%. Screenshot by L. Henry.

On November 4th, Austin voters resoundingly defeated the seriously flawed Highland-Riverside urban rail plan and $600 million bond proposition by a wide 14-point margin. The final tally is 57% against vs. 43% in favor of the bond measure.

Significantly, this was the first rail transit ballot measure to be rejected by Austin voters. In 2000, a proposed 14.6-mile light rail transit (LRT) running from McNeil down the Capital Metro railway alignment to Crestview, then south on North Lamar and Guadalupe to downtown, received a narrow majority of Austin votes — but the measure failed in the broader Capital Metro service area because of rejection by many suburban voters. In 2004, Capital Metro voters, including Austin, approved the 32-mile “urban commuter rail” plan from downtown Austin to Leander, subsequently branded as the MetroRail Red Line.

So why did this proposal fail? We believe it’s because Austin’s most dedicated, most experienced — and most knowledgeable — rail advocates opposed the official Highland-Riverside urban rail plan. These included long-established pro-transit organizations like the Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT) and its Light Rail Now Project; the nonprofit Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC); AURA (Austinites for Urban Rail Action); the Our Rail Political Action Committee; and an array of important north and central Austin neighborhood and community groups.

Our own reasons for so intrepidly opposing this plan are presented in numerous articles throughout this website; for a representative summary of several of our key criticisms, see Project Connect’s gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off course.

Opposition from rail advocates and otherwise pro-rail organizations and neighborhood groups throughout the community seems to have thrown preponderant voting weight against the disastrously misguided rail plan, and thus, together with the usual pro-road and anti-tax opponents, tipping the balance toward majority voter rejection. As we wrote in Let’s Go Austin — Tea-baiting from an awfully glass house,

Of course, highway proponents, anti-taxation activists, and, yes, some Tea Party sympathizers have emerged to oppose this rail bonds proposition — but wouldn’t they do so in any case? What’s surely revved them up, and encouraged them to pour exceptionally heavy resources into this fracas, is undoubtedly the leading role of rail supporters disgusted and outraged at the corruption and distortion of the rail transit planning process and de facto disenfranchisement of the wider community from involvement.

But it’s clear that Austin is basically a very pro-rail city. Widespread community sentiment for urban rail — much of it for just about any rail line, anywhere — was palpably strong. This has been an uphill struggle to convince pro-rail voters that a very bad rail plan could actually be worse than nothing. (See Project Connect’s urban rail plan is “worse than nothing”.) That’s one major reason why we believe this community can move forward quickly to a sensibly designed, cost-effective light rail plan in a strong, logical route — a Guadalupe-Lamar starter line.

Nevertheless, channeling pro-rail sentiment into a vote against this terrible project has been a challenge. And added to that was the additional challenge that our side was a relatively small David against a very powerful Goliath — a fairly solidly unified political and civic elite, heavily bankrolled, backed by influential business and real estate interests with a stake in the proposed rail route, able to muster media support, and assisted by a network of various community and professional organizations (environmental, New Urbanist, technical, real estate, and others) seemingly motivated into an almost desperate embrace of the urban rail plan. And let’s not forget the 800-lb gorilla in Goliath’s corner — the University of Texas administration, dead-set on a San Jacinto alignment to buttress their East Campus expansion program.

So, against this Goliath, how did David win this? A lot of this victory is due to the broad public perception of just how appallingly bad the Highland-Riverside rail plan was. And with a staggering $1.38 billion cost that required a staggering local bond commitment, which in turn required a hefty property tax rate increase. And all that in the context of recent homeowner property tax increases and utility rate increases. So, would voters really want to approve over a billion dollars for even a mediocre rail project, much less a terrible one?

That message was disseminated widely through the community — not by pricey media advertising (rail advocacy groups and their followers didn’t have big bucks for that, anyway), but by a vast network of activities involving social media, Email messages, excellent blog-posted information, and community meetings. But traditionally anti-transit, pro-highway groups also weighed in, with big bucks to fund effective advertising (with a message focused predominantly on the shortcomings of the particular Highland-Riverside plan) to rebuff the months-long, heavy ad and media blitz from the Project Connect/Let’s Go Austin forces backing the official proposal.

This vote also represents not only a rejection of an unacceptable rail transit proposal, but also a protest against the “backroom-dealmaking” modus operandi that has characterized official public policymaking and planning in recent years — a pattern that included shutting community members out of participation in the urban rail planning process, relegating the public to the status of lowly subjects, and treating us all like fools. Leaping immediately into a process of community inclusion and direct involvement is now essential. The community must become re-connected and involved in a meaningful way.

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

Real community involvement in the planning process means real community meetings with community members having a direct say in planning and policy decisions, as in this meeting in Minneapolis area. Photo: Karen Boros.

On election night, as the defeat of the Highland-Riverside rail bonds proposition became evident, Scott Morris of the Our Rail PAC issued the following statement:

Tonight’s results are gratifying, but the work remains. With this vote, Austin has rejected a bad urban rail plan. It was the wrong route and it was formed by values that were not shared by our community. What we do share with those who supported this measure is a resolve in moving forward with true mobility solutions that make transit a ubiquitous part of life in our growing city.

01_ARN_ourrail9 Today, Austin delivered a strong statement, that transit must serve the existing population first. Transit planning should not be subordinated for the purpose of shaping future development to the exclusion of ridership, cost effectiveness and efficiency. This is a mandate that any first investment in urban rail must serve the community first. If we put service to people first, it will be built and operated in a cost efficient way. The citizens did not accept the argument that a defeat would create a long delay until the next opportunity to vote on rail. Austin is ready to get the right plan on the ballot as soon as possible, with true citizen involvement in shaping that plan.

This election is just one more step in the process. As a grassroots organization, we’re committed to work hard for a solution. Tonight is the first step in a new direction. Austin has a new plan to create and a strong case to build for rail, and we think it will succeed. We will support and work with our transit agency, Capital Metro; to develop a plan for rail that is cost effective, open, fair and transparent with strong community input. It will need the community’s full support and engagement to preserve and enhance its basic services, especially to transit dependent populations, as it adjusts to a growing city.

The people have assumed a new leadership role in determining the future of transit. With this action, they have also assumed a strong responsibility for guaranteeing its future.

Let’s take a breath and get back to work.

The Highland-Riverside plan may be dead, but the campaign for a Guadalupe-Lamar light rail starter line is firing up. Light rail in this heavily traveled, high-density central corridor can become the basic spine of a far more effective and truly extensive urban rail system in the future for the city.

There’s already a strong constituency and base of support for light rail transit (LRT) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. But the majority of Austinites don’t want another 14 years of top-level dithering and wavering — they’re ready to move forward with a workable, sensible urban rail plan. And certainly — especially with a new political leadership — we do face an exciting challenge informing the entire community and explaining why rail transit is essential, why it’s a cost-effective, crucial mobility solution, and why central-city street space needs to be allocated for dedicated transit, including light rail as well as improved bus service.

We’re already rolling up our sleeves. ■

Passengers waiting to board train at Dryden/TMC station Photo: Brian Flint.

Houston’s MetroRail shows how dedicating street lanes to light rail transit can dramatically improve urban mobility. MetroRail has highest passenger ridership per route-mile of any U.S. light rail transit system. Photo: Brian Flint.

This article has been slightly revised since its original posting.


Project Connect’s gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off course

15 August 2014


By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to the City of Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission on 10 June 2014 regarding Project Connect’s proposed 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion urban rail starter line connecting East Riverside (southeast) with the Highland ACC site now under development (north). In the end, the commission voted, with minor amendments, to recommend Project Connect’s proposal to the City Council.

There are three huge problems with Project Connect’s proposal:

(1) It spends $1.4 billion to put urban rail in the wrong place.

(2) It will hinder and constrain future rail development.

(3) A vote for this flawed plan is also a vote to permanentize lower-capacity MetroRapid bus service in our strongest, densest travel corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar.

Guadalupe-Lamar is the outstanding corridor to start urban rail — among the top heavy travel corridors in Texas, a long-established commercial district, with major activity centers, the city’s core neighborhoods, and the West Campus, having the 3rd-highest residential density in Texas.

In contrast, Project Connect proposes to forsake the central city’s heaviest and densest local corridor and instead connect a weak corridor, East Riverside, with a non-existent travel corridor through the East Campus, Hancock, and Highland. By wasting over a billion dollars on urban rail in this meandering, misguided route, Project Connect will divert scarce funds from future rail development.

Project Connect’s Riverside-East Campus-Hancock-Highland plan comes “gold-plated” with a new $130 million “signature bridge” over the river and a $230 million tunnel at Hancock. But it runs in mixed street traffic from UT to Hancock. This is a proposal that costs too way much for too little value.

And it’s the third most pricey urban rail starter line, by cost per mile, in U.S. history. City officials now routinely propose a major property tax increase to finance the local share of Project Connect’s plan.

Per mile of route, proposed Highland-Riverside urban rail plan would be second most expensive light rail starter line since 1990, and third most expensive in U.S. history.

Per mile of route, proposed Highland-Riverside urban rail plan would be second most expensive light rail starter line since 1990, and third most expensive in U.S. history. Graph: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

Voting for Project Connect’s urban rail plan for East Riverside to Highland also means voting to pour concrete for bus lanes and other bus facilities on Guadalupe and Lamar that will prevent an urban rail alternative in our heaviest, neediest corridor for decades. The current MetroRapid bus service on Guadalupe, Lamar and South Congress carries 6,000 daily riders, less than one-eighth of the 51,000 forecast for light rail in that same corridor.

According to a report yesterday from a private meeting of urban rail “stakeholders” at Capital Metro, representatives of both Project Connect and Capital Metro admitted that Phase 1 of this project, which conjured up Looney-Tunes voodoo and passed it off as “scientific” projections, was “too fast and not at a pace they would typically have proceeded.”

In contrast to major rail planning in the past, the public has basically been cut out of this process. Now Mayor Leffingwell and his administration announce they’re tossing in a dollop of road projects that even some councilmembers criticize as failing to fit into the Imagine Austin concept of a walkable, dense city. In effect, they’re packaging a dubious, wasteful rail project with questionable road projects, and wrapping a “congestion relief” ribbon around it.

This is a planning process that’s gone off course and out of control. This commission needs to do the right thing, and say as much to the city council. ■

Related links:
Project Connect’s $500 million plan for bus infrastructure — The Elephant in the Road on Guadalupe-Lamar that could block urban rail
Project Connect’s Austin urban rail would be 3rd-most-pricey LRT starter line in U.S. history
Roger Baker: Austin’s ‘Strategic Mobility Plan’ — smart planning or a billion dollar boondoggle?

City Council to Austin community: Shut Up

1 July 2014
After squelching public input, Austin City Council votes unanimously on June 26th to endorse Project Connect's Highland-Riverside urban rail plan as Locally Preferred Alternative. Photo: L. Henry.

After squelching public input, Austin City Council votes unanimously on June 26th to endorse Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside urban rail plan as Locally Preferred Alternative. Photo: L. Henry.

The Austin City Council really doesn’t want to hear from you. They’re tired of having to listen to you at all, and want you to just keep your thoughts to yourself, and shut up.

They’re exhausted, they’re bored, they’re busy, and besides, they know what’s best for the city, and for the movers and shakers they deal with, and you’re just getting in the way.

This is the message that came across loud and clear at the last Council meeting on Thursday, June 26th, when the Council voted to cut off dozens of speakers prepared to criticize Project Connect’s Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal, allowing only a relative few from “each side”.

Trouble is, the side opposing Project Connect’s plan is not a single “side”, but factions representing several major, different viewpoints, from virulent opponents of rail transit altogether, to strong urban rail supporters (such as the sponsors of this blog) who just think the Project Connect plan is a bad idea. No matter — Off With All Their Heads. Time to move on.

And “move on” they did, voting unanimously on June 26th to embrace the seriously corrupt and flawed Project Connect plan as the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) as a prerequisite for federal funding being sought. (In so doing, they actually re-designated the LPA from the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor to the current Highland-Riverside alignment.)

Prior to the final vote, several opponents of the measure among the handful allowed to speak ditched their prepared remarks and assailed the suppression of democratic speech.

Scott Morris, representing the Our Rail Political Action Committee (OurRail PAC), angrily noted that “This plan is opposed by groups that represent or serve over a hundred thousand Austinites, and you’re giving them 30 minutes of time.”

We have patiently waited through numerous — through scores — of work sessions where Project Connect has been given unfettered access to your attention. We have patiently waited through scores of briefings that have no citizen communication. And now we’re ready to say: Enough of this. We’re fed up. This plan does not fly. … You need to listen to the citizens of Austin ….

OurRail PAC leader Scott Morris denounces Council's action to constrict debate. Photo: COA video screenshot.

OurRail PAC leader Scott Morris denounces Council’s action to constrict debate. Photo: COA video screenshot.

Longtime rail transit supporter Mike Dahmus likewise expressed outrage at the Council’s squelching of citizen input:

You’ve chosen … to eliminate all meaningful opportunities for public input, as has Project Connect before you. We will make sure the FTA [Federal Transit Administration] is aware of this”

Also discarding his prepared comments, Lyndon Henry (a contributing editor to this blog) denounced the Council meeting as “a travesty”, adding:

This issue cries out for a public hearing. Instead, you subvert the democratic process and proceed with the agenda of special interests. … You should be ashamed.

Far from unique, the Council’s stifling of democratic process continues a pattern among various Austin public agencies in recent years of excluding community participation in planning major public projects. Public hearings have almost totally disappeared from the scene for at least a decade or more.

For over a decade, Austin public agencies have shut out and gagged the community from authentic participation in planning major projects.

For over a decade, Austin public agencies have shut out and gagged the community from authentic participation in planning major projects.

And not just the Austin City Council, but Capital Metro and Project Connect itself have been leading offenders. As this blog observed last December, in our post Will Project Connect continue to gag the public?

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

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

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

Following the Council’s action ramrodding of the urban rail plan on July 26th (strong-armed by Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell), longtime local community affairs activist Bill Oakey warned:

The level of insensitivity and lack of respect for the citizen speakers displayed by Mayor Leffingwell marks the darkest day for this lame duck Council. His actions essentially guarantee the defeat of the bond proposition. Austin is a community that places high value on citizen involvement. The Council should have held a public hearing soon after Project Connect announced their final proposal. Today the promise of no limit on the number of speakers was broken, after two days of planning by several groups to come and speak. The resulting lack of trust will contribute to the failure of the bonds. We will look to the new Council with a spirit of hope for respect, transparency and inclusiveness.

Changing the LPA to identify the Highland-Riverside alignment is just one of the steps the Project Connect consortium must follow in moving the official urban rail project forward. In August, the Council is expected to consider — and likely approve — placing approximately $600 million of bond funding on the November ballot for a public vote. How Austin voters will weigh in on this issue remains to be seen.


Project Connect’s urban rail plan “costs way too much to do too little”

3 May 2014
Map of Project Connect's urban rail proposal, as shown by KEYE-TV. Despite blurry image quality, the convoluted, meandering character of the route, well to the east of central Austin and its core axis, can be seen. Screenshot: L. Henry.

Map of Project Connect’s urban rail proposal, as shown by KEYE-TV. Despite blurry image quality, the convoluted, meandering character of the route, well to the east of central Austin and its core axis, can be seen. Screenshot: L. Henry.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to Project Connect’s Central Corridor Advisory Group on 2 May 2014. At the meeting, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey revealed the agency’s proposal for a 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion line connecting East Riverside (southeast) with the old Highland Mall site (north).

I’m Lyndon Henry. I’m a transportation planning consultant, and am considered among the strongest rail transit advocates in Austin. Since I originally launched the notion of urban rail for this region over four decades ago, I’ve consistently made the case for urban rail as a crucial mobility alternative for Austin’s heaviest traffic, plus other benefits such as better urban development patterns.

Urban rail’s primary focus is mobility, to provide some relief for congestion – not to just enhance the value of real estate development or be a decoration for other public projects. Unfortunately, Austin’s political and civic leadership have lost this essential focus, and the result is Project Connect’s seriously misguided plan. Austin voters should reject it.

Austin voters are being asked to authorize a billion-dollar investment for this convoluted adornment for real estate interests and proposed developments — a line that bypasses the heart of the city and slowly meanders nine miles, from the East Riverside “Apartment City” area, through the backwater East Campus, up to Hancock, then through a tunnel and into the old Highland site. How many Austinites are traveling such a route? Installing a second rail line parallel to MetroRail along Airport Blvd. just squanders more money.

Furthermore, a vote for Project Connect’s plan is very likely a vote to lock out any hope of rail on Guadalupe-Lamar — our heaviest travel corridor — and lock in the MetroRapid bus replacement — so-called “BRT”. Project Connect has hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of dedicated bus lanes and other infrastructure planned for this corridor that would block rail, possibly for decades.

By depleting available financial resources on tunnels and other lavishly expensive construction, this wasteful urban rail plan limits the more effective expansion of rail regionally. Tunnels and subway stations are options way out of scale for an urban rail starter line for Austin or virtually any city this size.

Voter rejection of this plan is the better option, because it opens the possibility for a return to planning a basic north-south rail spine along the central Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Project Connect’s plan costs way too much to do too little, and Austin deserves better. Voters can opt for a better plan by saying No on November 4th.

Kyle Keahey, Project Connect's Urban Rail Lead (bottom row, center) during presentation to CCAG. Top row, facing, left to right: CCAG leading members Bill Spelman (Austin City Council), John Langmore (Capital Metro), Maypor Lee Leffingwell, Sid Covington (Lone Star Rail). Photo: L. Henry.

Kyle Keahey, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead (bottom row, center) during presentation to CCAG. Top row, facing, left to right: CCAG leading members Bill Spelman (Austin City Council), John Langmore (Capital Metro), Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Sid Covington (Lone Star Rail). Photo: L. Henry.


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.