Posts Tagged ‘rail ballot measure’

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City’s “Smart Corridor” Prop. 1 bond plan promising way more than it can deliver

29 September 2016
Graph shows disparity between funds budgeted in "Smart Corridors" bond package and projected actual cost of these projects. (Graph: ARN.)

Graph shows disparity between funds budgeted in “Smart Corridors” bond package and projected actual cost of these projects. (Graph: ARN.)

In past postings we’ve roundly criticized the City of Austin’s “Mobility Bond” plan as a “non-mobility” proposal – there’s no transit project, and two-thirds of the funds are allocated for makeovers (“smart corridors”) of existing arterials. (With $101 million of “Regional Mobility” projects – highways and other major roads in the region – plus $26 million of other street and road improvements, the total allocation for roads comes to $609 million, or about 85% of the total $720 million “Mobility Bond” package.)

Now, according to a Sep. 25th exposé by Austin American Statesman transportation reporter Ben Wear, the bond proposal (now designated Proposition 1) falls appalling short of even fulfilling the “Smart Corridors” projects that it’s promising to voters.
http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/local/wear-austins-go-big-road-bond-not-big-enough-to-co/nsdkh/

The “Highlights” to Wear’s article pretty much say it all:

• The $720 million bond proposition’s greatest vulnerability is that it promises much more than it can deliver.

• The bond includes $482 million for corridor projects estimated to cost more than $1.56 billion.

As Wear elaborates:

The Austin City Council, when it passed an ordinance in August calling a $720 million bond election, was pretty specific about how $482 million of that money will be spent.

That slice of the money, the five-page law says, will pay for “implementation of corridor plans” for nine, or perhaps eight of nine, specific city streets: North and South Lamar, Burnet Road, Airport Boulevard, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, East Riverside Drive, Guadalupe Street, William Cannon Drive “and/or” Slaughter Lane. It doesn’t say “partial implementation” or “implementation of some of the following roads.”

So a voter could be forgiven for thinking that $482 million will do it all.

It won’t.

Not even close.

While just $482 million has been budgeted, reports Wear, according to staff estimates, “The total tab for the seven corridors that have a completed or in-progress study … would be $1.56 billion ….” He concludes:

You get the picture: The corridor money will pay for something between a quarter and a third of what the studies are recommending. But which quarter or third? Which corridors? What type of changes?

In other words, voters would be “buying” a “pig in a poke” … only that’s not what they’ve been told.

In the assessment of longtime community transportation activist and researcher Roger Baker (who has contributed several articles to this site),

This makes it pretty clear that Adler’s bond package is essentially top-down, business as usual road politics. This as opposed to a cost-effective engineering solution to some well-defined transportation problem or approach. Austin can’t possibly pave its way out of congestion by raising property taxes, and a truly smart city wouldn’t try.

Curiously, a group (seemingly anonymous) has been posting large signs around the city opposing Proposition 1 and denouncing it as “deceptive” as well as “destructive”. Given the shenanigans that Ben Wear has revealed, this kind of sentiment may spread. ■

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Austin Council nixes light rail bond — But stay tuned for 2017 or 2018

31 August 2016
Austin City Council votes unanimously for proposed "Go Big" $720 million bond measure on Aug. 11th. Photo: Screen capture from ATXN video.

Austin City Council votes unanimously for proposed “Go Big” $720 million roads-focused bond measure on Aug. 11th. Photo: Screen capture from ATXN video.

Despite intense community support and effort, particularly by transit advocates, on August 11th the Austin City Council ignored pleas to include a nearly $400 million bond item for light rail transit (LRT) on the November 2016 ballot. The administration’s own so-called “mobility” bond proposal, a $720 million package dubbed “Go Big”, without any major transit projects included, was passed unanimously. The package is “five times larger than any transportation bond ever approved in the city” according to an August 18th report by the Austin American-Statesman’s veteran transportation reporter Ben Wear.

The community-proposed transit measure would have provided a local funding share for a 5.3-mile LRT starter line minimum operable system in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. (See «Grassroots effort proposes small light rail starter project for an authentic “mobility bond” measure».)

However, the seeming unanimity of the preliminary Aug. 11th vote apparently masked conflicted attitudes and misgivings of several councilmembers, simmering just below the surface. During preliminary discussions on an earlier item dealing with a proposed commission to evaluate and recommend future bond items, Councilmembers Ann Kitchen (District 5) and Delia Garza (District 2) – both transit supporters who sit on the board of Capital Metro (the regional transit agency) – floated the possibility of a rail bond ballot item in 2017 or 2018.

As reported by Caleb Pritchard in the Austin Monitor, in the discussion of the current bond proposal for 2016, District 4 Councilmember Greg Casar raised the possibility of light rail, stating “I recognize that there is some real support for public transit in the $720 million plan currently on the table, but I think that given this presidential election, it would be great to do more.” Mayor Pro Tem (and District 9 Councilmember) Kathie Tovo also tried to open the door for an LRT bond measure, but she was alone in stating she would be favor such an action, “if that was the will of the Council.”

Pritchard’s report continued:

Council members Delia Garza, Pio Renteria and Kitchen, along with Adler, also all voiced support for light rail as a concept. However, each said that the timeline is not compatible with the formal planning needed. Each said they would support a renewed light rail effort in 2018.

As previously noted, the “Go Big” roads-focused bond measure was approved unanimously at the first reading on Aug. 11th. However, a week later, in the final Council vote on August 18th, at least some disagreements came clearly into the open when four councilmembers failed to support the measure – reportedly, an unprecedented fracturing with respect to a bond item, for which council votes have historically been unanimous. As the Statesman’s Ben Wear observed in an Aug. 19th followup story, “Having a split council vote on bond packages is not how these things go historically, and it doesn’t bode well for passage by voters.”

The nonsupportive votes broke down as three abstentions and one opposition. Although the “Go Big” package was primarily a roads measure (designed to “increase throughput” of traffic, according to its proponents), right-leaning pro-highway Councilmembers Don Zimmerman (District 6) and Ellen Troxclair (District 8) – who tend to be disdainful of public transit – abstained because of what they perceived as a lack of transparency with respect to the property tax impact.

District 2 Councilmember Delia Garza – as noted, a transit supporter – also abstained. As she explained, “I have concerns about the bond capacity, the bond fatigue in our community and that there are no direct improvements to public transit.” (Reported by the Austin Business Journal.)

The strongest opposition came from District 1 Councilmember Ora Houston. Houston, who is black, seemed particularly outraged at the lack of more diverse representation in the process of developing projects included in the bond package. “I am dismayed that a $720 million bond that is on the November ballot is a product of the way things have always been done …” she said, as quoted by Ben Wear in the Aug. 18th Statesman. “I feel like I’ve been bullied …” she added.


Councilmember Ora Houston in City Council meeting of Aug. 18th, during which she was only councilmember to vote against proposed "Go Big" bond package. Photo: Screen capture from ATXN video.

Councilmember Ora Houston in City Council meeting of Aug. 18th, during which she was only councilmember to vote against proposed “Go Big” bond package. Photo: Screen capture from ATXN video.


Wear further reported Houston’s view that “the studies that led to the ‘smart corridor’ projects arose from the old citywide-elected council and were heavily influenced by a core of central city activists rather than a more representative sampling of Austinites.” In his Aug. 19th article (previously cited above), Wear elaborated her complaint that “public input” on the content of “mobility bonds” presented to voters had been “the spawn of the bad old days of a council that was beholden to white, central city urbanites who dominated elections, and tended to cater to that clique’s policy desires.”

The roads-focused bond item now slated for the Nov. 8th ballot seems to have the role of an adjunct to TxDOT’s ambitious plans for a mammoth overhaul to I-35. As Roger Baker and Dave Dobbs pointed out on this website this past March in their critique «Why spending $4.7 billion trying to improve I-35 is a waste of money», at best, trying to “solve” congestion with more roadway facilities – thus encouraging more traffic – is a fool’s errand. And TxDOT, with local political allies, facing a daunting $4.7 billion potential cost, has been seeking to get Austin-area taxpayers on board. Particularly through some cost-shifting, the $720 million “Go Big” bond plan seems to have a role in this larger scheme.

Nevertheless, given evidence of nominal support for urban rail by Mayor Steve Adler and a majority of members of Austin’s City Council, advocates of an LRT starter line for Guadalupe-Lamar are looking hopefully to a possible rail bond measure in 2017 or 2018. But this may be a treacherous path, especially since Capital Metro board members/Austin Councilmembers Kitchen and Garza place a lot of stock in the “Central Corridor analysis” Capital Metro has in process. And once again, that “study” is positioned under the rubric of Project Connect – the same consortium of agencies that produced the disastrously flawed Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal resoundingly rejected by voters in November 2014.

Local community activists and transit advocates still have bitter memories of Project Connect’s “high-capacity transit study” process, particularly from the last five months of 2013 (and embellished during the bond vote campaign in 2014) – an exercise in subterfuge with its deeply flawed methodology (designed to justify a preordained agenda) and outrageous sham of “public involvement” (substituting “art galleries” and “clicker” feedback for bona fide meetings and involvement). For background information on that experience, see:

The fraudulent “study” behind the misguided Highland-Riverside urban rail plan

City Council to Austin community: Shut Up

In our article titled «Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead», and posted immediately after the 2014 defeat of Project Connect’s plan, Austin Rail Now warned :

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.

So far, with their latest venture into a “Central Corridor” rail study, there is no evidence that Capital Metro administrators and planners have learned appropriate lessons from the 2013-2014 debacle. As this new study moves forward, community activists and public transport advocates deserve to be extremely wary, and to be prepared to do whatever they can to avoid a replay of that previous experience at all cost. ■

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Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail needs to be included in Austin’s “mobility” bond package

27 July 2016
Ann Kitchen chairs City of Austin Mobility Committee meeting of June 14th. Photo: Sceenshot from ATXN video.

Ann Kitchen chairs City of Austin Mobility Committee meeting of June 14th. Photo: Sceenshot from ATXN video.

By Lyndon Henry

The following comments were made during Citizen Communications to a public meeting of the City of Austin’s Mobility Committee on 14 June 2016. Lyndon Henry is a transportsation planning consultant, a former board member of Capital Metro, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and a contributing editor to this website.

I urge you to include a measure for urban rail in the proposed $720 million “mobility” bond package now under consideration. I support the proposal for an affordable 5.3-mile light rail Minimum Operable Segment on North Lamar and Guadalupe from Crestview to downtown.

Currently 83% of the proposed $720 million package is devoted to road projects. Surely some of these road projects could be replaced with the $260 million to $400 million that would facilitate an urban rail project.


5.3-mile Minimum Operable Segment light rail line proposed by CACDC. Graphic: Screenshot from CACDC map.

Proposed 5.3-mile light rail transit starter line Minimum Operable Segment in Guadaluoe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: CACDC.


It’s absurd that the $720 million bond package you’re considering could be labeled a “mobility” package despite NO major initiative for transit, let alone urban rail, which has been studied and affirmed as a necessity for decades. This bond proposal stands in contradiction to the decades of official “green” rhetoric and policy initiatives such as Envision Central Texas and Imagine Austin that have verbally embraced public transportation and “high-capacity transit” as key “alternative mobility” measures necessary to “keep Austin moving”.

This road-focused $720 million package tries to address congestion by increasing “throughput” of vehicles. Unfortunately, experience and evidence suggest that this is a losing approach — trying to tweak more capacity to squeeze through more cars typically just induces more traffic. Furthermore, this influx of ever-growing vehicle traffic imposes more stress on congested areas such as Austin’s core.


Lyndon Henry presenting comments to City of Austin Mobility Committee on June 14th. Photo: Screenshot from ATXN video.

Lyndon Henry presenting comments to City of Austin Mobility Committee on June 14th. Photo: Screenshot from ATXN video.


In contrast, this light rail plan (and future expansions throughout Austin) removes traffic from roadways by attracting motorists to the transit service, adding the equivalent of four lanes of extra peak capacity to this corridor. Can the same be said for the current $720 million road-focused bond plan?

I suggest that urban rail — providing highly attractive rail transit service on its own dedicated tracks — makes far more sense as a solution for alleviating mobility congestion, than simply trying to squeeze more traffic onto the city’s crowded streets, roads, and parking spaces.

I’ve heard the argument that urban rail is “not ready” to be offered as a bond measure. Yet polls and other evidence indicate resounding support for public transit and urban rail, and the Austin community has gone through years of repeated outreach exercises familiarizing them with the technology and the issues. The public seems more ready than ever to support rail; it’s Austin’s civic leadership that seems to have cold feet.

Finally, whatever bond package you choose, I urge you to unbundle the roads bonds from the small proportion of bicycle and pedestrian bonds. This would allow the community at least to consider these alternative mobility elements separately. ■

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NOTE: As of this posting, the Mobility Committee and City Council have approved the $720 million roads-dominated bond measure, without provision for transit, as a bundled package.
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Grassroots effort proposes small light rail starter project for an authentic “mobility bond” measure

11 June 2016
5.3-mile Minimum Operable Segment light rail line proposed by CACDC. Graphic: Screenshot from CACDC map.

5.3-mile Minimum Operable Segment light rail line proposed by CACDC. Graphic: Screenshot from CACDC map.

An Austin “mobility” bond package without a single major transit project? That’s the current plan from the office of Austin Mayor Steve Adler – a $720 million bond bundle overwhelmingly (about 83%) concentrated on roadway projects, with a smattering of “alternative mobility” pedestrian and bicycle projects, and virtually no significant public transport improvements.

The current official bond package stands in stark contradiction to the decades of official “green” rhetoric verbally embracing public transportation and “high-capacity transit” as key components of the “alternative mobility” measures necessary to “keep Austin moving” – rhetoric also enshrined in major policy initiatives of recent decades such as Envision Central Texas and Imagine Austin. The “mobility” bond package also comes in contrast to a recent resurgence of competent studies and reports suggesting that continuing to emphasize further roadway development – because of effects such as encouraging suburban sprawl, creating further dependency on private car travel, and inducing even more traffic – is a losing game.

An affordable light rail starter line

In response, an outcry has arisen throughout the Austin community, calling for some major public transport elements to be included in the “mobility” bond measure. By far the most substantial alternative approach to the official roadwork-heavy bond offering is a proposal crafted by Scott Morris and Andrew Clements of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), a small nonprofit organization. Supported by a group of other community leaders, the proposal suggests that a light rail transit (LRT) Minimum Operable Segment (MOS) would be feasible, stretching 5.3 miles from Crestview (North Lamar at Airport Blvd.) south to Republic Square (West 4th St.) in downtown Austin (see maps above and further below). CACDC estimates daily ridership of 37,400 for the MOS.

The MOS is actually a subset of previous plans for the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor, such as Capital Metro’s 1994 plan, the agency’s 2000 plan, a 2013 proposal from Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT), an earlier, more extensive CACDC plan for the G-L corridor, and the 2014 “Plan B” proposal from Austin Rail Now (ARN).

In addition to previous design work by Capital Metro consultants from 1994, 2000, and the early 2000s, ARN has also suggested another design option for inserting LRT infrastructure into the corridor. See: «San Francisco’s N-Judah Muni Metro line shows design option for light rail in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor».


Cross-sectional diagram of major arterials in corridor, showing center LRT reservation, traffic lanes, sidwalks, and side-mounted TES poles for suspending the OCS. Graphic: ARN.

Cross-sectional view of a possible design for LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: ARN.


CACDC’s capital investment cost estimate for the proposed MOS – $397.5 million – is based on an average of costs from 15 rail projects (LRT plus one diesel-powered light railway), as compiled by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and reviewed and analyzed by Andrew Clements. This renders an average of $68.3 million per mile (2016 dollars). Especially in light of past studies of LRT in the G-L corridor, as well as recent projects nationwide, the methodology certainly provides a competent and plausible basis for a “system-level” order-of-magnitude estimate suitable for presentation to voters and justification for further, more detailed planning.

CACDC is proposing that its year-2016 cost estimate ($397.5 million) be offered to voters in full as a ballot measure this coming November. CACDC believes the MOS project could be implemented via local funding and without assistance from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

A more methodologically conservative estimate of investment cost for the same proposed MOS by the Light Rail Now Project of Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT) accepts CACDC’s cost estimate but adds a higher allowance for contingency. As explained by Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant and technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project (and also a contributing editor to this website), there is a substantial component of “unknown” in most major rail transit projects. Therefore, best standard practice for capital investment cost estimates is to apply a contingency allowance (for surface LRT projects) averaging at least 25-30% of the total of all other costs – in effect, as a kind of “insurance”. Curiously, a cost estimate of “about $465 Million” reported in a May 12th KEYE-TV News segment covering the CACDC proposal, including an interview with Clements, appeared to incorporate such a contingency, amounting to about 28% added to the cost-per-mile average that Clements found from his analysis of FTA project data.

However, the actual project funding intended in a bond measure must also allow for the effects of inflation as the project proceeds. Thus standard practice is to escalate the given current-year investment cost estimate into YOE (year of expenditure) dollars. Otherwise project proponents, designers, and managers will either (a) be caught short or (b) need to go to voters again for enough money (or scrummage for some other source) to actually complete the project. The TAPT estimate assumes a 2.5% adjustment rate over a project span of four years.

In TAPT’s assessment, seeking FTA assistance (and thus collaboration and oversight) is important, particularly since TxDOT lacks a strong rail oversight program. The dangers of disdaining federal collaboration already became clear in some of the most serious missteps of Capital Metro’s MetroRail implementation, resulting in a significantly delayed opening, jeopardizing public support, and leading to expensive operational constraints and unexpected requirements, continuing to this day. FTA participation would also imply 50-50 sharing of the capital investment cost, significantly alleviating the funding burden borne by Austin taxpayers. Also, a design concept to implement a cross-platform transfer between LRT and MetroRail (under the aegis of the Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA) would invoke FRA involvement.

Based on all these factors, the TAPT capital investment cost estimate, with 28% contingency and YOE escalation at 2.5% per annum, totals about $520 million for this 5.3-mile MOS starter line. In TAPT’s FTA-funded scenario, a mobility bond measure of $260 million would be sufficient to provide a local 50% match for funding the project.


Wider-view map showing 5.3-mile LRT MOS route strategically serving busy local Guadalupe-Lamar corridor between Loop 1 (MoPac) and I-35. Graphic: ARN.

Wider-view map, in context of central-city Austin, showing 5.3-mile LRT MOS route strategically serving busy local Guadalupe-Lamar corridor between Loop 1 (MoPac) and I-35. Graphic: ARN.


Significant benefits

Assuming a 14-mph average speed for the 5.3-mile starter line, Henry calculates a 23-minute Crestview-to-Republic Square running time. This compares with 26-28 minutes by Capital Metro’s MetroRapid Route 801 “rapid transit” bus service. (And while MetroRapid buses often skip some stops because no passengers are waiting there, LRT trains make every stop and actually board passengers at each station because of the greater attractiveness of rail service.)

That differential may seem small, but, compared with buses, LRT brings additional advantages. Passengers have a greater sense of service reliability and safety, and greater orientation to where routes go and where stations are located. There’s a much greater sense of permanence. LRT railcars are more spacious, easier to board and deboard, and more comfortable to ride. Attributes like these combine to attract substantially higher ridership.

Based on past ridership estimates for this corridor, including a 2000 New Starts profile study approved by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Henry estimates a daily ridership of 30,000 for this MOS (within two years of opening). From the new rider data in the FTA study, Henry extrapolates that approximately 13,800 of these rider-trips would be new to transit in the corridor. By assuming that all these new rider-trips would otherwise be made by motor vehicle, this means that about 12,600 daily vehicle trips would be eliminated from these arterials (in addition to those already diverted to public transit). During peak travel periods, nearly 5,000 private vehicle trips would be eliminated, as former motorists would be attracted to the proposed new light rail service.

This also implies the elimination of approximately 1,300 peak vehicle trips per hour in the corridor — roughly equivalent to two arterial lanes of capacity. In other words, this LRT starter line would add the equivalent of two lanes of extra peak capacity to this corridor in each direction. As Henry pointed out in an E-mail memo to City Councilmembers (emphasis added),

The road-focused $720 million “mobility” bond package currently under consideration tries to address congestion and safety by increasing “throughput” of vehicles. Unfortunately, experience and a vast body of evidence suggest that this is a losing approach — trying to tweak more capacity to squeeze more traffic typically merely induces more traffic. Furthermore, this influx of ever-growing vehicle traffic simply imposes more stress on congested areas such as Austin’s core.

In contrast, our LRT proposal (and future expansions of LRT throughout Austin) removes traffic from roadways by attracting both drivers and passengers to the transit service

I would suggest that our approach — providing highly attractive rail transit service on its own dedicated tracks — makes far more sense and is far more sustainable as a long-term solution for alleviating mobility congestion, than those elements in the current official proposal that simply attempt to squeeze more traffic onto the city’s crowded streets, roads, and parking spaces.


Proposed citywide urban rail system. Map: Andrew Mayer.

Proposed MOS LRT starter line could serve as anchoring backbone for expansion into LRT network throughout metro area. Map: Andrew Mayer.


And those capacity projections are merely predicated on the initial base estimate of 30,000 daily ridership. The actual potential capacity of the line’s infrastructure, with additional railcars and minor upgrades (e.g., increased power supply), could be raised to 9,000 peak-period rider-trips per hour, corresponding to daily ridership of about 90,000. That’s ultimately equivalent to approximately ten freeway lanes (five per direction).

These capacity benefits are joined by an array of other benefits with LRT, such as:

• Reduction in unit cost of public transport operations compared with bus-only services

• Safer, more accessible neighborhoods

• Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and other motor vehicle pollutants

• Reduction in demand for parking spaces in areas served by LRT

• Safer, more reliable, lower-cost mobility for the public

• More accessible and more affordable public transportation to reinforce affordable housing policies

An authentic mobility bond measure

Over the past several decades, Austin has acquired notoriety for endless agonizing, hesitation, confusion, and indecision over urban rail. Dozens of “studies, re-studies, and re-studies of the re-studies” (in the words of Lyndon Henry) have been executed for LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, with no outcome other than further indecision. Now, in the face of excruciating congestion, and a mounting toll of bloody and fatal accidents, the prospect of a “mobility” bond package is on the table. CACDC’s proposal for a 5.3-mile Minimum Operable Segment (MOS) provides an opening path toward some truly realistic solutions.

A powerful case can be made that a substantial bond commitment for LRT in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor can be inserted into the $720 million official “mobility package”. This can be accomplished by reducing some of the proposed roadway expenditures and substituting rail bonding.

The City Council has before it at least two alternative urban rail bond options, either of which can make urban rail actually happen. Each of these represents an alternative way of funding the same basic project:

• CACDC bond proposal — $397.5 million: this would provide (in our assessment) about three-fourths funding (and potential local match, with FTA assistance) of the proposed MOS starter line

• TAPT bond proposal — $260 million: this would provide 50% local match for the MOS starter line with 50% FTA assistance

Currently, $720 million is on the table — it’s now a question of “what’s in the package for that amount of money?” Ensuring that urban rail is included would bring authenticity of bona fide “mobility” to such a mobility bond package. ■

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Support grows to include urban rail in November “mobility” bond package

28 May 2016
J.D. Gins, member of Urban Transportation Commission, at May 10th meeting, argues for recommendation to Austin City Council to include rail transit in November bond package. ARN screenshot from COA video.

J.D. Gins, member of Urban Transportation Commission, at May 10th meeting, argues for recommendation to Austin City Council to include rail transit in November bond package. ARN screenshot from COA video.

On May 7th, Austin voters resoundingly defeated Proposition 1, an effort by “gig” taxi firms Uber and Lyft to exempt themselves from several regulatory measures applying to other taxi services operating in Austin. In response, Uber and Lyft have both suspended their operations in Austin.

An interesting result is that interest has surged in the possibility of an urban rail alternative – mainly focused on an electric light rail transit (LRT) starter line for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor – being added to a proposed package of “mobility” bond measures this coming November. In a May 12th news segment, for example, KXAN-TV News reporter Chris Sadeghi noted that “As Uber and Lyft leave the conversation on mobility options in Austin, it could provide urban rail the opportunity to re-enter it.”

At its regular meeting of May 10th, the City of Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission (UTC) unanimously passed a resolution presented by board member J.D. Gins (see photo at top of this post) recommending that “the City Council consider rail options including, but not limited to, a minimum operating segment as part of the 2016 bond proposal.” Reporting on this development, KXAN reporter Sadeghi interviewed UTC member Mario Champion. As Sadeghi related, “Because there have been studies and plans already conducted into the feasibility and design of rail projects, Champion said the commission is hopeful the process to getting an election item on the November ballot can move quickly.”

“We could dust off those plans and learn from the community what was good about them and what was not good about them” Champion told the reporter.


Resolution passed by Urban Transportation Commission recommends City Council consider including rail transit in November bond package. Screenshot by ARN from COA PDF.

Resolution passed by Urban Transportation Commission recommends City Council consider including rail transit in November bond package. Screenshot by ARN from COA PDF. (Click to enlarge.)


Also covering the UTC recommendation for putting rail on the ballot, KEYE-TV News reporter Melanie Torre interviewed Andrew Clements with the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC). “Clements has been pushing for an urban light rail for years, but where the rail goes is critical to its success” reported Torre. Clements and the CACDC had played a key role in providing information on urban LRT for UTC members.

“All along North Lamar and Guadalupe there’s already density that would support light rail” Clements told Torre, adding “We’ve known since probably the 1970s that’s the best place to put light urban rail first.” Torre explained that “Years down the road, rail construction could expand north toward Rundberg Lane, east down Riverside Drive and south down Pleasant Valley Road.”

According to the KEYE report, CACDC is proposing a first segment that would “span from Crestview Station to Republic Square Park in downtown” at an estimated cost of about $465 million (2016 dollars). (The CACDC route replicates nearly 80% of the “Plan B” proposal described in an October 2014 ARN posting.)

“Even though it’s expensive, the most efficient way is what we need to start dedicating our public right-of-ways to …” Clements insisted. It should be noted, however, that this is a bargain price for such a mobility investment, which could potentially remove as many as 2,700 motor vehicles each peak hour from major arteries in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

The $465 million investment cost also appears eminently affordable, if 50% Federal Transit Administration funding is assumed. Converting CACDC’s 2016 estimate to Year of Expenditure (YOE) dollars would imply a total project investment of $514 million over four years, and a local 50% match of $257 million – a budgetary allotment for Austin commensurate with other major capital investments in recent years.

A May 16th Austin Monitor article by Caleb Pritchard focused on the UTC vote and also put the urban rail possibility in the context of greater emphasis on alternative mobility opportunities, including expanded bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Pritchard notes that a funding package that would include the 2014 Bicycle Master Plan “as well as the construction of high-priority sidewalks around schools and transit stops” was already on the table in the amount of $411 million.

Miller Nuttle, representing Bike Austin, told the Monitor reporter: “I think rail should be a critical part of solving Austin’s long-term transportation crisis. I also think biking and walking are critical, too, and that’s something we can do now given that the plans have been thoroughly publicly vetted. All they need in order to be actualized is capital funding.”

Pritchard also quoted Clements in regard to the merits of CACDC’s $465 million proposal. “Of all the things that are being considered, I think light urban rail will have the most impact on mobility…” Clements stated. “I strongly support the bike master plan and the sidewalk plan, but I think that, at best, those are going to have single-digit impacts on ride-share mode splits. And I believe light urban rail will have the biggest bang for the buck.”

On May 17th, the City’s Zoning and Platting Commission included the UTC’s resolution “calling for funding the bicycle master plan, high priority sidewalks, and corridor plans that increase opportunities for high capacity transit, including the consideration of rail” in citing their basis to approve a resolution “calling on the city council to put a transportation bond proposal on the upcoming November ballot ….” according to a report from Fox 7 TV News.

Dick Kallerman, a longtime leader of the Travis County Sierra Club’s involvement in transportation issues, interviewed by Fox 7 News, suggested that “a better outreach campaign” might help convince more of the public to “get on board” with public transportation .

“If people start thinking in turns of urban, urban living, mass transit it part of it …” said Kallerman. ” If you get in a car it’s a contradiction, if you think you are an urbanite living in a city and you get in a car, it means you really don’t know what urban living is all about.” ■

Proposed LRT alignment in narrow segment of Guadalupe between 29th-38th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

One possible design for inserting light rail line into Guadalupe St. between W. 29th-W. 38th St. Graphic: Andrew Mayer. (Click to enlarge.)

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Capital Metro: Let’s have 2 1/2 more years of analysis paralysis

27 February 2016
Title slide of Capital Metro's CCCTA presentation to Austin City Council Mobility Committee on Feb. 3rd. Screen capture: ARN.

Title slide of Capital Metro’s CCCTA presentation to Austin City Council Mobility Committee on Feb. 3rd. Screen capture: ARN.

After months of preparation, organizing, bidding, and selection, with lots of fanfare Capital Metro at last launched its $3 million, 30-month (2.5-years) Central Corridor Comprehensive Transit Analysis (CCCTA) study. In a Jan. 25th news release, Capital Metro announced that its board of directors had selected engineering firm AECOM as the lead consultant to conduct the Central Corridor analysis.

To the uninitiated, inexperienced, and uninformed, this latest study might seem some kind of step forward for Austin’s transit development. After all, its elements include impressive-sounding goals like “An in-depth study of a variety of transportation modes and their potential for creating improved transit options within the corridor”, “A multimodal transportation plan that improves the feasibility of transit in the Central Corridor while effectively maximizing connections with regional routes in surrounding communities”, and “A realistic cost analysis for building, operating and maintaining the proposed sustainable and connected transit system”.


Capital Metro's planning chief Todd Hemingson explains CCCTA study to Austin Mobility Committee on Feb. 3rd. Photo: ARN screenshot from official video.

Capital Metro’s planning chief Todd Hemingson explains CCCTA study to Austin City Council Mobility Committee on Feb. 3rd. Photo: ARN screenshot from official video.


Analysis Paralysis gold medal

But, among grassroots public transportation advocates in Austin, it’s hard to find a transit supporter who’s enthusiastic about this study. The reason: All of these issues have already been exhaustively studied, and plans prepared and re-prepared, over and over and over and over again, for more than two decades. For Austin transit supporters, we’ve “been there, done that” — multiple times. It’s just one more repetitive “re-study of the re-studies of the re-studies ….”

To get a breathtaking idea of the time, resources, energy, and money Austin has sunk into planning for “high-capacity” public transport, just check out our February 2015 chronicle of studies and re-studies of light rail transit (LRT) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor: «Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps». This central travel corridor’s high level of traffic, population and employment density, and crucial position accessing and connecting vital activity centers (like UT, the Capitol Complex, and downtown) with key established neighborhoods and extended commercial activity along the route have made it the focus of planning for rail transit for over three decades.

In terms of public transit, Austin clearly is a top contender for the Analysis Paralysis gold medal. And Capital Metro’s latest CCCTA study, as it’s currently designed, surely represents Exhibit A toward this dubious award. The confusion, misdirection, conflicting intentions, and lack of purpose underlying this “paralysis” were discussed in our March 2015 article «Austin’s urban transport planning seems struck by catastrophic case of amnesia and confusion».

Meanwhile, as meaningful public transport planning continues to languish, the Austin metro area is experiencing a veritable blitz of intensive highway development and construction, including at least three new tollways, massive projects on I-35, and assorted projects throughout the urban area. As the saying goes, “Roads get built, transit gets studied“.

Project Connect back from the dead?

But confusion and a continuation of “analysis paralysis” aren’t the only problems with the CCCTA study. As currently configured, the study seems little more than a rehash of Project Connect’s ill-fated “High-Capacity Transit Study” which elicited such intense community outrage beginning in 2013, the precursor to its ultimate resounding rejection by voters in November 2014. Indeed, the CCCTA project seems the first major effort to resuscitate Project Connect since its 2014 debacle.

Among the worst weaknesses of the Project Connect disinterment is the revival of the seriously flawed methodology of the earlier “analysis”. This includes ignoring actual, existing travel corridors — such as the pre-eminent Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — and instead mislabeling huge chunks and sectors of the city as “corridors”. (The methodology further subdivided the “Central Corridor” into “subcorridor” mini-sectors.) Thus, according to Capital Metro, per the CCCTA study, “The Central Corridor is defined as an area bordered on the south by Ben White (US-290), on the east by the Capital Metro’s Red Line, on the north by RM 2222/Koenig Lane, and on the west by MoPac Expressway, and includes downtown Austin.”

Not only is that vast glob of central Austin not a corridor, but (as in the 2013 activity) this approach slices and truncates actual travel corridors, particularly Guadalupe-Lamar, rather than analyzing them in terms of their suitability and potential for actually solving mobility problems with public transport (particularly urban rail). We analyzed the problems with this in our November 2013 article «Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors!»


Infographic shows how Project Connect’s methodology segmented Guadalupe-Corridor into nonsensical pieces, and summarizes numerous other major problems. (Click to enlarge.)

Methodology of Project Connect study in 2013 labeled huge chunk of central city as a “corridor”, but severed actual intact travel corridors into meaningless pieces. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


Community skepticism about Capital Metro’s “corridor” methodology in the CCCTA study was illustrated as early as last September by Jace Deloney, a co-founder of the influential AURA group (involved with urban and transportation issues) and former chairman of the City’s Urban Transportation Commission and Capital Metro’s Customer Satisfaction Advisory Committee:

It’s very important that we advocate against using the previous subcorridor definitions for any future high capacity transit planning project. In my opinion, these subcorridor definitions were deliberately designed to end up with a Red River alignment recommendation.

Re-direct the CCCTA study!

Besides the exhaustive “saga” of studies of the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor detailed in the ARN article cited and linked above, Austin Rail Now and other community stakeholders have presented LRT alternative alignment and design proposals that provide more than enough basis for quickly reaching a decision for an urban rail starter line. The most recent proposals are described in several ARN articles:

Plan for galvanizing Austin’s public transport development: Light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar (June 2015)

Another major Austin community recommendation for light rail transit in Guadalupe-Lamar (November 2015)

Another possible design for light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor (January 2016)

So far, in the absence of any sense of direction toward a major urban rail investment, Austin’s top political and civic leadership is vulnerable to pressure by highway interests (such as TxDOT) for municipal general obligation bond funding for a heavy local investment in a massive I-35 overhaul and other huge highway projects. To this, a major rail transit starter line investment might be counter-proposed as a far more effective and desirable alternative for city bond funding.

It would definitely seem time to end Austin’s decades of “analysis paralysis” and move forward quickly toward finalizing an urban rail plan for public approval — a strategy that could be expedited by re-directing Capital Metro’s CCCTA study. There is certainly sufficient planning and design preparatory work already in place to provide the voting public a basis on which to make a decision for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. The AECOM consultant team (widely respected in the public transportation industry, with experience with LRT in Portland, Minneapolis, and elsewhere) could simply update and tweak the major engineering studies that have already been done (e.g., those in 1993 and 2000) for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.


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.

Austin Rail Now proposal is one of several possible configurations already suggested for light rail starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Graphic: ARN.


This would likely require a major intervention by Austin City Council members to request Capital Metro to negotiate with its consultant team for a modification of the CCCTA work plan — eliminating the proposed 30-month “slow track” study, and re-directing the project into planning, design, and engineering of LRT for the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as suggested above. This would have the aim of placing a measure on the ballot for bond funding (to be kept in escrow till further planning and Preliminary Engineering/Environmental Impact Study tasks are completed). Adequate cost estimates are already on hand for such a ballot measure.

According to Surinder Marwah, the former Capital Metro Senior Planner who secured federal funding for the MetroRapid bus project, this can be “a reasonable plan if the elected officials, business leaders and major stakeholders can come to an agreement” for the general Guadalupe-Lamar alignment corridor. “AECOM can update the preliminary cost estimates quickly and perform fatal flaw analysis for the alignment corridor within few months — by mid-late August to get this into [a] November ballot measure.”

Capital Metro’s currently contrived CCCTA study seems little more than a “holding pattern” reflecting the indecisiveness and lack of will of key public officials in regard to public transport policy. Re-directing this study as proposed above would at long last move Austin’s rail public transport development into a widely supported action phase and head it expeditiously toward the mobility quantum leap Austinites have so long been denied. ■

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Strong community support for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail continues — but officials seem oblivious

3 January 2015
Graphic: Midwest District Blog.

Graphic: Midwest District Blog.

While Project Connect’s disastrously flawed Highland-Riverside “urban rail” plan recedes into history — decisively rejected by voters on Nov. 4th — community support for a sensible, workable, affordable light rail transit (LRT) plan continues. For example, see:

A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line

Resume planning light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar!

As this website reported in a “post-mortem” analysis posted a day after the Nov. 4th rail vote, “…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.”

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.

Ironically, part of the evidence of community support for rail comes from the Nov. 4th election results themselves. While a majority voted to defeat the Highland-Riverside plan on the ballot, a tally of precincts suggests strong pro-rail sentiment in the heart of the city. This is shown in an interactive election results map provided by Travis County, illustrating precinct-by-precinct vote preponderance, with pro-rail sentiment indicated as light blue (or turquoise) and opposition to the measure as lavender or purple (screenshot below).


Screenshot of interactive map of Nov. 4th "urban rail" vote by precinct. Source: Travis County. (Click to enlarge.)

Screenshot of interactive map of Nov. 4th “urban rail” vote by precinct. Source: Travis County. (Click to enlarge.)


Although the central pro-rail precincts (blue in the above map) seem surrounded by a sea of precincts against the measure, it’s important to realize that those central precincts include some of the densest and most populous in the city. An analysis by veteran Guadalupe-Lamar LRT supporter Mike Dahmus suggests that these central-city precincts that voted for the rail measure did so less enthusiastically than in the 2000 LRT referendum — tending to corroborate the hypothesis that opposition from rail transit advocates and supporters played a major role in helping defeat the official Highland-Riverside plan, perceived as flawed and even “worse than nothing”. (Stronger core-city support could have outweighed opposition in suburban precincts.)

Conversely, this tends to bolster the plausibility that a sensible, widely supported light rail (“urban rail”) proposal could muster the majority of votes needed to pass. The prospect of an LRT starter line project in the crucial, central, high-travel Guadalupe-Lamar corridor has already mustered affirmations of support from adjacent neighborhood associations, the UT student government, and other community sources, and would seem to have strong potential to succeed as a ballot measure.

Kate Harrington, in an article posted by the Building ATX.com website on Nov. 11th, just a week after the Nov. 4th vote, reminded readers of Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s prediction that if the “urban rail” bond measure failed it “would mean that no new transit initiative would take shape for a decade or more.” But, Harrington observed, “Instead, it seems the issue is anything but dead. … Since voters decisively shot down the rail proposal last week, conversations about a possible ‘Plan B’ have sprung up all over the city.”

Most recently, via an interactive, annotated map (see screenshot below), the latest proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar LRT route has been publicized by Brad Parsons, a community activist involved with urban and transportation issues. Starting at the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S. 183, this route would follow North Lamar Blvd., Guadalupe St., Nueces St., San Antonio St., and finally Guadalupe and Lavaca St. past established central Austin neighborhoods and activity centers, through the West Campus, past the Capitol Complex, and into Austin’s CBD. Brad’s proposal underscores the fact that there’s a variety of ways that LRT can be fitted into this constrained but high-volume traffic corridor.


Map of Guadalupe-Lamar corridor light rail route proposed by Brad Parsons.

Map of Guadalupe-Lamar corridor light rail route proposed by Brad Parsons. (Click to enlarge.)


Throughout last year’s ballot measure campaign, supporters of the official rail proposal (led by Let’s Go Austin) continuously depicted “urban rail” as absolutely essential to secure and sustain Austin’s future mobility and livability. With the slogan “Rail or Fail”, Mayor Leffingwell himself repeatedly warned that Austin needed an urban rail transit system to maintain its economic vitality and mobility in the face of steadily menacing traffic “gridlock”. Furthermore, news reports and competent analyses emphasized that simply building more highways or adding more buses to the roadway grid was counterproductive.

But while much of the Austin public seem to perceive and even embrace the alternative of an urban rail “Plan B” starter line routed in Guadalupe-Lamar (where the population density, major employment and activity centers, and heavy local travel are), key public officials and former leaders of the Let’s Go Austin pro-rail campaign seem to have been struck blind and deaf, oblivious to the obvious feasibility of LRT in the city’s most central and heavily used local corridor. For instance, the City’s Guadalupe Street Corridor Study, suddenly awakened from apparent dormancy to hold its first widely publicized public event on Dec. 3rd discussing “how to improve” the Drag, has explicitly ruled out consideration of rail transit, according to project manager Alan Hughes.

For Capital Metro board chairman (and outgoing City Councilmember) Mike Martinez, who had been expounding for the past year that “urban rail” was absolutely essential, further study of an alternative LRT plan now is apparently inconceivable. Martinez’s new mantra — basically a variant of “my way or the highway” — is that “the voters have spoken”, rail is off the table, and “we have to become the best bus city in America.”

Evidently at Martinez’s behest, Capital Metro has been sifting about for other ways to spend nearly $3 million in planning funds previously scheduled for further “urban rail” study (on the now-defunct Highland-Riverside proposal). Re-allocate these funds to a resumption of planning for LRT in Guadalupe-Lamar (where urban rail would actually make overwhelmingly good sense)? Certainly not.


Capital Metro's "Heart of the City" latest projects propose to usurp millions in urban rail planning funds for other purposes. Screenshot from video of Dec. 15th Capital Metro board meeting.

Capital Metro’s “Heart of the City” latest projects propose to usurp millions in urban rail planning funds for other purposes. Screenshot from video of Dec. 15th Capital Metro board meeting.


Instead, at a Dec. 15th Capital Metro board meeting, Todd Hemingson, the agency’s head of strategic planning and development, outlined a “Heart of the City” list of potential study efforts (see photo of PowerPoint slide, above). Hemingson’s presentation made clear that even the two items seemingly most relevant to the central Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — “Guadalupe/Lavaca Transit Mall” and “Central Corridor Transit Entryways” — were actually focused merely on modest bus service expansion and infrastructure (including a possible tunnel for buses between the Loop 1 toll lanes and arterials leading into downtown).

Austin — supposedly the most “progressive” city in the “reddest” rightwing state of Texas — has a distinctive (read: notorious) reputation for dithering, dallying, and derailing in its public transport planning … while excluding the general public and making key decisions secretively behind closed doors. Surely the time has come to break this pattern. Will a new mayor and a new district-based 10-1 City Council provide an opportunity to scrap this modus operandi of failure and disaster, bring the community into authentic involvement in crucial decisions, and move forward with the first phase of LRT as a starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar?

We’re trying our hardest to help make that happen. ■


Light rail in Guadalupe and North Lamar could be modeled after San Francisco's N-Line route in Judah St., seen in this satellite view from Google Maps. Screenshot: Dave Dobbs.

Light rail in Guadalupe and North Lamar could be modeled after San Francisco’s N-Line route in Judah St., seen in this satellite view from Google Maps. Screenshot: Dave Dobbs. (Click to enlarge.)

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Lessons of the Austin rail bond defeat

20 November 2014
Campaign sign from OurRail PAC, which advocates light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, but strongly opposed City's Highland-Riverside urban rail plan and the $600 million bond proposition to fund it.

Campaign sign from OurRail PAC, which advocates light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, but strongly opposed City’s Highland-Riverside urban rail plan and the $600 million bond proposition to fund it.

By Roger Baker

Roger Baker, a longtime Austin transportation, energy, and urban issues researcher and community activist, presented these comments to the November 10th meeting of CAMPO (the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization).

1. A top lesson is that with “affordability” taking the lead in Austin politics, it is getting risky to expect property taxpayers to fund road or rail projects without a lot of grassroots community buy-in. Transportation planners apparently plan for this funding shift onto local taxpayers to continue, despite its obvious unpopularity.

2. Putting a lot of roads and rail on the same complex bond package was a mistake. While technically legal, this was confusing and helped make the issue politically divisive.

3. Expecting voters to approve using up all our enviable AAA debt bonding capacity just before a new council takes office is not only bad policy, but it is likely to be distinctly unpopular with the new council candidates.

4. One lesson of this bond election is that the Austin voting public is probably smarter than many politicians give them credit for. The billion dollars offered little traffic congestion relief to most voters, since it was heavily geared toward future growth rather than existing residents. A slogan like “With roads and rail we cannot fail” couldn’t overcome the lack of much plausible benefit for most Austin voters.

5. It is probably bad policy to let private special interest groups like RECA [Real Estate Council of Austin] dictate the terms of bond elections like this one, simply because it doesn’t look very good when word gets out.

6. It was a mistake to assume that promoting a weak rail corridor designed to serve hypothetical growth would not hurt the proposal. Anti-rail, pro-road sentiment is relatively constant. Meanwhile, Austin has a sizable and active community of smart transit activists, many of them young and actively into social media, where information, both pro and con, travels fast. We already do have a Plan B, in the form of the currently much stronger and cheaper North Lamar/Guadalupe rail corridor.

7. Putting all our eggs in one planning basket, second-guessing the voters, and assuming that the bond promoters could win an election with over a million dollars’ worth of advertising and high-profile political endorsements didn’t work. This shows money power cannot reliably overcome smart, well-organized voter power. ■

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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.

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The fraudulent “study” behind the misguided Highland-Riverside urban rail plan

4 November 2014
Infographic shows how Project Connect’s methodology segmented Guadalupe-Corridor into nonsensical pieces, and summarizes numerous other major problems. (Click to enlarge.)

Infographic map shows several major flaws of Project Connect methodology, applied to a portion of “study” area. Result was to skew results (and urban rail route) toward desired sectors of central city. Graphic: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

Few local issues have been more divisive than the City of Austin’s 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion urban rail plan. Envisioned for a route that meanders from the Highland ACC area on the north to the East Riverside area on the southeast, the proposal is now on the Nov. 4th ballot as a $600 million municipal General Obligation bonds measure that would help fund slightly less than half of the projected investment cost.

Community skepticism — and puzzlement — about this rail project is widespread, but sponsors and supporters of it have repeatedly endeavored to bolster its credibility by describing it as the product of a “scientific”, “data-driven”, or “data-based” effort, a “high-capacity transit study” pursued by the Project Connect transportation agency consortium roughly between June and December 2013. However, as this website and numerous other critical sources have exhaustively documented, that “study” was basically a fraud.

It’s useful to review and summarize the origins of this seriously flawed rail plan as election day has come upon us. In particular, it’s important to keep in mind that the Project Connect “study” represents an object lesson in how not to conduct a study for a New Start rail transit project. This review will rely primarily on previous articles published contemporaneously on this website during the “study” exercise.

From Mueller to Riverside to Highland

As our recent article Derailing the Mueller urban rail express — Preamble to Project Connect’s 2013 “High-Capacity Transit Study” recounted, for years, local streetcar and then “urban rail” planning had focused on a starter line to the Mueller redevelopment project. There, the major urban development enterprise Catellus had been promised a rail transit link to help raise density limits, attract more property investors and homebuyers, and thus boost profits. Important also were the desires of the small but growing community of Mueller residents who expected a rail connection to jobs and other destinations.

However, for years the question had been repeatedly raised: Since the North Lamar-Guadalupe corridor was recognized as the city’s heaviest local arterial corridor, with the heaviest congestion — even used to justify the very need for urban rail in official presentations and documents — why was out-of-the-way Mueller targeted for the initial starter line investment? This inconsistency was the focus of our March 2013 article Why abandon Austin’s major corridor and congestion problem? which presented the following graphic, originally contained in a 27 January 2012 commentary by Lyndon Henry (now a contributing editor to this website):


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Graphic from 2012 suggested official emphasis on urban rail line to Mueller was misplaced, when real mobility need was in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Infographic: L. Henry.


As our “Derailing…” article, cited above, further recounts, the City of Austin/Project Connect pretext for continuing to plan an easterly, East Campus urban rail starter line to Mueller began to fall apart when the competency of a 2010 “Route Alternatives Evaluation” — the nominal basis for the plan then current — was questioned. Possibly other factors may also have begun to come into play (such as business community interest in exploring other development opportunities that could affect urban rail route planning).

In any case, the direction of rail planning shifted significantly. As our article noted,

In early 2013, Kyle Keahey was hired as Urban Rail Lead to head a new “High-Capacity Transit Study”, tasked with supposedly re-evaluating everything, racing through a process (with a presumably more competent and defensible methodology) that would result in a recommendation by the end of 2013.

Summary assessments of Project Connect “study”

Personnel associated with Austin Rail Now, the Light Rail Now Project, and other pro-rail organizations were involved intimately in following the planning activities of the “high-capacity transit” exercise from midsummer through the early winter of 2013. A number of our articles, particularly beginning in early November, chronicled revelations and realizations about the planning process as they emerged at the time.

However, a reasonable overview of the fundamental problems with the Project Connect exercise is provided in two of our articles in particular, each of them based on major commentaries by Lyndon Henry addressed to the Central Corridor Advisory Council (a group of community leaders hand-picked by Mayor Lee Leffingwell to review and approve work of the “study” team). These two articles, from early December 2013, together represent in essence an indictment of the competency and indeed the very legitimacy of the Project Connect exercise:

Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector

Project Connect Needs an Overhaul

What emerges is the sense of a process that was corrupted and skewed to render what, in hindsight, appears to be predetermined results — results seemingly contrived to justify a routing scheme for the proposed urban rail starter line project contrived to fulfill the aims and desires of City of Austin policy and various special interests. As our article Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place (17 November 2013) assessed the process, Project Connect’s “study” seemed to have

… numerous hallmarks of having been rigged, from a peculiarly contrived methodology that departs from longstanding professional practice, to cherry-picking of a highly questionable set of data elements and the exclusion of data indicators far more appropriate for such an ostensible “corridor study”. (And, one might add, a highly secretive and insular process that immunized the ProCon team and their study procedures from public scrutiny and oversight.)

Thus the basic flaw in ProCon’s data analysis can be boiled down to one word: GIGO (“Garbage In, Garbage Out”). In effect, this appears to have been a process that involved limiting the focus to gerrymandered data sources, and then playing games with gerrymandered data.

The task facing Kyle Keahey and the Project Connect team was daunting. The prevalent public sentiment strongly favored the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor for the urban rail starter line. Most Austinites sensed that Guadalupe-Lamar carried the heaviest traffic, served the highest density, and accessed the most key activity centers in the central city. Yet the City of Austin administration, Project Connect political leadership, and a major segment of local political and civic leaders desired a “study” outcome that would validate their economic and real estate development objectives. Project Connect’s effort would therefore have to try to convince the community, “Don’t believe your lying eyes.”


PowerPoint slide in Nov. 2013 Project Connect public presentation shows audience's overwhelming preference for "Lamar" — a proxy for the Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor. Photo: Workingbird Blog.

PowerPoint slide in Nov. 2013 Project Connect public presentation shows audience’s overwhelming preference for “Lamar” — a proxy for the Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor. Photo: Workingbird Blog.


Critical failings of the Project Connect “study” charade can be grouped into categories of practices. The following summaries of these practices include references to various ARN articles that may further illuminate these issues.

► Failure to examine travel corridors

Rather than zooming in on, and analyzing, actual travel patterns and density of travel in actual travel corridors within central Austin, the “study” instead carved out a great square of the central city, dubbed it the “Central Corridor” (although it contained multiple corridors in every direction), and then further subdivided this into a series of ten component sectors, some sprawling over considerable expanses of urban real estate. Since virtually the entire central city had been designated a “corridor”, these sectors were then dubbed “sub-corridors” — a kind of camouflage verbiage that masked the actual nature of what were in effect city neighborhoods or districts, not travel corridors. The “sub-corridor” designation also imparted a veneer of “transportation study” truthiness.

Our first analysis of this methodological problem, Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors! noted that Project Connect’s subdivision of the study area in this way thus

… created an array of balkanized sectors that are analyzed more as autonomous geographic-demographic “islands” than as components essential to work together as a whole. As a result, actual, realistic, workable travel corridors have been obscured by all this.

Our article included a detailed explanation, with examples, of what urban travel corridors actually are, and how they should be treated and evaluated in a bona fide transportation corridor study. But, rather than corridors, Project Connect’s sectors (“sub-corridors”), we pointed out at the time, “resemble, to some extent, rather large travel analysis zones (TAZs, also called traffic analysis zones or transportation analysis zones).”

But, rather than TAZs for legitimate analysis purposes, we pointed out,

Project Connect’s sectors, in contrast, seem more designed to pit one part of the city against another — to function more as neighborhood enclaves to be assessed for their isolated demographics and “level of misery” (poverty, congestion, etc.) in a competitive showdown within a game of “Which sector deserves the urban rail prize?” It’s astounding that this charade is presented as a form of officially sponsored urban transportation planning.

Together with the agency team’s “seemingly heedless” segmentation of travel routes, their “treatment of adjacent sectors as insular, isolated enclaves, whose demographics and other characteristics apply only to themselves” was equally harmful to proper analysis. “Likewise travel characteristics are treated in isolation, as if the population in all these different ‘enclaves’ confine themselves to the sector boundaries that ProCon planners have established for them.”

Throughout the “study” process, we repeatedly returned to this problem. Our article Questions for Project Connect (3 December 2013), publishing questions which we raised in a “data dig” with Project Connect team members, asked “Why has this study avoided performing an actual corridor study, and instead spent its time (and taxpayers’ dollars) confined to undertaking a de facto inventory (and ‘beauty contest’) of various urban sectors in isolation?”

In our Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector (5 December 2013) we noted that “The basic methodology of focusing on sectors (so-called ‘sub-corridors’) meant that the study failed to study a single actual potential travel corridor in the study area.”

► Gerrymandered “study” sectors

Our Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors! article, pointing out the peculiar boundaries applied to Project Connect’s weirdly sprawling sectors, described them as “gerrymandered”, and further experience confirmed this assessment. Our 17 November 2013 article Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place observed that

rather than performing a bona fide study of actual alternative corridors, ProCon embarked on what amounted to an inventory of highly filtered attributes of basically gerrymandered sectors, dubbed “sub-corridors”, devolving into a kind of “beauty contest” among sectors of the city, while distorting as well as ignoring the actual travel corridors that should have been the focus.

The article provides the example of the highly contrived “Highland” sector:

It should be noted that the “Highland” sector bears very little resemblance to the actual Highland neighborhood, delineated by both the Highland Neighborhood Association (see Highland Neighborhood Association endorses Guadalupe-Lamar for urban rail) and the Highland Neighborhood Planning Area defined by the City of Austin (COA). While the actual Highland neighborhood and planning district includes North Lamar Blvd. (mostly as its western boundary) all the way from Denson Drive to U.S. 183, ProCon’s “Highland” sector studiously avoids Lamar, and never reaches U.S. 183; instead, the sector incorporates I-35 (never even touched by the real Highland), and droops down far south of the actual neighborhood to include Hancock Center and the northern edge of the UT campus — thus overlapping the long-proposed Mueller route for urban rail. In this sense, “Highland” appears to be manipulated here as a kind of “proxy” for the COA’s original plan, functioning as a precursor of a full route to Mueller.

► Severed and segmented travel corridors

This was perhaps the single most serious fault of the Project Connect exercise — not only failing to examine actual corridor travel patterns, but essentially destroying intact corridors, such as Guadalupe-Lamar, simply because they crossed boundaries of the arbitrary sectors. As we first noted in Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors!

Perhaps the most serious flaw in ProCon’s urban rail study methodology — actually, catastrophic, because it fundamentally impairs the integrity of the whole process — is that the actual travel corridors are not only basically ignored as workable corridors, but also are truncated and segmented by ProCon’s arbitrary slicing up of the urban area.

If you’re evaluating a travel corridor, you must evaluate the corridor as a whole — what it connects from, to, and in between; what the populations and densities along the corridor are; what activity centers it connects; and so on. All those are important, because they’re critical to what makes a transit line in that corridor actually feasible and worth investing in.

The results for the Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor were basically fatal, as we pointed out:

the Guadalupe-Lamar route is severed just north of the UT-West Campus area at W. 29th St. In other words, most of this potential route is cut off from its highest-density population district as well as its most productive destinations in the core of the city!

What’s left is a “rump” route, from a few blocks south of U.S. 183 to W. 29th St., that seems to have little purpose beyond perhaps some kind of “shuttle” along this isolated route segment. If there were a prize for idiotic public transport planning, surely Project Connect would be very high on the candidate list.

This problem also was repeatedly underscored. In our article Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector (5 December 2013) we warned that “The basic methodology of focusing on sectors (so-called ‘sub-corridors’) meant that the study failed to study a single actual potential travel corridor in the study area”, and added:

This methodology also segmented an otherwise viable corridor such as Guadalupe-Lamar into nonsensical pieces, severing the corridor from its most logical destination (West Campus and core area), and thus creating an arbitrary “rump” route (29th St. to south of U.S. 183) that goes from nowhere to nowhere.

Likewise, in Project Connect Needs an Overhaul (7 December 2013), we reiterated: “Project Connect’s methodology segmented the outstanding Guadalupe-Lamar corridor into nonsensical pieces, severing it from its most logical destination (the West Campus and core area), thus creating an arbitrary ‘rump’ route that goes from nowhere to nowhere.” These warnings, of course, were ignored.

► Excluding student and other nonwork travel patterns

While specific travel corridor trips were not examined in the “study”, Project Connect did include tabulations of total travel in each sector and estimates of trips between sectors and the Core Area. However, a particularly breathtaking aspect of the project’s Evaluation Matrix (also called the Comparison Matrix) was the exclusion of all trips except home-based work trips. In other words, non-work trips — including student trips — were omitted from consideration.

As we asked in our “data dig” Questions for Project Connect, “Why has this study’s assessment of “travel demand” from each sector to the core ignored home-based non-work (HBNW) trips — including UT student trips and recreational trips — in a college city with the largest university in Texas in its core area?”

This omission was repeatedly emphasized in subsequent articles. In our Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector, we pointed out:

As a measure of “Travel Demand” from each sector to the core, non-work trips such as UT student trips and recreational trips (e.g., to restaurants, bars, etc.) have been EXCLUDED — dismissing not only the enormous importance of non-work trips (which are heavy in the off-peak) for more cost-effective transit service, but especially the huge significance of student and recreational trips in a city with the largest university in the state (and located in its core).


Student travel was omitted from Project Connect's evaluation process, although their ultimately recommended route connected UT, the state's largest university, with ACC, the city's major community college. Photo via UTRugby.com.

Student travel was omitted from Project Connect’s evaluation process, although their ultimately recommended route connected UT, the state’s largest university, with ACC, the city’s major community college. Photo via UTRugby.com.


And similarly, in Project Connect Needs an Overhaul, we asked:

Extremely important non-work trips such as UT student trips and recreational trips have been EXCLUDED as a measure of “Travel Demand” from each sector to the core. How could they do this in a city whose core contains the largest university in the state?

In hindsight, the omission of student travel from the Evaluation Matrix is especially ironic in light of the fact that travel between UT and ACC would ultimately be a major component of the purported ridership of the final route presented by Project Connect.

► Manipulation of implausible projections

Skepticism about Project Connect’s heavy reliance on dubious projections began to emerge as the pace quickened toward a “recommendation” from the project team. In our 3 December 2013 article related to the “data dig”, Questions for Project Connect, we asked: “Why has this study used such speculative projections based on procedures that maximize all possible development for targeted areas (such as ‘ERC’, ‘Mueller’, and ‘Highland’), rather than using conservative projections based on conditions closer to reality?”

Local researchers and analysts such as software developer and research analyst Dan Keshet and management consultant Julio Gonzalez Altamirano had exposed serious weaknesses in the array of data projections being deployed by the project team — especially the conversion of what were in effect development “wish lists” into hard projections of future development, population, and employment that were being plugged into Project Connect’s model (an Excel-based “Evaluation Matrix” designed to competitively score the various sectors and render a winner). Their conclusions and other problems of the project’s data projections are discussed in our article What’s with Project Connect’s “2.9 million daily ridership” projection? (16 December 2013). As this article noted,

The question of projections has been an extremely contentious issue in Project Connect’s urban rail “study”. For many critics, the agency’s “projections” have represented de facto fantasies about what they would like to see, rather than the solidly reliable output of competent predictive analytics.

While projections were critical in any process of forecasting future developments and especially public transit ridership, we explained, “…there’s a vast distinction between developing conservative, reliable, and plausible forecasts, and producing exaggerated, fantasy-like projections, as Project Connect has done, heavily skewed toward certain geographical areas.”


Many of Project Connect's "data projections" for 2030 were based on "wish lists" of development, population, employment, and other demographic features — leading critics to ridicule them as "fantasy". Graphic via ARN.

Many of Project Connect’s “data projections” for 2030 were based on “wish lists” of development, population, employment, and other demographic features — leading critics to ridicule them as “fantasy”. Graphic via ARN.


In the 17 November 2013 article Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place, we expressed skepticism about “the selection of a predominantly questionable array of data elements as the basis for ‘evaluation’ of the various sectors. Leaving their ‘weighting’ aside, in the aggregate the evaluatory elements themselves are inappropriate.”

As the article explained,

ProCon relies very heavily on projections of future conditions for their basic measures. As the rail advocacy group AURA (Austinites for Urban Rail Action) has explained in its evaluation guide, projections themselves are basically unreliable, risky, flaky, whereas, in contrast, “We believe use of the real-world, recently-observed data gives the more accurate and reliable picture of potential ridership, as well as the greatest viability for federal funding.”

… Beyond a roughly five-year horizon, projections for specific neighborhoods and similar chunks of real estate basically become unreliably speculative — which seems to be what we’ve actually been dealing with … a significant dollop of real estate speculation, given a kind of veneer of “techiness” by CAMPO and their land use/travel demand model package.

For decades, public transportation advocates have warned repeatedly about the “self-fulfilling prophecy” syndrome in this kind of transportation planning process. In the past, it’s been applied mainly to highway development — justifying “future growth” in just the right places where developers want to build, so as to rationalize huge investments in new freeways and other roads. And, lo and behold, these very projections somehow materialize after the transportation facilities are built, thus “proving” the “validity” of the projections!

Today, in Austin, this process may be at work justifying speculative land development in certain areas of the central city (i.e., the central study area — “Central Corridor”), this time with the added drawback of ignoring or dismissing opportunities for redevelopment of areas in the heart of the core city, particularly centered along the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

As an example, in our article “Highland” sector favored by Project Connect — but where’s the travel demand? (19 November 2013) we noted that Project Connect’s presentation of CAMPO travel demand data in their own Map Book contradicted the claims of high travel demand in the “Highland” sector — one of the key underpinnings for their “recommendation” of a route to serve this fabricated sector. Thus, we warned, “since Project Connect based its assessment significantly on this data, the results presented, and the contrary evidence of very strong travel demand in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, contradicting Project Connect’s own stated conclusions, should at the very least raise questions about the competency and integrity of the study process.”

As we summarized the pattern in What’s with Project Connect’s “2.9 million daily ridership” projection?

Another way of saying this is that Project Connect’s planners have converted their own wishful thinking into actual data inputs, that are then deployed to make their evaluation. Wishes are used to try to make the wishes come true.

► Applying subjectively derived scores

Despite the characterization by supporters that Project Connect’s efforts were thoroughly “data-driven” and “scientific”, some components of their “study” were not even camouflaged as “projections” or externally derived data, but instead were presented merely as subjective judgements of the project team. In our 3 December 2013 “data dig” Questions for Project Connect, we asked

Project Connect’s “Physical Constraints” metric appears to be based on totally subjective value assessments, and no information has been given as to how these value judgements have been developed. Where’s the factual basis for this?

The response was that these scores were based purely on the team’s “professional judgement”. We highlighted this on our article Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector:

The study has assigned an extremely high “Constrained Right-of-Way” penalty to the “Lamar” sector, but not to the “Highland”, “Mueller”, “ERC” sectors — apparently implying that Project Connect considers there to be no “Constrained Right-of-Way” problems for “Highland”, “Mueller”, and “ERC”. This also is implausible, and this penalty seems to be arbitrarily applied to sectors (“sub-corridors”) that the Project Connect team dislikes (e.g., “Lamar”), but withheld from sectors they seem to prefer (e.g., “ERC”, “Highland”, “Mueller”).

► Selective manipulation of data

Another practice skewing Project Connect’s “study” results was their “cherry-picking” of data categories and their selective manipulation of their own methodology — pre-eminently, the Transit Orientation Index model they appropriated from Portland. As we explained in our analysis What’s with Project Connect’s “2.9 million daily ridership” projection? (16 December 2013):

Apparently in an attempt at a gesture toward some kind of prediction of future transit ridership, one of the metrics Project Connect decided to use in their Comparison Matrix is a “Transit Orientation Index” (TOI), a ridership demand assessment model developed in 1997 by consultants for Portland, Oregon’s TriMet transit agency. …

According to the documentation, the TOI metric is envisioned to assess transit ridership demand at the level of a small analysis zone …. Project Connect planners, however, have applied the model to considerably larger sectors covering several square miles with hundreds and even thousands of acres.

We’d previously summarized the astounding problem with the TOI model in our Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector, which warned that, when key projections, already embedded in the Evaluation Matrix, were plugged into the TOI,

… the results are extremely implausible — e.g., for the “ERC” (East Riverside) sector, Project Connect calculates high total daily transit ridership of 2.9 million, about equal to the total citywide daily ridership of Chicago and Philadelphia combined. (Their “low estimate” for that single sector is higher than the total citywide ridership of entire cities like Denver and Seattle.) This strongly tends to corroborate other evidence that Project Connect’s projections have been seriously exaggerated and are utterly implausible.

Likewise, in Project Connect Needs an Overhaul we observed:

Rather than developing conservative, reliable, and plausible forecasts, Project Connect has produced exaggerated, highly questionable projections, heavily skewed toward certain geographical areas. When these same projections are plugged into Project Connect’s own Transit Orientation Index (TOI), the results are ridiculously unbelievable. For the single “ERC” sector, the low-end prediction of daily transit ridership is higher than the total system daily ridership of entire cities like Denver and Seattle. On the high end, it’s about equal to the total system daily ridership of Chicago and Philadelphia combined.

These implausible outputs from the TOI were jaw-dropping. When the projections of Year-2030 population, employment, and other data items that were mainstays of their Evaluation Matrix were fed into the model, even the low-end results were absurd. For the “ERC” (East Riverside) sector, for example, as we pointed out in our What’s with Project Connect’s “2.9 million daily ridership” projection? analysis, “… the low-end figure — daily ridership of 492,682 (493K) — is equally preposterous, exceeding the total system daily ridership of entire large cities.” These cities included Portland, Seattle, Denver, and Atlanta.

As for the Highland sector, TOI results were likewise other-worldly. As we noted,

…the TOI model results for 2030 are similarly off the scale. Whereas current 2013 ridership is about 5K (5100/day), the “low” TOI prediction for 2030 is about 127K — an increase of 2,440%. The “high” prediction (no need for upper-bound substitution in this case) is 279K — a predicted increase of 5,480%.

Put another way, to meet the lower-end ridership suggested by the demographic and economic projections, average daily ridership in the “Highland” sector would have to exhibit sustained average daily ridership growth of about 7,200 each year for 17 years.

Curiously, while the project team excluded such embarrassing outputs from the TOI model from their matrix, they were selectively using other aspects of the TOI as inputs for the same matrix. As we noted,

… Project Connect’s matrix does use the TOI, itself based on the same dubious projection inputs, to render a metric score to bolster their preferred sectors (“sub-corridors”) in the competition they’ve set up. …

But, even more importantly, the TOI for 2030, dependent as it is upon Project Connect’s “projections” (de facto fantasies), exposes their absurdity. No wonder Project Connect and its entourage don’t want these used … no wonder they attempt to distance themselves from them!

It’s very simple — plug Project Connect’s own projections into this otherwise fairly realistic model, and you get bizarrely, unbelievably exaggerated results. Maybe a hint that the original projections are bizarrely unbelievable?

In effect, the TOI is performing here somewhat like a “canary in the coalmine” — telling Project Connect, and all of us, that something is terribly wrong with their demographic and economic projections for 2030.

Big Picture: Fraud

The impact of all these seemingly disconnected errors, missteps, omissions, and methodological shenanigans on a single portion of the “study” area is illustrated by the infographic at the top of this post, which focuses on several of the sectors surrounding the Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor. (The so-called “Lamar” sector was widely misinterpreted as this corridor itself, but it was actually just a wide swath of urban real estate, stretching as far west as Shoal Creek Blvd., and embracing Burnet Road to the west as well as a segment of Guadalupe-Lamar in its eastern half — and neither of these two major travel corridors was examined.) As this graphic makes clear, the ground rules and methodology of Project Connect’s “study” very effectively prevented meaningful evaluation of this key, heavily traveled, central corridor.

From this grab-bag of colossal problems, your first assessment might be that Project Connect’s team was the rail planning equivalent of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Unfortunately, it’s worse. What actually emerges out of all this, from the vantage point of a year of hindsight, is a much more troubling image than mere ineptitude — by connecting the dots, the outline of a deliberate effort to deceive and to manipulate the “study” becomes unmistakable.


Kyle Keahey promoting "high-capacity transit" route selected by Project Connect, Nov. 2013. Photo: YouTube screengrab.

Project Connect Urban Rail Lead Kyle Keahey presenting “recommendation” of Highland-Riverside urban rail route, Nov. 2013. Photo: YouTube screengrab.


Contradictory as it might seem, it’s entirely plausible that otherwise technically competent members of the Project Connect team, drawn into the “trees” of the exercise, were unaware of the implications of the larger “forest”. Also the mind, with its ability to rationalize, justify, and alibi, can be a very mysterious apparatus.

In any case, the motives for tailoring the proposed urban rail route to the needs of development policies and interests are also very clear. These are described particularly in three of our articles:

Who are those guys? Real estate development interests and Austin’s urban rail boondoggle

UT should pay for East Campus urban rail — not Austin taxpayers

Derailing the Mueller urban rail express — Preamble to Project Connect’s 2013 “High-Capacity Transit Study”

So there’s motivation. There’s an amazing assortment of jaw-dropping methodological botch-ups. And it all fits together to promote the desires of the sponsors of the exercise.

The Big Picture we see of this whole process is dominated by a bright red fluorescent flashing sign. The sign says: Fraud. This is definitely a model of rail planning for other communities — a model to avoid at all costs. ■

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Why Austin is faced with a “Worse-Than-Nothing” urban rail plan

2 November 2014
Graphic via Blip.tv

Graphic via Blip.tv

By Dave Dobbs

The pro-transit group AURA (Austinites for Urban Rail Action) is owed a strong acknowledgement of thanks for posting their exposé pointing out the Republican origins of the money behind Let’s Go Austin’s campaign to try to paint all the opponents of the City’s urban rail bond proposition as captives of the Tea Party. Special thanks are due to the AURA author(s) and researcher(s) who did the homework. (Also see: Let’s Go Austin — Tea-baiting from an awfully glass house.)

One person commenting recently to a local rail discussion forum made some interesting observations about Let’s Go Austin’s tactics:

I expect they’ve taken this angle because their polling says the most popular way to portray the bond is “progressive.” … I think the best chance for defeating Prop 1 is sowing doubt among the self-identified “progressives.”

I think these comments are absolutely right about sowing doubt with progressives about the forces behind the Project Connect Riverside-Highland rail bonds. AURA’s blog post reminds us of Deep Throat’s advice to Woodward and Bernstein in All The President’s Men: “Follow the money!” and Ben Bradlee’s recent death reminds us that this advice still holds today.

Uncovering the money trail reinforces my belief that the Austin rail bonds are really about maintaining “business as usual” with as little disruption as possible. In answer to “Why” Austin has a “Worse-than-Nothing-is-Doing-Stupid-Things” rail plan, I’ve offered the following analysis.

I believe that the powers-that-be chose this approach because it is the approach that does as little as possible to disturb the status quo, while at the same time tying up Capital Metro’s assets far into the future with a faux solution that benefits some of the folks in the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) and Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce tent (emphasis here on “Greater”). This satisfies certain city developer insiders who see the rail line as their ticket to access and greater densities, while at the same time perpetuating the business-as-usual-sprawl-ever-outward real estate speculators who need more and more roads to realize their investments on the urban fringes.

Generally, city developers and suburban developers are natural enemies, and this is the compromise to keep order in the house. An ineffectual rail start contingent upon the new city council issuing $400 million in certificates of obligation for road improvements before the bonds can be used, is a pretty clear indication of priorities. So is the fact that the city continues to collect a quarter of Capital Metro’s one-cent sales tax that is mostly spent on roads.

This explains why Guadalupe-Lamar, where light rail would be a smashing success with 40,000 riders daily, was never considered, because a G-L rail line would totally change Capital Metro from “cash cow” to a recognized indispensable tool for bringing growth into city neighborhoods sans the traffic impacts that choke the densities necessary for a more productive tax base, while at the same time creating a demand for more train service in other parts of Austin. It would also build bus ridership because buses would be shuttles to train service for people who would not otherwise use buses. And, in turn, this would create greater public demand to spend more money on public transit, bikes, and pedestrians and less for bigger, wider roads.

Given this reality, fringe-area developers and their political surrogates who control the political process want to minimize the market availability for the alternative lifestyles that many retirees and millennials are seeking. In order to do that, Capital Metro must remain an impotent dog at the heals of Austin’s road warrior masters and suburban real estate investors. (That”s polite talk for “land speculators”.) ■

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Let’s Go Austin — Tea-baiting from an awfully glass house

30 October 2014
Tea Party activist. Photo: Alternet.org.

Tea Party activist. Photo: Alternet.org.

They’re at it again — Let’s Go Austin, the heavily funded elite outfit established to campaign for the official Highland-Riverside urban rail plan and $600 million in City bonds to fund it, are continuing their preferred tactic of trying to smear tar over their opposition to make them seem like something they aren’t. And in this case, the tar is made from Tea.

As Austin Rail Now explained in our post of Oct. 27th,

It’s become clear that a prominent, desperate tactic of the “Let’s Go Austin” campaign to promote the urban rail bonds ballot measure is to “Tea-bait” the opposition — to try to smear all of us, “progressives”, liberals, leftists, rail transit advocates, transit critics, moderates, conservatives, neighborhood associations, and other opponents of this misguided proposal — as homogeneous minions of the rightwing Tea Party. …

Project Connect leaders and the Let’s Go Austin campaign know very well that this is not only a fraud, it’s an absurd fraud. Ironically, what’s made this light rail ballot battle especially newsworthy — even on a national scale — is that rail supporters and “progressive” community leaders and neighborhoods have been in the forefront of criticizing and opposing the official planning process and its ultimately selected route plan since the beginning.

Reality and truth be damned — Let’s Go Austin plows ahead with this same theme in their latest mailer (“Which Will It Be?”), claiming “The Austin Tea Party and a millionaire road maintenance contractor are behind the misleading campaign against Prop. 1.” (Actually, it’s not “Prop. 1” anymore; on the ballot, it’s “Proposition, City of Austin“. But anyway…)

Obviously driving this “fear & smear” propaganda is the need to obfuscate the inconvenient truth that Austin’s strongest rail supporters have spearheaded the opposition to this corrupt, misguided rail proposal from the get-go. These have included eminently pro-transit groups like the Light Rail Now Project, AURA (Austinites for Urban Rail Action), the nonprofit Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), Our Rail, and important core-city neighborhood groups that have a firmly established record of supporting urban rail, and yet have also been at the forefront of the criticism of, and eventual opposition to, the whole thrust of Austin’s urban rail planning since its inception the mid-2000s. And it’s been these groups in particular that have continued to spearhead opposition ever since the Highland-Riverside proposal was solidified late last year.


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.

Light Rail Now, CACDC, Our Rail PAC, and other groups strongly support urban rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.


And the anti-rail opposition? 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, in a Democratic Party-leaning city with a substantial base of “progressive” voters, Let’s Go Austin clearly deems it useful to try to paint the opposition as a monolithic Tea Party chimera. And, by strong-arming a preponderant chunk of the local business community, the local civic leadership have managed to lead much of the major local media to buy into this contrived portrayal of the urban rail controversy and the bonds debate as merely a faceoff between conservative roads and anti-tax partisans, hostile to rail transit, versus future-looking, rational “progressives” favoring the official urban rail proposition.

This deception is pretty brazen. But it gets worse — how about some real chutzpah?

Recent research by AURA, with results posted Oct. 21st on their website, seems to have caught Let’s Go Austin (LGA) with some very embarrassing underwear exposed. AURA summarizes what it describes as “an important finding” about LGA’s campaign for the bonds proposition (which, like LGA, AURA refers to as “Prop 1”):

a review of the LGA PAC’s latest campaign finance report reveals that much of its funding comes from major donors to Republican Party candidates and causes. The LGA PAC’s portrayal of Prop 1 as a progressive choice thus appears to be another in its series of deliberate efforts to distract and mislead Austin voters. Frankly, it would be fairer to describe Prop 1 as a plan for “Republican Rail.”

Citing LGA’s campaign funding of nearly half a million dollars, with an average donation of over $6,000 (“A grassroots campaign this is not”), AURA’s study found that some of LGA’s largest donors were also major donors to the Texas Republican Party. You know, the one controlled for much of the past decade by the … Tea Party?

For example, the Downtown Austin Alliance contributed over a quarter-million dollars to LGA; its own treasurer, “also an individual donor to the LGA PAC”, happens to be “managing partner of McCall, Parkhurst & Horton, L.L.P., a law firm with an extensive history of large donations to statewide Republicans, including more than $75,000 to Greg Abbott.”

AURA’s study also focuses on LGA’s third largest donor, the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA),

which contributed $25,000. RECA also has a long history of contributing to Republicans, including $50,000 to Rick Perry and more than $63,000 to David Dewhurst. A quick search of RECA’s history in the Texas Tribune’s campaign finance database finds at least $180,000 in contributions to major Republicans.

AURA also discovered that, even lower on the food chain, the bankrolling of the Tea Party-connected GOP was in full swing:

The Republican donor trend continues with individuals, corporations, and PACs that donated to the LGA PAC in the $1,000–$5,000 range. A set of eight donors who gave $36,500 to the LGA PAC (almost 30% of the funds we have not yet detailed here) also contributed more than $700,000 to a veritable Who’s Who of the Texas Republican Party.

All told, the LGA PAC’s donors and DAA board members have contributed more than a million dollars to Republican campaigns. If you were to apply the Let’s Go Austin PAC’s preferred campaign strategy, you’d say that a vote for Prop 1 is a vote for Dan Patrick!

Summarizing all this, AURA delivers a stinging assessment:

Given this funding base, perhaps it’s no wonder Prop 1 sacrifices the rest of Austin’s transit system to benefit a handful of private business owners and real estate developers. Funneling taxpayer money into private hands is the very essence of the Texas Republican Party’s ‘business friendly’ agenda, and a similar agenda is at the center of the Let’s Go Austin PAC’s campaign. Just follow the money.

There’s nothing particularly reprehensible in major donors to a rail transit campaign also having contributed to the Republican Party. But in this case, some of Let’s Go Austin’s most generous funders have been pumping huge amounts of money to a Texas GOP that not only has staunchly resisted state funding for mass transit and instead favored highway expansion, but is dominated by the Tea Party. You know — the same Tea Party that LGA is using as a bogeyman to frighten Austin voters against listening to the “progressives”, liberals, leftists, and transit advocates telling them to oppose this urban rail bonds proposition.

Now, that’s chutzpah. On steroids.

And you know the saying, “People living in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”? AURA’s investigation suggests that Let’s Go Austin is inhabiting a very fragile glass house. ■

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Lloyd Doggett — Dupe, or accomplice in rail bonds campaign’s “Tea-baiting”?

27 October 2014
Campaign mailer from Let's Go Austin publicizes Rep. Lloyd Doggett's backing of urban rail bonds proposition in Nov. 4th election. Was Rep. Doggett duped or "strong-armed" into supporting this seriously flawed proposition?

Campaign mailer from Let’s Go Austin publicizes Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s backing of urban rail bonds proposition in Nov. 4th election. Was Rep. Doggett duped or “strong-armed” into supporting this seriously flawed proposition?

It’s become clear that a prominent, desperate tactic of the “Let’s Go Austin” campaign to promote the urban rail bonds ballot measure is to “Tea-bait” the opposition — to try to smear all of us, “progressives”, liberals, leftists, rail transit advocates, transit critics, moderates, conservatives, neighborhood associations, and other opponents of this misguided proposal — as homogeneous minions of the rightwing Tea Party. Most recently, apparently in an effort to drop a late-campaign “bombshell”, they’ve managed to enlist liberal Democratic U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett in this smear campaign.

Project Connect leaders and the Let’s Go Austin campaign know very well that this is not only a fraud, it’s an absurd fraud. Ironically, what’s made this light rail ballot battle especially newsworthy — even on a national scale — is that rail supporters and “progressive” community leaders and neighborhoods have been in the forefront of criticizing and opposing the official planning process and its ultimately selected route plan since the beginning.

Whether Rep. Doggett was aware of any of this is dubious. In any case, it’s apparent that, to corral both political and business support into (at least nominally) backing their lemon of an urban rail plan, supporters of the urban rail plan and ballot proposition have been engaging in a whole lot of strong-arming. Businesses, for example, are vulnerable to this because they need City of Austin permits for expansion or other commercial needs, or perhaps they’re angling for a public contract. Not only has there been a kind of “bandwagon” effect, but top officials and civic leaders have seemed to require allegiance to the Highland-Riverside rail plan as virtually an article of faith, akin to “kissing the royal ring”.

Similarly intense has been the political pressure from the local Democratic Party elite to extract lockstep fealty to the urban rail bonds proposition from the Democratic fold — both elected officials as well as wanna-bes. This now has apparently included the “bombshell” of Lloyd Doggett’s endorsement — first with his participation in a Let’s Go Austin rally on Oct. 19th (the day before the start of early voting), and now by being featured in a Let’s Go Austin campaign mailer (see graphic at top of this post).

Is a Congressional representative really vulnerable to being “strong-armed” by mere local and state-level party officials? It’s certainly plausible, since U.S. elected representatives depend on strong local party support in their home districts to help them at re-election time. And with Texas state GOP gerrymandering that has been moving the boundaries of his district, Rep. Doggett probably feels especially vulnerable. Keeping good relations with the local elite is a must.

In any event, whether this is a case of being duped or being a willing accomplice, for Rep. Doggett — and a large segment of his “progressive-liberal” supporters who are dismayed by his alliance with the Let’s Go Austin forces — his emergence into public support of this widely unpopular ballot proposition is very unfortunate. And eroding a major segment of voter support is surely not helpful to Rep. Doggett’s political security.

Neutrality probably was an option, and definitely would have been a choice preferred by many of Rep. Doggett’s most ardent supporters in the community. ■

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Urban rail bonds proposal is not Prop. 1 anymore — it’s just “Proposition”

22 October 2014
Excerpt from Travis County's sample ballot for Nov. 4th shows that the urban rail bonds measure will be titled just "Proposition, City of Austin". Screenshot by L. Henry.

Excerpt from Travis County’s sample ballot for Nov. 4th shows that the urban rail bonds measure will be titled just “Proposition, City of Austin”. Screenshot by L. Henry.

For months, the City of Austin’s urban rail bonds proposal has been designated “Proposition 1”, and that’s how it’s been referred to by all sides in this dispute. Apparently on the basis of information from city representatives, media reporters have been referring to it that way since about the first week of August.

But heads up — on the ballot, it’s designated somewhat differently: “Proposition, City of Austin“. (See excerpt from sample ballot at top of this post.)

A copy of the full sample ballot can be accessed via the following link:

http://www.traviscountyclerk.org/eclerk/content/images/sample_ballots/2014.11.04/2014.11.04_G14_CITY.pdf

As this sample shows, on the ballot the urban rail bonds proposition is presented after all the choices for mayor and council.

It’s important that this new designation, and the position of the “Proposition, City of Austin” measure, is made clear to voters. Anecdotal evidence suggests that anti-rail bonds voters are more motivated in this election, so confusion works to the benefit of the Let’s Go Austin campaign to support the urban rail bonds and the seriously flawed Highland-Riverside line they’re intended to finance.

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Legal, ethical questions persist over Project Connect’s ad blitz for urban rail plan

6 August 2014
Project Connect campaign ad as seen on a Yahoo.com news page in July 2014. Screenshot by ARN.

Project Connect campaign ad as seen on a Yahoo.com news page in July 2014. Screenshot by ARN.

More questions continue to be raised about Project Connect’s tax-funded ad blitz promoting its urban rail plan, almost certainly destined to be placed on the ballot for a vote this November. While this media campaign has intensified into a vigorous television barrage in recent weeks, Project Connect’s online ads — such as the example from a Yahoo.com News page at the top of this post — have been peppering webpages on the Internet for months

As we’ve noted in our previous article on this controversy (Project Connect’s tax-funded urban-rail-campaign ad blitz raises red flags), on July 11th, the pro-rail group Austinites for Urban Rail Action (AURA) issued a public statement, addressed to the board of Capital Metro (Austin’s public transportation authority), that questioned the agency’s “aggressive marketing campaign”. The stated noted that “While some advertisements seem intended to convey basic information, others (such as the radio campaign) seem like political advocacy on behalf of the Regional Mobility Plan’s controversial recommendations.”

As taxpayers and transit advocates, we are concerned about the expenditure of public money for this campaign-related advertising. While the words “vote for the bond package” are not included in any of the advertisements, this sort of technicality prioritizes form over substance: since the rest of the content makes no mention of opposing viewpoints or data, this advertising campaign is public relations, not genuine engagement.

Kyle Keahey, Project Lead for Project Connect’s “Central Corridor”, responded that the ads were ” educational materials” that “are fully compliant with election laws”. He also disclosed that the ads were supported by a budget of more than $157,000. Perhaps small by the mega-million standards of a public transport project, but far more than is available to community organizations questioning Project Connect’s program. And it’s money derived from public tax revenues.

In response, AURA, in a letter from the co-chair officers of its Urban Rail Working Group, reiterated its criticism and concern, particularly “the ethics of spending taxpayer dollars on the political campaign for Project Connect’s urban rail proposal.” AURA focused on the rather suspicious timing for the ad campaign to end:

You also note that the ad buy will conclude on August 5th, two days before City Council is expected to place Project Connect’s road-rail bond measure on the November ballot, at which point the ads would presumably become subject to Texas law regulating the use of public funds for political advertising (Tex. Election Code § 255.003). This information appears to confirm our impression that this is a political advertising campaign, not an “educational and project awareness effort.”

AURA’s letter concludes with a stinging rebuke that seems to convey much of the anger simmering in the Austin community:

You explain that your legal counsel has verified that the advertising campaign is “fully compliant with election laws.” We are confident in your attorneys’ legal opinion on this matter. Unfortunately, we are much less confident that you understand that spending taxpayer dollars promoting a controversial urban rail proposal is unethical and erodes public trust.

We appreciate that Project Connect is “committed to conducting an open, transparent, and legally compliant process.” In the future, we hope you will commit to an ethical one as well.

At least one major media outlet has taken note of the controversy. Time-Warner Cable News, in an Aug. 2nd story titled Urban Rail Ad Campaign Under Fire, noted that, after two months on “Austin airwaves”, the ads promoting urban rail were “wrapping up” … “just as city leaders are about to ask voters to support a tax increase that would help pay for the billion-dollar rail.”

And the reporter turned to AURA for comment:

“It’s very clear that this is a political campaign,” AURA’s Marcus Denton said.

Denton questions the timing of the ads, which all end Wednesday.

“The fact that they are pulling the ads off the air immediately before they’d be subject to election law about ballot measures is very suspicious,” he said.

Denton is with a group that supports urban rail, but not the route leaders chose. He said going to Austin Community College’s Highland Campus will not guarantee the riders needed to support the system.

The report further noted that “Capital Metro and the city of Austin are paying for a combined 20 percent, while the other 80 percent is coming from a federal grant.” It also quoted a representative of the rightwing Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), criticizing the channeling of public funds for the “media blitz”.

“Taxpayers are paying money to the federal government, which is then turning around and lobbying Austinites to support more taxpayer spending” said the TPPF spokesman. “That’s not appropriate.”

In effect, in what seems a somewhat desperate attempt to push the envelope of what’s permissible “educational” activity by a public transit agency, Project Connect may be poisoning the well, so to speak, for more legitimate informational and educational efforts on behalf of more worthy urban rail projects in the future.

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Project Connect’s tax-funded urban-rail-campaign ad blitz raises red flags

14 July 2014
Graphic excerpted from Project Connect's ad blitz currently running on local TV outlets. Graphic: Screenshot.

Graphic excerpted from Project Connect’s ad blitz currently running on local TV outlets. Graphic: Screenshot.

For months, Project Connect (with public tax-based funding largely funneled through Capital Metro) has been conducting an ad blitz with the clear de facto objective of soliciting voters’ support for the widely discussed urban rail bond funding measure expected to be placed on the ballot this coming November.

Within the last couple of weeks, this political ad campaign has been expanded to include television advertising and, this past Friday (July 11th), a front-page ad in the Austin American Statesman. For example, here’s one of Project Connect’s 30-second TV commercials, titled Learn more about Project Connect: Urban Rail.

Here’s the text of this obviously promotional TV pitch:

110 people a day move to Central Texas, making Austin traffic even worse.

But urban rail could help. The newest proposal from Project Connect, urban rail will arrive every 10 to 15 minutes, seven days a week and feature 16 stations and four park & rides.

It will connect the Convention Center, downtown businesses, entertainment areas, the new medical school, UT, and lots of neighborhoods, and would be part of a growing system with connections to bus and commuter rail.

Urban rail could expand to serve even more of Austin in the future. Learn more at Project Connect dot com

As usual, Project Connect blithely bulldozes forward, willing to discard the decades of work and tens of millions of dollars that have been invested in identifying the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as the pre-eminent candidate for Austin’s urban rail starter line. They continue to ignore the widespread barrage of community bafflement, criticism, and anger provoked by their arrogant, “damn-the-torpedoes” Blitzkrieg, aimed at rewarding real estate developer interests and the UT administration’s East Campus expansion aims, instead of addressing the true mobility needs of the Austin community.

With this ad initiative, Project Connect, Capital Metro, and possibly other members of the Project Connect consortium seem to be skating very close to the edge of what may be legally permissible (and definitely over the edge of what could be construed as political abuse of public tax funding). Here’s an excerpt relevant to “Unlawful Use Of Public Funds for Political Advertising”, quoted from the Texas Election Code, Title 15. Regulating Political Funds and Campaigns, Chapter 255. Regulating Political Advertising and Campaign Communications:

Sec. 255.003. UNLAWFUL USE OF PUBLIC FUNDS FOR POLITICAL ADVERTISING. (a) An officer or employee of a political subdivision may not knowingly spend or authorize the spending of public funds for political advertising.
(b) Subsection (a) does not apply to a communication that factually describes the purposes of a measure if the communication does not advocate passage or defeat of the measure.
(b-1) An officer or employee of a political subdivision may not spend or authorize the spending of public funds for a communication describing a measure if the communication contains information that:
(1) the officer or employee knows is false; and
(2) is sufficiently substantial and important as to be reasonably likely to influence a voter to vote for or against the measure.
(c) A person who violates Subsection (a) or (b-1) commits an offense. An offense under this section is a Class A misdemeanor.
(d) It is an affirmative defense to prosecution for an offense under this section or the imposition of a civil penalty for conduct under this section that an officer or employee of a political subdivision reasonably relied on a court order or an interpretation of this section in a written opinion issued by:
(1) a court of record;
(2) the attorney general; or
(3) the commission.
(e) On written request of the governing body of a political subdivision that has ordered an election on a measure, the commission shall prepare an advance written advisory opinion as to whether a particular communication relating to the measure does or does not comply with this section.

Project Connect’s aggressive political campaigning — using taxpayers’ money to try to persuade voters to approve more taxpayer money to finance the highly controversial (and, in the view of many, flawed and wasteful) urban rail proposal — has disturbed and outraged many citizens within the Austin community. On July 11th, Austinites for United Rail Action (AURA) — a group mainly composed of young professionals that support urban rail but dislike Project Connect’s proposal — issued a public statement, addressed to the the Capital Metro board and titled “AURA Questions the Project Connect Marketing Campaign“.

Here’s the basic content of that statement:

As you know, Project Connect has been running — and continues to run — an aggressive marketing campaign on behalf of your policy efforts. While some advertisements seem intended to convey basic information, others (such as the radio campaign) seem like political advocacy on behalf of the Regional Mobility Plan’s controversial recommendations.

As taxpayers and transit advocates, we are concerned about the expenditure of public money for this campaign-related advertising. While the words “vote for the bond package” are not included in any of the advertisements, this sort of technicality prioritizes form over substance: since the rest of the content makes no mention of opposing viewpoints or data, this advertising campaign is public relations, not genuine engagement.

It is possible that we are misunderstanding these efforts. We are hoping that your body can answer the following questions:

1. What entity is paying for existing Project Connect-related advertising?
2. How large is the purchase and how long will it last?
3. Who determines the content and themes featured in the advertising?
4. What standards has the Board provided to ensure that advertisements do not cross over into advocacy and remain firmly within the engagement realm?

Thank you for your attention to the matter. While Austinites may disagree on the best path forward for transit, we all agree that using taxpayer funds for political campaigning is unethical.

While these questions deserve answers, Austin Rail Now fully expects that AURA’s objections will be met with claims by Capital Metro and Project Connect that, by their own interpretation, no laws are being violated by the ad campaign. But it’s one thing to split legal hairs over legal violations, and quite another to commit a breach of faith and violate public trust over such a fractious and contentious issue. The alibi that this is merely an “educational” campaign is evidently intended for (1) the Project Connect faithful and (2) the hopelessly stupid.

And, by heavily investing tax dollars in commercial media advertising buys to advance this ballot measure, is Project Connect attempting to cultivate friendly media attention and treatment?

Pouring tax dollars into this ad blitz, aimed at subsidizing the dreams of a small assortment of private developers and the UT administration, discredits Project Connect and legitimate public transport planning as well. Community leaders and activists concerned with the future of democratic and fair process in this city should demand a stop to it — now.