Posts Tagged ‘regional planning’

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Austin’s shaky economic growth presents challenge to “strategic mobility plan” remake

31 January 2017
Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (title slide from official presentation)

Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (title slide from official presentation)

By Roger Baker

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

Once more, Austin officials are floating the idea of producing another “Austin Strategic Mobility Plan”. As a Jan. 30th article titled «Economic forecast puts focus on transit, housing, jobs for 2017» reports, this effort is being resurrected by Austin Mayor Steve Adler: “Adler said City Council will work this year on a ‘regional strategic mobility plan’ that will eventually lead to an ambitious region-wide transit plan that could include rail”

Austin’s previous most ambitious effort at a Strategic Mobility Plan was soundly defeated in the Nov. 2014 bond package, but few know that.

One problem that Mayor Adler now faces, as a real estate lawyer dedicated to promoting maximum Austin and regional growth as policy, is a sharp decline in our regional economic growth due to the related factors of gentrification, decreasing mobility, and a correspondingly sharp decline in venture capital startups, since it locally peaked in early 2015.

Low job growth is bound to be a big story this year. According to a Jan. 5th report from the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, we now see an annual job growth rate of only 0.6% in the whole Austin region, according to the most recent Dallas Fed data. As the bank states in its report,

Austin jobs grew 0.6 percent annualized over the three months through November. Jobs in goods-producing sectors saw sharp decreases as manufacturing and construction have continued to shed jobs since the summer. Retail trade jobs continued to decline moderately, while wholesale trade fell sharply.

Austin faces another unique state economic problem due to lower state sales tax revenue needed to fund state workers, as compared to the previous biennial state budgets. A 2.9% revenue decline doesn’t sound like a lot until you add in two years of inflation.

A stagnant state budget and decline in tech job creation, too, put a big burden on the tourism sector to maintain the Austin economy. It seems to me that the Hotel Occupancy Tax increase is being primarily driven by hotels that want to expand the Convention Center again. They probably represent more than a billion dollars of local private hotel investments, so they have a lot of skin in the game.

A lot of total current US growth is now happening because of high-technology-related job creation. Depending on high tech job growth is a risky industrial policy because this sector is especially prone to booms and busts, as the 2001 Dotcom bubble showed in the Austin area. There is a lot of national tech job competition involved. Even Nashville is seriously competing with Austin for venture capital startups, a category of speculative asset bubbles that have been stimulated by nearly a decade of the Fed’s near-zero interest rates. Cheap money encourages risk.

Tech growth can often pay high wages, but over time it leads to gentrification and transportation problems. That is because major highways like Austin’s I-35 fill up with traffic comprised of lower-pay service workers trying to commute out to the cheaper suburbs to live affordably. Austin residents could use good rail and bus transit inside the city. More difficult is the fact that providing high-quality transit service is not very compatible with the doubling Austin MSA (metro area) population, and the low-density suburban development being planned by CAMPO.

These problems associated with a booming tech industry are discussed in a Jan. 26th Washington Post article:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/realestate/fast-growing-technology-sector-is-fueling-a-housing-boom-in-cities-across-america/2017/01/26/5c72c276-a5d8-11e6-8042-f4d111c862d1_story.html

As the WaPo article reports,

Silicon Valley isn’t the only place a tech boom is fueling rising home prices. From Nashville to Raleigh, N.C., Austin to Cambridge, Mass., thousands of high-paying technology jobs are lifting home prices and fueling a boom in construction…

Dwindling housing supply and an affordable housing crunch are perhaps the biggest challenges in many markets seeing rising tech growth.

Also relevant is a Jan. 28th article in Austin’s Community Impact paper, which reports that …

… if Adler had it his way, those using public transportation in the future will be heading to new jobs. “Our neighbors, fellow Austinites, need mid-income jobs,” said Adler. “We know who needs the jobs in our community. We know the kinds of jobs that employers most need to fill. Which, by the way are information technology, healthcare and skilled trades.”

Adler’s goal over the next five years will be to move 10,000 Austin residents out of poverty by getting them qualified for jobs in those targeted industries. “If we’re going to focus our efforts at bringing the right jobs to town, we need to do more to make sure people who live here and need these jobs are qualified to take them. That’s where the Community Workforce Master Plan comes in.”

One important thing to focus on now is CAMPO, because they have formal control of the regional state and federal money, and because they had planned extreme suburban sprawl in the CAMPO 2040 Plan, bankrolled by a hypothetical $35 billion in future funds, envisioned for Lone Star Rail, and from other sources.

CAMPO is now doing their new 2045 plan. But our regional growth is slowing, because of side effects of prolonged growth discussed above, led by real estate interests attracted to fast regional growth. The new CAMPO 2045 regional population growth distribution will help reveal the political picture. Lone Star rail was taken out, so how can they handle the numbers of commuters they anticipate from the tech job growth that they anticipate along the I-35 corridor to San Antonio?

It is getting hard to maintain that there will be as much money as CAMPO had claimed last time. I think it is impossible to predict toll road revenues decades in the future, as TxDOT and the CTRMA claim to be able to hire consultants to do. It is likely necessary to use bond money to widen I-35, so they find private consultants with proprietary travel demand models that we are not allowed to see or to question. The public can’t see the CAMPO models, either.

TxDOT is still $23 billion in debt, because Texas politicians haven’t raised the gas tax for a quarter-century, and neither has Congress. Denial has its limits – and that should make this year very interesting. ■

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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Austin — National model for how roads are strangling transit development

31 October 2016
Central Texas Roadway System – brand-new highways (mostly tollways) under construction and planned. Map: CTRMA.

Central Texas Roadway System – brand-new highways (mostly tollways) under construction and planned. Map: CTRMA. (Click to enlarge.)

For decades, Road Warriors (aggressive proponents of roadway expansion) and other transit critics have disparaged America’s urban public transportation for its daily ridership levels amounting to just a small fraction of total metro area trips. In contrast, the vigorous ongoing expansion of urban roadway systems, outwardly sprawling development patterns, and levels of motor vehicle ownership has eclipsed transit development.

Of course, it’s widely recognized that much of the value of public transit resides in its function as a relief for the heavily congested passenger flows during daily peak hours and at other times, such as during special events – and this is where the high capacity of rail transit certainly excels. Nevertheless, it’s true that urban public transport needs to perform as much more than merely a subsidiary mode for peak traffic relief. Transit development has remained stunted in U.S. cities for decade after decade, well behind its role in comparable cities abroad, such as those in Europe, Asia, and Australia.

For Austin, “green” means “green camouflage”

Why is this? Public policy in Austin – a city that touts itself as embracing “green” principles and a commitment to public transport – illustrates how (despite decades of verbiage) the municipal and regional civic leadership and political establishment have maintained a commitment to prioritizing motor vehicle transport and roadway expansion.

From the Austin Tomorrow program of the 1970s to Envision Central Texas in the early 2000s to the more recent Imagine Austin community planning programs, community forums, official resolutions, and dozens of reports and pronouncements have solemnly affirmed a supposed dedication to more modern urbanist principles and public transport to provide the infrastructure for them. Yet time and time again, actual policy has funneled the heavy funding and other resources into further roadway development, and the continuation of suburban and rural sprawl development patterns.

The reality is: For Austin, “green” means green camouflage for major policies that are de facto harmful to the environment and quality of life. Austin actually serves as a model of how this commitment to prioritizing roads is strangling the development of adequate and fully effective public transport.

“Extravaganza” of roadway development

Ongoing roadway expansion doesn’t mean merely the addition of more lanes to existing highways. For the past half-century or more, it would be difficult to find a period in the Austin area when brand-new major highways have not been under construction.

This incessant extravaganza of roadway development includes: I-35 and then its double-decking; the “MoPac” (Loop 1) freeway; the development of the Ed Bluestein expressway; the conversion of Research Blvd. into a new freeway; the development of the Loop 360 expressway; the conversion of Ben White Blvd. into a new freeway; the development of the U.S. 290 East freeway. In more recent years, the construction of the SH 130 tollway; the 183-A tollway; the SH 45 tollway (north). And currently, the “MoPac” (Loop 1) reconstruction and tollway (HOT lanes) project; the 183 South (Bergstrom Expressway) tollway and expressway expansion project; the SH 45SW tollway; the SH 71 Express tollway project (between ABIA and SH 130); and the “MoPac” (Loop 1) South reconstruction and tollway (HOT lanes) project. And, of course, much more to come later – such as the mammoth overhaul of I-35 being planned by TxDOT. (See map at top of post.)

Meanwhile, over the entire lifetime of Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, since the agency’s inception in the mid-1980s, the one major capital investment transit project implemented has been MetroRail, currently operating a relatively tiny six-car system carrying less than 3,000 rider-trips a day. And in that same roughly 30-year period, the City of Austin and other local agencies have been siphoning off funds out of the transit agency’s basic revenue stream (generally ranging between 10-25%) to pay for roadway projects. For example, CMTA funding paid for most of the Build Greater Austin urban roadway program (over $93.4 million) and contributed heavily ($29.5 million) to the purchase of tollroad right-of-way for SH 45 and MoPac (Loop 1) into Williamson County north of Parmer Lane. (See Note at end of post.)

CAMPO boosts roads, dumps transit project

A powerful influence in the skewing of transportation policy toward road-focused priorities undoubtedly lies with the region’s major transportation planning body. Today, most large-scale transportation project funding decisions are made by CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization), now heavily biased in its structure toward suburban, exurban, and rural segments of the metro area.

In public comments to a Sep. 12th meeting of the agency, veteran transportation researcher and activist Roger Baker criticized CAMPO for being “heavily skewed to the suburban areas.” Another community activist, Jay Blazek Crossley, provided CAMPO board members with copies of a study he had completed highlighting disparities in democratic and demographic representation within CAMPO. As described in a report by Caleb Pritchard in the Sep. 15th Austin Monitor,

Crossley found that Travis County residents make up 57 percent of CAMPO’s six-county population. However, only 45 percent of TPB members come from Travis County communities.

More details of Crossley’s report can be found in the Streetsblog article «How Unrepresentative Is Your Regional Planning Agency?»

But in what almost was an act of chutzpah, at that same Sep. 12th meeting the CAMPO board voted to even further reduce Austin and Travis County representation in the strategic Technical Advisory Committee. Baker denounced the action as a “step backwards”.

While reorganizing itself to accelerate its programs for highway expansion and further regional sprawl development (see Roger Baker’s Feb. 2015 analysis), the CAMPO board moved to cancel its support for the region’s single new rail passenger project, Lone Star Rail (LSTAR). For approximately the past 15 years, this project had spent millions of dollars planning a regional rail passenger line to connect Round Rock, Austin, San Marcos, New Braunfels, and San Antonio with fast regional commuter-style trains.

The ultimate plan involved a swap with the Union Pacific Railroad (UP), which would sell its right-of-way and infrastructure to LSTAR in exchange for the agency providing new right-of-way and track along a route miles to the east. In addition to high-quality regional rail transit service, the plan would have eliminated the rail transport of hazardous cargo through the heart of center-city Austin.

But the plan was jeopardized when the UP reneged on its agreement in early 2016. Rather than stepping up to campaign for LSTAR and bring pressure on the UP to reinstate the deal, local officials – including those on CAMPO – did basically nothing, leaving LSTAR to hang by itself. In the end, even supposedly “progressive” liberal representatives from Austin and Travis County essentially sat on their hands, allowing the UP and CAMPO destruction of LSTAR to proceed without a fight. No champion, “progressive” or otherwise, stepped forward to tangibly defend the agency and this vital project. In the final CAMPO vote to withdraw support, there was not a single vote in opposition.

“Go Big” $720 million road bond measure

This background of a road-focused urban and regional mobility perspective is the context for the City of Austin’s “Go Big” campaign for a $720 million “Mobility Bond” package (to be financed by a hefty increase in local property taxes). This past summer, several “progressive” members of the City Council virtually led the charge to thwart efforts to add an urban rail starter line project to the package.

To sweeten the package in hopes of seducing some community support, the City added a smattering of funding for “alternative mobility” sidewalk and bicycle projects, and tried to portray the “Smart Corridors” road projects as somehow models of New Urbanism. The sweeteners worked – a number of community pro-pedestrian, cycling, neighborhood, and New Urbanist-aligned groups have jumped on board to support the bond campaign. (To her credit, liberal District 1 Councilmember Ora Houston has steadfastly opposed the bond package.)

But the basic thrust of the bond proposal has always been road expansion and improvements to facilitate motor vehicle traffic. From the outset, the program was sold as a way to “increase traffic throughput”. The ads for the bond package sponsored by Move Austin Forward (the primary campaign organization) focus on the benefits to cars, with slogans like “Cut Travel Time” and “Move Traffic Faster”.


TV ad promoting "Mobility Bond" package focuses on benefits for private motor vehicle traffic.  Graphic: Screenshot of Move Austin Forward TV ad.

TV ad promoting “Mobility Bond” package focuses on benefits for private motor vehicle traffic. Graphic: Screenshot of Move Austin Forward TV ad.


Noting recent news reports that the City hopes to procure federal matching grants to balloon the road bond funding into a massive $1.5 billion roadbuilding mega-program, Roger Baker commented

This makes it pretty clear that [Austin Mayor] 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.

This unceasing emphasis on unending roadway development continues to receive the overwhelming majority of funding. Especially on the local level, massive bond funding measures for roads such as the current $720 million “Mobility Bond” proposal have the effect of using up more and more of the available funding “oxygen” in the region and the city.

The Austin area’s continual expansion of roadways simultaneously fosters greater dependency on personal motor vehicles for local travel, and encourages more and more outwardly sprawling development patterns. These development patterns in turn necessitate increasing dependency on personal motor vehicle transportation. In a vicious spiral, taken together, more motor vehicles, greater dependency on them, and spreading sprawl further contribute to strangling the potential of public transport and opportunities to extend services and make them more effective.

Altogether, transit continues to be strangled, with no relief in sight. And if you wonder why transit ridership continues to be surpassed by traffic – despite mounting congestion – perhaps you can better understand a big part of the reason why.


Another TV ad screenshot promoting "Mobility Bond" package promises that bonds will "Move Traffic Faster".  Graphic: Screenshot of Move Austin Forward TV ad.

Another TV ad promoting “Mobility Bond” package promises that bonds will “Move Traffic Faster”. Graphic: Screenshot of Move Austin Forward TV ad.

NOTE: This article as originally posted stated that Capital Metro funds were used to purchase right-of-way for the SH 130 tollroad. However, ARN has not been able to verify this. Instead, evidence definitely indicates that Capital Metro funds were allocated to other tollroad projects, as indicated in the text.

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Why spending $4.7 billion trying to improve I-35 is a waste of money

29 March 2016

Trying to widen Austin’s most congested road will only make congestion worse


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

Austin’s I-35 traffic congestion — bad and predicted to get much worse. Photo: Culturemap.com.


By Roger Baker and Dave Dobbs

The purpose of this analysis is to document the strong case against widening roads like I-35 (Interstate Highway 35, aka IH-35) to relieve congestion, especially when there are much smarter ways to use the same public money to solve transportation problems. This concept is important to understand because TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) is now actively planning to increase the lane-miles and vehicle capacity of I-35 along the San Marcos to Georgetown stretch of I-35 at a cost of $4.7 billion. This road section is ranked as the most congested corridor in Texas.

There is now a near-consensus by transportation experts that trying to relieve congestion by building and widening roads in very congested cities, like Austin, will actually worsen congestion. Severe congestion throughout a city during peak hour means that traffic will seek out and fill up any new freeway capacity as fast as it can be added. As discussed in a report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG), the Katy Freeway in Houston, I-10 demonstrates this fact.

In Texas, for example, a $2.8 billion project widened Houston’s Katy Freeway to 26 lanes, making it the widest freeway in the world. But commutes got longer after its 2012 opening: By 2014 morning commuters were spending 30 percent more time in their cars, and afternoon commuters 55 percent more time.

In fact, it has been known for some time that building and widening roads doesn’t relieve congestion, but with urbanization, economic prosperity, and easy-guaranteed credit reinforced by automobile-centric federal transportation policy, the familiar American car-based suburban sprawl land pattern happens automatically. Rings of suburbs ever further from a city’s core inevitably lead to severe traffic congestion in every major USA city, Austin being no exception.

For decades, the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) at Texas A&M University has effectively functioned as a pro-road think tank friendly to TxDOT and the Texas road beneficiaries. Understandably, until recently, TTI has been reluctant to admit that building more roads didn’t actually relieve congestion, which is a counter-intuitive outlook. However, using TTI’s own data, the reform-minded Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) was able to document this situation back in 1998:

By analyzing TTI’s data for 70 metro areas over 15 years, STPP determined that metro areas that invested heavily in road capacity expansion fared no better in easing congestion than metro areas that did not. Trends in congestion show that areas that exhibited greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn’t, yet ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, wasted fuel, and travel delay. The STPP study shows that on average the cost to relieve the congestion reported by TTI just by building roads could be thousands of dollars per family per year. The metro area with the highest estimated road building cost was Nashville, Tennessee with a price tag of $3,243 per family per year, followed by Austin, Orlando, and Indianapolis.


TTI Roadway Congestion Index (Mean) shows that roadway congestion has continued to rise despite intensive investment in capacity expansion. Source: STPP.

TTI Roadway Congestion Index (Mean) shows that roadway congestion has continued to rise despite intensive investment in capacity expansion. Graph: STPP.


David Dilworth, in a 2012 posting, did the following review of the basic reasons why you can’t pave your way out of congestion, and what happens when you attempt it anyway.

1) There is now overwhelming evidence, including a nationwide study of 70 metropolitan areas over 15 years (Texas Transportation Institute), and another California specific study (Hansen 1995, which included Monterey County) that when an area is congested – additional lanes or roads do not provide congestion relief.
2) It is also well documented that additional lanes increase traffic, and that new highways create demand for travel and expansion by their very existence.
3) Further experience shows “When road capacity shrinks — So Can Traffic”; traffic congestion goes down!

So, when a road is congested, adding more lanes or roads will not relieve congestion, but will likely increase traffic.
When a road is congested the only way to relieve congestion is not by building more roads, but by reducing land use – or paradoxically by closing roads.

Closing roads and reducing land use clearly implies that planners will need to rethink mobility, i.e., moving people rather than cars, and finding ways to reduce travel distances so that walking, biking, and transit become the preferred alternatives.

Nowadays, even TTI has admitted that I-35 can’t be fixed in any meaningful sense. True, some lane capacity can be added, and an urban-friendly design could mitigate its impact on the center city. However, nothing will significantly address congestion as the following excerpts taken from a recent TTI report indicate.

…This modeling research demonstrates that Central Texas cannot “build its way out of congestion” on IH 35. Examination of the initial set of scenarios demonstrates that, as capacity is added to IH 35, traffic moves to IH 35 from other streets and roads that operate with even worse congestion, in essence “re-filling” the road. As described above, Central Texas drivers fill any capacity added to IH 35. Therefore, additional capacity provides little relief to peak-hour IH 35 general purpose lane congestion. And, because population and jobs are projected to grow so much in the corridor, any open road space created by new lanes is quickly filled. …

The study team concluded that this effort demonstrates a very unlikely future. That is, the levels of congestion predicted for IH 35 — in fact, the Central Texas region — will be unacceptable for local residents and business. In discussions with the MIP Working Group regarding these technical results, there is heightened concern that the levels of congestion demonstrated by this study would dampen the area’s growth in population and employment because people and businesses will quite simply not move here if the transportation infrastructure is insufficient to avoid this level of congestion. Therefore, with impacts predicted to be this substantial to quality of life and economic health, such levels of congestion will likely be unacceptable to future residents and businesses, so that the area’s growth is in fact, unsustainable….


I-35 congestion, considered worst in Texas. Texas Transportation Institute has concluded that "additional capacity provides little relief...". Source: TTI.

I-35 congestion, considered worst in Texas. Texas Transportation Institute has concluded that “additional capacity provides little relief…”. Photo: TTI.


Despite this, TxDOT is greenlighting the My35 Capital Corridor project even though it has no clear idea of where most of the money to widen I-35 will come from, and likewise the Texas Transportation Commission is authorizing funds piecemeal to construct parts of the full-blown I-35 vision in TxDOT’s District 14, Austin, where $158 million has been allocated for this year (as reported by the Austin American-Statesman).

This question remains. Why should we be planning a traffic solution which we know in advance will make I-35’s daily bumper-to-bumper congestion a lot worse, and which will make us more dependent than ever on fossil fuels, even while knowing that the money to do this isn’t there? And why would we rush to judgement in November, at least for I-35, when the major construction benefits, if there are any, won’t happen for years?

It seems like government spending on old solutions that don’t work well anymore has become almost the standard operating procedure. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) have both been made chronically underfunded and paralyzed by partisan infighting in Congress, which has led to a series of national transportation funding extensions, rather than common-sense reforms. The refusal of either Texas or the federal government to raise the fuel tax for the past 20 years is sufficient evidence for how unworkable and out-of-touch our current policies really are.

Trying to promote an expensive policy that is known in advance not to work is bad enough, but proceeding to do that while having no idea of where to get most of the money requires real chutzpah, a shameless audacity. If any Texas state agency has the history, credentials, and political clout to try make that work anyhow, it is TxDOT. To understand why, we need to take a more detailed look at TxDOT and the history of Texas transportation politics.

Texas road politics

Let us start with trying to understand how daily Austin congestion on I-35 and MoPac (State Loop 1) ever got to the point that now a lot suburban drivers who get to work on these roads dread a nerve-jangling daily commute. The reality is that Austin’s peakhour congestion has gradually progressed from tolerable to notoriously bad for decades. Nothing unusual, but the sort of end result you should expect when you try to keep building roads to maintain unsustainable transportation and land-use trends for too long.

Governments by their nature try to encourage economic growth. In Texas, as with most Sunbelt cities, cars, trucks, and roads have all become essential components of urban growth. The Texas fuel tax money is comparable to TxDOT’s oxygen supply. This state and federal fuel tax revenue can fund roads, but not transit under Texas law. Transit is left largely on its own, obliged to rely mostly on local funds and a shrinking level of federal transit funds.

Given the current lack of state land-use regulation outside the city limits of Texas cities, there is the potential opportunity to shift to greater land-use regulation. As data from the Texas Comptroller’s Office shows, more than 86% of the total Texas population is now urban and has outgrown our rural heritage.

These major metropolitan areas, the glowing patches you see from a jet plane at night, function as coherent economies. Ideally these metro areas should be governed as such, without the burden of conflicting and overlapping layers of city and county government.

Austin’s regional congestion is aggravated by a combination of rapid regional population growth and unregulated suburban sprawl development. Over time, unregulated sprawl growth leads to decreasing urban mobility, increasing city-core land prices, and gentrification that drives out the city’s lower-paid service workers into suburban commutes, thus increasing traffic congestion even more. This has been particularly true for Austin’s African-American population, who for a variety of reasons have moved on to the suburbs, such as Pflugerville. (Source: Texas Tribune.)

As a University of Texas study observed “All told, the combined effects of, concentrated segregation and concentrated, gentrification of Austin’s historic African-American district provide a partial, explanation for the rapid decline in African-American residents between 2000 and 2010.”


Official transportation and land-use policies have encouraged Austin-area sprawl development patterns. Photo: Mopacs, via Skyscraperpage.

Official transportation and land-use policies have encouraged Austin-area sprawl development patterns. Photo: Mopacs, via Skyscraperpage.


Given these trends and the increasingly longer, more severe peakhour congestion periods in Austin today, a different approach beyond widening roads might be expected. But here in Texas, powerful political special interests continue to block meaningful transportation reform. TxDOT has great institutional power and this is still focused on providing roads to serve an exponential increase in cars and trucks. In the Austin area, TxDOT is supporting the CAMPO 2040 plan, which anticipates ever more roads, cars, and congestion — in other words, business as usual for as long as possible.

In 1974, when the first energy crisis hit the USA, Griffin Smith, Jr. wrote an excellent, well-researched account of how there came to be the Texas road lobby, the wide network of political allies devoted to building roads, and the effort to make roads and driving a permanent aspect of Texas lifestyle and culture. See «The Highway Establishment and How it Grew and Grew and Grew». So it was in Texas then, during the first energy crisis, and so it has been in Texas for the more than forty years since, without great change. Legendary Texas newspaper columnist Molly Ivins used to call TxDOT “the Pentagon of Texas” (see «Roger Baker: The Texas Road Lobby Meets Peak Oil»).

Over the years an established pattern of money and politics developed, whereby Texas governors as political favors appoint businessmen to be heads of state agencies. If a governor stays in office a long time, as Rick Perry did, he can (and he did) appoint all the Texas Transportation Commissioners (TTC, the five-person body that has the authority to decide when and where to build the state roads). With their overlapping six-year terms, TTC members even stay influential for a while after a governor leaves office.

It should come as no surprise, then, that highways and roads often tend to benefit the land developers, road contractors, and special interests who reward the governor and legislators with campaign contributions. According to Texans for Public Justice (TPJ), reviewing campaign contributions from 2003-2008, the special interests tied to the $175 billion Trans-Texas Corridor project “contributed $3.4 million to Texas candidates and political committees — a significant increase in their political activity.” You can see a comprehensive breakdown of those contributions at: http://info.tpj.org/watchyourassets/ttc/

Looming large in the background are federal housing and real estate policies that favor home ownership, especially detached single-family homes on individual lots, with generous tax write-offs and government-backed credit that largely favors suburban living. It’s an exploitative pattern of income redistribution from the city to the suburbs made possible by TxDOT’s publicly funded roads. (See «Starving the cities to feed the suburbs» in The Grist, 9 Jan. 2013.)

The CAMPO transportation planners who make the funding decisions for the Austin region are expected to ignore state, national, and global economic trends. Known resource limits like global warming, fuel costs, and water constraints are never considered in CAMPO’s growth and travel demand models.

Presently there is no transportation alternative — no “Plan B” — for the 2040 CAMPO plan, as there was in the region’s previous CAMPO 2035 five-year plan. The planners do not provide an alternative future that thinks longterm and which does not subsidize suburbs at city taxpayers’ expense. The 2040 CAMPO Plan states that even if our region finds the money (highly unlikely) to implement in the approved regional CAMPO 2040 Plan perfectly and in full, Austin-area congestion will keep getting worse until 2040.

Austin’s officially adopted longrange transportation plan aims at spending $35 billion dollars to maintain the current sprawl-based regional development trends, while doubling the population and putting 70% of this future growth, not just outside Austin, but well beyond Travis County. Absurd as the unaffordable nightmarish outcome might seem, it is the officially adopted plan. Lots of future sprawl is now Austin’s officially adopted future in both state and federal law, for regional transportation funding purposes.

As already noted, the biggest reason for this flagrant disregard of likely funding constraints and/or undesirable future outcomes is the special interests who profit in the short term from bad public policy. To give just one local example, as reported by the Austin Business Journal, Canadian land speculation investment group Walton Development owns about 15 square miles of raw land in the Austin area.

Walton Development and Management is preparing to make a big splash in Central Texas even though the company has had boots on the ground here since 2007. The Canadian-based land investor and master-planned community developer has seven communities in the pipeline in Central Texas, following years of researching the market and building relationships with consultants and government officials. Collectively, Walton owns 83,000 acres in Canada and the U.S. — and has quietly amassed about 10,000 acres in Central Texas…

The Calgary, Alberta-based company has been assessing numerous U.S. markets in the wake of the subprime mortgage meltdown and the Great Recession. Central Texas, predominantly south and east of Austin, has risen to the top of its hot list, as well as Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Orlando, Fla.; Dallas; Phoenix; Tucson, Ariz.; and Southern California.

TxDOT’s dedicated funding source — from motor fuel taxes and licensing fees for roads-only as specified by the Texas constitution — virtually guarantees an all-the-roads-as-fast-as-possible policy to address traffic increases. If I-35 is the state’s most congested corridor, the agency’s reflexive response is to spend whatever it takes to get whatever additional capacity is possible, the cost-benefit results notwithstanding.

Recognizing I-35’s strategic regional importance against an increasing inability to cope with increasing population, local officials created what’s called the “Mobility35” (My35) partnership in 2011. Several studies, hundreds of public meetings, and $12 million later, courtesy of Austin taxpayers, what has emerged is a call for billions from local governments to fix the problem TxDOT’s way.

TxDOT is really broke and its credit lines look shaky

These are not business-as-usual times. The politics (and government funding) in support of cars and roads is so firmly entrenched and TxDOT is so politically powerful that its major threat is its money running out. TxDOT’s funding shortfalls have been growing and it probably now regrets ever having gotten into the unprofitable toll road business. That is why TxDOT invented Regional Mobility Authorities (RMAs) like the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) — to try to shift the road-funding burden onto the private sector with toll road municipal bond debt. (See Roger Baker’s article «Risky business in Central Texas: The toll road bond gamble».)

There can be little doubt that TxDOT has a serious solvency challenge (see «Roger Baker: Can TxDOT Avoid Financial Disaster? / 2»). We see a state agency that has to spend a big part of its total yearly income just to pay interest on its massive accumulation of road debt. (Source: http://www.collierfortexas.com/2015/02/25/txdot-addicted-debt/.)

The Texas Department of Transportation just issued its audited financial statements for 2014. They’ve rung up a debt balance of $19 billion. It was only $4 billion back in 2006. That’s when Rick Perry went on his debt binge. Of the $7.3 billion tax revenues TxDOT will take from Texans in 2016-2017, more than $2.4 billion will go to making debt payments.

TxDOT is far short of sufficient funds to widen I-35 with its own resources, having identified only $300 million in-house out of $4.5 billion needed. That leaves TxDOT $4.2 billion short — over 90% deficient. In fact, the Travis County section of TxDOT’s My35 redesign is still $1.8 to $2.1 billion short, which should raise red flags for local property owners who could well be targeted for big tax increases.

When deciding what to do about I-35, should Austin taxpayers subsidize a highly politicized state agency, TxDOT, which has been steadily sinking relentlessly farther and farther into debt? TxDOT’S debt is now so bad that it has helper agencies, the RMAs (such as the Austin area’s local CTRMA), that can borrow even more to build privatized toll roads, supposedly shifting debt to the private sector; but when these efforts fail, the taxpayers will have to bail them out. Banks are not the only institutions “too big to fail”.

A rush-job November 2016 transportation bond election to widen I-35?

Some local officials already appear to be supporting TxDOT’s plans to widen I-35 in the name of relieving congestion. Austin’s influential state senator, Kirk Watson, has publicly registered his approval for TXDOT’S I-35 plans and seems to believe that it is possible for TxDOT to relieve I-35 congestion by widening the road. A Jan 28th Community Impact article titled «TxDOT targets I-35 in Austin for $158.6 million in congestion relief funding … State’s most congested roadways to get $1.3 billion» reports:

“Relieving traffic congestion is essential for our economy and our quality of life,” state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said in a news release. “I’m pleased this initiative has put the emphasis on I-35, which is the most pressing congestion problem for Central Texas as well as the state. We’ve worked hard and successfully to develop a plan for reducing congestion on I-35 and this investment is key to moving that plan forward.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler has been a vocal proponent of a November 2016 bond election for transportation. Adler has been talking about the need for a November 2016 transportation bond election, instead of waiting until the next bond cycle in 2018. As reported in the Austin American-Statesman, here is what Mayor Adler has said about the justification for a November bond election tied to I-35:

We need to do some significant movement with respect to mobility and transportation in 2016… It wouldn’t surprise me if we weren’t coming to the voters in November with some capital expenditures associated with transportation. We know there have been some proposals with respect to I-35 that include increasing capacity that include putting in managed lanes so that we can have buses traveling at 45 miles per hour regardless of traffic so as to encourage people to get out of their cars, and depressing lanes so that (there is) a visual connection of the east and west sides of I-35. And I think there might be an opportunity to do something regionally in that respect. Why not try for that? There are also road corridors in the city that have gone through corridor studies… Lamar, Airport Boulevard, MLK, I think. People are looking for some movement on (Loop) 360 and other roads that are in the southwest and northwest. I would think that we need to take a really hard look at doing those things.

In another Statesman article, Austin’s Assistant City Manager Robert Goode explains why speeding up a bond election for next November would be difficult at best:

Goode said there could be an “accelerated path” of 10 to 12 months, with the first two phases tightened up. But, remember, there are only nine months left until November 8, and phase one hasn’t even begun. So Goode, cognizant that Mayor Steve Adler (with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce nudging in the background) has been pushing to do something in November, offered one more timeline: the “aggressive path.”

In other words, getting to a November 2016 bond election would mean serious compression of Austin’s existing standard bond review process in the name of addressing traffic congestion, without a sufficient vetting of what voter-approved debt would accomplish or how much would be needed — a political pig-in-a-poke labeled “Trust us!” that commits the city to a course of action that only TxDOT controls.

Maybe Austin planners and public officials should first find out in advance how much of the $4.5 billion TxDOT is willing and able to fund, and why TxDOT doesn’t fully pay for its roads like it used to do. Committing local funds to a “borrow and spend” agency billions in debt for a project with little positive outcome at some indefinite time in the future — bus lanes in ten years, at best; a depressed freeway covered with great streets; completion date and local costs, unknown and unknowable — ought to be setting off alarm bells, especially when TxDOT and Austin city management folks talk about “partnerships” and “partners”.

Public works projects, in particular big highway projects, have a history of long delays and large cost overruns. Boston’s 3.5-mile “Big Dig“, a tunnel under Beantown to eliminate the old elevated freeway through the city core, is a cautionary tale with similarities and problems we should expect here in Austin.

Scheduled to be finished in seven years at a cost of $2.8 billion, the Big Dig took sixteen years to complete and cost $14.6 billion; when adjusted for inflation — a 190% cost overrun, not including the $7 billion in interest required to pay off the debt incurred. As the Boston Globe headlined in 2008, a year after the project was completed, “Big Dig’s red ink engulfs state.”


Boston's "Big Dig" under construction past city's CBD. Project re-routed I-93 Central Artery into a central-city tunnel. Source: Imaginerpe.com.

Boston’s “Big Dig” under construction past city’s CBD. Project re-routed I-93 Central Artery into a central-city tunnel. Photo: Imaginerpe.com.


With TxDOT is already engulfed in debt, the I-35 My35 “partnership” should be seen as a plan to similarly engulf and encumber Austin’s taxpayers, thereby subordinating city finances to a condition of impotency to do little else but pay down debt on a state project that has little or no positive outcomes or predictable future except for the contractors and planners employed to pursue it.

Some of the details of this scheme were revealed in a Feb. 3rd TxDOT presentation to the Austin City Council’s Mobility Committee, chaired by Councilmember Ann Kitchen. The presentation can be viewed online in the video of the meeting, available from the City of Austin’s video archive, in the segment labelled “Items 7 & 8”.

About 23 minutes into the “Items 7 & 8” segment, TxDOT’s new District 14 Engineer, Terry McCoy, explains to the Austin City Council Mobility Committee what’s planned for I-35. Along with a lot of talk about “partnership” with the city, TxDOT, McCoy says, plans to spend about $4.3-4.6 billion on I-35 between San Marcos and Georgetown upgrading the “most congested corridor” in Texas. Around 35 minutes into the video clip there is a series of slides on parts of the project expected to start between 2016 and 2019, assuming that funding can be found.

TxDOT slide showing projected cost of proposed I-35 upgrade project. Source: ARN screen capture of TxDOT slide.

TxDOT slide showing projected cost of proposed I-35 upgrade project. Graphic: ARN screen capture of TxDOT slide.

TxDOT’s message to Austin here is clear. In the partnership assumed by TxDOT’s McCoy and Austin’s Assistant City Manager Goode, TxDOT is the senior partner who makes the rules and if Austin wants anything beyond TxDOT’s basic least expensive, most lanes-for-the-bucks design, such as a “cut and cap” proposal to bury I-35 downtown, it’s going to cost local taxpayers a lot of money. As the Austin Business Journal has reported,

…One goal of the effort is to improve east-west connectivity across the thoroughfare in the urban core. The possibilities include intersection and access redesigns and adding bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure to cross the highway. “We’re adopting an ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach to I-35,” McCoy said. That includes either modifying the downtown section of I-35 along its current double-decker form or depressing all of the lanes, which would drop them below ground level. If city leaders and state transportation officials agree to lowering I-35, McCoy noted local funds could be used to then cover it up and put the new real estate to use in some way.

“Once you depress the main lanes of I-35, then you have the potential to build caps. What you do with those cap sections is up to the locals,” he said. “But from TxDot’s perspective…it is an amenity, so it would be a local cost item to pick up. TxDOT is essentially saying we cannot participate in the cost of constructing those caps.”…

(More information is disclosed in the Q & A session, about 40 minutes into that video segment.)

According to Assistant City Manager Goode, speaking in the same clip, Austin is behind about $4.5 billion in needed funds for its own City of Austin transportation needs over the next 30 years, a billion of that just for sidewalks.

A grassroots architect and planning coalition, ReconnectAustin.com, has been promoting a depressed I-35 design developed by UT Austin architect Sinclair Black. They have been trying for years to get TxDOT support for a sunken, capped, and covered-over I-35 along the east edge of downtown Austin. However, this is a concept that conflicts with TxDOT’s traditional design standards. (See, for example, «Reconnect Austin: Part Two … It’s a beautiful vision, but could it work?» Austin Chronicle, 31 Jan. 2014.)


Rendition of Reconnect Austin's proposed "fully depressed" alternative design for I-35. Source: KUT Radio.

Rendition of Reconnect Austin’s proposed “fully depressed” alternative design for I-35. Graphic: KUT Radio.


Pro forma, TxDOT defines I-35 improvements as squeezing the most possible cars onto its failing roads at the lowest cost. Economies of scale dictate elevated lanes on I-35 through downtown, and adding them onto MoPac South across the river. These are least-expensive road designs that ignore community plans and desires for connections, city space, and economic revitalization as well as returns from improved transportation infrastructure — goals that TxDOT simply doesn’t share.

TxDOT’s plans to add elevated lanes on MoPac South are proceeding despite organized resistance from environmentalist groups like the Save our Springs Association. How to distribute increased amounts of inbound commuter traffic into downtown is still unresolved, but that’s the city’s problem, not TxDOT’s.

It will take TxDOT another two years to complete the NEPA federal study process on the downtown section of I-35. Depressing I-35 through downtown as opposed to TxDOT’s standard design would cost about $300 million extra, and capping it over at least as much, but the cap is a feature TxDOT won’t pay for. Toll lanes with express lanes for buses on I-35 that Mayor Adler mentions could not be implemented for perhaps a decade, and that depends on another billion or so in public money which isn’t there now.

If ever there was a time to stop and look at alternatives to expanding I-35, that time is now, before we commit scarce local money for vague allusions to an urban-friendly freeway design unlikely to be delivered and toll-lane-only congestion relief, which TTI calls a “limited option.”

November bonds to widen I-35 will be a hard sell once it’s widely known that real congestion relief is not possible for any price, especially when a decade or more of detours and disruption — and yes, even more congestion — will be required to fix the unfixable. The bottom line is that I-35 cannot be decongested in any meaningful sense, not with Mucinex or for any amount of money. That even when completed, I-35 cannot be made into a less frustrating driving experience than it is today and that is what the A&M’s TTI has been saying.

Austin could choose its own future, as Houston is trying to do

On January 28, 2016 Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told The Texas Transportation Commission — the body that governs TxDOT — that he wants a paradigm shift in transportation planning that makes better sense for cities. Given Turner’s long record of leadership in the Texas House of Representatives and now, as Houston Mayor, we can only hope that other Texas big city mayors take note and follow suit. (Source: Streetsblog.org.)

Here is some of what Sylvester Turner said:

…We’re seeing clear evidence that the transportation strategies that the Houston region has looked to in the past are increasingly inadequate to sustain regional growth… The region’s primary transportation strategy in the past has been to add roadway capacity. While the region has increasingly offered greater options for multiple occupant vehicles and other transportation modes, much of the added capacity has been for single occupant vehicles as well… It’s easy to understand why. TxDOT has noted that 97% of the Texans currently drive a single occupancy vehicle for their daily trips. One could conclude that our agencies should therefore focus their resources to support these kinds of trips. However, this approach is actually exacerbating our congestion problems. We need a paradigm shift in order to achieve the kind of mobility outcomes we desire…

Turner went on to make three recommendations:

…We need a paradigm shift in how we prioritize mobility projects. Instead of enhancing service to the 97% of trips that are made by single occupant vehicles, TxDOT should prioritize projects that reduce that percentage below 97%. TxDOT should support urban areas by prioritizing projects that increase today’s 3% of non-SOV trips to 5%, 10%, 15% of trips and beyond. Experience shows that focusing on serving the 97% will exacerbate and prolong the congestion problems that urban areas experience. We need greater focus on intercity rail, regional rail, High Occupancy Vehicle facilities, Park and Rides, Transit Centers, and robust local transit. As we grow and densify, these modes are the future foundation of a successful urban mobility system. It’s all about providing transportation choices.

Imagine Austin, where some brave politician stands up and speaks up like Houston Mayor Turner did, and declares independence from TxDOT’s highway idolatry — the simplistic view that somehow, someway we can build roads faster than Detroit et al. can build cars. Surely not all of our leaders believe that widening I-35 should be our top transportation priority for our limited resources — perhaps a billion dollars in AAA bonding capacity to bankroll a bankrupt state highway department. My35 alone could consume everything we could put up and more; but, in all fairness, we could easily use up all of our debt capacity widening non-state roads inside Austin, and that would also discourage alternatives and make congestion worse, too.

Whatever we decide about funding I-35 — beyond the $12 million we’ve already spent for planning — will say a lot about where we intend to go as a city. Any additional local money for the My35 project is a slippery slope, a probable Point of No Return. After all, “in for a penny, in for a pound”. Eventually, at some unknown time in the future, after years of construction disruption, the freeway would carry more vehicles, but congestion overall would be worse, not better. Transit, bike, and pedestrian benefits promised in the project are longterm and incidental, and could better be achieved through direct spending elsewhere.

Healthy cities need integrated transportation and land-use planning, the latter unrecognized and unacknowledged in TxDOT’s institutional mindset. Cost-effective, efficient transportation is the direct result of integrated transportation and land-use planning from the outset, using tools like Smart Growth and transit-oriented development (TOD) to maximize mobility at an affordable cost. Cities are almost by definition congested, but urban mobility goes beyond movement, and is heavily dependent upon destination proximity and modal choice.

Inside the city of Austin alone, there are billions of dollars in existing, but neglected, road, bike, and sidewalk needs. But for a real game changer, Austin needs a Guadalupe-North Lamar light rail line from downtown to some point past the North Lamar Transit Center.


Rendition of LRT train on Guadalupe (the Drag) passing UT campus. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.

Rendition of LRT train on Guadalupe (the Drag) passing UT campus. Graphic: Capital Metro, via Light Rail Now.


Running in-between and parallel to our two most congested roads, I-35 and MoPac, these trains would reinforce and complement the transit-friendly land uses that have existed in this corridor since the days streetcars plied these same streets. (See «Austin’s First Electric Streetcar Era».) Urban rail in reserved lanes on the street would deliver 40,000 riders a day to and from the city core, while experience elsewhere says that this small beginning would generate billions of dollars’ worth of new tax base for an investment of less than $750 million, half of which would likely come from the Federal Transit Administration.

Compared to rebuilding I-35 from Georgetown to San Marcos, a Guadalupe-North Lamar light rail project is a relatively simple transportation endeavor. It is a project we’d build, we’d own, we’d control, we would pay for with identified funds, and would benefit from directly — compatible with buses, biking, and walking. Plus, it would be built on a relatively predictable schedule of less than five years with an extremely high potential for payback within a decade of opening, while setting the stage for better-funded, more frequent, and more comprehensive public transit throughout the city and the region.

If 2016 is Austin’s year of mobility bonds on November’s ballot, a Guadalupe-North Lamar light rail line should be the first priority. A plan for this could be quickly assembled from at least four official past rail studies done on this corridor since 1984 — the last, a full Preliminary Engineering/Draft Environmental Impact Statement from 2000. Furthermore, it could be accomplished using the well-known competent national consulting team, AECOM, already hired by Capital Metro to essentially study the same corridor.

What’s needed now is political leadership to get it done. With our backs literally up against TxDOT’s wall of debt for an insanely risky My35 rebuild, the facts speak for themselves.

Rail References

Ridership

• Light Rail Corridor. Austin, Texas (November 2000) — Federal Transit Administration New Starts summary
https://keepaustinwonky.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/fta-new-starts_small-starts-austin-texas_light-rail-corridors.pdf

Billions in new tax base

The two best examples of initial light rail lines with similar characteristics, i.e., Big Dot connections and high ridership, are Houston and Phoenix.

• Houston METRO — $324 million to construct, opened 2004
$8 billion in economic development on initial 7.5 mile Main Street line since 2004
http://www.planetizen.com/node/81699/texas-cities-see-mass-transit-path-economicdevelopment

• Phoenix METRO — $1.351 million to construct, opened 2008
$8.2 billion in economic development on 19.6 miles Phoenix to Tempe since 2008
http://www.bizjournals.com/phoenix/news/2015/07/28/valley-metro-development-alonglightrail-tops-8.html

Other examples with more mature systems

• Dallas DART — 157% ROI, 85 miles, 61 stations
https://www.dart.org/about/economicimpact.asp

• Portland MAX (TriMet) — $4.66 billion (adjusted to 2015 $) to construct 59.7 miles of light rail with 97 stations, yielding ROI of $11.5 billion of economic development within walking distance of stations since 1986.
http://trimet.org/business/

• Salt Lake City TRAX and FrontRunner — $3.6 billion to construct 45 miles light rail and 88 miles of regional (commuter) rail, yielding ROI of $7 Billion economic development since 1999.
http://www.sltrib.com/csp/mediapool/sites/sltrib/pages/printfriendly.csp?id=2665260

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Austin’s competing growth factions both continuing on road to worsening congestion

25 October 2015
CAMPO's 2040 regional roadway plan emphasizes expanding web of roadways catering to real estate development, intensifying addiction to private motor vehicle travel, and accelerating sprawl. Map: CAMPO 2040 Draft Plan.

CAMPO’s 2040 regional roadway plan emphasizes expanding web of roadways catering to real estate development, intensifying addiction to private motor vehicle travel, and accelerating sprawl. Map: CAMPO 2040 Draft Plan.

By Roger Baker

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

Most Austin folks still don’t know it (and how could they without much good investigative reporting?) but there is actually a behind-the-scenes struggle being conducted by two Austin-area real estate coalitions with quite different visions — a contest conducted through the agency of our federally mandated transportation planning body, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Authority, or CAMPO.

For the time being, the more influential growth alliance which benefits from roads and more roads to serve Austin-area sprawl development has won out. There is also a distinctly different group of landed beneficiaries centered around a transition to high-level transit as the future mode choice. This policy difference is basically a long-lasting political battle between two politically influential real estate development coalitions doing normal business under somewhat unique circumstances.

Texas is a “property rights” fundamentalist state, in which unregulated land development is the rule in about the only U.S. state without county zoning. In light of this fact, it is easy to imagine why this land development policy difference would arise. Sometimes the development strategies of these coalitions coincide and at other times they don’t. But they are in complete solidarity when it comes to their support for maintaining maximum Austin-area tech-job-led population growth forever. The impossibility of doing that, as is now being planned by CAMPO, makes Texas politics all the more colorful and interesting.

Let us call these development coalitions first the “sprawler growthers” more closely allied with RECA (Real Estate Council of Austin), and with fast land deal profiteering their uppermost consideration. The other policy bloc is the “transit growthers“, more allied with the Chamber of Commerce and Project Connect, based on somewhat more of a long-term sustainable growth vision. The latter transit-supportive, somewhat smarter-growth coalition recognizes that with congestion becoming a major challenge to maintaining Austin’s tech-based growth, and buses caught up in the same congestion, this leaves only old-fashioned, high-level rail to serve on travel corridors like Lamar/Guadalupe. There is no other way to maintain what still remains of Austin’s severely degraded peak hour travel mobility.

Former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell was forced by RECA, which is the more sprawl oriented development coalition, to include $400 million in roads into his rail bond package, which ballooned it to a full billion dollars, using up all the city’s remaining high-grade bonding ability, and likely priming it for defeat. With the defeat of the billion-dollar bond package election in November 2014, and with the recent approval of the heavily sprawl-oriented CAMPO plan favored by TxDOT and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), the sprawl-growth faction now has the upper hand. They are proceeding to build and widen roads as fast as their increasingly limited finances allow, as I’ve recently reported in a Rag Blog article:

http://www.theragblog.com/roger-baker-metro-risky-business-in-central-texas-the-toll-road-bond-gamble/

The recent Travis County support for bringing the Rocky Mountain Institute into the Austin area planning process to tackle Austin congestion can’t change this unhappy reality very much. Nothing can solve problems that really stem from decades of anarchistic sprawl development, and at this late stage in the urban development process.

Now that Uber has created and promoted software that undermines certain traditional inefficiencies of the taxicab industry, there isn’t much to be done there. Capital Metro has gotten a new app that makes it possible for riders to track buses, but these buses are still largely trapped in congestion at peak, which remains their main problem. Squeezing what advantages are left to develop through wider use of telecommuting to eliminate physical travel might help some, but new breakthroughs in that area are getting hard to find.

Much slower regional growth will no doubt win out as the obvious resolution in the end. When things can’t go on any longer, they don’t. ■

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Austin is a village of villages — and they need to be connected by rail

29 August 2015
City of Austn's Imagine Austin "Centers and Corridors" map shows "regional centers", "town centers", neighborhood centers" and "activity centers". Center-city has three de facto villages, aka "town centers", that align in almost a perfectly straight line down the city's spine. Map excerpt: City of Austin.

City of Austn’s Imagine Austin “Centers and Corridors” map shows “regional centers”, “town centers”, neighborhood centers” and “activity centers”. Center-city has three de facto villages, aka “town centers”, that align in almost a perfectly straight line down the city’s spine. Map excerpt: City of Austin.

By Mary Rudig

Mary Rudig is a Gracy Woods Neighborhood Association coach and editor of the North Austin Community Newsletter. The following commentary has been adapted and slightly edited from her comments recently posted to selected recipients.

Right now, there is a very logical and straightforward way to create a solid transportation system in Austin — but it starts with all of us in this community having to realize that Austin, like most cities in the Southwest, is a village of villages. Most people don’t want to go downtown, they want to go to the next village.

We need to go back to the Imagine Austin plan and start by truly connecting the major activity centers through rail, going down the spine of the city. Rundberg/Lamar down to the North Lamar Transit Center down to the Triangle, then into campus, then through downtown to Seaholm. Add rapid bus systems to connect the Parmer/Mopac tech employment hub, drop more rapid buses along Parmer so you can add density in the Techridge area to the Northeast, add another rapid bus system into Highland Mall/ACC, and another rapid bus into Riverside and down into Slaughter. Eventually those rapid systems will build enough ridership to justify more legs and spurs to the main rail line.

Proposed 6.8-mile "Plan B" light rail transit line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

Light rail transit starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor could serve as basic spine for eventual urban rail system together with other transit modes connecting metro area “villages”.

Second, we need to tear apart the PUD (Planned Unit Development) ordinance and basically make PUDs temporary TIFs (Tax increment Financing districts) — I would suggest twenty years. So to pay for the infrastructure, sidewalks, and other things to create this massive transportation plan, we could encourage neighborhoods to allow PUDs to be built, but the revenue and some of the property tax from each PUD would then go back into an account that can only be used for transportation and park/greenbelt/trails in the immediate area.

Third, we would need to force developers to stop building massive parking garages every time they put in another apartment complex and insist, instead, that they have to come up with some matching funds to put in sidewalks and hike & bike trails that connect their development into the surrounding neighborhoods. Sure, the developers will howl, but we just need to tell them sweetly, but firmly, that sidewalks and hike & bike trails are actually far cheaper than parking garages, and we are no longer buying the idea that an apartment complex is truly “compact AND connected”, unless it has very few parking spots and a whole ton of, you know, actual connectivity into surrounding neighborhoods. If we can get enough PUDs generating some funds, then there will be plenty of cash on hand to match the developers’ funds.

As for the idea (being promulgated by some community activists) that all of us in the outer ring of neighborhoods are living in “suburbs” where everybody is wealthy and low-density, that’s an interesting theory — let’s test it.

Let’s see, even though the City includes the Walnut Creek Metro Park into their density calculations, my neighborhood is still over 1200 people per square mile denser than the average density in Austin (4700 versus the typical 3500), and we have a ton of fairly affordable duplexes and older apartments. Oh, and I live in a 960-square-foot bungalow, on a street that is surrounded by duplexes, and we have the Domain two blocks away. Did I mention that I walk to work, my husband walks to work, my nextdoor neighbor bikes to work, and the neighbor next to him also walks to work?

In fact, my area of town (north of U.S. 183) has nearly 90,000 people packed into 13 square miles — so we have downtown beat when it comes to density. We also have neighborhoods to the east of me where 15% of the population doesn’t have cars, versus the 3-5% that is typical in most of Austin. (The official planners have never studied my neighborhood, so I haven’t a clue where we stand on this, but we have a lot of families that do exist happily on one (1) vehicle, instead of the typical family armada)

The truth is, the development crowd in this town keeps the myth of low-density outer suburbs going because they don’t want anybody to clue into the fact that the developers are — yup, actually building sprawl. A super-dense development carefully built to hide a massive parking garage, with a sidewalk that goes nowhere tacked on as a nod to “connectivity”? That’s a vertical gated suburban community that caters to the car culture, folks — and each one of these that gets built is pushing us a little further away from the goal of Austin having good mass transit and walkable, bikable connectivity.

And just to be super-transparent … Yes, I am one of those awful “anti-growth”, “anti-density”, “ANCer” “neighborhood NIMBYs” that both well-heeled real estate groups and some “liberal” community activist groups warn you about. Because I want stuff like rail and walkability, and I don’t think car-culture sprawl and gated communities are good for Austin. Huh. ■

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Stealth plans for “forced busing” in heavy local travel corridors may be wasteful barrier to light rail

30 March 2015
Consequences of investing in bus-based "rapid transit" (BRT) can be seen in Ottawa, where bus bunching and huge bus jams like this one reveal massive size of fleet necessary to support "rapid transit" levels of ridership — ridership far more efficiently accommodated by urban rail . Similar plans for expanded BRT infrastructure in Austin pose similar need for light rail transit (LRT) alternative. Photo: Flickr.

Consequences of investing in bus-based “rapid transit” (BRT) can be seen in Ottawa, where bus bunching and huge bus jams like this one reveal massive size of fleet necessary to support “rapid transit” levels of ridership — ridership far more efficiently accommodated by urban rail. Similar plans for expanded BRT infrastructure in Austin pose need for light rail transit (LRT) alternative. Photo: Flickr.

By Dave Dobbs

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

Recent developments in local metro area transportation planning, particularly in the aftermath of last November’s ill-conceived “urban rail” bond vote debacle, have made it evident to some of us that there’s a need for a grassroots collection of stakeholders to unite behind a new urban rail planning process, and getting it started ASAP. This is more urgent than most people realize.

It’s abundantly clear that, over the past several years, Project Connect and CAMPO planners and officials have been aiming toward “forced busing” on Austin’s best potential light rail routes, the heavy local travel routes where currently the big red MetroRapid buses run — Guadalupe/North Lamar, South Congress, and South Lamar. As I pointed out in an earlier article on this issue («No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes…»), it’s ironic that, for the past several years, while some public officials have piously insisted we can’t possibly convert car travel lanes to reserved rail lanes on Guadalupe/North Lamar, it seems that all along, since at least 2012, this has been in planning for MetroRapid — in effect, a “stealth” plan for incremental BRT.


Light rail/urban rail has simply vanished from CAMPO's 2040 Transportation Plan. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN.

CAMPO 2040 plan includes hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed “BRT” projects, including plans to construct dedicated lanes in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor in lieu of light rail. Screenshot of Urban Transit page: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


If, this coming May, the CAMPO 2040 plan is adopted with the Urban Transit Projects (2020 – 2040) currently in the plan, Capital Metro, perhaps together with the City, will have the green light to immediately pursue federal funding for concrete bus lanes on the above thoroughfares. And they will no doubt do so, as the 80% federal matching funds for buses are far more available than 50% federal matching funds for rail. Yet, even with the heavier federal proportion, this would be a disastrous waste in the longer term, since the ridership attractiveness, cost efficiency, more livable urban environment, stimulus for transit oriented development (TOD) and economic development, and other benefits for the community, far outweigh the advantage of a higher rate of federal bus system funding.


Total cost per passenger of urban rail becomes lower than "bus rapid transit" as ridership rises above about 10,000 per day. Graph: Project Connect.

Project Connect graph, presented in June 2012 to Transit Working Group, showed greater cost-effectiveness of urban rail (LRT) compared with BRT, as ridership increases. Screenshot: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)


We should expect that the MetroRapid bus lane process will be similar to the Project Connect rail public process — i.e., art gallery open houses, boards and commission hearings and approvals, and finally, council and Capital Metro board approval … but no general public vote, because the the local 20% match will be small enough to construct discrete sections and can probably be found in a slush fund someplace. While 20% of the overall $442,861,656 Capital Metro has identified for dedicated MetroRapid bus lanes is around $88.6 million, it’s logical to expect a piecemeal approach, one section at a time, so as to avoid a citywide response over the loss of vehicle travel lanes. Divide and conquer.

For example, after having paint-striped a little over a mile of Guadalupe and Lavaca between Cesar Chavez and MLK, the most likely next step is to convert two vehicle travel lanes on Guadalupe from MLK to the Triangle (North Lamar at Guadalupe), a distance of 2.5 miles, for about $60 million. Of this, Austin’s share would be roughly $12 million, small enough to be found in current budget funds without going to the voters. Perhaps an even shorter segment, 1.5 miles to 38th Street, would be considered, where the local share would be only about $7 million.

While the downtown Guadalupe/Lavaca paint striping cost $270,000/mile, the dedicated lanes called for in the CAMPO 2040 plan are tear-up-the-street, fix-utilities, and pour 18 inches of concrete (very much like installing light-rail-dedicated reserved lanes) and cost about $24 million/mile for a lane in each direction. Of course, once the bus lanes are in, we couldn’t change our minds because (1) we’ll have spent a lot of federal dollars, and switching over to rail anytime soon would not get a hearing from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and (2) merchants and residents are not going to easily, willingly, or peacefully suffer urban street surgery twice. Currently the $38 million in Federal grants for MetroRapid in mixed traffic is mostly portable to another corridor (like Riverside, where it would be appropriate), and after seven years, buses are mostly amortized in the eyes of the FTA. Exclusive bus lanes at $350 million is another matter entirely, for something that can’t be moved.


Construction for dedicated bus lanes, rarely shown by "BRT" promoters, is very similar to that for LRT, as this example from San Bernardino demonstrates. Yet effective capacity, ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, TOD, and other benefits typically fall short of what LRT typically achieves. Photo: Omnitrans.org.

Construction for dedicated bus lanes, rarely shown by “BRT” promoters, is very similar to that for LRT, as this example from San Bernardino demonstrates. Yet effective capacity, ridership attraction, cost-effectiveness, TOD, and other benefits typically fall short of what LRT achieves. Photo: Omnitrans.org. (Click to enlarge.)


Proceeding with major investment in bus infrastructure in Guadalupe-Lamar and other high-travel local corridors is a huge mistake. As I warned in the earlier article cited above, if you would prefer urban rail instead of a major dedicated bus lane project in Guadalupe-Lamar, “it’s essential to speak up and act. Let neighborhood groups and other community organizations know what official plans have in store for this corridor.” It’s also important to communicate to local agencies involved with planning and members of the Austin City Council “that you want to ride urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, running in reserved tracks, not just a souped-up bus service weaving in and out of special lanes.” ■