METRO | Roger Baker : The proposed Austin light rail plan as I see it…

…which clearly isn’t the way Mayor Leffingwell sees it, since he cut me off during the CAMPO meeting.

roger baker campo sharp crop

Roger Baker speaks at CAMPO meeting in 2011. Screen grab from video by Winter Patriot. Image from Austin Rail Now.

By Roger Baker | The Rag Blog | May 15, 2014

AUSTIN — I make it my regular habit, as a hobby and eccentric peculiarity, to speak at the CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) meetings held the second Monday each month at the Thompson Center, at the northeast edge of the UT-Austin campus.

The CAMPO Policy Board is comprised of 20 Central Texans, mostly politicians, who are federally granted the right to determine how Austin’s federal, state, and local transportation money gets spent, including a shrinking portion of state and federal funds. While funding is more and more a local responsibility, the rules remain federal, generating interesting politics.

The meeting rules allow anyone to sign up to speak for three minutes at the start of the CAMPO, meeting under “Citizen Communications.” Anyone can talk about anything not specifically on the agenda, if they call in and register to speak and submit supportive digital media before the meeting.

I usually sign up to speak on “Long Range Planning Considerations,” since that can cover almost anything. I use this little window of opportunity to discuss CAMPO’s rich reserve of foibles and planning deficiencies. If CAMPO’s shortcomings ever got to be worth anything, I figure I’m nearly first in line to get rich selling them. Meanwhile I like to keep in practice through persistence in trying to follow transportation politics.

Things at CAMPO now appear to be a mess.

Things at CAMPO now appear to be a mess. The future travel demand model is bogged down with 800 area mostly road projects, far more than it was designed to handle. CAMPO director Maureen McCoy resigned a few months ago (under political pressure, some say). A previous CAMPO director, Joe Cantalupo, now with a private engineering firm, has been brought in on an emergency basis as acting director. With little fear of losing his job, and since nobody else knows the ropes, Joe has gotten pretty candid about how dysfunctional the CAMPO planning has now become, as he revealed at the May CAMPO meeting.

Every county wanted to get in on what seemed like possibly free road money, so they clogged up the modeling software with over 800 CAMPO project submissions, with the result that it crippled the travel demand software model and its analytical capabilities.

As a prize-winning example of the group’s planning challenges, the CAMPO Board voted in 2013 to proceed to develop a $32 billion (!!!) 2040 transportation plan. The CAMPO 2040 Plan proposes to handle double the current population of Central Texas in 2040, while putting 70% of the future growth outside Travis County, all without taking our regional water supply into account in any way. The cost of this CAMPO planning is about $2 million a year. I have covered that previously here.

Since three minutes isn’t much time to deliver a speech, I usually draft a monologue to go along with my PowerPoints, and send CAMPO a link to the file for the minutes.

mayor leffingwell speaks

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell. Photo from The Daily Texan.

The Mayor takes issue

At the May 12 CAMPO meeting, I signed up to speak on Project Connect’s rail proposal, according to my own take, but I didn’t quite get through reading my five points. Mayor Leffingwell cut me short at about point four. As chair of the meeting, he said he disagreed with about everything I had to say. You can listen to an audio clip of my interaction with the Mayor over our unresolved $1.38 billion dollar Austin rail alignment disagreement here.

Mayor Leffingwell said he disagreed with about everything I had to say.

At the end of my comments, I advised people to follow the rail issue in The Rag Blog. You are reading that now.

The political strategy of bundling roads as a vote sweetener into one big light rail-dominated bond package was covered well by Ben Wear in the Austin American-Statesman (May 5, page B1): “A side of roadwork on urban rail bond?”

Here is a clip with Lyndon Henry — who was then joined by me —  interacting with the Project Connect planners unhappy with a complex and unorthodox planning process, one that seems designed to come to Project Connect’s preferred conclusions, by being heavily biased toward hypothetical growth rather than current conditions.

They admit that the future development zoned along Riverside Drive could not materialize without rail. These very high growth projections thus seem to make rail on Riverside more of a preordained necessity than a real planning choice.

For further documentation on this topic, you can go to Lyndon Henry’s Austin Rail Now site for evidence that a Lamar-Guadalupe alignment is greatly preferable to the Project Connect proposal.

Disclaimer: For the record, I have been a strong advocate of light rail, on strong corridors and well-integrated with buses, for more than three decades. I believe we have to get the growth politics out of both road and rail planning to maintain a livable city, and to be fair to current Austin residents and taxpayers. I am also a member and supporter of Our Rail, which strongly advocates a Lamar-Guadalupe corridor alternative on the November bond ballot.

The proposed Austin light rail plan, as I see it

1. The recently proposed light rail system runs to the east of UT and the Capitol. This is along a weak and largely residential corridor. Meanwhile, the best opportunity to develop a big ridership, and to solve current problems right away, is to put the rail to the west, along the highly congested and transit friendly Lamar-Guadalupe corridor where only buses are now proposed. Buses can’t handle the numbers that rail can.

2. The Statesman has reported that Project Connect’s estimated cost of the corridor to the east is $1.38 billion, an exceptionally high cost for light rail. There are claims the feds MIGHT pay 50% of this cost. However, the FTA funds are not there; the FTA will be totally out of money toward the end of this year.

…Funding for surface transportation programs is set to expire this year. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Highway Trust Fund will be bankrupt by the end of September. It estimates the mass transit account of that fund could run out of money by the end of December…

project connect rail

Project Connect rail vision.

Without federal help, this system would put a big tax hit on Austin residents, likely $100 or more per year, every year. Austin seems to be in the final stages of another high tech bubble with soaring living costs, and horrible traffic due to unregulated sprawl development. Quite enough by itself to scare away relocations, assuming we had the water. The last thing Austin needs is a big tax increase for a gold-plated transit system serving a weak corridor.

3. The bond proposal for this rail system is pretty stinky. The system seems to poll badly, so the latest plan is to tie it to a smaller bundle of roads as a vote sweetener, to make the rail bonds more attractive. Except the planners can’t find the road projects that most people want badly enough to overcome the rail bond negatives.

Why are the politicians supporting Project Connect’s proposal backing rail along such a weak corridor?

4. Why are the politicians supporting Project Connect’s proposal backing rail along such a weak corridor? I believe the real reason is revealed when we see rail corridor promoters predicting 15,000 future jobs in the health care industry, tied to the Dell medical training complex and the University.

…You have to attract a lot of people living downtown and while you have a big base of people living there now I think you want to get a multiple of what’s there, because there’s going to be 15,000 new jobs related to the medical center alone…

Since IH 35 and Red River cannot handle the new travel demand that these jobs imply, the Project Connect planners were forced to justify rail to handle this projected demand. In fact, the hypothetical future growth numbers along Riverside could not happen without rail, as the Project Connect planners have stated. In effect, the Project Connect planning assumptions demand rail, based on projected growth.

5. To choose a rail corridor with future medical and health care jobs as a major justification is risky planning. Treating medical training and bio-med technology as a cash cow for future growth is quite likely to fall short of expectations.

…Now that news of oversize healthcare profits and salaries have entered the public psyche, a healthcare jobs gold-rush is officially on [50]. Thanks to the healthcare bubble’s continued expansion during the Great Recession, healthcare has been one of the few industries to add jobs (nearly 1 million jobs) greatly softening the recession’s blow (until the healthcare bubble pops, that is). As much of rest of the economy continues to downsize, healthcare’s share of employment just hit an all-time high [52] as signs of a healthcare employment bubble have become apparent [53].

The recently soaring popularity of almost nursing careers now means that new nurses are oversupplying the market, a sharp reversal from the supposed nursing shortage of several years ago. Even health information technology is likely in a bubble [54] as health IT is now officially the “hottest” job for college graduates [55]. While the US Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that the healthcare industry will add 4 million jobs through 2018 [56], with half of the 20 fastest growing occupations being in healthcare, this assumption is simply unrealistic and assumes that healthcare costs can keep rising unabated without a popping of the massive healthcare bubble as healthcare becomes unaffordable for more Americans every year…

Read more articles by Roger Baker on The Rag Blog.

[Roger Baker is a long time transportation-oriented environmental activist, an amateur energy-oriented economist, an amateur scientist and science writer, and a founding member of and an advisor to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA. He is active in the Green Party and the ACLU, and is a director of the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Save Barton Creek Association in Austin. Mostly he enjoys being an irreverent policy wonk and writing irreverent wonkish articles for The Rag Blog. ]

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12 Responses to METRO | Roger Baker : The proposed Austin light rail plan as I see it…

  1. Dick Kallerman says:

    It’s all here in an integrated package: rail, roads, CAMPO planning, growth, finance, politics and even health care. A microcosm of Austin, and it’s shenanigans. Will it survive? Stay tuned.

  2. Leslie Cunningham says:

    Hi, Roger. Thanks for the article. I don’t live near any of the areas you’re talking about, but I certainly scratched my head when I read the Statesman reports of the proposed “corridor.” Just didn’t make sense even to a casual observer. Totally leaves out the northwest (where I live) and apparently almost all of south Austin. It is possible but unrealistic to use public transit to get from where I live to downtown Austin (long walk to bus stop, long wait for bus, transfer at North Lamar Transit Center). As the years have gone by, traffic on both I-35 and Mopac has gotten more and more unpredictably heavy even during non-rush hours. Also it’s become more and more expensive to move nearer into the center of the city. My husband and I are considering a move to a retirement community in San Antonio–there’s a bus stop right in front of it, though I don’t get the impression that San Antonio has a very impressive public transit system. The community has vans that travel to shopping and events. Not really my choice of a move–I don’t want to leave Austin–but maybe necessary.

  3. Roger — many thanks for this article, and also for getting under the Mayor’s increasingly thin skin!
    Leffingwell has led Austin unhesitatingly into the mire of worsening transportation, scarcer water, development more skewed to upper income newcomers and away from established residents.
    As for the Riverside Drive part of the stupid rail plan now being advanced being a “foregone conclusion,” if so, it is only because this is the part of the city with the LOWEST HOME OWNERSHIP. I live here, I own my home, and I am not alone — but we are a minority, and considered irrelevant, in an area of students, immigrants, and other “transient” types.
    Absolutely ZERO effort has been made to actually determine what is NEEDED in this area by people who live here now, and who might stay if amenities we need were present: more than one grocery store, a post office, an office supply store, and a juice bar top my list! Not needed: more high rises, less traffic lanes, a transit center on Riverside and Grove — notice the planned route goes NO WHERE NEAR the airport; this was the initial justification for running NEW TRACK down a major traffic artery.
    It is an insane plan and everyone who sees the architects’ drawings is struck dumb with shock.
    Leffingwell is living in some kind of dream world of F1 racecar drivers and big stars, elite sports teams in downtown Austin and no one but 25-year-old techie transplants in the bars and boutiques.
    This all needs to stop now. The Planning Commission should immediately stop issuing permits for any structure over 3 stories tall, all hotels. BUY MORE BUSES and tell ACC to get its own damn shuttles if they don’t like using UT’s.

    • Leslie Cunningham says:

      “no one but 25-year-old techie transplants in the bars and boutiques.” so true, Mariann, in too many of the city development boosters’ brains.

  4. Larry Piltz says:

    Yes, buy buses, lots and lots and lots of buses. Run them nearly everywhere all the time. You could fund 50 years of near-saturating bus routes, with luxurious well-outfitted buses, for the money they’re wanting for several miles of track and a small number of rail cars. I think they just want the status symbol of trains. Yes, Austin has become even more of an ostentatious head case with the appearance of F1, though it’s more of a symptom than a cause. And the needs of the million area residents already here are neglected, even starved. Leffingwell’s and other rail boosters are just off the tracks when it comes to anticipating what Austin will need in the future. If they can’t see what it needs in the present, they are certainly failing to extrapolate from today going forward. Roger, be sure to clone yourself a large number of times, and take three minutes each, each meeting. Maybe something good could come from that.

    • Larry Piltz says:

      Also, make the under-construction MoPac ‘middle-finger lane’ BUSES ONLY!

      • Larry Piltz says:

        If people think rail is needed instead of buses to make Austin look cool enough for young tech and medical workers, think about how San Francisco and its Google buses are serving the needs for a lot cheaper than rail. The main point though is, if you’re going to generate billions of dollars out of nowhere, use it to meet people’s needs, not hypothetical businesses’ needs. Yes, Google bus system itself is an elitist proposition, but a good local government could instead provide a cool system of People’s Buses just as easily. And with Union labor.

    • Roger Baker says:

      I agree that Austin could use many more buses, but the best way to get them and fill them is rail, since rail, unlike buses, can comfortably accommodate a very high corridor trip capacity capacity, rivaling a freeway.

      We know how incredibly many corridor trips the subways must and can handle in Manhattan. A light rail can do the same above ground, at a much lower construction cost than a subway, assuming that rail has its own right of way and that there are buses to deliver and receive light rail riders at feeder stops, typically a mile apart.

      Austin is a city with a lot of north-south congestion north of the river — on IH35, MoPac, and the regions in between, like along Lamar. A light rail line serving a good (high density, congested, and pedestrian-friendly) corridor, like the Lamar/Guadalupe alignment, would probably do very well from day one, assuming it is complemented with buses, something like ribs on a spine.
      What I personally object to as a transportation reform activist, are rail funding plans that seem to me to be designed to make certain developers a lot of money, in contrast to an alignment that best solves Austin’s EXISTING transportation problems.

      The average current Austin homeowner might soon have to pay something like $100 a year for new rail bond debt. I think they would probably prefer it go to solving existing problems supported by a broadly popular transition, in contrast to subsidizing proposed growth along a weak corridor.

      In past Rag Blog posts I have expressed my belief that the day of the automobile-addictive suburb is ending. The old $20 per barrel conventional oil already peaked globally in 2005, and we now face a far different economic reality of $100 per barrel oil.

      The USA is a now nation of oil junkies in denial. It is the economic pain of struggling to maintain such an unsustainable habit that should and will bring a broad public desire to move beyond cars. See these links:

  5. Chris Hoerster says:

    Campaign manager for Pete Salazar Jr. Could we talk?


  6. Mona Mehdy says:

    With climate change amplified drought hitting Texas now and with increasing severity, it is a travesty but not surprising that CAMPO does not address and recognize there are limits to growth in the Austin area. As Mariann said, local governments should stop driving for more people, businesses to move to Austin. We do not have the water, air quality capacity for that–these are finite and dwindling resources–plus the area will become a replica of Los Angeles with sharpened inequality and high housing and taxation driving existing residents out. I mostly favor buses, including electric ones. For rail, I worry about the high costs, overruns, federal government shortage of funding share, and burden on local taxpayers.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Well, if we assume a growing Austin, transportation plans HAVE to mean serving people who aren’t here yet. Otherwise, political effort is best directed to discouraging growth rather than funding either roads or transit.

    So a rail route to serve perceived “existing” demand down Lamar/Guadalupe will take traffic lanes, harm businesses during construction – many will go out of business, and cannibalize existing transit ridership on the only route where the bus is usually full.

    The other philosophy is to CREATE a new ridership by placing rail on/near places where new development can go: along newly flood controlled Waller Creek, new medical campus area, ACC/Highland, Riverside Drive, Mueller.

    Such eastern route also connects existing attractions: Convention Center, Capitol, UT, stadium, where it falls down is not going to the airport.

    I think we can work with this route. Let’s not pit best against better. Also, the western route really doesn’t escape criticism either; it’s debatable that it’s truly the ‘best.’

    • Anonymous says:

      I used to think that a rail system should first serve places like stadiums and airports and convention centers and similar places, but have learned that those places are extremely expensive to serve on a per-trip basis. First priority must be on the places where people live and work and travel on a daily or near-daily basis. You were absolutely correct in citing UT, but it’s far more correct to cite “UT within a few blocks east and west of Guadalupe” – in other words, the west side, not the east side, which is mostly parking lots (UT and state agencies, nearby). Light rail is for people, not cars. If you study public transit, you’ll see that putting light rail stops near parking lots only makes sense at the end of a line or, very rarely, at a transfer point.

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