Today, Project Connect recommended that East Riverside and Highland advance to the next phase of the Central Corridor study process.
Is this a good recommendation?
It is a B-.
The most important thing is that they advanced multiple corridors instead of just one. This is an important victory for those of us that have been arguing for the top choices. The inclusion of East Riverside was justified by the data, but might have been a political concession to transit activists. I would have preferred that the set include Lamar, both because of the existing ridership, strong overall data, and the existing community support for it. I am open to hearing more about Highland and felt that East Riverside was definitely justified on the data.
A lot of data was put out into the public domain and the Project Connect staff seemed to try and balance the political constraints and previous project baggage with the facts. Blog readers know that I see the staff as reacting to and anticipating political pressure not as the agenda setters.
The recommendation loses points for incomplete documentation, backlog of important questions, and fairly arbitrary indices. That last one is a genuinely worrisome practice as it imbues completely subjective choices with the respectability of actual facts.
Could it have been better?
There was no real wonky barrier to a better recommendation. The Project Connect staff and all of the major stakeholders understand the policy ramifications and arguments at play.
One real issue was a lack of time due to a rushed process as a result of the November 2014 election target date. But the broader issue is political power. The Mayor has a point of view as do undoubtedly other elected officials that influence Project Connect. The large employers have a point of view and individual preferences. On the other hand the pro-Lamar groups as well as those activists wanting a more fully data-driven process – such as Austinites for Urban Rail Action – could not fully dislodge tired approaches.
The dual recommendation and the inclusion of East Riverside is a victory for those of us that are urbanists, progressive, concerned with actual riders, interested in transit both on planning and economic fairness grounds, or any combination thereof. We are in a better place than we were eight months ago. Eight months from now we can be in an even better place.
To some extent that requires moving away from our recent focus on technical scrutiny and promoting public engagement – which were appropriate for the previous phase of the Project Connect process. Given that our shortcomings were about political clout, it might make sense to consider how we change that directly. And since Council will ultimately be choosing the locally-preferred alternative, an efficient path for future action is fairly clear.