This week, the Project Connect staff and consultants are starting to put the finishing touches on their mode and alignment recommendation to the Mayor’s Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG). CCAG will then stamp some version of that recommendation with its approval (the final vote will likely be on Friday, June 13th) and pass it on to Council for designation as the locally-preferred alternative (LPA).
The unanimous Council vote this past December on the CCAG sub-corridor recommendation indicates that the support exists on Council for CCAG’s eventual LPA selection. The conventional wisdom is that some rail plan is going to get placed on the November ballot.
For those of us interested in a quality plan, what are the available advocacy options?
“Yay! We need to do something. Anything.”
There is a small group of Austinites that recently had a party to kick-off the creation of a group (
“Austin Goes Around” I believe “Austin Gets Around”) to advocate the November ballot language. Like a lot of Austinities, it seems that they believe it’s time to “do something” badly enough and the details are not important enough to wait for. If you are ready to go, that’s an effort worth looking up.
“Kill it! Try Gudadalupe/Lamar in 2016.”
The Guadalupe-Lamar (GL) transit route is clearly the strongest candidate for an initial rail sequence based on potential ridership and existing residential development. CCAG discarded it. Council shied away from resurrecting it. The basic reason is a lack of political leadership to work with the FTA to move the existing MetroRapid bus investment ($36 million in federal funds) to make way for the first sequence of urban rail ($400-$800 million total investment).
A grassroots effort to put it on the ballot does not appear to have traction. Therefore, GL won’t be on the ballot this November.
Some argue that Austinites should already start opposing the details-yet-to-be-finalized rail route. The reasoning behind this sentiment is that GL is best, hence it must go first to ensure the strongest system. On top of that, they add a sweetener: we can try and vote for GL in 2016.
The available data indicate that a successful East Riverside (ER) to medical district route is possible. By “successful” I mean: (1) enough ridership that per-rider subsidy is lower than bus a few years after the service starts and (2) car-ownership is lower than expected in the census tracts served. ER already exceeds the minimum residential density and the zoning is already in place there for even more. Two of the major regular bus routes (the 7 and 20) serve similar needs as an ER-to-downtown-and-UT sequence.
Now, waiting two years for GL has its appeal. But the reality is that if the November 2014 rail referendum fails, it’s not automatic that there’s a successful rail election in 2016. Looking at some repeatedly cited examples of rail-vote-failure turnarounds indicates the wait time is likely to be longer than two years.
Is the utility from the GL enough to justify taking the risks from killing any other proposal? Given current data, I’d answer no. In Spring of 2013, the 1 and 101 (proxies for GL route) had about 17,000 weekday boardings. The 7, 20, and 100 (partial, back-of-the-envelope proxies for the route CCAG is considering) had about 13,000 weekday boardings. Clearly, each corridor has some relatively uncontroversial pros and cons in terms of the potential for utility delivery (say super-dense West Campus versus the median on East Riverside, different growth prospects, different underlying impact on economic justice concerns).
Given these facts, a segment like ER-to-medical-district is maybe 20% lower in public value to GL. But not 2000% (20x) lower. And that matters once you start to assess the risk of a November 2014 defeat significantly delaying rail and other public transportation investments in a similar fashion to the 2000 defeat. If GL is 20% better at providing public value than ER-to-downtown, that means every year of delay requires four years of payback for lost utility.
This is critical, so let’s go through an example. If we delay two years of ER utility (80 utility ‘points’ per year) to get GL utility (100 points), it will take GL eight years to payback the lost utility. The math is straightforward: 160 units from 2 years of ER operation that are lost in seeking a 2016 vote/20 unit-per-year bonus from GL. If rail gets delayed 4 years, that’s 16 years of of payback time; if it gets delayed 8, that’s 32 years of payback. And the further out the payback crossover happens, the less certain we can be that GL would continue to hold a utility advantage in perpetuity. It makes sense to hold out for GL if its advantages are vast (20x) or ER is unworkable (like standalone Highland). But given the actual size of the differences in value and the political risks, I don’t view a diehard GL position as the optimal advocacy direction for this November.
“Kill it! I don’t want anything pointing to Highland.”
Others argue that while the East Riverside to downtown part of a longer East Riverside-downtown-Hancock/Highland is appealing, it is not enough to justify the entire line. This makes sense to me given the potential Hancock tunnel costs. Going north of the medical district where there is less demand and higher costs than than the ER segment doesn’t make sense given scarce fiscal capacity for capital and operating costs. Phasing also gives us the option to go back to GL as MetroRapid buses wear out.
Others go a bit farther and argue that even if we just start with East Riverside to downtown, it’s still not worthy of being supported because it creates path dependency to Highland, which in turn might preclude GL because it will duplicate service for certain stretches north of the University of Texas. Again, I think the above phasing is the right approach. Moreover, it seems that pushing for the engineering to remain open to either connection towards Seaholm as well as compatibility with Riverside connecting with a future GL line must be a part of the LPA. So instead of killing it for pointing North, I’d urge we make sure it can (and does) point West.
“Kill it! It doesn’t use the existing bridges.”
The Project Connect staff is not conducting an analysis on the traffic impact from refurbishing either the Congress or South 1st bridges for rail. Ultimately, it seems the Mayor has prioritized preserving existing car traffic flow to avoid the resentment and political repercussions from angry drivers.
Some argue that any new bridge or tunnel should be opposed since it protects car-first policy. Personally, there’s too much utility left on the table to reject an ER-to-medical district proposal on this issue alone. I would have liked to have seen the numbers on traffic and made a decision then, but this is the leadership we’ve got from the Mayor and the Project Connect staff.
Between a bridge and a tunnel, the limited information released to the public indicates minimal impact on ridership numbers; hence I prefer the cheaper option to boost political viability and leave fiscal capacity for other infrastructure. That said, new data on costs or ridership modeling might make me change my mind on the tunnel versus bridge option. I am not opposed to a tunnel per se. Instead, at this time, I can’t justify a preference for tunneling if we are optimizing for ridership and reducing car-dependence. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the hit to political viability from using up roadways that a long tunnel might solve. I just haven’t seen any data that makes me think that will be a significant voter concern.
Others oppose the creation of a bridge because of the aesthetic impact on the Lake Area. While it will modestly change the Lake’s aesthetics near the core, a rail bridge supports a type of living and development pattern that is more environmentally sustainable. It’s a trade-off green-minded Austinites should make.
“This is all a risky mess. Let’s just do BRT.”
While the ER-to-medical district has a good chance at success, there’s no way the whole ER-Highland concept makes fiscal sense either on capital or on-going operating cost grounds. If CCAG wants to provide certainty about transit to shape growth at Highland/Airport, as well as take the next step in providing transit for those using the 7-20-100, then it makes much more sense to use real Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) with dedicated lanes. It will be much cheaper on the capital side for the first decade (buses are cheaper and run on existing roads), less of a fiscal risk on the operating side (buses have lower fixed costs, though their variable costs like labor can add up), and would mirror the choice made for GL.
To be absolutely clear: the data render ER-to-medical district line a superior public investment than BRT for the entire ER-HL stretch. But the entire stretch having BRT delivers more public value than nothing. An initial rail sequence with the Hancock tunnel that serves only the areas North of the medical district would destroy significant amounts of public value and is inferior to nothing.
Some Swing Voters Like Specifics
To conclude, it is quite likely that CCAG and Council are not in the mood to consider any alternative viewpoints besides something that is a descendant of the Red Line-supporting circulator concepts of the past. The urge to ‘do something’ is too great, the desire to shape growth to Airport given the core’s NIMBY forces is the path of least resistance, and the institutional alignment around rail serving the future planned employment hubs of UT provides a useful source of elite support (and campaign money).
Luckily, there’s plenty of time between June and November to criticize and defeat a poor plan.
To most effectively savage a bad plan, I’ve found it useful to be able to tell a story of constructive ideas rejected as a result of hubris. Not every voter cares for alternatives – many prefer simple dichotomies. But in a close election, every sliver counts, and there’s certainly a set of voters that will want to reject a bad plan after hearing a concrete explanation that something better was possible and their ‘no’ vote is part of going back to that better plan.