A zany map highlights Project Connect’s transparency problems.
On March 4th, City Council and the Capital Metro Board of Directors held a joint meeting to receive briefings on the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, Project Connect, and the corridor investments resulting from the successful 2016 mobility bond referendum.
In preparation for said meeting, CapMetro staff submitted a map classifying, essentially, the constraint level on the roadways where high-capacity transit investments are most likely to be developed in the near-term. The first version of the right-of-way analysis map was uploaded on March 1st, according to the City’s website. Here’s the first version of the map:
The map that was actually presented live to the members at the joint meeting was different. The live map reduced the amount of right-of-way that was designated as “challenging”, a bridge-crossing on Lady Bird Lake was added, and the segment of Red River between 38th ½ Street and Airport Boulevard seems to have been forgotten. These are just some of the major differences. Here’s the second version:
If you zoom into the central core area more carefully to inspect both the first and second version of the maps, you’ll notice that while some of the roadway coloring was done by geospatial software, both maps have manually-painted stretches. The second version in particular looks like it was almost completely colored-over with a raster graphics editor (e.g. Microsoft Paint). And there are confusing segements that retain a yellow fill and green border, which is obviously not one of of the identified constraint levels. Here’s a magnified version of the second map:
There wasn’t a public explanation of what motivated the changes during the joint session.
The inclusion of such a coarse-grained and choppy visualization of the Lady Bird Lake bridge-crossing is an interesting development. Note this December twitter exchange between the Austin Coalition for Transit (ACT) and the CMTA CEO:
In this context, the bridge-crossing illustration seems a bit sloppy given the level of concern conveyed by the CMTA CEO at the lack of precision and/or careful wording in ACT’s statement. More broadly, one wonders if any objective, documented standards are actually being utilized to assign constraint levels to roadway segments or if it’s based on the professional instincts of staff/consultants and their impressions of where passenger car traffic will be most disrupted.
As Project Connect continues, it would be useful for it to adopt a formal version control methodology for publicly-shared work products, as well as for its staff and consultants to document the reasons for changes between major work product versions.
Getting these maps right matters, but the ridership and cost models that Project Connect will utilize to score the Orange and Blue Line options are of paramount importance. The use of the Federal Transportation Administration’s STOPS model to calculate ridership should be an improvement over Project Connect’s ‘13-14 approach. However, as that Project Connect vintage demonstrated, there is still plenty of staff/consultant discretion in how source data is manually “massaged”, how assumptions are selected, and how findings are presented to the public and policymakers.
The operating cost models will, in all likelihood, not feature a standard model and be at the complete discretion of the consultants. This would be a repeat of the ‘13-14 experience. It’s unclear how the capital cost estimates will be calculated. Tunneling for the Orange Line and the bridge-crossing for the Blue Line are obviously opportunities for the “technical-washing” of political bias for or against either project.