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Point Austin: More Connected Than Thou

Multimodal objections to a multimodal project

By Michael King, Fri., Aug. 8, 2014

If all goes as planned, City Council will vote today (Aug. 7) to approve the municipal election scheduled for Nov. 4, and to include on that ballot a transportation bond, estimated at a total of $1 billion – $600 million for the rail project known as Project Connect and $400 million for road projects, a few of which could also serve (down the line) for multimodal connections to the rail project. The overall details are addressed by Mac McCann in this issue ("A Great Big Bundle of Rail and Roads,") and in previous coverage (particularly, "Pondering the Bond," Aug. 1).

I won't rehearse the road projects here except to note that the proposed upgrade to the I-35/Riverside exchange is long overdue (not accelerated, I suppose, by TxDOT's current penurious condition). The Statesman grumbled that several of the "road" projects also have elements that would support future rail; if they don't understand "multimodal" by now, I can't help them. We cannot work our way out of our current (and growing) transportation problems with a single solution – the primary reason that "roads or rail" is such a pointless argument.

Will voters endorse this undeniably expensive package? Hard to tell; it might well be more expensive to do nothing, but that's a very difficult argument to sell. If the election were held today, the prospects would be poor – the public campaigns haven't really begun. But some folks have pointed out that we're about where we were at this time for the Central Health district tax vote in 2012, and that won handily.

The wild cards this year include the fall vote – presumably a broader and deeper electorate than May – and the still fairly chaotic 10-1 Council races, where most candidates (waiting for the precise ballot) haven't yet declared themselves on the bond, although a few have made it clear they'll oppose any rail project. That's to be expected from hard-core anti-taxers, who routinely specialize in cutting off the public's nose to spite its face.

The Shadow Knows

More curious is the opposition from a small but vociferous group of "transit advocates" who have adamantly opposed this Project Connect rail project for one reason only: because the northern part of the project is planned to travel up the Highland Corridor (a more easterly route) rather than up Guadalupe/Lamar. Those folks – associated with several overlapping groups with small memberships but loud social media presence – insist that G/L is the only possible route, and that this project must be stopped now and replaced (in some future City Hall utopia) by one that goes the way they insist it must go.

Today's news feature recounts those arguments in more detail, but it's worth emphasizing that the planners in charge of the project insist they've reviewed all the possibilities in technical detail and that the Highland route represents the best initial north-side route in the extended time frame such a project requires. Longtime city commissioner Dave Sul­li­van, who served on the Central Corridor Advisory Group, told me this week that the argument essentially turns on whether one gives more weight to "present or future" population density – in view of the years it takes to implement this project, the planners claim that the Highland Corridor makes more sense for the initial rail investment.

Are they certainly right? I don't know, but neither do the opponents. Folks from AURA, Our Rail, Austin Rail Now, etc., not only argue that G/L is the only possible route, but that the public officials, planners, and advisory group members have unfairly thumbed the scales, fixed the numbers, and intentionally worked to promote a bad route certain to fail because ... who knows? Since "developers" are an all-purpose pejorative in Austin political parlance, "developers" must obviously be behind the whole evil project, also motivated to promote a bad route that will fail, along with their developments, because ... indeed, who knows? [Ed. note: For the answers to these and other questions, see "Most of This Is Horseshit," in comments to this story online.]

Bad Faith

Of late, opponents have accused the planning team of lying and unethical behavior, and of "promoting" the project instead of just describing it neutrally, and even of failing to repeat the opponents' arguments for them. This week, a couple of those opponents, Scott Morris and Lyndon Henry – representing yet more fleeting groupuscules – charged, in a lengthy press release, that Project Connect had surreptitiously and deceptively withdrawn from the Federal Transportation Administration process for environmental review, and the entire process will now be subject to a wasteful "Do Over."

In fact, the planners announced that bureaucratic change more than a month ago, and it refers to an outdated 2010 version of the plan, running from ABIA to Mueller (which these same opponents also denounced, because "Guadalupe/Lamar!") If these "transit advocates" are determined to find ethical failings in the debate over Project Connect, they should start by looking in the mirror.

There are certainly reasons to oppose this rail project. You prefer roads, you like buses, you don't want to spend the money, or you indeed believe you know better than the folks who have been working professionally on this project for years. You're convinced the route should run from Abbey Road to Strawberry Fields, and you're certain to persuade the next City Council of your vision by 2016.

That's all fine. But the moral high ground is unavailable, and you don't speak for "the people." We're arguing about what's best for Austin transportation, the answers are complicated, and we've all got opinions. More importantly, we're all in this together.

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