The Austin Chronicle

Tied to the Tracks

By Mike Clark-Madison, April 4, 1997, News

The train wouldn't arrive in Austin for years, but our future already seems tied to the tracks, as a congested city and its beleaguered transit authority inch toward an apparently final decision on light rail in Austin.

Over the next 18 months or so, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority will undertake two studies -- one on engineering, the other on environmental impact -- required by the Federal Transit Administration before it releases D.C. dollars for the Red Line, running from the Eastside to Cedar Park, the first leg of Austin's proposed four-line, $900-million-plus light rail system. In the process, Capital Metro aims to answer the city's questions -- raised during nearly a decade of circular debate over the very idea of light rail -- about how much the train will really cost and who will pay it, where it will really run and how it will get there, and who it will really help and at whose expense.

At this juncture, it appears near-certain that this planning process will culminate in a public vote on light rail, or on Cap Met itself and its unpopular one-cent sales tax; as we speak, our legislators are filing dueling bills to make such referenda possible and/or necessary. This gives the authority less than two years to sell both itself and its rail plan to the citizens, since if a vote were held today Cap Met would surely lose its shorts. Bashing the bus company -- a popular sport in all locales, especially those where the transit system has taxing authority -- has never been more popular in Austin, with nearly every media outlet, grandstanding politician, and aggrieved citizens' group taking part in the spectacle.

This hatefest is at least partially justified, since of all the local government entities, Cap Met has been the most persistently mismanaged and misguided (which, with ACC and the school board and the Williamson County Commissioners Court as competition, is no mean feat). And after 11 years of its existence, Austin still has a public transport system with which few locals seem satisfied, except for the vocal minority whose ideological distaste for cars, freeways, and suburbs have led them over the years to minimize Cap Met's flaws and exaggerate light rail's virtues. Unfortunately, however, we only have one transit authority, and if we cripple Capital Metro, we end up with a future that is nothing but an extension of the congested, polluted, and sprawl-besotten present.

And while the same citizens who now deplore Capital Metro's arrogance and incompetence were off doing something else, the transit authority and the city, through its Sustainable Communities Initiative and Citizens' Planning Committee effort, and the Austin Transportation Study, all adopted plans, with little public protest, requiring that we build a light rail system, or something equally massive and expensive. But then again, it was the citizens of Austin who voted Capital Metro and its sales tax into existence in 1985 and who mandated it to do what it now wants to. This inconvenient fact has largely been ignored by those who today treat Cap Met as a plague visited upon a powerless Austin.

In short, if you follow the light rail debate as it is played out in the mainstream media and on the campaign trail, you'll hear a bunch of opinions pro and con that ultimately sidestep the real questions we need to ask ourselves. If we kill light rail for the wrong reasons, we are doomed. If we approve light rail for the wrong reasons, we are also doomed. We've managed to avoid doing either for nearly a decade, but we no longer seem to have that option. If Capital Metro does manage to navigate its way through the current political impasse, actually building a light rail system will seem easy by comparison.

Do We Really Want It?

The first question is if we really want to get out of our cars after all, since without at least this basic commitment to transit, light rail stands barely a chance in hell of happening, let alone working. In all the plans on the table -- Capital Metro's own long-range plan, the ATS' Austin Metropolitan Area Transportation Plan (AMATP), the city's Sustainable Communities Initiative, and the goals and guidelines produced by the Citizens' Planning Committee (CPC) -- this question has already been answered in the affirmative, and in remarkably similar terms. To quote from the AMATP vision statement, the plan "promotes a change from existing transportation conditions and trends by encouraging alternatives to the single-occupant motor vehicle for travel.... This is made necessary by our growing population and the inability to build enough roadways to handle the demand. The question is how much and how fast we should change."

As Capital Metro assistant director Jim Robertson, the key player in the authority's light rail project, puts it: "We've seen a paradigm shift from `mobility' to `accessibility.' Mobility means as many cars as possible, traveling at as high a speed as possible, to as many places as the roads will take them. Accessibility means getting people from door to door by whatever is the best means." That might be on foot, on bicycle, on a bus, or carpool traveling in a high-occupancy lane, or even via the infohighway, as well as on a train or in a private car. It also means moving around where people's doors are to begin with, both by creating "transit-oriented development" and by promoting generally higher densities and more varied land uses within the city as a whole -- that is, a "compact city."

In a generally liberal town like Austin, with its well-established pro-environment sympathies, transit is sort of a Mom-and-apple-pie issue -- which may explain how so many planners, with so many jurisdictions, were able to produce such comprehensive and complicated guidelines, relying so heavily on such major transformations to the status quo, with so little public resistance. Then again, Austin's success at implementing its planning visions has been spotty at best, so maybe the same people who now bark about light rail being an onerous waste figured there was no point in taking the ATS or CPC planning processes seriously. Whatever the cause, the current light rail wars are likely only the first in a series of public outcries over the true meaning of these "modal shifts."

Jim Robertson, Capital Metro's light rail coordinator, says the transit agency can succeed at implementing light rail.

photograph by Jana Birchum

To be fair, most of the folks who showed up at Capital Metro's public forum on light rail, and at the subsequent board meeting where studies on the initial Red Line were authorized, and who are venting their spleen in the papers and at candidate forums, claim to be supportive of transit itself, or at least cognizant of the drawbacks of the almost entirely car-based alternative we have now. We'll see how long that lasts when people start confronting realities like toll roads, higher density development in the neighborhoods, the elimination of free parking, substantially higher gasoline taxes, or zoning restrictions that prevent the eruption of new mini-malls -- all of which are part of the tool box, at least on the theoretical level, of a transit-oriented community.

It's also not clear how gravely our transportation situation will be perceived by the masses in a city that's growing as rapidly as Austin. It's easy for people who came to town during the Boom or the Bust to look at I-35 at 5pm, or at US183 and Spicewood Springs Road, and see traffic conditions that are already intolerable from their perspective, and be convinced that a large-scale transit system is an imperative; and it's this frame of reference that defines plans like the AMATP. It's questionable whether those who've arrived during the ReBoom -- who've in many cases endured in their former hometowns far worse traffic congestion, air pollution, and unsupportable growth than Austin has yet seen -- will see the status quo as needing a billion-dollar fix, and those folks won't really be heard from until light rail hits the ballot box. (For many of our new neighbors, this is the first good old-fashioned Austin political slugfest they've ever witnessed.)

"I suspect that, as the congestion gets worse and the pain factor goes up," says Robertson, "folks will realize that we need to diversify. Especially if our air quality deteriorates into non-attainment [of federal air-quality standards], it'll drive down the tolerance for the current system and drive up the receptivity to others." Or, as city councilmember Jackie Goodman puts it, "If we don't have mass transit that people want to and will use, then we'll lose all of what makes this place special and brought people here in the first place. This boom has just shown us that we don't have the tools for maintaining that vision."

Many cities that have built light rail systems -- Portland, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Denver among them -- did so after reaching what one might call freeway overload. In Portland, the local equivalent of our battles over Barton Springs -- that is, the signal event that crystallized a formerly loose progressive community into the leaders of the political mainstream -- was over the never-built Mount Hood Freeway, and in the 20-plus years since then, the Rose City has become arguably the most transit-oriented metro area in America. Likewise in L.A., the notorious Century Freeway, which opened eight years late and billions of dollars over budget, and other painful highway projects helped direct public support toward the vast MetroRail project, which basically duplicates the old Pacific Electric streetcar system around which Los Angeles grew in the first place.

Here in Austin, though, our lack of freeways -- consistent as it may be with our progressive and environmental commitments -- is perceived even by pro-transit planners as a drawback of our transportation network that needs to be corrected. At the same time as it mandates light rail, the AMATP envisions full buildout of the US183 and US290 freeways, the construction of the long-awaited SH130 (née MoKan) as an Eastside bypass to I-35, and potentially widening the interstate itself, along with other roadway projects. "It's sort of contradictory to invest money in rail at the same time we continue to expand the freeways," says Capital Metro board member Susan Handy, the director of the Community and Regional Planning Program at the UT College of Architecture. "I'm not sure the ATS plan adequately sorts that out and thinks about the conflict. Look at the proposal for the 183-A toll road -- shouldn't we look at doing either that or light rail? If we build SH130, we reduce the congestion on I-35. Do we then need a commuter rail line [such as Cap Met's planned Blue Line, running from Georgetown and Round Rock along the I-35 corridor, perhaps all the way to San Antonio] that duplicates these same roads?"

The standard answer among the planners is that we need all these routes and more. "The people who've been planning these projects," says Robertson, "know that all are important and are quick to agree that they need to be completed, but that we need to advance new, non-traditional solutions to add to the mix of choices. Additional freeways will become congested themselves, so we still need an alternative." Robertson adds that "Most of the discussion is comparing one major capital investment project, like light rail, to an equally large-scale project like SH130. There's a lot we can do with capital projects to expand the capacity of smaller streets, such as in Central Austin, that will make both rail and new highways work better."

Light Rail, Hard Sell

Now, if we assume that Austinites will follow their city planners' expectations and get out of their cars, will they get on board the train? For many years, light rail systems have been nearly synonymous with progress in mass transit. With skyrocketing land and right-of-way costs, and declining federal funding, the older heavy rail systems of the urban North (such as the New York City subways or the Chicago El) are almost never replicated today, and the general decline in passenger rail service has made bona fide intercity commuter rail even scarcer and less hospitable to new start-ups. Conversely, the familiar autobus, which still makes up the vast majority of the urban transport fleet throughout the world, is held in fairly low esteem by planners and transit advocates, primarily because buses are slowed down by the same traffic that slows down everyone else, and -- at least before the relatively recent advent of cleaner fuels like compressed natural gas -- they give off the same pollution as other vehicles on the road.

But the general dismissal of buses as a transit solution isn't entirely due to their practical limitations. In many quarters, bus systems are seen as an anachronism, or a half-measure that insufficiently challenges the dominance of the private car and its freeways, or an inherently lower-class form of transit that's impossible to sell to middle-class commuters who associate riding the bus with disempowerment and poverty. Light rail systems carry none of this baggage, and as a result have had enormous sex appeal in the last 25 years -- rare is the major American city that hasn't at least considered building a light rail line (see sidebar). For over a decade, few urban planners expressed many doubts about the power of light rail to solve transit problems and transform communities, and many continue to hold that light rail, and only light rail, should be the main mode of urban transportation for citizens of the future.

Yet so far, fewer than 20 such systems have actually been built, mostly after painful public catharses similar to what Austin is going through now, with opposition to these light rail lines continuing well after the initial tracks are laid, even in cities that are usually pointed to as light rail success stories. Portland's newest Tri-Met MAX line (which would be their third) got shot down last year in a statewide citizens' initiative, though it passed in the tri-county Portland metro area itself; St. Louis' MetroLink expansion into neighboring counties was likewise stalled at the ballot box; communities outside Baltimore are fighting to keep that city's light rail out of their state-mandated development plans; and even though Sacramento's initial line both exceeded ridership projections and came in under budget, funding for the second line was stalled at various levels of government for nearly 10 years.

These scenarios, along with the frustrating pre-construction battles in cities like Austin, have spawned a new generation of light rail opponents who, unlike their predecessors, are not widely seen as shills of road-building interests or anti-transit conservatives of the Reagan variety. It's become fairly common for academics, politicians, and taxpayers to question, without fear of seeming retrogressive, whether light rail is actually as successful as its proponents have claimed at either reducing congestion or promoting more sustainable development, especially given the seemingly enormous capital costs. "Some of my colleagues say it's a total waste of money," says Handy. "I do have somewhat mixed feelings about it. It's not a short-run solution, and it can't be the entire solution, so we shouldn't raise our expectations too high." Studies to this effect have been brandished by many opponents at Cap Met's light rail forums. "At the same time, though," Handy continues, "few people stop to compare the investments proposed for light rail to the money that's routinely invested in highways, and look at how little scrutiny is paid to the latter. It's a real double standard."

One of light rail's greatest strengths as a transit technology -- its ability to run at street level, as opposed to heavy rail systems that need to either be elevated, buried or isolated via huge rights-of-way from their surroundings -- may also explain its lack of power to date as a magic bullet. Because it is, as fixed-guideway (i.e., on its own track) systems go, flexible and low-impact, and ostensibly more attractive than a bus system, light rail has been the most obvious alternative to single-occupancy vehicle travel in cities like Austin that have little experience with mass transit and none with rail transit. But it's precisely those cities that have grown without the restraints of a fixed guideway system, and it's impossible to force a city to un-grow and then re-grow along the rail line, no matter how you tweak the zoning code. (Ironically, a heavy rail system, which would likely require the blunt instruments of condemnation and eminent domain to procure the necessary rights of way, would have a greater opportunity to foster the sort of transit-oriented development that might guarantee ridership.)

Likewise, having grown accustomed to the mobility paradigm of get-in-the-car-and-go, citizens in these places likely need a greater stimulus to change their behavior than the mere sight and smell of a shiny new rail car. Many cities with successful systems, like Atlanta, Sacramento, or St. Louis, have marketed the trains with an alacrity rarely seen even from the notably image-conscious Capitol Metro -- contravening the view, aptly expressed once-upon-a-time by former Capital Metro general manager Tony Kouneski, that "Once you see the system work, it sells itself."

And finally, even though light rail might be inherently more powerful than other transit modes in fostering new development patterns, using it to create new transit corridors -- especially when laying new track in or alongside existing roadways -- serves to drive up its capital costs. And as a result, its success in altering growth trends or supporting Transit-Oriented Development (including a showpiece project by Peter Calthorpe, the New Urbanist planner who gave us the TOD concept in the first place) has been limited. The main reason Sacramento's initial RT Metro line was relatively cheap was that it, like Cap Met's Red Line, runs primarily on existing railroad right-of-way. (In Cap Met's case, the old Austin and Northwestern short line already meanders through urbanized areas, but in Sacramento, as in most places, railroad right-of-way bypasses rather than traverses neighborhoods and commercial districts. A long stretch of RT Metro actually runs in the median of a 12-lane segment of I-80.) Had the Sacramento line actually been routed to connect existing urban centers and destinations, thus fostering compact-city redevelopment around and between them, it would have cost many times more than it did.

The response of transit systems like Capital Metro to such considerations is twofold. On the one hand, Cap Met is quick and careful to point out -- perhaps more careful than it had been in the past -- that light rail does not pose a threat, or even a limitation, to other types of transit. "Light rail is clearly the most capital-intensive option," says Robertson, but the authority is also looking at bus-only lanes, High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on our freeways, and "lots of opportunities to improve and expand the existing bus service.... We have the chance to offer substantial new services, including feeder routes -- smaller buses that collect passengers through neighborhoods and then intercept the major routes like the Flyers -- as well as more crosstown or suburb-to-suburb routes. One of the reasons we can't fund the Red Line out of the existing sales-tax cash flow is the need to fund an expanded bus fleet."

At the same time, though, the fact that local urban planning, certainly in Austin, has become more progressive and attuned to transit may help light rail systems realize their oft-touted potential to move not just people but also development from one part of town to another. "The problem with looking exclusively at HOV lanes is that they don't have the same effect on land use and economic development," says Robertson. "A light rail system focuses future public policy decisions on making the best use of that transit infrastructure, instead of continuing the status quo."

The status quo itself is changing, though at a glacial pace compared to the reforms envisioned by the New Urbanists. "Even before we started implementing our own planning initiatives, some of the redevelopment we've seen so far, both downtown and further out, has made it easier for us to accommodate rail transit," says city planning director Roger Duncan, author of the Sustainable Communities Initiative. "I can't go so far as to say the city planned for that to happen, but the natural trends have helped. What we're implementing now is building on a base that's already starting to happen, and light rail transit would take advantage of that base as well."

Snafus & Screwups

If both our deteriorating mobility and our acceptance of New Urbanism hold as trends for the next two years, voters might be ready to accept that light rail is, in the words of state Rep. Glen Maxey, "a win-win situation for the environment, for our quality of life, and for our economic development." Indeed, the citizens might be able to accept light rail without a vote were it not for Capital Metro's bad reputation. But what, exactly, do we want from Capital Metro to convince us that they can be trusted with our future?

The bills filed in this legislative session by Sherri Greenberg -- with Maxey, Elliott Naishtat, Dawnna Dukes, and Mike Krusee as co-authors -- empower not only a plebiscite for Capital Metro (actually, Greenberg's bill permits two elections) but an audit of the agency by State Comptroller John Sharp. "We've all agreed that we need to allow a public vote to reassure the community," says Maxey. "No one is discounting the perception that Capital Metro has been mismanaged, and clearly it actually was mismanaged under its past regime. The press and some politicians have pointed out real problems, and I'll be the first to say we should fix them. But this debate shouldn't be about Capital Metro, but about our long-term transit solutions."

This contrasts sharply with the main threads of public opposition at Cap Met's recent hearings, neatly summarized by the speaker who claimed "Light rail is not the problem. Capital Metro is the problem." The authority has made clear that it was listening. "We have made real mistakes before," Robertson says. "We've had snafus and misunderstandings and outright screw-ups, but these don't, I think, disqualify a public agency from embarking on logical extensions of its services and infrastructure.

"Nothing in the history of this agency would suggest that it couldn't either build or operate a light rail system," Robertson continues. "Before Capital Metro was created, Austin had 16 million transit trips annually, and that includes the UT shuttles. We now have 30 million. It would be hard to have that kind of performance improvement if we were truly incompetent."

Robertson is one of the few Cap Met senior staff who has endured through several changes in management and numerous policy shifts from its historically reviled board. "I think part of the reason we can have confidence is that they [Capital Metro] have already gone through some of the catharsis we knew needed to take place," says Goodman, who as part of the City Council appoints five of the seven CMTA board members. (The others are appointed by the Travis County Commissioners Court, and by the mayors of the Williamson County cities served by the authority.) "With the changes we've seen in administration and operations, it should do wonders for our confidence. They've always been great at ideas and bad at practicalities -- or at least it's been easy to characterize them that way."

Handy, one of the newest appointees to the board, concurs with Goodman's assessment. "It troubles me when the staff gets accused of being incompetent and having ulterior motives, because that's not what I've seen," she says. "What I see is a well-meaning, smart staff that's working hard to overcome a lot of history. Certainly, we've made mistakes, and if we don't make any more it helps us in the popular perception.... But Capital Metro has done a lot of good things for the community, and I wish there was an easy way to help people recognize what we've done right."

Capital Metro board member Susan Handy is not convinced that light rail will solve Austin's traffic problems

photograph by Jana Birchum

Part of Cap Met's troubles can be pinned to plain old bad luck -- especially where timing is concerned -- and the current convergence of a Legislative session, a city election, and the need for public debate on light rail has done nothing to promote the agency's achievements. "Every election tends to exacerbate the issue because it's popular to criticize Capital Metro," Handy says. This time around, it's Ronney Reynolds who's playing to the cheap seats, sponsoring a move in council earlier this month for a non-binding city referendum on both light rail and the authority's sales tax. He lost. (For his part, Kirk Watson has repeatedly called for Sharp to be granted Legislative authority to audit Capital Metro.)

At the Capitol, it's freshman Rep. Terry Keel (who, though nominally part of the typically unified Travis County delegation, represents a district that lies almost entirely outside the Cap Met service area, unlike his Republican colleague Krusee of Round Rock) who is riding this horse, filing his own suite of bills mandating binding votes on both light rail and the sales tax level, and calling for public election of the Capitol Metro board to boot. Maxey does not rate Keel's chances of success very highly. "What the Travis County delegation agrees to by consensus is what the Legislature will adopt," he says. "Terry Keel is outside the service area, and his constituents don't pay the tax. We're all on one side, including Mike Krusee and all the local governments, and he's alone on the other side with a few tax protesters. There's no big money being spent here on lobbyists like there was with Circle C; no one is going to question our positions. He clearly should back off."

As Maxey's assessment implies, much of what's passing as opposition to light rail is actually resentment of Capital Metro's taxing authority, and specifically of its decision last year to restore that tax to its state-authorized one-cent level. "There are some in this community who think public transit is inherently ineffective and who think that money should be used for something else," says Robertson. "When the board stood up and defended its legal right to reverse its earlier rollback of the tax, then it predictably became a political issue. But we have a focus that we have to implement. This is the mission that we were created -- by the voters, back in 1985 -- to accomplish."

Neighborhood Outreach

For some folks who actually live along the proposed Red Line, resentment of and resistance to both Capital Metro and light rail is fairly specific and unrelated to the tax. Well-known by now are the objections of the Crestview and Wooten neighborhoods -- bisected by the old Austin & Northwestern tracks that form the base of the Red Line -- and of El Concilio, the controversial neighborhood alliance with roots in the districts surrounding Capital Metro's railyard property (near its headquarters along East Fourth and Fifth Streets) that is slated to be the major light rail terminal (see "Wrong Side of the Tracks," p.26). And again, the authority is working hard to assure aggrieved neighbors that it is listening to them. "We've contributed to the problem by not having instilled the kind of confidence we need to that we'll address their concerns," says Handy. "We need to work with all the neighborhoods."

"We have to step up community relations in a way that gets people involved and keeps them involved," agrees Robertson. "We need to move beyond the old days, when we'd go to neighborhood meetings and stand there and be a target for their complaints. We need to get to a point where we can actually sit around a table and work with all the neighbors all along the line." Robertson further notes that other transit authorities, such as Portland's Tri-Met, hire ombudsmen who work as liaisons between each neighborhood and the agency specifically to address local concerns.

As Capital Metro has more details to convey to the neighborhoods about the actual shape, scope, and impact of the Red Line, this process should be made somewhat easier. Though many of the concerns voiced by neighborhood-based opponents at the agency's hearings are quite credible, others -- such as the commonly voiced scenario of trains hurtling though residential backyards at 60 miles per hour -- are unlikely at best, deliberately misleading at worst. "When we can point to actual options for landscaping, design, mitigation, station placement -- when things are much more concrete -- people will be more willing to participate," Robertson says. "It's the continued sense of struggle without progress that's led to a lot of frustration and burnout."

In this regard, Capital Metro's efforts will dovetail with the larger city effort to create neighborhood-based planning. In these plans, neighborhoods will be identifying their own needs and goals for both transit and land use; and ideally, those areas adjacent to the four transit corridors identified in the light rail plan -- which will end up being transit corridors whether or not the train is actually built there, according to both Robertson and Roger Duncan -- will seek to accommodate both the train itself and the higher densities and mixed uses that are hallmarks of New Urbanism and transit-oriented development. "The neighborhood plans are collaborative efforts between businesses and residences and the city, so there will be variety in the degree to which each responds to light rail," says Duncan. "But as part of the overall planning process, it has to be a serious consideration. We have to think in terms of accessibility."

The shift to neighborhood plans, and the alternative Land Development Code that they would constitute -- the capstone of the Citizens Planning Committee effort, set to begin with two pilot plans later this year -- offers the neighborhoods much more power than they've normally possessed to work out the sorts of details that Crestview/Wooten and El Concilio feel have been unaddressed by Capital Metro. However, it's a fairly big supposition that neighborhoods, through a completely voluntary planning process, will freely embrace what in some cases will be fairly radical changes in order to make light rail work. Certainly, from the tenor of their public comments, some residents of Crestview and Wooten would like to see as little change as possible in their neighborhoods, even though under a New Urbanist paradigm these central, crossroads areas are ripe for "urban village" redevelopment. Duncan notes that, at this point, the city has not decided what it will do from a planning standpoint with neighborhoods that haven't done plans, or whose plans do not accommodate light rail, when the train actually comes along.

"What the city needs to do," says Goodman, "is give the neighborhoods some idea of what their choices actually are. If what the neighborhoods feel is imperative is in conflict with community imperatives, we need to resolve those conflicts rather than accept them. Harmful impacts from light rail should be negated or mitigated, but there needs to be a central focus. That's the role the city needs to play until we all figure out how to put all these elements together, and create a city we all want to live in."

Perhaps, ultimately, we can do this without light rail. But if we do end up with the train, we will most assuredly have wasted our time and money unless we, the people, do what we must to make light rail work.

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