Riding the Rail
The Rapid Transit Project Rises Once Again
The most vehement and persistent opponents of Capital Metro's plans for a light-rail system -- such as the businesses along South Congress and the neighborhoods near the Eastside railyard -- argue that the A-Train is really a stealth fighter. Under the guise of bringing mobility, they fear, light rail will instead bring redevelopment that will gentrify them out of their homes and stores.
They're at least half right. In most of the nation's light-rail cities, redevelopment along the transit corridors has been a very explicit goal, aggressively pursued. The same could happen in Austin, and there are plenty of places along the proposed rail route where new or better development could be to everyone's benefit. The challenge before Capital Metro and the city of Austin is figuring out how to decide where those places are ... and aren't.
The city and Cap Met are partners in the current Rapid Transit Project study that's (finally) working out the details of the A-Train proposal -- belatedly completing the federally mandated (and funded) preliminary engineering/environmental impact study (PE/EIS) that Capital Metro began in 2000. The RTP is coming up with answers to the questions for which the transit authority had no answers last November, when its light-rail referendum was defeated by a mere 2,000 votes. (The Capital Metro board, with the support of the broad array of local leaders who supported rail the first time, voted earlier this year to proceed with the study; indeed, had they not, they would have had to pay the feds back what the authority had already spent.)
While anti-rail die-hards still think last year's loss should settle the matter, rail backers feel, logically enough, that there are at least 2,000 people out there who would have voted for the A-Train had they known where it was going to go, what it would look like, where the stations would be, and so on. Now, here come the answers. Or, as the RTP consultant team told the Capital Metro board last month, it's time for "moving beyond analysis paralysis."
The alignment for the starter line is settled, except that Capital Metro has not ruled out a route that goes around, rather than through, North Austin's firmly anti-rail Crestview neighborhood, or one that avoids South Congress in favor of the Union Pacific right-of-way just east of Lamar. (Both alternatives are slated for "further study.") As for the vehicle technology, the RTP is, to nobody's surprise, recommending a light- rail system, as opposed to one dependent on buses, monorails, peoplemovers, heavy rail, or the Segway Human Transporter.
Right now, the RTP team is readying its final recommendation on station locations; at a community workshop held Nov. 17, citizens looked at Cap Metro's initial recommendations (see map) and discussed possible changes, none of them massive. Which brings us, and the RTP, back to the redevelopment question. It's the areas around the stations -- not simply along the line -- that need to get a second look.
Some tracts along the A-Train route are such wastelands now that building a shiny new rendering plant might be an improvement. But when we talk about redevelopment as part and parcel of a transit-system strategy, we mean a specific kind of project. "Transit-oriented development," or TOD, is a bit of planning jargon that's become part of Austin's Smart Growth-era lingua franca -- for example, it's the "T" in the city's acronymic SMART Housing initiative -- but since we don't actually have any transit, it's hard to point to projects on the ground and say "This is what it means." The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization glossary of transportation terms defines TOD simply as "types of development that enhance or support public transit use." Of course.
Development to Go
A more robust description comes from the Rapid Transit District in Denver, which has an established and expanding rail system: "TODs are compact, mixed-use developments situated at or around transit stops. Comprised of housing, office, neighborhood retail, and civic uses, these transit villages are jointly developed with the private sector and are carefully designed to be pedestrian-friendly, human-scale communities where residents can 'live, work, and play.'" By "jointly developed," they mean that the RTD itself is a player in these projects, providing both capital and, more importantly, land owned by the transit authority.
After years of living with what we now call Smart Growth, Austinites have heard all of this pedestrian-friendly mixed-use urban-village stuff before, and many neighborhoods in the urban core have decided they don't really want to be so transformed. If building the A-Train through those same in-town neighborhoods makes high-density urban infill inevitable, then for many Austinites that's sufficient reason to vote against light rail again and again, or at least to make sure there's no station anywhere near their neighborhood.
But it's hard to exaggerate how essential a transit-oriented development (or redevelopment) program is to the success of a rail system -- or so say most of the cities who actually have such systems. Rail towns like Denver, Portland, St. Louis, San Diego, and especially Dallas have worked very hard to spur TODs along their routes, and not just because doing so makes them feel hip. Obviously, the more people who live and work along the rail line, the more people will ride the train, which means freeways are a bit less congested and air is a bit less polluted.
But that's not all, or even most, of the rationale behind these cities' aggressive development initiatives. The corresponding increase in the tax base is considered part of the return on the rail investment, and it can be considerable; Dallas Area Rapid Transit takes great pride in how its rail system spawned more than $1 billion in new development. And joint-development projects, in which the transit authority can make some money itself by leasing its land or the air rights over its stations, bring in cash on the barrel to finance these expensive undertakings. The feds expect cities that want to build rail systems -- and that want Uncle Sam's money to do so -- to have the tools in place to create TODs along with them.
So even though the politics in Austin are dicey on this score, Capital Metro can't really afford not to build some TOD strategy into its A-Train plans. But the burden for making TODs possible, if not for actually making them happen, falls on the city of Austin. "Capital Metro doesn't have any authority to regulate land use, so they need us," says Jana McCann, the city's urban design officer and liaison to the RTP from the Transportation, Planning, and Sustainability Department.
The fourth "milestone" of the RTP work plan -- after choosing the route, the vehicles, and the station locations -- is vaguely described as "land use and joint development," but that doesn't mean the RTP will tell us whose neighborhood will get turned into a Smart Grown urban village. Rather, the study will make recommendations about how that decision should be made when the time comes.
The existence of the city's neighborhood planning program, as well as the benighted Smart Growth Initiative, have already more-or-less satisfied the Federal Transit Administration, which last year gave its qualified blessing to Cap Met's then-tentative light-rail plans. "We've been told that, because the city has policies and strategies for promoting transit-supportive land use, that's a feather in our cap," says Mark Walters of the city Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, who serves as that department's liaison to the RTP.
Let's See What (Re)Develops
But heretofore, Capital Metro and the city of Austin have been far from synchronized in this regard. Before the November referendum, all Capital Metro could confirm were the vague parameters of where the line might go -- let alone where the stations, or the TODs, might go. So there wasn't much the city could do other than encourage its active neighborhood planning teams to consider what they might want to change were rail to head their way.
Even to the degree a coordinated effort was possible, Capital Metro's working relationship with city planners left something to be desired last time around, which is one reason why the city is working on the RTP as an equal partner, and why a city employee -- John Almond, the engineer who managed construction of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport -- is in charge. "It's working a lot better this time than it did in the last go-round," McCann says.
"What we did last time," says Walters of the neighborhood planning program, "was kind of an afterthought, whereas now, if light rail passes, we'll definitely shift our focus so that the station areas get planned first." However, Walters notes, even though rail was a wild card (or hot potato) during the past two years of neighborhood planning, "we won't really need to go back and revisit the plans that are already done. If you look at the East Austin plans" -- East Cesar Chavez, Holly, Central East Austin, Rosewood, Chestnut, and the still-in-process Upper Boggy Creek, all of which adjoin the A-Train starter route -- "they've already included a great deal of transit-supportive land use. Even without rail, the planning teams decided that was what they wanted to see."
During January, Walters, McCann, and the RTP team will be talking with community members -- in the regional "area teams" Capital Metro has convened to advise the RTP, and perhaps in another community-wide workshop -- about how, if rail passes, neighborhoods can take the initiative to plan station areas the way they want them. Chances are, an intensive charrette process will kick in to help neighborhoods and Cap Met design stations themselves and plan for land use in their immediate environs. "We'll also be working," says McCann, "to identify where, in the station areas, neighbors may want -- or not -- to change existing land uses to account for rail."
Given the tensions over both rail and Smart Growth in some quarters, the RTP is well advised, if it plans on making any recommendations for rezoning or redeveloping specific station areas, to go after the low-hanging fruit. Were it not for the bitter opposition of the El Concilio coalition of Mexican-American neighborhoods, most of which lie along the old Eastside railyard, that largely fallow land (which Cap Met owns) would be an obvious place for joint development. Other options include the long-vacant Featherlite tract in Chestnut, near the MLK terminus of the A-Train route, and the stations from Braker Lane north to Howard Lane, where there's still a lot of vacant land (though at least some of these stations would be park-and-ride facilities).
And the segment of the route along Lamar, north of 45th street to Airport (and, if the line does loop around Crestview, all the way north to Research) includes a whole bunch of strip malls, mini-warehouses, and the Huntsman chemical plant. When such a marginal, not to mention trashy, stretch of road is the status quo, a Smart Grown urban village doesn't look quite so threatening to the neighborhood.
However, that still leaves long, long stretches of the A-Train route where the neighborhoods have traditionally fought tooth and nail against density, commercial encroachment, and infill, and no matter how artfully the city and Capital Metro craft a process that gives neighbors control over changes in land use, there aren't going to be any urban villages going up in Hyde Park or Allandale. Still, over time, if Capital Metro ever gets to build the complete, four-line, 54-mile rail system called for in the Austin metro area's official transportation plan, there should be plenty of options for brand-new TOD (to the northwest, toward Leander, and to the southeast, toward the airport) to compensate.
That still puts the RTP in the position of having to convince neighbors (and voters) that rail-spawned redevelopment won't happen without them. The question then becomes whether rail itself can happen without that redevelopment -- or whether, in that eventuality, the investment in the A-Train would be worth the trouble.