Here Come the Transporters

Road-bots and rail-zoids team up to save the region from sprawl

Here Come the Transporters
Illustration By Korey Coleman

One week, two nights, two PowerPoints, two different parts of town, two different community meetings on two different transportation plans. Which are really parts of the same plan. Though the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority's toll-road system and Capital Metro's commuter-rail-and-bus proposal originate from different directions in the local political landscape, they're aiming for the same destination – the promised glorious new world of multimodal urbanism and regionalism, where Austin's chronic mobility problems get solved once and for all.

That's the idea, at least. Given Austin's history of fumbling and fighting over transportation, it's no surprise that both the CTRMA and Cap Metro have gotten grief as they shop their plans around the community. However, compared to the region's past journeys on the roads and rails – in which highways and transit have been the poles on a left-right political axis – the toll-road and commuter rail proposals, both billing themselves as centrist and moderate and pragmatic, are having to navigate between bumps and potholes on both sides. For the RMA, the journey may end in July, with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's expected vote on whether to approve toll roads. For Cap Metro, the next stop will be in late August, when the transit authority's board is slated to approve a final system plan and set a state-mandated November referendum on passenger rail.

Steering a course down the middle – some roads, some rail, maybe more down the line, nothing too fancy to start – would, in many cities, be an easy, boring, low-risk strategy. But in this town, on this issue, moderation is usually perceived as a route to the political graveyard, and endless conflict between the road-bots and rail-zoids is considered natural and inevitable and righteous. "For too long," says state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock and chair of the House Transportation Committee, "both sides have defined victory as stopping something – namely, whatever the other side wanted – instead of doing something positive."

However, we now supposedly have a new high-profile community consensus – most visibly expressed by Envision Central Texas – for a change in the way metro Austin grows, for more choices, for more connections between transportation and land use. Rather than taking Austin toward opposite visions of the future, both road-bots and rail-zoids say the plans on the table support the same vision – the ECT vision.

That one vision, with what it means for transportation, has been championed by an unusual alliance of leaders at the highest levels – at Cap Metro and the CTRMA, at the cities and counties, at the Texas Department of Transportation, and at the Legislature, as well as in the real world. Forging a gang of congestion cops and sprawl fighters has, admittedly, taken some deal-making and compromise that partisans on both left and right find unsavory. But – as hard as it is to accept for activists on both sides who can't take yes for an answer – we now see signs of genuine change, mostly for the better, in the way local leaders view their mission and the region's future.

Tar and Feathers, Anyone?

Of the 100 or so people who came to Capital Metro's "All Systems Go!" kickoff at Palmer Events Center, about half came to bury the transit authority rather than praise it. Indeed, it was like old-home week for the posse who helped kill light rail in 2000 – Travis Co. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and his joined-at-the-hip sidekick, former Tracor CEO Jim Skaggs; former Council Member Max Nofziger and his friends on the South Congress strip; other neighborhood leaders who claim to support rail as long as it's somewhere else; and proponents of monorail and personal transporters and all the other technologies supposedly superior to anything Cap Metro (or its peers in most other cities) have ever thought about before.

Cap Metro's attempts to sell its message of openness were, naturally, lost on that crowd. While Daugherty reiterated to the TV news his long-held designs on Capital Metro's sales tax revenue, and that he'll oppose any rail project as long as his constituents are being asked to pay tolls, the agency's slick town-hall format was rudely disrupted by Güero's owner Rob Lippincott – "How come there's not already a plan? What have you been doing for the last three and a half years? We all know this isn't the beginning of this process." Four years ago, of course, Lippincott and other South Congress merchants, like most anti-rail lobbyists, were aggrieved because Cap Metro did have a detailed plan that it tried, in their view, to shove down the community's throats – one that, in South Congress' case, would supposedly destroy the strip, first by rail construction and then by escalating property values.

This time around, the agency has emphasized over and over and over that – despite having sent mailers to half a million people, and despite having bought big newspaper ads with maps showing its "vision" (a popular word these days) of new rail and bus routes – the system plan really is preliminary and won't be finalized for months, hence the current round of public-input sessions. What is on the table, though, has also raised alarms among the agencies' allies, those who supported the $1 billion urban-core rail plan that lost by 1,955 votes (0.6%) in 2000. Some see a commuter-rail and express-bus strategy as a sop to the suburbs that does nothing for the central city that generates the bulk of Cap Metro's sales tax base.

Even those in the crowd less prone to use words like "sellout" made their qualms felt with their questions on the agency's flip charts: What about Downtown and Seaholm? What about Mueller? What about UT and West Campus? What about more frequent local bus service? How long will it be – if ever – before the corridors slated in the test-tube version of "All Systems Go!" for "rapid bus" service (one of which is South Congress) can be converted to rail? (Capital Metro describes rapid bus – with dedicated bus lanes and technology to pre-empt traffic signals – as a "near-term" solution, i.e., a potential rail placeholder.) In other words, what does this do for us?

Two days later, the same question resonated in the multipurpose room of Kiker Elementary in Circle C Ranch, where the CTRMA ran its slick open-forum presentation on its $2.2 billion proposed toll-road network to a slightly smaller crowd of people, slightly fewer of whom came with an attitude. (Many of those in attendance had seen the toll-road pitch before.) The traditional anti-highway contingent was represented by longtime transportation activist Roger Baker, whose multifront opposition to the specific road projects, to their financing, to highways in general, and to the RMA itself tends toward the melodramatic (relying heavily, for now, on predictions of world-transforming spikes in fuel prices).

But Baker also knows a lot about this subject, and his stance came across as reasonable and big-picture compared to the distrust, and occasional rudeness, of certain Circle C neighbors exercised over the prospect of having to pay tolls on their roads, specifically South MoPac over William Cannon and U.S. 290/Texas 71 through the Y in Oak Hill. Now, you may not have realized that these state highways, whose expansion has been funded incrementally, at a snail's pace, for years by gas taxes paid by drivers throughout Texas, were actually the property of the residents of Circle C Ranch. But so it is apparently believed. You would also think that, if this were true, the prospect of tolls (i.e., a "user fee") would be, if not popular, at least understood as more equitable than the status quo. You would be wrong.

Much was made of the fact that folks in the Northwest Corridor, where the extension of U.S. 183 to RR 620 recently opened for traffic, would be allowed to drive on their road for free, but our road will have a toll on it. Just ain't fair. This is the consequence of a technical provision in the legislation enabling and empowering RMAs, of which the CTRMA is to date the first in the state. If the Williamson Co. Commissioners Court so wished, the newest leg of U.S. 183 – a project that's been under construction for 14 years – could be tolled as well. But that prospect, when floated a few months back, set off its own prairie fire of suburban angst.

Not everyone in the crowd, to be fair, had his or her mind made up, and CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein and TxDOT district engineer Bob Daigh did get a couple of chances to reinforce their main point – that even if the MoPac and Oak Hill Y projects appear to be under construction, they're not fully funded, and their ongoing maintenance isn't funded at all. And neither these nor any other long-planned Austin highways will ever get funded, the CTRMA and TxDOT argue, if we don't adopt a toll-road plan, because other metro areas that have gotten their toll-road act together will suck up all the gas-tax money the Texas Transportation Commission deigns to spare, which isn't enough in the first place.

One citizen asked Daigh if, "given the history of this area," the toll-road plan as proposed would do any good, considering the resistance to widening central MoPac and I-35 or building new bridges over the lake and Barton Creek. "Given the history of this area," Daigh replied, "we'd already have been tarred and feathered by now, and we're still alive."

Responded the citizen, "But Bob, the night is still young."

For Whom the Road Tolls

Lurking in the background at Kiker Elementary was local right-wing PR maven Don Martin, doing his job handing out PR swag – similar to the CTRMA's own swag, but noticeably more upbeat and gung-ho – from Citizens for Mobility, the action group helmed by Martin and longtime road warrior Pete Winstead. The presence of such historically heavy-handed betes noires in the CTRMA's corner makes it all but impossible for anti-road, anti-sprawl activists to accept at face value the authority's claims of new-model, ECT-compliant responsibility.

The concerns raised from the left about the RMA and its plans, however, tend to be about what could happen next, not what's happening right now. Questions about the RMA's powers, its governing structure, and its accountability to the citizenry will all have to be grappled with via the Legislature. Questions about the soundness of toll revenue bonds, and about deficit financing of highways in general, likewise need to be asked at the Capitol and across the street at TxDOT, as well as on Wall Street. And fears that the current toll roads are only the first leg of a much broader road plan – supposedly already hatched within the RMA – that would turbo-charge the march of sprawl and line the pockets of well-connected road warriors would have to be grappled with by CAMPO, which is currently working on the latest version of its 25-year transportation plan.

Here Come the Transporters
Illustration By Korey Coleman

But those are different debates for different days, the CTRMA and its plan's supporters say. Right now, the only question on the table is whether new lanes in existing corridors – projects that have long been part of CAMPO's plan, subject to years or decades of public input, and approved by the local elected officials who form CAMPO's board – should be tolled.

"We worked together regionally and rolled out a plan to build new capacity where the most congestion is already," says Heiligenstein, a Williamson Co. commissioner before taking the RMA job and also chair of the Clean Air Force of Central Texas. "None of these are greenfield roads, none of these are Gary Bradley roads." (The controversial developer of Circle C Ranch is largely responsible for the South MoPac extension across the Edwards Aquifer.) "It has roads throughout the community; pull out one" – like South MoPac – "and where's the equity? The community needs a plan that will help us reduce congestion and improve air quality, and limit sprawl, and free up resources for multimodal transportation. This plan does that."

Again, the crux of the CTRMA plan's public rationale is financial – although only about 20% of the $2.2 billion price tag would be paid by tolls (via revenue bonds backed by toll collections), another 50% or so would come from funds that the authority and TxDOT say will only be available if tolls are part of the mix. "The state says toll roads are part of what we have to do" to stay on a level funding field with Houston and Dallas, Heiligenstein says.

That has as much to do with the political will of the Texas Transportation Commission as with the actual amounts in the state's coffers, and Dallas, with its existing toll roads and more planned, has already reminded the TTC that it's ready to go, and Central Texas, officially, isn't. Both Heiligenstein and Daigh feel that if CAMPO refuses to approve tolls, and soon, the region will not soon get another chance. "Without knowing if these projects will be tolled, the entire CAMPO planning process stops," Daigh told the crowd at Circle C Ranch. "If we don't embrace tolling, we'll have to scrape roads off the map." That is, of course, exactly the hope of many anti-highway activists, who would like to see the CAMPO plan's envisioned network not only not grow, but shrink, with non-auto facilities making up the difference.

Says Heiligenstein, "We'd be back to funding projects the way we used to, with a gas tax that hasn't increased since 1991 and with cities and counties spending money out of their budgets for right of way that could be redirected elsewhere." (When he chaired the Conference of Urban Counties, before the RMA existed, Heiligenstein led an effort to get a local-option gas tax approved, and got laughed out of the Legislature.) Moreover, he says, tolls can free up money, and over time potentially raise money, to be used for transit and pedestrian/bicycle facilities. He stresses that the CTRMA (despite the entreaties of Gerald Daugherty) has no interest in raiding Capital Metro's sales tax and wants to be part of a genuine multimodal system. The toll plan "opens up an opportunity for Capital Metro to stay whole, which is huge."

In the future, "we're willing to help and cooperate as best we can on rail," says Heiligenstein, citing the prospect of both commuter rail and new high-occupancy toll lanes on central MoPac, after the much-discussed relocation (if it ever happens) of Union Pacific freight traffic. "And the bus service isn't going to be as effective as it could be until it's moving faster. Having a bus in an express toll lane is the best of both worlds."

Strange Railfellows

For years now, transportation has been identified as the No. 1 political issue in Central Texas, although recent polls suggest it's not as big a deal to as many voters as it used to be. But polls and public outreach efforts, including two surveys by the progressive nonprofit Liveable City (whose leaders have voiced serious concerns about the toll road plan) and the massive survey conducted by Envision Central Texas, show strong support for a genuine multimodal system, with new investments in both roads and transit. Of the two, transit is more popular, at least at the moment, but there's still plenty of public support for roads – and still plenty of leeriness about the entity that would provide the transit. What's Capital Metro to do?

Clearly, the transit authority's strategy for now is to play it very, very safe. The "All Systems Go!" plan-in-the-making, and the attendant sales pitch, emphasize two ways in which this year's rail model differs from the 2000 incarnation – "Using existing rail tracks and corridors, the proposed vision would require no new taxes or major street construction." Or, as Mike Krusee – who has moved over the last five years from critic to protector to champion of Capital Metro – joked when the plan first hit the streets, "This costs too little, and it does too much."

Naturally, agency detractors think a rail system that cost a buck twenty-five to build would still cost too much, and skeptics scoff at the transit authority's estimates of $60 million – about 7% of the cost of the starter line proposed in 2000 – to start running passenger service on Cap Metro's freight-rail line (aka the Red Line) from Leander to the Convention Center, or Seaholm, or wherever. But the agency suggests that even that figure – about half of one year's sales tax collections, and thus pay-as-you-go, even as the highway builders embrace the debt-finance model – might be high, given that it presumes Cap Metro funding for station construction, which could instead be turned over to the private sector.

From this perspective, the agency suggests, a commuter rail service is actually more fiscally prudent than doing nothing at all. "When you have an asset that's underutilized, nobody likes that," says Capital Metro Chairman Lee Walker. "We control our own destiny as a region in that we have prospective access to several hundred miles of existing rail right-of-way" – including the Union Pacific line and the abandoned MoKan corridor between I-35 and SH 130 – "which could support the new vocabulary of walkable communities and lead to more choices. So, if the creeks don't rise, we have a chance to win in November and actually start moving human beings on rail."

It's largely because of Mike Krusee that Capital Metro has to go to the voters, in a high-turnout November election, to ask for permission to do what it was created in 1985 to do, move Central Texans around on existing transportation facilities and corridors. But the Williamson Co. rep – the Legislature's de facto transportation czar, and a prime mover behind the CTRMA and the state's toll road strategy – now says, "It's critical that both pass, tolls and rail. All parts of our community need to have a stake, to feel like they have won, and that tangible things are being accomplished."

Krusee also points to more practical financial considerations. "If the toll plan goes down, the road-warriors start looking at Cap Metro for funds, which will endanger the rail vote. It's the same scenario if rail fails: Cap Metro's funds are up for grabs by everyone who needs funds – cities, counties, roads, hospitals, et cetera." This has been Gerald Daugherty's dream for years – his 2000 anti-Cap-Met action group's moniker, ROAD, stands for "Reclaim Our Allocated Dollars" – and for his no-rail posse, the details of any specific Cap Metro rail plan are irrelevant.

But for partisans on the other side, the details are quite relevant; in their view, the major urban-core system proposed in 2000 was actually what the community needed, and needs even more now. Capital Metro's quiet pre-planning and policy work of the last four years led many rail fans to believe true light rail was still a preferred alternative, until quite recently when "commuter rail" became the option of choice. To them, a limited commuter-rail "starter" service on existing track is little better than a toy train, mostly to be played with by suburbanites who don't even live within Cap Metro's taxing area. (Since the transit authority lives on sales tax, this latter argument will always be a little imprecise; even though Cedar Park, for example, dropped out of Cap Metro in a suburban huff, its residents who shop at adjacent Lakeline Mall, within the Austin city limits, are paying Cap Metro taxes.)

That's as may be, Lee Walker suggests, but the landscape is different now. "We don't get a second bite of the same apple," he says, adding that since 2000, "the cost of that system has gone up, and the revenue available to the agency has gone down." Capital Metro does, however, note that more urban extensions to the "All Systems Go!" vision are under consideration – such as extending the line across Downtown from the Convention Center to Seaholm, or looping the line through, rather than past, the Mueller redevelopment (served in the current vision by "rapid bus" service).

As for the bigger question – when and how Austin will ever see the urban rail system that voters came close to endorsing in 2000 – Mike Krusee offers the conventional wisdom of the moment. "If commuter rail succeeds – on the ground, in creating livable communities and property wealth around the stations – then it will breed its own demand and momentum, just like you've seen in Dallas," where after a rocky political start similar to Austin, the transit authority now can't build rail lines fast enough to meet demand. Up north, DART's service area has actually expanded since rail started rolling, and Krusee suggests the same thing could happen here. "We'll need to let the suburbs be creative," he says. "They can't all afford the full penny to join Cap Metro, but then, they don't need the full services, either."

Levers for a Livable Future

As Krusee's comments about "creating livable communities and property wealth" suggest, the "All Systems Go!" vision is as much about land use as it is about the usual transportation concepts – ridership, cars taken off the road, and so on – that dominated the 2000 rail debate. Some of Austin's most committed transit advocates, indeed, kept their distance from Capital Metro's plans four years ago for precisely that reason; while an urban-core rail line would move a lot of people, it offered few practical and politically acceptable opportunities for redevelopment (and lots of chances for unpopular disruption of existing streets and neighborhoods.) Public awareness in 2000 of land use as the not-so-secret ingredient in Dallas' success came too little and too late to change the debate.

"In order to create a system that's viable not just now, but 20 years from now," says Lee Walker, "we have to capture the value uplift around redevelopment at each station. Leander" – the northern frontier of Cap Metro's service area, where local leaders have New Urbanist visions for up to 2,000 acres of what is now sprawl bait – "is a good place to start." (Cedar Park has similar visions of building a real urban town center, but it won't have rail service unless they rejoin the transit authority.)

Other low-hanging fruit include the Lakeline area, near the transit authority's Northwest Park-and-Ride and the Hog Farm tract – zoned for high density back in 1998 – and the McNeil Junction area in the middle of Robinson Ranch, currently being annexed by Austin and likewise planned for high-density development. Significantly, these are also points where the potential rail network overlaps the potential CTRMA toll-road network directly – places where talk of toll roads supporting urban land use isn't completely counterintuitive. Further south along the Red Line, of course, one finds Mueller, the Featherlite tract, and Cap Metro's land in the Saltillo District, all ripe for redevelopment. "In general," says Krusee, "we should be making transportation decisions in a broad-based manner, not compartmentalized into 'road' or 'rail.' Those decisions should also incorporate land use, development, jobs, open space ... It's all one thing." (Compare this to the Mike Krusee of 10 years ago, who authored a bill forbidding Austin from requiring traffic-impact analyses of developments in the Northwest Corridor.)

Krusee, Walker, Heiligenstein, and dozens of other local topsiders are part of the Envision Central Texas effort, and they all point to ECT as both cause and symptom of a real attitude shift, particularly up north. "It really did change the vocabulary," Walker says. "When you have the mayor of Leander, the leadership in Round Rock and Pflugerville, all talking about walkable communities and having transit come through, and giving more choices – that's a real sea change from four years ago. I didn't hear it at all four years ago. Now I hear it a lot; not from everyone, but a lot."

Importantly, Central Texas is hearing that vocabulary from both road-bots and rail-zoids, teaming up to save the region from sprawl. "Let's start with the premise that people don't want business as usual and want a different future," says Walker. "What levers do we pull today to make the future different? Transit, and the land use around transit, are powerful levers. If we don't pull them, what are we going to do to create a different future?" end story

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