Austin @ Large: Say It Ain't So, Metro!

If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep driving ... or worse

Austin At Large
TO: E. Lee Walker, Chair, Capital Metro Board of Directors

FROM: Mike Clark-Madison, civic nuisance

SUBJECT: What are we planning for?

CC: Other Cap Metro board members, elected officials of all kinds, transportation and land-use mavens, and readers of The Austin Chronicle

Lee:

Welcome back. As you know, while you were out of town, the transit authority presented its ready-for-action "All Systems Go!" plan to a generally positive reaction from the rest of the board. This includes the "starter" commuter rail service on the Red Line, from the Convention Center to Leander, that we've all been expecting, and that you have to take to the voters in November, and that your colleagues all said they're confident will be approved.

Please, please, please tell me you're not satisfied with this plan and that there's a chance for it to be expanded a little bit in scope when you actually approve it and set the ballot on Monday next – so that it actually accomplishes something useful.

You may have also heard that while you were gone, Gerald Daugherty and his trusty sidekick, Jim Skaggs, offered to actually support Cap Metro's rail plan. This should be enough to tell you that something's wrong with it. (At least El Concilio is still steadfast in opposition. If they and Daugherty had offered qualified endorsements, then the plan should just be scrapped and its authors fired.) Of course, Daugherty and Skaggs asked that Cap Metro meet seven different conditions, ranging from the meaningless to the ridiculous, one of which – as always – involved giving up a large chunk of Capital Metro money for road-building, even though the prospective recipients of that money say they don't want it. Perhaps it would just go into Daugherty's Precinct 3 road-and-bridge fund. Jeez.

I'm more modest than Gerald Daugherty (most of the time), so I only have 31é2 conditions for my support:

1) You have to go to Mueller ... now. The current ASG plan doesn't even include a station at Mueller – even though it does include one for the Featherlite tract, where right now there is exactly nothing in progress. Agency staff says Mueller would be part of one of four "transit circulation areas" that would get further study and, down the line, if that study finds that rail is needed, yet another vote. That will not do.

See, Lee, Mueller is already a real deal. You already have two major destinations/employers springing up at the old airport – the Seton children's hospital and the Austin Studios. The Mueller master plan, which has been on the books for years, presumes rail service and is, by anybody's lights, "transit-oriented development," bringing 10,000 homes and 10,000 jobs into the heart of town. One "rapid bus" line through the site – not even "bus rapid transit" with fixed infrastructure, but just a fancy bus route – is not going to do the job. I understand that extending or rerouting the Red Line through Mueller would require a federally mandated study and would cost more, but you could still include that in the plan going to the voters; nobody's going to call for your head if you ended up not building it. And adding a Mueller station costs nothing at all.

Remember, the Mueller development deal with Catellus is going to be signed before the election. That's a damn sight further along than Featherlite, or the redevelopment of Highland Mall (which I've pushed for years, but still), or UT's plans for Pickle Campus – all of which seem to be in the same category as Mueller. It's kind of hard to buy the agency's assurances that it wants and needs to support transit-oriented land use when it's risking injury to avoid picking the lowest of the low-hanging fruit.

2) You also need to go to Seaholm, soon. I know this is more complicated and expensive than people seem to think, and I can almost appreciate wanting to defer a commitment to a crosstown link to some future election. But right now, the Downtown/Capitol/UT complex is defined as just another "transit circulation area," which clearly it isn't in real life. Future study might lead Cap Metro to change all the Downtown bus lines, or put in bus-only lanes, or turn the Dillos into streetcars. But a Seaholm link exists on another plane from those options.

See, if this is a "starter" line, then what is it starting? Presumably, the next, and likely final, pieces are the "regional" commuter lines along the Union Pacific and MoKan corridors. If you're not planning now for the Red Line to connect to the UP – which only would happen at two places, Seaholm and Robinson Ranch – then it's hard to argue that those future lines are more than vaporware. That's not a message I think you want to send to Union Pacific, among others, if you can avoid it.

3) You need to commit to having service in both directions, all day, from day one. Forgive me if this has already been done and the staff presentation was just unclear about it, but right now, the system would start with "peak only" service in 2007, and wouldn't add "reduced off-peak" service until the following year, and wouldn't get to seven-day, both-directions, every-15-minutes service, if at all, until 2016. I realize there are logistical problems involved in running both ways on a single track, while still accommodating freight rail. But if "peak only" means inbound from Leander in the morning, and outbound at night, then this system is exactly what its detractors allege – a little toy train that runs from the suburbs.

At last week's board meeting, John Trevino, most vocally, disputed this charge, pointing out that eight of the nine stations are in Austin and highlighting the opportunities for working-class Eastsiders to reverse-commute their way to jobs in the tech belt. That isn't going to happen if you don't have practical service going both ways, preferably at more than just the traditional – and rapidly becoming obsolete – "peak travel times."

31/2) And then the half-condition: Capital Metro needs to make a solid commitment to being a real partner – with time, talent, and treasure – with other jurisdictions and the private sector to make true urban land use happen along this line. It's a half-condition because I know the agency has already done this to an extent, most notably at Saltillo, and that other entities, especially City Hall, probably need to take the lead here. But it needs to be clear that redevelopment is not just an added bonus here; it's the primary reason for investing in transit, and making it happen is part of Cap Metro's mission.

Would I actually vote against this deal if these conditions weren't met? I don't know. I understand that the consequences of failure could be dire – losing your money to Daugherty's highway hos and condemning Austin to substandard bus service for at least another generation – and I'm tempted to agree with most of my progressive friends that something is better than nothing. I'm not holding out for another $2 billion light-rail proposal – that won't happen, and it's probably too late to build such a system in Austin. But the ASG plan on the table misses the mark in so many obvious places – enhancements that are supported both in the city and in the 'burbs, by folks both left and right – that it frankly raises worries about the competence, confidence, and staying power of the transit authority.

I know, I know, it's all about getting 50.0001% of the vote in November, and after that it's a whole new ballgame. But does this plan get you there? How many people will go into the booth with the same qualms that I have? And how many of them will hit the "against" button as a consequence? I'm not sure that this plan doesn't lose you as many votes as you've gained by playing it safe. If there aren't going to be changes made on August 30, I just hope, for your sake, that it doesn't lose you more. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Capital Metro, commuter rail, Red Line, Mueller, Seaholm, Union Pacific, Lee Walker, John Trevino

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