Urban Rail: Which Way to Connect?
Project Connect recommends a rail corridor – and transit advocates board opposing trains
On Friday, Dec. 6, the Central Corridor Advisory Group, appointed by Mayor Lee Leffingwell to advise city officials on the development of urban rail, approved Project Connect's sub-corridor recommendations of East Riverside and Highland by a vote of 14-1. The sole negative vote was that of Julie Montgomery, senior program coordinator for the Center for Health and Social Policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and an executive committee member of Austinites for Urban Rail Action. According to Montgomery, AURA, the transit advocacy group, strongly prefers "a fair comparison" of the Highland route with the Lamar/Guadalupe sub-corridor in Phase 2 of Project Connect, but Montgomery's motion to amend the recommendation (adding Lamar/Guadalupe to Highland), failed at CCAG by a vote of 13-2.*
The recommendations are now scheduled for a briefing to City Council this Thursday, Dec. 12, along with a proposed resolution that would endorse the initial plan and also continue to "analyze the East Riverside and Highland Sub-Corridors or alternative sub-corridors as the Central Corridor priority, and directing the City Manager to present a possible Locally Preferred Alternative as part of Phase 2 of the Project effort for Council consideration."
Leffingwell's Policy Director Amy Everhart said on Friday that once the recommendations work their way through the process, they will likely be on a ballot proposal in November 2014, asking Austin voters to endorse funding for the overall plan. However, she made it clear that the process is far from complete, noting that there will be "several more months of discussion before we put anything on the ballot. Anything could change between now and then."
In the long term, Project Connect, the regional planning initiative under the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, envisions a public transit system that connects not only all of Austin, but also other destinations in the Central Texas region, such as San Marcos and San Antonio.
Still Rocky Road
Although the CCAG vote was nearly unanimous, the panel's recommendation arrives trailing plenty of controversy. At the center of the Project Connect debate over the future of urban rail in Austin is the transit team's recommendation of the "Highland sub-corridor" – a route that would run roughly from the eastern area of Downtown through the eastern edge of the University of Texas campus to the former Highland Mall area (near Highway 290 E. at Airport Boulevard).
After examining reams of relevant information and data – covering congestion, ridership, affordable housing, growth centers, public opinion, etc. – the Project Connect team recognized potential benefits of investing in transit in any of the 10 possible sub-corridors. However, according to Capital Metro's communications specialist, John Julitz, in the final analysis the Highland sub-corridor was recommended largely because of its "potential growth" – including near the UT campus as well as the redevelopment of Austin Community College at Highland Mall. In justifying the Highland recommendation, Julitz emphasized that Project Connect is a long-term investment. As the area continues to grow, Julitz expects ridership to grow as well.
Because UT-Austin is a major part of the central corridor (along with Downtown and the Capitol), it will be served regardless of the final recommendations. However, it appears that, if the East Riverside (the other recommendation) and Highland sub-corridors are selected, the rail route would likely go up San Jacinto, on the eastern side of the university. That's not unanimously supported at UT; in October, UT's Student Government General Assembly endorsed the Lamar/Guadalupe sub-corridor on the west side of campus, nearer to the West Campus student population. However, UT's CCAG representative, Vice President for University Operations Pat Clubb, supported the Highland sub-corridor, and Everhart confirmed that the UT administration prefers the eastern route, especially since the west side will soon be served by bus rapid transit along Guadalupe and Lamar.
The implementation of Capital Metro's MetroRapid service to improve commuting on the Lamar/Guadalupe route was prominent in CCAG discussions and in input from Capital Metro – with the related factor that MetroRapid will receive considerable funding from the Federal Transit Administration, specifically dedicated to that route. Another consideration is the planners' reluctance to begin the rail project with the inevitable disruption of a currently major corridor by construction of a line that would also replace one or two vehicle lanes.
Nevertheless, supporters of the western route have been arguing – vehemently – that a selection of East Riverside and Lamar/Guadalupe would much better invest transit resources in an area that already has heavy mass transit (bus) ridership and the dense population needed to sustain rail. For example, on Dec. 4, the Capital Metro Customer Satisfaction Advisory Committee (a citizen committee appointed by CapMetro's board) advised the board "to include the Lamar sub-corridor in Phase 2 of the Central Corridor Study," adding that the Lamar sub-corridor "is proven to be the highest transit ridership corridor in Austin."
Supporters of the Highland route point out that the university has been expanding eastward, and current projects underway – in particular the new medical school and related facilities – confirm that it will continue to do so. During the Dec. 6 CCAG meeting, UT's Clubb argued that San Jacinto, framed by major public buildings such as the LBJ Library and Bass Concert Hall, has become the center of campus. At UT administrators see it, the Highland route would likely pass right by Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, servicing UT's future growth, such as the medical school and the city's recently proposed but still quite theoretical "innovation district" for high tech start-ups.
Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind
Nevertheless, the Highland sub-corridor remains far from popular among local transit advocates – a relatively small but enthusiastically dedicated crowd – and there was significant backlash in the wake of Project Connect's initial recommendation of the Highland sub-corridor to the CCAG. Quite a few advocates strongly denounced the Highland recommendation, especially on social media. For example, the Downtown advocacy group, Central Austin Community Development Corporation, tweeted, "@cdcatx: Breaking it down: Lamar and Riverside seem frankly head-and-shoulders above the rest."
Jace Deloney, a founder and executive committee member of AURA, has taken repeatedly to his blog (www.jacedeloney.wordpress.com) to denounce the Project Connect and CCAG recommendation. "I am concerned that [the Highland sub-corridor] currently does not have the level of public support and the mix of people and destinations needed to make a successful first phase urban rail investment," he wrote.
Indeed, Project Connect's own surveys from their several public outreach workshops reflect a lack of enthusiasm for Highland; as Deloney wrote on his blog, "Lamar was the most preferred sub-corridor at Project Connect's public workshops." According to the Project's six workshop surveys, the Lamar/Guadalupe route steadily garnered a plurality and at least once a solid majority of the public preference votes. Project planners have responded that the surveys don't necessarily reflect a representative sample of the whole city (perhaps calling into question the Project's outreach efforts), and they point to other surveys that show widespread public support for rail regardless of the first corridor chosen. And they've insisted – echoed by the mayor at CCAG Friday – that surveyed public sentiment is only one factor to be considered in choosing a route, and that the project decision cannot rely simply on "a popularity contest."
Dan Keshet, also on AURA's executive committee, calls the Highland recommendation at best a "head-scratcher." He says the Highland corridor simply doesn't have significant demand at this time – especially compared to the high-density Lamar corridor. Former Urban Transportation Commissioner Mike Dahmus – an AURA member and one of the most obstreperous advocates of local mass transit – has essentially said that anyone with any common sense knows the Highland route is a mistake. He's tweeted that even his 4-year-old daughter "knows L/G is the #1 route."
Hyperbole aside, Dahmus is expressing a widespread sentiment among transit advocates. Nearly everyone actively following the project – other than Project Connect's team of transit planners, the mayor, and most of CCAG – seems to think that the Lamar/Guadalupe route should be the obvious investment, primarily based on the undeniable fact that the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor has the strongest current population density as well as the strongest current demand for mass transit, as expressed by bus ridership.
For example, Deloney has written, "Study after study shows Lamar has the highest population and employment densities. According to Walkscore.com, the Lamar sub-corridor contains many of the most walkable neighborhoods outside of Downtown Austin." He continued, "It is clear to me that Lamar should be included in Phase 2 of Project Connect's Central Corridor Study. It has the existing ridership, density and public support needed to make transit investments successful in Central Texas."
Despite the assurances by Project Connect officials that "popularity" can't be the determining factor in their recommendation, planners recognize that they'll need broad public support by next November, when presumably Austin voters will be considering a rail proposition and its bonding support. The first route obviously sets a plan and potentially a pattern, and transit advocates worry that it will be a self-defeating pattern. Dahmus argued last month, "The problem is if you pick the wrong first line, you never get to make a second line – or at least you have to wait a generation or two for the voters to give you another chance."
Beyond all the debate regarding the specific routes, many Austinites have voiced concerns about the process itself. In November, Keshet told the Chronicle that Project Connect hasn't provided "the transparent and data-driven process that we were hoping for." And since that comment, the process has arguably gotten more convoluted. Originally, both City Council and the Capital Metro board were expected to officially vote on the sub-corridors this month; the plan was then changed to the groups only being briefed on the subject, with no official action anticipated. But then, as of Friday, Dec. 6, Everhart said that Council will actually vote on Dec. 12 after all, in the form of a resolution described officially as endorsing the "City Manager's Phase 1 recommendation for Project Connect." Overall, despite Project Connect's recent efforts at public outreach, there have been persistent complaints that the public process has been too little, too late – and with too little effect on the official decisions.
Julitz says that both Council and the Capital Metro board, the major partners in Project Connect, have been sufficiently informed throughout the entire process. But others aren't convinced. Deloney is one of the many vocal critics of the process, as well as the specific data used by the planners. He's noted, "I believe Project Connect gave too much weight to future projections and highway congestion data. One example of this is that they decided to use highway congestion data from I-35 and Mopac. Because of this, the Lamar sub-corridor, which contains one of the Top 100 Most Congested Roads in Texas, ranked dead last in the Congestion Index."
The Federal Gorilla
CCAG's recommendations – East Riverside and Highland – are just that: recommendations, which have to be ratified by elected officials. In January, Phase 2 of the process will begin to work on the details of the recommended investments, such as specific routes and modes of transportation. Council will need to take official action by mid-year at the latest in order for the project (with its estimated initial local cost of around $500 million) to make the ballot in November, when the bond proposal will be offered to voters.
Dahmus thinks the city is avoiding the Lamar/Guadalupe sub-corridor largely for what he calls a political reason – specifically, to avoid endangering federal support already dedicated to bus rapid transit. The Lamar/Guadalupe area will soon have MetroRapid, which was approved in 2010 as part of Capital Metro's ServicePlan2020, a planned network of bus routes. MetroRapid cost about $47.6 million total, and the Federal Transit Administration's Very Small Starts program covered about $38.1 million of that, or roughly 80%, with Capital Metro funding the remaining fifth, about $9.5 million.
Transit advocates have suggested that the FTA funding issue is either exaggerated or a distraction, but Friday's CCAG discussions reflected that officials are convinced it's a real financial risk. Council Member Bill Spelman said that he has had discussions with FTA officials, who made it clear that FTA support for MetroRapid is based on its Lamar/Guadalupe route only, a judgment seconded by Cap Metro's John Langmore. Other CCAG members said that while they are also persuaded of that problem, it hasn't been sufficiently communicated to the public at large.
The FTA funding is often described privately as "the 800-pound gorilla in the room," and former longtime Planning Commissioner and now CCAG member Dave Sullivan acknowledged that it's a real concern for planners: Because the FTA has agreed to fund the higher capacity buses along North Lamar, Guadalupe, Burnet, South Congress, and South Lamar, the FTA "would be very unhappy if we reprogrammed those corridors after we gave them this plan that put in the bus rapid transit – and then we decide that we want to do rail there instead." The buses couldn't simply be moved to a different area because of the specific contract with FTA. "It's a very competitive system to get money, so cities that play ball with the federal authorities are probably more likely to get funding for their projects," Sullivan said. "So I, personally, am very afraid that if we did say, 'Let's go to the voters and ask them to support a rail project on Lamar,' that we wouldn't get any assistance from the FTA."
A Third Way?
Sullivan also suggested that the occasionally bitter arguments over the sub-corridors may be putting the cart before the horse – or the corridor before the train – in an urban rail system that must begin somewhere, but is conceived eventually to service the whole city. In the end, he said, "We're not coming up with anything final. Yes, it is a major step in choosing sub-corridors, but the whole thing could be called off at any point, if the City Council decided that they didn't like the process that we're following."
Sullivan says he's confident that Highland and East Riverside are the best options, but he acknowledges some merit to the advocates' concerns. He suggests that one way to proceed could be to develop the rail project in three stages, as a practical matter but also in part to appease the critics. First, he says, Project Connect should go full steam ahead with the East Riverside Corridor. Regarding the Highland sub-corridor, Sullivan says project developers should proceed "judiciously," continuing to closely monitor the corridors' growth and redevelopment – and if necessary, changing the plan if the data (or the public) doesn't sufficiently support the Highland investment. Finally, Sullivan thinks it's important to propose and develop a long-term (30-year) plan for extending rail to Lamar, South Congress, South Lamar, and so on, including to the Mueller neighborhood, one of the "growth corridors" contemplated by planners in choosing Highland.
The CCAG discussion on Dec. 6 addressed some of those concerns, as does the resolution on Council's Dec. 12 agenda, suggesting that "Phase 2" of Project Connect consider alternative routes as part of its ongoing mission. But planners also told CCAG that if the overall project is to maintain its current timetable, it would take most of the coming months to fully prepare spadework on the two already recommended corridors – adding a third at this stage, they said, would be very difficult, if not impossible.
Leffingwell's Priority Project
At the center of the entire transit project is Mayor Leffingwell, who will step down from the dais at the end of 2014. Leffingwell has dedicated the major focus of his final term in office to improving transportation for Austin and the Central Texas region, and he considers the mass transit pieces of that project highly important. In recent months, the mayor has been visibly impatient at the slow pace of local transportation planning – undeniably characteristic of Austin's transit decision-making process for at least two decades – and he's been pressing planners and CCAG members to keep the development moving even if it means accelerating the process faster than some of those involved feel comfortable. That impatience was apparently behind his initial reluctance to request a Council vote at this stage – but Thursday's meeting (and presumably the vote) should reflect where other Council Members stand on Project Connect and the particular recommendations made thus far.
Regarding accusations that Leffingwell has been rushing the process, Everhart said the mayor is happy with what he considers to be a "pretty thorough" process, which CCAG has been involved with for about six months, and which she described as "very deliberative." Noting that Leffingwell has been promoting urban rail for Austin since he first arrived on Council in 2005, and campaigned on the issue when he ran for mayor in 2009, Everhart concluded, "It's been a long time coming."
*Correction: This sentence has been corrected to more accurately describe the proposed amendment, and to note that AURA advocates that the Lamar/Guadalupe sub-corridor should be added to the Phase 2 research of Project Connect.