Project Connect puts Austin on track to fail at urban rail, again

Last Friday, November 15, Project Connect had their grand unveiling in front of Mayor Leffingwell and the Central Corridor Advisory Group. Project Connect presented the “subcorridor” they determined is best suited for urban rail in Austin. They chose East Riverside Corridor and the Highland corridor.

Project Connect has spent a lot of time beating the drum about The Process. They claim to want a data driven process to make the best recommendation to City Council. John-Michael Cortez, Community Involvement Manager for Cap Metro, makes bold claims about The Process — not only for its impartiality, but its effectiveness in determining a clear-cut winner.

This isn’t even remotely convincing, for two reasons.

1. The Process just happened to come up with a slight variation on the the same non-starter plans from 2006, 2008 & 2011. First, here’s the comparison from Jace Deloney, who is on the Executive Committee of Austinites for Urban Rail Action, a citizen activist group who has been pushing Project Connect hard for open data, transparency and an unbiased process:

Now take a look at past plans:

Notice it runs from downtown, up San Jacinto, then over to Mueller

Notice it runs from downtown, up San Jacinto, then over to Mueller

Again, up San Jacinto, over to Mueller.

Again, up San Jacinto, over to Mueller.

Third time wasn't a charm: Up San Jacinto, over to Mueller, with an alternate route up Red River.

Third time wasn’t a charm: Up San Jacinto, over to Mueller, with an alternate route up Red River.

The similarity of these maps to the Project Connect recommendation on Friday make it pretty clear there was a preferred route Project Connect had in mind. Mr. Cortez appears keenly aware of this, which is why he has taken to Twitter to shit on the hard work of the AURA activists and transit advocates for not being “open minded” enough. It’s a facile PR move, hitting the opposition with your biggest weakness.

2. Project Connect’s data driven process was simply marketing. They presented plenty of charts and graphs and the ridiculous “March Madness Bracket” that was supposed to be some sort of evaluation matrix. In the end, it has proven to be little else than a data decorated process that served no public interest for gleaning any information suitable for analysis.

Examples of Project Connect’s data mismanagement & negligence:

  • Early on, Project Connect released a Map Book with current bus ridership numbers 100% backwards. Yes, they did. Completely backwards. The stops with the highest number of boardings were represented by the smallest dots, and vice versa. Not only did they release inaccurate data on an important measurement — current transit ridership — that wasn’t even remotely correct, it took them almost a week to correct it. In the meantime, they continued showing the book to stakeholders across town, as if nothing were wrong.
  • Scott Morris of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation annotated 32 issues with the Map Book and submitted those issues to Project Connect. Scott never received feedback.
  • At the community workshop I attended, we were asked to rank the criteria Project Connect selected to share what measures were important to us. I found it interesting that at my meeting, Transit Dependency Index referred to the population that was transit dependent: households without cars, population over 65, no mention of ridership. However, the very next day, that definition had changed: Transit Demand Index was a measure of current ridership potential.

What about the plan for East Riverside and Highland?

East Riverside, while not the worst idea, isn’t going to happen. It would require a bridge over Town Lake at the very least, and that isn’t going to happen. East Riverside is a half-ass attempt to disguise the Mueller route, which is being re-branded as Highland.

Why is it being re-branded?

I think they thought they were that much smarter than the transit community in Austin. I think they thought throwing the data crunchers & policy wonks a bone, they could roll out a “compromise” with East Riverside as the bait. By the time environmental impact, cost estimates and engineering plans were drawn up, well, shucks, East Riverside is just too darn expensive, so we’ll have to proceed with Highland — because it’s better than no rail after all, right?

100% wrong. And quite frankly, it’s insulting. Although I don’t think the Project Connect team nor the Mayor are going to back down, they have shown signs of slipping. Of note was Mr. Cortez acting quite unprofessionally last night, after a brief period of tough, yet fair, questions from supporters of a Guadalupe-Lamar route:

What happens now?

No urban rail proposal in Austin will be implemented without passing a referendum. My understanding is that AURA is preparing a response to the recommendation. I expect Project Connect to soldier on until spring, when the City Council will have to decide how to proceed. I’m not knowledgeable enough about Austin’s politics to know how that will go, but I do understand that politics is the only way to get urban rail passed.

I’ve been reaching out to my neighborhood to support a Guadalupe-Lamar route (CACDC has lots of great info). In fact, fellow transit activist & Crestview resident Steven Knapp wrote a resolution that was passed by the Crestview Neighborhood Association, supporting the Guadalupe-Lamar route as the first urban rail route in Austin. We spoke not just about the policy & process, but about how urban rail benefits our community. Our community had great questions, and passed the resolution unanimously.

This is notable, because fears of noise & safety mobilized the Crestview NA to vehemently oppose the 2000 light rail referendum, which was narrowly defeated.

Neighborhood support is the only way to pass the bond to pay for the line. My feelings is that Cap Metro and the Mayor are risk averse due to fear of the NAs. The Mueller route would have the support of the Mueller development, and a large chunk of the route down San Jacinto is DKR Memorial Stadium and state parking garages, where no one lives. The flipside of that coin is that the stadium and parking garages can’t vote.

I don’t see the Mayor and Project Connect going back and choosing the most logical route. They’ve invested political capital, and I believe they won’t get shit for it. 10-1 is coming, so while the specter of ward-dominated politics is concerning, there are other cities who have managed to make it work. It might even be easier as AURA and other transit activists build on their grassroots support to have some political clout.

Special shoutout to The Overhead Wire, who has a comprehensive history and analysis of urban rail in Austin.