Recommendation Reaction

pc_rec_announcement

Today, Project Connect recommended that East Riverside and Highland advance to the next phase of the Central Corridor study process.

Is this a good recommendation?

It is a B-.

The most important thing is that they advanced multiple corridors instead of just one. This is an important victory for those of us that have been arguing for the top choices. The inclusion of East Riverside was justified by the data, but might have been a political concession to transit activists. I would have preferred that the set include Lamar, both because of the existing ridership, strong overall data, and the existing community support for it.  I am open to hearing more about Highland and felt that East Riverside was definitely justified on the data.

A lot of data was put out into the public domain and the Project Connect staff seemed to try and balance the political constraints and previous project baggage with the facts. Blog readers know that I see the staff as reacting to and anticipating political pressure not as the agenda setters.

The recommendation loses points for incomplete documentation, backlog of important questions, and fairly arbitrary indices.  That last one is a genuinely worrisome practice as it imbues completely subjective choices with the respectability of actual facts.

Could it have been better?

There was no real wonky barrier to a better recommendation.  The Project Connect staff and all of the major stakeholders understand the policy ramifications and arguments at play.

One real issue was a lack of time due to a rushed process as a result of the November 2014 election target date.  But the broader issue is political power.  The Mayor has a point of view as do undoubtedly other elected officials that influence Project Connect.  The large employers have a point of view and individual preferences.  On the other hand the pro-Lamar groups as well as those activists wanting a more fully data-driven process – such as Austinites for Urban Rail Action – could not fully dislodge tired approaches.

What’s next?

The dual recommendation and the inclusion of East Riverside is a victory for those of us that are urbanists, progressive, concerned with actual riders, interested in transit both on planning and economic fairness grounds, or any combination thereof.  We are in a better place than we were eight months ago.  Eight months from now we can be in an even better place.

To some extent that requires moving away from our recent focus on technical scrutiny and promoting public engagement – which were appropriate for the previous phase of the Project Connect process. Given that our shortcomings were about political clout, it might make sense to consider how we change that directly.  And since Council will ultimately be choosing the locally-preferred alternative, an efficient path for future action is fairly clear.

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11 Responses to Recommendation Reaction

  1. Chris says:

    I don’t agree with B-.

    We all agree that ERC should be part of a fully built-out urban rail system. It is highly unlikely that it will be built first, though. The obstacles are just too high. Building another bridge over LBL is very tricky, and very expensive. Then they will have to lay a mile of track and get across I-35 just get to East Riverside’s western edge. Given that any initial starter line will (and should) connect downtown and UT, the next logical phase is to keep heading north. Heading across the lake and then down East Riverside for the first phase will require a really high initial bond amount, giving voters sticker shock.

    If ERC isn’t a genuine first-phase option, then why was it named? I believe it is being dangled out there to prevent the Highland opponents from mobilizing for a fight. It will be pulled back as a true first-phase option at the last possible moment.

    And we shouldn’t lose sight of this: Highland will be first. Going up to Highland Mall through UT’s eastern edge and Red River (or some route even further east) is a bad route. It’s a waste of money. And, yes, it will foreclose rail on Guadalupe/Lamar indefinitely. It will do so for a couple of reasons: (1) it will have relatively low ridership, which will dampen public support for further investments; and (2) although it is too far from Guad/Lamar to serve the dense neighborhoods on that route, it is too close to justify another investment on Guad/Lamar until other parts of town have been served.

    I see their announcement of Highland/ERC as a cynical political strategy to dampen opposition until it’s too late. That deserves an “F,” not a B-.

    If they put forward a plan to build ERC first, I’ll switch to B. But I don’t think that will happen.

    WTB a new Cap Metro.

    • mdahmus says:

      Agreed 100% with Chris. Highland is Mueller in drag, and y’all (and me, to an extent) have been played for suckers and accomplished nothing other than wasting our collective time.

  2. Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

    These are good points. I need to get to know ‘Highland’ and its data better. I don’t think we need to wait until it is ‘too late’. We should continue to advocate for what makes sense. I am not that upset or nihilistic about the Project Connect recommendation. We got better organized and got some movement. Now we should focus on Council and get some more.

  3. The ONLY virtue of this corridor is that it eliminates the Mueller vanity leg. Other than that it is utterly stupid and deserves a vote against it.

    • Chris says:

      Oh, but it doesn’t eliminate Mueller. They can just stop at Hancock Center for Phase 1a, and then announce Mueller as the next extension. Since, you know, “it’s right there.” In fact, it’s hard to figure how they’ll move north from Hancock Center without kicking out to Airport and brushing Mueller.

    • Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

      The hypothesis as to why Highland should be the initial sequence is very similar to Mueller’s, actually. I am open to being persuaded it makes sense, but it would be wrong to view it as substantially different. It’s a risky bet on future growth leading to riders, mysterious highway congestion relief, and ‘shaping’ development to fit policy. The data supporting that bet for the Mueller development was weak. This is the same type of bet but on new turf. I don’t know enough about the data to feel confident it is a good or bad bet yet.

      • mdahmus says:

        Can we please not pretend that Highland isn’t Mueller here? It’s the same goddamn thing; just maybe stopping short at Hancock Center, exactly like, surprise surprise, the last plan before Project Connect wasted everybody’s time.

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  5. LHenry says:

    It’s likely that the “Highland” sector from the start has been just a proxy for the Mueller line. Remember, before this “study” even began, for months the word was that ProCon was eyeing a first leg from downtown to Hancock. Gerrymandering the “Highland” sector neatly dovetails with that plan.

    A line out East Riverside would of course make sense as a later phase — AFTER the starter line proves itself. An ERC line would be extremely expensive with the heavy civil works involved. And except in ProCon’s projection fantasies, where’s the heavy traffic on East Riverside? How many Austinites are queuing up to travel out there? Bad choice to try to get public buy-in for a starter line. But I see “ERC” as just a fog cloud for the downtown-Hancock-(Mueller) route plan.

    Extending from Hancock to Highland ACC would also be daunting, since urban rail would face narrow, constrained neighborhood streets. I doubt they’re planning to convert MetroRail to urban rail to access ACC in this plan. My take: This is a future fantasy to sedate the gullible.

    My prediction: They’re planning to build downtown to Hancock (via the “Hancock” invention) as a first step to Mueller.

    I think this is a ploy on behalf of real estate development that will delay urban rail another several years. The focus must remain on the West Campus and the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

  6. LHenry says:

    I just wrote
    ==My prediction: They’re planning to build downtown to Hancock (via the “Hancock” invention) as a first step to Mueller.==
    Should have been
    ==…via the “Highland” invention … =
    The “Highland” sector (very little relationship to the actual Highland neighborhood, which has endorsed Guadalupe-Lamar) was just an invention designed to souble-count I-35 traffic and overlap the Mueller route plan at Red River and Hancock.

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