Letter to Council on Project Connect’s Transparency

 

I sent the following note to all Council Members earlier today.

“Dear Council Members,

As of this morning, Project Connect has not publicly released the methodology or source data for the ridership and cost estimates behind its LPA recommendation.

These have been repeatedly requested by many advocates, including myself.

The failure to provide this data makes it essentially impossible to have a meaningful dialogue with your offices, the media, and organized groups.

Project Connect’s proposed decision-making schedule has Council voting on a LPA a few weeks from now.  Even if the data were to be released immediately, it leaves little time for civil society to comprehend and analyze before your decision.

Worse, it implies that Project Connect consultants and staff have left no room to iterate in the event that methodological or data quality issues are raised.  This is a repeat of the failures of Phase 1 – there was no willingness to hear or act on concerns about the underlying models because of the desire to meet deadlines.

A lack of rigor around forecasting estimates can lead to sub-optimal infrastructure decisions (e.g WTP4).

Perhaps Project Connect will eventually release this information; it doesn’t really matter for my personal participation. At this point, the lack of timeliness has irreparably harmed my ability to effectively participate.

But I do hope that Council will add a much-needed layer of quantitative rigor as the process moves on from CCAG.

Ask yourselves this: where’s the evidence that the population growth, ridership, and cost models presented to you actually accurately forecast those outcomes in the past?

The wisdom of this investment ultimately depends on the established validity of those estimates and yet we know even less about the core projections at the conclusion of Phase 2 than we did at the end of Phase 1.”

- End of Letter -

To provide some context for blog readers about this letter, here’s a reminder of a main concern from the end of Phase 1: very high population growth projections for the Highland ‘sub-corridor’.

Basically, Project Connect’s modeling spits out that Highland (which is already fairly developed at 6,000 folks per square mile) would grow at a blistering 3.6% rate consecutively for 20 years(!).  Austin’s long-term growth rates are getting smaller as the City becomes larger; and obviously, much of the growth is in the periphery of the City where land development is much easier.  The residential growth contributed by the Highland Mall redevelopment (a.k.a the ‘RedLeaf’ project) will only be about 1,200 units or about 3,000 of the 12,000 in population that area would need to grow to meet the projection. And who knows when that will be fully completed. Regardless, there’s obviously not 3 other parcels like Highland Mall in the two square miles of developable land available in the Highland sub-corridor.

atx_pop_growth_highland

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10 Responses to Letter to Council on Project Connect’s Transparency

  1. greengenuity says:

    My concern with all of this is that Council knows full well where this data came from and are more interested in the legacy they believe they’ll gain from seeing this project through than facilitating a truly data-driven and publicly-guided process that results in the best transit project possible. The mayor’s attitude at these meetings is pretty telling, in my opinion. It seems the notch in their political belts will come much more quickly than the ability to measure the success or failure of the ERC/Highland corridor. Further, if Council were truly as concerned about the potential loss of FTA funding on MetroRapid as they claim they are (if they were to build a more western alignment), then why come out with such an expensive rail alignment? Is the loss of some unknown portion of $38 million really an issue when the plan is to ask them for 18 times that amount? The veil between the public and the data is very intentional, as far as I’m concerned.

    • Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

      The lack of quantitative rigor compared to say, WTP4, does indeed speak to the potential allure of that ‘legacy’ trophy.

  2. Alan H says:

    I join you in calling for the speedy release of the data and methodology behind these numbers.

    However, I really wish you had stopped your letter there. I have not seen any systematic analysis of the properties along the proposed Highland route. Without verifying your data first, it seems a leap to jump to a statement like “Regardless, there’s obviously not 3 other parcels like Highland Mall in the two square miles of developable land available in the Highland sub-corridor.”

    Keep in mind that Red Leaf is using less than 1.2 of the area of the old Highland mall, or 40 of the 81 acres. On this 40 acres, they envision significant retail and office as well as residential. Also, adjoining the Highland tract are significant vacant/underutilized properties that can support significant redevelopment. There are big chunks of land between Highland and Middle Fiskville Road not included in the Red Leaf project – areas like the TravelLodge site and it’s neighbors. There are a lot of low use tracts directly across Middle Fiskville Rd – a aging 2 story apartment complex, Jerry’s Art-o-rama, Cavander’s Boot Warehouse, Office Depot, The Lincoln, etc that can easily support more intense development and should be able to without any significant zoning fights at city hall. There’s an abandoned Wal-Mart with acres of surface parking sitting unused directly across Highland Mall Blvd with a big boat storage facility next to it. This is all in the very immediate Highland Mall project area, and is ripe for redev. If you go a little farther north but still within 1/2 mile from the proposed end of line rail stop, there’s significant aging multifamily on St. John’s at I-35 that is poorly maintained and ripe for redev with a more intense multifamily usage,

    Going south there are industrial warehouses across Airport from the mall that can be redeveloped. South of 290, Airport is lined with car dealerships (Leaf Johnson, Mercedes Benz) and discount furniture warehouses with acres upon acres of paved surface parking desperately in need of redev.

    And of course, there’s University Park on the old Concordia campus scheduled for 1000 residential units and multiple existing, aging multifamily projects just north of Dean Keeton.

    I can even easily imagine Hancock Center becoming a large mixed use project.

    All of these possibilities deserve a closer look before stating that there is “obviously” not enough land to hold residential projects similar to Red Leaf in this corridor. That conclusion is not obvious at all.

    • Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

      The letter to Council ended before the Highland discussion on the post. That’s why there are quote marks for only a certain portion of the text. I’ve added an additional marker.

      There are indeed parcels where development could theoretically physically happen. That’s distinct from whether that is likely given the existing development levels, regulations on the books, etc. Regardless, even that is tangential to my point: whether the models have a track-record of accurately predicting the population allocation in the first place.

      You have faith that rail can shape growth, that the land development code re-write will succeed, that politics 20 years from now will support existing entitlements and said re-write, and that capital both (human and monetary) will deem it a worthy enterprise to spend its time building housing in that area. And that faith allows you to believe that all of these things will happen so that an already fairly-developed part of Austin will grow literally 100% in population.

      It’s great you have that faith. I’d just like a simple validation test for the forecasting model.

  3. Brian Kelsey says:

    I’m a bit late to the game here but I’m trying to get up to speed on this debate. Are you primarily interested in knowing how the CAMPO population forecasts were used to generate population estimates for the sub-corridor, as described in the technical report here:

    http://www.austintexas.gov/page/sustainable-places-project

    Or how those population estimates were used in the ET modeling? Or how they got from the pop estimates to the ridership estimates? Or have I missed the point completely?

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