I was hoping my first real blog post would be about the work that Austinites for Urban Rail Action have been doing to change the discussion around transit issues over the past year. Due to more pressing issues, this will have to wait.
Last week, Project Connect made an initial recommendation to the Mayor’s advisory group on which sub-corridors should be considered for Austin’s next high capacity transit investment. Their recommendation: a route from the Highland Mall area, through Downtown and down East Riverside. The recommendation itself was not much of a surprise to me, as I have seen something similar presented over the past three years that I have been involved in this often questionable process. What did surprise me was the way in which Project Connect staff came to their recommendation.
First, let’s take a look at the two sub-corridors that were included in Project Connect’s initial recommendation. According to Project Connect’s methodology (which I will briefly get into later), the East Riverside sub-corridor scored at the top in both serving and shaping scenarios. To anyone who has a general understanding of Austin’s changing landscape, this sub-corridor makes quite a bit of sense. East Riverside is an already fairly dense area that is rapidly changing. Some places are actually starting to resemble Austin’s densest neighborhood, West Campus. Existing transit ridership is also high, largely due to the number of affordable housing units and basic geometry of Riverside Drive itself. This sub-corridor also has the potential to connect to Austin Bergstrom International Airport in future expansions. Most telling of all was the number of attendees at Project Connect’s workshops that changed their preferred sub-corridor to East Riverside AFTER they were shown the data.
On the other hand, the inclusion of the Highland sub-corridor is puzzling. Apart from Red River (which is currently low in density), there is not an existing transportation corridor where urban rail would make sense. The highland sub-corridor also hugs I-35 along its entire Eastern edge, greatly limiting the potential for development and ridership. To be fair, UT does have plans underway to develop the extreme Southern edge of the Highland sub-corridor. With the information that is currently available, I am unconvinced that Highland deserves to be considered for the first phase of urban rail. I am concerned that it 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.
Under such a short project timeline, Project Connect staff have done a great job with public outreach. Since this project has been moved out of the City of Austin Transportation Department, I have seen a complete 180 in staff’s willingness to listen and respond to tough questions. They haven’t always been perfect, but they have been willing to revise (sometimes obvious) errors that citizens have brought to their attention.
While I am generally pleased with the public outreach thus far, the evaluation process was over-complicated. The FTA is fairly straightforward in what they look for when funding transit projects. Project Connect decided to double their evaluation criteria by including projections when the FTA clearly prefers the use of current data. With such a rushed timeline, why not focus on the key measures that the FTA is looking for and be done with it? I personally believe the combination of a rushed timeline with the over-complicated evaluation process caused many of the errors that the local transit community had to point out.
What About Lamar?
East riverside is the clear winner when compared to Highland, but why wasn’t Lamar included as an obvious choice in Project Connect’s recommendation? After all, Lamar was the most preferred sub-corridor at Project Connect’s public workshops. The official Project Connect response is that the Lamar sub-corridor didn’t score well enough on their indices. This goes against the views of many nationally respected transportation planners, as well as my own observations. 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.
The Lamar sub-corridor also has the highest transit ridership in Austin. Routes 1 & 101 alone carry close to 17,000 people per day through the Lamar sub-corridor; more than five times the number of people that the RedLine carries. North Lamar also repeatedly shows up on TxDOT’s Top 100 Most Congested Roads in Texas.
So then why did Lamar rank so low in Project Connect’s evaluation? I believe there are a few reasons. Project Connect decided to use large geographic areas in stead of comparing actual routes. Using large geographic areas affects the results because, according to Stan Openshaw, “areal units used in many geographical studies are arbitrary, modifiable, and subject to the whims and fancies of whoever is doing, or did, the aggregating.” I’m not saying that Project Connect intentionally chose large geographic areas to skew the data, but it does make me wonder if this was the right scale of analysis.
I also believe that the assumptions going into this study greatly affected the results. For instance, 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.
I believe these issues, combined with the looming political questions surrounding the launch of MetroRapid, have contributed to Project Connect’s decision not to include the Lamar sub-corridor in their initial recommendation. This is a mistake.
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. If MetroRapid really precludes an investment on Lamar, as some have speculated, we should at least be strategically planning how to service our city’s transit backbone in the second phase investment. During the next few weeks, I will be strongly advocating for Lamar to be included within Project Connect’s recommendation for further study. Will you be?