Opportunity Knocking + Caveat

30 03 2010

Austin’s City Council recently passed its federal lobbying plan, and we here at The Placemaking Institute are heartened that transportation projects top the list.

Surface Transportation Highway/Transit Reauthorization
The City of Austin calls on Congress to craft a successor to SAFETEA-LU (PL 109-59) that recognizes the key role that metropolitan areas and their center cities play in our nation’s economy. Funding allocation, project selection and program structure should reflect the fact that the vast majority of our nation’s economic output comes from metropolitan areas and that the vast majority of our nation’s population lives in metropolitan areas. Specifically, the City of Austin supports a SAFETEA-LU successor that:

  • Provides for an equitable distribution of highway and transit funds;
  • Maintains a guaranteed funding mechanism that ensures that all Highway Trust Fund revenues are spent on highway and transit programs;
  • Directly addresses metropolitan area and central city surface transportation needs, with a strong focus on metropolitan mobility;
  • Maintains a strong metropolitan planning process to ensure that local elected officials have the tools they need to support sustainable economic development and meet local needs;
  • Links surface transportation to environmental concerns such as clean air, clean water and climate change;
  • Channels funding directly to metropolitan areas, at a minimum maintaining the suballocation of Surface Transportation Program funds to metropolitan areas;
  • Builds on the past decade’s investment in transit by providing significantly increased resources for transit, including increased funding to meet the growing nationwide demand for rail transit;
  • Expands the Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to School Programs;
  • Does not increase the local share, currently 20%, for federally-assisted highway and transit projects, and
  • Further empowers local elected officials by requiring full state disclosure of how federal surface transportation funds are spent.

Intercity Passenger Rail
The City of Austin also supports increased federal investment in intercity and regional passenger rail. An important part of a balanced transportation system, intercity and regional passenger rail reduces highway and airport congestion, reduces energy consumption, helps cities improve air quality and, because most trips are downtown to downtown, promotes central city economic development. In particular, the City of Austin supports efforts to make the South Central High- Speed Rail Corridor a reality and to implement regional passenger rail service between Georgetown and San Antonio.

Urban Rail Transit Project
The City of Austin seeks authorization of its Urban Rail Project under the New Starts Program and also seeks language allowing money the City spends on Phase I of the Project to be used as the “super match” for future, federally-funded phases of the Project. In FY 2011, the City also requests $1 million for the project under the Alternatives Analysis Program. The City of Austin is currently completing environmental fatal flaw analyses for what might be a first investment phase of a larger Urban Rail system (a blend of streetcar/light rail type services). The Urban Rail system will serve the Mueller Neighborhood, University of Texas, Capital Complex, Downtown, Riverside Corridor, and ABIA. It will provide circulator services in central Austin and commuter-type services for close- in neighborhoods near central Austin.

City Council will make a determination of a locally preferred alternative as part of an updated Alternatives Analysis (AA). The AA was begun by Capital Metro and taken over by the City of Austin to update, extend and expand to meet the needs of the City as the implementing agency. The intent is to complete an environmental process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on the entire Urban Rail System. The City of Austin will ask voters to fund an initial operable segment (initial investment segment) using local monies. We will pursue federal funding through the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for the subsequent extensions of the initial investment segment once the NEPA process is complete. It is likely that the first investment segment will be delivered using innovative delivery methods (design-build or design-build-maintain- operate). NEPA would parallel the more extensive design process envisioned with these delivery methods. Austin would like to use the local cost of the initial investment segment as overmatch for the federal funding requests. The City anticipates that 20 percent or more of the subsequent extensions would still be funded locally and that we would be seeking the use of previous local investments as overmatch only.

High Priority Projects
The City of Austin submitted six projects for the High Priority Projects Program in legislation to reauthorize federal surface transportation programs and appreciates the delegation’s support of these priorities. As Congress continues to craft and debate that legislation, all six projects remain priorities:

  • Burnet Road
  • East 6th Street Reconstruction & Enhancement
  • Vehicle Detection Stations
  • Waller Creek Trail
  • Lady Bird Lake Trail Boardwalk
  • Guadalupe Street Reconstruction & Enhancement

And now for the caveat: An outsider’s view of the new Capital MetroRail Red Line

Yonah Freemark: “For a city that is noted for its progressivism, especially as compared to the state that surrounds it, Austin’s transit politics are notoriously backwards. Unlike Houston and especially Dallas, which have pushed forward with light rail systems at a rapid pace over the past few decades, the capital of Texas is getting modern rail service for the first time only today, despite its large and growing population. And with a cost of $105 million and with trains only running at peak times, the Capital MetroRail Red Line is a humble project that will attract few riders…It’s hard to see the system as a model for future major capital investment in transit in the Austin region…If this is what people in Austin are expected to experience as efficient rail, it’s hard to envision them pushing for more beneficial forms of transit, like frequent light rail operating in the city’s denser zones…Even if the line does become exceedingly popular — a very remote possibility — the corridor can only handle 3,800 daily boardings, maximum. That’s because only 11% of the line has two tracks, so the number of trains able to run back and forth is quite limited. Cost-cut stations are too short for trains made up of more than one car. Readying the Red Line for a capacity upgrade would cost hundreds of millions of dollars Capital Metro does not have…It’s too late to sound the alarm about this rail line’s problems; on the other hand, it’s been obvious that the line has been ill-fated from the start, victim to an attempt to get rail service at the lowest cost possible, no matter the limitations. Electoral support for future rail expansion in the Austin region will be difficult to assemble if the populace isn’t impressed by what it gets, and the Red Line just won’t provide many benefits to very many people. Starting too small is sometimes problematic: other cities should learn from Austin’s mistakes here.”

Commercial Property Value and Proximity to Light Rail: A Hedonic Price Application

Les Leopold: “The Wall Street-led crash has created the perfect climate for this crusade to eviscerate the public sector, especially at the state and local level. It’s ugly and getting uglier. With 29 million American unemployed or forced into part-time jobs, tax receipts have plummeted more steeply than any time since the Great Depression. State and local governments are slashing their services–at the very moment when people most desperately need them. This is the very definition of a fiscal crisis.”

How will this unprecedented downturn affect the shape of government in years to come?

Mark Jacobson: “Data suggest that domes of high CO2 levels form over cities. Despite our knowledge of these domes for over a decade, no study has contemplated their effects on air pollution or health. In fact, all air pollution regulations worldwide assume arbitrarily that such domes have no local health impact, and carbon policy proposals, such as ‘cap and trade,’ implicitly assume that CO2 impacts are the same regardless of where emissions occur. Here, it is found through data-evaluated numerical modeling with telescoping domains from the globe to the U.S., California, and Los Angeles, that local CO2 emissions in isolation may increase local ozone and particulate matter. Although health impacts of such changes are uncertain, they are of concern, and it is estimated that that local CO2 emissions may increase premature mortality by 50−100 and 300−1000/yr in California and the U.S., respectively. As such, reducing locally emitted CO2 may reduce local air pollution mortality even if CO2 in adjacent regions is not controlled. If correct, this result contradicts the basis for air pollution regulations worldwide, none of which considers controlling local CO2 based on its local health impacts. It also suggests that a ‘cap and trade’ policy should consider the location of CO2 emissions, as the underlying assumption of the policy is incorrect.”

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