Guadalupe Improvement: Historical Narrative

5 02 2015

(handwritten transcription* from a conversation with Sinclair Black, who completed the original 2003 Guadalupe Street Transit Corridor Improvement Project, which was permitted for construction twice.)

“Original construction budget: $4 million

“Original master plan’s budget: $400 thousand (Capital Metro and City of Austin each contributed $200 thousand)

“When the project was shifted from CapMetro to the City (@2000), permits were pulled for construction. But then the City’s transportation department required either 14 or 17 variances, of which all but one** were being taken care of already, so these new variances were essentially bogus according to the City’s own green books. The City Manager at that time (2004) agreed with my assessment.

“In any case, a permit was pulled in 2004, and the project was ready to go to bid. But the City diverted the funding to Lamar and, by the time the City’s attention went back to The Drag, that permit was out of date. So we got a second permit in 2007, and it was ready to go to bid again, but the next prior identified by the City was the repaving of 45th.

“They already have $400 thousand in permitted drawings and now they’re spending about another $200 thousand to get the ball rolling all over again? And so here we go, reinventing the wheel and wasting more taxpayer dollars on something that’s already been done.”

* thus any omissions or errors should be attributed to this fair scribe.

** the radius of the curb at 21st (by the Scientology building) was called into question due to the fact that only one type of City vehicle couldn’t make the turn, being the sewage pumper.


Right Rail, Right Route, Right Costs, Right Reasons

16 10 2014

For those of us who support rail service in Austin and that the future of Austin will depend largely upon the right rail, planned for the right route, i.e. where the people ARE today as well as where they WILL BE in the future.

Significant support is building toward defeating Austin’s Proposition 1 so a cheaper, smarter rail solution can be approved in two years at a cost of approximately $300 million (with no road bonds), not $1.4 billion (with road bonds). That route would serve the airport, would actually serve downtown as centrally as possible on Congress Ave., and would serve the UT campus while also providing 3 northern extensions as good future options.

These 3 options by priority would be:

  1. North Lamar
  2. Mueller and East Austin
  3. Highland…eventually

The Project Connect plan is so poorly conceived that it plays directly into the hands of the “costs too much, does too little” crowd. So vote NO on Proposition 1 and get ready to advocate the “costs so little, serves so well” plan, to be ready in 2016.

Relevant Links

Geography of Opportunity: Rail Right Up The Middle

Congress Ave. Bridge Retrofit = Possible & Cost Efficient

Post-Prop 1 Election Quarterbacking

3 11 2010

Yesterday Austin approved Proposition 1 and thus $90 million in bonds for multi-modal transportation projects, with 91,721 (56.3%) voting for it and 71,154 (43.7%) voting against it.

While I’m sure there are those who are, and should be, dancing in the streets about this victory, the final result (as well as what led up to it) very much troubles The Placemaking Institute, especially upon taking into account the big picture.


Mayor Leffingwell’s belief that Prop 1 would be accepted by 85% of the voters is on the record. He also said, “I’ve heard about polls that indicate this is going to be a close contest. We had not expected that to happen. I think that’s entirely due to a large infusion of money by opponents into media and signs and so forth.”

But, as Ben Wear pointed out, “(W)hat is not arguable is that the larger infusion of money actually has been from supporters (who) through Oct. 23 had raised more than twice as much money as opponents.” And he’s not even including the approximately $600,000 the City spent on its website!

In no way should this race have been so close, and I cannot believe that people are surprised by the outcome. What actually surprises me about yesterday’s vote is that the opposition wasn’t ultimately successful. To be polite, this situation denotes Pollyanna-ish complacency, as well as a lack of among other things political leadership and wherewithal. Scarcely being able to generate passage of a relatively innocuous bond at a cost of, for all intents and purposes, a piddling $90 million does not bode well for the projected 2012 $1.5 billion Urban Rail Bond proposal – Unless the so-called powers that be learn from their mistakes.

Why do I feel this way?

Because the City of Austin was caught with its pants down and got lucky. In football parlance, their offense consisted of one-yard-and-a-cloud-of dust, running the same play, even though poll after poll indicated the issue was not gaining traction. The Prop 1 opposition, on the other hand, viewed this bond election as a great way to sharpen their knives for the Urban Rail issue, and they reacted accordingly. If this campaign had been a contest of managerial skills, they would have blown the City’s doors off.


Because political campaigns try to reduce opponents to caricatures, that’s why. And to this end, despite only having spent about $50,000 on advertisement, the anti-Prop 1 lobby succeeded. They ran a tight organization, which they always do when fighting any proposal that contains anything but roads and roads and more roads. Anybody surprised by this has essentially been sleeping throughout the past 30 some odd years of Austin’s history.


Because the first political rule of thumb is “know thy enemy;” their hackneyed arguments were transparent, predictable, and they should have been both anticipated and nipped in the bud. If the City’s campaign was in any way adequate and had done so, Prop 1 would most likely have been passed by a more definitive majority that could have been used as a firm groundswell foundation for other multi-modal endeavors. Their failure lies in the fact that it allowed the opposition to frame the issue, forcing reaction instead of action. I could go on and on and on with examples, believe you me.

But to give just one: the main argument against the bond was that it favored projects downtown at the expense of those elsewhere. What the City should have done was first prove the economic development benefits of the bond package before showing how those benefits will begin permeating throughout the rest of the region. How could the City not anticipate this happening?

While some rinky-dink organization like the Placemaking Institute did? Because, in fact, several months ago we floated a grant proposal to several Prop 1 proponents that received no interest whatsoever. It shall suffice as next week’s installment of The Placemaking Institute’s “Austin’s Landscape of Missed Opportunity.”

Vote Yes on Prop 1

27 10 2010

As stated in my previous blog posting, that handful of vociferously deluded Road Warriors have begun organizing into PACs and colluding against the relatively innocuous Proposition 1 on this electoral ballot. This is not surprising. But if they are indeed able to successfully prevaricate and manipulate the electorate against it on Nov. 2, in no way would that bode well for any future transportation bond proposition that provides choices other than building more roads. And so, after listing eight common sense reasons to vote “Yes” on Proposition 1, we’ll discover who these road lobbyists are and how they are structured.

Eight Common Sense Reasons to Vote YES on Proposition 1

1)     Focusing on building more roads to the exclusion of all else is what has caused Austin’s transportation problems.

2)     If vehicle-miles of travel were to increase by 5%/year, roadway lane-miles would need to increase by 5% each year just to maintain the initial congestion level.*

3)      It would require at least twice the level of current-day road expansion funding to attempt a “road construction only” strategy.*

4)      In growing areas adding capacity of all types is essential to handle the growing demand and avoid rapidly rising congestion.*

5)      Smart Growth characteristics should be incorporated into new developments so that new economic development does not generate the same amount of traffic volume as existing developments.*

6)      TxDOT can only afford 30% of the funds needed to make required improvements, more than 40% of its budget goes to maintenance, and it will go broke by 2012.

7)      Because of ‘optimism bias’ toll road bonds are routinely graded as ‘BBB’ while all three major U.S. financial rating agencies have reaffirmed Austin’s ‘AAA’ long-term rating.

8)      “TxDOT has supplemented state and federal revenue allocations with private partners and borrowed funds generated by various bond issues (since 2002),” says Susan Combs (Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts). “TxDOT must service this existing debt before spending any funds on new projects.”

(* Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) and thus TxDOT)

In sum, Proposition 1 seeks to make transportation improvements by increasing the efficiency of the existing system right at the heart, which will then begin emanating throughout the whole Central Texas Region. According to TTI, “these treatments are particularly effective in three ways:

1)     “They are relatively low cost and high benefit which is efficient from a funding perspective;

2)     “They can usually be implemented quickly;

3)     “And they can be tailored to individual situations, making them more useful because they are flexible.”

With Proposition 1, the City of Austin is attempting to begin rectifying over 40 years of pro-road tunnel-vision…Vote “Yes.”

The Nitwits Who Would Have You Do Otherwise

Sensible Transportation Solutions for Austin PAC (Filed 10/5/2010)

Campaign Treasurer: Dominic Chavez; Person Appointing the Treasurer: Dominic Chavez; Media Contact: Ed Wendler

Financial muscle (to the tune of $30k) provided by former Texas Monthly publisher (and wannabe political player): Mike Levy

Engineers Affirming Sustainable Transportation (EAST) PAC (Filed 10/5/2010)

Campaign Treasurer (and former treasurer of Coalition on Sensible Transportation): Don Zimmerman; Person Appointing Treasurer: Jim Skaggs

Austinites for Action (501c4)

Their Mission (I’m not making this up): “Break the lock on our city politics”

Executive Director: Carole Keeton Strayhorn; Advisory Board: Dominic Chavez, Jim Skaggs, Don Zimmerman (among others)

West Downtown Alliance

Members: None; But for more information you can contact?: Carole Keeton Strayhorn

Old Texas Proverb: “You can put your boots into the oven, but they’ll never turn into buns.”

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

24 03 2010

(with this, because of this) St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman: “Study is delay, and delay is death [for the project]. And for St. Paul, the Central Corridor is not an option, it’s crucial for the future of our city.”

As we are all aware, Mayor Leffingwell and Austin’s City Council reversed their stance on having an urban rail bond election in November, news that was received by Our Most Senior Fellow with much frustration. Because in his opinion they’ve had more than enough time to get their acts together, and this lack of political wherewithal is going to cost the City of Austin literally hundreds of millions of dollars (examples a, b, c + according to TTI, each person dissuaded from driving will save the region $812/year $3.25/day in overall congestion costs) when all is said and done – In five to ten years there’s a very good chance that we’re going to be experiencing SXS(o)W(hat) gridlock every day of the week!

But now he’s ready to temper his remarks by saying “Yes, there may be wisdom in waiting one year (and one year only) for the following reasons:”

• With the national political climate being what it is, a large percentage of the folks who turn out for an election this November may be people who are road warriors rather than rail advocates;
• CapMetro’s continual missteps suggest that the City might have to go to such an extreme as forming another managing entity (one Spillar suggestion: Lone Star Rail), which could not be done by this November;
•It is probably prudent to get the CapMetro system up and running, work out kinks, build some ridership (a: although without adjoining rail systems ridership will most definitely not be maximized) and rebuild some confidence in rail (b: although the aforementioned artifically low ridership numbers will give anti-rail zealots that much more ammunition against expansion).

And so, with that now said, it’s time to move on…As of today the Mayor is still anticipating floating a $100 million November transportation bond proposal to pay for road, trail and sidewalk improvements throughout the city which, according to Austin Business Journal, “appears extremely likely as more than half of city council members said they support a bond election that size…Project opportunities are boundless. Already, a list of $500 million worth of projects has been prioritized, and there are many more needed, Austin Public Works Director Howard Lazarus said.” To give just one example, “$824 million (!) worth of sidewalks need to be fixed or created.” Thus would not now be a good time to start leveraging this opportunity and make ourselves some truly Great Streets?

William H. Whyte: “The street is the river of life of the city, the place where we come together, the pathway to the center.”

Great Streets Design Guiding Principles

1) Manage Congestion: Congestion is a fact of life in successful urban places. By definition, a place that supports a great concentration of economic and social activities within a pedestrian-scaled environment is going to be congested.

2) Balanced/Active Streets: Downtown streets must balance the needs of pedestrians, bicycles, transit and the automobile in creating an attractive and viable urban core. Downtown streets are for people first, commercial second, parking third and through traffic fourth.

3) Streets as Places: The Great Streets Program envisions downtown as a vital focus of city life, and as a primary destination. Our downtown streets are our most important and pervasive public space and common ground.

4) Interactive Streets: Urban Streets are the stages on which the public life of the community is acted out.

5) Pride of Place: Visible, caring and upkeep are critical to the vitality of urban street life.

6) Public Art: Art in the public environment can help to establish a stronger sense of place and a continuity between the past, present and future.

…Coming soon from The Placemaking Institute: Geometric Congestion Solutions!

Centralize or Decentralize Transit?

16 02 2010

This is CapMetro’s proposal for a centralized transfer facility in Downtown Austin (starting on page 9)

Is this a good idea? And why?

(source) “Evidence underlines that the emergence of hub-and-spoke networks is a transitional form of network development rationalizing limited volumes through a limited number of routes. When traffic becomes sufficient, direct point-to-point services tend to be established as they better reflect the preference of users.”

(source) “Metro areas that have integrated their rail transit into a decentralized network structure are found to enjoy higher riding habit, higher service productivity, and better cost-effectiveness than metro areas with other network structures or modal combinations.”

Transit is moving from its traditional centralized hub-and-spoke model to one that follows the point-to-point (no centralized hub) model, where multiple “nodes” are distributed around a city (examples: Providence, Seattle, Tallahassee, Orlando, Atlanta). In input/output economic parlance, they are disaggregating clusters by increasingly expanding and diversifying their operations to locations where their investments will be most profitable. Cities that are remodeling their public transit network but are sticking to the hub-and-spoke model are creating X number of hubs throughout the city; thus these hubs are becoming, in effect, nodes (example: Los Angeles).

Advantage of point-to-point system: It minimizes connections and travel time (the more that passengers use it, the more intuitive it becomes) and increases accessibility (and greater accessibility is good).

Advantage of hub-and-spoke system: They are simple; new ones can be created easily; scheduling is convenient for passengers since there are few routes, with frequent service, so they may find the network more intuitive. An example of technology that obviates this advantage: The Chicago Transit Authority’s Bus Tracker

Disadvantages of hub-and-spoke system:

  • Because the model is centralized, day-to-day operations may be relatively inflexible. Changes at the hub, or even in a single route, could have unexpected consequences throughout the network.
  • Route scheduling is complicated for the network operator. Scarce resources must be used carefully to avoid starving the hub, and traffic analysis and precise timing are required to keep the hub operating efficiently.
  • The hub constitutes a bottleneck in the network. Total capacity of the network is limited by the hub’s capacity. Delays at the hub can result in delays throughout the network. Delays at a spoke can also affect the network.
  • People must pass through the hub before reaching their destination, requiring longer journeys than direct point-to-point trips. This is often desirable for freight, which can benefit from sorting and consolidating operations at the hub, but not for people.
  • In a spoke-hub network the hub is likely to be a single point of failure.


Filtering people through a hub or a series of hubs is wasteful and inefficient compared to the direct point-to-point model, which can reduce transport emissions and operational costs…Are the five sites CapMetro identifies desirably positioned and reasonably purchasable land for this to be in any way an achievable endeavor?

In any case, no matter what occurs, this is what we here at The Placemaking Institute would like to see occur with Congress Avenue

Support the ERCMP

16 02 2010

As you know, the East Riverside Corridor is in desperate need of wholesale re-invention. Indeed, one could say no other part of Austin is in such dire straits. This is having a detrimental effect on our City’s overall health. We here at The Placemaking Institute believe the proposed East Riverside Corridor Master Plan (which was unanimously approved by the Planning Commission on February 9th, albeit with compatibility standard and zoning classification amendments that should not be part of Phase 1) is both comprehensive and excellent, and we are writing to urge you to support it because

It is a plan that puts forward a vision of thoughtful land use supported by a much needed rail transit  system.

It is a plan dedicated to high-quality public space (i.e., streets and parks and trails) that will support and encourage appropriate private investment in a location in much need of just that. 

It is a plan that will facilitate and enable a more integrated pedestrian environment of appropriate mixed-land usage that is more walkable and bicycle-friendly.

It is a plan that clearly demonstrates socioeconomic integrity by following all the very best principles of True Urbanism, and it was in fact created by the public itself through open and transparent community visioning charrettes, where anyone who wanted to participate could – And did.

In short, the East Riverside Corridor Master Plan will move Austin further along the path toward Progress by transforming an area that can only be considered a huge liability into one that would be a wonderful precedent for a pattern of future renewal. It will provide many healthy lifestyle options, in the process generating a significant new tax base. While we know Austin will grow, we don’t know how or where, and will it occur in a sustainable manner? If the leaders of this community do not, on February 25th, ultimately approve such an excellent vision and support its long-term implementation, what hope can we truly have for the future of our City?

While it will and already has been (by the Chronicle’s Katherine Gregor) said that the “The master plan lacks any economic analysis or direction on value capture – a glaring omission,” Our Most Senior Fellow’s Eminence Gris explains: “The reason that the master plan lacks these things is due to the scope imposed upon Nelessen by the City; economic analysis or direction on value capture was outside of Nelessen’s purview and, thus, this glaring omission should not be considered to be a knock on the Master Plan itself per se. A better question would be to ask, why didn’t the City include these aspects within the Master Planning process?”

Our Most Senior Fellow would like to add (from his point of view as a classically trained economist with a master’s degree that focussed on economic development and affordability [which he generally abhors admitting in public]) that “Yes, obviously an economic development component must be added. However, the ERCMP is a wonderful vision that we should all embrace before working together to ensure that an appropriate economic development strategy is insinuated within it. How many times over the years have we as a society taken radical redevelopment actions such as this one solely initially predicated upon an economic development plan? That strategy has not really worked well for we the people, has it?”

And we conclude with the words of Mr. Tony Nelessen himself: “For your info we completed two economic analysis’s for the site. One was done by a local firm and we completed another in house to meet the needs of the contract and to understand feasibility. The city has both reports and did not include them in the Master Plan which is appropriate. Regarding value added for transit: Given the negative perceptions of the land today, the plan when adopted will already add value! If the plan is implemented without the light rail, there will have to be a serious upgrade to the bus service, stops, lanes and image. I guess that there is no question about the value added if the urban design master plan was implemented along with the light rail. To answer how much more will land and adjacent property be worth? And, what is the fiscal impact and benefit to the city if LR was implemented?

“The answer to these questions is going to be a factor of how much FAR/DU’s the city will allow at what distance from the station, along with the positive or negative images of the transit, stations, landscaping/streetscape, cars,  service etc. It is one of the key principles of smart growth and if there is a market for the housing as planned then there is certainly a justification for transit and vice versa. I can’t imagine a sustainable city without a huge emphasis on mixed and multiple use, walking and bicycling within the TT6 and TT5 and TT4, with more emphasis in the TT4 on bike, walking, local jitneys and car use. I have just completed the second rush of a new video about TT Transit Transects.  It is very interesting and compelling. Uses all the principles of the New Urbanism except TT6 is heavily weighed towards the pedestrian and landscaping not the car. This is a really good model for Sustainable Urbanism. In the next week(s) it will be on YouTube.”

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