To dedicate or not to dedicate

19 04 2011

In our last blog posting the following sentiment was relayed: “…in proper locales like Congress, streetcars sharing lanes would reactivate the streetscape.”

That incited this expected reply from Mike Dahmus: “Nonsense. What it’ll do is prevent any more people from GETTING downtown, which will mean our level of activated streetscape will be stuck at its current, fairly low, ceiling. Please don’t fall for the Condonite slower-is-better theories – they work ONLY in cities where huge employment centers exist in the core that cannot go anywhere else. Even here in Austin that’s not true – the university and the capitol aren’t going to a suburban office park, but a lot of state workers could (already do in some cases), and most of the private sector employers could as well.”

We here at The Placemaking Institute very much anticipated these remarks and, although we’re not going to argue with you, Mike, we’re not gonna agree with you either. Here’s why: You’re position is quite honorably predicated solely on solving congestion while ours embraces the fact that one hallmark of a successful city is congestion; the more successful a city becomes, the more congested it will be. And, thus, congestion can never be solved but only managed.
In other words, those who try solving congestion are being Utopian which, when broken down phonetically in Greek means “no place,” something ultimately unachievable – leaving one jousting with windmills and/or borrowing Thomas More’s horsehair shirt for daily martyr usage. Because here in the real world “condoites” (or, as Faulkner called them, “cubic euphemists”) have been among some of the main players behind both keeping the rail discussion in general going over these past several years as well as the current “urban rail”/streetcar proposal being discussed. An argument can be made that, without their efforts, it wouldn’t even be on the table right now.
As all of us should know by now streetcars do virtually nothing in the short-term to mitigate congestion; rather, more than half of the reasoning behind implementing streetcars is to spur economic development via increasing density along targeted transportation corridors. If implemented successfully, this will help expedite a much needed generational shift that will better manage congestion in the long-term. With that said, the City should work with the cubic euphemists in order to come up with some sort of TIF program ASAP, which would go a long way towards having rail pay for itself, making it much easier to implement additional phases.
But the fact of the matter remains that anybody’s argument regarding any of this may be moot: because that Red Line albatross plus the general sociopolitical tone of this country in no way bodes well for the 2012 bond’s passage.

Rail? Right. Down. The. Middle.

15 04 2011

H.G. Wells: “In the long run man will be lost or saved by argument, for collective human acts are little more than arguments in partial realization.”

…Yawn…Stretch…Yes it’s been awhile since we here at The Placemaking Institute last left you, albeit for very good reason…

Because sometimes one must take steps back in order to stop observing individual trees so that one can begin seeing the forest again…And now is the time Our Most Senior Fellow sees fit to roust himself and once again say the same ol’ thang he’s been saying for the past several years now: rail must run right up the middle if it is ever going to be considered both a short- and long-term success.

There are several folks (among them Wear , Dahmus and Austin Contrarian [albeit the latter recently expressed the same sentiment that’ll be relayed below, as does this 2009 dialogue between the latter two]) who’ve been sorta somewhat rightfully raising concerns that, according to the City of Austin’s current “urban rail” plan, trains would “share traffic lanes with cars for about half of the 16.5-mile route,” which may increase congestion and reduce mobility. Their concerns are shared by a goodly number of folks around town, the general sentiment reflected by this observation a thoughtfully funny friend made the other day: “Leffingwell’s administration can’t even get out of its own way and it’s expecting people to get out of the way of streetcars?!” (There are, however, two things to point out: one, a greater percentage of shared lanes would socially engineer an increase in transit ridership and, two, dedicated lanes require infrastructure that impedes walkability and, in proper locales like Congress, streetcars sharing lanes would reactivate the streetscape.)

But in the greater scheme we here at The Placemaking Institute believe that’s not worth arguing about. Because what’s the root cause of having such a high percentage of shared traffic lanes?

The Institutional Gibralter that is the University of Texas; just one look at the City of Austin’s proposed route map shows the needless infrastructural replications and cost inefficiencies that it’s causing just so it can turn its share of Speedway into a strictly pedestrian mall:


UT’s stranglehold on Speedway must be breached so that efficiencies leading towards the greatest good for the entire community are achieved, the result being:

(Plus: Dean Keeton west to Guadalupe, north to the Triangle and ultimately north on Lamar; Dean Keeton east to Manor Road and to the Mueller Development.)

UT’s very own 2009 Greenhouse Gas Inventory (based on data from 2000-2006) only buttresses Our Most Senior Fellow’s position.

Within that document one learns that UT breaks down its emissions into three scopes. Scope III includes the costs of commuting, which comprise 16 percent of that scope. Overall, approximately 6 percent of UT’s 2006 emissions result from commuting. In UT’s own words:

“The voluntary ‘carbon offset’ markets in the United States, and the regulatory markets in Europe and Japan, provide a price range with which to estimate the cost of proactive offsetting or the eventual cost of future regulations: $5-30 per MT CO2e, depending on the provider and quantity purchased; $1.5-9 million to offset the total estimated 2006 Core Emissions.

“There is additional meaning to these numbers: they capture the financial burden that would result from proposed federal or regional legislation. This burden would appear largely via higher energy prices. Such regulation would also embed additional cost in activities that lead to Scope III emissions. The University shares these emissions – and therefore also the financial risk – with students and employees who commute…The low end of the range (appropriate for short-term estimation) is based on voluntary offset markets and the initial evidence from a limited compliance market in the US. Medium-run estimates of a cost of carbon (under US legislation) go above $30 per MT CO2e, and European markets have already traded around $50. This higher range ($30-50) suggests…a shared (Scope III) burden in the neighborhood of $7-12 million.”

This $90 million plus very pedestrian mall will do nothing to reduce these burdens, the effect being much like putting lipstick on a congested pig.

Wouldn’t it be tragic to waste money on a system that fails to serve the community by connecting destinations in an optimum way? Because “if you make one little concession, then two, then five,” warned Flaubert, “And soon all is lost.”

Last week the City of Austin and the FTA held 5 public meetings to commence the Environmental Impact Statement. This process has a web site with a form to collect public opinion.

Please consider submitting a written comment online regarding the route before April 29.

Geography of Opportunity

30 11 2010

(written by Sinclair Black, previously published in the 10/23/10 issue of the University of Texas School of Architecture’s Platform, and posted here with the author’s permission)

If Austin weren’t always so hampered by short-sighted politicians and citizens in a tizzy against virtually everything, it would now be the best test case for land use paradigm change of emerging mid-sized American cities. This article explores Austin’s underutilized urban geography before discussing future lifestyle, economic and environmental benefits that can potentially be gained, not by continuing to embrace sprawl, but by optimizing density via infill.

Infill development generally occurs by rezoning formerly vital neighborhoods that have been lost over decades of change, which instigates private investment. An infill project should be appropriately scaled and leave a neighborhood significantly better off than before. Furthermore, transportation systems are pulmonaries through which any urbanized area breathes while its downtown is the heart that pumps its vitality. They are inextricably entwined; if one underperforms, stress is added to the other, which then adds stress to the other – until soon the whole urban structure begins collapsing into itself.

Streetcar systems facilitated the original growth of most American cities, including that of Austin; its first day:

Unfortunately those responsible for the advent of the automobile destroyed these rail systems; its last day:

The process of reinstituting streetcars running right “up the middle” will be facilitated by the near perfect grid of existing streets. With destinations like the CBD, the State Capitol Complex and UT, the market clearly exists for this. The potential to densify many centralized zones is tremendous. Streetcars can once again serve Austin’s most intense population concentrations while unlocking development potential of areas between and beyond.

Today, alas, Austin is not unique when it comes to having crosstown arterials that are lined by retail and low-density buildings. These auto-dominated thoroughfares divide neighborhoods and deny pedestrian corridors that could instead be interconnecting adjacent neighborhoods. Redeveloping these arterials into medium density, transit enabled, walkable, mixed-use continuous corridors could provide housing for thousands of people.

While many cities have brownfield sites due to former industrial land uses, Austin has “black holes” in the form of changed land uses. For example, the State of Texas owns many tracts of land around the city. As state institutions move, consolidate or disappear, land will become available for redevelopment by the private sector, ultimately filling most of the urban black holes. The zones adjacent to and north of the State Capitol Complex are totally automobile-oriented and, therefore, presently lifeless both day and night. A great opportunity exists to inject mixed-use development and urban life into this huge (80-block) area.

Many good examples of graceful increases in density and, of course, the subsequent corresponding increase in property values already exist in Austin. Central Park (38th and Lamar) and The Triangle are already established while Plaza Saltillo (the site of abandoned rail switching yards just east of the CBD and IH-35) and Mueller are currently being redeveloped as walkable, mixed-use New Urbanist communities. Others include the University Neighborhood Overlay that favors dense student housing, and the Rainey Street neighborhood at the intersection of IH-35 and Lady Bird Lake.

The Central Business District of Austin has traditionally been the center of the region. Very recently it has again become the focus of urban living and, as a result, the CBD is reemerging as a place of retail activity while also experiencing a hotel building surge. But two major problems exist: first being the brutal superimposition of IH-35 over historic East Avenue; the second being the yet-unrealized opportunity for approximately 91 acres (52 city blocks) of downtown redevelopment potential on the shores of Town Lake (AKA Lady Bird Lake). Because the latter is Austin’s most important amenity and most valuable real estate, it has the potential to become Austin’s “green lung” if done right. Encouraging sustainable development of privately-owned land along its edges is a short-cut to enhancing tax base and reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Thousands of people could live and work here, and the whole Central Texas Region would be infinitely better off as a result.

Yes, there is, of course, heartburn associated with this kind of change. But in the end thousands of people will be able to walk to their destinations. And, by living closer to where they work and play, literally tens of thousands of people will begin reducing the vehicle miles they travel rather than crowding streets with more commuter cars. With that said, let us now explore the benefits that could be gained by optimizing Austin’s density on just a few opportune sites.

Of the thousands of acres of unutilized and underutilized land inside the Austin city limits, we selected only five sites to explore the implications of walkable, mixed-use developments at a gentle level of density.  These five sites, representing about 10% of the opportunity in the region, included Green Water Treatement Plant, the West 5th Street Corridor, the Southbank at the Pecan Groves, the Statesman site just east of Congress, and the Northshore just east of IH-35.  After both the Riverside Corridor and the Brackenridge Tract master plans were completed, we added those numbers to the statistical analysis.  A brief summary of the impacts for the seven sites show (we’ll be addressing our assumptions in another posting):

  • Total area of non-public land for development: 1674 acres holding 44,500 housing units
  • Area of sprawl preempted: 13,150 acres
  • Length of new lake edge made open and accessible to the public: 3.1 miles.
  • Potential tax base creation: $12.87 billion
  • Mileage not driven due to shorter commutes: 1,118,495 miles daily
  • Gallons of gas saved daily: 57,675 gallons daily and 16,437,304 gallons annually
  • Amount of commuter time saved from sitting in traffic: 6,095 hours daily and 1,737,190 hours annually
  • Amount of CO2 emissions saved: 577 tons daily and 164,373 tons annually


The Austin Metropolitan Region is ever-verging upon violating the Clean Air Act. When this does indeed occur, we the people will have no choice but to densify in a manner quite similar to this proposal. It’s always better to act now rather than reacting later. While the five county regional vision of Envision Central Texas points the way towards a sustainable future, Austin needs visionary leadership and cooperation among jurisdictions that enables compact, walkable towns and neighborhoods linked by rail transit that is structured around the downtown core. The conditions are in place for paradigm change, to create a new “Geography of Opportunity” for our Central Texas Region.

Untapping an Austin Asset

10 11 2010

For backround information on the proceeding post (which builds upon Austin’s Landscape of Missed Opportunity), please refer to these great summations provided by Mike Clark-Madison in the Austin Chronicle on October 4, 2002:

The Great Streets 2025 Plan

Dark Blue: Pedestrian-Dominant Street; Green: Rapid Transit Street; Red: Commuter Boulevard; Orange: Commuter Street; Light Blue: Bicycle and Local Access Street; Yellow: Mixed-Mode Street; Purple: Pedestrian and Bikeways

NearTerm Downtown Transportation Plan

The Devil in the Details; Downtown Great Streets Plan stalled by commuter roadblocks (same canards used by opponents of 2010’s Prop 1)

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

(Please note that the following was born to fruition on 4/29/2010, thus before a lot of relevant stuff happened.)

Transportation systems are the pulmonaries through which any urbanized region breathes while its Downtown is the heart that pumps its vitality.  They are inextricably entwined and, if one underperforms, stress is added to the other, which then adds stress to the other until soon the whole system begins spiraling downwards towards inevitable collapse.  According to the City of Austin, their Great Streets Master Plan “is founded on the vision set forth in the Council-adopted Downtown Austin Design Guidelines of a dense, vibrant downtown with a strong sense of place and strong concern for the public (that also)integrate(s) all modes of transportation into a balanced system of streets and sidewalks.” Yet ten years later one of the main underutilized infrastructural resources in Downtown Austin remains its streets, our most important and pervasive public space and common ground.

Today, with only a handful of exceptions, they are neither balanced nor active nor destinations, nor are they being used in a manner that manages congestion – All of which violates Austin’s very own guiding principles for Great Streets design. Furthermore, the City is currently in a state of flux regarding the need to broaden its transportation modality away from extreme auto-centricity. This ongoing debate of how to best implement such infrastructural improvements as Urban Rail, bicycle boulevards, transit transfer facilities, rerouting/eliminating certain bus lines and implementing Bus Rapid Transit and a Transportation Management Association, provides Austin with a tremendous opportunity to synchronize its efforts and leverage existing underutilized and undervalued resources in an efficient manner so that the most optimal end possible is achieved.

It is argued here that incorporating Great Streets into any and all of the infrastructural improvements cited above would be an excellent investment, one with comparatively low short-term costs but very high long-term benefits that would permeate throughout the Region.

The key component of Great Streets is promoting mobility and accessibility, and the complete street concept has been embraced by an increasing number of cities, from Los Angeles to St. Louis and Chattanooga to Washington D.C. By moving beyond just viewing streets as concourses for cars and opening them to cyclists, pedestrians, and loungers, converting one-way streets back to two-way streets and sometimes even into car free public plazas, these cities are instigating and accommodating diverse street environments, which as you know are integral to sustainable urban economic development strategies. While there has been no study of the economic benefits of the Great Streets program per se, the value of improving walkability has been quantified by several researchers.

In his Economic Value of Walkability, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute’s Todd Litman states: “Walking and walkability provide a variety of benefits, including basic mobility, consumer cost savings, cost savings (reduced external costs), efficient land use, community livability, improved fitness and public health, economic development, and support for equity objectives. Current transportation planning practices tend to undervalue walking. More comprehensive analysis techniques, described in this paper, are likely to increase public support for walking and other nonmotorized modes of travel.” Other studies have proven that walkable communities not only have higher housing values and cost taxpayers less but reduce commuting costs and attract tourists and “new economy” workers as well; they also function better than auto-centric communities at capturing emerging “lifestyle” retail markets and, thus, they have become a relocation incentive for businesses. One case in point: Downtown Lodi, California, which launched a $4.5 million public-private pedestrian oriented project, including a retrofit of five main street blocks from building face to building face. The City credits these improvements for 60 new businesses, the drop in the vacancy rate from 18% to 6% and 30% increase in Downtown sales tax revenues.

Another powerful example of how Great Streets can redefine a place by incorporating principles of walkable sustainability and building from the spirit of the place itself is the unquestionable success of Austin’s own Second Street District. Once a virtual land use vacuum, now this premier, mixed-use retail spine serves as a wonderful predicate for what the rest of Downtown can become; Great Streets is the only variable that distinguishes it as an economic catalyst. This paradigm should be the impetus for City of Austin leaders to begin both designing and implementing more Great Streets in order to help fulfill its goal of drawing new residents to Downtown (as portrayed in the aforementioned Downtown Austin Design Guidelines). While the Caesar Chavez Conversion, 23rd Street, and Brazos Streetscape Improvement & Reconstruction Projects are underway, other integral projects are languishing, including most particularly Third, Colorado, Congress (note: targeted for update, revitalization!), Guadalupe and Lavaca. All five of these underutilized streets are in some way being studied as prime transportation corridors for implementing everything from Urban Rail and a Transit Transfer Facility to bicycle boulevards and Bus Rapid Transit – Yet since 2002 there has been virtually no mention of Great Streets whatsoever (of course with the exception of, among several others, Katherine Gregor [for one example, please read her Gone and Quartered]).

This is an oversight that must be rectified before a tremendous opportunity to make Austin a much more Livable place in a relatively cost-efficient manner is lost. As such, this proposal for research funding includes the following scope of work:

  • Examining relevant pre-existing research reports (as cited above)
  • Applying the knowledge gained from these pre-existing research reports into the City of Austin’s urban context
  • Determining the economic impact of Second Street versus that of non-Great Streets
  • Generating a quantifiable number or, better, scale of numbers that will be applied to the tax-base of non-Great Streets in a “what could occur” economic development projection scenario
  • Determining the job creation impact/multiplier effect of implementing Great Downtown Streets
  • Establishing how those economic development benefits will impact the surrounding environs
  • Suggesting changes to the Great Streets Development Program’s Reimbursement Cap Criteria
  • Helping coordinate construction timelines so that Great Streets are incorporated into any and all of the potential congestion-mitigation strategies (as cited above), reducing inefficient overlaps and ensuring achievement of the most optimal results
  • Creating a Great Streets Transportation Plan that maximizes the extant street grid’s capacity in a manner that improves mobility and accessibility with a relatively minimal capital improvement outlay

In the current sociopolitical environment, endeavoring to maximize value-capture of such a vastly underutilized if not outright forgotten infrastructural resource as Downtown’s existing street grid should be considered a no-brainer must win-win situation for all involved. And, if the City of Austin does invest in this modest research proposal, it, like the Great Streets Strategy itself, will prove to have very low short-term costs that instigate many quantifiable long-term benefits – As well as those so beautifully unquantifiable:

(Addendum: Although The Placemaking Institute is on record as to the many mistakes made during the City’s campaign for Proposition 1, needless to say, thankfully it was approved by voters…The multi-modal ball has begun rolling, and from here on in its momentum must continue to be instigated. How? Again, by quantifying regional benefits, learning from past mistakes, and working to forestall the opposition’s arguments.)

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.”

Austin’s Landscape of Missed Opportunity

21 10 2010

Awhile ago, just before starting up with this blogging business, I decided to begin investigating the two basic precepts of Smart Growth, being transportation and land use. And as we should all know by now, first I focused on the former, coming to the ultimate conclusion that running rail lines “right down the middle” first is indeed the best if not only way to reach ultimate success. Also, after dabbling throughout the Texas Transportation Institute’s national databases, I determined that the time to strike for such an endeavor was 1989, which is when cities like Portland and Denver instigated their multi-modal transportation plans – Yes, right down the middle.

For the past month and a half or so I’ve been studying Austin’s land-use and transportation strategies, from 1979’s Austin Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan all the way up to today. And the reason why I haven’t been posting blogs of late is because I’ve been lost in an absolutely veritable Mobius-strip mode miasma (which has only been made worse by my reporting from the front-lines of the altogether contrived so-called Tea Party “Rebellion” [take it from me: they are comprised of unconstructive and uncivil nitwitted bullies; they comprise a 10% minority yet are certain that 85% of the American public shares their beliefs; Shakespeare: “Certitude is the last disease for old, decrepit kings”; but enough about their noisy nonsense] for The Elgin Courier. Perpetually boggling me has been the tens of millions, nay, the hundreds of millions of dollars invested into the community throughout the years for planning efforts that have essentially been all for naught.

I’ve termed it “Austin’s Landscape of Missed Opportunity.”

Yes, Austin’s Tomorrow Plan had no developer input whatsoever. But that’s interesting in and of itself, especially taking into account how the plan was not adopted as an ordinance but merely served as a planning tool to guide development. So, did it indeed ever guide development? (Sorry for the quality; these were the best I could find online.)



Here’s what, for all intents and purposes, unfettered developers thus virtually unfettered development has inflicted Austin with:

In other words, sprawl.

Many of you know Peter Park, Denver’s Planning and Community Development Director, made a recent visit to Austin. He really opened up my eyes (please see Blueprint Denver) to what the heck I’ve been researching and writing about and why as well as Austin’s reality, both now and in future. The main points I took away with me:

  • Congestion can be considered a measure of success for a locality;
  • So don’t bother with attempting to solve congestion;
  • Rather, try adding mobility choices that reshape growth patterns;
  • Identify areas of change versus areas of stability (which should be enhanced by adding connections);
  • Build on existing strengths;
  • And don’t take the path of least resistance.

Park’s message should serve as nothing but a shrill wake-up call for Austin.


In 1989 both Portland and Denver implemented light rail “right down the middle.” Portland is the exemplar of success because it embraced the land use aspects of Smart Growth almost immediately thereafter. Denver began doing so approximately 15/16 years later (please see its new, wonderfully simplistic Form-Based Zoning Code) and is now verging upon the path towards, if you will, Portland-esque success. But, if Denver had embraced land use before that, it would already be much further along by now.

Which leads us to Austin: Over the past two decades it has favored building more roads while outright scorning expanding multi-modality via light rail again and again. Yes, commuter rail was finally accepted. But the Red Line was most definitely implemented according to the path of least resistance. Rather than starting at Phase I, being right down the middle, CapMetro commenced the effort with what should have been considered for Phase V or VI. Because of this it will serve as nothing but a virtual piñata when the City of Austin starts discussing Urban Rail as a bond issue in, at the earliest, 2012 – But maybe even later than that. Due to the Red Line’s by all accounts predictably dismal performance, whenever this issue indeed gets put on the table, there is a very real likelihood that it won’t be passed. With that said, the vociferously deluded Road Lobby is already concerting itself against this year’s relatively innocuous transportation bond election.

So that’s where Austin stands on the transportation aspect of Smart Growth.

And when it comes to the land use end of things?

Austin neither knows where it stands nor even where it wants to get yet.

Yes, Imagine Austin will most likely be a huge step in that direction (but the result of this comprehensive planning effort is just under two years away). Yes, Park’s representations of Denver were inspirational. Yes, Austin should aspire to Portland’s and Denver’s Smart Growth endeavors. But Austin should not ignore the cold hard reality of its situation relative to Portland and Denver.

Again, in 1989 Portland almost simultaneously implemented non-auto transportation options right down the middle and also re-jiggered its land use. Denver implemented non-auto transportation options right down the middle in 1989 but it wasn’t until 2010 that it finalized its new land use strategy. Since Austin has heretofore done neither, it is at the very least 20 years and at the very most (depending upon whatever the hell occurs both nationally and abroad during the next two years) 50 years behind where Denver is right now in 2010. Furthermore, the cost of attaining this level will be much, much more than what Portland and Denver invested during these past 20 years, maybe even by a factor of two or three.

Yes, you may say I maybe am being a bit dismal (but, then again, I am an economist)…But, at the very least, it is inarguable that the City of Austin needs to start working really, really hard in one concerted direction if the Central Texas Region is to indeed truly Progress in every sense of that word.

For more in this series please see:

BeWear False Promises

10 08 2010

After an over two-year delay due to years of grossly self-inflicted mismanagement, all of a sudden out of the blue TxDOT somehow feels optimistic, flush with cash. And, with the help of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), they are about to resume their MoPac 1 Project. We here at The Placemaking Institute sat up, took another glance at this news then glanced at each other, together thinking another long moment before wondering amongst ourselves: “What the heck’s The Pentagon of Texas up to now?”

Right then with his ever-exquisite timing Our Most Senior Fellow, refreshed by his bout of self-imposed sequestration and rearing to go, unexpectedly bursts forth and states: “Thankfully, thankfully, I have absolutely no idea. But who better to inquire of than one directly in their back pocket?”

Ben Wear (in his Wednesday, July 7, 2010 blog): “(TxDOT) is spending $3.6 million this summer to resurface the stretch from RM 2222 to Lady Bird Lake with a special asphalt that is quieter and less slick in rainy conditions. And they will re-stripe a troublesome bridge in the northbound lanes, just north of the river, that (sic) currently has just two lanes and tends to back up. Instead, by converting current shoulders into an added lane, that bridge will now have three lanes.” TxDOT officials and thus, of course, Wear assure us that this short-term measure will improve flow northbound and “(help) traffic-choked MoPac Boulevard in Central and North Austin.”


Welcome, dear audience, to the Braess Paradox, which “states that in a network in which all the moving entities rationally seek the most efficient route, adding extra capacity can actually reduce the network’s overall efficiency.” This dynamic inverts as well. That is, reducing network capacity can actually improve the system’s effectiveness. Furthermore, Dietrich Braess also noted that “in a user-optimized network, when a new link is added, the change in equilibrium flows might result in a higher cost, implying that users were better off without that link.”

A key to this counterintuitive approach to traffic design lies in manipulating the inherent self-interest of all drivers. So, will adding a lane to the bridge ease traffic on MoPac in the short-term?

TxDOT’s MoPac 1 Engineering Schematic I

TxDOT’s MoPac 1 Engineering Schematic II

With this restriping plan, among other issues drivers entering MoPac from 6th will have to merge into that new third lane – And as we all know how Austinites do nothing but embody the Braess Paradox when it comes to properly merging, especially onto an expressway. Thus, the bottleneck TxDOT is supposedly rectifying will be dispersed into several smaller bottlenecks in those areas where merging must occur.

But that doesn’t mean something can’t or shouldn’t be done to remedy congestion. Because MoPac as well as the rest of Austin’s highways are certainly in dire over-capacity straits due to rapid population increases and a geometric increase in traffic.

Texas Transportation Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi: “During the past 25 years, Texas’ population increased 53 percent. The use of our roads grew 103 percent. The trend is continuing, with some projecting an additional 27 percent in population growth and 67 percent in road usage over the next 25 years.”

What’s TxDOT planning on doing to MoPac in the near future?

Although the transportation department will have no money to spend on new construction projects by 2012, in the next few months MoPac 1’s public involvement, preliminary engineering and environmental processes will resume. They will first complete the schematic design and the NEPA environmental process, which will be turned over to the CTRMA (at a cost of $2 million and 2 years). Then, if the NEPA process results in a “Build” alternative, the CTRMA will develop detailed plans and construct the project. What they intend to do is add a fourth lane on each side of MoPac from FM 734/Parmer Lane in far North Austin to Lady Bird Lake.

Ben Wear (ibid): “The lanes would be tolled ‘managed lanes,’ with tolls likely to vary from hour to hour based on the congestion level of the highway. During peak commuting periods the tolls would be larger and, when traffic is light, might disappear entirely or be minimal. And officials say the estimated $200 million to $220 million for the construction to follow is, if not exactly in the bank waiting, highly likely to be available. Local transportation officials have already set aside $70 million of $543 million promised to TxDOT’s Austin district for new construction over the next 10 years. The rest of the money would be borrowed and paid back from tolls which, because MoPac has so much traffic, would be sufficient to pay back debt for more than 60 percent of the construction tab, as well as later operations costs.”

So, while TxDOT officials emphasize that “the MoPac 1 project will not consider adding tolls to existing lanes,” they will find loopholes to do so by creating new lanes. In this instance they are essentially going to be charging people to drive on the median.

But what’s more disturbing is that most of the money will be borrowed and paid back from estimated future toll road revenues – Especially seeing how even “Standard & Poor’s experience indicates that optimism bias is a consistent trend in toll-road traffic forecasting.  Bondholders and lenders should, therefore, view these forecasts with some degree of caution as they attempt to identify the inherent risks that these forecasts pose for credit quality.”

This at a time when TxDOT forecasts it has only 30% of the funds needed to make the improvements required to meet future travel demand?

This at a time when more than 40% of TxDOT’s budget (more than twice what the agency receives in state gas tax revenue) goes to maintenance?

This at a time when they are using a budgetary shell game (Chairman John Carona told the Texas Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee last fall: “This is wrong. It smacks of trickery.”) to increase funding for roads by tapping into money dedicated to a future rail light-rail system?

All this at a time when, according to the Office of Susan Combs, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, “Before 2002, TxDOT’s road projects were funded entirely with state and federal revenues. Since then, however, the agency has supplemented these allocations with private partners and borrowed funds generated by various bond issues. TxDOT must service this existing debt before spending any funds on new projects.”

Ah, the world of TxDOT, where everything’s lopsided and flipped upside down. Our Most Senior Fellow wishes he could get away with running his business this way. Because, by behaving in such a manner, TxDOT’s merely continuing merrily skipping along the “darkside of expediency” path, maximizing short-term benefits and incurring long-term socio-economic cost along the way.

And We here at The Placemaking Institute agree with Statesman reader Owen Pelligrin in that “the solution isn’t to try and make more space for cars. The solution is better public transportation that goes from where people live to where people work. So long as people are encouraged to drive themselves everywhere, there will be traffic problems in Austin.”

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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