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But the City diverted the funding to Lamar and, by the time the City’s attention went back to The Drag, that permit was out of date.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

Occupy Central Texas; Your Value

13 02 2012

Quick Review: The overriding value of economic growth is the foundation of America’s whole socio-political ideology; if there is anything approaching dogma in our national belief system, it is the idea that economic growth is the key to solving all problems. Every municipality (ostensibly, of course) forms and functions to provide infrastructural investments and thus increase said municipality’s exchange value. Elected officials (at least those who want to be reelected) endeavor to (again, ostensibly) do what’s good for the tax base such that use value and/or non-use value is also increased so that their constituents won’t up and move elsewhere. According to Logan and Molotch, “all capitalist places are the creations of activists who push hard to alter how markets function, how prices are set, and how lives are affected,” and campaign contributions by lobbyists make sure the governmental entity that oversees their activity and/or industry understands “oversight” means “failure to notice” financial shenanigans that are not truly in the public’s best interest. Their endeavor is expedited by the fact that, as The 14th Amendment dictates, corporations, in and of themselves? Are in fact considered to be inviduals and the amount of money you have? Dictates the amount of votes you have. Furthermore, by establishing a system of incentives and subsidies, markets are guaranteeing that the rest of society cannot be relied upon to safeguard a certain individual’s welfare, thus establishing an incentive to pursue so-called “individual” interest at the expense of the Greater Good.

In other words, The Man’s, if you will, GDP-based System (wherein even oil spills can be considered economic benefits!) systematically establishes divergences between individual and societal well-being. How so? According to the fundamental economic maxim in effect from the Enlightenment up to right now, the only object an individual should pursue is his or her very own pleasure and that individuals are autonomous entities except at those points at which they come together for a financial exchange. If you take into consideration the happiness of others, it is only to keep your own happiness from being interfered with by the sanctions of society. By solely pursuing your own pleasure, it is considered that you are adding to the general happiness of society and, by pursuing this, you are once again adding to your own pleasure. Following this rationale, a motive is only considered to be “good” if it brings happiness to the person directly involved. Compounding the ramifications of this, alas, individual consumers have been increasingly essentially, oh I don’t, Walmart-ized from birth to care about Prices and Exchange Value rather than Costs and the Paradox of Value.

The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”

A zero-sum system predicated on human selfishness such as this not only recognizes but encourages a selfish element in human nature and, as we are all aware by now, there are those who have embraced the exploitation sanctified by the aforementioned marriage of so-called laissez faire economics and utilitarian pleasure principles. They have helped fray the fabric of our society, which of course we as individuals comprise. And there may be no better example of the consequences of their mentality than the Central Texas Region’s disarrayed and unaligned land-use and transportation systems. Because, despite all the facts presented in our previous Occupy Central Texas Land-use and Transportation essays?

Certain individuals hereabouts, they continue persisting believing we, as a regional society, must concentrate solely upon constructing more and more suburban subdivisions connected by highways, each longer and larger than the last, sprawling us farther and farther away from ourselves and our urban cores, exacerbating our extreme auto-centricity in the process. Even as the facts change their opinions remain the same. And they have collectivized themselves into a cranky self-interested political action faction in order to better convince other individuals into embracing unsustainable land-use sprawling willy-nilly throughout our region despite their mentality’s most obviously odious ramifications not only to general society but each of us as individually individual self-interested individuals. How do they do so?

They divert arguments by perpetuating the most illogical of fallacies and operating on the assumption that, if they say it often enough, loud enough, and long enough people will believe them. Period. Arguments like theirs constitute nothing less than an attack on free enterprise in order to maximize their own bank accounts and whatever reputational status they believe they may gain in our community. Period. A lie, as they say, is not in the words, or lack of words; it’s in the intention of the deceiver. Period. With that being said, here are some more facts:

The Rigged Market of Fossil Fuels

  • A conservative study from the Environmental Law Institute found that from 2002-2008, oil companies received $72 billion of taxpayer’s hard-earned cash. Another report from Management Information Systems, Inc found that between 1950 and 2010, $594 billion was spent directly subsidizing fossil fuels — and the lion’s share of that, almost two-thirds, went to the oil industry.
  • Mining, transporting, and burning oil, gas, and coal also inflicts major damage to the environment and public health — and we pick up the tab. A 2009 report from the National Research Council showed that fossil fuels impose $120 billion of annual costs on the public every year. Air pollution takes a massive toll on public health — it causes respiratory problems, widespread illness and death, and leads to a huge number of missed work days.

Ben Bernanke: “Recent declines in housing wealth may be reducing consumer spending between $200 billion and $375 billion per year. That reduction corresponds to lower living standards for many Americans. Low or negative equity creates additional problems for households…Homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages cannot tap home equity to pay for emergency health expenses or their children’s college educations.”

Peak Oil

Neal Pierce: “Research shows that for every dollar the average American family has to spend, 52 cents is taken up right away for housing and transportation. That means everything else gets squeezed, sometimes dangerously. And not the least, such essentials as food and clothing.”

Income Inequality in America

According to this here report, 43 percent of households in America – some 127.5 million people – are liquid-asset poor. If one of these households experiences a sudden loss of income, caused, for example, by a layoff or a medical emergency, it will fall below the poverty line within three months.

The Great Carbon Bubble

  • Most of the media pays remarkably little attention to what’s happening. Coverage of global warming has dipped 40 percent over the last two years. When, say, there’s a rare outbreak of January tornadoes, TV anchors politely discuss “extreme weather,” but climate change is the disaster that dare not speak its name.
  • And when they do break their silence, some of our elite organs are happy to indulge in outright denial. Last month, for instance, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by “16 scientists and engineers” headlined “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.” The article was easily debunked.
  • If we spew 565 gigatons more carbon into the atmosphere, we’ll quite possibly go right past that reddest of red lines. But the oil companies, private and state-owned, have current reserves on the books equivalent to 2,795 gigatons — five times more than we can ever safely burn.
  • Put another way, in ecological terms it would be extremely prudent to write off $20 trillion worth of those reserves. In economic terms, of course, it would be a disaster, first and foremost for shareholders and executives of companies like ExxonMobil.
  • So instead, we simply charge ahead. To take just one example, last month the boss of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Thomas Donohue, called for burning all the country’s newly discovered coal, gas, and oil — believed to be 1,800 gigatons worth of carbon from our nation alone.

In other words, one of the more extreme examples of the subsidized cost of uncontrolled markets is the fossil fuel industry. Not content to rake in mountains more governmental incentives and tax breaks than anybody else does, oil-based corporations refuse to pay the full costs of their actions then stick the public with the tab – And that means me and you, dear reader. Including the costs in the price will show how costly fossil fuels really are. What price do you put on global warming? Will you add the cost of the homes destroyed in Bastrop? Or the cost of crop failure in Texas from the drought? How much will it cost to relocate Galveston when the sea level gets too high? What about the health costs related to congestion? If we live in a free market, why are there subsidies for such an overwhelmingly profitable industry anyways? If something’s so good for us, why do they see fit to grant incentives to consume it anyways? Don’t we need a massive shift from the last decade’s growth model, based as it was on a housing bubble, credit-fueled consumption and a deregulated financial industry, to one that’s more positive-sum/win-win for all involved? Or are we still willing to sacrifice another and yet another generation upon future generations even when staring at the End Game of this un-sustainably contrived, heavily subsidized contrivance our society calls “sprawl?” Shouldn’t we all be hoping for a brighter future? Or is it going to continue being more like I‘ve got mine and I’m damn sure you ain’t gonna get any?

I myself believe equity is the superior growth model because, the more we invest both in ourselves and each other, the better off we as a society will be. Momentum is building toward creating a network of connected, convenient transit options linking together appropriately dense housing cores located throughout our region. Success will mean a huge and sustained injection of vitality to downtowns and hundreds of thousands of residents for whom alternatives to personal vehicle ownership are limited. Success will promote health, equity and opportunity. It will mean a higher quality of life by connecting people to jobs, housing, neighborhoods and marketplaces.

By dispersing housing and economic activity willy-nilly across our region and gutting our urban centers that once served as major engines; by putting access to jobs and, say, affordable housing out of reach for those with limited resources; by leaving us highly dependent on fossil fuels and their resulting economic, environmental and health impacts; and by leaving us hostage to fluctuations in fuel prices, our historic transportation and land-use policies have contributed to many of the serious challenges our Greater Austin Metropolitan Region faces today. They are failing the individuals who rely on them. Transformative change to those policies will play a major role in building a prosperous, sustainable and equitable society for ourselves as well as future generations.


After coming to an understanding of the rationality that has underpinned America’s tremendously unsustainably ravening economic growth model over these past few decades, it should be no surprise that there is a crisis looming. Distressing signs of desertification and environmental and social breakdown as a consequence of sprawl are unfortunate realities in our region today. And these consequences may, in fact, be quantifiable; I think now may be as good a time as any to start trying:

While over the past 50 years prices for pretty much everything across the board have increased even after being adjusted for inflation, the price of gasoline, which is needless to say an increasingly finite product that consequently should be becoming increasingly costlier has, in fact, been kept artificially devalued by what can only be termed a high rate of subsidization.

Indur Goklany (US Department of the Interior): “This figure shows that…relative to 1978, the price of regular gasoline has increased by 260 percent in nominal terms and 47 percent in real terms. However the price-to-income ratio has declined by 17 percent, i.e., it is more affordable today.” “If we look at the average annual Inflation Adjusted Gasoline Prices (from 1958 to 2009)…the long term average price is $2.37.”

Gregg Laskoski (senior petroleum analyst at “On Dec. 31, 2008, average gas prices were around $1.61 per gallon. On the same date in 2009, they were up to $2.64. Flash forward to last month, and prices hit $3.25 going into 2012. On average, the spread between prices from Dec. 31 to peak are around 93 cents, he says. Adding that to $1.61 per gallon might not feel too bad to consumers, but when tacking it on to $3.25, consumers can start to feel squeezed.”

Definition of True Cost Economics

According to the basic Law of Supply and Demand and consensus estimates, regarding commodities there are divergences between societal expectations and reality, which essentially means that, the longer we continue our tremendous subsidization of gas, the greater the subsequent negative impact will be. Let’s now take a look at the True Opportunity Cost of gasoline (via Emily Messner): “Estimates on the ‘true’ or ‘real’ cost of gasoline vary by study and by year — I’ve seen numbers ranging from $5 per gallon to $10 per gallon to $14 per gallon and higher. Over at the liberal opinion site AlterNet, Jason Mark notes that it is a conservative think tank whose research put real gas prices above $5.”

Clifford W. Cobb: “There are essentially two types of subsidies to driving: (1) private services that are paid for with public funds, and (2) social costs that do not involve and exchange of money. A private cost is one that involves only those directly involved in a transaction, such as the costs of operating a vehicle or access to roads, while social costs include the costs of pollution and congestion…(The basic finding) is that the social costs of driving amount to at least $184 billion per year – not including the $50 to $100 billion subsidy in free parking and or the cross-subsidy caused by congestion.”

Now, taking all that into consideration, let’s just try applying the inflation adjusted long-term average cost of $2.37 as well as the various true costs of gasoline and perform a quick regression analysis on the Texas Transportation Institute’s national congestion costs (439 area average)  for wasted gasoline:

Now let’s see what happens when we apply those figures just to the Greater Austin Metropolitan Region:

To me, these graphs speak for themselves: “The current state of our collective society is not much of a recommendation for following that much-traveled path of subsidizing with such obscene sums for such negative returns – Especially when considering said subsidies are intended solely to manufacture demand. We can and must learn from our historical experience in order to overcome our transportation/land-use obstacles and flourish, and the individual citizen must be brought to the fore in the debate over sprawl.” And, at this point, arguing ourselves blue in the face about such things as which mode of transportation is better at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, should we have a gas-based tax or a VMT-based tax or congestion pricing or even free public transit for all may be becoming moot. Much sooner rather than later we the people are going to have no choice but more compact development more efficiently served by a transportation system that provides us with more options; the longer we wait endeavoring to do so, the greater the eventual cost to us as individuals, and the society we comprise as individuals, will be. And now here is where we maybe can?

Start definining ourselves.

About four or so years ago, the very first thing I wrote after getting interested in studying myself up on transportation and land-use was that I was bringing several preconceived notions to the table, among them being: that transportation systems and land use patterns should be inextricably entwined if they are to maximize performance; that, especially after World War II, at the very least misguided, often bigoted government highway and lending policies subsidized suburbs at the expense of cities by propagating myths about how suburbs are where one can best manifest their destiny; that throughout America our arterials are clogging, our downtowns are for all intents and purposes decaying, and we as a society are choking and congesting, figuratively and literally – especially here in Central Texas; that something must be done about something if this civilization that we call America can flourish once again instead of being bloviated beyond such abject mediocrity; and that, as the facts change, my mind changes.

So I started to inform myself about the topic, in the process discovering such entities as the Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Wendell Cox’ The Public Purpose who are of the absolutely positively certain opinion that we should be driving more; that increasing urban density will only increase the amount of vehicle miles driven per capita; that Smart Growth, not financial shenanigans driven by the outright avaricious pecuniary greed of those nattering Babbitts (nabobs who, deregulated by Reagan, can and will do pretty much anything to anyone in order to fulfill their American Dream® of forever living beyond the business cycle), is to blame for the most recent market failure; and that we as a society, at this moment in our civilization’s epoch, must now solely focus upon building more and more highways, each bigger than the last one, in order to relieve congestion, mitigate smog and, thus, provide an anecdote to a lot of our societal illth.

“Huh?” I asked of myself, “Wait a second, come on, those people can’t be right. Can they? Or is it like what Doris Lessing said when she observed that ‘when principles are invoked, common sense goes out the window?’”(“Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on,” in an aside Mark Twain then whispered in my ear, “Or by imbeciles who really mean it.”) My interest thusly piqued I furthered my research, wherein I learned that pro-road and anti-choice mentalities such as those cited above largely rely upon the statistical universe of the Texas Transportation Institute in order to perpetuate their arguments. So, in order to answer my own questions and satisfy my own curiosity, I began delving forthwith and, today, you have been reading the ultimate results, all of which can summarized by one question:

Should the so-called “basic God-given Americanized right to have the biggest lawn and drive the biggest vehicle one can afford on an increasingly extensive roadway system” myth that has been inculcated into and perpetuated by us virtually from birth, a myth that only benefits a few at the expense of many, supersede our basic human right to live our lives in a healthy manner? And then just the other day I came across the following passage:

Alex Krieger: “The benefits of sprawl—for example, more housing for less cost with higher eventual appreciation—still tend to accrue to Americans individually, while sprawl’s cost in infrastructure building, energy generation, pollution mitigation, tends to be borne by society overall. Understanding this imbalance is essential, and seeking ways to adjust to whom and how the costs and benefits of sprawl accrue remains the real challenge. Yes, continuing to find new arguments against sprawl is valuable, but the campaign to create a more diverse, rewarding, and environmentally sound urban future will ultimately depend on Americans finding ways to calibrate short-term self-interest with long-term social value.”

Which got me to thinking about what/why I’ve been studying these issues these past four years as well as about where do I, as an individual, and we, as a society, go from here. After some more thought, I realized that I’ve come across a handful of figures and resources that are relevant to where we are now, in our present discussion.

TTI’s Mobility Data for Austin Texas

AAA’s How much does it cost to drive?

Edmunds’ Vehicle Miles per Gallon database

US Department of Energy’s Gasoline Price database

The True Cost of Gas (video)

Hirsch Report

The Public Health Costs of Traffic Congestion

Natural Resources Defense Council’s Why Worry About a Pound of Carbon Dioxide?

How to turn 6 pounds of gasoline into 20 pounds of carbon dioxide

Cost per ton of Carbon Dioxide

Maryland’s Genuine Progress Indicator

And then I got to thinking if the information above can somehow be intertwined such that they become even more relevant. So I’ve been going through quite a few online calculators (including Measuring Worth, Individual Emissions Calculator, Carbon Footprint Calculator, and The Real Costs of Car Ownership Calculator). My underlying intent was to see if I could find a path to calculate a link between our own personal land-use choices and the consequent transportation ramifications; and my overriding goal was to see how us individuals can help densify our region while also densifying our very own wallets in the process. By this I mean that, if you the individual moves 10 miles closer from where you presently live to where you spend most of your time, you will save yourself W amount of time in traffic and X gallons of gas, which would save you Y dollars, all while benefiting the environment Z greenhouse gas emissions – Thus hopefully helping turn this zero-sum world we live in today into one that’s more positive-sum, wherein everyone benefits.

Next time we meet we’ll see what I’ve come up with.

Occupy Central Texas; Transportation

31 01 2012

As we discussed in our previous essay, urbanity is nothing but an ongoing and dynamic social experiment. All the diffuse land-use policies found throughout our Greater Austin Metropolitan Region have led to our currently disarrayed state and, although this economic inefficiency is not much of a recommendation for following that much-traveled path of subsidizing with such obscene sums for such, at the very best, negligible economic returns? And although it will take years to repair the damage done by such atomistic development strategies? And although I’ve been saying this over and over again over the past four years such that I feel like I’ve been banging my head insensate against a concrete wall the whole time? And although because of this my Wit tank is running on empty except for drollery’s vaguest fumes?

There are those who continue to assert that we should only continue subsidizing suburban sprawl. Alas, their sophisticatedly hypocritical rhetoric, which obfuscates our historical collective experience and presents obstacles that keep us individuals from progressing when Progress is the thing that’s supposed to make America so great, pervades other discussions. In this here essay we’ll be seeing how their argument extrapolates to transportation policy. One thing I’ve always held to be true:

Systems tend to perform better when they are not dependent upon one option but an array of options. This is because, if one of those options fails, the other options can make up for that failure. Another thing I believe true is that our transportation systems are the pulmonaries through which any region breathes while the urban core 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, etcetera and so forth and so on, until soon the whole regional system begins spiraling downwards toward inevitable collapse. Alas, the transportation system about 97% of us living here in Central Texas must use provides only one option, being highways. And it shall be shown below that our sole reliance on this transportation mode is stressing our society to a grave extent and that, to rectify this, we must begin maximizing choice – Which is what our purported American Dream® is supposed to be all about, isn’t it?

The root of our current situation can more or less be found way back in 1949, when President Harry Truman convinced Congress to break with the past and inject the federal government into the process of developing cities and financing housing. This Federal Housing Act expanded the availability of federal insurance for home mortgages, igniting the growth of new suburbs farther and farther from our urban cores. Together with the Federal Aid Highway Act (1956), the 1949 law started what we now describe as “suburban sprawl.” The two initiatives put Americans on the path of long commutes, heavy traffic, air pollution, water shortages, and a long-term increase in carbon dioxide emissions, all of which has always been heavily subsidized (building schools on the fringe, laying sewer and water lines to sprawling development, providing emergency services to the fringe and, of course, making direct pay-outs to developers; one case in point). Since the early 1970s, which is when the U.S. production of oil peaked, sprawl has only been increasingly unsustainably contrived and subsidized, to such an extent we as a society can no longer afford to behave like this anymore – Just look at the costs we’ve been accruing in Iraq and Afghanistan over our ravening thirst-driving need for maintaining our oil supply! One should consider that veritable payment in blood nothing but an American-lifestyle subsidy, no?

Over these decades, states had been demanding funding flexibility from the federal government and, with the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) and subsequent federal transportation reauthorization laws, they finally got it. Federal transportation investment programs now provide states a great opportunity to use funds for non-highway projects and help improve the relationship between transportation projects and land-use. In 2009, via the Federal Surface Transportation Program, the U.S. House of Representatives began introducing more ways in which they believe this situation can be rectified. It contains initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, often by seeking to encourage compact development, and sustainable modes of transportation is defined as public transit, walking and bicycling. Why does it see fit to do so?

Congress finds the following (July 21, 2011)

  • Each year, Americans spend 4.2 billion hours in traffic congestion, burning 2.9 billion gallons of fuel.
  • Wasted time and fuel result in a $78 billion annual congestion tax, creating a financial drain on individual passengers and the economy as a whole.
  • Transportation costs account for approximately 18 percent of an average household’s expenditures.
  • Public transit, walking, and cycling are sustainable modes of transportation that result in 5.6 billion gallons of fuel savings and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 49 million metric tons each year.
  • Sustainable modes of transportation can provide affordable transportation choices and have the ability to reduce the transportation cost burden.
  • Cyclists and pedestrians are intended users of the surface transportation system, except where prohibited by law; and it is the policy of the Federal Government to encourage maximum accessibility and safety of the surface transportation system for cyclists and pedestrians as intended users when designing and constructing surface transportation facilities.
  • In order to provide access to sustainable modes of transportation, land use and planning decisions must include considerations about transportation options.
  • A modally balanced surface transportation system will benefit all users through improved accessibility, mobility, and quality of life.
  • Increasing the availability and use of sustainable modes of transportation and the development of livable communities are national priorities.

But, of course and as always, there are those who are none too happy about all of the above. They believe voicing such an opinion is irrational, amounting to the worst kind of ideology, and that the wording betrays an agenda more concerned with forcing people to accept the favored (and “anti-suburban”) lifestyles that an “urban elite” has long sought to impose on others than it is to reduce such “hare-brained” and “inconsequential” things as, say, greenhouse gases.

Wendell Cox: “It appears that reducing vehicle miles would not produce a similar reduction in greenhouse gases from cars…It is precisely more intense traffic congestion that we can expect if federal laws and policies should force most development into present urban footprints…Policies aimed at reducing driving could damage the economy…(and) policies which seek to reduce V(ehicle)M(iles)T(raveled) may hinder economic growth without reducing emissions.”

Texas Public Policy Foundation: “Densifying and centralizing, so-called ‘smart growth,’ or directed growth strategies will, if successful, worsen traffic congestion and air pollution.”

To summarize, folks like those I’ve just cited believe: one, we as a society should be driving more; two, increasing urban density will only increase the amount of vehicle miles driven per capita; three, that the fundamental problem with transit is that it is an illusion bereft of reason and that nothing can be done to provide genuine transit choice; four, we should not take advantage of fallow/underused infrastructure like railways to improve our transportation systems; and thus, finally, our multi-modality should solely be confined to building more and more auto-centric roadways, tollroads and flyovers, each bigger than the last one, in order to relieve congestion and mitigate smog.


I myself am in the unanimous opinion that they are making ingeniously stupendously counterintuitive conclusions; nor am I alone:

The Texas Transportation Institute

  • Providing more options for how a trip is made, the time of travel and the way that transportation service is paid for may be a useful mobility improvement framework for urban areas. For many trips and in many cities, the alternatives for a peak period trip are to travel earlier or later, avoid the trip or travel in congestion. Given the range of choices that Americans enjoy in many other aspects of daily life, these are relatively few and not entirely satisfying options;
  • In growing areas adding capacity of all types is essential to handle the growing demand and avoid rapidly rising congestion;
  • Transit, like ridesharing, park-and-ride lots and high-occupancy vehicle lanes, typically have a greater effect on the congestion statistics in a corridor, rather than across a region. Transit and these other elements “compete” very well with the single-occupant vehicle in serving dense activity centers and congested travel corridors;

Austin’s Chamber of Commerce’s Take on Traffic

  • Many of the roads we drive on every day are between 40 and 70 years old. That’s why more than 40% of TxDOT’s budget (twice what the agency receives in state gas tax revenue) goes to maintenance. And much of the money that goes to “building” roads actually goes to rebuilding existing roads and bridges;
  • There are more than $4.5 billion in road and transit projects waiting to happen in Central Texas for lack of resources;
  • The gap between what Central Texas has to spend and the minimum cost of the new highways and transit systems it needs is nearly $2.7 billion;
  • To do this with fuel taxes alone would require raising (it) to between $1.20 and $1.77 a gallon – on top of the price of gas itself;
  • To do this by sales tax alone means adding between $3.50 and $5.62 to every $100 spent;
  • To do this by property taxes alone means adding between $1260 and $2000 a year to the current tax bill for a $200,000 home.

And so, as you can see, the expense to build roads and utilities farther and farther from our urban cores has created hidden costs that have been driven to unsustainable levels as well as creating an imbalance in who pays for suburban sprawl. It is urgent that we understand the nature of our broken regional system and develop solutions to fix it.

Mike Krusee (former chairman of the Texas House of Representatives Transportation Committee [R; Williamson County]): “On average in Texas, it costs the state 20-30 cents per person per mile to build and maintain a road to the suburbs, yet drivers only pay on average 2-3 cents per mile through the gas tax and various vehicle fees…City dwellers have subsidized the land purchases and the development costs out in the suburbs…What’s more, the gas tax is a huge transfer of wealth from the cities to the suburbs to build these rings…We’ve hit the wall of unsustainability on how we finance the transportation system…What we found was that no road that we built in Texas paid for

“ None.”

You ask: “But what about public-private partnerships? Don’t they provide some financial relief?”

Eric Dexheimer: “(TxDOT) has embraced outsourcing more than any other state agency, putting almost three of every four dollars it spends in the pockets of private companies…A basic tenet of outsourcing is that private-sector employees work more cheaply and efficiently. (But in) an internal audit, in-house work was cheaper than hiring out. Take potholes: According to the report, the nearly 13,800 potholes that TxDOT employees filled during the past fiscal year cost an average of $23 each to repair. The 2,000 potholes repaired by private contractors, meanwhile, cost an average of $129 each…The report also shows that TxDOT spent about $17 million sealing cracks on state roadways last year. When state employees did the work — on about 8,000 linear miles – it cost $327 per mile. Private contractors repaired about 17,000 linear miles at a cost of $812 per mile – more than double the state’s cost.”

Zane Webb (director of the department’s maintenance division): “Whether we contract out is not something we decide…Sometimes, it’s not always about saving money. It can be about politics.”

You ask: “But what about toll roads? Don’t they pay for themselves?

Ray Wilkerson (chairman of Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority): “The best options to fund (transportation) improvements (are) innovative tools such as toll revenue bonds and public-private partnerships. Given that fact, public officials decided to create the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, and that decision is already paying off in a big way…In a region as prosperous as Central Texas, we will continue to face many challenges when it comes to ensuring greater mobility. But, by empowering our community and its leaders with new funding tools, we are taking significant steps to relieve today’s congestion while preparing ourselves for the new residents and economic growth that lie ahead.” However? Based on recent returns on investment? Toll roads?

Don’t pay for themselves

Ben Wear: “Tolls and other revenue have fallen more than $100 million short of covering debt and operating costs of the state’s three-road Central Texas Turnpike System since the highways opened about four years ago. Texas Department of Transportation subsidies almost 70 percent more than originally predicted have made up the difference. Those subsidies, covered primarily by state gasoline taxes that otherwise would be available for other road spending, should average about $38 million a year over the next decade and total about $750 million by 2042, according to TxDOT documents.”

Jolanda Prozzi (from a report sponsored by TxDOT’s Research and Technology Implementation Office): “Reliable T&R forecasts are critical to the success of toll proposals. However, a number of studies by the bond rating agencies—specifically Standard & Poor’s (S&P)—have shown that a majority of toll roads failed to meet revenue expectations in their first full year of operation. These studies alluded to the existence of an optimism bias in T&R forecasts, with an over-estimation of traffic by 20-30 percent in the first five years of operation. This uncertainty contributes to increased risks about the feasibility of toll roads, requirements for escrow accounts of up to 30 percent of the amount borrowed, and thus high interest payments (and ultimately higher costs to the users) to compensate investors for higher risks.”

In other words, the facts regarding concentrating our individual and societal energies solely upon building roadways to alleviate congestion have only been made even bleaker. It is extremely subsidized and neither cost effective nor sustainable. And now is when arrive at the point where?

Light Rail

What the City of Austin’s terming “urban rail,” aka that big ole elephant that’s been in our closet, enters our discussion. Needless to say, while it may not solve all of our traffic and land-use problems, at the very least it must be a part of the solution.

JIM SKAGGS: “These are 10 significant reasons to reject the City’s Light Rail (Urban Rail) at any time (among them being:) Transit does not generally increase overall development and tax base…Public transit systems degrade average mobility by reducing most rider’s options and opportunities, resulting in lesser quality of life…(And) every community has a limited amount of taxes/fees available from citizens and the wasteful spending on ineffective transit deprives the community of higher priority needs and often results in higher taxes/fees which reduce affordability and quality of life.”

Randal O’Toole (a senior fellow at the Cato institute): “Light Rail isn’t the track to the future.”

(A pretty bang-up article was published by Lee Nichols the Austin Chronicle a few months ago; it’s well worth referencing and, if you do, and since it already so eloquently relays what I would like to write, you’ll see I’ll be leaning quite heavily upon it for the remainder of this essay.)

Nichols: “To O’Toole, ‘Rail is just an obsolete form of travel. We’ve got streets that go everywhere. Why not use those streets? We have to spend a huge amount of money building a rail line, and generally rail lines cost far more than building highways and carry far fewer people.’

“But new highways aren’t really an option for the corridors under discussion here. In fact, the city-commissioned Central Austin Transit Study that outlines the need for this project states, ‘A Ring of Constraint, defined by severe congestion points surrounding Central Austin, restricts access to the core of the region. Yet, there’s no room to expand roads, let alone construct new ones.’

“Still doesn’t matter, O’Toole says. ‘Building a new road isn’t the only alternative to a rail line. The real problem with rail lines is they’re expensive and inflexible. There are so many alternatives’ (like Bus Rapid Transit).”

Robert Spillar (director of Austin’s Transportation Department): “We have to look at ways to truly expand the capacity of those roadways. We can do that with urban rail much better than we can with buses…A lot of rail pundits always want to argue (about) the grand scale of roads versus rail, as opposed to looking at the specific corridor.”

Critics of such investments?

Todd Litman (Victoria Transport Policy Institute): “(They) generally assume the primary transit planning goal is cost minimization, resulting in lower quality service that attracts few discretionary travelers and so does little to reduce traffic problems. Advocates generally assume that the primary planning goal is service quality maximization, and therefore ridership and total benefits, even if this requires higher initial investment and policy changes. Decision-makers must determine whether the additional benefits are worth the additional costs, and whether they can implement the policy changes needed to maximize benefits.”

Lee Leffingwell (Mayor of the City of Austin): “I would argue that in the long run, it’s cheaper to do rail. Rail, being a permanent route, not easily altered, actually serves as a development incentive. When development occurs around rail stations and rail lines, it increases property values. So in the aggregate, the city, the county, all the taxing entities make more money. I think it’s fairly well established that bus lines do not do that… not to the extent, certainly, that rail systems do. A lot of people think maybe rail could pay for itself, just by tax-increment financing along the route.”

TTI’s Jeffrey Arndt (from a report sponsored by TxDOT’s Research and Technology Implementation Office): “While transportation impacts are often masked by heavy growth in corridor traffic and latent travel demand, modeling enables measuring the real transportation impacts of rail projects. Rail transit is both safe and environmentally friendly. Rail systems expand mobility and reduce household investment in transportation. However, as regions implement rail systems, they must take care to consider the full range of rider impacts so that environmental justice issues do not emerge. The largest body of research relates to the economic impact of rail. These impacts are strongest in station areas, as access to rail increases property value on nearby property.”

Litman: “High quality rail transit is more than just a type of vehicle; it is an integrated system that includes relatively fast and frequent transit service on major corridors with comfortable and attractive vehicles and stations, transit-oriented development around station areas with good walking and cycling access, efficient bus feeder service, and various support policies such as integrated fares and efficient parking management.”

Nichols: “In other words – regardless of what system is implemented, if it isn’t done right as part of a larger package of policy changes, it will fail. The problem, says Litman, is that O’Toole and his allies tar all rail, good and bad, with the same brush, ignoring or misrepresenting examples where rail has attracted good ridership and development.” (Thanks, Mr. Nichols!)

At this point, arguing ourselves blue in the face about such things as which mode of transportation is better has become moot. We are very quickly nearing if not already beyond the point where all those battles being waged may amount to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs in order to keep this ship of ours from sinking. Much sooner rather than later we the people are going to have no choice but more compact development more efficiently served by a transportation system that provides us with more options; the longer we wait endeavoring to do so, the greater the eventual cost will be. To conclude, there are all sorts of special interest groups out there that are working against you the individual’s best interests. A way needs to be found that addresses how the costs and benefits of development can be re-distributed, a way that enables us individuals to weigh our short-term self-interest with long-term social value so that we, as individuals, and we, as a regional society comprised of us individuals, can actually begin maximizing our own benefits rather than somebody else’s.

As you’ll see, in our third and final section of this Occupy Central theme, we’ll be introducing one way we may begin doing so.

Occupy Central Texas; Land-use

24 01 2012

On the morning of Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011, while getting caught up with yesterday’s news over coffee, minding my own business and bothering nobody, an opinion piece by Ed Wendler came across my attention. (To preface, if you don’t already know by now he’s a real estate developer from hereabouts infamous for his hackneyed espousements of all things sprawl and knee-jerk arguments against most everything about and of Downtown, especially density and rail.) This missive of his in question was entitled Count on higher living costs in New Austin and, pretty much knowing the basic gist of what was in store for me? I rolled my eyes, yawned, clicked the link and began reading, during which I yawned and rolled my eyes some more and immediately after which I once again rolled my eyes and yawned before embarking upon the rest of my life, much like a duck does whenever water rolls off its behind.

But I couldn’t escape

For over the next week or so, his opinion continued to haunt me via various RSS feeds and e-mailing list circulations and whatnot – Such that I actually found myself saving the link! And even occasionally referencing it! Until just the other day? Amidst theretofore polite conversation somebody once again brought it up, ultimately finally compelling this here blog posting. Now, since the only problem I’m having is where to begin, there’s so much nonsense involved, I’ll start at the beginning: Prior to typing his whatever you’d like to call it, Wendler had just recently read a favorite work of mine, “Urban Fortunes” by John Logan and Harvey Molotch.

“It’s a progressive, almost radical take on the economics of municipal growth (emphasis mine), and it argues that cities are structured to promote increases in rents and property values, most times decreasing existing residents’ enjoyment of their homes and lives and displacing those who can’t pay,” Wendler ably summarizes for us, “The authors distinguish between ‘exchange value’ and ‘use value.’ ‘Exchange value’ is their broad term for the economic value of land and buildings. The general theory is that the higher the total rent, which includes mortgage payments (emphasis mine), the higher the property value. Increasing value can be accomplished by adding units, increasing rent per unit, or a combination of the two. Cities increase exchange value by investing in infrastructure to allow more intense land use, zoning land for more units, allowing taller buildings, granting variances to rules or changing land-use patterns. ‘Use value’ is the personal satisfaction we get from (our homes and where we live).”

I continue developing my razor-sharp discussion

Right now I must digress in order to point out “sophisticated” is a Greek-derived word that means deceptively attractive. When used as a rhetorical basis, the word transforms into “sophistry,” i.e., subtly deceptive reasoning or deceitful argumentation apparently plausible in form but actually invalid. A person who employs such a rhetorical ploy is what’s called a “Sophist.” Why, you ask, am I mentioning this?

Here Wendler is providing us with a wonderful example of sophistry because, while correct in his summation, he only proceeds to apply Logan and Molotch’s rationale to Austin’s urban core. When, in fact? It can/should/must be applied to each and every municipality that, together, comprise the Greater Austin Metropolitan Region. I mean, gee whizz, Wendler, isn’t the overriding value of economic growth the foundation of America’s whole socio-political ideology? (To answer my own question: If there is anything approaching dogma in our national belief system, it is the idea that economic growth is the key to solving all problems.) I mean, gee whizz, Wendler, don’t all municipalities form and function to provide infrastructural investments and thus increase said municipality’s exchange value? With elected officials (at least those who want to be reelected) doing what’s good for the tax base such that use value is also increased so that their constituents won’t up and move elsewhere?

Logan and Molotch: “All (emphasis mine) capitalist places are the creations of activists who push hard to alter how markets function, how prices are set, and how lives are affected.” (To generalize, markets therefore systematically establish divergences between individual and societal well-being; they then establish an incentive to pursue individual interest at the expense of social interest because they guarantee that the rest of society cannot be relied upon to safeguard one’s individual welfare; and, therefore, each individual person comprises their own special interest group, which then joins another compatible individual’s special interest group, etcetera and so forth.) Also, aren’t individuals from outside Austin’s urban core, as speculative investors in the housing market themselves, most interested in increasing their property’s exchange value?

Benjamin Wermund: “But a vision for development that was to become the heart of the city is on life support – instead of boutique shopping, developers are trying to lure big-box retailers – and nearby residents, who bought homes based on the idea of a 43-acre, master-planned community nexus, are crying foul. Town Center neighborhood residents have lauded the City Council’s recent rejection of proposals to change the tract’s zoning from a downtown district to a planned development – which allows for generic office buildings, apartments and shopping centers — and they want to be included in any plans to rezone the area. Residents filled the City Council chambers during a meeting this month and asked the council what happened to the vision the city once had for the Town Center.”

John Maher: “Meanwhile, in Elroy, Pedro Mar said some of his neighbors are sad that (F1) construction has halted, because they (are) hoping the track (will) increase property values in the area.”

Marques G. Harper: “Lakeway officials want to get feedback from residents on Lakeway’s first 15-year capital improvement plan that identifies future projects such as improving roads and constructing new walkways and buildings for the police and parks and recreation departments.”

By confining the parameters of his argument and inferring otherwise, as Wendler is and always has been so shamelessly doing all these years, is the height of sophistry –

As well as hypocrisy

Because isn’t he himself a developer? And isn’t every developer’s very essence increasing exchange value by changing land-use patterns (in his instance from agricultural to residential) by investing in infrastructure to allow more intense land-use (in his instance, by the way, going from 0 units/acre to one unit/acre represents a 100% increase in density), increasing the rents his financiers can charge via mortgage payments and subsequently increasing his own personal ROI? Furthermore, one should keep in mind that what a person or group calls “truths” may have very little or no basis in fact; instead “truths” are often fabricated to favor that person or group’s economic interest and further their own economic aims. Thus, ideological debate becomes less an inquiry into facts than some wantonly avaricious battle for power.

Yes, dear reader, I’m calling into question the reason why Wendler and his ilk (which among others include Mike Levy, Dominic Chavez, Jim Skaggs, Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Don Zimmerman in the form of these entities: Sensible Transportation Solutions for Austin PAC, Engineers Affirming Sustainable Transportation (EAST) PAC, Coalition on Sensible Transportation (COST), Austinites for Action, and the West Downtown Alliance collectivize as a special interest then try ever so hard and vociferously to bloviate other individuals into embracing unsustainable land-use sprawling willy-nilly throughout our region despite their mentality’s most obviously odious ramifications not only to general society but each of us as individually individual self-contained individuals.

Logan and Molotch: “To question the wisdom of growth for any specific locality is to threaten a benefit transfer and the interests of those who gain from it.” Do you now see how and why Wendler et al. are diverting an argument by perpetuating the most illogical of fallacies? Arguments like theirs constitute nothing less than an attack on free enterprise in order to maximize their own bank accounts and whatever reputational status they believe they may gain in our community.

But, again, I’ve been digressing

One example Wendler uses to fuel his hypocritical sophistry about how cities always act to increase exchange value is Austin’s adoption of the Downtown Plan that (and I quote) “promotes growth and advocates spending on downtown parks and infrastructure. That $300 million will be used to subsidize the area…The city’s website says that ‘we should care about downtown because its success is central to the prosperity of the city and the region.’ Reminds me of ‘what is good for GM is good for America’ and sounds a whole lot like trickle-down economics.”

So my question now becomes:  Which localities in the Central Texas Region, suburban developments or the urban core, benefits from the other the most and by about, exactly, how much?

Culled from the Downtown Austin Plan

  • Downtown Austin generates $144 million in taxes each year;
  • Downtown’s land area is only 0.6% of the total land area of the City, yet it generates over 5% of the City’s property tax. An area eight times the size of Downtown is needed to generate the same average taxable value as the Downtown;
  • City services are concentrated and can be provided more efficiently. The Downtown has only  1 of the City’s 43 fire stations; 2 of the City’s 30 EMS centers, 2 of the City’s APD stations; and 1 of 22 libraries. The Downtown is also more efficiently served by roadways, with only 166 of the City’s 7,266 lane miles of roads (2.2%);
  • And about 80 cents of every dollar generated by Downtown Austin is used to provide services for areas outside of downtown.

Culled from Hays County Cost of Community Services

  • The revenues-to-expenditures ratios show agricultural and open space more than pay their fair share of local taxes, even when these lands are taxed at the agricultural valuation. For every dollar these lands generated in revenue for the county, school and public service districts, they required back only $0.33 in services;
  •  Commercial and industrial lands provided a similar net benefit to the county, needing only $0.30 back for every $1 generated in taxes;
  • While residential lands generated significantly more dollars in property taxes, they required even more in services — $1.26 for every $1 paid in taxes.

Culled from Austin’s Chamber of Commerce’s Take on Traffic

  • To build out a comprehensive transportation system that actually reduces traffic congestion in Central Texas by 2030, we need to find at least $12.7 billion in funding beyond what we have right now. That’s about $635 million a year for the next 20 years;

And concluding with two conclusions from TxDOT/TTI’s 2011 Urban Mobility Report

  • (Our) analysis shows that it would be almost impossible to attempt to maintain a constant congestion level with road construction only. Over the past 2 decades, less than 50 percent of the needed mileage was actually added. This means that it would require at least twice the level of current-day road expansion funding to attempt this road construction strategy. An even larger problem would be to find suitable roads that can be widened, or areas where roads can be added, year after year;
  • And (Smart Growth) characteristics can be incorporated into new developments so that new economic development does not generate the same amount of traffic volume as existing developments. Among the tools that can be employed are better management of arterial street access, incorporating bicycle and pedestrian elements, better parking strategies, assessing transportation impact before a development is approved for construction, and encouraging more diverse development patterns.

“As the facts change, my mind changes”

In sum, all of the facts above strongly suggest to me that we, as a regional society, can no longer concentrate upon constructing more and more suburban subdivisions connected by highways, each longer and larger than the last, sprawling us farther and farther away from our urban cores, exacerbating our extreme auto-centricity in the process. Truth will emerge victorious, no? Alas, in the instance of Wendler and his what can only be described as cranky self-interested political action faction? Wherein the antithesis of a crank is commonsense? Most likely it will not, alas.

Joe Keohane: “Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.”

Brendan Nyhan (lead researcher on the Michigan study):  “The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong.” The phenomenon – known as “backfire” – is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

“Certitude is the last disease of old decrepit kings”

Wendler: “As a born here Austinite, I keep trying to put my finger on what’s different about the New Austin. It’s similar to the experience of seeing an old friend who looks different. You aren’t quite sure what’s changed. Plastic surgery? New hairstyle? Maybe just new glasses?…In many ways, this City Council is the most pro-growth, go-go council in memory.”

So let’s borrow for a minute the Panglossian lenses through which Wendler views how he wishes things should remain, with folks moving out to what were once rural Central Texas counties despite the fact that, at least I’m about to suggest the fact that we’ve essentially run out of land in which to sprawl. Between 2000 and 2010, Williamson County’s population grew 69% and Hays County’s increased 61% while Bastrop County’s population grew by 28.5%, all of which are well above and beyond Texas’ overall 20.6% population growth; also over that time period, according to Metrostudy  more than 15,000 new subdivision homes were built in Hays County, another 2,227 in Bastrop County and, in Williamson County, the number of households increased from 86,766 to 162,773.

Eric Dexheimer and Tony Plohetski: “Where the developments and the brush meet is the tectonic fault line of wildfire danger known to fire experts as the wildland-urban interface. In an adaptation of the old philosophical question, if fire breaks out in an empty forest, it is noiseless. Adding people and homes, however, dramatically alters the equation, creating a cacophony. Not only do humans ignite the vast majority of wildfires, their presence demands that firefighters and equipment rush to the scene to protect life and property.”

Jon White (director of Travis County’s Natural Resources and Environmental Quality Division): “It’s the developments that are the danger.”

Paul Maldonado (State Fire Marshal): “We have known about, and anticipated, these incidences.”

We all recall what happened out in Bastrop County this past September and, it must be pointed out, our society must once again subsidize the costs imposed by mindlessly unconstrained suburban sprawl.

Brenda Bell: “The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday announced the allocation of $31.3 million in emergency aid to help Bastrop and nearby communities recover from the devastating Labor Day wildfires… Along with the $16.5 million allocated to date by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the HUD program brings the federal government’s investment in the recovery effort in the Bastrop area to $47.8 million… Another pressing need: coming up with the money needed to match the millions of federal dollars flowing to Bastrop. Every $3 from FEMA for debris removal and assistance to fire victims requires $1 in matching local funds.”

Lisa Falkenberg: “Volunteer firefighters on the front lines are rushing toward the flames in tread-worn boots that don’t fit, fire suits too hot and heavy for the job, and sometimes, quite literally, in blue jeans. Fire chiefs across the state describe being outmatched, underfunded and ill-equipped to fight the unprecedented onslaught of fires fueled this year by unceasing drought.”

Ciara O’Rourke: “Windy, dry weather this weekend could set the stage for wildfires. The National Weather Service has issued a fire weather watch from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday (1/21/2012) from west and along a line from Georgetown to Pleasanton, about 35 miles south of San Antonio.”

To begin summarizing my argument, the Greater Austin Metropolitan Region, very much including all the cities that comprise it, is nothing but an ongoing, dynamic social experiment; despite all these facts and verbiage I’ve delineated above, Wendler and his cronies will only further assert that we should continue highly subsidizing its, shall we say, stagnation; even when stagnation, in and of itself, only leads to regression rather than progression; and isn’t Progress supposed to be the thing that makes America so great?

As Thomas Jefferson said?

“No generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.”

Most economists are asserting that this young generation of ours will fare worse than their parents’ generation, the first time that that has happened in American history. And it still amazes me how wannabe entrenched plutocrats like Wendler, Levy,  Chavez, Skaggs, Strayhorn and Zimmerman have been and are still willing to sacrifice another and yet another generation upon future generations even when staring at the End Game of this un-sustainably contrived, heavily subsidized contrivance our society calls “sprawl.” With that being said, shouldn’t we all be hoping for a brighter future for the Greater Austin Metropolitan Region? I cannot relay the following sentiment any better:

Fritz Steiner: “The challenge is clear; we live in a growing city and region. The population is expected to increase by 750,000 by 2039. The metropolitan region is home to more than 1.7 million people and is expected to rise to almost 4 million by 2040. To address this growth, Imagine Austin advocates that new development be focused in centers – places to concentrate new residents and for economic growth. This concept has evolved from the efforts of Envision Central Texas…However, Imagine Austin’s idea is no mere carbon copy of Envision Central Texas or CAMPO; it envisions a much more refined definition of centers. In addition to the regional centers (25,000 to 45,000 new people; 5,000 to 25,000 new jobs), derived from Envision Central Texas and CAMPO, the Imagine Austin draft presents approaches for town centers (10,000 to 30,000 new people; 5,000 to 20,000 new jobs), and neighborhood centers (5,000 to 10,000 new people; 2,500 to 7,500 new jobs). The plan also proposes mixed-use corridors and job centers. In addition, the draft plan designates open-space networks, high-capacity transit and transit stops, highways and streets, and other development both inside the existing city limits and within the extraterritorial jurisdiction. As a result, ideal locations for future conservation and development are explicit.”

An added bonus!

Imagine Austin’s concept dovetails nicely with our national trends.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers’: “Next-generation projects will orient to infill, urbanizing suburbs, and transit-oriented development. Smaller housing units-close to mass transit, work, and 24-hour amenities – gain favor over large houses on big lots at the suburban edge. People will continue to seek greater convenience and want to reduce energy expenses. Shorter commutes and smaller heating bills make up for higher infill real estate costs.”

Robert “Boom-burb” Lang: “Bedroom communities now must rethink their future and become a little less sprawly, a little more village-like with clustered development, denser housing. The irony is that if they want to keep growing, they must grow as cities, which is diametrically opposite of how they got so big in the first place.”

The current state of our disarrayed regional society today is not much of a recommendation for following that much-traveled path of subsidizing with such obscene sums for such, at the very most, negligible returns from suburban sprawl. We must learn from our historical collective experience in order to overcome these obstacles and flourish. Although it will take years to repair the damage done by such atomistic economic development strategies as Wendler’s, today all of us who comprise the Greater Austin Metropolitan Region need to ask ourselves how we as a society wish to be judged by future generations – Because if we follow such misguided egotistical-driven advice as that gentleman’s?

Boy oh boy you’d better believe we’ll be most sorely judged.

 Edwin Shrake (May 10, 1965):

“But like most of the places in the U.S. that are wild and free, the Hill Country in its present form may be disappearing. Because of the popularity of Lyndon Johnson, tourists are entering the Hill Country, though as yet somewhat timidly. There are picnic-lunch sacks crumpled on the banks of the Blanco River where it rushes, clear over the limestone and blue in the channels, near the high blue ridges of The Devil’s Backbone. More dude ranches are opening. Some of the working ranchers are selling out to syndicates from Dallas and Houston. There are grand plans for resorts—hunting and fishing and horseback-riding motels with neon signs and leatherette couches and mustard and catsup in little plastic boxes and, God knows, maybe even Scopitone, which may become known as the last defeat of civilized man. But the Hill Country has one weapon, perhaps an ultimate one, against encroachment, and that is the stubbornness and loneliness of the land itself.

“It is not the place for everybody.”

Results mixed on MoPac lane changes

12 10 2011

(yet another file in the Saw this coming from miles away Department)

Ben Wear (Results mixed on MoPac lane changes): “At the same time, MoPac in that stretch went from two lanes northbound to three lanes. The idea, of course, was to improve the overall flow of the expressway with an extra lane (50 percent more capacity), even if that meant a little pain for some people trying to join the parade on one fewer lane (50 percent less capacity).”

Our Most Senior Fellow (just over a year ago; found in full here): “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.’

“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.”

Wear: “Based on a follow-up study by the Texas Transportation Institute, the backup for the Cesar Chavez drivers in the afternoon has increased by an average of 1,500 feet. If we assume about 25 feet per car, counting the space between cars, that would be about 60 extra cars crawling for more than an extra quarter-mile…to sum up, to help South Austin folks get north much faster in the morning, and maybe a bit faster in the afternoon, downtown workers are getting a good long look at the lovely concrete back wall of Austin High School.”

Statesman reader Owen Pelligrin: “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.”

And right now Our Most Senior sees fit to both quote Charles De Gaulle, who said “when I am right, I get angry,” and conclude with words by the incomparable Jonathan Swift: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this infallible sign: That all the dunces are in
confederacy against him.”

Bastrop County wildfire

5 09 2011

As I’m sitting here watching through the window this wildfire unfolding great billows of smoke about 12 miles away from where I’m amidst both living and typing this now,

I find myself once again thinking how what effects the region effects downtown and what effects downtown effects the region.

And how we as a society can no longer continue to grow this way:

For the past coupla years I’ve been covering stuff for The Elgin Courier. Right now I’m feeling neglectfully remiss about not posting those articles forthwith on this site. So accordingly I’ll be remedying that by posting them momentarily. Although they may not be timely,  per se, they may be timeless, and at the very least they may serve to bring one up to speed with a more regional perspective.

But I’ll get a bit ahead of myself because, in fact, where today’s wildfire is occurring now is sorta kinda near where there is an annexation/ETJ issue between the cities of Bastrop and Elgin, which is proving to be most interesting.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must be getting back to nervewracking over whether the wind’s gonna shift while hoping that it don’t.

Hortensia’s still chill though

Saw this coming a mile away

18 07 2011

Central Texas toll roads need more state subsidies than expected

Two-year-ish old Source: Even more perniciously, officials are expecting to use excess toll revenues as collateral for leveraging funding for new toll roads – as evidenced by the plan CAMPO recently approved to use the excess toll revenues from 183A, which has bond insurance, as a substitute for bond default insurance on 290E because bond insurance has now become unaffordable as a result of the credit crisis.  This is a financial tactic that Minsky might very well term “Ponzi Borrowing.”[vii]  Furthermore, “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.” [viii]  And so it comes down to these questions:

  • Has TxDOT and/or CAMPO and/or CTRMA been cooking their traffic count books? [viv]
  • What happens if TxDOT defaults on its bond for 183A? [x]
  • What happens if toll roads, which are now so called Public-Private Partnerships, are fully privatized? [xi]


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.

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