Travis County Taxpayer’s Union
AUSTIN TRAFFIC 2014
INITIATING A DIALOG
Austin’s population growth, political wrangling and lack of leadership have resulted in a transportation crisis that can no longer be ignored. The Travis County Taxpayers Union (TCTU) does not purport to be experts in transportation planning and design. We do, however have a good understanding of Austin’s financial condition, its tax burden and transportation problems. While it is unusual for a tax watchdog group to advocate bonds and spending, our transportation system needs attention.
Voters are being asked to approve an expensive, false-promise plan that significantly increases local debt and taxes. The rail centric ‘Project Connect’ will make traffic congestion worse by inhibiting traffic flow in the areas where it operates and divert funds from more effective solutions. When you scrutinize the $145,000,000/mile, 18,000 trip/day, Light Rail proposal in the context of a city that, in 2030, will have over 8M people trips a day, its folly and impotence becomes apparent. Pass or fail, we will still need to implement ideas like those contained in this proposal. The question is: Do we want to borrow and tax twice to address the same problem? Common sense and Project Connects own statistics make the answer clear.
Our proposal is not intended to be comprehensive; it’s intended to initiate a dialog that can foment effective, common sense, solutions.
Any effective mobility plan should meet the following goals:
- Meaningfully address traffic congestion
- Serve the most citizens
- Create solutions for all parts of the city region
- Capitalize on existing right of way and infrastructure
- Be cost effective, capitalizing on shared right-of-way
- Have forward vision that can embrace future technologies
Project Connects Light Rail/Trolley fails to meet ANY of them!
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The case against ‘Project Connect’…………………………………………….. Page 4
Confused vote – Intentional Misinformation……………………………… Page 5
Little Discussed Flaws of Light Rail….…………………………………………. Page 8
The True Cost of Light Rail…………………………………………………………. Page 11
Capitol Metro……………………………………………………………………………. Page 13
The Lesson of MetroRail (the Red Line)……………………………………… Page14
Where Light Rail Usually Works………………………………………………… Page15
Our Fiscal Picture ……………………………………………………………………… Page 16
War Against the Automobile – Agenda 21…………………………………. Page 18
TCTU TRAFFIC IMPROVEMENT PROPOSAL
Austin’s Traffic Problem…………………………………………………………….. Page 19
Specific Suggestions…………………………………………………………………… Page 19
Zero Cost Improvements………………………………………….……………….. Page 20
Low Cost Improvements……………………………………………………………. Page 21
Toll Roads………………………………………………………………………………….. Page 21
Intersection Methodology…………………………………………………………. Page 22
Smart Traffic Management……………………………………………………….. Page 22
Complete the ‘Y’ at Oak Hill………………………………………………………. Page 22
Complete the ‘Bergstrom Expressway’………………………………………. Page 23
Cost Benefit………………………………………………………………………………. Page 23
Highway 620 Intersection List…………………………………………………… Page 23
Ramp Improvement/Metering List……………………………………………. Page 24
Highway 183 Intersection List……………………………………………………. Page 24
Loop 360 Intersection List…………………………………………………………. Page 24
Highway 71 Intersection List…………………………………………………….. Page 25
Urban Core Intersection List……………………………………………………… Page 25
Transit Graph List……………………………………………………………………… Page 25
Quotes……………………………………………………………………………………… Page 26
References and links………………………………………………………………….. Page 27
THE CASE AGAINST ‘PROJECT CONNECT’
‘The one sure thing Project Connect will do is “connect” rail interest bank accounts to homeowners wallets’
Our political ‘leaders’, catering to progressive, anti-growth/environmental forces, contributed to Austin’s traffic congestion with inaction. In the ‘mission’ to solve traffic congestion, they propose an expensive, trendy, ‘solution’ that will serve less than 1% of citizens. More importantly, the plan siphons funds from real solutions, perpetuating the problem. “Project Connect” offers a flawed scheme that if realized, will contort Austin from the desirable, affordably city it’s been, into one with oppressive property taxes, stratospheric debt and continuous mobility problems. LIGHT RAIL’S NOT COOL, IT’S EXPENSIVE, INNEFICIENT, INCREASES CONGESTION AND RAISES OUR COST OF LIVING.
No voter making an honest, fact based evaluation of the 17 mph (considering stops), 9.5 mile, 1,530 passenger trolley, will support it on the merits. It is crucial voters get the facts – not unfounded promises, rosy projections and outright falsehoods. ‘Project Connect’ is a huge, self serving, tax consuming apparatus that assures a march of public borrowing and debt for decades.
We anticipate proponents will do five things:
- Confuse voters with changing information, unverified false promises and ‘road improvement’ spending that is in reality, trolley funding.
- Dissociate voters from the TRUE repayment costs of the massive borrowing as they exploit a serious flaw in our bond election system: Citizens not directly obligated for the debt and repayment are allowed to vote on it.
- Avoid discussion of the typical cost overruns and astronomical operation costs; both ignored in the bond amount.
- Bombard voters with propaganda campaigns funded with tax dollars (under the guise of ‘public information’) and by special interests, many of whom, will directly benefit from the spending.
- Dangle a much larger scheme than the one on the ballot, as they fail to inform the public of the massive future borrowing and spending requisite to achieve this ‘vision’.
CONFUSED VOTE – INTENTIONAL MISINFORMATION
TROJAN HORSE ROAD IMPROVEMENTS
Proponents tender a ‘mobility plan’, with “road projects”, portrayed as a concession or ‘balanced approach’. Most the spending actually goes to fund light rail oriented infrastructure/planning – not to effective traffic solutions.
According to the Austin Transportation Dept., the proposed ‘road project’ piece has six items:
- $30M for a Transportation Management Center
- $34M for a Riverside – US183 interchange to facilitate Light Rail to the airport
- $44.5M for corridor studies and future phases of Light Rail
- $90M for IH-35 intersection improvements at Stassney, William Cannon and Oltorf
- $81.5M for access to ABIA, future Light Rail extension
- $125M revise Riverside – IH-35 intersection for Light Rail
They reference “improving” problem road areas like Loop 360, RM2222, Parmer Lane, RM1826 and Lamar Blvd (item 3). It’s ALL TALK, no physical improvement is being performed, these roads are only examined in yet another rail oriented ‘study’.
Voters haven’t even approved the first leg of Light Rail, yet items 2 and 5 would sneak in expenditures to do work on a dubious, unapproved, tax increasing second leg to the airport!
‘Project Connect’ intentionally proffers maps that display a multi-billion dollar transit ‘vision’, of which only a small segment is on the November ballot. This ‘bait and switch’ tactic misleads many voters into thinking they’re getting much more if they vote ‘yes’. Success at the ballot box, no matter how slim the margin, will be declared a ‘public mandate’ to justify a cavalcade of expansion, borrowing and taxes. Future promises of ‘success is around the corner’ and ‘let’s finish the job’ will assure much more debt and property tax increases to come.
‘CARS OFF THE ROAD’
Our traffic congestion involves hundreds of thousands of commuters with a broad diversity of destinations. No U.S. urban or light rail system built in the past 70 years has made any meaningful long term improvement in traffic congestion. ‘Project Connect’ claims its trolley “takes 200,000 cars off the road per month”. DO THE MATH: Proponents optimistic projection of 18,000 daily ‘boardings’ (in 2030) equates to 9,000 actual round-trip commuters. Surveys/studies show most new light rail riders already use busses, bikes or walk – many don’t even own a car. Project Connect itself claims only 3,250 actual ‘new’ riders in 2030. Unless commuters live within walking distance of a rail stop, many still have to drive there or to one of the 4 planned park and rides. They continue to contribute to congestion and are NOT ‘cars off the road’, just cars that make a partial commute. Their “cars off the road each month” claim is an ‘accumulative’ figure where each day another ‘crop’ of cars is added to the prior days. Why stop at a month? Using their twisted logic, the trolley would soon eliminate ALL cars in Austin; “2,400,000 cars off the road each year”! If ALL 3,250 new trolley riders were to completely abandon their cars, the best case “cars removed” is 3,250, not 200,000. According to Project Connect, we will have 600,000 additional citizens in Austin by 2030, making our population over 1.4M; is a paltry 3,200 significant in that context? They hope, after repeated media saturation of the 200,000 car deception, people will accept it and never calculate the real number.
RAIL DRIVEN DEVELOPMENT
Promises of development around light rail are unsupported by studies of rail projects across the nation or even Austin’s Metrorail. Claims these systems significantly drive land use patterns and economic growth, are un-demonstrated. When examined, the majority of “rail driven” development is typically a product of government subsidies and tax giveaways that heap the costs on the rest of us, NOT private sector commerce flocking to the train. Even Project Connects leader, Kyle Keahey, concedes the rail does not provide net, new development. It is a zero sum game that fails to produce new jobs or tax revenue. “People come to cities for jobs, not for trains”; the only ‘new’ jobs are trolley operation related and funded by taxpayers.
THE TALE OF 5 LIGHT RAILS
Analysis of five light rail systems: Buffalo, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego and San Jose show the promises don’t meet reality. Over the past thirty years, these systems neither rescued the center cities of their respective regions nor resulted in higher transit use – results promised by proponents. According to U.S. Census data, four of the five actually had declines in regional worker/commuter ridership, a reality that stands in contrast to Project Connect promises.
Many rail advocates oppose the Project Connect trolley plan because the route makes no transportation sense. They declare the plan ignores far higher commute corridors to pander to developers and political entities. They prefer putting the trolley along Guadalupe and/or Lamar where it could better serve urban residents. While that may be true, consider the impact of eliminating vehicle lanes on these key arterial corridors. Problem or solution?
Project Connect claims ‘population growth’ justifies their scheme. They quote 110 new residents daily, a number that clashes with U.S. Census data showing Austin grew by 58 residents per day in 2013. More importantly, our growth is in Western/Southern Travis county, Hays county and Williamson county; places far from the trolley. We need high volume, flexible North/South commute corridors to relieve IH-35 and Mopac. We need to address growth; NOT a 9 mile in-city trolley that serves a tiny minority of commuters.
RIDERSHIP FALLACY – YOU CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE
The city of San Antonio and Bexar County recently made the wise decision to withdraw their support for Light Rail. Austin should stop spending our tax dollars and follow suit. Project Connects misguided rail scheme fails to address the commute corridors, misses the high urban flow corridors, avoids the U.T. student housing WEST of campus (where most students are) and leaves riders far from most destinations that actually attract citizens. Unless your destination is close to the few trolley stops, you’ll be forced to wait for, then board yet another transit option (bus, cab, etc.) to reach your destination. Project Connect labels its Light Rail as a “High Capacity” transit option. How can a 1,530 rider trolley be considered a “High Capacity” option in a metropolitan transit area of over 1 million residents?
TAX FUNDED SALES JOB
Who funds ‘Project Connect’ and Sherry Matthews Advocacy, the professional marketing firm that owns Projectconnect.com? Over a half million of our tax dollars have been poured into Project Connect from Capitol Metro alone, we are still calculating the City of Austin’s contributions. $157,000 was spent on the initial media buy for a MARKETING campaign littered with promises, assumptions and cooked numbers. Project Connects marketing fails the smell test for ‘fact based’ public information as required by the State Election Code, when public funds are used to promote ballot initiatives. Appropriating public funds to lobby voters in such a manner is UNETHICAL and a disservice to taxpayers. Project Connect used public funds to ‘soften up’ voters with propaganda that skirts State Election Code. Now that the groundwork has been laid with your tax dollars, special interest PAC’s can pick up the misinformation campaign with funds from those who want to gain from our tax dollars.
A huge amount of local tax dollars and public resources have already been spent on the rail scheme without ANY voter approval. Voters are expected to green light a project that has not secured the Federal funding vital to its implementation. Advocates act like it’s a done deal and say trust us, ”we have to do it this way” and “we won’t proceed unless ‘other’ funding is obtained”. Do cooked numbers, misleading maps, unfounded/illogical claims and the legacy of false Metrorail voter promises inspire trust?
Project Connect is a propagandizing cancer that would likely achieve three things: 1) increase property taxes, 2) fail to appreciably reduce traffic congestion and 3) create new traffic problems in its corridor. It’s appropriately named by some as: “PROJECT COLLECT”
LITTLE DISCUSSED FLAWS of LIGHT RAIL
SURFACE STREET INTERRUPTION DURING CONSTRUCTION
Implementation of the ‘light rail’ plan, as proposed, will disrupt a high number of heavily utilized streets for extended periods. These streets include key East-West arterials like Airport Blvd., 290/Koenig Ln., 51st, 45th, 38th, MKL Blvd., 12th, 7th and 1st/Cesar Chavez. Construction promises a lengthy nightmare of detours, delays and serious traffic congestion (not to mention the noise, dust and debris). Access to numerous homes and businesses will be impeded for extended periods. Look at the specific areas of construction, these are key surface streets; imagine them taken off-line for months. How many small businesses will be forced to close from denied or impeded access? Resulting costs to motorists and businesses will be considerable. Compensation and court costs to defend claims against the city could quickly add up.
SURFACE STREET ISSUES AFTER CONSTRUCTION
Proponents avoid discussing the street lanes and right-of-way eliminated by the trolley. Routine interruptions of East-West surface cross streets will create excruciating traffic congestion – particularly in the Hyde Park, U.T., IH-35 area. Citizens who travel Austin’s East/West cross streets from Koenig Lane South to Riverside Drive will have to endure frequent and routine travel interruptions. They will also have diminished roadway available for their travel. Anyone familiar with the long waits at Red Line commuter rail crossings can imagine this rail wait conundrum every 10-20 minutes.
EFFECT ON NORTH LAKEFRONT
The trolley system plan demolishes our new taxpayer funded City boathouse, built on land gifted by developers and the Austin Rowing Club. Project Connect puts the boathouse and its vendors out of business, leaving the Austin Rowing Club to search for a ‘future’ alternative. Taxpayers just spent nearly $4M constructing this facility and are apparently expected to ante up more taxes to build another. Add this cost to the $1.4B.
Lakefront residential development is forced to host a river crossing. This results in noisy, dusty construction for months. Once implemented, residents will have to deal with a noisy trolley (it’s on rails folks) every 15 minutes. It will create an environment similar to scenes in movies where the subway runs outside the window of downtown tenements. A negative impact on property values could result in costly legal action.
GRIDLOCK AND TRAINS
The majority of Austin’s gridlock stems from North/South commuters most of whom originate from the North (Round Rock, Pflugerville, Georgetown), Northwest (Leander, Cedar Park, Avery Ranch, Anderson Mill, Northwest Hills), West (Steiner Ranch, Jester, River Place, Barton Creek), East (Elgin, Manor, Bastrop), South (Buda, Kyle, Onion Creek, Circle C) and Southwest (Bee Cave, Westlake, Lost Creek, Dripping Springs). A high number of non-Austin vehicles just passing through, also contribute to our traffic congestion. Project Connect light rail would have little impact on these commuters who constitute the majority of our traffic congestion.
We stand at the brink of transportation technologies that promise:
- Lower vehicle emissions
- Higher efficiencies
- Collision avoidance
- Vehicle to vehicle coordination (V2V)
- Autonomous vehicles
These existing technologies make an already obsolete trolley seem even more insane. They will provide real transportation improvement that doesn’t depend on property taxes.
Self driving automobiles are on the horizon. Ford, BMW, Lexus and others have announced product market entry within ten years. Earlier this year, Google launched a pilot project of 100 fully autonomous vehicles to operate in urban environments. These vehicles portend a revolution in regard to transportation, congestion and transit ownership. Direct destination transportation service will change the way we move people and goods in the near future. Unlike mass-transit, this door-to-destination/anytime personal transportation will offer far greater efficiency and convenience. Reducing human error will help resolve traffic congestion and improve transportation safety.
ADAPTIVE CRUISE CONTROL
Adaptive cruise control that can operate to a stop, (available from BMW since 2007) can smooth traffic flow in high vehicle density situations like Mopac and IH35. Industry expert’s state self driving vehicles that operate ‘ramp to ramp’ on open highways will be available within two years. The debt for the trolley will extend over 20 years; these technologies will be commonplace by then.
INTELLIGENT TRANSPORTATION SYSTEMS
The Federal Highway Administration has been funding a number of new technologies that will transform our gridlock problem. Many of these solutions are already underway. Exploratory Advanced Research (EAR) has been funding refined traffic solutions across the nation, including at the University of Texas and Texas A&M. Intelligent Transportation Systems are a powerful movement in the war against gridlock and the technology is rapidly evolving. These technologies will change our traffic flow, improve efficiency and increase highway safety.
NEXT GENERATION SIGNALS
EAR and other funding have fostered a next generation of traffic coordination and signals. These systems are forward looking and accommodate future technologies like autonomous vehicles. “Replacing existing traffic signal systems with self-adaptive systems that significantly reduce the typically high costs of installation and maintenance of traffic signals….have proved to increase roadway capacity and if widely implemented could transform traffic operations significantly”3
Smart technologies and innovative safety research solutions are on the horizon and render expensive, old-tech projects, like light rail, ‘quaint’ and obsolete. Taking on 20 years of public debt for a trolley, is short sighted and foolish. A prior Austin rail scheme was defeated with the mantra: “Costs too much – does too little” An updated mantra for Project Connect has emerged: “Costs even more – does even less”
NO ENERGY SAVINGS OR LOWER EMISSIONS
Claims light rail saves energy and reduces emissions are questionable. It takes lots of energy to power a rail system. This energy will largely be generated by dirty coal fired plants. Since the system runs continuously, actual ridership has little impact on its energy demand. An empty trolley uses similar resources to a full one. No efficient option exists to suspend rail operation when few riders are present, which, based on the lesson of Metrorail, will be most of the time. In these conditions, energy and equipment wear and tear are simply wasted at taxpayer expense.
THE TRUE COST OF LIGHT RAIL
‘Without hefty taxpayer subsidies, these illogical schemes would never be considered’
A study of ten rail projects (Washington D.C., Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, Miami, Buffalo, Pittsburg, Portland and Sacramento) show average cost overruns of 49.8% and overestimates of ridership of 65%!2 If the trolley is consistent, it will exceed $2B. Future phases to achieve Project Connects’ “vision”, have been estimated to cost over $10B more!
TRUE COST OF BONDS
Proponents avoid discussion of actual and total costs to homeowners/renters. They base their proposal on uncertain funding, ‘best case’ projections and avoid the full cost of the borrowing and operation. They proclaim “just a little more on the average home”, ignoring the recent unprecedented march of fee hikes, existing debt and the ever escalating, repressive property taxes that drive Austin un-affordability. Current bond repayment costs $1.56 for every dollar borrowed; $1.4B is actually $2.18B. Artificially suppressed interest rates, lingering from the recent recession, will soon taper and that $1.56 will rise; with the cost for light rail. Project Connect borrowing will tie the hands of our new 10-1 city council, saddling them with legacy debt that drastically reduces credit for future city needs.
We project a tax rate impact for the November ‘mobility plan’ at $.07 per $100 of property valuation, assuming the project comes in on budget. However, if it is consistent with other rail projects and operating costs are included, a $0.10/$100 tax rate could be more likely. This promises a property tax increase on the $280,000 median value home of over $280 a year! The entire Project Connect ‘vision’ could eventually impact homeowners over $2,500/yr.
This ‘trolley tax’ immediately wipes out any relief from commercial under-appraisal correction and homestead exemption increases – combined!
Their plan depends on Federal funding from a government that is $17 trillion in debt, which borrows $500B a year to maintain its status quo. If the project is discontinued Federal funds must be repaid – sometimes with penalties. Ask leaders in Cincinnati and Nashville who were trapped with repayment and costly federal lawsuits after determining their rail scheme wasn’t such a good idea. The U.S. Congress could become more fiscally conservative after the November election, fostering a climate of shrinking rail funding. Uncertain Federal funds come with many strings. We should only vote for a proposal AFTER these funds are secured.
There’s been little discussion of the perpetual operating costs; costs NOT covered by the bond proposal. Based on other implementations, Project Connects’ unrealistically projects the annual operating cost at $22M/yr. Based on other rail systems, a more realistic annual operating cost will be around $36M. Since virtually every system of this sort operates at a deep deficit, where will these funds come from?
When you apply reality to the optimistic ‘boardings’, it equate to a best case scenario of 9,000 actual routine passengers in 2030. Based on the price tag, that’s $153,000 per passenger for capital expenses; IF they come in on budget. The optimistic estimated annual operating cost of $22M/year equates to $2,400/passenger/year for each routine passenger, at $36M it is $4,000/passenger! Fare revenue represents less than 10% of public transit cost in Austin. Capitol Metro loses over $12M/yr on Metrorail and $95M/yr on its busses – all tax dollars.
MORE TO COME
If approved, this is just a first stop for future trolley spending. ‘Project Connect’ intends to milk Austin homeowners and renters like a cow. The costly airport extension, already in the works, will require more borrowing/taxation. Is there some serious problem getting to the airport? Imagine driving to a trolley station, unloading baggage, waiting for the trolley, loading baggage, making up to 16 routine station stops on the way and then unloading again at the airport. Is doing this TWICE for every airline trip – convenient? Compare that to a super shuttle that comes to your door and absolves you of the responsibility for your luggage. It is more likely this ‘leg’ will principally service the few citizens who work at the airport.
LONE STAR RAIL DISTRICT (LSRD)
For over 10 years the LSRD has lurked in the background plotting to raise property taxes to fund its dubious scheme. While its logo exists on ‘Project Connect’ material, masquerading as a government transit entity – IT’S NOT! It offers no public transportation services, nor owns any public transportation infrastructure. It begs the question: What’s the bar for inclusion on the ‘Project Connect’ team? Perhaps the Zilker Zephyr should be listed on Project Connect as it’s probably the only rail system in our area that actually transports passengers profitably.
The LSRD is a lobbying group that longs to feed at the public trough. In December 2013 the Austin City Council (against City staff recommendation) approved a property tax sharing agreement with the LSRD. The agreement addresses securing over $2B from Austin taxpayers to fund the LSRD. Could this be an attempt to by-pass the public approval process? The LSRD is surveying the tax base around proposed ‘station zones’ in Austin in a desire to take half of future property tax growth in these areas – starting immediately.
CITY vs. CAPITOL METRO
Why is the City of Austin, with ZERO experience in transportation systems, spearheading and funding light rail? We dedicate over 12% of sales taxes to fund an entity with a quarter billion dollar annual budget to administer and operate public transportation in Austin/Central Texas: Capitol Metro. Our last rail proposition was defeated, largely by suburban, county residents. By substituting the City as the borrower, only city residents will be able to vote, disenfranchising the voters who largely defeated the last rail bond. This reduces the tax base that is obligated to repay the bonds; heaping the burden exclusively on the back of city residents. Apparently Capitol Metros role at this point is to rubber stamp the City Council’s scheme and funnel federal funds into Project Connects ethically challenged propaganda campaign.
Project Connect claims Capitol Metro will ‘operate’ the train. Since the City is the owner, how can they ‘assign’ an operator without the requisite bidding and evaluation? Capitol Metro is a taxpayer funded entity with its own charter and levy. Is it free to accept service contracts from outside entities?
Capitol Metro should concentrate on making their services more efficient. Without Federal transportation subsidies, the agency is in trouble. 50 passenger capacity busses rolling around empty or with a handful of passengers form a poster child for waste and inefficiency. Where is Capitol Metro’s ‘management’? Why don’t they use route statistics to scale their fleet operations to loads? Most routes could be served by lower capacity, cheaper and more efficient vehicles. An expensive fleet of Capitol Metro sedans/vans offer free rides; why are they not contracting this service out to a cab company? Instead of expanding the cash wasting Metrorail, they should stop the bleeding and focus on more effective operation. If Capitol Metro was a private for-profit business, it would be bankrupt. Access to perpetual public tax dollars shouldn’t be a license to operate without regard to the bottom line.
What does an urban trolley do that busses can’t at a lower cost? Think about it! Busses are easily scalable and have route flexibility. Cost per passenger is a fraction of rail. Consider this: The ‘Project Connect’ urban trolley system replaces only 32 busses in transportation capacity, at a cost of $1,380,000,000 vs. $22,000,000 – A BUS COST ADVANTAGE OF 63 to 1!
THE LESSON OF METRORAIL (the Red Line)
Like ‘light rail’, Metrorail was sold as a solution for Austin traffic congestion. Has this promise been kept? Apparently Project Connect believes Austin voters are dumb enough to take the bait twice.
Metrorail, built on EXISTING rail right of way (drastically reducing its cost and simplifying implementation), began service almost two years late and at double the cost sold to voters.
Metrorail validates the over budget cost studies and statistics. Sold to Austin voters as $60M project, it ended up costing well over TWICE what voters were told. Like the current proposal, operating costs were largely ignored and grossly understated. They promised a $5M annual operating cost, it’s well over $13M! Voters were sold with promises of Federal funding that never materialized.
In 1985, Capitol Metro purchased the entire 162 mile Giddings to Llano rail system for less than Metrorail’s annual operating cost! Taxpayers spend $1.19M/month to maintain the Metrorail system which only serves 0.2% of Austin citizens. Based on round trip ridership and the cost of a 31 day rail pass, we lose $22/rider. Metrorail didn’t put a dent in traffic congestion as advertised and is hemorrhaging millions in tax dollars. In what alternative reality is this considered a solution or success?
Capitol Metro boasts of Metrorail ridership spikes around infrequent events like SXSW, Pecan Street Festival and ACL to foster the illusion of success. They count “boarding’s” (as if riders go into a black hole and a new rider appears to make the return trip) to inflate ridership. In theory, a rider running errands at a couple of stops, can easily become four or five ‘boarding’s. A publicly funded entity like Capitol Metro should be honest with the public. Masking poor ridership with subterfuge like sporadic spikes and ‘boardings’, erodes public trust.
Based on the lesson of Metrorail, one can only imagine the annual losses of light rail which costs over ten times as much. Albert Einstein once said: “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”. We should be learning from Metrorail’s failure – not sinking deep into debt for more. Metrorail, like the trolley is an inefficient, tax wasting ‘toy’ that does little for Austin transportation. We should terminate Metrorail with its millions in operating costs and service the few riders with cheaper, more efficient buses.
WHERE LIGHT RAIL USUALLY WORKS
The ‘Project Connect’ trolley on the November ballot will have NO significant positive impact on Austin’s traffic congestion (other than to create a nightmare of congestion during construction and train crossings). We challenge advocates to disprove this fact!
Where does light rail work? A rule of thumb test exists: Was the city and its infrastructure created around the horse and buggy or the automobile? Successful light rail systems typically demonstrate the validity of this test. Project Connect and our ‘progressive’ City leaders want to gamble on a metamorphosis of Austin into a ‘horse and buggy’ city.
Fixed transit is not appropriate for a young, growing city. Busses can do more, with greater flexibility at a fraction of the cost. The capacity of Project Connects’ Urban Rail proposal can be replaced with busses for 16% of the cost. Add to those savings, lower operating costs, flexibility to re-route and ability to scale the system to demand. One size fits all – fixed route/capacity Urban Rail makes no sense when compared to its alternatives. It does make sense to one group: those who plan to consume the tax dollars used to plan, design, construct and operate it.
When personal transport averaged a few miles per hour, and had a practical range of a few miles, central commerce centers were requisite to any community. A trolley to an all-inclusive, clustered business district made sense – but it is not true today. Austin once had a trolley system serving the city core – why was it abandoned? The range and convenience of the automobile has fostered dispersal of goods and services away from the urban center and closer to consumers. Think of the trips you make. Can they be satisfied by the $1.4B, 9 mile fixed-route trolley? Even with the proposed extensions, most of our city lacks access from the trolley and it simply doesn’t reach where most people live.
SPECIAL TAXING DISTRICT
Those who benefit most from Light Rail are downtown residents and the University. They are its biggest supporters. They comprise a tiny segment of our citizens. For the most part, they don’t participate in our traffic congestion. An equitable solution would be to create a downtown/UT taxing district and let those who benefit most, fund the system they demand. Another option is to levy a monthly ‘train fee’ on those who vote for it. Citizens who oppose optional rail and won’t use it should, shouldn’t be forced to pay for it.
OUR FISCAL PICTURE
Thanks to recently passed bonds, combined public debt repayment for entities taxing in Travis County is about to exceed twenty billion dollars; the highest debt of any metropolitan area in Texas. That debt directly affects property taxes and rent.
HIGHER DEBT AND TAXES ARE COMING
A new $120M library, half a billion in unissued AISD and City bonds, a $250M courthouse, a $512M justice center, a $192M booking facility, a $3.5B City budget, $380M ACC bond promise much higher property taxes. AISD has considered a tax roll-back election to substantially increase their tax rate and is planning more bonds. ‘Lone Star Rail’ longs to get started consuming local property taxes and borrowing in homeowners names; heaping yet another burden on property owners for an exorbitant, dubious scheme.
AISD’s declining student population illustrates the exodus of families to lower tax areas like Hays and Williamson County (forcing these citizens into Austin’s commute/traffic). Austin is quickly becoming un-affordable. Expensive toys like billion dollar trolleys raise taxes and increase our cost of living. An ever expanding Project Connect promises a cavalcade of property tax increases.
The Travis County Appraisal District has again increased the valuation of Austin homes, with a profound impact on tax bills. Most citizens do not understand the protest process, how appraised value/tax rates work or the mechanics of rollback rates. The typical property owner/renter is disconnected from their huge tax bill because it is hidden in their rent or house payment. Every owner/renter should have to directly write a check for their property taxes. If they did, they would be far less likely to approve tax increasing schemes like the trolley. Austin citizens, particularly minorities, the elderly and poor working families have to make serious sacrifices to stay in their homes. In some cases, they are forced into property-tax default, putting their home at risk of auction on the courthouse steps. Skyrocketing rents are driving residents outside the city – how does the 9 mile trolley serve them?
GENTRIFICATION – AFFORDABLE HOUSING
Gentrification in East Austin is displacing many homeowners in our original downtown neighborhoods. The cultural and historical fabric of our city is being torn by costly property taxes. New more affluent residents, buying center-city properties for their location make extensive improvements to them, and increase the valuation of surrounding homes. This leaves indigenous residents, most of whom are minorities, with unaffordable tax bills. Ironically, we’re destroying the affordable housing stock in our city, as we raise property taxes to fund ‘affordable housing’ bonds. The trolley does NOTHING for East Austin residents. It will only increase their property tax.
Austin “leaders” consider homeowners and renters a never ending fountain of funding to pacify their unquenchable thirst for progressive projects. We can’t afford to waste huge sums on programs that have little real impact.
TRAVIS COUNTY TAXING ENTITY DEBT REPAYMENT4
City of Austin $8,653,663,081
Leander Independent School District $2,615,180,051
Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority $1,820,262,856
Austin ISD $1,205,163,337
Round Rock ISD $ 984,458,998
Travis County $ 827,838,088
Austin Community College $ 747,774,103
Lake Travis ISD $ 458,792,630
Hays CISD $ 438,984,000
Pflugerville ISD $ 433,103,914
West Travis County Public Utility Agency $ 332,238,710
Manor ISD $ 308,361,706
City of Cedar Park $ 273,993,345
De Valle ISD $ 222,134,852
Dripping Springs ISD $ 194,133,935
Eanes Independent School District $ 182,736,630
Travis County/Bee Cave Road District 1 $ 21,996,156
Capitol Metro Transit Authority $ 20,223,475
Central Health $ 18,044,482
Travis County Emergency Districts $ 15,385,388
Avery Ranch Road District 1 $ 14,160,060
WAR AGAINST THE AUTOMOBILE – AGENDA 21
A recent survey5 shows 85% of the respondents are unfamiliar with the United Nations Agenda 21 resolution. Agenda 21 pushes a ‘sustainability and livability’ framework that limits personal freedom, erodes property rights and promotes taxation. Supporters dismiss concern with; “it’s a non-binding resolution” and “critics are “tinfoil hat wearing, conspiracy theorists”. They omit the fact a ‘binding’ resolution requires the U.S. Congress formally debate, vote and adopt it; an unlikely prospect. A number of states have banned Agenda 21 and an anti-Agenda 21 plank exists in the Republican Party’s platform. The City of Austin is a member of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), a manifestation of Agenda 21. The Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is an Agenda 21 construct. CAMPO has tremendous power, but little accountability to the public.
Smart electric meters, toll roads, dense high rise housing, parking space metering, load shedding thermostats, elimination of parking requirements in the development code and an emphasis on mass-transit are all part of the Agenda. A September 2013 repeal and replacement of Article 11 of the Austin City Code Chapter 25-12 to adopt the Agenda 21 compliant 2012 International Residential Code, demonstrates how far the resolutions reach. Our city plans to gradually disrupt our commercial infrastructure and re-orient it to their “sustainable, compact and connected” model. How will they make these plans a reality? By limiting your freedom and raising taxes/fees.
Any doubt regarding City leaders ‘war against the automobile’ is dispelled by the Austin Transportation Departments’ 2013 “Austin Mobility Moving Forward” plan. A few quotes: “encourage people’s shifts in travel behavior” (discouraging automobile use), “committed to a plan that includes over 30 emission reduction efforts” (eliminate cars), “optimize community benefits from Austin’s parking resources” (tax parking), “the less people drive the less they need to park”, “encouraging parking places to be sold or leased”, “by ending or reducing parking requirements, the City can boost affordability, encourage transit use”, “incentives to encourage employees to forgo a parking space, in exchange for payment”, “charging for parking and promoting other transportation alternatives can help reduce single occupant vehicle miles traveled”. The entire document casts a veiled war against the automobile, to move us toward Agenda 21’s more “fair and equitable global society”.
2014 Travis County Taxpayer Union
TRAFFIC IMPROVEMENT PROPOSAL
AUSTINS TRAFFIC PROBLEM
Austin has a growing gridlock issue, principally between the hours of 7 – 10 a.m. and 4 – 7 p.m. The intensity and duration of this gridlock will likely grow with population. There’s no end-game solution in a growing city; however intelligent upgrades and keeping up with demand controls the problem.
Austin’s the only large city in Texas with no loop connecting its urban core arterials. San Antonio has two (IH-410 and 1604), Houston has two (IH-610 and 8), Dallas has IH-635/20, Ft Worth has 820/20 and El Paso has 375/54.
Our city has a number of urban core intersections that could be optimized to improve traffic flow. They’re contributors to lost time, higher emissions and congestion.
Our traffic control system needs a major overhaul. Some progress has been made by programs like the Advanced Transportation Management System (ATMS), however we need more robust efforts to fund, design and implement a next generation traffic management system.
- Create ‘loop 360/183’ a 55-65 mph expressway circling Austin. It would provide two additional North South freeway corridors to augment Mopac/Loop 1, 130 and IH-35.
- Improve select urban core and outlying highway intersections
- Work with other jurisdictions (County, Bee Cave, Westlake, etc.) to fund complimentary projects in their domains.
- Complete promised highway projects (i.e. Bergstrom Expressway, Oak Hill Y)
- Implement smart highway traffic controls including ramp metering
We do not advocate simply ‘paving over the problem’; our proposal maximizes existing roads/right-of-way with smart design revision and technology upgrades. Efficient coordination of our roadways cuts time, emissions and congestion. It’s low hanging fruit on improving our transportation network.
ZERO COST IMPROVEMENTS
The simple truth is much of our congestion problem could be resolved at no cost. When you examine the fundamentals of gridlock, improved driving habits could drastically reduce the problem. It’s unlikely that we can eliminate bad driving behavior however no one has made a serious attempt to educate the public. We could see significant improvement if our ‘leaders’ invested as much money into driver education, as they have into Project Connects’ propaganda campaign.
Three principal ‘bad habits’ constitute much of the problem:
- Following too closely
- Excessive lane changes
- Inhibited traffic merging
Following too closely eliminates crucial buffer distance and fosters ‘chain stoppage’. When red brake lights come on ahead, drivers instinctively hit their own brake; this continues until there’s an acceptable buffer distance behind the last car. In a perfect world, all vehicles could maintain a reasonable speed if they maintained a reasonable distance. Many drivers are hesitant to leave buffer space, fearing someone will pull in front of them and put them ‘another car behind’ in the race – that brings up the next bad habit:
Excessive lane changes cause drivers behind to react, typically by hitting their brake which again fosters ‘chain stoppage’. Many drivers often switch lanes several times in a short distance thinking they’re ‘beating the system’. This ‘betting’ on the adjacent lane is a losing game for everyone.
Inhibited traffic merging does two things; it backs up ramps and makes merging drivers more aggressive to gain entry. Think of two gears, they work best when reasonable space exists to ‘mesh’. Drivers seem to view their commute as a competition. Letting merging traffic get in front of them, puts them behind in the race. Merging drivers often break the rules and ignore the solid white line to enter early, circumventing roadway design and practice. Many drivers exit and re-enter the roadway to ‘get around’. They don’t realize their actions create the problem they attempt to elude.
A fourth unavoidable class of problems also exists: Vehicle failure, accidents (often caused by the above three issues), road construction and emergency vehicles like police. A police officer writing a ticket, other emergency or construction vehicles with their lights flashing are powerful inhibitors of traffic flow. It should be policy for those with red, blue, white or amber flashing lights on their vehicles, to use them only in extreme circumstances during rush hour on commuter routes.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If we all learned reasonable traffic flow technique and followed it, we’d benefit with improved transportation speed. Regrettably, it will likely take technology to remove the human error that forms much of our gridlock.
LOW COST IMPROVEMENTS
TELECOMUTING – Our ‘connected’ society facilitates working from home and/or reduction of time spent at a physical business location. We’ve already reaped tremendous benefit from telecommuting, but much more can be done.
CAR POOLING- It’s time Austin gets serious in fostering car/van pools. State government and Capitol Metro projects have shown some successes but they are only a start. The city should be partnering with private enterprise to decrease single occupancy commute vehicles.
RIDE SHARE- Transportation Network Companies (TNC) or Ride sharing programs like Uber, Lyft or Erideshare can greatly reduce cars on the road and increase vehicle occupancy. They promise improved transportation efficiency and traffic reduction. Unfortunately some special interests want to prevent these options as they threaten profits.
SH130 TRUCK DIVERSION- We should implement incentives to move cargo transporters away from IH-35 and onto the SH130 toll road. The infrastructure already exists, has higher speeds, more capacity and a more direct route. Truckers don’t want to sit in gridlock, but high toll rates discourage diversion.
BICYCLE and PEDESTRIAN INFRASTRUCTURE/RULE STRUCTURE- Bicycle commuting/transit should be encouraged. We should be installing safe, dedicated bicycle infrastructure, particularly in the urban core. We should also institute a bike certification program that teaches safe, legal bicycle operation in traffic corridors. Much progress has been made on our sidewalk system, but more work is needed. In many cases, sidewalks should be designed to support both pedestrians and bicycles.
While toll roads are unpopular, they offer TRANSPORTATION ALTERNATIVES typically without imposing new taxes. State laws require toll roads, on established routes, to provide non-toll lane capacity equal to what existed prior to the toll road. In many cases, this capacity is upgraded when the toll road is built. One important fact to remember: Toll roads take cars OFF the established route and spread the load, reducing congestion for everyone, including the free lanes.
Eliminate or improve stop-light intersections by implementing various solutions:
- Smart road technologies (sensors, light timing, information sharing, fuzzy logic controls)
- Over/under passes
- Limiting crossing intersections / highway entry
- Implement improved intersection staging/lanes and ramps
- Implement Median U-Turn Crossovers
Each intersection has its own challenges and needs, further study to determine the best method(s) will be required.
SMART TRAFFIC MANAGEMENT
A revolution in transportation management is at hand. Systems employing low cost intelligent intersection controls, cell phone and sensor technology are making it a reality. New transportation technologies are already in place or being tested right here in Texas. The Texas Intelligent Transportation Corridor test is currently being set up on IH-35 between Hillsborough and Salado by the Texas Transportation Institute and TXDOT. This first step in implementation of ‘smart corridor’ technologies, promises transit change throughout the state. Houston has installed Siemens Intelligent Traffic Solutions hardware at over 400 intersections, showing significant reduction in traffic congestion, vehicle emissions and fuel use. Instead of wasting time with a trolley, we should be seriously implementing programs like Houston’s Transtar to foster these growing technological solutions.
COMPLETE THE “Y” AT OAK HILL
A November 2012 Oak Hill survey6 illustrated citizens number one issue was traffic and the ‘Y’. It’s beyond comprehension how this major intersection has been neglected for so long. Funneling a four lane, high speed highway into a two lane stop light makes little sense. Right-of-way was secured and design was done years ago, yet the problem persists. This is a major highway network and a growth area, forcing drivers to endure this two mile travesty is tantamount to torture. In the time this bottleneck was created we’ve built three major toll roads. Isn’t it time to finish the job?
COMPLETE THE BERGSTROM EXPRESSWAY
Right of way was purchased, roadway was planned and businesses were demolished years ago, yet no improvements have been implemented. The section of road between the river and Highway 71 can be easily finished as intended. It almost seems City leaders WANT it to be a problem.
IMPROVED COST BENEFIT FOR MORE CITIZENS
The suggestions in this proposal benefit all sectors of the city. Creating two additional North- South freeway corridors will significantly reduce Austin’s traffic congestion. Most items proposed are relatively low cost, targeted to specific problem areas and capitalize on existing roadways and easements; minimizing right of way purchase and paving cost.
Depending on the methodologies used, we estimate many of these common sense recommendations can be implemented with less funding than the proposed trolley. Many don’t fall within Austin City jurisdiction and local governments would need to coordinate. Many highway funds exist at the federal and state levels that could potentially augment local dollars. For the cost of ‘Project Connects’ 9 mile trolley, we could benefit citizens in all parts of town, greatly increasing the effectiveness of our transportation dollars.
HIGHWAY 620 INTERSECTION IMPROVEMENT LIST:
Lake Creek Pkwy
RAMP IMPROVEMENT/METERING LIST:
Mopac at Steck
Mopac at Far West
Mopac at Northland
Mopac at 51st
Mopac at 45th
Mopac at 6th
IH-35 at 290
IH-35 at 51st
IH-35 at Airport
IH35 at 15th
IH-35 at 6th
HIGHWAY 183 INTERSECTION LIST:
Exhibit 1 – Breaker/Duval
Exhibit 2 – Loyola Lane
Exhibit 3 – East 51st
Exhibit 4 – TechniCenter
Exhibit 5 – Thompson
Exhibit 6 – Vargas
LOOP 360 INTERSECTION LIST:
Exhibit 7 – Research Blvd/183
Exhibit 8 – Great Hills Dr.
Exhibit 9 – Spicewood Springs/Bluffstone
Exhibit 10 – Spicewood Springs Dr.
Exhibit 11 – Lakewood Dr.
Exhibit 12 – Courtyard
Exhibit 13 – Cedar
Exhibit 14 – Westlake
Exhibit 15 – Pascal
Exhibit 16 – Las Cimas
Exhibit 17 – Lost Creek
Exhibit 18 – Scottish Woods
Exhibit 19 – Walsh Tarlton
Exhibit 20 – Barton Creek Mall
Exhibit 21 – Loop 1
Exhibit 22 – Barton Creek Office complex
HIGHWAY 71 INTERSECTION LIST:
Exhibit 23 – Southwest Parkway
Exhibit 24 – Spanish Oaks
Exhibit 25 – Bee Cave (2244)
Exhibit 26 – FM 620
Exhibit 27 – Hamilton Pool (3238)
URBAN CORE INTERSECTION LIST:
Exhibit 28 – Lamar at 5th
Exhibit 29 – Lamar at 6th
Exhibit 30 – Lamar at 29th
Exhibit 31 – Lamar at 38th
Exhibit 32 – Lamar at 45th
Exhibit 33 – Lamar at Koenig
Exhibit 34 – Lamar at Justin/Airport
Exhibit 35 – Lamar at Ben White/360
Exhibit 36 – Burnet Rd at Breaker Lane
Exhibit 37 – Burnet Rd at Anderson Lane
Exhibit 38 – Burnet Rd at Cullen
Exhibit 39 – Airport at Shady/Bolm Rd.
TRANSIT GRAPH LIST:
Exhibit 40 – Total Bus and Light Rail Ridership for Four Major Texas Cities
Exhibit 41 – Austin Regional Population and Transit Ridership
Exhibit 42 – Transit’s Share of Commuters
Exhibit 43 – Commuter Mode Share
“While Austin prides itself on being more progressive than the rest of Texas, per-rider costs for Houston’s light rail lines are half or less what Austin is planning on paying.”- S. Smith, Next City
“Pouring tax dollars into this ad blitz, aimed at subsidizing the dreams of a small assortment of private developers and the UT administration, discredits Project Connect….Community leaders and activists concerned with the future of democratic and fair process in this city should demand a stop to it — now.” – AustinRailNow.com
“As taxpayers and transit advocates, we are concerned about the expenditure of public money for this campaign-related advertising. While the words “vote for the bond package” are not included in any of the advertisements, this sort of technicality prioritizes form over substance: since the rest of the content makes no mention of opposing viewpoints or data, this advertising campaign is public relations, not genuine engagement.”- Austinites for Urban Rail Action
“obsession with urban rail as a symbol of a “world class city” has stood as an impediment to addressing the real problems with Austin’s transit system.”Jace Deloney
“Light rail is a waste of money and a poor choice for any transit corridor. Project Connect should use available funds to improve transportation for everyone, not the relative handful of people who will ride light rail” – Randal O’Toole, Senior Fellow CATO Institute
“Pinocchio-style” campaign (and plan) packed with exaggerations contrived to try to sucker voter support….The staggering cost will soak up available local funding for years to come….Project Connect’s urban rail plan is “worse than nothing” – AustinRailNow.com
“the first phase only of a system that will cost who-knows-how-many-more billions of dollars….Once again the phrase “Costs Too Much, Does Too Little” still rings so true” Gerald Daugherty, Travis County Commissioner
“investment in a very pricey decoration instead of addressing congestion…Project Connect and Austin’s leadership seem to have abandoned all thought of cost-effectiveness and seeking the best value for spending taxpayers’ money….Judging from Project Connects’ flawed, fairytale projections; Austin voters should view these hopes and dreams with strong skepticism” – Lyndon Henry, National Rail Transportation Consultant.
REFERENCES AND LINKS
1 American Public Transportation Association
2 U.S. Dept of Transportation
3 Federal Highway Administration – Exploratory Advanced Research: A journey toward new solutions. David Kuehn and Ariam Asmerom
4 Texas Bond Review Board – Texas Comptroller
5 American Planning Association 2012 Agenda 21 survey
6 Oak Hill Parkway Environmental Impact Statement Study/Community Survey