Monday, April 2, 2012

Austin's Rail History & Route Choice Problem Part 2: Politics

Now that we're through the history in the last post and know the ropes.  Let's chat about the current politics that are pushing the corridor in the direction it is headed instead of where we think the logical choice of corridor is located, down Guadalupe and Lamar streets.

Politics - Politics always plays a part of planning for a major infrastructure investment and this decision is no different.  There are several groups that have a specific interest in the routing of the transit line, and while not nefarious in their push to get the line through their land (it's an honest belief that it will help these parts of the city) , it seems to continue to push the project in the direction it is going.

And while its fair that each of these political pushes has merit enough for future extensions, it doesn't mean that these alignments should be the first ones in the ground. Consider the map of the current Urban Rail plan below in Orange.

Map Courtesy of the Austin Chronicle


The main line goes from the Mueller redevelopment project through the University of Texas on San Jacinto Street right next to Memorial Stadium and down south to Riverside where the line would run out to the Airport.  For some reason airports are always wanted for rail extensions even though they aren't major trip generators in the region compared with other areas.  Again, while my preferred corridor is Guadalupe/Lamar, we'll go through that issue later. 

University of Texas' Stake

The University of Texas has a strong presence in the Austin area.  Of course one of the largest institutions of higher education in the country would, but UT is specifically strong.  And it sees itself sometimes as its own little island.  Below is a map of the university campus.  Most students take classes in the sections labeled 1,2,4,5 in the top left quadrant of the campus area.


The yellow line above represents the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor which now is traversed by the #1 Route bus.  The orange line is the Urban Rail plan as it currently stands.

However the University sees itself as the whole campus, and their center is along San Jacinto street, which is the road that splits sections 5 and 6.  Since planning for rail began, the campus master planners at the University have always wanted rail on this street, even though it would be a round about route for students coming from the North or South trying to get to classes to sections 1 and 2.  Also the Forty Acres bus loop that takes students between housing on the west side of Campus (some of the densest neighborhoods in the city) is the second highest patronized bus line in the city after the #1 bus meaning that on any given day, about 8,000 students hop a bus to loop around campus because its convenient, and they don't want to walk up the huge hill from the stadium to Gregory Gym.  But the goal of the University of the line down San Jacinto was to be able to expand East as property allowed denser development for students and space on the west side disappeared.  This is in my mind why they continue to push for a San Jacinto alignment, it's the center of their future master plans.

Another wrinkle though occurred to me when visiting with Campus Planner John Rishling in 2004. He mentioned that at some point UT would also want to connect to the Pickle Campus as students could be housed there and expansion could take place to create a research village on 425 acres when space got to be a premium on the 40 Acres.  This is in UT's longer term plans and is unlikely to cause them to push for a corridor down Guadalupe anytime soon.  Additionally, unless the current Red Line is retrofitted a two seat ride would be required to get to Pickle, which is currently within walking distance to the Red Line itself, but not a stop.  Any future plans to make Pickle into a campus that needed to be directly connected to the 40 acres would have to consider transportation, but they are not there quite yet.

Images Courtesy of Dhiru Thadani


Map Courtesy of UT

 


Mueller Airport Redevelopment's Stake

Mueller Politics - Mueller is the first new urban neighborhood in the central city for a very long time. The planning for this site took years after the airport left the site for Bergstrom Air Force Base in Southeast Austin in 1999.  The Master Development Agreement was signed in 2004 and development started in 2007.

Throughout that time representatives at Mueller had pushed for rail to run into the development.  The development density was limited by a traffic impact analysis, and in order to increase densities a transit line needed to be constructed through the site to reduce the total trips.  According to the Capital Metro Future Connections Study for the 2006 streetcar alternatives analysis, that meant densities could increase by 12% if that rail line were constructed (PDF PG 15). 
The agreement with the City of Austin sets a traffic impact expectation on the basis of  proposed land use levels and the presence of existing transit services in the Mueller area. The introduction of measures that moderate vehicular travel to and from the site allows the developer to increase development density to the extent that traffic quantities are not increased above the expected level.

The analysis indicates that the Circulator, along with the MLK Rapid Bus, would attract increased transit use to the extent of reducing the RMMA traffic impact by 7,820 vehicle trips. On that basis, there could be additional development to the extent that 7,820 vehicle trips would result. If the development mix of additional development was the same as in the approved plan, the trip reduction would support a 12 percent increase in development without exceeding the vehicular travel target of 73,969 trips (assuming the current mix of land use is uniformly densified).

As the redevelopment project moves towards development, that allowance is cut short not by the trips, but the land available to build more density than originally planned.  So time is of the essence for Mueller but ultimately this type of incentive is backwards.  What they should have programmed is density allowances where increased value or bonus funding was funneled into a funding source that would have built the transit line to the development rather than having to wait for the line to get there before developing.   As it stands now that opportunity is disappearing, and the push for Mueller is a priority for increased value to the city and developers. 

State Politics & Space

Of course if you read the history you would see that there is a lot of animosity towards Capital Metro at the state level.  For a period of time they were trying to take away the quarter cent.  But for those who think the corridor would be a good thing, they want to redevelop the East side of the State Capital since the West is already developed. 

Of course the State provides parking in these garages and has a lot of excess capacity, which means that there is very little incentive to take transit other than existing traffic issues.  According to a 2010 parking study by the Texas Facilities Commission, any employee who works for the state at least four hours a day is eligible for a parking pass.  In 2009, approximately 25% of the spaces were vacant. According to the report...
This parking supply of 9,529 spaces serves approximately 10,101 full time employees (FTEs) in the Capitol Complex during a non-legislative year.
That's not a lot of transit usage but the report recommends that all that free parking is costing the State a LOT in lost revenues. Additionally this suggests that there is a missing demand for transit that could be met by a new line.  However the question will be how much of the population that works at the state is located along the Mueller Corridor as opposed to the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor and points north.

Image Courtesy of Austin American Statesman


With the state also hard up for money (as every other state in the country), the Texas Facilities Commission led by notorious Capital Metro detractor Terry Keel had been working on a public private partnership plan to bring 7 million square feet of space to the Capital.  This would include replacing a number of parking garages with new space which would be bolstered by the Urban Rail proposal. The parking report above also mentions the possible reuse of underutilized resources for redevelopment.



Additional whispers suggest that a UT Medical School campus could also be on the docket in this space, producing a long awaited Medical School that I've always wondered why it didn't exist in Austin.  State Senator Kirk Watson, who was on the Transit Working Group for a time is also pushing for the Medical Campus.   That's a lot of pressure to keep the line on San Jacinto and/or Trinity streets versus the already built out areas around Guadalupe and Lamar. 

The 2000 Burn

Finally there is the political ramifications of getting burned in the 2000 election which saw the voters in the City of Austin approve the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor, but the service area voted against (read the suburbs).  People in Austin continue to be scarred by that election and scared of the state's power to take away funding and make the city dance.  Not only was it the election that brought George W. Bush to the White House, it was also the one th