Monthly Archives: September 2013

Open Letter to Travis County Commissioners – Roads Alone Will Not Solve Problems in Precinct 4

By Bill Oakey

September 19, 2013

Amid the tumultuous debate this week over whether and how to fund road expansions in Southeast Travis County, a big question has been largely overlooked.  Will new roads address the broader concerns of the underserved, mostly Hispanic residents in Precinct 4?

Most of the discussion has centered around the hot button issue of whether the expansion of Kellam Road and Elroy Road stands as just another subsidy for the Circuit of the Americas racetrack.  This week, the Austin-American Statesman published two opinions suggesting exactly that.  Vance Facundo, an F1 fan whose social media forums draw 6,000 followers, raised several interesting questions.  He doubts whether the massive growth projections for the area will pan out, and even cited reasons why the crowds for upcoming F1 races may not be sufficient to warrant the large scale road expansions.

Then on Wednesday evening, the American-Statesman editorial board weighed in.  They declared that all other claims aside, rushing the roadwork though with an unorthodox approach that bypasses voters serves only the interests of the racetrack owners.

That brings us back to Tuesday’s Travis County Commissioners Court meeting and the emotional comments by numerous speakers.  One that stands out in my mind came from Brigid Shea, who is running for a seat on the Court next year.  She spoke directly to the needs of the residents of Precinct 4, many of whom live below the poverty line.  Using an earlier cost estimate for the roads of $25 million, she listed several social service program items and numbers of potential affordable housing units that could be obtained for that sum of money.

This afternoon, seeking to put all of the issues into perspective, I sent the following message to the Travis County Commissioners:

Dear County Commissioners:

I fully understand the difficult challenges you are facing with the Southeast roadway expansion issue.  My sense from watching Tuesday’s discussion is that most of you prefer a shared approach with other funding partners.  At the same time, Commissioners Gomez and Davis are justifiably concerned about the divide that has kept the underserved population in Precinct 4 waiting too long for services that are overdue.

Let me suggest that the shared funding approach for the roads will help make more money available to serve those needs.  It will also reduce or eliminate the public perception that the roads are just a subsidy for COTA. Like it or not, public perception carries over into election campaigns.  On that battlefront, reason and sound policy give way to negative energy.

The Court would do well to tap into the community voices across boundary lines who know and care about best practices for underserved populations.  We need to address job training, affordable housing, and post high school opportunities for the folks who need them.  No one understands that better than the many businesses, large and small, who need a well-trained and educated workforce.

So, please take this opportunity, while the subject of needs in Precinct 4 is in the air, to address the broader issues as well as the roads.  The more productive and successful we can be across the divide, the better chance we will have to eliminate it someday.


(Ladies and) Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!

By Bill Oakey

September 17, 2013

My second beer tonight came from one of those sampler packs, and unfortunately, it wasn’t very good.  But at least I got a chance to wind down from one of the wildest and wooliest public meetings I’ve experienced in quite some time!

The topic at hand was the F1 road expansion project for Southeast Travis County.  There were only a handful of citizens on hand to speak.  But it was quite lively.  If politics were defined as a spectator sport, today’s showdown at the races would certainly qualify as an event for the record books.

Let’s get one thing straight before going any further.  How did the vote turn out?  Did they vote to approve the roads using certificates of obligation, and to do so without voter approval? Not exactly.  Did they vote to approve Commissioner Bruce Todd’s alternate proposal to create a stakeholders committee to review the road needs and funding options and report back in six weeks?  Not exactly.

Well then, you might ask, what did they vote on?  All I can tell you is, I would sure like to know the answer to that myself.  I sat through the entire thing, and actually came away more confused than enlightened.  One thing is clear.  There won’t be another attempt at a decision until next Tuesday.

So, let’s start with the beginning of the meeting. Commissioner Margaret Gomez made an impassioned appeal for better road repairs and maintenance in Precinct 4, which includes the town of Elroy where the COTA racetrack is located.  She spoke eloquently of years of neglect for her underserved constituents there.  Even without the racetrack, she insisted, some of the roads are not safe for families and their schoolchildren.  After she spoke, a few of the family members, with toddlers on their laps, approached the table in front and addressed the commissioners with their concerns.

There was also a very lengthy staff discussion of the roads, which eventually included the total estimated price tag of $33 million.  Note that the price has gone up considerably since just last year, when most estimates never reached $20 million.  Expansions of Elroy and Kellam Road were the ones up for a vote.

All but one of the citizen speakers questioned the rush to approve the roads without first determining what other funding partners could be brought to the table.  Former Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt spoke intelligently and articulately as always about economic development and the need for “getting it right” on road projects as opposed to just getting it done.

One highlight of the afternoon was a near-meltdown of a personality clash between Gerald Daugherty and Cathy Olive, president of the Elroy Neighborhood Association.  She insisted that the section of Kellam Road up for discussion is actually part of Circuit of the Americas Boulevard.  After pausing to catch his breath, Daugherty backed away from a full scale fight with Olive, but it was obvious that a history of bad blood exists between the two.  Cathy Olive’s closing comment was that road crews were out there today “spreading black goo” to try to cover up cracks in the brand new pavement that was just put down before last year’s race.  She questioned the quality of the work done then, and wondered whether taxpayers can expect anything better the next time around.

My suggestion was that whatever health and safety issues involved in any of the roads in Precinct 4 should be dealt with on their own merits, and the necessary repairs and maintenance should be brought up to date as soon as possible.  As for the larger scale road expansions to benefit the racetrack, I recommended that the commissioners reach out to COTA for funding support.  I mentioned their repeated offers to share the costs during the period of January through April of last year.  To top it off, I asked them to approach COTA “at the highest levels” and ask them to become a major partner in other areas as well, such as sponsoring job fairs and a job training center.  I don’t think it would hurt to ask them to rebrand themselves as a high profile “good neighbor” corporate citizen.  Who knows, they might just go for it.  No one will ever know if they don’t ask.

Brigid Shea, who is the frontrunner for next year’s vacant seat on the Court, spoke up for the taxpayers and the need to keep the public’s ability to pay in mind when jumping into large scale expensive projects.  Both she and Susan Moffat recommended Bruce Todd’s proposal for a six week committee review.

Each commissioner weighed in with their thoughts.  It became clear right away that Commissioner Gerald Daugherty would vote with Gomez on her plan to approve a fast track approach to building the roads, through the Central Texas Mobility Authority.  Judge Sam Biscoe and Commissioner Bruce Todd stood in favor of a slower, more methodical approach with the stakeholders committee.  That left Commissioner Ron Davis as the swing vote.

Davis laid out his feelings about the longstanding community divide, which he stated was very much alive and well.  Like Ms. Gomez, he spoke of the need to equalize the treatment of an underserved population in Precinct 4.  He wanted to vote yes on the Gomez motion, but only if a shared funding plan would be included.

From that point forward, everything became about as clear as mud.  Commissioner Gomez made several attempts at a motion, each time followed with several attempts at friendly amendments.  And there was at least one substitute motion.  In the end they finally voted to come back and try again next week.

It’s what they actually intend to accomplish between now and next week that is not clear, at least not to me.  Bruce Todd spoke of merging his plan with Margaret Gomez’s and possibly getting a unanimous vote.  Hopefully, that means a cost sharing plan with several other partners besides Travis County.   When I was speaking, I asked one critical question.  Is it possible to use the fast-tracking approach offered by the Central Texas Mobility Authority with voter-approved bond financing?  The answer I was given was yes.  We can only hope that no one forgets that option when the horse trading resumes again next week.

Is Fiscal Responsibility a Taboo for Democrats?

By Bill Oakey

September 16, 2013

A recent article in the Austin American-Statesman grabbed my attention and made me ponder that question.  I thought we were long past the notion that cutting governmental budgets and making life more affordable for taxpayers was somehow restricted to Republicans.

Here’s how the conversation got started.  Travis County Commissioner, Gerald Daugherty, happens to be a Republican.  In the ongoing budget discussions at the Commissioners Court, Mr. Daugherty took the time to prepare an alternative budget.  His plan would only spend $5.6 million more than last year, and all of that money would come from increases in construction revenue.  The staff’s proposed budget would spend $40 million more.

Some of Commissioner Daugherty’s cuts may be considered controversial, such as eliminating an across the board pay raise for County employees.  But he also questioned the need to hire more middle managers in one department, and he listed quite a few items that he would either cut entirely or reduce in funding.  He made another list of items he would support if comparable cuts could be found in other places.  It’s a worthwhile gesture, even if not everyone would agree with some of the specifics.

The community-wide focus on affordability has elevated the need for politicians of both parties to work aggressively to hold down tax increases and look for innovative ways to find efficiencies.  A recent American-Statesman article about Commissioner Daugherty’s alternative budget raised the specter of old ghosts that apparently still haunt the Commissioners Court.  Some commissioners commented that Democrats could not be expected to match Daugherty’s enthusiasm for voting no on so many budget items, or campaigning to reduce taxes.

Well, here’s my response to that.  Halloween is coming.  It’s time to cast out the old ghosts from the past and think in terms of modern times.  Democrats are capable not only of practicing fiscal responsibility, but even doing it better than Republicans.  How about the fact that the United States was well on its way to eliminating the budget deficit under Bill Clinton? We had a robust economy.

Some final thoughts about Gerald Daugherty.  I am sure that I would not agree with all of his votes.  But then I would probably say that about most anybody else in office.  Commissioner Daugherty supports funding for social service programs to help the less fortunate in the community, although often at a lower level than the proposed budget.  But consider this.  He made personal site visits to every non-profit that requested funding under this year’s budget.  That’s something that even Democrats in his precinct position have not done.

So, when it comes to fiscal responsibility, as well as compassion, there are lessons that can be learned from both parties.  The most important one is that Austin and Travis County need more cooperation and focus on affordability.  And that means tossing out old fashioned notions about either party being able to lay claim to any strategy that will get us there.

Travis County May Stick Taxpayers With F1 Road Costs

By Bill Oakey

September 14, 2013

Tomorrow, the Travis County Commissioners will vote on a major set of road expansion projects near the F1 racetrack.  This is Item #32 on the agenda, scheduled for 1:30.  This item would have the taxpayers pay 100% of the cost for the roads using certificates of obligation, without voter approval!  Below the agenda items, you will see two direct quotes from the Circuit of the Americas from last year, offering to share the cost of the roads with Travis County.

You can review the agenda and the backup materials here:

Here is a breakdown of the F1 road projects, from Item 32:


Please email, Facebook, and Tweet this info to everyone on your list and ask them to do the same.  Ask them to come to:

Travis County Commissioners Court, 700 Lavaca Street, downtown

This Tuesday, at 1:30 PM

Last Year the COTA Entered Into Negotiations With Travis County to Share F1 Road Costs

Here is a direct quote from the COTA, from the Austin American-Statesman, dated April 5, 2012:

“We are proposing to start work on the road improvements now, with (Circuit of the Americas) paying the upfront expense. We are also proposing that Travis County would then provide COTA with a performance-based reimbursement for the county road improvements once they were complete. The percentage of reimbursement would be determined with county officials,” said Julie Loignon, a spokeswoman for the circuit.

From another Statesman article, dated Jan. 12, 2012:

“Both sides expect to work out a cost-sharing deal before long, but they say the project won’t be complete before the first race takes place Nov. 18.”  And from the same article,  “Race organizers agree — begrudgingly, according to (F1 Attorney, Richard) Suttle — that the cost of the repair and widening of Elroy between McAngus and the track entrance should be split. The two sides diverge, however, on how much each side should pay.”

Memories Fade, the Negotiations Are Forgotten, the Taxpayers Get Stuck!

Since last year those talks have been conveniently forgotten, and you and I, the taxpayers, may be stuck with the entire cost.  Judge Sam Biscoe opposes the item, and Commissioner Bruce Todd proposes a Stakeholder Committee to review cost options.  I could support Commissioner Todd’s very reasonable plan if there were no non-voter-apporved funding, and if he would simply add the cost-sharing negotiations with COTA.

Here is Commissioner Todd’s proposal:  (See more details in the agenda backup).

I propose that the specific objectives of the working group should be to create a comprehensive roadway implementation plan to achieve the following:

A recommendation to the Commissioners Court 6 weeks from the inception of the group to include, but not be limited to:

1. Best alignments for long-term regional and local benefits

2. Potential phasing to provide immediate and long-term congestion relief for area residents

3. Funding sources including the evaluation of motel-hotel taxes

4. Funding and funding partners evaluated on the basis of direct economic benefit based on participation on roadway improvements

5. Partner participation including City of Austin

You can call or email the other three County Commissioners using the links below:

Commissioner Margaret Gomez: (512) 854-9444,

Commissioner Ron Davis: (512) 854-9111,

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty: (512) 854-9333,

2012 Austin American-Statesman Articles, Showing COTA’s Willingness to Share F1 Road Costs:

Updated: 11:37 p.m. Wednesday, May 16, 2012 | Posted: 10:37 p.m. Thursday, April 5, 2012

Circuit of the Americas seeks assistance from Travis County for roadwork


Circuit of the Americas officials are asking Travis County to pay for at least some new road construction in the vicinity of their $300 million racetrack and entertainment complex southeast of Austin.

The work would include widening Elroy Road to four lanes and the extension of little-used Kellam Road to Pearce Lane to create a new way to get to the track property.

“We are proposing to start work on the road improvements now, with (Circuit of the Americas) paying the upfront expense. We are also proposing that Travis County would then provide COTA with a performance-based reimbursement for the county road improvements once they were complete. The percentage of reimbursement would be determined with county officials,” said Julie Loignon, a spokeswoman for the circuit.

Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt said it isn’t clear exactly what the circuit is seeking and added, “This looks like a very ambitious business proposal that is having trouble meeting its financial obligation. And so they are looking to the county to subsidize a portion of their startup costs.”

The 3.4-mile circuit is scheduled to host its first Formula One Grand Prix on Nov. 18. That would be the first F1 race in the United States in five years, and it’s been estimated that as many as 120,000 fans could attend.

Travis County officials have previously expressed concern about transportation to and from the isolated site, saying traffic delays for that Sunday race could be as long as 12 hours. Circuit officials have not dismissed the potential problems but have estimated delays closer to three hours.

For months, the county and the circuit officials have debated who should pay — and how much they should pay — for an estimated $8 million in road improvements for the area.

The county has said that it would pay for resurfacing McAngus and Elroy roads. The work on McAngus has already begun. There is construction going on at Elroy Road, but according to Bill Farr at Cash Construction, that is for a 30-inch water line parallel to Elroy Road.

Farr said, however, that it might be possible for the work being done on the water line to be used as a base for widening Elroy Road.

Circuit officials would like more than a mile of Elroy to be widened, from McAngus Road to the track’s northern entrance. The circuit would also like to see the county pay for some of that widening, citing the potential economic benefit to the area.

The county has said it will pay to repave Kellam Road, if the circuit then extends that road to Pearce Lane, which connects with Texas 130. Kellam is currently a road to nowhere, passing by a few houses and farmhouses before coming to an end.

Currently, two tracts of land stand between Kellam and Pearce. Weldon Copeland of Rainbow Properties said someone with the circuit has an option to buy an 82-acre plot at Kellam’s end.

There’s also a more than 600-acre tract owned by the state’s General Land Office.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has been one of the most vocal critics of the state’s pledged financial support for the race. However, on Tuesday the office’s School Land Board unanimously approved the sale of more than 6 acres of that tract — presumably enough for a road to be built if the financing can be agreed upon.

In his application for the development incentive, circuit President Steve Sexton wrote, “While we are asking for road incentives, you may still decide that the value of our proposal to county citizens is worthy of an abatement or rebate also.”


Updated: 11:45 p.m. Wednesday, May 16, 2012 | Posted: 7:53 p.m. Monday, Jan. 9, 2012

Elroy Road to be widened, but not before first F1 race


With Austin’s inaugural Formula One race back on the schedule for this fall, Travis County and Circuit of the Americas have resumed negotiations over how to split the $5 million to $6 million cost of repairing and expanding about a mile of Elroy Road, a bumpy two- lane county road that leads to one of the track site’s two entrances.

Both sides expect to work out a cost-sharing deal before long, but they say the project won’t be complete before the first race takes place Nov. 18.

With that and other traffic challenges in mind, F1 attorney Richard Suttle said race officials have two consultants working on a “highly choreographed” plan to efficiently move the 120,000 people expected to attend the race southeast of Austin.

“I don’t think it’s possible for them and us to get everything worked out and get the (road improvements) designed, permitted and built by the time they have their first race,” said Steve Manilla , Travis County’s transportation and natural resources director.

Perhaps, Manilla said, the F1 group “could come in here with guns blazing to pay a premium price to get it done quicker, but I don’t see that happening.”

Travis County, even before the possibility of F1 racing in Central Texas emerged two years ago, had intended to spend about $5.5 million rehabilitating more than three miles of Elroy Road east of Texas 130. But the prospect of heavy traffic on the road — the track’s north entrance will be about a mile east of where Elroy crosses McAngus Road — changed that plan.

The track’s other entrance will be on FM 812 to the south — both FM 812 and Elroy have direct access to the nearby Texas 130 tollway — and that two-lane highway will be expanded to four lanes by re-striping the existing 44 feet of road, transforming its broad shoulders into traffic lanes.

Both sides now agree that Elroy Road should be expanded to four lanes in the milelong stretch between McAngus and the track entrance — Elroy is already four lanes west of McAngus to Texas 130 — and that a low, two-lane bridge over Dry Creek needs to be replaced with a higher, four-lane bridge.

The two lanes of Elroy, which are rippled because of the unstable clay soils underneath the road, also would be rebuilt and resurfaced.

The county will move forward with the pavement repair on the rest of Elroy Road east and south of the track’s north entrance, Manilla said, a project likely to commence later this year. And he said the county likewise will rebuild the two lanes of McAngus between Texas 130 and Elroy.

Race organizers agree — begrudgingly, according to Suttle — that the cost of the repair and widening of Elroy between McAngus and the track entrance should be split. The two sides diverge, however, on how much each side should pay.

The county, arguing that repairing two lanes is inherently less expensive than building two more lanes from scratch and that the new lanes will be on right of way purchased by the county decades ago, wants Circuit of the Americas to pay more than half.

“They’ve told us, no more site permits until we come to shore on this deal,” Suttle said. “I think we’re going to get there.”

Kudos to the Travis County Commissioners!

By Bill Oakey

September 11, 2013

As a battle-scarred veteran of City Hall skirmishes dating back to the 1980’s, I jumped into the fray with the County Commissioners Court, not knowing what to expect.  It all started a few months ago when I started questioning the $300+ million cost of the proposed new Civil and Family Courthouse.

Not having access to high paid consultants, I sat down at my computer and tried a Google search for “new County Courthouse.”  After browsing through several small town projects, I hit the jackpot with Broward County, Florida.  They have a new courthouse under construction that is half the cost per square foot than the one being proposed here.

Armed with pages of detail, I drafted a summary and emailed it to all five members of the Travis County Commissioners Court.  Within just a few minutes, I received a polite and friendly response from Commissioner Margaret Gomez.  From that day forward, the entire Court has been very helpful and supportive of ideas for saving taxpayer money.

In the case of County Judge Sam Biscoe, I was particularly impressed with his patience and fair minded approach to dealing with citizens.   This even includes the flying-saucer-conspiracy-nut-cases that show up for Citizens Communications.  I met with Judge Biscoe for a full hour.  His response to my courthouse research was to place an item on the agenda to seek a formal staff review of cost saving options derived from other courthouse projects.

The meetings I had with other Commissioners were positive as well, regardless of political party affiliation.  We discussed holding the line on the overall budget.  Commissioners Todd, Daugherty, and Gomez all told me about their steps in that direction.  I even received emails with some details of their cost saving efforts.

On Tuesday, Sept. 10th, the Commissioners Court took up Judge Biscoe’s agenda item for a staff review of comparative costs for new courthouses.  I walked up to the front table and took a seat between two staff members.  I’m sure they were wondering “Who in the heck is that guy?  (I ask myself that same question all the time).

An idea had come to me earlier that morning, as I sat in the Court and waited.  When it was my turn to speak, I sprang it on the Commissioners.  “Please direct the staff to make this courthouse a national model of cost-effectiveness and efficiency,” I asked.  Judge Biscoe obliged and inserted those words into his memo.

Here’s a little secret about how I got that idea.  I found a passage in one of the thick consultant reports on the new courthouse.  They were promising to deliver a “World Class Facility / A Grand Public Building.”  That got me to thinking about the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  I could see a consultant carrying two buckets full of reports.  Each report proposes a taller and even more expensive building.  Then, like the brooms in the original story, the single consultant morphs into two, carrying four buckets.  Then there are eight, sixteen, thirty-two and so on.

I decided to speak up before the chickens (Sorcerer) came home to roost!

The Whole Truth About Your City of Austin Tax Increase

By Bill Oakey

September 10, 2013

You have probably heard the news by now.  The Austin City Council “held the line” and did not raise the property tax rate for the new City Budget.  Unfortunately, this is one of the worst examples of public deception and lack of transparency that we have in our city.  The entire process needs to be reformed from top to bottom.  But for now, let’s keep it simple and focus on the tax rate issue.

On Tuesday, Sept. 10th the City Council gave each other high fives and whooped up a storm because they “did not raise the tax rate this year.”  Mayor Lee Leffingwell deserves some credit for insisting that they not increase the rate and make things even worse.  But what they gave us is a 3.8% tax increase.

Now let me explain how that happened.

Each year the City publishes a number called the “effective tax rate.”  That is the rate that would generate the same amount of revenue as last year.  This year, because overall property values increased, the effective tax rate went down.  That figure for this year’s budget cycle is 48.43 cents.  The City would have to adopt that rate in order to balance the budget with a zero tax increase.  The 50.27 cent rate that they did adopt equates to a 3.8% tax increase for the average appraised homeowner.

In some neighborhoods, the tax appraisals went up so much that homes are subject to the annual 10% cap on tax increases. So, people in that situation will see their City taxes go way up. City officials have no way of announcing what the tax impact will be on everybody.  But they could certainly be a lot more transparent and a lot less deceptive. Because of fluctuations in property values from one year to the next, it is silly to even think about comparing last year’s adopted tax rate to this year’s.  The effective rate is the one that matters.

Regardless of whether overall property values have gone up, gone down, or stayed the same, the effective tax rate will result in a zero tax increase for the average value home.  That’s the whole reason such a rate was created in the first place.  Cities use it as the starting number to make sure they do not exceed the maximum tax rate allowed by State law.

So, we need to reform the City of Austin’s budget process.  We should require them to publicize any increase above the effective tax rate that they are considering for the new budget.  That approach is sometimes called zero-based budgeting.  It’s a method that would tell us what any increase in spending would actually do to our taxes.   If the City had based all of their negotiations around the effective rate of 48.43 cents, we would have had a fair and honest budget debate.

But here’s what really happened.  City budget staff recently announced that they had $13 million more than anticipated because of increases in construction fees and sales tax collections. So, the City Council applied $7 million of that surplus towards reducing the tax rate down to 50.27 cents, 2/100 of a cent below last year’s rate of 50.29.  Then, voila! They suddenly had $6 million in happy-go-lucky “leftover” money that they could spend! Which of course, they did.  Then came the high fives, the whooping and all the rest.  All because last year’s totally meaningless tax rate was touted, instead of the fair and honest effective tax rate.

So, grab your partner, hold hands and get ready for a new kind of dance.  Next year we are going to reform the City Budget process!  And if we’re really lucky, we might be able to slip in one other reform.  How about requiring them to hold the public hearings that are published and advertised as “starting at 4:00 PM” to actually start somewhere near that time?  I stayed at home on the couch for the last one, because it started 6 hours and 39 minutes late.  Like they always do.

Note 1: For a City chart that shows the increase in property values and the effective tax rate, see Page 17 of the Proposed Budget:

Note 2: In 1987 I presented a proposal to the Texas Legislature, which resulted in the revised truth-in-taxation law that local governments use to publicize notices of proposed tax increases.

Is Urban Rail an Affordable and Effective Solution for Austin?

September 9, 2013

For the last couple of years, Austin City leaders have been talking up the prospect of an urban rail project.  We have been told that the City can expect billions in benefits from the economic impact.  And of course it will relieve the terrible traffic congestion that Austinites have grown to hate.  The $550 million first phase of the project will carry a local cost of $275 million, most likely from a bond election to be held in November of next year.

Rather than use this space to try to explain the urban rail project, or to take sides for or against it, I prefer to just present some information for everyone to consider.  The debate just got a whole lot more interesting, thanks to a provocative new article in the Austin Business Journal. by guest contributor, Jim Skaggs.  A subscription is required to read the whole story, but the title and the opening lines reveal the tone.

Sep 6, 2013, 5:00am CDT

Urban rail failed in Portland and Austin faces same fate

Jim Skaggs, Guest Contributer

The recently reported Austin study indicating huge tax revenue increases due to the economic impact of rail transit is a total fabrication without foundation.

Portland was an early implementer of modern urban rail in the l980s. Leaders there promoted and projected major tax revenue benefits from economic development near train stations. This did not happen.

For many years in many cities urban rail’s failure to improve congestion and air quality have been generally accepted, and many supporters have again turned to the more subjective economic development carrot to lead rail promotion.

The website reveals some of the reality regarding …(End)

Here is an excerpt from a different ABJ article, published just a week earlier.

Aug 30, 2013, 12:38pm CDT

Urban rail’s economic impact potential: $31 billion

Robert Grattan, Staff Writer

Austin Business Journal

A fully built urban rail system running through Austin could bring as much as $31 billion in economic impact to the city by 2030, according to a new economic analysis.

The study is one of the first steps toward understanding the full impact that the $1.3 billion mass-transit system would have on the city. Until now, much of the conversation has focused on cost estimates and the size of the financial undertaking, but there hasn’t been much discussion about the return on investment.

The findings are also the first step toward identifying revenue the project could generate, which could be used to leverage private investors to help with urban rail.

Estimates put the amount of increased tax revenue at around $109 million per year, once the whole urban rail system has been built in 2030. By 2020, the city would see around $54 million per year. Most of that revenue would come from the increased value of nearby property, which would be enhanced by additional transportation options.

Those figures are predicted to mesh with and add to the Imagine Austin plans for increased density and the additional 45,000 people and 58,000 new jobs that are expected to be created by 2030.

In addition, an urban rail system – functioning as a segment of a larger mass transit system – is projected to save 25,000 daily trips from 12,500 commuters. Combined with city-wide bike infrastructure, the study projects that Austinites could save $296 million in commuting costs. That money is expected to be invested in the local economy and to create 2,300 new jobs.

The study was done through partnership with a number of transit agencies, including the city of Austin and research partner the University of Texas at Austin – which provided a supercomputer to crunch numbers.  (End of excerpt).

My Comments

There seems little doubt as to which of these assessments is correct.  After all, the City’s partner in this study, the University of Texas, “provided a supercomputer” to crunch the numbers! But since I promised an objective treatment, let’s ignore that. I will certainly buy the notion that property values along the rail route will increase significantly.  So, will your property taxes if you live near the rail footprint.

Perhaps even that remains an assumption at this point.  For the moment I am intrigued by Portland’s urban rail experience.  For them, urban rail is no longer a visionary concept.  It got built.  There is plenty of Portland potpourri to satisfy anyone’s curiosity.

But first, out of fairness, here’s a link to the official “Austin Urban Rail” website, followed by a snippet from the site:

From “Austin Urban Rail” Website

“Because our population continues to grow at a rapid pace and the transportation network serving our business and cultural core cannot meet existing demand or future growth. Transportation impacts everyone, and if people can’t move around our city, we all stand to lose what makes it great. In the same space as six Jeeps, an urban railcar would hold up to 165 people.” (End of snippet)

Here are two links that came up when I did a Google search for “Urban Rail Failed in Portland,” taken directly from the title of the recent news article:

From the Cato Institute, “Debunking Portland: The City That Doesn’t Work”

From Oregon Live, Powered by the Oregonian, “The Lost Vision for East Portland’s Gateway” 

Austin Ranks Low in Affordability

2010 Study Traces the Roots of a Disturbing Trend

A 2010 report by the publication, Business First, which was highlighted in the Austin Business Journal, paints a dismal picture for Austin.  It shows that during the period of 2006-2008, Austin ranked second to last in the State of Texas for housing affordability.

At the recent Livable City Affordability Summit, held on Sept. 7th, several speakers identified housing and transportation taken together as the main component of affordability.  The very next day I came across a woman standing in the corner of a room.  She looked at me with a straight face and told me that a friend of hers just got hit with a $200 monthly rent increase!  I have never heard of anything like that in my entire life.  As to how such a thing could even be possible, the lady replied, “Well, the landlord probably has a waiting list.  They can rent to new people moving to town who have a lot more money than our typical long term residents.”

Below is the 2010 Business First affordability chart for all of the cities in Texas that were surveyed.  Only College Station had a lower affordability rating than Austin.  In the years since the study, one can only surmise that the situation has probably gotten worse.

Business First Analysis of U.S. Census Bureau Data

The study compared median home values and median household incomes, as recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006-2008 American Community Survey. (Medians are midpoints, with half of all values or incomes in a given market being higher, and half being lower).

The smaller the ratio, the more affordable the housing.

Metro or micro area Population (2008 estimate) Median home value Mortgage affordability (home value per $1,000 of household income) Affordability rank (of 451 areas)  
Odessa, TX 131,180 $68,200 $1,454.72 1

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Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX 377,477 $83,300 $1,841.17 4

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Abilene, TX 159,059 $76,400 $1,848.94 5

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Victoria, TX 114,256 $93,200 $1,949.55 9

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Wichita Falls, TX 147,607 $83,800 $1,954.38 10

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Sherman-Denison, TX 118,786 $93,300 $2,003.56 14

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Texarkana, TX-Texarkana, AR 135,981 $84,200 $2,059.23 17

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Midland, TX 129,159 $111,100 $2,083.10 18

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San Angelo, TX 109,152 $86,500 $2,107.08 24

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Longview, TX 204,496 $94,500 $2,157.93 26

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Amarillo, TX 243,682 $101,100 $2,214.14 31

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Killeen-Temple-Fort Hood, TX 379,569 $107,800 $2,219.80 33

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Lubbock, TX 271,582 $97,500 $2,273.42 38

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McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX 721,275 $69,400 $2,274.07 39

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Corpus Christi, TX 413,206 $99,100 $2,337.26 53

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Brownsville-Harlingen, TX 389,164 $71,900 $2,381.58 66

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Waco, TX 230,849 $98,600 $2,444.10 77

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San Antonio, TX 2,030,691 $116,900 $2,450.84 78

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Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 5,726,705 $135,800 $2,477.60 89

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Tyler, TX 201,160 $115,700 $2,534.89 104

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Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 6,301,085 $145,200 $2,578.45 109

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El Paso, TX 738,416 $97,800 $2,744.34 153

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Laredo, TX 235,937 $102,100 $2,845.28 174

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Austin-Round Rock, TX 1,654,100 $175,700 $3,030.72 223

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College Station-Bryan, TX 207,140 $124,900 $3,189.40 248

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Metro or micro area Austin-Round Rock, TX
Population (2008 estimate) 1,654,100
Housing units 636,362
Median household income $57,973
Median home value $175,700
Mortgage affordability (home value per $1,000 of household income) $3,030.72
Affordability rank (of 451 areas) 223

Time to Pause for a Third Laugh

Official Memo From the Austin City Manager

By Bill Oakey

September 9, 2013

Warning: Read this for entertainment purposes only.  Do not circulate among the bureaucrats at City Hall.  If you do, it will be implemented immediately as standard operational procedure.

To:  Those Designated, As Deemed Appropriate

From:  The Leadership Evaluation Facilitation Subcommittee

Through:  Balder Dash and Gobble D. Gook, Senior Coordinating Facilitators

Subject:  Subject to Change Without Notice

Date:  Within the Near Term Time Frame


You have been pre-selected to participate as a planning member of the City Manager’s recently announced “Go Austin Go!” program (GAG).  You will be assigned to Milestone I and Milestone II.  The first is “Measured Utilization of Management Behavioral Objectives” (MUMBO), which will be followed by “Job Usefulness and Motivational Bio-therapeutic Outreach” (JUMBO).  White tablecloths and facilitators will be provided to help everyone get in touch with themselves.

These programs seek to provide real-time training solutions, with special emphasis on enhanced relationships with mission statements.  In Milestone I, managers will attend seminars to learn who they are in the modern working environment.  Executives will be given coping assessment drills, which will measure behavioral adjustments to changes in organizational buzzwords.

Milestone II is an innovative approach to task phase linkage and goal attainment.  In this module, you will be given an assignment and taught how to “not” get it done.  You will learn that “not doing” a job effectively can expand your thought base and de-escalate downtime.  The bio-therapeutic outreach will facilitate communication between administrators under stress and the lavish green plants in their offices.

The subcommittee has determined that JUMBO is more user-centric than MUMBO, so you will begin with Milestone II.  You actually began your training when you started reading this memo.  It hasn’t been released yet, so it must be kept strictly confidential.  With all assignments under JUMBO, you must “not do them” so well that no one will notice.  Thus, critical projects can be allowed to take place before they happen, to determine if they should be made official.  If it is later decided that you did not do what you did, you will be informed that you have been doing something else.

It is really quite simple.  You will be given a pretty, color-coded notebook with fancy charts for each linkage phase of the goal attainment grid.   Our consultants have assured us that these notebooks will only cost the taxpayers $16,000 each.

Should any external questions or concerns arise, acquaint yourself with the need to adhere to the following:

1. If it’s from the City Council, redirect it.

2. If it’s from the media, deflect it.

3. If it’s from a citizen, by all means, reject it.

In the event of an encounter with uncertainty, follow the guidance that applies to all City Management projects.  Delay or study it indefinitely until further notice, unless instructed otherwise.

-Facilitated By Bill Oakey

Update on Capital Metro Fare Increases

September 6, 2013

Capital Metro’s new fare restructuring proposal may come as a rude shock to seniors and citizens with disabilities.  An online chart from the agency’s website shows the proposed changes for 2014 and 2015.  Next year, many routine bus trips that we are accustomed to will cost double the price or possibly even higher, over what we are paying now.  Then in 2015 they are proposing an additional across the board 25% fare increase!

Under the current system, seniors can buy a $1.00 day pass and use it on any local bus trip for 24 hours.  You can buy the pass right on the bus by showing your reduced fare card.  This is especially helpful if you take routine trips that require more than one bus to get to your destination.

Under the new plan, the reduced fare day passes will disappear, requiring you to pay $2.00 for a full price day pass.  You could pay fifty cents each time your board, but the round trip price would still be $2.00 if you take two buses each way.  A large percentage of passengers are low-income people.  We need to push hard for Capital Metro to keep the $1.00 reduced fare passes.

The new plan also eliminates the $4.50 reduced fare weekly passes, which means the price doubles to $9.00.  Capital Metro’s argument is that we will have the option to buy a reduced fare monthly pass for $16.50.  But many retired seniors may not ride the bus every day throughout the month.  Flexibility and convenience for the passengers should be the priority, not streamlining things for Capital Metro.

Things will get a bit more complicated next year when the new, bigger “MetroRapid” buses go into service.  They will have a higher fare structure than the current “local buses.”  And the plan calls for no reduced fare daily or weekly passes for them either.  Capital Metro has decided to keep local buses running on the North Lamar MetroRapid route, to provide more stops and allow a lower priced option.  Although the agency website states that the #3 Burnet bus will be eliminated, the Manager of Board Relations says that they have set a goal to provide local bus service along that route as well.

Seniors and mobility-impaired passengers will sometimes want to use the MetroRapid service to save time.  If they need to transfer between a local bus and a MetroRapid bus, how will the day passes work?  Will they be interchangeable, so that whichever type bus you board at the start of your trip, you would be able to transfer to the other, using the same pass?  If the only option is to buy a MetroRapid pass, with no discount available, then the price would be $3.00.  I believe that would be too steep of an increase for reduced fare eligible passengers.

The additional 25 percent fare increase proposed for 2015 is really hard to swallow.  Whatever happened to “Dump the Pump?”  Has Capital Metro forgotten their long-standing goal of encouraging people to ride the bus?  Check out the complete list of fare increases by going to  Public hearing information is also provided.

For all the trouble that went into the fare change study, the impact on the agency’s annual budget by eliminating most reduced fare passes is miniscule.  They would lose 290,000 passenger boardings and save just $243,700 out of a $283.7 million budget.  That’s only 9/100 of 1%, hardly enough to justify the punitive effect on some of Austin’s most vulnerable citizens.

The Capital Metro Board will vote on the full two-year plan on Monday, September 23rd. If you agree that imposing this burden on seniors and citizens with disabilities is unacceptable and does not meet Austin’s community values, please voice your concerns to the following:

Mike Martinez, Capital Metro Board Chairman, Austin City Council Member:

Email:  Phone: (512) 974-2264

Chris Riley, Capital Metro Board Member, Austin City Council Member:

Email:  Phone: (512) 974-2260

Capital Metro Board:

Capital Metro Feedback: