Monthly Archives: July 2014

Affordability Challenges And The Needed Reforms

By Bill Oakey – July 15, 2014

The following is my presentation for the South Travis United Democrats on July 15h.  It provides a good overview of affordability.

The Challenges

1. Lip Service to Affordability – Austin’s current political leaders pay lip service to affordability, but have shown no willingness to take meaningful action.  We need to elect a new City Council that will listen to the concerns of existing residents, and adhere to specific plans and policies that will improve affordability.

2. Taxes – The City financial staff are projecting a whopping 33.6% increase in property tax revenues over the next five years.  This rate of increase is simply unsustainable, because of stagnant wages and income inequality.

3. Gentrification – The City’s planning policies depend on accelerating gentrification in order to make room for tens of thousands of new residents every year.  If you want your voices to be heard, you need to speak up loudly and you need to vote.

4. Affordable Housing – Apartments and duplexes in the central core are being bulldozed and replaced by luxury units.  The goal of the Imagine Austin plan and CodeNEXT is density, density, and more density.  But very little of it is “affordable” for existing residents.  The argument that density in the urban core reduces sprawl is bogus.  It forces people out into the less expensive suburbs and increases sprawl.  And then the commuting expense becomes a burden.

5. Transportation – The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) estimates that it will cost $32.4 billion to build new roads, rail systems, etc. between 2015 and 2040.  That works out to $1.3 billion per year for the five-county area.  This assumes massive population growth, which of course is unsustainable because of the unrealistic cost projections and the lack of water.

6. Unfair Tax Appraisals – Commercial property owners are only being assessed at about 60% of the market value of their property.  It will take Legislative reform to fix this inequity.  We need to support Brigid Shea, who is leading that effort.

7. Public Engagement – For 28 years I have observed citizens waiting up to six hours to speak at City Council meetings.  And the public input allowed for consultant-driven planning processes is often blatantly ignored or given only a token nod.  It is time for the people to unite behind two critical reforms (See below).

8. Wasteful City Budgets – The City staff does not provide adequate transparency on budget balances throughout the year.  Spending is never tied to even the vaguest notion of the public’s ability to pay.  The status quo will price even more people out of their homes, unless we adopt some reforms.

9. Truth In Taxation – Every year at budget time, the City Council hides behind the “tax rate” and crows about “holding the line” on the rate.  You and I know that increased tax appraisals drive the taxes up.  It is long past time for a truthful, transparent process.  (See reform below).

10. Water and Electric Rates – Both utilities need to do more to control rate increases, and to slow down the freight train of utility add-on fees that are spiraling out of control.

The Reforms

1. Work for Good City Council Candidates – We all need to work hard to elect the best affordability candidates.  I strongly support Eliza May for District 8, Kathie Tovo for District 9, Laura Pressley for District 4, Ora Houston for District 1, Ann Kitchen for District 5, Mandy Dealey for District 10, and Steve Adler for Mayor.  Other endorsements will come later.

2. Taxes – The City needs to coordinate better with the other local taxing entities.  We can’t afford the level of spending and cumulative tax increases that keep pummeling us every year.  The City needs to phase in a general homestead exemption.

3. Gentrification – Instead of whispering about this problem under our breath, we need to insist on a valid study that looks at the issue head-on.  How do other cities deal with it?  What can be done to retain the ethnic and economic diversity that any city needs for a vibrant quality of life?  Let’s start with a broad-based campaign to raise the minimum wage, provide better job training, and create jobs that are in between service sector and high paying tech jobs.

4. Affordable Housing – This is a perfect example of a topic that gets good lip service.  Let’s ask local leaders to survey the housing, establish some goals, and implement a plan that delivers actual results.  Then post those results online so that everyone can assess the progress.

5. Transportation – Vote against the expensive urban rail plan.  It’s in the wrong location, according to most experts who have reviewed Austin transit plans for decades.  Let’s change the MoPac “Improvement” Plan to provide free access for carpools and private vanpools in the express lanes.  That’s how nearly every city listed on the MoPac website does it.

6. Unfair Tax Appraisals – We should invite AISD into the discussions, and bring them along with Austin and Travis County into the Capitol in January to insist on this reform.  And we need a statewide network of other communities to help carry the reform to victory.

7. Public Engagement – I have prepared a proposal for a Public Engagement Ordinance that would require the City to include public input in all planning processes in a meaningful and quantifiable manner.  The Austin Neighborhoods Council will consider a resolution supporting this proposal at an upcoming meeting.  The City should also adopt my proposal for City Council Agenda Reform, so that people can speak at designated times.  It is time for our voices to be taken seriously.

8. Wasteful City Budgets – Austin needs to preserve budget surpluses for holding down tax increases.  We need much better transparency on budget balances throughout the year.  Instead of funding unfilled vacancies at 9.7% of the workforce, let’s get it down to 5%.  Let’s eliminate fee waivers for profitable event promoters.

9. Truth In Taxation – I have proposed a “Taxpayer Impact Statement” that would be included in the City Budget.  It would show the true percentage increase in taxes above the effective rate.  In other words, the percentage increase above the amount that would keep revenues the same.  This statement would show the dollar impact on a wide range of home values.  And it would also include the increases in utility rates and fees.

10. Water and Electric Rates – Consider transferring this year’s budget surplus to the water utility to reduce the double-decker rate increase.  For Austin Energy, we need to adopt a cost of service model that does not penalize residential and small business ratepayers.  We lost that portion of the battle in the 2012 electric rate case.  We need a thorough review of all utility add-on fees, and a plan to reduce them as much as possible.


The High Cost And Backwards Logic Of MoPac Toll Lanes

By Bill Oakey – July 13, 2014

Everyone knows that MoPac and I-35 are the two busiest roadways in Central Texas.  So, with interest rates having been at historic lows over the last several years, why hasn’t the Legislature and TxDOT given priority to both roadways and borrowed the money to add more lanes?

I’m talking about more lanes for everybody, not just the fortunate ones who can afford to pay tolls every day in both directions, going to and from their jobs.  There are a number of ironies to this situation.  For one thing, the McMansions and high-density luxury housing binge in the Austin urban core has priced many of the once-considered middle class people out into the less expensive suburbs.  Even without tolls, the commuting costs for these residents is high.  So, adding express lanes for the privileged will not help them at all.

Here’s another strange irony.  The pay-if-you-can toll lanes will feature a variable pricing structure that actually discourages the use of the toll lanes to relieve congestion.  During the morning and afternoon rush periods, the more people who enter the toll lanes, the higher the toll meter will jump.  The theory behind that is to keep the paid lanes moving at a consistently reliable speed.  But, as the lanes gradually fill, the price of entry starts to rise.  What that will do is keep people away and ensure that the free lanes remain congested.

There is only one way to even out the flow of traffic on all of the lanes during peak periods.  This could happen if people drove onto the toll lanes in large numbers, just hoping that their trip will be faster because they paid a high toll.  Well, guess what?  The maximum toll will kick in when the toll lanes are just as congested as the free lanes.  People will figure that out over time and not see enough benefit to paying the high tolls.  That will push them back onto the free lanes, only to create annoying congestion on those.  If MoPac doesn’t have enough traffic now to fill up two more lanes during rush hour, it surely will before long.

In my opinion, the whole yo-yo system was designed by a bunch of yo-yos!  I shudder to think how much it will cost to build and maintain the complex electronic apparatus to constantly assess and juggle the toll rates.  The contract for that must have been a juicy plum for a bunch of political cronies.

Here Comes My Favorite Question – How Do They Do It In Other Cities?

A somewhat similar toll lane system was tried in Seattle with very poor results.  What happened is explained in a June 2013 article called, “If Drivers Won’t Pay to Bypass Congestion, Why Should Taxpayers?”  Here is an excerpt:

“The 10 miles of priced lanes — the only “HOT” lanes in the Pacific Northwest — were converted from HOV lanes in 2008 and cost $18 million to implement. Five years later, Seattle-based sustainability think tank Sightline Institute reports that usage and toll revenue on the lanes are far lower than anticipated. Last year, the lanes collected about one-third the revenue of the most conservative predictions from the Washington Department of Transportation.”

How Much Will the MoPac Tolls Cost You?

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority has a website that will answer all of your questions.  The title is “About the MoPac ‘Improvement’ Project.”  There is a long column of information boxes.  The details on the cost of the tolls is in the 45th box.  Here is the key sentence:

“Preliminary studies suggest toll rates will normally be less than $4.00, but they could go much higher at times of peak demand.”

My Comment:  The wording implies that $4.00 is a very modest rate.  The “much higher” amount for peak demand times is conveniently not disclosed.  Even at $8.00 per daily round trip, you would be looking at 21 working days per month for a total “ka-ching” cash register ring-up of $168.00.  But what the heck, it’s only money!

Since You’re Going to Love the MoPac Toll Lanes, How About Some More?

Yes, before the paint gets applied or even has a chance to dry on the decorated sound walls for the MoPac “improvement” project, plans are underway for the sequel.  Are you ready for paid toll lanes on 183 between MoPac and SH 45?  See the news article here.  If you live in Anderson Mill and the modest rate of $8.00 per day applies on that stretch of road, you could also take the MoPac express lanes and zip into downtown Austin.  The total would only run you $336.00 per month.  What a bargain!  Gosh, if only you could make that move out to Cedar Park.  Then you could enjoy the privilege of paying a third set of daily tolls with 183A!

Final Question – Who Gets to Use the Express Lanes?

In other cities where there are special tolled lanes, they are usually established as “HOT” lanes. That stands for “high occupancy toll lanes.”  These are a hybrid of “HOV” or high occupancy vehicle lanes, which we have never had here in Austin.  The cities that use HOT lanes grant free access to cars with more than one occupant, to encourage car pooling and relieve congestion. But Austin couldn’t be that efficient.  Every car using an express lane will pay the same toll, regardless of the number of passengers.  The MoPac “Improvement” website encourages carpooling passengers to “split the cost of the tolls, to make them more affordable.”

Update:  CTRMA Website Shows Links to 11 Cities Across the Nation That Offer Free Access For Carpooling!

If you click this link and review the case studies for all of the cities listed, you will find that 11 out of 12 clearly state that they offer free access to express lanes for carpooling.  Most of the cities also offer free access for private vanpools and motorcycles.  All of our State and local transportation officials owe us an explanation as to why the MoPac express lanes will not offer this access. They need to tell us whether they are really interested in mobility and relieving congestion, or whether this toll lane thing is just a big money grab!   You can contact the CTRMA officials here.  If you contact them, you might also ask for some detailed transparency on the cost range of the tolls at different time periods.  Most of the other cities offer this information online.  Why should Austin have to settle for second-rate service and mediocre treatment of taxpayers?

Here Is One More Final Question…

This one is also from the MoPac “Improvement” website:

Question: “How high can the toll rate go?”

Answer: “There is no limit on the toll rate.”

Click here to listen to the classic Jackie Wilson song, “Higher and Higher.”

Can Austin Taxpayers Afford To Build A Whole New City?

By Bill Oakey – July 9, 2014

Late in the spring, tens of thousands of Austinites were stunned by the high property tax appraisals that they received in the mail.  Even if your appraisal did not increase at all, you were treated to daily newspaper stories about a looming City tax increase, two types of upcoming water rate increases, a 4.4% Austin Energy fuel increase for the second year in a row, a parade of utility add-on fee increases and so on.  Even Texas Gas Service managed to slide in a $1.69 monthly increase.  But the homeowners who saw their tax appraisals spiral out of control are the most worried, and rightfully so.  AISD would have to lower their tax rate to break even with last year’s revenue.  But they won’t because they are thrilled to have the extra money coming in from appraisal increases.

Then we were told that a double-decker boatload of bond propositions will come at us in November.  $1 billion for urban rail and roads, plus another $386 million for ACC.

What If I Told You That All of That Is Just the Front Edge of the Tip Of the Iceberg?

Between 2011 and 2013, I began compiling archived material on affordability with the intention of publishing a comprehensive report.  That report, which you can read here, ended up being just a bump in the road.  When I published it last August, I had no way of knowing that the avalanche of planned cost increases would soon reach levels that look not only unsustainable, but so wildly unimaginable as to be absurd.

Let’s cut to the chase and look at some examples:

1. The Capital Area Metropolitan Transit Organization (CAMPO) estimates that it will cost $32.4 billion to build roads, rail, and other transportation infrastructure between 2015 and 2040.  That comes out to $1.3 billion per year.  And, here’s the craziest part.  The local government share of those costs is pegged at 80%!  If you haven’t fallen off your chair yet, click here and see the projections on Page 7 of this report.  Even a good science fiction or fantasy writer would not abuse his readers with that level of tomfoolery.

2. The Travis County Downtown Campus Plan calls for over a billion in spending:

New Civil and Family Courthouse: $200-$300 million

Criminal Justice Center expansion and renovation: $512 million

New Central Booking Facility: $192 million

Renovation of Sweatt Travis County Courthouse: $92 million

Renovation of Ned Granger building and parking garage: $29 million

Plans, Plans, and More Plans

For every local taxing authority, there are ambitious and aggressively expensive plans.  Attempting to digest all of them at once would not be advisable for health reasons.  But they are highlighted in the discussion below, if you care to wade into them cautiously:

1. Imagine Austin Plan.  This is the all-encompassing Master Plan that envisions a new future city, divided into “mixed-use activity centers.”  This one is closely tied to the CodeNEXT zoning replacement plan and the Project Connect Strategic Mobility Plan.  In a nutshell, these plans call for clusters of super high-density multi-family housing units located near proposed rail stops.  One example of an “activity center” would be the ACC Highland Campus with private business partners and row after row of “new urbanist” apartment and condo buildings along Airport Blvd.  These might have some merit in theory.  However, the plans are designed to attract hundreds of thousand of new residents over time, and you and I will be asked to contribute billions of dollars in taxes, utilities, roads, trains, and buses to help pay for them.

2. The Corridor-ization of Austin.  This future city that will probably still be called Austin, is already being reshaped into “corridors.”  You’ve probably heard that the City is working on a major re-write of the Land Development Code.  CodeNEXT was and still is supposed to accomplish that.  However, it is gradually being implemented even before it is formally adopted.  I have been told that this is being done legally, through the use of “overlays.”  The zoning jargon is not my area of expertise, but suffice it to say that we are being CodeNEXT-ed before the new code policy is formally vetted and approved.  From the taxpayers’ perspective, we were given a clue on June 26, when the City Council adopted Chris Riley’s Resolution # 20140626-089.  The key phrase for taxpayers and utility ratepayers is this one:


“The City Manager is directed to report the timeline for getting financing for public infrastructure on the mall site such as streets, streetscapes, water and wastewater amenities in place by the end of 2014. The report should also include a single point of contact for the partnership, a timeline for the form-based code for the Highland Mall site and the corridor, as well as plans to finance improvements along the corridor. This report should come to Council by August 1, 2014.”

My Comment:  We know that many other such corridors are already in the works.  To the extent that some of the activity centers might foster job training and paid internships, they could fulfill a useful purpose.  But there is certainly a limit to how much existing residents can afford to contribute  for new trains, buses, utilities, “streetscapes,” and other amenities for tens of thousands of high-density, mostly luxury housing units.

Do You Need a Calculator to Figure This Out?

No, not really.  It doesn’t take advanced math skills to determine that Austin would have to defy gravity and the rest of reality in order to sustain the costs for this litany of plans.  There are others, such as the University of Texas Medical District Master Plan, which calls for replacing Brackenridge Hospital and the Frank Erwin Center.  Travis County recently passed a Growth Guidance Plan.  And there’s the Downtown Austin Plan, which envisions turning Congress Avenue into the Champs Elysees, among other things.  And nobody knows yet what AISD will do about the bonds that failed to pass last year.

What we do know is that Austin’s hyper-growth may be showing signs of strain.  Forbes Magazine reports in its June 27 issue that Austin’s housing prices are the fifth most overvalued in the country, at 13%.  None of our local leaders want to consider the fact that successful private businesses never practice the policy of “build like crazy and hope for the best.”  If they continue to ignore the public’s ability to pay in all of their planning processes, I suppose they will eventually discover that Austin can’t defy gravity after all.

What Is The Mission Of Austin, Texas – Or Do We Even Have One?

By Bill Oakey – July 6, 2014

If you don’t read another post on this blog, you should consider this one.

Does our city have a purpose, and if so, what is it?

We all have a critical stake in addressing that question.  Failure to do so adequately, and to base our future strategies around it, could doom our economy and the ability of existing residents to remain in the city that we love.  It’s that serious.

A Tale of Two Cities

Although Austin residents are traveling down many diverse paths, two of those paths have collided in the past and they threaten to do so again.  Only this time, the collision could result in a meltdown.  The reality show that we find ourselves in could be called “A Tale of Two Cities.” One of them finds people on fire with giddy anticipation for more of the success and financial gain that they enjoy.  These are the developers and big business folks who bounce out of bed every morning, eagerly awaiting the next downtown announcement about a big growth opportunity.

The others are the terribly worried homeowners who fear that they may not make it through another round of property tax appraisals.  Joining them are the renters, who can hardly believe their eyes when they open envelopes containing new leases that will increase anywhere from $100 to $400 or even $500 per month.  Arguments that these conditions reflect a simple matter of supply and demand ignore the relentless hyping of Austin, much of which is funded with taxpayer money.

The frightening housing scenarios are playing out all over town, in painful disharmony with the joyful mood of downtown tourists at the various festivals.  And the F1 visitors who indulge in $150 breakfasts and $300 massages at downtown hotels.  The job announcements from the high tech companies moving to Austin make good headlines, and they do represent positive economic gains for those who benefit from them.

But how do we position ourselves to keep the colliding paths from fracturing the whole balloon and causing it to burst?  Therein lies the toughest challenge that Austin has ever faced.  Any boom and bust cycle that we experienced in the past would pale in comparison to what could happen this time, unless we seek some workable solutions and persevere to follow through with them.

Does Austin Have A Realistic Vision, or Even a Mission?

Is Austin’s sole purpose to expand in a way that creates a large income gap?  If that is indeed our mission, where is it written down?   If we have a more compassionate mission, to balance the gains of the wealthy with everyone else, where are the concrete plans to forge a consensus that will ensure sustainability?  How do local leaders intend to protect the interests of seniors, low-income residents, and middle class people earning stagnant wages?  Empty words in the Imagine Austin plan simply won’t cut it.

The Big Question That Public Officials Have Never Asked

Would or Amy’s Ice Cream develop an expansion plan that fans out in all directions without regard to any limitations?  Would they draw up growth projections without considering the cost risks and the appropriate pace and timing?  Or would they just haul off and build like crazy and hope for the best?  You already know the answer.  So, why should planning the future of our city be any different?

Gentrification Needs to Be Addressed Head-On

1. Both government leadership and business leadership needs to decide what to do about the large population that faces affordability challenges.  Then they need to make a decision.  Are all of these people expendable?  Is it OK to just displace them?  I am not kidding when I suggest that Austin leaders really need to address that question.

2. What kind of community would we have if we allowed untold numbers of people to be priced out?  Who would replace them?  Is that model even feasible, considering the stagnation of wages for huge numbers of jobs?  Proceeding on a path that ignores these questions is risky in both humanitarian and economic terms.

3. Can we afford to send AISD on a perilous downhill slide of annual enrollment drops?  If families with children are priced out of dozens of neighborhoods, who’s going to bail out AISD?

How Can the City Expect a 33.6% Increase In Property Tax Revenues Over the Next Five Years?

Some of that would be absorbed by new residents, but we would have to pay the lion’s share of it.  And that’s only one chunk of the stampede of tax and utility increases coming down the pike.  Just looking at the numbers is pretty shocking.  Here is the chart from the City’s Five Year Financial Forecast.

A Healthy Dose of Prudent Planning, Better Transparency, And Listening to the People

1. Affordability is no longer just a catchphrase.  Leaders from the City, County, AISD, Capital Metro, ACC and Central Health should schedule some serious joint discussions and set an agenda to address the problems.  Ideas proposed on this blog and in numerous other resources should be prioritized and acted upon.

2. An honest attempt should be made to chart all of the ambitious, expensive plans that the City, the County, Project Connect and the other entities want to implement, and determine how many of them are financially feasible.  What sort of available household income would it take to pay for these plans?  This study should be combined with a cumulative analysis of the taxpayer impact of local budgets.  Expenses should be matched with the public’s ability to pay.  Diligent economic forecasting might buy the city the time it needs to determine a realistic approach to sustain these costs.

3. Austin should face up to the fact that it may be necessary to slow down some of the hype.  That would take a lot of political will, but doing so could help prevent a boom and bust.

4. Job training should become a major goal and should be approached on several different fronts, from cooperation between businesses and the schools, to corporate involvement, to government participation.

5. Transparency should become a touchstone for every local authority.  Citizens should be able to contact every individual board member of Capital Metro, Central Health, AISD and ACC.  The financial status of each of these entities, along with Austin and Travis County, should be posted online in reasonable detail, and should be updated quarterly.

6. The Austin City Council should adopt my 28-year-old proposal for reforming the meeting process to allow citizens to speak without having to wait six hours or longer.

7. Public engagement with City officials and the consultants who work on major plans and projects should be completely redefined.  We need a comprehensive policy that sets out formal procedures for public engagement.  See my proposal here.  Good models incorporating best practices exist online and should be cultivated.  Once a framework for meaningful public engagement has been implemented at the City level, it should be replicated for each of the other entities.

8. Our next mayor should hold occasional town hall meetings in each of the new districts.

Let’s All Get Behind Steve Adler For Mayor!

By Bill Oakey – July 2, 2014

As Austin transitions to a new 10-1 district system for electing City Council members, we face a unique opportunity to consider new leadership in the mayor’s race.  As someone who has worked hard to find solutions to Austin’s affordability issues, I am pleased to support Steve Adler to be our next mayor.

SIA HeadshotA new way forward

I urge everyone who has not yet learned about Steve to check out his campaign website here.

For many, the decision on whom to support in the mayor’s race may not seem easy.  It was difficult for me as well initially.  But one thing became clear right away.  The two incumbents on the City Council who are running for mayor have one huge disadvantage.  Their voting records do not stand up to the challenges we face on affordability.  A fairly simple test can be applied when considering either one of the incumbents.  If they come to a public forum now and announce that they have found a solution to affordability, just ask yourself one question.  Why haven’t they done something about it already?  They have been on the Council for several years.

Now It Is Time For A Change.  Here’s Why Steve Adler Is Our Best Choice

Here are some of Steve’s positions on affordability:

1. Truth In Taxation and Transparency

Steve:  “There should full transparency when it comes to taxation and the
budget.  Austin taxpayers must be told where their money is going and how
much in taxes, both rate and amount, they are being asked to pay.  We must
better ensure truth in taxation and in the budget.”

Steve and I have discussed my proposal for a Taxpayer Impact Statement to be included in the budget.  The new reform will ensure that the City Council can no longer just say they are “holding the line on the tax rate,” when skyrocketing tax appraisals cause huge tax increases.  Steve is so firm on this issue that he has challenged me to help him make sure that the reform as adopted will be rock solid.

2. City Council Meeting Agenda Reform

Steve:  “Citizens have the right to a meaningful and accessible opportunity to be heard when the City Council is making decisions that affect their lives.  The current agenda process must be reformed so as avoid having citizens sit for too many hours before their item comes up for discussion and in too many cases is postponed without meaningful advance notice.”

This reform proposal began in 1986 and has now reached its 28th anniversary.  Let’s elect Steve so we can celebrate a true victory for the voices of the people at City Hall!

3. Property Tax Inequity Between Homeowners and Commercial Taxpayers

Steve:  “Our inequitable Texas tax system unduly burdens residential property owners and tenants.  Like so many of Austin¹s challenges, this is a problem we have experienced for years and have failed to make substantial progress. We must be far more proactive in working with the Mayors and City Councils in other towns and cities throughout the State to bring real reform to this unfair system and in pushing forward and supporting our City’s state delegation. We must increase residential property exemptions and do so in an equitable manner.”

Steve’s experience working in the Legislature will help us carry this battle across the finish line.

Why Do I Think Steve Adler Is The Best Person for the Job?

The guy is just so gosh-darned smart!  It’s not even fair that he’s that smart.  But he is and we need to tell everyone we know that he’s the one we need for mayor.  Email, Facebook and Tweet this blog posting.  Go to his website and sign up to be notified of his upcoming events.  Click on the DONATE button at the top of the screen.  Bring your neighbors and friends to his events and to the public forums in the mayor’s race.  In November, we can either go back to business as usual or join Steve in a New Way Forward.

SIA HeadshotA new way forward

American-Statesman Readers React To Rail Plan

By Bill Oakey – July 2, 2014

In its online edition, the Austin American-Statesman has published a brief compilation of negative reader comments on the Project Connect urban rail plan.  These reflect the very tough sell that the mayor and other supporters of the plan will face in trying to promote the November bond proposition.  Although the paper’s editorial board has endorsed the plan, the piece that appears today shows their respect for the views of their readers.

Posted: 12:00 a.m. Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Urban rail and roads plan

By Staff

Special to the American-Statesman

Last week, the Austin City Council officially endorsed a plan for a $1 billion mixture of rail and road projects that includes the proposed urban rail line running from Highland Mall to south of Lady Bird Lake and continuing east along Riverside Drive. With the endorsement, rail planners for the city and Capital Metro can initiate an environmental study of the proposed 9.5-mile line.

Ryan Holden: They should really be on separate propositions. I’d vote for the road proposition, but not the railway proposition.

Donna Rene Johnston: Well, thank goodness they are building a line from Riverside to Highland Mall, because I travel between those two points all the time. SAID NO ONE EVER!

Katie Gorbea Araguz: They should be required to put pedestrian safety first … they need more SIDEWALKS especially in South Austin … a new ”rail” would just be a waste of money down the dang toilet … I’ll be telling City Council OFF if they get this over sidewalks and pedestrian safety!

Sunny Conditt Williams: I think the urban rail is a super good idea — quick, relatively safe — too bad it only runs to Highland Mall — and by the way, why there????

Joseph Iley: I vote no, unless the city implements a monorail plan. … Traffic is bad enough, taking lanes away to be installing rail defeats the purpose.

Shaunt Attarian: Hard to get excited about this rail proposal. The big dollars being put behind this project would be much better suited to build an effective rail line that serves areas where people need to go. Building a rail line along Lamar or Lavaca/Guadalupe would be a much better investment. Too bad our city leaders lack the daring and foresight to propose such a line. And why this train doesn’t go to the airport is frankly beyond comprehension. Second, why doesn’t this proposal include biking and pedestrian improvements in Austin? If we are trying to get cars off the road, we should be expanding transportation options that can replace cars, and building infrastructure that can support these alternatives.

Russell Dreyer: Why does this rail go from one ACC to another? Horrible planning, like always (MoPac should be interesting.) Good idea though. Reroute it.

Jeremy King: This is being shoved down our throats by a lame duck council on their way out! They aren’t listening that this route isn’t wanted and it will show up in Nov.!


Now, what was that old saying about lipstick…?

Lipstick On a Pig

Urban Rail Facts And Fantasy – What You Really Need To Know

By Bill Oakey – July 1, 2014

As the Project Connect PR campaign begins to heat up, it is important for people to take a close look at the facts and fictions behind the massively expensive bond proposal.  The best way to do that is to listen to the Project Connect team in their own words.  The video below is from the June 17th joint meeting of the Austin City Council and the Capital Metro Board.

Taxpayer Advisory:  Some of this material may cause stress and anxiety for taxpayers.  View With Caution

Here is a link to the joint meeting on June 17th.

The discussion begins with an overview of the East Riverside to Highland Mall route for the rail line.  You may have already heard some of the radio ads touting the notion that this plan for urban rail will “take hundreds of cars off the road.”  There are many organized pro-rail groups in Austin with some members that have been studying Austin rail for as long as 30 years.  These people are not against mass transit.  In fact they support it wholeheartedly.  It is for that very reason that we all need to carefully consider whether the Project Connect proposal gets it right.

Or whether it doesn’t.

Below is a quick summary of some of the most significant statements by the Project Connect team from the video, and what we can learn from them:

1. They list congestion as the #1 public concern.  Yet they openly admit that their ridership projections depend on new growth, which the rail will help generate. That’s a built-in contradiction! What it means is they have to literally BRING IN THE ADDITIONAL CARS THAT THEY ARE PROMISING TO TAKE OFF THE ROADS!

2. Their plans call for submitting the application for Federal funds three years from now.  There is already a long waiting list ahead of us.

3. They state that one of the most important factors in winning the competition for Federal funds is being able to show that the rail serves TRANSIT DEPENDENT RIDERS WHO LIVE IN AFFORDABLE HOUSING.  Where are the numbers in their projections to support that requirement? Where in the gentrified future of the eastern route will this “affordable housing” be?  What plans from the City can they point to that will accomplish that?

4. There was a huge gulf of uncertainty surrounding their discussion of projected operation and maintenance costs.  They talked about increasing fares, having Capitol Metro go into debt, and future increases in sales tax revenue.

5. Vague references were made to “partnering” with the City of Austin. (Code for taxing us).  One partnering method suggested was taking some of Austin’s parking revenues.  Of course, any funds sucked out of the Austin City Budget must be replaced by the taxpayers.

Maybe this group should change their name to “Project Collect.”

The truth is that they don’t know where the money will come from to pay for the operations and maintenance.  A better way to say that is that they don’t know which one or our pockets it would come from.  Another proposal has been floated to let the Austin Water Utility and Austin Energy “share” the cost of relocating utility lines along the rail route.  And guess who would wind up “sharing” those costs on their utility bills?

Going beyond the cost issues is the more fundamental question of value for the dollar.  Austin doesn’t need a bunch of naysayers running around yelping against urban rail simply because it will cost something to build and maintain.  What we do need is a thoughtful planning process that works with reliable and transparent data to back up the assumptions about ridership and cost.  And we need an open and inclusive process that is grounded in the principles of consensus-building among the stakeholders.

Since none of those things have been presented with the Project Connect plan, let’s vote NO on the bonds in November and work with the new district City Council members to get the job done right.