Tag Archives: Project Connect

From Project Connect to Air Max Shoes

By Bill Oakey – December 1, 2014

This morning, I thought I would check in on the Project Connect website to see what they’re up to. I clicked on the usual http://www.projectconnect.com/ and got a big surprise. I was redirected to anyjordan.com, a website that sells Nike basketball shoes inspired by Michael Jordan.

Further down in my “Project Connect Austin” Google search, I tried a Capital Metro link. That eventually led me to a new address, hidden from view beneath the listed name, projectconnect.com. The site name now appears in your browser address bar as http://www.connectcentraltexas.com

This address is so new that it has no direct link from Google. It appears that our transit officials failed to properly register the domain name for ProjectConnect.com. Or else, there is another possibility. Could it be that Project Connect is undergoing a facelift? Will the new year ring in a new name in an attempt to rehabilitate the failed pro-urban-rail organization?

Perhaps we will all wake up shortly after New Year’s Day to find that the old Project Connect has transformed itself into Connect Central Texas. After that, they may decide to rename Capital Metro. Maybe we could even help them choose a name. How about Mobility Austin? Or maybe something more cryptic and flexible, like Code ATX? Actually, that would probably be a better choice for the new name for Project Connect. With Code ATX, it would be much easier to revamp the bureaucracy every time one of their visioning processes gets rejected by the voters.

One final note. It is beyond hope and far too late for Lee Leffingwell to rehabilitate himself. He needn’t bother to change his name. In fact, if the cops were to catch him speeding on his way out of town, they should just move over and let him get on down the road.

Advertisements

Taxpayers Rejoice! Rail Bonds Trounced By 14 Points!

By Bill Oakey – November 5, 2014

We did it! The people have spoken and now we can celebrate! We just defeated the largest tax increase in Austin history! Congratulations to all of you who voted and thanks for all of your efforts…

Balloons

The final tally was 57.2% against and 42.8% for. That is a difference of 14.4 percentage points, a resounding victory by any measure! If you would like to see a breakdown by precinct of how the rail bond votes were cast, check out this report:

Travis County Results By Precinct

Click on the image below to see a City-generated map of the precincts and their percentage of support for the rail bonds:

Urban Rail Precinct Map

Notice the numerous bright red areas where the bonds failed by over 65%. The highest margin that I have found so far is in Southwest Precinct 363, where the bonds failed by 76.36%. There are many lessons that our civic leaders and a long list of insiders from various organizations can learn from this experience. First among them could not be more basic…

Listen to the people!

When over 70 candidates for the City Council precincts began talking with their constituents early in the campaign, most of them learned quickly that public sentiment was against the cost and against the route for this rail plan. However, community involvement was never considered to be a major part of the planning process by the City Council, Capital Metro, or Project Connect. Instead, they relied on the strong arm tactics of developers and other downtown special interests to tell them what was best for all of us. But coming on the heals of a massive tax increase to allow U.T. to build the only tax supported medical school in the history of the nation, voters have made their position abundantly clear – Enough is enough!

Now What’s Next for Project Connect?

That is a very good question. The gang that couldn’t shoot straight never did connect with the public. Hordes of people were not clamoring to take a train ride from East Riverside to Highland Mall. So, now what will happen to all of the staff bureaucrats who have been planning, reporting, compiling and otherwise pontificating on the future of light rail in Austin? Will they disband their operations and turn off the spending spigot? Or will they simply take a break and then get back down to business?

After all, we had the ROMA consultant report on rail almost a decade ago. I shudder to think how many tens of millions of dollars have already been poured down the rat hole for this failed route for a rail system. It was 9.5 miles to be a “first phase” of a citywide system. We would have exhausted our City bonding capacity to pay for it. And yet no one ever publicly talked about how much it would cost to build and maintain a citywide system. It would probably be safe to assume that the planning and building cost alone would be at least $10 billion and possibly much more. The Portland rail system that is so often highly touted got its start in the 1980’s when building costs were infinitely less expensive.

And We Have One More Taxpayer Victory to Celebrate!

img-thing

The ACC proposition to raise the cap on the tax rate went down to defeat last night! This is wonderful news. It is helpful to recognize that ACC has been raising taxes above the rollback rate on a regular basis. Now they should get the message that taxpayers have reached their limit. Remember that little thing called affordability? And besides, property appraisals will continue to increase until the inevitable bust at the end of the boom. So, ACC will have plenty of tax revenue coming in.

For the rest of the City Council members heading into a runoff on December 16th, please remember this. The people have let their voices ring loud and clear. Affordability is the number one issue. You will not be able to sit back and coast along on the time-worn mantras and cliches that have paved the path to victory in earlier elections. Let the debates begin, and may the best affordability candidate win in each of the remaining districts!

Vote Against The Austin Rail Bonds – Largest Tax Increase In Austin History!

By Bill Oakey – October 20, 2014

Early voting starts this week, so be sure to head to the polls and snuff out the “Austin Proposition.” This item was originally publicized to be called Proposition One. But you will find it in the Austin section of the ballot, listed as simply the Austin Proposition.

First, a bit of good news about the ballot. Yes, it is long. But if you vote straight party in the County and State candidate races, you will be able to fly through the ballot very quickly. You will not get stuck in a long line, and if there is a line it should move fairly fast. I voted today and was very pleased with quickly it went.

The rail proposition may be an even bigger draw to the polls for some voters than any of the candidates. Despite the efforts of some news organizations and political groups, the overwhelming number of City Council candidates have come out quite vocally against the bonds. That’s because they have been going door to door for months, talking to their constituents. Voters in all corners of the City are fed up with a City Council that raises taxes every chance they get and then spends whatever budget surplus becomes available with no public input or formal process.

There is little credibility left for Mayor Lee Leffingwell to claim in the closing months of his tenure. As the leader of the so-called “Project Connect” group that was concocted to promote the rail package, he and his colleagues at the City and Capital Metro never had any interest in listening to the public for their views. Instead they sought only to appease the downtown business crowd and the real estate developers. Their preferred route has been in the planning stages for over a decade. East Riverside emerged as the special interest choice as soon as the developers started bulldozing low cost student housing and displacing those residents to build massive big box apartment structures. in the early 2000’s the Mueller neighborhood was included in the northern section of the route. But after the Red Line was built and Highland Mall rose from the ashes to become an ACC campus, Highland became the new northern destination for “urban rail.”

The problem is that there is not nearly enough population density along the entire corridor to justify rail along that route. How many people do you know personally who are clamoring for a train that they could jump on every 10 to 15 minutes to go from East Riverside to Highland Mall? If you flew in a helicopter over Austin during rush hour, you would not see the East Riverside to Highland Mall traffic backed up and congested at anywhere near the levels that you would see in U.T.’s West Campus area, or anywhere along North Lamar.

So, how does Project Connect and the proponents of this flawed route justify their choice? They claim first and foremost that it will “take cars off the road” and “relieve traffic congestion.” Well, guess what? in order to come up with the ridership numbers needed to qualify for Federal funding, the developers would have to attract many thousands of new residents to the East Riverside and Airport Boulevard corridors. All those cars hitting the roads would far exceed any supposed gains from building a rail line.

The throngs of employees who work at U.T. and the Capital Complex live all over town and many have been priced out of Austin completely. So, only a small percentage of them would be wanting to hop on that train every 10 to 15 minutes. Many of the arguments against the rail bonds that you are reading here were expressed by the editorial staff of the U.T. student newspaper, the Daily Texan. In a historic move last week, they retracted their previous endorsement of the bonds and printed a well-articulated appeal to vote against them.

Now For the Worst Part – The Devastating Price Tag

We have all heard about the $1.3 billion total cost of the rail project. When it was first announced, we were told that the Feds would put up half the cost. Just today the Statesman reported that the best we can hope for is a Federal match of 30% to 40%. There are problems with the cost in every direction you would care to look. Nobody talks about the interest on the debt. And the subject of the annual operating costs has been conspicuously absent from this election campaign. That’s because even Project Connect cannot say with any certainty how much the operating costs would be. What they have said is that they would have to go into to debt to pay for new buses. That’s a sure sign that the already declining quality of Capital Metro’s bus service will only get worse if the rail bonds are approved.

The 6 cent tax rate increase over five years for this bond package is most likely the highest property tax increase in Austin history. Keep in mind that each year in the budget cycle, the City Council routinely haggles over raising the tax rate by a fraction of one penny. The six cent increase for this bond package includes the assumption that property values will keep going up every year. So, even though affordability has risen to become the number one issue in this election cycle, Mr. Leffingwell and his right hand voting companion, Mike Martinez, would like to stick you with the highest tax increase in Austin history.

Go to the polls this week and vote no. Tell your neighbors to vote no and tell your friends to vote no. And if you run into to anybody that is not totally convinced, ask them this handy little question. If we double our bond debt to pay for this package with the largest tax increase in Austin history, how would we ever afford to expand the system and build rail extensions to take people where they really want to go? And how would we be able to afford future bonds for the City, AISD, Travis County or ACC? If we “have to start somewhere,” let’s not start in the wrong place for the wrong price.

A much better choice would be to vote no and let the new grass roots City Council build true consensus by listening to the people and formulating a transportation plan that the entire community can support.

Rag Radio Interview Today From 2:00 – 3:00

By Bill Oakey – August 1, 2014

Be sure to tune in to KOOP-FM at 91.7 on your radio dial at 2:00 PM today.  I will be a guest on Thorne Dreyer’s excellent Rag Radio series.  Appearing with me will be long time transportation activist, Roger Baker.  The discussion will include the outrageous $1 billion Project Connect urban rail boondoggle, as well as a wide range of other affordability topics.

You can listen to the show on your computer or portable device.  Click here for a link to live streaming of the show.  If you are not available to listen in live, then save this page so you can listen to the podcast later on.

One More Thing:  You are invited to Thorne Dreyer’s 69th birthday bash tonight from 7:00 – 9:00 at Maria’s Taco Xpress, 2529 South Lamar.  Come and party like it was 1969!  See all of the details here.

Imagine ONE Austin – Just Imagine!

By Bill Oakey – July 21, 2014

Imagine ONE Austin.  Just imagine.

No more weirdness, no more aging hippies or former flower children selling Armadillo music posters.  No more riffraff tax protestors fighting for their single family homes, quiet streets, and backyard barbecues.

Just one fully gentrified, hipster, “new urbanist” Austin.  With month-long festivals, loud all night parties and no parking anywhere.  For the rest of eternity.

But wait.  Instead of grumbling about losing the laid back, easy going, affordable Austin that we enjoyed for most of our lives, maybe it’s time to adjust our thinking. Maybe we should all join hands and embrace the changes.

So, let’s just imagine it.  Think of the pathway envisioned by the likes of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Project Connect, and Imagine ONE Austin. Here is a smattering of the news headlines that we can expect to see in the coming years.

January 2023 – Austin Installs Cloned City Council

Austin will begin the bright new year with a smooth transition to the new City Council.  The bold experiment to clone all seven members of the 2014 City Council and advance their ages to adulthood was a perfect laboratory success.

After eight tumultuous years with Council members elected from ten districts, America’s Chosen City will return to an era of orderly progress.  Last night, the Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Council of Austin presided over the swearing in of the new Council.  Austin will soon be back in business with business as usual.

“I’m ready and eager to get back on track,” Mayor Bluffingwell announced.  “I’m grateful that the people listened and they voted exactly the way we told them to.  Everyone in the room today recognizes that our namesakes made Austin a booming city.  Now we can return to predictable 5-2 votes on every critical issue.”

June 2025 – Music Concerts Cancelled at Condominium Shores

As everyone expected since the renaming of the former Auditorium Shores, the City announced today that all remaining concerts there have been cancelled.  Dogs, frisbees and kites will also be permanently banned.  Leases for high-density development have been finalized for the last 100 acres of open space.  The new revenue from the leases will allow the City to reduce property tax increases from 10% down to 9.8% for most homeowners.

Beginning this September, ACL Fest will be held in the streets, along Congress Ave. from Lady Bird Lake to the Capitol, and along East Sixth Street from I-35 all the way to Lake Austin Boulevard west to Lake Austin.

March 2026 – City Adopts New Slogan, “Keep Austin Cleared”

Today marks the start of one of the most progressive initiatives ever undertaken in Austin.  The City Council has voted to have all trees removed from the City.  The planning consultants and staff advisers have determined that trees are a serious impediment to high rises and multifamily developments.  The new slogan, “Keep Austin Cleared” will be printed on all utility bills, which will include a new “tree removal fee” until the cost to obliterate every tree in Austin is recovered.

October 2028 – Austin to Revise Land Development Code

Octopus Consulting has been hired to guide the City in a new revision of the Land Development Code.  To be dubbed CodeLAST, the new zoning system will be streamlined to generate the speediest development permits ever provided by an American city.  “We have devised a plan that will accommodate every need,” stated a spokesperson for the Real Estate Council of Austin.  “The consultants will be able to formulate it even faster than they did with CodeNEXT.”

The heart of the plan is an innovative zoning category called “Vertical Combined Use (VCU).”  It will allow developers to construct multistory towers that completely surround single family homes.  In fact, in selected neighborhoods, entire blocks could be reconfigured with interconnected structures that consume almost all of the available space.  It has been suggested that some of the old fashioned homes could be turned into tourist attractions.  Others could be demolished, and a few could remain for families eager to experience the joys of onsite community living.

February 2030 – Austin to Host Circus of the Americas

The long battle over the fate of Lions Municipal Golf Course in West Austin has finally been resolved.  The Governor and the U.T. Board of Regents announced this morning that the site will be the future home of the Circus of the Americas.  All state and local taxes for the enterprise will be waived for 25 years.

The mayor has vowed to address any logistical concerns.  He acknowledged that international guests may encounter problems with limited neighborhood street parking, but he pledged to accommodate them with 24 hour helicopter service from anywhere in the City.

Once again, Austin has landed an economic development wonder that will be the envy of the nation.  It is certain to restore the circus industry to all of its former glory.  The owners issued a statement promising to satisfy any potential critics, “It is our firm goal not to abuse the animals any more than necessary to provide a rich and rewarding entertainment experience.”

——————————————————

Imagine what a fabulous place our ONE Austin could become!

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:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED:

“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.

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.