Austin Urban Rail: A blow to social equity and justice.

COST Commentary: The comments below were submitted by D’Ann Johnson of ‘TEXAS RIOGRANDE LEGAL LEGAL AID, INC‘ to the City of Austin in response to the City’s request for comments regarding preparation of their planned Urban Rail ‘Environmental Impact Statement’ (EIS) being conducted in conjunction with the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA). The EIS takes about 2 years and is required as part of the US Governments consideration of funding a portion of an Urban Rail project.

These comprehensive comments are well researched and founded on facts. Austin continues to spend millions of dollars and valuable city resources to plan an Urban Rail in spite of overwhelming evidence that it will not achieve the goals enumerated by the city, but will achieve the exact opposite.

1. The Urban Rail will have major negative impacts to social equity and justice by creating transit discrimination as described below and already demonstrated by Capital Metro’s Red Line commuter train.

2. It is not cost effective and will increases taxes substantially and/or reduce basic city services.

3. The City has no viable funding plan to make Urban Rail sustainable.

4. Urban Rail will not result in increased net development and tax base.

5. It will increase congestion in Central Austin.

6. It will increase safety hazards.

7. Urban Rail is not flexible to meet changing demands.

8. It will produce visual pollution and prevent the use of streets for traditional civic events.

As noted below and on COST’s site, the City has not conducted responsible studies of transit alternatives. There are several alternatives which are far more effective and affordable than the proposed Urban Rail.

One cannot imagine the inefficiency and wasted tax dollars of two large transit agencies (Cap Metro and the City) providing transit in the same area and effectively coordinating thru two major bureaucracies. Cap Metro has already proven it is very difficult with one agency and the City does not have a terrific record with major projects.

Beyond all these detailed reasons that the City’s Urban Rail plan is irresponsible is the fact that transit ridership is has been declining in many cities including Dallas, Houston and Austin after billions of dollars have been spent to “improve” transit and attract greater ridership.

The content below is as submitted but the format is slightly different due to different software programs.
_______________________________________________________________
LAW OFFICE OF
TEXAS RIOGRANDE LEGAL AID, INC.
Austin Office
4920 N. IH-35
Austin, TX 78751
Telephone (512) 374-2700 Toll Free (800) 369-9270
Fax (512) 447-3940
April 29, 2011

On behalf of House the Homeless, Inc. and other low-income, minority, and/or transit dependent persons, we provide these comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Austin’s Urban Rail.

A. Purpose and Need

The Draft EIS does not provide quantitative facts to demonstrate any need for the proposed urban rail. Claiming that the purpose of the project is to “improve the mobility, connectivity, and sustainability of Central Austin” by linking downtown Austin to major activity centers, the draft identifies several areas, such as East Riverside, the University of Texas, the Capitol complex, Mueller development, and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.(1) Identifying East Riverside and Mueller development as major activity centers are developer’s hopes rather than reality. The city has failed to provide information as to why a direct connection between these corridors is needed. In addition, Austin continues to lack the density needed to support urban rail investment. Rail is most successful in compact high density corridors which allow it to carry a large number of passengers.(2) Thus, rail is more successful in larger cities like New York, where the density is 26,402 residents per square mile compared to Austin’s 2,610 residents per square mile.(3)

According to city demographer, Ryan Robinson, demographic trending maps indicate a population decrease in most of the census tracts composing Central Austin, particularly downtown. Robinson notes the diminishing population is a result of the exodus of families to the outlying suburban areas. This demographic trend has already affected mobility needs. Capital Metro recently announced proposed bus route changes that would eliminate four bus stops along Congress Avenue.(4) Capital Metro cites several key factors that lead to cutting underutilized routes, including ridership trends, travel patterns, and demographic data.(5) The change in service echoes a similar action by Capital Metro when it discontinued the downtown Dillo bus service in 2009 for lack of ridership. The proposed downtown rail circulator parallels the old Dillo circuit, except the rail route cannot react to changing service needs. It is not clear how the rail will achieve what the Dillo failed to do.

Similar to downtown, the activity corridors targeted by the proposed urban rail simply duplicate existing public transportation services. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to downtown is serviced by hotel shuttles, CapMetro Airport Flyer (a rapid bus alternative), and taxicabs. Capital Metro will operate the Flyer route in August 2011 on East Riverside Drive with limited stops added.(6) Furthermore, Capital Metro plans to improve access and travel time by increasing weekday service so that buses would run every 30 minutes. The East Riverside corridor is also connected to the University of Texas campus through the UT Shuttle system which runs every 10 minutes with exclusive on-campus stops. The current proposed rail route would drop students off at campus perimeters, lengthening students’ travel time by requiring additional walking to inner campus destinations.

There is no need for expanding connectivity between the city’s various rail systems since Austin has only one operating rail, Capital Metro’s Red Line. The proposed Capital Metro Green Line is in a planning stage and, with the poor performance of the Red Line, not likely to go forward in the foreseeable future. The Lone Star Rail will not be built without the public subsidy of an urban rail to connect with.

The incentive for connectivity with the Red Line is unknown, especially since the rail line has continuing low ridership on its three downtown connector routes.(7) Capital Metro has found that “less than 25% of [its rail] riders destined to Downtown transfer to a connector route.”(8) As a result, Capital Metro plans to eliminate the downtown rail stops. Hopefully, the city will not attempt to show “connectivity” by manipulating the bus lines to dead end at rail lines in an effort to inflate ridership numbers.

The Draft EIS insufficiently explains the alleged demand and need for urban rail.

B. Rail Does Not Accomplish All Goals

Urban rail will not improve mobility as the proposed rail is no faster than a bus or car. The current design lacks designated right-of-way lanes. This rail will not increase network capacity in constrained rights-of-way since the rails will essentially squeeze into already congested streets.

The underutilization of the Red Line indicates that people will not give up their cars to get on the rail. The new system adds little incentive to change lifestyles. Consequently, urban rail is not likely to increase sustainability. Instead, a permanent rail line is stagnant. Such infrastructure makes it more difficult for the city to react to changing demographics and needs. Austin should not build a tiny urban rail with its hope for success based only on rising gas prices.

C. Affected Environment

The estimated total cost of all phases of the rail project is $1.3 billion, causing a major cost impact on the community.(9) Unfortunately, the taxpayers will likely carry the cost burden since smaller rail systems do not produce significant consumer surpluses.(10) On average, farebox revenues only cover approximately 40% of operating costs for rail systems and none of their capital costs, meaning that need for net taxpayer subsidy is large.(11) In a study of 25 rail systems across the country, every single system had negative net benefits.(12) This means the annual value of the benefits to users is much less than the annual cost to taxpayers.(13)

In Portland, for example, MAX light rail carries 0.5% capacity of adjacent freeways during operation.(14) MAX light costs about $60 per passenger, but collects only $2.50 per rider in fares.(15) This results in an annual subsidy of nearly $15,000 per passenger.(16) Austin is similar to Portland in population, but Portland has greater density at 3,939 people per square mile.(17) Since Portland has a greater statistical chance of achieving rail transit success than Austin, its rail failure should serve as a warning.

The low-income, transit dependent community will likely feel the greatest impact from rail. It is no surprise that rail’s target market is choice-riders and not the poor. In 2001, the median annual income of rail users exceeded $50,000. San Francisco illustrates these facts with 61% of AC Transit bus riders dependent on public transit for their transportation needs.(18) By contrast, transit dependent riders compose only 22% of the Bay Area Rapid Transit rail (“BART”) ridership and merely 14% of the Caltrain rail riders.(19) Despite this, AC Transit riders receive a public subsidy of $2.78 per trip while Caltrain and BART riders enjoy subsidies of $13.79 and $6.14, respectively.(20) Studies by the Brookings Institution have found this unequal distribution leads to service inequity, which results in rail transit being “an increasing drain on social welfare.”(21) San Francisco has not escaped this fate as low-income riders have suffered from repeated bus service cuts and fare increases as a result of rail investment. Additionally, Austin’s proposed route seeks to serve the area in which white population is increasing and minority population is decreasing. Such demographic information raises serious inequities that should be addressed in the EIS.

D. Alternatives

1. The EIS Must Analyze “Better Bus” as an Alternative

The NEPA process is intended to force the agency to consider alternatives that will fulfill the agency’s purpose. The analysis must “rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives.”(22) The “explanation of alternatives” must be “sufficient to permit a reasoned choice among different courses of action.”(23)

The Draft EIS states that the Better Bus Alternative will not be considered in the final document because supposedly “it does not meet the purpose and need of the proposed action.”(24) This is an irrational conclusion and contrary to the conclusions of a 186-page study of transportation options in Austin. Better Bus is a not only a “reasonable alternative,” but it is one of the two best alternatives determined by an exhaustive study conducted by the City of Austin.

The 186-page Final Draft Central Austin Study exhaustively analyzed 11 alternative transportation models to serve the city’s need for enhanced mobility.(25) The study concludes, “the top two ranked vehicle alternatives [are] streetcar/urban rail and better bus.”(26) Eventually, the study recommends rail over an improved bus system, but recommends Better Bus as the best alternative. The Better Bus alternative is considered the Federal Transportation System’s baseline alternative, since it uses existing technology and lower cost capital improvements.

Any rigorous analysis would include a discussion of the Better Bus alternative.

2. Socioeconomic Analysis Must Analyze Effect of Rail on Bus System

The Central Austin Study admits that bus lines would likely be truncated if a rail system were built.(27) The economic effect of the loss of bus lines on low income and minority residents must be evaluated in any EIS. Austin’s bus system serves residents who rely on buses as their only form of transportation. They cannot simply take their car to work when the bus line is gone. To remove lines will dramatically impact the poor and low income. An analysis of these effects must be done in any adequate EIS.

3. The EIS Must Include an Equity Analysis

The Better Bus (TSM) Alternative was briefly addressed per FTA New Starts requirements and dropped for NEPA purposes because it supposedly does not meet the purpose and need of the proposed action. Excluding Better Bus from further consideration highlights the fact that the proposed action is not intended to benefit minority and low-income riders. Nevertheless the proposed action will affect to the minority and low income riders in various ways. A thorough assessment of these effects should be part of the EIS process. FTA New Starts project review may include environmental justice considerations and equity issues.(28)

Among other things the purpose of Austin’s Urban Rail project is to address “a need for additional alternatives to single-occupancy/privately owned vehicles.” In other words, Urban Rail is intended to lure people out of their cars and into public transportation. Improved mobility for the poor is not part of this vision. Consideration of environmental justice and equity issues are especially important here where the purpose of the project is to attract riders who are not public transportation dependent.

The Urban Rail EIS should include a service equity analysis as required by FTA Circular 4702.1A. This requires assessing the effects of the proposed service changes resulting from implementation of the Urban Rail project and the alternatives available for people affected by change. Because the project will shift limited resources away from the bus system, the Urban Rail proposal will in all likelihood have a disproportionately high and adverse effect on minority and low-income riders who are dependent on the bus. The EIS should carefully assess the impact on minority and low-income riders of the service change shifting resources towards rail routes and away from the bus system and describe the actions proposed to minimize, mitigate, or offset any adverse effects of this shift.

The Urban Rail EIS should include a fare equity analysis as required by FTA Circular 4702.1A. This would include examining all fare impacts as well as analyzing if minority & low-income riders are more likely to use the Urban Rail mode of service. Minority & low-income rider populations need to be identified and the fares paid under the new service should be compared with fares that would be paid through available alternatives. Finally, the analysis should describe actions to avoid, minimize, or mitigate any adverse effects of the proposed changes on minority and low-income populations.

Respectfully submitted,

D’Ann Johnson
Texas RioGrande Legal Aid
4920 N IH 35, Suite 200
Austin, Texas 78751
(512) 374-2760
djohnson@trla.org
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Notes:
1. Central Austin Transit Study (Draft), Executive Summary, July 2010.
2. Rubin, Thomas, “Learning from Los Angeles: Rail and Transportation Equity”.
3. Id; Austin Quick Facts from the US Census Bureau, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/48/4805000.html.
4. Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Newsroom, “Proposed August 2011 Service Changes,” April 1, 2011.
5. Id.
6. Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Newsroom, “Proposed August 2011 Service Changes,” April 1, 2011.
7. Id.
8. Id.
9. Nichols, Lee. “Why Rail?” Austin Chronicle, April 8, 2011. The amount reflects the estimated cost if the rail were to be built starting in 2012 and is in “year of expenditure” dollars.
10. Poole, Robert W. “Urban Rail Transit Derailed,” Aug. 24, 2007. “Consumer surplus” means the benefits to users, over and above the fares they pay.
11. Id.
12. Poole, Robert W. “Urban Rail Transit Derailed,” Aug. 24, 2007.
13. Id.
14. Cox, Wendell. Newgeography.com, “Atlanta: Ground Zero for the American Dream,” Feb. 12, 2010.
15. Id.
16. Id.
17. Portland Quick Facts from the US Census Bureau, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/41/4159000.html.
18. Complaint at 9, Darensburg et al. v. Metropolitan Transportation Commission, No. C-05-01597 (N.D. Cal. 2005).
19. Id.
20. Id. at 1.
21. Winston, Clifford. Journal of Urban Economics, “On the Social Desirability of Urban Rail Systems,” April 20, 2011.
22. 40 CFR 1502.14 (a).
23. Mississippi River Basin Alliance v. Westphal, 230 F.3d 170 (5th Cir. 2000).
24. 76 Fed.Reg. 12788, 12790.
25. Final Draft Central Austin Study, City of Austin, (July 15, 2010).
26. Id. at 102.
27. Id. at 111.
28. See FTA New Starts Guidance; Advancing Major Transit Investments through Planning and Project Development; Part II – Project Justification and Local Financial Commitment Criteria; II.I.III Other Factors. http://www.fta.dot.gov/planning/newstarts/planning_environment_2598.html.

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