Austin Region Transportation Plan: A blueprint for degrading quality of life

Below are summary COST comments to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (CAMPO) proposed CAMPO 2035 Regional Transportation Plan.

The top 2035 plan goal is stated to improve “Overall Livability.” It suggests this requires compromise: “balancing the need to move traffic with our need to build quality communities.” –“considered not only the movement of vehicles but the mobility of people, the sustainability of the system and the impact of our future investments on land use and growth patterns.”

It is not clear how “overall livability” is defined or what trade-offs have been considered and made to improve it. However, every experience and many studies would indicate that implementation of this plan will lead to serious degradation in the quality of life for a vast majority of the region’s citizens. As usual, it will have a disproportionate negative impact on lower income citizens.

The “Preferred” concept is based on a foundation of unproven assumptions that are not verified by any experience or valid analytical evaluation. In fact, every experience indicates the preferred concept would result in greater congestion, reduction in mobility and major reductions in housing affordability. This would result in lost opportunities for people to achieve higher income jobs, for employers to get better employees with increased productivity with higher wages, less access to lower priced retail goods, less access to health care, education, family, friends, entertainment and all of life’s offerings.

The Preferred Concept states: “This plan has been developed with the assumption that we may no longer be able to afford to invest in major regional infrastructure as we have in the past.” This seems to have led CAMPO to a plan for significantly higher density, mixed use development oriented around public transportation as a means to reduce vehicle miles traveled on roadways and increase public transit. There are no examples of cities that have done this successfully. In fact, those which have tried failed in a very big way.

The Austin region’s current growth pattern has already established a ten year declining trend in vehicle miles travelled per person. While average work trips have may have increased some, they are only 20% of total trips. The other 80% of trips have declined as retail, education, health care, entertainment, dinning, professional and other services and many other destinations have moved closer to people’s homes.

The Mecca of this forced ‘high density and increased public transit’ approach is Portland, Oregon. Its population growth has slowed dramatically; the mixed use centers were not built without heavy government subsidizes some 10 years after the trains were running, more than 2 billion subsidy dollars and counting using TIF’s and other means which have caused critical shortages in all other city service areas; and, with several billion dollars in light rail lines, transit ridership is a lower percentage today than the previous bus only period.

In addition, Portland’s housing cost, once very “Austin” affordable, has skyrocketed making it unaffordable to many resulting in a form of Apartheid by forcing many families and low income citizens to move. Portland is closing several public schools per year and its public school enrollment is approaching one-half of its peak of over 80,000 students. Guess what? Austin’s current peak is just over 80,000 students.

In addition, Portland’s last major corporate headquarters has moved because of the Draconian approaches to growth and transportation policy and regulation.

Cities all over the country are demonstrating the fallacy of this plan. This plan is invalidated by real, applicable experience in Dallas, Houston, Portland, Phoenix, Seattle, Denver, Salt Lake City, San Jose, Chicago, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, St Louis and others. A recent quote by Houston city council member Jolanda Jones is: “We cut bus lines to try to drive the rail ridership, and they basically, in my opinion, just killed transportation that was effective,”

There are volumes of such evidence. We should not “bet the farm” and hope for a different outcome because we will be very disappointed. The 2035 Plan’s response to the erroneously assumed conditions and solutions will lead to dramatically degrading the situation instead of improving it.

Consider this: Capital Metro has a 10 year declining trend in actual public transit ridership. During this same ten years, the costs per passenger mile have increased at a much greater rate than inflation. The commuter train has exacerbated this situation. It seems unconscionable that the 2035 plan would be based on a dramatic increase in public transit on trains, not proven in any example. Even if one could assume ridership increases, the ‘cost subsidy (loss) per passenger’ makes it totally unsustainable to the point that it could only serve an even smaller fraction of the citizens.

This plan has a strong ideological bias. One example is the highlighting that family transportation costs are more than 17 % if total income. At the same time there is no mention of the enormous benefits including: As the automobile was mass produced and affordable to most of the population, there was a huge increase in incomes as people could reach more jobs and markets. Inflation-adjusted incomes have grown 7 times in the last 100 years, about half of which is due to automobility. In addition, there is no source shown for the Plan’s implied recent increases and its stated 17% cost of transportation of total family income. It is questionable that this is correct. It is double the approximately 8.5% (which has been relatively consistent for more than 30 years) that the US Chamber of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis shows in its data. The instances of these kinds of ideological biases are too numerous to mention.

Almost all of the 12 goals stated for this transportation plan will be degraded by the plans approach. It would take a book to describe all the harm that this plan would cause. Comments on a few of these goals but not in numerical order:

7. Cost effectiveness: The plan’s cost effectiveness is pitiful. It is hard to imagine one any worse. More than $13 billion or some 50% of the almost $27 billion in plan funds are allocated to public transit. This is up from thirty percent in the 2030 plan. Fifty percent of the money is allocated to serve 1% or less of the passenger miles traveled in the region. The other 99% of the passenger mile travelers will suffer increased congestion, pollution and time loss. This will have a major negative impact on “quality-of-life. We even have irrefutable local evidence to validate this. The 183A toll road and the new commuter rail in the same corridor can be compared.

a. The commuter and 183A cost about the same when you properly allocate Cap Metro’s costs to the rail. Some would argue the toll road is maybe $100 million more. However, the operating costs of the train are 4-5 times that estimated and much greater than 183A. The argument here applies whichever one believes the train capital costs are. In a few short years, 183A and the commuter costs are equal, but the train operating costs are much greater than 183A over time.

b. The train has ridership of about 1000 or about 500 people on round trips. The 183A road carries about 30,000 cars or about 36,000 people (1.2 people per car).

c. The car riders on 183A save a large percentage of their travel time in this corridor. Savings are several minutes to as much as 4 hours per week versus the pre toll road time. It is not known precisely, but, it is probable that the average train riders save zero time and it probably takes them significantly longer. This 183A time savings is a huge quality of life impact for hundreds of thousands of people and a major efficiency improvement for many businesses.

d. A scientific study conducted on behalf of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority found that vehicles driven on the 183A toll road, on average, use less fuel and emit fewer pollutants than vehicles driven on the alternative parallel, US 183. Ridership is so low on the train that the train’s diesel engines produce more pollutants than if every rider were driving alone in an average roadway vehicle.

e. Taxpayers do not subsidize people using the 183A toll road. The road user’s toll fee is paying for the capital and the maintenance. Taxpayers are subsidizing each average, two way commuter train rider with about $30,000 per year. Train ridership would have to be many, many times greater to reduce this to a responsible, cost-effective and sustainable level. All public transit is subsidized but this train is at the extreme end of ‘totally unacceptable.’ The excellent express buses from the same transit stations at Leander and Lakeline require taxpayer subsidies of about $3,000 per year or one-tenth.

f. The train has no positive impact on congestion. When netted out, congestion is increased by the train because it passes dozens of intersections, stopping traffic and delaying more people than on most trains.

10. Social Equity: The 2035 plan makes a mockery of social equity. It will spend billions on the least cost effective, train solution, and will result in service cuts and price increases for the majority of the transit riders which will still be riding buses. The commuter requires exorbitant subsidies for 500 daily train riders, who mostly have an alternative, and service is being cut and fares increased substantially for about 40,000 daily bus riders who mostly do not have a choice. In addition, the implementation of the promised rapid bus would have dramatically improved transit for 8-10 times as many people as the commuter carries and for a fraction of the costs.

4. System Preservation: Since the huge train transit capital costs are paid by taxpayers, we are witnessing a financial crisis in many cities where train systems are wearing out and need many billions for replacement. This is showing us now how unsustainable this 2035 transportation plan is.

1. Mobility and Access: Confining many people to the severe constraints of public transit will greatly limit their access to opportunity and higher quality of life.

The selection of public transit content in this plan is not based on valid alternatives analyses which have considered the most cost effective method to address transportation objectives. We need mass transit but it must be cost effective to provide benefits to the most citizens.

Even if the plan was good, its costs are probably $10 billion or more below what it would reasonably require, mostly in public transit. For example, the cost of moving Union Pacific seems to be missing and that is $2-4 billion depending on whom guesses. Certainly the other trains are much more than shown.
Public transit must be cost effective to be sustainable.

The 2035 plan is not cost effective; it is not sustainable and it will degrade the overall “livability” or quality of life of our citizens.

Please reconsider this plan. It needs a major overhaul.

Coalition on Sustainable Transportation (COST)

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