The real danger
I've been busy at work and playing landlord, so I haven't had time to write any new material, but I will share a response I just wrote to Fred Meredith on the austin-bikes list. Fred's among the people who wants good mass transit in this area, but believes that voting yes on commuter rail is the best way to do it.
Fred Meredith wrote:
I will vote for this plan for the following basic reasons.
1.) We need a "first step" project in order to have any further advancement in mass transit through consideration of rail or other option to the single-occupant motor vehicle that increasingly gridlocks Austin. It may not be the best beginning, but it would be a beginning rather than a mandate to keep all rail plans off the horizon and just throw money at more lanes of concrete in a misguided attempt to overcome congestion. Once a first step is taken, I feel it is more likely that better plans can be brought to bear on the issue. I think it is a foot-in-the-door situation.
I don't know how many more times I can take this argument without assuming that I've become invisible or inaudible (fat chance, huh?), but I'll try to remain calm once more.
The danger here is that a starter line that is bad ENOUGH will completely destroy the momentum among the public (that actually WANTS rail right now by at least a slim margin, in Austin itself). This is what happened in South Florida with a system which is identical in every way that matters to the one proposed by Capital Metro. (Their demographics are a bit more liberal than ours, if you include the entire Capital Metro service area, but still far more conservative than Seattle or Portland).
Aspects of Tri-Rail's service which are important:
- It doesn't go anywhere people actually want to go, but relies on high-frequency circulators (shuttle buses) to take people to their final destinations.
- What happened was that people who were potential new transit customers stayed away, in droves, when they heard about the shuttle-bus transfer. (This transfer makes the entire trip noncompetitive with the private automobile - i.e. not even close).
- Hundreds of millions have been spent and are being spent to double-track the corridor, but now after 15 years of no real penetration among new transit customers, the people in charge are finally talking about moving or adding service to a far better rail corridor which actually goes through the major downtowns. (This is in their new long-range plans - meaning next decade or two).
- In the meantime, nothing else could be done (in terms of transit) for 15 years, and for at least another 10-15.
- Transit-oriented development has been pursued vigorously along Tri-Rail's corridor for at least ten years now with no results whatsoever (no construction; only some plans, most of which died on the vine).
Compare (and contrast if you can) to Austin. Here's the danger:
- We're exactly the same as Tri-Rail. Unless you think drivers in Leander are in love with transfers to shuttle buses. I don't.
- Capital Metro comes back to the voter in 2008 with plans to "expand" (either build the next commuter line down Mopac; build a streetcar system downtown; or if you don't believe me that commuter rail precludes light rail, even rail down Lamar/Guadalupe).
- The voters, who were told in no uncertain terms back in 2004 that they should evaluate the line's actual performance before voting on extensions/expansions, see that basically the commuter rail line is handling the old express bus riders (Capital Metro closed down the 183-corridor express buses in 2007 as commuter rail came online).
- The voters come to the (understandable) conclusion that "we tried rail, and it didn't work; so we're not going to spend any more money on it".
So no, the position that "Once a first step is taken, I feel it is more likely that better plans can be brought to bear on the issue. I think it is a foot-in-the-door situation" is not an accurate representation of what we face. It's more like "once a first step is taken on rail, it is very unlikely that better plans can be brought to bear on the issue unless the first step is a success in the minds of the voters. It is an out-on-a-limb situation".