Yesterday's enjoyable lunch with Dave Dobbs reminded me that I intended to write this short piece, entitled "Why You Should Support (At Least Most Of) The Toll Road Plan Even If You Hate Sprawl".
So, there's ths big plan out there to build a bunch of toll roads. Well, not exactly. Realistically, the plan is to add toll lanes to a bunch of existing roads, and build a few new toll roads. The new toll lanes would be freeway-quality; some of the existing roads' capacity would be shifted to free frontage roads. This provides ammunition for the (false, but compelling) claim that existing roads are being 'converted' to toll roads, which I'll explore in detail perhaps in a later posting.
The assumption is that if you care about the center city, and you hate sprawl, that you should be against this plan. Well, I love the center city. I hate the suburbs. I think gas needs to be a lot more expensive. I ride my bike to work a couple days a week. And yet, I'm going to support this plan.
Most of this plan was already on the books in one way or another. For instance, the long-range CAMPO plan always had an upgrade planned for Loop 360 (usually "expressway 6", meaning 6 lanes and probably some more grade separation; by CAMPO's terminology "expressway" indicates some separation but still some traffic lights). That means that sooner or later, these roads would have been built, with a combination of woefully underfunded state gas tax dollars, CAMPO-controlled federal gas tax dollars, and a dollop of city, county, and even Capital Metro funding from property and sales taxes.
Read that again. Most of these roads would be built anyways. That's the first assumption you need to buy into in order to support these toll roads, and some people simply don't. That's fine, but at least understand the reasoning before you go on.
Why would these roads be built anyways? 99% of the drivers in this area think we don't build enough roads. Yes, they're wrong. Yes, informed people disagree. But those drivers are 99% of the population. You've got a lot of work to do to change their minds. I say good luck to you sir.
So, we're stuck between choosing a slow buildout of free freeways like the US 183 creeper northwest, or a quick buildout by some other means. Some people suggest simply raising the gas tax. While this would address the impact on non-drivers (I, personally, hate the fact that City of Austin general fund monies go to pay for roadways like US 183 which not only don't provide pedestrian accomodation, but are actively hostile to later accomodation - future paper on this subject to come), it doesn't address the city/suburb equity problem.
Consider this: if I drive 10 miles through the city on S 1st St., Lavaca, Guadalupe, and Lamar; and my vehicle gets 20 mpg, I pay about 18 cents in gas tax, about a dime of that to the state. If my friend drives 10 miles through Round Rock on FM 620, he pays 18 cents in gas tax, about a dime of that to the state.
However, the state gas tax money (and the overwhelming majority of the federal gas tax money) is dedicated to roadways like FM 620. In fact, the state gas tax money cannot, by law, be spent on city roads (even major arterials).
So what's the big deal? Look at a bunch of streets sometime and see what roads have route symbols on them and what don't. (You might be fooled by Loop 343 through town on some maps - that's old data; the signs on the street are the only reliable judge). Anything with a "SH", "FM", "RM", "Loop", "US", or "Interstate" on it is getting gas tax money. Anything without is not. In most cases, not even federal gas tax money (on average, one major non-state-highway project per year gets a dollop of federal gas tax money through CAMPO's process).
So most of the big roads in the City of Austin don't get any gas tax money. This means that they must be funded by property and sales taxes. For instance, if one was going north from the river and looking at major E-W routes, all downtown streets (including Cesar Chavez); all numbered streets; Anderson Lane; Steck; basically every road between the river and US 183 with the exception of FM2222 is paid for by the city. And the same is true for N-S routes - such as Burnet Rd (south of US 183), Lamar Blvd. (ditto), Guadalupe, Red River, etc.
On the other hand, towns like Round Rock and Cedar Park have a much higher proportion of their infrastructure as signed and marked state highway routes (or US, which is really state under the covers). Go drive around and check it out if you don't believe me.
So the gas tax is inequitable to city drivers and encourages sprawl. Most of the gas tax money you pay while driving around Austin goes to the 'burbs.
So building these roads by increasing the gas tax is a bit more optimal than what we do now, but not much.
Finally, there's the choice of tolling the roads. This, at least, only hits the people who use the road. So the people who chose to live in areas which now must be served with expensive roadways pay for the trouble, at least. And the future option exists to use this toll money to improve other modes of transportation (again: the state gas tax, by law, cannot be used on anything but highways; tolls have no such restriction).
So what about the argument that these toll roads will encourage more sprawl? Well, it's possible. There's two basic subarguments here, that I'll address quickly:
1. That adding capacity, even toll capacity, encourages people to move further out. I do believe this to be the case - but it's less of an effect than adding free capacity would have been. And as said above, I don't believe that not adding the capacity at all is a realistic option given the feelings of 99% of drivers.
2. That the interests holding the bonds will have an economic incentive to produce more development in these areas in order to ensure adequate economic return (i.e.: the guys loaning the money need to make sure the supply of drivers fills the tollbooths). I find this less believable, because I think that most of the projects in this plan are going in corridors where sufficient demand for improved travel already exists, as long as the tolls are relatively low. Ironically, a toll project which sailed through with far less opposition (SH 130) seems to me to be a much worse bet. I have no problem believing current drivers will pay tolls today to travel up and down Loop 360 at twice current speed, in other words; but I don't believe SH 130 is going to fill its coffers anytime soon.
The final bit is to analyze the projects and see which ones make sense and which might not, although I've already said that I think that at least one project under construction (SH 130) is worse than any of these. The RMA doesn't want us to think this way, because they're relying on an economic package consisting of all of the roads put together (i.e. they think they need the dollars from the better ones to pay for the weaker ones, and they need the capacity from the weaker ones to feed the better ones). This argument, while I disagree with it, is more defensible than many would have you believe - it's the same argument transit supporters use to support little-travelled late-night trips on major routes (am I going to commit to riding the bus if it's not going to be there the one night I work late?).
But I'll analyze them anyways, because that's what I'm supposed to do. When I rate revenue, I'm assuming no new development of any kind (in other words, this is based on my subjective opinion of existing traffic demand).
US 183A - seems a poor candidate for revenue to me, but it was already approved.
SH 130 - very poor candidate for revenue, but it was already approved.
SH 45 N - good candidate for revenue, already approved.
Loop 1 N - good candidate for revenue, already approved.
SH 45 SE - marginal candidate for revenue, already approved. (Remind me to write an article about the 45 naming sometime - TXDOT is still keeping alive the Outer Loop through shenanigans like this).
"Y" in Oak Hill - SH 71 phase - very good candidate (neighborhood very opposed since they assumed they were getting free capacity, but this does NOT qualify as "converting a free road")
US 183 in East Austin - very good candidate (airport traffic tends to seek predictable routes even at higher expense)
SH 71 Southeast Austin - very good candidate (same as above)
Loop 1 S (SH 71 to William Cannon) - dubious candidate (short segment, unclear how feasible tolling it wll be). Seems like a stupid idea to toll a small segment in the middle of a long free stretch.
SH 45 S from Loop 1 to 1626 - dubious candidate, and opposed by the City of Austin.
"Y" in Oak Hill - US 290 phase - same as 71 phase.
Loop 360 - Bee Caves (2244) to Walsh Tarlton - very good candidate.
Loop 360 - remaining segments (as franchise) - would be good candidates. I don't understand the desire to have one part of this road operated by the RMA and the rest by a franchise - this seems stupid (would be better to do it all one or the other).
OK, back to work.
Today's Statesman featured a sidebar on page 1 of the Metro section which picked up on the "running a poorly designed commuter rail system to suburban areas which don't pay Cap Metro taxes may increase operatng costs to the point where the urban core will never be able to get rail service" meme I'm working so hard on.
A figure of $1 a ride, identical to what it costs now to ride express buses, has been kicked around but is by no means certain. But the train line probably would create a new operating deficit to add to the red ink.
With all that in mind, the Capital Metro staff has been looking at its entire fare structure. Staff members, with the aid of graduate students from the University of Texas, have been running economic models to see how higher fares might affect services, looking to find the number that optimizes revenue. The staff will make a recommendation to the Capital Metro board in July.
What emerges will no doubt still be a bargain. The board will not want to give its mostly urban bus riders -- and rail election voters -- the impression that they are subsidizing suburban train riders.
My motion last night failed for lack of a second. This is less than I expected (I thought I'd likely lose 6-2 or 7-2). Like I said, long uphill battle (most people are willing to take Cap Metro's word on performance rather than thinking critically and/or looking at peer cities).
Oh, and even though Cap Metro didn't bother to send somebody to talk about the long-range plan, not one other commissioner had the guts to go out on a limb and call them on this plan's lack of support for Austin's needs. Rather disappointing.
I've now finished a rough draft of some Qs and As about my opposition to this plan. More to come when I get spare moments.
Finally some meat to add to a new transportation links section. Two bike commuter bloggers so far, who, despite being rather dense on the helmet issue (hint: they discourage cycling and don't work), seem to have a lot of interesting stuff to say.
Today at lunch, I wrote this commuter rail fact sheet. Short on time, I made the hopefully correct assumption that relatively few readers would need a detailed introduction to the technology and terminology, so most of the page actually analyzes Cap Metro's plan.
This morning, after I finished a short interview with KLBJ-AM's morning news show (despite being well-meaning in their attempts to cover local issues, the format isn't very helpful - I only spoke about ten sentences total), I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway. Since I was up extra early, my choices were to take the #3 bus at 7:16 (arriving up near my office at 7:44) or take the more comfortable and quicker express bus at 7:48 (arriving near my office at 8:08).
I arrived at the bus stop about 5 minutes early (late for me), and waited. And waited. And waited. The bus finally showed up at about 7:30.
It's now 8:03 and I'm finally at my desk. And by the way, thanks to the motorists on Jollyville who were relatively understanding of my slow cycling due to the water. I didn't get splashed once.
The bus wasn't late because it makes a lot of stops. That's factored into the schedule.
The bus wasn't late because it travels on city streets instead of the freeway. That's factored into the schedule.
The bus was late because of unpredictable traffic downtown. And because there's no transit priority (bus lanes or other) anywhere downtown, the bus suffers when cars jam the streets.
Now, compare and contrast to Capital Metro's so-called "rapid bus" proposal. Their bus would run through downtown in shared lanes with cars, just like today's #3 did. In downtown and through UT, it is unlikely that it would have been able to hold any lights green (without destroying the sequencing of the lights on that corridor). It would have been able to hold a few lights green outside downtown (but, when I got on the bus at 38th/Medical, we didn't hit more than 2 red lights all the way up to my stop at Braker and Jollyville - and at one of those, we had stopped to pick up passengers anyways).
In short: the "rapid" bus wouldn't have been any more reliable than the city bus I took this morning. And that's not good enough for the taxpayers of Austin.
Over lunch today, I produced this Rapid Bus Fact Sheet which attempts to (before the conclusion) analyze some common BRT treatments and objectively specify which are being used in Capital Metro's proposal, and what impact they might have on competitiveness with existing bus service and with the car.
Today's Statesman (registration required) contains the first non-gushing comment about Capital Metro's plan to screw the center city in favor of Cedar Park and Round Rock (who don't even pay Capital Metro taxes) in order to curry favor with Mike Krusee.
But the agency will have to win over some lukewarm Austinites.
"I absolutely reject it on its own merits because of the benefits for people who don't pay and the lack of benefits for people who do pay," said Mike Dahmus, a member of the Urban Transportation Commission, an advisory board for the Austin City Council.
He said the plan would shortchange the large number of city residents who provide the agency's tax base in order to serve residents of the suburbs. Plus, he added, "the commuter rail doesn't go anywhere near the University of Texas or the densest urban core."
The bulk of Capital Metro's budget comes from a 1-cent sales tax levied in Austin and a few surrounding communities that are part of the agency's service area.
News 8, on the other hand, interviewed current bus passengers. Even Capital Metro isn't quite stupid enough now to think that the opinions of current bus users should shape a rapid transit line, although they're still attacking the issue from the angle of cost, which is not a winner with rail or bus.
Today during lunch, I hope to get the first fact page up (this one about the proposed rapid bus line). This will be an uphill struggle at best.
In today's Salt Lake Tribune, the most explicit explanation yet of why rail is far superior to buses in urban areas seeking redevelopment:
"Unlike buses, rail transit can have tremendous land-use impacts," D.J. Baxter, Anderson's transportation adviser, said Tuesday. "Since a bus can be rerouted at the drop of a hat, no savvy investor is going to make development decisions based on bus routes. But streetcars are fixed, permanent. And a streetcar, combined with the right kind of land-use policies and zoning, can lead to very aggressive private investment in urban development -- particularly in terms of housing."
So in Tuesday's Cap Metro briefing, one of the points I made is that an attempt to encourage people to use transit based on cost savings is doomed to failure, because the bus really isn't any cheaper than the car for most people. Assumption here is that you won't be able to completely get rid of a car, i.e., you ride the bus 4 days a week, or even 5, but can't reduce your family's number of cars.
The two downtown lawyers looked at me as if I was crazy. Well, I'm used to it.
Here's the problem: Most of the people who pay a lot of money to park work downtown. Almost none of the new buildings there are underserved with parking, though; so the average cost per employee to park is dropping, even in the one place in town where it isn't free. Free is a good assumption to work on (I suspect that most employees in those new buildings are getting free parking from their employers).
Then, we hit the "well, the IRS claims 27.5 cents per mile", or whatever they're saying now. Yes, the IRS does in fact allow you to deduct business-related driving at that level in most cases. A big chunk of that is not gas, or tires, or maintenance - it's depreciation, which makes sense for a business (which usually must depreciate assets like that as a matter of accounting principle).
But I went over this with my bicycle cost comparator. The fact is that unless you can get rid of a car completely, this depreciation number is not applicable to using your car for personal use (and yes, commuting to work is personal use).
I have never gotten one more dollar for a car on a trade-in for having disproportionately low mileage. Anectodal evidence exists of a few people who got an extra hundred bucks or two on a ten-year-old car for low mileage, but even that figure is trivial compared to how much of the original value of the car depreciated as a function of time, not mileage.
So, if you're talking about taking the bus to work even every day but you live in the suburbs, you ain't getting rid of that car, and thus, you ain't saving 27.5 cents per mile. Gas and tires are about all the consumables you can treat as a mile-based expense; most maintenance is necessary every N months even if you drive the car a tenth as much as the typical user. Insurance is not mile-based (even though there were a flurry of press-releases about it supposedly being offered in Texas, it hasn't materialized). Neither is registration.
So, a comparison for me:
I drive my wife's old Honda Civic to work (when I drive). I take my bike on the other days, using the express bus for a boost in the morning. Let's suppose I took that bus both ways.
From my calculator on my trip:
Car cost: $1.20, of which $1.10 is gas.
Bus cost: $2.00 ($1.00 each way).
Note that the following bus savings can be used:
Even in the most optimistic scenario, I'd only save $0.16 per day by taking the bus. That's never going to be compelling enough to get me to vote for any transit proposal whatsoever, which was the point to begin with.
For comparison, Cap Metro's calculator says it costs me $184 a week if I drive all 5 days.
Cap Metro doesn't understand "choice commuters". The things that could get them to vote for more money for transit are:
Unfortunately, their rapid bus proposal does next to nothing on either metric above.
(17:10:34) mdahmus: oh, forgot to tell you about my dillo experience
(17:10:39) mdahmus: 3 HIGHLY drunk guys on 4th and congress
(17:10:47) mdahmus: scaring the crap out of the white chick sitting next to me on bench
(17:10:54) mdahmus: as I waited for red dillo to go back to park-and-ride
(17:11:06) mdahmus: and then one of them DROPPED HIS FRIEND'S LIQUOR BOTTLE and it BROKE
(17:11:12) mdahmus: the apologies were flowing like cheap liquor
(17:11:22) mdahmus: man, did they smell stinky
(17:11:36) (coworker): there is no defining the amount of class it takes to drink liquor from a bottle on the street
(17:11:42) mdahmus: every time a bus came up, the drunker and stupider one would go up to the bus and his friends would yell "that's not the right bus man, we're looking for the 26"
(17:11:53) mdahmus: apparently he was not only illiterate but illnumerate as well
(17:12:08) (coworker): you should submit "illnumerate" to something
(17:12:14) mdahmus: yes
(17:12:24) mdahmus: I will submit it to my crackpot blog
(17:12:32) (coworker) logged out.
Short entry: I went down to Cap Metro at 11 for a briefing on the new different long-range transit plan (they're not ready for open-records stuff yet so they were only willing to talk to 4 people from our commission at a time) and yes, the urban core of Austin is getting screwed. Rail for people in the densest parts of town is now gone; replaced with "rapid bus" lines, which do not include plans for any knd of prioritization beyond the "keep the green light a few seconds longer".
In other words, the far suburbs, many of whom don't pay taxes to Cap Metro, are getting commuter rail; and the urban core, where most of the money comes from, is getting a slightly better version of the #101.
Cap Metro just got a new worst enemy. I don't expect to have any influence over the outcome, but I can and will make the people responsible for this decision as miserable as possible.
I just sent the following to the City Council. Not much time to blog lately; but this is some relevant content at least.
Mayor and councilmembers:
My name is Mike Dahmus and I currently serve on the Urban Transportation Commission. I was also the chairman of the transportation committee for the Old West Austin Neighborhood Plan.
The story in Sunday's statesman about Envision Central Texas finally compelled me to write about a subject which has been bothering me for quite a while: neighborhood planning. When we worked on the OWANA plan, we were operating under the assumption that we were supposed to be telling the city _where_ we wanted additional density to _go_, NOT _whether_ we wanted it at all. The Statesman and ECT have noticed what I've also seen: that other neighborhoods have not been held to this responsible position.
My current residence is in the North University neighborhood. I've witnessed weeks of self-congratulatory hype over the fact that building height limits will be loosened in West Campus, and that in return, no additional density (in fact, less than currently exists) will be required in NUNA.
However, when I explain to other people that West Campus building heights will be allowed to go as high as 175 feet or so under the new amazing plan, the typical response is not, "wow, they're being very responsible"; rather, it is, "I can't believe they weren't allowed to do that already".
In other words, the best that the current batch of neighborhood plans are able to come up with is restoring West Campus to what it always should have been while allowing nearby roads like Duval and Speedway to maintain a purely single-family pattern, which is ludicrously restrictive.
I've not become involved in this neighborhood plan because I only moved to the area a year ago, and then my wife had a baby; so my time is limited. In my limited interactions with the planning team, it is clear to me that my input would not have been welcome anyways; for this team (and most recent neighborhoods) have clearly been using the planning process as a club to drive out redevelopment (as you have noticed them doing with inappropriate uses of historic zoning).
I urge you to view this plan with a skeptical eye; and please hold this and future neighborhoods more accountable in the future. We will not get where we need to go if we codify restrictive single-family-only-zoning even on major transit routes like Duval and Speedway.
Michael E. Dahmus