June 22, 2005

Toll Roads Help Central Austin

Sal Costello is pissed that TXDOT has bribed the City of Austin with rebates on previously spent right-of-way money if they agree not to oppose these roads' tolling.

As I've noted in draft form (I now hopefully have the motivation to go back and finish those posts - as I do, see the bottom of this post for links), huge chunks of bond money approved between 1997 and 2000 by City of Austin and Travis County voters were designated for "local participation" in projects like SH130, SH45, Loop1, US183, SH71, and US290 freeway and tollway extensions and expansions. This "local participation" boiled down to (in most cases) 10% of right-of-way costs + utility relocation. Doesn't sound like much, but it added up to tens of millions of dollars each time.

What's the rub? The city and county don't get any money from gasoline taxes. These bonds will be repaid using city and county funds, which effectively means property and sales taxes (or in the city's case, utility slush funds paid back by electric customers).

Note: You pay this bill no matter how much or how little you drive; no matter how efficient or inefficient your car; no matter whether you take the bus, ride your bike, or walk.

And guess who pays the most, proportionally, in property taxes? Here's a hint: My small lot in central Austin is valued far higher than the comparatively vast Steiner Ranch lot of one of my cow orkers; more than the huge lot of one of my friends on "The Mountain"; heck, more than Sal Costello's lot in Circle C. Most of the costs associated with city and county spending are related more to the size of the area covered rather than population density, by the way. And Sal's getting far more lane-miles and far wider streets for his $0.50 than I am for my $1.35.

Accepting this rebate from TXDOT helps Central Austin. Of course, it requires Sal and his Circle C buddies to start paying more of their fair share instead of being subsidized by the central city (we'll still subsidize you with our gasoline taxes when we do drive, but the property and sales tax subsidization will drop dramatically). So you can understand why the southwest and northwest Austinites are so ticked off, even if they hide behind the baloney claims of "double taxation" (I paid to park at Zilker Park last weekend; was I "double taxed"?)

Responsible City Council members should ignore this caterwauling and do what's best for the fiscal interest of the city - which means tolling roads used disproportionately by people who either don't pay any city taxes (because they live outside city limits) or pay relatively little. If you want less sprawl and a healthy center city, please make your voice heard.

Past highway spending in bond elections (added as I finish them over the day):

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Driving in Austin , Funding of Transportation , Texas Republicans Hate Cities
Posted by m1ek at 09:29 AM | Comments (1)

June 21, 2005

Rapid Bus Ain't Rapid, June 2005 Update

Today's Statesman article continues their tradition of blindly accepting whatever Capital Metro says about the transit plan (which was, not coincidentally, innocuous enough not to piss off the real estate interests who largely shape the Statesman's editorial content).

For background on what Rapid Bus really is, and why it's a rip-off for central Austin taxpayers (who get nearly nothing out of the commuter rail plan but pay most of the bills) check the links at the bottom.

Short summary: The people in the densest neighborhoods (including the about-to-open Triangle) who actually WANT to use transit are getting nothing more than a lousy stuck-in-traffic slightly-fancier version of the #101, i.e., a BUS which is MUCH SLOWER THAN THEIR CARS. NO, holding a green light for a couple of seconds ISN'T GOING TO MAKE MUCH DIFFERENCE. It'll be the cars IN FRONT OF THE BUS, sometimes stacked up through several intersections up ahead, that most affect its speed, not the traffic lights.

The people out in the suburbs who don't really want transit and don't pay most of the bills anyways are getting a commuter rail line which, as long as they don't mind changing to a SHUTTLE BUS at the end of the trip, will take them downtown. Oh, and if they're lucky enough to work directly at the Convention Center, it'll be competitive with their cars.

All this instead of a scaled back version of the 2000 light rail plan, which would have served BOTH suburban AND urban residents with transit which was competitive with their cars AND dropped them off directly at UT, the Capitol, and downtown.

June 16, 2005

On office locations

I've been working out in the suburbs ever since I moved to Austin in 1996. There just aren't many high-tech companies who have had the guts to disregard their CEO's wishes and move downtown, where many of the younger workers would prefer to work (at least that was the case at my last job).

First office was in far north Austin at IBM, from 1996 through 1998, and during that time I bought and moved into a condo in Clarksville.

Second company was S3 where I had four different offices in three and a half years (five if you count the twelve months or so I worked at home in the condo between offices #3 and #4).

Then, I worked at two far western offices at the last company.

I currently work at 183/Braker, which, for the suburbs, is about as good as it gets - I can and did take the express bus to work to assist on my bike commute from time to time. But it still couldn't beat walking a block to the #5 and busing 10 minutes downtown. I could only bike to work once a week at best because of the time it took, but if my office were downtown, I could easily do it 5 days a week.

So when the economy picked up, I started asking recruiters who contacted me where the companies were located (thinking I wouldn't bother talking to somebody in the 'burbs but might at least listen for a downtown position). I usually got the answer quickly; but one guy really didn't want to say, and then claimed that this spot was "central". Give me a break. When I explained that "central" meant "could hop a bus or ride my bike every day rather than once a week", he said they'd pay for a bus pass (closest stop is miles away) and provide free parking(!) FREE PARKING IN THE SUBURBS! YEE-HAW! WHAT AN UNUSUAL PERK!

As it turns out, I'm now leaving the current job because a combination of a benefits change that hit us really hard and a property-tax mortgage-company screwup made it impossible to afford to stay, which stinks, since I really like the work and the people. The new job will mean a commute out to my desk in my garage (which I had to air-condition in order to work all that overtime which ate up at least 6 hours a day every weekend day from Memorial Day to mid-August). It was mildly humorous when I asked my normal question, and they responded "you'd have to work at home", and I got to reassure them that it was a plus for me, not a minus. And as it turns out, the new people seem cool, and the work seems like it will be interesting too. But this is the first time I've ever quit a job I liked, which is a weird feeling.

Anyways, this all came up again today because a couple of threads today regarding Microsoft have mentioned the difficulty in getting people to move to Redmond. One of the threads thinks that people just don't want to move to the northwest, which I don't believe, but the second one gets it right - you can't expect your twentysomething ideal hires to want to work in the suburbs as much as the fiftysomething CEOs.

This is applicable to me since I've been through the early stages of the interview process with Microsoft at least three times now, but haven't yet found a group which wouldn't require physical office presence in Redmond. And even if we could manage the blended family issues and move to the Seattle area (where my stepson was born and my wife and his father lived for ten years), you'd have to double my salary to get me to live in Redmond or any other such car-requiring soul-destroying suburban wasteland (and living in Seattle and commuting to Redmond would be like what I just got out of in Austin, except five times worse).

Unfortunately, as Joel on Software pointed out and I mentioned with regard to AMD, the wishes of the employees mean absolutely nothing; almost all corporate moves are to make the office closer to the CEO's home.

(The rank-and-file workers at the last job, who were disproportionately the bright twentysomethings over whom all tech companies seem to want to fight, disproportionately live in the central city, like I do, but as far as I know only two have found jobs downtown - although another one has started a company on South Congress - on the other hand, the workers at the job I'm leaving are mostly family guys who moved here from RTP, where there is no 'center city' to be had, so there's no demand there).

So my new commute is twenty steps out to the garage. Now I have two things to try to figure out:

1. How to work exercise into the daily routine without a bike commute (although I wasn't doing it much lately anyways, I had planned to ramp back up since school's now out for the summer). Maybe walking on my hands to the garage will do it...

and

2. How to write about Shoal Creek Boulevard when I won't need to use it for my commute. Actually, that seems like a benefit rather than a drawback...

June 14, 2005

picture dump

January 2005 pictures are now up. This marks a momentous occasion - I am now less than six months behind in posting pictures! Unfortunately, the job I'm leaving in a week or two is where I have the scripts I use to do this...

This entry was posted in the following categories: Personal
Posted by m1ek at 03:55 PM

There is no lie brazen enough for the road warriors

A month or two ago I wrote a letter to the Honolulu Advertiser (we had just come back from there, and I was still reading the paper regularly online) rebutting the claims made by various right-wingers that Honolulu wasn't dense enough to support rail. (As it turns out, if you're measuring residential density, they're the densest city in the country - yes, more so than even New York City!). This is coming up because Honolulu is attempting yet again to start a rail system after a disastrous flirtation with Bus Rapid Transit which ended as almost all such flirtations do - with a scaled back system that doesn't perform any better than city buses, and thus didn't attract any new riders.

Today I was reminded of this again since their their drive-time columnist included this small blurb at the end of his column:

Still think of Honolulu has a small town? Think again.

Emporis.com reports that Honolulu is fourth in the nation when it comes to the number of high-rise buildings (10 stories or more).

The company, which specializes in geography information, says there are 424 high-rise buildings in the urban core from Pearl Harbor to Hawai'i Kai. That's enough to make us 14th in the world.

In America, only New York City (5,454), Chicago, (1,042) and Los Angeles (449) have more high-rises than Honolulu.

And yet, even in Hawaii, there are those (like Cliff Slater) who claim that rail won't work in Honolulu despite the fact that it works in far less-dense cities and the fact that the huge tourist movement from the airport to Waikiki could fill up three or four rail lines in the blink of an eye.

How dense is dense enough? Clearly the only dense things here are the road warriors themselves.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Funding of Transportation , I Told You So , PS: I am not a crackpot , Personal , Politics (Outside Austin)
Posted by m1ek at 11:50 AM

June 13, 2005

On rail success and how not to get there

Excerpted from a post I just made to the excellent Cyburbia Forums:

Actually, from what we heard from the Feds in 2000, Austin's development pattern was nearly ideal for a successful light rail line - the one which would have gone straight down Guadalupe past UT and the Capitol, I mean. Huge suburban catchment area served well by big park-and-rides followed by transition through inner-city residential neighborhoods with thousands of residents within walking distance followed by three mega-employment-centers (UT, capitol, downtown) all with parking issues which encourage transit as long as transit is reasonably competitive.

The reason commuter rail won't work is that it doesn't run through those inner-city neighborhoods (you know, the ones where people actually LIKE mass transit) _AND_ it requires a shuttle-bus transfer for UT and Capitol and most downtown employees. You can't come up with a better way to shoot yourself in the foot than to first lose your best customers (inner-city people) and then tell your remaining customer base of skeptical suburbanites that the last mile or two of their trip is going to be on a shuttle-bus stuck in traffic with everybody else's car.

June 07, 2005

picture dump

December 2004 pictures are up, including the Annual Brindle Christmas SingALong, Christmas at the Hassells, Christmas in Florida, and Universal Studios. I don't have the energy to caption these, because there's a TON of them, but there's some really good ones in here.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Personal
Posted by m1ek at 04:02 PM

Still Yes For Office Towers On Lamar

Another note I sent to the OWANA mailing list is below, recorded here for posterity and crackpottery.

I would take issue with the following characterizations made by charles:

charles price wrote:

>
> I am very much in favor of downtown densification, but very against
> allowing a zoning change here.

To most of Austin, including many people living in OWANA, downtown
begins at Lamar Blvd.

> Bear in mind that office is the highest dollar return on investment,
> the movie industry is in a slump, and there are two Alamo Drafthouse
> Cinemas within one mile.

You can't walk to one of those two Alamos from OWANA or from downtown
lofts, and the other one is likely not going to be at its current
location much longer.

> The Nokonah got the neighborhood's agreement to not oppose a variance
> when the developers promised retail and restaurants on the lower
> floors on Lamar. After it was built they rented it as office space to
> a realty. The Hartland bank Building got a height variance after we
> didn't oppose when they promised forty percent residential usage. The
> residential didn't happen. The AISD building got a density variance
> after they promised a significant residential component, which never
> happened. I don't think we should let the city relinquish control
> unless it is tied to a specific proposal. And we need to not pay much
> attention to the promises until they are made in writing with an way
> to enforce them.

Agreed 100%. Any agreement the developer promises should be backed up
with a deed restriction, CO, or other such arrangement.

> The site is zoned to allow commercial and office development already.
> They want the zoning change so they can build a significantly larger
> office component and a large parking garage.

The site is currently zoned to allow typical low-density retail strips
and small-scale office. Not an appropriate scale for Lamar Blvd.

> A large parking garage doesn't seem compatible with the types of
> arguments being presented here regarding creating an incentive for
> mass transit.

As a matter of fact, getting buildings built with parking garages is far
superior to keeping current buildings with surface parking. Yes,
ideally, they'll provide less parking than suburban alternatives. Some
do, many don't. But at least the streetscape is vastly improved, as is
the possibility that the parking won't be free.

> If we want to encourage mass transit, which I do, we want new office
> projects to be built downtown, not on the perimeter in an area
> surrounded by quality residential fabric.

The east side of Lamar _IS_ downtown.

> Leave the zoning as it is and they can build a reasonable amount
> of retail and offices including their movie house, but they can't
> build a ten-story office tower which would be very bad at this site.

A ten-story office tower ANYWHERE in downtown is EXACTLY what this city
needs, and quickly. Developing more offices in the suburbs, given the
oil situation we face, is criminally irresponsible.

>
> It is clear that offices increase traffic at peak traffic hours. More
> offices = more traffic. Downtown offices as an encouragement for mass
> transportation sounds good, but most office traffic will always be
> single occupancy vehicles.

1. When parking isn't free (as it isn't at many downtown garages),
there's an incentive to carpool or use transit which most of us don't
enjoy at our suburban jobs.

2. You can feasibly build HOV lanes (or managed lanes) which go
downtown, but you can't feasibly build them out to sprawl-land. (You can
BUILD them, but they'll never be used to capacity - this is why places
like Silicon Valley have poor performance from HOV while places like DC
do really well with them).

> Downtown densification is better if it includes residences, shops, and
> restaurants which encourage living downtown so that a significant
> component of the people do not need transportation because they're
> already there.

Agreed. How many of the people living downtown currently work in the
suburbs? Shouldn't we bring more office development to them? (I'd kill
to work downtown, but there simply aren't enough technology firms down
there to make it possible for more than a privileged few - luckily I
just took a job that allows me to work from home, so I can finally end
my trip out to the 128, I mean 101, I mean 183 corridor).

> We need people living downtown, not finding new ways to get to
> downtown from their suburban sprawl.


We need both, unless you're going to empty the suburbs entirely. People
commuting downtown from their suburban home is far better, overall, than
people commuting from one suburban location to another.

> I won't repeat at length the arguments concerning fairness or justice
> regarding changing a zoning that was in place when neighbors bought
> their properties understanding what could and could not be built
> across the street.

None of the people complaining live on Lamar Blvd, so characterizing
this as "across the street" is disingenuous.

> Obviously, no one wants an atrocity to be built next to their house or
> condo. Can you imagine buying a beautiful fifth floor condo in the
> Nokonah with floor to ceiling windows and then find the city is
> changing the neighboring zoning to allow a parking garage at the same
> height forty feet away!

Yes, I can. It's called "living downtown".

> We need to work together as a neighborhood to oppose this type of
> sprawling, profiteering commercialism,


This is the worst misrepresentation in your note - this project is the
antithesis of "sprawling" by any reasonable definition of the term. Good
or bad is an opinion, but it's NOT "sprawling".

> even when it doesn't directly negatively impact you as an individual.
> If we don't all fight against negative developments all around our
> neighborhood, we will become like the area across Lamar from us or
> like West Campus.


Ironically, had West Campus allowed tall buildings, they'd be a lot
better off today. The poor investment in old low-density multifamily
student properties is a direct unintended consequence of ridiculously
STRICT zoning codes imposed on an area which should have been allowed to
grow UP, and never was.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , I Told You So , PS: I am not a crackpot , Transit in Austin , Walking in Austin (Pedestrian Issues) , When Neighborhoods Go Bad
Posted by m1ek at 03:47 PM

June 02, 2005

Yes To Office Towers At Old Whole Foods

My old neighborhood has really gone downhill since I left. Now many of them* are vehemently opposing infill at the Old Whole Foods on the grounds that it'll create too much automobile traffic.

What a load of garbage. The SAME folks who signed the Move AMD petition with me are apparently ALSO against developing high-density office and retail ON TOP OF A PARKING LOT IN THE URBAN CORE. This is exactly why I can't hold my nose and vote for Margot Clarke. Hint: SOMETIMES THE NEIGHBORHOODS ARE WRONG.

And too much automobile traffic? Here's a clue: At some point, you have to accept that TRAFFIC IN THE URBAN CENTER ISN'T GOING TO FLOW SMOOTHLY, PERIOD. If you want to live in OWANA and expect free-flowing traffic on neighboring arterials, you're insane. The whole POINT of living there is that you don't HAVE to drive (or not as often). Embrace it and get out of your car like I did when I lived there.

You can't get any more wrong than this unless you opposed student housing on Guadalupe at 27th. Oops.

Pros for this PUD: A lot of these office workers would otherwise work in the suburbs, which creates more traffic overall, since you mostly can't carpool, bike, walk, or take the bus to jobs out here (and believe me, I try). It doesn't use up any more pervious cover. It doesn't wreck the aquifer. Some of these office workers will no doubt 'commute' from nearby high-density residential development already completed or planned; and the presence of more offices downtown will encourage even more residential development.

In short: this project would fuel a virtuous cycle of urban development instead of the vicious circle of suburban sprawl. I don't see how any responsible Austinite can be against it.

(* - updated to reflect supportive offline and online comments at the OWANA group, and my own lack of surety on whether opposing the PUD is an official position of the neighborhood association or not - although I still suspect it is)

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Bicycling in Austin , Transit in Austin , Walking in Austin (Pedestrian Issues) , When Neighborhoods Go Bad
Posted by m1ek at 02:41 PM

Not much room for optimism

Thought I'd copy this here for posterity - this is a comment I made to an excellent entry by Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly blog, in reference to somebody who thought that since we adjusted to the 1970s oil shock (he's right on that one) that we could just as easily adjust to the oncoming (soon or later, depending on your alarmism) peak oil shock.

Adding this comment to my blog has made me recall that I still owe an analysis of "fire stations per capita" back to the Texas Fight guy. I'm sorry, I've been busy at work and at home, and will try to get this done soon.

My comment:

John,

The answer to why this shock will be much worse than the one in the 1970s is two words:

suburban sprawl

One thing Kunstler gets right is his analysis of the complete lack of options in a modern suburban development (really exurb) to the single-occupant vehicle and truck delivery to strip malls. There's no way to carpool. There's no way to use transit. There's no way to ride your bike or walk. There's no way for the store to switch to freight rail deliveries (not even the way it used to be, which was truck for only the last very small N% of the trip, if even that).

The ONLY things modern suburbanites can do are:

1. Trade in their SUV for a compact car - works well if you're one of the early adopters, but what if everybody else is trying to trade down at the same time?

2. Move back to the cities - see above.

We would have had to change our development laws twenty years ago in order to have a prayer of solving this problem, but instead we've been operating on a regime that not only requires urbanites to subsidize wasteful suburbanites, it actually PROHIBITS BY LAW (through zoning codes) the development of additional urban neighborhoods.

For reference, my last two homes have been in two center-city neighborhoods where 80-90% of the dwellings would be impossible to build today due to suburban-influenced zoning code which applies even in these older neighborhoods. Of course, to even get to that point, you'd have to overcome their fanatical opposition to infill, but every bit counts.