10 Great Buried Texas Public Policy Stories from 2018 – 1/2

DecideTexas, Growing Weirder, One Thousand Texans for Transit, VisionZeroTexas

Texas is a big state with big issues happening across the state. Here is our list of significant public policy stories that happened across the state that might not have received as much attention as they may have deserved.

This post contains explanations of one through five, and a second post includes six through ten.

  1. Senators Huffines and Burton and their conspiracy theory anti-safety agenda were defeated at the ballot box.
  2. Maria Town harnessing the power of the City of Houston Mayor’s office to build an accessible Houston for all.
  3. Austin’s Vision Zero intersection repair program seeing 100% reduction in intervention-specific traffic deaths
  4. People are actually building a high speed train in Texas.
  5. TXDOT changed the name of the “Traffic Operations” division to the “Traffic Safety” division
  6. The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization may have begun one of the nation’s first regional Vision Zero Action Plans
  7. City of San Antonio created a full time position focused on sidewalks
  8. Kris Banks moves from Sylvester Turner’s Houston City Hall to Adrian Garcia’s Harris County Precinct as Policy Director, following the path of Amar Mohite’s city to county move.
  9. Austin voters imposed a $160 million property tax bond for transportation with zero promised to car capacity expansion
  10. Texas State Representative Gene Wu wants smart growth.

1. Senators Huffines and Burton and their conspiracy theory anti-traffic safety agenda were defeated at the ballot box.

A loose coalition of safe streets activists and people whose loved ones have been killed or seriously injured in traffic violence tried to get the legislature to allow cities to deploy Safe Neighborhood Streets in 2017, with a bill that passed the Senate Transportation Committee but was never allowed a vote on the Senate floor.

My understanding is that they expressed opposition to the bill using rhetoric one might find in the conspiracy theories pushed by Alex Jones. They propped up a point of view that things like Vision Zero are a globalist trick to “take away your right to drive.”

Senator Huffines had also been a champion of the misguided effort to outlaw life-saving red light cameras. These two legislators served as a deadly wall, blocking reasonable transportation safety measures to save Texan lives.

Senators Huffines and Burton both lost and will not bring this deadly point of view back to the Texas Senate in 2019. On an average day, ten people die using the Texas transportation system. Hopefully the legislature will be able to act this session to reduce the danger on Texas streets and roads.

2. Maria Town harnessing the power of the City of Houston Mayor’s office to build an accessible Houston for all.

By many accounts, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has hired well. One of those stories that hasn’t been discussed too much is Maria Town, the Director of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. Ms. Town came to the mayor’s office from the White House Office of Public Engagement, and seems to have brought a new optimistic energy to Houston’s intense need for progress in providing equal access to the city for people of all abilities.

Houston’s sidewalk network is extremely problematic and lacking, denying basic rights to many people with disabilities. “Houston’s sidewalks are notoriously dilapidated — where they exist at all” according to the Editorial Board of the Houston Chronicle.

Although Houston’s immoral sidewalks policy is far from fixed, Ms. Town seems to be carving out the appropriate policy window to allow for the significant large scale solution that will be necessary.

“When I came to Houston, I was shocked that the city requires that the abutting property owner fix the sidewalks, because what it creates is this huge patchwork of sidewalks across our enormous city,” said Maria Town, the director of the Mayor’s Office For People With Disabilities. “Broken sidewalks create issues for everyone, whether they have a disability or not. Runners can trip and fall and receive major injuries.”

– From Houston Chronicle “Houston struggles to expand sidewalk efforts“, 12/19/18

3. Austin’s Vision Zero intersection repair program seeing 100% reduction in intervention-specific traffic deaths

Austin voters have now twice dedicated bond funds to fix the most dangerous intersections in the city, with $15 million included for the Vision Zero program in 2016 dedicated to intersections and another $11 million added this past November. A handful of high-danger intersections have already been examined and retrofitted to reduce crashes.

The program has issued some remarkable preliminary results with some intersections seeing a 65% reduction in total crashes. Staff are not willing to publish the impact on fatalities until they have about three years of data. Yet, early analysis shows that they may be achieving a 100% reduction in the types of fatal crashes they were targeting at some of the intersections.

One example is the intersection of I-35 freeway and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, where a person was killed every year on average trying to walk across the slip lanes. The intervention was simply to raise the crosswalk, making the exact location where a driver needed to avoid hitting a pedestrian into a speed bump, as shown below.

The Texas Strategic Highway Safety Plan includes recommendations for local governments to pursue these kinds of data-backed, targeted interventions to retrofit dangerous intersections. However, the SHSP is essentially an unfunded mandate for local jurisdictions because of the Texas legislature’s lack of focus on funding safety improvements.

4. People are actually going to build high speed rail in Texas.

Having made it through three sessions of the Texas legislature and various attempts to kill the project, a private company, Texas Central, is moving forward with building what could be the nation’s first high speed rail line. Groundbreaking is expected to occur in 2019 on a line that will take passengers from the edge of downtown Dallas to Houston’s Uptown, according to the Dallas Business Journal.

While much attention has been paid to the horserace coverage of the attempts to stop it, this story holds dramatic potential to transform Texas with serious policy issues to address. As the state and local governments have barely addressed equitable transit-oriented development policies, we may soon have the first three station areas in America to witness the profound shift high-speed-rail-oriented development may bring.

5. TXDOT changed the name of the “Traffic Operations” division to the “Traffic Safety” division

Back in September, TXDOT quietly changed the agency’s organizational chart, following a meeting with Corpus Christi area transportation safety activist Lance Hamm. We have been working with people across the state, including Lance, to help TXDOT move toward a higher priority on safety.

While doing some background research in the summer of 2018 on the role of safety at state DOTs, our summer intern Laura Thomas grabbed the TXDOT org chart below:

In September, this new org chart was posted. Under “Engineering and Safety Operations,” the final division “Traffic Operations” has been changed to “Traffic Safety.” We have recently met with TXDOT leadership to discuss safety efforts, and can say that this does not represent a trivial change, but is part of a significant effort to upgrade how the state DOT addresses safety.

The rest of this list will be published over the weekend as part 2. While we work on that, you have only a couple more days to donate to Farm&City, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit working on these kinds of Texas public policy issues.

Serious meaningful changes are possible in Texas public policy. Farm&City can work with you to get things done. Please help us meet our goal to start 2019 strong by donating today.

Comments Due Today, October 26 in Support of HOV Lanes for Transit on US290 in Houston

One Thousand Texans for Transit

TXDOT completely rebuilt a major transportation corridor, US290 in Houston, with zero improvements for transit, because of the intense flaws and inequities in the Texas transportation funding and decision making system, even though TXDOT staff publicly spoke about the need to add HOV capacity and Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Transportation Transition Team specifically called for TXDOT, the City, and Metro to figure out how to add transit capacity there.

Luckily, TXDOT staff have figured out how to make reasonable transit improvements within the constrained, inefficient policies they have been handed by our legislature. Public comments are due today in support of the idea of using the inside lane going the opposite direction of the bulk of traffic during peak hours, resulting in the ability to run buses quickly both directions.

Robin Holzer has been tweeting about this. Here is the official TXDOT information page.

Please send your comments before midnight tonight by email to [email protected] and include this in the subject “RE: CSJ: 0050-09-069, etc.” Here is some draft language to help you write your own email:

RE: CSJ: 0050-09-069, etc.

I am writing today to support the proposal to upgrade the inside lanes on US 290 in Houston to allow for improved HOV and transit service during peak hours. Please do all that you can to maximize the public investment in this corridor and allow more throughput of people by optimizing safe, multimodal transportation, like the bus.

We are in desperate need of substantially greater investments by the Texas Department of Transportation in transit improvements, and this kind of smart upgrade to existing facilities is an excellent way to provide more service to more Texans. Please quickly study and replicate these improvements across the state as quickly as possible.

Thank you for all that you do to end the traffic death crisis across Texas and for these proposed improvements that will allow reasonable safe, multimodal options.


John Doe

What’s wrong with Austin’s Green Line rail transit proposal?

One Thousand Texans for Transit, Texurban

The problems with Austin’s only rail transit line, the Red Line, are well documented and understood, even going so far as being used misleadingly by anti-transit activists to oppose light rail in general – even though the Red Line is not a light rail line, but a Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) running on a freight rail line. Following the failure at the ballot box of a really good urban rail plan in 2000, Austin leaders sought to get something done by building a starter transit line with a relatively low initial capital cost based on an existing freight rail corridor, even though ridership was never expected to be very high.

Ridership on the Red Line remains very low for a high quality transit investment. Three times as many people ride on the 801 MetroRapid today on South Congress, Guadalupe, and North Lamar, than ride on the Red Line. However, a large package of additional investments and substantial change to land use might still bring a future with a lot of people able to use the Red Line.

Following the failure of the 2014 transit referendum, Capital Metro launched another attempt to create a vision for a regional network of high quality transit, using real data to focus on lines and stations that would provide the most possible people with access by high quality transit.

[Disclosure: I have been serving as a representative of Vision Zero ATX on Capital Metro’s Multimodal Community Advisory Committee, which advises on Project Connect and the City of Austin Strategic Mobility Plan]

And now we have the data, which shows that the proposed Green line is the most expensive proposal included in the current draft Project Connect vision in terms of capital and operating / maintenance costs per daily rider. The published costs and expected ridership for the Green Line show that it is expected at this time to be similarly disappointing – and not very useful to very many people – as the Red Line is today.

The Capital Metro Board will consider approving an Interlocal Agreement (ILA) with Travis County on Monday, July 30, according to the board packet, pages 42 – 59. Travis County Commissioners Court already approved the deal on July 10 with passage of a Travis County Transit Development Plan, which can be found on pages 347 – 422 of this agenda packet.

Why does the Green Line seem like such a bad proposal?

Many fewer people live or work near the proposed Green Line stations compared to all other Project Connect proposals. From an estimated cost per rider perspective, it is the worst proposal on the table of all the Project Connect proposals. It has the the most expensive cost per user, coming in at a total cost of $42.31 for every single trip on the main green line proposal and $33.55 for every trip on the proposed 2nd phase extension.

Capital Metro has published extensive research on the Project Connect website, which you can find through this link and clicking the “resources” tap at the top of the page, then the resulting “Project Background” tab in the middle of the page, and then clicking on “Phase 2” to see the most recent background files.

The chart above comes from one of Capital Metro’s Project Connect reports that you can find here. Surface light rail along Guadalupe / Lamar is the most fiscally responsible of all proposed investments, coming in at a total of $4.65 a trip. The initial build out of the Green Line is the least fiscally responsible of all proposed investments, both in terms of capital cost per rider and operating and maintenance costs per rider. We won’t get very much bang for any public bucks invested in the Green Line – as it is proposed.

The equity questions related to the Green line are complicated

There is a long history of segregation and systemic racism in Austin that includes a historic push for people of color to live on the east side and push for non-hispanic white people to live on the west side – although the Austin of today is more mixed with many people of color living across the city and many non-hispanic white people living on the east side.

Looking at the data from Phase 1 of Project Connect, shows that the corridor along the green line has the highest percentage of people of color living within a 1/2 mile of the corridor, at 55% of all people living in that area. The common sense perception that investing in high quality transit on the east side is an equitable use of funds makes sense. But is this investment the right one?

Measuring how many people live within a 1/2 mile of a corridor is not how transit works. What matters is people’s access to stations and whether they will actually be able to use the transit. A rail line going through your area doesn’t help you if there isn’t a station anywhere near you.

Using the ridership and cost estimates from Phase 2 of Project Connect, I estimated expected minority ridership on each Project Connect proposal and then established a cost per minority trip for all proposals. This chart shows this metric for the main proposals of the Project Connect, showing that the Green Line is the most expensive way to provide a person of color with a transit trip, of all the proposals put forward in Project Connect.

According to these estimates, the initial Green line project would be used by only 991 people of color every day, while Guadalupe / Lamar (surface light rail lower-cost version) would be used by 4,965 people of color every day and the higher-cost elevated Guadalupe / Lamar light rail line would be used by and estimated 8,369 people of color every day. The Green Line is expected to serve the least people of color of all the proposals included in Project Connect.

It’s important to note that the real problem with the Green Line is the very low projected ridership, not high cost to build the project. The actual capital costs are lower than most of the other lines proposed. But the expected ridership on the Green Line – as proposed – is ten percent of the expected ridership of the proposed Guadalupe Lamer surface light rail line. The very low expected ridership is a big part of what makes the cost per ride so high.

Another important note is that the Green Line is expected to cost a lot more to operate than many of the other proposed lines, at almost three times the total cost to operate than the proposed Guadalupe Lamar surface light rail line. While the capital costs are expected to be the lowest of all lines – at an estimated $264 million for the initial Green Line – the operating costs are expected to be $630 million for thirty years of service, meaning that the question at hand is really an $834 million investment.

Capital Metro is claiming these ridership estimates are all very conservative, so they hope all of them will actually end up higher. They were so burned in 2014 with many people saying their ridership estimates were overblown, that building support to transit investments starting from very conservative success estimates makes sense this time.

There could be a world where you actually build walkable urban communities at all the stops along the Green Line, get to ten minute or less frequency, and add in a lot more stations along the green line to actually serve the many people of color who live near the line, but not near a proposed station,  where the green line could really drive down those ratios. A future blog post will consider if it is possible for the Green Line to make sense from an equity and fiscally prudent point of view – by adding stations and changing urban form.

Another future blog post will look at the question of whether it makes sense to  add this kind of transit investment to serve low income people. The short answer is no, as the much talked about story of the suburbanization of poverty is largely not accurate with 85% of Travis County households living in poverty living inside the City of Austin.

If we’re in a scarce transit funding scenario, it’s important we all understand that the Green Line – as proposed – is the least useful of the proposals on the table, costs the most, and would serve the least people of color.

However, there may actually be two good projects that could serve people of color and bring the equity we want in Project Connect. Over a year ago, we studied and advocated for two possible high capacity lines to be brought back into Phase 2 of Project Connect, Oltorf and Pleasant Valley. After the Capital Metro board agreed with our proposal and brought them back into the process, staff determined that these two proposed lines would be studied as future potential corridors, so we still do not have the same ridership and cost estimates for serious high capacity transit lines there.

Travis County should include Oltorf and Pleasant Valley in the study they plan to do – if they are concerned with equity, fiscal responsibility, and providing as many Travis County residents – and people of color – as possible with better transit access.