December ridership up 5%

I just got a hold of Cap Metro’s ridership report for December. It looks like more good news for the transit agency as it tries to reverse a multi-year ridership slide.

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This means that year-over-year ridership has increased in six of the seven months since June, when Cap Metro implemented a redesigned network that includes more than twice as many “frequent routes” where buses come every 15 minutes from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Granted, ridership still isn’t nearly as high as it was only a few years ago. The ridership in December was higher than December of 2017 and 2016 but slightly lower than in December of 2015 and much lower than in 2014, when there were 2.46 million boardings.

The numbers don’t tell the whole story. It’s important to consider weather patterns or any major events that may have shaped behavior. At first glance, it looks the weather was pretty similar in December 2017 to December 2018. They both had a handful of rainy days and about a dozen days where temperatures dropped below 40. Nothing extreme.

While the new routes have clearly increased ridership, what is not clear is whether they are doing so efficiently. In other words, how much more has Cap Metro had to spend (by increasing frequency) to boost ridership?

More terrible spot zoning from ZAP

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The 0.9 acre property in question.

Last week I wrote about a zoning case in North Austin, at Braker and Wedgewood, that the neighborhood association is opposing because they don’t want more renters in the area.

On Tuesday, ZAP heard from the same neighborhood group about a proposed rezoning just a couple blocks away. The applicant wants a small development: some ground-level retail and condos on top.  ZAP originally heard the case last month and postponed it in the hopes that the applicant could work out an agreement with the owner of a next-door dance studio to create a joint driveway onto Braker. Otherwise, the property’s access will be onto May Drive, a neighborhood street that the neighborhood association doesn’t want more traffic on. Unfortunately, the owner of the dance studio isn’t interested.

The ZAP commissioners didn’t seem too bothered by the access onto May. But they did entertain a number of concerns from the neighborhood group about what the property could be used for. Specifically, the group doesn’t want the following:

Residential treatment centers

Restaurants

Gas stations

Pawn shops

Payday Lenders

Bail Bonds

Apartments

Jim Duncan, who is definitely a neighborhood preservationist but expressed his distaste for the anti-renter comments made in the other case, said he couldn’t support a prohibition on multifamily housing. However, Chair Jolene Kiolbassa seemed sympathetic to that idea, noting that the current zoning (which was approved two years ago) includes such a prohibition.

Ultimately, the commission didn’t vote to bar apartments. But it did grant the neighborhood group’s request to bar all of the other uses they didn’t want.

Now, I’m not really interested in standing up for payday lenders. But why is it OK to allow neighborhoods to veto residential treatment centers? I have a friend in that neighborhood who is a substance abuse counselor and who is outraged by the misinformation that the association has propagated about mental health facilities. These are precisely the types of services that we desperately need to address the addiction and mental health problems fueling our homelessness crisis. If not on Braker Lane, then where are these facilities supposed to go? Why are our land use commissions legitimizing this ignorance about mental health?

As for restaurants, my guess is that there are quite a few people in the neighborhood who would appreciate a quality eatery within walking distance of their homes.

Agents for developers or property owners are often happy to agree to these types of restrictions if they don’t affect their clients’ short-term business plans. But the problem is that the zoning remains whether or not those plans are ever realized, or long after they’re realized.

Ten years from now, when a new person buys the property and wants to do something else with it, they’ll have to go through the rezoning process all over again. If you don’t care about the significant costs incurred by the property owner or developer (many in city politics don’t), you should at least care about the amount of taxpayer resources (city staff) that are consumed by this cumbersome and entirely unnecessary process.

A bike path to the airport?

Bike to the airport? That sounds like something I might be excited to do before catching a morning flight. I travel light, so if it’s a short trip I could squeeze my luggage into the basket. But of course I’d regret it when my super-delayed flight home gets in at 2 a.m.

The Transportation Department is studying the creation of an urban trail that would begin just west of S. 1st, run south of Ben White and end at the airport.

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Awesome. Not even because it connects to the airport, but because it would be a really long urban trail in a part of town that isn’t too friendly to bikes. Plus, maybe there are some airport employees who want a healthy, affordable way to get to work.

I admit, I did not consider that there were actually a sizable number of people interested in biking to get to and from their flights. But Janae Spence, who oversees urban trails for ATD, tells me there are “definitely people interested in riding to and from the airport,” adding that the nearby Park & Zoom has bike racks and showers.

This project is still very much in its infancy. The 2016 bond only funded preliminary study. If it’s built, it will connect to an emerging network of bike/pedestrian s that CTRMA has been building along highways in the area, notably a five-mile shared use path along SH 71, which runs in front of the airport. I haven’t checked it out myself, but Spence notes that it’s lighted.

And then there are these improvements planned for U.S. 183:

  • The project includes 10 miles of shared use path, including pedestrian bridge crossings.
  • It also adds seven miles of 6-foot-wide sidewalks and 16 miles of 5-foot-wide bike lanes
  • Major trailheads at the YMCA and Boggy Creek will connect with the existing Southern Walnut Creek Hike and Bike Trail
  • Pedestrian bridge crossings over US 183 will be located near Manor Road/Springdale Road, 51st Street, and Bolm Road.
  • Planned improvements provide connections to the 290 Toll and 71 Toll SUP facilities, as well as the Lance Armstrong Bikeway and the Walnut Creek Trail.

Aleshire suggests lawsuit over soccer stadium

Last night, Mayor Steve Adler celebrated the founding of Austin’s first major league sports team with Austin FC President Anthony Precourt and MLS Commissioner Don Garber. The accounts of the celebration in the press today do not suggest that soccer fans should doubt that they will soon be cheering their team on at a brand new stadium at McKalla Place.

However, the effort to derail the stadium is still very much alive. Former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire, who loves to sue the city and often wins, said in an email that he shared with me that he anticipates litigation over the stadium deal, whether or not he is involved.

I’m not retained to do anything about the petition, but the city will likely get sued successfully to require them to call the election for May.  The city charter prohibits “special” elections within 6 months of each other, but the November election was a “general “ election.  This Mayor and Council majority already lost one lawsuit thinking they could block such an election.

For the taxpayers of Austin, I can tell you that this deal stinks regardless of whether it ends up in Court.  The petition is trying to prevent such taxpayer ripoffs from happening again, regardless of whether the petitioned ordinance would apply to the Precourt ripoff.
I’ve only just recently had time to begin reviewing the 194-page deal, and it appears to have changed a lot since the Council’s Term Sheet was voted on.  One thing a friend pointed out to me is the broad permissible uses in the lease for the McKalla site.  That broad laundry list jeopardizes whether it qualifies for a property tax exemption under laws that are more narrow for tax exemptions than the uses allowed under the agreement.  For example, movie theaters and museums don’t qualify for property tax exemptions, yet those are permissible uses.  So, if being property exempt is important to Precourt and his follower investors, they should be nervous, very nervous.  And no one from the city has ever explained how you can take an asset paid for with Water Utility service charges and bastardize the use of a Water Utility asset for a soccer field.  Why should anyone have a higher water bill in Austin so a for-profit soccer promoter can be given that asset without full remuneration to the Water Utility customers?

I talked to another legal source close to the anti-MLS effort recently who echoed the property tax argument. The referendum likely cannot undo the city’s agreement to provide the land to Precourt, but Council may not be able to guarantee the property tax exemption that Precourt demanded.

The folks close to Precourt –– Richard Suttle et al –– have said that the deal is set in stone. It’s impossible to know whether or not they believe that or are simply saying that to prevent the MLS and investors from freaking out.

At this point, I’m definitely not in a place to say what the law might say about these issues. But I wouldn’t want to bet against Aleshire in court.

At this point, I have no idea who is going to win this soccer fight.

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Cap Metro: free rides for federal workers

While local food shelters prepare to serve furloughed government workers who are missing paychecks, Cap Metro is chipping in by offering free rides to local employees of Uncle Sam.

Federal workers affected by the partial shutdown can get free rides by showing their federal government employee ID to the bus operator or fare inspector. The free rides are valid on all Capital Metro services, including MetroRail and MetroAccess, the agency’s paratransit services.

“This is not about politics; it’s about being there for our community,” said Capital Metro President and CEO Randy Clarke. “Taking care of neighbors in need is the right thing to do. We hope that the free fares allow those who are serving our country to keep moving through this difficult time.”

In his first year at the helm of Cap Metro, Clark has made a big point of being a cheerleader for public services and public employees. Unlike many of his predecessors, he is actually a transit user, a fact that he frequently celebrates on social media.

Christmas…

New Year’s …

And of course, the Novia Scotia native would be remiss to neglect Boxing Day.

In addition to showing solidarity with victims of Trump’s tantrum, offering free rides to any significant segment of people offers the opportunity to create more long-term transit users. Hence Cap Metro’s decision to permanently make bus fares free to K-12 students. If they grow up taking the bus for free, they’ll hopefully continue taking it as paying adults.

A glimpse of scooter trends in Austin

The folks at the Austin Transportation Department have put together some really cool data on dockless transportation.

For starters, there’s an interactive map that lets you see where trips are beginning and ending. For instance, I clicked right next to City Hall and see that more than 31,000 trips have terminated in that specific hexagon. And then it shows you where all of the trips that ended in that area began. Most of the trips originated nearby, but the yellow shows that people have taken trips from much further away. Somebody even took a trip all the way from just south of Anderson Lane.

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And then there’s the cumulative stats month-by-month. Here was December:

Total trips: 301,890

Total miles: 305,594

Average ride: 1.03 miles & 12.31 minutes

The stats show that use steadily increased each month from when the scooters were first legalized in May.

June: 67,647

July: 119,205

August: 290,075

September: 312,829

October: 359,058

The near-tripling in use from July to August is undoubtedly linked to the start of the UT semester. Since then we’ve started to see a slight decline:

November: 351,161

December: 301,890

January (thru Jan. 15): 96,052

The drops in December and January are also likely linked to UT students being out of town, since classes don’t begin until Jan. 22. Inclement weather may have also played a role in the decline.

The above figures represent all dockless modes, but scooters consistently account for about 95% of all of the dockless trips, with bikes only generating a few thousand trips a month.

Sill no idea who is right on MLS

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I spent a few hours reporting on the MLS stadium petition yesterday and all it did was feed my uncertainty about the outcome.

At first, it seemed pretty clear to me that the city had erred in saying that the initiative could not be on the ballot in May. The charter only says that you can’t have more than one special election every six months, but the initiatives that we voted on in November were on the general election ballot.

Except that, as pointed out to me by city staff, the customary ordinance that Council approves to authorize the elections last year actually distinguished between the general election for City Council that would appear on the Nov. 6 ballot and the special election for the various propositions that would appear on the same ballot.

Now, as for whether the initiative can actually halt the stadium at McKalla Place…Again, I tend to believe that the deal that was authorized by City Council cannot be undone by a new ordinance that says that such deals must instead by authorized by the voters.

However, it gives me pause that Bill Aleshire, who has a record of successfully sparring with city attorneys in court, says the deal may not be set in stone. He suggested that an initiative that changes the procedure by which a site plan for a new stadium is approved could affect the site plan previously approved by Council/city staff etc. It doesn’t quite make sense to me, but again, I don’t think that Aleshire is blowing smoke.

For what it’s worth, a source close to Precourt tells me that while they were not confident that the deal was rock-solid based on Council’s approval in August, they feel that the contract that Council signed in December put them in the clear vis-a-vis the anti-MLS initiative.

Here’s what will tell you whether the initiative could actually affect the McKalla deal: Is Bobby Epstein still spending money? If he’s not willing to spend his own money, then that’s a strong signal that he’s determined that the referendum will not actually achieve his goal of blocking a local competitor.