John Michael Cortez,
I understand you will be speaking at ANC's monthly meeting. I have one question I'd like to ask Project Connect, and I am really hoping you will answer it tonight.
The question is, unfortunately, quite blunt:
"Why should voters believe the projected 2030 ridership numbers for East Austin Rail?"
Before you think I am just trying to pick a fight, please hear me out. The math should be simple: 1.38 billion dollars for 9.5 miles of rail for 16,000 riders a day by 2030. Except... there seems to be some problems with both these numbers, and the methodology used.
I won't list every blog post and article that has raised questions about Project Connect's data, but I would like to highlight a few.
Susan Pantrell's guest post about the latest data from Project Connect, questioning whether the projected ridership for 2030 is too high:
They estimate 15,580 daily trips using the model, which they round up to 16,000. Then they say that on game or event days, ridership could be 20,000 or higher. So they conclude “the project team believes that the median value of 18,000 is a reasonable preliminary estimate of 2030 ridership.” At the end of the memo they explain that this is not based on their calculations, but on their assumption of a 10-15% increase in ridership based on future development (18,000 is a 15% increase).
Lyndon Henry says that is a reasonable assumption, and it may be, but it is not based on data or adequately documented in this memo.
click read more for the rest of this post
There's also this question from Keep Austin Wonky, asking whether the model used was actually validated:
We do not know if the team’s parcel attractiveness approach actually predicts observed growth. Proponents of this route have faith that rail can “shape” growth, but that is a concept with only anecdotes and ideology to support it. If the model was validated, Project Connect would have released an analysis of the model’s past accuracy in estimating parcel changes between 1990 and 2010 and/or 2000 and 2010. I suspect that such a validation will not be undertaken because it would prove there’s no meaningful contribution from the parcel attributes chosen by the modeling team that would satisfy the unrealistic projected growth for Highland.
And more questions from Keep Austin Wonky on both ridership and the projected costs:
The chart above discounts Project Connect’s asserted 2030 annual ridership to the present day based on their growth projections for the Highland and East Riverside ‘sub-corridors’. I also discount Project Connect’s 2022 assertions about rail operational costs at the 4% rate they’ve used as an inflation assumption in public discussions. Those costs are then allocated to my estimated 2014 ridership numbers for rail. This helps us consider the route’s productivity if it magically appeared tomorrow.
Mike Dahhmus has also raised questions on those additional 5,000 from Mueller who will, supposedly, ride this rail line:
Consider the fact that the speaker after me a couple of Fridays ago was from Catellus, and bragged that with rail, Mueller can add 5,000 new residents. Sounds like a lot. That 5,000 would be a good start to getting 15,000 riders on the train (30,000 boardings/day, which would make it a success).
And hey, the #1 corridor only has like 15,000 boardings/day today (7500 riders), so Mueller’s almost going to be as good today and much better tomorrow, right?
Let’s take those 5,000 people and look at them analytically.
And yet another post from Mike, questioning Project Connect's methodology, which uses 'zones' instead of corridor:
Lie #1 during Phase 1 of Project Connect was the justification of the collapsing of the West Campus and UT “subcorridors” (zones) into the Core subcorridor/zone “so we could ensure they would both be served by any initial alignment”.
At the time, on November 1st, I made this post, which asserted that there was no way this decision was being made to ‘serve’ West Campus; that, in fact, it was being made to avoid having to serve West Campus (which would obviously imply a route on Guadalupe).
Strong language, but there's yet another blog raises these same questions - and points out more issues with the data sets:
While I am generally pleased with the public outreach thus far, the evaluation process was over-complicated. The FTA is fairly straightforward in what they look for when funding transit projects. Project Connect decided to double their evaluation criteria by including projections when the FTA clearly prefers the use of current data. With such a rushed timeline, why not focus on the key measures that the FTA is looking for and be done with it? I personally believe the combination of a rushed timeline with the over-complicated evaluation process caused many of the errors that the local transit community had to point out.
...Project Connect decided to use large geographic areas in stead of comparing actual routes. Using large geographic areas affects the results because, according to Stan Openshaw, “areal units used in many geographical studies are arbitrary, modifiable, and subject to the whims and fancies of whoever is doing, or did, the aggregating.” I’m not saying that Project Connect intentionally chose large geographic areas to skew the data, but it does make me wonder if this was the right scale of analysis.
We also have this post from Local Mustard, raising yes, ever more questions about Project Connect's defense of the rail plan and data, including the now infamous screw-up with the map book:
And let's not forget the intial projections for November. Project Connect stated back then there would be 2.9 million riders a day in 2030, based on the "Transit Orientation Index". That's a far cry from 16,000 riders now being projected:
So, where do the “2.9 million daily trips in East Riverside” come in? This is the result of plugging Project Connect’s demographic and economic projections for 2030 into their own transit ridership prediction model.
Apparently in an attempt at a gesture toward some kind of prediction of future transit ridership, one of the metrics Project Connect decided to use in their Comparison Matrix is a “Transit Orientation Index” (TOI), a ridership demand assessment model developed in 1997 by consultants for Portland, Oregon’s TriMet transit agency.
Here's another blog from November, also questioning the data and methodology:
And finally, if we go back to the beginings of this excercise, Keep Austin Wonky has this post showing that much of Project Connect's data is based on assuptions that have never been shared with the public:
Just to reiterate the obvious: there was no defense of the Project Connect recommendation on the basis of recent ridership comparisons, just assertions about ‘optics’ that FTA might not ‘like’. Other Mueller route supporters will similarly offer justifications based on ‘development impact’ or likelihood of Tax Increment Financing – but they are not backed by detailed or comparative data. It’s definitely possible that Mueller is the optimal first sequence, but the comparative evidence is not in the public domain.
When you consider all the questions being raised by different sources, and the fact Project Connect has changed projected ridership from 2.9 million to 16,000 (or, I guess, really 15,580) in less than 8 months, I think its obvious why I am raising this question.
So, could you please explain why voters should believe the projected 2030 ridership numbers for East Austin Rail? Because I suspect I am not the only one who is totally confused at this point.
~Mary Rudig, editor North Austin Community Newsletter