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Archive for December, 2018

Earlier this month, Governor Gregg Abbott released a new report on Hurricane Harvey. “Eye of the Storm,” The Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas (Nov. 2018) (available at https://gov.texas.gov/uploads/files/press/RebuildTexasHurricaneHarveyEyeOfTheStorm_12132018.pdf).

Harvey’s magnitude was unprecedented in Texas. Sixty eight people lost their lives; 780,000 were evacuated; and 122,000 were rescued by first responders. All told, the storm was estimated to cost Texas $125 billion. The Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas was created to develop a path forward for recovery from the storm and preparedness for the next one. Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp chaired the commission. The report that resulted is a comprehensive look at Hurricane Harvey and Texas’ needs. In many areas we agree with the commission, and we encourage everyone to look at the report and judge for themselves. There are some areas where we disagree or would have recommended stronger action. Below we have commented on a few specific subjects covered in the report.

Climate Change must be identified as a contributing factor to Harvey and future storms.

Much attention was paid to how the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas—and Governor Abbott himself—did or did not mention climate change in the report. Neither the Governor’s press release announcing the report or the 178 page report itself says the words “climate change.” This is a disservice to Texas, as it’s hard to prepare for something that you refuse to call by name.

We have improved since 2011, when Texas censored a report about climate change and sea level rise in Galveston Bay. This report includes some oblique references to climate change. The Rebuild Texas Commission states that, “The clearest and most important message we took from the commission’s work is that Hurricane Harvey was a warning we should heed.” (Eye of the Storm at p. iv.) The report also acknowledges that, “The current scientific consensus points to increasing amounts of intense rainfall coupled with the likelihood of more intense hurricanes.” (Id. at 42.)

This language is tacit acceptance of the existence of climate change, but it simply isn’t enough. According to the 2018 Climate Opinion Maps from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 56% of Texans believe that our governor should do more to address global warming. (See http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us-2018/?est=governor&type=value&geo=state&id=48.) He can start by saying “global warming” or “climate change” in public and by publishing the words in official state reports.

But this isn’t enough. A plan to actually prepare Texas for climate change will account for the new reality of hotter temperatures, longer droughts, more frequent and intense rain events and hurricanes, sea level rise, and changing flood patterns. Texas will never develop such a plan if its Governor will not hold honest, open conversations about the issue. (There are, however, legislative proposals that would move Texas in the right direction.)

Notification of community members should be improved.

The report notes that, “Effective communication among responder groups and citizens during a crisis greatly increases the success of response.” (Eye of the Storm at 62). One interesting development during the rescue operations was the impromptu use of social media to alert first responders of where rescues were needed. The commission recommendations focus on “interoperability” of communications systems—that is, the ability of different agencies and first responder groups to communicate with one another on channels such as radio.

We think that new channels are also needed to communicate with the public. For several years now Public Citizen has called for Texas to develop a more modern system of emergency notifications for chemical emergencies. In the 85th legislative session we supported HB 1927 to do just that. Hurricane Harvey also showed that more modern emergency notification systems are needed. Cell phones allow “push notifications” that can be highly geotargeted and are sent unless users opt out. We believe that such a modern notification system should be developed and accessible for use by agencies and local governments statewide. Such a system could be used for chemical emergencies, floods, wildfires, and other natural and manmade disasters.

Better planning is needed for Temporary Debris Management Sites.

Harvey generated 13 million cubic yards of debris (or, in Texas units, 16 Kyle Fields worth of debris). (Eye of the Storm at 72.) Managing that debris required the approval

Screenshot of the TCEQ’s TDMS map with contact info.

of 228 temporary debris management sites (TDMSs). (Id. at 73.) In conversations with TCEQ staff, we were told that TDMSs go through a pre-approval process that includes an opportunity for public notice and comment. Neither Public Citizen nor its allies were aware of this pre-approval process before Hurricane Harvey. Many communities across the region were alarmed to find that debris management sites popped up overnight in their communities.

We suspect that the pre-approval process for these sites was lacking, and we encourage TCEQ to engage in a more inclusive effort to notify the public when approving future TDMSs. To its credit, the TCEQ did create a comprehensive map of all TDMSs that includes location and a contact phone number. That map is available at https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=1hfhU9C6qfnGnGWuT5x6JgAHyz8s&ll=29.15144754529617%2C-97.10440749999998&z=7.

Rule suspensions must stop.

For eight months after Hurricane Harvey, Governor Abbot left in place the suspension of forty-six environmental rules spanning air, water, and waste regulation. Public Citizen and its allies objected to the prolonged suspension and successfully lobbied for their removal in April 2018. (You can see our comments on the rule suspension here and a rule-by-rule analysis here.)

We object to any rule suspensions during disasters. It may be that extenuating circumstances during a disaster make it difficult or impossible to comply with one or more environmental rules. If that it is the case, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has enforcement discretion it can exercise to forgive entities that could not comply with rules. But blanket suspensions of rules send the wrong message about accountability during a disaster and potentially create a legal defense to any liability for actions during or after a disaster. For these reasons, Public Citizen will as a matter of policy oppose all future rule suspensions during disasters.

The Rebuild Texas Commission recommended that the Governor’s office, “Compile and maintain a comprehensive list of all the regulatory waivers needed during a disaster to expedite suspensions in any future event.” (Eye of the Storm at 99.) For the reasons stated above, we believe that no waivers are needed.

Air pollution and petrochemical industry vulnerability must be addressed.

The Commission to Rebuild Harvey included virtually no discussion of air pollution in its report. The report does acknowledge a “particularly severe” impact on “water systems and the chemical, oil and transportation industries.” (Eye of the Storm at 122.) Some of the impacts catalogued include:

  • 77 boil water notices.
  • 19 water systems and 31 wastewater systems offline.
  • 16 hospital closures.
  • 15 dams affected.
  • 336,000 electricity customers lost power.
  • Three highways inundated (I-10, I-45, and US-59).
  • 500 roads closed.
  • 13 bridges requiring repairs.

Absent from this list is the millions of pounds of air pollution that was released; anywhere between 1.7 million and 8.3 million pounds depending on who’s counting.

Interestingly, the report states that two very large incidents, including the Arkema chemical plant disaster—possibly one of the most widely reported on disasters resulting from Harvey—were “never publicized.” (Eye of the Storm at 23.) It is true that there was a critical lack of information about the Arkema situation as it was unfolding—a situation that led to at least 15 first responders seeking medical care or hospitalization due to exposure to the disaster. But after the fact the Arkema disaster was the subject of much analysis culminating in the release of a report by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

The report also pointed out a lack of coverage of the Magellan Midstream Partners tank farm accident in Galena Park. That accident was initially reported to have released more than 2.5 million pounds of air pollution, though that amount was eventually revised down to a little more than 56,000 pounds. Interestingly, the Environmental Integrity Project released a report showing that companies who revised their pollution estimates almost always decreased them, and often dramatically (see p. 21 of the report).

We agree with the Commission to Rebuild Texas that air pollution events were underreported in the hours and days after they began. But there has been extensive coverage of that fact in the months since the storm. By failing to detail the specific incidents and their causes, the Commission to Rebuild Texas has omitted a significant vulnerability: the petrochemical industry. The report does not identify specific weaknesses such as floating roof tanks and includes no proposals to harden the petrochemical industry.

For our part, Public Citizen believes that responsibility for preparing that industry for the next storm should not be borne by taxpayers. Indeed, the members of the petrochemical industry are in part responsible for Hurricane Harvey due to their contribution of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. If anything, industry should be contributing to the state’s cleanup effort. Texas and Texas taxpayers should not have to bear any cost at all of industry recovery or resiliency planning.

Harvey recovery should be funded by the Economic Stabilization Fund.

It’s called the “Rainy Day Fund” for a reason. Right now the Economic Stabilization Fund has a balance of about $12.5 billion. Governor Abbott declined to call an emergency session to provide Houston with rainy day funds before the 86th session. Now it will be up to the legislature whether to develop an aid package for coastal communities impacted by Harvey. Certainly there is a need for funding from all available sources to continue to the path to recovery and resilience. The Commission to Rebuild Texas did not make a recommendation regarding use of rainy day funds. We recommend the use of rainy day funds and believe they are absolutely necessary to achieve the goal set by the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas: not simply to replace what was destroyed by Harvey, but to increase Texas’ resilience before the next storm.

 

The people of Texas, our first responders, and our government officials deserve credit for their response to Hurricane Harvey. We worked together to minimize the damage from one of the worst natural disasters in state history. Public Citizen commends those who helped out during and after the storm. We commend Governor Abbott for commissioning this report as well. There is work to be done to rebuild and prepare, and the state should follow through with the recommendations in this report.

But there are some areas where the state should go further. Our leaders must be willing to call out climate change for the existential threat that it is. And we must allocate emergency funding when emergencies leave lasting unaddressed need. Texas will not soon forget the lessons from Harvey, nor will the recovery be completed any time soon. This report is a good step forward, but much is left to be done.

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Or, why diversity of energy sources is good, and why you shouldn’t believe misinformation from the fossil fuel industry.

If you’ve heard anything about energy in Texas lately, you may be wondering what our ever-changing market means for the future of energy consumption. How is Texas’ clean energy sector performing? Why are so many coal plants closing? What does it all means for consumers?

The short answer is that the market is changing for the better. Energy remains cheap and we have more clean sources of energy online than ever before. Texas generates so much wind energy, for example, that it outpaces the other 49 states combined.

In order to understand the current state of things, we should start with some basic facts about energy in Texas. There are 28 million people in Texas and 90% of them are served by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). ERCOT predicts our energy needs and ensures that we have sources available to meet them.

Texas’ energy market entered its present state in 1999, when the state legislature deregulated the market by breaking up large public utilities. Before deregulation, consumers relied on one single, local energy provider to generate, distribute, and market energy to consumers. In Houston, for example, that provider was Houston Lighting and Power (HL&P).

In a deregulated market, that single provider is divided into three entities: generators, transmission and distribution, and retail providers. In HL&P’s case, those entities became Reliant Energy, CenterPoint Energy, and what is today known as NRG Energy.

In Texas today, generators compete in an open market to provide energy at the lowest possible price. Transmission and distribution utilities are still regulated by the state—this makes sense, as we don’t wants multiple sets of power lines and transmission infrastructure built by competing entities. Retailers compete for the business of individual energy consumers by offering power contracts at competitive prices.

Market competition can lead to uncertainty. Since deregulation, competition has led to energy getting cheaper and cleaner across Texas. But in recent months the uncertainty inherent in a competitive market has led to some dangerous misinformation.

The Changing Face of Energy in Texas

In addition to deregulation, Texas took other steps to ensure that our state’s energy market continued to improve. We passed the Renewable Portfolio Standard, which set targets for renewable energy generation that were easily surpassed as Texas developed into a clean energy leader. And we invested $7 billion into Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, building transmission infrastructure to bring wind energy generated in West Texas to cities across the state.

These investments paid off, and today Texas provides some of the cheapest, cleanest energy available. We lead the nation in wind energy production, with 24,000 MW of wind capacity and more than 24,000 wind industry jobs across the state. And Texas is rapidly adopting solar energy, with 2,465 MW of solar installed and 8,873 solar jobs.

Meanwhile, older sources of generation—especially coal—are finding it impossible to complete in Texas’ market. This year Vistra energy closed three coal-fired power plants in Texas, Monticello, Sandow, and Big Brown, with a combined capacity of more than 4,600 MW. CPS Energy in San Antonio will close the JT Deely power plant on December 31. AEP announced it will close the 700 MW Olkaunion plant by 2020. And Xcel Energy announced plans to go carbon free by 2050, with an 80% target by 2030, signaling the closure of its five fossil fuel powered plants in Texas. These closures are largely driven by market forces, and although cheap and abundant natural gas plays a starring role in cheap energy in Texas, renewable sources such as wind are increasingly driving markets.

Different stakeholders have responded to these changes in different ways. Many traditional power generators are investing heavily in clean energy sources. (Xcel, for example, will open 12 wind power plants with a combined generation capacity of 3,700 MW by 2021.) Energy Secretary Rick Perry took a more reactionary approach, proposing a dead on arrival plan to subsidize coal, nuclear, and other antiquated sources.

Perry’s ill-advised plan shows the desperation of the fossil fuel industry. Fossil generators know that they may be sitting on some of the largest stranded assets in history, and they are trying anything they can to wring value out of their holdings at the expense of consumers, the planet, and anyone who likes to breathe clean air.

Saving Fossil Fuels: an Exercise in Misinformation

Desperate times call for desperate measures. The fossil fuel industry has marshaled an army of resources to spread the misinformation required to convince Americans that further investment in dirty energy is needed.

These sowers of misinformation rely on the complicated nature of energy markets to promote their agenda. But there’s really only two things an average consumer needs to ask themselves about energy in Texas:

  • Did I experience blackouts this summer?
  • Did I pay more for energy than I expected?

Chances are you answered “No” to both questions, because the market performed just fine last summer. But the fossil fuel lobby has tried to confuse you about what really went on. Here are a few ways they did this.

Myth: “Baseload” means that old, uneconomic sources must stay around for some reason.

Beginning with Secretary Perry’s unfortunate proposal, the idea that “baseload” means something very specific and important for electric reliability gained traction. The argument is that certain sources of energy—coal, nuclear, and natural gas—are inherently more reliable than their clean energy counterparts. A fossil plant can begin generating at the flip of a switch, we are told, whereas wind plants and solar farms must wait for the wind to blow and the sun to shine.

This is misleading for a number of reasons. First of all, energy generation from fossil fuel plants can also experience outages. There are many recent examples of these “baseload” sources not performing in times of crisis. After Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas in September 2018, solar and wind energy sources were back online the next day. Coal fired power plants were down for two weeks. After Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, NRG had to switch two of the coal-fired units at its WA Parish plant to natural gas for the first time since 2009. The reason? Coal piles were too saturated with rainwater. After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans had trouble getting delivery of the fuel oil they needed to run backup generators. There were even reports of coal piles freezing and becoming unusable during 2014’s famous polar vortex.

Another theory behind the importance of baseload is that fuel can be stored on site. But as the examples above show, fuel storage comes with complications. Reliance on fossil fuel feedstocks also ties Texas’ (and the United States’) energy consumption to global commodities markets. Wind and solar, by contrast, rely on fuel sources that are always free and never tied to the whims of foreign oligarchs.

Myth: Clean energy sources are unreliable

This next sin of clean energy sources is said to be responsible for a host of imagined problems in energy production in Texas. It turns out that the wind doesn’t blow all the time and the sun sets. Solar producers even have to suffer the indignity of solar eclipses. (Watch out America. There’s another one coming in 2024 and another in 2045!)

Because these clean energy sources sometimes cannot produce, we are told that they are hurting energy production in Texas. This is simply not true. Yes, the wind blows at night, but we still consume power at night. Overproducing sources of clean energy have even led to energy prices going negative, a situation in which generators actually paid to put their energy into the market. But far from a perversion of the market, this is just an example of how clean energy sources can reduce prices for consumers—energy prices fluctuate, and a negative price just means lower overall bills. If a given source of generation finds it economic to pay to put power into the market, so much the better for power purchasers.

The idea that generation has to exactly meet demand at all times will soon become obsolete anyway. In Texas, all generators compete for the business of all consumers. We don’t have to purchase energy generated close to us in space; our competitive market allows us to purchase form anyone in the state. (There are still many energy consumers located in places with municipally owned utilities, such as Austin and San Antonio. These consumers do not have purchase choices. But the MOUs they buy from are themselves generating and buying energy in the competitive market.) Soon we won’t have to worry about whether energy is generated close to us in time either. Energy storage devices like batteries are finding their way onto the grid. In the near future, when renewable sources overproduce, they can store energy in batteries for dispatch during periods of high demand. Batteries will also allow us to make more economic investment in energy infrastructure, opting for example to purchase a battery for several hundred thousand dollars instead of spending a few million on new transmission and distribution infrastructure (so called “non-wires alternatives”).

Myth Energy markets will continue to function as they have in the past

Possibly the biggest misconception of energy alarmists is that the energy market will continue to function as it has in decades past. Energy demand will continue to increase and large, centralized sources of generation such as coal and natural gas plants must be built to meet that demand. In reality, there are a number of other mechanisms at play:

  • Energy efficiency measures will slow the steady increase in energy demand.
  • Distributed generation means that a decentralized network of small generation sources (think solar panels on your roof) will supply increasing amount of energy.
  • Demand response programs will allow ERCOT to adjust energy demand in real time, taking some loads offline when demand becomes high.
  • A diversity of sources of generation will compete in an open market to provide cheap, clean, reliable energy to Texans.

This last point is all that the average energy consumer needs to know. There was a conversation before Summer 2018 about whether demand would be tight. The market responded, with marginal participants entering the market to take advantage of anticipated demand. We set records for energy demand this summer, and out reserve margin even slipped below 9%, but ERCOT never initiated any conservation measures and energy prices never spiked too high.

The Future is Bright for Energy Consumers

In other words, back to the average energy consuming Texan: the lights stayed on and the bills stayed low. Energy markets did exactly what they were supposed to do, and they did so with more clean sources such as wind and solar on the grid than ever before.

If this makes a few fossil fuel barons uncomfortable, so much the better. They can slow the progression toward clean sources, but they cannot stop it. We may see in the coming years increasingly desperate attempts by fossil generators to stay profitable in a market where they can no longer compete. We may even make a few missteps along the way—after all, the fossil fuel lobby still dominates Texas—but the outcome is all but certain: clean, reliable energy for all Texans.

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The J.K. Spruce plant, left, is seen at the entrance to the CPS Energy Plants, on Wednesday, April 25. The coal-fired Deely plant will be shut down but the Spruce plant will remain open.

Photo: Bob Owen /San Antonio Express-News
Confetti: Us

On Dec. 31, CPS Energy will ring in the new year by shutting down one of its two coal-fired power plants.

Situated at Calaveras Lake in the deep Southeast Side of San Antonio, two looming coal plants sit like angry giants. From their bodies, streaming clouds of polluting smoke rise. This smoke, filled with microscopic pieces of poison, finds its way into everything: our land, our air, our water and our bodies. There is no crack too small, no resource too protected, no person too healthy to evade the poison that emits from these behemoths.

The poison from these coal plants greatly contributes to the facts that San Antonio leads the state in child hospitalization rates from asthma, is increasingly getting hotter, is experiencing more and more drought, and has air so polluted it no longer meets federal standards for air quality.

In general, coal contributes to an array of intensely harmful effects on public health, such as increasing chances of cardiovascular disease and the release of mercury and lead, which deteriorate the nervous and immune systems.

The good news is JT “Dirty” Deely will soon no longer be able to release poison.

There is a soot-colored line in this monumental news: The Spruce coal-fired power plant is staying open with no shut-off date set. While Deely has a total capacity for energy production at 932 megawatts, Spruce’s total capacity is 1,336 megawatts, and it runs more often. In a report released in 2013 called “America’s Dirtiest Power Plants,” Deely didn’t make the list, but Spruce came in 67th place. While one polluting giant topples, another will continue, without any stop in sight, as confirmed in CPS Energy’s “Flexible Path” energy generation plan that projects burning one of Spruce’s two units into the 2040s and possibly even longer.

However, despite the continued use of Spruce, a celebration is in order. It is a celebration that grounds us in the accomplishments of now, while positioning us toward the horizon of progress still to be made. At this horizon stands a world with no coal plants and no natural gas infrastructure. A world where children never struggle to breathe, where workers have secure jobs in safe settings, where the planet and our bodies are free of pollution from fossil fuels. The timeline to reach this horizon is urgent, but it is a horizon that is within reach and comes with assurance of better and healthier lives for all life on our shared planetary home.

The Climate Action SA coalition — which consists of dozens of environmental and social justice organizations, including Public Citizen — is throwing a party to celebrate this amazing moment. Come ready to eat, drink and dance! We are coming together to celebrate cleaner air, water and land, for better health for the people and environment of San Antonio and the surrounding areas, and to start to realize the better world we know we could achieve through a rapid, just transition to renewable energy.

The Dirty Deely Coal Plant Shutdown Celebration will take place Dec. 15 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Galleria Guadalupe, 723 S. Brazos St., in San Antonio. Click here to register to attend this event.

Briauna Barrera is an organizer with Public Citizen and a member of Climate Action SA coalition.

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The 86th Session of the Texas Legislature is less than a month away and more than 700 bills have already been filed. It’s impossible to tell this early in the process which bills will move and which won’t. But we’ve looked at every bill filed so far and picked out a few favorites. So with the caveat that everything could (will) change in a few weeks’ time, here are some environmental bills we like.

SB 118 (West)/HB 360 (Murphy) – This bill continues for ten years the Property Redevelopment and Tax Abatement Act. Also known as “Chapter 312” (of the Tax Code), the act has incentivized billions of dollars in investment in wind energy across Texas. The act is also used by the oil and gas industry, and we have heard rumors that some lawmakers might try to continue the act for the fossil fuel industry but not the renewable industry. We would oppose such a move.

HB 100 (Eric Johnson) – This bill would require state agencies to plan for projected changes in weather, water availability, and climate variability. Affected agencies would include the Department of Agriculture, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, General Land Office, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, Texas Department of Insurance, Parks and Wildlife Department, Department of Public Safety, Public Utility Commission of Texas, office of the comptroller, Texas A&M Forest Service, and Texas Water Development Board. Texas is the most vulnerable state in the nation to climate change. Since 1980, 95 of the 238 $1 billion disasters in the nation have occurred in Texas. From the Gulf Coast’s vulnerability to hurricanes, to Central Texas’ wildfires, to North Texas’ water shortages, Texas needs action on climate change.

HB 245 (Farrar) – This bill would require online posting of environmental permit applications. This would be relatively easy to implement and an important step forward in transparency in the permitting process, which can be difficult for community members to follow.

HB 274 (Sarah Davis) – Sarah Davis of Houston filed this bill to create the Disaster Reinvestment and Infrastructure Planning Revolving Fund, which would be seeded with $15 million from the Rainy Day Fund. The fund would be used to rebuild damaged infrastructure or build new infrastructure for mitigation purposes after a disaster. Both areas that do and do not quality for FEMA funding would be eligible to apply for funding.

SB 185 (Miles) – This bill would motivate oil and gas well operators to prevent and respond more completely to spills and accidents. The bill would:

  • Require notice to the Railroad Commission of fires, leaks, spills, or breaks at wells.
  • Create an emergency alert system to notify the public about well blowouts.
  • Prevent drilling of new wells adjacent to sites where well blowouts have occurred and resulted in violations or ongoing investigations.

SB 208 (Campbell) – This bill is the first of what we expect to be several bills filed to address the impacts of the concrete industry on communities. The bill would increase the setback requirement for concrete crushers and certain concrete batch plants from 440 yards to 880 yards. We think that increasing this setback is a great idea, as 440 yards is not enough of a buffer from the noise, dust, and other pollution created by concrete plants. We think it’s such a good idea, in fact, that we would expand its applicability to all concrete plants.

 

This sampling of bills covers most of our major areas of interest in environmental policy: renewable energy, climate, fossil fuels, air pollution, and permitting. But we are only scratching the surface so far; in the coming weeks and months, many more bills will be filed on these and other important issues. The final bill tally in the 86th legislature may be ten times the number of bills filed so far. Stay tuned to Public Citizen to learn about how our priorities evolve throughout the session.

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Capital Metro’s Project Connect system plan is heading for a vote with the board of directors on December 17. The idea is to adopt a system plan and identify routes to submit for funding to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and put through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process. All of that would then lead to an Austin bond election in November 2020 to fund the first phase of the system.

Vision Plan Needs Work

The map (called the Vision Plan) that the board will be asked to vote on shows a number of new routes in various parts of Austin, but a closer look reveals that all but two of those routes – the orange and blue lines – are designated for BRT-light. “BRT” is bus rapid transit and “light” means that those buses would be driving in the same lanes as the rest of traffic.

Here’s the problem – a bus slogging through traffic takes longer to get from one place to another than a car because it has to stop along the way to pick passengers up. And, depending on how fuel efficient your car is and whether or not you have to pay for parking at your destination, the bus could cost more than driving your personal vehicle too. That is not a recipe for luring in choice riders – those who could use some other form of transportation. It’s also not good for the transit dependent population – those who need the bus to get to work, school, doctor appointments, the grocery store and everything else. A longer commute for those who can’t afford a car says “your time isn’t as valuable.” Capital Metro staff and their consultants are well aware that dedicated lanes are the key to a successful mass transit system, but the Vision Plan doesn’t reflect that fact.

The Blue and Orange lines are designated for high capacity transit in dedicated pathways on Austin’s busiest corridors and those where population growth is coming. The Orange Line would run down North Lamar to Guadalupe, across the river and down South Congress. The Blue Line would run from the airport, along Riverside, across the river, into downtown and up to the UT campus. These routes could have light rail or bus rapid transit – Cap Metro isn’t saying which yet. Either way, those trains or buses will be moving faster because they won’t be stuck in the traffic jam. Bus rapid transit is the cheaper of these options, but light rail can move more people, so could end up being cheaper per passenger. Because light rail can move more people, it would be better suited than bus rapid transit to serve the busiest routes as Austin continues to grow.

The other significant deficit we see with the proposed system plan is high capacity transit service or BRT-light isn’t envisioned for some of the areas with significant numbers of residents who depend on transit. The new north-south routes would end right around 183. A high capacity route along East MLK Blvd that was shown in previous drafts has been removed. Many lower-income residents in north and east Austin rely on transit and would stand to benefit from access to more efficient mass transit.

Why the Limited Vision?

So, why isn’t Capital Metro planning for designated lanes for the whole system? Why are important routes into north and east Austin being shortened or removed from the plan? And why isn’t light rail identified as the mode of choice on routes where the largest numbers of people could be moved?

Part of the reason seems to be that the agency is using current bus ridership numbers to project future ridership on high capacity transit routes. This may be common industry practice, but it doesn’t result in a very ambitious plan. If Capital Metro and the City of Austin worked together to make transit a more attractive and more affordable option than driving or taking a ride share, it stands to reason that more Austinites would use it. And we need a lot more Austinites to start using transit if we’re going to meet our community-wide goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and stop wasting so much of our lives sitting in traffic.

The more overarching reason for the less than visionary Vision Plan that Capital Metro rolled out in October seems to be a lack of confidence. Specifically, a lack of confidence that Austinites are willing to fund a more costly and ambitious transit plan. Capital Metro has good reason to be warry of Austin voters. Twice now – once in 2000 and again in 2014 – Austin voters have rejected the transit agency’s requests for bond money for the development of light rail in the city. One could – and many do – argue that the voters’ rejection of those bond requests were at least partially because Capital Metro failed to listen to voters during the planning process, but what seems to have stuck with the agency (and other city leaders) is simply the fact that voters rejected those bonds.

Inspiring Voters, Increasing Ridership

While funding the development of light rail and bus rapid transit in all parts of the city at once isn’t practical, it stands to reason that people all across the city will be more enthusiastic about supporting a bond for the first route or two if they can see that the rapid transit system will eventually be expanded to their area. If this is a vision plan, let’s make sure that it reflects a vision that would truly address the scope of Austin’s transportation challenges. A system relying primarily on buses stuck in traffic (BRT-light) won’t result in the mass shift from riding in cars to public transit that we need to reach our climate goals.

So, what do we do? We need to show the Capital Metro board of directors – which includes Austin City Council Members Ann Kitchen (D5), Delia Garza (D2), and Pio Renteria (D3) – that Austinites are ready to go big on mass transit.

Taking Action

There are several ways to weigh in and now is the time to do so.

Whether in person or in writing, we encourage you to ask for dedicated lanes for high capacity transit on all routes and ask that routes be extended into north Austin (north of 183) and into east Austin along MLK. Asking for light rail for the orange and blue lines would also be helpful, although that final decision won’t be made for over a year.

 

 

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