Does Austin’s newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, have a strong bias against passenger-rail? Just judging from a front-page, above-the-fold article from this past Sunday’s edition (March 25th, 2012) – not to mention previous articles and columns – the answer is a resounding “yes.”
The article, written by columnist Ben Wear, and titled “Work near MetroRail stations off schedule” (and termed an “investigation”) fails to meet basic standards of journalism, and is just plain unfair and unbalanced, in soooo many ways:
- First, perhaps most egregiously, the very title of the article (“Work near MetroRail stations off schedule”) implies that there is some schedule for transit-oriented-development (TOD) to occur around the existing MetroRail stations. Neither Capital Metro (as the rail service provider) nor the City of Austin (whose policies encourage TOD around the stations) nor any private developers have published or acknowledge any such schedule. No such schedule exists (except perhaps for Ben Wear and the Statesman’s editors).
- Second, MetroRail service just began a short two years ago. Large, complex development projects take literally years to accomplish (anywhere, but especially it seems in Austin), not to mention a relatively new real estate “product” as TOD – which, being mixed-use (in zoning/land-use terms) has much more difficulty acquiring construction financing than more established single-use development (think residential subdivisions, office parks, shopping centers). The article also over-emphasizes (the third sentence) that TOD was a “key argument” made to Austin area voters in the 2004 referendum to establish MetroRail service, intimating that design and construction of TOD should have started immediately following the referendum’s success, 7 years ago – when, obviously, major investments in development around stations are not going to be made until the actual rail service is established (2 years ago) and proven (and arguably not until 1 year ago, when anticipated ridership was attained).
- Third, the article’s subtitled accusation (“Only hints of envisioned urban villages at 3 of 9 stops”) is itself belittled and proven false in a second, related Statesman article on page 12 (“buried?”) of the same edition. This article, entitled “Not all stops suitable for projects” (telling title, no?) proceeds to explain that two (Howard, Kramer) of the nine stops can’t, or are unlikely to have, TOD around them; and that five (Leander, Lakeline, Crestview, MLK, Plaza Saltillo) already have or have planned TOD. So, in its own article (no author credited, or discredited if you will) the Statesman reports the majority of MetroRail stations (6 of 9) either can’t have or do have TOD planned or started. And glaringly, states the Downtown stop “has seen no transit-oriented development to date” (when almost the entire Austin Downtown is one big TOD) and ignores that new multiple, mixed-use dense developments (always reported in the Statesman, by the way) are proposed within easy walking distance of the Downtown stop. And most glaringly, reports “no transit-oriented development afoot” at the Highland station – when there is a huge TOD planned across Airport Boulevard at the former Highland Mall site (and reported on by Austin media, including the Statesman – see www.airportboulevard.com/?q=articles-feed). So…scorecard: 7 of the 9 MetroRail stops either have TOD concretely planned, or already are TOD (Downtown)…and 2 of the 9 can’t easily have it; so how is the (inaccurate) count of “only” 3 of 9 stops envisioned for TOD arrived at?
- Finally, and most obviously; that “little” hindrance to any new development that was the 2008-09 major national economic recession; and that continues to make obtaining major real-estate development financing difficult. No reasonable person would expect major development to have occurred around the MetroRail stations given the depressed economic environment of the past 3-4 years; and, again, MetroRail service is just two years old.
Journalists, and newspapers that pride themselves on being a part of the fourth estate, should ethically follow the journalistic precepts of striving for objectivity and not inserting personal views or biases into articles they publish. The Austin American-Statesman, and Ben Wear, have clearly not met these standards, both in this particular article and in past others where a clear bias was displayed. The Statesman also arguably displays poor corporate-citizenship when it publishes inaccurate, biased “investigations” that negatively portray a growth pattern (TOD, mixed-use activity centers) already chosen by area citizens, and their elected officials, in adopted (or soon-to-be adopted) growth plans (including Envision Central Texas’ “Vision,” CAMPO’s 2035 “Centers” Plan, and the City of Austin’s Comprehensive Plan “Imagine Austin”).