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Transportation forum focuses on transit centers, East Austin

Monday, April 7, 2008 by Austin Monitor

City Council candidates in all three races turned out last Thursday to give their positions on transportation issues that face Austin and the surrounding area.  The forum, sponsored by the Austin Alliance for Public Transportation and the Austin Area Regional Transit Group, posed a number of questions on transit policies.

 

In Place 3, challengers Randi Shade and Ken Weiss joined incumbent Jennifer Kim. One of the more vexing questions for the candidates involved whether regional planning should involve “nodal” growth or suburban sprawl.

 

Kim said that developing town centers within the region was an important goal of CAMPO.

 

“We need to take a regional approach to transportation,” she said. “In the next round of transit funding, we need to looks towards developing the town centers outside Austin and linking them with the city. The areas outside of Austin have a major effect on the traffic congestion inside the city.”

 

Shade said all of the cities in the area have a stake in unified transportation centers.

 

“Out fortunes are tied together,” she said. “I have lived in other cities with this type of system and I have seen how it can work. I like the idea of TOD’s driving the land use and linked together. But it will only work if we develop activity centers so people do not have to travel long distances to shop or go to work.”

 

Weiss also supported the concept of nodal development.

 

“Neighborhoods and businesses want this kind of development,” he said. “We need to link the outlying communities to the city with rail. People who live in the outlying communities commute to Austin in large numbers and contribute heavily to the congestion. Commuter rail can cut that down.”

 

Place 1 candidates Jason Meeker and Alan Demling attended along with incumbent Lee Leffingwell.  They were asked about how they would improve the governance of Capitol Metro.

 

Leffingwell said he would realign the representation on the board.

 

“Capitol Metro needs a regional approach to serving the area,” he said. “But having said that, it’s also a fact that 92 percent of the riders and the revenue come from Austin, yet we only have two representatives on a seven-person board. We (Austin) are in a minority and need more seats on that board.”

 

Demling pushed for more regional coordination.

 

“We need to make sure that people in the various cities work to together,” he said. “People living in Round Rock, Cedar Park and other areas need mass transportation too. We need to get more people on the buses.

 

Meeker said he would revamp the entire organization.

 

“There is an alphabet soup of agencies involved in transit out there, Cap Metro, CAMPO, CTRMA,” he said. “We should look at a appointing a traffic czar for the entire region – someone who takes an overall approach to transit in Central Texas. Transit dollars are so scarce. We need good planning on how to best spend them.”

 

In the Place 4 race, candidates Cid Galindo, Laura Morrison and Robin Cravey were at the forum. They are vying for the seat being left by Mayor ProTem Betty Dunkerley.

 

Their questions focused primarily on the land use aspect of transportation planning. The candidates were asked what they had each done to help East Austin with land use issues.

 

Galindo cited his work on the Planning Commission, dealing with numerous cases in East Austin. In addition, Galindo said, “I think where I was able to contribute significantly was in the development and passing of the TOD ordinance, the transit-oriented development ordinance. We’re going to have at least three major TOD’s in the East Austin area that can potentially transform east Austin.”

 

Morrison said she had worked on a case related to one of those TODs on behalf of the neighborhood near the planned commuter rail stop on MLK. “There was a case where the Redeemer Church was coming in and asking for an extension of the height they were allowed,” she said. “I feel like they got the zoning entitlement that they wanted, but there were some commitments made to reserve some of the area for mixed use…so that it did comply with the neighborhood plan to some degree.”

 

Cravey said his biggest contribution to land use planning in East Austin came when he was on the Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances Committee. “I did work very hard to promote the possibility of again having garage apartments in Austin, because that’s a great way to put affordable housing into a neighborhood without really affecting the fabric of the neighborhood very much,” he said. “I thought that was a great accomplishment for affordability in the city. Since then, some of that has been restricted by later action by the Council. I know on the east side there’s a very serious problem with gentrification, and it would be helpful to have more freedom to have garage apartments over there…and they have asked for that.”

 

The Place 4 candidates were also questioned about adding density through ‘activity centers’ as outlined in the Envision Central Texas plan (www.envisioncentraltexas.org/). They offered varying levels of support for those proposed high-density, walk-able, mixed-use developments. Galindo was the most enthusiastic proponent of the concept, telling the audience that “if we continue on the growth patterns that we see today of urban sprawl along the periphery of the city, we will continue to battle traffic congestion, we will continue to degrade our water quality, we will continue to struggle with affordability in our housing. I don’t believe that is the pattern that is going to lead us to build the next great American city for the 21st century. So, what’s the alternative? In my view, we only have one. And that is specifically the concept of nodal growth, or town centers growth.”

 

Morrison endorsed the idea of more ‘activity centers’, but with conditions. “If we don’t put in some mechanisms to ensure housing for diverse incomes in our activity centers, then all we’re doing is making a node for high-income people to live in…and people that are going to work in those are going to be doing sprawl along the activity centers,” she said. Morrison also pointed to the Council’s adoption of the vertical mixed-use zoning category as another option for adding density to existing neighborhoods. “So I don’t believe that activity centers are the only mechanism for absorbing our growth in a very responsible way,” she said.

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