Leffingwell: Fixing transportation issues critical to Austin’s future
Wednesday, February 26, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano
“Rail or Fail.” That was the message (that may become a bumper sticker) from Mayor Lee Leffingwell as he gave his final State of the City address yesterday.
Though Leffingwell hit on many of Austin’s recent and continuing triumphs in his speech, he took the opportunity to address growing transportation problems in the city, and forecasted a dire future if the city’s “traffic crisis” was not addressed. He was probably preaching to the choir since the audience was mostly members of the Real Estate Council of Austin and their guests.
“Our traffic problem isn’t just an annoyance. It is a deadly serious threat to almost all of the things we have achieved and continue to strive toward,” said Leffingwell. “Our traffic crisis today is eating away at almost all the things that make this city what it is.”
Leffingwell described a destructive cycle that was influencing the cost of housing in the central city, forcing more people into longer daily commutes. He pointed to a study that shows a driver with a 30-minute commute now spends an estimated 83 hours in traffic delays annually. Leffingwell also worried that the increasing congestion threatened to violate federally-mandated air quality standards, which could mean the loss of federal money for transportation projects.
He urged the city to support funding for rail, saying that it was crystal clear that “the price of failing at the ballot box this time would be enormous.”
Despite this plea, Leffingwell’s speech was filled with positive images of what he called the “golden era of our city’s long history.”
In Leffingwell’s opinion, the city has never been stronger, and it’s continuing to get stronger every day. As proof of this strength, he noted the 4.7 percent unemployment rate that is much lower than the 7 percent national rate. And he highlighted the fact that Austin is both the fastest-growing job market in the country, the fastest-growing city in the country and has been recognized by the Milken Institute and several business publications as the top-performing metro economy in the country.
Leffingwell also looked towards the future, which aside from a looming traffic catastrophe looked similarly rosy. Specifically, Leffingwell expressed excitement about downtown’s future medical complex and the transformation of Waller Creek, and redevelopment in the northeast section of downtown.
“I believe we have the potential to remake what has been one of the most underutilized parts of downtown into a thriving new cluster of global commerce, culture, creativity and connectivity,” said Leffingwell.
The mayor defended the city’s use of economic incentives, and pointed out that during the time he has been mayor there have only been eleven such deals, which have resulted in 8,000 jobs and $550 million in new investment in the community.
“My further view is that we shouldn’t, as we have recently done, burden those incentives with other requirements that are so stringent as to render the benefits moot (so) that the deal becomes a wash,” said Leffingwell. “But I’ll save that speech for another day.”
During a brief question and answer session following the speech, Leffingwell also offered some advice for the city’s next mayor, who will be heading up the city’s first geographically-based City Council.
“My advice to the new mayor, whoever that might be, is to keep an open mind, keep a cool head, do your best to keep the lines of communication open, and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” said Leffingwell.
Leffingwell will conclude his second term as mayor in January 2015. Term limits prevent him from seeking another term. He is eligible to run for a seat on the new Council from District 10. However, reflecting on that possibility he laughingly told the audience, “I’d sooner slit my wrists.” (See Whispers for more Leffingwell humor.)
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