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Morrison resolution seeks to preserve ability to get New Starts grant

Thursday, March 27, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Council Member Laura Morrison has crafted a resolution she hopes will help preserve affordability along a proposed new mass transit route and ensure that the city can secure federal money in the form of a Federal Transportation Agency New Starts grant. Her resolution is on today’s Council agenda.


At Tuesday’s work session, Morrison told her colleagues that preventing gentrification was one goal of her resolution. She noted, however, that there was more to it than that.


“It’s within the framework of the New Starts program and the evaluation criteria that came out last August…for evaluating proposals – which we are definitely thinking will be a part of our funding stream, as you know…is very clear about wanting to ensure that there are programs and policies in place, and funding streams to make sure that what we end up with is a diverse set of people that have access to rail,” she said.


If approved today, the measure would instruct Austin City Manager Marc Ott to create a Housing/Transit/Jobs Action Team that would, according to the resolution, include feedback from the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, Planning and Development Review, Transportation, and Economic Development departments. The resolution also lays out a very specific set of goals for the new team.


“It should initially consider FTA New Starts Policy Guidance Criteria that address affordable housing, and should incorporate stakeholders and partnerships with organizations that bring expertise in relevant research, program development and financial considerations as needed,” reads the resolution.


The document continues on to call on the team to look for additional terms of analysis, find current city programs that “address FTA New Starts criteria related to affordable housing,” ensure that the city would fill any “gaps and deficiencies” on its way to getting “highest criteria that involve affordable housing,” look for current city programs that address New Starts goals for “job preservation or economic development,” and bring forward options, strategies, and an implementation timeline.


It’s all expected back before the Council’s Comprehensive Planning and Transportation subcommittee by June 15.


Morrison has illustrated a commitment to ensure that the city uses what is almost assuredly set as a third attempt at constructing an urban rail line to reinforce affordability. In October, she raised the matter as she and her colleagues discussed using Transportation Oriented Development (TOD) zones as a method of funding the transit project.


There, she read from a presentation slide: “Emphasis on affordable housing; recognize that maintaining affordable housing near transit creates more inclusive communities and helps to insure that more lower income families have regular access to transit; recognize that high-quality transit investments can lead to gentrification over time, and affordable housing is a way to mitigate those effects…;(and) it says explicitly (that we should) consider the presence of legally-binding affordable housing as indicative of a community’s readiness for new transit investment,” she said. (See Austin Monitor, Oct. 2, 2013)


The notion of TODs resurfaced during Council discussion at the Tuesday work session. Prompted by a question from Spelman, staff sounded ready to bring a broader discussion of that tool – something that would allow Council to plow expected tax revenue increases back into development around a station — June 15.


Meanwhile, Council Member Bill Spelman urged staff and his colleagues to prepare for the major effort of convincing the wider population of the city to vote for a rail package. Indeed, he suggested that preparing for the wider campaign should be a focus.


“In addition to fulfilling the New Starts criteria and getting a good rating from the FTA, we also need to get through that other group first, which is a public vote,” he said. “And it seems to me that the public’s vote is going to be determined less by the aspects of the transit alternative we choose and more by the effects it’s going to have on their quality of life.”


Spelman continued. “The sooner we can bring forward the results of these investigations you are having…the more likely it is that when we go to November, the public will not be surprised, will understand exactly what we are trying to do, and will have a much better sense that this is actually going to improve the quality of their lives.”


Any municipal investment in the project would come with a hefty reliance on funds from the federal government to round out the effort. The New Starts program would offer one source of that funding.

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