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Rail bond issues dominate discussion at Austin Monitor forum

Thursday, May 1, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Even if the election cycle wasn’t in full swing with another Austin Rail Bond vote slated for November, Austinites would probably still be discussing the city’s transportation woes. All of those forces combined Wednesday night for a lively discussion at the Austin Monitor’s Transportation Forum.


The event was the second forum hosted by the Austin Monitor and its parent company, the Capital of Texas Media Foundation. Publisher Mike Kanin moderated the panel of experts, who were Capital Metro board chair and Council Member Mike Martinez, Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s Patricia Highsmith, the Austin Chamber of Commerce’s 2012 and 2013 Vice Chair of Regional Mobility and Transportation Martha Smiley, and Urban Transportation Commissioner Jace Deloney.


The tone for the discussion was set with a quote from TTI’s road improvement study, which predicts a dire future for the region if road improvements aren’t made. Kanin transitioned into asking Martinez about the potential rail bond election, and rumors of a poll that had Austin voting against the rail.


Martinez warned against using polling data as a fear tactic, but understood that there “was an opportunity” to expand the city’s infrastructure, and looked forward to working on that.


“I’m not worried about a poll from a few months ago,” said Smiley. She said that Austin’s voters were educated ones, and expected to have a lot more information before the November election, and they would have that information as the election neared.


Kanin clarified his question, saying that the rumor he had heard was that, in order for a rail bond to pass, it would need to be paired with bonds that would include road improvements and road building.


Martinez said that he had no problem with investing into more road infrastructure, and that he understood the city had “about six to seven years” to impact the city’s transportation. “If we don’t, companies will start leaving Austin – that’s really what we are facing,” he said.


“People are hungry to see how all these pieces are going to fit together. We need to build a system that makes sense,” said Smiley, who explained that the community wanted to see how rail, bikes, and roads would ultimately work together to form a cohesive network, and that was something that still needed to be done.


Deloney said that he understood that conversations about the rail bond had taken an urgent tone, but if this investment wasn’t done correctly, it could have a long-term negative impact that could harm the city more in the long run than a failure to proceed with rail immediately would.


Martinez pointed out that the region was investing in roads and that a rail investment would only add to those plans. He said that the rail would only add to those road investments.


“The truth is that we are a world class city.. but our transportation systems are lagging,” said Smiley.


Highsmith agreed, saying the city was “at a tipping point,” with serious decisions ahead. “If we don’t make decisions soon, I feel like there will be consequences,” said Highsmith. “We need to make some serious decisions about alternative modes of moving people, not just roads.”


Deloney said that people just want freedom to move around the city, and that the city should invest in the areas where that was done the most effectively. The wrong investment, he warned, could be detrimental.


Having worked on the region’s transportation problems for years, Smiley said that the difference in the conversations that are happening now is that they are honest and transparent, but it was important for the community to come together in November around the result of those conversations, no matter what the result. She said that, in her opinion, the only wrong decision would be to say no to whatever big transportation bond ends up on the ballot.


The forum also took on the issue of drinking and driving, and whether a lack of transportation alternatives was a factor. Deloney’s answer seemed to indicate that, yes, maybe that did contribute to the problem in Austin. Both he and Highsmith also pointed to the issue of land use, and how giving people more places to walk to could help reduce drunken driving.


Martinez said that it was time to tackle the issue of drinking and driving itself, and to do that first. “Having Uber and Lyft in Austin really isn’t going to solve drinking and driving in Austin,” said Martinez.


After what appeared to be a Twitter uproar, Martinez was forced to clarify that he wasn’t against those services, but it just wasn’t a way to solve the drunken driving problem in Austin. He later said that the two companies fit into Austin, and there was a way to find a place for them, but they needed to fix the problem of old policies running into new technologies first.


Smiley agreed, saying it was just a matter of time for technology-driven Austin to have those services, but we needed to look at the potential ramifications first.


The panel also took on the alignment issues that have dogged Project Connect, and the proposition of building it along Lamar, despite the threat of federal funding for MetroRapid Transit being lost.


Highsmith said that it was important not to “bite the hand that feeds you” and encouraged Austinites to give the bus rapid transit system a try. Martinez agreed, saying it was important to respect what the federal officials said about their reservations with building rail along the same route as the BRT, which was partially federally funded.


Deloney agreed, saying it was “ill-advised” to dismiss MetroRapid dollars, even though the Lamar would be perfect route for rail. “I’m OK with waiting,” said Deloney.

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