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Riley looks beyond rail bond loss to Austin’s future

Tuesday, December 23, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Council Member Chris Riley started his look back at 2014 with an examination of the transportation situation faced by the City of Austin. Rather than lock on to the November failure of a $600 million rail bond that would have included promises for $400 million more in road construction, however, Riley looked at the larger picture.

“Obviously, there was the development of the rail proposal and all the discussion around it leading up to the vote on Nov. 4,” he began before moving into other transportation initiatives handled by city entities.

“There was also the launch of CapMetro’s two BRT lines, the launch of B-Cycle and the launch of Transportation Network Companies — although ‘launch’ seems like an odd word to apply to that — [perhaps] the emergence of Transportation Network Companies in Austin and all of the discussion that accompanied all of that,” he said.

As for the rail portion of the bond, Riley will not say that the process was flawed, or that the decisions made were the wrong ones. He noted that he didn’t serve on the Transit Working Group charged with making initial decisions about the would-have-been project, and suggested it is “hard to look back on the process and identify any particular point at which we took a wrong turn — and I can’t tell you what that point would be.”

Riley remains optimistic about the large-scale mass transit project. “I do think that a majority of Austinites believe in mass transit at a conceptual level, and I’d like to think that we as a community could come together in support of some high capacity transit proposal, including one that would involve rail,” he said. “But I’m not sure how you would devise a process that would get to a winning proposal.”

He continued: “It may be that, at this particular time — given everything that’s going on in Austin — that the time wasn’t right for getting voter support for a $1.4 billion rail proposal. I don’t know when the right time would be.”

Riley, along with the rest of his colleagues, voted to approve the transportation bond via unanimous vote in early August.

Riley also pointed to the CodeNEXT efforts currently underway and the decisions made by Council that will direct the rewrite of the Land Development Code. “Of course, that’s been an ongoing process, ever since we approved the comprehensive plan … and we can’t really say we got to any kind of finality on CodeNEXT. It will be going on for many more years,” he said. “But it is on track. I feel good about the consultant team we put in place, and I’m still optimistic about some real improvements. I think there is a widely shared dissatisfaction with our current code, so I think there is good reason to expect some real progress on that in these next few years.”

Though he did not say it, Riley’s implication there appears to point at coming Councils, and how they will choose to direct the CodeNEXT process.

Riley, who served as the lead sponsor of a major change to Austin Energy’s Generation Plan, also pointed to that vote as a key 2014 decision. “I’m proud of having sponsored the update to our Climate Generation Plan … and I think the significant thing we got to at the end of the year is some buy-in from the utility on more aggressive goals,” he said. “That was [important] given the level of resistance that we encountered from the utility to achieving the kind of goals we had in [the] resolution.”

He nodded again toward the incoming Council, one that will include just Council Member Kathie Tovo as a returning voice: “I think it’s helpful — especially, as this Council leaves office — for us to be leaving in place a generation plan that has broad support from all sides.”

Riley’s resolution passed, after a motion from Council Member Mike Martinez, with many in chambers thinking Council wouldn’t take up the issue. That situation led to wide-ranging concerns that were somewhat resolved in December as Council amended the plan to include a study of the feasibility of replacing Austin Energy’s Decker gas generator with renewable options.

Riley believes the body also made progress with regard to affordable housing. “I’m excited about seeing the first major affordable housing development downtown that we’ve had in many years,” Riley said.

He also noted that “there was a lot of discussion about the relation between affordable housing and transit, which actually culminated in improvements to our SMART Housing policies,” and that he and his colleagues “also set new goals for Permanent Supportive Housing.”

Riley will not be back with the next Council. He told the Monitor that he is looking toward a graduate school program to earn an advanced degree in planning. Riley, who came to Council from the Planning Commission, had been a weeds-y voice on the topic over the course of his tenure.

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