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Gentrification, confusion and meddling: How a commission makes sausage

Thursday, May 19, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Austin’s Bond Oversight Commission on Wednesday morning stuck the landing in its second attempt to boost hundreds of millions of dollars for pedestrian, bicycle and transit infrastructure.

In an 8-1 vote, the commission passed a resolution recommending that City Council explore a potential November bond proposition that would fully fund the city’s highest-priority sidewalk needs, as well as pay for priority projects contained in the 2014 Bicycle Master Plan, various road corridor plans and projects along I-35.

The vote reversed one the commission took at a special meeting last week that shot down a similar recommendation. In February, Council recognized the Bond Oversight Commission as one of several boards whose input should be officially considered as part of a larger conversation about a potential mobility-related bond in November.

Wednesday’s vote was preceded by discussions of race, disagreement about how broad the commission’s resolution should be and a near-fatal stumble because of confusion on the dais.

Close to a dozen people, including residents, staff and at least one journalist, gathered in the makeshift meeting room at Waller Creek Center. The meeting began with citizen communication, and the first two speakers were Susana Almanza and Daniel Llanes, both of People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources, or PODER.

Instead of one single bond proposition that would fund both sidewalks and bicycle infrastructure, Almanza asked the commission to recommend that Council consider separating the two.

Llanes explained, “The bicycle movement in East Austin is really an element of gentrification. It is a leisure thing.”

“You see the bicycle advocates here?” Llanes asked the commission, gesturing toward the small audience. “No people of color are riding bikes. People of color do not ride bicycles to work. People of color have families; they need cars. And if they can’t afford a car, they use public transportation.”

After several other speakers — including the Austin Sierra Club’s Roy Waley and Vision Zero’s Nic Moe — Bike Austin’s executive director, Mercedes Feris, spoke to Llanes’ and Almanza’s comments. She explained that she herself is a first-generation American who grew up riding a bicycle as a means of transportation.

“People globally — whether you’re brown, black, purple or green — ride bikes,” Feris said. “And they use them as their primary modes of transportation until they arrive in this country. They begin driving here because of a lack of infrastructure.”

Following the public comments, the commissioners turned to discussion among themselves. They began with a proposed resolution prepared by Vice Chair Moses Garcia, which did not mention funding any particular mobility options.

“The way it’s written is that (it says) we generally agree that something needs to be done, and I qualified that with four general areas of concern,” Garcia said. Those four areas included the city’s existing bonding capacity, the specifics of a comprehensive mobility plan, the fiscal impact of any proposed bond and how any projects would interact with regional planning.

Garcia motioned for the commission to approve his resolution and received a second from Commissioner Linda Guerrero. After expressing misgivings, Chair Keri Burchard-Juarez put it to a vote, with five commissioners out of the 10 present in support. While preparing to take a count of nays and abstentions, Commissioners Duke Brown and Sumit DasGupta announced that they had been confused by the intent and asked to withdraw their respective “aye” votes.

To clear the air, Garcia withdrew his motion, canceling the vote and opening the way for discussion of a more specific resolution drafted by Commissioner Jay Sands.

Sands’ proposal included language that specifically recommended funding for “all ‘very high’ and ‘high’ priority sidewalks in the forthcoming 2016 Sidewalk Master Plan,” a goal with an estimated price tag north of $250 million. The draft then recommended equal funding for bicycle and corridor projects. At the insistence of DasGupta and Commissioner Kristina Hager, language was added to include I-35 projects as a potential recipient of bond money.

Without naming a specific dollar amount for the non-sidewalk projects, the draft recommended that the total amount of the mobility bond not require a tax rate increase of more than $0.02 per $100 of property valuation.

Along with a few other minor tweaks, it was this draft that the commission finally voted 8-1 in favor of. Garcia was the only nay, while Guerrero and Commissioner Charles Thomas were not present.

After the meeting adjourned, the Austin Monitor overheard DasGupta ask Burchard-Juarez if he could switch his vote. He explained that it was his belief that Mayor Steve Adler, who appointed DasGupta to the commission, preferred making I-35 projects the top priority of the mobility bond discussion.

When the Monitor asked him to elaborate, DasGupta said that he and Burchard-Juarez were having a private conversation. But he did allow that he had spoken recently with the mayor’s office and added, “All the information I got in a very short discussion. They’re looking at I-35, and the corridor plans are very important to them.”

During the commission’s discussion, while DasGupta was lobbying for stronger language regarding the interstate, he said, “I think the City Council is in some ways expecting it. I had a long conversation with John-Michael yesterday,” a reference to Adler’s former chief of staff and now transportation strategy adviser John-Michael Vincent Cortez. During that same discussion, DasGupta referred to Cortez as his “handler.”

When reached for comment, a spokesperson from the mayor’s office said DasGupta’s statement about Adler’s preference of I-35 “is not accurate.”

“I think it’s all part of the mix,” said mayoral spokesman Jason Stanford. “I wouldn’t expect to see a plan with just bicycles and sidewalks, and I don’t expect to see a plan without bicycles and sidewalks.”

Wednesday’s vote by the Bond Oversight Commission will be one of the factors considered by the Council Mobility Committee during a mid-June meeting. If that body endorses any bond proposals, the full Council will set the November ballot in mid-August.

Photo by Oregon Department of Transportation (Bikes_Peds_Multimodal) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that the meeting took place on Wednesday, not Tuesday, and to clarify that Commissioner Kristina Hager did not insist on resolution language that added IH-35 projects.

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