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Tuesday, June 7, 2016 by Jack Craver
Planning Commission wants bond to focus on car alternatives
It’s far from clear if Austin voters will end up approving any mobility bond, let alone the $720 million measure floated by Mayor Steve Adler. But if the city does get the nod from voters for a once-in-a-generation increase in transportation spending, it should be prepared to spend a big chunk of that money on moving Austin away from cars. That’s what the Planning Commission said in a resolution approved at a hastily convened meeting Tuesday.
The measure, which was supported by all nine commissioners present, urged City Council to use bond funds to put in place more bike lanes and more sidewalks, as well as high-capacity transit lanes in key corridors. The resolution also urged Council to focus on projects that could be completed by 2021.
Commissioner Chito Vela, who authored the resolution, described it as a way to give Council a little “nudge” toward alternative forms of transportation.
“My goal would be to say we need to focus on the mode shift,” he said. “We need to start getting people off roads and onto sidewalks and into bike lanes.”
Part of that, Vela said, was to stop planning and designing the city to accommodate parking for cars.
The resolution identified walkable neighborhoods, bicycles and public transit as key to reducing congestion and traffic fatalities. It also said that affordable alternatives to driving created “ladders of opportunity” and similarly noted the “significant relationship between household affordability and access to multi-modal transportation alternatives.”
The original version of the resolution Vela crafted had called for “full funding” of the 2014 Bicycle Master Plan, as well as all sidewalk projects identified as high priority in the forthcoming Sidewalk Master Plan. Some commissioners were uncomfortable with such an open-ended commitment.
“I have a problem with ‘fully fund’ because we don’t know what that means,” said Commissioner Patricia Seeger.
Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza said that the Bicycle Master Plan and the Urban Trails Master Plan were intended as frameworks, rather than budgets. “With this resolution, we’re saying, ‘Let’s fund something that doesn’t have dollars attached to it,’” she said.
Chair Stephen Oliver proposed amending the resolution to specify a focus on projects that could be completed in the near-term. Those are projects that already have the engineering plans drawn up, he explained.
Commissioner Tom Nuckols said that not all of the emphasis should be on biking and walking. Other improvements to Austin’s major corridors were necessary to support the increased density that the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan envisions along the corridors.
Zaragoza also pushed back on the notion that increased bike lanes or public transit might be coupled with reductions in parking. Getting people to rely less on their cars, she said, did not mean that they were going to give them up anytime soon, meaning that the city still requires a great deal of parking. She highlighted a recent survey that found that less than 7 percent of Austin households lack cars.
“Right now, the way that Austin is laid out, people have to use cars,” she said. “It’s going to be a very long time before we’re a place where people totally give up their vehicles.”
Although there was no mention of light rail in his resolution, Vela told the Austin Monitor on Thursday that he believes it is time for the city to embrace trains. The first step, he said, is to start with the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor, replacing the most-trafficked bus routes with a rail line. Houston built a rail line through the middle of the city, he said, “and it’s been a huge success.”
Despite the defeat of the last rail bond in 2014, Vela said he would like to see the question put to the voters again, but this time with a more “intuitive route” proposed.
Unfortunately, he said, the mayor’s proposal appears mostly geared toward roads.
“If anything,” he said, “I just don’t think it’s ambitious.”
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.