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Reporter’s Notebook: It’s about mobility, apparently

Monday, June 20, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Pods, people… City Council’s ongoing discussion about potentially visiting upon voters this November a massive mobility bond has drawn from the woodwork advocates of just about every different mode of transportation. A public hearing during last Tuesday’s Mobility Committee meeting saw more than 30 different speakers attempting to impress upon Council members the need to fund bicycles, sidewalks, light rail, buses, highways and more. Color us surprised that no one mentioned gondolas (but also color us unsurprised that someone finally has). However, one individual managed to limit his lobbying to one individual Council member — along with a handful of journalists. At the tail end of a media scrum after unveiling his own bond proposal on Tuesday morning, Council Member Greg Casar noted that he is still in favor of light rail even though his colleagues seem to have no interest in that discussion now. That admission drew a challenge from an unidentified individual standing behind the ring of reporters. The man noted that local entrepreneur Richard Garriott de Cayeux (aka Lord British) has expressed interest in a privately funded network of Personal Rapid Transit vehicles, a straight-from-sci-fi system that is perhaps best described as a monorail but with single-occupancy vehicles. The fellow noted to Casar that a terminal at London’s Heathrow Airport has a functioning PRT system and implied that this proof of concept indicates that the scheme can work across an entire city with a minor investment from business interests of $1.5 billion. Unfortunately, we might never know Casar’s interest or take on the matter as, before he could answer, one of his aides interjected with the news that he was running late for a meeting with the city manager.

The case of the missing Planning Commission… The local Austin civics scene, like all political theater, has a fine habit of appearing to move from one crisis to the next. During the first five months of 2016, it seemed that only one issue dominated the democratic discourse. Now that the Prop 1 fever has broken, City Council has found a brand-new vortex to which all attention is now drawn: the potential mobility bond referendum that could show up on the November ballot. Despite the hoopla, of course, city government in all its forms and facets continues apace. Or, at least, it should. But last Tuesday demonstrated just how much democratic oxygen the transportation tango is consuming. The Council Mobility Committee, chaired by Council Member Ann Kitchen, had been set to discuss bond proposals as well as hear from members of the public. On top of all that, Capital Metro officials also briefed the committee on how some of the proposals fit in with the agency’s transit goals. With more than 30 residents weighing in and all but one Council member joining the discussion, the meeting went longer than expected, forcing the Planning Commission, which had been scheduled to use the Council chamber just after the committee and was waiting patiently in the atrium, to kibosh its plans. The scores of residents waiting to attend that meeting no doubt considered the implications of local transportation a little harder on their trips home from the aborted meeting.

Austinites polled on bond proposals… An unnamed person or persons last week conducted a poll aimed at determining whether Austin voters would prefer Mayor Steve Adler’s proposed $720 million bond transportation package or a $300 million plan proposed by City Council Member Ann Kitchen. Council has until Aug. 22 to make a final decision on which plan, if any, to put before voters this fall. Among those polled last week was an Austin Monitor reporter, who noted the questions. The first question was whether the city is on the right track or the wrong track. A description of the $720 million bond package included the information that passage of such a proposal would result in a $5-per-month tax increase for the average homeowner. A description of the Kitchen plan, which she described as a starting point, included the information that it would result in no tax increase for property owners. The four-member Mobility Committee endorsed Kitchen’s plan at its meeting last week, and Council is expected to vote this week to direct City Manager Marc Ott on which plan to prepare for the November ballot.

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Caleb Pritchard and Jo Clifton.

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