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Urban Transportation Commissioners dissect mobility bond proposal

Friday, July 15, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Members of the Urban Transportation Commission aired doubts about Mayor Steve Adler’s $720 million mobility bond proposal and also clashed on the vision for light rail in Austin on Wednesday Tuesday night.

Three appointees to the advisory body let fly terms such as “disappointing,” “frustrated” and “problem” to describe their reactions to the massive package that heavily favors automobile infrastructure but also would provide substantial sums for bicycle and pedestrian projects.

Adler’s proposal is the centerpiece of his self-declared Year of Mobility. The proposal came after City Council voted in February to begin an accelerated process to gauge public interest in transportation investments.

That resolution directed City Manager Marc Ott to “initiate a public conversation and input process to identify transportation projects for potential funding and to identify recommended funding options.” The resolution specifically named the UTC as one of a handful of boards, commissions and committees whose input Ott should consider.

The UTC has voted repeatedly this year to urge Council to consider including light rail as part of the bond package. Commissioner J.D. Gins suggested that the idea was preempted by political calculations.

“I just don’t like that the idea was somebody, somewhere whispered that rail has no shot so we’re not going to even talk about it,” Gins said. “Well, let the voters decide that.”

Gins also vented about the Mobility Talks program, the brand name given to Ott’s mandated effort to solicit public input. Seventy-four percent of the more than 7,000 participants in that survey expressed a desire to more frequently use alternatives to driving alone.

“When there was overwhelming input from people that took the time for Mobility Talks, that was completely set aside. Just completely set aside,” Gins said. “They said, ‘Nope that’s actually not what voters want. Polling shows they want road projects.’”

“I, too, am frustrated with the mayor’s plan and the lack of communication from the mayor’s office in general,” said Commissioner Kelly Davis Johnson. “He called this the Year of Mobility. He did that whole Smart City application and program, and no one from the mayor’s office ever came and spoke to us. No one from the mayor’s office came and spoke to us about the mobility bond.”

Commissioner Mario Champion said Adler’s proposal too heavily focuses on cars at the expense of alternative modes of transportation. He said, “It is disappointing that we’re not doing a mode-shift, it is disappointing that we’re not really going that big, it is disappointing that it’s so much road.

“People can be bold and fail, and that should be OK. And it’s just frustrating in a city like this, and specifically with Council folks who talk about the innovation and disruption,” Champion continued. “They use all the buzzwords, but they don’t live that. They have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”

Even UTC Chair D’Ann Johnson joined the pile-on. “My problem with the bond is that it doesn’t do anything to relieve congestion,” Johnson said.

Gins suggested crafting another recommendation to insist that Council allow voters to consider a light rail option in November. He also questioned whether Adler’s bond proposal would foreclose hope on big transportation investments in the future.

“Does this effectively take the ability to do other things off the table for a decade, or is it two years? What is the impact of $720 million?” Gins asked.

Cynthia Weatherby, an appointee of Mayor Adler, countered that the city and Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority are gearing up for another effort to potentially explore rail options in Austin. Later this summer, Project Connect, the planning partnership between the city and the transit agency, will formally reboot its exploration of high-capacity transit opportunities in central Austin. It will mark Project Connect’s first return to the urban core since the disastrous defeat of the 2014 rail and roads bond.

Gins suggested that the ideal route for a light rail line would include N. Lamar Boulevard, echoing a plan put forth by the nonprofit Central Austin Community Development Corporation. That talk, however, was rigidly shot down by Commissioner Beverly Silas, who is also the vice chair of the Capital Metro Board of Directors.

“If rail goes on Lamar, it will have to be at 100 percent financing by the city or some other entity because (the Federal Transit Administration) has already funded the MetroRapid and they do not go back and do a second funding on a route that they have previously funded,” Silas said. “You have to also consider that there’s only so much right-of-way, so if you put rail there, you’re not going to have any cars.”

“I’ve actually heard conflicting reports on that,” replied Gins. He suggested that the FTA grant that funded MetroRapid primarily paid for the buses, which could be rerouted. He also argued that no investment will relieve congestion on N. Lamar.

“It’s just not going to get any better,” Gins affirmed. “But for the next generation of people that live in this town, the investment in the future pays off in that they can live and work in and around our nodes of transit and not own a car.”

On Thursday, Silas told the Austin Monitor that the tough discussion of whether to remove car lanes in favor of transit will be had during Project Connect’s upcoming Central Corridor analysis. “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die,” Silas said.

A spokesperson for Capital Metro told the Monitor that they have not ruled out any options. She continued, “As with all thorough planning studies, we’ll begin with a universe of options — both modes and corridors — and then, through the study, technical analysis and public engagement processes, we’ll narrow down the options.”

The UTC did not vote on a new bond recommendation on Tuesday night. Johnson indicated that the commission will vote on that item at its Aug. 9 meeting, 13 days before Council’s state-imposed deadline to set the November ballot.

Photo by LoneStarMike (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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