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Beneath the bond debate, planners begin exhaustive assessment of Austin’s transportation future

Tuesday, October 11, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

As Austin voters wrangle with a mobility bond on the November ballot, city planners are gearing up to draft a new transportation policy road map to guide decisions for decades to come.

Work on the Strategic Mobility Plan soft-launched earlier this year and will make its formal debut sometime in early 2017. The plan will be adopted as an amendment to the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan and will be the first update of its kind since 1995.

The goal of the Strategic Mobility Plan, the Austin Transportation Department’s Annick Beaudet told the Austin Monitor, is to bring existing plans focusing on individual modes – including bicycles, transit and cars – into one unified document.

“It’s analogous a little bit to CodeNEXT in the way that the approach to CodeNEXT wants to make it easier and simpler for the average person to understand the development code,” Beaudet said. “We want to make it easier and simpler for the average person to understand our transportation plans.”

Just two weeks ago, the city inked a deal with its CodeNEXT subconsultant, Kimley-Horn and Associates, to expand its scope to include the transportation plan.

“I think other cities will be jealous that we’re doing land use and transportation planning at the same time, because they’re so connected,” Beaudet said.

Transportation Department staff has been engaging with “thought leaders” throughout the community since last spring to have preliminary discussions about the start of the planning process, according to Beaudet. She explained that the formal public engagement process will kick off next year in partnership with the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its ongoing reboot of its high-capacity transit planning under the Project Connect aegis.

Over the course of 15 to 20 months, planners will consider three critical transportation scenarios in the city: getting people through Austin, getting them in and out of the urban core and circulating them within activity centers and neighborhoods, including Mueller and the Domain.

“And then we’ll take the best of all of those and make a preferred scenario with a list of projects that we think should happen over the next 10 or 20 years in order to best manage the growth that we see coming,” said Beaudet. “So at the end, we’ll have a project list of preferred projects that hopefully will be selected for grants or make future bond programs.”

Of course, some projects might already have bond funding by the time the plan is approved. In August, City Council passed a resolution – characterized by Mayor Steve Adler as a contract with the voter – that gives guidance to staff when it comes to spending the $720 million in the proposed transportation bond on November’s ballot.

The resolution directs the city manager to “revisit and update existing corridor plans as needed to ensure that final design and implementation conforms to the region’s most recently adopted transportation plans,” including the as-yet-unwritten Strategic Mobility Plan.

Bond critics have raised concerns about the uncertain impact an unfinished comprehensive transportation plan could have on a massive transportation investment. During the August public hearing that preceded Council’s approval of the bond election, several speakers urged their representatives to wait until the Strategic Mobility Plan was finished.

Also, in September, the Austin Neighborhood Council’s executive committee passed a resolution expressing frustration that the bond proposal’s “inextricable interdependencies” with other ongoing planning processes – including CodeNEXT and Capital Metro’s Connections 2025 service plan rewrite – “have not been sufficiently analyzed, considered, and explained.”

For his part, Adler has defended the rush to put the bond before voters. He told the Central Texas Democratic Forum last month, “We didn’t want to miss this election cycle in November when we’ll have 300,000 people potentially voting in November.”

Regardless of the bond’s fate, the Transportation Department will plow forward with work on the Strategic Mobility Plan. According to Beaudet, it will take a page from the bond proposal by tying together disparate modes into one vision.

“What we do know, and what our consultant will help us study, is that we can’t build our way out of congestion. So we have to make more efficient use of what we have,” she said. “The takeaway is that the unified plan is going to help us have complementary plans for investment and not competing plans for investment.”

Editor’s note: Annick Beaudet’s quote about a list of preferred projects has been changed to correct transcription error.

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