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Reporter’s Notebook: Butterflies but not rainbows

Monday, October 3, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Hersh the homeowner… Pay enough attention to local politics, and you’ll eventually notice a collection of commonly repeated phrases and cliches: “There are many tools in the toolbox,” “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” “That passes on a 10-1 vote, Council Member Zimmerman opposed” and so forth. Last week, however, marked the end of an era for one of the most beloved refrains to tickle the ears and imaginations of officials and civic geeks across town: “I’m Stuart Harry Hersh and, like most in Austin, I rent.” Like a solid rock in the swift-moving stream of any City Council or Travis County Commissioners Court meeting, Hersh, an advocate for affordable housing policies and low-income residents, would always offer this frank introduction before urging whichever body to remain grounded and pay attention to the little people. Weeks ago, Hersh hinted that he was in the process of metamorphosing from renter to owner. That news created fearful speculation that his future contributions to democratic participation would lose all punch without the familiar intro, or – even worse – that Hersh would hang up his advocacy shoes altogether. Last Tuesday, he emerged from his chrysalis at Commissioners Court and, quelling all anxieties, gave wings to a new and beautiful addition to the municipal menagerie: “I’m Stuart Harry Hersh and, like most seniors in Austin, I own my home.”

Big and biggerer… Mayor Steve Adler has famously dubbed his $720 million mobility bond proposal the “Go Big Plan,” an effort to highlight the need for audacity in the face of crushing peak-time congestion. But that’s not the only reason why his recent downplaying of the package’s scale stood out last week. In two separate speeches on Wednesday, Adler compared the plan to a mobility referendum on the ballot in Seattle. “Their bond that’s up in November is a transportation package for $54 billion – $54 billion. Do you wanna know what going big really is? That’s going big.” In his first speech of the day, he used that line with the Austin Board of Realtors, and at some point it must have caught on because the Chamber of Commerce’s Drew Scheberle repeated it during a debate with bond opponent Roger Falk on Thursday night. While it’s certainly strange to suddenly concede that another city (especially a rival hub of music, tech and slackerdom!) is taking a far more ambitious bond approach to solving its traffic woes, it’s also incorrect: The choice before voters in Seattle’s transit agency jurisdiction is not a bond but rather a tax hike – specifically on sales, property and motor vehicle levies – and would expand light rail, commuter rail and bus services. Of course, the mayor doesn’t have to leave Seattle to find a more accurate comparison if he insists on proving that his Go Big Plan is meek and mild. In 2015, voters in the Emerald City, a place three-fourths the size of Austin, approved a transportation bond worth $930 million. Is that going big?

Planes, trains and smdh… Two City Council members had separate responses last week when a Travis County district judge plunged into transportation policy. At the Central Texas Democratic Forum on Wednesday, Judge Lora Livingston took advantage of a Q&A session with Council members Greg Casar, Leslie Pool and Delia Garza to suggest that the city seriously consider installing a light rail connecting downtown to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. That service, Livingston said, would “demonstrate in very real terms the success of rail, the sensibility of rail, the practicality of rail and the good government of rail.” Pool took the first crack at the suggestion by reporting that her interest in the issue dates back to the 2014 urban rail referendum when her own personal inquiry yielded the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s assertion that homeland security concerns had, at least for the moment, rendered the idea undoable. “But Denver was just recently able to hook up their train right to Denver International Airport,” said Pool before proclaiming, “We can do the same thing.” (Never mind that the new connection to DIA is a limited-stop commuter rail extension that complements an already established light rail network.) Dumping a little cold water on the hot fires of passion, Garza said, “Transportation experts have said that rail is only successful when the buses are full on the route you put it on. So the buses aren’t full on the routes to the airport right now.” She suggested that a rail investment on Guadalupe and North Lamar Boulevard would make more sense. Not to be outdone, Livingston said that the No. 100 Airport Flyer is not full because it has no park-and-ride in downtown Austin to support it. Rather than question why it matters which parking lot one drives to in order to fly out of Austin, Garza offered, “My answer to that would be that our public transit is usually used by our low-income families that need it the most, so we should be putting the most efficient line in the area where those families use it, and those families aren’t necessarily using it to get to the airport.” Livingston, whose penchant for arguing would suggest a successful career as a lawyer should she tire of the judiciary, responded jokingly (we hope), “I’ve been trying to tell the IRS that I’m low-income for a long time, and they don’t believe me.” She finished up by suggesting that local leaders “shift that paradigm” and consider making Austin’s transit system as successful as Washington, D.C.’s.

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