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In Connections 2025 briefing, Council detours

Thursday, November 3, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

City Council’s first briefing on the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s proposed long-term service plan turned into a discussion on affordable housing, sprawl and park-and-rides this week.

“As we all know, transportation is a system,” Council Member Ann Kitchen said as she introduced the transit agency’s vice president of strategic planning and development, Todd Hemingson, to give a presentation on Connections 2025 during Council’s Tuesday morning work session. Kitchen chairs Council’s Mobility Committee and, along with Council Member Delia Garza, also serves as a Capital Metro board member.

Hemingson explained that the draft plan focuses on increasing frequent service as well as enhancing coverage, reliability and speeds. Under the proposed map of new and realigned bus routes, Hemingson said, the percentage of residents within half a mile of frequent bus or train routes would increase from 31 percent to 51 percent. That means 548,600 people would live within a 10-minute walk of a bus or train that arrives every 15 minutes or less.

Hemingson said that the agency has heard a number of complaints about routes that would be altered or eliminated and that Capital Metro staff would address those concerns at the next board meeting on Nov. 16. After ironing out those wrinkles, the board is set to formally approve Connections 2025 at its final meeting of the year on Dec. 14.

Hemingson assured Council that Connections 2025 aligns with Imagine Austin, the city’s 30-year planning document, as well as other city housing and mobility initiatives. Furthermore, one of the elements of the plan involves coordinating land use, housing and infrastructure with transit, a venture that largely requires engagement with the city.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo noted that the city, Austin Independent School District and Travis County are working toward a cooperative pledge to consider ways to leverage public lands for low-income housing projects. She asked whether Capital Metro is interested in a similar policy.

“I can say in general that we want to see the best and highest use that Capital Metro owns, and in some cases that includes affordable housing elements, and it may include other development opportunities,” Hemingson replied. In the past, he said, the agency had acquired land to build park-and-rides but that nationwide “best practices” now emphasize transit-oriented development so that, rather than driving to bus stops or trains stations, people can instead live and work near them.

“It can’t be a one-size-fits-all,” Council Member Ora Houston responded. She complained that she is unable to ride MetroRail from the MLK Station to downtown because there is no freely available parking.

Council Member Leslie Pool also questioned Hemingson about the lack of a public park-and-ride at Crestview Station. “At some point we have to address the fact that not everyone is able to walk to [transit], or cares to, for many, many reasons. They will need a place to safely leave their car in order to get back, for example, late at night,” said Pool.

“Parking is very expensive to provide,” Hemingson told her, adding that it’s a rule of thumb in transit planning to avoid using scarce space for temporary car storage in denser, central city areas.

“I’m not sure that saying that ‘someday we’ll all walk or take the bus in order to get on the train’ is sufficient for the public to hear,” Pool replied. “Now, there’s a sector of it that want to hear that and they support that, but that’s not the majority.” She said she wanted to bring these concerns to the forefront so they can be part of the discussion as Capital Metro takes yet another stab at light rail planning next year, an undertaking of the rebooted Project Connect partnership between the city and Capital Metro. Pool added that a Crestview park-and-ride would benefit riders should any future light rail route connect to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Capital Metro board Chairman Wade Cooper told Council that the collaboration between the city and the transit agency is the healthiest he has seen it since he worked on MetroRail planning efforts during his tenure with the Downtown Austin Alliance in the early 2000s. That coordination is key to the agency’s success, according to Cooper. “We can buy buses, we can run buses, we can build trains, but we can’t build roads, and we can’t build dedicated right-of-way.”

Board Member Terry Mitchell told Council that addressing the city’s peak-hour congestion problem will require active participation from the city. According to a recent City Observatory study, 28.8 percent of the Austin metro area’s jobs are within 3 miles of the central business district. Meanwhile, Mitchell said, more than half of residential development is happening more than 20 miles from downtown. He suggested that funneling job growth and residential growth into activity centers across the region “is probably our major tool in terms of managing our traffic and congestion.”

Pool said that the city has in the past tried to encourage businesses to locate outside of downtown but that Council has limited power to tell anyone where to build. However, she suggested that most development outside of the core is “affirmative action” on the part of business owners “so that they can have space so that they can have their employees live around them.”

Houston said she is concerned with central Austin’s high concentration of jobs while housing development largely sprawls outward. She noted Mayor Steve Adler’s vision – supported by the Austin Chamber of Commerce – of putting dense housing along corridors, including those that would receive millions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades under his proposed transportation bond.

“We are trying to put housing on the corridors, but we don’t have the jobs there to support the housing,” Houston said. “And so which comes first: The housing or the jobs? My contention is we need to put the jobs there and then have the houses go around them, but you all need the houses and the ridership, but the ridership is only going to be where the jobs are, and the jobs are currently downtown.” Houston concluded by asking how the city and Capital Metro could move jobs “out to other places.”

Mitchell told Houston that historic suburban growth patterns began with housing development followed by the introduction of service industry growth followed by large professional employers. He said that, inversely, large professional employers in designated activity centers could attract service sector jobs as well as adjacent housing.

Map courtesy of Capital Metro.

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