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2016: An Austin Monitor review
Friday, December 30, 2016 by Austin Monitor
As residents of the actual world, and not just City Hall World, we at the Austin Monitor are well-aware that most year-in-review lists will be filled with relief that the seemingly cursed 2016 will soon be over. Our relief comes from the fact that we have to focus our look back only on our narrow perspective, where figuring out which Proposition 1 people were talking about was a legitimate source of (mild) stress. Without further ado, our year in review:
Mayor Steve Adler famously dubbed 2016 the #YearOfMobility, a bold branding effort that nearly blew up in his face. Even as Adler used social media, South by Southwest and other public opportunities to boost Austin’s bid to win the federal Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, the local transportation conversation in Austin was dominated by two things: Uber and Lyft. The ride-hailing giants kicked off the new year by funding an effort to overturn recent changes to local regulations. The ensuing campaign featured apocalyptic rhetoric, a generational division among local political operatives and an aborted effort to also put on the May ballot a recall referendum against City Council Member Ann Kitchen. In the end, Uber and Lyft sunk more than $10 million into their campaign, a decision that seemed to backfire when voters who had been treated to a deluge of mailers, commercials and push notifications overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 1. Both companies quickly fulfilled their promises to leave town, clearing the way for a number of upstart ride-hailing companies to attempt to fill the void. Naturally, all of the Sturm und Drang might prove to have all been for naught once the 85th Texas Legislature comes to town in January.
May’s Prop 1 results were technically a victory for Adler, but the bruising battle had hijacked his attempts to show to federal officials a unified city prepared to tackle tough transportation issues. In the Smart City Challenge, Austin had proposed to leverage technology and mobility hubs to create a new blueprint for urban mobility. Up against competing plans from cities such as San Francisco, Denver, Pittsburgh and Portland, Oregon, Austin ultimately lost out in the race for $40 million in federal grant money to underdog Columbus, Ohio.
Even as the #YearOfMobility appeared to be breaking down, Adler had begun work on his ambitious mobility bond proposal. While groups such as BikeAustin initially rallied in favor of allowing the city to vote on fully funding the city’s Bicycle Master Plan and Sidewalk Master Plan, Adler eventually rolled out his $720 million proposal that would shower money on highway projects, major corridor rehabilitation programs and active transportation infrastructure. The combination hit the sweet spot and voters approved it by a comfortable margin, giving Adler a signal victory to close out his #YearOfMobility.
We knew way back in 2014 that whoever ended up developing this site was in for a real fight. And about a gazillion hours of public hearings proved us right this year, as the battle over the Grove at Shoal Creek planned unit development raged through the city’s boards and commissions, mediation and quite a few City Council meetings. In its final meeting of the year, Council made sure the development fight could rightly be claimed by 2016, passing an agreement and creating an opening for the next contentious zoning case that will soon dominate our hearts and minds. (But will it inspire a candlelight vigil?)
Early this year, we broke the story that a deal to bring more affordable housing to the Pilot Knob PUD could cost the city’s water utility millions and millions of dollars. That revelation led to a couple of things. First, those paying attention quickly ascertained that Council was a little foggy on what it had approved. Second, it led to a lawsuit. That lawsuit, filed by activist Brian Rodgers, was based on the fact that Austinites were denied the chance to weigh in on the waivers because of posting language (and the weird way that the waivers were approved, frankly). Rodgers won that suit, which brought Pilot Knob back to City Hall where it was reapproved without waivers, though a plan for affordable housing is pending.
Though the Music and Creative Ecosytem Omnibus is one of those Adler-y plans that is super long and will require a bunch more public meetings and votes (it is, after all, an omnibus), Council’s approval of the sweeping resolution is certainly action on the topic, and end-of-year rumblings from the mayor’s office indicate that next year might actually see some of the programs proposed in the 68-page report come online. Or, you know, come up for another vote.
News that about 25 percent of the city’s executive positions are vacant or currently being filled on an interim basis may have caught some people off-guard. But those paying attention might have been shocked that the number quoted by Interim City Manager Elaine Hart at a press conference announcing Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo’s departure was so low. This year, Acevedo joined City Manager Marc Ott, Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis, Austin Energy Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Mele, Public Works Director Howard Lazarus, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Director Betsy Spencer, Library Director Brenda Branch, Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert, Police Monitor Margo Frasier, Code Department Director Carl Smart and Fleet Services Officer Gerry Calk in leaving the city (among others!). Obviously, the search for a new city manager and police chief will remain in the news this upcoming year, but it’s also a good time to look back on that list and think, “Huh.” This year also meant that we said goodbye to Council members Don Zimmerman and Sheri Gallo, neither of whom was re-elected after serving their first two years. While Zimmerman seemed to take the election in stride, Gallo appears to be taking it a bit harder and has not spoken to the Monitor since losing to Alison Alter …
DNA lab meltdown
While this story is ongoing (and, unfortunately, apparently developing), we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the DNA lab debacle. In short: APD’s lab has been closed since June, and now there are no plans to open it “in the foreseeable future.” This has left the city scrambling to find other labs to process the backlog and assess the amount of damage done while the lab was up and running and also raised many larger questions, including whether the police department should be in charge of the lab in the first place.
Austin Energy managed to keep a fairly low profile this year. However, the rate case settlement and deal to phase out its share of the Fayette Power Project was good news for environmentalists (and those who can’t deal with protracted energy rate discussions).
There are already threats from the state legislature to strike it down, so the city’s recently passed Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance can probably be considered a progressive win. Indeed, Austin was the first city in the south to prohibit most employers from asking applicants initially if they have had a criminal conviction (they would still be able to ask that question later in the hiring process), and the ordinance is intended to help those with criminal records get jobs.
Though the deployment of police body cameras remains on hold, Council did approve a $17 million contract this summer. While getting those cameras out into the streets appears to be a different matter entirely, it was a big step for the city that came after months of discussion and debate.
Capital Metro has plans
As for the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, 2016 was another year of declining ridership. But the agency is hoping that a sweeping update to its service plan will reverse the trend. The first piece of Connections 2025 will take effect on Jan. 8, when the much-maligned premium fares on MetroRapid buses will be ditched. The delayed vote on Connections 2025’s new bus routes will also come in January, after the agency’s board figures out what to do with controversial cuts to existing lines. Another big moment for the agency next month is the formal public reboot of Project Connect, the quest for high-capacity transit solutions in Austin’s central core. The effort had been on hiatus after the disastrous drubbing that the 2014 light rail proposal took, but Capital Metro spent much of 2016 quietly rebuilding a new planning process. In January, the citizens advisory group helping to guide both Project Connect and the city of Austin’s Strategic Mobility Plan will meet for the first time in its recently retooled form. And just because there can never be enough planning, Travis County is getting in on the action with its own comprehensive transportation plan.
Travis County, a viral ad, and new blood
Speaking of Travis County, the Commissioners Court was a reliable source of fine intrigue throughout 2016. Planning staff spent most of the year picking up the pieces after voters narrowly rejected the civil courthouse bond in 2015. The community advisory courthouse helped weed out a small collection of potential locations to replace 308 Guadalupe St. as the site for the new house of justice. Meanwhile, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt helped lead an effort to obtain from the federal government the old U.S. Courthouse building at the corner of W. Eighth and Lavaca streets. The building will be used to house the county’s probate court, thus relieving pressure on the crowded Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse.
Perhaps Travis County’s highest-profile accomplishment was Commissioner Gerald Daugherty’s viral campaign ad, a short spot that landed him briefly on the national stage. It also helped the Precinct 3 Republican win his re-election campaign, edging out first-time office-seeker David Holmes, a Democrat. Joining Daugherty, Eckhardt and commissioners Brigid Shea and Margaret Gómez on the dais in 2017 will be Jeff Travillion, the Democrat who will replace outgoing Commissioner Ron Davis. Travillion will be Precinct 1’s first new commissioner since Davis took the oath back in 1998.
The county also instituted a new policy to guide the creation of public improvement districts, a tool that can in theory be used to help create new affordable housing. Along that same vein, the court managed to slightly lower the tax rate while also raising the exemption for seniors and disabled homeowners.
CTRMA cruises along
Of course, even as the mayor, Council and every interested voter in town rained fire on each other over rogue PACs, the need for more bike lanes and a doomed play for a light rail referendum, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority continued full speed ahead with its own transportation projects. In the spring, the agency broke ground on the Highway 183 South project, and in the fall, work began on the highly controversial State Highway 45 Southwest. But perhaps the biggest development of CTRMA’s 2016 is due to come to fruition in January, when the highly buzzy report on an urban gondola system is expected to be completed. That dream could fill the unlikely-to-ever-happen void created by Lone Star Rail, which the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization finally voted to kill in October.
We miss you, stuck house. We hope you are happy wherever you are now stuck.
This article was written by Caleb Pritchard and Elizabeth Pagano.
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