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Austin gets a new comprehensive transportation plan

Friday, April 12, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

After passing the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan – the transportation piece of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan – on an initial reading March 28, City Council unanimously approved the plan on second and third readings Thursday afternoon.

According to the ASMP’s action item 225, the city now has a full year to compile data and “set benchmarks and targets for all indicators” included in the document, which will give the public a more concrete idea of what the plan will mean going forward.

While the plan offers a variety of specific targets and policies to complement the Imagine Austin vision and exchange the city’s focus from moving vehicles to moving people, more specific principles used to achieve that goal will come later this year with updates to street design standards in the city’s Transportation Criteria Manual and with any potential changes to the city’s land development code.

Some of the plan’s goals will be impacted by what the Texas Department of Transportation chooses to do with its web of highways running throughout the city, since the city has relatively little sway over the state’s design standards.

Council considered removing some of the state’s projects from the plan’s Street Network Map, like State Highway 45, before adopting the plan, as a kind of protest against the gap between what the city and the state consider smart and sustainable road design. Instead, accepting the futility of such an action, Council decided to keep the highway on the map with the condition that the city will cooperate on such inevitable projects in order to most effectively minimize any environmental harm they may cause.

In the places where the city does have the ultimate say, the ASMP will serve to improve safety and connectivity while promoting alternative transportation modes like transit, bicycling and walking. As Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza noted, however, the ASMP is meant to guide city staff and Council and does not have the force of the land development code or specify funding sources for the multitude of projects listed within.

For comparison, Garza said there are activity centers and other projects that have been listed in the Imagine Austin plan since 2012 and still don’t exist today. “This is just adding to that vision, to that plan, of how we want to create better connectivity,” she said.

Part of that vision is boosting population and job density in the city to support the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s ongoing high-capacity transit plans and quadruple the city’s transit commute-share as part of the foundational multimodal vision behind the ASMP.

Taking up a recommendation made by the Planning Commission last month, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan stirred up underlying fears on the dais with an amendment to specify in the ASMP that transit-supportive densities suitable for Capital Metro’s proposed high-capacity corridors would need to be substantially higher than the figures currently used to analyze the city’s fixed-route bus lines.

To Council Member Kathie Tovo, Flannigan’s amendment sounded too similar to a directive on land use, which she said should be a consideration reserved for the land development code rewrite process. Tovo said the Planning Commission’s recommendation submitted to Council late last month was frightening residents with its insistence on complying with the Federal Transit Administration’s high-capacity transit line density standards, suggesting that mixed-use development would be required in any neighborhoods falling within a half-mile of transit stops as the crow flies.

Austin Transportation Director Robert Spillar confirmed that mixed-use development is typically good for transit ridership and that higher densities are helpful to the city when submitting grant proposals to the FTA, but ATD division manager Cole Kitten clarified that density is measured in averages and does not mean every node along a corridor will share an equal portion of a route’s total population.

Flannigan defended his amendment from Tovo’s critique, saying the ASMP has no possible tool for changing zoning or land use. “In fact, the only place in which it provides direction is back to us,” Flannigan stated.

The ASMP’s passage was also briefly held up by two amendments regarding specific areas in the city where residents are divided: the “pork chop” on Morrow Street in Crestview and the city’s use of crash gates and cul-de-sacs.

Several local residents spoke in favor of Council Member Greg Casar’s amendment to add the connector on Morrow Street to the ASMP Street Network Table, allowing them to cross Lamar Boulevard westbound by car, bicycle or on foot.

Matthew Armstrong, former president of the Crestview Neighborhood Association, said the concrete island blocking the passage had been a significant barrier to the neighborhood’s ability to move forward because it “kept getting in the way” when trying to resolve other issues.

Council Member Leslie Pool, knowing her objection would not stop the amendment, voted against it on the grounds of wanting a solution that respected both sides of the debate.

To a lesser extent, Garza’s amendment acknowledging that cul-de-sacs and crash gates limit connectivity and should only be used as a “last resort” sparked a brief debate on the appropriate definition of connectivity.

Council Member Ann Kitchen suggested clarifying that crash gates and other barriers to vehicle traffic often leave space for bicycles and pedestrians to pass, offering instead a different kind of connectivity.

Flannigan chimed in on Garza’s behalf, however, stating that regardless of the specific modes capable of moving through such barriers, they are all part of the “ways development patterns inhibit connectivity” as a whole.

Putting the issue to rest, Garza clarified the amendment is about promoting connectivity, full stop. “I don’t see this as black and white as others are seeing it,” she said. “I think if you limit any type of connectivity, any mode, you are limiting connectivity.”

With the specific discussions more or less resolved, the ASMP was quickly approved with the additional corrections and amendments from ATD staff, Exhibit B of the agenda backup and the various amendments brought by the Council members.

Photo by Kris Krug made available through a Creative Commons license.

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