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Volunteer group calls for more than transit for 2020 ballot with ‘Wheel Deal’

Wednesday, October 23, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

A small group of community activists unveiled an all-volunteer effort Monday that they claim will help free Austin residents from car dependency and its associated costs while fighting climate change.

The $4.377 billion plan, named the Wheel Deal, is an ambitious transportation platform that could help launch the city toward its goal, per the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, of getting half of commuters out of private cars by 2039.

“The Wheel Deal features comprehensive investments in rail, buses, bike lanes, sidewalks, safety, and strategic land acquisition,” said Julio Gonzalez Altamirano, one of the community activists behind the plan. “It will provide Austinites with an abundance of new transportation choices while helping many families save money, all while helping the planet.”

The platform was developed by Gonzales Altamirano, Urban Transportation Commissioner Susan Somers and former Planning Commissioner Chito Vela. The trio consulted with fellow advocates, city staffers and political insiders to create what they say is an inclusive vision that combines existing local plans with best practices.

A number of transportation advocacy groups have sprung up in recent weeks, including the more formal organization Transit for Austin, which has the primary focus of gathering support for the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s high-capacity public transit plan, Project Connect.

The Wheel Deal says its vision is broader than that, seeing the Project Connect vote expected in November 2020 as an opportunity to pass a bigger infrastructure bond that also makes other modes, like cycling and walking, more viable and pleasant ways to get around.

The platform includes a particular vision for Project Connect that features light rail for the two high-capacity routes, the Orange and Blue lines. The plan says light rail, with its proven reliability and carrying capacity, makes the best sense for both corridors.

Capital Metro is expected to announce new information on mode choice for the high-capacity routes at the end of the month, but has so far maintained an open position on whether more costly rail or cheaper bus rapid transit vehicles would better serve the community.

The light rail corridors are the most expensive parts of the plan, with the Orange Line totaling an estimated $1.37 billion and the Blue Line $768 million, after an assumed 40 percent match from the Federal Transit Administration. The Orange Line costs are based on the proposed alignment from Tech Ridge to Slaughter Lane. Blue Line costs assumed a light rail line from the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport into Central Austin along East Riverside Drive.

Both light rail cost estimates were calculated using Capital Metro’s Long-Term Investments Briefing Book for Project Connect from March 2018.

In contrast to current expectations for Project Connect, the Wheel Deal would provide dedicated lanes for each of the planned seven bus rapid transit “light” corridors, a feat that would almost certainly require reallocating road space away from cars for buses. The network could cost as much as $280 million.

“While we don’t take specific stances on every single road segment impacted by the capital projects the Wheel Deal recommends, we do believe that Austin roadways should focus on moving the most people (not the most cars),” reads the Wheel Deal FAQ. “Given limited road space, rail, buses, and bikes are going to move a lot more people than cars.”

In addition to public transit, the Wheel Deal also contains $684 million for 342 miles of protected bike lanes and trails from the city’s Bike and Urban Trails Master Plans, 1,000 miles of new sidewalks from the Sidewalk Master Plan, a $10 million “shade fund” for trees and other shade and park amenities, $35 million for Vision Zero intersection improvements, and $595 million for strategic land acquisition investments to create new sources of revenue for transportation infrastructure.

All of this, the plan claims, would cost the average Austin resident $346 per year, or “less than a dollar a day” in total tax bill impact. That figure was calculated using the same rate estimates from the 2016 Mobility Bond, but the activists expect it could be even less as the city’s tax base continues to grow. The impact to renters would be substantially smaller.

In order for it to succeed, City Council will first need to agree to place the bond on the ballot in November next year. Then residents will have to decide if the vision is worth the cost.

As a next step, the group will be seeking community feedback on the initial Wheel Deal draft before releasing a finalized version by Nov. 22.

This story has been changed since publication, removing a reference to People United for Mobility Action. Julio Gonzalez Altamirano is a former board member of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the Austin Monitor‘s parent nonprofit.

Photo by Bike Texas made available through a Creative Commons license.

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