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Homeowners concerned about implications of updates to Austin Strategic Mobility Plan

Monday, March 14, 2022 by Kali Bramble

The city’s Transportation Department has begun updating Austin’s Strategic Mobility Plan for the first time since its inception in 2019, but not before encountering a few snags in community feedback.

“I think one of the issues we’re having is that the street level classifications are not clear about what they mean in real-life application,” Urban Transportation Commission Chair Mario Champion said at City Council’s Mobility Committee meeting Thursday. “Some of it boils down to wording, especially undefined words like ‘intensive development’ and ‘ideal cross-section’, which translates as aspirational rather than theoretical. People have been concerned that there will be 20 feet taken from their yards and cut-down trees, when financially and priority-wise this is very unlikely.”

Staff told the Mobility Committee that the revamped plan would account for recent upgrades to the city’s transportation design standards, as well as new infrastructure projects such as Project Connect. The briefing followed a public engagement survey that found significant community concern over potential right-of-way changes to residential streets.

“As we know, the city has been built over decades using old standards,” Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar said. “And we know now more than ever what is needed to allocate space in the right of way to our most vulnerable users to accomplish our Vision Zero, climate and multimodal transportation goals.”

The plan is a two-part document. The first part is dedicated to overarching policies guiding future transportation initiatives. The latest revision would add three new policies to this list, including one supporting increased pedestrian-oriented community street spaces, and two related to improving climate resilience and emergency preparedness measures.

More technical is ASMP’s Street Network plan, a comprehensive map outlining ideal design standards for Austin’s roadways. The revision uses a street-level classification system borrowed from the 2021 update to the city’s Transportation Criteria Manual, ranking roads from Level 1 (residential, high land access) to 5 (freeway, highest mobility capacity).

Most divisive of these is the map’s reclassification of a number of residential streets from Level 1 to 2, an upgrade that comes with a host of design standards including increased setbacks, sidewalks and bike lanes. Homeowners worry that such changes will spur right-of-way acquisitions that could infringe on their properties and bring increased traffic to their neighborhoods.

“The prospective designation of mass right-of-way changes is not about updating the transportation plan,” District 7 resident Janis Reinken said. “It’s about a citywide shift in land use and zoning policies. This approach raises concerns similar to those protested by property owners regarding CodeNEXT.”

City staffers were quick to assure property owners that the changes would not be drastic. “We want to reiterate that the street network plan is for right-of-way dedication, not right-of-way acquisition,” said Spillar. “That means only when major redevelopment to commercial or multifamily use occurs along an arterial would this give us the opportunity to ensure the street reflects mobility needs.”

“While updates to the street network plan list an expanded right of way for many streets, it does not mean changes are imminent,” Transportation Division Manager Cole Kitten continued. “Dedication is only triggered for new development or intensive redevelopment, meaning single-family homes that go through the building permit process do not require new right-of-way dedication.”

Still, staff members plan to reevaluate street network revisions in response to these concerns. Topping the list of reconsiderations are Payne Avenue, Edgemont Drive, Harris Boulevard, Redd Street, and Airport Boulevard.

Next, the team behind the ASMP update will continue its rounds to relevant city committees, including consultations with the Bicycle Advisory Council and Zoning and Platting Commission in coming months. Pending approval, staffers hope to appear before City Council with finalized revisions in late May.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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