November’s urban rail and road package aims to “do something” as Austin clamors for transportation solutions. Sadly, as blog readers know, the proposal will not be effective at reducing congestion or promoting car-independence. It will, however, exhaust our reserves of political will and actual capital available for bold solutions. An alternative package is needed, one that will actually work. Below, I describe one possible set of ‘better billion’ investments.
Alternative Transportation Bridge ($120 million)
Project Connect estimates that a ‘signature’ (i.e. fancy architecture) bridge for their urban rail proposal costs $120 million. Let’s reallocate those funds towards a plain design that supports the already-budgeted East Riverside MetroRapid, as well as bike and pedestrian use. It would be engineered to facilitate rail in the future.
Given that the existing CapMetro financial planning already assumes MetroRapid expansion into the East Riverside corridor, this bridge coupled with meaningful stretches of dedicated lanes would capture the mobility benefits from urban rail.
Highway Match ($135 million)
The roadway portion of the so-called ‘Strategic Mobility Package’ (SMP) is unjust and ineffective. It is unjust because it places the burden of paying for regional and statewide road infrastructure solely on Austin. It is ineffective because our continued growth and poor core land use will simply gobble up additional road capacity with new drivers stemming from sprawling housing development.
Instead of being suckered into paying for the region’s infrastructure – and decreasing the efficiency of our water, policing, and transit service provision while we are at it – perhaps we should at least incentivize matches by the state and other regional communities. So, let’s pay our third of the SMP’s road construction once those other entities agree to pay their share. I support true regionalism. Unjust subsidization of sprawl by Austin taxpayers is not regionalism.
Assessment Relief Program ($150 million)
Many Austinites face the conundrum of their property taxes outpacing their income growth. Many have vocalized displacement concerns; some elected officials and advocates have rallied around increasing the generosity of homestead exemptions as a solution.
In general, homestead exemption expansion unjustly shifts the taxation burden to renters and is not an effective solution to supply shortages in attractive neighborhoods.
Here’s one avenue for providing true relief: the City could purchase properties in exchange for a more stable monthly outlay and a ‘lifetime’ lease for the incumbent owner. The City is already quite a large land owner.
The program would target properties in areas near transit corridors or within walkable/bikeable distance to major employment hubs. Assuming an average purchased property value of $300,000, this program would have a perpetual pipeline of 500 properties. Once the leaseholder passes away or decides to move, the City would transfer ownership to redevelopment that increased affordability by increasing the unit count at the property and/or linking it to income-based criteria.
“Missing Middle” Fund ($100 million)
Many policymakers – including Council Member Tovo – have indicated that a lack of capital is an impediment to smaller multi-family projects. These projects represent the “missing middle” of smaller infill that boost density in a politically acceptable way to neighborhood activists and more reasonable NIMBYs.
Image courtesy of Opticos Design
Using the same subsidy rate as the affordable housing bonds, this fund would create about 5,500 units. Given that these types of developments are often already profitable or don’t require profits (e.g an accessory dwelling unit for la abuela), then the units produced could be even higher.
Sidewalk Improvements ($100 million)
Austin’s astonishingly under-financed sidewalk paving program has gotten more attention of late. Meeting sidewalk needs identified in the 2009 Sidewalk Master Plan would cost $944 million. This starter sidewalk investment should be coupled with developing a new choice architecture for neighborhood planning. For example, communities that opt-in to transit-supportive land use (ADUs, lower parking requirements, etc.) would receive substantial bonus points as prioritization scores are developed for paving.
Bicycle Infrastructure ($66 million)
The Bicycle Master Plan is one component of the Urban Trails Master Plan; it includes 200 miles of on-street bike lanes at a cost of $66 million. This recent slide discussing the Bike Master Plan outlines its potential impact.
Within the core, bicycling has tremendous potential as a cost-competitive substitute for car commutes and other short trips. Remember, bike work commutes are almost at 2%, which is essentially the same as public transportation work commutes.
Affordable Housing Round 3 ($65 million)
We recently passed a second round of affordable housing bond funds. Proponents indicated it would create about 3,600 units over 6 years. This third round should be more directly tied to building units in our consensus transit corridors, such as Highland and East Riverside.
Transit-Oriented Development Fund ($20 million)
Denver’s oft-cited TOD fund was created with $15 million targeting the preservation or creation of 1,000 affordable units within walkable distance from transit stations. Austin’s version would similarly focus on providing capital to support preservation of at-risk affordable developments, as well as land acquisitions and/or development of new rental with some units set-aside for below-market rents.
Land Bank ($20 million)
Typically, land banks target distressed/blighted properties for acquisition and management. Austin’s land bank would opportunistically seek out properties near transit corridors – especially during economic downturns – for re-development into higher density uses.
Code Compliance Repair Fund ($20 million)
This past year has brought legislative attention to the existence of rental properties with substantial code violations that endanger the well-being of tenants. One of the major obstacles to transforming “problem properties” is ensuring the compliance of neglectful/incompetent landlords. This fund would provide capital enabling code enforcement personnel to purchase vital, non-trivial repairs and then bill landlords, ultimately placing property liens if the City is not paid back. The goal of the fund is to provide patient capital that ensures vital repairs are done quickly.
“Smart City” Infrastructure ($4 million)
Buses, bikes, ride-sharing, telecommuting, and walking all greatly benefit from quality digital user experiences. But many of the data and software logic “pipes” that can support quality applications are owned and maintained by public agencies. Software code, sensors, visual displays are all part of information infrastructure that supports car-independence. Indeed, investing in better core software has the same economic rationale as capital projects.
There are many improvements we can make to this infrastructure ranging from improving application UIs (i.e. making them “beautiful apps”), to enhancing APIs (here’s a great wishlist from the creator of metrorappid.com), to greater use of sensors.
And it’s not just for transportation. This fund could also be used in housing. For example, re-designing legacy data systems in code compliance. Improvements to the input, persistence, and analysis of housing code compliance data would allow adoption of NYC-style predictive analytics for housing emergencies.
Leftover ($200 million)
So far, this plan has spent $800 million focused on deploying a better mix of land use, housing, and transportation investments to boost affordability and reduce car dependence.
There are many additional investments Austin could undertake to manage growth, but I sense that the highest voter priority after transportation and housing costs is protecting our water supply. Hence, I’d suggest we use the remaining $200 million fixing “leaky” water pipes. Freshwater gets lost during transmission because of compromised pipes. Even if we conserve water, the infrastructure that moves it is leaking it. A combination of both direct replacement and improved asset management can reduce loss, bolstering overall water efficiency.
This proposal is a draft intended to generate discussion of the true opportunity cost to Council’s expected road and rail plan. Proponents of the expected Council plan often discuss the alternative as continuing to “do nothing”. This list of alternative proposals – all based on existing needs with very real, politically-engaged Austin constituencies – makes it clear that there’s plenty we can do instead.
Proponents also take on the Guadalupe/Lamar (G/L) diehards and argue against the feasibility of doing rail on that corridor presently. It’s an easy alternative proposal to knock down. Personally, I am content to try and make MetroRapid and conventional bus work there. Maybe we’ll be ready for another run at rail there in 2020 or 2024 at the earliest – if the ridership shows up and the politics allow. But that’s a separate question.
My opposition to the Council road and rail proposal is not about G/L. It’s about OC: opportunity cost. The above list of proposals shows the broader, substantially more effective public investment agenda we’ll be undermining.
Obviously, there are devilish details for each of the items I am pitching; some of my ideas might require creativity given the constraints on municipalities imposed by the legislature. Certainly those should be discussed. But the more important question is whether we think that the Council proposal is the best way to spend a billion dollars to solve our needs?
The above proposed portfolio of public investment achieves the mobility benefits of the Council plan in a more cost-effective manner. And it does so with much lower risk to the transit system’s operating budget. Instead of hoping to attract housing development near transit, the above portfolio directly solves well-understood obstacles to achieving abundant housing that supports car-independence. And we even have money left over to tackle other pressing growth management concerns, such as water scarcity. It’s a better way to spend our billion.