How City Council can use the 2016 presidential election to enhance Austin’s mobility.
Where the unsuccessful 2014 rail-and-roads bond referendum won and lost
Austin’s City Council is considering placing a new mobility bond referendum on the ballot this November. Presidential election years bring out the broadest and most economically diverse version of the Austin electorate, so it’s considered by many local leaders to be the best electoral venue for ambitious initiatives.
Here’s how Austin’s City Council can most effectively leverage this election to make real progress on transportation.
End of the Road
Austin desperately needs a new mobility vision coming from City Hall; this new vision must emphasize the futility of the car-centric status quo and explain Austin’s need to embrace mode shift away from single-passenger car trips. Houston’s new Mayor and County Judge Sarah Eckhardt provide templates of how to talk about mode shift as cost-effective realism.
At City Hall, Mayor Adler has signaled prioritization of a sizable I-35 road package for 2016; no total cost number is available from the press, but a range between $200 million to $400 million is likely given the failed 2014 bond’s design. The Mayor’s likely long-term goal in using City bonds to essentially bailout the legislature’s starvation of TXDoT is engendering reciprocity by regional suburbs for Lone Star Rail (an inter-city train), as well as additional commuter rail lines (i.e. the eastward-traveling Green Line). This approach is quite literally the status quo; it’s codified in the current regional transportation plan, “CAMPO 2040”.
A new Council Member or set of Council Members must step up and start the decade-long process of persuading Austinites of the need for transportation investments that support mode shift away from cars. They must break out of the region’s anodyne planning and endless spreadsheet-shuffling to push a constant, median voter-friendly mode shift message; those familiar with Mayor Adler’s embrace of the “Year of Mobility” moniker already know what such an approach looks like for a road-first approach.
What would a populist mode shift message sound like? “I want a majority of Austinites to have a choice other than a car to get to work” and “For every dollar I ask you to pay in new transportation taxes, I’ll give you new options to save ten dollars by ditching your car” are the types of soundbites such an effort would feature.
The new mode shift leaders at Council must have an organizer’s outlook. They would be active in building a pipeline of allies to place on regional transportation bodies (CapMetro, CTRMA, and CAMPO). And they would use their political capital to raise funds for rigorous, publicly-released opinion polls on the evolving transportation preferences of likely voters.
Choose New Choices
The debate over the mix of projects that will be included in the 2016 mobility bond is a critical starting point for the decade-long mode shift persuasion effort.
Presently, there is a strong grassroots movement for funding the infrastructure recommended by the Bike Master Plan, as well as high-priority sidewalks across the City. Together, they would cost $410 million. The bike plan is a cost-effective way of transforming car trips in the core to other modes; the new sidewalks would help feed bus service. They are also politically complementary: the bike plan boosts enthusiasm in the core and the sidewalk plan provides valued neighborhood infrastructure across the ten Council districts.
From the Bike Master Plan: a bicycle network is cost-effective way of moving people
A bond that includes the bike and pedestrian components and the Mayor’s road priorities would cost between $600 million and $800 million, which is a political non-starter given recent bond election results. Any Council Members seeking to provide fresh mobility leadership will use the deliberations about what makes it into the final bond as an opportunity to reclaim “Year of Mobility” from car-centrism and towards transportation choice.
Moreover, the negotiation over the bond mix provides an opportunity for deal-making on transformative policies outside of the capital budget, including reforms to parking prices, dedicated bus lanes, reducing parking requirements, and liberalizing land use rules for “missing middle” housing types.
Some transit advocates continue to press for a light rail investment as part of this November’s election. The specifics of what “light rail investment” specifically means depends on the advocate; some want a full-blown vote on the Guadalupe-Lamar route. Others want a partial funding of said route. Some want a quick version of the Project Connect process. There’s no clear consensus on what the rail portion of a mobility bond would constitute. Given the proximity of the election and the lack of a well-organized coalition with the resources to wage a winning campaign for a substantial light rail investment, it’s unlikely that a consensus will be established in time for victory this November.
Therefore, Council Members that are supportive of a light rail network should instead include “rail readiness” investments as part of the mobility bond.
New investments that help get Austin “rail ready” can take several forms; capital for acquiring needed parcels and right-of-way, a TOD housing fund to bulk up the rail corridor, bridge construction funds, and so on.
Rail readiness should also be incorporated into the prioritization of bike and pedestrian improvements. And a rail readiness approach also impacts the road priorities included in the new mobility bond. Specifically, the I-35 and East Riverside interchange project pitched in the 2014 bond would still be needed for a rail route that links that corridor and the central business district.
Think POTUSly. Act locally
This year’s federal election and the potential mobility bond are an opportunity to make real progress on one of Austin’s most widely shared policy frustrations. Hopefully, City Hall’s turn towards transportation policy beyond ride-hailing will catalyze new leadership on mode shift. Advocacy for a bond that emphasizes bike, pedestrian, and rail readiness investments – as well as policy reforms on parking, bus dedicated lanes, and car storage rules – constitute an immediately actionable mode shift agenda that can quickly show results.