How to turn the Mayor’s $720 million bond proposal into a political winner that actually helps improve mobility.
The Mayor’s $720 million mobility bond proposal over-focuses on protecting single-occupant car commutes. As a result, the proposal is ineffective at improving Austin’s mobility and household affordability. Its design also undermines the proven political coalition behind recent mobility bond victories.
The proposal needs to change. Here’s how to fix it while staying at the $720 million funding level:
- Adopt the best parts of the best corridor plans
- Fully fund the Bike Master Plan
- Invest in highly productive pedestrian infrastructure and Vision Zero
- Include a subsidized high-density affordable housing bond that targets the corridors
- Pass complementary budget and land use policies that boost the productivity of the funded corridors.
This middle-of-the-road alternative supports responsible investments in car arterial maintenance, while re-orienting the bulk of the spending towards providing Austinites with additional transportation choices.
Best of the Best
Instead of splurging $500 million on a dusty set of corridor programs, let’s invest $265 million on the highest-quality elements of the corridor programs (read more about how the corridor programs spend money here).
$265 million is enough for the Burnet ($75m), East Riverside ($60m), Guadalupe ($40m) and South Lamar ($60m) programs to be completely funded. The initial segments of a phased implementation for the the Airport ($30m) program also fits into this more prudent budget.
The puzzling and unproductive FM 969 corridor proposal does not make the cut; neither does the under-powered and over-priced North Lamar proposal.
Green corridors are included in the alternative proposal. The yellow corridor is phased-in. The red corridors are excluded from the alternative proposal.
The South Lamar program must be adjusted to feature dedicated lanes instead of expensive medians, corridor-wide repaving, and bus pullout construction. This means sacrificing one vehicular lane in the corridor. Airport’s phasing is straightforward; pedestrian and cycle track improvements stay in the budget. However, the allocation for the median between car lanes, the overall road reconstruction budget, illumination, drainage, and signal spending, are all cut in half and focused to the segments of the corridor most productive for bike and pedestrian mode shift. The Mueller rail median is postponed to a future light rail bond that includes said route.
Pedals and Pedestrians
As detailed in Move People, Austin’s Bike Master Plan and high-traffic pedestrian infrastructure are the “low-hanging fruit” in any aggressive Austin mode shift strategy. These are geographically dispersed improvements with a low operational cost footprint; they also improve the productivity of transit services. A total of $410 million in bike and pedestrian investments can be included this November if the aforementioned corridor approach is taken and the bond skips the futile spending for Brodie, Parmer, and 360 intersection “improvements”.
Absent sidewalks by district and priority level
Of the $410 million, about $20 million comes from the components of the quality corridor programs that overlap with with Bike Master Plan and Sidewalk Master Plan. $140 million of the remaining $390 million goes towards ensuring the Bike Master Plan is fully funded. $250 million goes towards pedestrian infrastructure. This includes the $20 for Vision Zero in the Mayor’s plan, leaving $230 million for “very high priority” and “high priority” sidewalks from the Sidewalk Master Plan.
Corridors for People Not Cars
So far, this alternative proposal has spent $655 million. The last $65 million should be spent on a housing program that helps the corridors fulfill their mode shift and affordability potential. The corridor housing program should be focused on car-lite housing. Specifically, the program should fund (1) counter-cyclical land acquisition destined for apartments for extremely-low income renters, as well as (2) subsidized loans for accessory dwelling unit construction in the transit catchment area within the corridors.
Further, Council must adopt a set of corridor-specific development policies that support affordability and mode shift. First, Council should cancel the recently-instituted 6% homestead exemption and shift the new revenue towards supporting the corridor housing program described above. Second, Council should reform land use in each corridor roadway to entitle dense development by right, including micro-unit complexes. To complement this change, corridor land use reforms should also facilitate duplex, triplex, and small apartment buildings for a half-mile from the main roadway.
Mobility bond referendums succeed when Austin’s core voters are enthusiastic about a proposal. “Core enthusiasm” is the proven coalition approach to pass an Austin mobility bond. A comparison of the successful 2012 mobility bond and the failed 2014 “rail and roads” bond reveals the importance of enthusiastic core support.
The Mayor’s $720 million proposal is designed to appeal to supposedly “persuadable” fiscally-conservative suburban voters that are disinterested in shifting way from single-occupant car commutes.
However, it’s unlikely that this group can be persuaded with the offerings in the Mayor’s plan. The intersection improvements are not transformative and it’s quite uncertain that arterial reconstruction will appear relevant or helpful to this electoral segment. More simply put: If you live in Circle C and lean Republican, are you going to get excited about paying for FM 969 to flow at 50 mph?
The alternative package outlined above neatly aligns with reinforcing the winning 2012 voter coalition. It provides alternative choices to car commuters, which is what participants in the “Mobility Talks” process asked for.
Mobility Talks survey results.
The alternative package can get six votes on Council (Districts 1, 3, 4, 7, 9 all receive significant investments, which makes it six votes with the Mayor’s support); perhaps even eight votes are attainable if the leaders of Council’s Mobility committee view the package through the lens of mobility productivity instead of exclusively as a ward privilege carve-up. Overall, the alternative package is much better policy and equally risky politics as the current $720 million proposal.