Getting back to the future on Austin’s transformative mode shift investment.
The measures taken to slow coronavirus spread and their associated economic impacts have created uncertainty about the much-anticipated November transportation investment referendum.
Perhaps the federal government adopts an infrastructure package that greatly eases adoption of Austin’s plans. Or maybe the current lock-down is accompanied by a quick economic re-start. A miracle cure is possible in theory, though not really expected.
Realistically, the sudden spike in local unemployment and misery, along with Biden’s ascent, strained local budgets, and the uncertainty around being able to wage a conventional field campaign all combine to scramble the expectation of a uniquely pro-mode shift electorate this November.
If a Fed ex machina does not descend to ease the path forward, how can grassroots mode shift advocates return to the promising position they were in just a few weeks ago?
After the failure of the 2014 rail and highway interchange package, grassroots activists worked to create complementary versions of a transportation “Plan B” that could deliver incremental mode shift progress while also setting the stage for a high-capacity system.
Many of those “Plan B” ideas came to fruition: a shift from bus coverage to frequency, a reduction in bus fares, greater investment in bus shelters, increasing below-market housing capacity and construction near transit, allocating greater city right-of-way to sustainable modes, adopting mode shift as the primary transportation objective, “reserving” a presidential-year election for a light rail referendum.
Once regular City and CapMetro policy-making resumes, grassroots advocates should continue to push for the visionary investment discussed before the pandemic lock-down. At the same time, advocates can begin outlining a new “Plan B” and advance that agenda in parallel to the push for a visionary investment election in November.
In that spirit, here is a time-sorted sequence of advocacy planks that can provide incremental progress while setting the foundation for a transformative local vote on mode shift investment.
Adopt full Orange Line light rail Locally-Preferred Alternative. If the hoped for federal infrastructure package materializes and supports new transit capacity construction, we should at the very least have our most promising high-capacity investment ready to go. Council (and CMTA’s Board) should get as much of the federally-required process done, even if a November vote on funding doesn’t happen.
Dedicated general fund transit support. The governor’s emergency declaration allows the City to raise property tax rates up to the previous 8% maximum before requiring a tax rate election.
According to the City’s Deputy CFO, each 1% increase adds roughly $5 million to the general fund. Pro-transit advocates should seek to use the unexpected increase in the cap to formalize dedicated general fund support for Austin transit operations.
Specifically, advocates should aim for a new $5m transit allocation; it should be tied to CapMetro extending free fares for its Austin-originating metro bus routes. Thus, the funds serve both to cement the operating resilience of CapMetro for the long-term and provide indirect cash relief to Austinites during the pandemic.
CO active transportation. There is much anecdotal data of increased use of existing bike lanes, as well as pedestrian travel. Given the emergency circumstances, the City can bypass the use of general obligation (GO) bonds and instead use “certificates of obligation” (CO) to quickly put in place as much additional active transportation infrastructure as financially feasible.
Council can start by covering the funding gap for the existing all-ages and abilities (AAA) bike network. That’s $47 million for on-street improvements and $123 million to complete the urban trails. A comparable amount should go towards the existing prioritized sidewalk backlog.
Bus lanes. City Council has yet to decisively adopt a coherent and planned transition of city street right-of-way to bus lanes. A good bus lane plan would provide CapMetro certainty around its service planning and help accelerate mode shift into transit without reducing overall street capacity.
Comprehensive Shade Plan. Austin should follow Phoenix and Los Angeles and develop a comprehensive shade plan.
Update Bike Plan. The next version of the City’s bike plan should shift from providing as much “bang for the buck” lane mileage as possible to enhancing the quality of on-street lanes and treatments. It should explicitly aim to make Austin’s bike network the best in North America and a rival to world-class systems beyond this continent.
Parking reform. This is the appropriate time in the business cycle to re-price City-controlled parking and parking programs to support mode shift and fiscal solvency. Additionally, the City can reorient how it uses its right of way and land/buildings for parking. Finally, it can calibrate how it awards residential parking permits to align with its mode shift and fiscal solvency goals.
Value capture strategic blueprint. City Council has done some preliminary work to explore its options around using land purchases and tax policy to capture the value from transportation capital projects. Creating a formal policy with a cogent long-term strategy should be the next step.
Bus Plus General Obligation bonds. Use the 2022 mid-term election to pass approximately $125 million for capital projects supporting the Wheel Deal’s “Bus Plus” plank.
Active transportation General Obligation bonds. Include the next round of bike and pedestrian infrastructure identified in the (1) updated bike plan, (2) existing sidewalk master plan, and (3) new shade master plan in the 2022 mid-term election.
Mode shift tax rate election. Target the 2024 November presidential vote to pass a roughly 10-cent tax rate election in support of sustainable modes. This would provide the permanent funding stream for the opex and capex necessary for implementation of Austin’s transformative, large-scale transit and active transportation plans.
Value capture bonds. Support the value capture strategic blueprint through funding from a November 2024 bond election.