Then There's This: Highway to Heaven or Hell?
Precinct 3 voters have distinct choices for the future
In the climate-conscious city of Copenhagen, the first of a network of bicycle "superhighways" opened this year to encourage more suburban residents to bike to work in a metropolis already teeming with cyclists.
A bikes-only interstate was just the incentive many suburbanites needed to leave their cars at home and pedal to work safely, without fear of getting flattened by a vehicle. The forward-moving transportation system is part of a regional planning effort between Copenhagen and 21 municipalities keen on reducing carbon dioxide emissions and saving health care dollars.
As one Danish official told The New York Times, "Anything we can do to get less pollution and less traffic is going to mean healthier, maybe happier, people."
Now, let's backpedal our way home to Austin, where a different type of rubber meets the road, where frustration over a long-stalled state highway project – this one of the car and truck variety – is helping to fill the campaign coffers of a Travis County candidate trying to unseat Precinct 3 Commissioner Karen Huber.
Former Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, an unabashed GOP road-and-growth enthusiast, hopes to reclaim the seat Huber took from him in a narrow victory four years ago. He's staking his campaign on a vow to deliver on an SH 45 road project in southwest Travis County, linking FM 1626 with MoPac.
The proposed route would cross environmentally delicate terrain over the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, and therein lies the problem. Few Austin public officials want to go there. But Daugherty does.
Proponents of the project include Hays County officials and commuters, an assortment of development interests, and, most vocally, residents of the Shady Hollow neighborhood in southwest Austin who've been waiting 20 years for this road because they're convinced it will ease congestion on Brodie Lane. Many of them fault Huber for the plan's derailment because she failed to lead the push to build.
Instead, she questioned the wisdom of financing a road that would promote more sprawl and traffic over the aquifer (while perhaps not ending congestion in the area). The Austin City Council, along with other elected and transportation officials, has backed away from the project, with council members most recently passing a resolution seeking the road's removal from the regional transportation planning map.
But Daugherty, in a throwback to another era, is effectively nailing his entire campaign to a stretch of road that most Precinct 3 residents would rarely, if ever, use. (Daugherty politely declined to be interviewed for this column. He also said he didn't have time to respond to written questions I sent him at the last minute.)
Below the Radar
To be sure, the battle for Precinct 3 is the biggest, costliest Travis County race that nobody's watching. A third candidate on the ballot, Libertarian Pat Dixon ("fiscally conservative, socially liberal"), could help tip the scales in Huber's favor, in perhaps a replay of a similar scenario from the 2008 election. But the political landscape has shifted since then. Huber is now in the crosshairs of angry Shady Hollow residents and the precinct's population has grown to 306,000 people, many of whom likely aren't familiar with any of the candidates.
Fortunately, Huber and Daugherty's contributors seem to have some idea of who they are; the candidates are raking in large, unlimited amounts of cash from varied interests. The business community is divided on this race – Huber has lobbyist David Armbrust and investor Red McCombs in her corner, while Daugherty has business booster Pike Powers and influential lawyer Pete Winstead. But of course, Huber has a huge crossover appeal to progressive Democrats. The most recent campaign finance reports show that Huber raised $93,103 between July and September, to Daugherty's $81,000, which includes $10,000 he loaned to his campaign.
Because the race is so close, yet so far off the voters' radar, the candidates are burning through cash almost as quickly as it comes in, most of it on TV advertising. "This is really unique to Precinct 3," Huber said of the expense of campaigning within newly expanded boundaries that run south, west, central, and north. "Our geography is huge, so the only way to get the message out is TV."
(An even lower-profile race, without the luxury of TV money, has longtime enviro Jack Goodman trying to fend off two opponents to retain his South Austin seat on the board of the Barton Springs/Edward Aquifer Conservation District. This one, too, is critical to Austin's aquifer future.)
In sum, Huber doesn't view road-building as a solution to every transportation problem. "The main reason I'm running again is water. My opponent can't speak to that at all, and I just can't imagine going backwards with our water issues," she said, pointing to population demands on resources and a lack of collective leadership on water management.
Indeed, Huber is one of a few elected officials who is actually well-versed on water policy. She wants to go beyond talking about it and begin putting action plans in place, such as getting local municipalities to agree on a uniform set of conservation guidelines. One can hardly talk about water without talking about growth and transportation. But Huber's transportation vision doesn't rely solely on new roads. She says it's time to get serious about public transportation. Now that she's got Downtown in her newly redrawn precinct, she's hoping to make some inroads in that direction.
Meanwhile, visualize bicycle superhighways.