Riding the Vision Bus

Envision Central Texas, the former Regional Vision Project, took its act on the road this week with an all-day bus tour of the five-county Austin metro area to build visibility (and gain media attention) for the regional planning project. "It's not the first effort to get Central Texas to think about regionalism," said State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos at the end of the day, "but it's probably the most ambitious and coordinated."

Hardy souls among ECT's 65-member board of directors boarded a blissfully air-conditioned bus at dawn for a clockwise tour of Metro Austin, with stops in Round Rock, Taylor, Elgin, Bastrop, Lockhart (featuring the de rigueur barbecue lunch), San Marcos, and Dripping Springs, before wrapping up at Auditorium Shores in blistering heat with the CSC complex as their backdrop. While you couldn't call this a fact-finding mission, board members -- who represent community groups, business, and government -- were not displeased by the response. "The discussions [with local leaders and citizens] about the issues, like 'growth,' had a good, relaxed feel," noted ECT board member Robin Rather. "It's not the kind of thing that happens every day."

The ECT project is modeled most closely after a successful regional-planning project in Salt Lake City and, like the Utah deal, is being facilitated by superstar planners John Fregonese (architect of growth management in Portland) and Peter Calthorpe (whose Austin projects include the high-profile Triangle Square). Surveys, community meetings, and workshops -- the first is Sept. 13 at the Austin Convention Center -- are designed to generate input from as many Central Texans as possible. (Visit www.envisioncentraltexas.org for more details.) The goal is to create a conceptual plan to accommodate the million-plus people expected to move to Metro Austin in the next 20 years without destroying local sustainability and quality of life. "We know what will happen if we do nothing," Barrientos said. "Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles."

Any "regional" effort involves balancing the bitterly competing interests -- roads vs. transit, development vs. environment, rich vs. poor, you know the list -- that have made metro Austin such a lively place politically for decades. Given our abysmal record of regional cooperation, skepticism is natural, but so far ECT is cautiously satisfied with its momentum. "We're all still on the same page," said ECT board member Jim Walker of the mood on the bus. "People are still excited about doing something cool and unprecedented. It's better than not talking to each other, like we used to do."

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