City Hall's Bumpy Road

Can staff and council ever bring an end to Austin's transportation wars?

Real Estate Council of Austin president Tim Taylor
Real Estate Council of Austin president Tim Taylor (By John Anderson)

Every morning at 7:10am, Katie Larsen, a senior planner in the city's Transportation, Planning, and Sustainability Dept., catches the No. 16 bus in Bouldin Creek, transfers to the Gold 'Dillo to drop off her two children at their daycare center near UT, and from there takes another bus downtown to TPSD's office at 1011 San Jacinto, where she arrives at 8am. As one of three members of the Smart Growth team, a part of TPSD's urban design/historic preservation division, one of Larsen's many responsibilities is to explore the feasibility of car-sharing. Popular in Europe, car-sharing enables people to rent cars owned and maintained by a city-contracted service and stationed around the city; users pay for miles driven and time spent borrowing the car.

Car-sharing is not Larsen's No. 1 duty by any stretch -- she doesn't anticipate the city will devote money for it for some time, if ever. Nevertheless, she's done research on the concept, which she discussed in an e-mail she posted a few weeks ago to a neighborhood-planning listserv. The e-mail also described on-street parking management programs proposed or already under way in Austin neighborhoods. "Perhaps we do not require surface parking and wait for people to decide to change their driving habits, but instead end the wait and begin actively changing those habits," Larsen wrote. "Programs implemented in other cities impede the natural inclination to just 'hop in the car and go.'"

Larsen's e-mail made its way to the inbox of Texas Monthly Publisher Mike Levy, who each morning drives from his home in Northwest Austin to his office about two blocks south of Larsen's. The calm, personable, real-life Levy is quite different from online Levy -- a hell-raiser who regularly criticizes officials and staff in shrill manifestos laden with insults. Levy dispatched just such a rant to his sizeable e-mail list in which he hyperbolized Larsen's message as a "smoking gun" that proved that TPSD staff, including department Director Austan Librach, "seems to be students of Pavlov, practicing Pavlovian theory in their planning for the city of Austin, and us poor citizens in our cars are their lab rats." Speaking on behalf of "the majority of the people out in Voterland," Levy remarks that Austinites want more mobility for their cars, not less -- but that, he asserts, is irrelevant to Librach and his staff.

Larsen's e-mail and Levy's response incited a firestorm among Downtown business owners and lobbyists and road warriors throughout town. Some critics called for departmental change at TPSD; others called staffers "idiots." The "smoking gun" made its way to KVET radio hosts Sammy Allred and Bob Cole, who launched their own attacks on TPSD staff on the airwaves. (Levy's e-mail, with Larsen's message and others attached, is on KVET's Web site at www.kvet.com/smokinggun.html.) Interestingly, no one at the city -- including Librach -- stepped forward to defend TPSD or Larsen in a way that justified or even explained the department's position to the public. The attacks were "ugly and mean ... wild accusations that don't belong in the public discourse," Librach says, "but I'm not sure it's something the city should get involved in."

Whatever Mike Levy thinks about car-sharing, the City Council has the final say over whether it and other transportation projects and plans will be initiated, developed, or killed. For the past few years, the council has let staff proceed with its progressive, pedestrian-friendly program without taking too many political risks to support or change it. The resulting process-heavy, refereeing approach has led many plans and projects into bureaucratic limbo: two-way conversion of Downtown streets, the extension of the Pfluger Bridge, and especially bike projects like those on Shoal Creek Boulevard, Guadalupe and Lavaca, and the Lance Armstrong Bikeway. (See "Bikes on a Road to Nowhere?," p.26, for more details on the latter projects.) Consequently, council appears negligent in addressing one of the city's most pressing issues, frustrating both opponents and allies. "I don't think they're interested in any transportation projects," says one elected official who frequently works with council members on the issue.

This means that not only opponents but staunch supporters of the city's people-before-cars agenda are frustrated with the way transportation gets done -- or not -- in Austin. Prominent members of the well-organized cycling community generally don't resort to Levy-esque name-calling, but they're vocal about how specific projects and plans went bad -- or went nowhere at all. "What's lacking is follow-through and focus," says cyclist Mike Dahmus, a member of the council-appointed Urban Transportation Commission. "Council keeps saying what they want and it doesn't ever seem to get done. There's too many competing interests." Given the political climate TPSD staff has to work in, adds UTC member and cyclist Patrick Goetz, "it can be hard to do a good job."

The pro-cycling contingent of the Urban Transportation Commission includes Mike Dahmus.
The pro-cycling contingent of the Urban Transportation Commission includes Mike Dahmus. (Photo By John Anderson)


TPSD: Built for Controversy

Levy's remarks generated a litany of hurrahs, which he compiled and sent out as a follow-up to his "smoking gun." Larsen's memo, wrote road advocate and light-rail opponent Jim Skaggs, "is just another example of planners attempting to social engineer society with their wishful thinking, which had no precedence"; expecting car-sharing to substantially reduce automobile use is "absurd." Liberty Bank CEO Eddie Safady, who is still mad at Larsen for her work on the Downtown Austin Design Guidelines (they discourage that staple of banks, the drive-through), went further, demanding "a change" in TPSD. And Richard Maier of the Real Estate Council of Austin, which supports more road-building, criticized staff's decision to close two of the four lanes on Riverside Drive between Lamar and South First to appease supporters of the Town Lake Cultural Park, who wanted the street closed altogether.

At the time, Levy didn't know that Larsen was just doing her job -- she had been asked to research car-sharing last year by the Planning Commission. When informed of the commission's resolution, he seemed apologetic, yet stuck to his criticisms that TPSD isn't doing enough to meet "the needs of the most people." Meanwhile, Larsen remains perplexed by the attacks, which haven't made any impact in her department. "It seems like a couple of my projects are controversial," she shrugs.

But should they be? Not according to supporters of bicycle-and-pedestrian facilities, the majority of the City Council, and the Urban Transportation Commission. Many ridicule the Levy crowd's assumption that people have an absolute right to get into their cars and drive as fast as possible. "People who aren't in government don't have to treat everybody equally," says city bicycle/pedestrian program coordinator Linda DuPriest, who articulates the city's transportation philosophy more boldly than most of her co-workers. "Whoever decided what 'too much time waiting at an intersection' is? What about people waiting for a bus? I'm so sick of people bitching about traffic. It is your choice. You can choose where to live, you can choose where to work, to take a bus, or to car-pool."

For the past few years, the City Council has pushed staff to promote projects to reflect what DuPriest is talking about: mobility for people, not just cars. In 1996, council approved the Austin Bicycle Plan to create DuPriest's position and to promote comprehensive bike-planning. In 1999, the council pledged at least $1.2 million to help fund the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, a 6-mile east-west route named after the four-time Tour de France champion/cancer survivor/hometown hero. In 2000, the council approved a pedestrian plan to improve facilities and encourage walking, which TPSD staff is now updating to prioritize sidewalk projects and repairs. More recent accomplishments include the bike-and-pedestrian Pfluger Bridge over Town Lake and implementation of elements of the Great Streets Master Plan, an initiative intended to make the central business district more inviting and convenient to pedestrians and bicyclists.

Created two years ago during a fit of reorganization involving several city departments, TPSD's charge is to plan long-term transportation facilities and investments, both independently and with other governmental agencies, and to implement the Austin Metropolitan Area Transportation Plan, the city's 25-year roadway plan. As part of the departmental shuffling, former City Manager Jesus Garza combined transportation with planning and pulled it from Public Works, which continues to build and maintain city infrastructure such as roads and bridges. (Other city planning efforts are now concentrated in the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Dept., whose name is self-explanatory. See "Who Does What," p.30, for a rundown on the many combatants in Austin's transportation wars.)

On a $17.8 million budget (FY 2003), TPSD's 205 staffers handle everything from traffic engineering to historic preservation, urban design, and water conservation. At the head of the department is Librach, an environmental engineer who used to oversee the city's old Environmental and Conservation Services Dept., which was later merged with planning and then reinvented as TPSD. The fact that the head of TPSD is not actually a transportation planner or engineer helps explain, to many foes, why the department is not meeting what they see as the city's obvious needs.

During its short life span, the TPSD (often in tandem with Public Works) has faced an enormous challenge: balancing the varied transportation needs of the city's population -- which has increased by at least 200,000 since 1990 -- in the midst of an economic bust. The city's strapped finances have left vacancies in divisions such as traffic-signal operations, where at least seven of 40 slots go unfilled, and long-range planning (including bike-and-ped programs, demographics, and land-use analysis), which is missing four of 15 planners and supervisors. This slows down TPSD's already slow progress at implementing its projects and plans, and things will likely get worse given this year's $56 million shortfall.

Many projects, including the attempt to paint bicycle lanes on Guadalupe Street, remain stuck in bureaucratic limbo.
Many projects, including the attempt to paint bicycle lanes on Guadalupe Street, remain stuck in bureaucratic limbo. (Photo By John Anderson)

Recently Librach, like other city department heads, has been making the rounds of TPSD stakeholders to seek input on where to make additional cuts. (The city is taking citizen input on the budget, including TPSD's share, through an online survey; see www.cityofaustin.org.) Currently, out of every $100 the city spends, $1.65 goes to transportation basics -- traffic-light and intersection improvements. Long-range transportation planning, urban design, and other programs receive $1.02. By comparison, the Austin Police Dept. gets $40 and parks maintenance gets $2.43.


Flirting With "Disaster"?

Despite complaints that they don't care about motorists who form "the majority in Voterland," TPSD is pursuing hundreds of projects to make driving in Austin easier. These include purchasing right-of-way for new highways, synchronizing and adding new traffic lights to reduce corridor travel time, and working with Travis Co. and the Texas Dept. of Transportation to build new roads. Currently TPSD is working with TxDOT to extend Koenig Lane and Spicewood Springs Road, acquiring right-of-way for I-35 expansion, and investigating high-occupancy vehicle lanes into Downtown.

But given the high cost of acquiring right-of-way and building roads, TPSD's multi-modal focus is not only philosophically but also practically attractive to a cash-strapped City Hall. "We have to strike a balance," says city Urban Design Officer Jana McCann, "and that's something that a lot of people are not really interested in trying to do." Many on the alt-trans side of the transportation wars, including within TPSD staff, feel that they, unlike their road-warrior critics, are seeking a truly multimodal system and are more willing to compromise. "There's a middle ground," says Linda DuPriest. "We don't have to be dire enemies."

McCann believes TPSD's merger of transportation engineers with city planners has produced mostly positive results, allowing the department to consider design ideas and projects to promote alternative transportation and make auto-mobility needs less acute. "How are we going to know if we don't provide the options?"

Stand on any busy Austin street corner, and you'll quickly notice that most of the cars speeding past contain only one person. Surveys show that a majority of Austinites would prefer alternatives -- like more public transit, including light rail or monorail. Librach and his staff often make planning decisions based on their belief that this alternative reality is attainable -- which gets them into trouble with citizens like Levy's Downtown crowd who assert that Americans (and especially Texans) will never give up their cars.

But when trying to sell TPSD's forward-thinking agenda, Librach often comes off as less than convincing. About the city's ongoing efforts to synchronize traffic lights, for example, he claims Austin is "one of the leaders" in terms of technology -- but when asked to provide evidence, he refers the question to TPSD staff. Jim Skaggs says that at a briefing on the Great Streets Master Plan, he once asked Librach which cities had been models for TPSD's recommended changes to the Downtown street grid. "His reply was, 'There are many,'" Skaggs says. When he asked Librach to name one, Librach paused and said he couldn't, recalls Skaggs. Librach has often dealt with criticism by ignoring it, as he did with the attack on Katie Larsen, or by referring to studies and articles that planners read. He's as much as said that he doesn't take his critics seriously. People who think ideas like two-way street conversion constitute a revolution or a plot against motorists "are basically people who don't know what's going on," he says.

But some of them, like the Real Estate Council of Austin, are effective, particularly when it comes to spinning TPSD's "sustainability first" message into a recipe for doom. Claiming the department is working to increase congestion Downtown (to make the CBD more ped-friendly and promote more usage of alternative transit), Richard Maier of RECA says pollution caused by stopped cars is much worse than from moving cars -- and if Austin doesn't fix its traffic problem now, we'll lose talent, jobs, and employers. Adds RECA President Tim Taylor, "Any plan implemented to do anything other than improve auto mobility exacerbates a disaster situation."

Taylor says he'd consider forming a citizen coalition to promote transportation goals more in line with RECA's thinking. Referring to last year's controversial settlement between Stratus Properties and the city, he says it might be time to get the City Council, RECA, Stratus, and groups like the Hill Country Conservancy to sit down at the same table and talk things over. "Maybe we need to do it," he said. RECA, he adds, is counting on Mayor-elect Will Wynn to "fix the situation" once he's inaugurated in June.


UTC: The People's Voice

If Tim Taylor thinks the TPSD staff agenda justifies a citizens' movement (Reclaim the Streets?), he might instigate a bona fide revolution in response to the ideas espoused on the Urban Transportation Commission, a nine-member advisory board that confers with staff and makes recommendations on city projects and policies. Even Commissioner Carl Tepper, a Republican who recently ran for the City Council, advocates a future where fewer cars are on the road and Austinites doze or read while riding to work in comfy light-rail cars. "Other Republicans think I'm nuts for this rail thing," Tepper says. "Democrats think I'm nuts for the rest of my opinions. But just try [the rail] in Dallas."
As head of the city's Transportation, Planning, and Sustainability Dept., Austan Librach catches heat from both the alternative-transit and road-warrior camps.
As head of the city's Transportation, Planning, and Sustainability Dept., Austan Librach catches heat from both the alternative-transit and road-warrior camps. (Photo By John Anderson)

Tepper agrees with Levy that some of the city's most influential transportation planners exhibit "Pavlovian thinking" -- including some of his fellow commissioners, particularly the cyclists in the bunch. "I think they like the traffic clogged up," Tepper says. "They're not secretive about it." Commissioner Patrick Goetz, a self-proclaimed bike "radical" who endorsed Tepper's campaign, believes that projects like car-sharing put Larsen "in the mainstream of civic planners, not on the fringe." The UTC's Bicycle-Pedestrian Subcommittee Chair Tommy Eden, whose zeal for bikeways rivals Skaggs' zeal for highways, asserts that traffic-light synchronization is a huge waste of TPSD's time and money. But despite differences of opinion, Tepper works well with the commission's cycle corps, which also includes Commissioner Mike Dahmus.

Every third Monday, the UTC meets with at least two transportation staffers in a tiny room on the eighth floor of One Texas Center to discuss issues ranging from the Lance Armstrong Bikeway to sidewalk funding. Though the Design Commission, Planning Commission, Downtown Commission, and other city boards frequently weigh in on plans and projects relevant to their interests, the UTC is the city's main advisory board on transportation policy. They're effective: For instance, last year the council adopted the UTC recommendation to require funding for sidewalks and bicycle lanes as part of all major transportation projects in future bond proposals, when costs allow. Communication with city staff has also helped the UTC make an impact, Eden says, particularly since City Manager Toby Futrell replaced Jesus Garza last year. TPSD staff has made "sincere" efforts to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians on busy streets such as the Drag and Lamar and has occasionally accepted commissioners' suggestions and requested funding for improvements without any formal action, he says. That's a marked improvement from two years ago, when commissioners threatened to disband the UTC after feeling like staff and council were ignoring their advice.

Yet UTC members still complain that staff occasionally exhibits narrow-mindedness or isolationism. "It's that 5% of the time they just won't budge, even if all the interests agree or are for something," says Tepper. "They tend to barricade themselves." Goetz, meanwhile, reserves most of his criticism for Librach, whose "conservative" approach simply maintains the status quo. "Sometimes you have to jump off a cliff screaming that today is a good day to die," Goetz says. "Librach wants nothing to do with jumping off of cliffs and will throw roadblocks in the way of 'radicals' like myself." Occasionally commissioners take matters in their own hands to get the information or results they seek. Earlier this year, for instance, the City Council considered a proposal to install bike lanes on Guadalupe and Lavaca -- the most direct north-south routes between Cesar Chavez and MLK. Commissioner Eden believed staff's cost estimates were too high, so he came up with his own, much-lower estimate and got the attention of the City Council.

"We're a pretty loud, obnoxious group," Tepper jokes. "But we're still just a commission." Like every other of the city's 66 advisory boards, the UTC makes recommendations that neither staff nor council is obliged to follow. And the council, commissioners complain, still votes on major transportation projects without ever seeking the UTC's advice. At a recent briefing, Commissioner Michelle Brinkman advocated that the council use the resource UTC offers -- "intelligent, educated, politically motivated people who know a little bit about what they're doing" -- in areas where staff might need help. For instance, she suggested, the UTC could provide a citizen's perspective during negotiations with TxDOT, whose plans often fail to address the city's pedestrian- and bicycle-safety concerns. The commission passed a resolution several years back asking that all federal and local funding for freeway and frontage-road projects be withheld until TxDOT makes them bike- and pedestrian-friendly.

Jackie Goodman agrees with Brinkman's assessment. "The Urban Transportation Commission is one of the most important arenas or mechanisms we have for real education on the issues to be identified and addressed, and the choices we have for resolution," she said. "It would be good to maximize the public awareness and information opportunity that having it offers. Of course, the commission also needs to have a meeting room that's large enough to hold more than 15 people comfortably."


Can Council Take the Wheel?

For some time, Goodman has been the one City Council member who gets wrapped up in day-to-day, streets-and-sidewalks transportation planning. That's not to say she agrees with everything the planners do: She's still miffed about the Shoal Creek Boulevard restriping plan, which staff held up on a safety technicality after a drawn-out but ultimately successful mediation process involving motorists, bicyclists, and Shoal Creek neighbors. After more than two years, Shoal still hasn't earned its stripes; Goodman says the project may finally be implemented, though the funds set aside for it might now not be enough. Plans and projects the council initiates, she acknowledges, "seem to take too long, [have] no real closure -- no definitive foundation blocks to plan and implement from."

As regards cases like Shoal Creek, Goodman seems to understand where negative perceptions of transportation planning come from -- even if she can do little to change them on her own. While road folks have somewhat arbitrarily appointed Wynn as their favorite (despite the mayor-elect's vigorous support of both light rail and two-way Downtown streets), bike-and-ped advocates will probably continue to go to Goodman first when trying to get a project developed or implemented. And staff can count on her to at least try to build up their projects. (Council Member Daryl Slusher, who serves on the boards of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and of Capital Metro, also weighs in on transportation but has more leadership power on environmental issues.) One of Goodman's current initiatives involves getting several city commissions, including Urban Transportation, to work on a comprehensive plan to reduce Downtown congestion caused by cars looking for parking spaces.

None of Goodman's colleagues are nearly as focused as she is on the specifics, even though all of them -- particularly at election time -- talk about how grave Austin's transportation situation is becoming. Wynn, the former president of the Downtown Austin Alliance (more "progressive" than RECA on transportation issues), weighs in on CBD issues and as a CAMPO member and chair of the Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council has learned how to talk the regional planning talk. And in the race for Wynn's Place 5 seat, transportation talk varied from knowledgeable (Tepper) to inscrutable (Brewster McCracken, who says light rail is dead, is in a run-off with Margot Clarke, who supports light and commuter rail as well as more telecommuting and car-pooling).

"At the city, no one claims ownership of projects, [so] everybody's got ownership," says Travis Co. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, who works alongside City Council members and staff on both city-county projects and at CAMPO. "Everybody," Sonleitner means, might as well be "nobody": For insight, she compares the at-large council to the elected-by-precinct Commissioners Court, whose members have to respond directly to the nuts-and-bolts transportation needs of their precincts. The county's version of TPSD, the Transportation and Natural Resources Dept., likewise handles a diverse range of responsibilities, from road maintenance and construction to environmental protection, landfill oversight, and park preservation. Unlike city staff, however, county transportation planners closely adhere to CAMPO's regional transportation plan, which addresses roads as well as alternative transit. (While the city is required to adopt the CAMPO plan, the city's own AMATP differs from CAMPO's in several key areas and is overall less road-centric.) Though the county is still vulnerable to planning transportation "piecemeal," Sonleitner says, abiding by the CAMPO plan has helped both commissioners and county staff stay focused.

Just like her peers at City Hall, Sonleitner supports creative, "out-of-the-box" ideas, bike lanes, and pedestrian-facility improvements. But she has also crossed the street to the road-warrior side, at some political risk. Her support for the county's $185 million suburban-road bond package in 2001, which voters approved, angered her base of environmental and progressive supporters, who disfavored such an approach to regional cooperation, and was a prime issue in Jeff Heckler's challenge from her left in the 2002 Democratic primary. Yet Sonleitner's strategy may have paid off by giving her the clout she needs to get cooperation from road-oriented realists on alternative transportation projects. Lately she's discussing bicycle-facility improvements with her Republican colleague Gerald Daugherty, who with Jim Skaggs and their supporters led the effort to defeat light rail in November 2000. Setting ideological differences aside, both Sonleitner and Daugherty are working to address bicycle safety on rural roads, many of which have no paved shoulders.

Would adopting an approach like Sonleitner's help the Austin City Council placate the Mike Levys and Tim Taylors enough to get them to stop complaining about every little alternative transportation program in town? Is there a place at which pavement-pushers and pedal-pushers can form a consensus? Maybe not, but one thing's certain: It doesn't seem likely under current conditions. As Levy himself says (not ironically), "What scares me the most is that when people's needs aren't met, they become reactionary." end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Katie Larsen, Transportation, Planning, and Sustainability Dept., 1011 San Jacinto, Smart Growth team, car-sharing, Texas Monthly, Mike Levy, Austan Librach, Sammy Allred, Bob Cole, KVET, Austin City Council, Shoal Creek Blvd., Guadalupe St., Lavaca St., Pfluger Bridge, Lance Armstrong Bikeway, Mike Dahmus

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