On Sidewalks, Cap Metro Speeds Past City Hall
Capital Metro improves its reputation with its Community Connections workshops.
Last week Capital Metro wrapped up Community Connections, a two-week pilot program allowing neighborhood groups to ask the transit authority to build small-scale transportation amenities with no strings attached -- and no need for the city's approval. Jointly developed by Cap Metro and the Texas Citizen Fund, the program resembles the Envision Central Texas regional-planning process, incorporating small plastic tokens and "point" values assigned to projects like new sidewalks, spiffy bus shelters, and curb extensions. Cap Metro representatives say these projects could be completed as soon as next April. Each neighborhood group got 20 points to spend however they wished -- but even 200 points may have proven inadequate to address their many transit concerns.
Though the Connections presentations included facilitator Charles Gandy's slide show of abstract-artsy bus stops, decorative crosswalks, and streetlights, most workshop attendees eschewed such fancification, instead opting for sidewalks and basic safety enhancements. While no one attended the program's May 22 kickoff workshop at the East Side Church of Christ, subsequent workshops proved more successful. The group at Parque Zaragoza Recreation Center requested new sidewalks near Zavala, Brooke, and Allan elementary schools. Northwest Austinites who congregated at the Jollyville fire station requested a new bus shelter along U.S. 183, as well as solar lighting and a sidewalk section; if that doesn't work out, residents' Plan B includes marked crosswalks around schools. Northeast residents near Bernice Hart Elementary asked for a new bus shelter and sidewalk connecting the school to a nearby bus stop. And South Austinites at Kinney Avenue Baptist Church sought to close gaps in their sidewalk network, as well as a new shelter and bike racks along Congress.
"It's amazing how people in these neighborhoods usually came to the same conclusions," says transportation consultant Rob D'Amico, who helped coordinate the Connections workshops. Many participants exhibited savvy and sophistication in their approach to transit planning, he adds -- including the majority who haven't yet gone through city-sponsored neighborhood planning. "These people know their neighborhoods, and they know what they need."
Cap Metro's recent efforts to improve its often-rocky relationship with the public and the neighborhoods -- from the community-involvement process behind its Saltillo District redevelopment project for its Eastside rail yard property to the Connections workshops -- come at a time when many Austinites are acutely frustrated by the city's approach to transit planning, with its long waits and high prices for even basic projects. At Parque Zaragoza, East Austinites complained that for years they've asked the city to install sidewalks in key pedestrian areas, to no avail. Across the interstate, South Austinites expressed the same sentiment. "City staff is there to tell you why you can't have a sidewalk," said Lorraine Atherton.
The city has included transportation as a component of the neighborhood-planning program, with uneven results. Key areas such as Zilker and South Lamar are still waiting in the city's neighborhood-planning queue; others aren't in the queue at all. As well, compared to other cities, Austin is a very expensive place for installing sidewalks, bike lanes, and other basic improvements, says Gandy, who claims to have an easier time providing his consulting services in other American cities. Local transportation projects are often over-engineered, he opines, "as if we have made a commitment to hiring every engineer in the city of Austin and paying their fees. The city needs to be doing this stuff less expensively."
Gandy's relationship with the city has been rocky, particularly since his involvement with the Shoal Creek Boulevard bike-lane project -- an illustration of how, in the city's hands, even small-scale Connections-style projects can be stalled by clashing philosophies. After much bickering between bicyclists and neighborhood residents over Shoal Creek Boulevard, the city commissioned Gandy to forge a compromise design. Both Gandy and the involved stakeholders thought he had succeeded -- until city staff deemed his recommendations unsafe. The end result: Wounded ego for Gandy, neighborhood resentment toward the city, and, so far, nothing on the ground.
"One of the things the city has never done very well is partner with neighborhood situations or groups," Gandy charges. "They have been resistant to an open, cooperative, equal conversation with [Shoal Creek Boulevard stakeholders]. It has cost them a lot, not only in time and money but also in credibility."
City staff disputes such claims, emphasizing efforts under way to improve their own community connections. Currently, the city's Transportation, Planning, and Sustainability Dept. is trying to prioritize sidewalk projects as part of its Pedestrian Master Plan. In a month, staff will have finished a plan for schools lacking sidewalks, says TPSD Associate Director Tom Forrest. And even Shoal Creek Boulevard is seeing progress: Forrest says the project is now in design, with sufficient funding likely available to complete it. (Staff has scrapped plans to install a traffic light at 45th and Shoal Creek Boulevard, which the city recently proposed without taking much, if any, neighborhood input.) "We appreciate Charlie for bringing a lot of fresh ideas," Forrest says, "but he challenges us sometimes, because he suggests things we can't afford."
Workshop participants like Atherton say they appreciate Cap Metro's good-faith effort to address neighborhood needs, and all involved parties agree that better collaboration will be crucial in producing better planning. Meanwhile, Atherton says, "We're grabbing at anything."