Todd Phelps: 'Creativity and Common Sense'
Austin Chronicle: I understand you're both a musician and a businessman. Can you elaborate a bit?
Todd Phelps: Yes. On the forefront of that, I am managing a farm and a ranch for several years, and I also have experience in commercial lending and some property management. We also have an alternative-energy LLC, with a 100-megawatt [wind energy] project in the trough of the Texas Panhandle. That's in development, and I've had that since 2009; the project's in development, the company's been around since 2009.
AC: With all those interests, what's the lion's share of your time?
TP: Right now the lion's share is attributed to Austin, and what we can do to put Austin on the forefront of technology, and transportation solutions, and an all-of-the-above approach to traffic.
AC: Is that the primary reason you decided to run for mayor?
TP: I decided to listen to my colleagues and people around me who had encouraged me to run. It seemed like some of the blessings that I had received from Austin, per se – being someone who had grown up here – it looks like they're not as available to people who are coming here. I wanted to make sure that is the case – one of which is our quality of life, and the traffic crisis threatens that the most. Just to echo the words of Mayor Leffingwell in [his] State of the City [address]. It is a crisis, and if people have to spend hours in their vehicles, it just takes away from the enjoyment of Austin.
For so many years, throughout the history of the city, the Council – the last several years it's been happening – has tried to inhibit growth by not building infrastructure to deal with the traffic, and everybody sees what's happened with that. People are coming to Austin regardless. Austin benefits from its creation; Austin has a wonderful university, and it's the most wonderful place in America. People are going to continue to come here; we don't want them to freeze [in traffic] when they come here, and have our economy stall.
AC: What are the most important ways you think we can alleviate it?
TP: The No. 1 on that is rideshare. Rideshare has been blocked by [Council Member Mike] Martinez for the last year and a half, from coming to a vote for a pilot program. What they did this week [Council meeting May 15] is not a pilot program. All they did is make some recommendations for the city manager to make some recommendations on a pilot program, and when it comes back, they'll tear that apart.
I'm looking at an email right now, from somebody who attended all of the meetings in the last several years – in at least three, Martinez blocked that from coming to a vote, in what [the email] described as a 'super-sniper motion' between Martinez and another Council member, and blocked the mayor.
I can put you in touch with this individual who lost his job because they blocked rideshare. He describes going to the UTC [Urban Transportation Commission] and gaining their support. When it would come up on the Council agenda, Martinez would get a tag-team motion with another Council member, and they would block it from coming to a vote. And he did it three times. When he would meet with him, he would say, "Yeah, oh sure," and then he would block it every time, because he's supported by the taxi-cab money that's basically run like a cartel.
I've talked to several of the drivers. They're so frustrated, because they have to pay that massive stipend to the company. They would like to have the option whether they want to drive for the company, or whether they would like to drive for Uber, or they want to work with Sidecar or any of the other companies. Sidecar was up and running, and it got blocked by Martinez and some of the others.
Anyway, rideshare's one of the solutions. Some of the other solutions are more transit-oriented development. Those are not ideas exclusive to Austin, but they work well, where people can walk to everything that they need. Everyone's focusing on Downtown, and that's great, but a lot of people in the planning communities think we should have more vertical mixed-use and more transit-oriented development, but without creating sprawl. It can happen where there are some smaller areas that are not necessarily Downtown, so that people don't have to get in their vehicles and try to converge, one mass of humanity, to Downtown every single time.
And one of the biggest, biggest complaints I hear from my fellow Austinites is that it's just terribly frustrating to go through the permitting process when you're trying to get something done, through the bureaucracy of City Hall right now. They want more uniformity; they want to know what the rules are. Even the mayor wants to know what the rules are. Right now there's no set of rules to follow when somebody's permitting a project; they have to contact each person individually, wait for them to get back to them, and they can kind of change what the requirements were. That just makes it outlandishly difficult to get something done in any sort of efficient manner.
They didn't build out the road infrastructure, and we need to block and tackle that immediately. And on top of that, we don't need a 20th century rail solution; we need a 21st century and a 22nd century rail solution – that can be built quickly and that's not going to collar the taxpayers with burdensome debt and hurt our credit rating.
AC: What do you think they should do instead of what is planned right now?
TP: They have the one train from Leander [the Red Line], and Mayor Leffingwell said they eventually want to get it out from Highland Mall to the airport. That's fine. But back to what happened in the past – there were rail solutions that were being proposed – mass transit figure-8 solutions that were being proposed 20-something years ago that got blocked because they didn't want to grow. What they should do now is something that is a non-beholden transit system that you wouldn't have to sit there – like a subway system that would be not in front of traffic; I think the easiest solution would be above. It would be something that started Downtown.
AC: Some kind of elevated rail?
TP: Right, exactly. But not big metal train cars, but something a little bit more efficient. Something that would you could use possibly with an app. Maybe a rail carriage system that could accommodate one to four people, that could move, 100% electric and environmentally sound. There's some ideas out there, and we should look to private industry. [It] would be one of the smartest things to do with that, and start a prototype as soon as we possibly could. And then they could build it out, kind of a nexis out. I've talked to some engineers about some things like that, and it seems the most practical way to get something done; the most economically and environmentally efficient.
AC: Anything else on transportation?
TP: I don't think people should be paying to go on roads that they've already paid for. I think what's going on with MoPac [variable-toll express lanes] is going to hurt seniors.
AC: You realize that's a TxDOT project, not a city project.
TP: The squeaky wheel gets the grease here, okay? We have power to fight these things. As much power as the city has, I would fight fight fight for a toll road exemption for seniors. What's going to happen with MoPac – I was in a lunch where Mayor Leffingwell was speaking, he was talking about the technology of the thing, and he said, "The slower it gets, the higher the price goes," automatically [i.e., when traffic is heavy the toll rises, when it's light, the toll declines].
Think about all the older people that are going to have to use that corridor, that are under budgets. Who knows what the pricing is going to be, if they're going back and forth, to meet their daily needs. Not only them – think about the people who are working in the lowest income, people who are working on drywall projects or things like that, who have to take those thoroughfares daily. The yearly amount that that comes up to is just astronomical.
To me, that's not Austin. Austin deserves better.
AC: Yet this is one solution that has been proposed to improve traffic flow.
TP: Tolling is irrelevant to the solution. We definitely need more thoroughfares, and we definitely need to focus on the bottlenecks, where there's lights, and where traffic starts to build up. Those places are easily identified. Those need to be addressed first.
Everybody remembers when you first went to drivers' ed, and they show you the movie and it says, "Traffic is like a river." Well, it really is, so we need to address the bottlenecks immediately. That can alleviate problems much quicker; there's some long-term solutions, but some of the short-term solutions are rideshare, addressing the bottlenecks immediately. And toll roads hurt the impoverished the most. They hurt people who are trying to make ends meet and spread their budget across their daily lives, having to go pay, to get from A to B, when that's something that's bought and paid for by our taxes already.
AC: You're aware that the life of a road costs more, over time, than the building of a road? That money has to come from somewhere.
TP: That even bolsters the argument – why do we have to constantly pay double? And that's all from the European lobby; they come in and push this thing nationally. This proliferation of toll roads just didn't exist in the Eighties and Nineties.
AC: We've talked quite a bit about traffic. Are there other issues that concern you?
TP: Absolutely. Making sure that Austin's on the forefront of the technology community. And going out, and actually recruiting technology small business, startups to Austin, and not being too rigid in working with these companies to come here.
AC: It seems there's been a boom in technology during the last 20 years.
TP: There's been some incidents where we've lost some opportunities. Definitely there's been a boom. My vision for Austin is that it would remain the most beautiful city in America, with a transit system that was both functionally, and form-wise, aesthetically beautiful within the city, and that we had an economy, as far as technology is concerned, that is the envy of the entire world, and the entire nation.
You have to think several years out. If you don't go out and actively talk to people that are the smartest in our society, be it nationally or globally, then you lose. It's kind of like the film industry in Texas. For a while, back in the Nineties, we built up a good program for bringing film to Texas, and now what's happened to that? People dropped the ball; I want to get back to that.
I have some advisers I'm talking to, right now, on how best to recruit film to Austin Texas: better studios, better productions.
And the water issue. The water issue is one that's on everybody's mind, and we do have a good deal with the LCRA. We need to make sure that we don't send too much water downstream, of course, and they've stopped doing that right now. We need to think about how we're spending the money to make sure that the water that's around us is most efficiently used, and we need to look at the tributaries of Lake Travis as well.
Nationally, the crews will go around, and take satellite shots, and if they see people are blocking the tributaries they'll take action and remove that. But I don't think that's happening much in Texas.
AC: Any thoughts on the water utility's financial predicament – the more we conserve, the less revenue we have for our utility? It's true both in energy and water.
TP: Exactly so. Back to Mayor Leffingwell's remarks on this; he said that Austin's utilities are being cash cows for other projects. We need to make sure that nothing is diverted, and that will help immensely.
But when you're in a drought, you're asking people to conserve, but your revenue declines so you have to raise the rates. It's a Catch-22. There could possibly be a program to delay that, and to get through times of drought; maybe some kind of proposition to cap the amount that rates can be raised in a time of drought, and create a fund that can be set aside for the next drought.
In the bureaucracy of what gets approved and what doesn't get approved, it comes down to common sense. With the new water treatment plant, the numbers how that's going to pay for itself are astronomical, and they're daunting. We need more common sense at City Hall, when it comes to approving these types of projects. We don't need special interests to come in and push these decisions through too quickly.
AC: Many people are talking affordability in Austin, especially related to housing costs and property taxes. Any thoughts on how to address that?
TP: The property tax rates are ridiculous. I've gone through different proposals, especially protecting the people who are the most vulnerable, who have been here the longest. We could have stipends set aside for major repairs; this, that, and the other. They could get a type of relief; for X number of years they could get a percent off their property taxes.
The rent rates are going up because the property taxes are going up, and it goes downstream. The only real way to address that is to not raise them according with the appraisal. You'll hear the manager, or somebody say, we're not going to raise the rate. Well, when the appraisal goes up astronomically – yeah, he didn't raise your rate – but it went up. So we have to come up with a way that when the appraisal goes up, we have to decrease the taxable rate to try to keep it even for a few years. Then everybody's going to say the sky's falling, because we don't have enough money to spend on other things. But that may be what it takes.
You can't have it all. You have to decide.
AC: Any other issues you'd like to address?
TP: I think, that for so long, Austin's leaders have had their heads in the sand, and our community deserves better. They need a leader who can find the right balance in developing projects, who can protect what's made Austin Austin, and not forget our roots. Someone who has a vision that Austin can be great, but even greater than we've ever seen. If you apply hard work and creativity, this happens. Reaching out to the best minds in cities where this has happened, or industries where this has happened. And the smartest thing to do is just surround yourself with creative advisers, with visionary advisers, and to be that way yourself.
Austin has always been at the forefront of creativity, so I want to make sure that we focus on that; that we use common sense as we move toward the future.