Public Notice: Only Two Episodes Left
Plot twists and cliffhangers as Council approaches season finale
My, how time flies. With the first half of this year effectively eaten up with Uber petulance, City Council finds itself with just two more meetings before their summer hiatus, which comes right before they plunge into the annual budget work sessions, hearings, and meetings. So there's a ridiculously small window for pushing a major policy initiative through. But if there's one thing everyone pretty much agrees on, it's that Austin needs to invest in a big transportation fix. The question is, can we come to consensus on what that big transportation fix is?
Mayor Steve Adler's office issued another push this week to explain his bond proposal's focus on turning Austin's overburdened transit corridors into "Smart Corridors," noting that almost half of Austin's population lives within two miles of "these old state highways," that "were not built to carry this much traffic. If we can turn [them] into Smart Corridors, we'll be improving traffic congestion in a way that makes transit more effective and attractive and makes biking and walking safer and more convenient."
Meanwhile, though, Council Members Greg Casar and Leslie Pool held a press conference Tuesday morning to propose "significant amendments to the mayor's proposal," to "focus less on widening roads, and more on supporting public transportation and promoting safety for our kids and seniors who need basic infrastructure like sidewalks and crosswalks." Specifically, they would move $100 million from regional projects to local projects, "helping fund the Sidewalks, Trails, Bike, and Vision Zero plans," and move $80 million from the corridor plans, to "underserved neighborhoods for safer routes to schools, improved bus stops, and sidewalks and pedestrian safety to daily necessities including transit stops." Tuesday afternoon's Council Mobility Committee meeting served to illuminate those differences, but probably did little to resolve them.
Also at that meeting, a coalition of transportation advocates/activists, organized under the umbrella of the Central Austin Community Development Corp., pitched a light rail proposal: a minimum operable segment (MOS) to run down Lamar and Guadalupe from Crestview Station at Airport Blvd., to Republic Square Park, at Fourth St. They estimate the cost at just under $400 million for this "starter line" that would be rapidly expandable to the south and north. If this plan looks familiar, that's because it's largely a reprise of what these same folks were proposing back in 2014, as a better alternative to that year's failed rail bond. This is the time to do this, they insist; and they may be right, but it's hard to see the political winds blowing there within the next eight days.
But where will they blow? Mayor Adler has emphasized that the council needs to reach consensus quickly, if they're to put anything onto the November ballot with a chance of success. And that's almost surely right. So, the clock is ticking ...
Also on Tuesday, Austin Music People sent a rather poignant letter to the mayor and City Council, urging them to take action steps to support the council's recently adopted Music and Creative Ecosystem Omnibus Resolution – which urged policy changes and some investment to support the struggling music industry – and expressing their own priorities among the suggested initiatives. Unfortunately, there are no action steps on the horizon, but perhaps this is something a few council offices can work on over the break to get something moving by the fall.
One thing that probably will get resolved is the loophole that exempts charter school developers from many city development regulations. City staff had hoped to find a compromise that the charter schools would agree to, and spare Council a contentious vote. But the charters, represented by developers' lobbyist David Armbrust, have balked at complying with impervious cover limits and traffic studies – even though state law mandates equity with the rules ISDs develop under – so this one, after long delay, requires an up-or-down vote.
Longer term, Council will have to deal with the simmering quagmire of malodorous quicksand that is the CodeNEXT "process." This Wednesday, a coalition including the Austin Apartment Association, Austin Board of Realtors, Real Estate Council of Austin, Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, and Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce issued an open letter complaining that: "It's been four years since the roadmap for CodeNEXT was laid out in Imagine Austin, and we're still without a draft of the code. Today, the project is two years behind schedule, hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget and in jeopardy of collapsing under its own weight."
And while normally, these particular folks complaining about process is more or less like wolves complaining that no one is opening the gates to the sheep pens fast enough, and while I don't agree with most of their specific recommendations for "improvements" to the code itself, they'll get little argument from anyone on the stagnation at CodeNEXT.