Point Austin: Mayor Adler's Superhighway to the Mobility Bond
Speeding toward November
Although the final City Council approval of a November transportation bond proposition – or its slightly more upscale moniker, "mobility bond" – is still a couple of weeks off, the ball is certainly rolling downhill. Just before its July break (in the wee hours of July 1), Council tentatively approved (8-3) going forward on the bond, although the precise ballot language will return for final approval, and a few council members were withholding support until they see the punctuation.
That's certainly understandable – and with a districted council, member objections will be pulling in more than one direction – but it's also clear that if the bond is going to proceed, it will need to proceed quickly. Last week, Assistant City Manager Robert Goode delivered to Council an approximate timeline, indicating that staff expects to brief Council next week (at the Aug. 2 work session) on the overall bond package and the draft ballot language, with additional discussion as necessary during next Thursday's executive session. The tentative schedule further calls for approval at either the Aug. 11 or Aug. 18 meeting (within the window required by law), already pressing the timetable for an adequate campaign – although Goode's memo duly notes the legal restrictions on "advocacy" by staff.
All this is well and good, although it's worth noting that Wednesday's work session (July 27) featured the rollout of the city manager's proposed budget, and council members will be knee-deep in reviewing and adjusting those numbers while they try to keep one eye on what the bond should look like. It's all in keeping with the 10-1 Council's unofficial motto: Never do today what can be postponed until next Thursday.
Something for Everyone
Skepticism aside for the moment, Mayor Steve Adler has run with the initial approval by his colleagues and begun flogging his mobility proposals – and he is definitely the driving force on this project – as though final approval is little more than a formality. A few days ago he posted an essay on Medium, "Fixing Traffic the Austin Way," promoting the "completely different" approach of this bond proposal. "In a remarkably quick process that united many diverse groups," the mayor wrote, "the City Council has approved a $720 million Smart Corridor bond that will do far, far more for traffic and transit than our city has ever done in one fell swoop. But what makes the Smart Corridor bond unique in Austin is not just the speed in which it was approved but how the mobility solutions it offers unite us toward a common purpose instead of dividing us along special interests."
As he did on the dais, the mayor is arguing that this bond is different not only in its scale (and $720 million, even spaced over several years, is not pocket change) but in its approach to transportation problems as interrelated land-use problems. The "Smart Corridor" basis of the proposal would employ multimodal transportation planning to address several issues at once. "To relieve traffic congestion, boost rapid transit, make it easier and safer to walk and bike, and help us manage growth," Adler argues, "we need to reject the old way of looking at these problems that sees only cross purposes and instead focuses on our common goal: making the roads work for everyone."
The three-part proposal – "regional" highways ($94 million), "local" (neighborhood) mobility ($155 million), and seven "smart corridors" ($470 million) – is intended to be an integrated fulfillment of citywide plans that have been, as the mayor reiterates, "sitting on the shelf" for years. It undoubtedly embodies as well the political principle of all such bond proposals: a little something for everyone, so voters from various neighborhoods and constituencies feel sufficiently motivated to provide their support.
Rolling the Dice
On the dais, the mayor effectively overrode objections that the package is too expensive for one bond, doesn't equalize all areas, includes too much for highways and too little for mass transit, and might starve the next bond campaign for affordable housing or other infrastructure needs. An external push from rail advocates (including the Urban Transportation Commission) fell on deaf ears (don't forget, most of these council members ran against the 2014 rail bond). And a last-minute, shortsighted decision to divvy up sidewalk money by district instead of by need will leave some neighborhoods (and schoolchildren) waiting for the next round. It's a large and undeniably mixed bag.
The mayor argues – with good reason – that if we wait for a perfect proposal ... we'll be waiting a very long time. Of the corridor plans, he wrote, "The neighborhood groups, mobility experts, local businesses, and consultants all worked together in a deliberative, public process that took many years and cost millions of dollars. Then, in one of Austin's least-proud traditions, we put these plans on a shelf."
As the summer doldrums give way to fall projects, voters will likely be asked to unroll those plans and underwrite a citywide wave of concrete catch-up. We'll soon be finding out if Mayor Adler's "Austin Way" – "smart, creative, and bold" – can persuade an increasingly unpredictable local electorate.