Austin At Large: Keep Your Eyes on the Road
As we endure this age of clownery, we can have nice things in our future – even I-35
By the time you read this, it's probably cool for y'all to get your hair did, which Lord knows we all need – I look like one of the Bay City Rollers – but which we all know now shows that Greg Abbott's "data and doctors" shibboleths are just as meaningless as the rude noises being emitted from the White House. I've extended some grace to the governor in prior weeks, because the folly of our rushed return to a false normalcy will soon be manifest and upon his head, and unlike Trumpelstiltskin he's not too stupid to know that. But he's decided to not care about the consequences of his actions, and I will stop asking him to.
As Mayor Steve Adler says, the penalty for not wearing a mask is that people will get sick and some will die. They won't all be poor people of color in the Eastern Crescent whom Greg Abbott has never thought about in his life, though many will be and that's messed up. Some will be Republicans and Patriots and Real Texans.
But watching the members of his own tribe die still offers a path of lesser resistance than acting in ways that confirm how badly Donald Trump has botched this and how foolish the GOP is for letting him do so, because that would make some people upset. We still have the power to not embrace this reality or participate directly in this nonsense, but we also should save some energy for making the most of the rest of our lives.
Celebrate Good Times, C’mon!
It is in that mode that we're popping the corks on some warm, flat, cheap champagne this week to celebrate the Texas Transportation Commission fully, finally funding the reconstruction of I-35 through Central Austin. It's pretty mind-blowing that this epochal milestone, the fruit of the labor of literally tens of thousands of people over more than three decades to assemble the billions of dollars required and transform regional politics in good and proper ways, could be reached at a moment where it could not be more profoundly and depressingly anticlimactic.
We covered some of this ground last year, when local and state leaders made the decisions that set this Soap Box Derby car rolling down the hill toward the checkered flag waved by the TTC last week. In the driver's seat, Kirk Watson pulled down massive sacks of highway money on his way out of the Texas Senate, just before the source of that money – oil and gas severance taxes, diverted by Texas voters for road-building before those dollars fell into the state's rainy day fund – evaporated.
And on his flanks, Mayor Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt held off oncoming traffic from both the right and the left, as the entire five-county metro area, and then the entire state of Texas, grudgingly agreed that the unmet mobility needs of Central Austin threatened their own futures more than the needs in their own backyards. That was the big lift, the same one that we now need to make concerning transit investments in Central Austin, except that goal requires convincing ourselves and each other rather than outlying Republicans.
Some Assembly Required!
At present, the prize Austin's taking home after winning the I-35 Derby is not worth the effort to put it together – more lane miles that will simply fill up with more cars before we even finish construction. As with Abbott's ship of COVID-19 fools (a Carnival Cruise departing from Galveston), we just have to look off into the middle distance and nod when people talk about "reducing congestion," and focus on how to make the most of what we have.
We have to not forget that even though the TTC's stated goals for the Capital Express Project are empty and faintly ridiculous, the appropriate amount of money we should invest in rebuilding I-35 is a lot greater than zero. The highway as it exists now is toxic and frightful and generates ongoing harms that are a lot worse than excess travel time: threats to traveler safety, ongoing environmental suffering, violence to the quality and integrity of life in the places that it traverses, all compounded by staggering opportunity costs. We should tear it down and rebuild it as something else, and that is going to cost billions of dollars. The findings of our recent unexpected natural experiment, performed by the coronavirus, in travel demand management – showing that this highway, as it is, in this place, is less essential than we had long pretended – makes this a more urgent goal, not less.
We can recoup those billions of dollars in two obvious ways; we can charge tolls to manage the added capacity, thus making the project a worthwhile transit investment as well, and we can create and restore value in properties and communities up and down the corridor that I-35 now destroys. We had achieved the first condition decades ago, then lost it to political entropy, and now it looks like tolling is returning to favor. The second condition involves specific design choices for I-35 in the heart of town, as we've discussed, but it can also be buoyed by finally adopting a new Land Development Code, which could change facts on the ground along I-35 in ways that even code skeptics agree are positive.
The good news is that it's not too late to do many of these things. The time to get our preferences, or demands, for I-35 design onto the table and into the public record is now, during the Capital Express Project's mandatory engineering and environmental review; many advocates are organizing for precisely this purpose. The new LDC is and should be a living document, even as we've acted for years as if we're engraving the code onto gold tablets with awesome and fearsome magical powers. And once lane miles are constructed, they can become "managed" with the flip of a switch, either literally or figuratively. We will have to watch as people who should know better do stupid things with nasty consequences, but we're becoming pretty good at that. Then we can do what's right.