Highways and Scooters and Impact Fees, Oh My!
Austin mobility plans are moving right along
Even as Austin has been shut down and standing still, things keep happening on the mobility front. Most expensive among them is the I-35 Capital Express Central reconstruction project, which the Texas Transportation Commission on April 30 finally funded to the tune of $3.4 billion in discretionary funds. That covers the rebuild from U.S. 290 East (the Manor Expressway) south to U.S. 290 West (Ben White Blvd.); the northern and southern Capital Express segments (extending to State Highway 45 in each direction) are already underway.
The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization got the big, messy middle part unstuck last year, when the 20 politicians on its board agreed to claw back funding from existing projects to prime the I-35 pump. Finding that $633 million while approving CAMPO's latest long-range plan for about $42 billion in mobility investments through 2045 left blood and teeth on the floor as it always does, with suburban road warriors, environmentalists, and urban backers of active transportation all scrambling to keep their dreams alive. (The 2045 plan was approved May 4 by a 18-2-1 vote, with Council Members Alison Alter and Jimmy Flannigan voting nay and Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea abstaining.)
Though that result was predictable, this year's mobility debates are different, as the COVID-19 pandemic, the corollary economic downturn, and the collapse of the oil and gas market all call into question our assumptions about both our mobility needs and our resources to meet them. The Council Mobility Committee got a look at current conditions on April 30, as the Austin Transportation Department shared data on the impact of the current crises. As you'd expect, the cancellation of South by Southwest and 330 other events in the aborted spring festival season ground Austin's mobility providers to a halt. In March 2019, Austin saw over 740,000 "shared micro-mobility" trips (scooters, bikes, e-bikes). This past March saw only 164,000, a nearly 80% decline. That free fall gained velocity in April, which in its first three weeks saw a mere 5,800 trips, compared to more than 513,000 in April 2019. As of last week, only Bird's scooters and Revel's mopeds remained on Austin's streets (along with the city-backed Austin B-Cycle).
The same conditions apply to taxis, limousines, pedicabs, ride-hailing services, party buses, and parking meter transactions, which altogether bring in about $25 million in city revenue, which is more than one third of ATD's operating budget. This blow may become yet more grievous if the changes wrought by COVID-19 et al. prove to be permanent. (There is genuine uncertainty that the nascent scooter industry will survive, and Austin is one of the nation's larger and more advanced markets for micromobility.) As it happens, another effort to provide Austin with sustainable mobility funding – a street impact fee – is nearing delivery, with the Mobility Committee getting its first look at the staff-and-consultant-crafted plan last week.
A street impact fee answers an oft-asked question in our always booming city: How do we make growth pay for itself? New development places demands upon the mobility network; traffic counts are go-to indicators for aggrieved neighbors. But we don't translate that impact into an actual price tag, as we more or less do with water and wastewater infrastructure or parkland. Instead, we do as Austin does and negotiate piecemeal settlements with developers via the entitlement process. State law carefully constrains how the city can determine and assess a street impact fee, which Austin has been working on since 2016, alongside the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan and Land Development Code Revision, both of which have shaped the outcome.
Under the state's rules, a street impact fee can only recoup costs incurred in the 10 years after a project goes up, not long-range investments like future rail transit, nor existing unmet needs, which are many. The fees can be collected for improvements within a given radius of the development site, so the ATD plan breaks the city up into 16 "service areas," adding yet another layer of geographic complexity to Austin's land use regulations.
Even with these limitations, ATD forecasts $1.8 billion in potential usable impact fee revenue over 10 years. However, staff recommends charging only 50% of what Austin could for commercial construction and 35% for residential. Further districts would apply to mixed-use projects that capture trips within the site (e.g., you live at Saltillo, you walk to Whole Foods) or have travel demand management strategies (hello, telecommuting!) in place. Projects with as little as 5% affordable housing could get up to 75% reductions in their fees. This all brings the anticipated 10-year revenue down to a mere $285 million.
There are plausible reasons to lowball the initial impact fee, to create incentives for desired development and to mitigate sticker shock. But council members were not entirely convinced, with both Ann Kitchen, who chairs the Mobility Committee, and Jimmy Flannigan signaling they'd like to take another look at this. "I think that we're going to have good conversations about aligning the level of the fees with Council policy," Kitchen told the Chronicle, suggesting that going closer to 100% of what the city could ask for makes sense, if the impact fee "is supposed to better align with what our real costs are. But I'm excited that we're at this point, and I think it's a great policy tool for us to have."