Who Will Guide Project Connect Into the Station?

As leaders leave the station we look at who will drive the public transit redesign

(l-r) Greg Canally, Dottie Watkins, and Bill McCamley (Photos courtesy of Austin Transit Partnership, Capital Metro, Transit Forward)

Randy Clarke is not irreplaceable, although there was a bit of that vibe on May 23 as he wrapped up his final monthly update to the Capital Metro Board of Directors as the agency's president and CEO. The seven board members (there's one vacancy), in order of seniority, took turns thanking him for accomplishing what the transit authority was created to do 37 years ago – move Austin into the 21st century with a high-capacity, congestion-proof transit system at its foundation. While county commissioner and Board Chair Jeff Travillion teased the encomia as if Clarke was about to get roasted – "Some of us may say nice things, some of us may say other things" – there was much praising and only a bit of teasing. For his part, Clarke closed his highlight reel with a sign he put up on the way to his office a couple months after he started in 2018: "The best way to predict the future is to create it." "It was one of the first things I wanted to do here, which was not live in the past," he said. "It's all about whatever we want to do." And later: "I will always be appreciative of the opportunity I was given here; this is an incredible agency with incredible people doing incredible work."

Clarke is now on his way to Washington, D.C., to take the reins of the capital city's very troubled Metro, which is itself a validation of what a big deal and success story Project Connect has become. But he will indeed need to be replaced at Cap Metro, and he already needed to be replaced at the helm of the Austin Transit Partnership, the joint venture between Cap Metro and the city of Austin that's using the taxes earmarked for PC to build out the system. That's because community stakeholders had raised concerns about Clarke doing both jobs, when they supported the Project Connect tax rate election on the premise that ATP would be a venue for independent community leadership and oversight of the now $10 billion "initial investment." Or, as the ATP's mission statement reads: "Established as an independent organization, the Austin Transit Partnership will guide the Project Connect investment with transparency and accountability throughout the program."

“There needs to be a collaborative, transparent, and mutual agreement about the extent of ATP’s independence, and a clear decision about how autonomous ATP will be from Capital Metro.” – Analysis by the Eno Center for Transportation

Clarke helped set up the ATP, so the fact that he chose to serve as its executive director as well as Cap Metro CEO suggests that in his view, the two organizations need to be more integrated rather than separated. That's a place where he and his team, and the stakeholders – including the Project Connect Community Advisory Committee, chaired by Planning Commissioner Awais Azhar – may just have to agree to disagree. To resolve the tension, the ATP Board commissioned an analysis by the Eno Center for Transportation, whose final report in late March urged the board to commit to either integrated or independent leadership once and for all: "Our analysis found that the current governance of Project Connect is unsustainable as it is currently structured. Either leadership model can work but must be intentional and supported by a common understanding of organizational roles and responsibilities. Following the leadership decision by the ATP Board, there needs to be a collaborative, transparent, and mutual agreement about the extent of ATP's independence, and a clear decision about how autonomous ATP will be from Capital Metro. Without this clarity, it would be difficult for either leadership model to succeed. Given the current stage of the program, final decisions on the governance and leadership structure should not wait."

So the ATP Board did not wait; it decided in April to go with an independent leader and elevated Greg Canally – who came to ATP after years as an executive in the city's finance office, with deep involvement in capital projects and especially the $1 billion-plus in transportation bond spending authorized by Austin voters since 2014 – as interim executive director. However, that was quickly offset by changing the composition of the ATP Board itself, first by adding a City Council member (currently Mayor Steve Adler) and a Cap Metro Board member (currently Williamson County rep Eric Stratton), then adding Clarke's successor and Assistant City Manager Gina Fiandaca, who oversees mobility, as ex officio members. Originally the ATP just had a three-member board of "community experts" in planning and sustainability (Huston-Tillotson President Colette Pierce Burnette, herself nearing retirement), engineering and construction (architect Veronica Castro de Barrera), and finance (Tony Elkins, a 35-year veteran at funding infrastructure projects).

Back at Cap Metro, interim CEO Dottie Watkins, who has been holding down the operations front while Clarke shepherded Project Con­nect, is a literal Cap Metro lifer, having started as a UT shuttle driver back in 1994, a dozen-plus promotions ago. She's certainly a contender for the permanent position, particularly since upon her last promotion (to deputy CEO) she replaced herself as chief operating officer with Andy Skabowski, a New York City transit veteran who came to Cap Metro from Houston Met­ro, where he had the same role. But the Cap Metro Board has committed to a nationwide search that, according to Travillion, will include ample opportunities for community engagement.

Watkins and Canally are two pairs of steady hands for now, but presumably only one of them will take on the role of chief PC expediter. Three acronymic engineering firms (AECOM, HNTB, HDR) are getting the initiative to the 30% completion point at which the PC team can seek federal funding in earnest. They aim to reach that milestone before the end of the year, which will keep the system's biggest-lift components – the Orange and Blue lines and their bridges and tunnels and stations – on track to meet the time frame promised to the voters. At the May 23 meeting, the board approved $6 million more to HNTB for the Blue Line and $7 million more to AECOM for the Orange Line, to cover the cost of the additional design and engineering for the new and enhanced components of PC that we cover in this issue.

Meanwhile, the Austin Trans­port­ation Depart­ment is more focused on near-term improvements to support PC components like the new MetroRapid Expo and Pleas­ant Valley lines, as well as right-of-way management and corridor improvements along the Drag, North Lamar, and East River­side. That department is also going to be without a leader soon, as ATD Director Rob Spillar, who was the department's first full-time employee back in 2008 – it now has more than 400 – announced his departure next month to join a national consulting firm as its practice leader for smart cities, which Austin went whole hog on to compete in the U.S. Department of Transportation's Smart City Challenge in 2016. While Columbus, Ohio, ended up with that $40 million grant, the city has been quietly moving forward with some of the initiatives spawned by that effort, such as roadside sensors. Spillar's boss Fiandaca, who came to Austin from Boston not long after Randy Clarke did, kinda has her hands full with the airport as well as being an ex officio ATP Board member; Public Works Director Richard Men­doza will become the interim ATD leader beginning June 5. Mendoza, any of Spillar's four assistant directors, or several other City Hall and One Texas Center veterans could pretty seamlessly step into Spillar's role.

At the beginning of May, there was yet another important leadership role in the Project Connect ecosystem waiting to be filled. Transit Forward is the grass-tops nonprofit formed by stakeholders such as the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and diversity chambers, and the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, as well as the aforementioned engineering firms, to "educate the [region] about the benefits of an effective and accessible public transit system." This is intended to be the stay-the-course, whatever-­it-takes lobby who can push community sentiment forward when things get tough, such as with the ever-growing cost estimates or the not-that-far-fetched possibility that the Texas Legislature or local conservatives will try to undo the Project Connect tax rate election at some point.

After a three-month search, on May 16 Transit Forward announced Bill McCamley as its new executive director; most recently chief of staff to state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, McCamley is a former New Mexico state rep and secretary of its workforce agency and has worked on everything from border infrastructure to the Land of Enchant­ment's legalization of cannabis. Upon arriving in Austin about a year ago (after abruptly leaving New Mexico following threats on his life), he also took on strategic engagement for The Other Ones Founda­tion and its Esperanza Community for those seeking to exit homelessness. "Bill understands what it means to build community in an equitable and sustainable way," said Transit Forward Board Chair Patrick Rose in a statement. "He understands the critical role that infrastructure plays in economic development, and he has the rare combination of experience, heart, and vision for this role."

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