Austin at Large: The Train Can’t Be Too Late

It’s going to be sad, so sad, when Mayor Pete’s money comes if Austin’s not ready

A potential vision for the new Blue Line Bridge, accommodating pedestrians and cyclists, Capital Metro buses, and the Blue Line light rail heading toward the East Riverside corridor. This vantage point is from the South Central Waterfront near the old Statesman building. (Courtesy of Austin Transit Partnership)

(headline h/t the Rev. James Cleveland)

This has been a strangely eventful month or so in the history of Austin mobility, with the public finally realizing how much it hates the state's plans to rebuild I-35 (public comment closed Tuesday, March 7); the big boss at Austin's airport getting fired as part of last week's Watson/Garza II housecleaning; and a whole bunch of news and, just as importantly, speculation about the future of Project Connect, the transit system overhaul approved by the voters (in the form of a tax rate election) in 2020.

First off, all three agencies working on Project Connect – the city (various departments and an assistant city manager for mobility), Cap Metro, and the joint venture between the two, the Austin Transit Part­ner­ship – are under new leadership, which in all three cases is old leadership. That ACM is now Robert Goode, who held the same job under former City Manager Marc Ott (and when I was consulting with the Austin Trans­portation Department).

Cap Metro elevated Dottie Watkins to permanent CEO, which in a very real sense is a good thing, because as charmed as Austin often feels in these situations, the transit agency's No. 1 job is not its parts of Project Connect, but making sure its bus service operates reliably and hits pre-COVID ridership levels, which will only become more difficult, and Watkins rose through the ranks as a driver to become head of bus operations. She then got promoted rapidly by former CEO Randy Clarke, whose No. 1 job was to craft a Project Connect proposal that could win voter approval. He left a while back to lead D.C. Metro, which has a lot of problems, and Watkins has been in charge ever since.

New Kid Hires Retired Guy

The ATP likewise opted to hire its interim Executive Director Greg Canally, who was a key city finance executive for years (from Watson/Garza I through Ott) and who – before the city had an office devoted specifically to this – was the go-to guy for getting big capital projects and bond programs done right or, when needed, unstuck. This will be a very, very useful skill going forward at ATP, whose No. 1 and only job is to deliver light rail. (I was on the city's 2006 bond committee, which is how I got to know Canally.) Hiring a former city exec again creates tension with advocates, but it is better than having Randy Clarke do the job and run Cap Metro simultaneously, which is what he really wanted but which pressure from those same advocates prevented. But everyone is really impressed with Canally and wants him to succeed, so there hasn't been another stand to safeguard ATP "independence" from the entities that write its checks and will operate what it builds.

I'm guessing some of the dimmer bulbs on the west-of-MoPac Christmas tree – could be consultants, could just be randos – made a run at doing away with the ATP entirely, maybe out of fear that its autonomy and mandate had been compromised during its first months of existence as an awkward new government agency responding to advocate concerns. How do we know? A month ago, Mayor Kirk Watson, sidelined by COVID-19, gave what was supposed to be an in-person breakfast talk to Movability Austin, which is the Downtown transportation management association, which is a kind of public improvement district like the Downtown Austin Alliance, and indeed began life as part of the DAA. And in this total softball gig – but in front of at least half of the mobility decision-makers who need to hear it – Watson dropped these lines: "The creation of an independent entity was integral to the success of the 2020 tax rate election. And, according to a recent report from a national think tank [Eno Center for Transportation], it's also a best practice recommended to American communities to deliver good light rail projects more consistently. We've been working our way through some start-up challenges, but ATP is now well-positioned to deliver a light rail system. And that is a very big deal. Light rail has been an elusive goal for Austin for well over two decades and now it's really going to happen."

In Front of the Parade

It's fun to see Watson back on the mobility beat; he's quite fluent on the issues even when, as here, he has to defend or take credit for things that predate his restoration. (On I-35 this is a problem; he was the lone vote against Chito Vela's do-better letter to TxDOT.) He got to help break interesting funding news from USDOT – grant funding to plan out a cap system for I-35, which Watson had speculated Austin couldn't accomplish in time to meet the state's mid-2025 deadline. And, much more sexily, a first-of-its-kind "emerging projects agreement," which Watson got to sign with a pen and everything. This commits the city and USDOT to, together, deliver a $22 billion regional mobility program – Project Connect, the $3.6 billion Corridor Construc­tion Program, the $4 billion Airport Expan­sion and Development Program, and $1 billion for the caps and stitches on I-35. Now that we're this much closer to Mayor Pete's Infinite Checkbook, we really need to commit to following through with what's been promised, and not slack ourselves into another several years of delay.

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