January 2014 ESSENTIAL Class Day Takeaways

January 2014 ESSENTIAL Class Day Takeaways

Guest post from Essential Class of 2014 participant Heather Miller, reflecting on the January class day on Austin’s transportation, land use and housing. Heather is director of marketing at Outbox (stealth).

bl_14-02-14_miller_heatherFull disclosure: My first job in Austin was managing TxDOT‘s 2004-2005 public education campaign for Central Texas’ toll roads. I definitely got a quick lesson on how controversial transportation and related land and housing topics are in Austin, but often wondered why this collaborative city was so divided on the issues. It’s a huge conversation and one that you can’t avoid hearing or reading about in our community.

Land use, housing and transportation are more connected than you might think. Some perceptions around these topics are correct, but our class day taught me that the numerous conversations you hear are often misguided. Guest speakers and our class moderator, Mike Clark-Madison (Hahn Public Communications), provided us with the facts and challenged us all to be solution-oriented. Common misperceptions floating around Central Texas include:

1. We’re stuck in traffic.
“We’re not stuck in traffic, we are the traffic.” Indeed we are. One hundred and fifty plus people move to Austin a day, which also means at least 70 new cars on the road every day—that’s more than 25,000 cars a year, the equivalent to 76 miles. We’re all proud to reside in this great city that’s at the top of most lists, but recently Central Texas was awarded with the most congested segment of roadway, IH35 from US 183 to SH71, that contributed to 788,649 hours of delay per mile and costing us $172 million annually.

2. Austin embraces growth.
Back in the late 1960’s The Highway Department (now TxDOT) planned to build several more expressways in Austin, but they never came to life due to citizen pushback. The mindset of our region has been “Don’t build it and they won’t come,” and because of this we’re finding ourselves in a tough predicament today. And, it’s not just transportation.

The rising cost of living in Austin has created the suburbanization of people that shaped our city’s history, especially African Americans on the east side. Our 30-year old Land Development Code is written in a way that doesn’t allow for a denser Austin and makes it nearly impossible to build smaller houses and multifamily buildings, which are typically more affordable. However, there’s good news ahead—the residents, city government, business and civic organizations are working to revisit and revamp the code (initiative called CodeNext) that is also referred to as a “franken-document.”

3. We can build more roads, quickly.
If only it were that easy. It’s estimated an urban highway mile costs $40M. The process to build or maintain roads and the corresponding costs are literally and figuratively, roadblocks. TxDOT does receive a lot of money to build and maintain our state highway system, but it’s not enough. The state gas tax at $0.20/gallon is not keeping up with the cost of building and maintaining our roads, and less funds are coming from the federal government. TxDOT also faces important, but rigorous, public involvement and environmental studies for every project, which impacts how soon improvements can be made.

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) is an independent government agency in Williamson and Travis counties. Mario Espinoza from CTRMA explained they don’t receive state funding, which is why their projects are tolled like 183A and the new MoPac tolled express lanes from Lady Bird Lake to Parmer. Coined “MoPacalypse,” this project will create more congestion in the short-term, but will help curb congestion in the future. The express lanes will provide public transit buses and registered vanpools with a reliable, non-stop, toll-free route, which helps make it affordable to citizens that can’t afford tolls.

How can you help? Plan your transportation for the week, then the day. Talk to your employer about a staggered work schedule so you don’t have to drive at peak congestion times. While we can’t build our way out of congestion, we can create ways to reduce it and many groups are working hard to do so.

4. There are no alternative solutions.
Several area leaders and organizations are working together to create new transportation solutions. Ross Milloy from the Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council/Lone Star Rail shared LSTAR’s proposed rail service from Georgetown to San Antonio, which will create a convenient and cost-effective alternative to I-35. Imagine getting from downtown Austin to downtown San Antonio in 75 minutes with WiFi access.

Capital Metro launches their MetroRapid service later this month that will travel some of the busiest corridors. To speed up the ride for passengers, new features include limited stops, boarding from all doors, sleek and modern vehicles equipped with signal priority technology to keep traffic lights green when the vehicle is running behind schedule, and Transit Priority Lanes through downtown.

A common problem in urban cities is the first and last mile. This is getting from your starting or ending location to public transportation. Thankfully, the city of Austin has been open to new transportation solutions like car2go and the new bike-sharing program, B-cycle. Key to using these alternatives solutions successfully is planning your day ahead of time.

5. I can’t do anything about these huge problems.
Like panelist and homebuilder Kerry Tate said, “No one should complain without offering a solution.” We all have a place at the table but only if we can support a productive conversation. We’re fighting to hold onto the past but simultaneously wasting time by not planning for today, and the future. Get involved. Do some research, talk to your neighbors and co-workers and attend local meetings.

Try approaching the next conversation with the pure intent of being solution-oriented. I’m so glad to be alongside the Essential Class of 2014, who all want to find solutions to reduce congestion, make the most out of the space we have, and ensure affordability is a priority.

NOTE: The opinions of Leadership Austin alumni, faculty members, and guest bloggers are their own, and do not represent an official position of the organization.