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Talking transportation bonds with Austin Mayor Steve Adler

Mayor Steve Adler has been the driving force in shaping and shepherding the $720 million transportation bond on the November ballot. He recently sat down with the American-Statesman to answer questions about the proposal.

When did you and your staff first conceive of going “big” on transportation bonds in 2016, and why?

The conversation about going big on transportation is something that actually has been discussed since before I got elected. The transportation challenges we face in the city are big, and the solutions have to be big….

Sen. (Kirk) Watson took I-35 off the table for us to have to lead on at the city level with the work that he was doing with the state. So when you talk to the experts after that, everybody points to the corridors as the next thing. You talk to the transit people. That’s the backbone of the transit system, and if you’re going to do something about ridership, you have to do something about the corridors.

We had the plans, and it is also the next logical step.

Was getting this on the 2016 November ballot important?

It was. Being a presidential election year, you have the most number of people who will vote in an election. The largest representation of the community. This is a big package and we wanted to take advantage of having the whole community coming to vote.

What do you say to the criticism that the $482 million “smart corridor” portion, combined with much of the $137 million “local transportation” piece, pours much of this $720 million bond’s money into alternative modes of transportation like bikeways, sidewalks, trails and transit?

I don’t think that that’s true. When you look at the corridor studies, they are first about improving car and auto throughput. It’s not about building bicycle lanes, sidewalks. And it works within the existing right of way. It also does things beyond that. But the fact that it does things beyond that doesn’t diminish what it does about congestion.

And ultimately it will improve throughput in better ways than just adding two more lanes. If you wanted to pay for the additional right of way, that would not do as much for congestion as these corridor plans.

A staff memo to council this summer said that building out just seven of the nine possible corridor plans would require $1.5 billion, more than three times what the bonds will raise for corridors. How should the city decide what to do, and what not to do?

This city has over $9 billion of transportation needs, and unfortunately we don’t have over $9 billion to just fix everything. And so anything and everything we do will be less than we need. That can’t be a reason for us to do less than we can. It’s important that we start so we can demonstrate that this type of work does have a material impact on congestion, a material impact on safety.

Ultimately, there’s a strategic plan that has to be developed, and I didn’t want to limit our ability to have the greatest amount of impact, to use a filter such that ultimately we might decide that we took away the opportunity to have the greatest impact. So what is important about this process is that there will be a public vetting of the sequencing plan and the roll-out. It’s going to be a very public process, comes back to the council, so the whole community will know.

We specifically passed an associated resolution with this ordinance and said, “We are making a contract with the voters. This resolution is part of an enforceable obligation against the city.”

Have you been led to believe that other city money will be brought to bear on the corridor plans such as drainage fee or transportation fee revenue?

I guess it could potentially be, but I haven’t had any conversations about that. I was looking at this as self-contained monies without having to lean on any existing projects within the city. This is a big lift for the city to do this work within six to eight years. The city has not had the capacity to be able to do that. But that’s purely a management question. You can manage to that completion date, which means they are either going to have to staff up to that or theuy’re going to have to bring in third parties to help.

The corridor studies show, in many cases, sharp reductions in the waiting times at intersections if the plans are carried out. But the plans don’t explain how the changes would have that effect on vehicular traffic. Have you or your staff done any sort of vetting of those numbers?

The truth is, in this job, I have very little time to actually do the work of the engineers or the experts. So city government will go out and bring in the really smart professionals to advise us. I feel confident that those conclusions in the corridor report in part because they were rendered by experts, consultants who were brought in. But second, I hear the same thing from multiple experts in multiple places. And when you look at the plans to see what the details are — and I’m not a traffic engineer — it makes sense to me.

In most cases, the plans call for eliminating center left-turn lanes on these corridors and replacing them with medians. The plans also reduce through lanes on much of East Riverside, and the South Lamar plan during rush hour would devote a lane each way to buses. Given Austin’s steady growth, why should voters support eliminating lanes?

Most of these projects don’t recommend eliminating any lanes at all. And the existing center turns lanes slow down traffic as people pull into them, and as people make turns out of those lanes. If you have a country or more rural road, those turn lanes make perfect sense. But the best practices now recognize that in an urban situation, even outside of the downtown core, it has an impact on throughput (traffic movement).

The people who are most attuned to make sure we don’t lose throughput lanes for cars — and I’m talking about RECA (Real Estate Council of Austin) and the Chamber — went through these plans with a fine-toothed comb. Their concern was not what the plans had, but that someone would do a bait-and-switch. And we wouldn’t be concerned about congestion anymore but would be concerned instead with social engineering. That’s one of the reasons we did a resolution and this “contract with the voters,” which was to assure people that would not happen. We were told that the reason that city councils don’t do this as a matter of course is that you can go to court and enforce it.

You’ve highlighted bus pullouts and bus queue-jumping traffic signals as a congestion-relief measure. But Capital Metro is no fan of bus pullouts, with or without queue jumping. How do you think that would shake out if the proposition passes?

It’s clear that this bond package’s design of these roads, with pullouts and queue jumps, helps with traffic congestion. Now Capital Metro would much rather have a dedicated bus lane, even sometimes at the expense of a through lane for an automobile. And if I were Capital Metro and my only job was to maximize transit operations, I too would be in most favor of dedicated transit lanes.

That said, we don’t have the space within our right of way for dedicated transit lanes in most places, and it’s really expensive when you start buying right of way. And I wasn’t going to take away throughput lanes because we’re looking to reach consensus.

Trips by bikes and pedestrians are still quite low in Austin, percentage-wise, and Capital Metro has seen stagnant-to-falling ridership for the past 15 years. Why make such a large investment in those modes of travel?

We had a record number of traffic fatalities last year, a lot of them pedestrian-related. As I go around the community and talk to people, they tell me they want more sidewalks so that it’s safer for people to get from one place to another. This plans adds 50 miles of sidewalks.

The proportion of spending in this bond election that is associated with active transportation (bikes and pedestrians) is a pretty low percentage of the overall package. That said, it is still more money than we have invested in those things in a single bond election previously. At the same time, the buses won’t really be full until we make the land-planning changes. And the buses will work best when they are travelling with sufficient frequency on regular routes.

All those pieces are beginning to fit together. More people will actually ride bicycles when it’s actually safe.

Assume the proposition passes and that the $720 million is spent as intended over the next six to eight years. How would that result in a better Austin, in your view?

We’re going to see the very first real affirmative effort we have taken to move the needle, to do something about congestion in this city. It’ll be the precursor of beginning to develop the kind of community we want in terms of getting more (housing) supply along the corridors in a way that does not have to encroach into the neighborhoods.

And we have in this an eight-year, $720 million skilled trades job program. In my mind, this will be a transformative program because it is the backbone of so many things happening at one time.

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