Austin has a bad habit of putting things off until it’s nearly too late. It can take decades to come to a consensus on how to respond to the city’s most pressing challenges, because for too many people, doing nothing is always going to be more comfortable than doing something. We have allowed policy paralysis to keep us from meeting the demands of a growing region, and we are paying the price through a transportation and affordability crisis.
Doing nothing is what we at the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) believe will happen if voters reject the Mobility Bond on the November ballot. Yes, it’s a big proposal — the largest bond, by far, ever proposed to tackle Austin’s enormous transportation challenges. But it’s about time we realize that if we’re ever going to relieve congestion and gridlock, which Austinites have long said is their number one policy priority, we need to make big investments in new approaches to meeting our mobility needs.
Opponents of the bond have put forth a number of complaints about the proposal, some of them contradictory. For example, we hear the package is too big for taxpayers to afford, yet at the same time not big enough to fully implement the corridor and active transportation plans on which the mobility bond is based. That type of conflicting analysis embodies the hallmarks of the “do nothing” approach – too big for some, not big enough for others, so let’s do nothing. But this time we cannot let that mindset stifle progress on our most critical issue. We need to move forward without delay, and get as many of the Mobility Bond projects done as soon as possible, rather than waiting until some day in the future when these improvements will be even more expensive and we will have paid even a steeper price in lost jobs and more time spent sitting in traffic.
Those who are concerned about the size and fiscal impact of the bond package cannot also honestly complain that the proposal does not fund enough new capacity. New roads and lane miles are costly not just to build, but to maintain for years to come, and adding lanes on Austin’s urban corridors would mean acquiring significant amounts of expensive right-of-way and displacing many homes and businesses. There are more cost-effective ways to improve congestion in those corridors, allowing property to be preserved and utilized to build out the new housing that Austin desperately needs, or commercial projects that can help expand the local tax base.
At RECA, we pay close attention to the cost of government and its impact on affordability. We would not support a proposal like the mobility bond if we did not believe it would really deliver the congestion relief that Austin needs to retain its economic prosperity and quality of life. These are the kinds of investments of tax dollars we should support as a community, because they will deliver results now and produce dividends in the future.
In addition to the size of the package, detractors point to the “rushed” process by which it came together to make it onto this year’s ballot. To us this merely reflects the urgency of our mobility crisis, the Mayor and those council members supporting the proposals should be commended for seizing the opportunity to make a real difference. This approach and timeframe shows that we can break free from policy paralysis and it should serve as a model for other decision-making processes at City Hall.
Even though the mobility bond came together relatively quickly, the various transportation plans that underlie the proposal — including multiple corridor studies and the city’s bicycle and sidewalk master plans — were developed over several years, in full view of the public, with extensive stakeholder input. They reflect both what Austinites say they want and the best practices in the mobility field, which are informed by the expertise of some of the nation’s leading planners and engineers. They include innovative approaches to allow more people, including more cars, to get to where they need to go, and they call for improvements that will have a positive impact on travelers across the entire city.
Finally, the mobility bond is structured to ensure that it can deliver on its promises and achieve the mobility outcomes we need. The bond resolution calls for corridor improvements that prioritize reduction in congestion and delays at intersections, and requires that those proposed expenditures be supported by metrics demonstrating that they will have a positive impact. The resolution also establishes a unique, legally enforceable “contract with the voters” that guarantees the bond funds won’t be redirected to other projects or turn into an ill-managed slush fund. Again, this measure of accountability — which City Hall has traditionally worked hard to avoid, including in past bond measures — should be a model for how Austin does business in the future.
The time for a serious, substantial response to Austin’s mobility crisis is now. It’s up to us as voters to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the mobility bond to change the game in Austin and keep our beloved community moving forward. It’s time to quit doing nothing.
Cassidy is board chair for the Real Estate Council of Austin.