The city of Austin has a new face at the helm of city infrastructure and transportation projects.
Richard Mendoza, 57, recently took over as public works director after working in Atlanta, San Antonio and San Marcos. His appointment comes at a time when rapid growth is taxing the city’s infrastructure and $720 million approved by voters last fall is about to be spent on transportation improvements.
After two weeks in Austin, Mendoza chatted with the American-Statesman about his perspective on city infrastructure.
What brings you to Austin?
I’ve been in public works over 25 years. I’ve been a public works department head since 1999, so I’m very passionate about what public works does. … The city of Austin was the next natural progression.
I was excited about the plans the city of Austin has to improve the quality of life of its residents in terms of transportation, as evidenced by them voting approval of the $720 million bond.
How is Austin public works different from other cities?
What we’re doing here in Austin with the corridor projects, similar to other cities, we’re looking at how we design our streets to be more urban friendly and make them places that provide for more users than just automobiles. … The city of Austin has made great strides in that area, ahead of many cities, evidenced by this downtown space, which I consider to be very pedestrian- and bike-friendly.
What are Austin’s biggest public works challenges?
Aging infrastructure. We’ve got quite a few bridges, and bridges are critical to our transportation network, not just to move folks around to school and jobs and recreation, but also for emergency response. I need to get a feel for the condition of our bridges. If this city is like many other large cities throughout the U.S. (it may be lacking). The overall deferred maintenance public works backlog throughout the country is over a trillion dollars.
What do you plan to do differently in the department?
Right now the two areas we look to improve are the delivery of on-time capital projects — on time and under budget. We’ve had a couple of challenges with some recent large projects (the new Central Library and the Waller Creek Tunnel) and we’re looking at our structure and processes to make those improvements that are necessary to make sure we deliver to the voters on time.
What’s the low-hanging fruit that the department will prioritize first with regard to transportation bond projects?
We’re on the agenda to give a report to City Council on Feb. 28 as terms of our schedule and implementation plan. Some of the projects that come to mind that should be ready very soon include the sidewalk projects, the bike lane projects and the safe route to school projects. These are very popular projects because they increase greatly pedestrian and bicycle safety, and they’re also spread throughout the city, so chances are very good you will see some activity in the next few months on projects in your vicinity.