Tomorrow, Austin City Council will vote on a proposal to cut next year’s revenue by $5 million by increasing the city’s property tax homestead exemption from 8% to 10%, a reduction in taxes for the minority of city residents who own homes.
While affordability is a major concern that city council can address through legislation, homestead exemptions are not the best approach. Most Austinites are renters, including most low-income residents. Homestead exemptions do not benefit renters and might actually increase the property taxes they will shoulder through their rent or will deprive the city of funds for civic services for those who need them most.
A policy brief from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy details the regressive nature of percentage-based property taxes. Restrictions from the state legislature limit what the City of Austin can do with respect to property taxes, but the city has a variety of tools available to positively affect affordability. The outcomes and regressive nature of the proposed homestead exemption are well-understood and uncontroversial, so it is difficult to understand why elected officials would pursue an ineffectual, self-limiting policy.
If members of Austin City Council are concerned with addressing affordability at this time, they can pass a CodeNEXT that effectively removes exclusionary policies that cause displacement and un-affordability, and follow that with a meaningful and well-focused affordable housing bond to establish mixed-income, equitable, transit-oriented communities.
Read the two page ITEP policy brief here. It contains a succinct explanation of property taxes and explains flat versus percentage-based exemptions.
Ruven Brooks is a senior and transit advocate who believes that public input into transit design needs to be much deeper than the occasional public hearing with three minute speeches.
Why Change the Committees?
In the City of Austin, citizen advisory committees can be very important and powerful organizations; the dreaded Zoning and Platting Commission and the Planning Commission are, in fact, merely citizen advisory committees.
Why have these committees become so important?There are at least two reasons.One is that they are a source of expertise; members of those commissions frequently know as much about City land development policies as City staff do and they sometimes point out errors in what staff have done.Second, they give an opportunity for airing and public discussion of controversial issues before City Council members are required to take a public position. The Cap Metro board needs both of those benefits.
To receive these benefits, Capital Metro needs to give its committees a different role, improve the selection and training of committee members and increase the number and specialization of the committees.
Role of Committees
The main purpose of citizen advisory committees is to bring to the board and staff information which they would not otherwise receive from Capital Metro staff and other sources. This information is often about public opinion but it could equally well be operational or technical information.
Currently, advisory committees play almost entirely a summative role; they are asked to pass judgement on complete change proposals. In this regard, they are really no different from all of the other public input mechanisms Capital Metro uses. Instead, they need to be brought into a more formative role in which their input is used to shape proposals.For example, If there’s a need to cancel routes or stops, advisory committees could be provided with ridership data and then asked for the pros and cons of different alternatives, or, even, asked, with staff help to formulate the alternatives.
Once proposals have been formulated, citizen advisory committees should be asked to hold public hearings on major or controversial issues before any board hearings.
Agendas and backup materials for advisory committee meetings should be posted on the web site in advance of the meetings, just as they are for Cap Metro board meetings and City of Austin commission meetings. If possible, they should be broadcast and recorded.
Selection and Treatment of Committee Members
Committee members should be made aware that their role is to assist the board in making decisions and they serve at the pleasure of their board member and may be asked to step down if the board member does not feel that they are making an effective contribution. Committee members should be given Cap Metro email addresses and have published phone numbers so that other members of the public can communicate with them.
Committee members should also be required to complete the same type of training as City of Austin committee members.Every committee member should understand what they are allowed to do and are not allowed to do as committee members.They should also be aware of how Capital Metro is financed and the financial constraints it operates under.
In a change from current policy, all committee members should be expected to have at least a minimal understanding of public policy and governmental operations and a reasonable command of spoken and written language, either directly or through the use of assistive technology. As needed, Cap Metro should be prepared to offer translation and interpretation support for committee members whose fluency is in languages other than English.Committee members are, effectively, representatives or the wider public and if they are unable to get their thoughts across to others, they are limiting public input to the decision-making process.
Qualifications for committee membership should be determined on the basis of the tasks of the committee.In particular, frequent ridership on Cap Metro services should not be an automatic requirement for membership; for example, a committee whose charge is recruiting new riders might well benefit from having members who don’t use the services currently.
Currently, recruitment and retention of committee members is problematic. A likely major contributor is that the committees are seen as ineffectual.Once this perception changes, it will be easier to recruit and keep committee members.
Increasing the Number of Committees
The City of Austin has something like 66 citizen boards or commissions.Why so many?There are two factors which encourage a large number:
Commission members are appointed by and have access to council members.Effectively, the commission members are the eyes and ears and, sometimes, the voices of council members.The more committees, the more of the city government the councilperson has a citizen contact for.
A second reason for many committees is to narrow the focus of each committee.If the same committee which hears complaints of building code violations also had to handle requests for zoning changes, it is doubtful whether either commission would do its job well, even though the areas are somewhat related.
A final reason for many commissions is limiting agenda length. If all of the cases heard by the Zoning and Platting Commission and the Planning Commission were handled by a single commission, meetings would last far into the night.
The City of Austin has four times the budget of Cap Metro; on that basis, Cap Metro ought to have something like sixteen advisory committees.Perhaps, the City of Austin is a bit too enthusiastic in setting up committees but Capital Metro could probably benefit from having a few more than the four it now has.
IT and Technology Services
In form or another, technology services form a substantial part of Cap Metro’s budget.None of the current board members can claim much expertise in the IT area or other technology areas so there’s little oversight at the board level.Austin is rich in technology professionals, at a least a few of whom would be willing to contribute their expertise.
Topics concerned with the evolution of the network, such as the Connections 2025 plan, should be the responsibility of this committee.All service changes intended to reach alignment with this plan would come under this committee. Members of this committee need to have the background and perspective to carry out this responsibility. Particularly desirable would be people with backgrounds in urban planning, demographics, or real estate development.There would no particular requirement for members to be current frequent riders.
This committee would advise on current network operations.Their main function would be to identify current problem areas, particularly those not already known to Cap Metro staff, and bring them to the attention of the staff and the board. Frequent use of public transit would a requirement for membership and care should be taken that all of the different services are represented, e.g., there should be at least one person who participates in the Metro Rideshare program.
Even though its charter doesn’t say so, this existing committee focuses on use of the transit system by individuals with disabilities.It is highly desirable that the membership represent as large a range as possible of people with disabilities. Also included under this committee’s charter should be support for riders who have limited or no capability to communicate in English.
Project Connect Advisory Committee
Project Connect already has the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee.In some respects, this committee is a model for how the rest of the committees should function since it does it’s work before public release of reports, rather than critiquing them afterwards.
Plaza Saltillo and Other Transit Oriented Development Projects
The Plaza Saltillo project has received input from City of Austin citizen advisory committees such as the Planning Commission but this input ceases once the plans have been approved.Experience with Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning, which uses the same zoning mechanism as TOD zoning, has shown that long term adherence to the original agreement is often very dependent on citizen monitoring.It would be worthwhile to establish a citizen’s advisory committee to monitor Plaza Saltillo and other transit-oriented development projects to ensure that these projects continue to meet the objectives of transit-oriented development.
Mobility Innovation Zones
As the sprawl leader among the 20 largest American cities, Austin suffers particularly from the problem of providing public transit services in low density areas, whether these areas be wealthy or low income.The Mobility Innovation Zones are an opportunity to try solutions that don’t involve a 60 passenger fixed route bus.For these innovations to be really successful they must attract riders beyond those who use the limited fixed route service currently available.
Getting public input early enough to play a formative role is important and cannot wait until Cap Metro staff has a complete plan. Formation of this committee should have started with the beginning of the Pilot experiment. Members of this committee should include representatives of businesses and organizations which are likely to help fund new services, such as those businesses which fund the Chariot routes, representatives of businesses and organizations which operate their own transportation systems in the area, such as senior residences, and, even, individuals who do not currently ride public transit but who are likely to do so if appropriate transit is provided.
TXDOT is making incremental progress towards seriously pursuing an end to transportation deaths throughout the state. The 2017-2019 Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP) begins with the following mission statement:
Texans will work together on the road to zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries.
Ending transportation deaths is possible, and agencies throughout the levels of government in the United States are beginning to embrace the necessary shifts in direction, planning, and funding. Sustained public engagement will accelerate this reality, and to that end, TXDOT is hosting four traffic safety workshops in the first half of May. Click here for the full schedule and specific details, dates and locations are listed below.
May 1, Houston
May 3, San Antonio
May 15, DFW
May 17, Midland/Odessa
TXDOT representatives will provide an overview of the SHSP and the safety countermeasures it identifies. They will work with attendees to understand your transportation challenges at any scale. The purpose is to connect the goals of transportation activists with the work of TXDOT to align all our efforts towards true transportation safety. See you there.
When engineers are designing streets, they use a concept called design speed to choose appropriate measures and elements for that expected speed of travel. A closely related concept is the “target speed”, which is the speed they hope that people will travel on that street. Design and target speeds for urban streets can be much higher than posted speed limits, creating unsafe transportation conditions throughout cities.
Various factors contribute to excessive design speeds, including width and number of lanes, the presence of pedestrians and bicyclists, street trees with minimal setbacks, and so on.
On December 15, 2016, Austin City Council adopted a comprehensive safe design speed policy that included instructions to staff to “incorporate target design speeds into plans & manuals” and “systematically evaluate arterial speed limits citywide for appropriateness.” The resolution noted that this was a logical step in the City’s commitment to Vision Zero.
The Austin Transportation Department has made tremendous progress on this effort, including a proposed $600,000 for the 2018 bond package dedicated to retrofitting streets to safe design speed. TXDOT and other cities across the state are following Austin’s lead on this issue, as national engineering leaders call for a radical shift in thinking about the design of streets and speed.
The corridors project is perhaps the single biggest opportunity currently funded to deploy safe, multi-modal streets with modern design speeds in the region. The NACTO standards for safe design speed for urban arterials – 35mph or less, would not slow down the current experience of these corridors.
Accepting this responsibility, the City of Austin has made the commitment to take design speed seriously, claiming to “fully intend to comply with NACTO standards as we design and construct the Corridor Construction Program projects,” per this April 2018 memo from Assistant City Manager Robert Goode.
This is a tremendous and laudable advance in urban planning and should be commended. It should also be the standard for all urban roadway design across Texas.
Design Speed in Corridors Construction Program
Higher design speeds and other misguided elements of transportation planning increase the volatility of systemwide speeds. Higher design speeds can contribute to increased crashes, blocking roadways, and reducing systemwide speed as a result of sudden congestion.
Using Google Maps and their travel data, we estimated the amount of time it would take to travel each of the corridors from end to end at 4pm on a weekday, and translated that into an overall travel speed.
Today, the average speed of travel on these corridors is between 13 and 31 mph, and it is not possible to travel faster than 35 mph on any of these corridors during rush hour. Austin’s new design speed standards could theoretically (and perhaps counterintuitively) increase rush hour travel times.
The stated plan for corridors funding is to focus on improving intersections, which will increase safety and throughput, with the safety improvement further decreasing delay caused by crashes. Using safe design speeds throughout the corridors will contribute to easing traffic flow by reducing crashes.
Imagine traveling in a car on a safe, urban street filled with life and people at a comfortable, dependable 25 mph rate, and not sitting at traffic lights all the time. Beyond the benefits to people in cars, safe design speed is the determining factor in our ability to build a healthy urban environment where people have the freedom of walking, biking, traveling by wheelchair, and using transit.
It is quite likely that a realistic travel demand model – that doesn’t assume induced sprawl like our current one – could show that a comprehensive safe design speed approach will actually lead to a faster – yet safer – car trip along these corridors in ten years.
Every single one of these corridors is also expected to add population, jobs, stores, schools, and other elements of a complete community. Using safe design speeds below the minimally acceptable 35 mph NACTO standard is a crucial element of optimizing this investment of half a billion dollars.
The City of Austin is committed to ending its epidemic of traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2025. The Vision Zero Action Plan, adopted by city council in 2016, includes a detailed list of potential countermeasures to reduce traffic deaths. Various City of Austin departments, led by the Austin Transportation Department (ATD) have led the way in boldly demonstrating what can be accomplished towards road safety in Texas.
The $482m from the 2016 Mobility Bond available for nine Austin traffic corridors provides the City of Austin with the perfect opportunity to significantly invest in transportation with meaningful progress to zero transportation deaths.
Seventy-five people died in the city of Austin last year, 2017, from transportation, and 550 people suffered life-changing incapacitating injuries. Nine of those people died on the corridors included for funding in the 2016 bond, and 65 suffered life-changing incapacitating injuries there.
The Contract with Voters established for the 2016 Mobility Bond promises to “complete the proposed bond program within 8 years,” by 2024. Given that the city’s goal is to eliminate traffic deaths by 2025, it is reasonable to expect that the target of zero deaths is factored into the design and implementation of all corridor spending.
These are serious and achievable goals. The pedestrian and bike-heavy Guadalupe corridor has not seen any traffic fatalities from 2010 to today..
Guadalupe includes many features that contribute to this safety, among them, ever-present pedestrians and restricted left turns. However, it is not necessary to be adjacent to a university to achieve this level of safety.
Austin is a member city of NACTO, the National Association of City Transportation Officials. NACTO has published an Urban Street Design Guide that not only demonstrates how safe streets can be built, but also how to manage the transition to maximally safe streets from more traditional, more dangerous, street-road hybrids in otherwise urban environments.
The challenge in accomplishing these goals is in demonstrating a consistent commitment to transportation safety on every possible front- to reach zero deaths, all related efforts must be aligned and coordinated. Adopting a Vision Zero Action Plan necessitates that the city forgo conventional and politically expedient safety measures in favor of innovative, data-supported improvements.
Safety must be the top priority in all transportation policy decisions. Contrary to popular perception, urban roadway expansion does not increase safety or reduce congestion. Available evidence predicts only detrimental effects on congestion, the environment, affordability, and public safety.
The relationship between Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) and traffic fatalities has been stable for the last ten years in America after years of gradual reduction. This plateau indicates that we are approaching the limits of transportation safety possible through the conventional, piecemeal reforms. To eliminate traffic deaths in Austin by 2025, the city must ensure robust, frequent, and comprehensive coverage of public transportation and embrace low- or no-carbon transportation options, while using modern, best practices of safe street design.
The social and economic costs of a dangerous and inefficient transportation network largely consisting of single-occupant vehicle trips are hidden and enormous. Ensuring compliance between the implementation of the Mobility Bond with the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan will result in a safer, more economically prosperous Austin.
Deaths and Serious Injuries on Each Corridor, 2010-2017 Click images to expand
Every four years, MPOs are subject to federal review by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). As part of this process, these agencies want to hear from the public about how regional transportation projects affect our lives and what we think can be improved.
This evening, from 5pm to 7pm at UT campus (2405 Robert Dedman Drive), is the public input hearing for this cycle’s federal certification review. The public is asked to provide feedback on the following questions:
1. Do you have any comments regarding the CAMPO TransportationPolicy Board’s performance in carrying out the responsibility of the region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO)?
2. Is CAMPO doing an overall good job of providing the public with a reasonable opportunity to provide input and participate as part of the metropolitan transportation planning process?
3. Are there specific areas you feel CAMPO could improve? If so, explain.
Earlier this year, we encouraged public engagement with CAMPO to urge them to adopt a Vision Zero Action Plan, and they heard your voices! CAMPO is responsible for the administration of hundreds of millions of dollars of annual transportation funds but receives relatively little attention. Establishing a tradition of sustained public engagement will ensure efficient and accurate representation of regional transportation interests.
Show up this evening and give the federal government your thoughts on CAMPO’s performance! CAMPO and its board members perform vital public services, but as we have uncovered in our research, there are certainly aspects of CAMPO with room for improvement.
Metropolitan Planning Organizations rely on advisory committees to review work produced by their staff and to make recommendations to their decision making bodies, who then have the final say on all projects and every dollar of regional transportation funds.
CAMPO, the Austin region’s MPO, has a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) comprised of appointed representatives from local governments and transit agencies. They then pass on recommendations to the Transportation Policy Board (TPB) which is comprised of regional elected officials and transportation professionals.
This afternoon at 5pm on UT Campus, there is an opportunity to review CAMPO’s performance before the federal government. If you can’t make it in person, you can submit comments via email.
Given the pervasive impact of the decisions made by these bodies, and the various interests and divisions of stakeholders, these boards must be careful to reasonably and accurately represent the region’s residents. As a conduit for federal transportation funds, MPOs are subject to Title VI of the Civil Rights act, which prohibits discrimination in the administration of federal funds on the basis of race.
Race is only one category relevant for consideration. To accurately represent the region, MPOs must also balance rural, sub-urban, and urban interests, the fifth of Americans with disabilities, gender representation, and more.
Accurately representing the careful balance of interests is a difficult challenge, but one that MPOs are responsible for and must strive to address. The simplest diversity benchmark is the demographic composition of the TAC and TPB themselves. How closely do the people on these boards reflect the region they are intended to represent?
Farm&City investigated exactly these questions for the 9 largest MPOs in Texas and for CAMPO in particular. Our findings reveal uniform disparities in racial, gender, and disability representation everywhere we looked.
These disparities have significant immediate consequences for the region. For example, there are indications that women prioritize spending on safety and walkability more than men, and it is reasonable to believe that this would be reflected in policy decisions if women were allowed equal seats at the table. Certainly, women have historically not been adequately represented in policy making, and the City of Austin alone has a $400 million dollar need for basic, ADA compliant sidewalks.
Similar concerns hold for racial composition, urban-suburban-rural interests, and accessibility. Of the 203 people on the decision making bodies of the 9 largest Texas MPOs, we found only one with an apparent disability.
There are innumerable factors that lead to the final composition of these bodies. Many are out of the direct control of those who make the final decision in the pathway of deciding representation. Representative democracy, especially at a large scale, requires vigilance on the part of all involved. For example, people must vote to elect women, people of color, and people with disabilities in order for there to be the opportunity for more accurate representation on the Policy Board.
However, the present powers-that-be can substantially correct for decades of injustice and the extreme imbalance of policy making in favor of the perceived interests of non-hispanic white men. The Campo Policy Board Joint Powers Agreement ensures representation of various counties, cities, and transit authorities. It requires that each local government ensure that their representation on CAMPO committees reflects the diversity of their jurisdiction over time. Several of the cities and counties have never sent anyone who was not a non-Hispanic White male in the last five years of records that we reviewed.
I live and work on North Lamar between North Loop and Koenig. It’s the first place I’ve lived in Texas that enables anything close to an urban lifestyle.
Meaning that I live in a nice little apartment and can easily walk to several shops and restaurants. I can bike to HEB in ten minutes, and the MetroRapid buses take me to most of where I need to go throughout the city.
It’s not perfect, but I overwhelmingly prefer this arrangement to anywhere else I’ve lived. And it turns out that if you want to make it better, maybe you can.
Today, there isn’t a crosswalk in the 2000ft between North Loop and Koenig. Between those intersections, there are a few dozen shops and restaurants and six bus stops. There are more of both just outside those boundaries. All this to say, people dash across the street all the time.
This dangerous situation happens across Texas, but transportation officials are starting to try to fix it. TXDOT, the Texas Transportation Institute, Farm&City, and others who are contributing to the Texas Strategic Highway Safety Plan are working right now on a countermeasure specifically looking at “the distance needed between safe pedestrian crossings”. Long term, this SHSP could result in big shifts of focus, funding, and priorities.
This situation is not safe for me and my neighbors today! Furthermore, dashing across the street is one thing for the able-bodied, but what are the nearly 20% of Austinites with disabilities supposed to do? On a similar stretch of Lamar a bit further north, 15 people have died in the last 7 years. One of them, Donald Norton, was crossing Lamar in a motorized wheelchair in a long stretch where the street lacks continuous sidewalks without a safe crossing.
However there are solutions, and fortunately, the city of Austin provides the opportunity to pursue safer streets. On April 4, I called 311 to request a Pedestrian Hybrid Beacon at Houston Street, about halfway between the two intersections.
To be honest, it seems to me that there should be three crosswalks in between North Loop and Koenig, but even adding one PHB anywhere in between would be a huge boon to safety – significantly fewer people will risk running across the street if there’s a safer way nearby. NACTO estimates that people generally don’t want to walk more than three minutes to cross.
It is only nine days after I called 311, but I got my wish! I suspect it was other people’s wishes too, because it took only a week for ATD to get back to me: “We are currently constructing a traffic signal at N. Lamar and Houston… We are working toward having this signal in place by the end of April/beginning of May.”
Sure enough, I stepped out for lunch yesterday to find that the city was installing not just a PHB, but a new traffic signal.
To what extent am I responsible? I’m not sure. What matters to me is that there is this wonderful avenue for anyone in Austin to identify public problems and advocate for solutions, and that the Austin Transportation Department has made significant strides in developing safety intervention programs like this, with the ability to actually respond.
These opportunities to build safer streets are available throughout Texas, and not just for crosswalks. You can call 311 and request services from Public Works, Transportation Departments, etc. The largest Texas cities collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on transportation, some of it may as well be steered by residential input. All cities and counties should develop the capabilities to respond promptly, after verifying the need and design based on actual data and current best practices.
While the myth of “driving til you qualify” remains strong in the media, public opinion, and public policy decisions across Texas, it’s not quite a true story for most people – if you talk about all housing options instead of simply owning a single family home. On average, living in the dense urban part of Austin costs less for both housing and transportation expenses, compared to the sub-urban or rural parts of the region.
This first report from our Growing Weirder project is all about the questions of affordability and regional growth options for Austin. Further reports will look at strategies to provide more people with affordable, low carbon lifestyle options in Austin, but we begin with this baseline look at affordability across the region.
Location efficiency can and should be integrated in all housing and transportation related public policies, as well as private programs, such as websites related to realty and finding new housing. Regional growth policies such as CodeNEXT or the 2045 Regional Transportation Plan could fullly integrate this knowledge of affordability to try to give as many people as possible access to affordable housing.
Growing Weirder is our initiative to advocate for equitable, sustainable regional growth through the two major planning decisions currently underway in the Austin region. The City of Austin’s land use and development code rewrite, CodeNEXT, will determine what proportion of the 700,000 newcomers over the next ten years will be allowed to live in the City of Austin. CAMPO’s 2045 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) will determine many aspects of the region’s future, including the possible conversion of up to 650 square miles of rural areas to sub-urban or urban.
Farm&City produced a number of reports taking an in-depth look at the different factors influenced by these broad decisions, with some surprising conclusions. This work provides direction for the planning efforts listed above: if it is more affordable to live in a more compact, connected city, equitable long-term decisions should work to provide meaningful options for living in such places.
Growing Weirder is made possible through the generous support of our sponsors: GreaterAustin Neighborhoods, Blazek & Vetterling, Impact Hub Austin, and My Brilliant City.
Like all Metropolitan Planning Organizations in Texas, Austin’s CAMPO develops a short-term Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) every two years that ties together all regionally significant transportation projects in an attempt at a cohesive plan that meets long term vision and goals established in the longer Regional Transportation Plan process.
A lot of the funding decision for projects in the TIP are made by TXDOT, cities, counties, or transit and toll agencies. However, CAMPO has a significant pot of regionally discretionary funds to administer through a regional Project Call. The 2019-2022 Project Call amounts to $480 million – available to meet the region’s diverse multimodal transportation needs as local leaders see fit (within state and federal guidelines).
Late last year, local governments and transportation agencies were invited to submit their proposals. Collectively, $1.5b in proposed projects ranged from moving train tracks outside of downtown Kyle to a regional Transportation Demand Management Study.
Most of submitted projects were for roadway expansions. Based on the information provided in this extensive pdf, such projects accounted for 73 of the 129 proposals.
CAMPO staff presented the Policy Board with their recommendations at the April Transportation Policy Board Meeting. Policy Board members – and members of the public – voiced concerns regarding the proportion of funding allocated to new roadways at the expense of transit, Transportation Demand Management, and other sustainable transportation solutions.
Next month, the Policy Board will amend the TIP to include the final set of projects they will approve. In the meantime, Farm&City is diving deep into the Project Call process, what was submitted, and what is worth advocating for.