Boyt Interview – Details on Transportation, Open Space, Infrastructure

This is the third of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Jeb Boyt on his candidacy and the issues identified in the candidate scorecard. The interviews are organized as follows:
* Top Priorities, Experience, Community Involvement
* Livability, Affordability and Housing
* Transportation, Open Space and Infrastructure
* Public Safety, Small Business, and City Budget

What are the top 3 steps needed to improve North Austin’s mobility?

Getting urban rail operating. Getting Lone Star rail operating would be a huge benefit to North Austin to get people down Mopac. And then I think generally – it’s hard to narrow it down to three. Improving bicycle and pedestrian access – we’ve got a lot of disconnected sidewalks, especially along sections of N Lamar and areas where people needing to use this to get to bus stops, to get to stores. Folks use that everyday. And that relates not to just on N Lamar, but adjacent to it.

We need to work to try to create a better transportation flow in the larger Arboretum-Domain-Metric area. At the Kramer Ln station we’ve got ACC Metric campus, we’ve got the Domain, we’ve got the Arboretum. Years ago there was talk about trying to create some circulators. That’ll help, better bicycle connections will help. We’ve got some more improvements on the book. But it’s still ridiculously difficult trying to ride your bike from here to The Domain, taking your life into your hands. It shouldn’t be that hard.

I heard a story about a guy who came out for SXSW, got dropped off at Kramer Ln station and he missed his shuttle bus. He had to walk back to his hotel on 183 at 1 AM, in areas where there were no sidewalks. We can do better. We can do a lot better.

Are you talking about improvements just in the ROW, in places where the City has control over?

And creating some new ones. Certainly we’ve got UT owns a lot of land, We have a lot of control over the ROW along the railroad line north of 183. We’ve got the Rail-Trail proposals that will provide some connectivity. Along the Capitol Metro ROW we need to look at those to see how to make it happen. But there’s some difficulties. Like in Wooten, there is like no space. Very little space. There’s like schools, school kids who would benefit from getting across 183 safely on foot or bike. Let alone connectivity into the whole Crestview Station area.

In 2010, staff recommended to open the N Lamar-Morrow Street intersection north of Crestview Station to west-bound traffic. This proposal pitted residents in Highland neighborhood who wanted better east-west connectivity against residents in Crestview who feared a torrent of traffic down their residential street. The Council subcommittee reviewing the proposal voted 3-0 to open Morrow. Did they get it right?

I actually remember when they closed Morrow – that was closed back in 95 maybe. I’m not sure closing it in the first place was the right decision. But there was a real problem, there were real risks with cut-through traffic.

That was about the time 183 was being put in? N Lamar and Anderson became a cluster, as they say.

Right. As it is, to get from Highland you go up Morrow and take a right into this freeway interchange. So there’s problems there.

It’s a challenging area. I don’t know if allowing west-bound traffic through is the right decision.

So you would not have allowed it?

I’d have to look at the specifics a lot more. I’d be more inclined to allow traffic from Crestview Station to exit on Morrow and go westbound, than allow people who are not in the neighborhood to cross Lamar or turn left onto Morrow to go through the neighborhood.

This particular case was intended to illustrate the challenge of east-west traffic in general. Do you see any wider approaches to North Austin’s east-west traffic problem? Is there a strategy?

Well there’s a proposal to include a new rapid bus line on Parmer. Wasn’t clear exactly on the parameters of where it would run. But it would run roughly on the Parmer corridor. That would help. Parmer itself can be a challenge.

How about Anderson?

Anderson is again is a challenge – there are also again large blocks where there’s no connectivity through to the neighborhoods.

What about Rapid Transit?

Even bus transit would help along Anderson. Part of the problem with a rapid bus line on Anderson is that it’s fairly short.

We were proposing that you extend it to Mopac and dog-leg over to Jollyville, and east down Airport.

That could work.

We need to look at the alternatives. I don’t have a lot of easy – they’re not easy solutions. I think looking at the corridor between ACC Metric, Kramer Station.

Last year, a ProjectConnect advisory board voted 14-1 to approve a first rail line up San Jacinto and Red River to Highland Mall. Many rail advocates and several neighborhoods in North Austin argue that Guadalupe/N Lamar is a more logical choice based on current ridership. Others worry a rail line will accelerate development in suburban areas not yet supported by good pedestrian infrastructure, exacerbating mid-term congestion. There is also the wider debate about whether rail is a $1.4 billion gamble that trends like robot-cars will render obsolete, or a long overdue first step towards a more sustainable urban transportation system. Where do you come down on urban rail, and on the best route for an initial rail line?

The best route is Hancock to Grove.

To Grove?

Grove is where ACC – Grove – it’s the Riverside Golf Course. All the plans go from the intersection of Grove and Riverside. But from Hancock – connections to the red line, bring folks down to UT to the Capitol, to Downtown. Avoid the costs of the underpass at Hancock. I think that would be far and away the best.

There’s more ridership on Lamar, yes. There’s REAL challenges. In order to do construction from 24th to 29th, to 35th Street, you’d have to close two car lanes of traffic. Or, a subway tunnel would be a possibility from 35th street would be about a billion dollars. Not likely you’d get federal money to do it. And there’s the question of if you run a train up Guadalupe/Lamar, where should it go? Do you connect to the Red Line at Crestview Station? That’s a long way to ask people to do a transfer if they’re going to UT or the Capitol. Some people advocate pushing through to the transit center [north of 183]. Well you could look at that, but you’d spend probably more than we are proposing to spend at Hancock to get to that intersection – Airport and Lamar. Then again, there’s the question of how you get through the freeway interchange that they built at 183 and Lamar. Very expensive alternatives, if that’s even the way to go. It may be better, if we come back to this in a few years, it may make a lot more sense to go to the Lone Star rail station at 35th Street, which is a possibility for a future expansion.

On Mopac?

Come north of campus. You’d run it down 35th Street probably, to Central Market, Guadalupe, Seton. You’d then connect it over to the existing proposed station at San Jacinto and Dean Keaton.

Oh, robot cars. They’re not going to replace transit. There are two robot car scenarios. There is the nightmare robot car scenario where everybody has their own robot car. And we go ride downtown, in traffic, that’s as bad or worse than what we see today, and then our robot cars circle the block waiting to pick us up, or look for parking. That’s not going to get us any improvement.

There’s the idea that if you have a robot car that is an improved version of Car-2-Go, or an improved version of a shuttle, so it picks up several people from a neighborhood and take them downtown, or whatever the destination might be. There’s opportunity for some real improvement, that would be supplemental to the high capacity transit carrying lots of people on a route. Best way to do that is rail, rapid bus is second best, and then our regular bus system. Robot cars aren’t going to help that much.

The other challenge of the Lamar route is the disruption of the rapid bus system, especially since we’re talking now of expanding the rapid bus all the way north from the Tech Ridge campus in Pflugerville.

There’s been a lot of back and forth on those routes about how much you would really lose of federal funding if you swapped out rapid bus for rail. Do you have a sense of how valid that argument is?

It is fairly valid. Well it’s a question that we would not get the additional money for rail, because of the duplicative service from the rapid bus. It’s also a question of when – at some point the rapid bus will be retired. But the bigger issue is the duplication of service – you still have to run the rapid bus, if you go up Lamar to the Crestview transit center, what do you do then with all the people north of there up to Tech Ridge? Are you going to ask them to get off and transfer? That would be a lowering of service which I don’t think you want to do.

Two years ago, a developer sought a variance to build a 4-story apartment block at the Ross property at 8100 Burnet. The developer argued that the project puts mixed use housing on a transit corridor, contributing to the Imagine Austin goal of compact and connected. Opponents argued that the project would put too much density at a location a quarter mile from the nearest rapid transit station, and the project’s “easy in-and-out” design that wraps apartments around a parking garage core would just encourage more driving. Council supported the upzoning on first reading. How would you have voted?

Probably in favor of that, although I think the larger challenge there is the disconnect – no connectivity between that site and Anderson. It’s difficult to redesign that area to have a separate street that would connect through to Anderson, or Steck. It’s a site that we probably should have higher – 4 stories seem appropriate. There’s the rapid bus stop there – south of Anderson?

There’s one at the entrance to Northcross, and one north of Ohlen, about a quarter mile away.

Quarter mile is a reasonable distance – that’s the usual planning distance for people to walk to transit. If I lived in those apartments, would I walk down, cross Anderson, and go to the bus stop? Probably.

What are your priorities for the environment and open space?

Mostly it’s Parks priorities. Long-term things I have done is worked for access to public lands that we already own. BCP [Balcones Canyonlands] land, water quality protection lands. Certainly building the Violet Crown trail is one of those. Right now efforts are underway to get it built to the Wildflower center. The next challenge will be to get it extended south into the water quality protection lands. I think that’s going to happen.

The Parks Department – we’ve got major needs. In terms of taking care of our existing parks. We need to improve and expand our parks; we’re having trouble maintaining what we’ve already got. Nick Barbaro had a really great response in the Statesman editorial on special event fees. He lined out all of the waivers. A large number – maybe half, were Parks Department waivers. The problem is that waivers directly affect the parks budget, whereas the additional revenues the city’s receiving from these events goes into the general fund. We probably need to look to see if we’re waiving parks fees, if there’s an offsetting transfer coming back to the Parks Department to cover any losses.

I think one of the things that we’ve not done is public-private partnerships for parks, sponsorships for parks. You go to other cities and see nice facilities they have that are corporate sponsored. We don’t have that much in Austin. I think that’s one of the problems we have with the lack of facilities. I’d like to put back on the table the idea of the swim center that the YMCA had proposed as a partnership, to see if that might work.

We need to do a master plan, we’re in the early stages of working on a master plan for that whole area north of Cesar Chavez. We can look at that. For North Austin, we need to look at opportunities for funding parks, and some of this is going to be building local support for parks. A lot of the neighborhood association meetings I’ve been going to, I frequently hear people talk about working on park projects, partnering with the Parks Foundations on the grants for parks. Continuing that, continuining supporting local folks in doing that, expanding that out to other neighborhoods that aren’t involved in that now, is part of it.

We have two big park opportunities – one is the redevelopment of the property at 45th and Bull Creek, which is, while not technically in District 7, you can throw a rock and hit it. One of the things I think we have a strong chance to happen in any version of the redevelopment plan, is we get parkland along the flood plain – really gorgeous area down there. Hopefully connect that to the Shoal Creek trail system.

The other one we’ve heard a lot of talk about is Austin Energy’s Ryan Property there in Crestview Station. That one’s going to be more challenging. Austin Energy says they want to be paid. It has to be a transfer of funds. That can be worked out. I’ve heard that the City may be trying to acquire other parcels adjacent to that to create a larger area. Of course you’ve got a real conflict between the neighborhood’s desire for a park, and or a community garden, and the desire to have housing that can be affordable housing, right there adjacent to the rail station. And there’s the issue that, if you look at the City’s plan, some of the best areas for a park are where you would want to put through a new road or connection into the station from Justin. The best areas for the park are areas that have the least compatibility restrictions on them. So we might need to work out a deal with the neighborhood, in agreeing that overall, in terms of how that site gets worked. As the Council Member for District 7, certainly I would be very interested and very committed to working with all the parties, trying to come up with the best solution or best balance that we can.

Parks Department describes much of North Austin as an ‘open space desert’. The average open space in Austin’s urban core is 5% – in some North Austin neighborhoods it’s under 1%. With existing mechanisms, North Burnet Gateway will end up with about a third to a half the open space of Downtown Austin. The City of Austin allocated a paltry $4 million for urban land acquisition in the 2012 bond package. Yet getting new open space, and getting it where it’s most useful near transit, is expensive and getting more so with each passing day. Should Austin be spending a lot on open space in really expensive places?

That’s a tough one. Generally, it works better if we can encourage development patterns that support good open space. There’s actually some pretty large open spaces at the Domain that are starting to come online. I don’t think these are part of PARD’s inventory – these are private spaces.

They count it towards the North Burnet Gateway open space – you mean like the 9-acre dog park that’s just opened. That was actually subsidized.

The bigger question is – The Pickle Campus would be a huge opportunity, but I doubt UT’s going to let us have much access to that at all. UT’s doing the redevelopment of their property on the west side of Mopac, south between Braker and 360. So, I don’t know what the plan there is, but I do think it would be great if it had some park opportunities there. Our relationship with UT is complex, and challenging. Because we have few levers and opportunities to use with UT. The Council has been, when they’ve had rare opportunities to have levers with UT, Council has been really reluctant to use that. And we’ve really got to. We’ve got some big challenges. Redevelopment of that property is a great example, but the biggest challenge is what happens with the Brackenridge tract, the Lion’s Golf Course. I wish I had an easy answer about how we could keep Lions. Certainly we’ve seen UT – part of the challenge of dealing with UT is, the first time we start to push back, or even if they think you’re going to push back, they’ll run off and get a law passed in the legislature.

UT also wants a lot of cooperation, from the city, on building a medical school. I think we need to make them realize that while UT is a huge asset for Austin, Austin is also a big asset for UT.

You served on the 2012 bond task force committee that recommended bond funding for various open space projects. You voted to increase funding for land conservation and trails mostly outside the city limits, from the staff recommended $50m to $57m, and to cut staff’s recommendation for urban park acquisition from $7m to $4m. Tell me about your thinking on those votes? Is 57 to 4 the right ratio for water quality vs urban open space?

Water quality lands – I think we’re moving to the end of that process. Very limited opportunities left for acquisition of land over the Barton Springs aquifer. So that was kind of a grab it now or never situation. One of the things we’ve heard from the Parks Department is that “you can give us money to buy and create more urban parks, but we don’t have the money to maintain it.” It’s the challenge between the capital budget and the annual operating budget.

And here again, is the Parks Department appropriately funded? Parks unfortunately has been in the situation that they’re the first department cut when things get tight, and the last department funded when the good times start coming back again. This back and forth has hurt them. Parks Department got screwed on the Auditorium Shores plan when the Convention Visitors Bureau has held all the funds that was supposed to fund the projects on Auditorium Shores.

That’s the standard argument – we don’t have enough money to maintain what we have, why should we be buying more land. And yet, as you said about the conservation lands, we’re running out of opportunity there, doesn’t that same argument apply to urban areas that are redeveloping? Grab it now or never? And why can’t you land bank the land? That’s what they’re doing with affordability. There’s no maintenance if you’re just sitting on the land leasing it out.

No, there’s still maintenance costs associated with keeping the property clean, keeping people off…

But if you are leasing it out, you’re bringing in revenue to offset the maintenance. That’s what lots of businessmen do along Burnet Rd – use the revenues to land bank the property.

The open space was a separate line relative to the overall parks budget. One of the things that we focused on in the parks budget was getting the right balance in the overall parks budget, and the funding between building out for the rec centers, and building and projects in the various levels of parks, metro parks, neighborhood parks. There are various categories of parks. That was the primary balance that we struck, was balancing open space acquisition with the support for the build out and development of parks. For instance, the park on Onion Creek where we saw a lot of the flooding, that property was acquired in 1998. We’re just now starting to see facilities built out there.

In a 10-1 universe, west Austin’s council members can be expected to resist spending, and urban council members will use Imagine Austin to justify funding that supports the city’s compact-and-connected goals. There’s a risk that infrastructure projects for suburban north Austin will continue to languish. What arguments will be effective in winning capital investment for suburban improvements?

The main capital projects are likely to get pushed off until a possible 2018 bond election. So we have a chance to develop some practices and habits within the Council before we actually get there. Most of the first round of 10-1 Council members will still be there for that bond package. But even in the annual budget there are capital projects. Sidewalk improvement projects, other miscellaneous projects. The water/waste water projects have been pulled out of the bond process and are all funded through the water utility. How those get apportioned is going to be one of the big challenges. The city has developed some pretty good priority scoring lists.

A lot of those priority lists tend to emphasize Imagine Austin goals – something close to a transit station gets a higher score. And that comes back to this question – you’ve got a gap on Parmer, near nothing, how do we even get on this list?

Yeah, that’s a great question. Even with those priority lists, you’ve got a cut-off line. There are projects that make the list, and there are projects that can’t even get on the list. And where that line is is kind of the real question. And I think more so than trying to define the nature of the projects, I think the first challenge is going to be balancing funding between the districts. That’s the big challenge we’re going to face during next summer’s budget conversation.

As Council Member Morrison brought up, during discussion of the dog park on Auditorium Shores, she asked Parks Department, so do you realize you don’t have dog parks in every one of the 10 districts, and maybe that’s going to be an issue going forward? That kind of question is going to come up. That’s always the key challenge. Let’s say you’ve got a proposed project at Dessau and Howard Ln. Very suburban. What are the needs? Where does it fall on the scoring ranking? Why is that ranking too low? Why should it be pushed higher? And that’s where council members are going to have to work with folks in the community, to try to do what we can to get those projects on the lists and get them funded.

See also:

District 7 Candidate Page