English Interview – Details on Transportation, Open Space, Infrastructure

This is the third of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Ed English on his candidacy and the issues identified in the AustinDistrict7.org 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

The interview took place on May 24. Since then, Mr. English has met with numerous stakeholders and refined his positions. He asked to provide updates to his original responses where appropriate. These are in italics below.

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

Traffic is a huge huge problem. Like most of the major issues, there’s no silver bullet. We’re going to have to kill this giant with a thousand cuts.

I’m a big proponent of believing that every tool that’s available to us needs to be considered for any particular project. That includes rail, that includes buses, that includes bikes, that include walkability, that includes road improvements, high occupancy lanes.

Now having spoken in broad terms, I like buses. I do think that the flexibility that they offer is really almost unmatched by other options. If it’s not working here, you move the bus stop down the road, you move it over a couple of blocks.

I would like to see wherever possible, and I’ve said this before – roads are not a dirty word for me. As you get closer to the core city, the opportunity for road improvements is limited, because you just don’t have the right of way. But has you move out of the core, you can add additional lanes, you can improve and add exit ramps from freeways.

I sat in a wonderfully informative discussion about changing the basic design of intersections to improve traffic flow. I think there’s a lot to explore there so that your time at lights is extremely minimal. So there’s a whole host of little things you can do, but I really think that we have to consider every option. Where we can put bike lanes in, put bike lanes. Where we can add sidewalks, add sidewalks. Where we can effectively upgrade our bus service, that has to be an option.

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 guess ‘right’ is which neighborhood you live in. [laughter]

Maybe I can offer some perspective from someone who doesn’t live in either one. This is unfortunately one of those cases where there’s not much of a happy medium. I’m not a traffic engineer, but it seemed like it was either all or nothing – open it or don’t.

Honestly, if I were judge and jury, I think probably the weight of the evidence came down in favor of Crestview. I thought they made the case for the potential additional traffic. Again, maybe it’s a little bias of keeping neighborhoods as quiet as possible, and I tend to lean that way, that tends to be my default position, is protection of the neighborhoods.

But don’t let me misguide you, I’m not anti-growth, and I’m not anti-density, I just believe it needs to be very controlled and structured, well thought through. But if I were sitting there and voting, I would have favored the Crestview position.

The bigger picture issue is region-wide, we have lousy east-west connectivity in this area. How do you tackle that?

Given the fact that anything you do on a significant basis is going to be an incredible battle between those who are most affected by it, I mean years ago when I first moved here there was more than one push that didn’t get anywhere with putting an east-west freeway along Koenig Ln. There was a lot of resistance from the neighborhoods – I understand that.

Frankly, I would like to where possible, and I don’t know that you could do it on Koenig, maybe Anderson Ln has more options because it’s a bigger thoroughfare, maybe you have opportunities to purchase additional right of way. I would like to see an east-west, and again I’m just going to reference the north part of town, the south side has their own issues. I would like to see one or two corridors where we did everything we possibly could to improve movement of traffic along there.

That could be additional widening of the roads, that’s not an inexpensive proposition; there would be a lot of resistance to that, particularly along Koenig. It would have a bigger impact on the neighborhoods, they’re closer to the road than Anderson Ln, because the commercial properties [on Anderson] have more depth, you have maybe some more room to work with there.

But what are you proposing?

Right now I’m just talking about road improvements. There are other options. Anderson Ln, because of its additional width, you have some better options as far as adding bike lanes. You could also look at the options to improve some mass transit from one to the other.

You would actually acquire additional right of way?

I think you’d have to put that in front of the public and see what their reaction to it is. I’d be very sensitive to their input. I don’t know how much available right of way there is…

There’s not much on Anderson

I don’t think there’s much left. You could at least explore that option. It may go nowhere. But it would be worthy of taking a look. To be perfectly honest with you, without doing research, I’m not afraid to say, that’s something I don’t have a definite answer for. I think it’s smart sometimes to say, “I don’t know that there’s been sufficient research.” I’m specifically addressing your question of east-west.

As you go north, maybe Braker – you have many more options there. Without some public input on that and research, I’ve never been afraid to say, I don’t know if I can give you a specific answer on that.

9/18: After having time to consider the question of east/west connectivity at greater length there are several options that would appear worthy of research. Among those options would be bus pull over lanes, better traffic light synchronization and potentially a restriping to narrower the lanes in order to add an additional lane in each direction.

I saw just how effective that could be while living in Houston during its early 80’s boom. There have also been some very interesting designs for intersections developed that offer the potential for vastly improved flow through intersections. All of these possibilities are only stop gap measures. The better long term solution is to reduce the volume of traffic on our east/west routes by offering better public transportation. The transit hub concept that could be used on Burnet Road would also be applicable to east/west thoroughfares.   

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?

I’m not anti-rail, I’m not pro-rail. I’m a ‘let’s do smart rail.’

I believe rail has a place in the bigger picture. I’m one of those rail advocates who says, it needs to be considered as part of any answer to the congestion problem. The current alignment being proposed, I have concerns about it.

My unscientific poll of the district, I’ve asked at least 100 people, if it’s built, what do you see it designed to accomplish. Almost everyone will give you the same answer – “Reduce congestion.” They want to see cars off the road. They want to see it make it easier to get from point A to point B, whether they’re using the rail or driving.

If you accept that, then you look at where will you be able to accomplish that goal the best. I’ve heard from Scott Morris and other people, I’ve seen their numbers. It’s very convincing. You have to factor in a lot of things, like the cost of the system, potential ridership, not the least of which is, how much are we going to have to subsidize over the long haul. Because almost all public transportation loses money.

That’s true for highways and roads too.

It is, it is. Almost any public transportation system, even a road, someone ends up having to pay for the cost of it because it doesn’t make enough money to pay for itself. So that’s a huge consideration, especially in a city where the taxpayers feel incredibly fatigued. So I think some key questions are – how much traffic will it take off the road? How much revenue will it generate? What’s the upfront cost? Are you going over the river, or not?

I applaud the city’s efforts to look at rail as an option. I even think the E Riverside to UT portion has a lot going for it. Where I and a lot of others tend to part company with the proposed alignment is north of UT. At the northern end of the route it seems like we lose sight of the priority of taking traffic off the road. The priority for the northern end of the route seems to be, how much development can we build along it. I think people with some justification have gotten cynical. Over the last couple of decades, projects are sometimes built for developers rather than for the public. A lot of people just don’t see the ridership on the northern end of it justifying it. They see it as an opportunity more for development than for taking cars off the road.

One of the corridors that was used to justify that route was I35. A reasonable question that people ask is whether people coming down I35 from Round Rock or Georgetown would really get off of I35, when they’ve already made it to Highland Mall, to park, to get on a train to cover the remaining distance of going downtown. A lot of people see that as far-fetched. A lot of the development that they say will use this northern end, that would be concentrated around the ACC Highland Mall campus, if you see how rapidly that would have to be developed to reach their estimated ridership numbers, even as fast as Austin is growing, this projected development seems completely out of sync with reality.

I personally think there’s a better option with Guadalupe/Lamar. If you’re looking at the same kind of numbers that they’re looking at, cost, ridership, it seems to make more sense. Not that it’s perfect. Those who argue against Guadalupe/Lamar will tell you you’re going to lose car lanes. People in cars will face far worse traffic problems than they have to face now. That’s a good valid argument for why Guadalupe/Lamar may not be a terribly good choice.

But bottom line, we need to look at that as an option. Whichever option you pick, one of those corridors, or some people are proposing something closer to Mopac, which seems kind of far fetched to me. Whatever route we pick is going to make some people unhappy. I personally, if forced to make a decision, think that Guadalupe/Lamar would be a better option. But a bad rail decision is worse than no rail decision. A lot of people have verbalized this to the Central Corridor Advisory Group. A bad decision is really dooming the system’s future. If it’s in the wrong place and the ridership’s not there, if it’s like the Red Line and the costs are way over projection – people are fearful of that because that’s been the story in the past.

As a future council member, I will live with whatever the voters make. I’m really sincere about this. If the voters pass it, one of the things I will consider an absolute charge, this project is going to go down the way the voters passed it. I will do everything in my power to see it on budget, on time, what the voters expect.

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?

Just to show you I’m open minded, for me reviewing that, I came down on the side of the developers. Personally I thought what they proposed – it’s an appropriate location. I saw a lot more positive than negative. As far as bus stops, bus stops can be moved. I rarely ever see that as an objection. A bus stop’s five blocks down the street – well we move the bus stop. I thought that was an appropriate project in the right location.

9/18: The proposal to develop transit hubs along Burnet that would potentially include some measure of park space would reduce the number of possible locations for bus stops. With that a given limitation and the likelihood that a transit hub would be located close to the intersection of Burnet and Anderson, some distance from the location of the proposed project, the desirability of having a 4 story apartment building at 8100 Burnet drops considerably. That particular site has a lot of potential for use in adding housing, but the size and scope of something built there along with the projected increased traffic in the area would have to be carefully evaluated before deciding what is appropriate. 

What are your priorities for the environment and open space?

I’d really like to see additional efforts made, and I’m going to speak specifically to our district – the major creekways, Walnut Creek, Shoal Creek, that we do what we can to make sure they’re properly maintained, that they’re utilized where appropriate for foot traffic, for bike traffic, that they’re maintained as the beautiful pieces of nature that they are. Where we can better utilize them for public use, fine. I think part of that is making sure that we do what we can to manage them as sources of floods, where we can improve drainage, increase pervious cover so there’s not as much run-off.

Parks space across the city is unevenly distributed. I don’t think that was anything evil-minded, it’s just the way things worked out over time through a lack of long-term planning. We might have to be a little compromising here. I’d like to see the City partner with neighborhoods to build little pocket parks. There’s little vacant pieces of land here and there that adjoin commercial property in some cases, that has older buildings on it or that’s been abandoned. There are opportunities for the city to buy small parcels of land and use it for little pocket parks.

Good lord, we found enough money on relatively short notice to buy a golf course on the southwest corner of town. If we can do that, there’s no reason why neighborhoods like Crestview, which have waited a long time for their little piece of earth, there’s no reason why that couldn’t be done at a nominal cost. Not through grand projects. I’m not sure that’s not cost prohibitive unless you’re out on the edge of the city where the land’s available at a reasonable cost.

But I think there’s opportunity for little pocket parks, small little pieces of open space strategically placed. Our district needs it because we’re woefully short of that, given the distribution of park space. We don’t have our share. And I think we could rectify that.

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?

And just to give you an example, you’re talking about parcels along commercial corridors. We looked at a parcel adjacent to where the new Farmer’s Market VMU is going in. We were trying to get a small pocket park to support that transit-oriented area. There was an underutilized piece of land. Talked to the property owner – they wanted $3.2 million for a 1 acre piece of land. $3.2 million. That’s not cheap.

No that’s not cheap.

So the question is whether Austin should be buying public space in transit-oriented places where the land is really expensive.

Again, you have to define what is a lot. Given the fact there’s a fairly widespread movement to make Austin more affordable, and that goes back to what is the city spending, affordability covers a lot of areas, but a big aspect is what is the city spending that people pay for through their taxes. I realize that the acquisition of park space is not quick, it’s not easy, and it’s usually not cheap. You look for, and sometimes they may be hard to find, it’s not something where you say “we’re going to acquire five properties within this one-square mile area within the next year” – I don’t think you can set those kinds of timelines because it’s not realistic.

You have to keep your eyes open, have the neighborhoods watching out.   I’ll give you a small example – occasionally code enforcement will condemn a property and demolish it. There are instances, in District 7 as well, where you have habitual problems with property maintenance, drug hangouts, abandoned homes, the city has the mechanisms in place to take ownership of those properties. That’s just one option.

There are restrictions on what they can do, but those restrictions can be changed. It might just be a couple of lots, but it could be larger than that. Where there are distressed owners who’ve abandoned property, I’m for cutting a deal. The City has more negotiating power than it realizes. And all too often we take the value of a property at first offer. Talk to them, work a deal. You have to use a little creativity to see what you can do without getting into an expensive proposition.

9/18: As an example of those opportunities that sometimes are within reach, we as a city can look at combining some of the city’s service and maintenance facilities and converting the then vacant property to small parks. For time to time there may be opportunities to repurpose land used by Austin Energy, AISD, or perhaps the State of Texas. 

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?

I’ll answer that in the spirit of 10-1. I think that example is a good example for why 10-1 should work. We have 10 districts. Council members coming from 10 different parts of the city. I think you’re going to see a sea change in how decisions like that are made. Those who live outside of the city core – they will outnumber the core. I don’t want that to sound confrontational, but I think by virtue of the fact that you have council members who come from every area of the city, and the fact that one vote on the council accomplishes nothing – it takes 6 votes to pass anything, I think you’re going to have a sense of cooperation from those Council members whose districts are largely suburban.

I think you’re going to find a much more sympathetic viewpoint to ensuring capital projects are more evenly distributed. I think that is a classic question of why 10-1 was wanted in the first place. Please understand – I am not anti-Downtown. I was joking, someone was telling me the other day, who lives downtown, “Well if you’re elected, you’re going to vote against everything downtown-oriented, aren’t you?” And I said, “Not most of it.” It’s just my objective to see capital projects and improvements more evenly disbursed throughout the city. I won’t be alone.

 See also:

District 7 Candidates Page