Paver Interview – Details on Transportation, Open Space, Infrastructure

This is the third of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Jimmy Paver 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

The interview took place on May 17. Since then, Mr. Paver 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?

I do think that we need to make the area more walkable. There are places where people feel under threat to cross on their bikes or on foot. Especially down here in the southern part of the district. Getting across Burnet Rd, or Anderson Ln, or Parmer. They don’t do it because they can’t do it. In terms of policy solutions to doing something like that, other cities have done a walkable underpass, or walkable overpass, whatever it might be – people need a way, and this goes back to quality of life in each neighborhood, and thinking you can’t get over to the next neighborhood to reach a park. So we need ways to make things more walkable in each neighborhood.

From a transportation standpoint, we need to look at getting all the rapid transit that we need. We’re going to have to look at rail, even though it underserves this community. It is still part of a larger plan to connect the entire city. We also need to look at improving our existing infrastructure. We need to widen roads. I really do like the idea of having bus turnout lanes, because I do think that’s a huge issue to the flow of traffic. And so, we also need to work with regional partners to see where those projects are, and how we can assist in our small way, getting those plans – the flyover on 183 that connects with I35 – in the next few years – things like that.

What would be an example of widening a road?

To the extent that it’s possible, you’d have to do a right of way where you add a lane.

Where would you add lanes?

In this district? If it was doable you’d add a turn lane south of 2222 on Burnet Rd. But to the extent that you could do that, it would make it more drivable.

You can talk about rail, you can talk about bikes, you can talk about walkability. You can talk about all that stuff. But when it comes down to it, from the standpoint of what do we need to do about transportation, we need to make sure that people can get around in a way that doesn’t totally reduce their quality of life, for whichever mode that they choose. That’s a broad answer, but this is …

You have competing needs, though. You have people who live in this part of the neighborhood – you’re going to have to drive wherever you need to go. For them, widening roads makes sense. But if you live near Burnet Rd, widening Burnet makes it harder for them to walk across the street.

Yeah. Absolutely. In deference to what is the biggest short-term problem right now, we’re talking more about traffic. Driveable traffic – making that an easier daily activity, that I also think that goes to personal choice about how to do it. Whether that means riding the bus, or time-shifting, when people go to work, this is basically a 4-hour a day problem. This isn’t something that never ends. It’s something that’s created by the system that we’ve implemented, and the fact that we’ve fallen behind on our transportation infrastructure. The priority has to be moving people in vehicles right now. Secondary to that, the other things we need to look at for this neighborhood [Allandale] specifically is the ability to walk around.

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? 

Morrow has been a point of contention for a long time. When Wal-Mart was coming, and now with this turn lane stuff. It’s obvious why each neighborhood would or wouldn’t want it. I don’t think it’s a very effective policy change – it’s dangerous to turn left there. And there’s a reason that you don’t. You can go up to Lamar, turn left onto Anderson, and go that way. Or loop back and turn right onto Morrow. I don’t think that they got it right per se. With the Midtown Commons and how many units are going to go in there, that’s just not from a safety standpoint a great idea. From a neighborhood standpoint I can see why they would be concerned about that.

So you’re saying the onus should have been to protect the residents in Crestview?

Yeah, I think they’ll move a lot of traffic through there, and it’s dangerous vehicle traffic when you can just go up and turn around.

What about coming straight across from Highland?

There’s a light signal there, I don’t see that as dangerous. I see the left turn from the middle lane on Lamar as dangerous.

More broadly – east-west traffic. It’s not going to be a road, whatever it is. The east-west connectivity will be solved somewhat by what’s going to happen with 183 and TxDOT. To the extent that people are moving way out. A better way to get east and west — it’s not a road infrastructure improvement question, it’s a question of finding more effective ways to move people. I really don’t have a good answer to this question. There isn’t one.

It sounds like what you’re kind of on the verge of saying is what I’ve heard transportation planners say, is it’s not a matter of how many cars you can move, but of how many people you can move – it becomes a transit solution.

Yes – I agree with that. It’s about the number of people you can move. Once you have a more comprehensive transit system in place, then you’ll have a better solution to that. God willing, in 10-15 years you’ll have the connectivity on rail that you need to move people across the city. As far as a road is concerned, you just can’t do it.

Drilling them through neighborhoods…

You can’t do that. It’s not a solvable problem with an old idea.

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? 

9/14 – While I stand by this initial statement [below], I am not supporting the rail proposal. At $110 million a mile, it still isn’t the route most consistent with existing demand. It will also add yet another pass-through on people’s property taxes that is substantial and lasting. 

I come down on the side of we have to something – is it the best plan we have, no.   Will it cost more if we wait five years and restructure it, yes. Should we have done it 10 years ago, probably. Is it going to make everybody happy, or service them for their tax dollars immediately? No.

But people have to remember that rail is part of a wider plan to provide transit options all over Austin. Within six years, hopefully, after the commencement of the first line, we’ll be building other lines. If we take the short view, which is – this is going to cost a lot of money, and this is not going to serve my area, while that’s valid, at the same time, I think you have to do what’s right for the entire city. And this is the best first step in that direction.

What do you think of the proposals on I35 to bury it or improve…

I think if you can get TxDOT to fund it all, go ahead. This is based on a concept in Dallas, the Woodall-Rogers freeway. That’s been successful, and drawn commerce there. But it’s hugely expensive, would be hugely disruptive during a time when we have this many more people. So, it’s an expensive but long-term fix. I think the proposal is to bury it from 1st to 15th Street. I have doubts about the costs of doing so. I think it might draw in some new business and new things to downtown, if it was modeled as Dallas modeled theirs, it could be a good thing. But it would be expensive, and I don’t know what role the city would be expected to play.

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?

I’m not opposed to it. I understand the problems that are going to be created in terms of transit, by having congestion, not being near the station. But until we have an idea about how we really want to comprehensively control these types of developments in certain areas, so that they don’t create congestion, I don’t think you can be against everything. Its non-proximity to a busing location, while inconvenient, is not something that should have to be a requirement to do a project like that.

What are your priorities for the environment and open space?

In this district itself, we should look at having more parkland available for people who feel like they can’t get around to another neighborhood and utilize it. We should, when you’re talking about environment in general, everything that we are currently doing and more should be done to protect the environment as we know it.

These projects, these larger development projects have environmental consequences that are avoidable. I think that we have to be consistent in ensuring that the environment is protected from Shoal Creek, back to the question of the flood plain areas. We certainly need more space and parks and community areas for people to gather.

One of the things that Council doesn’t like is a revenue-neutral open space anymore. It’s tough to sell them on that. We’ve had this big discussion about Crestview park. And while I understand that they were promised something that they didn’t get, the idea for Austin Energy to sell that tract of land and to just have it be a park, it didn’t excite [Council] members. So they went off and bought a golf course that’s going to generate revenue. I think there’s been some things that have been more deferential to the Barton Creek watershed area. I think we should look at ways, develop ideas, and parks and community areas that have some potential for revenue-earning for the city.

So taking the Crestview park as an example…

There’s a number of ways you could generate some revenue when you’re attracting families to the area. Council Member Tovo has an idea of putting a carousel inside the park. You could put a community garden there, grow vegetables and sell them at a farmer’s market. There’s ways you can think about it. We still charge to go to the pool at Northwest Park. There’s some ways that we can do this, that make it attractive enough. There’s also things that development can be a part of, whether that’s a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district. And not make Crestview happy in any way, but these are compromised options for getting more open space when you’re competing for dollars.

People have talked about TIFs as a possible mechanism. I’ve heard that efficiency of a TIF depends on the scale. How serious a mechanism would that be for say Crestview Station as an example?

I don’t know. You’re looking at a 3-acre tract, of which you might use an acre for development, which isn’t very much.

I wouldn’t think you would apply it to that one tract, but to that entire district.

I think it can be effective if it’s scaled correctly, but I’d have to look at the details and the structure of the payback. They’ve been disastrous failures in some places, and successful in others. It’s another compromise option. One that I would not say no to if it gets people some of what they want.

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?

It is worthwhile to have a place where you can do community gatherings, like a park, in a densified area. I think people who want to densify should share the cost of doing so. So if you want to build new housing and you want to go up, you should provide a space for people to go for the community. But in terms of what we have to spend, and what we’re spending it on, I think we need to look more towards partnerships than just throwing a lot of money at a little list.

Do you have an example of a partnership-type concept that would work?

The Triangle’s got some nice open space.

The Triangle’s park is city-funded land. Tom Terkel, the developer, was on the verge of ending the project, and the City stepped in and paid for a pocket park. 

We obviously don’t have a lot of money for parks. We obviously need parks. But finding other ways to finance them, it’s probably the best route to go, other than just taking from the Parks Department.

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 think under the new system, there will be an understanding between members all the way around on infrastructure projects that are the most needed. I think it’s going to give neighborhoods in places that really need improvements a voice to which if other members are respectful of those things can defer to.

We’re not talking about enormous infrastructure costs, we’re talking about things we need to provide in neighborhoods so people can continue to be there. Basic needs stuff. I think in terms of getting these things funded, it’ll be a question of how affordable they are, and how effective you can be in convincing other members that this need supercedes another. Which has always been difficult for this district. But just like any legislature, your ability to be effective in leadership and in place, will help you get some of those dollars for your area. Everybody’s competing for funds, but I think that’s the best approach.

What’s the approach you would use to convince other members that, say, a project that staff is looking at in Harris Ridge, is worth putting in the capital budget or in a bond package?

One, that it can be affordable, not an enormous one-time expense. And then, I think that everybody will get some deference about their district. I think that’s just going to happen.

If you want to talk about an overall strategy for getting money, the point may be moot in what we’re talking about. If we’re talking about a big bond package or something, or we going to be able to slide in a $3 million improvement for Harris Ridge? Probably not. Are there other ways to accomplish the same thing, where money becomes available in smaller pools of money? That’s more realistic.

That’s a mechanism the new Council will have to work out – some slack to allow representatives to address needs in their district?

Yes, there’s some of that in every legislature.

See also:

District 7 Candidate Page