Pool Interview – Details on Transportation, Open Space, Infrastructure

This is the third of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Leslie Pool on her 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 July 29. Since then, Ms. Pool has met with numerous stakeholders and refined her positions. She asked to provide an update to her original response on light rail. This is in italics below.

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

Improving the bus lines. More stops, so that you’re within the pedsheds, the quarter-mile-ish walkable areas. And that also goes to what you’re walking on, how easy it is to get to a bus stop. You can improve your intersections, and have more of a grid, so that there are other ways to get out of a neighborhood, rather than just one entry and exit. That would also go to the fire question regarding an escape route [for some suburban areas]. We should do more long-term planning to assure that.

The village center [arranging new development as walkable villages with a transit station at the center] would be helpful, mid-term. Redirect where the traffic goes, and have [transit] be closer to where people live, where the schools are and the churches.

I know that the Arboretum area has for a while kind of been the epicenter of all the development in Austin, but the buses don’t serve out there. I did ask about that when I met with CapMetro people today. It’s in their plan to improve it in 78758 and 78759, but it’s not something that they’re doing right now. Frankly the planning for it is kind of long term, so I would advocate for it to be fast-forwarded, and look more carefully, and actually focus on those areas, and talk to those residents there to see what ideas they have. I don’t necessarily know all the answers, but talk to them, they would know what would work, and then support their needs.

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?

That tracks with the street grid and the New Urbanist view, is that you need to have a multitude of entry and exit spots, not necessarily driveways, but actually cross streets so it doesn’t impede and redirect the traffic.

I’d be curious to see if the torrent of traffic into Crestview actually materialized. My guess is that sure, there was an uptick, but I bet those residents are making use of the access too. So maybe in the end, everybody was ok with it. A lot of times, people don’t like change because you’re used to how things are, but then you try it for a little bit, it might make you a little cranky, but eventually you can live with it, and maybe there is some benefit to it in the long-run. Sometimes you just need to pilot something and see if it works.

I would be concerned with people on the east side in Highland if they can’t get out. They’re hemmed in by that weird intersection at Anderson and Lamar. It’s hary, even knowing which lane you should be in if you want to go east vs west, because it’s not intuitive at all. I completely get what they’re saying. That to me, frankly trumps the worry about having more traffic through the neighborhood, especially if in the end there wasn’t a torrent. I would ask them how they feel about it. Did that work for them – people on both sides of Lamar.

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?

9/16 – I had great hopes that the current proposal Cap Metro has worked on for so long would make serious headway in reducing congestion. Unfortunately, that’s not how it has stacked up. Residents all over town say it’s too expensive and doesn’t take them where they want to go. That matters to me. As does the impact of the debt incurred if we approve $1 billion-plus in bonds. In our overarching conversation on affordability, adding $1 billion in bonded debt to our already stressed property tax system is just too much, and leaves no room for all the other needs we have in Austin – like building more affordable housing and maintaining existing parks, pools and libraries. I’d like to go back to the drawing board with new ideas about the route, and do it at a much lower price.

I support rail. I love trains. When I travel, I make a point of taking the subway in New York City, or the train from the airport in Portland to downtown. I think Austin needs trains. But we need the additional multi-modal approaches to traffic. The debate on the location of it – CapMetro has said, the Federal Highway Administration gave us the money for bus rapid transit on Lamar. I know they worked really hard to qualify, and to be seen as having a credible plan in order to win those dollars.

But I found out today because I asked this question of the governmental affairs person at CapMetro – well what about that debate. What she told me is that the bus rapid transit isn’t necessarily what’s going to be there forever. It’s the precursor – there could be rail on that route. But they have to do these other things first. They have to prove up that Austin is a big enough, mature enough town to handle these kinds of super-expensive infrastructure – watershed infrastructure change projects. So their overarching plan, out into the future, and I don’t know how far out, from what I was told from the FHA’s perspective, a BRT does set the line for rail in the future. Knowing that, and I take the 801 downtown…

When you say “Set the Line for”

It establishes an alignment for it. At some point, if they can get the bus line correct, and it becomes part of the fabric of the city – everybody knows where the stops are –

So you’re saying the stop alignment…

That route could become a rail route at some point. That would eventually put it down Lamar, going through Downtown. They do have easement issues, and where would they put it. They’re real sensitive to coming into neighborhoods. I think a rail line down Lamar would be really disruptive for people. I take Lamar when I drive to work. When I take the bus, it goes down Guadalupe through campus. I think right now there’s some road work on N Lamar, and it’s narrowed to just one lane. Everybody’s really polite and we know what to do, nobody cuts in line. It’s a kind of lovely civic engagement there. But I think about the big dig in Boston. It was really disruptive for everybody. They lived through it, and in the end everybody likes the result. So it’s kind of a temporary pain, long-term gain. I’ve lived in the northeast, I saw those things happening. I know in the end everybody’s glad. They hated it at the time. But at the end it was like a sigh of relief. We got what we needed, and yes it helps us. You have to change your patterns. Sometimes it’s hard to change your patterns. But eventually you make new patterns and habits.

So I like to think that at some point there would be rail coming down Guadalupe to N Lamar. That’s hopeful for me. For me the jury’s out on whether there’ll be ridership on the current proposed line.

Why doesn’t it go out to the Airport. Just build it. Add it in. That’s what everybody wants. It’s an issue of trust. Should I vote for something that doesn’t even give me this amenity that I would use. I have to go to Grove, a park and ride, and take a shuttle. Why doesn’t the rail go all the way to the airport?

It turns out, when you take public transportation out to an airport, you’re not just working with FHA, you’re working with FAA. Because of our security concerns, there’s a higher threshold of how this stuff has to be built. It’s a security thing, going out to an airport. Also, the airport itself doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle a rail station. It’s a small town airport with growing pains. They’re talking about building another terminal. Thinking about it in context, if they’re going to build more terminals, you would want it to be in the context with delivering the rail service.

Having said that, it is in the plan. It will happen. It just won’t happen in this first phase if [the rail bond proposal] passes in November.

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?

That’s got that huge parking lot. I don’t like that sort of suburban style of development anyway, where there’s acres and acres of asphalt, and the building is way at the back of the lot. I like the design where you front on closer to the road, with the building. I generally don’t have a problem with wrapping the parking inside where you can’t see it. I don’t know if they were offering fewer parking spots to what that parking lot offers. It would be an entirely different use.

Just on the first flush, and I honestly don’t know any of the details, it seems like that property could be developed appropriately for all the right New Urbanist ways, without being pushed so far back into the backyards of the people on Ashdale. There would be some trade-offs, maybe some green space in the back, rather than segmenting it off, maybe a playscape. I just don’t know what all was offered in that package. It seems like it would be full of potential for good outcomes for everybody.

It is a concern that the site is a good distance from the bus station. Planners often use five-minute walking distance to define the pedshed around a bus stop. That rule works well if there’s sufficient transit frequency. That’s currently not the case on Burnet Rd. This is an area where I’m curious about the collaboration between the City and CapMetro. I know council members sit on the CapMetro board. I don’t know if they talk about things like the placement of the stops, the frequency of the bus service. If Burnet Rd is going to be home for more people, and densify along these lines, then what plans does CapMetro have to address the need to increase the transit stops and the frequency of the buses going down that corridor, especially if rail is going to the east of us?

What are your priorities for the environment and open space?

I place high priority on the environment and open space. I was part of the Save Our Springs initiative when, 22 years ago, I listened through the night to my friends passionately defending the crown jewel of Austin, Barton Springs. Tensions in Austin have not traditionally pitted political parties; instead the conflicts have arisen between supporters of rapid, expansive growth, and advocates who would manage growth to protect and preserve our irreplaceable natural resources.

There’s another balance we must find: assigning finite financial resources properly among high priority items – how to continue funding the purchase of land in the BCP for watershed protection while keeping existing parks in good repair, and adding pocket parks so everyone can easily reach a city amenity. Former Council Member Beverly Griffith’s idea of a “green necklace” of parks from the early 2000s still resonates, and we need to revisit where our civic assets are to be sure pools, parks and libraries are close by.

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?

Yes. We still should invest in those areas. They’re expensive because people are in those areas. People need parks. This might be another opportunity to partner with CapMetro, in assuring either purchase of the land, or designation of the land for public use. The bond moneys were lower than I would have liked. Pocket parks were really important to me, sitting on that [2012 Bond Advisory Task Force] committee. There continued to be a misunderstanding among the bond task force members as to what pocket parks are.

Beverly Griffith when she was on Council talked about a green necklace of parks, where within a five minute walk of anyone’s neighborhood you could find yourself in a park or two. There was a push to fund parks ten years ago and more. We have a lot of questions on our funding, and so those are difficult decisions to make with finite resources.

Honestly, I don’t know if there’s an easy fix. We keep pushing, and every time there’s a bond package, we buy a little bit more open space for Watershed Protection and for parks. I don’t like pitting the two against each other. I really don’t. That would be something I would advocate for on the Council, is trying to separate them. I know sometimes they can be in the same bond package. But when we were given our instructions from the City Manager’s office – there was a limit on how much we could spend. That chaffed a lot of the bond task force members, who felt that decision should be made by Council, not the City Manager. So we were working under some significant constraints.

I would have liked the $4 million [allocated to acquire new park space in urban areas] to have been higher. I think we need to continue building on it, though. That $4 million isn’t going to be the last money to go for parks. As far as buying it in areas where you’re going to have transit stops, making that a focus for where you focus open space, I don’t have any problem with that. I think that in some instances it doesn’t have to be just parks – some of them are more road-side areas. They’re not all grass. It’s features that make it safe and comfortable to be outdoors, getting to where you want to go without having to drive and add to traffic.

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 new council will be most effective if it is able to address specific local district issues in the larger fabric of the City as a whole. The lines that were drawn are arbitrary; they divide neighborhoods – my own neighborhood of Rosedale is split between Districts 7, 9 and 10. District 7 touches five other districts: 1, 4, 6, 9, and 10. Working together for a common purpose will be essential, across all lines, across the entire City.

Strength lies in diversity and collaboration. I trust the new council will be made up of citizens who understand that, while we may represent discrete districts, it’s the entire City of Austin that is our business.

See also:

District 7 Candidates Page