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A Way Forward on Transportation

November 17, 2014

“We need to do something, and we need to start somewhere.”

From what I could tell, listening to friends and colleagues in recent weeks, that’s why a lot of people supported Austin’s Proposition 1 transportation package. And while the voters chose not to approve that roads-and-rail plan, it remains true that we have a mobility crisis in Central Texas that demands a bold response.

So what should we do? Even just in the last week or so since the election, we’ve heard that we should build more roads, or greatly expand bus service, or put forward a new rail plan with a different route people like better. In truth, we should, and probably will, do all of those things over the next few years.

Perhaps more helpful now would be to ask not “what?” but “why?” As we look at Austin and the region, why do people need better mobility options? Once those needs are met, we’ll be able to see what success looks like. Here’s how we can look forward on transportation:

• Choices are what matter. Our transportation experts have been clear; no single solution can meet everyone’s mobility needs. Congestion is not a problem, it’s a symptom of a system that is failing by not including the diversity of alternatives that allow every traveler, on every trip, to be truly mobile, connected and independent.

Sometimes, the best and easiest way to get from one place to another is to walk on good sidewalks that offer convenient connections. The same is true of cycling, car- and bike-sharing, or using transit — which itself includes a number of choices, from a quick local bus ride to a long-distance commute by rail. Sometimes, the right option is to drive alone in one’s own vehicle, but in Central Texas that’s the only option for most travelers and most trips, and that’s why those travelers are trapped in such bad traffic.

• Mobility costs us money. Obviously, major investments like Proposition 1 come with a hefty price tag, and it’s likely that sticker shock played some part in the measure’s defeat. But there’s another price that’s worth keeping in mind when we talk about transportation: $0.56. That’s the 2014 IRS standard mileage rate, the amount an employer can write off for each and every mile driven for business purposes.

In other words, that’s what it costs to drive a car. If we’re going to be serious about making living in Austin more affordable, we have to make it possible for people to spend less of their money on those miles. That can be through improving our transit services, or it can be from looking at our land use to bring jobs, housing and services closer together. Our investments in both roads and transit need to help shape those land use patterns, or else they’ll never really pay for themselves.

• It’s not about us. Previous generations invested heavily in rail and highway systems for the benefit of the economy and to make things better for future generations. Many of the people involved in those big decisions never enjoyed those benefits themselves, but were instead thinking about the greater good of the community and the nation. When new proposals come forward, we need to ask ourselves “What’s in it for the future of our community?” instead of just “What’s in it for me?”

It takes foresight and courage to make important decisions today that may not live up to their full potential for years. We need to have the strength to take important steps now so our grandchildren will look back and be proud of the decisions we made and the community we left them.

• Pick up the pace of innovation. It took nearly a decade to build the political support that put Prop 1 on the ballot, and even if it had passed, it would have taken another decade before anyone in Austin was riding those rails. That’s the nature of the beast with major investments in either roads or rail, especially when federal funds (and approvals) are involved. Those investments always risk being out of sync with what Austin needs and wants to do on transportation.

So what can we do to sort things out sooner? Smart people from all over the world come to Austin every day to bring their bright ideas to life. Among them will probably be the people whose innovations make it easier for residents, businesses, and service providers to meet their mobility needs. We encourage the city’s leaders — and particularly the new leaders on the City Council — to create conditions favorable to those innovators and take a hands-on approach to solving our mobility problems, one step at a time.

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