Austin at Large: The Train Can’t Be Too Late: It’s going to be sad, so sad, when Mayor Pete’s money comes if Austin’s not ready – News
A possible vision for the new Blue Line Bridge, which accommodates pedestrians and cyclists, Capital Metro buses and the Blue Line light rail that runs to the East Riverside corridor. This vantage point is from the South Central waterfront near the old Statesman building. (Courtesy of Austin Transit Partnership)
(caption h/t Rev. James Cleveland)
This has been a surprisingly eventful month in Austin mobility history, with the public finally realizing how much it hates the state’s plans to rebuild I-35 (public comment closed Tuesday, March 7); big boss at Austin airport fired as part of last week’s Watson/Garza II housecleaning; and a flurry of news and, just as importantly, speculation about the future of Project Connect, the transit system overhaul approved by voters (in the form of a tax rate choice) in 2020.
First, all three agencies working on Project Connect — the city (various departments and an assistant city manager for mobility), Cap Metro, and the joint venture between the two, the Austin Transit Partnership — are under new leadership, which in all three cases is the old leadership. That ACM is now Robert Goode, who held the same job under former City Manager Marc Ott (and when I was consulting for the Austin Department of Transportation).
Cap Metro promoted Dottie Watkins to permanent CEO, which in a very real sense is a good thing, because as fascinated as Austin often feels in these situations, job no. 1 of the transit agency isn’t part of Project Connect, but ensuring bus service operates reliably and reaches pre-COVID ridership levels will only become more difficult, and Watkins rose through the ranks. as a driver to become a bus operations manager. She was then quickly promoted by former CEO Randy Clarke, job no. 1 of which was to create a Project Connect proposal that could win voter approval. He briefly left to run DC Metro, which has a lot of problems, and Watkins has been at the helm ever since.
Young kid hires retired guy
ATP also chose to hire its interim Executive Director Greg Canally, who was a top city finance executive for years (from Watson/Garza I to Ott) and who – before the city had a dedicated office for this – it was necessary. guy for getting major capital projects and bond programs right or, when necessary, not stuck. This will be a very, very useful skill moving forward in ATP, task no. 1 and the only one of which is to offer light rail. (I was on the city’s bond committee in 2006, which is how I met Canally.) Hiring a former city executive again creates tension with lawyers, but it’s better than having Randy Clarke do the work and run Cap Metro at the same time, which is what he really wanted, but which pressure from the same lawyers prevented. But everyone is really impressed with Canally and wants him to succeed, so there hasn’t been another stand to protect ATP’s “independence” from the entities that write its checks and operate what it builds.
I think some of the dimmer lights on the Christmas tree west of MoPac – they might be consultants, they might just be randos – jumped out at ATP altogether, perhaps fearing that its autonomy and mandate had was compromised during the first months of its existence as a difficult new government agency responding to the concerns of advocates. How do we know? A month ago, Mayor Kirk Watson, sidelined by COVID-19, gave what was supposed to be an in-person breakfast talk with Movability Austin, which is the downtown transportation management association, which is sort of a district of public improvement such as Downtown Austin. Alliance, and indeed began life as part of the DAA. And in this total softball gig — but in front of at least half the mobility decision makers who need to hear it — Watson dropped these lines: “Creating an independent entity was integral to the success of this year’s tax rate election. 2020. And, according to a recent report from a national think tank [Eno Center for Transportation], is also a recommended best practice for American communities to deliver good light rail projects more sustainably. We have worked our way through some initial challenges, but ATP is now well positioned to deliver a light rail system. And this is a very big deal. Light rail has been an elusive goal for Austin for more than two decades, and now it’s really going to happen.”
In front of the Parade
It’s nice to see Watson get back into the groove of mobility; he speaks quite fluently even when, as here, he has to defend or take credit for things that precede his restoration. (On I-35 this is a problem; he was the only vote against Chito Vela’s letter to TxDOT.) He was supposed to help release the exciting USDOT funding news – grant funding to plan a curb system for I -35, which Watson had speculated Austin couldn’t meet in time to meet the state’s mid-2025 deadline. And, much sexier, a first-of-its-kind “emergency projects agreement,” which Watson signed it with a pen and everything. This commits the city and USDOT to jointly deliver a $22 billion regional mobility program—Project Connect, the $3.6 billion Corridor Construction Program, the $4 billion Airport Expansion and Development Program, and the $1 billion for caps and seams on I-35. Now that we’re that much closer to Chairman Pete’s Infinite Checkbook, we really need to commit to delivering on what’s been promised and not leaving ourselves a few years behind schedule.
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