Two weeks ago City Council, after being lobbied intensely by active transportation activists, asked city staff to come up with a bond to fund pedestrian and bike infrastructure. The advocates had asked for $750 million, but everyone assumed that city staff and Council would settle for a smaller package.
The $250 million presented on Thursday by Gina Fiandaca, the assistant city manager who oversees mobility, is a major disappointment. I’m less concerned about the total figure than I am about the woeful neglect of bike infrastructure, the investment with the greatest potential to produce mode shift.
As you can see above, there’s only $18M for “bikeways.” The $23M for urban trails certainly counts as bike infrastructure, but even if we consider this $41M for bike infrastructure, it’s still not nearly enough to create the “All Ages & Abilities Bike Network” that was envisioned in the 2014 Bicycle Master Plan. (The idea of the AAA system is creating enough protected bike lanes and urban trails that people of any age and skill level would feel comfortable biking around town)
In her memo, Fiandaca says the proposed bike investment will get the city to 62% buildout of the AAA network by 2025. Boo! The 2014 plan called for 80% buildout by 2025.
The city should at the very least be meeting the modest goals that were set during a much more conservative era of city politics. The Bicycle Master Plan was adopted during the last year of the at-large City Council, whose members were elected in very low turnout May elections dominated by older voters.
The moral imperative
City Council is making the right bet on Project Connect, recognizing that 2020 likely offers the best opportunity to get a generational investment in public transit approved due to the anticipated high turnout from liberal voters seeking to oust Trump. This is despite the fact that many voters will likely be wary of approving a tax increase during a recession.
But it will take years before Project Connect bears fruit. It will be at least eight years before we get the light rail and likely several years before we get some of the smaller improvements, such as new MetroRapid bus lines.
In the meantime, we can still make big progress on offering people affordable, safe transportation. The way to do that is through bike infrastructure! It’s extraordinarily cheap and can be done extremely fast. The cost of building a world-class bike network in Austin would barely register on the average homeowner’s tax bill.
There’s simply no excuse for a “progressive” city to not make space on its major roads for bikers. In fact, there’s no excuse for any city, regardless of its politics, to forgo such a practical investment.
For the millionth time, this is not about supporting the lycra-clad cycling hobbyists who own $10,000 bikes. This is about opening up our infrastructure to those who can’t or don’t want to spend thousands of dollars a year on a car. According to AAA, the average true cost of a new car is nearly $9,300 a year. According to Edmund’s, even a six-year-old Carolla will cost you $5,000 a year. In contrast, you can get a bike for practically free. Indeed, bikes are a common sight at homeless encampments.
The pandemic, which has forced people to spend more time outside, is a great opportunity to accelerate bike infrastructure. We’re also in the midst of a major economic downturn, during which a modest investment that will provide a tremendous good to those with the least should be a no-brainer. The construction projects, which can kick off immediately, will also create jobs.
The activists who pushed for the $750M bond requested $47 million for on-street bike facilities and $123 million for urban trails. Together, these funds should be enough to realize the AAA bike network.
What about capacity?
Fiandaca is clearly not super-stoked about a big active transportation bond and is trying to keep it as small as possible. There are a couple potential reasons.
First, Fiandaca has noted that the city has a stated financial policy not to seek approval for new bonds while there is still a certain amount of funding from past funds that is unspent. Indeed, virtually none of the transportation bond funding that was approved in 2018 has yet been spent. This is linked to a lack of necessary staff as well as a tight market for contractors. Projects are struggling to attract bids.
This is not an insurmountable challenge. First, the labor market over the past two years has likely been tighter than it will be in the next couple years. Second, Council can help out by adding some transportation staff. Indeed, boosting transportation staff to help oversee the deployment of infrastructure, much of which is aimed at reducing roadway fatalities, is a legit way to use “public safety” funds freed up by APD cuts.
Staff used this “capacity” argument in 2016 as well. Council responded by telling them to add staff as necessary. This cannot be an ongoing excuse. We’re a major city trying to build basic infrastructure –– we need to do what it takes.
You can’t wait till 2022
2020 is the best opportunity for a game-changing investment in ALL alternatives to cars. Simply put, whether or not Trump goes down nationally, we can count on a huge liberal-leaning turnout in Travis County this November.
It’s much harder to predict what the electorate will look like in 2022 or 2024. If Trump pulls off another miracle victory then perhaps 2022 will be another Democratic wave election, like 2018. Likewise, if Biden wins, then 2022 may be GOP-friendly, since midterms tend to favor the party out of power and Dems will be asleep at the wheel again.
This is the best shot. Council should approve at least another $100 million for bike infrastructure, focusing on bikeways and urban trails.
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