How to get Austin’s bike network up and running now

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In November, voters have a chance to approve a historic investment in pedestrian and bike infrastructure that will allow the city to make serious progress towards building out the “All Ages & Abilities Bicycle Network.” 

There is a hierarchy when it comes to bike infrastructure. The ideal is a wide urban trail that is entirely separated from the danger, the noise and the pollution of car traffic. Even hesitant bicyclists are comfortable riding on that. Below is the Southern Walnut Creek Trail.

Next best are bike lanes along roads that are fully protected by a continuous physical barrier. Here’s a bike lane in San Francisco that is separated from the vehicle lanes by landscaping. The bike lanes downtown on 3rd St. are about the closest we’ve got to this setup.

Elsewhere in Austin we often see protected bike lanes with either these bumps, like the ones show below on Jones Rd, or “flexible delineator posts,” like the ones on S. Congress in the photo below.

Both of these options are OK. The bumps provide a visual barrier that will deter cars, although it’s not hard to imagine a number of clueless drivers thinking it’s OK to roll over them to park.

The value of the vertical sticks depends on how many of them there are. The more space there is between each one, the less impact they likely have, both in terms of keeping motorists out of the bike lane and in making bikers feel safe. This section of S. Congress shown below, for instance, leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation.

And last, there are the temporary bike lanes that the city recently set up on Congress with traffic cones. Obviously traffic cones aren’t permanent and can be stolen, fall over or blown away, but it’s an unambiguous visual cue to drivers to stay away. 

The city recently announced that the temporary protected bike lanes on Congress will be transformed into permanent protected bike lanes (with the plastic sticks and parking stops). Which prompted this brilliant idea from a citizen:

This seems like an idea at least worth exploring. I doubt the cost of acquiring enough traffic cones to do this is high enough to cause concern.

The greater concern would be political: will people get annoyed at having to look at temporary bike lanes on their streets for years? They’re not as visually-pleasing as a proper bike lane, and traffic cones are typically associated with construction, so it might create the perception that the city is not doing its job. Which may actually be a good thing for bike advocates, since it might create additional pressure on the city to build the permanent bike lanes!

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Hotel taxes don’t belong to hotels

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City Council ultimately voted 10-0-1 yesterday, with only CM Leslie Pool abstaining, to kick off the process of acquiring land for the new Convention Center. 

As I discussed yesterday, my doubts about the long-term viability of the convention industry have only grown as a result of the pandemic. In a brief phone convo with the mayor, however, he said he doesn’t view the expansion as a major “risk” because the city is not on the hook. It is not the city that is issuing bonds to finance the Convention Center expansion, but a separate entity that is funded entirely by hotel occupancy taxes. If the Convention Center goes bankrupt, said the mayor, city taxpayers will not be forced to bail it out. 

I appreciate that. If City Council were actually putting the city’s general fund at risk, that would be an even bigger problem and I imagine the project would encounter much greater opposition. 

Still a major lost opportunity
The problem is that this project shuts the door on the possibility of reforming the deeply unjust way that we use tourism taxes. And yes, that’s what the tax levied on hotel guests is: a tourism tax. It is a tax on tourists, not hotels. They don’t pay a damn thing. It’s their guests who pay.  

The failure of policymakers to understand this distinction has hamstrung the debate. The hotel industry has brilliantly framed the taxes that hotels collect from guests as belonging to them. They frame their support of room taxes as an act of benevolence and it’s only right that the city return the favor by dedicating the great majority of that money to generating more demand for hotel business via a Convention Center. 

But the fact is that it’s not the hotels who generated that tax revenue. It’s generated by tourists and other visitors who are coming to the city to do other things. They’re not coming to Austin for the privilege of staying in the Hilton. The hotel is just one of many local businesses that is providing them a service while they’re in town to visit friends, attend a music festival etc. The hotels are just the most logical place to collect taxes on tourists. For hotels to argue it’s “their” money is ludicrous. Another way to tax tourists is to put a tax on rental vehicles –– should the government spend that money in a way that specifically benefits the car rental industry? Of course not. 

There is a major opportunity to rethink the hotel occupancy tax paradigm that we’ve operated under for decades but nobody in city leadership is interested in that. They’ve resigned themselves to playing by the rules set by the hotel industry and negotiating for crumbs, rather than just taking the whole pie. 

Local leaders in recent years have dismissed calls to reallocate money from the Convention Center by pointing to state law. It’s true that the state law on hotel taxes was written by hotel lobbyists and is geared towards helping the hotel and convention business specifically. However, past attorneys general have opined that cities have broad discretion in their interpretation of the law. More importantly, laws can be changed and in this case, it should be changed. Activists and local leaders in Austin should be leading the charge, along with allies in other cities. 

I really do think there is an opportunity for local and state elected officials to rethink the use of hotel occupancy taxes. There are certainly members of both parties who aren’t happy with the current system. The right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation, for instance, the influential Koch-aligned “think tank” and lobbying group, is not a fan. And I’m sure that there are many elected officials in urban areas who are desperate for new revenue sources to make up for the Covid-induced plunge in sales tax revenue. If not now, perhaps three or four or five years from now, when Texas may very likely be a blue state. 

But the problem is, building a new Convention Center will shut down the opportunity for Austin to rethink how it spends tourist taxes. Building a new Center ties up our tourist taxes for another 30 years. 

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Covid schmovid. City Council wants a new Convention Center.

City Council is poised to take an important step toward building a new Convention Center. Today it is considering a resolution that would authorize city staff to enter negotiations with the owners of two properties that the city is eyeing for the future CC. The resolution authorized staff to provide up to $6.3 million in “earnest money,” which suggests they are envisioning paying as much as $600 million just to acquire the land for an expansion. 

This move comes after a meeting on Tuesday in which HVS Convention, Sports & Entertainment, the nation’s leading Convention Center consulting group, presented an economic analysis touting the benefits of a bigger Convention Center. The report argues that Covid-19 is a temporary setback for trade shows, conventions and meetings, but the industry will eventually claw its way out of the abyss and Austin will need to have a bigger Convention Center if it hopes to compete with peer cities. 

If there has ever been an instance in which HVS recommended that a city not expand its Convention Center, I’d like to see it. I have a strong suspicion that that’s a recommendation they’ve never made. Yesterday emailed Thomas Hazinski, who heads the firm’s consulting practice, to ask whether they have ever advised a city not to expand. I haven’t gotten a response yet. 

Now, technically HVS wasn’t hired to tell the city whether to expand the Convention Center or not. Council already had a report by a group of folks at UT that it used to justify the expansion last year. That report actually focused more on potential designs for a new CC, but it offered some pro forma economic analysis as well. 

You may have to zoom in to see the figures below, but at the bottom you’ll see that the UT study presents three scenarios for the number of jobs that a larger CC will create. In the “base case,” which essentially is what the report considers a middling outcome, the new CC will add 355 jobs to the local economy. In the “upside case,” they project it will add 954 jobs.

The HVS analysis was far more optimistic. Even though it projected an increased attendance of only 350,000 per year, it projected that the expansion will add 1,772 jobs to the local economy. That’s nearly twice the number of jobs that the UT study projected in its “upside” scenario where CC attendance increases by 500,000.

What explains the huge discrepancy in these projections? Hard to say. Both studies say they relied on same IMPLAN input-output software to estimate the economic and employment impact of CC expansion. 

Things were likely bad even before Covid
Considering how much taxpayers pour into Convention Centers, there’s surprisingly little analysis of their economic impact. Heywood Sanders, a professor of public administration at UT-San Antonio, seems to be the only scholar who has paid much attention to the issue over the past 20 years.

In a report that he just prepared, Sanders says that Convention Center attendance at the nation’s four largest facilities (Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando, Atlanta) has still not returned to the levels experienced before the 2008 financial crash.

At the very least I would like to see HVS and other Convention Center proponents address these facts. The prospect of an enormous investment in an industry that was not even keeping pace with population growth before the pandemic is troubling. 

Here’s what has happened in Las Vegas since the major expansion in the early years of the century. It appears that the expansion prompted an immediate spike in attendance but that quickly evaporated in the Great Recession and has never recovered.

Sanders highlights a few major national conventions that have seen their attendance dip. For instance:

If he’s cherry-picking, I’d like to be presented with some examples that prove it. 

Even the figures provided by industry cheerleaders aren’t very encouraging. According to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, the industry has underperformed the overall economy more often that it has overperformed it. But the convention industry suffers far greater than the overall economy during downturns. 

See below how the industry compared to GDP over the past decade. It got absolutely crushed in the years following the 2008 crash and in recent years it has generally grown at a rate slower than overall GDP. This is despite a steady stream of investment by cities to expand Convention Center space. 

So, about COVID…
The short-term impact of COVID on tourism in general and conventions in particular makes the 2008 recession look like a picnic. Hotel tax revenue, which is what is needed to fund the new CC, has plummeted. For what it’s worth, in a July assessment of the city-owned Hilton Hotel, Standard & Poors projected that revenue per room will not return to 2019 levels until 2024. 

The intense decline in the short-term is worrisome enough, but what about the long-term impact of the fundamental shift in work behavior prompted by the pandemic?

The past six months have certainly highlighted the limits of Zoom meetings. But they’ve also highlighted the opportunities. People are eager to talk with their colleagues face-to-face again, but it would be foolish to assume that everything is going to return to the way it was before. Because frankly, it shouldn’t. Being in the same room with clients and colleagues is beneficial, but it’s not always necessary. My guess is that, assuming that this pandemic is eventually resolved, more employers are going to tolerate more remote work, more flexible schedules and they’ll likely spend less on conventions.  

Here’s some more background I’ve written on the Convention Center and why local leaders insist we have no choice but to continue supporting it. 

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Two conservatives make bids in West Austin’s District 10

While D10 may still be friendlier to conservatives than most other parts of Austin, the national GOP has undoubtedly suffered a setback here due to Trump's unpopularity among educated suburbanites. This is definitely the kind of place that has drifted blue as the GOP has increasingly become the party of the white working class.

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