Austin’s shallow climate plan

This is an excerpt from the Sept. 29 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Tomorrow City Council will vote to adopt the Austin Climate Equity Plan. I’m sure it will pass easily.

The plan itself does not immediately implement any new policies. However, ideally it will serve as an important guide for city staff in recommending new policies to Council or developing new rules on anything that affects the environment.

For instance, it includes a broad call for reducing car dependence through more walkable, transit-oriented development. By 2030, says the plan, 80% of new non-residential development should be located in what the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan identified as key activity centers or corridors. And the city should seek to phase out or discourage free parking, beginning with its own facilities that are located near frequent transit.

And yet, the plan is strangely silent on the issue of residential development patterns. “Sprawl” does not appear once in the 161-page, 47,000-word document. Walkable commerce on the corridors is great, but if you really want to cut down on emissions you need as many people as possible living on and near them.

The document talks a lot about the importance of investing in public transit and bicycle infrastructure, but again, it largely avoids discussing the necessary changes in residential development patterns that make those modes work and the existing barriers in the city code that undercut them (single-family/euclidean zoning).

To their credit, the authors of the plan at least acknowledged that the land development code plays an important role in climate policy. But they chose not to comment on it:

While creating complete communities through the code and related tools is vital to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Transportation & Land Use Advisory Group chose not to tackle specific code questions due to ongoing City Council discussions. Instead, the group focused on strategies aligned with Imagine Austin and the City Council’s direction on more sustainable development and travel patterns.

Translation: talking about land use regulations makes some people uncomfortable, so we’re going to move on.

On transportation as well, the plan mostly ignored the politically tough policy decisions the city must make to disincentivize driving. There was no talk of reducing or eliminating the city’s existing mandatory parking requirements. There was talk about improving transit service and bike infrastructure but there was no acknowledgement that the best way to do this is by providing these modes with designated right-of-way, usually at the expense of cars. There was no mention of the role that widening highways has in inducing vehicle demand and incentivizing sprawl. TxDOT’s proposed expansion of I-35 was not mentioned once.

In sum, the Climate Equity Plan will make almost no one at City Hall uncomfortable. And that’s a shame.

This is an excerpt from the Sept. 29 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

A conservative case against Prop A

This is an excerpt from the Oct. 4 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Unlike most people who work in Republican and conservative politics, Michael Searle says that one of the main reasons he got involved in government work was his disgust with the criminal justice system.

“I read The New Jim Crow and The Rise of the Warrior Cop and they really had an impact on me,” he told me in an interview over the phone last week.

To that end, from 2013-14 he worked for Rep. David Simpson, a Republican with a strong libertarian streak from Longview. Searle wrote a white paper for Simpson recommending ending civil forfeiture, decriminalizing marijuana, barring no-knock warrants, requiring warrants for body cavity searches in traffic stops, requiring all SWAT raids to be filmed and establishing a statewide database for warrants issued. On some of those issues, he made progress, on others, not so much.

Later he worked for conservative Council Member Ellen Troxclair. Although Troxclair opposed the “fair chance hiring” ordinance that barred employers from including questions about criminal record on job applications, she voted with the rest of Council to oppose a proposed police contract because of the cost of the proposed pay increases. It was an issue of “fiscal responsibility,” Searle recalls.

Having seen the potential for bipartisanship on criminal justice reform, Searle has been disheartened by the polarization on the issue in the past year-and-a-half. There was a moment following George Floyd’s murder, he says, when he believed an opportunity for major change was possible.

Instead, the division only became worse. Locally, City Council rushed to embrace arbitrary cuts to the police budget supported by police abolitionists. The conservative backlash has been equally arbitrary: local Republicans are now pushing Prop A, which would commit the city to an enormous unfunded mandate to employ two officers for every 1,000 residents.

“It’s just not good public policy,” Searle says about Prop A. “In my view public policy should be outcome-driven…The metric should be murders (or other violent crime), not some arbitrary staffing level tied to population.”

Well, if murders are up, isn’t increasing the police force a logical response? Searle is unconvinced, saying the “jury is still out” on the relationship between police presence and violent crime.

He is not certain why murders have gone up around the country in the past two years, but notes that “violence tends to follow desperation,” of which there has been plenty throughout the pandemic.

Searle is wary of accepting city staff’s fiscal estimate of Prop A at face value, but says the increased police spending would force the city to raise taxes (more than usual) or make cuts elsewhere.

Searle, who three years ago led an unsuccessful campaign to require the city to undergo an efficiency audit, certainly believes the city could manage its money better. But it will be very hard for the city to fund the Prop A mandate without raising taxes more than usual or cutting into other core city services, he says.

“The city is spending money on liberal feel-good stuff but it’s at the margins,” he says. “The big chunks are police, fire, EMS and then parks.”

He asks: Are those who support enshrining a police staffing mandate in the city charter going to demand the same for the fire department? What about EMS?

Although Searle is opposed to Prop A, he is reluctant to take part in the No Way on Prop A campaign, which is leaning heavily on anti-Republican sentiment to defeat the initiative. (Whether or not it plays a role in his thinking, it is worth pointing out that those running the No Way campaign are his longtime political adversaries who have opposed his work on the efficiency audit, the Convention Center, Project Connect etc)

“When Trump was elected our brains broke,” he says. “We raised the volume on everything so high that we’ve completely lost the lexicon. Both sides are saying the other side are Nazis. The rhetoric around the opponents is so extreme. We’re demonizing each other. There are hundreds of these little fights happening all over the country and there is an aggregate and the aggregate is really dangerous.”

There are glimmers of hope for collaboration –– “Just recently you had Rand Paul in the Senate and AOC in the House file no-knock bills” –– but the dominant theme from both sides has been to use the issue for political gain but to make no meaningful policy changes.

“What has Joe Biden done on criminal justice since he was elected? Nothing.”

Searle says he knows a number of conservatives who are opposed to Prop A but they’re not going to say so publicly. Just as some City Council members likely went along with policies they didn’t support out of fear of being called a “racist Republican who doesn’t care about Black people getting shot,” conservatives fear being accused of betraying the blue.

“The way it’s framed is either you’re for defunding the police or for Prop A,” he says. “It’s not a binary thing.”

This is an excerpt from the Oct. 4 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

City Council asks TxDOT the wrong questions

This is an excerpt from the Sept. 28 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

On Friday the mayor and four members of Council signed on to a letter telling TxDOT to make big changes to its proposed overhaul of I-35 downtown. The first signers — Adler, Tovo, Casar, Harper-Madison and Ellis — were eventually joined by four more: Fuentes, Kitchen, Pool and Alter.

TxDOT’s proposed expansion of I-35, with four new “managed lanes” in the middle.

The only two missing are Mackenzie Kelly and Pio Renteria. Kelly, Council’s only Republican, is no surprise. There’s not actually any good reason for a small government fiscal conservative to support this nonsense, but supporting highway expansions and opposing alternatives is a tribal obligation for Texas Republicans.

Renteria’s absence is surprising, but it’s far from clear that he actually declined to sign. The others just may not have been able to reach him. I have not been able to get an immediate comment from his staff.

The letter makes six asks:

  1. A series of “caps and stitches” over the depressed main lanes that can be developed or used for public spaces, as envisioned in an Urban Land Institute report (TxDOT has said the city is welcome to pay for these; the letter says TxDOT should)
  2. The “managed lanes” should be designed to make it easy for buses to enter and exit without getting stuck in traffic
  3. Frontage roads should be based on a “boulevard” concept with low speed limits (25 mph) and narrower car lanes (11 ft)
  4. A reduced highway footprint that minimizes displacement of homes and businesses
  5. More East-West crossings over the highway (with ample designated space for walkers and bikers)
  6. Consider delaying construction until Project Connect is complete (2028-29), when the new light rail lines can help “relieve” the mobility burden caused by a multi-year reconstruction of I-35

There’s no question that what Council is asking for is much better than the steaming pile of manure that TxDOT has offered, but it still falls far short of the best possible outcome. A few caps and stitches aren’t as good as capping the entire central portion of the highway between Lady Bird Lake & AIrport Blvd and reconnecting the entire east-west street grid, as proposed by Reconnect Austin. (You can read my previous thoughts on why Reconnect is better in every way, including fiscally)

What should happen, ideally, is for the city to do two things. First, loudly oppose the plan and get Adler’s bestie Pete Buttigieg to halt the project, just like he recently did with I-45 in Houston. Second, see if we can get Uncle Sam to chip in more money to pay for the cap. After all, the Biden administration has said it wants to support efforts to repair and reconnect communities damaged by racist transportation planning and I-35 is a poster child for mid-century environmental racism.

Unfortunately, there may not be the necessary leadership and focus at City Hall to do the above. It’s hard to overstate what a giant missed opportunity this is for future generations.

This is an excerpt from the Sept. 28 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Land use reform gets another day in court

This is an excerpt from the Sept. 24 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Eighteen months after Travis County District Judge Jan Soifer essentially blocked City Council from moving forward on a new land development code, the city of Austin will get a chance to appeal.

Texas’s Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston will hear oral arguments on the case, Acuna v. City of Austin, on Nov. 17 via Zoom.

The three judge panel that will hear the case include Republicans Tracy Christopher and Randy Wilson and Democrat Jerry Zimmerer. I know next to nothing about the judges’ politics besides their partisan affiliations. And frankly, whatever I could learn about the judges may not give me much insight into how they will rule on this case, where traditional ideological divisions are not particularly useful: there are liberals and conservatives on both sides.

Again, it’s hardly clear that City Council will be able to push through a comprehensive LDC rewrite even if it gets a favorable court ruling. The clear majority in favor of reform that existed last year evaporated with the defeat of Jimmy Flannigan and the departure of Delia Garza, both of whom were firmly pro-reform. Their successors, Mackenzie Kelly and Vanessa Fuentes, respectively, have more ambiguous stances on the issue.

But regardless of what is immediately possible on Council, a favorable ruling for the city would bode very well for the ability of Austin and other Texas cities to address the housing, transportation and environmental challenges created by 75 years of sprawl-oriented planning.

It would be fitting if a court in Houston, which has no zoning and consequently is home to a much greater diversity of low-cost housing, is what allows Austin to finally address its housing crisis.

This is an excerpt from the Sept. 24 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Cronk picks Chacon; Celia Israel launches mayoral committee

City Manager Spencer Cronk announced today that he’s found the guy to be Austin’s new police chief. It’s Joe Chacon, who has been serving as the interim chief since former Chief Brian Manley retired in March. Cronk’s selection must be approved by Council. There is something deeply ironic about the whole situation. Until quite recently, … Continue reading Cronk picks Chacon; Celia Israel launches mayoral committee

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