Mayor “Off Track” in Final ‘State of City’ Address Promoting “Rail Failure”
Austin’s Mayor Leffingwell gave his last “State of the City” address February 25 during a lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel. The full speech is below following this COST commentary:
Early in the speech, he quoted his prior statement “a good quality of life begins with a good job” and related much of his address to this theme. As appropriate, he extolled Austin’s many achievements and accolades including “fastest growing job market in America,” “fastest growing city in the U.S.,” one of the lowest unemployment rates and becoming “the 11th largest city in the country.”
As mayors before him, Leffingwell mixes regional (five county metropolitan area) statistics and city statistics in a way which can confuse those less knowledgeable. Basically, the politically drawn Austin city boundary lines mean very little to the region’s (Metropolitan Statistical Area or MSA) growth and prosperity. While Austin city is the 11th largest (population) in the country, the MSA is the 35th largest in the nation.
The Mayor also uses an approach from previous Mayors regarding Austin’s phenomenal growth since founding in December 1839. Previous Mayor Wynn and others have stated “Austin has doubled (population) every 20 years since its founding. Leffingwell stated “every 25 years, which was verified by the “Statesman PolitiFact.” Research shows the Dallas region also grew at a similar rate until it reached roughly Austin’s current size, phasing to lessor growth rates to the current time. Dallas’ MSA is currently more than 6.7 million and is more than 3.5 times Austin’s 1.8 plus million. In 1990 Dallas was 4.7 times Austin. However, Austin’s, much greater growth rate, has reduced in the past decade. With a very imprecise projection, it will probably take the Austin region at least 50 years to reach Dallas’ current size.
While the Mayor warns “population growth is no guarantee of economic growth,” there really are no examples of this, other than a few “retirement cities.” There is a solid link between economic growth and population growth. However, there is absolutely no link between implementing train transit and economic growth, as the Mayor implies. Austin stands as the most obvious example of this. None of the Austin Region’s extraordinary growth has been motivated by trains and growth is now “exploding” without train transit. This seems compelling support for
He then presents an unconvincing case that the City Council’s stream of incentives for businesses to develop or move to Austin were important to Austin’s success in creating jobs. There is no way to substantiate this and it appears to be a minor influence.
The Mayor praises the virtues of the newly approved medical school and the Waller Creek project which may well increase jobs and development in Central Austin.
He then turns to transportation and suggests Austin’s “traffic crises” is a “deadly serious threat to almost all the things we have achieved and continue to strive toward.” Traffic congestion is clearly a top priority issue for a majority of Austin’s citizens.
Here, the speech departs radically from reality as the Mayor relates most major problems to the “traffic crises” and suggests an urban rail is an imperative to address this crises of traffic congestion.
He bolsters this pro rail position with the threat that his designated peer cities (regions), including Dallas, Denver, Seattle, Portland, and San Diego are competition for the Austin regions continued economic development. One common thread in these “peer cities” is their spending of many billions of dollars to implement light rail systems. The Mayor says: “Our competitors figured out the equation – and our competitors took action.” and “Now, the ball is about to be in our court one more time, and it will be up to us, as a community, to decide how to move forward.”
These so-called competitors’ regions range in population from Denver and Portland being less than 50% larger than Austin to San Diego and Seattle being about double and Dallas at 3.7 times larger. The Mayor provided zero reasons for Austin to mimic the failed rail path of these regions. In light of the fact Austin’s growth rate of 37.3% (2000-2010) is more than double the rate of each of these non-Texas peer cities and almost 60% greater than Dallas, would lead common sense to suggest Austin should avoid this rail fad which has not spurred “competitors” economic growth or slowed Austin’s growth.
Rail has played an insignificant role in Austin’s success to date and maybe a negative one due to the ineffective, high cost MetroRail and its presence creating more congestion with its trivial ridership. Thankfully, Austin has minuscule rail transit compared to “peer cities.” Austin’s one, minor rail line has reaffirmed the much larger rail failures experienced by the Mayor’s peer cities.
Why does the Mayor suggest Austin needs to move faster to follow the major rail transit path of its “peer cities” when Austin is far more successful, in almost every respect, than the 5 peer cities mentioned. None of Austin’s success has been inspired by rail.
Regarding transportation, congestion and economic prosperity, the Mayor suggests: “the only real solution is to change behavior.” Human behavior in free societies reflects choices, which they have fully considered, to best serve their desires and preferences. There are many examples of these choices, but, the fact that less than 1% of the passenger miles traveled in the region are on transit is compelling. This is consistent with other similar cities.
Rail cannot solve Austin’s traffic crises (congestion) or even make a major contribution. The total use of transit has declined over the past 15 plus years in the four major Texas regions (Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin) after billions were spent on transit, primarily rail. The American Public Transit Association’s (APTA) 2013 ridership report indicated these regions dropped a total of about 2,900,000 bus riders during the year while expanded rail, primarily in Dallas and Austin, slightly increased ridership by a little over 500,000 or just under one-sixth the drop in bus riders. These regions remain among the fastest growing in the nation. APTA reported Austin’s bus system declined 1,600,000 riders while the MetroRail service gained 222,000, about one-seventh of the bus loss, due to expanded weekend, special events and higher frequency schedules which were very expensive for Austin Taxpayers. It was sad to witness Cap Metro and the media focus on the minor, but large percentage, increase in MetroRail riders while downplaying or ignoring the loss of 1.6 million bus riders. This is a tragic example of the degradation of social equity being driven by incompetent transportation policy.
The Mayor is correct about “a good quality of life begins with a good job.” Before this, a good job begins with mobility and the Austin transportation plan will not provide the mobility for all citizens to access their best job opportunities and retain a good quality of life.
Former World Bank principal planner Alain Bertaud points to an approach to urban planning which is more consistent and compatible with today’s human aspirations in his article “Cities as Labor Markets,” recently published by the Marron Institute on Cities and the Urban Environment at New York University. He states: “Increasing mobility and affordability are the two main objectives of urban planning. These two objectives are directly related to the overall goal of maximizing the size of a city’s labor market, and therefore, its economic prosperity.” Unfortunately, Austin is heading in the opposite direction with its transportation policy; the result will be massive amounts of money spent on ineffective train transit reducing citizens’ mobility and Austin’s ill-advised, higher living density strategy will continue to reduce affordability as it has for the past 10 years.
Wendell Cox comments: “That brings us back to first principles. Cities are about people. Planning is justified to the extent that it facilitates the aspirations of people. The city requires prosperity, which Bertaud shows in a much needed first installment of Urban Planning 101.” The source of these quotes can be found at newgeography.com.
Human mobility and standard of living have been inextricably connected for thousands of years. Increased mobility provides increased standard-of-living. This has been confirmed and reconfirmed throughout human history.
Austin’s Transportation Department director, Robert Spiller generally represents the Mayor and City Council member’s positions regarding transportation. He was recently interviewed on NPR and was asked “How do you convince people that they need more rail to lighten up the roads? To this and other questions, Spiller stated: “We’re giving people choices. And that’s really what we are promoting in terms of dealing with congestion.—Our chamber of commerce here is fairly supportive because, you know, they say we need everything.—And it is not that we’re focused only on rail. We’re focused on bicycles. We’re focused on new sidewalks. We’re certainly focused on buses and rails, but we’re also focused on completing the roadway network where we can.”—We’re planning for that generation of folks that don’t want to own their own car.”
He also did not deny NPR’s comment regarding the failed metro-wide rail vote in 2000 and their comment: “The mayor hopes that if it’s just among Austin residents, who might be better seeing this influx of people and be more likely to vote, that this (November rail referendum) will pass.
Spiller’s responses do not reflect a sound transportation plan for Austin. “Choices” and changes in behavior will not solve congestion and will not meet the quality of life needs of citizens. Ninety-nine percent of passenger mile trips are on roads and congestion requires roadway solutions. The tired rhetoric of: “We need everything,” and, “We need more choices,” is foolish, political rhetoric and not a basis for transportation planning. The simple fact is there is a finite amount of taxpayer funds and we cannot have it all: It is not financially sustainable and is not responsible; even if we had all the money in the world. Sustainable cost-benefit must be achieved.
Trains, bicycles and walking will not relieve roadway congestion and the spending of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for a starter train to be followed by spending billions of taxpayer dollars for expanding the train will not relieve road congestion and the high costs of trains will deplete transportation funds for roadway projects which are the only viable way to improve mobility for private, transit, emergency and commercial vehicles. This has been proven in every one of the peer cities and all cities in the nation which are similar to Austin today and Austin 100 years from today. We see this entire spectrum in the peer cities. Do not be led to believe Austin can do some unknown, miracle magic with trains’ 19th century technology in this 21st century city. There are sound mobility solutions and they begin with the roads where more than 99% of our daily passenger miles are traveled. This urban rail, in total, would be the largest project in Austin’s history and this rail implementation could very likely have the greatest negative impact on Austin and its citizens for generations.
Follow-up note: Following the mayor’s speech, Project Connect, announced yet another change in the recommended initial rail route and another major cost increase. Recommended routes and costs have changed many times over 20 years, with each new person and committee. Austin is a young, growing city and fixed, inflexible, high cost rail, limiting mobility and opportunity is not a sensible or sustainable transit approach.
State of the City 2014
Mayor Lee Leffingwell
Thank you, and thank you for that kind introduction, Tim.
I also want to thank Ward Tisdale and the rest of the staff and board of the Real Estate Council of Austin for inviting me to be here today.
Before I get started I want to acknowledge some folks who were kind enough to join us, starting with my Council colleagues – Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council Members Chris Riley, Mike Martinez, Kathie Tovo, Laura Morrison, and Bill Spelman.
Thank you all for coming, and thank you for what you do for Austin.
I’m also want to recognize our City Manager, Marc Ott, who could not be here today due to a family illness…as well as: Deputy City Manager Mike McDonald and the other Assistant City Managers joining us today from our management team.
These folks all do great work at City Hall, so please join me in giving them a big hand.
I’m also happy to have my wife Julie Byers here today. Julie, thank you for your unwavering loyalty and for being my best friend.
Finally, I want to ask you to please indulge me while I make a special recognition.
This will be my 6th year as mayor, and come December, my 10th and final year at City Hall.
As some of you know, I spent 32 years as an airline pilot before I ran for City Council, and then was elected mayor.
And what I can tell you is that that flying a B-767 back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, in sometimes bad weather…is the less stressful job.
But the turbulence at City Hall has been made much more tolerable by a talented and devoted group of staff.
So I want to recognize them today – Chief of Staff Nancy Williams, Amy Everhart, Janet Jackson, Sly Majid, Reyne Telles, Lily Smullen…as well as the other support staff and Vista volunteers who help my office run smoothly. Some of my former staff members Matt Curtis, Andy Mormon, and Mark Nathan may be out there, too.
Thanks to each of you for what you’ve done, and what you continue to do for me, and for the city, every day.
Now – before we get down to business, since this is also my final “state of the city” speech, I think I should probably go ahead and address some of the rumors that have been going around about my plans when I do leave the mayor’s office at the end of the year.
And let me say that I can understand why these kinds of rumors get started. Because, as you know, some former Austin mayors have gone on to achieve some great things – from becoming a state senator… to dating Wendy Davis.
So first, the big one – and let me just be very clear about this. I will not – I repeat, I will not – be a candidate for District 10 of the Austin City Council. Obviously the grassroots movement to recruit me has been flattering – but frankly, but I’ve done my time – and – I’d sooner slash my wrists.
Second – and let me be very clear about this one, too – I will not – I say again will not – be replacing Ben Affleck in the new Batman movie. It’s true that there were discussions with the director – and some other people at Warner Brothers – but that’s it.
Finally, I’m sure you’ve heard or read the rumor that when I leave the mayor’s office – I’ll be recording a double album of duets with Willie Nelson. And actually, this is true.
In fact, we’ve already laid down a few tracks. We’ve recorded some of Willie’s hits, like– “On the Road Again” and we’ve recorded some of my original songs, like the ever popular “Please Take Your Conversation Outside,” “I’m Sorry, Your Three Minutes Are Up”…and “That Passes On A Vote of 5 to 2.”
So I hope you’ll pick that up when it comes out next year.
In the meantime, there’s still a lot of work left to do at City Hall, so let’s try our best for now to focus on the present.
Giving this speech every year is daunting and it’s one of those things that… looking back…makes my job as a jet pilot seem less stressful.
I did give several speeches every day as a pilot – but they were all about 30 seconds long… and focused mainly on the weather.
So to try to fully or fairly characterize the full scope of opportunity…and also challenges facing this dynamic city today…and to get you out of here before you start to get restless…this speech is kind of a tough gig.
That is because there really is so much going on in Austin, Texas. And there are so many different issues that really, truly do matter – even urgently.
The key to our future success is finding connectivity between our obstacles and our opportunities.
Whether it’s economic development, transportation, education, healthcare, public safety, housing, the environment, or any of a dozen other things – they all play a meaningful role in making up this complex system we call Austin.
And believe me, every week at City Hall, we are meeting, and talking, and working on, and debating almost every one.
In the past, I’ve tried my best to touch at least briefly on as many of those issues as I could.
I could do the same today and talk about a lot of different things we’re focused on in the mayor’s office – everything from connecting low-income families to the Internet… to getting our seniors connected to local resources…
…and of course, being a former Navy man, I try hard to be innovative and supportive of veterans’ issues, such as Honor Flight Austin….And I thank many of you out there for your support of that project, but especially Gary Farmer and the St. David’s Foundation for their generosity.
But with the clock ticking on my term, I’m trying hard to narrow my focus – to the one thing that has always mattered most to me as mayor.
And that’s doing everything I can to help ensure that our local economy is as strong as it can be, and that our residents have good jobs.
So that’s what I want to spend a lot of my time talking about today… Because I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now – I think “a good quality of life begins with a good job.”
A good job can help us achieve many of our goals in life, while giving us meaningful purpose and a sense of accomplishment.
It helps us provide for ourselves and our families. It helps us earn the things we want – and value the things we earn. It sometimes brings us together with our best friends…
…And often, what we do in our jobs defines how we view ourselves – how we see our role in the world – and how we decide to give back to our community.
In short, getting a good job – or better yet, creating a good job – is how many, maybe even most of us, get to become the people we want to be.
The good news is that Austin, Texas, today, is a great place to get, or create, a good job.
In fact, if you believe the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you’d be hard pressed to make the case that there is any better city in America.
Over the time I’ve been mayor, our job market has grown by leaps and bounds and we’ve been called the #1 fastest-growing job market in America – by far.
As recently as November, our unemployment rate was as low as 4.7% – compared to 6.1% statewide, and 7% nationally.
And just in the last three months, the Austin economy has been ranked as the top performing metro economy in the country by the Milken Institute and the Business Journals.
And just two weeks ago, Forbes named Austin the fastest growing city in the U.S… for the fourth year in a row, saying that with an economy like ours, and I quote, “it’s hard for others to compete these days.” Not too shabby.
So, if good jobs are the big issue – and I think they are – then there’s really nothing other to say about Austin than this:
In its 174-year-history, the state of our city has never, ever been stronger – and it’s still getting stronger every single day.
So the next important questions are: How did we get here, and how do we keep it going?
Why exactly have we enjoyed this success?
Well, first, as I’ve said before, I think we have to acknowledge that at least some of Austin’s economic success isn’t due to anything that any of us have done.
If anything, we were smart enough to “move to” – or, like me, were lucky enough to “be born in” – a city and a region where the conditions have almost always been – and still are today – ripe for growth.
We’re the capital of one of America’s largest and fastest-growing states and we’re home to the one of the largest public universities in the country.
We have extraordinary natural beauty, a temperate climate – most of the time – and the best natural swimmin’ hole in America.
We’re on the receiving end of longtime national migration trends from east and west, and from rural to urban…
…And, we live in a state that is very friendly to economic development.
All of this together means a city that has basically doubled in size every 25 years or so since it was founded. In fact, I have seen Austin’s population double about three times in my lifetime.
Today, as hard as it is to believe that we have surpassed cities like San Francisco and Indianapolis…we’re the 11th largest city in the country.
So on one hand, it seems pretty clear that – to some extent – favorable circumstances laid the foundation for population growth, and population growth laid the foundation for economic success.
On the other hand, it’s not that simple. Because the truth is that population growth is no guarantee of economic growth – even though the two are sometimes mistaken for each other.
In fact, when it comes to jobs and our economy, we’ve actually been far less lucky than we’ve been good.
Over the last 30 years in particular, Austin has been focused, methodical, and strategic about really making sure that if our population was going to continue to grow… our economy would grow along with it.
We have aggressively, creatively, and successfully, pursued and developed semiconductors, software, healthcare and life sciences, clean energy, film and music, mobile and social media, tourism and conventions, and other targeted industries… using every tool at our disposal, to help bring sustained economic growth to our city.
That includes the strategic and judicious use of economic incentives, many of which have been in the news a little lately.
Now, whether you like them or not, I have to say here that I think it’s undeniable that incentives have played a key role in Austin’s economic success in recent years.
Because – again, like it or not – when it comes to winning and keeping good employers and good jobs, it’s a competition…and we are competing with some great peer cities across the country…and even around the world.
Major employers that any city would have killed for – Apple and Facebook, for example – set up shop or expanded their operations in Austin, in part because we, through a vote by my colleagues on the City Council, were able to work with the State to offer them appropriate, competitive incentives to do so.
Now, the fact is, we use incentives far less than I think most people assume. Actually, since I’ve been mayor, we’ve only approved a total of eleven incentive packages, three just this month.
That averages out to about two per year.
But…from 2009 to 2012, just these deals have resulted in agreements to deliver over 8,000 good new jobs, and more than 550 million dollars in new investment in our community.
With just these 11 deals… I’m talking about over a half a billion dollars in: Austin property being purchased, leases being signed, contracts for improvements to build out space being executed, and office furniture, computers, and machinery being bought… Here in Austin. That’s a big deal.
So, incentives have proven to be an effective tool to attract jobs and economic opportunity to Austin – and a tool that actually results in a benefit to the taxpayer. Economic incentives help achieve economic growth and deliver jobs.
My further view is that we shouldn’t – as we have recently done – burden those incentives with other requirements that are so stringent as to render the benefits moot… that the deal becomes a wash. But, I’ll save that speech for another day.
So – if we go back to the first question – “how did we get here?” – I think the answer is probably two-fold: We were dealt a pretty good hand, and we played our cards very well.
But it’s the second question that’s really the more important of the two: “How do we keep it going?”
Obviously, to a great extent, what we have been doing is working, and we should keep on doing it…..
But our work is not done, you see, while we outpace our peers, as I understand, we still have over 20,000 unemployed in our region… and more than 170,000 folks living under the poverty line…. so while it seems like we are on top, our work is not finished.
We need to continue to focus on developing and diversifying our mix of industries and employers… and working diligently for good jobs with good pay and good benefits… using every tool we have.
We also need to keep our eyes peeled, constantly, for new opportunities to build on our strengths, and take advantage of the unique diversity of industry and expertise that we have created.
I can tell you that I think we do have at least one special opportunity like that now, in the coming-together of a few of the most exciting, big new projects in Austin’s modern history.
As I think most of you know, thanks to Austin voters and the vision and determination of a group of community leaders led by Senator Kirk Watson…downtown is about to become home to the new U.T. Medical School, as well as a new Seton teaching hospital.
That medical complex will be a transformative development… for UT, downtown Austin, and the city as a whole…. and will do as much good for our economy as it does for the quality and availability of our healthcare.
I am eager to see the vision for the Dell Medical School executed by inaugural dean Dr. Clay Johnston, a practicing neurologist.
Now – at the same time the medical school is coming online, the transformation of Waller Creek will also be coming to fruition.
Running the full length of the eastern edge of downtown, from Waterloo Park to Lady Bird Lake, the Waller Creek project will lift 28 acres of downtown land out of the floodplain, and invest as much as $60 million – most of that private funding – in creating a series of dynamic, new, signature public parks.
This incredible and important project is also the product of yeomen’s work on the part of many people, but perhaps none more so than the trio of founding board members of the Waller Creek Conservancy.
So in recognition of their ongoing efforts, I want to recognize Tom Meredith, who could not be here today, and to ask Melba Whatley and Melanie Barnes to please stand up and let us give them a big round of applause.
Thank you all very much for what you are doing for Austin.
Now, with these two very big things happening in the same part of downtown – and with the potential redevelopment of many of the buildings in the Capitol complex, also in this area – and, more broadly, because of the successful ongoing transformation of our downtown into a place to work, and live, and play – I see what I think is a unique, new, and big opportunity for Austin.
Like Boston did with Kendall Square near MIT, I believe we have the potential to remake what has been one of the most underutilized parts of downtown into a thriving new cluster of global commerce, culture, creativity and connectivity.
That’s why I’ve created and convened what we’re calling the “Innovation Zone” Advisory Group.
Made up of community stakeholders and representatives from UT, the City, the County and the State…the group’s goal is to develop a vision and a plan for transforming the northeast quadrant of downtown, around 15th and Red River, into a new epicenter of job creation… with cutting-edge medical research…development…and commercialization at its core.
I intend to continue to chair the Advisory Group through the remainder of my term, and then at the end of the year, ask Senator Watson to assume leadership of this effort in his spare time, and he’s agreed.
I can tell you that I am truly convinced that the Innovation Zone project holds real promise for Austin’s economy…a connected Austin…an Austin of tomorrow… and I know that with the active participation of the partners, and the leadership of Senator Watson and others, we can and will realize that promise.
Now, as much as I like being positive and upbeat – and yes… this is what I look like when I’m being positive and upbeat…
…the truth is that if we want to continue to prosper, we can’t just build off of our strengths. We also have to attack our weaknesses.
So I want to address the huge risk I think our city and our economy will face if we fail to act on one of our critical weaknesses.
Folks, if you’ve ever believed anything I’ve ever said, I hope you’ll believe me now when I say that our traffic crisis… and I did say crisis, in Austin, Texas has reached a point where it threatens to undermine what we’ve accomplished, and what we can accomplish.
I know that it can be easy to think of Austin’s traffic as just an annoyance, an inconvenience or a fact of life. But it’s wrong, and in fact it’s dangerous, to let ourselves think that way.
Our traffic problem isn’t just an annoyance. It is a deadly serious threat to almost all of the things we have achieved and continue to strive toward.
It threatens our safety. In each of the last two years, we’ve seen nearly 80 traffic fatalities on our roads. That’s an unacceptably high and worrisome number. Congestion slows down our first responders in situations where every second counts.
It threatens our environment – especially the quality of our air. Know that the EPA has set minimum air standard measurements. If we fail to meet these requirements we face possible loss of federal funding for transportation projects…. and Austin and Central Texas have been flirting with this federal non-attainment status for years.
If traffic congestion continues to grow like this, we’ll reach it soon – and we’ll pay a price if we do.
Our traffic crisis also undermines our efforts to keep Austin affordable.
As congestion worsens, it becomes a key factor in the housing choices people make. That leads to the huge increases in the cost of housing we’ve already seen in the central city. That, in turn, only forces more people to commute even farther every day.
But most of all, our traffic problem slowly steals away the thing that I think all of us value the most…our time.
According to a recent analysis, a typical Austin driver with a 30-minute commute now, experiences an estimated 83 hours of traffic delays over the course of a year.
83 hours. That’s almost two full weekends a year spent sitting in traffic, instead of being home with your family, or out with your friends.
Not only are all these negative impacts bad and unsustainable in and of themselves, they also work together to punch a gaping hole in our economic strategy.
The basic premise of Austin – the thing that’s truly at the heart of our prosperity – is our special quality of life… it’s a mindset, it’s an attitude, and by in large…. it’s the reason events want us to host them here and why so many folks choose to live here or want to move here.
But our traffic crisis today is eating away at almost all the things that make this city what it is.
You may have recently read the estimate that the Austin metropolitan area’s net population grows by 110 people… every single day. Our best guess is that means 70 additional cars on our roads every day.
At this rate we could see 490 more cars on our roads this week than last, and we would see 25,550 additional cars on the road this year. That means a potential quarter million new cars on the road in 10 years by 2024.
And that means – unless we’re prepared to simply watch our quality of life and economy deteriorate – we must act.
Now, I think it has to be said that we got into this mess in the first place by virtue of our own inaction. For years, we did mostly just sit and watch as our population grew, and our traffic got worse.
But fortunately, over about the last 15 years or so, we have finally started to get serious about dealing with our transportation problem.
Since 2000, Austin voters have approved almost $500 million in bond funds to help pay for transportation infrastructure – most of it improvements to our roadways.
We’ve also seen more than $4 billion in county and state funds spent on transportation infrastructure in our region over the last 16 years – again, the vast majority on roadways.
Looking ahead, we have somewhere around $3 billion worth of transportation projects planned in our region – and again, most of it is for roads. Not all, but most. And that’s good.
But – even as we have made and planned these big investments, it’s only become more clear, to more people, that roads – while good – are just one piece of the puzzle… and by themselves are not going to solve our traffic crisis in all parts of the region.
I have met with folks that think more roads are not the answers… and some that say that building more roads to solve your traffic problem is like buying a bigger belt to solve your weight problem.
And in the end, many agree that the only real solution is to change behavior.
The behavior we have to change, in order to fix our problem, is to connect people – in every way we can – by helping them get from where they are, to where they want to go by providing sustainable options on how to get there.
That means one thing: We must – we must – prioritize and invest now in a real multi-modal mass transit system for this region, if we want Austin to continue to prosper.
Now, it’s true we’ve made some progress on this front as well. Capital Metro, especially over the past four years, has picked itself up and become, in my view, an effective mass transit agency.
Our bus system is good and getting better. The new MetroRapid service has just launched, with the help of nearly $40 million in federal funds… The new buses use priority lanes and have the capability to delay a signal light change for several seconds, speeding up the routes.
MetroRail – the Red Line commuter rail between Leander and downtown Austin – is also online, with ridership growing steadily. Boardings now average 65,000 per month, with trains at full capacity during peak hours.
But what has been missing from our approach – until now – has been a shared regional vision for how our mass transit system should connect.
That’s why, two years ago, CAMPO re-created – and I have been proud to Chair – the Transit Working Group.
Made up of elected and community leaders from across the region, the Transit Working Group has been working diligently to develop a high-capacity transit plan for Central Texas.
The work of that Group – along with the effort called Project Connect… which is a partnership between the City of Austin, Capital Metro, Lone Star Rail District and CAMPO – will soon culminate in a plan, and a recommendation for action.
I think it’s safe to say that the next recommendation will likely be for the first phase of an urban rail system through central Austin – and that proposal, with the support of the City Council, is likely to land on the November ballot.
Now, let me say, for most of us in this room, the only passenger rail system we’ve had in Austin has been the Zilker Zephyr.
And I’ll admit that for a long time, I thought the Zilker Zephyr might be sufficient.
But by the time of the 2000 light rail election, it was apparent to me that Austin needed a real urban rail system.
But the measure failed…barely – and here we are, 14 years later. And I can tell you, it’s crystal clear to me that the price of failing at the ballot box this time would be enormous.
Here’s the basic equation:
#1. If we want continued prosperity in Austin – if we want to connect our residents with good jobs – we’ve not only got to build on our strengths, we’ve got to attack our weaknesses.
#2. Our single greatest weakness – the one thing that promises to adversely affect our quality of life – is our traffic crisis.
And #3. Roads alone won’t solve our traffic crisis. Neither will rail – but it’s clear we’ll never succeed without both.
Let me make it even simpler:
Rail – or fail.
A few minutes ago, I said – and I bet most of you agreed – that Austin is in a competition with our peer cities to win and keep good jobs.
30 years ago, probably most people would have considered cities like Tallahassee or Sacramento or Little Rock or Madison to have been Austin’s peer cities.
But today, I think you’d find consensus here and elsewhere that Austin’s peers are now cities like Dallas, Denver, Seattle, Portland, and San Diego.
And what you need to know is that just Denver, Seattle and San Diego, over the past 14 years, have together invested more than $10 billion in rail transit.
Our competitors figured out the equation – and our competitors took action.
Now the ball is about to be in our court one more time, and it will be up to us, as a community, to decide how to move forward.
Of course, all of the final details matter – the technology, the cost, the funding plan, the route, the operations plan, and more.
But there will be good answers to all of those questions. And when we get to Election Day, there’ll only be one big question left:
Yes – or no?
I hope you’ll agree that the correct answer yes.
Let me finish today by going back to the beginning and saying it again plainly – the state of our city is strong. It’s never been stronger.
On December 27th of this year, Austin will celebrate its 175th birthday – its septaquintaquinquecentennial. And I think we can confidently say that we are living today in what is the golden era of our city’s long history.
In so many ways, Austin is simply one of the most amazing and most promising cities of the 21st century.
We aren’t without our shortcomings – no one is.
But for the most part, today, our economy is fundamentally strong and sound. And our community is fundamentally safe thanks to our public safety employees and their Chiefs in Fire, EMS, and Police: Kerr, Rodriguez, and Acevedo. And Chief Acevedo – you’re doing a great job, and we won’t forget that.
Our culture is vibrant and evolving. Our aspirations are for greater equity and justice.
Yes, in some ways, we’ve been lucky. But in more ways, we’ve been good. Our success in Austin has not happened by accident – and it won’t continue by chance.
The future of Austin is an Austin connected to rail… but also… the future of Austin is an Austin connected to good jobs.
An Austin that connects our growing elderly population, as well as our Veterans, with the types of services they need.
An Austin that is proud to be among the first in the country to have several companies provide high speed internet to its residents… yet does not forget to connect this service, with those who really can use it the most…
And friends, as a new dawn approaches for our form of City Government… and we look to a map that shows 10 districts…. let us not forget that Austinites are… and always have been a connected community.
If we’ll keep working hard and smart, and choose wisely when we reach big crossroads, then I know we can – and will – leave Austin better than we found it.
And believe me that’s saying something.
It has been, and it remains, the great privilege of my life to serve as the mayor of my hometown – and so I say thank you, God bless you, and God bless Austin, Texas.