What’s This All About?: The Big Issues of Austin’s 2016 City Council Elections

Why I Vote

One of the EcoNetwork’s main goals this fall is to educate the public about the importance of local elections. The past few weeks, we’ve shared with you information about how to determine which City Council district you live in, how to register to vote, and how close local elections really can be.

But, it’s pretty hard to follow along with local election coverage if you don’t event know what the main issues are…

That’s what we’ll be talking about today – The Most Important Issues of Austin’s City Council Elections


Transportation

This one is pretty obvious. Traffic in Austin is really bad and is only getting worse, so you can be sure to hear City Council candidates discussing their plans for fixing our transportation woes. Some specifics that you’ll probably hear them mention include:

Capital Metro – Austin’s public transportation provider has been struggling a bit lately. Ridership has actually decreased over the past 15 years, despite the fact that the city’s populations has increased by 270,000 people (or by 30 percent). Meanwhile, operating costs for bus service have more than doubled over the last 15 years, from $60 million to over $150 million. Consider the fact that Austin doesn’t even make the list of the top 50 US cities with the highest rates of public transit commutes, and you can see why Cap Metro will be a big issue in this election. (Please note – City Council does not have total control over Cap Metro. Instead, select City Council members are chosen to serve on Cap Metro’s board, along with other local leaders from throughout Cap Metro’s service area).

Listen for candidates’ specific plans to improve the bus system, including their thoughts on Connections 2025, a new plan from Cap Metro that has the potential to improve our city’s pubic transportation system with more frequent bus service and additional east to west routes.

Metro Bus

Uber and Lyft – One of Austin’s most contentious debates in the last several years, the Uber/Lyft issue will likely pop up again this election. As a refresher, late last year City Council approved additional regulations on ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft. The new rules were met with anger from the two companies, who promised to leave Austin if the regulations weren’t repealed. The issue eventually went to the voters in a May election and the new regulations were upheld. Uber and Lyft promptly left Austin.

All of the incumbents running in this election were on City Council when those regulations were passed (although not all of them voted for it). So, listen for candidates reflecting on the so-called Uber/Lyft issue and discussing any plans for the future.

Uber Lyft Logos

Prop 1 – Prop 1 is a $720 million transportation bond that will also be on the ballot in November. This is the major transportation issue of the election. Because of that, we’ll be devoting much of next week’s newsletter to coverage of Prop 1 (including a podcast), so stay tuned.

But for now, listen for candidates sharing their opinions of Prop 1. Are they voting for it? Or are they against it? The current slate of City Council candidates are mixed on the issue.

General transportation topics/ terms to look out for:

  • Dedicated bus lanes – These are bus-only lanes designed to get buses moving faster than the speed of traffic, making them a more desirable transportation alternative. City Council is constantly discussing the merits of these dedicated lanes, because they do remove a lane of traffic, which can be controversial.
  • Rail – Although rail did not make it into this year’s Prop 1 transportation bond, it is always a topic of discussion in Austin. Listen for candidates express their level of support for rail, as well as how we could actually make it happen (or if we even should).
  • Bike Lanes – Bike lanes are included in this year’s Prop 1 transportation bond, but they can be a contentious topic in certain districts. Some City Council candidates love them, others don’t feel it’s fair to make everyone foot the bill for bike lanes, which they believe only a few people use.
  • Autonomous vehicles/tech – Google’s driverless cars are already on the ground in Austin, but not yet available to the public. When talking about Austin’s innovative spirit, new ideas like autonomous vehicles and other tech solutions often come up in the conversation.

2016 Mobility Bond


CodeNEXT/ Affordability- 

CodeNEXT is the city’s effort to rewrite its land development code. What’s a land development code? It’s basically a rule book for the city, explaining what can be built where. It dictates which neighborhoods can have high-rise apartment complexes and which can’t, how many parking spaces businesses are required to have, and basically determines how a city looks.

Austin’s current land development code has lots of problems. It’s too confusing and makes building in Austin confusing as well. Most people seem to agree on that. Where the debate comes into play is exactly how our new land development code should look. The draft of that code will be released early next year, which means that the new City Council will play a major role in shaping, approving, or disapproving of the code.

Why does this matter? CodeNEXT will determine how Austin looks 10, 15, and even 50 years from now. It will influence where density will be directed, and ultimately, how much density we will actually have. It will affect affordability (another major issue of this election), because it will determine the type and availability of housing we have in Austin.

Listen for candidates sharing their opinions about CodeNEXT. Are they avid supporters? Do they hate it? Most importantly, listen for their opinions on density and neighborhoods. This is where the largest debates over CodeNEXT can be found. If we allow increased density, where should we allow it? How much should we allow? To what degree are we willing to change the character of existing single-family neighborhoods to do so?

CodeNEXT


Austin Energy and Austin Water

You might not know this, but both Austin Water and Austin Energy are publicly-owned utilities. This means that they answer to us, the public. It also means that Austin City Council has a lot of influence over major policy decisions that Austin Water and Austin Energy make. It is important to learn about the candidates’ viewpoints and plans for our two major public utilities, both because we pay into them (each month on our water and electric bills) and because they affect our environment in big ways.

Austin Energy –

Austin Energy currently has an ambitious goal of getting 55 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025. But, just because a plan is in place, doesn’t mean that it will come to fruition. That requires consistent leadership and guidance. That is what City Council is there for. It is up to them (and the public) to ensure that we hit our renewable energy and climate targets.

One of the major issues that will be coming up soon for Austin Energy is the retirement of Austin’s last remaining coal-fired power plant, the Fayette Power Project. Environmental activists have long been pushing for its retirement (since it’s responsible for 25 percent of Austin’s greenhouse gas emissions) and in 2014 City Council approved a goal of starting the Fayette retirement process in 2022. However, retiring such a large plant can be a complicated endeavor and it requires longterm planning. Austin Energy is currently working on developing that plan and is expected to present it to City Council in June of 2017.

Listen for candidates sharing their opinions about the direction of Austin Energy. Should we maintain the current renewable energy goals? Or reduce them? Or make them stronger? Different City Council candidates will have different opinions on this, so it’s important to pay attention. Also listen for their plans for Fayette, as this will likely be a big issue once they take office.

Rooftop Solar

Austin Water

Although we’re pretty flush with water now, Austin Water is always planning for the next drought. City Council is in charge of approving major policy decisions, like conservation regulations and programs. For example, earlier this year, City Council approved permanent one-day-per-week watering restrictions to maintain conservation both in times of drought and in times of plenty.

Right now, the big issue at Austin Water is its forthcoming 100-year water supply and demand management plan, dubbed Water Forward. The plan is still in development, but it’s goal is to ensure that Austin has a diversified, sustainable, and resilient water supply into the next century.

Listen for the City Council candidates’ opinions on our current water conservation strategies. Do they support one-day-per-week watering? Or do they think it’s too extreme? Also, since the Water Forward plan is still in development, there will be opportunities for whoever is elected to weigh in. Listen for candidates talking about their longterm goals and strategies for Austin Water as well.

Austin Water 100 Years


Austin Resource Recovery/ Zero Waste –

Austin Resource Recovery is the city department in charge of collecting trash, recycling, and composting from your house. Austin City Council recently approved the rollout of curbside composting pickup citywide. This program is designed to help the city meet its zero waste goal of diverting 90 percent of its waste from the landfill by 2040.

Listen for City Council candidates expressing their opinions on the recent curbside composting decision. Do they support it? Or not? Also look for plans that City Council candidates have regarding the city’s zero waste goals. We’re currently a bit behind in meeting those goals, and since City Council is in charge of major policy decisions, they will undoubtedly influence our ability to have robust recycling and composting programs into the future.

City of Austin Composting


Climate Change – 
One of the biggest issues that both Austin and the world currently face is climate change. Austin has a history of leading on climate action and has strong goals in place that influence nearly every city department. Austin has already committed to eliminating all of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, at the latest. All of our city plans are supposed be designed with this goal in mind.

However, large ambitious goals like these are only met when the community and its leaders are behind them. We will not reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by accident. That will only happen if we continue to make doing so a component of city policy.

Listen for City Council candidates’ opinions on climate change. Do they believe that it is happening? Where do they rank climate change as a priority for city government? What do they think of our current climate protection goals? What do they think we could be doing better on?


The big picture? This election matters. Who we elect to City Council will help to determine the future of the city that we all live in. Their decisions will impact our affordability, our traffic, our quality of life, and our environment. Stay tuned over the next few weeks as we look into what each of the City Council candidates actually think about these issues. You don’t want to miss this! After all, your future depends on it.

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