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October 12, 2018

Volume 40, Number 28

Its a rare sight in Austin:  powerful activist environmental interests disagreeing among themselves.  Usually the environmental community leaders in Austin publicly march in lockstep fighting for or against the same issues.  Not now.  Distinct lines have been drawn over an issue that will be on Austin ballots November 6th.  Which side prevails may go a long way toward defining the shape of Austins growth.

The ballot item is Proposition J.  Huh?  What’s that?  Simply put, it would require any comprehensive change to Austins land use rules go to voters for approval.  Just getting on the ballot was controversial.  It took a grass-roots effort to bypass the Austin City Council to get Prop J on the ballot.  This grew out of the CodeNEXT development rules process that inflamed such strong opinions, it was ultimately abandoned.

So, how has this pitted Austin environmental leaders against each other?  We need to credit Mose Buchele, an award-winning reporter for KUT-FM, for bringing this to our attention through his writing in Austin MonitorIt boils down to differing environmental philosophies as they relate to growth and climate change.  How so?

If Proposition J passes, then the voters will have the right to check the Councils work if we resurrect CodeNEXT and we have a comprehensive rewrite of our Land Development Code,” longtime environmental activist Bill Bunch argues.  Arguing against passage of Prop J is the director of Austin-based Environment Texas, Luke Metzger.  Where do they differ?

Bunch opposes development being shoved into the Central city where you would “scrape our existing city neighborhoods and try to force it on top of existing communities.”  He doesnt like adding density in downtown Austin and wants growth moved away from the city core.

Metzger disagrees:  “Are we going to increase sprawl, increase traffic, or are we going to do it in a much more walkable, transitfriendly way and bring people into the city core?”

They both cite strong, passionate environmental reasons for their approach.  Itll be interesting to see which approach prevails in this environmentallycentric Austin community. Read more →

September 28, 2018

Volume 40, Number 26

Dear [MM_Member_Data name=’firstName’],

Within the next few weeks, Capital Metro is planning to unveil an ambitious, longterm plan to bring highcapacity public transit to the Austin metro area.  What form will it take?  Well, thats what will be revealed.  Project Connect could include any, or all, autonomous buses, light rail, extensive expansion of the existing MetroRapid bus service, or other rapid bus service.  It could be a big deal.  And highly controversial.

Big – because the plan would probably propose a system so large it will provide a major alternative transportation mode attractive to motorists who currently drive city streets.  Controversial – because it will likely result in the removal of car lanes.

Underlying whatever is proposed may be the biggest concern of all:  which routes will the system run along, and importantly, what dedicated right of way will be needed?  Remember Capital Metro doesn’t have jurisdiction over roads their vehicles use.  In other words, CapMetro can’t dictate what happens to acquire needed right-of-way.  These roads either belong to the city, county or state.

Why rightofwayWithout it, buses simply line up in the same slog cars get bogged down in.  Okay, what about light rail?  Well, in most cases, you would probably convert vehicle lanes to rail lanes.  You would likely also build boarding platforms in the middle of roadways.  Again, right of way problems.

For a transformative transit system to be successfully instituted, you will need leaders of differing governmental entities heavily involved, making serious decisions – and, in some cases, probably angering some of their constituents.  Complicated?  Oh, yeah.

And cost?  No estimate yet.  But local leaders like to look to Seattle and other similar cities for examples.  Seattle committed several billion dollars to convert a major downtown artery entirely to bus serviceIt runs as many as 200 buses an hour on the roadway.  It worked.  Seattle has seen a major reduction in car use.  But, at what price in dollars and to auto mobility?

What can you expect?  First of all, this is – as we said – ambitious planning and it is very, very long-term.  CapMetro will likely take the first public step within a few weeks to begin a more extensive planning and coordination effort.  The implications are huge.  Stay tuned. Read more →

September 14, 2018

Volume 40, Number 24

The Texas economy especially as it impacts the Austin area is so strong it has triggered an action not taken in 30 years.  State government, so important in Austin, is benefitting significantly from what is happening throughout the state not to mention the impact of the redhot Austin economy.  All this is due to betterthanexpected economic and revenue growth around Texas.

We’ve long maintained the Austin area is uniquely positioned economically.  Steady government paychecks provide a solid underpinning for the area.  In general, these jobs are not subject to ups-and-downs or twists-and-turns of the private sector.  So, add to this, the Silicon Hills of Austin is right now riding the crest of tech-driven private sector job growth, that is the envy of the rest of the nation.

Consider this:  the skyrocketing Austin private sector tech economy is set to get a rocketboost from normallystaid state government.  What?  How’s this?  The Texas Legislature that sets budget parameters for the many state agencies in Austin doesn’t even meet for almost four months.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, by law, is the state official who decides money guidelines the legislature must follow.  He says to legislators “this is how much money you will have to spend during the next two years of the biennium and you cant spend any more than that.”  Last October, he issued his forecast for fiscal year 2019.

For the first time other than a legislative session in 30 years, the State Comptroller has increased his certified revenue estimate he made last October.  And it was a big increase.  Remember, the Texas Legislature meets only once every two years for 140 days.  So its a big deal for setting a twoyear budget.

His reason for saying state agencies will have more money to spend starting in 2019 than earlier predicted are several fold:  sales tax revenue is up 10.5% over FY 2017 … oil/gas natural gas production tax revenue is up 56.1% … general revenue-related revenue, up 9.3%, etc.

The legislature will have more money to dole out.  If state agencies get bigger bucks, it will mean bigger paychecks circulating through the Austin economy.  A nice future boost. Read more →

September 7, 2018

Volume 40, Number 23

For a year now, the Austin area has been considered one of the favored locations for Amazons 50,000person second headquarters, Amazon HQ2.  Still no public word on when Amazon will announce its next step.  A $5 billion investment in the HQ2 city, spread over 1020 years, has many cities salivating.  In fact, it has been said a prosperity bomb will be dropped on the ultimate HQ2 city.  How can the Austin area prepare for such an event?

Austin’s proposal has not been made public, but several cities have revealed proposals that have incentives valued up to a billion dollars.  Hey, they probably figure, if we invest a billion dollars for a $5 billion returnits worth it.  Don’t know if this was their logic.

But it emphatically emphasizes the humongous aspect of Amazon HQ2.  Amazon estimates it generated $38 billion in economic activity in its home base of Seattle between 2010 and 2016.  Okay, so HQ2 will be big.  Really big.

Washington, DC-based think tank Brookings Institution in a new study examined how the city that wins Amazon HQ2 could ensure its arrival does not rapidly drive up housing costs – an important element in the Austin area economy.

Brooking’s Joseph Parilla said this “should include not only stimulating new market-rate development through zoning, but also setting aside some of the tax revenue generated by Amazon to fund and preserve affordable housing.”

Other than housing, Parilla said Amazon should invest in local business initiatives, such as a startup accelerator and should source services and goods from resident suppliers.  And, the new HQ2 city should prepare existing residents to take advantage of employment opportunities created by Amazon.  In other words, the “diversity of the entire region” should be brought into play in business planning around Amazon.

Back to housing for a moment.  In Amazons HQ1 city, Seattle, the cost of housing has outpaced wage gains.  While the income of families at the 20th percentile of the earnings distribution grew by 14% between 2014 and 2016, rents increased at 19%, according to Zillow.  Sound familiar?  If Austin is selected for HQ2, Amazon will be on familiar territory and should work with Austin to alter such an imbalance. Read more →

August 24, 2018

Volume 40, Number 21

Things are going so well in the Austin area right now you might be tempted to pinch yourself to see if youre dreaming.  This is especially true if you happen to remember two past disruptions that caused some serious damage the dotcom bust and the real estate recession.  They occurred in Austin less than 20 years ago.  And, they were like a slap upside the head.  A lot of people and companies were seriously hurt or even destroyed.

This report is not intended to be a downer.  And it’s not a dull recitation of local history.  But, there are so many new residents in the area, it might be helpful to remind them they have arrived at a great time.  Those who have lived/worked here for at least twenty years have vivid memories of when times were not-so-great.  And, more importantly, many of those who survived those times are responsible for Austin’s economic success stories today.

Think about this.  Roughly a million people have moved into Austin and the surrounding areas in the 5county metro during the decades following the two downturns.  They didn’t experience the hard times.  All they’ve seen is one of the most amazing periods of expansion experienced by any major world city.

Many of these new residents are pulling down compensation greater than those who were hammered by the downturns.  A lot of them are living and/or working in gleaming, modern towers downtown – or, in new office buildings, apartments and homes outside the Central Business District.

The downtown newbies probably can’t comprehend “see-through office buildings, where three million square feet of office space had to go begging – even though the spaces were cut-rate subleases from leases businesses committed to prior to the recession.  This is as much space as six Frost Bank Towers!

Here’s one example that vividly illustrates the contrast between then and now.  Drive to Fifth and San Antonio Streets downtown.  Marvel at the architecturallysignificant Federal Office Building that will still be standing on that site a century from now.  At one point, global semiconductor chipmaker Intel started building a $124 million tower on that site.  Then as the dot-com debacle hit, Intel pulled the plug half-way into the project in March 2001.  For six years, the “Intel Shell” reminded all of what might have been.  The takeaway:  Recent residents will do well to understand what they have inherited.  This is a special place. Read more →

August 10, 2018

Volume 40, Number 19

If you look at the calendar with eyes that have some economic development expertise, you can logically assume Amazon will soon publicly announce the next big step in the selection of a city that will be its choice for its second headquarters, Amazon HQ2.  In January, 20 cities including Austin were told they made the cut from 238 original submissions.  Since that time, Amazon has made no public utterance.  But, its selfimposed deadline is nearing.

Don’t expect Amazon’s next announcement to be the city.  Amazon initially said it will decide the HQ2 city in 2018.  But, if Amazon follows standard site selection procedure, a handful of finalist cities will be revealed a Final Four,” or some small manageable number.  Winnowing down the smaller number to the “winner” will probably include further site visitations, negotiations and a comparative analysis.  This could take a few months.  And by this time, Amazon’s own deadline will be upon them.  For these reasons, you can expect the final cut of cities should be announced sooner rather than later.

Amazon earlier confirmed site selection teams visited all 20 cities.  The visits were very private.  Even some city officials didn’t know they were in town.  And those who met with the site selectors were asked to sign confidentiality agreements.  Even the HQ2 team members didn’t reveal their full names.

This, by the way, is the norm for most economic development visits, though usually it is to make sure the company’s competitors are not aware of their plans.  However, in this case there are no competitors.  Amazon announced it would invest about $5 billion in the chosen city, and HQ2 would grow to about 50,000 new highpaying jobs over the years.  Amazon HQ2 has no peer.

The Austin and Dallas regions were the only two Texas sites among the 20 that made the first cut.  And, an Amazon team not only visited these sites, they also met with the Texas governors office to gauge the states role.  So, make no bones about it, Texas’ no-income-tax, low-regulations, business-friendly-leaders add tremendous clout to local presentations.

A final note about Austin’s chances:  from Day One, Austin Chamber of Commerce officials who guided the Austin effort, have used the phrase Austin Region” – not City of Austin.  So, if Austin makes the “Final Four” – and it is considered one of the favorites – dont be surprised if the physical location is outside Austins city limits. Read more →

July 20, 2018

Volume 40, Number 16

The UTSystem should be nearing the end of its search to replace retired Chancellor Bill McRaven.  There is no stated deadline and former UTAustin President Larry Faulkner is a very capable interim replacement.  But, the Texas Legislature convenes in Austin in less than six months and a new Chancellor needs time to get uptospeed on critical issues.  One question:  what should the Board of Regents pay to attract a worldclass caliber candidate?  Do the Texas Aggies hold the key to that answer?

No doubt about it, the job of UTSystem Chancellor is a tough one, overseeing as CEO 8 academic institutions (including UTAustin) and 6 health institutions that include 6 medical schools, 2 dental schools and 8 nursing schools, among other professional programs.  Consider this:  The UTSystem confers more than onethird of the states undergraduate degrees and educates over half of the states healthcare professionals.  This is a major responsibility.  And, ancillary to this, the newly-named Chancellor will become an influential citizen of Austin.

So, what should the Regent’s search committee pay to get someone of that caliber?  Start off thinking of an amount north of a million dollars a year.  The Chronicle of Higher Education released a 2016-2917 national salary survey this week.  TexasA&MSystem Chancellor John Sharps salary was among the nations highest at $1.29 million for acting as CEO of 11 institutions.

Even the president of the single campus TexasA&MUniversity in College Station, Michael Young, pulls down a $1 million annual salary.  By the way, UTAustin president Greg Fenves turned down a million dollar salary offer when he was hired in 2015 and now makes $762,220.

The precedent has already been set.  When he retired as UTSystem Chancellor earlier this year, McRaven earned just more than $1.5 million in combined base pay, bonuses and other financial perks during the 2017 fiscal year.

The Board of Regents will hire the new Chancellor at whatever salary it takes to attract its chosen candidate.  The search committee is headed by current Regents Chair and Vice Chair Sara Martinez Tucker and Jeffrey Hildebrand.  They are joined by two former chairs, Don Evans and James Huffines and a former vice chair, Paul Foster. Read more →

July 6, 2018

Volume 40, Number 14

In this holidayshortened week, it seems appropriate that a number of short items should dominate this edition of the newsletter.  Not that they are any less significantIts just they can be covered with a few sentences or paragraphsTake the now-defunct ban on single-use plastic bags as our first example.

It didn’t take long after the Texas Supreme Court ruled local bag bans ran afoul of state law for the state attorney general to take action.  (Austin has had a bag ban since 2013.)  This week, Attorney General Ken Paxton officially notified Austin and other Texas cities their local ordinances were illegal and therefore unenforceable.

To make sure the word got out, Paxton directly notified the City of Austin, Mayor Steve Adler and the 10member Austin City Council, then he issued a press release to the media.  Now what?  The ruling that banning plastic bags is illegal as of this moment should stand until some counter action – if at all – is taken.

 

 

It may not be long now before you see electricpowered, autonomous transit vehicles circulating in Downtown Austin.  It will be a pilot program instituted in two phases technology testing and actual service runs.

The testing by Capital Metro and the City of Austin Transportation Department could begin later this month and take up to 60 days.  During the second phase, proposals will be evaluated to lease six vehicles, carrying up to 15 passengers, to run in the pilot program for 12 months.

CapMetro thinks the fleet of vehicles will be in operation on downtown streets in late fall.  Not to worryCapMetro says operators will be on board while the autonomous electric vans are being evaluated and running in service.

 

 

For Austin airport travelers, and those picking up arriving passengers, the renovated cell phone lot is offering this month a Texaco fuel station, 120 parking spaces, a convenience store (serving tacos, BBQ, etc.) and electric vehicle charging stations.

Read more →

June 22, 2018

Volume 40, Number 12

Too often the debate about energy sources becomes an usversusthem discussion – “fossil-fuelsversusalternativefuels.”  Energy is vital to Austin and the rest of Texas.  Texas is a world leader in fossil fuels with enormous oil and gas availability.  Not as well-known, is the fact that Texas is fast becoming a leader in capacity to generate electricity from an alternative fuel source — wind power.  Its an enviable position.  With such a wealth of resources, how about peaceful coexistence in Texas as an energy policy?

The City of Austin has committed big bucks far into the future to use wind power to generate electricity, while currently relying on other sources such as natural gas, coal-fired power, nuclear power and solar (which will be discussed at a later date).  Wind is an important and growing part of the Austin economy.  So, just how big is wind in Texas?

According to Texas economist Ray Perryman, Texas capacity of 22,799 megawatts is larger than most countries around the world.  And in the US, Texas capacity is triple that of secondplace Oklahoma.  The Lone Star State also tops the list for capacity currently under development.

Just as with fossil fuels, geography is key.  Texas has abundant land with the right wind speedsAdditionally, there have been billions of dollars of investments in transmission lines that are needed to get wind power from the often rural areas, where it is generated, to Austin and other growing population centers where it is needed.

It’s not been widely discussed, but development of wind power has been an economic boon.  The American Wind Energy Association estimates more than $42 billion has been invested in Texas wind farms, creating jobs during construction, and to a lesser extent, on an ongoing basis through operations and maintenance, Perryman reports.

In addition to the economic benefits of the industry itself, wind generation capacity works to reduce electric power prices,” Perryman continued.  And wind gives electric power customers more choices.  There are also more benefits.

How many states would love to have Texas oil/gas/wind energy resources?  This situation will inure to the economic benefit for Austin and the rest of the state for generations. Read more →

May 18, 2018

Volume 40, Number 7

Amazon, the powerhouse Seattlebased company, continues its quest for a second massive headquarters location dubbed Amazon HQ2.  It hopes to settle on a site this year.  The Austin area is one of 20 finalists that have made pitches for the economic development prize.  Debates have erupted about how such a gigantic, 50,000job enterprise can be absorbed into the local economy.  Consider some arguments against HQ2s ultimate location.

“Many residents fear that winning the prize would actually exacerbate all the things they hate about living in the region:  horrendous traffic, expensive housing, crowded schools and gentrification.  The area consistently ranks near the top in surveys of the nations worst traffic congestion.  It has failed to keep up with the demand for low and moderate priced housing, a challenge that also concerns Amazon.”  Betcha thought these quotes printed in a national newspaper were about Austin.  Nope.  They refer to another “favorite” for HQ2 – the Washington DC region.

Make no mistake.  The DC region is very much in the mix.  It would give Amazon an East Coast presence to balance Seattle’s West Coast location.  With Amazon gobbling up more and more enterprises, it will face more and more scrutiny by the US government, and a local presence would be helpful.

Also, don’t discount this:  Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos (generally considered the world’s richest man) owns the influential Washington Post newspaper – which incidentally carried the DC quotes listed above.  Oh, by-the-way, the DC area offered Amazon nine sites:  four each in Northern Virginia and the District, and one in Montgomery.  You see why some savvy analysts pick DC?

But, looking beyond DC and other highly competitive sites such as the Dallas area, we wanted to share this information with you to “point up a point” we like to make.  In almost any competition you can name, the winner is not perfect.”  It is the best of the rest.  And oft times, subjective factors (such as “I just simply like this one” when the competition is close) play into the decision.  This is where handicappers fall short in predicting winners.

So where does all this stand as of now?  Don’t know.  Amazon’s lips are zipped, as they have been all along.  But an interesting development took place just this week in Seattle that upset Amazon.  Check the next item that might swing an intangible toward a Texas location. Read more →