Democratic Candidates for Texas House District 49 respond to AURA’s questionnaire

AURA submitted a questionnaire to all Democratic Party candidates running for Texas House District 49. Long time representative Elliott Naishtat has announced he will not seek another term; the Democratic Party primary is expected to serve as a de facto election. Since HD-49 is the only Texas House seat entirely within the city limits of Austin, AURA asked candidates for their views on state issues that affect Austin’s land use, transit, and urban living. We received responses from three candidates: Huey Fischer, Gina Hinojosa, and Heather Way. We present their responses below. We have not received answers from Aspen Dunaway, Kenton Johnson, Blake Rocap, and Matthew Shrum. We will publish them if they answer later. UPDATE, 2/9/2016: We have received responses from Aspen Dunaway and have posted them below.


Q1:  For urban and transportation issues, how do you plan to establish common ground with Texas House Republicans, without whose votes legislation cannot be approved?

Aspen Dunaway: In order for succeeding in passing legislation, we have to reach across the aisle and work together and collectively. In my Formula for HD 49, I have laid out my legislative priorities and I strongly believe there will be bi-partisan support on several of these key ideas.

Huey Fischer: Tying priorities to long-term costs is key. We have seen some Republicans dare to begin the conversation on raising the gas tax for the first time since before I was born. We have seen some Republicans open up to supporting regional rail. When it comes to fights over water, lines are usually drawn between urban and rural interests. Two things to note about the Texas House are that there are 150 unique agendas, but those interests are not always mutually exclusive. If I can stand up for dairy farmers in El Paso County or community college support in Brazos County, than I can leverage that to be an effective advocate for urban Austin.

Gina Hinojosa: I believe that, in my service to the community including my time on the Austin Independent School District (AISD) Board of Trustees, I have established a reputation for collaboration and building relationships.  I was involved in an effort last session in building a non-partisan statewide coalition to address our school funding crisis.  The ability to build trust and relationships will be key to establishing common ground.

Heather Way: For the past ten years I have worked with legislators from Austin and others across the state to write and pass numerous pieces of legislation in a Republican-dominated Legislature, such as the law creating Texas’s Homestead Preservation Districts and laws providing property tax relief for vulnerable homeowners. While the partisan divide is difficult, our state’s demographic shift and continuing urbanization is creating common ground and opportunities for collaboration among Republicans and Democrats on urban and transportation issues. We may be seeing the first signs of these changes in Dallas and Houston transportation planning.


Q2:  Travis County recently lost a bond election for creating a new civil court facility. Judge Eckhardt has suggested the county’s next move will be to seek relief from Capitol View Corridor legislation to build a new courthouse on other land the county owns downtown. If she were to request your support on this issue, what would you tell her?

Aspen Dunaway: I would need to take a closer look at her exact plan. I am in favor of a comprehensive review of all the sites. I will always strive for what is best for the city and county.

Huey Fischer: Frankly, it is a matter of preserving the CVC in question or meeting the growing needs of our civil and family courts. If Travis County comes to me requesting legislation to enable this, then I will follow its lead. I appreciate Judge Eckhardt’s leadership on finding a solution to our court deficiencies.

Gina Hinojosa: I would tell Judge Eckhardt that there have been at least three instances in the past where the Legislature has granted relief from Capitol View Corridors for major public projects, all occurring after significant public engagement and dialogue. I would strongly encourage the County to embark upon engaging the public in such a manner, seeking a broad consensus regarding relief.

Heather Way: Though I don’t have the details of Judge Eckhart’s proposal, I would discuss with her how I believe that communicating early and often is the key to addressing complex public issues that have existing significant public questions. I would also suggest that an inclusive public process begun with ample time before any final decision is reached is crucial to address questions, hear people’s comments, and improve the project.

Q3:  More broadly, what do you see as the pros and cons of maintaining the State’s Capitol View Corridors in Austin? Would you support eliminating corridors that are obstructed or obsolete (e.g., views obstructed by heritage trees or a corridor terminating on the upper deck of I-35 if the upper deck is removed)?

Aspen Dunaway: The Capitol building is definitely an asset. As I previously mentioned, I am open and in favor of a comprehensive review of the sites. I would ask for transparency and an open process for the public. I am open for change and will support projects on an individual basis.

Huey Fischer: I strongly support preserving the CVCs that make our community beautiful and unique — such as the one running down Congress Avenue and the other going along the University of Texas’ Main Mall. I cherish these because they help keep Austin beautiful and special. I would be open to removing specific corridors that no longer preserve the integrity of the Capitol’s view after substantial community input. I’m not confident that the CVCs on the upper deck of I-35 should be our utmost priority for preservation. There are safety issues that also come into play.

Gina Hinojosa: The Capitol View Corridors were established both by the City and the State as a mechanism to allow for robust development in downtown and the urban core while respecting something that is unique and special to Austin. I would strongly support maintaining existing view corridors, absent a compelling reason for eliminating them. A more prudent approach, which the Legislature has embraced previously, is providing relief based upon the merits of an individual project (see response above), after significant public engagement and discussion.

Heather Way: What makes cities special are the natural and built places people love. The State’s Capital View Corridors were designed with that goal in mind. As the area around the corridors change over time, it is appropriate to consider the goals and opportunities that result from the evolving land uses. But I don’t support a wholesale approach to eliminating corridors and believe that the limited changes being considered need to have clear public benefits.


Q4:  Please offer your perspective on the Capitol Complex Master Plan, which aims to move more state workers downtown through the construction of additional office space. Please discuss the plan in contexts such as (but not limited to) urban form, public space, safety, walkability, parking, and commutes and cost of living for state employees.

Aspen Dunaway: I favor the plan. There are currently over 5000 state employees in over 20 leased properties scattered throughout Austin. The Capitol Complex has millions of square feet to build on and will even have enough space to perhaps even lease to private organizations. Centralizing agencies and employees and actually owning the buildings they work in will be financially beneficial for the state. I, for one, am excited for the Texas Mall. I am in favor of a state funded lite rail to transport state employees downtown and back.

Huey Fischer: HD49’s core has two very vibrant and fast-paced spaces, downtown and the University of Texas. In between these dynamic areas is the stagnant Capitol and state office complex. We need to make sure it becomes a flourishing space that is walkable and well-connected with a better quality of life for the state employees who will be commuting there daily. The conversation must include multi-modal transit options, access to local eateries, and more.

Gina Hinojosa: I am not familiar with the specifics of the Capitol Complex Master Plan, but I strongly support the retention and expansion of state employees in the Capitol Complex and downtown area, coupled with expanded mass transit options. The Capitol Complex today is poorly planned and over reliant upon automotive commuters, who are encouraged by an overabundance of parking, both surface and structured. These parking facilities make the periphery of the Capitol Complex a very uninviting area for pedestrians and they stifle what should be welcoming public space.

Heather Way: The new Capitol Complex Master Plan is an exciting opportunity to create a greener, more walk able environment for state employees and visitors to our State Capital. Through my work with the Opportunity Forum at the University of Texas, we sponsor regular discussions to focus thinking on issues such as equity, walkability, TOD’s, housing, transit, and other topics related to changing urban places. I think the new Master Plan offers tremendous benefits for Austin, and I encourage a continued role for the public participation as the project moves forward. I also want to see an emphasis on affordable housing for state workers incorporated into the plan, which would relieve pressure on our transportation infrastructure by housing workers near their jobs.

Q5:  In the next few years, several major tracts of state land, including the Austin State Hospital and portions of the Texas School for the Deaf, could potentially come up for sale. What is your perspective on the proper disposition, development, and zoning for such tracts?

Aspen Dunaway: I would ask for a transparent process and for the public to be aware and able to provide insight. Any development would need to be a good fit for the neighborhood.

Huey Fischer: The community’s interests must come first, and their voices need to be solicited before any huge changes. We must ensure that their needs are served to determine the best use of these properties. Any redevelopment of these properties must have clear community benefits and cannot be unaccountable giveaways to developers.

Gina Hinojosa: These tracts, generally, are unzoned and would need approvals from either the State Land Board or the City of Austin for redevelopment. As public property, I believe we have an opportunity to ensure that their ultimate development be consistent with our values as a community; they should be redeveloped with a significant percentage (and number) of housing units that are affordable to all segments of the population, with pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly uses, welcoming public spaces, and appropriate scale and massing.

Heather Way: Whenever state land is sold, I support the city having a right of first refusal to purchase the property, with adequate time to acquire the funding for the purchase, so that the city can ensure that any redevelopment of the site is truly reflective of community needs. Any sale of state land should be coupled with a community planning process, to fully understand the impact of the sale—including the impact on the surrounding communities—and to think long term about future needs. I believe no one size fits all set of rules should determine the development of state land, but believe that any redevelopment that does occur should comply with the city’s zoning rules and incorporate community benefits that reflect the needs of the community, such as affordable housing, green space, proximity to transportation, and other benefits. The Mueller development is an excellent example of this on City land.


Q6:  Would you support giving county governments in urban areas greater land use authority designed to mitigate the impact of sprawl (such as through urban growth boundaries or suburban development standards and impact fees) and to provide better regulations for mobile home communities and other colonia-style subdivisions?

Aspen Dunaway: Yes. Urban growth boundaries similar to what Oregon has utilized can be a powerful tool to control sprawl. I favor a transparent review every 5 years to determine the boundaries based on growth, affordability and needs of residents.

Huey Fischer: While I do not support a blanket embrace of home-rule powers for counties, I will be generally supportive if Travis County comes to the legislature asking for additional rulemaking authority. Growth and development out in the county should pay for itself. Yes, I support better regulations for mobile home communities. The conversation would need to include stakeholders such as homeowners, renters, real estate interests, and other local officials.

Gina Hinojosa: Yes, as I have answered on other surveys, I do support granting counties limited land use authority, especially in fast-growth areas such as Central Texas. The current legal framework encourages sprawl development beyond the limits of the city’s zoning jurisdiction. I also am aware of and sensitive to the predatory conditions faced by residents of some mobile home parks, even those within the zoning jurisdiction of the City of Austin.

Heather Way: I absolutely support giving county governments greater land use authority. This has been an ongoing goal for decades and is needed more than ever as our state becomes more urban and the need for adequate transportation, access to healthcare, housing and other issues becomes more acute with the suburbanization of poverty.

Q7:  In general, what are the most meaningful ways to meet the demand for housing?

Aspen Dunaway: I favor more housing in the urban core combined with better use of public transportation and safe roads and sidewalks for walking and riding.

Huey Fischer: Local governments are at the frontline of finding a solution to the lack of affordable housing in our community, and it is the Legislature’s job to give them the tools to be successful. We need to address the rising cost of living and begin a conversation that truly engages the community. Housing guarantees, the increase of supply, affordable rentals, and property tax relief must all be part of the equation.

Gina Hinojosa: In general, the most meaningful way to meet demand is by increasing the supply of affordable housing. We need to find innovative ways to increase affordable housing options. During my tenure at AISD, we began discussions with various stakeholders about making underutilized district-owned land available, under long term lease, for housing, especially targeting public sector employees.

Heather Way: Meeting the demand for housing requires an evaluation of financial tools and policies depending on place, resources, existing conditions, and types of housing needed and other factors. Depending on the location and context, the preservation of existing housing, providing for a range of housing types, and creative use of surplus public land can all help meet the demand. There is also a great need for state policies to support the creation of affordable housing at affordability levels that the market is not going to provide. I have helped write and pass numerous pieces of state legislation related to expanding access to affordable housing, including establishing Homestead Preservation Districts, supporting community land trusts, and much more. There are many other tools we can supporting at a state level to help meet the demand for affordable housing.


Q8:  Do you feel that car use is too heavily subsidized? Should road-users pay more for their road use?

Aspen Dunaway: There are a lot of cars on the road but I also feel if we could better our public transportation, have more dedicated bike lanes, we could reduce the number. Until we have other safe and viable options, I wouldn’t consider road users to pay more. Travis County needs the state to provide us with fair and adequate transportation funding.

Huey Fischer: The State needs to seriously ramp up its investment in multi-modal transportation options — especially in HD49 — Austin’s central core. I support increasing the gas tax. Additional revenues from the gas tax could support local and regional transit agencies like CapMetro.

Gina Hinojosa: Yes, I feel that car use is too heavily subsidized, both directly and indirectly. Directly, the gas tax has not been increased or indexed since 1993, so we are relying upon an outdated formula. Highway funding also appears to be skewed toward easing suburban auto commuters as opposed to necessary urban, multimodal improvements.

Heather Way: Changing our postwar automobile dependent transportation system into a modern multi-modal system will take decades. Pricing our transportation system correctly will be a key component of making the change. I would like to see a better funding balance between roadway expansion and other modes including bike/ped, transit, and transportation demand management. I also support raising the gas tax.

Q9:  What is the best way forward for I-35 improvements? Please react to this article from Strong Towns:

Aspen Dunaway: No doubt something needs to be done with I-35. I think the article brought up a lot of good points by looking beyond adding lanes. To really solve the Austin issue/urban core of the interstate, there’s going to need to be a combination of actions.

Huey Fischer: I want to see bold long-term solutions that get I-35 right, and I do not think more lanes are the solution. I am open to depressing highway lanes below grade and building up east-west connections that are bike and pedestrian friendly while building up convenient and fast access points to the highway.

Gina Hinojosa:  I believe the most realistic way forward on I-35 is to find ways to encourage through traffic (non-local users) to utilize SH 130, either by significantly decreasing tolls or by buying out the operator and converting it to a free road. I also believe we need to revisit legislation that encouraged telecommuting by state employees. As stated above and below, I agree with the premise Ms. Walker offers that adding additional capacity to I-35 will only induce more demand.

Heather Way: IH-35 is the major artery for Central Texas and one of the most congested roadways in the United States. I believe it is important to develop a long-range view as to the role of the roadway and how we maintain and develop its capacity into the future. I am interested in the environmental mitigation affects and conductivity of capping a portion of IH-35 through Downtown, but I need more information about the cost and impact on capacity and congestion.

Q10:  Beyond I-35, what TxDOT projects for the Austin area do you support? Which will you oppose? What standards do you use to evaluate highway construction and expansion proposals? Current proposals in the planning stages include Mo-Pac expressway extensions and added toll lanes, SH 45 SW, and reconstruction of the Y at Oak Hill.

Aspen Dunaway: I support a transparent review process to identify which projects are needed and which would be the most effective.

Huey Fischer: I am opposed to the expansion of SH 45 SW due to its proximity to environmentally sensitive lands. I am skeptical that adding lanes to MoPac will alleviate traffic and am open to alternative solutions. I do not see tolled lanes as an answer that the community wants.

Gina Hinojosa:  As stated above, I am concerned that too much emphasis is given to funding projects aimed at easing suburban commutes. This simply subsidizes and encourages more sprawl. I would strongly support funding for urban, multimodal projects, including rail and mass transit. Consistent with that, I do not favor SH 45 SW, as I believe it merely encourages more development in areas that are environmentally sensitive and are auto-commute dependent.

Heather Way: There are a large number of TXDOT projects currently underway or in various stages of planning. I do not support double decking MoPac over Lady Bird Lake or unnecessary projects like the proposed 45 SW toll way that will run through watershed protection lands, risk polluting Barton Springs, and add thousands of extra cars and trucks a day to MoPac traffic. A wiser use of state dollars would be to convert SH-130 from a toll road to a freeway, which could ease congestion on I-35. I do think that improving intersections and overpasses on IH- 35 could help improve traffic flow and that our region would greatly benefit from funding transit and emphasizing transportation demand management.

Q11:  How should the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) plan for Austin’s transportation needs? How should Austin?

Aspen Dunaway: I think it’s safe to say that we’re not going to experience a decline in growth anytime soon. Transportation projects, Interstate construction are not done overnight. This is going to be an on-going process. Both CAMPO and the City need to consider these things. Perhaps a focus on getting fewer cars on the road for now is a good approach. Utilize and better public transportation and provide for safe pedestrian and biking commutes.

Huey Fischer: Regional planning should help Austinites. It should ensure that there is a cohesive plan amidst the various overlapping organizations. We need to develop a unified regional vision that is led by the city.

Gina Hinojosa:  As stated above, both CAMPO and the City should prioritize urban, multimodal projects, including rail and mass transit. I was recently encouraged by Mayor Turner’s recognition in Houston that his city has traditionally placed too much emphasis on suburban freeway expansion. I believe the same is true for many urban areas, including Austin.

Heather Way: There has been considerable criticism of the CAMPO 2040 Plan as being financially unrealistic and more a list of projects than a plan. It’s time for our region to create a comprehensive transportation plan for the future, one that takes into account greater mode share and a strong focus on transit, advances in technology, and transportation demand management. Austin is in the early stages of developing a new transportation plan, and I look forward to participating in its development.

Q12:  What is your vision for transit funding for Texas cities? Will you support significant increases in state spending on urban transit?

Aspen Dunaway: Together the city, county and state officials need to rally and aggressively call for fair and adequate funding for the Austin area. I support increases in state spending on urban transit, especially for Austin where we are home to the state agencies and Capitol Complex. As previously mentioned, I’m in favor of a state funded lite rail for downtown and Capitol Complex commutes. If elected, I would seek a seat on Transportation.

Huey Fischer: I want to see a raise in the gas tax for the first time since the early 90s. Yes, I will support significant increases in state spending on urban transit.

Gina Hinojosa:  See above, yes. But I would focus the funding on less auto-centric outcomes, including rail and mass transit, and alternative forms of transportation, including pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

Heather Way: Yes, I will work to increase funding for transit and strongly believe that this is key for Austin to remain competitive into the 21st century. This can be achieved by balancing existing funding between new roadways and maintenance with a much greater emphasis on transit and the broad range of strategies that comprise transportation demand management. Additionally, we must expand funding strategies to jump start build out of our system.

Q13:  What will you do to grow funding for bicycle and pedestrian safety infrastructure in Central Texas?

Aspen Dunaway: I will show my support and work with my fellow Central Texas colleagues to demonstrate the need and benefits of additional funding.

Huey Fischer: I will author budget riders and other key legislation to improve infrastructure. Assuming that a Democratic freshman is likely to not get appointed to Appropriations, I will work with members of that committee to bring these priorities to the forefront. All efforts will be coordinated with the specific legislative agenda put forward by BikeTexas and other stakeholders.

Gina Hinojosa:   This needs to be a priority. AISD has established programs to encourage students and parents to bike to school, with positive results. The number of bicyclists and pedestrians killed or injured annually in the region is unacceptable.

Heather Way: As an avid bike rider, runner, and walker (usually with my school-age children), I have already been actively involved in advocating for improved pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in Austin. I served on the Citizens Advisory group for the City’s Urban Trails Master Plan, championed funding for pedestrian and cycling infrastructure on the City’s 2012 Bond Election Advisory Task Force, and was a lead advocate for securing funding for the South Lamar corridor plan, which includes a heavy emphasis on developing safe bike/ped infrastructure all along the corridor. At the Legislature, I will continue to a champion for bike/ped infrastructure. I will work closely with bike/ped advocacy organizations and also assist with the building of broad-based coalitions, with groups like PTA organizations and the AARP, to advocate for this critical infrastructure, including expanded funding.

Q14:  To what to degree and how would you oppose any attempts by state legislators to weaken legal protections for bicyclists and pedestrians?

Aspen Dunaway: I will oppose any legislation that weakens the legal protections for bicyclists and pedestrians. State wide there are so many cities and areas that are not deemed biking and pedestrian friendly. It is a real issue and even here in Austin, where we are a bit more friendly, we still have problems. Encouraging and protecting riding and walking will help reduce cars on the road, which in turn, helps environmentally and of course traffic congestion.

Huey Fischer: As an Austin cyclist myself, I would be on the frontline of any such opposition.

Gina Hinojosa:  I would strongly oppose efforts to weaken legal protections for bicyclists and pedestrians, and I would actively work to expand them. Bicyclists have the rights and duties of other vehicle operators, and I would be an advocate for safe-passage laws to protect vulnerable road users.

Heather Way: Working with bike/ped and public safety advocates, I will fight against weakening legal protections for bicyclists and pedestrians. I will meet regularly with bicycle, pedestrian, and public safety stakeholders to collaborate wherever possible. My legal and legislative experience, along with my experience building coalitions, will be helpful in beating back these anti-public safety bills.