Austin mayoral candidates offer transportation ideas at AARP forum

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By Ben Wear - American-Statesman Staff

Older people have unique needs. Austin, at a rate among the highest in the country, is becoming home to more older people. And older people vote.

Five people who would be Austin mayor spent an hour Monday telling about 200 people with seasoning and some tread ware what they might do to help them with transportation, affordability and other challenges. But given the format of the AARP forum at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar — one-minute answers to questions directed to, at most, two on the panel — the hourlong event was short on specifics.

What might they as mayor do to assist seniors with getting around Austin’s increasingly problematic streets? That question was directed only to Austin City Council Member Mike Martinez and Randall Stephens, one of the lesser-known candidates in the mayor’s race on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Martinez pointed to the city’s ongoing effort to create “complete streets” with bike lanes and newer, wider sidewalks. And Martinez, chairman of the Capital Metro board for the past five years as a council appointee, said the agency needs to create “a public transit system where if you don’t want to use a car, you don’t have to.”

Stephens said the city’s urban rail plan is not the solution, for seniors or anyone else. Without naming any of them, he said he had a list of 20 intersections that needed to be addressed.

The American-Statesman posed the same transportation question later Monday to the other two front-runners in the race, attorney Steve Adler and Council Member Sheryl Cole. Adler said he would push for Capital Metro to restore free fares for seniors. The agency’s fares generally cover only about 10 percent of the cost of providing the rides.

“So seniors with their sales taxes are paying the other 90 percent of that cost just like the rest of us,” Adler said.

The eight-member Capital Metro board, although it has two council members, sets fares independently of the mayor and Austin City Council. The board during Martinez’s tenure on it ended free fares for those 65 and older in an effort to increase revenue.

Cole said she would push for a close relationship with Capital Metro and collaboration on transportation options for seniors, “especially since more seniors are moving into the urban core and leaving their car behind.”

Asked about what could be done so older people can “age in place” — that is, stay in their homes as long as possible rather than move to smaller or cheaper quarters — Adler pointed to an arcane mayoral tool in Austin’s weak mayor, council-manager form of government: “the power to convene.”

Aside from bringing together various people to hash out solutions, Adler said his recommendation that Austin create a 20 percent homestead exemption on property taxes would help seniors looking to keep their homes. Martinez and Cole oppose that, arguing that a percentage cut in a home’s taxable value would disproportionately help owners of more expensive homes.