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Developing Stories: Future Mobility: Shaping the Transportation Bonds

Urban rail is what you won't see this November – so what will you see?

By Katherine Gregor, Fri., March 26, 2010

Developing Stories: Future Mobility: Shaping the Transportation Bonds
Photo courtesy of Kimley-Horn and Associates

When Mayor Lee Leffingwell announced March 10 that the city had too many unanswered questions to "bring a fully developed urban rail proposal to Austin voters this November," he said he would still propose a 2010 bond referendum for other projects within Austin's emerging multimodal Strategic Mobility Plan – "a $100 million package of investments in roads, sidewalks, bike lanes, and trails." Council Member Randi Shade said she will co-sponsor that proposal, which will direct city staff to prepare a proposed list of priority projects, to begin relieving traffic congestion quickly.

Initial public reaction to splitting the transportation bonds into two referendums – the second package, to include rail, would likely go to voters in 2011 – has been mixed. Some rail proponents say they understand the delay but regret seeing the city use up its available transportation funding on other projects before rail is ready to go to voters.

There are questions concerning the total in proposed transportation spending and how that might relate to the city's available bonding capacity. Deputy Chief Financial Officer Greg Canally sent a memo to the mayor and City Council Feb. 1, estimating that the city currently has about $200 million in available bonding capacity that could be devoted to transportation bonds – including urban rail. As meaningful mobility relief will eventually require a significantly larger investment, Leffingwell and others have proposed spending twice that amount, $400 million. For that additional $200 million in transportation bonds, the city would need to raise taxes by 2 cents per $100 in property valuation – for a $200,000 home, that would mean about $40 a year, for the life of the bond.

Asked whether splitting the package over two years – while raising the total to $400 million – could in effect push the politically unpopular burden of a rate increase onto rail transit while allowing $100 million in road-heavy projects to proceed with no tax increase, Leffingwell responded emphatically that he remains committed to urban rail and has no intention of handicapping it. "I think what we have to do is get away from looking at this thing as if it's a game we're trying to play," said the mayor. "We need to make the progress that we can make as soon as possible. This isn't a chess game."

Leffingwell and Shade said they intend to continue pursuing at least $400 million in bondable transportation improvements. Shade outlined a plan to divide the total 50-50, with $200 million devoted to the Austin Urban Rail "streetcar" project and $200 million for all other modes. It's the nonrail $200 million that Leffingwell is proposing to split over two bond elections. (The mayor characterized all of these dollar amounts as "rough-cut" estimates.) Austin­ites would vote on $100 million in road, bike/pedestrian, and trail projects alone in 2010. In the next election, they would vote on a second $100 million in such improvements, bundled with $200 million for the rail project, for a total of $300 million more that year. However, no one yet knows the projected cost to build the (still undetermined) first phase of a streetcar system. Elected officials and top city staff have said that to truly improve mobility, Austin needs a comprehensive circulator system – funded and built out over 20 years or more – that serves key destinations in the central city.

For this November, how will the investments be spread among road, bicycle, pedestrian, and trail projects? Leffingwell said he had no specific plan or suggested percentages as yet. Interviewed March 16, Gordon Derr, assistant director of the Trans­porta­tion Department, said his department is working on a transportation-projects selection process to prioritize and rank all proposed projects. Spokeswoman Karla Villalon said community values and objectives, as expressed during recent Stra­teg­ic Mobility Plan community forums and other outreach efforts, will strongly shape that process.

The Strategic Mobility Plan won't be completed in time to yield the full rationale for the list of prioritized projects, said Derr. While the city's comprehensive plan process will yield a vision statement distilling community values – a draft is scheduled to go to the citizen advisory task force April 13, then to council for adoption in May – Derr said no firm process has been established yet for how that might inform the list of transportation projects recommended to council. However, he anticipated that the community priorities gathered at Transportation Depart­ment forums would be similar. Those include increased transportation options, contributing to an efficient system that works for the entire region, public safety, meeting the needs of neighborhoods with "a diversity of transportation lifestyles," environmental sustainability, aligning with federal "sustainable/livable communities" funding criteria, and economic development, which entails attracting private and public investment partners. Presumably, said Derr, the projects that advance the most objectives simultaneously will rise to the top of the list.

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