Travis Bonds: Roadways & Park Ways
Road and pedestrian proposals draw no opposition so far
What promises to be a quiet round of early voting begins next week (Oct. 24-Nov. 4) for the Nov. 8 general election. In a metaphor via the ballot box, Travis County's bond proposals sit buried beneath 10 epically dense proposed state constitutional amendments (see "November Props & Bonds," Oct. 14). If county residents manage to drag themselves out to do their civic best, and if they make it that far down the ballot, they'll be asked to approve roughly $215 million in infrastructure, parks, and land conservation bonds.
For the record, the nearly $133 million Travis officials would like to spend on road, drainage, and pedestrian projects is about $40 million more than their colleagues at the city of Austin asked for in last year's successful Proposition 1 transportation package, which included a hotly debated boardwalk over Lady Bird Lake. In 2010, Austinites were treated to a handful of familiar loud voices associated with two groups that went back and forth on whether citizens should give that bond initiative their approval. This year, it was late September before the pro-bond campaign, Travis Two-Step, even announced its steering committee (see "County Bond Backers Do the 'Two-Step,'" Newsdesk blog, Sept. 28). And with less than a month to go before Election Day, no organized opposition group has announced its presence.
Of course, it's the off-year side of the election cycle. And the county isn't poised to hit taxpayers with a boardwalk to nowhere. Still, when Travis' future is at stake, driving voters to the polls to vote in either direction can be even harder than convincing them to care about city politics – and, as some members of City Council recently reminded us, that is its own sort of special challenge.
"I don't know why Travis County flies so far under the radar," says Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt. It's not for lack of something to discuss. Travis' bond initiative is broken into two sections. Prop. 1 – the road question – includes a $15 million widening of Cameron Road from Howard Lane to Highway 130 that would also add bike lanes and sidewalks to that stretch; $13 million would pay for the same sort of work along Blake-Manor Road from the future Wildhorse Connector (which itself is on the list for almost $9 million) to the entrance of East Metro Park.
In all, there are 25 specific road improvement projects included in the package, along with three line items for general road reconstruction and "bike safety projects." Longtime environmental advocate George Cofer worked on the package in an unofficial capacity. He pointed to his support for the entire effort – roads, too. "We only get these opportunities once every six or seven years ... so I wanted to be sure that we had a balanced package," he said.
Proposition 2 asks for just more than $82 million for various parks and land conservation efforts. Here, the obvious standout is more than $22 million for open space acquisitions along the Pedernales River. "It's a big chunk of property that connects a 3.5-mile stretch ... that will be preserved in perpetuity," says Eckhardt. She notes that the "big dollar" price tag represents "market value" for the "big acreage" the county would like to pick up. The Pedernales open space buy dominates a list of seven specific parks projects that also features money for recreational facilities in the Onion Creek area ($13.3 million) and open space acquisition in the soon-to-be developed Highway 130 corridor ($16.7 million).
Property tax fallout from the measures, should they pass, would cost the average Travis homeowner $10.47 in fiscal year 2013, and would extend until FY 2019, when it would cause bill drag to the massive tune of 97 cents.
Cofer says that in a poll of 600 likely voters, support for the package registered in the high 60% range. And county officials seem confident the measure will pass. Still, the hurdle of anonymity remains. "A great many people don't know there's a bond package on the November ballot," said Cofer.
Cue the publicity campaign – Katherine Haenschen has been tapped to run the Travis Two-Step, the citizen-led effort to support the bonds. On Oct. 12, she released news of wide-ranging endorsements, including those of the Austin Parks Foundation, the Downtown Austin Alliance, and the Real Estate Council of Austin. All told, 21 groups were identified as supporters, and by the next day, Haenschen had picked up two more. They range from business interests to environmental groups to the League of Bicycling Voters, which helped identify specific cycle-friendly projects. "Clearly this is a popular ballot package," said Haenschen. "There is simply no major opposition to these projects."
Indeed, even Dominic Chavez, a former spokesperson for the organized opposition to Austin's 2010 transportation bonds, indicated that he wouldn't formally oppose Travis' effort. "I'm not going to be part of any [opposition] committee," he said. "I don't even think there is a committee." Instead, warning about affordability and pleas for his fellow citizens to think of the larger picture, he turned his attention to a future race. "I'm not so much offended by what's in this package ... I'm offended by what's not in this package," he said. He went on to discuss Highway 45, the long-debated Southwest area connector highway, and how current Precinct 3 Commissioner Karen Huber has worked to nix the idea.
That issue will likely play a key role in Huber's 2012 re-election campaign. For those keeping tabs, she's already drawn at least three challengers.
See more info on the Travis County bond propositions at www.co.travis.tx.us/citizens_bond_committee and at www.travistwostep.com. A sample ballot is posted on the county clerk's Elections Division website, www.traviscountyelections.org.