Finding the Sweet Spot

Mayor, Council seek consensus on a transportation bond

This week City Council resumes its discussion of a potential mobility bond for the November election. Judging from last week’s discussions, they’d like to move forward on a bond package – but remain strongly divided on what it should contain, and how much it should cost.

Bond Proposal Comparison Chart (City Council Message Board Council Member Ann Kitchen)

At one point in more than two hours of discussion, former Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole spoke in general support of a possible bond – but rather than specific transportation projects, she briefly addressed the question of how best Council might come to a decision. After joking that she understood that the current dais is ready to fix all problems created by its predecessors, Cole cited her previous experience with bond programs – in 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014 – and noted that whatever disagreements and compromises might have occurred among Council members, the bond packages eventually won unanimous support. Within that history, Cole emphasized, while she always wanted more information and “100 percent security that I was doing the right thing,” that conviction never quite happened. “Because if you wait to be a hundred percent sure,” she told the dais, “you will never act.”

That sounds like good advice, but it remains to be seen what percentage of consensus is possible by this Thursday’s meeting – the last before summer break, and the practical deadline for coming to a decision on whether there should be a bond, and what and how much it should contain. Judging from the dueling proposals and the debate on the dais, there might be a majority consensus on putting a bond before the voters – but the rest of the discussion remains very much in doubt. (Beyond that is the question whether there's time to mount a public campaign for any proposal at all.)

Where there were initially two proposals – a $720 million package presented by Mayor Steve Adler, and a counter-proposal with the same price tag, offered by District 4 Council Member Greg Casar and D7 CM Leslie Pool – there are now three, with a $300 million proposal posted by D5 CM Ann Kitchen and endorsed prior to last week’s meeting by Council’s Mobility Committee. The mayor’s plan focuses on reshaping seven major “corridors” – East Riverside to North Lamar and parts in between – but also would invest in both more “local” multi-modal projects as well as regional highways like Loop 360 and 620.

The Casar/Pool proposal would drop the regional highways – considering those a state and TxDOT responsibility – and move many more dollars into the local sidewalk, bike, and pedestrian projects. Even so, at Thursday’s meeting, Casar suggested that he leaned toward the mayor’s plan if a Council consensus could be reached, and even said it might not be enough (he was also the only Council member to raise even an abstract interest in a short-term rail plan). Pool, meanwhile, indicated she hadn’t yet convinced herself that $720 million (by far the biggest transportation bond ever contemplated by the city) was advisable; indeed, she was still trying to determine if $500 million makes sense.

That leaves what might be called Plan C, the $300 million proposal developed by Kitchen with the Mobility Committee (see illustration above). It roughly mimics the mayor’s package, but at much lower levels, and it wouldn’t invest nearly as much funding in the “local” projects as the Casar/Pool proposal. A major advantage of Plan C is that it could be funded through existing debt capacity – i.e., it wouldn’t require a property tax increase, which for his plan the mayor is estimating about $5/month for the median value home. But it also wouldn’t “go big” in addressing Austin’s intractable and growing transportation problems – and that issue was largely the center of last Thursday’s debate.

Early on, Adler spoke for nearly a half-hour straight, laying out and defending his proposal as the only one large and broad enough to address those big problems, with his major focus on the corridors that criss-cross the city into and out of Downtown, access most neighborhoods, and provide the ingress and egress to more suburban areas. “The corridors, I think, are the sweet spot,” the mayor argued – as before linking the road work to its potential for reducing transportation costs for many residents, while simultaneously enabling more residential density. In turn, he argues, the density would support more mass transit … and so on.

More broadly, the mayor advocated a very large bond. “My belief is,” Adler said, “is that we should go big because this is a big problem. … We have a traffic congestion and mobility crisis because we have chosen not to fix it. We need to fix it now. We need to fix it in a big way. We need to fix it in a transformative way. We can't nibble around the edges … we actually have to go big and we have to do it right. Austin has a leadership role here, and the time is now. This is the biggest threat to our city and to our region.”

Adler defended that expansive rhetoric – his lengthy oration seemed aimed more directly off the dais than on it – by pointing to surveys that persistently show transportation as the ongoing and growing problem that most bedevils Austinites. But he might not have had his hoped-for effect on his colleagues – Kitchen in particular reacted sharply to the mayor’s implication that anything less than $720 million was not worth the effort. She pointed out that even a $300 million proposal was twice what the city had ever offered in a transportation bond, and insisted, “$300 million is not doing nothing.” Along with others on the dais, she suggested that her constituents might be willing to spend $500 million – but that more information and more outreach was needed before any final decision.

Others on the dais were strung out along those lines. Other than the mayor and Casar, none immediately embraced the whole $720 million megillah. D1 CM Ora Houston mentioned “bond fatigue,” and D2 CM Delia Garza (like others) joined others in concern that allocating too heavy an expenditure on transportation might undermine 2018 bonds (the more normal cycle) for affordable housing, parks, libraries, and other needs. D6 CM Don Zimmerman informally supported Adler’s plan – if it included not just the regional roadways, but allocated the money among the 10 districts for Council members to set the priorities (a curious notion for multi-district roads). D8 CM Ellen Troxclair and D10 CM Sheri Gallo expressed reluctance at any bond that would raise taxes – suggesting that the Kitchen plan might be in reach of majority support along the dais.

One additional wrinkle emerged when Council members questioned transportation department staff about the likely timelines for spending any bond funding – for previous bonds, normally a six-to-eight year cycle. Could $720 million worth of projects be completed in that time? Possibly, came the answer, although it might take hiring another couple of dozen transportation staff, just to handle the unprecedented scale.

Yet another background issue is the relation of Council’s decision to the I35 expansion recently floated by state Sen. Kirk Watson. Watson is advocating a $4.6 billion, multi-county plan not requiring local property tax hikes – funded instead with existing regional and state monies and perhaps allowing indirect TxDOT borrowing using Austin’s lower interest rate. There’s a reasonably good chance that those regional highways included in the Adler proposal are implicitly tied to the Watson initiative.

The conversation continues this week – at Tuesday’s work session and the June 23 regular meeting, when presumably votes will be taken. You can find out more about the various proposals on Thursday’s agenda, and on the Council message board, and by following the Daily News and this week’s print edition.

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