Naked City

Bonds Away

Still, residents say they're imprisoned in traffic gridlock, industry promoters say you can't book a conference in this hayseed town, and the waters of Barton Springs run murkier than ever. So the managed growth agenda promises to be the primary order of business at City Hall for a long time to come. Below are the City Council's latest recommendations for meeting the challenges of these fitful times.

Proposition One

This is the transportation bond package assembled by Mayor Kirk Watson, the one designed to reassure voters that their present-day commuting miseries aren't being ignored in the push for a far-distant light rail revolution. If approved, Prop. 1 would dedicate $130 million for road projects and $20 million for bike and pedestrian improvements around Austin.

About $40 million would be spent on existing thoroughfares -- widening intersections, adding HOV lanes to freeways, and creating reversible lanes on major arterials. Though no specific project list has been drawn up, corridors receiving high priority would likely include Barton Springs Road, Cesar Chavez, Airport Boulevard, South First, Giles Road, and Hwy. 183.

Another $90 million would be set aside to lure state highway projects to Austin. The Texas Transportation Commission funds only a small percentage of projects requested by local governments each year, but is more disposed to green-light those that already have local dollars behind them. The transportation plan recently approved by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) is chock-full of options, but highest on the to-do list would be building SH 130, expanding U.S. 290 West, and acquiring right of way for an extension of North MoPac. The council has specified these bonds can't be used for any new roads in the Drinking Water Protection Zone without voter approval, and that expansions must be studied to determine whether they would benefit primarily Austin taxpayers or nonresident commuters.

The remaining $20 million for bike and pedestrian amenities would include sidewalks along arterials currently hazardous to foot traffic, construction of a cross-town bike pathway, and possibly the expansion of the Town Lake bike and pedestrian bridge to West Fifth.

The $150 million package would be raised by selling $15 million in bonds annually over the next 10 years, beginning in September 2001. And because the package fits within the city's current bonding capacity, it won't require any increase in the tax rate.

Proposition Two

Having overseen a successful buying spree in which the city preserved 15,000 acres of Edwards Aquifer watershed from development, the council proposes to make the purchase of environmentally sensitive land a routine part of city business. This proposition would reallocate $13.4 million in bond proceeds recently relinquished by the Austin Museum of Art -- which apparently is able to raise from private donors the money needed for its new building -- for further acquisition of open space.

The $13.4 million would be used as a matching incentive for nonprofit organizations such as the Hill Country Conservancy -- which aims to raise $50 million for open space purchases over the next year -- to buy tracts themselves. The city could also use the money to match federal grants available through the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, now pending approval in Congress.

Proposition Three

Who says upscale folks won't spend their money in East Austin? It's just that you have to offer something way out in new East Austin, where there's a lakefront. Developers hope to build a 250-room hotel, conference center, and two golf courses on the northeast shore of Lake Walter E. Long, which is owned by the city but is currently accessible only by boat. Since the 400-acre site is technically parkland, the city needs voter approval to dedicate the land for private use.

Why on earth would we? For the money, of course.

The city estimates that in exchange for about $4 million in public subsidies (primarily to build an access road and lay power lines), the Prairie Grass development could return nearly $3 million per year in tax revenues to the city treasury. The City Council has indicated that it would direct 40% of the net return from Prairie Grass to the affordable housing trust fund. The project would also create 300-400 jobs.

Much more is at stake here than just siphoning a few mil off business conferees, however. Developers tinkering with massive residential developments around Lake Lon -- and looking to cover 3,500 acres with more than 4,000 homes, 3,500 apartments, and over a million feet of commercial space -- hope Prairie Grass will be the catalyst for a new affluent suburb. Just call this the East Lake Fields proposition.

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Computer Sciences Corp., Austin Convention Center, bond election, Kirk Watson, transportation bonds, SH 130, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Texas Transportation Commission, land acquisition bond, Hill Country Conservancy, Austin Museum of Art, Pra

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