Of Vroom and Bondage
You'll want to keep an eye on this one: There's a number of private nonprofit groups in town -- all with deep pockets -- whose leaders are lobbying hard and fast to get a hefty Travis County road-bond package on the November ballot. You'd think their lives, or at least their livelihoods, depended on getting these new roads on the ground.
Backers of the proposed bond package (dubbed the "sprawl road plan" by detractors) include the Real Estate Council of Austin, the Austin Area Research Organization, the Capital Area Transportation Coalition, and the Chamber of Commerce, and they've got an RECA-commissioned voter survey that they believe bears out their argument. The survey polled 433 registered voters, most of whom said they would be willing to pay more taxes for more roads. It also acknowledged that election turnout in bond elections is dismally low.
The theory is that bigger, longer roads, with most of them proposed to go outside the city's core, would relieve traffic congestion and improve our quality of life. This argument must have worked on the majority of a citizens bond advisory committee, which apparently took its cue from the influential road warriors and cobbled together a nearly $250 million bond package that would raise county property taxes by an average of about $57 a year. That's sort of the opposite of what the Travis Co. Commissioners had instructed them to do. The commissioners wanted an $80 million bond package that wouldn't raise taxes.
Now, the $250 million question for the commissioners is: What should we do with the citizens bond committee's bond package proposal? They'll take up the issue at a work session at 9am on Friday, Aug. 17, in the Stokes Building, at 11th and Guadalupe. Then on Aug. 21, commissioners will consider the item for action. (The commissioners were originally scheduled to consider the package at their regular meeting earlier this week, but decided to roll the item to Friday's work session to allow time for review and discussion with the bond advisory committee members.)
The most controversial of the proposed bonds, as they exist now, is probably the $13 million to extend Frate Barker Road in far southwest Travis County, past Brodie Lane to connect to the proposed SH 45, cutting through city-owned preservation land and over the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer. Another item roundly opposed by environmental and neighborhood advocates is the roughly $8 million to fund eastward extension of Slaughter Lane. The road would slice through a proposed Southeast Metro Park and a regional soccer facility on land known as the Goodnight/Slaughter property. A third item certain to draw scrutiny is a $66 million proposal for right-of-way purchases for the proposed SH 130.
Of all the commissioners, only Margaret Gomez appears to be unhappy with the size and nature of the latest proposal. She seemed uncharacteristically irritated at Tuesday's meeting when Todd Baxter, her neighbor on the dais and the only Republican on the court, began using the timer of his own watch during the citizens communication segment to signal speakers that their three-minute time limit was up. (Most of the speakers spoke against the road bond proposal and Baxter, who represents southwest Travis County, is generally regarded as a pro-road commissioner.) At the time, the clerk's timer wasn't working. But even once it began working again, Baxter, for whatever reason, continued timing speakers on his own. Soon, the beep-beep-beep of Baxter's watch, followed by the beep-beep-beep of the clerk's clock, was clearly starting to work some nerves. Gomez asked Baxter to stop. Baxter, looking exasperated, explained he was using his timer because the clerk's clock wasn't working.
Gomez: "Well, now it is. And I consider it [your timer] rude."
Baxter: "It is not rude. I think you're being rude."
Gomez: "I am not!"
Who says county commissioner meetings are dull?
As one speaker, Walter Timberlake, later observed, Baxter "never sets his timer when his people get up there to talk." Timberlake, an old-time labor leader and past president of the South Austin Democrats, was the only member of the citizens bond advisory committee willing to speak against the existing package, particularly because of its threat to hike annual property taxes. "People are nearly taxed out now," he said. "Fifty-seven dollars may not sound like a lot to some people, but it could drive out senior citizens on fixed incomes and young people, young families just trying to survive."
At the South Austin Democrats' meeting at Rosie's Tamale House on Tuesday night, all of the dinner table chatter focused on the bond proposal. By the end of the evening, members had taken a unanimous vote to oppose the package. Timberlake, who attended the meeting, said the group is encouraging commissioners to whittle the bond package down to $80 million or $90 million.