Naked City

Roads to Ruin

Walter Timberlake
Walter Timberlake (Photo By John Anderson)

Travis County Commissioners, who traditionally duke out their differences on the dais and not, thankfully, in the back room, finally settled on the amount of a proposed bond package this week. The winning number stands at $199.3 million, a tally derived from a lengthy and convoluted process that started at $80 million, ballooned to nearly $250 million, then shrank back to $147 million before landing in the hands of the commissioners, who delivered a 3-2 vote on the new sum.

Of course, anything can happen between now and the next regular meeting Aug. 28, when commissioners will officially set the ballot for the Nov. 6 election and address any last-minute housekeeping details. County staff, meanwhile, will "scrub" the numbers to ensure all the dollars add up correctly on each of the proposed projects. In any case, everything on the road-intensive bond package must be squared away soon to be at the county clerk's office before the drop-dead deadline of Sept. 4.

Commissioners Margaret Gomez and Ron Davis, who cast the two dissenting votes, had wanted to present voters with an $80 million bond proposal for affordability reasons: Their respective precincts cover south/southeast and east/northeast, which represent Travis County's largest share of low-to-moderate-income households. Also, neither commissioner holds to the theory that sounding the alarm for a frenzy of pricey road-building projects will solve the county's ongoing traffic congestion. As Davis, who represents Precinct One, pointed out, some of his constituents can't even afford to buy fans to avoid keeling over from heat exhaustion.

And with the addition of a mayor's race on the same ballot, things are going to grow hotter yet before Election Day. The turn of events at City Hall might serve to boost voter turnout above the sub-12% figure recorded in the 1997 bond election. Borrowing a page from that election's road theme, commissioners on Tuesday pulled two highly politicized road items out of the mix to give them stand-alone presence on the ballot, thus eliminating a potential liability to the entire bond package. The two hot-button proposals will ask voters to kick in $66 million for right-of-way acquisition on the SH 130 project in eastern Travis County, and $13 million to upgrade and expand Frate Barker Road, which would intersect in the southwest with SH 45, a stand-alone item on the 1997 ballot. Despite heavy opposition from environmentalists against 45, the measure won with a big push from the Shady Oaks neighborhood, which seems to have a knack for winning on road issues. They're the same folks clamoring for the Frate Barker extension, a project that would run directly over the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer and across city-owned property bought specifically for land and water-quality preservation.

Ironically, Austan Librach, who oversees the city's Transportation, Planning and Sustainability Dept., had sent a letter to commissioners last month that essentially signed off on the proposal on the condition that environmental controls figure into the road's construction and maintenance. Then, in another twist this week, City Council Member Daryl Slusher sent a last-minute letter to commissioners urging them to yank the item altogether because of the environmental risks involved. Commissioner Davis tried to deep-six the proposal, but his motion failed, 3-2, with Commissioner Todd Baxter fighting mightily against it, drawing on the familiar Nineties argument: "I will protect the life of a child over the life of a salamander any day of the week." (Salamander arguments aside, about 45,000 people, a goodly number of them children, also depend on Barton Springs as their main drinking water source.)

Another controversial road item -- the proposed extension of East Slaughter Lane -- ended up on the cutting room floor. The extension would run across a stretch of property east of I-35, which includes land the city wants to buy for a regional park.

While bond elections such as this typically draw a small chunk of voters, road advocates would have us believe that a majority of locals would support a big-bond package. This is based on a survey, commissioned by the Real Estate Council of Austin, which shows 57% of a pool of 433 registered voters would be willing to pay more in property taxes for a road bond package as high as $400 million. What might make things more interesting this time around is the prospect of more hay being made over the sheer number of privately funded road advocacy groups in town, and the folks who pay hefty dues to join them. One other thing we can expect this time out: much stronger opposition from taxed-to-the-max homeowners across Central Austin neighborhoods. Walter Timberlake, the only citizens bond advisory committee member to speak against the bond package's price tag, summed up the tax-weary sentiment this way: "There's not all of us who are millionaires. There's some of us who have to work for a living, and there's some of us who are retired, who still have to go out and work."

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