The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Getting Into Bonds

When the wish lists are written, will the money follow the speeches?

By Michael King, January 28, 2005, News

Mayor Will Wynn is into bondage.

Wynn went public with that information last week, as he announced a proposal for a citizens' bond committee to be created by the City Council in the next month or so, with a target of next year for a bond election. The specific items on the bond wish list will come later, but the mayor pointed to the regional Envision Central Texas survey completed last year as establishing the guidelines for a bond package, with an emphasis on two priorities: 1) open space acquisition, and 2) urban infrastructure. As Wynn sees it, the two projects go hand in hand: "The bottom line is that without open space preservation and urban infrastructure improvements, we will never realize our vision of dense, mixed-use urban development as an alternative to never-ending suburban sprawl."

It's too early to know what the eventual bond package will include, but it's interesting to see the mayor lead with open space acquisition. The capital region, especially western Travis County, is under a siege by speculative land development that is putting pressure on public agencies to extend the infrastructure (water, roads, drainage, schools, etc.) that makes such development possible – although those expensive public services are conventionally viewed as growing magically like mushrooms wherever concrete is poured. The inevitable result is overextended public budgets undermining the other half of the mayor's proposal – the "urban infrastructure improvements" of such unsexy items as residential streets and storm drains and ancient sewers (oh, and maybe the Waller Street tunnel), the ongoing repair of which not incidentally drives suburban commuters crazy and goads them into demanding more ... roads.

It follows that buying open land outright, especially in ecologically fragile watersheds, is not only an investment for the environmental future but generally much less expensive than the bottomless public checkbook required to underwrite sprawl. That the mayor is audibly on board – along with the current council and apparently most of the announced council candidates – only confirms the ECT findings that the majority of citizens prefer the "more dense, mixed-use urban development" that the mayor supported in his announcement. Yet when push comes to shove – and proposal comes to bond package – it will be very interesting to see whether there will be serious additional money dedicated to land acquisition, more than the relatively paltry $13 million (as against $150 million in roadwork) endorsed by the voters in the city's 2000 bond election.

Where's the Money ... Going?

For while the city waits, the concrete hardens. The current battleground is the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and its plans for a network of toll roads girding the region. Matters took an intriguing turn at CAMPO this week, as the members were forced by public pressure to withdraw from the toll plan the most controversial segment of MoPac (at William Cannon) and to limit proposed expansion of MoPac north of Town Lake. The CAMPO board also faced charges from a political odd couple, Council Member Brewster McCracken and state Rep. Terry Keel, that the plan itself had been approved under false pretenses – that TxDOT planners had intentionally disguised available funds for certain regional highways in order to promote tolls as the only alternative. Moreover, charged McCracken, it appears that TxDOT hopes to substitute future toll revenue for maintenance and operations already dedicated to regional highways – making the entire proposition a lose-lose deal for Central Texas.

The matter isn't settled – TxDOT officials responded plausibly that McCracken is confusing long-term internal projections with approved three-year plans – but the disagreement does raise a much larger question about the toll plans that needs wide public airing: Just how much of the proposed toll revenue is "needed" to build already planned area roads, and how much (not just here, but statewide) is a colossal cash cow intended to drive Gov. Perry's imperial Trans-Texas Corridor and other grandiose road warrior projects, now that the GOP's "no new taxes" malarkey has become an official religion?

The Keys to the Highway

I've been told the shrinkage of the toll plan is a de facto victory for the environment – because less money equals fewer roads – but I frankly find it difficult to celebrate a decision that maintains the malevolent fiction that highways have been paid for "free and clear" once the lane paint goes down. What I see instead is virtually the same folks who are voting for "no new taxes," and loudly complaining about "welfare chiselers" and "freeloading immigrants" (you can hear them regular as rush hour on talk radio) once again enjoying a literal free ride – and all the infrastructure appurtenances thereto – at common public expense. And I find it difficult to believe that the toll road battle will suddenly make them come to their senses and realize that this congestion, and pollution, and sprawl, and massive exhaustion of public resources that makes their suburban "leisure lifestyles" (such as they are) temporarily possible is in the end a bad bargain. I wouldn't hold my breath, especially along the Southwest Parkway about 6pm.

One test will certainly be whether the mayor can build broad support for his central Texas envisioning of land acquisition, not just from the City Council (and from Austinites), but from the five county governments that in fact hold so much of the region's overall future in their hands. "I've worked closely with leaders across the region on a broad range of issues," declared Mayor Wynn, "and I believe that our neighbors will be equally prepared to do their share. By acting together, we can move even more boldly toward realizing the full promise of the ECT vision."

It's a hopeful declaration, and the sort of rhetoric that drops trippingly off political tongues these days. Alas, there is little in the region's recent history to suggest that its widespread, uneven, and generally weak governing bodies have the authority, the cojones, or even the will to stand up to the combined muscle of special-interest money and reactionary politics that continues to power the Texas real estate-and-highway juggernaut.

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