The Austin Chronicle

https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2010-10-08/point-austin-getting-mobilized/

Point Austin: Getting Mobilized

Arguments (and opponents) against the mobility bond run a little thin

By Michael King, October 8, 2010, News

Amid the lengthy list of candidates to appear on the Nov. 2 Travis County election ballot (see more in the following pages) will be (for city of Austin voters) a seemingly innocuous proposition. Despite all the headline hoopla over the governor's race, etc., this proposition will be the choice most likely to have a direct effect on the daily lives of Austin residents over the next two years.

That would be Proposition 1, the city of Austin Mobility Bond proposal that would allot $90 million for projects ranging from the somewhat contentious Lady Bird Lake boardwalk (to complete the east-west hike-and-bike trail) to the fairly inevitable reconstruction of two dozen or more city roadways. You may recall the political history of this relatively modest bond vote: Originally anticipated to include as well the much more expensive and embattled city urban rail project, it was whittled down to a moderate level when it became clear that neither the cost nor the likely route of rail could yet be sufficiently estimated. The $90 million figure is not exactly arbitrary; it's an amount that can be allocated and spent within the city's current bonding authority and property tax rate, meaning we can pay it off without dunning ourselves for more money.

What will it buy? Roughly 45 projects (the precise number will eventually depend on budget variations) in all parts of town, from the Y at Oak Hill to the far Eastside's FM 969, from Kramer Lane in the north to Slaughter and Brodie lanes in the south. It's called a "mobility" bond instead of simply "transportation" since it includes pedestrian and bicycle elements and some mass transit features, as well as traditional roadway work. If you review the details available on the city's website (www.cityofaustin.org/news/bond_projects.htm), there's likely a nearby project or two you've been hoping for. (My own hobbyhorse will be the city's attempt to redesign the Texas Department of Transportation's spectacularly ill-executed "jughandle" exchange at Mueller, just south of the 51st Street and I-35 intersection; if they can fix that, the city's engineers deserve a gold star.)

Republican Pastures

It's frankly a stretch to call Prop. 1 controversial – more than 30 local organizations of varying size and perspectives (from ADAPT to the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce) have already endorsed it. The Real Estate Council of Aus­tin declined to endorse, but so narrowly that RECA isn't campaigning against the bond, and until very recently, there had been no organized opposition at all. Recently some negative buzz has indeed surfaced, and predictably, it's over the relative mix of traditional road projects vs. "mobility" projects like hike-and-bike trails and pedestrian walkways (e.g., another Great Streets Project Downtown). The loudest objections have been to the boardwalk trail on the lake, the single most expensive project, at $14.4 million; earlier public calls for "unbundling" the bond language into separate propositions were largely aimed at torpedoing the boardwalk, a darling of Downtown enthusiasts but less popular elsewhere.

I got an earful of the arguments Tuesday at Green Pastures, where the Republican Club of Austin had gathered to hear a debate between Ted Siff, of the Parks Foundation* and Get Austin Moving PAC, and developer and city planning gadfly Ed Wendler Jr. on the merits of the bond. In very brief summary, Siff argued that the bond proposal is fiscally conservative and focused primarily on the city's "shovel-ready" projects that could be substantially completed within the next two years, that it will be leveraged by lower recession-period construction costs, and that the yearlong public process to select priority projects from a working list of nearly 500 was thorough and transparent.

In response, Wendler argued that the proposition ballot language is too abbreviated and vague for voter comprehension, that the city's matrix for determining priority projects was arithmetically skewed against motor vehicle transportation and in favor of bike trails and other "amenities," and that the only standards for transportation projects should be "added capacity" (i.e., motor vehicle capacity) and cost.

Pick Your Project

With some adjustments in emphasis, Wend­ler's presentation echoed the arguments of the Coalition on Sustainable Trans­portation (COST-Austin), which a few days earlier issued an anti-bond screed by Exec­u­tive Director Jim Skaggs. Skaggs blasts not only the boardwalk project but also $10 million for Americans With Disabilities Act side­walk improvements. (Siff pointed out that not only are the ADA projects very much mobility-needed for Austinites with disabilities, but they are federally mandated after the city lost a lawsuit attempting to dodge the law.) Overall, say Wendler and Skaggs, the bond proposes way too little for roads and way too much for alternative forms of transportation. Indeed, argued Wendler, since 87% of Austinites (uncertainly defined) currently "commute" by car, a similar portion of any transportation bond should be devoted to adding capacity for those commuters.

In other words, if we've been doing it one way – and letting car traffic dictate the urban landscape – until now, we should make certain we continue doing it that way indefinitely into the future. And, by the way, if inner-city residents have been subsidizing infrastructure for suburban commuters (and their suburban developers) for a generation – we should make sure those folks can keep their hands in our pockets forever.

These arguments will hardly end with the November vote, and indeed have been made less volatile this round by City Council's decision to delay an urban rail vote for a year or two, when it is certain to create a very different political dynamic. For this one, COST's "overwhelming and growing" number of organizations opposed to the bond (according to COST), includes all of COST, RECA, and Texans for Accountable Government – if you're relying on John Bush's platoon of Ron Paul fugitives and New World Order zealots to pad out your numbers, it's time to start surfing for some new Facebook friends.

Siff acknowledged that this is not a "perfect" bond proposal – just as many of us will welcome some projects, there will be a few that provoke head-scratching. Some will applaud the roadwork on the Y at Oak Hill; others will look forward to the extension of the visibly popular Lady Bird Lake hike-and-bike trail. But I don't think there's an Austin resident who thinks the city should just stop working on mobility projects until each of us casts a vote on each and every one.


*Correction: Ted Siff is no longer an administrator of the Austin Parks Foundation.

See more at the websites of COST-Austin (www.costaustin.org) and Get Austin Moving (www.getaustinmoving.com).

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