Spitting Into Fires

Mayor puts forth bond proposal

Mayor Adler demonstrates Austin B-cycle on Bike to Work Day, May 20. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

"We're spitting into fires and expecting them to go out": That's how Mayor Steve Adler describes previous efforts to address Austin's affordability and transportation problems. Adler hopes that his bond proposal, which he'll discuss today, May 26, at 3:30pm, will change that.

In a meeting with the Chronicle last Friday, the mayor acknowledged that the time frame for achieving consensus on any bond proposal before the November election would be short: "We either reach consensus in three weeks or we don't." However, he said his plan, which would fund a combination of transportation projects, only includes those projects that have already been vetted by stakeholders.

"Everybody means something different when they talk about affordability," the mayor said, continuing that he's not sure Council's efforts to address the problem have been consistent. Looking at what Austinites spend their money on, housing and transportation loom largest (see chart in "Getting at Affordability," May 27).

Property taxes are a much smaller chunk of a household's budget, "yet we'll beat each other up over that." Adler believes that by beginning to fix Austin's transportation woes, the city can be more affordable for people where they live, and also create impetus for building more housing, by improving transit corridors. "We'll never do anything about affordability if we don't have enough housing." If there's not enough housing, then there's sprawl, and that makes transportation for those living farther away from work more expensive.

The mayor's proposal would fund the corridor plans which have been sitting on the shelf, including for South and North Lamar, Burnet Road, Airport, Riverside, Guadalupe, MLK, and FM 969. Improvements would include dedicated left-turn lanes, as well as queue jumps for buses at lights, and protected bike lanes, so that cars aren't stuck behind bikes and cyclists aren't injured by cars. Sidewalks along those corridors would also be improved. What the proposal will not do is fully fund the Bike Master Plan, something many cycling advocates have been pushing, and for which several council members have shown a measure of support. The mayor estimates it will cost $800 million to fund the corridor plans. He also would ask for money to fund the next set of corridor plans, as well as to look at the next five most dangerous intersections (Council has already begun to work on the four most dangerous intersections).

The mayor also plans to include funds for certain "pain point" intersections in order to address the needs of Austinites outside of the center of the city.

Adler dismissed calls for building more lanes, saying that more lanes only lead to more cars on the road. Instead, the mayor wants to see cars getting off the road, by making buses faster and cycling safer. Adler said that he knows that people will only choose to ride the bus if it's getting them where they need to go more quickly than by car. The queue jump would give Cap Metro buses a green light before cars stopped at the same light. Managed tolls on I-35 would allow buses to ride in toll lanes that limit the number of cars by charging higher rates during times of greater congestion.

Intersecting with the bond proposal would be Senator Kirk Watson's call for improvements to I-35, including the possibility of depressed lanes (see "Reconnect Austin: Part One," Jan. 17, 2014), and whatever money comes from Austin's participation in the Smart City Challenge (see "Outsmarting Traffic," May 20). Adler said that U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx's comments while visiting Austin on May 17 ("I've told my team that we want to make sure that all the cities that have chosen to compete end up with a pathway to get their projects done. ... We intend to be with you either way in moving ­forward.") were the most concrete statements he'd heard directly from Foxx about the possibility of funding should Austin lose the challenge. However, the mayor was quick to emphasize that although "it's easier and faster if we win" to complete the projects in the Smart City proposal, the city has already begun to move forward with them, and that "relationships are being formed."

Adler said that he believes that $500 million of his proposal would be able to be funded without making any change to the property tax rate, but that he hopes to get consensus for a vote on the entirety of his plan. "We need to do something significantly different than what we've been doing," he said. "We nibble around the edges of the problem."

Visit www.fb.com/austinmayoradler for details on the mayor's announcement.

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Steve Adler, bond proposal, affordability, Anthony Foxx, property taxes, budget

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