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Council seeks consensus on a transportation bond

By Michael King, June 24, 2016, News

You can get some sense of where matters stand (as of this week) on a potential November transportation bond election by this detail: On Monday, there were three broad proposals under discussion, and by Tuesday, there were four. Entering today's City Council meeting, June 23, the mayor and most council members have indicated they'd like to move forward on a bond package – but they remain strongly divided on what it should contain, and how much it should cost.

During last Thursday's lengthy discussion, former Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole testified on her previous experience with bond programs and noted that whatever disagreements and compromises might have occurred during development, the bond packages eventually won unanimous Council support. Cole added that while she always worked toward "100 percent security that I was doing the right thing," that conviction was never quite perfect. "Because if you wait to be a hundred percent sure," she told the dais, "you will never act."

It remains to be seen what percentage of consensus is possible by today's meeting – the practical deadline for deciding whether there should be a bond, and approximately what it should contain. There appears to be majority support for putting a bond before the voters – but the rest of the discussion remains very much in doubt.

And where there were initially two proposals (see "Dueling Bondage," June 13) – a $720 million package prepared by Mayor Steve Adler, and a counterproposal with the same price tag, offered by Council Members Greg Casar and Leslie Pool – there are now four.

The mayor's plan focuses on reshaping seven major "corridors" – East Riverside to Burnet Rd. and parts in between – but would also invest in both more "local" multimodal projects, as well as regional highways like Loop 360 and 620.

The Casar/Pool proposal would drop the regional highways – leaving that responsibility to the state and TxDOT – and move many more dollars into the local sidewalk, bike, and related pedestrian projects. (Casar suggested that he leaned toward the mayor's plan if a Council consensus could be reached, while Pool indicated she was still trying to determine if even $500 million is affordable.)

Then there's the $300 million proposal endorsed last week by Council's Mobility Committee and presented by the committee chair, CM Ann Kitchen. It roughly mimics the mayor's package, but at much lower levels, and wouldn't invest nearly as much funding in the "local" projects as the Casar/Pool proposal. However, the $300 million package could be funded through existing debt capacity – i.e., it wouldn't require a property tax increase, which for his plan the mayor is estimating about $5/month for a median value home. But it also wouldn't "go big" in addressing Austin's intractable and growing transportation problems – a question at the center of the ongoing debate.

Added Tuesday morning was option four: a $500 million package, which includes all the elements in the mayor's $720 million plan, but funded throughout at lesser levels. (Its precise provenance was unclear, but it was posted on the Council message board by Kitchen's office.)

Mayor Adler defends his proposal as the only one large and broad enough to address the big problems, and also links the road work to its potential for reducing transportation costs for many residents, while simultaneously enabling more residential density. In turn, he argues, the density would support more mass transit ... and so on.

"My belief is," Adler said last week, "that we should go big because this is a big problem. ... We have a traffic congestion and mobility crisis because we have chosen not to fix it. We need to fix it now. We need to fix it in a big way. We need to fix it in a transformative way. We can't nibble around the edges ... we actually have to go big and we have to do it right. Austin has a leadership role here, and the time is now. This is the biggest threat to our city and to our region."

To this point, his colleagues on the dais remain mostly unconvinced. Kitchen in particular has reacted sharply to the mayor's implication that anything less than $720 million is hardly worth the effort. She pointed out that even a $300 million proposal is twice what the city had ever put in a transportation bond, and insisted, "$300 million is not doing nothing." She suggested that her constituents might be willing to spend $500 million – but that more information and more outreach were needed before any final decision.

Other than the mayor and Casar, no other CMs have embraced the whole $720 million. Ora Houston mentioned "bond fatigue," and Delia Garza joined others in worrying that allocating too heavy an expenditure on transportation might undermine 2018 bonds (the more normal cycle) for affordable housing, parks, libraries, and other needs. Don Zimmer­man argued that any bond should be allocated among the 10 districts for council members to set the priorities, and Ellen Troxclair and Sheri Gallo expressed reluctance at any bond that would raise taxes – meaning no more than $300 million.

Yet another background issue is the relation of Council's decision to the I-35 expansion just floated by state Sen. Kirk Watson. Watson is advocating a $4.6 billion, multicounty plan that he says could be accomplished without local property tax hikes – funded instead with existing regional and state monies and perhaps allowing indirect TxDOT borrowing, using Austin's lower interest rate. There's a good chance that those regional, multijurisdictional highways included in the Adler proposal are implicitly tied to the Watson initiative.

At Tuesday's work session, council members had more questions than answers, and it's not at all clear whether they're within shouting distance of a majority, let alone a consensus. The conversation continues today – when presumably votes will be taken on Item 83, currently the mayor's draft $720 million resolution, setting up an August final decision. You can find out more about the various proposals on today's agenda, and on the Council message board,

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