The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: November Mobility Bond Begins to Take Shape

Consensus on the proposed $720 million bond remains a work in progress

By Michael King, August 12, 2016, News

Judging from public conversation, online buzz, and City Council discussions, any consensus on the proposed $720 million "Mobility Bond" remains a work in progress. Today's Council meeting (Aug. 11) should provide an important milestone in determining both official and public sentiment about the overall package, as well as about many of its details. (The public hearing is scheduled for 4pm.) As of Tuesday's work session, Council itself is still adjusting the proposal, and specifically trying to get the ballot language right. Either too little or too much detail can annoy or confuse the voters (those with the diligence to work their way down to the bottom of the ballot in a presidential year), and a bond proposition also has to be flexible enough to allow future adjustments in the projects and spending – to be completed, in this case, over eight to 10 years.

Mayor Steve Adler said Tuesday that he's hoping to come out of today's meeting with preliminary votes (first two readings) to approve the proposition ordinance, and that could well depend on whether the more skeptical council members believe that their objections have been heard and accommodated. District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen, for example, is still hoping for more specificity on South Austin projects, and other members are trying to make certain their districts are not getting short-changed.

The most revealing of these Tuesday exchanges occurred when CM Ora Houston regretted the late-night 6-5 vote Council took weeks ago (June 23) to split the $55 million in sidewalk project funding, and to distribute $27.5 million by district. At the time, equal slices of the sidewalk pie seemed abstractly reasonable, although a couple of council members warned that the need for sidewalks is not necessarily divided readily by district. Only later did Houston realize that under the existing Sidewalk Master Plan (and the initial proposition draft), District 1 – with 150 miles worth of sidewalk needs, mostly to get children to school – would have benefited from an additional $4 million in project funding. She's likely to request an amendment today – but other CMs were skittish both about losing their windfalls and about reopening one vote for fear of triggering a landslide.

Middle of the Road

Where does that leave the rest of us? Like some council members, not everybody's happy with the "balance" of the bonds, and while Council is dutifully including sidewalk, bicycle, and trail projects in the mix, the heart and bulk of the $720 million will be spent on "corridor" roads and on highways. Even allowing for the multimodal improvements included in the corridor upgrades, some folks are objecting that there is simply not enough allowance for mass transit options. The most vocal and persistent critics have been the handful of light rail advocates associated with the "Central Austin Community Development Corporation," who say they will again press Council today to add a separate, $398 million rail "Minimum Operable Segment" proposition to the ballot – a line to run from Downtown up the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor to Crestview Station.

I admire the group's persistence and its goal, but $720 million is already a large bite for the public to swallow, this council has shown no interest in adding rail to the ballot (Mayor Adler dismissed the possibility again this week), and more fundamentally, that train left the station (at least for the present) in November of 2014. And like seemingly all our politics these days, transportation issues polarize the voters – some want to vote only for roads, others insist it's mass transit or nothing, and carrying two propositions, it's a reasonably good bet that on Nov. 8, nothing would be the result. The city's planners and Council are walking that fault line in hopes that this admittedly large bond will include enough varying enticements to persuade the voters to accept the price tag.

The $720 Million Question

I haven't certainly decided my own vote on the still-unfinished bond (and the Chronicle's endorsement is a question for another day), although a decisive principle will be whether I'm convinced it represents the commitment to public infrastructure that Austin desperately needs (in all categories), and which has been historically underfunded because public investment simply hasn't kept pace with the city's real growth. I hear from some readers that the bond decisions should be more fully broken out by project and category and area – but in my judgment, that would produce a balkanization of attention and voting, with voters supporting projects in their own neighborhoods or on their commuter routes and opposing projects where they don't happen to live or travel. Because of where I live and work, for example, I feel comfortable in supporting spending to upgrade overworked Airport Boulevard – but whether William Cannon needs a new railroad bridge or Old Bee Caves Road has a fixable flooding problem are questions for the Transportation staff, not me or my neighbors.

In sum, we all need to consider whether $720 million (roughly $50/year per household) invested broadly in transportation is one we can afford, and want to make. Today's testimony and debate should go a long way in answering those questions.

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