The Odds on Mayor Adler’s $720 Million Mobility Bond
Is the plan just daring enough to work?
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Sensible and Honest?
The most persistent obstacle to any bond passage is voter inertia – the ingrained resistance to any new expenditures, any increase in taxes, which generally accounts for somewhere between a quarter and a third of the total vote. This campaign certainly shares that aspect, but there are also a couple of organized efforts to stop it.
The "Sensible Transportation Solutions" PAC is a Mike Levy vehicle, the former Texas Monthly publisher having thus far spent about $20,000 on signage, including 4-by-8-foot roadside signs calling the bond a "Big Bad Lie" that won't reduce traffic congestion. Levy donated another $25,000 to "Honest Transportation Solutions," a slightly broader PAC that thus far lists (on its website) about 30 individual supporters and one organization: the Travis County Taxpayers Union, founded by Zimmerman, prior to his Council tenure, to oppose the Central Health Care bond. At $45,000, that makes Levy the largest single funder of the anti-bond campaign; the others are former Tracor CEO Jim Skaggs ($25,000), and Mercedes-Benz dealer Bryan Hardeman ($10,000), comprising virtually all of the HTS funding. The HTS name and its marketing – "Dishonest. Deceptive. Destructive." read the signs (which initially failed to comply with donor disclosure laws) – share Levy's claim that the bond projects aren't just wrong or too expensive, but intentionally false. (Levy says he donated the money to HTS, but is otherwise "doing his own thing." He's since purchased large print ads to run in three local publications, including the Chronicle, but hasn't filed a new spending report.) Like other critics, Levy also distrusts the competence of city staff, especially the Transportation Dept.: "They can't synchronize the traffic signals, and we're going to trust them with $720 million?"
Pressed to explain the repeated claims of dishonesty instead of simply a debate on policy, Levy insisted, "They say it's going to decrease congestion, but they know that's not true – if it's wrong and they know it, it's a lie." Asked why the Council, dozens of city transportation staff, and other expert traffic consultants would be collaborating to increase traffic congestion, Levy repeated, "I just think it's deceptive."
Some clues are suggested by HTS spokesman Roger Falk, who calls himself an "analyst" for the Travis County Taxpayers Union, and told Council in August that Austin's traffic problem is a "heart attack" for which the mayor has recommended "a tummy tuck and a facelift." The "blocked arteries," Falk said, are the major state highways (that are in fact TxDOT responsibilities) – I-35, MoPac, Highway 183, and Loop 360 (where some work is in fact part of the bond proposal) – but the bond does "nothing significant" for those roads. "Using false promises of congestion relief," Falk continued, "to push a high density, anti-automobile agenda, is deceptive." Because the corridor projects are indeed connected, in principle, to land use planning that anticipates greater housing density along the corridors, Falk and others (e.g., the Austin Neighborhoods Council) claim or suspect it's really a surreptitious plan to force dense development on nearby neighborhoods.
Falk opposed the courthouse bond on similar "anti-automobile" grounds – in a public forum, his major objection was that it didn't include sufficient free Downtown parking. On the TCTU website, he's also suggested that the United Nations' "Agenda 21" – a project to promote sustainable development, particularly to help combat global warming – is driving an international "War Against the Automobile," a plot to "limit your freedom and raise taxes" – a theory persistently propagated by anti-U.N. conspiracists. In Falk's eyes, the city of Austin is an active member of the cabal, and undoubtedly, for some years now, the city of Austin's official policy has been to do what the city can to reduce climate change, locally as well as internationally. But if Austin is indeed waging a war against the automobile, it's pretty obvious that the SUVs are winning.
In any case, the HTS website proposes a nearly $700 million alternative that would spend $660 million primarily on Westside highways, the only priority for most of the opposition and the reason they would like to split the package into three parts – so the generally stronger Westside vote could reject both Eastside local projects and perhaps the central city corridor spending (including the despised bike lanes) as well – although how that will help suburban commuters who still expect to ride those corridors into Downtown remains unclear. The single HTS ad thus far imagines a Prop 1 Halloween "monster" that will raise taxes on people stuck in traffic, but proposes no other solution.