The Odds on Mayor Adler’s $720 Million Mobility Bond

Is the plan just daring enough to work?

Mayor Steve Adler, riding one of Austin’s many modes of transportation, celebrates “Bike to Work Day” in May. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

A few weeks ago, Mayor Steve Adler delivered a brief pitch on the mobility bond ballot proposition to a Downtown Demo­crat­ic group. It was a fairly rushed and truncated version of what has become a serial stump speech, and the mayor had time for only a couple of questions before rushing off to another event. The audience was friendly but skeptical – "Are we losing vehicle lanes?" was the first question, and it's one that has pursued the campaign. ("No," came the quick answer, although a better one might have been, "It's complicated.") After a few minutes, the mayor conceded the stage to three City Council members: Delia Garza, Leslie Pool, and Greg Casar.

After miscellaneous remarks, within a few minutes the three council members found themselves embroiled in a debate over Austin's terrible traffic and hapless solutions, with one audience member berating them for not providing a rail choice on the ballot – specifically, a rail segment that would run from Downtown to the airport. The speakers expressed their misgivings – most substantively, that the voters had rejected a rail plan just two years ago – but that didn't placate their accuser, who pointed out that most major American cities already have a working rail system – and one need look no further than Houston or Dallas. The council members (like Adler before them) were reduced to reassuring their audience that Austin would certainly have a rail transit system ... someday.

Gondolas, Anyone?

The moment provided an amusing snapshot of plenty of transportation discussions in Austin. When it comes to considering what to do about Austin's explosive growth and the distressing traffic it has spawned, we're all armed and ready to fight the last war, and we all seem to know more than the professionals we employ to address the problems. We all want the roadways cleared in front of us while we find ways to create a serious, citywide mass transit system – and we would all greatly prefer that it doesn't cost very much. Indeed, Austin's transportation situation has grown desperate enough that there are now groups advocating a system of gondolas to rise over major commuter routes, like flying metaphors for our persistent inability to do anything about the existing gridlock on the ground. (The gondolas follow previous attempts to evoke broader public interest in monorails or commuter pods, and alas, are likely to meet the same result.)

We all want the roadways cleared in front of us while we find ways to create a serious, citywide mass transit system – and we would all greatly prefer that it doesn’t cost very much.

Into that void stepped Mayor Adler with his "Go Big" mobility bond, the $720 million investment in regional highways, major streets, bike trails, and sidewalks that Austin voters are now considering on their early ballots, leading to a day of reckoning Nov. 8. Based on previous bond history, the mayor has gone big in terms of the size of the proposition, but he certainly didn't go early. Bond planning and especially bond public outreach take time – the conventional timeline is about 18 months to election – but this bond began to take serious shape only this past May, when Adler presented to Council the broad outlines of the proposal. Although the overall shape – three "buckets" of projects to cost roughly $720 million – has remained the same, the package went through several iterations before Council finally approved placing the proposition on the ballot.

The mayor has responded to the complaints (on the dais and off) of a "rushed" process by recalling that he had intended to bring the plan forward earlier, until the months-long controversy over regulating transportation network companies and the subsequent May referendum election overwhelmed most other city business. "Uber and Lyft sucked all the air out the room," says the mayor. He also argues that this bond is a natural outgrowth of the 2012 transportation bond, which helped underwrite several of the "corridor plans": the detailed examinations of traffic and land use issues along the seven major corridors that form the central focus (and $482 million portion) of the overall proposition.

Nevertheless, the foreshortened process meant, initially, that the mayor had to cajole his Council colleagues to finally arrive at a formal proposition. It took a couple of months to shape an initial proposal for staff direction, that vote coming after midnight, June 24, following amendments that maintained the total dollars but shifted the proportions somewhat. CM Sheri Gallo won a 10-district division of funding for sidewalks (a move CM Ora Houston voted for, and later regretted – her district has the greatest sidewalk needs). That resolution passed 8-3 – Houston, Garza, and Ann Kitchen dissented, in a sign of things to come.

In August, when the matter returned to Council, Kitchen (who had initially preferred a smaller proposal) won concessions for additional planning funds allocated to South Austin roads, and more sidewalk funding was moved to the Eastside, in part a response to the earlier Gallo amendment. The various adjustments were enough to deliver the mayor on Aug. 11 a unanimous vote on the first two readings of the ballot proposition. Adler celebrated: "The consensus we achieved tonight with unanimous approval of the ballot language for the Smart Corridor plan reflects the widespread support in the community to address traffic congestion, improve transit, increase safety, and build walkable neighborhoods. This sets up Austin for a big win."

This rendering of South Lamar imagines improvements to the roadway working in parallel with anticipated changes in land use and development. Critics charge that the corridor changes should instead prioritize car travel before other modes, including adding vehicle lanes wherever possible.

The mayor's big win was temporary. The following week, when the matter came back for a third reading, Kitchen had moved into the supporters column, but the discussion bogged down when CM Ellen Troxclair proposed a more explicit ballot statement of the eventual tax impact. Troxclair would soon be joined by CM Don Zimmerman, who denounced the city's attorneys for "lobbying" the council instead of providing opinions that coincided with his own; he also objected that the ballots would not allow voters to choose among the three project "buckets." Failing in their attempt to amend the language, Zimmerman and Troxclair abstained, and were eventually joined by Garza, who said she still believed the process had been too rushed, and that the size of the bond, if approved, would likely obstruct passage of future propositions on other city needs, especially affordable housing. In the end, Houston was the only outright nay – she also objected to the rushed process, and reiterated her persistent charge that the 10-1 Council needed to start fresh on its own projects, and not rely on work (like the corridor plans) passed down from earlier – and presumably less representative – City Councils.

That made the final vote 7-1-3 – a majority, but not the sort of official unanimity that has historically preceded most bond campaigns within the city.

In the Foxhole

On the dais, where do things stand? Mayor Adler told the Chronicle recently that while he'd certainly appreciate Council unity on the bond, he's not surprised that a districted Council, "with plenty of different perspectives," holds differing opinions. And to greater or lesser degrees, the Council majority is supporting the proposition. The strongest supporter, other than Adler, is Greg Casar, who during Council discussions urged his colleagues to consider even larger infrastructure expenditures, including the possibility of adding rail as a separate ballot item. Pio Renteria noted that the long neglect of the major corridors was increasingly dangerous, and said the city needs to move forward. Kitchen said she was still daunted by the scale of the bond – she would have preferred $500 million – but was reassured by amendments that looked forward to eventual road work in her district, and said, "On balance, I believe that we've taken some steps where we can work very expeditiously on ... other needs" like affordable housing and flood mitigation.

Council Member Ora Houston opposes bond. (Photo by John Anderson)

Garza, who had abstained on the final vote, said she remained too concerned about those broader needs to consider transportation the city's first priority, especially when her own southeast district would apparently see little benefit. More recently, she told the Chronicle that while she remains uneasy about future bond capacity, she considers herself "very neutral" on the proposition itself. "There are lots of good things in there," she said, "and I realize it's the first step in a large investment. I'm all in favor of big investments in infrastructure, if they're needed. But I was just not happy with the process. I thought it was very rushed."

Zimmerman and Troxclair were disappointed with the final shape of the ballot language because, they argued, it was insufficient to explain the eventual cost to taxpayers, and because it is presented as a group package, and not three separate votes. But both were pleased at the inclusion of the regional western highways that will serve their northwest and southwest constituents. Troxclair, who recently gave birth, has been off the dais on family leave, and has not taken an obvious public position on the bond campaign. Zimmer­man, in the middle of a re-election campaign, is both feuding with opponent Jimmy Flan­ni­gan over who gets credit for including Anderson Mill Road in the bond projects – and (in campaign ads) mocking the bond's spending on bike trails and bike lanes.

Houston's position on the dais was that the process was too "rushed" and that it was based on decisions made prior to the 10-1 Council, and therefore not representative of the whole community. Although she was able to make amendments on the dais that included moving additional funding into District 1 sidewalks – making amends for her earlier motion to distribute the funds by district – she would not be placated for the final vote. Houston particularly bristled whenever the mayor mentioned "the coalition" (the range of organizations, from real estate groups to bike advocates) that he had consulted in compiling the proposal, and hoped would support the eventual campaign. She felt "bullied," she said, "by a very exclusive group of people."

"My issue," said Houston, "is about the fact that this plan represents others making decisions that people who were not part of that conversation had no opportunity to make." Entering the abbreviated campaign, the mayor would go forward with a less united enthusiasm from the dais than he might have hoped for.

The Coalition

The several dozen groups formally supporting the bond include many predictable ones: Alliance for Public Transportation, ATX Safer Streets, Austin Metro Trails & Greenways, Bike Austin, Reconnect Austin, Walk Austin, and a couple dozen Travis County Dem organizations (including the TCDP). And there are the inevitable underwriters of big bond campaigns, which have both the inclination and resources to support such campaigns as well as undeniably vested interests among their corporate members: American Council of Engineering Companies, Austin Apartment Association, Austin Board of Realtors, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce (several of the smaller chambers), and the Real Estate Council of Austin. (Much of the money for Austin Forward PAC, running the campaign, came from this collection.)

Bond opponents call the proposition “dishonest” and insist that it won’t reduce vehicle congestion. (Photo by John Anderson)

There is also a handful of groups that might seem a little out of place on a big transportation bond, yet which reflect an even broader range of support: The Austin Technology Council (a new player in city politics) is here, and the unions on board include not just construction-related groups like LiUNA, but Education Austin, the Austin/Travis County EMS Employee Association, and the Austin Police Association. Here as well are a range of environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the Waller Creek Conservancy, the Hill Country Conservancy, and even a couple of social service organizations (Housing Works, One Voice Central Texas).

Jim Wick, who took a leave from the mayor's office to manage the Move Austin Forward campaign, has been generally upbeat about the bond's prospects. The campaign has garnered a broad range of official support from those organizations, and it is certainly well-funded: The 30-day-out campaign finance report reflected more than $662,000 in contributions, with $315,000 cash on hand. (In other words, plenty for TV ads.) Early in October, Wick released the results of an in-house poll, showing support for the bond at 56.7% to 25.4% (17.7% undecided). But that was quickly followed by an independent Austin Monitor poll that was essentially tied: 46-45%, with 9% undecided. (The polls' methodologies differed, so may have captured very distinct voter groups.) Based on recent bond elections – victory for the Central Health District, defeat for the 2014 transportation bond and the 2015 Travis County Civil Courthouse – bond resistance appears to be growing (at least in suburban precincts), so a tight election, greatly dependent on which voters are motivated to read to the bottom of the ballot, seems more likely than not.

One unexpected recruit to the campaign is Adler's 2014 mayoral opponent, former Council Member Mike Martinez, who has been making the rounds of various interest groups arguing the need to approve the bond. He told the Chronicle that while plenty of people have second-guesses about this or that aspect of the overall package, "I think it will pass, because there's a strong sentiment that we need to start doing something, and this is a place to start." Respond­ing to criticism that this bond won't complete all the necessary projects, Mayor Adler said, "Almost wherever you are, this is the next thing that has to happen."

The mayor has steadily argued that while "there's never a perfect bond" – and this one is constructed of the usual compromises – it represents a substantial attempt to address a range of traffic and infrastructure work that Austin needs badly to get underway. The state has failed to live up to its responsibilities on either highways or major corridor roads that were once state highways, he says, and that leaves the cities "to be creative about the tools that are left to us."

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.

The mayor said Falk has privately apologized to him for the charge of "dishonesty," but the HTS advertising remains unchanged. In frustration, Adler described arguing with Falk "like talking to a climate change denier." That might be because he was indeed talking to a climate change denier.

The HTS list of opponents also includes former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire, disappointed 10-1 Council candidates Ed English and Bill Worsham, and former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. The most prominent name remains Council Member Houston, who has issued a couple of broadsides against the bond process, as not "inclusive" nor "transparent," and conceived by an "exclusive group of power brokers." Asked to elaborate about the latter charge, Houston declined to cite names but described "the coalition" as comprised of the "enthusiastic interest groups" that are nonetheless "not very diverse in their memberships," as well big Downtown players like RECA and the Downtown Austin Alliance. (Worth noting is that the Black Austin Democrats, the Tejano Democrats, and all three minority Chambers of Com­merce are supporting the bond.) Houston also said she is not persuaded that the localized neighborhood public engagement that is reflected at the beginning of each of the corridor plans is sufficient in garnering diverse public support for the projects.

Houston says she would like to have seen more funding for work on MLK Boulevard and FM 969, and for collaboration with Cap­ital Metro on a northeast Green park-and-ride rail line. Primarily, she proposes going back to the beginning of the process for more inclusiveness. "This is the way we've always done business as a city," Houston said. "Some­body needs to say it's not right."

Doing Something

The mayor has steadily argued that while “there’s never a perfect bond,” this represents a substantial attempt to address a range of traffic and infrastructure work that Austin needs badly to get underway.

The mayor and other supporters of the bond insist that "doing nothing" – which they charge is the thread running through most of the opposition – is simply not an option, and that decades of doing nothing is precisely how we've come to this extremely congested pass. Yet even while he fends off attacks from the anti-any-tax onslaught, he's met on another flank by those who argue that the plan doesn't really do enough, or does too many of the wrong things. A few days ago, the mayor responded to skepticism from Austin Neighborhoods Council leaders by promising the corridors and subsequent density would still not impinge on traditional, single-family neighborhoods. That evoked plenty of social media buzz from new urbanist sources arguing that, in light of Austin's continuing population growth, Adler was promising something he couldn't – and moreover shouldn't – deliver.

Somewhat in that vein, software entrepreneur and public policy advocate Julio Gonzalez Altamirano recently took a deeply analytical look at the bond project proposals on his blog, Keep Austin Wonky. The post is indeed wonkishly steeped in data analysis, and makes quite a few assumptions about vehicle use, commuter habits, and what is likely to happen several years forward, to argue its rather disappointing conclusion: "The 'Go Big' mobility bond will increase the single-occupant vehicle share of Austin work commutes." Neverthe­less, for anybody hoping for substantial near-term "mode shift" in the way area residents use transportation (fewer single-occupant commuters; more pooling, sharing, transit, biking, etc.) – Gonzalez Altamirano concludes, it ain't gonna happen because of this bond. The negative change he predicts – "a net increase of 1,853 SOV commuters" – isn't enormous, and indirectly suggests that the projects will indeed somewhat ease congestion for vehicle commuters.

But for folks truly interested in moving Austin toward a more multimodal, driveable/bikeable/walkable and ultimately more sustainable and resilient city, we might well be waiting still for public enthusiasm for a major investment in mass transit: rail, buses, gondolas ... or whatever. If voters approve this bond and the work gets done, Austin will have accomplished major roadway and neighborhood improvements, but a great leap forward is more than anyone should expect. To quote the mayor: "Almost wherever you are, this is the next thing that has to happen." As both critics and supporters acknowledge, it is certainly not the last.

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