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Business reps voice complaints over transportation bond package

Tuesday, June 29, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Now that Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar has presented City Council with staff’s initial recommendations for the proposed $85 million transportation bond proposal, the contentious process of finalizing the package through committee input has begun. Yesterday, Spillar brought staff’s proposal before the members of the Transportation Bond Citizen Task Force.


Attendees wasted little time expressing their doubts about the proposal. Despite the fact that more than half of the 35 projects listed in the bond package concern the improvement of arterial, highway, and neighborhood streets (including Martin Luther King Boulevard, MoPac Boulevard, and the “Y” at Oak Hill), representatives from several city chambers and associations complained that staff’s recommendations didn’t address the issue of traffic congestion enough.


“The list that the city staff has presented has minimal congestion-relieving projects at best and will have little impact on relieving the mobility issues facing the committee,” said Rebecca Bray, chair of the Austin Chamber of Commerce’s Bond Task Force Committee. That group recommended that the city put off what it calls “quality of life enhancements,” such as hike and bike trails, and “replace these projects with projects that truly allow for congestion relief.”


“We as a city should be allocating our minimal dollars addressing vehicular mobility, which is essential to the economic vitality of this community,” she said.


Robert Kleeman, vice president of government relations for the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, told the task force that his group couldn’t support the proposed package, calling it “more like a parks bond package” than a mobility plan. “The focus should be on traffic congestion mitigation,” he said, pointing out that the west side of town, where congestion is worst, would be getting fewer projects that the east side and downtown.


“What should be driving the dollars should be areas with the most congestion,” he said.


When asked by task force member Andy Brown for a response to these complaints, Spillar said that the process of deciding which projects would get funding was based on citizen input accumulated over six months and what he called an assessment of community “values.” 


“(We) went through a public process to gain an understanding of the values that were present,” he said. “Consistently throughout this process we heard that a range of choices were important.”


Spillar also pointed out that the reason why many of the projects that would alleviate traffic congestion are getting what may appear to be only limited amounts of funding is because many of them are already under construction (such as Ben White Boulevard from the “Y” at Oak Hill to the airport), while others do or would benefit from city partnerships with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and TxDOT (e.g., the MoPac corridor).


Task force members had concerns of their own, ranging from the reduction of emissions and the details of the contract bidding process to the adequacy of funding for sidewalks.


Task Force Chair Sandra Baldridge expressed her desire to see the projects funded by bond money, especially those located in the Central Business District, generate revenue for the city either through sales or property taxes.


“The taxpayers need to know that there’s going to be revenue generated from part of this to pay for the bond,” she said. “Otherwise all we’re doing is increasing our property taxes.”


But Spillar pointed out that because this proposed bond package would only account for half the city’s current bond capacity, there wouldn’t be a change in the tax rate as a result. In other words, he said, “there are no new taxes being contemplated as part of this program.”


The task force meets again on July 12 to present staff their recommendations for the bond package, after which staff will present it to the Comprehensive Plan and Transportation Committee on July 26 and then take the final version before Council for approval on Aug. 5.

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