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Transportation Department explains bond priorities

Friday, June 4, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

With nearly $100 million in transportation projects under consideration in a potential bond election this November, the members of the 2010 Transportation Bond Citizen Task Force spent time Thursday questioning Transportation Director Rob Spillar on the specifics of his department’s newly compiled list of prioritized projects for the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan.


Their concern wasn’t just the list of 474 “gaps” that will most likely serve as the foundation for the potential bond package. They also wanted to know more about a distinction the director made between specific, individual projects the bond funds could go to and so-called “buckets,” or general categories – such as bike lanes or intersection improvements – the money could be spent on regardless of project details.


Several members of the task force raised concerns over the “bucket” issue. Those included Perry Lorenz, who wondered about the point of making a list of priority projects if it was just going to be overlooked later down the line.


“So we won’t have a list of specific projects that will be built by this money?” he asked. “We’ll have notions and buckets but not specific projects that we’ll say when the bond passes, ‘Good, that one’s getting built’?”


Not so, said Spillar. Projects’ rankings, he said, will be used as guidance for implementing the projects after the bond package is accepted. So when it comes time to divvy up the funds, not only will staff know how much money is earmarked for sidewalks over a period of time; they’ll know what the city’s priorities are for those types of projects.


“That’s a pretty good feel for what projects are going to get built,” Spillar said


On March 25, Council directed the Transportation Department to develop the bond package to include road, sidewalk, bicycle, trail, and related investments. Three Council members—Sheryl Cole, Bill Spelman and Laura Morrison—have since questioned the timing of the election and the amount of funding actually available.


Yesterday, Spillar presented to the task force the results of public forums, online surveys, and petitions to public agencies, which listed 3,000 mobility gaps throughout the city. The department, Spillar said, then reduced that list to 474 by eliminating duplicates, projects that would be covered by regular operations, gaps that were non-specific, etc.  


The department then prioritized those 474 gaps based on a system quantifying eight different categories: efficiency, environmental stewardship, investment and economic development, mobility choices, neighborhood coordination and connectivity, regional coordination, safety, and sustainable growth. Rankings of A, B, or C were then given to each of the 474 gaps based on the perceived severity of need and ability to provide connectivity.


Forty-five gaps made the A (highest-priority) list, department matrix. Those gaps are spread throughout the city and fall into all different categories of transportation classifications, including pedestrian, transit, roads, and multimodal. Of those 45 gaps, nine concern arterial/traffic management (signals, lanes); five are related to neighborhood connectivity and enhancement; 19 concern pedestrian, bicycle, and trail issues; nine have to do with corridor development projects, such as I-35 and urban rail; two concern capital preservation projects (maintenance); and one is related to transit, in particular Capital Metro’s rapid bus service on Guadalupe and Lavaca streets.


The cost of the 45 projects, Spillar pointed out, is estimated to be between $1.9 billion and $4 billion, which is, of course, far above the $85 million Mayor Lee Leffingwell set as a goal for the recommended bond package.


Which means, Spillar said, that most of the gaps in group A would not be addressed entirely by the bond package but would rather be dealt with in pieces using bond money or be parts of future “partnership projects” between various city, county, state, and federal agencies. 


“The ABC list absolutely informs the bond package direction,” Spillar said, “but I want to stress that the ABC prioritization is much bigger than the bond package. It also identifies projects we would need to go out and partner with TxDOT or CTRMA or Capital Metro.”


Spillar will return to the task force on June 14 with an initial draft bond package recommendation, to be followed by a public forum and the beginning of the comment period on June 17.

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