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Some Council members question bond proposal for boardwalk

Tuesday, July 27, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

As the city manager and city staff prepare to bring the final proposal for a potential $90 million transportation bond package before City Council this Thursday, some Council Members still have questions about the value and timing of the proposal’s biggest project.


The project under discussion is the boardwalk trail at Lady Bird Lake, which would complete the trail around the lake but would cost approximately $17 million, more than twice the amount of any of the bond package’s 44 other projects.


The city’s plan for the boardwalk involves a 1.1-mile ribbon of 14-foot-wide decking built atop concrete piers, extending just east of Congress Avenue to Lakeshore Park.


Yesterday, several members of the Council’s Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee had questions for Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar. The first issue he addressed concerned changes made to the boardwalk portion of the plan at the request of the Transportation Bond Citizens Task Force. That group, which was dissolved two weeks ago, asked that staff look at the possibility of implementing the boardwalk project in phases.


They did, Spillar told the committee, and the new approach would involve two phases. The first phase, costing about $9 million, would connect the end of the current trail to a point just east of I-35, where the trail could connect back to the street network. Spillar told the committee this would be the first place the phase could end.


The second phase, which would complete the trail, would be dependent upon $3 million in pledged funds from the Town Lake Trail Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and improving the hike-and-bike trail. With that $3 million contribution, Spillar said, the project will cost city approximately $14.4 million.


Council Member Laura Morrison told Spillar, “The concept that we have to struggle with that I think is being discussed in the community is this is a great project but it’s one project that’s expensive. Could we do five other projects in its place? If we were to ship the 14 million to other projects on the priority list, what might that look like?”


Spillar responded that if Council chose that route the result would be a series of multimodal projects that didn’t make staff’s first cut of “A-list priorities” but that would nevertheless reflect the community’s concerns. “It wouldn’t just be a series of traffic projects. It wouldn’t be just a series of pedestrian projects,” Spillar said.


“It is a great project, to be able to connect the trail, no doubt about that,” Morrison told In Fact Daily, “but we need to ask the question, if we didn’t spend $14.5 million on that one project, what would be several other projects that we might be able to achieve and do we really understand that tradeoff? And also, we need to ask if now is the right time to do the boardwalk.”


Council Member Bill Spelman, meanwhile, said his potential misgivings with the boardwalk project have as much to do with the law and politics as they do finances. He told In Fact Daily that he worries the project won’t meet the legal department’s definition of a transportation project and therefore won’t be permitted by state law to be a part of the bond package.


“I’m concerned about if we put the boardwalk in with what we know the current uses of Town Lake are,” he said, “unless we come up with a real convincing case that shortly after it’s completed people are going to be using it for commuting — which I don’t think is going to be easy for us to do — then we’ve got a legal problem.


“The second thing is purely political. Some people are going to claim that if we spend $14 million on the boardwalk, then that’s money we’re not going to spend on traffic improvements, street improvements, trains, bikes, things people are actually using for transportation. And I think the political fallout might end up being as big as the legal fallout.”


For his part, Mayor Lee Leffingwell sees the boardwalk as a mobility and transportation matter. “There are people who would argue that a lot of people do use that portion of the trail to come to work or go shopping or go for recreational opportunities other than just using the trail itself,” he said.


Leffingwell said he also views the completion of the trail as an important step forward for the city. “We’ve waited for decades to get this trail finished. I think there is an east-west equity issue involved. It’s way past time to get this done. I think we have an opportunity to do it now and my expectation right now, unless somebody talks me out of it, is that’s what I’m going to support.”

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