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Task force endorses transportation bond package but frustrations remain

Tuesday, July 13, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The citizen’s task force charged with vetting a potential $90 million transportation bond package has given its formal approval to the measure. The vote, however, came with two abstentions, a host of additional recommendations and some frustration from Task Force Chair Sandra Baldridge.

 

Still, the task force endorsed the package by a 6-0-2 vote (with one absence), an endorsement that includes backing for a financially reconfigured boardwalk trail along Lady Bird Lake. That project also presented its share of controversy.

 

The end result was a combined resolution that featured aspects of two separate proposed actions from task force members Perry Lorenz and Moses Garcia. Lorenz’s language, which included support for the boardwalk project, seemed to enjoy more favor than Garcia’s, which specifically eliminated the task force’s endorsement of its inclusion in 2010 bonding.

 

The merged documents illustrate both the task force’s desire for some level of action on regional mobility issues and their seeming frustration with the process by which decisions for the 2010 package had been made. Indeed, the final action included a six-part section which looked forward to a possible 2012 bond initiative and made a series of recommended changes to the process.


The list of projects associated with the 2010 bond includes a total of 45 specific suggestions. These range from the now-$14 million boardwalk project to $200,000 for sidewalk improvements at Fourth Street and I-35.

 

The task force also suggested that the 2010 bond program include a call for the city to create public-private mobility partnerships, to fund the goal of bringing 80 percent of the city’s streets up to at least minimum standards by 2018, and to find more federal and state money to fund the city’s mobility projects.

 

Baldridge and Garcia were the two abstentions.

 

After the hearing, Baldridge expressed her dissatisfaction with a portion of the process. “I think there are a number of things that were re-categorized, reclassified—dollars were reallocated without public vetting and that the responsibility for the bond package fell to the task force without any prior knowledge of, really, what was going to happen,” she said.

 

Baldridge added that the task force did not get a full draft of the “actual package” until the day of the hearing. “I’m just sorry that some of the people in the process had information but chose to manipulate that information,” she added. “I think some agendas were very apparent and there was no give and take in the process: It was either ‘my way or the highway.’ ”

 

She refused to specifically implicate anyone during the interview. When asked to further discuss her concerns about the package itself, she cited the Lady Bird Lake boardwalk project. “Saying that it was $17 million (project)…when they knew it would only be $14 (million) was, as far as I am personally concerned…a stretch to the general public.”

 

That effort – which was initially budgeted for about $17 million – has been reduced by a $3 million contribution from the Trails Foundation. Baldridge added that though she had asked for the information, no one had thus far produced a reason that the financing for the boardwalk was not originally structured as such.

 

For his part, Transportation Department director Robert Spillar said that when staff began work on the package, they weren’t sure whether the Trails Foundation’s contribution was secure.

 

“We wanted to make sure that we had the full amount in there,” he said. “Clearly, we were in the process of defining what the projects were and getting the funding together. And so, when it became clear that the Trails Foundation was fully committed to that pledge, then it became obvious that we needed to take advantage of that.” 

 

The group’s suggested changes for the next bond initiative are:

 

·       A recommendation that city staff “strongly consider obtaining greater and more geographically diverse community and business input”;

·       A request that the City Council “advise the City Manager to further develop the Strategic Mobility Plan into multi-modal transportation strategies with systemic mobility needs” that specifically identify corridors and transportation projects to move and balance across all modes in a manner consistent with city of Austin environmental, safety and system efficiency values”;

·       A recommendation that staff “inform citizens and future Task Force members as to the geographic collection and distribution of general obligation bond funds, as they relate to special tax exemptions or incentives, such as Tax Increment Financing  zones or property tax abatements”;

·       a recommendation that staff further inform the public about “multi-modal system usage by City of Austin residents” and that that information be backed-up with hard data;

·       A recommendation that staff convene future Task Forces earlier in the bond evaluation process; and

·       A request that the Council “direct the City Manager to use language in the bond covenants for this bond package that are flexible enough to take advantage of cost savings, changing economic conditions and available sources of financing to fully complete this proposed Strategic Mobility Bond Package.”

 

Spillar said that he felt that the task force was “pleased with what we brought forward.”

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