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Traffic congestion debate central to bond proposal considerations

Friday, July 9, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

City staff will be providing members of the 2010 Transportation Bond Citizen Task Force the final draft of the preliminary transportation bond package today. That package will be for task force members’ to consider over the weekend before voting on the recommendations at their next, and last, meeting on Monday.


The task force is charged with making a recommendation to City Council concerning the proposed $84.8 million bond package that would go before the voters this November. On Wednesday, the panel held a special called meeting to discuss the package with members of the city’s Transportation and Public Works departments and determine if they would like to see any changes made before staff creates the revised version.


Task Force Chair Sandra Baldridge started off the proceedings by saying that she believed the city had “tried to put on a whole lot of band-aids but missed the mark” in its charge to come up with a plan that would address traffic congestion and increase mobility throughout the region.


“I see this bond package as something that was a bit of an emergency fund, a stop-gap measure that would get us out of being classified as the most congested city in the country of our size,” Baldridge said. “The bond doesn’t help commuters to downtown with their commute time or improve their quality of life.”


She pointed out that of the approximately $45.8 million in funds initially slated for specific projects, more than $13 million would be going to the Central Business District. That is more than twice the amount assigned to projects in any other region in the first breakdown. Baldridge argued that in order to be fair and to adequately deal with “hot button” issues like congestion and air quality, the proposal should focus more on geographical distribution of funds. “There is too much money downtown,” she said. “We need to provide more money to the suburbs.”


But Task Force Member Perry Lorenz said that spreading such modest funds too thin would get the city little in return. “It’s so little money when compared to our overwhelming needs,” he said, “and if we spread it all out there will be so little done that will affect anybody, nobody would notice it.”


Baldridge’s worries about congestion alleviation were echoed by representatives from two prominent business associations, however. Jeremy Martin, senior vice president of government relations for the Austin Chamber of Commerce, told the task force that his group hoped they would “look at alternative projects or address the reallocation of dollars to create additional congestion-relief projects for short-term immediate relief for Austin citizens.”


Nancy McDonald, the director or regional outreach for the Real Estate Council of Austin, told In Fact Daily that the city’s method for determining community values, and therefore funded projects, was weighted unevenly in favor of bike lanes and trails, “multimodal projects,” she said, “that don’t adequately deal with traffic congestion.”


Pointing at the proposed plan, with its 45 projects ranked by community significance, she said, “If these are the priorities of the community, it needs to be a little more balanced so road projects are taken more into consideration.”


Trails were also on the mind of Task Force Member Karen Friese, who said she had reservations about the package’s biggest project, the boardwalk trail at Lady Bird Lake. The boardwalk would complete the trail loop around the lake but would also cost approximately $17 million, making it by far the most expensive project on staff’s list.


“I don’t think of the trail as a transportation project,” Friese said. “It’s primarily a recreational trail.” She said that though she supported the boardwalk being built and the loop “closed,” she wasn’t sure if such a project should fall under the purview of a transportation bond package.


Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar pointed out that the Council resolution directs the city manager to prepare a bond package that reflects a multimodal approach to city mobility, with trails as one of the modes mentioned. “Clearly Council contemplated trails as part of the transportation network,” he said.


According to Assistant Director of Planning Gordon Derr, the revised version of the bond proposal that task force members will receive today will reflect the concerns not only of the task force and the business community, but of a wide group of stakeholders.


“We’ve been talking to TxDOT, we’ve been talking to the county, we’ve been talking to folks downtown,” Derr told In Fact Daily. “We’ve gotten a lot of different feedback, and we’re working on a package we think will address some of the issues people are concerned about.”

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