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Republican Club hosts transportation bond debate

Wednesday, October 6, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

On Tuesday, the Republican Club of Austin hosted a debate between Ed Wendler, Jr. and Ted Siff on the merits of Prop. 1, also known as the Transportation and Mobility Bond. With roughly 60 people in attendance at Green Pastures, the two spent the better part of an hour in a polite, structured discussion followed by a question-and-answer period with the audience. The $90 million bond aims to complete 45 of the top-rated transportation and mobility projects in Austin and will be on the ballot this November. Early voting starts Oct. 18.


Prior to the debate both Wendler and Siff told the gathered members of the news media that the bond is non-partisan, and neither claimed to know what the room’s collective opinion on the issue might be. Wendler is an unabashed Democrat, and though Siff refused to give his political inclination, his introduction to the group did out him as a former Ralph Nader campaign worker. (Siff later acknowledged in an email to In Fact Daily that he is “a proud Democrat.”) 


Wendler, speaking on his own behalf, argued that the bond’s 45 projects would not impact congestion and said the language on the bond was not clear enough for voters. He suggested the city reintroduce the improvements as at least three separate bonds, allowing voters to choose particular elements to move forward on. Particularly, he said $14 million for the boardwalk around Ladybird Lake is too much money for him. His arguments seemed to square with the position of the Real Estate Council of Austin, which has taken a stand against the bond but is mounting no active campaign. 


Wendler told In Fact Daily that the City Council should have specifically broken the bond into trails, sidewalks, and roads packages. “If they tell voters it is a transportation bond, everything should be transportation,” he said, calling the boardwalk and hike-and-bike trails “amenities.”


Wendell complained to the assembled Republicans about the ballot language — pointing out that it is a single 99-word sentence. He also said the bond lacks significant additions to road capacity despite the fact that 87 percent of Austinites drive to work. Throughout the event, Wendell associated transportation improvements with additional vehicular capacity and questioned the actual impact that bike lanes, sidewalks, and hike-and-bike trails have on reducing the number of vehicles on the road.


Wendler also criticized the matrix system used to evaluate potential projects and that ultimately helped to select the 45 in the bond. Through several examples he demonstrated how ideas like sustainable growth, mobility choices, and environmental stewardship had edged out added vehicle capacity.


Siff, treasurer of the Get Austin Moving PAC, acknowledged that the bond might not be perfect but told the assembled he had five points to make. First, he said the bond is an appropriate capacity and is “the most fiscally conservative debt proposition in the last 20 years.” He also pointed out that the projects in the package would all be “substantially completed” within 24 months. Siff noted how many of the smaller portions of this bond fit into larger plans, such as the city’s court-mandated obligation to bring sidewalks up to ADA standards.


He argued that the bond is timely, due to the recessionary impacts on labor and construction that have lowered capital costs. “In two years we don’t want to still need these projects but have them cost more to build,” he said.


Finally, Siff said that 80 percent of the projects are “shovel ready” and that 20 percent of the bond money appropriated for design work will ultimately create strategic leverage for future improvements and money. He said some of this would even help talks with the state and feds about relieving congestion on MoPac and I-35.


The speakers disagreed about the relative openness of the bond process. Siff claimed that it was much more transparent than the 2006 bond and noted the online outreach and dozens of meetings hosted by the city. Wendler, meanwhile, suggested the process had been hijacked by special interests. “If anyone hijacked this,” Siff countered, “it’s the people who showed up to take part in the public meetings.”


The crowd seemed very interested in the issue and had plenty of questions for both speakers. The questioners seemed split on the issue of mobility and whether the bond would actually be able to increase pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Others questioned the wisdom of spending money that wouldn’t seem to directly alleviate congestion by presumably building more roads. The Republican Club did not make an official endorsement for or against the bond.

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