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Council to vote on mobility plan that includes road projects

Tuesday, June 24, 2014 by Michael Kanin

A recommendation from City Manager Marc Ott means that City Council members will vote Thursday on what Mayor Lee Leffingwell calls “a strategic mobility plan” that ultimately could lead to a $1 billion November transportation bond election.


The numbers, hinted at for some time, include $400 million in road projects and $600 million for urban rail – though a $120 million line item for improvements at the I-35 and East Riverside Drive interchange also includes dollars for rail construction.


Council will vote on what to put on the ballot and how to phrase the bond proposals in August.


If voters approve the bonds, it would represent a tax increase of 6.25 cents spread out over six or seven years.


Leffingwell said Monday that the new taxes would be “phased in on as needed basis.”


“There are no plans to put any money in the (2015) budget in anticipation of that happening. The (November) vote is only an authorization to spend the money,” he noted.


In addition, he said, very little of the money would be spent until the city gets the FTA (Federal Transit Administration) approval for cost sharing. He estimated that would be three years away.


“Final engineering wouldn’t start until the FTA approves matching funds,” he said, adding that if the federal money does not come through, the money would never be spent. That means there would be no rail without the federal money and thus no taxpayer expense for rail.


The proposal is careful to note that the figure leaves the city “in compliance with its debt-related financial policies.“


A pitch for $81.5 million in funds to connect Austin Bergstrom International Airport directly to SH71 also includes money to cover a “rail extension feasibility analysis.” Funding for a US 183-Riverside interchange also makes note that the project would “facilitate future rail” projects.


Operations and maintenance costs of the new rail line would not be included in the 2014 bond request. Those, say the report, would come via “Capital Metro sales tax, (Federal Transit Authority) operating assistance…operations savings, fare revenue, the remaining/unallocated one-quarter (1/4) cent funds, parking revenue, potential Public Improvement Districts, etc.”


The Texas Department of Transportation, according to the report, would be “primarily” responsible for funding the operations and maintenance costs of the roads associated with the project.


The rail plan notes that attempts should be made to collect “cost efficiencies/alternative funding for $100 (million)” worth of the line. “If alternative funding or cost reductions are not achieved, build as far north of Hancock as possible,” notes the plan.


It offers more detail under a section dedicated to explaining plan phasing. “(A) $600 million request could be offered as long as it is clearly communicated that the (locally preferred alternative) may have to be terminated at Hancock if the costs to construct all the way to the Highland/ACC campus don’t drop substantially,” it reads. “In other words, the concept can remain to build from Grove to Highland with the understanding that Highland may not be achievable, but the intent will be environmental clearance on the total 9.5 mile route.”


Leffingwell has been frank in his call for the inclusion of road projects in the November election. “This…has been developed with a respect for what people in this city have been clamoring for – all of the people in this city, the majority of its people – and it’s also been developed, frankly, to have appeal to voters,” Leffingwell said at a June 10 Council work session.


In addition to rail, the package includes funding for six major categories of road projects. They are $120 million for the I-35/Riverside Drive interchange as well as $90 million for the interchanges at Stassney, Oltorf and William Cannon; $30 million for I-35 traffic management systems in the region; $81.5 million for the SH71-ABIA connection; $34 million for the I-35/Riverside interchange; $44.5 million for regional safety projects.

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