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Neighborhood group considers opposition to city transportation bonds

Monday, July 28, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Some members of the politically powerful Austin Neighborhoods Council are threatening to withhold support for Austin’s $1 billion Strategic Mobility Plan unless it is significantly changed. Those behind the plan want the U.S. Department of Transportation to freeze federal matching funds for major Central Texas transportation projects if they do not get their way.

At last week’s meeting, the neighborhoods group considered a resolution, sponsored by Bo McCarver, chair of the Blackland Community Development Corporation, to withhold support for transportation bond initiatives until a regional, comprehensive transportation plan that meets their approval is established. In addition, the resolution urges the federal transportation agency to assume oversight and planning of a comprehensive regional plan.

However, because of late changes to the final draft the sponsor allowed the group to postpone the vote to give members a chance to study the resolution.

The Strategic Mobility Plan, expected to be on the November ballot, would authorize bonding authority for $400 million in road projects and $600 million for urban rail. The rail project would need matching federal funds to be viable.

McCarver also called for an integration of intercity commuter rail with a regional transportation system. His resolution explains that TxDOT and local governments have failed to provide viable, mass transit-inclusive transportation solutions for the region, concentrating instead on highway expansions and road construction to solve congestion.

“The concept of multimodal transportation has been around since the 1970s, but out in the district, it means you have a fleet of diesel cars and pickup trucks mixed with gasoline cars and pickup trucks,” said McCarver. “It does not meet a modern city concept.”

Sector six representative David Thomas said that he opposed the resolution “completely.” He said that the resolution was “absolutely horrible” and would help kill Project Connect by taking away federal funding at a crucial time.

“I’m tied of studying. We need to take some steps, some positive steps,” said Thomas.

McCarver admitted that he regretted “some of the negative intonations in this particular resolution.”

“However,” said McCarver. “You’d better play hardball if you are going to play ball at all. This is Texas, and Austin has been a wimp and we’ve been taking it on the jaw from a lot of people for a long time.”

Specifically, McCarver pointed to the 2040 Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Plan, noting that the survey from the transportation authority gave no room for participants to add transit lines, but did allow creation of “all the roadways you want.”

“Don’t tell me it’s an open process,” said McCarver.

Though there was no vote on the resolution, several members expressed their opinions, saying that they disagreed with the approach.

Hancock Neighborhood Association President Carolyn Palaima said that her neighborhood had heard from TxDOT and Project Connect, and saw regional and long-range plans that had “a lot of thought and planning.”

Palaima said that, with the new UT medical school, Highland Austin Community College and other development on the horizon, saying that nothing should happen on I-35 would only exacerbate her neighborhood’s traffic situation.

“To me, to have a resolution to say we don’t like it and, basically, Texas is corrupt… Well, I don’t think, one, you are going to address Texas corruption through this resolution,” said Palaima. “(Two) it is not workable for neighborhoods that are along these very congested traffic corridors to say that nothing should go forward.”

Just prior to discussion of the resolution, neighborhood council members heard a presentation on Project Connect. In November, it will seek voter approval for funding for the urban rail line that is at the heart of Project Connect. Supporters stress that urban rail is just one component of the project which hopes to integrate urban rail, commuter rail, regional rail, rapid transit and local bus lines to solve some of the region’s transportation woes.

Some members of the group expressed skepticism about the Project Connect plan, questioning currently planned routes and criticizing the lack of a larger plan.

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