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Council OKs $1 billion transportation bond measure

Friday, August 8, 2014 by Natalie Krebs

The Austin City Council unanimously approved a $600 million bond proposition Thursday on the Nov. 4 ballot to help fund a rail initiative, while promising to put an additional $400 million into roadway improvements through other means, probably certificates of obligation or similar financial instruments.

Through its bond language, the city is also attempting to promise to obtain “funding or financial assistance” from the federal government or some unknown other source to match the funds the city would be providing.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said transportation congestion is major problem in Austin and now is the time start improvements for the future.

“I want to leave this city a better place for our children and our grandchildren,” said Leffingwell. “This is not an option.”

Council Member Mike Martinez, who has previously raised concerns about connecting the proposed rail line to the Austin Bergstrom International Airport, supported the measure. He said it is a start, but it needs more planning. Martinez is a candidate for Austin mayor.

“The debate will continue,” said Martinez. “We have 83 days until the election but at some point we have to come together as a community to move forward.”

Both supporters and opponents showed up to discuss the issue. Among the rail bonds supporters were attorney Jeff Howard and Charlie Betts, executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance. They urged the Council to move forward with a proposition that they see as critical to Austin’s future.

Supporters pointed to the need to address traffic congestion, and frequently pointed to the 2014 INRIX traffic scorecard, which ranked Austin as the fourth most congested metro area in the U.S.

On the other hand, Jim Skaggs, a long time rail opponent told Council that their proposition would turn out to be “the worst decision in Austin’s history.”

David King, a frequent speaker at Council, angrily denounced the proposition’s language, saying voters would not be able to understand it.

Bill Worsham, a candidate for City Council District 10, was one of those urging voters to vote no also, arguing that since Council already has the authority to issue certificates of obligation for road bonds there would be no need to vote for the rail bond.

Other critics of the rail plan, such as AURA, have complained about the high per-passenger cost of the system and said the city is planning to put the rail line in the wrong corridor, saying that an alignment along Lamar Boulevard would reach a larger number of potential riders. Those critics, who have been very vocal about their objections to the rail plan, did not show up for Thursday’s Council vote.

The $600 million rail bond would provide nearly half of the estimated $1.38 billion required for the Central Corridor Rail Project, a 9.5-mile light rail line with 16 stations that would run from the East Riverside Corridor through downtown and the University of Texas up to Austin Community College’s Highland campus. The initiative requires that the rail portion of the bond is contingent on the project receiving matching federal funds.

The Capital Metro Board of Directors approved the Austin urban rail plan June 23. It said in a news release that it expects the daily ridership of the line to be around 18,000 by 2030.

A comprehensive urban rail bond package was narrowly defeated in 2000, though voters did approve funding for the Capital Metro Red Line in 2004.

Kyle Keahey, vice president and Transit Sector market leader for HNTB’s Central Division was appointed in April to head the urban rail part of Project Connect, a working group, which includes the City of Austin and Capital Metro, aimed at addressing the congestion in Austin.

Keahey told the Austin Monitor that he is optimistic about the upcoming election and is ready to begin working out the details of the rail line.

“Certainly we have lots of discussions about this alignment or that alignment but when you take a step back and look at it, people are very positive about seeing the solutions or decent alternative to congestion. So I’m very encouraged.”

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