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Mobility Committee considers options for transportation bond

Thursday, February 4, 2016 by Jack Craver

Every member of City Council, including Mayor Steve Adler, turned up Wednesday afternoon for a discussion held by the Mobility Committee on a potential transportation bond election. They heard a slate of possibilities for action on a potential transportation bond, including one that could culminate in a 2016 ballot question.

Robert Goode, assistant city manager for transportation services, told the committee that city staff had identified at least $4.5 billion of needed infrastructure improvements for the next 30 years, including over $2 billion of improvements to the I-35 corridor.

He emphasized, however, that the estimate is “very preliminary” and suggested that the actual needs are much greater. He estimated, for instance, that unmet sidewalk needs amount to $1 billion.

Goode outlined a number of ways the city could fund additions and improvements to its strained transportation system, including debt issued either by Council, in the form of certificates of obligation bonds, or approved by voters, in the form of general obligation bonds. Other funding methods include grants, partnerships with other public entities (such as the state and counties) or private partnerships. Goode also noted that the city is reviewing ways to impose more consistent obligations on developers to fund infrastructure improvements that are needed as the result of private projects.

But, he added: “The majority of our funding generally comes from our debt sources.”

If Council is interested in pursuing a bond election, Goode explained, the typical preparation would take about 15 to 18 months before the issue is put to voters. That includes the time it takes for city staff to develop an assessment of transportation needs, for Council to appoint a commission to review the proposed projects with public input, for city staff to make a recommendation and for Council to approve an ordinance setting the election.

However, Goode proposed two expedited timelines that would cut down on the review process and likely focus more on funding transportation needs that staff has already identified. One alternative would take 10 to 12 months; the other only seven to eight months. The final alternative would be geared toward getting the bond on the ballot this November.

Council Member Delia Garza expressed concerns about expediting the process, saying that no matter how vetted some projects have been by city staff, average citizens still need to be convinced of the funding priorities.

“The purpose of that kind of input is not only to get input – it’s also to get buy-in and support,” Garza said.

Adler declined to endorse a specific timeline in a brief interview with the Austin Monitor after the meeting.

“I think we need a community conversation about what projects we want to get done, what’s the most appropriate timing for those projects, how would we pay for those projects,” he said. “Nothing’s been predetermined, pre-decided, but I think it is important for us to sit down and talk about all of those issues.”

A number of citizens came to the hearing to urge that future transportation spending be focused on non-automobile transit, including rail, bus services, bicycles and walking.

“You cannot build your way out of congestion – it’s impossible,” said Dave Dobbs of the Texas Public Transportation Association.

Brendan Wittstruck, an architect, said the city should not spend more money to add lanes to the upper decks of I-35 in north-central Austin. The road as it is, he argued, created a “barrier effect” that discourages walking and bicycling and is “antithetical” to the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan.

Council Member Don Zimmerman repeatedly expressed hostility toward spending on nonroads measures that he said his largely suburban constituency opposes. He suggested that “normal cities” would have expanded I-35 a long time ago. He also suggested that past mobility bond measures have been disingenuous and that some voters supporting the measures believed that they were voting for expanded roads, and not a variety of other projects.

“We bundle stuff together so we never get a chance as a community to vote on which direction we want to go,” Zimmerman said.

Council Member Greg Casar, noting that he was never surprised to disagree with Zimmerman, said that he wanted Austin to avoid solutions such as the expansion of the Katy Freeway (I-10) in Houston, which he called a “disaster,” and urged his colleagues to “think of ways that we don’t induce sprawl.”

Never one to shy away from a debate, Zimmerman shot back. “I would still say that the I-10 expansion does resemble a freeway while I-35 does resemble a disaster.”

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