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Big doubts loom over Adler’s big bond

Friday, June 17, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

With just one more regular meeting before its July break, City Council appears far from reaching any clear consensus on dueling mobility bond proposals.

“Essentially, what we’re all struggling with is a balance,” Council Member Ann Kitchen told her colleagues on Thursday evening. “There’s obviously huge needs for transportation across the city.”

It was the first time the full Council had discussed November bond proposals in a regular voting session since staff presented possible scenarios during a Council work session last month. On Tuesday, every Council member except Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo attended the Mobility Committee to watch that body unanimously recommend a $300 million proposal offered by Kitchen.

That plan is less than half of the $720 million vision that Mayor Steve Adler has been championing in recent days. On Thursday morning, Adler’s staff posted to Council’s online bulletin board a revised version of that package, now dubbed the “Go Big Corridor Plan.”

Just as in the previous iteration, the plan breaks proposed spending into three parts: regional projects, corridor projects and local mobility projects. The new version would spend $17 million more on local mobility, which includes sidewalks, bike lanes, urban trails and capital renewal on existing streets. That increase would come from a reduction in funding for projects identified in existing corridor plans. In total, the new proposal calls for $98.5 million for regional roads, $480 million for corridors and $137 million for local projects.

“I think that we are in an absolutely critical time in this city with respect to traffic and mobility,” Adler said. “And I think that our citizens are telling us that over and over and over again. And they’re not telling us that in a little way. They’re telling us that in a really big way.”

Adler cited as proof a recent poll commissioned by the Austin Monitor with the help of sponsors that showed 51 percent of respondents reporting that traffic is transportation issues are the worst part about living in Austin.

The mayor spoke uninterrupted for the next 30 minutes, urging his colleagues time and again to “go big.”

When he was done, a noticeably piqued Kitchen noted that her own proposal, though half the size of his, would still be the largest single transportation bond ever if voters approve it.

“I’d appreciate it if we didn’t characterize everything around here as doing nothing,” Kitchen said.

Other Council members weighed in with their own concerns. Council Member Don Zimmerman suggested that a more equitable approach would be to divide up whatever amount the Council agrees on and let each member choose his or her own projects within his or her own districts. Council Member Ora Houston cast doubt on the entire operation by speculating that voters are suffering from bond fatigue.

Others were concerned about committing too much of the city’s bonding capacity to one specific issue, especially during a year not originally scheduled for a bond election. Council Member Delia Garza said that the lack of any proposed spending on affordable housing in any of the proposals worried her. She also cast doubt on the mayor’s promises that the scale of the package he’s pushing for will have a lasting impact on Austin’s congestion.

“We have to be realistic. This is not going to change traffic that much or congestion,” Garza said. “It’s investing more money in roads that we’ve already built just to sustain those roads. That’s why we have to take a multimodal approach.”

Council Member Greg Casar concurred with Garza, noting that traffic congestion along the Katy Freeway in his hometown of Houston has only worsened since billions were spent to make that roadway among the widest in the state. Casar has offered his own counterproposal that keeps the mayor’s $720 million price tag but diverts all regional highway spending to local mobility projects. Casar stressed that he wants to build consensus before moving forward.

That sentiment echoed words spoken earlier by former Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, who addressed the Council as a citizen to urge decisive action. She explained that the four bond proposals she worked on as a Council member were approved unanimously on the dais, often after fraught negotiations that required at times small leaps of faith.

“If you wait to be 100 percent sure, you will never act,” Cole advised.

(Full disclosure: Cole is a member of the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation. CoTMF is the nonprofit entity that owns the Austin Monitor.)

Council is set to vote next week to direct City Manager Marc Ott on which plan to start preparing a potential bond package for. It has until Aug. 22 to make a final decision and call for an election.

This post has been updated to note former Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole’s position on the CoTMF board and to more accurately reflect poll results.

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