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Council direction on bonds still unclear

Wednesday, June 22, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Both Mayor Steve Adler and City Council Member Ann Kitchen have come up with new versions of their proposals for a transportation bond election in November. Adler’s revised proposal would still request voter approval to sell $720 million in general obligation bonds and is still called the “Go Big Corridor Plan.”

Kitchen, who has complained that South Austin would not get its fair share of transportation bond money under Adler’s plan, increased her proposal from $300 million to $500 million. Both were posted on the City Council Message Board on Tuesday and discussed during the work session, but it was not clear from the conversation which plan would gain Council approval on Thursday.

Adler’s new proposal would use $250 million of the city’s current bonding capacity under the existing debt tax rate plus $470 million to be funded by approximately 2 cents in debt tax rate increase.

This proposal would cost the owner of a median-priced home in Austin an additional $4.60 per month in property taxes if all the debt was issued right away. However, because the debt would not all be issued at one time, the true cost would be about $8.50 to $9 a month in 2021, assuming that property values continue to rise at their current rate, according to Deputy Chief Financial Officer Greg Canally.

Adler’s new plan would reduce the amount for corridor improvement projects from $500 million to $482 million and increase funding for regional mobility projects from $100 million to $101 million.

Adler is also proposing $137 million for local mobility projects, which includes an additional $17 million for fixing substandard streets.

Canally said the city can issue $500 million in bonds right now and keep the debt service constant — that is, not raise taxes at all. However, Council has talked about using half of the $500 million for the November bond election and waiting until 2018 to seek authorization to issue the second half of that $500 million, Canally said.

In addition to using the current bonding capacity, Adler wants to seek authorization to issue an additional $470 million. That would cost approximately 2 cents per $100 valuation.

The mayor said he was seeking a consensus on the plan, but when Council Member Delia Garza told him he should not require unanimity, Adler said he would not.

Kitchen’s plan includes $71.5 million for regional mobility projects, including Capital of Texas Highway, Ranch Roads 620 and 2222, Spicewood Springs Road and Parmer Lane. It also includes $240 million for key corridor mobility projects, with $40 million each going to Airport Boulevard, FM 969/MLK, North Lamar, South Lamar, Burnet Road and Riverside Drive.

Kitchen is also proposing $138.5 million for what is termed local mobility. Of that amount, $105 million would be spent on sidewalk improvements, trails and bike program improvements. Eleven local roads spread throughout the city would gain improvements for $33.5 million.

Council Member Greg Casar seemed to have decided that the mayor’s plan might be the best. At Tuesday’s work session, he said, “For me, going too far under $700 million makes me nervous.” He said that price tag might be needed “for us to really get the community consensus around all these projects. … My preference continues to be not to” add lanes, but he added that he wanted to keep an open mind on the matter. For Casar, it’s more important to reach consensus than to get everything as he would prefer it in the package.

Casar and his colleagues may get a big push in that direction today as a group of representatives of local business and community groups hold a press conference to announce their support for the $720 million bond proposal.

The group, which includes the Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Real Estate Council of Austin and representatives of the Get Austin Moving campaign — including AustinUP, Bike Austin, Bike Share of Austin, College Houses, the Hill Country Conservancy, the Old Austin Neighborhood Association, Reconnect Austin, the Shoal Creek Conservancy, WalkAustin and the Waller Creek Conservancy — will talk about the results of a poll of Austin voters conducted last week concerning the bond proposal.

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