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Council moves $720 million mobility bond forward

Friday, June 24, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

While most of Austin slept early Friday morning, City Council gave the green light to a mobility bond with little historical precedent.

Just after 1:30 a.m., following a tortuous and fraught discussion marked by simmering tensions that at times neared outright hostility, Council voted 8-3 to direct staff to prepare ballot language for a $720 million grab bag of road, sidewalk, bike and transit infrastructure.

Council members Ann Kitchen, Ora Houston and Delia Garza opposed the measure.

Just before the vote, both Garza and Kitchen criticized Mayor Adler’s determination to push the massive package through in the final moments of the last Council meeting until August. Garza complained that the process had not been transparent.

Adler explained that the rushed timeline was a matter of politics. With just over four months before Election Day, the campaign to convince voters to support bonds needs to begin immediately, he said.

Council began discussing the item at 10:00 p.m. on Thursday. Over the hours, it seemed the mayor’s plan, dubbed the Go Big Corridor Plan, might not survive a number of proposed amendments.

Council Member Sheri Gallo offered to change the proposed disbursement of money for sidewalk infrastructure, which she said did not favor mostly suburban districts such hers. Under Adler’s original plan, $55 million would be spent on projects guided by the Sidewalk Master Plan, which gives priority to projects in transit-rich areas, of which there are few in Gallo’s District 10.

“The safety of our kids is at the bottom of that priority list,” Gallo said. Her proposed amendment would divide the $55 million in half. One piece would go toward the Sidewalk Master Plan, while the other piece would be further divided among the ten Council districts to be used on sidewalk projects identified by each member.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, in whose District 9 are the lion’s share of identified high-priority sidewalk needs, voiced disapproval for Gallo’s plan. “We are one city,” said Tovo. “We need to be able to make decisions that are equitable, but also look to the areas of highest need.”

Despite Tovo’s opposition, Gallo’s amendment sailed through.

Less successful were several motions made by Council Member Ann Kitchen, who had days earlier proposed a scaled down version of the mayor’s bond proposal worth $500 million. Council rejected her motion to put that one alone to voters. Failing at that, she moved to give residents the choice between Adler’s package and hers.

The mayor claimed that it would confuse voters to have similar bonds with two different price tags on the same ballot. Furthermore, he said he could not see a way to build a successful campaign with both options before voters.

Kitchen also fought hard to get more money funneled toward projects in south Austin. A lengthy discussion ensued in which a visibly upset Kitchen and a flustered Adler seemed to talk past each other.

In the end, Council approved the lightly modified version of Adler’s plan, which is estimated to pack a $5 per month tax hike for the owner of a $250,000 home.

Council’s action does not guarantee that voters will get a chance to sound off on the bond. Staff will take the approved resolution and bring back proposed ballot language in August. Council Member Don Zimmerman warned that he would vote against it then if he decides the proposition is too ambiguous.

After Friday morning’s vote, John-Michael Vincent Cortez, a special assistant to Adler, declined the Austin Monitor’s request for a comment. A representative of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, which had supported Adler’s efforts, said his group would likely have a statement ready by Friday afternoon.

Update: Here is a list of proposed bond projects posted prior to the horse trading on Thursday evening, and here is an unamended draft of the resolution that City Management will use to draft potential ballot language.

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