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City responds to call for more street and sidewalk maintenance

Wednesday, August 17, 2016 by Cate Malek

Austinites who have complained about the state of the city’s streets may soon see an improvement, if a proposed tax increase is approved as part of next year’s budget.

In a survey conducted by the city last year, members of the public rated street maintenance among their top priorities for increased funding. As a response, city staff is proposing a rate hike in the Transportation User Fee, the monthly transportation tax Austin residents pay as part of their utility bills.

The average household would see an 18 percent increase of $1.75 to its monthly fee, bringing it from $9.77 to $11.52. The fee would be passed through two departments: Public Works and the Transportation Department. Public Works proposes to increase its portion of the overall TUF by 12.8 percent, or $1.25 per household, which would increase revenue by approximately $7 million. The increased funds would be used for preventative street maintenance as well as hiring of new staff.

City Council Member Leslie Pool argued during a Council budget session on Aug. 10 that the tax increase is necessary to support Austin’s rapid growth.

“Some people feel like we should not grow government,” she said. “I think if we are growing the size of our workforce, it’s because the demand for our services is so great that it’s a required response.”

Pool pointed to census statistics that measure Austin’s growth at more than 150 people per day and argued that the city must respond to its rapidly increasing population. Indeed, there seems to be some concern among Austinites about the state of the city’s streets.

Although the city survey found satisfaction with street maintenance to be 12 percent higher than the national average, 31 percent of the population nonetheless said it was dissatisfied with the overall maintenance of city streets and sidewalks. Street maintenance was rated as one of the top areas in need of increased investment after traffic flow.

The proposed increase to the Transportation User Fee would generate around $7 million in increased revenue for the city. Around $3 million of that would be used for wages, benefits and other administrative costs. The next largest chunk of $2 million would go directly to preventative street maintenance. Another $1.9 million would go to other projects.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair questioned the hike, noting to staff that it is a big increase. “I really want to understand that it’s truly necessary,” she said.

Staff argued that the increase is badly needed because road maintenance will prevent costly reconstruction later.

“To put this in perspective, it costs approximately $75,000 per one lane mile of preventive maintenance while it costs approximately $1 million dollars to fully reconstruct that same lane mile,” James Snow, the assistant director for Public Works, told the Austin Monitor by email. “By managing and maintaining public street infrastructure, the City of Austin is able to save taxpayer money by intervening before full street reconstruction is needed.”

Snow further explained that the city has set a goal of keeping 80 percent of its streets in fair to excellent condition. Although the city was able to reach that goal in 2012, the condition of the streets has slipped to around 78 percent since then and is predicted to slip further without ongoing funding.

Pool supported this argument, saying, “I just want to make sure that we’re all mindful that when we add (staff), it’s not because we’re trying to grow or create an empire, it’s because the reality is the work at hand … has to be done and done well.”

Photo by Editor5807 made available through a Creative Commons license.

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