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Council tweaks mobility bond, dashes light rail hopes

Friday, August 12, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Mayor Steve Adler’s $720 million transportation bond proposal is one vote away from heading to the November ballot after City Council gave it preliminary but unanimous support on Thursday night.

The consensus support came after a marathon public hearing followed by extended horse-trading on the dais that resulted in notable modifications to the proposal’s sidewalk spending and effectively ended hopes for a light rail referendum in 2016.

In a statement released after the vote, Adler said, “The consensus we achieved tonight with unanimous approval of the ballot language for the Smart Corridor plan reflects the widespread support in the community to address traffic congestion, improve transit, increase safety, and build walkable neighborhoods. This sets up Austin for a big win.”

The package would provide a historic level of spending on a potpourri of mobility projects, ranging from highways to sidewalks to bicycle lanes. Its signature aspect is $482 million that would fund parts of eight separate corridor improvement programs. For more information on those programs, see Audrey McGlinchy’s detailed breakdown.

Council kicked off the public hearing just before 5 p.m., after 70 speakers had signed up to testify. Through attrition and donations of time, that number winnowed down, but the hearing itself nearly lasted two hours.

Speakers representing the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Shoal Creek Conservancy voiced support for the measure. Miller Nuttle of Bike Austin lent his group’s full-throated endorsement of the plan’s multimodal investments, declaring, “It is critical to create options for how people get around.”

The Travis County Taxpayers Union’s Roger Falk, however, compared Austin traffic to a “heart attack” and said that Adler’s proposal amounts to a “tummy tuck and facelift.” Falk urged Council to focus instead on adding vehicle capacity to key north-south corridors.

A large contingent of speakers, some of them wearing big blue “Rail ’16” stickers, urged Council to add a second proposition to the ballot that would offer voters a choice to weigh in on the $400 million starter line proposed by the Central Austin Community Development Corporation.

With a full nine minutes to speak thanks to donations from supporters, the CACDC’s Scott Morris told Council, “This November is a precious opportunity to pass a light rail measure, and it may be the best and last shot we have for a generation or more.” He reasoned that the presidential matchup of Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump would bring out a tsunami of progressive voters that could finally put a light rail measure in Austin over the top. Morris added that waiting for 2018 would only put his proposal up against a less-energized electorate in a midterm campaign.

After returning from a short dinner break following the end of the public hearing, the mayor once again laid out his case for the package. He noted that many parts of the proposal – the corridor plans, the Sidewalk Master Plan and the Bicycle Master Plan, among others – are the results of years of extensive public input and planning.

“I’d say it’d be possible for anyone to sit down with their pencils and make changes to this plan,” Adler said. “I urge us not to change this, because it represents the best communal work of so many people.”

Immediately after his short monologue, Council Member Ann Kitchen offered, “Mayor, I have an amendment.”

Kitchen’s offering was largely cosmetic: a tightening of the language here and a loosening of it there. The changes were added to the larger package, as was one amendment sent up by Council Member Ellen Troxclair that added more information about the tax impact to the ballot language. Troxclair also tried but failed to get a similar change to the proposition language.

The bargaining also transferred $6 million from the so-called bucket of substandard streets to the $27.5 million bucket for sidewalks. Council Member Ora Houston, trying to replenish that same sidewalk bucket that she helped cut in half in June, attempted to move into it another $10 million from urban trail projects. Adler offered to move only $4 million from that bucket into sidewalks, a compromise that Houston accepted. In the end, sidewalk spending was increased to $37.5 million, while urban trails spending was reduced to $26 million.

After the revisions had been approved, Council Member Greg Casar brought up the notion of light rail. “I recognize that there is some real support for public transit in the $720 million plan currently on the table, but I think that given this presidential election, it would be great to do more,” Casar said.

He offered no resolution, but Casar did ask his colleagues to air their opinions about putting a light rail referendum on the November ballot.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo was the sole member who said she would be in favor of such an action, “if that was the will of the Council.”

Council members Delia Garza, Pio Renteria and Kitchen, along with Adler, also all voiced support for light rail as a concept. However, each said that the timeline is not compatible with the formal planning needed. Each said they would support a renewed light rail effort in 2018.

With that settled, along with a promise from Council Member Don Zimmerman to attempt to split the bond package in two parts during the final vote next week (a promise he retracted after a majority of members said they would not support it), Council members approved the package on first and second readings. They will take up the third reading at their Aug. 18 meeting.

Afterward, the CACDC’s Morris told the Austin Monitor that his group would press forward with its grassroots effort to bring light rail to the city’s busiest transit corridor.

“Tonight is a new beginning,” said Morris.

Photo by gratisography via Creative Commons license.

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