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Grassroots unrest simmers over mobility bond

Thursday, August 18, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Mayor Steve Adler’s titanic $720 million transportation bond proposal is poised for a cakewalk to third-reading approval on Thursday, three days ahead of the state-mandated deadline to set the November ballot.

And while it seems that most of the big battles to shape the plan have already been settled on the dais, some grassroots activists are holding out dwindling hope for significant changes to one of the package’s most controversial elements.

On Monday, the progressive urbanist outfit AURA published a lengthy blog post written by Robert Anderson of pedestrian advocacy group Walk Austin. The 3,000-word dispatch takes aim at the so-called Gallo Amendment, a compromise Council agreed to in June that would equally redistribute $27.5 million from proposed Sidewalk Master Plan projects toward Safe Routes to Schools projects across the 10 Council districts.

“The biggest problem with the ‘Gallo Amendment’ is it redistributes vitally important funds from districts most in need to districts with less need,” Anderson says in his post.

The original bond proposal would have spent a full $55 million on the Sidewalk Master Plan, which – using a matrix that gives weight to considerations such as density, connectivity, and proximity to schools, grocery stores and public facilities – has identified high- and very high-priority sidewalk gaps across the city. The plan determined that most of those gaps – and therefore the ones that would have received the most attention from the bond proposal – are in Central and East Austin.

Anderson argues that the Gallo Amendment disproportionately benefits wealthier neighborhoods at the expense of lower-income areas and that it “undermines the planning process,” including the extensive public input effort that crafted the Sidewalk Master Plan. He also calls the Safe Routes to Schools program a “nascent” initiative with a parochial focus on hiring crossing guards or deploying flashing lights that are not part of the round-the-clock pedestrian infrastructure.

Gallo’s office told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday afternoon that they were preparing a response to Anderson’s post, but as of Wednesday evening, that had not materialized.

Anderson’s post offers two alternatives to the Gallo Amendment, including one extremely unlikely scenario that would transfer tens of millions in road spending over to the sidewalk and pedestrian bucket. On Wednesday afternoon, Council sources indicated to the Monitor that there would likely be little impetus on the dais to make anything other than small changes to Adler’s proposal.

In any case, Council has already made a minor tweak to the changes in Sidewalk Master Plan spending wrought by the Gallo Amendment. Last Thursday, Council Member Ora Houston, who said she had mistakenly voted for the amendment in June, proposed to slide more money back into the Sidewalk Master Plan bucket.

The result of the effort drove the figure up to $37.5 million. The $10 million difference was cobbled together from a sacrifice of $6 million in small streets projects and $4 million culled from the $30 million set aside for urban trails. Of the latter sum, Anderson wrote, “These are facilities which benefit pedestrians, too, and cannot be seen as a pure increase in pedestrian funds within the bond proposal.”

Even though it seems unlikely that Council will make substantial changes to the bond proposal on Thursday, Anderson told the Monitor that he is looking ahead to future bond packages.

“The Sidewalk Master Plan asks for $25 million per year, so if we’re only getting $37.5 million, that means we need to make sure we have another sidewalk component in two years,” Anderson said.

Anderson said Walk Austin has not yet decided whether the draft proposal is onerous enough to warrant the group’s opposition. As it is now, Walk Austin is currently part of the Get Austin Moving coalition alongside other active transportation groups including Bike Austin and the host of Anderson’s blog post, AURA.

Anderson said on Wednesday that a decision about whether to break ranks could hinge on Council’s action Thursday.

“We’re going to wait to have that conversation until after the vote tomorrow,” he said.

Photo by Julia Butler made available through a Creative Commons license.

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