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Mobility bond limps out of the gate toward November

Friday, August 19, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Mayor Steve Adler’s gambit to fast-track a $720 million transportation bond proposal onto the November ballot succeeded on Thursday despite some last-minute flak from several City Council members.

The final drafts of both the ordinance ordering the election and the resolution outlining Council’s intent passed on a 7-1-3 vote. Council Member Ora Houston stood alone in her opposition, while Council members Ellen Troxclair, Don Zimmerman and Delia Garza simply abstained.

The proposal would spend an unprecedented amount of money across three broad categories of mobility infrastructure over an eight-year bond cycle. The signature piece of what Adler has dubbed the Go Big Corridor Plan is the $482 million it would spend on portions of five completed corridor improvement programs, another that has yet to be finished and at least one more in South Austin that has yet to be started.

The plan would also set aside $101 million for regional highway projects mostly in the northern and western parts of town, including along Loop 360, FM 620, FM 2222 and Parmer Lane. The remaining $137 million of the bond would fund so-called local mobility projects, which include sidewalk, bicycle, small streets and safety investments.

Council had already worked out the major details and amounts dedicated to each bucket in previous meetings. On Thursday of last week, the plan advanced past first and second readings with unanimous support on the dais, a sweeping consensus that Adler celebrated with a playful tweet needling one local newspaper’s premature headline.

However, the sense of unity fell apart yesterday morning when Council took up the bond items and immediately convened into what was promised to be a short executive session. Within about 45 minutes, a visibly frustrated Zimmerman returned to the dais by himself where he waited for the rest of Council to join him about half an hour later.

The source of Zimmerman’s frustration appeared to be an amendment to the ordinance offered by Adler that aimed to remove from the ballot language a line that would inform voters of the estimated tax impact the bond would have on the owner of a $300,000 home. Zimmerman declared that Council could and should provide that information for voters.

“But what the city legal department has done for the last week and for a couple of hours this morning is to lobby and lobby and lobby and say, ‘You can’t put anything in here about the cost of this. You can’t limit what you’re going to charge taxpayers,’” Zimmerman complained. “It’s beyond the pale.”

Adler shot back and noted that Troxclair had inserted detailed tax impact language in a separate part of the ordinance and that Council Member Sheri Gallo had added an amendment directing staff to include a tax impact calculator on informational material. He maintained, however, that the language at hand on the ballot proposition might not necessarily reflect an accurate value on Election Day.

“The truth is not something that we get to bargain with. This statement is not true,” Adler said. “What we are putting together for the voters will be true.”

The vote to strike the estimated tax impact statement from the ballot language passed 7-4, with Zimmerman, Troxclair, Garza and Houston opposed.

The latter two subsequently aired their own concerns about the bond proposition, which Houston declared was the product of “the way things have always been done,” a reference to the days before Council inaugurated geographic representation in January 2015.

Garza said she was concerned that if the bond were approved in November, it could have deleterious effects on a comprehensive bond in 2018. She also said that the mayor’s plan, which eschewed a light rail component, has “no direct improvements to public transit” and added, “I think we have to move to get people out of their cars because building roads is unsustainable.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen, the chair of the Mobility Committee, said she would have preferred a smaller package but ultimately said she would support the plan in light of added concessions toward South Austin. Council Member Pio Renteria enthusiastically declared the plan to be beneficial for the city as a whole and said, “I’m not going to play ward politics,” which drew a firm chide from Garza.

Immediately after the final vote, Adler’s office released a statement in which he said, “The Smart Corridor mobility bond reflects the widespread support in the community and on this Council to address traffic congestion, improve transit, increase safety, and build walkable neighborhoods. We have our congestion level in Austin because we have chosen not to invest in our infrastructure. This is a down payment on a better future for Austin’s traffic.”

Jim Wick, on leave from the mayor’s office to take charge of the bond campaign, told the Austin Monitor that his effort will focus on those themes of congestion relief, safety and alternatives to single-occupant vehicles. “We are going to have a robust communications effort using all methods and modes that we can possibly find, traditional and nontraditional, and we have a short period of time to do it,” Wick said.

Whether there will be official opposition remains to be seen. Activist Jim Skaggs, a longtime advocate for building more roads, sent an email to Monitor reporters on Thursday afternoon slamming the corridor programs’ multimodal inclusion of sidewalks, bike lanes and transit lanes.

“This continued constriction of the ability of area citizens to traverse central Austin conveniently will clearly lead to a decline in the desirability of travel in central Austin,” Skaggs wrote.

When asked if he would be organizing a challenge to the bond campaign, Skaggs replied, “Ask me in about a week.”

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