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Mobility bond talks turn to sidewalk regrets

Wednesday, August 10, 2016 by Jack Craver

City Council Member Ora Houston says fatigue, a lack of information and compassion for a colleague led her to a bad decision for her constituents toward the end of a late-night City Council discussion in June over the proposed $720 million transportation bond.

Houston now regrets casting the deciding vote to divvy up $27.5 million of sidewalk funds equally between the 10 City Council districts. She only realized days later, she explained during a City Council work session on Tuesday, that up to $4 million of funding for sidewalks in her district would be directed elsewhere as a result of her vote.

Council Member Sheri Gallo, Houston’s neighbor on the Council dais, had proposed an amendment that would split in half the $55 million for sidewalks in Mayor Steve Adler’s proposed bond, with one half of the funding going toward high-priority sidewalks identified by the city’s Sidewalk Master Plan, and the other half going to sidewalks near schools in all 10 Council districts.

Gallo had proposed the amendment after pointing out that her wealthy West Austin district would likely get only $1.8 million of the entire $55 million sidewalk pot in Adler’s proposed bond package.

Gallo’s argument that half of the pot should be divvied up among districts appealed to four Council members whose districts also were not going to receive much money under the original proposal: Don Zimmerman, Ellen Troxclair, Delia Garza and Ann Kitchen. And, surprisingly, to Houston, whose East Austin district was supposed to get a quarter of the overall sidewalk funding.

“I was feeling your pain,” Houston said to Gallo on Tuesday, explaining her vote on the amendment, which passed 6-5.

“She only had $1.8 million,” Houston later explained to the Austin Monitor. “She was sitting right next to me, and so I heard that, and I said, ‘I don’t mind sharing.’”

“You can’t do that kind of calculation sitting on the dais,” she added.

The original proposal would have directed $14.1 million to sidewalks in Houston’s district, which was identified as having 149 miles of high- or very high-priority sidewalk needs, by far the greatest of any district. Gallo’s district, which has only 19 miles of high-priority needs, was slated to get only $1.8 million.

Now Houston’s district will receive $9.8 million, and Gallo’s will get $3.65 million.

On Tuesday, Houston said she planned to offer an amendment to the bond proposal to claw back about half of the money she lost in that vote. “That’s $4 million out of sidewalks that we desperately need – I think we can manage with $2 (million less),” she said.

It was something of an “I told you so” moment for Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who, during the June 23 meeting, had spoken against Gallo’s amendment, saying that it set a bad precedent in favor of ward politics, a dynamic that many political observers have worried the district-based 10-1 Council system would encourage.

“When we make decisions to split money equally among our districts, it’s not always a needs-based decision,” she said.

Gallo was firm in support of her original position, saying that her intention was to prioritize safe routes to schools.

“We took a vote,” she said. “And I guess if we’re redoing votes, then I guess we’re talking about everything coming up for mobility to be changed.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who voted for Gallo’s amendment, also hinted that reopening debate on one part of the bond might unravel the compromises holding the bond proposal together.

“To just open up an area (of the bond) – I’m just really, really nervous about (that),” she said.

Kitchen is nevertheless planning to make a motion at Council’s next meeting on Thursday that “clarifies improvements to a number of South Austin roads,” she told the Monitor in a voicemail message. Kitchen had voted against the resolution in June directing city staff to craft a bond proposal, saying it neglected needed funding for her district in the south.

On Thursday, Council will address the $720 million mobility bond package proposed by city staff. Adler and other proponents of the bond hope to get it approved soon so that it can be put on the ballot for voters to approve in November.

Photo by David D. made available through a Creative Commons license.

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