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Adler labors to clarify a complicated bond package

Thursday, September 29, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Mayor Steve Adler used two separate forums on Wednesday to address a set of “myths” that he said are circulating around his $720 million transportation bond proposal.

“The myths as I hear them in the community are that the total cost of this is actually $2 billion,” Adler told the Austin Board of Realtors during his first speech of the morning. “So really what we’re going to be talking about is raising your taxes by $1,200 over the next five years. And only one-eighteenth of the money is going to address traffic congestion and that it’s going to take away lanes for bicycles.”

Adler never specified the source of the claims. However, he did suggest that at least some are being transmitted through news reports, email chains and blogs.

“If those myths were true, I wouldn’t be for it,” he said. “If those myths were true, your City Council wouldn’t have passed it.” Council approved the bond proposal on a 7-1-3 vote in August, with Council Member Ora Houston opposed and Council members Ellen Troxclair, Don Zimmerman and Delia Garza abstaining.

The plan itself is divided into three so-called buckets: $101 million for highway projects, $482 million to implement six completed corridor improvement plans and two or three to-be-completed plans, and $137 million for local street projects, active transportation infrastructure and safety improvements.

After laying out the basics of the proposal in a now-familiar stump speech, Adler insisted that the tax impact on the median homeowner will be less than $5 per month. He pledged that anyone interested in checking his math is welcome to see the relevant documents from the city’s financial staff.

The mayor also asserted that the primary focus of the bond effort is congestion relief. He cited a resolution passed by Council concurrent with the ordinance that set the bond election. That resolution requires any project funded by bond money to meet certain metrics, including reducing traffic congestion.

“This is a Council that passed … a contract with the voters that said, ‘We’re going to evaluate and choose and direct the staff as it lays out the plans to do these roads, to focus on congestion relief as the largest relief, as the main priority, as the first priority, as the filter through which all the work will be done,’” Adler said.

To that end, the mayor claimed, no car lanes will be removed as part of the corridor improvement programs. He dismissed a short-term recommendation in the North Lamar Boulevard corridor plan that calls for a road diet to make room for bike lanes. Adler said, “We’re going to focus not on the short-term plans.”

The mayor’s spokesman, Jason Stanford, clarified to the Austin Monitor that the lane diet would simply be superseded by Council’s congestion relief requirement, which would be fulfilled by the plan’s long-term recommendations. Other short-term recommendations such as bus shelters and improved lighting could be implemented since they improve transit operations, another priority set out in Council’s recommendation.

In any case, there is no certainty about which specific projects and recommendations identified in the plans will be funded. The August resolution directs the city manager, before bringing any proposals for Council’s approval, to conduct further study and solicit more public input on any potential projects based on the corridor plans.

“Furthermore, these are not the final plans,” Stanford told the Monitor. “As you know, there’s going to be final design work. They’re going to update them and figure out what the best thing to do for traffic congestion is.”

To underscore the uncertainties of individual details, Adler noted the East Riverside Drive corridor plan’s long-term vision of converting one travel lane in each direction to parking lanes. “And that question will come back to City Council,” he said. “And I will tell you, as I stand here right now, I’m not prepared to lose travel lanes for additional street parking on Riverside Drive. But that will also play out in a very public way.”

Adler did concede that the estimated cost of fully implementing every aspect of the corridor plans tops $1.5 billion. Critics have argued that the proposed funding of $482 million will require future bond elections and future tax hikes. Not so, the mayor contended.

He suggested that the very act of putting up the city’s contribution could attract augmenting state and federal grants. And he said that development spurred by improvements on the corridors could be capitalized using creative means.

“So we’re talking about the financial tools the city has. TIFS, tax increment financing options. PIDs, public improvement districts. Other ways to leverage the money that we have, to make it go as far as it can possibly go,” said Adler.

Although Adler told the ABoR that he didn’t seek a $1.5 billion bond in part because the city doesn’t have the resources to do that much work in the six- to eight-year cycle of the program, Stanford told the Monitor that the money from outside sources could change that.

A spokesman for the political action committee formed to oppose the bond called the mayor’s plan to pick up an extra billion dollars from outside sources a “funding disaster” with little chance of that money ever materializing. Roger Falk of the Honest Transportation Solutions political action committee also said that the tax impact will be at least three times higher than Adler is promising, that the most meaningful congestion relief in the corridor plans comes from relatively inexpensive signalization readjustment and that the pivot on whether lanes will be converted is “hardly leadership.”

“Does he really expect voters to make a decision based on a wing and a prayer?” Falk asked rhetorically before concluding, “This is a big developer play to convert this city into Portland along with the heartless destruction of local businesses in their way.”

Adler’s second speech on Wednesday was before the Central Texas Democratic Forum. He gave an abbreviated version of his stump speech before quickly repeating the same points he had made at the ABoR event. In both addresses, the mayor mentioned toward the end his recent trip to Seattle. He explained that that community is currently considering a $54 billion tax increase to fund a range of transportation investments, including light rail and other transit expansions.

“You wanna know what going big is?” Adler asked. “That’s going big.”

Rendering from the South Lamar Corridor Study.

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