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Worries about mobility bond timeline surface at City Hall

Wednesday, March 1, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

City Council on Tuesday balked at hearing a lengthy update from staff on the ongoing efforts to ramp up the massive but compressed mobility bond program voters approved last November.

By the time Council made it to Assistant City Manager Robert Goode’s briefing, several members had left for the day, and Mayor Steve Adler indicated his desire to put off the update. Instead, Goode presented Council with physical copies of his 146-page slideshow for individual review. Council discussed some general concerns and also reset the detailed briefing for an as-yet-unscheduled Mobility Committee meeting in April, unless any member asks on the City Council Message Board to place the item back before the entire body.

During a private press briefing on Monday, Goode presented a condensed version of the slideshow, which laid out the complex logistics involved with spending $720 million on transportation projects within the eight-year timeline that Council mandated in a concurrent resolution it passed while setting the bond election.

“We’re very concerned about the timing,” Goode said, before listing off a slate of issues that could cause complications. He confirmed that the city would have to hire more staff to process and plan the tiny galaxy of mobility projects that include speeding up highways, redesigning key corridors and building new bike lanes and sidewalks.

Other potential speed bumps include right-of-way acquisition, coordinating with partner agencies such as the Texas Department of Transportation, requisite public engagement and overwhelming local contractors with too many projects.

“At some point, we’re afraid we may hit a wall where we’re not getting bids,” Goode said. “We’re going to have contractors that are so busy that they’re either not giving us bids or they’re going to give us bids that are at such a premium price.”

The six major highway projects will be the easiest for staff to process, Goode explained, because both TxDOT and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority are taking the lead on managing four of them. For example, along Loop 360, the city is merely “cutting a check” to TxDOT for $46 million. The state agency will match the rest of the money to pay for a redesign – the details of which are still being ironed out.

Meanwhile, the $482 million segment of the bond reserved for corridor investments along such arterials as far N. Lamar Boulevard, Burnet Road north of Koenig Lane, E. Riverside Drive and the Drag is proving to be more difficult for planners.

On Monday, Goode remarked of the undertaking, “Exciting program, but this is the one that will trip us up over the eight years.”

By March, he said, he hopes to have a consultant hired to help coordinate the effort. Along with the extra staff Goode wants to hire, the consultant will begin drafting plans for each corridor with specific projects that will be subject to Council approval, a step that could come as early as December. The construction program would then ramp up until it hits a plateau in 2021 before winding down by 2024.

Goode cautioned, however, that making accurate predictions increases with difficulty as the timeline stretches further out. “I guarantee you that schedules will change,” he said.

The unexpected rescheduling of the briefing itself capped off the end of a work session that began at 9 a.m. with Goode’s briefing placed at the top of the agenda. Once Adler kicked off the meeting, however, he opted to postpone the discussion until all other business had been discussed.

The delay left members of the press and city staff idling in the City Hall atrium for hours as Council discussed other items, including the search for a new city manager and Council Member Ellen Troxclair’s proposed affordability action plan.

One aspect of the bond that will likely see relatively immediate action is the deployment of $37.5 million for sidewalks across the city. Goode said that that work will begin as early as June, though the list of proposed projects has already drawn concerns from Council Member Ann Kitchen, chair of the Mobility Committee.

During the final minutes of Tuesday’s work session, Kitchen noted that Goode’s briefing listed just $937,500 for sidewalk projects in her District 5 and indicated her preference for Council to discuss and vote on the project prioritization program proposed by staff. She pointed out that the criteria used by staff seemed to give preference to areas with absent sidewalks.

“It could be that some sidewalks are in such disrepair that you can’t use them in some districts, and that makes them a very high priority. That’s the kind of drill-down that I’m going to want to ask about,” Kitchen said, moments before Adler adjourned the meeting.

Graphic courtesy of the city of Austin, from presentation embedded below.

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