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Mobility Committee doesn’t not want Council to add Project Connect to November bond

Thursday, April 19, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

After some brief dais drama on Tuesday, City Council’s Mobility Committee unanimously endorsed the idea of at least talking about putting $15 million in Project Connect seed money on the November ballot.

The 4-0 vote nudged forward a request made by the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors last month aimed at funding preliminary engineering and environmental assessment of priority projects identified during the Project Connect planning process.

Capital Metro staff has framed the funding as vital to the continued progress of the high-capacity transit planning effort.

The agency has indicated it will match the city with $5 million from its own reserves.

At Tuesday’s committee meeting, Chair Ann Kitchen offered a recommendation encouraging Council to honor the transit board’s request. The draft resolution drew a second from Council Member Delia Garza who, along with Kitchen, also serves on Capital Metro’s board of directors.

The recommendation also encourages Council to ask City Manager Spencer Cronk to find additional funding to help Project Connect further study its so-called transit equity corridors, such as South Pleasant Valley Road. That street provides the only crossing of the Colorado River between Interstate 35 and U.S. Highway 183. However, its run through underserved neighborhoods south of Oltorf Street is interrupted by a lengthy gap.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan declared early on in the discussion that he would not be supporting Kitchen’s recommendation, though he added he could very well get behind the general idea when Council does take up the question.

Also tepid toward the idea was Council Member Alison Alter. The District 10 representative voiced her general support for the idea of the city helping the transit agency but questioned the need in this particular case.

“Project Connect is regional. This would be city money from the city of Austin, and the city of Austin funding the whole regional project without resources from elsewhere … makes me a little bit uncomfortable,” she said.

Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro vice president of strategic planning and development, assured her that Project Connect would be seeking funding from multiple sources throughout the course of its broader efforts.

While Project Connect’s draft system plan identified 11 corridors in the Capital Metro service area worthy of high-capacity transit investments, the preliminary engineering funding the agency is seeking now would only cover those given priority status during the ongoing third and final phase of the effort. While that outcome is still up in the air, Kitchen suggested that the three likely contenders are North Lamar/Guadalupe, South Congress and East Riverside.

All three of those, she reminded Alter, are within Austin’s city limits.

“To my mind, my reason for bringing this forward is that the city and Cap Metro need to work hand in hand, both in terms of how we plan and also how we put forth funding,” Kitchen said. “If we don’t have the funding from somewhere to take the next step in the planning for high-capacity transit, then that’s a no-go.”

Alter remain unconvinced and announced she would abstain from the vote. Like Flannigan, she said she didn’t want her position to be construed as opposition to the concept. Rather, she said, she needed more time to study the details.

Without the support of Alter or Flannigan, Kitchen’s motion appeared to be doomed unless she postponed it to the committee’s next meeting in June, a delay she had no interest in taking.

“I respect whatever decision my colleagues want to make at this point. I just think it’s really important to make a statement, and I want to make that statement today,” she said.

At that point, Flannigan jumped in and suggested to amend the resolution’s language to merely recommend that the full Council consider adding the $15 million to the final bond package. Kitchen accepted that, as well as a subsequent request by Alter to simply ask Council to consider asking Cronk to find the money for the transit equity corridors.

With those changes, both Flannigan and Alter changed their minds and ended up supporting Kitchen’s revised resolution.

Photo by John Flynn.

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