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Council members consider merits of separate safe mobility bond

Monday, July 27, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Responding to a concerted push from local mobility advocates, City Council has opened up the discussion about placing active mobility funds on the November ballot alongside the $7 billion-$10 billion public transit system Project Connect.

Five weeks ago, a coalition of 36 organizations called Austin Outside launched a petition calling for a $750 million bond funding the city’s high-priority plans for sidewalks, bike lanes, urban trails, and Vision Zero. The petition has since gathered over 3,600 signatures and prompted Council to draft a resolution to begin exploring its primary funding options for such a measure. At issue is whether the city should increase the ask of the proposed tax rate election for Project Connect or craft a separate safe mobility bond.

Last week, the city’s Bicycle Advisory Council passed a recommendation in favor of a separate funding bond. Chair Christopher Heathcott explained that adding extra dollars to an already historic public transit measure could weaken the chances of getting the active transportation funds approved.

On Friday, in a collaborative post to the City Council Message Board, Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council members Paige Ellis and Ann Kitchen also expressed their support for a separate mobility bond, “if we are to move forward on active transportation beyond the elements included in Project Connect system projects.”

The recently proposed 70 percent initial investment option for the $10 billion Project Connect vision plan includes a combined $200 million to be used for active transportation and anti-displacement efforts. The Council members’ joint statement notes a preference for the 70 percent investment option, but indicates it would be better to use that money to direct at least $200 million into investments in affordable housing and other displacement mitigation efforts alone.

The Project Connect proposal does not include any specific active transportation funding beyond the $200 million, but the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority does see the new MetroRapid corridors as opportunities to work with the city’s Corridor Program Office to complement any planned or ongoing active mobility projects through the 2016 mobility bond.

The complete Project Connect vision includes seven MetroRapid corridors, totaling 72 miles. As with the existing MetroRapid routes 801 and 803, the new MetroRapid corridors may include right-of-way adjustments for bus priority lanes and other mobility improvements, which Capital Metro sees as an opportunity to partner with the city to improve or add new pedestrian or bicycle facilities.

“The 2016 corridor bond money may already be planned for a MetroRapid corridor and we’ll match that money to make it even better,” Mariette Hummel with Capital Metro told the Austin Monitor. “(It’s) not an extra ask, just a way to make sure Project Connect complements the 2016 mobility bond corridors.”

However, if Council and the Capital Metro Board of Directors decide to move forward with the 70 percent initial investment for November, only three of the seven MetroRapid corridors will be constructed until voters approve funding for the remaining system components in a future election.

Austin Outside estimates the cost of the $750 million safe mobility bond would add $48-$60 to the annual tax bill of a median value home, beginning no earlier than 2022, when debts would begin to be issued. The additional bond would also ensure that new projects are funded in coming years as more of the 2016 mobility bond projects are completed.

However, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan posted to the message board on Saturday calling the separate bond “a far inferior option for both the taxpayers and for long-term planning.”

“I have grave concerns about the wisdom of adding a separate bond for related active transportation improvements,” Flannigan said. “Active transportation infrastructure is a critical need in our community and represents a necessary and compatible piece of successful public transportation. The tax-rate election is the most fiscally responsible approach as it will allow for cheaper financing options, more opportunities for leveraging external partnerships and a reliable long-term revenue stream.”

The advocates behind Austin Outside believe a general obligation bond is still the right tool for the job. Ted Siff, who co-led the formation of the coalition, told the Monitor the tax rate election makes sense for a large-scale public transit project with significant ongoing operational costs, but not so much for the city’s active mobility needs.

“We’re currently at historic low interest rates and Council – if the voters authorize a bond proposal – would have the ability to sell those bonds over a period of six years and gauge the amount of bonds sold based on the economy and the interest rate and all the other things,” Siff said.

In contrast, he explained, a tax rate election would issue revenue bonds that are likely to have higher interest rates than a general obligation bond and would begin collecting the funds immediately through tax increases, potentially making the tax rate election the more costly option.

“So (a bond is) a much more flexible funding mechanism that Council would have continuing control over rather than add more money to a funding vehicle that will increase everybody’s taxes starting Jan. 1 next year,” he said.

Council will further the discussion this week at Monday’s joint meeting with Capital Metro and Wednesday’s special called meeting. Active mobility advocates expect Council to have a proposal ready to place on the ballot by Aug. 7, when Council is set to approve language for the public transit ballot measure.

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