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Council orders transit election, $460M active transportation bond for November ballot

Friday, August 14, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

City Council is giving voters an opportunity to transform the city’s mobility infrastructure on Nov. 3 with a tax rate election for a $7.1 billion investment in a mass transit rail system, and a $460 million active mobility bond.

Voters will decide whether to approve the $0.5335 per $100 valuation property tax rate to fund the initial and ongoing costs of Project Connect, a transit plan anchored by two high-capacity light rail lines serving the city’s densest neighborhoods. If voters reject the plan, the property tax rate will drop 8.75 cents to the voter-approval rate. If it is approved, the 8.75-cent increase will become a dedicated source of funding for the transit system operations and maintenance needs into the future.

Council members ordered the tax rate election in a vote by acclamation Thursday, signaling their unity on the need for and benefits of mass transit as well as the funding mechanism that will help the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority keep the system in good condition for many decades to come.

“To me this is the most exciting portion of this proposal, that we are not talking about a future obligation we won’t be able to fund, we are not setting ourselves up for failure like other cities and other transit agencies have done across the country,” Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said. “This is a long-term, sustainable funding source that ensures, based on how this is designed, that the money that we start collecting will actually not just pay to build it, will not just pay to operate it, but will ensure its continued operation into the future over many generations.”

“Now let’s go out and talk to the community and get it passed,” Mayor Steve Adler said after the vote.

In contrast to the transit plan, which Council Member Alison Alter said “dots all of its I’s and crosses all its T’s,” Council was unable to reach a consensus on an active mobility bond that community organizations like the coalition Austin Outside have called for in recent weeks. Council ultimately decided on a $460 million investment Thursday afternoon, nearly $300 million under the amount requested by mobility advocates, but larger than the $250 million proposal offered by the city.

Council approved the bond election amount in a 9-1-1 vote, with Flannigan voting against and Alter abstaining. However, several on the dais expressed strong discomfort with both the rapid process leading to the bond proposal and the amount of money being placed before voters in a time of hardship and a perennial housing-driven affordability crisis.

“I really have to ask the question about how is this appropriate to earmark this much for transportation at this point in time, particularly since we can make significant progress at a lower amount towards reaching our goals, we can balance that with the concerns that we have around housing and we can hear the concerns from our community,” said Council Member Ann Kitchen, who offered an alternative bond option of $300 million with much lower investments in bikeways and about half the investment in sidewalks.

Greg Canally, the city’s deputy chief financial officer, said the $300 million bond would tack on about $48 to the annual tax bill of a typical homeowner. In comparison, the $450 million option would have an impact of about $77 per year.

The two options having a relatively similar impact on the average homeowner, Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said voters should be allowed to decide whether they believe that amount of savings is worth an investment option that includes only $42 million for city sidewalks compared to the $80 million investment ultimately adopted by Council in the $460 million proposal.

“All over the city we have sidewalks with craters, we have urban trails that have collapsed, we have pedestrian bridges that have washed out,” Harper-Madison said. “If these were pieces of infrastructure used by cars, there’s really no doubt that we’d spend hefty resources to fix them ASAP and not let them go unaddressed for years on end.”

The active mobility bond will cover more than sidewalks and bike lanes, however; a point Flannigan noted as a flaw in the quick process to get the bond on the ballot.

“This is being described as an active transportation bond, but there are tens of millions of dollars for road projects in this bond as well – which may help some people vote for it, but that’s not what I heard from the advocates. What I heard from advocates was, ‘We want you to build sidewalks and bike lanes.’”

All told, the $460 million bond proposal includes $80 million for sidewalks, $120 million for urban trails and bikeways, $64 million for safety improvements and Vision Zero efforts, $20 million for Safe Routes to School, $19 million for transit enhancements, $1 million for the Neighborhood Partnering Program, $102 million for large capital projects and $53 million for improvements to substandard streets.

Council Member Paige Ellis’ initial $450 million option included $43 million for substandard streets, but Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza requested an additional $10 million to guarantee funds for major improvements to Ross Road in Del Valle, a community Garza said has often felt “very neglected.”

The investment would allow the city to complete 80 percent of the All Ages and Abilities safe and convenient bike lane network, construct and repair about 100 miles of sidewalks, give teeth to the city’s Vision Zero safety program, fill sidewalk and bike network gaps along school routes, and make a number of multimodal improvements to streets in the eastern crescent. It would also fund large active mobility projects like the bicycle and pedestrian bridge near Longhorn Dam, preliminary steps for reconstruction of the Barton Springs Road Bridge to Zilker Park and the initial phase of the Congress Avenue downtown redesign.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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