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Staff memo spells out options, tight time frame for Council’s push for active transit bond

Tuesday, August 4, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

City staff members have expressed concern to City Council over direction to put together a bond proposal for the November election that would look to generate $750 million to fund sidewalks, trails and other “active transportation” improvements.

Last week Council approved on consent a resolution directing the city manager to give Council a plan to fund projects spelled out in the city’s Strategic Mobility Plan, including options for initiating a separate bond vote as part of the tax rate election that will decide the multibillion-dollar Project Connect transit plan.

In a memo issued the day after the resolution’s passage, Assistant City Manager Gina Fiandaca said staffers will focus primarily on the bond election option because of the short time frame to assemble all the relevant documents and plans in time. The election is three months away.

Throughout the memo Fiandaca stresses that staffers have an “extremely short turnaround time” to prepare the bond proposal. She also notes that there would be no time for a normal round of community engagement related to the components of the proposal, though there was public input conducted during the creation of the mobility plan.

“It is important to note that city staff has not engaged the community regarding a potential transportation investment for voters to consider this year, outside of Project Connect and our normal project development process,” the memo reads. “We understand that the item by Council is in direct response to a petition and input from the larger active transportation advocacy community, but staff has not directly engaged the larger community on active transportation elements for a potential bond.”

The active transportation funding effort is being pushed by the interest group Austin Outside, which includes representatives from assorted parks and recreation nonprofits along with architecture firms and some transit-related groups.

Tom Visco, advocacy manager for Austin Parks Foundation and a member of Austin Outside, said the public input gathered during the creation of the mobility plan prior to its approval last year eliminates the need to conduct a separate feedback process ahead of the November election.

“Council was very clear with their resolution on this and I don’t think they were intending to mince words,” he said. “I believe that when we put together the new ask for this the thought was that all the items referenced have all been on the shelf and because of that have already gone through an extensive community engagement process.”

Prior to the resolution, City Manager Spencer Cronk stressed to Council members that they were asking a lot of city staff in a short time frame, and also moving ahead with a bond proposal in a far different way than most other recent such elections.

“As you know, this is an unprecedented way of how we would go about a bond development program, and so we’re going to be working closely with staff and try to deliver as much as we can to you in the coming days, but we’ll come back in a few days to set up those expectations so you have a clear idea of what we’re able to do,” he said. “But appreciate the encouragement, and if this is going to pass, then it’s going to take a lot of staff work to make sure we can respond to this resolution in such a short time frame.”

An amendment added to the resolution asked for an update on funding and progress for all pending active transportation projects approved through recent bond elections. In response the memo notes, “$119 million from 2016 dedicated to active transportation programs, plus an additional estimated $40 million included in the Corridor Programs. We also have $38 million from the 2018 bond program. In total, we have more than $200 million in project funding allocated to active transportation improvements programmed through 2024 that will be built in the coming years.”

It also spells out that because the city has $1.4 billion in bond approved by voters that still needs to be issued, adding $750 million in bonds in a six-year time frame would require a 2.5-cent increase to the city’s tax rate on top of the potential Project Connect increase and annual city budget increases.

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