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Bonds to fund new transportation staff

Friday, March 5, 2021 by Jo Clifton

On Thursday City Council approved the release of bond funding from the 2020 transportation and safety bond. The funding will allow the Transportation Department to hire an additional 27 employees and the Public Works Department to hire eight new employees and give the two departments authorization to begin work on $460 million in local mobility projects throughout Austin.

Council unanimously approved the additional staff with Mayor Steve Adler and Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison off the dais and Council Member Alison Alter conducting the meeting. Alter said she regretted that Council did not have time for a presentation staffers had prepared for Tuesday’s work session explaining the needs, timeline and projects the two departments are planning.

Alter said, “Obviously, this is a major undertaking. The voters overwhelmingly voted for it, so there’s a lot of enthusiasm. But we nonetheless have a responsibility to make sure that there is accountability and we’re performing our oversight duties.” She asked for an explanation of how the money would be spent and where it was coming from.

Anna Martin, assistant director at ATD, explained that the department is not requesting an increase in the Transportation User Fee this year, but could ask for an eight-cent increase in the fee for Fiscal Year 2022. Because the departments will be able to pay for the new employees mostly with bond money, the impact on the departments’ operating budgets will be considerably less, she said. The current Transportation User Fee is $13.04 per month for residents of homes and garage apartments. Austinites older than 65 and those who do not own a car can request an exemption from the fee.

ATD intends to charge a majority of its new labor costs to projects within the 2020 mobility bond program. The total cost for this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, is about $1.08 million. Staffers indicate that about $864,000 of that would be reimbursed from the bond program. Public Works intends to increase its appropriations by about $439,000 with funding from the 2020 bond proceeds.

The two departments offered a news release, which included this statement from Assistant City Manager Gina Fiandaca: “Over the past three election cycles, Austin voters have said loud and clear that transportation safety and mobility improvements are a major priority for them. We know the importance of bringing these enhancements to fruition as quickly as possible, in partnership with our community. Throughout the next six years, we will ensure projects are designed to meet current and future mobility needs, and they are delivered in an equitable manner across the city.”

The projects in the 2020 bond proposition include $102 million in capital improvements. A few of those are: Longhorn Dam Bridge Multimodal Improvements; Congress Avenue Urban Design Initiative; the creation of a preliminary engineering report for Barton Springs Road in coordination with the Zilker Park Vision Plan process; and improvements to the South Pleasant Valley Corridor.

Other funding approved by voters last year includes $80 million for sidewalks and $80 million for urban trails, as well as the $65 million for safety improvements through the Vision Zero program. In addition, voters approved $53 million to fix substandard streets, $40 million for bikeways, $20 million for Safe Routes to School, $19 million for local transit enhancement, and $1 million for the neighborhood partnering program. The projects approved last November are in addition to the $160 million in funds voters approved in 2018 and the $720 million voters approved in 2016.

Robert Spillar, director of ATD, said Council’s adoption of the item allows ATD and Public Works “to move full speed ahead, so engineers and planners can begin designing the projects included in the 2020 bond. That planning is critical to getting the projects to a point where they can break ground.” He promised that the department would engage in discussions with the community and make Austinites aware of the work that is moving forward.

Richard Mendoza, director of Public Works, said his department anticipates no budget increase for the current year as a result of the additional employees. He also said his department is ready to complete the projects within the six-year timeline voters were promised.

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