Austin City Council Approves $720 Million Transit Bond on Ballot

The all-or-nothing package includes $482 million for smart corridors and $137 million for “local mobility” improvement, among other items.

by Ben Wear, Austin American-Statesman / August 12, 2016

(TNS) -- After a few tweaks, the Austin City Council Thursday took a unified step toward asking voters in November for permission to borrow and spend $720 million for road, bike, pedestrian and transit projects.

The council voted 11-0 to pass an ordinance calling for the Nov. 8 election, but only on first and second reading. A final vote, including on the specific ballot language that voters would see, will occur on Aug. 18.

Approval of the proposition would increase the city’s property tax rate by 2.25 cents per $100 of valuation once all the debt has been issued by 2020, city financial officials have said. That increase — about $56 a year on a $250,000 home — would remain in place for about 20 years and grow with increased valuation of property over time.

The council spurned the call of several members of the public earlier in the evening to break Mayor Steve Adler’s huge spending plan into three or more parts, allowing voters to pick and choose among different flavors of transportation spending. The package remains an all-or-nothing proposition which, if approved, would be almost five times larger than any transportation bond package to have passed muster previously with Austin voters.

“If we’re going to pass a bond, we have to have a bond that will pass,” Adler said to the council as debate began. “That means it has to speak to people all over the city.”

Adler styled the package as a grand bargain between the city’s diverse interests — business people and committed progressive activists — and geographic areas.

“I urge us not to change this, because it represents the best communal work of so many people,” he said.

The largest piece of the bond would be $482 million for what Adler calls Smart Corridors. That money would be divided, at the city staff’s later discretion, between seven main streets in the city: North Lamar and South Lamar boulevards, Burnet Road, Airport Boulevard, East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Guadalupe Street, East Riverside Drive and either William Cannon Drive or Slaughter Lane, or perhaps both.

The changes on those roads, based on studies done over the past five years, would vary. But generally, the city would be adding bike lanes, wider sidewalks, medians where they don’t exist, curb cutouts for buses and signalization to allow buses to get back into traffic, more turn bays at intersections, some bus priority lanes and technology upgrades. Those changes would help alternative modes of travel in the city.

Adler has said vehicular traffic would see faster travel times, mainly because of the intersection and signalization improvements, but also because of reduced bus blockages.

The package will also include $137 million for “local mobility”: $65 million for sidewalks; $26 million for urban trails; $20 million for bikeways; $15 million for “fatality reduction” strategies on roads and $11 million for street repairs on a specific list of more than 10 streets. And there would be $101 million destined for “regional mobility”: $46 million for improvements of five intersections on Loop 360 (a Texas Department of Transportation road); $17 million for improvements to a two-lane section of Spicewood Springs Road east of Loop 360; $30 million on Anderson Mill Road, RM 620 and Parmer Lane; and $8 million on Old Bee Caves Road.

Council Member Ora Houston, who had been upset to realize that a June change in the plan (one that she voted for) meant less sidewalk money for her District 1, attempted to move $10 million from urban trail construction to sidewalks. Adler suggested a compromise, agreeing to $4 million more for sidewalks.

The council had earlier agreed to move $6 million from street repairs to sidewalks, so in all, sidewalks advocates came away from the meeting with an extra $10 million.

The council also discussed on Thursday a $400 million light rail plan that advocates had wanted to put before voters this fall, but did not take action on the issue.

©2016 Austin American-Statesman, Texas Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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