City drives ahead with $720 million mobility bond

Austin City Council voted June 24 to move ahead on a $720 million mobility bond in 2016. Most of the funding would go toward implementing corridor plans, such as on North Lamar Boulevard.

Austin City Council voted June 24 to move ahead on a $720 million mobility bond in 2016. Most of the funding would go toward implementing corridor plans, such as on North Lamar Boulevard.

Austin City Council is one step closer toward pursuing the largest transportation bond proposition in the city’s history that Mayor Steve Adler said he hopes will transform significant corridors and make meaningful improvements to sidewalks, trails and bicycle facilities.


On June 23, the council approved pursuing a $720 million bond package proposed by Adler for the Nov. 8 election. At an early August meeting, City Council will set the bond language and officially put the bond on the ballot.


“It will have things that are important to everybody, but it may not be the same things,” Adler said. “… This package is judicious in the projects it picks but also actually will enable the community to move forward on those things that it has spent years planning.”



Putting plans in place


Adler’s proposed bond package would allocate the majority of funds—$482 million—toward implementing the city’s seven completed corridor studies on Airport Boulevard, Burnet Road, East Riverside Drive, Guadalupe Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and North and South Lamar boulevards.


Moving forward on these plans would increase vehicle throughput, improve congestion, enhance transit, and make communities more complete and walkable, Adler said.


“If we really want to make the city affordable, then we have to lower housing costs and we have to lower transportation costs,” he said. “Those are the two biggest costs that people pay.”


The bond package would also dedicate $55 million to implement the sidewalk master plan and other safe routes to schools; $30 million for the urban trails master plan, $20 million for the bicycle master plan, $15 million for the Vision Zero master plan, and $17 million to upgrade substandard streets and other capital improvements.


For areas of the city not near the corridors, Adler proposed dedicating $101 million toward improvements to regional roads, including Loop 360, Spicewood Springs Road and the intersection of RM 620 and RM 2222.



Funding the bond


Voters last considered a transportation bond proposition in November 2014 but defeated it by 57 to 43 percent. That proposition would have authorized the city to sell $600 million on bonds to fund a 9.5-mile urban rail line and would have used $400 million in nonvoter-approved state highway bonds for regional projects.


If voters approve the $720 million bond proposition this November, the city would use $250 million of its existing debt capacity to finance the bond. The city would then issue bonds for the remaining $500 million, requiring an increase to the debt service portion of the tax rate by 2 1/4 cents.


The increase would likely be half-cent increments over eight years with the first increase occurring in fiscal year 2017-18, said Greg Canally, the city’s deputy chief financial officer. By spreading out the tax rate increases, he said, this will put some of the tax burden on future residents who move to the city in the coming years.


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“It’s one of the trade-offs we make when we live in a community,” he said. “We want to make sure we do [tax rate increases] in an equitable fashion because future residents will benefit from those improvements, too.”


The financial impact on voters would $56 annually, or less than $5 per month, based on a median-valued home of $250,000, Canally said.


The city usually has a general bond election every six to eight years for various projects, including housing, libraries, parks and transportation, capital program consultant Susan Daniels said.


Since 1998, voters have approved
$638 million in transportation bonds. Bonds from 2010 and 2012 are still active, she said. Transportation bonds usually take longer to implement, she said, because projects are typically funded in phases, Daniels said.


“It’s really important for projects to keep some momentum moving forward,” she said. “In the 2012 program, we had a design bucket [of funding] for the intent of getting [transportation] projects through another phase of development.”



‘Go big’ on transportation


The city typically creates a citizens bond advisory committee to spend about a year creating a bond package. But with a quicker timeframe for pursuing a bond in 2016, the council hosted Mobility Talks this spring to gather public input.


A lack of a more vetted process caused concern among other council members that the process was too rushed, but Adler said the community has been discussing the corridor plans for six years.


“I heard my colleagues saying the process felt rushed, but I disagree with that because the things we were proposing were the things that have already been vetted by the community,” he said.


During his conversations with the community, Adler said stakeholders—pedestrian, bicycle and transit advocates as well as business owners and area chambers of commerce—told him to “go big” on the bond and specifically implementing the corridor plans.


“We wouldn’t be able to complete all of the corridor work, but I also think there’s going to be an opportunity to leverage the money we have with developments that are going to be occurring,” he said.


About half the city’s population lives within 1.5 miles of one of the corridors and about one-third live within a half-mile, he said.


“Everything points to the corridors,” Adler said. “If we were going to make a significant investment in transportation, everything that this city has done points to that place.”


Although District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo supported a smaller bond package option at $500 million or $300 million, she said the components of the proposed bond will address her constituents’ concerns about wanting safer routes to their homes, schools, workplaces and shopping.


“Many of our corridors are struggling both in terms of congestion and walkability,” she said. “As we have small businesses and new businesses popping up [and] serving surrounding residents, it’s difficult for people to walk from one to another. They’re unfriendly to pedestrians and cyclists.”


She said projects in the proposed bond also align with conversations the city has had with Capital Metro about its plans for future bus and transit service.


“As we move forward, I expect there would be strong coordination between projects the city takes on and the work Capital Metro is doing, so there is very close correspondence between bus routes and area projects.”

By Amy Denney
Amy has worked for Community Impact Newspaper since September 2010, serving as reporter and then senior editor for the Northwest Austin edition and covering transportation. She is now managing editor for the nine publications in the Central Texas area.


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