The perception among some Northwest Austinites is that the City of Austin distributes its resources unevenly. An analysis of the 2006 and 2010 bond packages conducted by Community Impact Newspaper shows this is true.
Of the $567 million in projects in the 2006 package, 5 percent were located in Northwest Austin. Thirty-two percent—by far the largest allocation—were in the downtown area project coordination zone (see map on Page 13). A $90 million package solely for mobility projects that was approved in 2010 devoted 8 percent of funds to Northwest Austin, while 32 percent—again the largest allocation—went downtown.
Meanwhile, Northwest Austin is home to about 31 percent of the city's population, according to the 2010 U.S. census.
Equity in 2012
Similar to a consumer charging an item to his or her credit card, municipalities sell bonds to pay for road and sidewalk repairs; improve city-owned facilities such as buildings, parks and pools; and buy land, among other investments.
As Austin City Council sorts through six proposed bond packages with the intent of placing one before voters in November, the geographic distribution of the projects has been under marked scrutiny. City staff will provide its own geographic analysis of past bond packages to City Council by Aug. 7.
Asked why equity has been a particular focus during this bond cycle, Frank Fernandez, chairman of a citizen task force that cobbled together two bond packages for council's consideration, said, "I think it [was] really a recognition that this city has a history of uneven, inequitable investment in infrastructure and in the neighborhoods."
The task force recommended to City Council that it adopt a resolution to ensure the equitable distribution of bond-funded projects.
But when talking about equity, the proportions are not the only part of the equation, as city staff pointed out during interviews for this article. One big project can move the needle. In the 2006 package, the most expensive item was $95 million for a new central library, bringing the downtown area's proportion of investment from 19 percent to 32 percent.
And the story goes deeper than the numbers, Fernandez said.
"Equity isn't [just as] simple as 'is it equal?' It has to account for the needs of the distinct neighborhoods," he said.
Molly Scarbrough, bond development project coordinator in the city's capital planning office, said another element to consider is the percentage of population served by the infrastructure. Although the downtown coordination zone has a smaller residential population, a large number of Austinites use the infrastructure because they work in or visit the area.
Planning experts said one of the reasons Northwest Austin has received less public investment than some other areas of the city is that, having been developed and annexed in the 1970s and '80s, it has benefited from relatively recent land development codes.
In 1968, council passed an ordinance requiring residential developers to put in sidewalks when building subdivisions, and the mandate spread to commercial development in the early '80s.
This has led to Northwest Austin having more linear miles of sidewalks than many other parts of the city. According to Austin Public Works, Northwest Austin, with 617.3 linear miles, has the second-highest amount of sidewalks of the city's seven planning areas, trailing only Southwest Austin's 664 miles. The rest of the sectors have no more than 250 linear miles apiece.
Michael Curtis, manager of Public Works' neighborhood connectivity division, said the need in Northwest Austin has been less to repair sidewalks, which can have a lifespan of up to 50 years, and more to connect the neighborhoods. The division allocated $2.8 million to Northwest Austin during the past two bond cycles, more than was allocated to any other area beside Central East Austin, which also received $2.8 million.
The types of projects the city takes on also has to do with how much it would later have to spend on upkeep. In the case of park development, this limitation has affected the geographic distribution of bond funds.
Marty Stump, the city's parks development coordinator, said that in recent years the Parks and Recreation Department had been focused on buying land as part of the city's commitment to having a park within walking distance of every resident. Areas targeted were primarily outside the downtown coordination zone. However, that initiative was taking a toll on the department's maintenance and operations budget, so it was turning its attention to renovating existing parks. Those with the greatest need, he said, are located primarily in the city's core.
If Northwest Austin was seen as less needy, attitudes appear to have changed. Both packages the task force recommended to City Council allocate about 9 percent of funding to Northwest Austin.
This larger-than-usual allocation is not just the doing of the task force. The combined results of several community workshops to help the city determine priorities for the 2012 bond package as well as an online city survey indicate that many residents see a great need for investment in Northwest Austin, particularly in the area's eastern region.
Aside from housing affordability, which ranked as the top concern at the workshops and in the survey, were improvements to North Lamar Boulevard and then Burnet Road.
"We've heard about [North Lamar and Burnet] more than any single issue," task force member Tom Spencer said.
As such, five of the six 2012 bond packages under consideration put $12 million to $27 million toward redoing the corridors, from sidewalks and drainage to bike lanes and bus shelters. Even at $12 million, the project is one of the most expensive of those under consideration for funding. City Council is scheduled to discuss the 2012 bond election at a work session Aug. 7, and has until mid- to late August to call a bond election for Nov. 6.
Correction: The amount of funds dedicated to Northwest Austin in the 2010 bond package was 8 percent, not 68 percent, as originally reported.