Austin City Council to rank transportation fund projects

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Sources: city of Austin, Capital Metro/Community Impact Newspaper

Sources: city of Austin, Capital Metro/Community Impact Newspaper

The city’s process to distribute $21.8 million in transportation funds will truly be a community effort.

From surveys and block walking to visits with school principals and hosting town hall meetings, Austin City Council members got creative with listening to residents on how to disperse money equitably from what is known as the Quarter Cent Fund.

“That’s absolutely the appropriate way to handle this,” District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool said. “We had good responses from the community [on our survey]. I knew we would. District 7 is very active and engaged. We have a high level of concern about safety of children going to school.”

[polldaddy poll=9196157]

On Nov. 16 with a vote of 4-0, the Austin City Council Mobility Committee approved a resolution giving council members control over recommending projects­—such as new sidewalks, traffic-calming devices, bike facilities and signal improvements—from their district. Each council member will submit a list of recommended projects in his or her district totaling $1.9 million by Dec. 31, and projects must meet the fund’s criteria. Mayor Steve Adler will allocate the remaining $2.8 million to systemwide projects.

Fund history

The Quarter Cent Fund’s creation stems from a light-rail proposition that was defeated in 2000. Capital Metro, Austin’s regional public transportation provider, agreed in 2001 to share 25 percent of its annual revenue—money previously allocated toward light rail—with the city to fund transportation projects.

That deal meant Capital Metro would share a quarter-cent of each penny of revenue for a prescribed period of time with the city of Austin, and thus began the Quarter Cent program, said Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro vice president of strategic planning and development. A list of projects was developed as part of the program, he said.

The remaining balance of the Quarter Cent Fund was to be dedicated to urban rail operations, but because the urban rail initiative did not pass, it was determined that the funds should be redirected to existing infrastructure needs, according to city documents.

Project criteria

To distribute those funds the city and Capital Metro agreed upon criteria to prioritize projects, said Annie Van Zant, a capital program manager in the Austin Public Works Department. Criteria included enhancing safety, supporting public transit, providing access to schools and expediting critical mobility projects.

Even with the criteria the city had $2.8 billion in needs, Van Zant said. To further prioritize the list, staffers grouped projects located within 1/4-mile of both a school and a transit stop and added factors such as being located in a high-crash area, in a completed corridor study or on the MetroRapid bus route.

Projects recommended by City Council members that met the criteria were also added to the city’s list, which totaled $100 million of “low-cost, high-impact” projects, Van Zant said.

Once staffers have a final list of projects approved by council, Van Zant said they will coordinate projects with other departments and partner agencies to maximize opportunities.

“We want to do the improvements or sequence them so it looks like one project,” she said. “We don’t want to have to keep coming back [for construction.]”

Van Zant said there is no timeline for the Quarter Cent Fund projects to be completed but council will be updated.

Source: city of Austin/Community Impact Newspaper

Source: city of Austin/Community Impact Newspaper

Funding flexibility

District 10 Council Member Sheri Gallo, who proposed the Mobility Committee resolution, said council members could  choose projects from a list already prepared by city staffers. She said the resolution gives council members the ability to ensure funds are spent equally throughout their own districts.

“There was still a very large disparity of spending [before the resolution],” she said. “Before they added the adaptive signaling, District 10 was very underfunded, and none of the improvements went west of [Loop] 360.”

Gallo asked staffers to add to the initial list a project that would affect all District 10 traffic signals by preparing them for adaptive signaling, which uses real-time data to adjust traffic signal timing and is being piloted in four areas throughout Austin, including on Loop 360.

“As soon as the city finishes the test program, then District 10 will be ready to take that on,” she said.

District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman, who also sits on the Mobility Committee, said he was frustrated by the lack of flexibility he had in adding projects to staffers’ original proposed list of Quarter Cent Fund projects from his district.

“If you look at the number of unfunded projects, there’s plenty of room for the constituents to have a direct say through their council members [to fund]projects that are already on the books,” he said.

Zimmerman said the city’s draft project list mostly included sidewalk projects instead of addressing traffic congestion. He requested to add a double right-turn lane from Anderson Mill Road to southbound US 183.

“This is increasing capacity on Anderson Mill, and it’s one of the worst traffic congestion points in the city,” he said. “[The project is] consistent with Cap Metro because there’s a bus stop that’s only a block away.”

Community input

Most council members have already consulted their constituents on prioritizing projects from the city’s draft list. District 4 Council Member Greg Casar hosted a meeting Sept. 30 at which his constituents voted on six groups of projects from a list narrowed down from $174 million worth of needs in the district. Casar said about $80 million of those needs alone are on North Lamar Boulevard.

The top three project groupings residents supported were on or near North Lamar Boulevard and included adding sidewalks and pedestrian hybrid beacons.

Casar, his staffers and volunteers block walked, or went door to door, to speak to residents who live near the areas where the proposed projects would be placed to get feedback. A District 4 survey also garnered more than 500 responses.

“People wanted projects that the most people would use and had an eye toward social justice [of serving low-income residents]and were near schools and transit,” Casar said.

As part of the District 7 survey, residents could rank projects in their district and recommend projects they would like funded, Pool said.

Residents expressed interest in adding a pedestrian hybrid beacon near Connally High School and near NYOS Charter School, both on North Lamar Boulevard. They also requested projects in the Gracywoods, Walnut Creek and Lamplight Village neighborhoods.

“There is significant need in District 7,” she said.

Additional reporting by Kelli Weldon

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Amy Denney
Amy has been reporting in community journalism since 2007. She worked in the Chicago suburbs for three years before migrating south and joined Community Impact Newspaper in September 2010. Amy has been editor of the Northwest Austin publication since August 2012 and she is also the transportation beat reporter for the Austin area.
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