Buyer Beware: Austin bond to eliminate auto lanes & convert others to bus only

Adler's $720 million bond to convert auto lanes to bus only and eliminate car lanes
By Vince May
August 17, 2016

Mayor Adler's $720 million transportation bond never made sense. Sure, a majority of the council members are enamored with bike lanes, sidewalks and beautification. But the work could have been done for a lot less. (With matching state and federal funds the total is ~$1.2 billion.)

Cut to the chase: This bond package is really about implementing the closure of street lanes on virtually all of the major arteries into downtown Austin. More precisely, the conversion of existing lanes to bus-only lanes. This is already authorized by CAMPO. (Adler, Kitchen, Garza and Gallo were on the CAMPO Board in June 2015 when the conversion of 7 arterials were adopted into the 2040 Plan. The plan called for making the switch in 2020.) Please see the 2040 Plan project description for "South Lamar-Burnet" below. This "BRT enhancement" is lane reduction from Ben White to 183 via Burnet Rd. Six other projects in the plan get lane reductions too. (Riverside, N Lamar etc)

Lamar & Burnet conversion in Austin bond

The bond allocates funding to study 9 more arterials for conversion. The 15 arterials carry ~500k vehicle trips per day. Allow for buses and commercial vehicles and we can assume that 225k cars will be physically unable to travel to or through the center city unless they switch to I-35 or MoPac. Think about that.

I remember when Guadalupe was 6 lanes wide from Cesar Chavez to 24th St. It is now 4 lanes wide. The bond item for Guadalupe explicitly calls for reducing it to 2 lanes from 19th to 29th St. This 10 block constriction will all but kill Guadalupe. The 2018 bond will continue the lane reduction from 29th to Parmer Ln via N Lamar. See here and here.

Otherwise, the council is being evasive. Kitchen and Gallo are Adler's lieutenants while some other members appear uninformed. Emails to Houston and Zimmerman for more info got replies that there was none available but the Austin Chronicle had a good link. One problem is confusion over "short term" work vs "long term" completion (which would be lane conversion.) But the bond money covers long term completion so I see long term - short term as a Red Herring.

In June Troxclair, Zimmerman and Houston voted against the bond but the vote last week was unanimous for the bond. Troxclair's aide told me last month about the lane conversions so she knows. Maybe the "for" votes last week were inspired by some parliamentary rule. But I was troubled by the council dialog last week where the members seemed to be most concerned about getting their 'fair share' of the loot for their districts. And the "suburban highway" projects should never have been added to the bond package. Those are all TxDOT projects and property owners should not have to pay higher taxes for TxDOT obligations. Adler publicly stated the suburban projects were bait to get council member's votes.

Council members who oppose conversion of road lanes to bus-only should vote against the bond and say why they oppose it. If you are not already stunned, have a look at the Cordon Toll graphic below. Austin has a plan to toll every vehicle that enters downtown.

CordonToll Austin

Link to article here.

Divided Austin City Council puts $720 million bond on November ballot
By Ben Wear
Austin American Statesman
August 18, 2016

Austin voters, who already had some weighty decisions to make Nov. 8, will now have a $720 million question to answer as well.

An unexpectedly divided Austin City Council gave final approval Thursday to Mayor Steve Adler’s “go big” transportation bond proposition, a mixture of improvements to major city corridor streets; bikeway, sidewalk, trail and transit expansions citywide; and suburban highway projects. What had been an 11-0 preliminary vote a week ago fell to 7-1 Thursday, with three abstentions, as some council members raised concerns about the ballot language, tax impact and even the rushed process that led to the huge bond proposition.

“I am dismayed that a $720 million bond that is on the November ballot is a product of the way things have always been done,” said Council Member Ora Houston, who represents District 1 in East Austin, explaining her “no” vote. Houston said the studies that led to the “smart corridor” projects arose from the old citywide-elected council and were heavily influenced by a core of central city activists rather than a more representative sampling of Austinites.

“I feel like I’ve been bullied,” Houston said.

Council Members Delia Garza, Ellen Troxclair and Don Zimmerman abstained for various reasons.
Adler said the plan is a fine balance of competing interests — business and progressive, inner city and suburbs, roads and alternative transportation, east and west — with a large percentage of its spending in the historically unserved areas east of Interstate 35.

If Austin voters OK the all-or-nothing package, which is five times larger than any transportation bond ever approved in the city, the city property tax by about 2020 would increase by around $56 a year on a $250,000 home.

The council, in giving final approval to an ordinance calling the bond election, also agreed on the specific and lengthy ballot language. Voters will see a single sentence, about 150 words long, that names nine major roads that would be reworked to include alternative transportation modes. The ballot will also name highways that
That language, however, won’t include a specific estimate of what the property tax effect will be for an average home owner. The council last week, on a preliminary 6-5 vote, had said it wanted such wording.

But after an executive session Thursday morning, the council emerged and voted 7-4 against including that provision on the ballot, doing so on the advice of the city attorney. Zimmerman, Troxclair, Garza and Houston were in the minority on that vote.

Assistant City Attorney Leela Fireside in last week’s open session had told the council that, if the tax impact of the bond borrowing over time approached what appears on the ballot, that could limit spending under the bond to some amount lower than $720 million. She recommended against including such language.
That advice continued in Thursday’s closed session, an incensed Zimmerman said. He left the backstage meeting early.

“It’s not legal advice; it’s lobbying,” Zimmerman said. “There’s a difference. I’m sick of it. They want to give the city the unlimited power to tax.”

Adler said the ballot language approved last week, because it focused on an average home price, would thus be untrue for anyone whose property carries a different value.

City finance officials have said that, as the borrowing is phased in over the next few years, when the bond projects sequentially are ready for construction, the portion of the city’s property tax levy used to pay back $480 million of general obligation bonds would increase by 2.25 cents per $100 of assessed property value.

The remaining $250 million of the bonds wouldn’t carry a tax increase because the city expects to have retired enough existing debt to pay back that portion of the bonds with the existing tax rate.

But that estimate of 2.25 cents is based on a number of assumptions, including interest rates and property values, so the actual figure could be higher or lower eventually. The ballot language favored by Zimmerman and Troxclair would have in effect put a ceiling on the tax rate.

Council Member Sheri Gallo, who voted for the bond, said that, given Austin’s crushing traffic congestion, the huge spending plan is desperately needed. She added that “all you have to do is look at a map” of the projects to see that spending and construction will be equitable.