From the Austin Monitor: Mayor Steve Adler has blasted into the middle of the ongoing conversation about a November mobility bond election by proposing an estimated $720 million package of projects along Austin’s most vital arterials.
In a closed-door speech before the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Adler called for the city to “focus on our major streets.” He said that the way to do that is to pay for the projects outlined in the corridor studies that have been completed or are still pending for South Lamar Boulevard, Airport Boulevard, Guadalupe Street, North Lamar Boulevard and Burnet Road, Riverside Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
“To complete the corridors all the way costs about $800 million,” Adler said. However, he said the strategic use of tax-increment financing or tax-increment reinvestment zones could drive that number down to as little as $450 million.
By adding hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of extra projects to the overall oeuvre — including $75 to $125 million for “fixing other frustrating bottlenecks at 360, Parmer Lane, Brodie and others,” $50 to $100 million for sidewalks and urban trails, $20 million for “dangerous intersections” and $20 million for projects from the 2014 Bicycle Master Plan — Adler arrived at a figure on the low end of $720 million. (The high end is roughly $815 million).
He explained that the city could issue $500 million in bonds without raising property taxes, but stopped short of proposing to use that full sum for transportation projects. Instead, he suggested peeling off $300 million for his proposal and adding that to that $420 million that would be raised by a two-cent tax hike. That’s just enough to raise the “average property tax bill by a little less than $5 a month,” he said.
Adler framed that as a minor investment in a project that would pay dividends in making the city more affordable.
“Smart corridors become corridors of opportunity by reducing transportation costs, with transit-oriented development that provides job opportunities combined with the preservation and/or creation of affordable housing units near transitways,” Adler said.
Interestingly, in playing down the impact of an average annual tax increase of $60, Adler cited his work last year to increase the homeowners’ exemption tax, a major campaign promise and his signature accomplishment of his first year in office. “You know how much we saved the average homeowner? $14,” Adler said, using that fact to underscore that city taxes play a minimal role in the city’s struggle to remain affordable for many residents.
The mayor’s proposal is his most direct foray into the discussion of potential mobility bonds since City Council directed City Manager Marc Ott in February to study the city’s options for putting a proposal to voters in November. In April, Adler spoke at Bike Austin’s formal launch of its campaign to put a $410 million proposal on the ballot, which would fund the Bicycle Master Plan as well as the city’s highest priority sidewalk projects. The plan he announced on Thursday would cover as little as less than 20 percent of that proposal.
Indeed, his rhetoric before the Chamber seemed aimed at drivers rather than anyone who would prefer alternatives. He told the crowd that corridor improvements such as bus pullouts and protected bike lanes would “get buses and bikes out of your way so you can keep going.”
Adler’s speech came just hours after Senator Kirk Watson revealed to the Downtown Austin Alliance his plan to fund billions of dollars’ worth of improvements along Interstate 35 without having to ask Austin voters to head to the polls. Adler made sure to thank Watson in his remarks. He even compared him to Lyndon Johnson, who, as a U.S. Representative, was the driving force behind the construction of Tom Miller Dam, a project named after the Austin mayor who worked alongside Johnson.
“Just as Kirk Watson and Lyndon Johnson before him have shown, we have to break out of old ways of thinking and use the brains our mommas gave us,” Adler declared.
Despite the grandiose rhetoric, Adler’s plan could face stiff headwinds. His political capital isn’t as high as it was as the beginning of his term, and he’s had at least one significant proposal this year be subsumed by political fires. Furthermore, his decision to unveil his plan today, instead of waiting for the Council’s Mobility Committee to hear a planned staff briefing on June 14, rankled at least one member of that body.
“I have no knowledge of it,” Council Member Don Zimmerman told the Austin Monitor on Thursday evening. “I’m disappointed that such a public announcement would be made without any deliberation by the Mobility Committee itself.”
When the Monitor gave him a brief rundown of the mayor’s speech, Zimmerman expressed his disapproval. “The fact that its focus is on corridors rather than freeways goes to a standing city policy that discourages suburban flight,” Zimmerman said before offering his own brief suggestion. “Our priority would be a freeway loop.”