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$720 Million Traffic Bond Too Close to Call

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — When the Austin Chronicle asked readers, "What's the Worst Thing About Austin, Texas?" the newspaper added, "besides the traffic." On Tuesday, city voters will be asked to approve, or reject, $720 million in bonds to try to change that.

Austin's red hot real estate market indicates that many people find it a great place to live. It has a healthy economy, pretty good weather, music galore, green space, an acclaimed university and statues of music legends Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan. What could detract from such a wonderful place?

Oh, yeah. Traffic.

Austin was the 21st-worst for traffic congestion in large U.S. cities (over 800,000 population) in 2015, according to TomTom, a Dutch maker of traffic, navigation and mapping equipment. Rush hours extended drive times by 22 percent.

In 2014, Austin commuters suffered through 52 hours of travel delays per person due to traffic congestion, according to an Urban Mobility Scorecard by Texas A&M University and analytics company INRIX. They ranked Austin's traffic as 12th-worst in the nation, tying it with Atlanta, Detroit, Portland and Miami.

As a result, Austin commuters used 22 gallons in excess fuel and spent $1,159 extra that year.

The Texas A&M study points out that traffic congestion was at a low point in 2009 because of the economic recession, but it has steadily increased since then due to the improved economy. Ominously, this implies that the link between a good economy and worsening traffic is inescapable.

"It appears that the economy-congestion linkage is as dependable as gravity. Some analysts had touted the decline in driving per capita and dip in congestion levels as a sign that traffic congestion would, in essence, fix itself. That is not happening," according to the study.

Combine a healthy economy and rapid population growth, and traffic congestion should be no surprise.

The Austin area is one of the fastest-growing employment markets since 2015, according to the Austin Chamber of Commerce, which used state and federal data. The city added 28,900 jobs — a 3 percent increase — in the 12 months ending in September 2016. This rate of job growth is ninth-best in the country. The city's unemployment rate in September was 3.4 percent.

Austin's population grew by 60 percent from 2000 to 2015, from 1,249,763 to 2,000,860 in 2015 — first among the 50 largest U.S. metro areas for net migration as a percentage of total population in 2015. And 50 to 100 new residents arrive every day.

Barring economic collapse, Austin will keep growing, and its traffic problem will not improve on its own.

The Mobility Bond

Despite its reputation as a liberal haven, Austin voters are as tax averse as most Americans today. Voters soundly defeated a $1 billion rail and road bond proposal in 2014. It would have created the first light rail line in the city and improved state roads. Many opponents said the proposal was simply too expensive.

But in August, the City Council approved an ordinance ordering a special election to authorize issuance of bonds for transportation and mobility: the Mobility Bond. Voters will have their say Tuesday.


Also called Proposition 1 or the Smart Corridor plan, the bond initiative would divide $720 million in general obligation bonds among three transportation infrastructure improvements: $101 million for Regional Mobility Projects, $482 million for Corridor Improvement Projects and $137 million for Local Mobility Projects.

The regional mobility money would go mainly to improve highway intersections. This will include traffic signal modifications, median design changes, and increased pedestrian, bicycle and vehicular mobility.

Local mobility improvements would focus on making ramps, sidewalks, curbs and driveways conform to Department of Justice and Americans with Disabilities Act standards. It also would be spent to create safer routes to school for children, fatality reduction at certain intersections, an urban trail network, bikeway improvements and fixing substandard streets.

The key aspect of the mobility bond is corridor improvements, in the short, medium and long term. These projects would improve parts of North-South Lamar Boulevard, Burnet Road, Airport Boulevard, East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, East Riverside Drive, Guadalupe Street near the UT campus, Slaughter Lane and/or William Cannon Drive.

A June 13 memo from the city details how the corridor improvement sites were chosen. Prioritization of the corridors evolved from bond programs of 2010 and 2012. Transportation staff developed a list of the "Top Critical Arterials in the City," consisting of streets with the highest traffic volumes and transit boardings. The city also looked at the most dangerous intersections, with the highest rates of vehicular, pedestrian and bicycle crashes resulting in serious injuries or deaths.

A central problem in these corridors is that Austin continues to grow, and there is not enough space for more people to drive or park.

"To manage congestion and provide mobility and access, re-developing these corridors as places that support and enable walking, biking and transit use is critical. Increasing the percentage of trips that occur by these more space-efficient modes is one of the only alternatives available to avoid gridlock and allow for continued growth and economic development as the city matures," the city said in the memo.

The city says that the bonds, if approved, will hike property taxes only by $5 per month for the median-priced home in Austin.

Mayor Steve Adler said the Smart Corridor plan will decrease traffic congestion, increase travel options and add sidewalks and crosswalks to connect communities. Smart traffic lights can be timed remotely to adjust for weather, accidents and other conditions. Other improvements include the addition of dedicated turning lanes, driveway consolidation, turning bays, and raised medians to increase traffic flow.

Yea or Nay?

Supporters of the $720 million bond say it will reduce traffic congestion at key intersections, increase safety, and give more transportation choices.

Move Austin Forward, a coalition of business and community groups, says: "This package will also increase reliability, safety, and opportunity for all four modes of transportation: automobile, transit, pedestrian, and bicycle. ... This is a key investment for the future of Austin."

BikeAustin also endorses the proposition. "Prop 1 will fund over $120 million in protected bike lanes, urban trails, sidewalks and Vision Zero safety improvements — the biggest single investment in Austin's active transportation network ever. In addition to these on- and off-street facilities, Prop. 1 will fund protected bike lanes on some of Austin's biggest and most dangerous streets," the group says.

Vision Zero, which advocates for safe transportation, has taken a neutral position on the Mobility Bond, saying: "At this time, we believe there is not enough information to fully understand the collective traffic safety impact of these project proposals."

Opponents say they do not have enough information on costs, transparency, and the possible removal of traffic lanes.

Roger Falk, with the Travis County Taxpayers Union, fought the 2014 Urban Rail bond and opposes the mobility bond.

He said the package would simply feed Austin's "growth machine" and real estate developers.

Falk called it a "developer" bond in an interview, and predicted wall-to-wall construction of condominiums on the busiest streets. Many business owners do not understand the bond, Falk said. For his part, he believes that car and truck lanes will be removed for bike lanes, which will make traffic worse.

Falk claims that Mayor Adler is trying to pass off "conceptual studies" as a complete plan, that the city is asking for a $720 million "blank check," and that property tax hikes will be far higher than $5 per month.

Finally, Falk says, the fatal flaw of the bond is that it depends on people changing their lifestyles, biking more and driving less, and that no bond can make this happen.

The Honest Transportation Solutions political action committee also opposes the bond. It claims the package "will actually increase traffic congestion," and that most of the money will go to corridor "facelifts" that will bring higher density, upward development, and dependence on public transportation.

Honest Transportation opposes the elimination of left-turn lanes in the targeted corridors and conversion of right-turn lanes to bus lanes, which it says will reduce vehicle lane mileage. It says small businesses will suffer from these lane changes as well as the construction disruptions along the corridors.

Mayor Adler's chief spokesman Jason Stanford said opponents of the bond are "flailing" and making statements with no factual basis. He went so far as to call them "do-nothing" people who will say anything to discredit the bond.

Stanford disputed Falk's claim that the mobility bond is for the benefit of real estate developers. The engineering plans show the bond will reduce congestion, which is the main reason for the bond, Stanford said.

And he called opponents' claim that the project will replace miles of car lanes with bus and bike lanes "intentionally misleading." He cited an article by Politifact, which investigated an ad by the Sensible Transportation Solutions for Austin PAC, which claimed that the bond will cut more than 27 miles of vehicle travel lanes to make way for bus and bike lanes. Politifact deemed this claim "Mostly False."

Stanford also rebutted the "lack of information" argument and said the corridor plans were based on thousands of hours of research as well as derived from work on previous bonds.

Nor would corridor improvements hurt small businesses, Stanford said.

"Traffic is what is really hurting the small businesses," the mayor's spokesman said.

And he said the $5 per month property tax increase is accurate, and is is based on the median Austin home value of $250,000.

According to a poll released on Oct. 10 by the Austin Monitor, Proposition 1 is too close to call.

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