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Transportation bond’s supporters pile up heavy fundraising advantage

The campaign to pass Austin’s $720 million transportation bond initiative, powered by donations from real estate, development, engineering and construction individuals and companies, has raised eight times as much money as opponents of the measure, according to campaign finance reports filed Tuesday.

Austin Forward, the political action committee supporting the bond proposition on the Nov. 8 ballot, had through Sept. 29 raised $662,705 from 215 cash and in-kind donations, or about $3,082 per contribution. At least $380,000 came from companies or individuals engaged in industries that might actively participate in the substantial road and sidewalk construction resulting from the bond’s passage or from the real estate development sector.

The committee has about $315,000 cash on hand as it enters the final four weeks of the campaign.

Honest Transportation Solutions, a political action committee formed to oppose the bond proposition, raised $61,160 from just eight donors, with the bulk of the money coming in two $25,000 chunks from retired tech executive Jim Skaggs and former Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy. Levy has spent an additional $19,962 to oppose the bond, all of it on campaign signs, through a separate political action committee, Sensible Transportation Solutions for Austin.

Honest Transportation Solutions has about $53,000 cash on hand, while Levy’s other committee has spent all of its money.

Skaggs and Levy have been active in similar past campaigns, generally in opposition to rail proposals. Levy said he jumped in because of what he considered the behind-the-curtain origins of the bond plan in Mayor Steve Adler’s office, and the all-or-nothing vote rather than breaking the historically large transportation bond program into component pieces.

“It’s the opposite of transparency,” Levy said. “And it doesn’t matter if you were for or against it. People deserved a choice.”

Jim Wick, a former Adler staff member who is running the pro-bond campaign, said the trove of donations demonstrate the bond’s breadth of support.

“It’s a good package that’s going to do something about traffic,” Wick said. “And we have a broad coalition of more than 50 endorsing organizations from all walks of life in Austin.”

The campaign committees under city and state law each will have to file an additional campaign finance report at the end of the month, eight days before the election.

The bond program, primarily conceived by Adler’s office and supported by an array of business associations and groups that advocate for bike and pedestrian improvements, includes $482 million for improvements on some major streets, $137 million for “local” transportation (primarily bike, trail and sidewalk projects) and $101 million for expansion of about a half-dozen major roads in the city’s western and northwestern suburbs.

City officials estimate the work would take up to eight years to complete.

The proposition, which the city estimates would cause a property tax increase of about $60 a year on a $250,000 home by 2021, was put on the ballot in August by a 7-1 City Council vote, with three abstentions.

Adler has emphasized the aspects that city studies say would help move traffic: traffic signal improvements, bus pullout spaces and the replacement of continuous left-turn lanes on streets such as Lamar Boulevard, Burnet Road and Airport Boulevard. But the “smart corridor” changes that the city envisions doing with the bond money would also be attractive to commercial and residential developers. That sector has responded enthusiastically with their checkbooks.

The Greater Austin Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit arm of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, gave the campaign $130,482 in cash and in-kind donations, according to the report filed Tuesday. The Austin Board of Realtors and a political committee of the Real Estate Council of Austin each gave $50,000.

Other large donations: $20,000 from Manchester Texas Financial Group; $15,000 from the Austin Apartment Association; and $10,000 each from Grayco Partners, Brandywine Realty Trust, Stratus Properties, HDR Inc., investor Michael Klein, Silicon Labs CEO Tyson Tuttle.

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