The Austin City Council, with at least $20 million suddenly up for grabs thanks to voters’ rejection last month of light rail, will decide Thursday whether to spend it all in one place.
That place, if a majority of the seven-member, soon-to-be-defunct council agrees with Council Member Chris Riley, would be Airport Boulevard. At least one other council member, Laura Morrison, and the city staff argue instead that divvying up the money from Capital Metro should be the job of the new 11-member council taking office in January.
“This is a big chunk of change,” Morrison said Wednesday. “Every district has traffic and transportation issues that would be eligible. …This is one that clearly, clearly fits on the shoulders of the new council.”
The money in question is part of what is called the “quarter-cent fund.” In 2001, shortly after area voters rejected an earlier light rail proposal, calls arose for Capital Metro, which at that time was banking $25 million and up each year, to lower its 1 percent sales tax to three-quarters of a percent. Proceeds from that other quarter cent, some argued, could then be spent on road projects or other city needs.
To stave off that push, Capital Metro’s board instead agreed to give the city of Austin the revenue from a quarter of its tax rate for projects that would enhance transit or general mobility. That promise eventually extended from 2001 to 2004, bringing in $139.4 million, Austin Assistant City Manager Robert Goode said in a Dec. 5 memo. Capital Metro still owes the city $20.4 million, Goode wrote.
Oddly, Capital Metro officials have radically different figures. Capital Metro spokesman John Julitz on Wednesday put the total amount originally owed to the city at $110.8 million and said his agency still owes the city $28 million.
Riley, who for years has been advocating for painting over the scraggly canvas of Airport Boulevard with a fresh coat of New Urbanism, put an item on this council’s overloaded final agenda that would direct that money to that road. Riley said the money should go for projects included in a February city report on the road.
That report contemplates transforming Airport from the generally curbless state highway it once was — Airport is still the property of the Texas Department of Transportation from MLK Jr. Boulevard to its south end near East Seventh Street — to a four-lane boulevard with bike lanes, wide sidewalks, a manicured center median, curbs and a modern storm sewer system. Estimated total cost: $74.4 million.
The cost of doing just the short- and mid-term projects, according to the study, would be $21.6 million. That would include signaled crosswalks, intersection changes (including ending “free” right turns where Airport intersects Koenig Lane) and the full menu of improvements near Highland Mall and from East 48th Street to Mueller.
“When we go to the trouble of conducting a corridor study, we need to be serious about implementing it,” Riley said.
Until Nov. 4, the city intended to spend the remaining quarter-cent money for light rail operating expenses. The proposal’s defeat makes the money available.
Goode, in his memo, pointed out that the money, before it was diverted to light rail, was to have funded a dozen transportation projects across Austin. Or, he suggests, it could pay for traffic signal upgrades. Either way, Morrison says this council should refrain from deciding.
“I am a lame duck,” she said, “and I think there are some things I shouldn’t be weighing in on.”