Wear: Adler’s pitch for Austin bond election on I-35 faces tight timetable

If it’s an even-numbered year, and it’s Austin, we’re probably having a transportation bond election.

After all, the city held one in 2006 asking for $103.1 million, and it passed. After a break in 2008, when the economy was in collapse and no one would have dared float a bond, in 2010 the city sought $90 million of borrowing for transportation (also a yes).In 2012, the city requested authority for another $143.3 million (yes, yet again). In 2014, less than 15 months ago, the city asked for a heady billion dollars for light rail and highway spending, but that one was emphatically rejected by voters.

Then comes 2016. As the Statesman reported in December, Mayor Steve Adler wants to have a serious community (and council) discussion about having a November bond election focused primarily on Interstate 35. One publication (not this one) even reported, incorrectly, that Adler wanted rail spending on that same ballot.

So, if the mayor says this might be a good thing to happen, it’ll happen, right?

Not so fast.

Speed is actually the key here, both the lack of it on our rush-hour roads and the inordinate bureaucratic pace that the mayor’s proposed bond election would require for an election just over nine months from now.

Bond elections, because they involve asking voters for a property tax increase to pay back the borrowed money, generally involve some sort of elaborate public process to provide a political pretext for the debt. It’s all well and good for our democratically elected officials to decide that the money is needed. But they don’t have the final say in this case, so attention must be paid. Ground must be prepared, both with the public and other council members. And the Council would have to call such an election by mid-August, seven months from now.

I talked to Adler about all this last week.

First of all, just to make it clear, Adler is not calling for another rail bond election in November. Yes, he believes Austin needs more rail than the existing MetroRail commuter line, and that a much larger Austin a decade or two from now almost certainly will have an expanded passenger rail system.

But expensive rail plans have twice been spurned by Austin voters, including the 2014 thrashing, and the windup to another election would have to be meticulously planned and executed to avoid another loss. Capital Metro, assuming its board, as expected, says yes next week, will embark soon on a 30-month study of rail and other “high-capacity transit” in Central Austin. Adler, the city and Capital Metro will let this one cook for awhile.

But the situation is much different with I-35.

The Texas Department of Transportation’s Austin district in August 2013 completed an exhaustive study of what to do about I-35 from Georgetown to San Marcos and has updated it several times since then. That 65-mile stretch includes the state’s most congested section of highway — the part going through the center of Austin.

TxDOT came up with $4.3 billion of projects, including adding a lane on each side of the highway from Round Rock to Buda and likely charging tolls on those two new lanes. I-35 would be sunk below ground level from about 15th Street to south of Cesar Chavez Street. The upper deck would get added lanes, overpasses would be rebuilt at many intersections, and a variety of access road, bridges and ramp changes would be made throughout I-35 in Central Texas.

It’s a huge, ambitious plan on a road that everyone knows is congested for hours a day and prone to mysterious and frustrating slowdowns at oddball times when drivers would expect it to be flowing freely. Getting city voters to put serious money into I-35, which Adler says could induce TxDOT to move more quickly on the overhaul, likely would not be a hard sell.

But how serious? Or, to the point, how much and for what, exactly? That’s where Adler’s rapid timetable might run into some trouble.

The thing is, TxDOT will be paying for the overwhelming bulk of whatever happens on I-35, using a combination of cash and, probably, money that would be borrowed on the private bond market and paid back by revenue from those new toll lanes. Much of the cash for I-35 will come from money TxDOT is already getting from a constitutional amendment passed in 2014, called Proposition 1, and from revenue that the agency will start getting in late 2017. That delayed and much better stash — $2.5 billion and rising — will be generated by Proposition 7, another constitutional amendment approved last November.

The problem is, at this point, it is far from clear how TxDOT will divvy up all this new money (or even how much it will have to work with, given that falling oil prices have cut into the take from Proposition 1). Beyond that, there are legal questions about mixing Proposition 1 and Proposition 7 money, which legally cannot be spent on toll projects with borrowed money from those proposed toll lanes.

The whole financing plan of the $4.3 billion I-35 initiative, in other words, is a complicated work in progress.

Given that, should Austin throw in $50 million (just over 1 percent of the total cost)? $100 million? $500 million? And what about the other cities and counties along that 65-mile piece of I-35? Adler suggested that some of them might be enticed to have bond elections of their own to throw in cash, too. How much will those elections raise, assuming they even happen and that voters say yes?

In our discussion, Adler emphasized that his vision of this November election includes spending for other city transportation projects as well, including a perhaps on Loop 360 for sidewalks and bike facilities and on major city roads like Airport Boulevard and Burnet Road. So city staff, and probably some sort of appointed citizen bond committee, would have to settle on figures on those projects, along with how much to direct TxDOT’s way for I-35.

It is worth noting that TxDOT is unlikely to turn up its nose at any money the city of Austin might choose to dedicate to an I-35 makeover, no matter the number of zeros on the check. But there are several governments involved and many moving parts. And the clock is ticking.

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