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Wear: Austin’s ‘Go Big’ road bond not big enough to cover everything

The Austin City Council, when it passed an ordinance in August calling a $720 million bond election, was pretty specific about how $482 million of that money will be spent.

That slice of the money, the five-page law says, will pay for “implementation of corridor plans” for nine, or perhaps eight of nine, specific city streets: North and South Lamar, Burnet Road, Airport Boulevard, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, East Riverside Drive, Guadalupe Street, William Cannon Drive “and/or” Slaughter Lane. It doesn’t say “partial implementation” or “implementation of some of the following roads.”

So a voter could be forgiven for thinking that $482 million will do it all.

It won’t.

Not even close.

Which means that the bond vote, particularly this part of it, will be a matter of faith. That is, faith in the city of Austin staff and the Austin City Council to pick and choose wisely among that menu of roads and the smorgasbord of recommendations on each one that I outlined in Sunday’s paper.

READ: Stretching dollars: What would Austin transportation bond pay for?

As I read the studies on six corridors last week (or, rather, read through the 700 pages, skipping filler like the recountings of public hearings and such), and made further inquiries with city staff, the disparity between the required cost of Mayor Steve Adler’s “smart corridors” and the money in the bond proposition just kept getting wider.

One set of numbers — those attached to the makeover of East Riverside — really jumped out. In the consultant study completed in December 2013, the whole project from Interstate 35 to Texas 71 was estimated to cost $358.4 million. By June, when Assistant City Manager Robert Goode wrote a memo to the council, that figure had grown to $398 million to cover “soft” costs like project oversight, bond issuance fees and inflation.

But now city staff tells me even that amended figure was way off. Making those improvements on East Riverside will cost $766.7 million, they said. More, in other words, on this single corridor — to add a median, bike lanes, wide sidewalks, drainage upgrades and advanced signal technology, and to convert two vehicle lanes to bus-only lanes — than would be raised by the bond proposition. Not just the smart corridor part. The whole enchilada.

The total tab for the seven corridors that have a completed or in-progress study (Guadalupe is being analyzed now) would be $1.56 billion, according to estimates from the staff. Making changes on Slaughter and William Cannon, based on studies yet to come, could add another couple of hundred million dollars to the total price tag, based on what we’ve seen so far.

You get the picture: The corridor money will pay for something between a quarter and a third of what the studies are recommending. But which quarter or third? Which corridors? What type of changes?

I asked Adler about this ticklish ambiguity, perhaps the proposition’s greatest vulnerability as Austin voters consider what to do between now and Nov. 8. This “Go Big” bond proposition is truly Adler’s policy baby. His office, not city staff, crafted it and pushed the council to put it on the ballot by a 7-1-3 vote. To parents, all babies are beautiful.

“Nothing we’re going to do is going to pay for it all. The challenge we have is so great,” Adler said. “But what we can’t do is just wait hoping that someday we have at one time the ability to do it all. It’s important that we start so we can demonstrate that this type of work does have a material impact on congestion, a material impact on safety.”

But voters — given the property tax impact, the huge size of the bond and an interest in seeing changes to Austin’s transportation landscape that make a discernible difference — likely will be more dispassionate about Adler’s offspring. What is it, really, they’ll want to know — and what’s in it for me?

Adler also told me last week that the $482 million, if voters say yes, wouldn’t be “spread like peanut butter” across the nine corridors, but rather would be targeted based on city’s staff’s evaluation of which projects will make the greatest difference on congestion, transit and other transportation modes (walking and biking, basically). That inevitably means that some voters, looking at the map now and happily spying a corridor or two in their part of town, will wake up in 2022 or 2023 to find those projects (an entire corridor, or perhaps elements of one) never occurred.

The current council over the past year has shown a growing tendency, when money is on the line, to tend to the needs of constituents in their 10 districts. When city staff comes back a few months after the election and says, “let’s put pieces of the $482 million here, here, here and here” — like passing out pieces of carefully sliced cake — the council may instead opt for Skippy.

Bond opponents have already taken to calling the $482 million a “down payment,” charging that the council will keep coming to voters asking for more bonds until they get the full $1.56 billion, or whatever the true figure would be over 20 years. And I suppose that if what is done with their first piece is seen to have been worth it, as Adler projects, then a future council might in fact come back for more.

But, really, predicting what council members unknown will want to do years from now is specious. Heck, I was predicting in January (and I wasn’t alone in this) that there was no way that a transportation bond would make it to the November ballot because there wasn’t time to follow the city’s normal gestation process.

Turns out that, behind the scenes, the bond bun was already in the oven.

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