We would be the first to admit that the $720 million “go big” transportation bond package on the Nov. 8 ballot is not perfect. But it is certainly good.
Proposition 1 aims to address Austin’s dreadful traffic congestion by upgrading major corridors, adding technological and engineering features to signals and roadways, and expanding public transit and pedestrian options so people have a variety of ways to reach their destinations. Such improvements are long overdue: In recent years, Austin’s traffic woes have been compared to congestion in Los Angeles and New York.
Lest voters allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, they would be wise to vote for Proposition 1.
The city’s transportation network for some time has been in crisis, a condition caused primarily by Austin’s rapid growth, but also by its blinders. Too often, city leaders shut their eyes to traffic bottlenecks, collisions between cars and bicycles, public buses that backed up traffic as they stopped to pick up commuters, poorly synchronized traffic signals and pedestrians, including children, who have been forced to walk in streets to reach a bus stop, school or other destination because sidewalks aren’t available.
By most estimates, the bond package is affordable for taxpayers.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who crafted the bond package, says it will add $56 a year to the tax bill of a median-priced home of $250,000, a figure that is backed by the city finance department. When calculated five years into the future — when the full tax rate hits — that same city finance department says the figure could rise to $108 on a median-valued home, which by then would be worth $304,000. So it boils down to either about $5 a month or $9. (A tax calculator is available to assess the bond package’s impact on individual property taxes.)
We reject figures provided by bond opponents, such as Roger Falk with the Travis County Taxpayers Union, who said though city figures are wrong, “We don’t necessarily have the right number.”
Council Member Ora Houston, a vocal opponent of the bond package, does raise a legitimate point that must be addressed prior to moving forward with issuing bonds for road projects in the event Austin voters pass the bond package, as we are recommending.
Building roads and fixing infrastructure, particularly along East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard/FM 969, must avoid displacing longtime residents in the area, as is happening in east-central Austin because of city policies that spurred rapid redevelopment in historically African-American and Latino communities. The city must take steps to protect vulnerable communities and remaining affordable neighborhoods that will be affected by road improvements. Setting off another land rush that pushes people out of their neighborhoods would be irresponsible, if not cruel.
East Martin Luther King Boulevard in Houston’s District 1 is among several corridors that would receive the lion’s share of bond funding: $482 million in all for improvements, including upgrades to traffic signals that allow them to be programmed in real time. That is a big advantage. Adler said, for instance, traffic signals could be adjusted to help traffic flow smoothly following University of Texas football games, then readjusted once congestion subsides. Improvements also include pullout lanes for buses, signalization to allow buses to get back into traffic, more turn bays at intersections, some bus priority lanes and other technology upgrades. Other corridors include North and South Lamar Boulevard, Burnet Road, East Riverside Drive, Airport Boulevard and Guadalupe Street.
The package will also include $137 million for “local mobility,” primarily in sidewalks, bikeways and trails. And there would be $101 million for “regional mobility” on larger streets and some Texas Department of Transportation highways, primarily in the western suburbs, including Loop 360, FM 2222, Lakewood Drive, Spicewood Springs Road, Anderson Mill Road and Parmer Lane.
Passing a bond at this time to fix Austin’s key corridors builds on improvements underway on MoPac Boulevard and Interstate 35, creating a mobility synergy that addresses getting people into town, then moving them around once they get here.
Though the bond package does not address all of the city’s traffic needs, it is the largest in the city’s history. An ultimate solution will cost much more, with estimates rising into the billions of dollars to fix every broken intersection, widen roadways, add turning lanes, and build sidewalks and bike lanes across the city. But the idea is to tackle some projects on that list and continue making progress in future years as the city’s tax base grows and other technological advances come to market.
While some have suggested that the bond be broken into three parts — which would allow voters to choose all, some or none of the provisions — we believe in the whole-package approach with regard to transportation and mobility. Bike paths and sidewalks have never had to stand on their own before voters, and fixing only roads will not be as effective in decreasing congestion as building a connective system that provides options for drivers as well as pedestrians to reach their destinations. Such a system ideally would maximize opportunities for public transit, so people could walk or bike to Capital Metro bus stops or rail stations instead of driving.
That is the kind of intervention Austin needs at this point. And it’s overdue.
The question is whether we will do something about our congestion on Nov. 8 or allow the problem to continue eroding our quality of life. The bond package is not perfect, but it is certainly good.
This is part of the American-Statesman editorial board’s series about the issues facing our community and the candidates in the Nov. 8 election. The board will not be endorsing in elections as in years past, but the editorials will be accompanied by excerpts of a Q&A with the candidates. A longer version is available on mystatesman.com.