City Council Member Ora Houston promised to help lead the campaign against Mayor Steve Alder’s $720 million transportation bond — and she began to make good on that Thursday night, hosting a forum that was highly critical of the proposal.
ChangeAustin.org, one of the neighborhood and anti-tax groups that organized the event, made clear its feelings about the proposal in a blog post, describing the bond as “rushed” and alleging that Adler dramatically understated the cost of the transportation projects on the November ballot. The evening’s moderator, Houston, opposes the project, as did much of the audience. And campaign materials passed around there asked voters to reject the measure.
“I’m not an engineer, I’m just a plain ol’ regular Ora from the ‘hood,” Houston said before slamming Adler’s proposal in the form of a question. “Help me understand how making lanes smaller, and closing lanes at rush hour and reducing the width of lanes will help traffic and reduce congestion.”
The simple answer — according to Roger Falk, an anti-bond activist and commercial landlord — is that it won’t.
“It’s just silly to even posit that these things are going to even improve the traffic flow,” he said.
A representative from the Austin Chamber of Commerce, which backs the proposed bond, faced harder questions like: “If this is the largest improvement bond, why should we rush it through without more debate and input from the public?”
The questions were part of the hourlong event hosted Thursday evening by the closely-linked ChangeAustin.org and Independent Texans PAC. The forum came a day after Adler gave a pair of speeches intended to rebut the project’s critics.
ChangeAustin.org was founded by Linda Curtis and Brian Rodgers after they narrowly lost their bid to block a controversial tax break for The Domain shopping center. The group has since campaigned against City Hall development deals and what it calls Austin’s “growth machine.”
The citywide bond contest has become a major flashpoint in the upcoming municipal election, which will also include five City Council races. Supporters of the bond say it’s an essential down payment on the billions in investment the city’s streets need.
The bond would provide $482 million to overhaul nine major corridors around the city, with additional money to expand Austin’s networks of sidewalks and bike paths. Backers acknowledge the total cost of fully implementing the corridor plans would top $1.56 billion.
City officials have said the bond, if approved Nov. 8, would cost the average homeowner about $5 a month in additional property taxes.
Opponents like Falk and Houston have litany of complaints: They say the plan was constructed with too little public input, it will cost far more than than expected, it will be a disaster for small businesses along the corridors, it would spend money on the wrong roads, it would spend too much on bike paths and sidewalks, and they contend it’s a giveaway to developers and city officials looking to densify the city on the sly.
“This thing is a big gentrifying machine,” Falk said at one point. At another point, he said: “This all assumes everybody wants to live in a little box, and that’s great for millennials and certain folks.”
“They’re building so they will come, that’s the bottom line,” Falk later added.
“Well, they’re coming,” retorted the Chamber’s Drew Scheberle. “So, we can plan for it…”
“Maybe,” Falk interjected.
Clarification: This story was updated to include Independent Texans PAC as one of the hosts of the event.