The city of Austin has voters’ permission to borrow $720 million for transportation projects, an unprecedented amount for that purpose that Mayor Steve Adler said will transform Austin mobility.
A ballot proposition authorizing that borrowing passed with 59.1 percent of the vote once all the ballots were tallied early Wednesday morning.
“Now the work begins,” Adler had said at a victory celebration Tuesday evening in downtown Austin when the direction of the voting results had become clear.
The bond will provide an unprecedented amount of money for roads all over the city, as well as trail and transit improvements. Adler said that formulating the “strategic plan” for tackling those transportation projects will be an enormous task that could take one to two years.
“This is a start, and we’re moving in the right direction,” said Adler, who pushed hard for the plan. “But this does not answer all of our mobility challenges. We have to keep working.”
The $720 million bond is more than four times larger than any Austin transportation bond previously approved in Austin — with property taxpayers footing the bill. City estimates put the added cost somewhere between $56 and $108 a year on a $250,000 home by 2020, when city officials expect to have borrowed all of the money as the projects roll out.
The bond money will be devoted to three categories: $482 million for major streets, what Adler refers to as “smart corridors;” $137 million for “local” transportation, including large chunks of money for sidewalk expansion and repair, expansion of the city’s bike way system, off-street trails and street repairs; and $101 million for West Austin highway projects, including $46 million for Loop 360.
The smart corridors chunk will pay for some upgrades of major city streets such as Lamar Boulevard, Burnet Road, East Riverside Drive and Airport Boulevard. City officials said this summer that building seven of the corridor projects as laid out in studies would cost $1.56 billion — three times the amount the bond package will raise for those projects. Then the City Council in its final deliberations in August, egged on by South Austin council members, added upgrades to two more South Austin streets, William Cannon Drive and Slaughter Lane. No cost estimates have been attached to those roads.
So at best, the corridors money in the bond will pay for a quarter to a third of what was proposed in the proposition for that purpose.
City staff will come back to the Austin City Council next year with a plan with a specific plan for the corridor projects.
The improvements, according to those engineering studies, will generally involve replacing continuous center turn lanes with vegetated medians that have periodic left-turn bays; adding wider sidewalks and protected bike lanes; improving lighting and adding trees; upgrading traffic signal technology; adding turn lanes at major intersections; and making transit improvements. On Guadalupe Street, East Riverside Drive and perhaps South Lamar, those transit boosts could also include bus-only lanes.
Adler sold the corridor plans as an improvement in traffic congestion, despite the lost lanes. But significant parts of the spending will make getting around easier on foot, by bike and via transit, a transition that some activists say Austin must make as it grows and becomes more dense.
Opponents, who were outspent at least five to one in the campaign, complained about corridor plans costing more than the bond would raise. Critics such as Council Member Ora Houston also objected to the property tax impact at a time when residents are concerned about affordability.
Others objected to the plans to eliminate some center turn lanes and, in some cases, dedicate current travel lanes to bus-only usage.
Jim Skaggs, a retired high tech executive, put at least $100,000 into opposing the bond proposition.
“It will result in the wasteful spending of probably more than a billion dollars,” he said. “And the result will be increasing congestion throughout major Central Austin streets and neighborhoods.”