Groups, poll give lift to Adler’s $720 million transportation bond plan

With a City Council vote on a potential November transportation bond election looming Thursday, a coalition of business and progressive groups Wednesday came out for Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s $720 million “go big” plan.

And based on a poll released Wednesday by supporters of the Adler approach, a majority of the public at this point likes what the mayor is pushing.

According to the poll by Littlefield Consulting of 1,200 likely Austin voters, 56 percent would support a $720 million transportation bond package of the type Adler has described.

In another question comparing Adler’s plan to a $300 million version advanced by Council Member Ann Kitchen, 52 percent sided with the Adler plan, 36 percent with the Kitchen plan. (Kitchen has since upped her version to $500 million.)

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The centerpiece of Adler’s plan is $482 million for makeovers of seven “smart corridors,” primary city arterial streets such North and South Lamar Boulevard, Burnet Road, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Airport Boulevard, including intersection improvements, added turn lanes, bike lanes, wider sidewalks, traffic signal upgrades and bus pull outs. The poll question laying that out did not mention the bike lane and sidewalk elements of the corridor projects.

The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 2.8 percent. The sampling, taken between June 13 and 16, was heavily weighted toward older voters, with 79 percent of those polled older than 50 and 8 percent younger than 40.

The poll was commissioned by Unity PAC, a political action committee first formed in 2006 to campaign for city bond propositions. Treasurer Ted Siff, part of the coalition supporting the Adler plan, declined to say Wednesday what the poll cost.

Support for “go big” plan

Representatives of all the city’s major business associations, along with members of groups that support alternative transportation such as BikeAustin and the Hill Country Conservancy, crowded into the City Hall atrium at midday to endorse a $720 million bond issue for transportation.

“Big issues require big solutions,” Tony Budet, chairman of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce board and CEO of University Federal Credit Union said. Traffic congestion, he said, dominates the Austin psyche and has to be addressed forcibly. The corridor plan, along with about $100 million for expansion of other major Austin roads such as Loop 360, RM 620, RM 2222 and Parmer Lane, will do that, Budet said.

“The first thing people seem to mention is how hard it was to get wherever you are at this moment,” Budet said, adding later in an interview with the American-Statesman, “I think it will make traffic better if it’s well executed by city staff.”

BikeAustin executive director Mercedes Feris sent out an email Wednesday morning urging her group’s supporters to contact City Council members in support of Adler’s plan. The Adler approach, she wrote, “prioritizes active transportation like bike lanes and sidewalks…investing $720 million allows the city to overhaul some of our biggest streets like Riverside and Airport Boulevard with protected bike lanes, complete sidewalks and dedicated transit lanes.”

Dissenters challenge scope, cost

The direction of the council, based on a long discussion at Tuesday’s work session, remains unclear. Several council members, including Greg Casar, Leslie Pool and perhaps Don Zimmerman seemed to lean Adler’s way.

Others were not yet on board.

“I’m looking for balance across the city,” Kitchen said, noting that the corridor plan does not include construction funds for major arterials in her South Austin District 5 such as Manchaca Road and Slaughter Lane (although it does include $500,000 to study Slaughter).

Council Member Delia Garza, who represents Southeast Austin, likewise noted that the plan largely overlooks her District 2. Beyond that, she said that implying that the corridor plans are designed to decrease traffic congestion misstates the intent of the improvements, which she said are targeted at making streets more amenable to people looking to travel by foot, bike or bus.

“We need to get real with the voters,” she said.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair said she has a problem with the plan’s property tax impact. Once all of the bonds have been sold, which city staff said would occur by 2021, the city’s property tax levy to cover debt payments would have to be increased about 2 cents per $100 of property value. That would increase the annual property tax on a $250,000 home by about $60 a year, staff said.

Council members Kathie Tovo and Sheri Gallo did not attend the Tuesday work session.

The council vote Thursday would give direction to city staff, but not commit the city to a bond election. The council, under city law, may vote only between Aug. 10 and 22 to officially call a bond vote in November.

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