What you need to know about Austin’s ‘go big’ transportation bond

Austin voters face a big decision.

How big? The $720 million transportation bond proposition on the Nov. 8 ballot, by itself, would authorize more borrowing for transportation projects that the $638 million Austinites approved for that purpose in five elections between 1998 and 2012.

But beyond the size, the bond program as outlined by its supporters would transform several of Austin’s major arterial streets (how many is unclear) and plow an unprecedented amount of money into “active transportation.” Meaning, bikeways, trails and sidewalks.

Here is more information about the proposition, just in time for the start of early voting on Monday.

So, $720 million in bonds. What would the city spend all that money on?

City officials envision putting $482 million toward “smart corridors,” $137 million toward “local transportation” and $101 million toward “regional transportation.”

Uh, that’s pretty general.

There is much more detail in the city plan, and the Austin City Council in August passed a resolution (along with the ordinance calling the election) that Adler says constitutes a “contract with the voters” to do essentially what is included in those details.

OK. So start with the smart corridors.

The city has designated nine major streets, or sections of those streets, and says it will spend the $482 million making changes recommended in engineering plans prepared (or almost finished) over the past five years, or in plans still to be done for two of them. Here are the streets: North Lamar Boulevard from U.S. 183 to Howard Lane; South Lamar from Riverside Drive to Ben White Boulevard; Burnet Road from Koenig Lane to MoPac Boulevard; Airport Boulevard from U.S. 183 to North Lamar; East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from U.S. 183 to Decker Lane; East Riverside from Interstate 35 to Texas 71; Guadalupe Street from MLK to West 29th; and unspecified sections of William Cannon Drive and Slaughter Lane.

All of that for $482 million?

No. City staff has estimated that making all the recommended changes in seven of the plans (not including William Cannon and Slaughter) would cost $1.56 billion. The other two roads likely would add at least a couple of hundred million dollars more. So the money allocated in the bond for corridors is somewhere between a quarter and a third of the total price tag for corridors.

Well, in that case, which improvements would be done with the available money?

No way to tell at this point. That will be determined in the months after the election, officials say, with the money going to the projects that the city staff determines would deliver the greatest bang for the bucks.

How do they define “bang?”

In that Aug. 18 resolution Adler references, it says that the construction program would prioritize reduction in congestion, improved traffic conditions at intersections and improved transit operations.

What sort of changes are in those plans?

Well, they vary somewhat from road to road. But, in general, the corridor streets — most of which are five-lane roads with a two-way lane in the center for left turns — would be reconfigured into what is known as a “complete street” profile. That would typically involve putting a raised and vegetated median in the center, with periodic left turn bays cut into the median, leaving two lanes in each direction, plus protected bike lanes on each side, wide sidewalks with “street trees” for shade and decoration, and improved lighting. The city would typically work with Capital Metro to install curb cut-out areas for buses to pull over and changes to traffic signals to allow those buses to re-enter traffic.

There would also be added turn lanes at major intersections, and technological changes in the traffic signal technology that Adler and others say would allow their timing to better respond to real-time traffic conditions and thus move vehicles along more efficiently.

And adding bike lanes, trees and sidewalks reduces traffic congestion, as that resolution suggests?

Well, not so much those changes, which benefit non-car users and, not coincidentally would create streetscapes attractive to developers building the sort of dense housing and commercial projects the city wants to see on these corridors.

But consultants working for the city on those plans said that the changes will significantly reduce waits at intersections, the primary choke points. And Adler argues that having the buses out of the way when they’re picking up passengers, and getting rid of the continuous center turn lanes will reduce mid-block backups. Of course, if the left-turn bays are too short, traffic might still back up into the through lanes. And people may have to make U-turns or otherwise go out of their way to reach destinations on the other side of the median.

Would there be added lanes?

Only on a short stretch of East MLK, assuming it makes the financial cut. Otherwise, the plans include the elimination of those center left-turn lanes, as well as dropping a lane in each direction on East Riverside and Guadalupe to make way for bus-only lanes, bike lanes and wider sidewalks. And the South Lamar plan envisions that during rush hour one of the two lanes in each direction would become a bus-only lane, but only “when supported by ridership.”

Tell me about the $137 million piece.

It will fund changes all over the city, in smaller chunks, primarily to the benefit of people traveling on foot or bicycles. The allocation: $37.5 million for sidewalks; $27.5 million for “safe routes to schools,” which would be a mixture of sidewalks, signs and crosswalks; $26 million for off-street trails; $20 million for bike ways; $15 million for safety improvements on roads; and $11 million for street repairs and studies for repairs to be funded by a future bond.

And what about that $101 million?

This is the piece most likely to appeal to people who get around exclusively, or nearly so, by automobile. The city has talked about six potential projects, some of which would require added money from the Texas Department of Transportation: re-doing the Loop 360/West Lake Drive intersection, most likely with an overpass; adding a lane to each side of Spicewood Springs Road east of Loop 360; expansion of Anderson Mill Road west of U.S. 183; widening of Parmer Lane north of Texas 45 North; cutting a short new road between RM 2222 and a point on RM 620 between RM 2222 and Steiner Ranch Road; and improvements to Old Bee Cave Road bridge in Oak Hill.

So what would this cost me?

The city estimates paying off all the bonds would require a tax hike of 2.25 cents per $100 of taxable value. For the owner of a home worth $250,000, that would mean an additional $56 a year in city taxes, but the borrowing process could take years. The city would issue bonds as needed, slightly increasing the tax rate along the way, until the full amount is borrowed, perhaps around the year 2021. By then, today’s $250,000 home could be assessed at $304,000 — which would mean $108 in taxes toward this transportation bond. But city officials also note that the typical homeowner’s payment could be well below that, as new construction brings more taxpayers to help share the tab.

Paying off the bonds would take about 20 years.

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