Wear: How Austin flubbed the 2016 math on East Riverside Drive

Feb 09, 2018
Ralph Barrera
The East Riverside corridor into downtown Austin is slated for a renovation project from a 2016 bond program with initial work on sidewalks, intersections, transit and traffic signal improvements. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In retrospect, the number never made any sense at all. And your transportation reporter really should have caught it: $766.7 million.

That’s what city of Austin officials, during the runup to the 2016 transportation bond election, said it would cost to do a whiz-bang, multimodal makeover of East Riverside Drive from Interstate 35 to Texas 71. This is a distance of three miles. So, $255 million a mile.

Just for perspective, that total figure for an overhaul of East Riverside was comparable to what the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is spending right now over an 8-mile segment of U.S. 183 in East Austin to add six toll lanes, relocate four frontage road lanes, build concrete shared-use paths and erect multiple bridges over the Colorado River.

The city’s Capital Planning Office, which was handling the detail work on the proposed $720 million in transportation bonds, gave me that East Riverside number in September 2016 as I prepared a long article detailing the “smart corridor” plan embedded within the bond measure.

STRETCHING DOLLARS: What would 2016 Austin transportation bond pay for?

Let me pause here and apologize up front for all the numbers I’m about to throw at you. But there’s no other way to demonstrate just how out of whack — mathematically and politically — that $766.7 million figure was for the East Riverside portion of the corridor plan.

And you might also be wondering: Why are you bringing this up now, 16 months later? Answer: The city recently released its preliminary plan for how it would parcel out the $482 million available for nine corridor improvements approved by voters in November 2016. In doing so, city officials said the full-fledged makeover of all nine would cost $1.4 billion, if officials can find that kind of money.

That caught my attention, because the well-publicized number in 2016 for doing the full makeover of just seven corridors was $1.5 billion. So, lower cost, more corridors. Huh? I asked the city staff to tell me the current cost estimate for each corridor, the figures that add up to that new, lower total. And I compared them to the “old” numbers, the ones from 2016.

East Riverside stuck out like a solid gold thumb.

The current estimate for the complete makeover of those three miles? $138.5 million.

Which, you might notice, is a wee bit lower than the previous figure. Like, $628 million lower. Oh, boy …

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Back to 2016.

That fall, as Mayor Steve Adler was out there evangelizing for the bond plan, we were told that the $482 million would be devoted to wholesale changes on these major Austin streets: those three miles of East Riverside; long sections of North and South Lamar Boulevard; a healthy chunk of Burnet Road; Guadalupe Street and West 24th Street near the university; a section of East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in far East Austin; Airport Boulevard; and long stretches of William Cannon Drive and Slaughter Lane.

(The other third of the $720 million bond plan was to go to noncorridor transportation projects.)

The problem, as Adler and city officials acknowledged at the time, was that they were trying to squeeze 150 pounds of potatoes into a 50-pound bag. Voters were being asked to approve less than a third of the necessary money for the corridor work, which was ticklish politically for the bond supporters. That meant, to get everything we were promised, a second, even bigger bond election would be necessary at some hazy point in the future.

And that huge, anomalous East Riverside estimate was a big contributor to that political problem. As in, half of it.

The cost estimates for the other six corridors, those with completed plans at that point (William Cannon and Slaughter studies were begun after the election), were far smaller, ranging between $73 million for East MLK and $185 million for Burnet. On a per-mile basis, the estimates ranged from $25 million to $37 million, because several of the corridors are much longer than East Riverside. You might recall from early in this story that East Riverside was $255 million per mile.

Well, Ben, you could be thinking about now, perhaps the city had much different plans for East Riverside from, say, the plans for North Lamar, South Lamar or Airport. No, it didn’t, at least based on what we were told in 2016.

While the details on each do vary, the city in general envisions taking existing five-lane roads with inadequate sidewalks and dangerous, painted bike lanes and converting them into four-lane roads, with center medians and left turn bays, protected bike lanes and wide, pedestrian-pleasing sidewalks with trees, benches and good lighting. There would also be intersection and traffic signal upgrades in each case.

What distinguishes East Riverside is that it has six lanes, with a raised median and left-turn bays already in place through much of it. So, in theory, it ought to be cheaper per mile. Plenty of right of way already there, and so are those medians.

BACKSTORY: Some wary of proposed changes to East Riverside

So, what the heck happened?

We voted, without anyone realizing it, for three miles of light rail. Yes, you read that correctly.

The council, in the ordinance calling the 2016 bond election, said that a “yes” vote would provide money for “implementation of corridor plans” on each of the nine roads.

So city officials compiling the bond package in 2016, I was told last week, simply looked at the East Riverside corridor plan and attached a cost to it, factoring in inflation, project management and some other costs. That 2013 consultant’s plan anticipated adding train tracks and stations along East Riverside, so the 2016 cost estimate included money to design and build them.

This, to be polite, was a peculiar move. Austin voters in 2014 soundly rejected a light rail plan that included that East Riverside leg. No one before or since has suggested it would be a good idea to have a free-standing rail line running from I-35 to Texas 71. Literally, a rail to nowhere. The La Quinta Line.

So, had to be a mistake, right? Mike Trimble, in 2016 the head of the Capital Planning Office and now running the Corridor Program Office, didn’t want to use that unpleasant word when I called last week. Certainly, it was a rushed estimate, he said, cobbled together in the heat of a bond election.

“We probably could have done a little bit better smell test on it,” he told me. Given much more time since then, he said, the staff jettisoned the light rail construction part of it and produced that far smaller estimate of East Riverside’s ultimate build-out released last week.

All’s well that ends well, I suppose. And the fact that the bad number actually made the political case harder, rather than helping the bond pass, indicates that the city staff wasn’t trying to cook the books.

But it’s a reminder that even a large bureaucracy can lose its way. Ten years ago this month, Texas Department of Transportation officials were forced to admit that they had somehow double-counted $1.1 billion of future tax revenue and had to cancel a whole bunch of planned highway projects. The Legislature didn’t stop fuming for at least two years.

Numbers matter.