Civics 101 – Transportation and Prop 1

Traffic Austin

What are the biggest issues facing Austin today? The most common answers to that question are transportation and affordability.

Well, Prop 1 affects both of them.

Which means that this is the big one. This is the issue of this local election season.

So now’s the time to pay attention.

Mobility Bond

 

First up, the basics –

Prop 1 is a $720 million transportation bond that will be on the ballot in November. Everyone who lives within Austin city limits will have the opportunity to decide if they like it (by voting for it) or if they hate it (by voting against it). The decision to put this bond on the ballot was made by City Council and the mayor (with support from several local community groups). It is now up to the voters to decide whether or not we actually want it.

What’s a bond?

A general obligation bond (as it is formally known) is essentially just a loan taken out by a municipal government. In taking out the bond, the city has to promise to pay back the money to the lenders, often by taxing its own citizens.

Imagine that the City of Austin has a credit card. Overtime, the city uses that card to borrow money for large projects, like the new central library that’s being built downtown. It then pays back that money over many years (much like you would with a mortgage). But, as time goes on, the debt gets paid off, and (in Austin at least) the tax base grows. That means you suddenly have more people than originally estimated helping to pay off the bills, which basically allows the city to borrow more money without having to raise the tax rate again. Right now, the city essentially has a $500 million credit on its card.

However, if the city ever wants to borrow larger amounts of money, then it is required to ask its residents for help footing the bill. That’s what’s happening with this bond package. The city has enough money (on its credit card, so to speak) to spend some money on transportation improvements, but under the mayor’s leadership, it is asking for additional funds. Also, in order to save some of its “credit card money” for later, City Council has decided to only direct $250 million from its “card” toward Prop 1, if it passes.

What will the bond pay for?

The $720 million will be divided into three main sections:

  • $101 million for Regional Mobility Projects
  • $482 million for Corridor Improvement Projects, or Smart Corridors
  • $137 million for Local Mobility Projects
Prop 1 Map

This map from the City of Austin shows many of the proposed improvements that would be addressed by Prop 1. You can view the map in full size here.

Regional Mobility Projects include:

  • $46 million to improve intersections on Loop 360 at Westlake Drive, Courtyard Drive, Lakewood Drive, FM 2222, and Spicewood Springs Road/Buffstone Drive (may include signal modifications, changes to the design of medians, and installation of accessible pedestrian facilities).
  • $17 million for improvements on Spicewood Springs Road east of Loop 360 (may include a roadway expansion, signals, medians, sidewalks, bike facilities and driveway reconstruction).
  • $30 million for improvements on Anderson Mill Road from Spicewood Parkway to US Hwy 183, the intersection of RM 620 and FM 2222, and Parmer Lane between SH 45 to Brushy Creek Road (may include projects to increase pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicular mobility).
  • $8 million for the design and replacement of the Old Bee Caves Road Bridge crossing Williamson Creek

Corridor Improvement Projects/ Smart Corridors include improvements to:

  • North Lamar Boulevard from US Hwy 183 to Howard Lane
  • Burnet Road from Koenig Lane to MoPac Expressway
  • Airport Boulevard from North Lamar Boulevard to US Hwy 183
  • East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard/FM 969 from US Hwy 183 to Decker Lane
  • South Lamar Boulevard from Riverside Drive to Ben White Boulevard/US Hwy 290 West
  • East Riverside Drive from I-35 to SH 71
  • Guadalupe Street from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to West 29th Street

Projects along these corridors would include intersection improvements, sidewalks, ADA-accessible ramps, separated bike lanes, and bus-friendly infrastructure improvements.

Local Mobility Projects would include:

  • $37.5 million for improving and installing new sidewalks, particularly those rated as “very high” or “high” priorities by our city’s 2016 Sidewalk Master Plan
  • $27.5 million for the Safe Routes to School Program. This program is a partnership with local school districts to make sure that kids have a safe path to get to school, as well as to encourage them to bike or walk to school. This money will be evenly divided amongst the 10 districts.
  • $26 million for the city’s Urban Trail Network. Urban trails are basically just car-free pathways that run throughout the city. Unlike bike lanes, these trails do not run right along the street. They are completely separate from traditional roadways. Current examples include the Violet Crown Trail, and the Walnut Creek Trail. The idea is that these trails can be used by both pedestrians and bicyclists for recreation and transportation. This portion of the funding from Prop 1 (if it is passed) will help to design and build future trails, in accordance with the city’s existing Urban Trails Master Plan (which was created with input from the community).
  • $20 million for bike lanes. The projects built with this money would be done in accordance with the city’s existing Bicycle Master Plan, which was created with input from the community and was designed to accommodate bicyclists of all ages and abilities.
  • $11 million for improvements for Substandard Streets/Capital Renewal projects. This is essentially just a fancy word for upgrades to old roads that no longer meet Austin’s modern day expectations and requirements. These are roads that have been recently damaged, or simply do not have proper drainage, sidewalks, or widths. Projects slated for this pot of money include the William Cannon Railroad Overpass, Falwell Lane, and preliminary engineering for Brodie Lane, Circle S Road, Cooper Lane, FM 1626, Johnny Morris Road, Latta Drive/Brush Country, Ross Road, and the Rutledge Spur.
  • $15 million on Vision Zero programs. Vision Zero is an initiative which commits the city to eliminating all traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2025. This money will pay for intersection reconfiguration, median modification, pedestrian and bicycle facilities, and traffic and pedestrian signals (at locations where the city sees the highest number of crashes).

How much will the bond cost me?

Like we mentioned earlier, this bond will basically be a loan for the government. And how will the government pay back the loan? By collecting an additional tax from us. The official estimate for how much this bond package will cost the average Austin homeowner is slightly less than $5 a month, or $57 a year. That’s based off of a home worth $251,994, which was the median value of a home in Austin in 2016, according to the Travis Central Appraisal District. To find out how much the bond would increase your home’s tax bill, you can use this online calculator tool.

Prop 1 Tax Impact

This table shows the expected tax impact of Prop 1 on various valued homes in Austin. It comes from the city’s voter guide.

But (because nothing in life is ever that simple) that’s not the whole story. There is some debate in the community about the exact cost to the taxpayer. One important thing to note is that the $57 a year number is just an estimate. It is not a promise.

As the city’s voter guide explains –

“The estimated tax bill impact of passage of the proposition and issuance of the proposed bonds and notes contained in this section is an approximation based on the 2016 property tax rate as well as assumptions about market and economic conditions, and may be subject to change. The numbers provided do not guarantee a certain impact on a property owner’s annual tax bill.”

This is not an unusual statement to make. That’s because the city won’t just take out one huge loan for the entire bond package all at once. Instead, it will borrow the money piece by piece, as each component of the project is ready to begin. It’s been estimated that if Prop 1 is approved, the money will be borrowed over five or more years. That means that your taxes won’t jump up by $57 a year immediately, but rather will climb to that over time. It also means that there is a bit of estimation involved (because some of the money will be borrowed in the future). The city deals with this simply by taking today’s median valued home and using it to estimate the full property tax increase. This is the way the city has always estimated property tax increases from bonds.

But there is another way to do it – you could also estimate what the median valued home will be five years from now and use that to once again, estimate the property tax increase. City staffers have run those numbers. They projected that a median valued home would be worth $304,000 in 2021 and that the associated property tax increase would be $108. However, they also noted that this number might be too high, since Austin will likely continue to grow over the next five years, expanding the tax base and allowing more people to help foot the bill for the bond (which would mean a lower price for everyone). This has happened with previous bonds and has meant that the estimated cost is actually lower than expected, even despite rising home values.

Does this Prop 1 have anything to do with Uber and Lyft?

No. Thankfully, this is not yet another revival of our city’s very contentious ride-hailing app debate. I know it’s confusing, but unfortunately, Prop 1 is just the name given to ballot initiatives and bonds in Austin. There can’t be more than one Prop 1 on each ballot, but with each election, the slate is wiped clean and Prop 1 often becomes the default name once again.

So, to be extra clear. This is not the same Prop 1 that we voted on in May. It has nothing to do with Uber or Lyft. It is about a $720 million transportation bond.

How does Prop 1 compare to other bonds?

There is no doubt about it, this is a large bond package (at least for Austin). Since 1996, voters have only approved $638 million in transportation bond funding. This is larger than all of those projects put together. But, the mayor and pro Prop 1 supporters believe that the high price tag is now necessary in order to make any real progress. They say that over the next 10 to 30 years Austin will have $9.5 billion in identified mobility needs, including up to $2.3 billion in corridor needs.

Prop 1 supporters also point to other quickly growing cities around the country that are making much larger investments in transportation infrastructure. Seattle, for example, will have a $54 billion transportation plan on its ballot this November.

Was Prop 1 put together too quickly?

A common concern that has been raised by some members of the community is the pace at which Prop 1 was placed on the ballot. Public discussion about placing this exact package only began in the late spring/early summer. In an AEN interview, Council Member Garza said that there wasn’t a single in-person public meeting about Prop 1 in her district (before it was put on the ballot). The concern here is that the process wasn’t as inclusive or as well thought-out as it could of been and that it’s too big a decision to make in a rush.

However, Prop 1 supporters will point out that while this particular bond package didn’t pick up steam until recently, it is a compilation of several transportation plans that have been put together by the community (with plenty of public input) over years. For example, Prop 1 helps to fund the existing Bicycle Master Plan, Urban Trails Master Plan, Sidewalk Master Plan, as well as several corridor improvement plans.

“We spent 7 years putting this package together… this came out of, I would say 100 public meetings… The components of this package are plans adopted by the City Council… we’ve spent a lot of time on them.” – George Cofer, Executive Director of the Hill Country Conservancy and Prop 1 supporter

Who supports Prop 1?

Move Austin Forward

The political action committee that has formed in support of Prop 1 is called Move Austin Forward. Its campaign manager is Jim Wick, who is also the former Director of Community Engagement and Director of Council Affairs in Mayor Steve Adler’s office. Jim left the Mayor’s Office to run this campaign. The mayor is also a strong supporter of Prop 1.

Other organizations in support of Prop 1 and Move Austin Forward include:

  • Austin Environmental Democrats
  • Austin Music People
  • Bike Austin
  • Bike Texas
  • Clean Water Action
  • Environment Texas
  • Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce
  • Hill Country Conservancy
  • Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA)
  • Shoal Creek Conservancy
  • Sierra Club
  • Trail Foundation
  • Waller Creek Conservancy

Reasons in Support of Prop 1:

 

Jim Wick, the Move Austin Forward campaign manager, says that the bond package is designed to do three primary things –

  • Address traffic congestion throughout our city
  • Increase safety for all modes of travel
  • Provide more choices for people who want to get around

How will Prop 1 address traffic congestion?

  • Smarter traffic lights – A big piece of the bond package includes funding for traffic lights that can be timed remotely and adjusted in the case of severe weather, accidents, big events, and just general traffic.
  • Adding dedicated turning lanes and consolidating driveway entrances along our city’s major corridors.
  • Making roads safer, so that there are less accidents, and therefore, less traffic.
  • Traffic engineers say that turning South Lamar into a smart corridor would improve wait times at intersections during morning rush hour by 61 percent. On the other hand, if we do nothing, studies show that wait times at those intersections could increase by 216 percent.

How will Prop 1 increase safety for all modes of travel?

  • Removing the center turning lane on many of the city’s corridors (like North and South Lamar and Burnet Road). These turning lanes would be replaced with raised medians. These center turning lanes make for unpredictability on the road. According to Wick, installing a raised median has been proven to reduce crashes in urban areas by 40 percent. These raised medians also provide a refuge for pedestrians crossing the street.
  • Installing protecting bike lanes – A big portion of the bond package will go toward installing protected bike lanes on streets throughout Austin, in accordance with the Bicycle Master Plan
  • Installing better, safer sidewalks – A portion of the bond package will also fund sidewalks and better (more user-friendly) pedestrian infrastructure
  • Better bus stops – A portion of the bond package will fund more user-friendly bus stops with benches and shelters

How will Prop 1 provide more choices for people who want to get around?

One of the primary components of the smart corridor improvements is to optimize our roads for buses. That means adding bus pullouts (so that buses don’t stop traffic when they load and unload passengers). It also means adding queue jumps, which is essentially just a way for buses to jump in front of a line of cars at a traffic light.

Queue jumps work like this – Buses get their own mini lane at the intersection which allows them to drive past all the other cars waiting in traffic and get to the light first. Sometimes, the lights are even programmed to turn green for the bus lane first, further making the bus a faster and more desirable transportation option.

Queue Jumps

Image from the South Lamar Boulevard Corridor Improvement Plan

Another component of the smart corridor plans are bus rapid transit lanes, or bus-only lanes. Some of the roads identified for smart corridor improvements will also receive bus-only lanes. Those could include East Riverside, Burnet from 183 to the Domain, Guadalupe, and Airport Boulevard.

“We’re trying to attract Cap Metro to those service areas…We wanted to do things that would help with traffic congestion as the primary focus of this package because that’s what people are telling us they want to see. So we wanted to give a package that we thought the city would approve that also had some benefits for transit and for multi-modal use.” – Jim Wick, Move Austin Forward campaign manager, in his AEN/ Shades of Green interview

Who is Against Prop 1?

Honest Transportation Solutions

The political action committee that has formed against Prop 1 is called Honest Transportation Solutions. It is led in part by Roger Falk, chairman of the Travis County Taxpayers Union and an advisory board member of Honest Transportation Solutions.

Other organizations and individuals who have joined onto the Honest Transportation Solutions PAC include:

  • Council Member Ora Houston
  • City Council Candidates Gonzalo Camacho (District 4) and Rob Walker (District 10)
  • Travis County Taxpayers Union
  • Bill Aleshire, Former County Judge

Reasons Against Prop 1 –

 

(Due to a scheduling conflict, Roger Falk wasn’t able to make it into the KOOP Studios for an interview, so we spoke to hime later on the phone)

Roger Falk, chairman of the Travis County Tax Payers Union and an advisory board member of Honest Transportation Solutions, lists three primary reasons why he is against Prop 1 –

  • “It doesn’t really solve any traffic congestion in the city. It actually goes backwards in regards to relieving our traffic congestions,” Falk said in his AEN/Shades of Green interview.
  • The cost of Prop 1 hasn’t been shared with the public properly – it’s too expensive
  • The impact this is going to have on the “fabric and character of our city,” especially small businesses

Doesn’t actually fix traffic

While there have been studies conducted to analyze the impact of smart corridor improvements on some major roads and intersections in Austin, Roger and Honest Transportation Solutions do not believe that enough studies have been done.

They also contend that the bulk of the traffic improvements will come primarily from installing smarter traffic lights. Roger and Honest Transportation Solutions do believe that smarter traffic lights are actually a good idea, but they argue that they shouldn’t be combined with all of the other components of Prop 1.

Cost hasn’t been properly shared with the public

Another complaint that Roger and Honest Transportation Solutions have expressed against Prop 1 is that its true cost hasn’t been properly shared with the public. This concern stems from two things:

1. The $720 million bond will not fund the full cost of implementing the smart corridors plans. That will cost closer to $1.5 billion. Both Mayor Adler and the Move Austin Forward folks have spoken about this in various interviews with the public. The plan is to use the bond money to attract the rest of the funds via grant funding from the federal and state governments.

“There is actually going to be a full time city staffer that is writing grants/applications to the federal government and the state government for all different sorts of things,” Wick said in his AEN/Shades of Green interview. “And really what you have to do to access those grants, you have to show a willingness from the community to invest to get matching funds, or to double or triple the funding. So we think this a great down payment and investment for the much needed work.”

But Falk doesn’t exactly see it that way. In his AEN interview, he said that he didn’t feel the public knows enough about the true cost of the improvements. He also cast doubt about whether or not the grant money would ever come through.

“We can’t count on that,” Falk said. “As a community, we’ve got to look at our bank book, and we’ve got to say, this is what we can afford and this is how much it’s going to cost.”

2. Don’t freak out, but we’re going to revisit the $5 a month figure again. Roger disagrees with both estimates coming from city staff about how much the bond will cost the average tax payer ( or at least how that number is being shared with the public). Now, this gets a little wonky, but here we go – As we mentioned earlier, the city has a bond capacity of about $500 million. City Council has decided to use up half of it toward Prop 1 (if it passes). That means that taxes only have to be raised to cover the remaining $470 million, which is what the $5 a month figure is based on. Roger and his group don’t believe that’s fair, saying that the monthly tax impact number should be based on the entire $720 million. Not doing that he says, “completely disregards the benefit that we get from paying off debt.”

He also has some concerns about how the “average valued home” in Austin is measured, saying that the city undervalues it. However, the numbers that the city uses are the official numbers issued by the Travis Central Appraisal District, which determines the value of your home for the purposes of collecting taxes.

The impact this is going to have on the “fabric and character of our city”

Like most new plans that are coming out of the city today, the smart corridor plans are in part based off of Imagine Austin. For those of you who don’t know, Imagine Austin is our city’s comprehensive plan. It’s essentially a guiding document (that was written over the course of several years with lots of community input) that lays out how we want Austin to look and feel over the next several decades. CodeNEXT (our city’s effort to rewrite its Land Development Code) will also be based off of Imagine Austin.

One of the tenets of Imagine Austin is “compact and connected.” This is the idea that growth and density will be directed along several of the main corridors and hubs in the city. These areas will feature apartment complexes, condos, mixed used developments, and serve as more walkable and transit-friendly neighborhoods. Many of those corridors are the same ones that fall under Prop 1’s smart corridor plan, which depending on who you talk to, is a very good or a very bad thing.

Falk and Honest Transportation Solutions think it’s a bad thing. They don’t believe that people living along these smart corridors will ever really abandon their cars en masse, and that more people will simply mean more traffic. They’ve also raised concerns about the ability of small businesses on these corridors to survive any interruptions in their business that might come as a result of heavy construction in the area.

They’ve also accused the government of using this plan to force people to live where they don’t want to live – “crammed” along the corridors.

“People should have the freedom to have their residence where they want,” Falk said in his AEN/Shades of Green interview. “It is not the duty of the city, nor is it fair to the taxpayer, to be funding efforts to to herd people in a given direction. People should have the freedom to live where they want to live.”

The belief here, is that density is not something that people in Austin necessarily want. “I understand they want to have a compact, high density, urban landscape,” Falk said, “but that is not Austin.”

And on top of that…”The bottom line is we sure as heck shouldn’t be doing a redevelopment plan and selling it as a transportation plan,” Falk said.

So, this is what it all comes down to – density and growth.

Falk’s opinions on density are the exact opposite of many in the pro Prop 1 camp. First of all, Wick is adamant that the primary focus of the bond is to reduce traffic congestion in Austin, not to serve as some sort of redevelopment plan. In the city’s bond contract with voters, which legally lays out what the bond is expected to do, reducing congestion is listed as the first priority of the entire bond package.

However, another component of the package is to emphasize, “making corridors livable, walkable, safe, and transit-supportive, and aligned with the principles and metrics in the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, with the goals of reducing vehicle miles traveled, increasing transit ridership and non-vehicular trips, and promoting healthy, equitable, and complete communities.”

Smart Corridor

Rendering of a smart corridor, from Move Austin Forward

This is the direction that the city is heading, at least on paper. But, one of the big issues of this election (and probably for several into the future), is whether or not we will put our resources behind making this transformation truly robust. There are many questions about how to balance growth and density with existing neighborhoods and affordability. But, amongst most City Council members, there is little question about the general direction of Imagine Austin and CodeNEXT. It is widely supported in the community, but it will never happen without major infrastructure changes.

“By upgrading the infrastructure there is a possibility that we could get some dense development, some affordable development,” Wick said about Prop 1. At the same time, we’ve prioritized keeping small and local business and protecting affordable housing along these corridors. So there are some strategies not associated with this bond that we’re going to do in conjunction with the bond should it pass.”

What are the environmental concerns around Prop 1?

Nearly every major environmental organization in Austin is publicly supporting Prop 1. That includes Bike Austin, Bike Texas, Clean Water Action, Environment Texas, the Hill Country Conservancy, Shoal Creek Conservancy, Sierra Club, the Trail Foundation, and the Waller Creek Conservancy. No major environmental organization has joined onto Honest Transportation Solutions (the anti-Prop 1 group).

George Coffer

George Cofer, executive director of the Hill Country Conservancy, discusses why he is supporting Prop 1 on Shades of Green.

In an AEN/Shades of Green interview, George Cofer (the Executive Director of the Hill Country Conservancy) listed his reasons for supporting Prop 1:

  • Its huge investment in safe bike lanes – people are more likely to bike if they feel safe doing so
  • Safe routes to schools allows more kids to get outside
  • Helps maintain our high quality of life
  • More efficient street corridors means that people are spending less time idling (and emitting greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution) at traffic lights
  • Helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation

Falk and Honest Transportation Solutions do not believe that Prop 1 will usher in the bulk of these benefits. Instead, they contend that increased density along Prop 1’s smart corridors will actually lead to more traffic and more pollution on the roadways.

“How can you say you’re going to improve traffic conditions when you’re talking about packing and stacking people in all of these vertical condominiums?” Falk said.

“This thing is going to create a lot of density, a lot of vehicles parking in these parking lots and in these condominiums high rises that are leaking oil… creating pollution, micropollution, cigarette butts, all these things that flush into our streams and waterways.” – Roger Falk, advisory board member for Honest Transportation Solutions in his AEN/Shades of Green interview

So once again, we’re back to this major philosophical question – is density good or bad for Austin? That will be a major question that continues to crop up as this bond package is debated in the coming weeks.

The bottom line – This is a large bond package for Austin. At $720 million it will be the largest investment in transportation infrastructure that we’ve had in a long time. The questions you should be asking yourself as you head to the voting booth are –

  • Is this investment worth it?
  • Is now the time to act to improve our transportation infrastructure?
  • Should Austin be taking these steps to become a more “compact and connected” and transit-friendly city?
  • Are these the types of investments I want to see my city making?

And remember, election day is November 8th and early voting starts October 24th. The exact language that will be on the ballot can be previewed here. Voting “for” Prop 1 means that you support the bond, voting “against” Prop 1 means that you do not.

 

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